Like just about every sport or entertainment medium, professional wrestling is at its best when you’re live and in person. It may seem obvious to those of us that attend many such functions over the course of a calendar year, but something I find myself explaining again and again to anyone in my life who knows of my passion for wrestling is that to really appreciate it is to see it for yourself. I don’t pretend wrestling is for everyone, and certainly not every individual that goes to an event is going to end up a lifelong fan, but the feeling in a building watching the craft is just about second to none. While many sports offer that opportunity, the interactive nature of wrestling takes it to another level and gives it a decided advantage. There’s the same element of surprise you may find in any professional game, but amplified with the chaos of the multitudes and the tendency of the business to turn on a dime and head in a completely different direction.
Why do I say all of this? Purely to lead into the fact that I attended a house show in my hometown of Philadelphia this past Friday as part of the Summerslam Heatwave Tour (not sure how accurate that is, since we’ve not hit Battleground yet, but it’s catchy) and it caused me to be introspective of this business I’ve been writing about here at TJR for some time now. While any opportunity to see wrestling is great, from local promotions to national pay-per-views, I’ve always felt house shows are the most critical. Independent of storylines, camera mugging, and pushes, this is where the guys and girls of wrestling sow their oats. Everyone who’s anyone in wrestling has paid their dues by hitting various gin joints throughout the country and world, and a good many of them honed the characters you adore or despise today in front of the masses. It’s loud, it’s unforgiving, and it’s perfect. Seeing shows in Philly has always been special to me, both due to the fond memories of shows at the Spectrum growing up and the connectedness of the city to Extreme Championship Wrestling. It’s almost a cliché at this point to link passionate sports fans and Philadelphia, but shows at the ECW Arena were the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to a groundswell. In those days and eventually years, you felt like you had been a part of something both uniquely personal to you and fundamentally critical to everyone else that’s a wrestling fan. Pretty epic stuff.
As many of you know, I’ve written extensively of late about many of the issues that are affecting wrestling in general and World Wrestling Entertainment specifically. As someone who follows the business for entertainment as well as posting ideas, there’s never been any shortage of obvious issues to call attention to. The McMahons make it very, very easy sometimes. Couple that with the inability of anyone else to muscle in on that territory and it’s easy to become frustrated, irritated, or otherwise vexed. Going to this show Friday, then, would be my chance for resetting things and experiencing the show through the eyes of someone just happy to be there. And, naturally, that’s where the story comes in. Funny how that works.
This, then, is a completely unscientific and random list of observations I made a couple of days ago at the Philly house show. You may agree with some, you may disagree with them all, but I hope you’ll appreciate the opportunity to review them. For those of you who, like me, make it a point to hit shows as frequently as possible, consider it an opportunity to reflect on some of the simple things that get lost in the shuffle. For those of you who haven’t been to many shows (or ANY shows), consider it free advice to go. No matter what your opinion on the current product, the climate and feeling of a local house show is totally different and worth experiencing for yourself. It will make you a bigger fan. (From personal experience, should your city also host several fine cheesesteak purveyors, you will literally become a bigger fan.) And if you like wrestling but don’t want to support the WWE by handing them your dollars, don’t. Go to whatever promotion you fancy. You might have to Google, but you’ll have some. And the people involved in those are the rarest form of folks, chasing their dream for relatively little gain while knowing full well that chances are most will never hear of them. Here goes…
1) John Cena IS The Incredible Hulk
The biggest takeaway for me from the show is that a Philadelphia crowd that attends a house show is a far cry from the one that attends a PPV or TV taping. Philly has a reputation for being a smart mark haven, a place where fans know the business well enough that they refuse to cooperate with the best efforts of the bookers. That’s when we’re not throwing snowballs at Santa Claus, batteries at JD Drew, or boos at Donovan McNabb’s drafting. (Might have gotten that last one right, current news being what it is.) Royal Rumble 2015 was a bad show by most accounts, and many of my issues with said show had everything to do with the matches and storylines themselves. What a majority of the vocal crowd was most displeased about was the push of one Roman Reigns, a fact which made his victory and The Rock’s appearance all the more awkward. All of that said, we were all kids once, except for those that still are, and kids love John Cena. This is not news. It’s also probably not news that it’s tough to maintain your stoic anti-Cena sentiments while you’re in a row of pre-teen Cena worshippers who are hoping behind hope that JC will toss his hat to them. (That doesn’t mean you can’t engage them in some friendly banter, natch–just no full-blown heel.) What’s slightly more newsworthy is that during Cena’s match with Kevin Owens on Friday, the thought occurred to me that the guy we see doing the United States Open Invitational Pro-Am or whatever the hell it’s called is actually The Incredible Hulk.
