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WWE needs to learn how to develop characters again

It’s not very often that a radio show rerun should give anyone the urge to write.

I was driving in my car this past week on my lunch break, dully looking for a sandwich in my mid-week malaise. I had the radio on and due to the holidays, they were doing a rerun of an older show from September – certainly nothing that should merit any real interest. Nevertheless, I perked up when I realized who was being interviewed on one of my local stations: The Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase.

Memphis is cool like that sometimes.

DiBiase was on the show to promote his documentary “The Price of Fame” that was released November 7. But after all of the movie-related questions, the interviewers asked DiBiase about Vince McMahon and how his Million Dollar Man character ultimately came to be.

It was DiBiase’s answer that inspired me to write this. In an effort to market his character, DiBiase mentioned a discussion with Vince McMahon where the WWE set him up to have first class airfare everywhere, limo service every single day, with an additional order from the boss to start staying at high-profile hotels on the road.

And this was truly the quote that got me: “[Vince] gave me money. They gave me like $2,000 dollars in $100 dollar bills – flash cash, he called it – and I think he said, ‘Now pick your moment…but for example, you’re in a restaurant, stand up, just announce yourself to everybody who you are, and [tell them] it’s [their] lucky day because you’re picking up the tab.”

I wasn’t born at the time DiBiase was doing his thing as the Million Dollar Man, but a quick dip into WWE’s YouTube videos showed me the skit above as well as DiBiase paying to skip a waiting room full of sick people and the story of how he closed down an entire jewelry shop in to have his Million Dollar Title commissioned.

How sinister. How vile. WWE did everything they possibly could to make the Million Dollar Man come off as a real character, live and in living color. It’s a fascinating thing to consider as well, that these were the sort of efforts made in wrestling before its “realness” became questioned.

As a brief aside…can you even imagine how well this sort of thing would go over in our era of social media? People already have one hand on their phones at all times – this sort of public stunt would be all over the internet within minutes. I’m already imagining a world where the Shield made local appearances the day before a show with Ambrose bar-hopping and Rollins trying to keep him from drinking.

Ah well. A topic for another time.

The thing that really struck me about DiBiase’s story is how committed WWE was to their characters. Now, perhaps having a heel cackle like a supervillain isn’t the most realistic thing, but there’s depth here. DiBiase says every person has their price – and he proceeds to show exactly that.

I remember how I first got interested in wrestling. My parents bought me a Nintendo 64 video game for either Christmas or my birthday when I was 5 or so. It was a WCW game and I remember being smitten by Sting.

That led me to watching wrestling for the first time. This was around 1997 – Sting was striking in his black and white and much like nearly every wrestler in WWE today, he had a nickname: “The Franchise.” The difference between Sting and modern wrestlers, however, is that he was booked exactly as he was billed, dropping from the rafters with a bat in hand to put an end to the most despicable evil doers in WCW. It felt like Sting truly was “The Franchise” of WCW – how could the show have survived if he weren’t fending off the evil of nWo?

Think of all the biggest names in wrestling history; they all lived their characters. Hulkamania wasn’t a catch phrase for Hogan – he ran wild in each and every match. Ric Flair rode those limousines, flew those jets, stole those kisses…you get the point. Stone Cold was a true rattlesnake, biting friends and foes alike. Randy Savage embodied what it meant to be “Macho” throughout his entire career – especially, from my perspective, in regards to Ms. Elizabeth. CM Punk was so Straight Edge that he made a frickin’ cult.

I’m not sure when things changed and when WWE stopped going the extra mile to give depth to their characters. Perhaps the death of WCW has contributed to WWE’s own complacency. Maybe they think it’s not worth the hassle since it is now common knowledge that wrestling is scripted.

…But could you imagine a Disney World without a guy dressed as Gaston being pompous, arrogant, and getting put in his place by little girls? Imagine the lunacy of an actress making promotional rounds for a movie saying, “Well just remember that my movie isn’t real so don’t get too invested.”

You have to take yourself seriously if you want others to. From my perspective, that’s the problem with today’s WWE. The characters are flat and not worth investing in because WWE hasn’t put in the work to make us care. The nicknames and catch phrases ring hollow: The Eater of Worlds, the Big Dog, the Artist, the Architect, the Goddess – oooh! And my favorite nowadays…The Extraordinary Man Who Can do EXTRAordinary Things. So many nicknames that seem to come up short.

For example, what was the last world that Bray Wyatt ate? Name the last time Seth Rollins built literally anything. Does Shinsuke Nakamura set up an easel in his ring corner or something? And I STILL don’t have any freaking clue what a Lunatic Fringe is supposed to be.

Have any of these characters been supported to the depths of a Ted DiBiase? Do any of them get to become larger than life?

It feels as if the process for making a WWE Superstar now is to give them a look, a nickname, and merchandise. Make them their own brand and an extension of the mothership that is WWE. If we can’t trademark it, it can’t be used.

It’s such a far cry from the process that DiBiase described and it defeats the entire purpose of what makes a character worth investing in. If the first step is to give a character a nickname, the next ten steps of that process is coming up with ways that make that character live up to their nickname and providing depth that ensnares the viewer.

The second thing that motivated me to write this was the recent Finn Balor rumors. Even though I give them literally no merit at all, I am a sucker for writing about Finn. So let’s look at him within the scope that I’ve outlined so far.

Finn Balor returned earlier this year from his gruesome injury and picked up his “Extraordinary” nickname along the way. It’s not a bad nickname, considering he won the first Universal Championship with his right arm dangling from the socket.

But what has he done to earn it since? Scrap with Elias? Get blindsided 4 times by Bray Wyatt? Get destroyed by Kane? If Balor’s supposed to be extraordinary, he’s got to actually DO those EXTRAordinary things.

It’s not all doom and gloom on this front, though. I can think of two wrestlers in WWE who are living up to their nicknames: AJ Styles and Braun Strowman.

AJ’s proven to truly be “Phenomenal” lately, flying overnight from Chile to take on the aforementioned Balor. He then won the WWE Championship back and used that to put in an amazing match with Brock Lesnar. As for Strowman, he’s been booked consistently as a “Monster Among Men” – hell, two men have tried to kill him in the past year! And he returned within weeks each time!

These are the sorts of things that matter. It shouldn’t surprise you that fans are invested in Styles and Strowman, either. Fans want something tangible to invest in. And that’s the sort of thing that WWE should begin to emphasize once more; can you truly blame fans for not being smitten by inconsistent characters?

And as the Million Dollar Man used to say, WWE…when you don't do the job right, you don't get paid.

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