Wednesday, October 15, 2014

What Makes A Successful Professional Wrestler?

On a recent episode of the Talk TNA Podcast, a discussion came up about a particular wrestler and whether they had charisma or not. Someone suggested that because this wrestler was popular with the fans, that meant they must have charisma. That was the implication I got anyway. This got me thinking about the different ways that wrestlers become and stay popular. I've therefore set out to list the different types of wrestlers that become popular, with some examples of current wrestlers who I think typify each way of getting over.

Wrestling is somewhat unique amongst sports/entertainment, in that the fans are such a vital part of what is going on. Boxing, football and almost any other professional sport you can think of can exist without fans. The fans are there to watch, enjoy and support, not to mention fund but aside from a flat atmosphere, their absence won’t fundamentally change the event. Football teams are there to play each other, not primarily to entertain (although that does aid their popularity).

In entertainment, the only thing that comes close is live comedy or pantomime. A soap opera, drama or film is produced to attract people to watch so that advert brakes can be sold but the show itself is recorded in a studio with no audience participation. Even sitcoms with audiences can have canned laughter added. The fans do not change or take part in what is produced.

On the flip side you only need to have watched a TNA show (like the last few weeks!) where the crowd is small and flat to know that no matter how good the show is, it’s always lacking something, it never quite feels so important or exciting. I guess that’s because without the fans, the reality is two or more people pretending to fight. Not just that, but the wrestlers draw from the crowd to hype themselves up for big spots.

To put it another way, for wrestling to work, the live audience needs to actively buy into what’s going on, they need to willingly suspend their disbelief and play their expected part of cheering or booing – acting like it’s real, feeling it to be real, otherwise the whole trick is ruined and the staged nature of wrestling is revealed. I think it’s fair to say that the fans are as just important as the wrestlers, the referees and the announcers in making wrestling work – I think that’s why wrestling attracts the kinds of people it does. Because when you’re at an event, you matter, you belong, you are part of the story.

Therefore, I think for the most part success in wrestling comes down to being popular with the fans (I’m assuming if you get popular with live fans you will usually end up popular with TV fans because they pick up on the buzz about you from live fans). So here are the ways I think wrestlers have become popular with the fans.

The All Outer
This is the type of wrestler who always goes that extra mile in the ring for the sake of the fans. They want to show just how much they love them and just how much they want the fans to love them back. This usually manifests itself in crazy spots or weapon shots. There is a recklessness about the wrestler that fans admire. Indeed, they even go beyond what is strictly needed to tell the story or make the point. Someone who is a good example of this is Jeff Hardy. Consider how many dangerous bumps he takes in his high profile matches; he goes further, harder and crazier for the fans. The all outer’s willingness to go all out for the fans, beyond what is even sensible, is what makes fans like them.

The Promo Guy
Funny, quick witted and entertaining, the promo guy gets over with the crowd by bringing a smile to your face whether you’re meant to like them or not. Really, they’re a bit like a stand-up comic and often they will outwit a hostile crowd. They know how to tread the line between mocking opponents yet taking them seriously and just turning things into a joke. Although I think EC3 has other talents, I think his "I disagree, I’m very good" counter chant to the crowd's "you can’t wrestle" chant is an example of him being a promo guy.

The Storyteller
Believable, sincere and capable of maintaining a character week on week, the storyteller gets over with the fans because they tell good stories. They are masters of engaging fans and getting them emotionally involved in stories. They’re always working on communicating something about their character whether they’re at the forefront or not, and have sensible and believable motives. They’re more real and less cartoonish than other wrestlers are.

It’s not just their promo work, though. Inside the ring their matches have psychology and tell a story; they’re not just move, move, move, pin. I think Bobby Roode is a prime example of a storyteller. Take his long title reign where he developed an excellent, sneaky heel character who snuck out a win time and time again, consistently putting the same character across month after month. I recognise that, to some degree, the storyteller is in the hands of the creative team to give them good stories to tell, but I also think a good storyteller will manage to make lemonade when creative gives them lemons.

The High Flyer
Similar in some ways to the all outer, the high flyer wows the fans with their speed and daredevil moves. "How did they do that?" would be a constant refrain during their matches. They do things you didn’t think were possible. I guess lightweight and X Division are the places you’d find the high flyer. I can’t think of a current TNA star who I’d say gets over by being a high flyer, but I think AJ Styles would come under this category (at least during the height of his TNA run).

