April 05, 2016

Just a quick side note

Even with what I considered a lackluster WrestleMania that had some bright spots, it really is a good time to be a fan of pro wrestling. NXT is amazing, and new talent is being brought to the main roster regularly. All the people from the independent circuit getting a shot with the "E" is the best part. It started with Daniel Bryan: thanks to him and Triple H (even though people accuse him of burying talent), things have shifted. Back in the day you would never ever have seen some of these people in the company, because Vince always had a type (Hogan, Savage, Warrior, and such). But now, we get guys like Zayn, Balor, Owens, Ambrose, Styles, Cesaro, and every other guy who has ever deserved a shot at the big time from different companies. Guys and gals who prove they are supposed to be in the company they are in.   

Mania Hangover

WrestleMania has come and gone yet again. I will start by saying that I did not watch the preshow, but here are my personal thoughts on the main card.

The ladder match everyone knew was going to be a spot fest: you put Zayn and KO in the ring together, in front of that big of a crowd, they are gonna go all out. Everyone one of the guys put 100% into the match. The spot that I was the most impressed with was Zayn's through the ladder, over the ropes suicide drive to almost everyone, followed up by the through the ropes DDT to the outside on Owens. Everyone made use of the ladders...those were my favorites. I really enjoyed Stardust's tribute to his dad with the polka dots, and Ryder winning was a plus. God knows he deserved it after being with the company so long.

Jericho/Styles was one I was really looking forward to. Y2J is always ready to help put a newcomer over, but Styles is only a newcomer to the WWE. I watched TNA when Styles was there a few times, and he was always the highlight. I never thought I would ever see him at mania, but he was against a future hall-of-famer in one of the better matches of the night. Shockingly enough, he lost, but seeing how over he is with the crowd was not too surprising. Good match all around.

Now please excuse me..."OH WRESTLEMANIAAAA DON'T YOU DARE BE SOUR, CLAP YOUR HANDS AND FEEL THE POWER!" Am I the only one bummed that New Day didn't come out on fake unicorns with sunglasses? I guess I can accept the giant box of Booty O's as an alternative, since they make sure you aren't booty. The only reason I think New Day lost was for the legends to make their appearances. However: whenever I hear the glass break for Austin I get excited.

Where to start with Lesnar/Ambrose? Everyone knew Dean was headed Suplex City. I for one really enjoy it when Brock throws guys around onto their heads over and over, and Ambrose annoys the hell out of me; not really sure why. Not really anything worth writing about here.

One thing I never thought I would be saying: match of the night goes to the women. Thank the powers that be that they got rid of the dreadful "Divas title". I really thought Banks had it in the bag , the way her intro was. I actually mentioned when the confetti fell that the people in the back screwed up and that was for when the match was over. Wrong again, but an amazing match for three ladies who haven't yet been on the main roster for a whole year.

Now, onto HiaC. I had no clue what was going to happen during the match, other than Shane coming off top of the cell at some point. I watched Taker throwing stiff punches that couldn't have been fun for anyone. I thought that the biggest swerve was going to happen during this match, but nothing. Again. Shane is now banished and disowned by Vince but hey, it was nice seeing him after so long.

Finally, the main event. The best part of the match was Triple H's intro. Anyone who has watched recently knew Reigns was going to win this match no matter how many people hated the idea. WWE has been trying to cram Roman down our throats, and we aren't happy about it. The guy barely has any mic skills, he has all the charisma of a table, and I am pretty sure my 16 year old son could pull off a better looking spear than him. The original planned speculative main event between Triple H and Rollins would have been at least 10 times better than the snoozefest we were subjected to. Maybe that's because I am a fan of both Hunter and Rollins.

On that note I may have to go watch last years mania, when a lot of people weren't injured. This is my first time doing anything like this, and from here on out I am gonna be taking notes during the shows so I can go into better details and improve.   Damage out!

April 04, 2016

Wrestlemania 32 Post Mortem

I’ll leave it to Jeff to discuss the quality of the wrestling at Wrestlemania last night, which seemed pretty good to my inexpert eyes, but I’m going to focus on story.

