Spoiler Alert

(NOTE: this blog post DOES NOT contain spoilers, but may entice you to go looking for them elsewhere. Fight that urge. Please.)

I am not a fan of spoilers. This probably harkens back to Christmas ’96 or ’97, when my Mom figured out I was snooping for presents. She stopped hiding them that year and left them out in her bedroom. If I was so desperate to ruin the surprise, I would have nothing special to experience on the morning of December 25th. Needless to say, I stopped snooping. (Smart lady, that Mama of mine!) I suppose it was necessary for me to get a repeat lesson, which I learned last week. I read SmackDown spoilers on Tuesday evening, but tuned into the taped broadcast on Thursday just to see Mauro Ranallo’s debut. I immediately regretted the decision, even though I felt that Ranallo is such a good announcer that you forget already knowing the finish. I know I would have enjoyed the program more if I didn’t know what was going to happen.

But we live in the Internet age where things get ruined. Someone retweets something they think is fake, or they don’t fully realize what it is at the time and – whoops – spoiled. What do you do, stay off the internet? I suppose you could, but I, personally, enjoy writing this blog. I enjoy tweeting (usually in all caps) at my friends during wrestling programs. I like listening to people smarter than me discuss wrestling on podcasts. Also, I run an online literary magazine, so the bottom line is that internet and I are not breaking up any time soon.

When something from tonight’s SmackDown taping showed up on my Twitter feed (and quickly disappeared again – a telltale sign of a spoiler) my first response was to get angry. Then I checked myself. “J,” I thought, “are you angry that it got spoiled or are you angry because it’s not what you want to have happen in the storyline?” The person who tweeted the spoiler wasn’t trying to be a jerk (I don’t think) so I can’t really be mad about that. And while what actually happened isn’t my cup of tea, not everything that happens on WWE TV will be, so I can’t get mad about that either. Maybe I’m mad that WWE hasn’t figured out a way to do nothing but live programming in 2016 so we don’t have to deal with spoilers at all. If you don’t watch it live, it will be spoiled – them’s the rules. Except for the fact that live television is both incredibly difficult and insanely expensive to produce. I can’t blame WWE for wanting to send their B-show to tape.

This begs me to repeat – why am I angry?

It turns out, as a matter of fact, that I’m not. What I’m feeling is not anger at all, it’s that other thing, the thing that is so often confused for anger. It’s fear. I’m afraid. When I returned to my wrestling fandom in 2013, it sort of saved me. It became my safe haven. On Monday nights, for three hours, I was not to be disturbed. I could yell and scream or cheer however I wanted to. Nobody was expecting anything from me. When you’re a caregiver, having a moment to remember who you are in any other definition besides that word is incredible. I was living vicariously through characters who fought their way out of bad situations to achieve something. I watched CM Punk give Paul Heyman a beating. I watch Daniel Bryan become WWE World Heavyweight Champion. It was all very gratifying.

Now I am not a caregiver anymore. I am beholden to no one but myself. My life isn’t perfect – no one’s is – but I am no longer desperate for an outlet. Instead, I find myself trying to approach WWE and wrestling in general from other perspectives. I’m not just a fan, but a writer, and someone who studied theater in school. These are just different lenses to view the product through, and none of them seem to be helping. I don’t want to become one of those people who walks away from the product, either. I know there will be tiny perfect moments scattered among all of the bad writing and worse booking. There will be stellar Paul Heyman promos. I would miss the beginning of Ranallo’s announcing career. Some of my NXT favorites may even find themselves on the main roster soon. But at a time when I am usually the most invested (pre-Royal Rumble) I am actually the least invested I have been since I moved away from New York. And I’m afraid of what that means.

So here is your spoiler alert: I don’t know what happens next. I don’t know if there will be a blog post here tomorrow. I don’t know if I’m going to continue to try to schedule my life around watching RAW on Mondays or making sure I don’t miss Pay-Per-Views. I like to think it won’t change. But that’s life. You never know what’s going to happen. Until you do.

– The Lady J Says

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A New Voice Above the Din

If I had sat in the audience for the SmackDown taping this past Tuesday, January 5th, I would have been missing something.

The thing about seeing a live WWE event is that you don’t get the commentary. There is a chance that you might miss something, some storyline continuation, without being able to hear what the commentary team says. But the other side of the coin is that there are special, small things that happen in a live arena that never make it to TV. In this case, it would have been a great misfortune to sit in the audience the night Mauro Ranallo debuted on the announce team for SmackDown and not have been able to hear him.

I knew very little about Ranallo before I turned on my TV this evening. I knew he was debuting, I knew he had seemed excited about this opportunity, and I knew people were buzzing about it. But I had honestly never heard his voice before and knew nothing about what he might bring to SmackDown. I don’t know if being more educated about him as an announcer would have prepared me for what he was going to do for me as a fan of professional wrestling – but I doubt it entirely.

My favorite moments in wrestling are the ones in which I forget about everything else and just enjoy the show. That’s how I chose my favorite three moments of 2015. They were times when I forgot about how wrestling programs are put together, when I forgot about the Internet Wrestling whatever, when I forgot about myself and just rode the wave. It’s hard these days, being a “grown up” and all, because we’ve stopped suspending our disbelief. We’ve gotten so sucked in to the idea that the audience is “smart” to something – with the dirt sheets claiming certain things are going on behind the scenes, or intentionally ruining a program for yourself by reading spoilers (note: stop reading the spoilers, J.)

Tonight, the main event of SmackDown was a match we’ve seen before, several times. We’ve already seen Kevin Owens facing Dean Ambrose. In fact, I’ve been complaining about this feud for two months, which is quite a bit of time on this blog, because it features the complete breakdown of the original Dean Ambrose singles competitor character. They’ve turned him into Any Other Wrestler, while simultaneously giving Owens the opportunity to hone his dead pan monster of a heel persona. As a tremendous Ambrose fan, it’s hard not to hate to watch all of this, and I actually would have turned the TV off before it even started. But there was Mauro Ranallo.