If you’re not familiar with the exploits of scientist Bruce Banner, shame on you. If you are, you can probably see the connection already. Everyday Joe becomes massive muscled behemoth due to radiation experiment. Dead on so far. Massively muscled behemoth defeats every villain in the Marvel universe by smashing. Bingo. Creative members scratch their heads trying to discover new ways for massively muscled behemoth to defeat same villains as last month. Creative members invent other massively muscled behemoths whose strength rivals original massively muscled behemoth in order to give the idea that Hulk could, in fact, lose. Massively muscled behemoth wins anyway. Massively muscled behemoth spends many battles being tossed through buildings, off bridges, and what have you, before rallying to use super strength to crush opposition. Massively muscled behemoth is very entertaining to read, but not so much on the drama. Creative members try to ramp that side of the massively muscled behemoth’s character to balance it out, but it fails. Cena Smash.
John Cena fails with most adult fans because he doesn’t look anything like an underdog. He looks like he should be hanging out with Queen Latifah on the set of Bringing Down the House, or a human Shrinky Dink, but not an underdog. Despite that, he takes a pummeling. We are supposed to believe that imminent disaster lurks around every corner for our hero. Except it doesn’t. Like Adam West’s Batman, Cena will experience a remarkable save and come out smelling like a rose. We know that, and we sort of hate it. We sort of hate it even more when the guy has a damn good match and makes every kid in the place light up just by showing up. But what do we expect? He’s the Hulk. You can put him on the Avengers, but he’s the biggest star of the show and just needs his own comic where he can beat everyone every week. Search me, I’m a Namor fan. Or Hawkeye.
2) Tag Teams Are Better Live
Tag team wrestling has become a bit of a lost art, and it hasn’t helped the WWE that some of their better teams have been shelved due to injury (Harper & Rowan, Usos, Kidd & Cesaro). Tag teams were big while I was growing up in the ’80s, and since then have taken quite a few steps back in favor of singles action. That’s unfortunate, because a solid tag team match is a thing of beauty to watch. One big reason for that is the technical side of the thing. One-on-one matches are fairly straightforward in general. Two people get in the ring using a preconceived plan and make it work. While things can be mixed up, it’s fairly easy to follow. Tag matches introduce more wrestlers into the mix, and therefore get a hair more complicated, particularly when they are done at a high level. Timing and pacing are all the more critical, and it’s way easier to screw up when you’re relying on more than just you and your opponent.
Friday’s tag match was between champs Prime Time Players and challengers The New Day. I can’t count myself as a giant fan of either faction, but this is why house shows are great. The New Day are presented pretty poorly overall on television, and that’s why they’ve suffered. The gimmick stunk like a skunk right out of the gate, and the WWE has just now truly circled back around to redouble their efforts to make them effective heels. Their demeanor, video, music, hand claps, apparel, etc. prevent them from being anything other than ridiculous heels, but you can’t have everything. What might shock you from watching this band of merry men on television is how good they are at getting their gimmick over in your neighborhood. Xavier Brooks is not a surprise in that regard, as he’s always had a slightly hateable quality (nobody likes a wrestling brain, unless they’re Bobby Heenan), but the desire of Kofi Kingston and Big E to make themselves jerks is impressive. New Day pulls all the hallmarks of years past, from self-congratulation to delusion to outright cheating, and they do it very well. If you saw that every week instead of what you see on TV, you might feel differently about them.
