Theater of the Absurd: A Brief Hustle Retrospective

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

Comic elements have featured regularly in Western pro wrestling for many decades. While presented seriously in its early decades (1890s-1930s), pro wrestling began increasingly featuring comedic angles or performers, perhaps first widely popularized by Gorgeous George, whose campy, prissy persona transgressed gender boundaries and expectations, infuriating most male and intriguing many, though certainly not all, female fans. By most accounts, Vince K. McMahon is a big fan of comedy in wrestling, and the WWF/WWE has regularly featured comedic characters, promos, and angles since the mid-1980s, from The Rock’s over-the-top promos, heavily laced with humorous verbal jabs at his rivals, to wacky heels such as The Genius (Lanny Poffo), who few, if any, fans could possibly have viewed as a serious threat to top babyfaces.

However comedic the WWF/E could be at times, McMahon’s circus does not hold a candle to Hustle, a Japanese promotion that took comedy in pro wrestling to bizarre, wonderfully absurd new heights from 2004 to 2010.

I was bogged down with a seemingly insurmountable mountain of work in grad school when Hustle debuted in 2004, and didn’t really have the opportunity to watch many shows. I was certainly aware of the promotion, and its bizarre angles and characters certainly intrigued me, but grad school has a way of superseding all else in one’s life. Finally, in 2017, I decided to rectify that, and have been watching the entire run of Hustle shows, from 2004 to 2010.

What I’ve discovered is a promotion that offered an alternative venue for many well-known Japanese wrestlers to present themselves in an entirely different, over-the-top fashion, as well as a forum for non-wrestlers such as Hard Gay and Yinling the Erotic Terrorist to become superstars both in and out of the ring.

Many of Hustle’s angles and characters challenged the conventional norms not only of pro wrestling, Japanese and otherwise, but of Japanese society more broadly. This essay will provide an overview and analysis of some of the promotion’s most famous angles and characters, in hopes of arriving at a clearer understanding of Hustle’s uniquely Japanese presentation and appeal.

Brief History

Hustle began as a side project of its parent company, Dream State Entertainment (DSE), which was much better known globally for its mixed martial arts promotion, PRIDE. PRIDE revolutionized mixed martial arts, beginning with its first show in 1997,[1] by offering a more spectacular presentation of a sport still largely in its infancy. PRIDE featured most of the world’s foremost fighters at one point or another, including numerous members of the legendary Gracie family from Brazil, Russian phenomenon Fedor Emelianenko, future UFC stars such as Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Antonio “Minotauro” Nogueira, and “The Axe Murderer” Wanderlei Silva, as well as a regular smattering of “freak show”[2] fighters, usually pro wrestlers looking for a big payday despite the high probability of losing.

Overall, PRIDE was a critical and financial success, and widely regarded by MMA fans as the best promotion in the world in its heyday. Ultimately, PRIDE was undone by scandal: persistent rumors of yakuza investment and involvement in the company led to the loss of its television deal with Fuji TV in 2007 and subsequent sale to Zuffa, the parent company of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), on May 25, 2007.

Hustle was launched by DSE in 2004 as a “sister” promotion to PRIDE, but it was drastically different in content and character, if not completely dissimilar in presentation. Former pro wrestler and (largely unsuccessful) MMA fighter Nobuhiko Takada and PRIDE referee Yuji Shimada took on the bulk of the creative duties, with the idea of presenting Western-style “entertainment” wrestling that contrasted sharply not only with their sister promotion’s (mostly) real fights, but with the typically-serious, sport-like presentation of pro wrestling in most Japanese promotions. Beginning with Hustle 1 (January 4, 2004) at Saitama Super Arena, a regular PRIDE venue, the central “storyline” in Hustle was the conflict between a babyface alliance, the Hustle Army, and the Monster Army, led by Generalissimo Takada (the aforementioned booker), clad in an outrageous costume clearly inspired by M. Bison from Street Fighter II.

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Figure 1: Generalissimo Takada. Image credit: Andrew Quentin, Flickr.

The narrative structure of the shows resembled episodes of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, in the sense that they often began with Takada and his cronies, including wrestler and (largely unsuccessful) MMA fighter Yoji Anjo, in their smoky, purple-hued lair, plotting the demise of the babyfaces. As in Power Rangers, this usually involved commissioning the “monster of the week” to take down top babyfaces such as former IWGP (New Japan’s top belt) heavyweight champion Shinya Hashimoto and Naoya Ogawa. Following the conclusion of most shows’ main events, Takada would appear with his Monster Army on a balcony or entranceway to “Pomp and Circumstance,” the entrance theme for both Gorgeous George and Macho Man Randy Savage, taunting and threatening the babyfaces, setting the stage for the next show in the process.

Hustle 1’s main event saw Bill Goldberg defeat Ogawa, a former judo silver medalist who had wrestled for New Japan and fought for PRIDE (though I and many others doubt their legitimacy) and had, until Hustle, largely been presented as a serious “shooter.” In Hustle, Ogawa and former New Japan nemesis Hashimoto were akin to wacky, mismatched buddy cops, with extensive backstage skits, serving as co-leaders of Hustle’s babyfaces until Hashimoto’s sudden death from a brain aneurysm in 2004. Subsequent early Hustle shows would see foreign “monsters” such as MMA fighters Mark Coleman and Kevin Randleman, nWo founding members Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, and various other high-profile foreigners[3] pitted against Ogawa, Hashimoto, and their allies. Entering 2005, Hustle began relying less on high-profile foreign talent in favor of Japan-based performers.

Yinling and Hard Gay

In 2005, two of the most unusual and unlikely main event stars took Hustle by storm. First, Generalissimo Takada introduced a whip-toting disciplinarian woman, Yinling-sama (in Japanese, “-sama” is an honorific suffix usually used when addressing an elder or superior) who bullied and terrorized his other lackeys and threatened the babyfaces. Yinling (Taiwan-born, Japan-based model Yan Yinling) was not a pro wrestler, but rather a self-styled “erotic terrorist” who had featured in photoshoots that drew heavily from communist military and propaganda imagery, featuring her toting guns and wearing skimpy versions of military uniforms. She had also dabbled in pop music, forming the JOYTOY duo with her photographer.

Yinling’s persona and performances were heavily sexualized and steeped in BDSM imagery, and her presence had absolutely nothing to do with her (non-existent) in-ring abilities. While she occasionally “wrestled,” usually in tag matches that would see her whip an opponent repeatedly before squatting on his or her chest for the pinfall, her most notable work was in lengthy promos that typically ended in her leading a “monster” countdown that ended in her squatting on a rotating platform, with unsubtle camera zooms on her crotch. This was a heel response to the babyfaces ending their promos by doing the “hustle” along with most of the audience. Much like the sexualized presentation of women in Western pro wrestling in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Yinling’s presence depended primarily on her status as a sexual object, at least on the surface.

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Figure 2: Yinling. Credit: Hustle Official Website.

I would, however, argue that Yinling was much more than a sexual object for male gratification. While that was certainly part of the presentation, she was also presented as assertive and intimidating, with both her fellow heels and babyfaces reacting fearfully to her whip-swinging and angry, aggressive promos. In Takada’s Monster Army, she was clearly second-in-command, ordering underlings around with an air of confidence and superiority. Perhaps owing to Hustle’s complete departure from the sporting conventions of puroresu, most main event feuds and storylines from 2005 to 2008 featured her prominently, despite her lack of in-ring ability, and she consistently elicited some of the strongest fan reactions throughout her run. Traditionally, women in puroresu were presented as serious competitors in separate joshi promotions such as All Japan Women and ARSION, and never used as eye candy, as was so often the case in the United States.

Furthermore, mixed-gender tag matches were practically nonexistent in Japan, further adding to the novelty of featuring Yinling against mostly-male opponents in tag and (on rare occasions) singles contests. Her angles were both among the most bizarre and memorable in the history of Hustle. For example, she once laid an egg that eventually hatched into the babyface “Newling,” her “daughter,” who was (of course) Yinling in a slightly different-style costume (complete with horns). After Newling was “killed” by a laser shot by The Esperanza (Takada as a supernaturally-gifted, zombie-like monster), Yinling returned. In a 2007 tag match against the legendary Great Muta, the latter sprayed his notorious green mist into her crotch, causing her to lay yet another egg, which would later hatch as her and Muta’s “son,” American-born retired sumo Chad “Akebono” Rowan (wrestling as “Monster Bono”), and the three were featured as a family unit until her “son” accidentally splashed and “killed” her in a match on May 24, 2008, marking the end of her short but memorable pro-wrestling career.

For much of Yinling’s run in Hustle, one of her primary babyface rivals was Razor Ramon Hard Gay, often referred to in Hustle as “HG.”[4] I’ve spent nearly my entire life watching pro wrestling from around the world, and Hard Gay is probably the most unusual and unlikely babyface I’ve ever seen. Like Yinling, Hard Gay was not a seasoned pro wrestler; he was a comedian named Masaki Sumitani, who had gained a great deal of media attention and success through his most famous character, whose name was of course partly inspired by Scott Hall’s WWF character Razor Ramon. Sumitani was a wrestling fan who had dabbled in independent wrestling, but had become a media sensation as Hard Gay, who would, in the vein of Sasha Baron Cohen’s Borat or Bruno characters, ambush unsuspecting people with his outlandish appearance and behavior.

Hard Gay typically wore leather or PVC short shorts with matching vest and cap, a parody of gay fetish subculture (or at least Sumitani’s take on it; he evidently frequented gay BDSM clubs while creating the character). A typical Hard Gay sketch, featured on various Japanese variety shows, would involve him approaching random strangers and offering some sort of assistance, such as carrying grocery bags or volunteering as a waiter at a ramen noodle shop. Of course, his kindly assistance was usually accompanied by campy gestures and frequent pelvic thrusts, resulting in a broad range of uncomfortable reactions from his unwitting targets. Sumitani himself was not gay, and the Hard Gay character, which led to a great deal of mainstream attention and success, drew understandably significant criticism for its extremely stereotypical and potentially detrimental portrayal of homosexual men.