He was so excited for this match. He had already elevated the entire program by actually calling the matches. He even referred to the title in the women’s match as “the prestigious WWE Diva’s championship” and you know what? I believed him. When there wasn’t any actual wrestling happening (leading to video packages, or coming back from commercial breaks) Ranallo’s voice never felt put-on or forced. He came across as focused and elated, both of which were infectious. I was suddenly so engrossed in the match and was even aggressively cheering for Ambrose again! Even when the end of his sentences would get lost in the roar of the crowd as a big move was hit, you never got the feeling that he was off-script or confused. He was calling it as though he really didn’t know what would happen next (and, this industry being what it is, it must be very difficult to pull that off.)

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It is a gift to be able to give someone back their faith in something. It is a gift to be able to instill a spark in someone whose light has faded out. While WWE did a splendid job of getting Roman Reigns over at the end of the year, it did appear as though the rest of the roster suffered for it. I imagine it to be difficult to bail out a sinking ship when you can’t see from where all the water is coming in. But in just the same way that it was a thing of beauty to see Reigns win back the Philly crowd the night he won the WWE World Heavyweight championship, it is truly beautiful to see Mauro Ranallo silence a bunch of internet dorks into actually watching SmackDown, and loving every second of it.

Thanks, Mauro. Welcome home.

The Lady J Says

New Year’s Resolution: Get Worked

Nearly a month ago was when my friend Bee watched her first wrestling program with me. It was the go-home RAW to TLC that we mostly talked and laughed through as we split a mushroom pizza. She let me explain things to her that were really unimportant, and tolerated me ignoring her at certain points so I could interact with y’all on Twitter. I guess it must have been entertaining enough of an evening, because she even allowed me to talk her into returning that Sunday for TLC and Mexican food.

That’s where the change happened.

I could probably turn anyone into a wrestling fan simply by bombarding them with gifs of Roman Reigns sticking his tongue out, but Bee really took this and ran with it. TLC was a wild show to watch as your first PPV, as it was both showy and substantive. There was a great deal of shouting at the TV and by the end of it she was hooked. When I texted her in all caps the next evening to let her know there was a new WWE World Heavyweight champion, she seemed genuinely distraught to have missed the greatest main roster comeback of 2015.

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FACT: When we get excited, we can’t spell.

By the following Wednesday, she was sending me texts asking about attending a SmackDown taping at the Verizon Center on the 29th. So I worked a little magic and made tickets appear for us and two other friends, who I will appropriately refer to as “S” and “A,” in keeping with the theme.

A is an actual wrestling fan, whose claim to fame is that this was his first live wrestling event because he turned down WCW Nitro tickets in his youth. He is a little snarky, but completely fun to be around. S smiles and nods when I begin to talk about wrestling, but enjoys watching me turn from my normal state into The Lady J, so she joined us as well. This was also a first time at the Verizon Center for Bee, S, and myself (not sure about A, who has lived in DC much longer) so it really was a night of exploration.

I spent the better part of three hours trying to find a solid balance between explaining anything that required some background information for Bee and S, and not talking through every single segment (this is very hard for me.) A and I shared a pretty stellar moment of high-fiving when Heath Slater came out, and there was a lot of dancing done to New Day’s entrance theme. Everyone seemed to genuinely enjoy themselves, which was my biggest concern. There is really nothing better for me than finding a strong balance between friends who speak my language and friends who want to learn.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about, now is it? I’d like to talk about what I find so fascinating about live events, and the DC audience experience.

I’m not entirely sure what my companions expected that sitting in the audience of a WWE show would be. When you watch the program back on TV, you notice that the cross-section of the audience that actually appears on the screen is so small. The group of people who pay a great deal of money to be dead-on from the hard camera is not always an accurate representation of what the rest of the arena looks like. What I think my favorite part about this event (unlike my previous two experiences of attending RAW episodes in both Brooklyn and on Long Island) was that it was a very family-heavy audience. The smarky jerks like me were mostly sitting closer to the ring, though we were not that far ourselves. When you spend most of your time as a WWE fan interacting with people online who are like-minded, or at least of similar age, it’s easy to get jaded and bored. But there is really nothing like having a tiny child screaming for their favorite wrestler behind you to remind you why you got into this in the first place.

I like to think that attending SmackDown, for me, was not unlike watching TLC was for Bee. I got to watch thousands of other people get really excited about what was happening in the ring, and that kind of passion and genuine fun are contagious. There was a very small girl sitting directly behind us, couldn’t have been more than 5 or 6, who was so excited to see Goldust that I feared she may spontaneously combust on the spot. She, like a multitude of children in the audience, was wearing a Roman Reigns t-shirt. Come to think of it, I can’t stress enough how over Reigns was with the crowd before he even set foot in the space. I might even go so far as to say that on that night, in our nation’s capitol, there were more Roman Empire shirts in the crowd than there were John Cena shirts. I particularly enjoyed two teenaged girls sitting just ahead of us, apparently the best of friends, one in full Reigns regalia, and the other a member of the Ambrose Asylum (girl after my very own heart.) We saw a group of older gentlemen (guys of retirement age and older) all sporting sheep masks (both Braun Strowman’s black mask and Erick Rowan’s white one) on the backs of their heads as they meandered to their seats. And yes, I have even been witness to actual human beings wearing unicorn horns on their heads in real life.

“That’s great, J, good to know DC is a city of marks not yet old enough to vote.”

Two and a half months ago, I returned to this blog and did a post about re-dedicating myself to WWE and pro-wrestling. I ended up writing this post about re-learning how to watch wrestling. I realize I made things harder than I really needed to, but it was a good exercise. If you want to rededicate yourself to having fun and getting lost in wrestling, go to a live event. In fact, go to a live show that’s not televised. (NOTE: If you live in a major market, please stay home and far, far away from those people. BROOKLYN, I AM LOOKING AT YOU.) Sit in an audience with little kids who don’t understand what a “work” is, who haven’t learned to use the word “bury” yet. Or sit at home with a friend who loves you enough to catch your excitement like a cold in February. Talk about wrestling with people who are still drinking the Kool Aid. (Hell, talk to me, I’ll talk to anybody.) Be the first person at a party or social event to admit you like wrestling and see how many heads swivel in your direction. You can bring people out of the woodwork. You might even bring something out of yourself.