As for PTP, the only startling realization I have for you there is not startling at all. Titus O’Neil looks like he could bench press a city bus. The entire match is essentially just you waiting for him to get in the ring so he can flatten everyone else. While that too doesn’t always make for an epic television match, even botched big man moves look better without the “benefit” of instant replay. When Titus puts his boot somewhere slightly close to the vicinity of someone else’s cranium, it’s close enough for me. Millions of Advils.
3) Ambrose Sells Everything
Dean Ambrose is a reason to love wrestling right now. While Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns have eclipsed him a bit out of the gate since their Shield destruction, Ambrose has slowly but surely carved himself out a niche as the most memorable character of the bunch. Wrestling is at its best when you suspend your disbelief, and Ambrose makes you do that approximately one second after he shows up in an arena. Friday, Ambrose was booked to oppose Seth Rollins for the Heavyweight Championship. Pretty much nobody felt Ambrose had any chance of winning the match. It really didn’t matter. The guy sells every move as if it was fired out of a cannon toward him. If his opponent bends his finger, Dean makes you feel like his arm is broken. By the time he is finished being kicked and dragged all over the arena, you’re completely on board for the man. There are no words to describe the impressive nature of a wrestler who can make you feel in your seat the same way you do watching him on television by facial feature and body action alone. It’s like Brian Pillman’s ghost became a mime.
Rollins, naturally, is the perfect foil for Ambrose. He is sleazy and cowardly, but physically able to go, and the two men accentuate each other’s strengths and cover each other’s weaknesses flawlessly. Rollins was all piss and vinegar Friday, refusing to allow the ECW loyal Philadelphia crowd to get the weapons they were after in the street fight main event, while knowing full well each and every one would be involved before it was done. I am convinced these two guys could wrestle in any era with no backstory and put up a four star match. Ambrose rallied and looked poised to win it with an elbowdrop through a table before Bray Wyatt interfered, but we only sort of cared. Ambrose seems happy whether he has a title or not, so I’m not sure he even needs one. This guy is money for the WWE. Anybody watching him at a house show gets exactly the same amount of effort you’d get on national television. Bravo.
3c) Wrestling’s Cardinal Rule
If you bring a weapon into the ring, it will be used on you. Think carefully before making your selection. And WWE’s version of a kendo stick sucks.
4) Bray Wyatt’s Promos Have Jumped The Shark
Actually, all of Bray Wyatt has jumped the shark. Let me say that Bray, of course, is fantastic. I’m a sucker for anyone who looks and acts different from the pack and he is most certainly that. From the beginning, one of my favorite elements of Wyatt’s persona has been his promos. They don’t sound or follow the pattern of anyone else. It’s eerie, slightly psychotic, and nearly completely unintelligible. Hey, it worked for Ultimate Warrior. As for Wyatt’s in-ring work, it’s pretty solid for a very big man. Seeing the spider walk live is amazing, even if it’s never been quite clear what’s going on with it. That has never stopped this company before. (In fact, as WWE goes, it’s logical in comparison.)
That said, the idea that Bray creeps into the minds of children and turns them into little mini-Wyatt minions is scary and straight out of B-movie hell. When the child actor showed up singing dirges with Brayman, that was gold. The problem is that now Bray actually IS popular. Nobody is particularly frightened of him, and that trend will continue as he is maneuvered through the slippery slope of psycho killer platitudes and vignettes like collecting a bunch of Roman Reigns photographs and cutting the eyes out. That’s a bit more disturbed fangirl than super scary sociopath. (It’s also a lazy ripoff of Red Dragon. This is Mrs. Leeds…changing.) More disturbingly than that, though, is that kids really are turning on their cellphones for Wyatt’s entrance. They aren’t doing it because they’ve been brainwashed, however. They are doing it because everyone else is doing it. That’s less of a social statement than just a big pile of lame. Bray’s entrance is still enigmatic, even without the rocking chair, but mostly because he blows out a lantern that doesn’t have a candle in it. And wears crocodile boots. Your crazy neighbor does that.