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Figure 3: Razor Ramon HG. Credit: Andrew Quentin, Flickr.

A 2006 article in The Japan Times noted that public reactions to Hard Gay were extremely mixed. One openly gay man noted his disappointment that HG was not actually gay, meaning he was essentially “making fun of us.” Others saw HG as a “funny” and positive figure, through his acts (silly though they were) of kindness and “masculine” portrayal. The latter may sound odd to a Western reader, but in Japan, gay men are often portrayed as feminine “drag queens.” You may also wonder how any Japanese homosexuals could view HG as a positive figure, but Japanese society has remained far less tolerant of open homosexuality, particularly among men, than many Western societies. In such a context, even a ridiculous parody like HG who, despite his wacky behavior, comes across as kind and sincere in his treatment of others, could be understood by some as a positive depiction of a homosexual man. Of course, others interviewed in the article expressed their disappointment that HG’s popularity essentially meant that mainstream Japanese society viewed gay men exclusively as objects of derision, to be laughed at rather than accepted and acknowledged.[5]

In Hustle, Hard Gay debuted largely as a foil for Yinling. Unlike Yinling, however, he developed into a very competent worker, possibly due to his previous experience as a small-time independent wrestler. Hard Gay entered the ring to Ricky Martin’s hit song “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” and quickly became the most over babyface in the company. Using moves such as the “69 Driver,” a tombstone piledriver preceded by pelvic thrusts to his opponents’ faces, HG was an overnight sensation. He was generally smaller than the other male wrestlers, allowing him to play the sympathetic babyface in most matches. Not only did he consistently receive the biggest pops of any wrestler in the company, but fans began dressing like him, with some going so far as to dress their young children in similar costumes. At Hustle 14 on March 5, 2006, Hustle made light of Hard Gay’s critics, featuring him in a tag match against the “PTA,” masked wrestlers dressed in conservative female pantsuits, while HG entered accompanied by a large group of children wearing his signature cap and shades. In 2006, presumably operating from the premise that one can never have too much of a good thing, Hustle debuted Sumitani’s friend and fellow comedian Makoto Izubuchi as the comically-awful Real Gay (RG), whose in-ring character was depicted as completely outmatched and inept.

At the first Hustlemania (November 23, 2006), HG faced Takada’s alter ego, The Esperanza, in a main event that was arguably, at least in my own viewing, the most theatrical pro-wrestling match of all time. The Esperanza no-sold everything, and used telekinetic powers to flip and throw wrestlers without touching them, and HG seemed destined to lose until Newling appeared at the entrance stage, playing an ocarina that, for some reason, rendered The Esperanza vulnerable to HG’s offense. Finally, Takada’s cronies attacked Newling and stole her ocarina, allowing The Esperanza to point his index finger at her from the ring and “kill” her with an invisible laser beam. As a mic-wearing Yoshihiro Tajiri, who had been madly in love with Newling, cradled her “dead” body and lamented her demise from the stage, The Esperanza regained his invulnerability and quickly dispatched HG. Never in his wildest dreams could Vince McMahon have presented such an operatic main event,[6] which thoroughly blurred the lines between ring and stage.

Flipping the Script

Throughout its existence, Hustle offered opportunities for wrestlers who had achieved fame in other promotions to experiment with radically different characters and presentations. I’ve already mentioned the “shooter” Takada’s transformation into the Generalissimo, countered by Naoya Ogawa’s transformation into “Captain Hustle,” occasionally wearing a wacky Elvis-style white jumpsuit. Up and down the card, one could find other instances of wrestlers exploring their previously-unseen comedic sides.

All Japan Pro Wrestling legend Toshiaki Kawada featured prominently in Hustle, first as himself, then as the heel “Monster K.” Kawada is widely regarded as one of the best Japanese workers of all time, having been a major star in the All Japan main event scene in the mid-to-late-1990s alongside Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi, Jun Akiyama, and Akira Taue, and competing in numerous (for what it’s worth) five-star matches, according to Dave Meltzer. Throughout his career, Kawada was portrayed as a serious, stoic figure whose stiff strikes and moves spoke for themselves. His serious persona served as an amusing foil for HG and others, who tried unsuccessfully to get him to join their increasingly elaborate group “hustle” dance. In 2006, Kawada occasionally opened Hustle shows clad in a tuxedo, singing (terribly off-key) Sinatra-esque ballads, to the delight and amusement of fans who had never seen him do anything remotely silly in his lengthy career.

Another dramatic departure from the norm came from female wrestling legends Aja Kong (Erika Shishido) and Amazing Kong (Kia Stevens, also known as Awesome Kong in TNA/Impact). Both women had been presented throughout their careers as ruthless monsters who dominated their usually-smaller opponents, but their characters in Hustle were a far cry from the unstoppable bullies they’d portrayed elsewhere. In Hustle, Aja Kong became Erica and Amazing Kong became Margaret. They wore bright, “girly” dresses (Erica in pink, Margaret in yellow), and would frequently skip to the ring and parody typical kawaii (cute) schoolgirl mannerisms, such as giggling frequently and displaying mock shock and outrage at opponents’ aggression. It should be noted, however, that most of their matches were against men, a rarity in Japanese wrestling, but a useful way to transform wrestlers who typically portrayed larger bullies into smaller, sympathetic babyface underdogs.

Figures 4 & 5: Erica and Margaret. Credit: Official Hustle Website.

Conclusion

Not only did Hustle allow wrestlers to develop radically different personas, but it also presented novel spectacles to Japanese fans unaccustomed to certain elements common in Western pro wrestling, such as short matches,[7] intergender bouts, general managers a la RAW and Smackdown, extensive backstage skits, and in-ring promos. The prominent presence of women in assertive, authoritative roles (most notably Yinling, but a kimono-clad Hiroko Suzuki[8] also served as heel General Manager in 2005-2006), despite the heavy reliance on their sex -appeal, offered a strong contrast to the near-complete absence of women in major non-joshi Japanese promotions.

Hustle was not the first (or last) Japanese wrestling promotion to present Western-style “entertainment” wrestling; Frontier Martial Arts Wrestling (FMW), formerly known best for its extreme hardcore matches featuring barb-wire and explosions, presented a series of outlandish characters and angles in the late 1990s, including an “Ass Explosion Death Match” between Hayabusa and Mr. Gannosuke and a cigarette-smoking, white underwear-clad heel faction called Team No Respect. Dramatic Dream Team (DDT, 1997-present), a successful indie promotion, has also relied heavily on comical “entertainment” elements and wrestlers throughout its existence, such as comedy wrestler Danshoku Dino (whose antics as a gay stereotype are often far more outlandish than HG’s in Hustle) and internet sensation Joey Ryan, who flips opponents with his penis.

Neither FMW nor DDT approached Hustle’s mainstream success, however, partly due to the latter’s backing from DSE. Of course, DSE and PRIDE’s demise in 2007 marked the beginning of the end for Hustle as well. There were various efforts to keep the promotion afloat, but Hustle folded in October 2010. Despite some characters and angles of questionable taste, Hustle was a bold experiment in pushing the boundaries of “sports entertainment,” crossing lines even McMahon’s WWE/F rarely approached at the height of the Attitude Era, at times blurring the distinction between wrestling and theater.[9]

Hustle certainly isn’t for all wrestling fans, but if you’re in the mood for excess wackiness, over-the-top characters, and grand theatricality in your pro wrestling, it’s definitely worth checking out. There are quite a few clips on YouTube, though unfortunately there are no official releases to be had in the United States outside of the old “tape trading” networks/sharing with other fans.

[1] They probably left out the “Razor Ramon” part due to copyright concerns.

[2] Eric Prideaux, “Hard Gay: Is this really just good fun?” The Japan Times, March 19, 2006, accessed November 27, 2017, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2006/03/19/to-be-sorted/is-this-really-just-good-fun/.

[3] An incredibly diverse range of performers that included Cactus Jack (Mick Foley), Tiger Jeet Singh, Rikishi, and Giant Silva.

[4] The first four PRIDE shows were promoted by Kakotougi Revolutionary Spirits (KRS). DSE’s first PRIDE event was PRIDE 5, on April 29, 1999.

[5] I.E., individuals who really had no business participating in a legitimate fight.

[6] Such as the aforementioned egg-laying, laser-shooting, and telekinesis.

[7] Most Hustle matches were ten minutes or less, since the emphasis was more on storylines and characters, supplemented by lengthy in-ring promos and backstage skits. This was itself a departure from the norm in puroresu, where main events often lasted and continue to last thirty minutes or more.

[8] She also served as a valet for her husband, Kenzo Suzuki, in his brief 2004-2005 WWE run.

[9] Indeed, in many of its promotional materials, Hustle was referred to as a “Fighting Opera.”

Comparing NXT’s WarGames To Its Predecessors

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

WWE finally took its first shot at WarGames at NXT Takeover: WarGames. The War Games concept was originally dreamed up by the American Dream Dusty Rhodes after watching Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. It started off as two teams of five that would collide in two rings surrounded by a steel cage with a roof. One member from each team would start and usually after 5 minutes and a coin toss someone new would come in the match.  It was usually the heel team that would have the advantage and the only way to win the match was by submission after both teams were in the cage.

The original War Games matches often featured the Four Horsemen with manager JJ Dillon as a combatant and the opposing team was often led by Dusty and would feature The Road Warriors, Magnum TA, or other babyfaces in Jim Crockett Promotions. The matches were bloody affairs that would usually end with JJ Dillon submitting for the Horsemen so none of the wrestlers ended up looking weak. Most of the early matches are still looked upon with high regard.

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Image Credit: Screen Cap from War Games 07-04-87 via WWE Network

The match would undergo some changes. In 1993 WCW switched from teams of 5 to teams of 4. The biggest change was done in 1998 with the match being contested by 3 teams of 3: Team NWO Hollywood, Team NWO Wolfpack, and Team WCW. The match could be won by submission OR pinfall and had the added element of being every man for himself since the winner of the match got a WCW Heavyweight title shot.

