“Like, you have to be able to tell a good story. I didn’t care about a Dean Malenko, I’m sorry Dean. I actually like you, you’re a nice guy personally, amazing worker in the ring, but it’s just boring if you can’t tell me a story. But, if you can say something memorable and give me memorable moments, that’s something. Nobody goes up to Steve Austin and goes, ‘Stunner!’. If anything, they pretend they got beer cans and do this *pours them into mouth* or they go, ‘Ahem’, or ‘That’s the bottom line’. You know, there’s memorable stuff as opposed to going up to somebody like, ‘Moonsault!’. It’s not something you do.
So my favorite part of the industry was always the drama, the trash-talk, all that kind of stuff and if you can throw in hard hitting action on the back end of that, that’s amazing. But, to rely only on that action and to not be able to bring it with any kind of character or anything like that, which I think is a plague in this business right now…sorry just speaking the truth…I think we’re doing the business a disservice, I think we’re doing the fans a disservice and I think that’s why you look at a RAW or SmackDown TV audience…or not TV, the live audiences where they can’t fill the arenas…or even the TV audiences where they can’t fill the hard camera side…”
These were comments from IMPACT Wrestling star Eli Drake in an interview with WrestlingInc in regards to today’s product and fans who seem to prefer in-ring action and workrate as opposed to the more theatrical aspects of wrestling. He in essence lamented the lack of “characters” in wrestling today and thought it was a disservice to the fans for wrestlers to rely simply on their in-ring performance and not work on their ability to connect, tell a story, or create a memorable moment. And here’s a “Fact of Life”- he’s right.
Most fans would probably agree that the in-ring product across wrestling today, including comparatively in the WWE, is the best it’s ever been. Granted, WWE has always been a more drama-based promotion as opposed to simply “having good matches.” And while they may not put forth as many “five star” contests as NJPW or other companies might, at least according to those who rate such things, no one can argue that the athleticism, skill, and match presentation overall in WWE is light years ahead of what it once was ten or twenty years ago. However, think back to the two biggest boom periods in the business- the mid to late 80’s and the Attitude Era in the late 90’s. Compared to today, which era had the best in-ring action and talent? Obviously the wrestlers of today win out. In most sports, actually, the athletes of today are just more advance physically and athletically than those of formers eras. But why, then, were TV ratings and attendance hitting all time highs in eras of lesser quality in-ring offerings? Because what truly draws fans and makes them fall in love with wrestling is the characters! The larger than life personalities! The catch phrases! Where is the Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, and Ultimate Warrior of today? Does anyone on RAW or SDL come close to the magnetism of Steve Austin or The Rock? So what Eli Drake spoke of is absolutely true.
Take, for example, Daniel Bryan. Great in ring worker. Had a lot of buzz on the independent scene before signing with WWE. Was given a small bit of a push upon his arrival to the company. But if you are a fan of Bryan, which I count myself as one, seriously ask yourself this question- Who was Daniel Bryan before the “Yes” chant?
At first it was meant as a way for his smarmy persona to get heat, but even as a heel the chant caught on with fans. That even small bit of personality development as a heel, coupled with the “Yes” catch phrase, and the fact he was an above-average performer in the ring, started to truly get him “over” with the crowd and eventually turned him babyface. Daniel Bryan was already a great technician in the ring before he got to the WWE. But Daniel Bryan, the superstar, didn’t take off until he was able to couple that in-ring talent with a character, and a story, and a single- word catchphrase that eventually became a call to action, that connected with the audience. It made him something more. It made him someone you wanted to get behind. It made him larger than life. Without that “something extra,” Daniel Bryan would not be Daniel freaking Bryan. He’d just be “The American Dragon.” Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with that, I just don’t see “The American Dragon” ever having become the WWE Champion. But the “Yes Man?” Now that’s someone the WWE could make money with!
Look at it this way- think of your favorite action movie stars. Are they your favorite because of the grace in which they perform their stunts and choreography, or is it their attitude and presence that strikes a chord with you? Many (not all) wrestlers today fall back too heavily on only their in-ring skill, as abundant as it might be, in order to get “over.” And while having outstanding, athletic matches are all well and good, what lasting impact do they have for a fan, or a wrestler for that matter, once their week or two shelf life of social media buzz has died down? Does it really make you want to buy a house show ticket, get the WWE Network, or purchase merchandise featuring said wrestler? The data would indicate that, no, it does not.
I grew up during the days of “Hulkamania.” I fell in love with wrestling because of the characters, the stories, the vibrant colors and personalities, the way it made me feel. The work rate of the action in the ring was secondary. Stars of that time could make me invest more while doing less. Maybe some of that is nostalgia. But there is no denying that the biggest boom periods of the business of wrestling were during times that the product was much more personality-driven than athletically superior. And to that end, Eli Drake’s comments should be a point well-taken.
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