Remember to have fun. And that you’re already getting worked, so you might as well enjoy the ride. I sure do.

The Lady J Says

The Joker is Dead

If you came here looking for a recap of my experience at the SmackDown taping last night, you’re two days early. I don’t believe in spoiling things for people for no good reason, so that post will go up on Friday.

I will tell you that I got to see a decent number of matches – some that were even longer than I thought they might be. The group I was with was extremely satisfied with the main event of the evening, which feature (among others) current Intercontinental champion Dean Ambrose. It brought about a lot of feelings for me, as I have been a huge Dean Ambrose fan since The Shield was still together but have lately been unhappy with where his character has gone.

When The Shield broke up and Ambrose became a singles competitor, his character was clearly on the verge of becoming The Joker. (If you’ve never heard me expound on this concept, I suggest you check out this piece I did for Cageside Seats a year and a half ago.) He was wild, unpredictable, and single-minded. He was out to destroy his ex-brother, Seth Rollins, and he didn’t appear to care what else happened on his way to achieving that goal. With no regard for his own well-being, The Lunatic Fringe would go to great lengths to ensure Rollins’ received his comeuppance for betraying his teammates.

This hungry, man-driven-mad character got Ambrose over in a big way. There are definite points between June of 2014 and June of 2015 where it is clear that he was more over than his Shield-mates. His propensity for killer promos and a devil-may-care attitude struck a chord with fans. More and more chants could be heard each week for him on episodes of RAW and SmackDown. By the time he “won” the WWE World Heavyweight championship from Rollins in the main event of 2015’s Elimination Chamber PPV, it had reached a fever-pitch. After that, we started getting Ambrose as the hot-tag man in all the main event tag matches that WWE could create, and was certainly the start of the path he walked to becoming Intercontinental champion.

What we see now on TV isn’t even a shadow of that character. I think even before Rollins’ injury led to Ambrose vs. Roman Reigns for the WWE World Heavyweight championship at Survivor Series last month, we had started to see The Lunatic Fringe become some version of a douchey dude-bro who cares about nothing except a killer party and his brothers. While he’s old single-mindedness was appealing to me as a fan, his lack of caring about ANYTHING now, coupled with interviews in which he seems to be trying to convince us he cares about titles (why, I do not know) makes him hard to take. He’s doing interviews that make him sound like everyone else. If his voice wasn’t as distinct as it is, it would be easy to close your eyes and assume his promos belonged to Dolph Ziggler or any other babyface on the roster.

For me, the absolute rock-bottom of this descent into obscurity came when Ambrose won his current championship title off of Kevin Owens at TLC earlier this month. His celebration afterwards included crossing himself (?!) and thanking the ceiling. His last “title celebration” at Elimination Chamber was wilder and far more in character – a look of shock, and then a great deal of laughter. In that case, his win was short-lived but there was purpose behind it. What he really wanted was to take something from Seth Rollins. Why wouldn’t they use a similar premise for his win over Owens? Kevin Owens is a prize-fighter, who has gone around the bend since losing his title to Ambrose. Why is Ambrose not baiting Owens with the title, making it clear he doesn’t care about it at all and just doesn’t want Owens to have it?

Here’s what makes me angry: Ambrose is a fan favorite. He was over as a crazy babyface with the fans. Why did the powers that be look at that and feel the need to alter him in any way? It’s as if they said “well, the fans love him as a babyface, so let’s change his character to be our version of a babyface.” How does that make any sense? If someone’s character is already über-over with your fanbase, the LAST thing you should do is change that character in any way! Plus, it’s completely unbelievable at this point that Dean Ambrose is beating Kevin Owens clean. If Kevin Owens is beating John Cena clean, he’s certainly not losing a traditional wrestling match to Dean Ambrose, who throws the most ridiculous punches possibly in all of WWE at this moment. Why not walk that line we all love to see messed with and have him behave like the insane pseudo-heel he really is. He can outthink Owens, for sure, as Owens anger gets the better of him. Why would Ambrose ever put himself into a situation he couldn’t win? He loves a fight, but he loves messing with his opponent more. Win the belt by whatever means necessary – you’ll get all the fighting you could dream of.

It’s hard for me to wear my Explicit Ambrose Violence hoodie now, though of course I still do. I’m hopeful the more Moxley side of Ambrose will return one day. Until then, Champbrose is barely recognizable as my Joker dream.

The Lady J Says

Return of the Mack

Well, look what the cat dragged in.

Your resident sass-machine is back in action, after a long (TOO LONG) trip back up north for the holiday. I hope Santa brought everyone exactly what they asked for. I’m rocking my new studio headphones right now to drown out everything but the music that pumps me up to write these posts for y’all. There’s a lot going on with the year coming quickly to a close, so let’s jump in.

Even though I was out of the house for most of the day on the 23rd, I did manage to catch a fair amount of the NXT episode that aired. I’m glad to have Sami Zayn back on NXT TV, and thoroughly enjoyed his match against Tye Dillinger. I don’t know that I’m as into the Perfect 10 gimmick as the London audience was, but Dillinger is a lot of fun to watch in the ring. I don’t know that anyone else would have made Sami’s return as positive for me – there was not real storyline involved, it was just a solid reminder of why we love Zayn and why it’s the best thing to happen in months on NXT that he’s back. I do think Dillinger deserves a more prominent spot on NXT programming and would like to see more high-profile matches for him.

I’m also really excited to see what happens next with NXT programming. Most of the big feuds were tied up after NXT Takeover: London, so we’re going to need new challengers for all of the titles, and new storylines moving people forward. Also, as NXT is headed to the midwest in January, we’re going to get hotter crowds as the NXT gang heads out of their Florida comfort zone to conquer more of the world. I look forward to what they’ll bring us at Wrestlemania 32 in Dallas.