The match was poorly received, but not as poorly received as the match in 2000. This match used the triple cage that was introduced earlier that year, and also featured in the film Ready to Rumble. The winner would have to climb to the top cage, retrieve the Heavyweight title, and walk out of the cage with it. The match was booked by Vince Russo, if that gives you any indication of how overbooked the match was, and it’s not usually looked at as an official War Games match.

So the big question is did the match at NXT Takeover measure up to the originals?

I personally feel that it does. The match did take a little bit to get going, but once everyone was in the cage, it was a spectacle. The lack of roof was a little strange at first, but the roof always seemed to limit the moves that could be done and actually led to Brian Pillman legitimately getting knocked out in 1991 when Sid Vicious went for a powerbomb and he wasn’t able to get Pillman all the way up and ended up dropping him on his head. Sid went for it again, which also yielded close to the same result. The match was stopped shortly afterward.

The use of weapons was a great throwback as well. In 1992 Madusa climbed up to the top of the cage to drop Paul E Dangerously’s cellphone into the ring to be used as a weapon. This match also featured the turnbuckles being disassembled and used as a weapon in the finish of the match so the new match wasn’t the first to feature weapons.

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Image Credit: Screen Cap from War Games 05-21-92 via WWE Network

The NXT version of the match also relied on a little bit of intrigue like in 1996. That match had the NWO line-up of Hollywood Hogan, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and a mystery 4th man who they hinted would be Sting. Team WCW was Ric Flair, Arn Anderson, Lex Luger, and Sting. Before the match Sting had to convince his allies that he was on their side. They weren’t convinced, and when it came time for the 4th member of the NWO to come out, it appeared to be Sting.

When the time came for the final WCW member to come out, it was the real Sting who laid out the NWO single handedly before leaving the match. Roderick Strong seemed to be the odd man for his team and the Undisputed Era did offer to take him in. Strong did turn them down on a previous episode of NXT, but I know I was waiting for the turn to happen and was actually relieved that it didn’t. Instead he superplexed Adam Cole from the top of the cage.

The match wasn’t quite as bloody as previous ones, but it did have blood after SAnitY’s Alexander Wolfe hit a German Suplex from the top-rope that took him and Akam from the Authors of Pain through tables. Eric Young appeared to suffer a cut on his nose as well. When the match was over all nine men laid in the ring to sell the damage of the match, even the Undisputed Era who were the victors.

The match wasn’t a sprint of violence like 1992, but it wasn’t disorganized and kind of boring like 1998. As far as it being WWE’s first crack at this match, it was great. They had the right people involved in this match, and I’m looking forward to seeing this be a signature NXT match if it’s not used on the main roster.

Header Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/wwenxt/nxt-takeover-wargames-2017-11-18/gallery/nxt-takeover-wargames-photos%20#fid-40185648

War Games Revisited

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

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My first encounter with a War Games match came back in the early nineties.  I can remember it well, even after all these years. I’d ensconced myself in the little attic bedroom at the top of the house, gathered around me a generous supply of feasting materials, and settled down to watch something new and exotic – The 1989 Great American Bash.

I can’t begin to tell you how excited I was. This wasn’t WWF; it was WCW[1], and all I knew about WCW was that it wasn’t WWF. Tearing open my first bag of Space Raiders, I crammed the borrowed videotape in to the VCR player I had surreptitiously liberated from the downstairs living room, pressed play, and hunkered down for a three-hour escape into the world of professional wrestling.

At first, though, I was confused. Was the friend who’d lent me the tape having a laugh? Was this a documentary? Why was I looking at a field – with horses – and why did the outside of the arena bear more than a passing resemblance to a factory? Suddenly, I was worried. Was this all going to end in disappointment? Had I got my hopes up for nothing? I thought I might have, until the opening video package kicked in to reveal some well-trodden territory, and just like that, I was back on track.

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Image credit: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/522a2049e4b0a0ce717e990c/t/551f1a01e4b0ab9c8e2b7573/1428101633846/

Pulling the ring on can of Diet Coke, I revelled in the graphically rendered stars and stripes that crisscrossed the screen and peered hard at the little floating parallelograms of wrestling action that whizzed on by to the rousing wail of guitar based rock. This was what I’d expected. A world of professional wrestling, with it’s larger than life denizens, who inhabited such distant lands as Baltimore, Maryland[2].

Yet, for all that was familiar to me from my regular WWF viewing, already so much seemed so different. Everything was less colorful somehow – muted almost – although, to be fair, I was watching on a fourteen-inch black and white portable TV, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that from the get go, things appeared less vibrant, more, dare I say it, raw. Then it was into the arena and down to the rings.

Wait, rings?

While the two rings were certainly surprising, surprisingly, this wasn’t what surprised me most. What surprised me most was the gloom. It seemed to wrap everything up in a shroud of mystery. All that I could see clearly were the rings, and maybe the first few rows of fans opposite the hard-cam. Everything else was composed of, at best, shadowy outlines, and at worst, impenetrable darkness.

This contrast didn’t change as the camera switched to a fan point-of-view and then out to a slow pan of the entrance area. Everything, apart from the ring, was still an enigma. Even the entryway seemed dark and foreboding. Flooded with blue and purple light, the wrestlers emerged for the first bout as if from nowhere. Where once there had been darkness, figures began to materialize, first as distant shadows, before slowly resolving to full illumination. It was as if these men had emerged from the dark hinterland that surrounded rings. It was as if they had crossed over from that unformed space beyond the light, as if they had emerged from the very shadows and stepped in to the world of wrestling.

Even when the house lights came up, the contrast remained pronounced. A few more rows of fans became visible, but for the most part, there was the ringside area and the darkness beyond. As a young viewer, this dynamic drew me in toward the action in the rings. I was a part of the audience, invited in to view the world of wrestling but forever confined to the shadowy and somehow distant space beyond. Or so I thought.

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Image credit: http://thumbs.media.net.wwe.com/wwe/2017/05/30/images/wwef_36923151_th_64.jpg

Returning now, in 2017, to the 1989 Great American Bash, I’m drawn to Claude Lévi-Strauss’s notion of binary opposition to explain my experience of that aesthetic (Dundes, 1997). For me, the narrative of the event, and my entrance into that event, was driven by the juxtaposition of the binary opposites of, as Roland Barthes (1972) would suggest, the great solar spectacle of the wrestling ring and the surrounding gloom.

It was this oppositional reading of the space in which the fans existed against the space in which the wrestlers existed that allowed me to construct meaning. The wrestlers were elevated to a special world, the world of wrestling, while the rest of us (including me in my little attic room) were kept from this space. Here, the wrestlers were amplified, luminous and dynamic[3]. The spectators, by contrast, were mostly static, sitting in rows behind a barrier and often in shadow.

The gaze of the wrestlers and the spectators worked in binary opposition too. As a young boy watching the TV, my gaze was primarily focused on the wrestlers. So too were the spectators in the arena. The gaze of the wrestlers, by comparison, was primarily focused on their opponent. Again, this distanced me from the special world of wrestling. I was there to consume it, not be a part of it. I was necessarily on the outside looking in. The construction of the narrative did not lead me to perceive myself as bodily co-present with the performers. It led me to perceive myself as apart from them.

Then came the War Games match, and suddenly this opposition shifted.

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Image credit: http://i.imgur.com/J6HCvTz.gif

By the virtue of a camera operator being stationed inside the double cage and between the two rings, no longer was I excluded from the space of the world of wrestling, but rather I was immersed amidst it. The oppositions were shifting, but only for me. The live audience was still bound to their spatial plain beyond the world of wrestling, but, from my little attic room at the top of the house, I had now entered that cage with the wrestlers. I was in the world of wrestling. Just like the wrestlers who had emerged from the gloomy hinterland, I too had now transcended to the light to become bodily co-present with the very world I’d been excluded from only moments ago.

It wasn’t a permanent transcendence, however. It was only fleeting and transitory. One moment I was in the ring, as Jimmy Garvin raked Bobby Eaton’s face across the mesh of the cage, the next, I was cast out. Sent back to the audience and set apart from that special world. That was okay with me though. Those little moments were enough. Those brief instances of privilege, where it was just me and wrestlers in the ring had transformed an event that had at first accentuated my distance from the wrestling world to one that had immersed me in that hallowed space more than anything I’d experienced before.

I remember feeling a sense of sorrow when the War Games match came to an end and the cage was removed with the main event still to come. When Ric Flair faced Terry Funk for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, I’d expected to be back on the outside looking in, and for the most part I was, until the binary oppositions shifted once more.

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Image credit: http://thumbs.media.net.wwe.com/wwe/2017/05/30/images/wwef_36923171_th_64.jpg

After Flair had won the match, the fight continued, spilling into the crowd, with the brawl expanding to include the Great Muta, Sting, and Gary Hart. Soon, all five men crossed over into the space of the of the audience. No longer were the wrestlers set in opposition to the spectators; now they inhabited the same space. No longer were the wrestlers amplified, and luminous in contrast to the audience; now they were often in shadow. No longer were the wrestlers solely those who were dynamic; now the space of the wrestling world had converged with the space of the audience and I too had been invited back in via the roving camera operator, and the experience had been exhilarating.

It was with memories of this level of immersion in the text that I approached the 2017 NXT TakeOver: WarGames, some twenty-eight or so years later. Initially, I had planned to discuss in this posting how and why the aesthetic changes that have occurred on the surface of professional wrestling pay-per-view events have impacted on storytelling; however, within moments of streaming the NXT TakeOver: WarGames event, I was struck by how much hadn’t changed at all. Okay, so maybe the floating parallelograms were gone, but there were still two rings. There was still the opening video package, with clips of wrestling action and shots of downtown. There was still the generic guitar-based rock theme, and there was still, for me at least, the sense of something a bit different.

So, what do I mean by that? Well, while NXT is a part of WWE, it is also an entity in its own right. It’s distinct. There is a purposeful separation between NXT and the other brands of WWE, and this separation strikes me as more pronounced than the separation between Raw and Smackdown Live. This differentiation is especially evident in the visual aesthetic of the brand. Like the WCW of all those years ago, NXT seems to be less vibrant in color palette than the other brands of WWE. The dark grey, if not charcoal, canvas is a marked signifier of this tonal shift, much like the dark canvas utilized in the 1989 Great American Bash. It stands out. It makes thing different, more gritty somehow.