My original plan was to watch Wrestlemania 32 over two or three nights. If you factor in the kickoff show, the damn thing is five hours long, and honestly my attention span generally isn’t up to that much sustained media input. As it turned out, though, there were a couple of distractions during the course of the evening that provided short breaks (you know, dumb stuff, like making sure to cook dinner), so I ended up watching it all last night. I’m not sure my initial plan to watch in stages wouldn’t have been better, because by the end of the program I was pretty well ready for it to be over. And that seems like a possible problem with the show, even on paper. Or maybe with WWE itself?

After signing up for the WWE Network in preparation for this project, I was pretty overwhelmed by the amount of content available, even when limiting it to just the currently-still-in-production stuff. Trying to make sense of it drove me to Wikipedia, where I learned that if you factor in NXT, the WWE is producing four major weekly series, and sixteen yearly pay-per-view events. And then there’s a bunch of derivatives and original programming on the WWE Network itself. That’s what’s technically known as a shitload of programming, which (let’s not forget) is all fueled by narrative, and needs a steady supply of story hooks to make it interesting.  I don’t know, on the evidence of last night’s Biggest Event in Sports Entertainment (tm), that the writers are generating enough.

Maybe it’s me, however. I am, after all, kicking off my approach to the modern day WWE by watching the event that’s basically the climax to an entire year’s worth of work, so it’s possible that I’m missing a bunch of plot threads in these matches because I didn’t watch them developing over the course of time on Raw or whatever. That disclaimer aside, here are my scattered impressions.

    Kalisto vs. Ryback

      I have to admit, I thought this was great purely for the way they disclosed the “David vs. Goliath” trope just by having Ryback explain over and over again that he is a very big man and Kalisto is little, while continuing to beat the hell out of him. That’s a brazenly simple way to tell the story, but you can’t miss who the villain is when somebody is explaining everything unfair about the fight that redounds to their advantage as they continue on fighting.

      Team Total Divas vs. Team Bad and Blonde / The Usos vs. the Dudley Boyz

        Both of these matches were pretty opaque to me. I think a ten person match is going to have an uphill battle creating any kind of narrative tension in and of itself, and if you’re like me and haven’t been watching “Total Divas”, any conflict internal to the match is going to be hard to discern, as are the personas of the people in the ring. I liked the Usos, based on…not much that I’d care to defend, really.  I just like their call-and-audience-response routine, because “OooooooooooSO” is an entertaining thing to yell.

        Seven man ladder match

          Again, when you haven’t been following along, this was a tough match for which to figure out what’s going on that’s significant, but it was a lot of fun to watch. Sin Cara getting pushed over and then bouncing off the ropes to wipe out like a dozen guys was cool, and I’m unreasonably fond of Stardust and his special customized polka dotted ladder. I gather from the announcers that there were two guys with a Friends-turned-Enemies thing going on, but I couldn’t tell you which two. I did appreciate how they crammed an entire Turtle-and-the-Hare story into literally the last 10 seconds of the match.

          Chris Jericho vs. AJ Styles

            This one, I was able to understand what was happening, but only because of the montage that explained the backstory, which they helpfully played right before the match. It’s the Envy story, with a pissed-off Canadian wearing Gordon Ramsay’s hair in the role of Salieri. Ok! Interesting that Jericho won it. As a side note: I’m in favor of replacing the national anthem with “America the Beautiful”. Who do I contact?

            The New Day vs. the League of Nations

              Boy, oh boy, do I like the New Day, but I’m not remotely sure I’ve pegged their gimmick. They’re like, what, a black evangelical youth outreach group making a run at emulating the tone of “Yo Gabba Gabba” or something? Funny, in any case, and it sure seems like somebody should have hit on the idea of using a slide trombone to mock people a lot earlier. I’d also like to get on the record to say that Alberto Del Rio, based on what I’ve seen on “Lucha Underground”, is capable of a lot more than what he’s being given to do here.

              Bringing out Shawn Michaels, Mick Foley, and Steve Austin was an inspired choice, but it did sort of create some unfortunate contrasts with the rest of the show by reminding everyone of how much more fun this all was back in the day.

              Brock Lesnar vs. Dean Ambrose

                Possibly my second favorite match of the night, purely based on the simplicity of recognizing who these two guys are, without ever having seen them before. The personas are completely decipherable just from appearance and behavior, no dialog necessary. Lesnar is a totally committed, totally driven, totally optimized-for-hurting-people steroid monstrosity. To crib a line from “Reservoir Dogs”: motherfucker looks like the Thing. And Dean Ambrose is an amyl nitrate sniffing shit-kicker who’s always about half pissed-off from the moment he wakes up hungover every day, and who is too angry and affronted to accurately gauge threats to his own well-being once a fight is imminent. Not that he cares anyway. Those are great contrasts to one another, intrinsically fun to see in the ring together, and it makes absolutely perfect sense the Ambrose should lose, and lose badly. The chainsaw was a little over the top.