Speaking of Dallas, I think it would be silly of me to skip mentioning The Rock’s announcement today that he’s going to be involved with the event this year. It was a fairly vague announcement; he never came right out and said he’d be wrestling, but I like to believe he will. I’m sure there are detractors out there who argue that The People’s Champion being in a match means someone who works hard all year won’t get a spot. But when you think how many people are out injured right now, and will likely still be at Wrestlemania 32, I think there’s more than enough room to go around. (Maybe if Triple H can keep himself off the card, for example.) Whatever The Brahma Bull’s involvement in the Showcase of the Immortals ends up being, it will certainly be worth the price of admission.

I missed most of last week’s live SmackDown on Tuesday because I was up to my elbows in cookie dough. I did get to watch the main event, though, which I thought was alright. I’m not usually a huge fan of triple threat matches, as they tend to involve one person being inexplicably absent at various points in the match, but it was entertaining. And yes, it involved Dean Champbrose, so I was thrilled. The end of the year is typically a slow season for storylines because we haven’t quite gotten into Wrestlemania season yet, and most of the things post-TLC have been tied up. Plus, the programming around the holiday is usually more lighthearted.

That being said, I am interested to watch RAW tonight. It’s been announced that Vince McMahon will be on the program this week, which makes sense if you think of what happened the last time we saw him. The last image we were left with of Vince from two weeks ago was his body being shoved off the ring apron to the floor by Roman Reigns, who had just Superman-Punched the Chairman before pinning Sheamus for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. He’s not just going to let that go. I do hope the story between Mr. McMahon and the champ ends tonight, though, as the more we see of Vince, the less special his appearances become.

In other news, tomorrow I’ll be blogging about tonight’s RAW in the afternoon, and then heading off to SmackDown here in Washington D.C. at night. If you follow me on Twitter, I will make a concerted effort not to spoil anything for you. I will be going with two other fan friends, and a friend who has no idea what she’s getting herself into. A good time will (hopefully) be had by all – and yes, I’ll be wearing my Explicit Ambrose Violence hoodie (over my I’m a Paul Heyman Girl t-shirt). Expect a full review of that on Friday, so I don’t ruin anything for those of you who like to actually watch SmackDown.

That’s all for now, gang. Let’s see what the last RAW  of 2015 brings us. Check back tomorrow for the rantings and ravings!

The Lady J Says

Give One Reason

When I first started watching wrestling about 15 years ago, I was watching SmackDown. I don’t even think that, in my first run as a fan, I ever watched RAW. SmackDown is what got me hooked. When I returned to watching the WWE product in 2013, I was really surprised by the fact that SmackDown was now the B show. It became painfully clear that it was an after-thought, and not really necessary to watch in order to follow the story lines.

Between RAW and SmackDown, the main roster of WWE currently has five hours of cable television programming airing per week. You know what else has five hours of scripted programming every week? Soap operas. Soap operas air one hour programs every weekday, every week, for the entire year. I think the only time they get preempted is for national holidays or emergencies. But they are there, chugging along through their plots and many outfit changes.

Am I suggesting that WWE is currently putting out a soap opera? No. And if they are, it’s a very bad one. Soap operas work for a few reasons. First off, they understand their audience. They know who is home at 1pm on a weekday and they make sure to play to the things those individuals want to see. The writers have built histories and intricate backstories for all of their characters, once you start watching, you become quickly invested. They also always give the viewer a reason to tune in to the next episode, even if you have to wait the whole weekend to see it.

WWE hasn’t seemed to nail any of these particular points yet. They are plagued by their desire to broaden their audience, so they are affectively pandering to no one while attempting to reach everyone. They seem to disregard most of a character’s backstory or history because it sets up parameters that they don’t know how to work within. They also can’t seem to give anyone a reason to actually tune in lately, either.

I did not watch SmackDown tonight. There was no reason to. Nothing was going to happen on that show that was going to drastically affect a storyline or a match currently set up for Sunday’s TLC PPV. If you are killing your characters and boring your audience with your awful storytelling, why even bother producing an entire second program? At this point SmackDown is simply the RAW recap, and we all hate RAW so why would we put ourselves through more of that nonsense?

If it’s not plausible to return SmackDown to its glory days of being a completely separate entity from RAW with its own roster and storylines, at least it could be a necessary part of the furthering of the storylines. Maybe if things actually happened on that show, people would tune in to watch. A title hasn’t even changed hands on SmackDown since 2013 – that’s almost three years.

In honor of the annual Twilight Zone marathon that I will be watching on New Years Day, I would like to make a suggestion to WWE: don’t let SmackDown become “The Obsolete Man,” if it isn’t already.

The Lady J Says

Top WWE Heel: The Audience

After working on yesterday’s post about Roman Reigns’ status as an underdog, I feel like I have opened up this whole section of my brain that I wasn’t using. I never considered before what sort of an impact the live audiences were having on the nature of anyone’s gimmick. I know, for example, that I hate listening to Full Sail crowds on episodes of NXT, but it never occurred to me that a live audience could literally redefine someone’s character.

I’m not sure there is anyone currently active in WWE who is such a solid example of this phenomenon as Roman Reigns is, so I started considering how to fix the problem (aside from actually screening the live audiences which is not, you know, the worst idea I’ve ever heard.) I’m not saying I have the answer, but maybe there are some parts of this issue that are more malleable than we think.

First of all, let’s set some parameters. What I’m really pinpointing as an issue here is not WWE’s inability to properly book someone as an underdog (though, come on, guilty.) The issue is that Roman Reigns is an underdog because we don’t like him – owing to no fault of his own. He did nothing wrong, really. But we are so keen on letting “the office” know how unhappy we are with the job THEY are doing that we are jeering the people in the ring who are actually working very hard and, in effect, running into a brick wall of bad booking.

