Features

The Blurred Lines Of WWE’s New Reality by Ron Pasceri

While the wrestling world is still abuzz, and rightfully so, over the result of Raw’s main event with Kevin Owens claiming the WWE Universal Championship, there is something else going on right under our noses. We as wrestling fans love Owens for his incredible work in the ring, his equally great work on the microphone and all of his other antics. Certain personalities associated with wrestling like Vince Russo see him in the exact opposite light, saying that his matches and his work don’t come across as believable or “real” enough.

Real is always an interesting word when it comes to wrestling. We are often told by outsiders that wrestling isn’t real. We are told that smaller framed Superstars don’t look like real wrestlers. Triple H is even on the record as referring to this generation of pro wrestling as the Reality Era.

I wrote back in November that I felt it was time for WWE to actually really embrace the idea of the Reality Era. It actually seems like while we weren’t looking WWE has actually begun dipping their toes into the reality pool. Over the course of WWE history there have always been certain storylines or personal issues that were grounded in reality to some degree.

The earliest story I remember feeling like it could be real life was the advent of The Outsiders. As a teenage WWF fan I obviously had a certain affinity for both Diesel and Razor Ramon. I also had a not of Northeastern WWF brand loyalty and hated WCW. The first few appearances of Scott Hall and Kevin Nash left me feeling like I was actually watching WWF try to overtake WCW. It was thrilling to watch and even famously breathed new life into the career of Hulk Hogan and helped pro wrestling as an industry new heights. It wasn’t actually real but many of us believed it was, even if only for a short time.

Shortly after came the saga of Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, a lot of which was real. They grew to resent and hate each other as the competed for the right to be the top guy in the company. They traded incredibly personal insults and infuriated each other while putting on some of the greatest matches of their generation. That story culminated with one of the most real stories in wrestling history, the Montreal Screwjob. That was the last time Bret would be seen in a WWE ring for a full decade and it was the true start for the legendary Mr. McMahon character that helped really usher in the Attitude Era.

daniel bryan occupy raw

A few years ago the reality of Daniel Bryan being held back in real life was used as a storyline on WWE television. He was called a B+ player, kept out of the Royal Rumble in 2014 and was screwed out of the a title by Randy Orton and The Authority. The whole thing played out beautifully as he became WWE World Heavyweight Champion at WrestleMania XXX in New Orleans.

This is obviously not every example or else this would be a 25,000 word column, but you get my point. Some of the greatest stories ever told had some basis in reality or were at least made to feel that way. In this day and age it is harder than ever to take wrestling fans on a real journey. We have access to so much news and so many rumors. We get reports of who is being tapped by management to be new stars and who is in the dog house. We also are the first generation of wrestling fans to be armed with the amount of information we have. This leads us to thinking we all know how the show should be booked and often we collectively refuse to buy into the stories WWE is trying to sell.

Much of the blame for that falls on WWE for sometimes lacking creativity effort, but sometimes we are just unwilling to play along. Billy Corgan, the new President of TNA, recently said pro wrestling is in an interesting place because of how fans interact with the product. He felt the storytelling either had to get much more realistic or the exact opposite and approach more of a feel of fantasy. With The Final Deletion and all of the Broken Matt Hardy and Brother Nero stuff, it seems that company has opted to push more toward fiction than fact. WWE is showing signs of embracing the blurred line of fact or fiction. It may be the new way for Vince to find his coveted gray areas.

The most glaring example of this is the finish of the Brock Lesnar vs Randy Orton match at SummerSlam. Many people in the arena weren’t exactly sure what had happened when the match was stopped. I was fortunate enough to be watching on the big screen when Lesnar dropped his elbows on Orton’s head. It was clear that he had actually connected and that it wasn’t a blade. My first thought was a clip of Paul Heyman discussing a possible theory that maybe Brock wasn’t supposed to break The Undertaker’s streak, but he took it upon himself to do so. Up until Shane McMahon came out and took an F5 from Lesnar I truly was considering that maybe he went off script on Randy. I wasn’t alone, as even a veteran like Chris Jericho couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t.