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Image credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/wwenxt/nxt-takeover-wargames-2017-11-18/gallery/nxt-takeover-wargames-photos#fid-40185652

The aesthetic binary oppositions of the world of wrestling are, I would also argue, more pronounced in NXT too. While the wrestlers – or should I now say sports entertainers – no longer emerge from the gloom of a dark and foreboding entrance way (except for maybe Lars Sullivan), the dark once more enshrouds the NXT audience, clearly delineating the brightly lit world of wrestling from the dark space around it. This, of course, can be read in opposition to other WWE pay-per-view events, or indeed, Raw or Smackdown Live, where the WWE Universe is often celebrated in full light, showcasing the full or near full arenas as a testament to the popularity of the WWE product. It’s another level of differentiation. In NXT the audience, for the most part is hidden, and for me, this begs the question –  just who exactly is sitting out there?

In this way, I found that the dark visual aesthetics of NXT TakeOver: WarGames again distanced me from the special world of wrestling, and maybe even the audience. I was once more there to consume it, not be a part of it. I was necessarily back on the outside looking in. Again, the construction and aesthetic of the narrative did not lead me to perceive myself as bodily co-present with the performers. It led me to perceive myself as apart from them. Even with the on screen paratextual prompts to engage with discussion about my consumption with other members of the WWE Universe (obviously unavailable to WCW in the late eighties), I was encouraged to discuss and share my experience, not participate.

Much like the 1989 Great American Bash, only in the WarGames match itself did this aesthetic of exclusion give way and allow the viewer to transcend the binary limitations of the audience to become bodily co-present in the wrestling world. Once more, I was invited in to the wrestling world to stand shoulder to shoulder with the denizens of NXT. Once more, the live audience remained bound to their spatial plain beyond the world of wrestling; but for me, as a viewer, I was back in that cage with the wrestlers. I was bodily co-present again. I was right there in the ring when Roderick Strong superplexed Adam Cole into the assembled masses of humanity, and dare I say it again, it all just felt a little more raw than Raw.

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Image credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/wwenxt/nxt-takeover-wargames-2017-11-18/gallery/nxt-takeover-wargames-photos#fid-40185657

So, as I sat there, no longer in the attic room at the top of my parents’ house but in the living room of my own house, no longer watching on a fourteen-inch black and white portable TV, but watching on a fifty-inch LED smart TV, I had expected much to have changed. Yet on the surface of the text, and most notably in the visual aesthetics, I found that, at least with NXT TakeOver: WarGames, not much had, and truth be told, that made me happy. It was just a shame there wasn’t a big in-crowd ‘schmoz’ ending.

Works Cited

Barthes, R. (1972). Mythologies. (A. Lavers, Trans.) New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Dundes, A. (1997). Binary Opposition in Myth: The Propp/Lévi-Strauss Debate in Retrospect. Western Folklore, 56(1), 39-50.

Notes

[1] This was in fact Jim Crocket Promotions and the National Wrestling Alliance, but I didn’t know that till much later.

[2] I’m from Scotland, and at that point in my life I’d never even ventured so far as to cross the border into England, let alone Maryland.

[3] Although, for me, much less so than in the WWE.

NXT TakeOver: WarGames – The Past Is Prologue, The Future Is Bright

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

The emergence of NXT over the last few years as a major part of the WWE’s product line has perhaps been the company’s greatest success story. Far from its origins as an also-ran reality show, NXT has become the best pure enthusiast brand in the company, offering match-ups that bring the best and brightest stars of the indie circuit up alongside the company’s own homegrown talent – but most importantly, offering a level of consistency, logic, and coherency in storytelling the main roster brands struggle to attain.

It’s tempting, and probably fair, to chalk a lot of this up to NXT showrunner Triple H – certainly, the show often feels like the effort of a man using the vast resources of his in-laws to create a perfect wrestling sandbox – but the sum of NXT’s current identity owes perhaps even more to the work of the late Dusty Rhodes. Rhodes is of course known for his decades-long in-ring career and position as the focal point for some of the most important moments in pro wrestling history (seriously, go watch the “Hard Times” promo if you haven’t, or watch it again if you have), but in NXT he paired that with surprising pop culture savvy and a keen eye for trends. One foot in the past, one pointed forward toward the future.

And so it’s appropriate that the latest in an unbroken string of sterling NXT Takeover special events once again pays tribute to Rhodes by restaging one of Rhodes’ most unique contributions to the industry: the WarGames match. This is, of course, hardly the first time NXT has paid tribute to Rhodes – the brand holds an annual tag team tournament named in his honor – but WarGames is a particularly surprising return. It has been just a shade over 17 years since the last officially-branded match using the stipulation of two teams fighting in two rings surrounded by a steel cage, held in the now-defunct World Championship Wrestling promotion.

As a result, TakeOver: WarGames goes out of its way to remind you of the history behind the event, with vignettes showcasing vintage footage of the match and constant name-dropping of key figures associated with the match’s history. Pro wrestling works because it is built around the crafting of a synthetic narrative that grants merit and logic to the proceedings, and WWE often (re)writes that narrative to further its own bottom line – anything that the company cannot directly lay claim to by invention or purchase often gets pushed aside or ridiculed (the revisionist history around the Monday Night Wars being a key example). Hence, the lack of WarGames is explained very simply – it’s not a WWE thing, it’s not a McMahon thing, therefore in WWE kayfabe it is not a thing.

But here we are, not only not downplaying the role of NWA and WCW in the history of wrestling but celebrating it on a WWE broadcast meant to showcase the up and coming talent that will theoretically be the next wave of stars for the company. One foot in the past, one pointed toward the future.

Match #1: Kassius Ohno vs. Lars Sullivan

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We start off a show heavily trading in the legacy of pro wrestling with one of the most beautiful spectacles in all of sport (scripted or otherwise): a hoss fight. This one is between basketball jersey enthusiast Kassius Ohno and Lars Sullivan, a man announcer Mauro Ranallo calls “a Jack Kirby illustration come to life.” I don’t really see it myself, but it’s the first of at least two Marvel Comics references Mauro made in the show so the man is at least speaking my language.

The match itself was nothing special – no technical wizardry or flashiness, just some solid power spots and some surprising agility on Sullivan’s part. There was some decent enough storytelling – Ohno breaking through Sullivan’s seemingly impervious defense and sending the big man down was a nice moment sold well by the announcers (who were on-point throughout the night). Sullivan wins after hitting the Freak Accident and it was an okay, if bog standard opening match that left me questioning exactly where these guys (and Sullivan especially) fit into a company that has an overabundance of big guys who are hard to take down. It didn’t help that one of the night’s best matches came right after.

Match #2: Aleister Black vs. Velveteen Dream

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Watching Patrick Clark find his groove has been one of the best narratives of the past few months of WWE programming and it paid off handsomely in Houston. Clark was a bright spot in the otherwise dismal last season of Tough Enough, getting eliminated early in the competition despite his genuine knowledge of and passion for the business (and actual wrestling training). The Velveteen Dream gimmick, a sort of hypersexual but still PG pastiche of Prince and Rick Rude, was admittedly surprising, but he has inhabited and owned the role. The gimmick provides a fantastic contrast up against Aleister Black, a man who looks like every edgelord Create-A-Wrestler you’ve ever played online in WWE2K. I kid Black, though. The guy is a great performer and has an outstanding entrance that makes me wonder if he might potentially be a new frontrunner in the arms race to fill the void left by The Undertaker.

So here we have a match between two possible mega-stars playing characters diametrically opposed in concept working a brilliantly simple feud – Dream has simply been harassing Black, trying to get him to “say his name” and show respect Black doesn’t think Dream merits. Outside the text of kayfabe, it’s a metatextual battle for the soul of pro wrestling between gritty edginess and cartoonish camp, as illustrated by Dream’s opening salvo in the match of revealing Black’s face airbrushed on his tights.

There’s great psychology and storytelling throughout as both men try to get into each other’s heads, but there’s outstanding physicality as well – the match starts off with extended chain wrestling, Clark gets to show off some incredible athleticism with some outstanding springboards and a brutal modified DDT, and Black gets in some of his usual stiff strikes and a gorgeous crucifix-to-octopus hold combination. The match comes to a head as Dream stumbles to his feet and screams his own name in one last act of defiance before Black puts him away with the Black Mass. This was a star-making performance for both men and the payoff where Black finally gives Dream what he wants as he sneers “Enjoy infamy, Velveteen Dream” as a twisted, begrudging note of respect to his defeated foe was note-perfect. I loved everything about this match – sometimes the simplest stories are the best ones.

Match #3: Fatal Four Way (NXT Women’s Championship): Peyton Royce vs. Kairi Sane vs. Ember Moon vs. Nikki Cross

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Image credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/wwenxt/nxt-takeover-wargames-2017-11-18/gallery/nxt-takeover-wargames-photos#fid-40185617

In its modern incarnation, NXT has generally been a place where female talent can thrive (compared to the often-murky waters of the main roster), and its Women’s division has traditionally been one of the show’s highlights. However, it is also at a crossroads. How do you go from telling a story largely built around a seemingly indestructible champion (Asuka) to rebuilding after that champion is on to the main roster?

It helps when you have a division full of top-flight wrestlers and performers, of course. It’s hard to pick a better four competitors than the ones in this match, all of whom have a legitimate claim to be in the running thanks to smart long-term storytelling and mastery of their characters and in-ring roles. Those characters are a big part of why this match is so fun: Kairi Sane is a pirate princess (with the best elbow drop since Randy Savage), Peyton Royce is a Kardashian-adjacent social media star, Ember Moon may or may not be a werewolf, and Nikki Cross is an unhinged anarchist brawler. One of my standards for a good wrestling match was “does it sound like it would make a good movie if these characters fought each other”? This one does.