To clarify further, I’m talking about the response of live audiences to Roman Reigns as he appears on a TV or PPV program. Not that the people who comment or blog (um, hello) about wrestling online don’t matter (or aren’t part of their own problem) but the more directly disruptive issue is the live audiences. These are not only the people who are responding immediately to a match or a promo, but these are also the people who are influencing the at-home audience with their responses. Next time you watch RAW or SmackDown, try muting your TV when you watch one of the matches. Then go back afterwards and watch it again with the sound on and see if you had the same feeling about the match that the crowd did, or if your feelings change after hearing who they were cheering or booing.

I once heard someone hypothesize about creative in the following way: anyone perceived by “The IWC” as being pushed by creative is automatically going to be booed because we know the Authority is in charge and they are heels. That seems like a drastic over-simplification, but it’s not entirely wrong. Our distaste for what is going on creatively in WWE is affecting our ability as an audience to respond appropriately to what is happening in the ring. But to be able to take into account that there is a separation is to exist in a world that acknowledges kayfabe. Not a world that tries to function inside of kayfabe, but simply acknowledges it as an aspect of the business in general.

I try to stay away from fantasy bookings here, but I’d like to float a concept for you, dear readers. Wrestling in general already breaks the fourth wall of live performance. They acknowledge their audience – they’ve even given us a name, the WWE Universe. What if characters actually acknowledged the power of the WWE Universe? Some people like to stroke our egos – the John Cenas of the world, for example – but no one has actually found a way yet to address the impact the live audiences are REALLY having on the program. What if Roman Reigns could be that person?

I know what I’m suggesting means more time for him on the microphone and we all cringe at the thought. But if he was given the chance to work away from scripted dialogue, he might surprise us. It might turn out he’s more competent than we think. Given the opportunity to address what I can only imagine are his real-life frustrations might be exactly what he needs to get himself over – and I mean really over.

Imagine for a moment that Reigns is given the opportunity to come out to the ring and set it all straight. He could even cut the promo opposing Triple H, who is the on-screen representative of The Authority/creative. Triple H announces some ridiculous stipulation for a main event match involving Reigns and when Reigns comes out, he doesn’t cut his typical “I’m gonna show you, believe that” bullshit. Instead, he asks Triple H if he needs to have his hearing checked. Can he not hear the the crowd? Because Reigns can. And the crowd HATES HIM. They hate Triple H. In fact, they hate Triple H so much that now they hate Roman Reigns. Triple H, though he claims to dislike Reigns, keeps trying to force-feed him to the audience, putting him in match after match against ridiculous opponents that no one cares about. If Triple H really hated Reigns, as he claims to, why didn’t he just stop giving him any opportunities at all? Triple H could have just buried Reigns, telling him week after week that they had nothing for him, that the card was full, that his match got cut for time. But instead, they booked him into garbage matches and let the crowd get sick of him. Now they hate him, and it’s all Triple H’s fault. Reigns worked hard to improve as a singles competitor, and instead of getting a chance to show it off in matches like his Hell in a Cell match against Bray Wyatt, Triple H has given him a programs against Big Show. And Sheamus. Triple H is trying to manipulate the crowd against Reigns and we, the audience is letting it happen.

There are so many places they could take Reigns from there. Let him walk out on Triple H. Feel out the crowd response. They could have him turn on the audience instead if they wanted him to be a heel. We’re all getting worked anyway – if what Roman says is true, then the powers that be actually wanted him to be a heel all along and we gave them what they wanted. We are the foolish ones. And if they really wanted him to be a babyface they are the worst bookers in the history of ever and he just called them out on it on national television.

The fact of the matter is that our knowledge of what happens behind the scenes – minute as it may be – has tainted many of us from enjoying the storylines that play out on TV. And those of us who attend live shows don’t boo or cheer according to someone babyface or heel status anymore – we boo and cheer based on who we feel is being underutilized and who is being shoved down our throats. Maybe someone on the roster should try calling both us and Vince out on that and see what happens. We might all just wake up.

The Lady J Says

 

 

 

Guest Post: WWE’s Competition Comes From Within

(Hey gang, J here! A good friend of mine asked if he could write something for the blog and I was thrilled to have another viewpoint to share with you all. Give Dan’s thoughts on NXT a read – it’s very good stuff. Leave him your thoughts in the comments and look for my next post on the Creative/Wrestler/Audience dynamic tomorrow!)

So first off, hi everyone. I’m Dan, and Lady J very graciously has allowed me to contribute to her blog. I really appreciate the opportunity, and hopefully I’ll show up here from time to time.

With introductions out of the way, I want to talk about one of the biggest things I’ve focused on as a wrestling fan for years: The lack of competition for WWE. I’m a lifelong wrestling fan – my Dad got me into watching Macho Man and Ultimate Warrior when I was a kid. I stuck with it into the “Ruthless Aggression” era after which I petered out for a bit. I came back in college when my housemate watched Raw every week and have been watching steadily pretty much since. And through that time you can see a pretty even split when it comes to the WWE – the pre WCW purchase, and the post. Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that one side of that split was good and the other was bad. WWE has had its ups and downs throughout its existence, but I think you can see, much like any other large company out there, it reacted more quickly to its failures when it had competition. And while today’s WWE can still be painfully slow to shift from failing storylines, often dropping them unceremoniously when they finally decide to do so, I believe we’re about to turn a corner.

For the first time since 2000, it finally feels like the WWE has competition, and what’s interesting is that it seems to be coming from within. Interesting because we’re sort of going through a wrestling renaissance, and yet other companies don’t really threaten WWE’s market hold, and in reality aren’t even trying. Various independent companies are bringing back the feel of wrestling territories: New Japan Pro Wrestling now has a recap show in the U.S., Lucha Underground has confirmed a second season on the El Rey Network, and whatever is going on with TNA and GFW is still happening on Destination America. DA even has a Ring of Honor show. There are more options than ever for a fan to watch, and yet, like I said, these options aren’t threatening WWE. NXT on the other hand, is a completely different story.