Two nights later on Talking Smack we all remember the heated exchange between Daniel Bryan and The Miz. While Miz doesn’t get the credit he deserves for being a great heel, he definitely got his due for a job well done here. Again, the words spoken by both men rang all too true and Miz found a way to attack and exploit Bryan’s biggest weakness and our greatest sympathies toward him. It was arguably the best promo of the year so far as it elicited so much reaction from those of us watching at home to the farthest reaches of social media.

Twice over the course of three days WWE managed to generate a ton of buzz from angles that could have been real just as easily as the could have been scripted. Even AJ Styles vs John Cena had hints of reality thrown in. It doesn’t get much more real than the idea that John Cena has loomed unimaginably large over the wrestling world for the past decade. It doesn’t get much more real than the idea that AJ Styles loomed almost as large over a series of smaller promotions over that same period of time. It doesn’t get much more real than the idea that Styles would resent Cena for the immense popularity and success that he feels could have and should have been his. It also doesn’t get much more real than the fact that the very same people who love AJ Styles are the same people that despise John Cena. Even if what happened in that ring between those two men wasn’t real, a big part of it was very real to all of us.

I remember watching the 2013 NFC Championship Game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks. On the final play of the game Seahawks’ cornerback Richard Sherman kept San Francisco’s Michael Crabtree from scoring the winning touchdown. Not 60 seconds after Richard Sherman helped send his team to the Super Bowl he was cutting arguably the greatest promo in NFL history. I remember looking at my dad and saying that it felt like I was watching wrestling. And I meant it in the greatest way possible. That was real fire, real emotion and real passion spilling out through our TV screens. He made some people love him and even more people hate him. There is something about a live, unscripted shoot that is the lifeblood of pro wrestling. In that moment it was sad to see that the NFL was doing it better than WWE. But that is where Talking Smack is proving so invaluable.

While it won’t get the same level of attention as Miz and Daniel Bryan the previous week, Heath Slater and Rhyno had a great segment last night. Slater was giving us some of his amazingly goofy best, but in the middle of it Rhyno explained to Renee Young why he decided to team up with old Heathey-Baby. He said that he saw a lot of promise in his new partner and that he had never won a Tag Team Championship in the United States and how much that would mean to him. In the midst of wrestling silliness, Rhyno managed to express a real life goal of his. While we all seem to be pulling for Heath Slater at the moment, Rhyno’s honesty will make us even more invested in their quest to be the first to hold the blue and silver belts on SmackDown Live.

WWE is taking up a lot of our time these days. As aware as I am of that fact, the 30 minutes of Talking Smack are more than worth the time. Not only is the show helping to push some stories forward, but it is also an opportunity for us to see the real personalities of these performers. We get to see them interact more naturally and sometimes we get to see something that was more entertaining on either of the two shows that preceded it.

The USA Network wanted WWE to move SmackDown to Tuesdays because live programming will typically be more valuable to them than taped programming. There is truth to that but WWE really goes out of it’s way these days to remove the element of surprise and uncertainty that is supposed to come with a live broadcast. The addition of Talking Smack actually embraces the idea that anything can happen. In that atmosphere even worked angles feel like shoots.

While many older wrestling personalities long for the days of matches feeling like real fights, I don’t need that to feel real. If I want to watch a real fight, UFC has no shortage of programming available. What I want is for the stories being told, for the characters I’m watching, for the REASON these men or women are fighting to feel real. What I want is for WWE to keep exploring ways to blur the lines between fact and fiction. I was initially upset and disappointed with the bloody finish of Brock Lesnar and Randy Orton, but now I’ve seen the blurred light that I hope continues to shine on the future of WWE.

Check out my new podcast, Mat Madness, every Wednesday on iTunes and Podbean, as well as the video show on YouTube. It’s a fan oriented show, so if you’d ever like to take part, let me know. Thank you!