The saddest part of all, though, is that Bray’s promos have lost their luster. Wyatt did a promo before his match with Reigns on Friday, and it was hard to tell anything he was yammering about over the collective yawning. There were buzzards and running and lost innocence and Sister Abigails and frankincense and myrrh. When Bray first showed up, he was captivating on the microphone. Now the unfortunate truth is that the audience has moved on. He’s lost his power to shock. He’s become Waylon Mercy with a full head of hair and slightly better fashion choices. Wyatt is still capable of exuding an aura in the ring, from the way he sits in the corner and eyes up his prey to his interaction with fans during the match. But it’s headed in the wrong direction. It won’t be too long before he strolls out as Santa Wyatt.
5) Chris Jericho Is Awesome
That statement should be part of any wrestling list, really. Jericho showed up for a Highlight Reel segment, which was immediately interrupted by Luke Harper. That brought about an “impromptu” match between the two, which Y2J got the nod in. None of that is necessarily relevant to the intrinsic central point, but I felt the need to set the mood for you. Jericho is an entertainer in an environment where a lot of people think they are entertainers but aren’t. Just being a pro wrestler doesn’t make you an entertainer, in the same way that just wearing tie dye doesn’t make you a hippie. Professional wrestling now puts people through classes in order to make their talent more entertaining. That’s a good idea, but only if Chris Jericho or a handful of other guys are teaching it (you can fill in some, but my short list would be Ric Flair, Roddy Piper, and Paul Heyman). Otherwise they’re going to have to work it out on their own.
Jericho is great because he understands his character and constantly reinvents it. Nothing is wrestling stays the same for long, by its own very nature, but Jericho doesn’t allow any constraint. He is also great because, like Ambrose, he puts his all into every match no matter how many are watching. That’s part of the “coming-up-through-the-ranks” philosophy that’s been dead and buried since the WWE became the only game in town. Jericho has traveled the world over and busted his ass in multiple continents for love of the business. It’s sort of ironic that now he plays Wink Martindale to a crop of selfie-taking, all-about-me types on Tough Enough who are getting a potential career handed to them, but I digress. I further digress that it should perhaps be Billy Gunn who hypes us up for the next episode of Real World WWE instead of convincing his rookies that it takes hard work and dedication to impress him rather than having influential friends. Either way, Jericho has earned it and is universally respected for it. He doesn’t crave padding his stats, he’s in it for love of the game. Cliché? Maybe. Also absolutely true. He made Harper look fantastic in his loss, just as he’s been doing for years and years now. It never gets old.
6) You Need To See Neville’s Finisher Live
I tried to find a cute way to say it, but why bother? The name may be a little too Game of Thrones for me, but the Red Arrow is frickin hypnotic. That’s the technical term I used to describe it. The WWE has always been the land of over-muscled, over-lathered gargantuan types, so Neville sticks out immediately. He looks like he lost the rest of the Lollipop Guild on his way to the ring. That makes what happens when he gets there all the more magical. I’d only ever seen Neville live twice, and came away impressed both times. He has now honed what got him there to a science, and he’s pretty much still finding his way in the WWE. That’s a scary good thought for the future.
Neville pinballs around the ring in a way that makes Richard Simmons look idle. He is about five steps faster than everyone else in it and his combinations and athleticism are off the charts. The WWE has done a good job with his entrance (and thank Homer they didn’t do the Mighty Mouse thing), but he is captivating in his frenzy. The next time Kevin Nash or some such Goliath rambles on about how small guys aren’t realistic enough, just play some Neville clips. Especially when he does the Red Arrow and plants his opponent through the ring and the concrete below. Even with the time it takes to set up that move, words don’t do it justice. If anyone ever kicks out of it, the writer should resign immediately.