With their weekly show from Full Sail, the live event preceding Summer Slam from Brooklyn, and their tour of the UK, NXT is becoming much more than a developmental program. WWE doesn’t release viewership numbers for NXT, but I imagine it has some of the largest numbers on the Network. Combine it with each month’s main WWE PPV (or special event) and you’ve got the primary selling point for ponying up $9.99 each month. The reason, I believe, is because they offer a product that is distinctly WWE, but somehow still different than RAW or Smackdown. NXT, in a way, is the WWE vision and style, but distilled into a more focused product. It is well served by its one hour run time. Storylines are allowed to breathe and run their course, and very regularly have a distinct beginning, middle, and end. Superstars are allowed to have exaggerated gimmicks and are still taken seriously. Tyler Breeze is basically Zoolander, and yet he was a consistent contender for the NXT championship; a silly character who can (and was allowed to) dazzle in the ring. Let’s hope that continues on the main roster.

Yet NXT isn’t an R-rated show, like the Attitude Era. It’s not billed as a throwback show that relives the “glory days”, and it’s not marketed exclusively to my generation of wrestling fan. Whereas RAW tries to reach a diverse audience by focusing specific wrestlers on specific demographics, the NXT roster is accessible to the entire NXT audience. I love Bayley, with all her headbands and wacky inflatable arm flailing tube men, just as much as I love Finn Balor, because they’re each 3 dimensional characters that have hopes, desires, and flaws and kick ass in the ring. They also a do a better job of pacing characters and embracing their depth. I’m sorry, but I don’t need to see Randy Orton RKO people every week. I don’t need to see The Wyatts cut another cryptic promo every time I tune in. I don’t need to see the Authority screw over the babyface at 10:45 pm every Monday. And I like all of these characters (to varying degrees!), but there are other superstars I like too and would love to see them get some time. And maybe I’d care more about Sheamus vs. Randy Orton if I didn’t see it every week for three months and three pay per views.

So there are functional differences between RAW and NXT. But it’s still the WWE style, one that has been honed over the course of 30 years. These characters are still larger than life and cartoony. There are heroes and villains. People fight for both petty and honorable reasons. Baron Corbin is a heel essentially because he is a self acknowledged asshole and doesn’t give a shit. Bull Dempsey became a face because he was out of shape and nearly lost his job, but the experience humbled him and he stopped being angry. The Bull Fit angle is pretty much the Dusty Rhodes Blow Away Diet. It’s silly and unbelievable. We’ve seen these kinds of characters before. So what’s the real difference and how is it impacting RAW?

I believe it comes down to one word, and one that NXT even used for it’s last special event. Respect. Respect for its roster and respect for its audience. Respect is a word that gets thrown around a lot at WWE. It’s a primary motivation for many of its characters and storylines. And yet we see time and time again WWE has disrespected both its employees and its audience. But the future is much brighter for the main roster, and it’s because of NXT.

NXT has delivered a product that features what the main roster shows are missing. First, it features diversity. Every night you will see at least one singles match, tag team match, and women’s match. In each of these matches, the commentary makes you aware of what the stakes are. These competitors are always working towards something and we are reminded of it. “A win in this match is one step closer to the championship.” This is a common statement by commentary. Rich Brennan, Byron Saxton, and Corey Graves are focused on the match in front of them 90% of the time. They’re talking about the strengths and weaknesses of each competitor, their style, their recent successes, and most importantly, what’s at stake: Pride, Respect, Gold.

But that’s just one form of diversity. NXT has been receiving a lot of attention because of its female wrestlers, and rightfully so. NXT treats it’s women with respect, which is a big deal for WWE. For the first time ever, two women headlined a special event. All of the women put in insane amounts of work and the WWE acknowledges it. The stories aren’t about some love interest. They’re about how Sasha Banks wanted to prove she was the best, or how Emma wanted back in the spotlight of the revolution she created. They’re about how Dana Brooke wants the endorsements and fame that she felt were handed to Charlotte or  Bayley achieving her dream (THE GIRLHOOD DREAM HAS COME TRUE!) There are no Bra and Panties matches. There are Ironman matches. There is functionally very little difference between the men’s and women’s divisions in NXT. And the “Diva’s Revolution” on RAW is the proof that WWE is feeling the pressure. It’s not as good as NXT, but the focus on changing the Diva’s division are steps in the right direction. And once creative makes it past Kevin Dunn, we should start to see real change on the USA Network.

But gender diversity isn’t the only thing we’re seeing. We’re seeing racial diversity in a way WWE has lacked in recent years too. I don’t think enough has been made of the fact that Sasha Banks was an African American Champion. Apollo Crews is the number one contender for the NXT Championship. WWE has never had a Black man hold the top belt. I don’t mean to diminish Mark Henry and all of his accomplishments, but during the Brand split, WWE always treated the World Heavyweight Championship as lesser to the WWE Championship. And though Rock is half Black, half Samoan, there’s never been a champion who self identified as exclusively Black. And those aren’t the only racial issues that WWE have had through the years. Look at RAW and there is exactly one mixed race tag team, and the Dudley’s came as a packaged deal from ECW. NXT has both the teams of Jason Jordan and Chad Gable (Tye Dillinger before him), and Angelo Dawkins and Sawyer Fulton. That might not seem like a lot, but it’s literally twice as good as the main roster! And the main roster has made some strides. In the thick of the 4-way tag matches on PPVs, the only white guy in the ring was the referee. Alberto Del Rio returned to the WWE last week, with much fanfare, and won the US Championship. Whether intentional or not, there is symbolism in a Latino being your US Champion.

I’ve gone on a long time here, so I’m going to wrap this up – WWE is not perfect. But the biggest impact that NXT has made is that fans love it and wrestlers like being there. In fact, the main roster readily gets frustrated when there’s an NXT Takeover event, because whoever is making decisions down there is letting them tear the house down. Superstars like Sin Cara and Zack Ryder and Eva Marie have found some resurgence in NXT. And with the stars of NXT moving up to the main roster, they’re going to push for the same treatment and respect that they received at NXT. And that is going to continue to have a transformative effect on WWE as a whole.