The match itself was outstanding, with plenty of the expected Fatal Four-way spots and one of the fastest paces of the night – all four women were in top gear out of the gate, with some of the best (and stiffest) offense of the night. Most of my notes for this match are in bold and all-caps, which says something about how good the match was – there wasn’t enough time to really reflect on nuance when another cool thing was around the corner. All four women got a chance to shine, but I must call out Sane especially for some innovative and clever spots, including one of my favorite moments of the night where she used Royce as a human weapon leading to a rare 2-for-1 elbow drop.

Usually in matches like this with three “legit” face competitors and one cowardly heel, the heel wins, leading Royce to be the most likely victor. That’s why I was legitimately surprised when Moon finally closed the loop and picked up the win, not only because it’s a long time in coming and well-deserved but also because it demonstrates that continuity and coherence that makes NXT shine. See, the last time Moon challenged for the title at a TakeOver, the story was that her Eclipse finisher (one of the most visually impressive, protected, and potentially dangerous spots in the division) was going to finally put Asuka away. While she hit Asuka with it in the match, the champion barely held on to retain. This time, not only does Moon hit it, she hits Cross and Royce with it at the same time and scores the win – a win that Asuka, the woman she couldn’t beat before, shares with her by handing her the title in front of a home state crowd. It’s a nice button on Moon’s entire arc so far, and really rewarding storytelling.

NXT has played a pivotal role in the legitimization of female wrestlers on WWE programming – the first-ever women’s match to headline a main WWE event took place at 2015’s NXT TakeOver: Respect, and former champ Asuka herself has one of the longest title reigns of any sort in modern WWE history. While some might argue this match isn’t quite in that that same historic space, it’s also hard to look at a match-up of four women of different ethnicities and nationalities, all of whom have clearly defined personalities and characterizations, and not marvel at how far the company has come and the clear mission statement it seems to be making for the future.

Match #4: Drew McIntyre vs. Andrade “Cien” Almas w/ Zelina Vega

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Image credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/wwenxt/nxt-takeover-wargames-2017-11-18/gallery/nxt-takeover-wargames-photos#fid-40185635

McIntyre and Almas are the names on the marquee, but make no mistake – this is Zelina Vega’s match.

That’s a bold statement, perhaps – especially considering that it’s hard not to read this match as a sort of redemption story for both men. Almas, née CMLL and New Japan’s La Sombra, came in with a ton of hype but floundered in his early face run, while Drew McIntyre was famously let go from the company only to be hired back after a particularly draining round of main roster call-ups. But Vega is on another level right now, acting both as a perfect mouthpiece for Almas and a secret weapon. Watch her get right in the face of McIntyre before the match starts – McIntyre is at least a good foot and a half taller, but Vega is absolutely the biggest force in the ring. She’s operating at near-Heyman levels.

That’s not to say McIntyre and Almas are any slouch. After two all-out spot fests, the pair starts with a slower, more traditional wrestling match that gives way to a faster second half highlighted by a blind moonsault to the outside from Almas. McIntyre moves faster than he looks and works as a perfect base for Almas’ style, so this is a great match-up.

But Vega, every bit Chekhov’s Manager on the outside, is a constant presence as the two battle it out – a fun white-meat babyface spot has McIntyre gently setting Vega back on the ring apron after a failed attempt at a hurracanrana, a spot that returns near the end as she hits a vicious spiked version of the move on him while Almas distracts the ref. It’s classic heel manager material with a progressive NXT twist, which makes the fact that it doesn’t work even more surprising as McIntyre goes on to take Almas out with a vicious kick that sends him spinning end-over-end in midair (only for Vega to help Almas get his foot on the ropes).

It all comes to an end as Almas hits a vicious-looking hanging DDT off the ropes for the win. What first felt like one of the least essential matches on the card ended up as a great showcase for two guys who needed it. Almas gets a little overzealous and accidentally drops the title during his post-match celebration before standing triumphant on the announce desk, but as the first Hispanic NXT champion, he’s more than earned the enthusiasm.

Match #5: Authors of Pain w/ Roderick Strong vs. SAnitY vs. The Undisputed Future (War Games)

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Image credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/wwenxt/nxt-takeover-wargames-2017-11-18/gallery/nxt-takeover-wargames-photos#fid-40185659

WarGames makes the show run longer than TakeOver normally does, but time flies when you’re having fun. The pomp and theater of pro wrestling is clear as sirens accompany the lowering the WarGames cage. Nigel McGuinness calls it “the most dangerous match in sports entertainment,” which is perhaps not quite the effective bit of rhetoric it seems when there are at least three or four other match types billed as such in the WWE canon. We get a nice little “bro-hug” between Arn Anderson and Dustin Rhodes before the match, which warmed my heart and got me through the incredibly lengthy explanation of how the match works – which I am reasonably certain is the longest match introduction in NXT history.

The structure of the traditional WarGames match is built around a two-team dynamic. Changing that dynamic for a triple threat match requires three teams equally at odds with each other for it to work. Because one team will by necessity get a numbers advantage early on, a partnership must be struck, and for it to have any narrative weight, it must be an unlikely one. While the face/heel lines are blurred here, NXT has been building to this since at least the last TakeOver with the introduction of the Undisputed Era faction of Ring of Honor alumni, and giving SAnitY and the Authors bad blood from their last tag champion match works well enough. There’s at least enough antagonism for the multiple arcs and rising and falling action in the match to make sense.

And from a narrative standpoint, each team is booked uniquely. The Authors get plenty of time to show off their powerhouse status, at one point throwing teammate Roderick Strong from one ring to another like a lawn dart in our second “human weapon” spot of the night. SAnitY, true to anarchist form, is the first team to introduce actual weapons to the match, highlighted by Alexander Wolfe’s introduction of the all-too-rare collapsible baton to the squared circle. The Undisputed Era plays the cowardly, cocky heel role to a T, including one particularly funny spot where Kyle O’Reilly misses with a chair shot that bounces off the ropes and hits him in the face.

With nine competitors and two rings, the match quickly devolves into beautifully orchestrated chaos that makes good use of the physical space. There’s almost too much to take in to recap, but Killian Dane established himself as a wrestler that operates almost outside of the reality established in kayfabe, taking out everyone else in the match with a cross body splash. The highlight in a match full of them is probably Strong’s suplex of Cole off the top of the cage, complete with a “please don’t die” chant from the crowd. Cole scores the win for his team by kneeing a chair into Eric Young’s head, but the entire match is a glorious throwback not only to past Wargames but also the spectacle of early ’00s WWE and ECW “hardcore” matches. Dave Meltzer called it the “best weapons match” of the year, and who am I to argue?

Final Thoughts

This is a legitimate contender for the best TakeOver ever, and certainly one of the most historically significant since 2015’s TakeOver: Respect. For all the ballyhoo and fanfare around the main event (well-deserved though it was), the real story isn’t there. It’s in the star-making, next-level performance of Velveteen Dream. It’s in the emotional payoff to Ember Moon’s long pursuit of the Women’s Championship. It’s in the giddy, genuine thrill of Andrade Almas waving the NXT Championship around his head. With Takeover: War Games, NXT continues the long march of WWE into a more inclusive tomorrow while still putting on an outstanding wrestling show for new and long-time fans. Dusty would be proud.

Header image credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/wwenxt/nxt-takeover-wargames-2017-11-18/gallery/nxt-takeover-wargames-photos#fid-40185620

WWE’s Survivor Series Dialogic Recap: The Art of Interbrand Manipulation

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

By Garret Castleberry and Kristine Weglarz

With Survivor Series headed to Houston, WWE once again experiments with the traditional team-up versus team-up formula. A couple of years ago, WWE completely abandoned the traditional four-on-four tag team format when the abrupt injury to WWE heel champion Seth Rollins led to a rushed together tournament designed to put the main title strap on a struggling Roman Reigns. Fast-forward two years and Reigns, for better or worse, still struggles to generate mass appeal due to his “oversaturation” as top babyface for the company. And while Reigns may have headlined a “too sweet” Shield reunion as co-main event, recent illness helped create a last-minute shuffle of the Survivor Series card from the top down.

Last year, Survivor Series capitalized on the resurgence of the “brand split” storyline, pitting red brand (RAW) against blue brand (SmackDown). The five-on-five bout generated a decent amount of heat and placed several new and old superstars and rivals into an ultimately entertaining assembly. This year continued the brand vs. brand formula while upping the invasion-themed ante and clearly setting up possible interactions that could springboard the roster toward the Royal Rumble and the “Road to Wrestlemania,” as it is annually referenced.

In the spirit of WWE’s preferred new formula, our Survivor Series coverage playfully adheres to the pseudo-division of brand representation. Each of our contributors offers commentary and feedback, recorded in a combination of pre-event, in media res, and directly following Survivor Series. To match the WWE’s dualistic theme, we split commentary into the two brands, with Garret (GC) covering from a slightly RAW perspective  and Kristine (KW) representing the SmackDown flair. Our goal is to compliment WWE’s preference for genre admixture while hopefully presenting readers with an asynchronous companion read to accompany future Survivor Series streams.

 

Survivor Series Pre-show

Matt Hardy vs. Elias Samson

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KW: One has to wonder with how poorly the WWE has booked Matt Hardy post-WrestleMania tag titles run if he and Jeff were just brought in to cool their competition elsewhere. Elias is a decent heat magnet but both these guys deserve a better build and a better place on the card.

GC: I think this run for the Hardy’s will ultimately end with a “What if?” asterisk beside it. The duo arguably stole the show with the pop of the night at WrestleMania XXXIV, capping off their epic year wrestling as Broken Matt and Brother Nero. That TNA can spike and decline so severely so quickly speaks to the volatility of the wrestling scene at large, particularly outside WWE’s normative formulas and corporate structures. My feeling is that Jeff’s shoulder surgery sidelined any larger role the brothers will have, and we can anticipate an unceremonious Monday Night exit a la The Dudley Boys before them.

KW: I’m fearful you’re right, but hopeful you’re wrong, as the copyright battle continues over the Broken gimmick in the courts. I think if they time it right, Jeff heals up, they could hit the ground running with it in WWE, but I fear they are going to be reduced to a nostalgia act. Shield, take notice. Truthfully, I am amazed that Anthem is still able to put up a legal defense given the circumstances of their business but admittedly I don’t know all the details behind it.