7) The Voting Polls Are Just As Bad
True story: We got to vote on whether Tamina Snuka and Nikki Bella should get to stay or have to leave in the Triple Threat Divas Match featuring their cohorts Cameron and Brie, along with Paige. This was an actual thing the fans decided. I was looking for the option where I could leave, so they could at least have thrown a “C” choice in there. Interaction with the crowd is a good idea. You go to a house show knowing they will shill the next live show and autographed posters and what have you. It’s QVC-esque, but harmless and expected. A crowd vote with some kind of cool concept would be nice, though, don’t you think? It can’t be that hard to do. If you’re a completist, the vote was they could stay. It was very close. I rest my case.
8) Shaking Things Up Is Great
Most tenured wrestling fans have a pretty good idea of what you’ll see at a house show. The fan favorites will win most of the matches, titles won’t change hands, and nothing really newsworthy will occur. Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll get a surprise appearance or a local favorite will wrestle a match, but that’s about the extent of the excitement. A good fakeout is wrestling gold, though, Jerry, and we got one Friday. Following Wyatt’s interference that allowed Rollins to retain his belt against Ambrose, Sheamus brought the Money In the Bank briefcase down to the ring after not appearing at all on the card. People were legitimately thinking a title change was in store, and the whole night temporarily got a whole lot more important. Really smart. It wasn’t to be, of course, and became just another example of guys “sort of” cashing in but not, but the effort was there to make it feel special and momentous. As a paying customer, I appreciate that.
There are plenty of ways to do this, from having a guy win a title and reversing it, to not advertising a big name and bringing him in anyway, but the MITB briefcase is a great way to generate some enthusiasm and interest from the most hardened of hearts. I can’t say I don’t yearn a bit for the days when it would have fooled me too. Points for trying.
9) Wrestling Is Family
Wrestling is a family, a fraternity composed of many families, and watched by many more. Often, one’s best wrestling memories have more than a few family memories tied in with them. It feels personal and global all at once, and that’s part of its charm. Most wrestling fans grow up fascinated by it and conflicted by it, like Santa Claus, the Loch Ness Monster, and Oprah. I don’t have kids of my own at present, but when I do, assuming I do, we will attend wrestling shows together. I’m not sure that I’ll allow them to cheer John Cena, but I won’t actively discourage it. I attended Friday’s show with my dad, who watched some wrestling growing up but has watched a lot more because of my love for it and writing about it. That’s pretty much what a family is all about, supporting each other’s interests even when they aren’t your own and spending time sharing them with those you care about. In that way, it becomes both more than a show and a really great opportunity to quiz your grandmother on Gorgeous George.
My dad loved the show, start to finish. He loved the Rumble too, even as I tried to vocally discourage him not to. I told him about Daniel Bryan and Roman Reigns and the company screwing things up and not putting the right guy over and on and on. It took me a bit of time to realize it didn’t matter to him, not because all of those things weren’t horribly disgraceful of course but because he wasn’t there for them. He was there for me. That’s the stuff wrestling is all about, taking the truth and bonds of family and allowing generations to experience some form of what the previous one did. And, naturally, the one you went through was better. It gave me pause when I thought about it. To go back to a time before my knowledge of the ins and outs threatened to take over the emotion of the now. I was likely a little less knowledgeable, but way less disillusioned. Still pretty fun. (Let’s face it, if you spend time watching live Philly sports, you tend to find witty things to say, blue and otherwise.)
Once the show was over and we made our way out to the parking lot, my dad and I got ready for the drive home (and a milkshake stop, we’ve discussed this snack thing already). He looked at me and said, “That was really fun.” And it was. For a minute at least, this big ball of opinion had been reduced to a pancake of enthusiasm. Thanks Dad. Pancakes sound really good right now.
Less rants than usual? No worries. Raw’s on in less than twenty hours.