Dan Spitaliere

Let’s Do the Time Warp Again

So many of you commented positively about yesterday’s post on my reminiscing through TLC II. It started quite a bit of dialogue, and I loved that. Don’t be afraid to comment on the posts themselves or tweet at me if you have thoughts on my words. They are always welcome. (Well, almost always.)

One of the wonderful people I became friendly with via twitter last year tweeted at me about yesterday’s post. They seemed to enjoy it and were willing to give this whole “let’s remember how to watch wrestling” thing a try. So they decided to give it a go during the 10/14/2015 episode of NXT, and reported back that it hadn’t worked – they had been unhappy with a lot of the program and had skipped most of it. After hearing that, I thought it would be a good idea to focus today on how we can all take a step back and give ourselves another chance to love this the way we did when we were younger.

First of all, a disclaimer: I know what I’m asking everyone to try isn’t easy. By our very nature as humans, we become jaded and disenchanted as we grow older and more things with negative connotations happen to us. Also, for those of us living in the U.S., there is a permeating culture of anger and hatred making it easy for us to nay-say pretty much anything or anyone we encounter. But I am asking you to try, just once. Give it a go and let me know what happens.

I think the first thing we do is go back to the beginning – not of wrestling, but of our fandoms. It’s impossible to recall a feeling without also recalling the surrounding circumstances. Be honest with yourself (if only with yourself) about how you came into this. As I mentioned in my last post, I became an avid watcher of the WWE product at the tail end of the Attitude era – sometime in late 2000. I started out as a big fan of The Hardy Boyz, and Triple H. I was, at the time, an awkward middle-schooler who still wore flannel and was in love with Jared Leto a la Jordan Catalano in My So-Called Life. I wanted very badly to be a bad-ass and to stop being told “we don’t hit people!” Puberty does weird things to a girl.

Be honest with yourself about where your origins are. Maybe you only started watching five years ago. Maybe you’ve been a fan since before Wrestlemania was even a thing. Maybe you were a little kid yelling Bret Hart’s name. Regardless, start cutting yourself some slack because the world – the entire world – is a very different place now. When I first got into watching SmackDown, there was a WWE website, but all it had were a few match re-caps and pictures of the roster with short bios. Let yourself remember what your life was like at the time. Were you a kid who watched Shawn Michaels with your brother and Dad? Were you in college, watching Pay-Per-Views with your friends? Were you a girl with a strict feminista mother who would absolutely kill you if she knew you had subjected yourself to watching a bra-and-panties match? What year was it? What was your home like? What music were you into? How long was your hair? Who was your best friend?

Another important thing to be honest with yourself about is HOW you got into the product. I knew what wrestling was and what it meant when people said it was “fake” from the time I was much younger. As I’ve previously mentioned, growing up as a kid in the mid-nineties meant every little boy (and some of the girls) were wearing DX and Austin 3:16 t-shirts at every turn. Even before watching a single second of any WWE show, I was able to identify The Rock and The Undertaker. You would have to live in a box not to know these things. Were you introduced to WWE by someone else? Did someone you like watch it so you started watching to have a reason to talk to them (NOTE: this is still SO COMMON – possibly more common than you think.) Did you start watching because of another lead-in, like a commercial, or from seeing the magazine, or even seeing one of the wrestlers elsewhere on TV?

We’re halfway through re-creating our Love of Wrestling origin story. When you consider who you were when you first started watching wrestling, and how you got into it in the first place, you should be able to conjure up what it was you were watching. Maybe your introduction to pro-wrestling was not even WWE. If you ask my 67-year-old uncle about his farthest recollection involving wrestling, he’ll say the following name: “Nick Bockwinkel.” He was watching Nick’s matches when he came back from Vietnam. (See? I told you I didn’t know anyone in my family was watching it – at the time. Skeletons in the closet and all that!) Who was wrestling on the first show you ever watched? What was the music like? What was the audience like? I mentioned in my last post how different the audience at Wresltemania X-Seven was from current WWE audiences. They also influence the people at home. Were they loud? Try going back and re-watching matches from around that time, if you can’t find the match you’re actually thinking of.

Finally, the last piece of the puzzle: what made you keep watching? Why did you watch the whole Pay-Per-View? Why did you watch the next episode of RAW or Nitro? Why did you agree to go to a live event a few months later? What brought you back? How did you get here – to this moment, all these years later, still watching? Which wrestlers, which story lines, what finish, what maneuver pushed you over the edge from casual watcher to hardcore fan? What really and truly made you fall in love with wrestling?

When I mentioned in my last post that the first match I could recall was the TLC II match from Wrestlemania X-Seven, it wasn’t because that was my first introduction to WWE. That was simply the first whole match I could conjure up. My first wrestling memory is different. I couldn’t tell you how old I was, or what match it was, or even who his opponent was, but the thing that did it for me was a match involving Triple H. It had to have been on cable because I didn’t watch Pay-Per-Views back then. He was bleeding – and I was crying. And I don’t mean crying like I did when Bayley won the NXT Women’s Championship. I mean I was sobbing into my hands. It was a different time, and I was so young, but I could feel every second of that match in my guts. I thought I was going to be sick. And not even because it was too violent or too bloody. I was so invested that I was being absolutely devastated by every single second that went by. The way he moved, the way he’d turn his head so the camera could barely see his face through his sweaty, matted hair. I’m actually starting to sweat just writing about it now. The way his back would rise and fall as he took these deep breaths. I was dying with each one. I was so hooked – I guess you could say it was like a drug and they had me. It took a long time for me to be able to walk away after that – years, in fact. But thinking about that moment now (and honestly, I haven’t thought about it until sitting down to write this) I am having a much better understanding of my attachment to him, regardless of his status – if he wrestles, if he’s the COO, if he’s at NXT, if he’s a heel, it doesn’t matter. Somewhere in the back of my head is a middle-schooler crying into her hands because she doesn’t think he’ll get back up. But he does.

