I have been a wrestling fan a long time. I am sure that most people reading the site or who watch wrestling regularly today, came into it before or during “The Attitude Era” of WWE programming, the same as I did.
We all remember the memorable matches and promos, the unpredictable moments, and of course guys like Jim Ross & Jerry “The King” Lawler commentating what felt like our entire childhood. We were enthralled with the matches in the ring, but more than that, we were blown away by the stories the wrestlers were able to tell. Now, if you ask any wrestling fan, “Sports Entertainment” is sort of a bad word nowadays. A way to describe angles that seem too hokey to be realistic and performers that go above and beyond for the spectacle, leading to (hopefully) an excellent payoff. Although recently, the matches seem to be secondary. I feel like it’s an important part of the business and one that gets overlooked time and time again. I love the matches that pull us in as much as the next guy, but if wrestling didn’t have excellent storytellers like Steve Austin, The Rock or the evil Vince McMahon himself in the Attitude Era, it wouldn’t make the match mean much.
Let’s take the recent promo exchange between CM Punk & MJF on the latest episode of Dynamite as an example. Did that segment inspire this column? Absolutely it did, but it’s because of the way it was pulled off, and it brought up nostalgia that is so strong at times. These two went out and shared verbal barbs that were both cutting and witty and both men didn’t stand down from one another. Now, Punk is a seasoned pro and MJF is one of the best talkers in the industry, so this shouldn’t have surprised anyone. I honestly believe, though, if this segment was on Raw, everyone would have crushed it and said it was “same old WWE”, and people would be right. The WWE has made some of their segments almost unwatchable at points with the nonsense that no one truly believes in. I am not an AEW mark that says everything that WWE is awful, but they have a lot of low-brow moments in WWE. And why is that? Because they have leaned too much into the entertainment side of the wrestling business, and why shouldn’t they since Vince McMahon thinks he is Walt Disney.
There has to be a balance and looking back to the promo from Dynamite, it went 18 minutes but had us on the edge of our seats the entire time without having any kind of physical altercation. That was a promo that was entertaining to all of us and the type of thing that has to continue to keep the industry feeling fresh.
A lot of people, like myself, would make the argument that promos are part of the story and are needed, and it’s just a fact. What I am saying though, is that we need the “entertainment” part of wrestling as much as the in-ring work.
The Austin 3:16 promo from King of the Ring 1996 is still the best promo ever, in my opinion, and I go back and watch something like that more than Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart at Wrestlemania X, even though that is one of the best matches of all time. I do this because I am entertained by the character that feels like he is talking right at me, rather than being in the ring being an ass-kicker. It was the birth of a star and it’s awesome to see an off-the-cuff moment like it shoot someone’s career into the stratosphere. That’s the complete package though, and one without the other doesn’t make much sense. I think a lot of times people get caught up in the emotions we feel during a match, but forget about the things that got the guys there in the first place.
I am not saying every show should start with a 20-minute promo and every single show should have the same exact order to it, but asking for more in-ring work and less storytelling is like asking for ice cream, hold the sugar. It just doesn’t seem like it should exist or even be able to work.
We have seen plenty of examples of matches that would have been sent to the next level if the story was there. Or even vice versa where the promos delivered, but the match didn’t. What I am getting at is that for all the praise I see for AEW and that Punk/MJF promo, in particular, some fans are calling it too “Sports Entertainment.” We need that in wrestling, though, the biggest difference between that and what WWE tends to do more often than not, is that these guys can talk people into the building and build to a match that we all want to see.
I can see the other camp saying you can have wrestling without it being too over the top. That is a valid point, but like a lot of indies have shown through the years, you can have the best wrestling in the world, but if people don’t know how to build the match, it won’t matter that much.
I hear a lot about companies like Ring of Honor putting on clinics as far as matches go, but a lot of time the “entertainment” side of it was missing, and it made the match drop down just a touch. Sports Entertainment is a necessary evil that makes wrestling stand out from a lot of other televised products. You have to be able to do both to make sure that you are in a program that will stand the test of time.
The reason we remember The Rock vs. Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania 18 is because of how both men could entertain the crowd and get them invested in their match and not because of the clinic they put on in the ring. The first time they went face to face on Raw, the fans were already drawn into the match.
Dealing with the silly stuff is half the battle of being a wrestling fan, and more importantly, being a wrestler in general.
What do you think? Are you more of a fan of the in-ring product, or the entertainment aspect? Let me know your thoughts over @Collectiveheel on Twitter and let me know your thoughts. I will be back next week as we dig deeper into 1999 WCW and I hope to hear from you all soon. As always, take care of yourselves and each other. I will be back soon enough with some more Collective Thoughts.