The Athlete
They’ve got the body and they’ve got the skills. Their moves are crisp, they never botch anything and they get over because fans appreciate their technical skill and physical strength and fitness. They actually use a large repertoire of wrestling moves and holds, and they look like a legitimate bad ass. They will likely have an amateur wrestling background. Kurt Angle is of course the athlete par excellence with a good (albeit battered) physique and legitimate wrestling moves coming out of his eyeballs. I think this is where I would place Samoa Joe as well. Although he doesn't have the classic athlete's body, he has great grappling skills, especially submission holds.

The Everyman
They represent the men or women in the audience and get over because they sort of suggest that you, yes you could be a wrestler too. They don’t look like a carved Adonis and they don’t act like the person who’s a cut above the rest. Instead, they closely resemble and represent the audience. Their popularity is somewhat ironic; they are cheered precisely because if wrestling were ‘real’ they wouldn’t get a chance. The probably soon-to-be TNA wrestler Grado is an example of the everyman.

The Hero/Celebrity
The Hero/Celebrity gets over before they ever hit the ring; they carry with them into wrestling the vestiges of whatever it was they did before, and regardless of whether they are any good as a wrestler, they enjoy popularity because of something they did outside of wrestling for which the fans like them. I guess this is the angle they are working the Sgt. Chris Melendez, trying to get him over based on his military background. Whether or not it will work, only time will tell.

The Move
Plain and simple, the Move is about one thing and one thing only: their specialty move(s). They get over largely because of one particular move. If I mention Petey Williams I’m guessing most of us will think of his awesome finisher, the Canadian Destroyer. That’s not to say these wrestlers don’t have anything else going for them, but their primary draw is a single iconic move or sequence. Rhino is known for the Gore, and RVD for his Rolling Thunder, Five Star Frog Splash and Van Daminator.

The Comic Relief
The comic relief gets over with the fans because they know exactly what to expect – fun and lots of it. Matches are short and silly, promos stupid, and attire usually bizarre. Shark Boy and Crazzy Steve are two examples that spring to mind.

The Nostalgia
Whilst not a way of getting over with the crowd per se, it is a way of staying over or getting instant crowd recognition when moving to a new company or location. Back in the legendary mists of time this wrestler did something like slam a giant (Brother) or join the NWO (Jack) and whether or not that past event was really as great as everyone remembers, in the present it has become a full-on apocalyptic moment of wrestling glory. This is a sort of banked and accumulated popularity which is tapped into by the fans. Of course you’ll have guessed Hulk Hogan is my example of the nostalgia. He gets a crowd pop because of who he is and what he’s done.

I guess you might just say I’ve listed out gimmicks, but I think this runs deeper than gimmicks. It’s about how you connect with the audience. Take James Storm, for example. His current gimmick is a revolutionist, but he’s connecting with the fans by being a good storyteller and maintaining the ruthless cult leader character at all times. He used to be a beer drinking cowboy but connected with the fans through being an everyman.

Or Bully Ray, his gimmick (hard talking bully) has stayed relatively consistent throughout the last few years but whilst he connected during his Aces and 8s run by being a storyteller and getting the audience to hate him, he connected in the feud with Dixie by being an everyman sticking up against the unfair boss. His loudmouth bully character was fairly similar throughout, but he used it in a different way and thus connected differently with the audience.

In the end, the point I’m trying to make is that there are many ways to be a successful professional wrestler. The more ways a wrestler is able to engage with the audience, the more likely they are to succeed. I think EC3 combines the ability to be a storyteller, technical athlete and promo guy which is why I think he is fast becoming so popular. Someone like Ken Anderson, on the other hand, I think really only manages to connect as an everyman and consequently has ended up in the mid card.

If you look at some of the recent greats such as Stone Cold, The Rock, Triple H (Bret Hart would disagree!) and The Undertaker, you would be hard pressed not to say that they each were competent in at least three ways of engaging the crowds. I’m sure one could analyse the current stars making their way to the top and find they are capable of engaging in multiple ways. Either way I think we can appreciate and enjoy wrestling, not just for the fact that someone is getting over with the fans but also for the way they are getting over with the fans.

So, are there other ways of engaging with the fans that I've missed? Or wrestlers which you think defy categorisation?

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