Welcome to the column that wouldn’t have been surprised if Tony Danza had led the NWO, Take Up Thy Wrestling Boots and Walk. I’m the man who wears a shirt that is a shade called sinus infection green, Prime Time, back once again to talk about the nirvana for nutcases that is professional wrestling. As COTM winner for April, I get the chance to come up to the main page and share my thoughts with you all again, and I thought I’d do it this month by letting you into a little secret.
Every time I see John Laurinaitis on my TV, I roll my eyes and quietly lose a little bit more interest in what I’m seeing. I’m not here to knock Big Johnny Ace, though. In fact, I have that reaction in spite of the fact that he is doing a decent job.
When you think about who he is, he’s actually doing remarkably well, if you think about it. He’s hated by virtually the entire audience in a way that few heels are today. What is perhaps more extraordinary is that he has managed to do this as (primarily) a non-wrestler. Considering just how bad the man is at acting, and that for most of his career he has been considered something of a ‘black hole of charisma’, you have to give credit to the guy for overcoming all that to get to this point.
I mean sure, he falls over his words all the time and it’s hardly the most polished heel performance that you’ve ever seen, but at the same time he was never going to able to provide that. He shouldn’t, by rights, have survived this long. What he has managed to do, though, is take his reputation and build on it. If he can get the casual fans to hate him (which he has done through a combination of bullying tactics and grandstanding), then there is no way that the audience will be divided. That part of the fanbase who cheer the heels out of spite will never bring themselves to cheer for Johnny Ace, knowing what they know (or what we think we know) about how he has conducted himself backstage.
So, after saying all that, why do I still roll my eyes whenever Laurinaitis is on screen? To be honest, it has very little to do with him at all. It’s more to do with his role, and what he represents on WWE programming. To explain what I mean by that, let me take you back in time a couple of years.
My relationship with the WWE has been a bit tempestuous. I was a huge fan as a kid but as I’ve grown older I’ve started to think of myself more as a wrestling fan more generally than as a WWE fan. It’s hard to leave the WWE alone, no matter what you think of the product, because they are the biggest game in town and will usually attract the best wrestlers to them – guys like CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, for example. One time I did stop for a couple of years, though, and that was when I stopped writing here at LOP the first time. The Attitude era had been over for years but I just felt like the company had been doing the same thing over and over again, constantly trying to recapture the magic of Austin, to prove they still had the same Attitude they had in the heyday of their popularity.
A couple of years passed, and in the end there were a number of things that brought me back. The reconciliation of Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, the two WWF icons of my youth, was unmissable. The Nexus angle intrigued, although ultimately disappointed, and CM Punk’s glorious summer caught my attention in a way that no WWE angle had in a decade or more. But the biggest factor in bringing me back, bigger than any one specific plot point or storyline, was the news that the WWE had, in my absence, shifted their company and they were now putting out a PG product.
PG gets a bad press with some sections of the audience but I couldn’t help but be optimistic about this. When you believe strongly, as I do, that the problems of the WWE in the Ruthless Aggression era came about because the WWE were caught in a post-Attitude malaise, then the news could only be good. You can never recapture the past, and time had moved on. Wrestling, at least in the WWF, looked and felt stale.
I always felt that a new product, one with a greater emphasis on storytelling and less on feeling rebellious and anarchic in the way that won the Monday Night War, could revitalise the WWE, and I started following the company more closely. For the most part, I enjoyed what I saw more than I had been the last time I was watching regularly. Unlike some other people, I knew that a show that children can watch doesn’t necessarily mean that it is childish, and so even though I had my fears that the WWE could end up going down that route I was optimistic that they’d learn their lessons from The New Generation era.
That all started to change a few months ago, when Laurinaitis turned up, and my pessimism intensified around Wrestlemania when he took control of both shows. Again, it’s not that he is doing a bad job. He is getting a great crowd reaction and doing better work than he has ever done outside of Japan. My problem came not from the man, but from the role he was playing.
See, it’s all just a bit too familiar. I get that Johnny hates CM Punk, and Johnny hates John Cena, because they don’t respect him. There’s nothing wrong with the story itself. The thing is, it’s virtually the same angle that has been played out in various North American wrestling promotions for the past 15 years or more. Eric Bischoff turned heel when he joined the New World Order back in 1996, and since then we’ve been inundated with heel authority figures picking on the babyfaces. Don’t believe me? Here is a far from comprehensive list of some of the people who’ve been villains in charge since then.
And Vince Russo, to name just a few; I’ve also not included people who’ve turned and quickly disappeared, like Linda McMahon, or those authority figures who’d more strictly be called tweeners. Nor have I included the Anonymous General Manager who I believe was generally written as a heel. Whatever way you want to look at it, this is far from all the people I could have put on this list. Call it a taster of the repetition we’ve seen over the past fifteen years.
John Laurinaitis, while he is performing as well as, or even beyond what, anyone could ask of him, is really just another name to add to that list. Is there really any difference between Johnny and all of those people that have come before him? Isn’t this just the same old story with a different face? When you think that a company needs an overhaul, some substantial revitalisation, that’s enough to put a dent in your optimism.
I know all the arguments for having a heel in charge. It puts the good guys at a disadvantage, it creates jeopardy for the face, and there’s no real answer to these arguments – except the one that I am going to offer today. In the past authority figures were just sort of there, and the focus was much more on the wrestlers themselves. Heels would create their own jeopardy by being conniving and opportunistic, or menacing and sadistic. While it has served the WWE well in the past to put someone inappropriate into the bosses chair or to trade off anti-establishment feeling amongst their audience, wrestlers have proved for decades that they don’t need that in order to create suspense, or to get the crowd to feel sympathy.
The heel authority figure has been a great trick, and John is doing pretty well at it, but it’s still just the same old shtick they have been peddling for years now. My thoughts on this are that the heel authority figure should die a death in the WWE, and we should make who wields the power a much less significant part of the show. Then when enough time has passed, maybe five years down the line, they can go back to it. If they get it right, then when the time comes the whole idea will feel so much fresher in a way that it just can’t today. The only real answer to the arguments for a heel in charge is that although it is a good plot device, that doesn’t mean you have to use it all the time.
And with that out of the way, it’s time for the least prestigious awards in wrestling!
Take Up Thy Wrestling Boots, Daniel Bryan. I know it’s a cliché, but I’m a huge fan of this guy. I was a fan before he turned heel though, and said from the start that you could try turning him but he’d still get cheered by around half the audience. Smaller and better than almost everyone he’ll face sure sounds like babyface material to me, regardless of how you play the role. Some people insisted that he needed a character, but to me he’s always been good enough to headline – and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him continue to headline shows as a babyface later in his career. Daniel, take a bow son!
… and walk, Jeff Hardy. Sorry Nero, still can’t bring myself to care about you, and working with Ken Anderson is not the way to go about changing that. TNA was ticking along quite nicely and putting on good shows consistently, something I don’t think they’ve ever managed before, and then Jeff came back. I’m not saying it’s his fault and it’s almost certainly coincidence, but it’s certainly not helped by the fact that I’ve never really got the appeal of the guy. The closest I ever got to caring was when he turned heel in TNA, because his persona (particularly when drug-addled) actually does seem to work pretty well for that kind of egomaniacal villain who is completely in a world of their own. But it’s telling, in its own way, that the most I’ve cared about the guy since the year 2000 (or thereabouts) was when he was so completely whacked out that he ended up getting sent home, doesn’t it?
And with that, this one is in the book. Just enough time left for me to recommend that you stop by the LOP Columns Forum and check out some of the great writers in there. As always, any feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.