I’m not an idiot – or even an idealist. I don’t think it’s going to be easy trying to apply this feeling to every episode of RAW, or even tonight’s episode of SmackDown. But I’m going to try. Because somewhere along the line I forgot about that girl. She wasn’t jaded or angry or bitter. She just loved wrestling.

You all know what your homework is. Take some time and relive your youth. And if anyone can find me a bloody cable TV match of Triple H’s from, say, 2001, let me know. I know a girl who’d love to see it.

The Lady J Says

The Lady J’s American Dream

About ten days ago, I had started writing a post on RAW, as well as NXT. Nothing about what I was writing was coming together for me, though, so I scrapped the piece and took a break from my laptop. I went to the wedding of two dear friends of mine. I saw Dashboard Confessional and Third Eye Blind play an outdoor arena on the ocean in the pouring rain instead of watching Money in the Bank. Life just kept going.

In the year since I created the Lady J persona, I have been attempting to toe the line between fan and analyst. Anyone who follows me on twitter knows I am a passionate person who is prone to fits of all-caps ranting about the product while watching a live show. Anyone who follows this blog knows I take a lot of time to do research, to listen to podcasts and read other articles, and keep myself educated about “The Business”. It is often difficult for me to find balance between these two things.

I watched the Money in the Bank PPV on Monday afternoon, took a break for dinner, and then watched Monday Night RAW. I must say I wasn’t terribly impressed with either of these shows, though it did end on a high note for me when Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman returned to TV. It’s hard not to become frustrated as a fan. But isn’t that the point? Your “guy” isn’t always going to win. Your “guy” has to be beat down, so that when he rises up, it is triumphant. I think the Royal Rumble is a perfect illustration of how the fan base responds to quick ascents in this business.

On Paul Heyman’s DVD Ladies and Gentlemen, My Name is Paul Heyman, he talks about interacting backstage with younger talent, who have yet to become jaded by experience and what he can take from their perspective as newer individuals to the pro-wrestling/sports entertainment business. I am sure those young people are also taking away from their interactions with him the wisdom of his years in this business as well. There is no greater recipe for success than a happy marriage between experience and innovation. This business, which has been built on time-honored traditions, now exists in a world where the audience is smarter, and the competition on TV is not other comparable products, but rather television programming in general. Being an individual who understands both the contemporary broadcasting industry, and the traditional wrestling industry is where the dollar signs are.

It’s not easy for me to check my “fan” tendencies when watching a WWE program. When I returned to the product in 2013, it was as an escape from what was going on in my family, as my Mom’s condition battling Alzheimer’s Disease deteriorated. I became sucked in, and when RAW or SmackDown was on, I wasn’t thinking about anything else. As I became more and more interested in what was going on behind the curtain, trying to apply what I’d learned through writing and theatre training, I realized how hard it is to relegate the fan in me to the back burner and try to view the product with an educated eye. I tried to watch, read, or listen to anything I could that was being presented by individuals with decades of experience in the business, and marry in with what I knew myself about live performance and story writing.

All of this came to a head last night. I started at 8pm EST, watching the hour-long Tough Enough preview that aired on the WWE Network to introduce the audience to the 13 participants. It was a well put-together program, not only giving us insight into the contestants, but also into the perspective of the coaches and why those 13 people were chosen, as well as what personal obstacles they would have to overcome. I followed that up with an episode of The Steve Austin Show podcast, and The Ross Report podcast, both of whom took a significant amount of time to reflect on the passing of the American Dream, Dusty Rhodes.

I won’t get into memorializing Dusty, if for no other reason than I’m not sure I could make it through writing about him without breaking down into tears. They’ve shown the same video package on the PPV, Monday’s episode of RAW and all over the Network, and I still cry every time. What I think was most important about what Austin and JR had to say about Dusty, besides all of his accolades, his promos, his style, the kind of father he was…the thing that stood out to me was how he had dedicated his life to the industry. Even after his in-ring career was over, he began to work with the next generation. None of the tweets or blog posts about Dusty were more moving than those posted by the kids down in NXT, who were being supported, tested, encouraged, and pushed by Dusty. What a gift for them to have him as a resource as they begin their careers in WWE.

As I listened to Austin and JR (who, in particular, I love to hear break down matches and booking on The Ross Report) talk about what Dusty offered to the younger generation, my thoughts wandered to the crop of contestants on Tough Enough, who will never work with him. And then I thought, as I often do, how lucky they are that wrestlers are offered so many opportunities to get into the business today. As someone who knows her body could never withstand the demands of an in-ring career (nor have I ever aspired to have such a career) I know there are no clear paths for a writer in professional wrestling. There are no camps, no reality shows, no schools. There is only the individual, blessed with whatever talents they may possesses, and the product. That is why I continue to struggle each week to balance out the fan with the writer and the analyst. I remember every time I get excited about a story line, whether I am thrilled or furious, that the story is successful, because the only thing in professional wrestling that is poison is silence. I continue to study those whose careers I admire, and try to break down story lines and promos to understand the method behind the madness. Dusty is known for his brilliant promos – an art form many say was inherently a part of him – but one can sit and watch his “Hard Times” promo and see the things that made it connect with fans besides his natural charisma. There was a cadence, a rhythm to the way he spoke, a natural and sometimes barely noticeable rhyme scheme that made his words easy to remember and repeat. It’s these things that I try to write down, do remember, and hopefully use in the future, should an opportunity ever present itself.

Some WWE fans just want to be fans. They live their lives, raise their families, and remain loyal from their seats in the 12th row or on their couches. Some fans hope to one day be the guy with the belt. I am a pro-wrestling and sports entertainment fan who one day hopes to be Dusty Rhodes – not the Dusty with the Bionic Elbow, or the one in the polka dots, but the man sitting in promo class, helping to develop the next generation of talent. The Dusty with the book, the guy giving Steve Austin a chance in WCW. So that’s what I’m going to keep working towards, that’s what this blog is all about. Nothing worth having has ever been easy, but that’s what makes it special. One day, I’ll get there. But until then, that’s my American Dream.

-The Lady J Says