As Cageside's SmackDown Live recapper, it seemed an obligation to attend the blue brand's show in the Verizon Center Tuesday Night. Attending a WWE show is always a unique experience, and this was no different. But there were some lessons to be gleaned from my first-hand experience.
As noted above, presentation can make a huge difference for superstars. The photo above was snapped during the Wyatt Family's entrance Tuesday night, and speaks volumes to how powerful the act comes across in person. (There's also absolutely zero chance of the act getting booed, especially now that Orton has joined up—which could present problems in getting opposing babyface acts opposite over.)
Being inundated with the music, and pyro, colors, and costumes is extremely visceral, and can make even mediocre shows incredibly enjoyable. Only so much can properly translate to television—it's a sport that really should be enjoyed in person, whenever possible.
To be a responsible and informed journalism, I decided to splurge on seats as close to the action as possible. I wound up in the second row, two seats from the aisle, on the entryway. (Since my location was opposite the hard camera, there were more than enough embarrassing moments of television featuring me from SmackDown Live and Tribute to the Troops.)
In that location, WWE superstars indeed come across as larger than life. But some came across as specifically outsized personalities (in order of appearance):
- The Miz: Since Maryse joined the act earlier this year, The Miz has been on another level. When he faced off with AJ Styles in the ring, it felt like a huge moment. He's almost certainly going to be world champion at some point next year.
- AJ Styles: "AJ STYLES." Clap clap clap clap clap. "AJ STYLES." Clap clap clap clap clap. The one person on the roster who gets mega star reactions in every arena.
- Alexa Bliss: There's a reason she has exploded since being called up, and there's a reason WWE put the SmackDown women's championship on her. Even despite being "teeny-tiny" (and very uneven ring work) she utterly commands the arena.
- Roman Reigns: It remains incredible that WWE has so squandered such a massive talent. And let it be known that the "Roman Reigns is a bad promo" argument will be to 2017 what "Roman Reigns is a bad wrestler" has been to 2016. Certainly, his ring work is miles ahead of his mic work, but he's a perfectly fine talker.
- Charlotte: This one surprised me a bit, but her utter disdain for the crowd was perfectly haughty. Responding to a "We Want Sasha" chant with "You're just disrespecting Bayley" (to which I could only solemnly nod my head in agreement) was very well done.
- The Wyatt Family: For years now, they've been seen as little more than a joke, but the addition of Randy Orton and winning their first gold (the Family was more or less dissolved while Harper reigned as intercontinental champion) has made them stand out again. It also speaks to the importance of presentation—the Wyatt Family entrance is a worlds different experience in person.
- Jack Gallagher: He's utterly different than anything or anyone else on the show, and he plays the act with aplomb. His bit during Tribute to the Troops where he faked a suicide dive, only to calmly step through the ropes, hit a double axehandle, and then lose his mind was simply terrific.
It's hard to describe the common thread between the above performers, or what made them stand out more than their fellow performers. It's hard to define starpower, but it's sort of like the old Supreme Court definition of obscenity: You know it when you see it.
On that note, it was another reminder of an important wrestling axiom: stars sell tickets. In my case, I had spent the extra dollar in hopes to see a certain larger-than-life women's champion during Tribute to the Troops, and was more than a little bummed out right before the main event when it was clear she was not making an appearance. (Hey, WWE, maybe don't put people on your marketing materials for a show that won't actually feature on said show.)
Presence makes stars, and stars sell tickets.
Being a kid again...
Seated in my immediate vicinity were a number of kids, but one 10-year-old boy hugely enhanced the show. The tickets were his birthday present from his mom, who filmed many of his reactions to various performers throughout the night. And he had reactions for virtually everyone, starting off with the dark match of Neville vs. Curt Hawkins. He utterly lost his mind when Neville first touched his hand on his way to the ring, and screamed various things throughout the match: "RED ARROW! RED ARROW! YOU SUCK CURT HAWKINS!" When Neville did indeed hit his finisher, he went bananas—so much that when Neville walked back up the ramp, he made a special point of again coming over to this kid and giving him a high five.
The excitement in his reaction, and how much his mom was enjoying the fact that he was having the time of his life, made it impossible to feel cynical.
It's so easy to have knowledge (however extensive or limited it may be) of backstage decisions affect our enjoyment of the product, and the point is doubly proven when you get to see how completely joyful and innocent the whole show should be.
During every entrance The Miz got on the night (three in total), this kid vociferously booed The A-Lister, while I audibly cheered and applauded for Cleveland's favorite son. It was a stark contrast between his unambigious acceptance of kayfabe, whereas I was assessing the product based on the skill level of respective performers.
More than a bit of me wished I could experience the show through the lens of this kid next to me.
It's hard to be an adult wrestling fan: we know too much, but also know too little, and there is no level of journalism or reporting we can turn to for objective facts. This is not by accident, as the industry—and specifically WWE—has sought at all turns to muddy any possible truths we might acquire. While this works perfectly well in person, where you can easily lose yourself in everything around you, when presented on television it inherently dampens the product. It is too easy, and inevitable, to assess the product not on what is being presented on screen but how it fits in relation to what is readily available about the workings of the company: "What does X's loss mean about X's standing in the company?" instead of "How will X respond to this loss?"
One gets the impression that if WWE ever wants to significantly expand its viewership again, it needs to embrace a starker differentiation between the performance on screen and real life (for example, using real-life names instead of ring names outside of the confines of the show). Unquestioningly accepting the product is easy when you're an innocent kid, but adult audiences aren't able to switch off their brains. We expect you to respect our intelligence—even when it's not warranted! Wrestling needs to come out of the carny dark ages and treat itself as a modern, niche, cultural product, and develop a relationship with its consumers analogous to how other pop culture products operate.
To truly thrive again, wrestling needs to join the 21st century.