                Charlotte vs. Becky Lynch vs. Sasha Banks

                  Ok, this was my favorite match of the night. Like the Lesnar/Ambrose match, about 80% of my appreciation is down to the fact that I was able to tell who these women are. Charlotte’s a bully with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. Becky Lynch is a brawler who’s lucky to be wrestling, ‘cause she’d be fighting anyway. And Sasha Banks is, on the evidence, a targeted missile cleverly disguised as a human being. She should’ve won it, and that she was prevented from winning it due to interference from Ric Flair (who I am shocked to learn is still alive) puts her in good company with a long, illustrious line of earlier performers.

                  The remaining 20% of my score is awarded just because the speed and intricacy of the match blew everything else on the card right out of the water.

                  Shane McMahon vs. the Undertaker

                    Man, this was frustrating. Not the wrestling: that was awesome. But story-wise, this was under-baked. And based on the montage recapping events leading up to this, they had all the elements in place to set up something really awesome here. Shane is making a bid to topple his father from atop the corporate org chart, in order to bring WWE into the future. Vince being Vince, he’s punishing his estranged son by putting him a cage with the scariest dude in the place. So there we’ve got lines of conflict running from Shane to Vince, and from Shane to the Undertaker. But as well, Vince has gone out of his way to humiliate the Undertaker, to reduce him to a tool without any agency of his own. So there’s a line of conflict from the Undertaker back to Vince.

                    It’s an interesting network of conflicts, but they failed to resolve one of them, or even to acknowledge it, in the match itself: the Undertaker wins the match, but isn’t given the opportunity to win his honor back. The whole storyline is sort of hamstrung because Vince McMahon is nowhere to be seen at Wrestlemania 32, and he’s a point in this triangle. His absence sort of lessens Shane’s work, too, because without his father being present to witness what happens here, all it amounts to is aiming at the Undertaker from twenty feet up and missing.

                    Now, maybe they addressed these loose ends somewhere else, but if they did, it didn’t make into the recap montage. And I don’t know what resolution would have satisfactorily resolved all three lines of conflict, but I’m confident that there are writers out there who could’ve found one. Hell, maybe there are writers at WWE who could have pulled it off. Damn shame that they didn’t try.

                    Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royale

                      LOL Shaq wtf?

                      An Interlude, with the Rock and John Cena

                        Aww, this was nice. One odd thing about having ignored wrestling for a long time is that I know both of these guys from movies, but had never seen either of them wrestle until last week (the Rock had a match in that 1998 King of the Ring that Jeff recommended). Based on this limited ad-hoc “match”, I bet both of them were a lot of fun to watch when they were a regular part of the roster. But we’re approaching the point in the event where the supply of fun is about to run out, and much like the earlier appearance by Michaels, Foley, and Austin, this whole little episode seems a risky maneuver. Basically they’re reminding the audience how much a performer with charisma can elevate the material, right before they bring out Roman Reigns.

                        I’d like to mention in passing that I’m happy to see that the mouthy member of the Wyatt family is wearing a neckbeard and a fedora. As far as I’m concerned, this means that the Rock and John Cena just beat up a bunch of MRAs, and I’m all for that.

                        Triple H vs. Roman Reigns

                          Triple H’s entrance was amazing. Stephanie McMahon’s weird introductory monologue seemed like something that Grant Morrison might have written for one of the Female Furies in a “New Gods” comic. On the other hand, the match itself was a total snooze.  This is my first look at Roman Reigns, about whom I’ve heard a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over the internet, but my problem is simple: I can’t figure out who he is. I don’t see a distinct persona, I get no sense of his history, I detect no relationships attached to him influencing how things play out here. When the ringside announcer said, “He’s not a good guy. He’s not a bad guy. He’s just a guy,” it almost seemed like they were subtly egging the negative responses on. Is the WWE fucking with us?

                          So, that’s Wrestlemania laid to rest. I think Jeff will be chiming in with his thoughts later this week, but in the meantime feel free to tell me what I got wrong here.