GC: That is funny. You don’t know what corporate parent you will be sponsored as from week to week on Impact, and the only place they can consistently deliver appears to be in court. “Delete!” indeed.

Winner: Elias

Kalisto Vs. Enzo (205 Live)

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KW: I’ll give credit to both of these folks for getting the cruiserweight division off life support. Enzo works as a heel and keeping him in the division while Cass heals works ok. This division still needs a lot of work before it’s ready to stand on its own, and Enzo might be the ticket to that, but his precarious status with the company makes that increasingly risky. Further, I worry that the perceived glass ceiling of the division will continue to make talent and fans look elsewhere. Part of why the cruiserweight division worked so well in WCW was because the rest of the card was just so bloated with the same faces (NwO, other ex NWA and WWE/WWF guys). The dynamic isn’t the same here.

GC: Enzo and Kalisto, ironically two traditional main roster talents that have crossed over to “save” the struggling Cruiserweight division and 205 Live on the network. I still have not watched 205 Live and anyone that writes or talks about it has little positive to say. But I admire the RAW producers for giving Enzo and company the main event spotlight across several weeks leading up to the PPV. Too bad they still barely made the pre-show.

Winner: Enzo

Owens/Zayn vs. Breezango

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/survivorseries/2017/gallery/breezango-vs-kevin-owens-sami-zayn-survivor-series-kickoff-match#fid-40185774

KW: These guys should still both not be on the pre-show. Arguments aside about pre-shows being used to hype up interest, they’re both teams that are well over with crowds (heat/punishments aside). Owens and Zayn breaking the fourth wall and calling the booking what it is with a worked shoot. Credit to the bookers for giving Zayn/Owens mic time even on the pre-show. On a side note, it bears repeating that the Breezango experiment really serves as a testament to the successes of the brand split, and in particular, how WWE has positioned SmackDown vis-a-vis RAW. Prior to the brand split and this team pairing, both Breeze and Fandango were barely on tv and used mostly for house shows. Their ability to get tv segments and matches, and now a pre-show match given their previous low booking status and get audiences invested in them likely would not have happened if they remained on the crowded landscape that was/is RAW. Despite this, Zayn and Owens needed the win more than Breezango to keep their momentum as a team going and I am not so sure we won’t see them later on in the PPV.

GC: Recapping from a slight time delay, when you contacted me with dismay that Zayn and Owens landed on the Survivor Series pre-show, my heart nearly skipped a beat with relief given recent negative rumors that the two were sent home early from the European tour. I’ve quite enjoyed Zayn’s Gen X’er tweener heel turn, and I love that he’s retained the Ska entrance music with ironically larger dance-stomps. Bottom line: fans should remember that Owens got to “grab that brass ring” recently with a signature headbutt to THE Chairman and CEO, Vince McMahon. This is the larger sign of importance and trust regardless of where the duo landed on the card (see Dean Ambrose WrestleMania XXXIII pre-show IC match earlier this year). At the same time, if the two truly were sent home early (not as a work), then I would speculate that this is what led to the near complete card shake up, including The Shield’s placement, Reigns out of the co-Main Event, and perhaps even AJ Styles’ abrupt WWE Championship win.

KW: Truthfully, the match was just announced either yesterday or today, so while there’s no way to know how far in advance it was thought out, it doesn’t appear to be part of a long term strategy. There’s no booking to back it up either. I love Zayn in general and I’ve enjoyed his recent heel-turn, but to be fair I thought he was one of the most organic faces the company’s created in a while, and truthfully I’m looking forward to his eventual return to face.

Winners: Owens/Zayn

The Shield vs. The New Day

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/survivorseries/2017/gallery/the-shield-the-new-day-photos#fid-40185815

KW: I continue to love factions in wrestling, and wish they did more than just tag teams in WWE. New Day and the Shield represent the few overtures towards factions WWE has put out recently. Interesting foreshadowing here by New Day of internal fractures within the Shield, and their inevitable re-breaking up. I have to admit there is a certain excitement about a PPV that isn’t Roman-centric, though it is surprising given how frequently the Survivor Series debut of the Shield gets mentioned by commentary. Roman still struggles to get over even when paired with Seth and Dean again, which does not bode well if they’re going to continue pushing him as a face at the top of the company. Roman gets in his usual mid-match rest outside of the ring. RAW with the win this time—a fantastic, long, well done match that serves as a good start to the show. I may not love the Shield as faces but I’d take a face Shield over no Shield at all. Full credit to the New Day for carrying their half of the match; they’re regularly in the best match of any particular PPV with or without titles on the line, much as the Shield were pre-breakup. They continue to serve as an anchor for the SmackDown brand regardless of title status, in fact, they don’t need them.

GC: What are your thoughts on the split-style T-shirts sported by Shield members? I wonder if those are on sale tonight only at the event. The half red/RAW and half-Shield is oddly indicative of a wasted revival for this beloved faction. There was no doubt that the team would one day rejoin. However, the move came quite soon in this reviewer’s opinion, which takes a bit of the emotional reaction out of the fan experience. To further complicate matters, we have Reigns going down due to illness prior to TLC and The Shield’s planned PPV reunion became a gimmick that was overshadowed by Kurt Angle’s big return. Now, we have The Shield up against a drastically cooled down New Day, in a largely lopsided matchup that appears to be the official show opener. So much for capitalizing on a foolproof faction.

KW: Those shirts…. are something else. I suppose it beats their debut attire (turtlenecks) but just barely. A good match, but the Shield reunion is clearly setting up for a future heel turn (probably Dean, he’s overdue).

GC: I will say that there was way more offense featured in this opener than I would have guessed. I do not think that these two match up at all from a narrative perspective. The New Day is so comically gimmick-based. Plus, that onesy on Big E! It literally makes no sense when Rollins and Ambrose essentially went two on five at TLC against mostly big men, so it took nearly the whole match to get me into the action. However, the false finish was nice and both groups really ratcheted up the action for an *obvious* finish. I do feel bad for Reigns as he simply cannot win over the large crowds probably from here on out.

Winners: The Shield

SmackDown vs Raw Women’s Division (Becky Lynch, Tamina, Naomi, Carmella, Natalya (with Lana) vs. Alicia Fox, Sasha Banks, Bayley, Nia Jax, and Asuka)

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/survivorseries/2017/gallery/womens-5-on-5-traditional-survivor-series-elimination-match-photos#fid-40185826

KW: I have to admit I’m a little lost on the booking here, having two of the most over women get pinned first. The Nia/Tamina tease is a fantastic one, and it’s a shame that this is likely the only time these two will face off, as they sort of represent the one monster heel woman for each brand. When setting up this match, it really revealed the problems with the SmackDown women’s roster. Charlotte is a recent addition (and she’s in a different match) but SmackDown has struggled to book really compelling women’s champions outside of Becky Lynch and Alexa Bliss (who is now with RAW). This wasn’t helped in the least by having the first ever women’s money in the bank match won by recently released James Ellsworth, decidedly not female, on behalf of Carmella. I’ve often wondered if the women’s roster would benefit from being on one brand given its size but I fear it would get even less time as a result. Let’s be real though, this is the Asuka show, we’re just living in it.

GC: I am digging Nia Jax’s braids in that backstage segment. But I cannot handle Alicia Fox on any roster at this point. The campy tone of her persona—and those line readings—are not winning USA Network any new viewers. Thank you, Corey Graves, for filler like, “Byron, Naomi’s dancing so you don’t have to–knock it off!” That said, Naomi really has been able to innovate her “Feel the Glow” gimmick far longer than anyone could have anticipated. In other intro news, it was nice to see Asuka receive RAW’s final entrance. Do they have something special in store after her flat main roster start against Emma?

Once the match started, I was quite let down that Becky Lynch had to fall on the rollup sword. However, like Charlotte she is politely playing a rotational role long after they stole the show with Sasha Banks at WrestleMania XXXIII. Likewise, Nia’s elimination was the dumbest count out I’ve ever seen, what with Tamina entering and exiting twice during the ref’s count. This ref also botched the timing of Bayley’s pinfall (or was it the other way around—yipes). One memorable moment comes when Tamina and Nia square off for the first time. It was a pretty cool stair down that led to the logical count out. Similar to Lynch’s early exit, this strategic move helped provide an underdog scenario for team RAW and a spotlight opportunity for the smaller performers late.

Sole Survivor: Asuka (Team RAW)

Intermission commentary

KW: Daniel Bryan’s on screen role as General Manager of SmackDown has done so much of the heavy lifting to level out the discrepancy between the two shows. With the rumors that he will leave the company next year if he isn’t cleared to wrestle, SmackDown and WWE in general needs to look really critically at how they want to position the Blue brand in light of his potential departure; these are big shoes to fill.

GC: Am I the only one that cannot understand for the life of me why Daniel Bryan doesn’t look more “TV ready” on SmackDown? I know he’s an herbal dude, all natural and everything that goes with a clean organic lifestyle, but surely there’s a cage free makeup kit that could enhance his on camera presence (or at least eliminate the greasy hair and crow’s’ eyes). Maybe he’s just performing “tired dad,” in which case, I completely get it!

KW: There was a rumor I read that he’s growing his hair out for a hair vs. hair match in case he’s cleared to wrestle. The hair is too short to ponytail I suppose. I miss Jesus-looking Daniel Bryan, but I’ll take tired dad Bryan too.

Daniel Bryan could definitely sport a man bun and fans would get behind it.

Baron Corbin vs. The Miz

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/survivorseries/2017/gallery/the-miz-baron-corbin-photos#fid-40185880

KW: I’ll give Corbin credit for “most improved since NXT.” He’s occasionally incredibly entertaining to watch in the ring, with a great finishing move, and has the potential to be a good talker now and then. That said, the last few years for the Miz have been astronomically great, and he is easily one of the best heat magnets in the WWE right now. I will say though that it was Talking Smack, the SmackDown post-show that was recently cancelled that really gave the Miz his launching pad, prior to his trade over to Raw. The cancellation of that show continues to elude me in terms of reasons, as it did more for character development and match promotion than an hour and change of RAW normally provides. Corbin needs this match more than the Miz does, if only because he’s seemed sort of directionless lately, as has the US title since AJ Styles dropped it.