                          April 01, 2016


                          Jeff and I had been going back and forth for a couple of weeks about whether or not “Batman vs. Superman” was going to suck, and then suddenly his next text returns to the subject of pro wrestling. “Whenever you have some time,” he wrote, “go back and watch the King of the Ring from ’98. It’s the one with the Undertaker and Mankind in Hell in a Cell…complete insanity.”

                          That, right there, sort of gets at the difference between the two of us when it comes to our comparative understanding of wrestling, because I failed to recognize any of those names, or at least I thought I did at the time. Whereas he didn’t have to look up the year, or anything else about that match…he just knew off the top of his head when it had occurred, and at which event from that year. Because he remembered it, from when he watched it the first time, as it happened.

                          Jeff and I are brothers, and during a period that probably ran from around 1983 to 1990, we were both fans of watching (what was then) the WWF on television, but by 1998, I’d given it up. Not for any real consciously thought out reason; I’d just put my attention elsewhere. I do remember that whenever we spoke during that era, he’d mention this guy Mick Foley, and how amazing he was. Jeff bought the guy’s autobiography, he liked him so much. I gathered from those conversations that the main amazing thing about Foley was his reckless willingness to sustain grave injury just for the sake of trying out crazy-ass stunts.

                          To be entirely honest, to me that didn’t sound so much “amazing” as…I don’t know; “pointless”, I guess, sums it up. It’s like this: if you sustain an injury in the course of doing something otherwise worthwhile, well done! I admire your commitment to…whatever it is you’re doing. Jackie Chan is a good example of what I’m talking about. But I’m really not any more interested in the movie than I would be otherwise just because Chan got hurt in the course of making it, you know? Conversely, if you just like taking silly risks purely for the adrenaline rush it gives you? Great! Whatever floats your boat! But damned if I’m going to pay for the privilege of watching you do it. A couple of years later “Jackass” started airing on MTV, and I had zero interest in that, either, for the same reasons.

                          Now in hindsight, I was kind of missing the fact that Foley was more than just a carnival geek…he may have been chasing after injury due to some internal drive that had nothing to do with the external context, for all I know, but that context was still there anyway. Foley’s work took place within a narrative, a story. I think a lot of people who pay no attention to professional wrestling miss that, even though it’s maybe the most obvious thing about what’s going on at any given event.

                          I’m old enough to remember the days before the staged nature of wrestling was openly acknowledged by the producers and performers behind it, when everybody kept the pretense up all the time when in public. They did this even though the vast majority of adult people knew it was all “fake”. But even though most people who didn’t watch wrestling were sort of self-congratulatory about having  seen through the fa├žade, there was a kind of secondary naivete that they still fell victim to, and it amounted to this: having discerned that wrestling was staged, they concluded that wrestling was therefore a kind of con job, a ruse.

                          This outlook goes a long way towards explaining why people judge the audience for pro wrestling as being a bunch of dumb yokels: it’s because they feel like they those people are falling for a con that they themselves are too smart to fall for. That’s not the whole reason for looking down on the audience, of course…a key second ingredient is simple snobbery, for example. But this error I’m describing is where it starts, and what the error amounts to is mistaking pro wrestling for a sham, when really it’s more like a drama.

                          Granted, it’s a weird form of drama, one where most of the narrative is carried forward via choreographed combat rather than by dialog.  But you can change one word in that sentence and find that you’re describing ballet, and nobody concludes from that the dancers are trying to put one over on them.

                                          So, welcome to Werewolf Gimmick. Our normal format here is going to work like this: Jeff and I will take turns picking out a wrestling event to watch…either current or historical, WWE or some weird-ass indie thing, doesn’t matter. Then we’ll both write up our thoughts on the subject. Jeff is the guy who knows all this stuff forward and back, can tell you which match on a given card is most likely to be of interest. I’m the guy who doesn’t know shit about anything more recent than 1986, but who started taking an interest again this past year after hearing some strange things about Chikara. We’re going to try to update once a week, starting with our thoughts on Wrestlemania 32, Sunday night on the WWE Network, which if we’re lucky will be posted next week. Feel free to share your thoughts as well.

                                          The title comes from a song by the Mountain Goats, which is from a whole album of songs about wrestling that you really, really ought to check out, because it’s awesome.