GC: It is very clear from the two opening RAW wins that SmackDown will level out the main event somehow. Same (I prognosticate) with Corbin over Miz. The Miztourage has been a great way to extend, or should we say RAW-size, Miz’s current persona. He is WWE’s top talker right now and has been for over a year. Given a decade’s worth of time on the clock, at this point he has no problem putting others over under a premium heel banner.

KW: My only hope is that The Miztourage doesn’t suffer the same fate as Damien Sandow. I couldn’t care less about Bo Dallas but poor Curtis Axel deserves something to work with. And while we’re on the subject of bad booking, what in god’s name happened to Bray Wyatt? I feel like he might win the award for worst booking of the last five years.

GC: Miz versus Corbin was the definition of mid-card filler. There was actually plenty of action, almost nonstop in fact. And I do like that WWE pitted two heels against one another. But I felt no investment whatsoever and couldn’t care less about the outcome. They did their part, they’ll cash their checks, and go back to their brands. Next.

Winner: Baron Corbin

The BAR vs. The Usos

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/survivorseries/2017/gallery/cesaro-sheamus-the-usos-photos#fid-40185918

KW: Credit to both these teams for totally rebranding themselves in the best way possible in the last year and change. Sheamus and Cesaro work as a fantastic tag team and Cesaro’s long been overdue for some recognition. The Usos however have managed to go from a boring but competent team to a team I actually want to watch wrestle, and who can cut decent promos. Their heel turn was long overdue and did them every favor imaginable. The second match in a row on this card featuring heels vs. heels. While I realize that the format of Survivor Series often necessitates that, I’m surprised by how well it works, but I think this is due in part to how well these heels are booked and the degree to which they’re over. This may not necessarily be the case for faces, which WWE struggles to book with the same strength. If only the rest of the SmackDown tag teams could be booked as well as the Usos, because outside of them and New Day, the tag team division in SmackDown is pretty weak and relatively thin. Commentary is doing a great job of bringing in continuity here from previous Survivor Series with these teams, a testament to the degree to which the commentary teams have improved with the brand split. No one does the hot tag better than the Usos, and they deserve a decently long title reign.

GC: Another filler match unfortunately. The Usos have picked up interest and momentum since turning heel (and the WrestleMania snub), and Cesaro/Sheamus is a team I’m sympathetic toward. These guys, like Miz, are making the most of their situation (the brass ring doesn’t tug when Cesaro pulls it, apparently), and I still can’t get over his dental accident at TLC.

KW: I guess I could see how you’d view it as filler, because really how do you book these inter-brand matches with a backstory? Apparently Vince has a weird thing where he finds it just endlessly entertaining for Cesaro to do his promos with his mouthguard in. I’ll leave you to think about that one.

GC: Oh, I’ve noticed Cesaro’s mouthpiece lisp all right. In a truly bizarre coincidence, the week before Cesaro’s accident, I have a young nephew that experienced nearly the exact same accident (but off a bunk bed). The dental surgeon recommended waiting 1-2 months to see if the teeth would naturally drop or not. I kind of assumed Cesaro might be in a similar wait-and-see position. He needs to stay off the mic entirely right now, because that is not helping his situation. If there is a silver lining, at least these performers have been allowed pretty respectable match times. No real squash matches have also kept both brands strong. On top of that, the Usos win makes the “official” scorecard 2-2, which opens up the Women’s Champion vs. Champion match by making the victor less predictable.

Winners: The Usos

Alexa Bliss vs Charlotte Flair

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/survivorseries/2017/gallery/alexa-bliss-charlotte-flair-photos#fid-40185953

KW: With the recent title change from Natalya to Charlotte, I feel like this match never really got the buildup it deserved. While having Charlotte hold the title was probably the right choice, a few more weeks of buildup for this feud would have done wonders. I will say the audience is into this match (as am I) which is a nice change from so many years of women’s matches at PPVs. I’m pleasantly surprised by the physicality of this match and the length of it thus far, though this does make me worry that AJ vs Brock is going to be a five-minute one and done squash.

GC: Did you notice how Charlotte as babyface features a more natural look, whereas her heel persona, like Bliss’s, is heavy on the dramatic David Bowie eyeliner? Alexa Bliss’s eyeliner seemingly gets its own backstage segments on RAW in recent weeks (unconfirmed). This is a fantastic match, and I might suggest this joins the women’s roster elimination match as the only rewatchable bouts from this PPV (so far). These two are selling hard and looking strong at the same time. Credit Charlotte for not pushing or allowing for a quick ending. And rather than the pin, she does get Bliss to tap out. Well done.

Winner: Charlotte Flair

Brock Lesnar vs. AJ Styles

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/survivorseries/2017/gallery/brock-lesnar-aj-styles-photos#fid-40185988

KW: I’m not sure if I’m in the majority or minority when it comes to Brock as champ: I like Brock Lesnar (and I LOVE Paul Heyman) but I’ve always disliked the silly argument about raising the prestige of the belt when he doesn’t defend it at every RAW branded PPV. Arguments about part-timers aside (and they are legitimate arguments), this match has me worried. I truthfully see no way AJ wins this one because of how protected Brock is, and the foreshadowing they had with Jinder Mahal in the pre-show, and all it does is hurt AJ as champ. Brock can take the loss, and eventually will have too, but as they’re probably saving it for the unsatisfying match with Roman Reigns, I wish they’d have him lose. AJ Styles has been the best addition to both SmackDown and WWE in the last few years, losing not a single step from how hot he was in New Japan. AJ Styles can get a good match out of a broom, but I’m curious to see if he can make it work here.

The audience seems to be slightly more behind Styles but this squash match is painful to watch right now. Commentary is referencing the Cena/Brock match from Summer Slam 2014 and setting this up as some sort of a parallel, but that match came at the end of a long period of LOLCENAWINS and seeing Cena just get demolished was pure catharsis. There’s been no such LOLAJWINS with AJ Styles entrance into the WWE. A brief but brutal moment where AJ had the calf crusher locked in and a few minutes of impressive offense from AJ Styles afterwards provided a rare moment in most Brock matches where an opponent gets in some convincing offense. One of Brock’s better matches lately but I’m over him holding the Universal title.

GC: I was decently interested to see how up-and-comer Jinder Mahal stacks up against the establishment beast-heel in Brock Lesnar. However, the last-minute title change got me all kinds of jacked up for the WWE Champion versus Universal Champion match. While Brock’s protection is a foregone conclusion, how the match plays out felt intriguing no matter the direction they took. The start of the match features outright domination by Lesnar, a visual sequel to his takedown of Roman Reigns at WrestleMania XXXI and of John Cena prior to that. But unlike the Reigns match, AJ musters the gumption to hang on just long enough for Lesnar to get winded. Then, AJ’s stamina kicks in and the match elevates to another level.

Continuing the through line of keeping both brands strong, by allowing AJ to get a fair amount of licks in, this easily became Brock’s best match since his Hell in a Cell with The Undertaker two years ago. They gave WWE Universe and smart marks alike a memorable encounter that will be on dialogic replay for years to come. I am not offended by part-timers in the least bit, and even less offended by part-time champions (especially considering the ridiculous number of belts floating around this company). While I wanted to see Braun Strowman or Samoa Joe previously defeat Brock, I understand his need to keep his wins going at this point. After all, he did collapse the Undertaker’s streak (and not for nothin’). Examining all the cut marks covering both competitors, as well as Brock’s Undertaker-esque hard sell on his left knee injury, this match qualifies as an instant classic.

Winner: Brock Lesnar

RAW vs. SmackDown (Kurt Angle, Finn Balor, Samoa Joe, Braun Strowman, Triple H vs. Shane McMahon, Randy Orton, Shinsuke Nakamura, Bobby Roode, John Cena)

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/survivorseries/2017/gallery/mens-5-on-5-traditional-survivor-series-elimination-match-results#fid-40186044

GC: Thinking about the entrances, Triple H would get his own signature red T-shirt while everyone else has to play ball (including Strowman). He just can’t help himself. Hmm, Michael Cole just said that only Kane and The Undertaker have appeared in more PPVs…I wonder how far off H is? FYI, he seems to be getting the full intro while Angle, Balor, et al. received abbreviated status. Some things never change (again, not really complaining but it doesn’t go unnoticed either).

I LOVE how stacked this main event is. That said, Busted Open radio brought up the average age of the main event participants. I think the number they through out was like, 37.5, but I feel like that number is more like 40 at least. Also, I’m going to go against the haters and say I like Cena’s new lime green T-shirt and sweatbands (incidentally getting separate merch like H).

KW: Someone aptly pointed out on Reddit the ages of all the participants in the main event. Not to take anything away from any of them, especially Finn Balor, Nakamura, Strowman, Roode, Joe, folks new-ish to WWE, but they made a good point: this is a relatively old main event, or the roster itself is aging. I say that in light of the fact that I still think getting Jason Jordan out of the main event was a smart idea. Jordan isn’t remotely over, the storyline with him being the son of Kurt Angle is bizarre and not working, and I have no idea what they were thinking splitting him and Chad Gable up, especially given the need for more tag teams. Bray Wyatt would have been a nice inclusion here but as previously mentioned, his booking since moving to RAW has been awful, especially given he was WWE Champion and Tag Team Champion on SmackDown, and it worked. The entire Wyatt family deserves better than their last year or so of booking and I hope they get a chance to hit the reset button soon, and perhaps move Wyatt back to SmackDown for his own good.

GC: I am in the majority that feels Bray Wyatt, no matter how talented, is as cold as ice right now and essentially a notch above “enhancement talent.” Ditto and I agree about Jason Jordan. Part of me feels the audience was already headed for a bait-and-switch on that position. Its possible WWE is setting up a father-son match as the proverbial placeholder on the way to an Angle-HHH Mania. I don’t really think they ended up with a single weak link in this main event, and perhaps the audience was treated to a true passing of the torch between the old guard of the last generation and the faces that dominated the main event scene of NXT over the last three years. Both the female and male co-main events was smartly booked, particularly for “big four” PPV appeal.

KW: Shinsuke being pinned early was questionable, as despite a less than stellar start on the main roster, Nakamura’s been consistently one of the most over performers. Interestingly, I had to remind myself that Cena, Orton and HHH were in this match, as my focus was entirely on everyone else. That was until Cena and Angle were both in the ring at the same time, and I legitimately got goosebumps, never sure I would see this match again.

GC: I heard commentators complain about the possibility that the fresh blood would be eliminated early. But guess what? Come for the spectacle, stay for the drama. The story is in the returning hierarchy, and actually, the ending does an immense job putting over the new talent. WWE kept HHH off of TV for a really long time, and even his WrestleMania lead-in to Seth Rollins was limited by his own standard. While his entrance felt entirely random last Monday, the crowd still pops every time. He earned this return, and once again H got to have his cake and eat it too. Hunter truly is a McMahon.

KW: I’ll say this much, Shane McMahon has no right to be this entertaining at this age, and holy hell, if they could book everyone they way Strowman has been booked, the quality of the product would be infinitely better. I guess it wouldn’t be a Survivor Series without a screwjob. Well played and well-time interferences by HHH on Kurt Angle, with Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens running interference by jumping Shane McMahon before that.

GC: Like most of the card for this year’s Survivor Series, this match was very well paced. One of the strong points lies in how the main eventers allowed time for inaugural stare downs so that the audience could savor brand new match-ups not only between brands, but also between untapped encounters like Nakamura against Finn Balor, HHH and Bobby Roode, and Braun Strowman against both Randy Orton and John Cena. This match has a little of everything, and in an era of insta-reactions and toxic social media uprisings, I would argue this match was booked about as logically as one could ever hope for. And for the haters that will be mad at Joe, Balor, Nakamura, and Roode’s early exits, remember that these superstars got the elevating rub by appearing in the main event.

Winning Brand: Team RAW

Sole Survivor(s): HHH and Braun Strowman

Anniversary Screwjob: HHH pedigrees Kurt Angle

Lasting Impression: An organic Braun Strowman babyface turn.

Interacting with AAW Heels

Reflections on AAW, Works-In-Process

In this blog post, I explore the question: How much of the heel’s identity and success is dependent on the wrestler’s performance, and how much on the audience’s (re)actions?

This question relates to the work I am doing on the co-constructon of kayfabe through the moment-to-moment interactions between wrestlers and fans. For this particular blog post, I reflect on my observations from the AAW show Killers Among Us on June 17, 2017.

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And we started with Garza Jr and ACH, who both play at being overconfident and obnoxious and this kinda makes them both heels but ones we love for comedy. During the course of the match, however, Garza Jr. proved to be the bigger heel in his interactions with crowd and bringing out the chair to attack ACH with. Given his history with the AAW and his previous interactions with the fans, ACH remained more a WWE-style babyface, perhaps: he’s the kind of heel we love.

Eddie Kingston came out right away playing dirty pool by trying to sneak a huge nail into his match with Jeff Cobb. On top of this attempt at smuggling in a foreign object, he also went for Cobb’s eyes and bit his finger to break hold. Kingston then won and got tremendously booed even though the win was clean — to which he responds by flipping off the booers. Kingston’s antics in this match made him the heel, which was reaffirmed by the audience’s response to his winning. This position is interesting, however, given how often he has been seen as the face when matched with Sami Callihan. However, here the fans let Kingston know that he had crossed the line, and that such antics are only tolerated in very specific situations — like taking down the “hated” Callihan.

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Davey Vega was in a fatal four-way match vs. Jake Crist vs. Chuck Taylor vs. PACO. Now, this match should have had two heels and two faces…except that Chuckie T. borders between face and heel, often for comical effect.

Vega was more the classic obnoxious-but-cowardly heel. His appearance was immediately met with chants of “fuck you, Vega,” indicating a vast history with the fans. Even before he did anything, his mere presence elicited such a negative reaction — or was it a negative reaction? At this point, given how often he elicits these chants regardless of his actions, the fans may be just performing an expected reaction to his presence. When it is less about what the wrestler does and just who the wrestler is, then the fans appear to draw on their history and memory of that wrestler, and as long as the wrestler never does anything to counter this perception, then the fans will continue to perform a specific call-response action; thus, Fuck You Vega becomes a standard chant that transcends matches.

The historical baggage of Vega became evident throughout the match when a mockingly supportive chant of “Davey Vega” was met with the response “Sucks” — usually this split-crowd call-response is meant to show support from some fans for a wrestler, while other fans show their displeasure with said wrestler. However, in this case, the crowd subverted this meaning, and overall they further pronounced their displeasure with Vega, causing Vega to pause in disbelief and then flip off the crowd. And thus the history of “Fuck You Vega” continues as heel and fans maintain their performances.

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Zack Sabre Jr seems like a heel in the ring given the pain he is willing to inflict on his opponent through his earnest and unrelenting application of submission holds that contort his opponent into a pretzel. But is he a heel or just determined? Sabre Jr. seemingly does not care how much pain he inflicts in his match with Mat Fitchett, which earns him a “You Sick Fuck” chant for his seeming lack of human empathy in the ring. But Sabre Jr. never changes how he wrestles, as every match contains the same masochistic moves — and the fans never completely turn on him. So while the fans may whince, their chanting of “You Sick Fuck” is more a part of the performance, as Sabre Jr. wants to cause such a reaction in the fans, and their chanting reaffirms his actions.

An interesting case study came in the Abyss vs. Low-Ki match. Abyss had appeared several times before at AAW, and his performances left much to be desired. His immensely apparent whiffs, botches, and no sells never sat well with the crows. So, is Abyss a heel just because of how poorly he performs in the ring? Was he booed not for character performance but actual performance? Now, Abyss was positioned as part of the heel faction at AAW, as he was on the side of Callihan and OI4K. But that animosity toward Abyss never seemed to be based on his OI4K allegiance.

When the OI4K manager tried getting the O-I-4-K chant going, the crowd used that cadence to chant “Fuck You Abyss.” For other OI4K members, it would have been easy to get their chant going — although they are the heels, they are well-liked heels, and the audience will demonstrate their affection for the heels through that chant. But not for Abyss. Apparently a wrestler can produce so much audience apathy and even anger through bad in-ring performances that they can not get the type of character-based interaction desired for the match. When the wrestler is a known botcher, it doesn’t matter if they are a face or a heel (see Sin Cara of the WWE for another example of this phenomenon).

Then came two huge crowd favorites: Trevor Lee and PENTA EL 0M (formerly Pentagon Jr.). Throughout the past dozen or so shows with AAW, Lee made fans with his dancing antics; whenever he would dance, or he would get the other wrestlers to dance, it became an automatic hit with the audience. Naturally, then, he turned heel when he refused to dance. Starting at this AAW show, he came out to different music and refused to give the crowd what they both expected and wanted.

This seeming lack of gratification led the crowd to chant “Fuck TNA,” as a reference to Impact Wrestling and Lee’s affiliation with that organization. Lee responded by calling the fans dumbasses and correcting them about name of the wrestling company for which he said he’s a superstar. A little kid standing at the guard rail yelled to Lee: “Your mom wants her hair back!” You know you have pissed off your fans when you are getting a sick burn from a kid.

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In the John Morrison versus Brian Cage match, Morrison was trying to be a face in his interactions with crowd; he kept trying to give away his shirt — but the crowd kept throwing it back at him. Normally a crowd is supposed to cheer the idea of getting a soiled shirt from their favorite face, but the continual refusal of the shirt illustrated just how much the crowd saw Morrison as the obnoxious heel character.

Cage, then, did a tremendously heel act by dragging Morrison’s shirt thru his wrestling shorts. He then threw the soiled shirt in Morrison’s face. So who is the heel: the obnoxious Morrison or the “you sick fuck” Cage, as appointed by the crowd’s chant? Cage’s move is more disgusting than anything currently seen by a WWE babyface, given their PG Era sensibilities. But then Morrison won by using the referee as a shield and doing a low blow on Cage. So both men are heels?

reDRagon vs. War Machine also had no clear faces or heels. War Machine were more the heels based on their size and gimmick, but reDRagon was not exactly playing clean. So, as with the Morrison vs. Cage match, the audience didn’t have a clear face-heel dynamic to cheer for and against.

In the final match of the night, Sami Callihan vs. Michael Elgin clearly positioned Callihan as the heel, as he went for chairs immediately to use against Elgin, thereby furthering his history as a heel at AAW. However, Callihan comes off as somewhat of a cowardly heel given the look of fear he had when facing Elgin, despite his posturing in promos as righteous and brave. The crowd was firmly behind both wrestlers, as they performed their respective roles.

Overall, the wrestlers would enact a certain character-based performance that elicited specific and expected reactions from the audience. The only one who deviated from this relationship between wrestler’s actions and fans’ reactions was Abyss, who’s history of botches at AAW matches set him up to be jeered no matter what character-based actions he performed. The fans’ actions didn’t turn a wrestler heel, either in that match or in general, as the wrestler’s decision to be a heel then generated fans’ actions. However, fans’ actions could reaffirm a wrestler’s position as a heel, such as with Vega and Morrison.

Thus, the fans had to buy-in to the idea of the wrestler being a heel for the storyline told within the match to work — as it did in all cases except with Abyss.

WWE Video Presentations

Works-In-Process

The following are two video presentations given at the Midwest Popular Culture / American Culture Conference in St. Louis, Missouri, from October of 2017.

In this first presentation, Jack Karlis presents his thoughts on how the WWE has handled various scandals as it attempts to develop more of a corporate social responsibility ethos now that it is a publicly-traded company.

In this second presentation, Kathie Kallevig presents her thoughts on the history of the WWE Diva and thus the role of women in sports entertainment — as well as what needs to be done to truly #GiveDivasAChance.

Both presentations represents ongoing projects and thus works-in-progress for these scholars, and the authors invite comments and questions to help them further their work.