What good is the warmth of Summer, without the cold of Winter to give it sweetness?
- John Steinbeck
Have you ever sat down and tried to work out the overarching ‘story’ of some of the more, uh, ‘colourful’ WWE wrestlers?
Take The Big Show for example. Even if we ignore his time in WCW (and there’s a whole minefield of questions involved there which can wait for another column), then he’s still got quite the past. He debuted as a villain, part of the Corporation as one of Vince McMahon’s goons. Not long after, he turned babyface and became a founding member of the short-lived Union stable. Soon after, he would change again, forming a tag team with the number one heel (if you only look at active wrestlers, anyway), The Undertaker. An injury to ‘Taker would see him turn once more in 1999, beginning a feud with The Big Boss Man.
He’d stay as a fan favourite until, approximately three months after his last turn, he’d become an antagonist once again, feuding with The Rock which would take him up to Wrestlemania. After this, he’d find his fun side and become a crowd favourite, which would lead him into a feud with Shane McMahon. He’d disappear for a while, and when he returned in 2000 he’d be a heel once again, before being sent to work on his conditioning.
He’d return as a villain to resume his feud with The Rock, but would quickly become a babyface as he remained loyal to the WWF throughout the invasion. Not long after it was finished, he’d assault Steve Austin, and joined the NWO (for the 2nd time if we wanted to count his WCW record as part of his ‘story’). At this point, he’d have the first prolonged run in a single role of his career. He’d be an antagonist throughout until 2004.
At this point he’d turn again, and work with Kurt Angle, Carlito & Matt Morgan, and then Snitsky, before winning the tag titles with Kane. He’d act a bit heelish as part of this team, but would really turn again when he was drafted to ECW and became their champion, and he’d stay in this role until his next hiatus in 2007.
When he returned, we’re into territory that I don’t know so well, but I’m pretty sure he came back in the same kind of role, as a villain, and he’d eventually align himself with Vickie Guerrero. This would be another lengthy run as a heel until 2010, when he’d knock out The Miz as their partnership dissolved. After two years as a babyface, he has, of course, recently turned once again, lining himself with John Laurinaitis in exchange for an ironclad contract.
Now, there is an obvious positive spin you can put on this, and that is the booking of Big Show has improved a lot since 2002. However, that record is still all over the place, and by count features 11 turns in a little under 13 and a half years.
He’s not alone; think about somebody like Kane. Assume for a minute, if you will, that Isaac Yankem and faux-Diesel, being different characters, aren’t part of the same ‘timeline’. The Undertaker’s younger brother arrived as a psychotic, dangerous heel, and was probably the most feared wrestler on the roster. By the end of 1998, though, he’d become a babyface as Paul Bearer and his brother reunited and he was committed to an asylum by the Corporation. In 1999, he’d join that group to save himself from that fate, and then not long later he’d be thrown out, turning face once again for a team, and then feud, with X-Pac.
In the summer of 2000 he’d turn heel (again) to feud with The Undertaker (again), and a couple of months later the two would patch things up (again) and Kane would be a babyface (again). He’d stay as a fan favourite throughout the invasion angle of 2001, and then throughout the year 2002 as well. Unmasking in June 2003 would send him crazy, and he’d be back to the monster heel of his early days from that point. This would continue until late in 2004, when the weird angle with Lita would sort of turn him face as he worked with Snitsky, and then later Edge. He’d spend a couple of years in this role, before turning heel again as he (again) started to wipe out everyone in sight. This would give way with very little explanation to a short babyface run, which in turn was really just a set-up for another heel turn, after he had put his brother into a vegetative state. In 2011 a run-in with The Corre would make him a fan favourite once again, before being turned once again last December.
While these are a bit more spread out than those for Big Show, there are still around 12 turns in 15 years here. I could go on with a number of other examples (for some reason Kurt Angle leaps to mind), but I think I’ve made my point.
The problem with this is that turns are now just plot devices, something convenient to do with a wrestler when you’ve run out of obvious things for them to do. They aren’t really done with the best interest of the character or the fans in mind, but because it is easy to do. Huge guys like Big Show and Kane are invariably heel when they’ve got something to do, but when they haven’t, rather than either taking time to heal or being pulled from the spotlight so they can stay fresh, instead they are turned and play comedic or smaller roles.
For my part, I think that turns work best when they are used sparingly. Consider the Hogan heel turn in 1996. Hulk had been wrestling as a babyface since the early-Eighties pretty much non-stop, and when he did make the switch people actually felt it. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating; they may not have wanted to cheer him anymore, but they certainly took umbrage at the idea he could be villainous. Anyone who has seen Bash at the Beach 1996, or the previous episode of Nitro, has seen how much crap was thrown into the ring at the fallen idol.
It works the other way, too. Go back into the mists of time and you’ll find that Dusty Rhodes was, at one point, one of the most despicable heels in wrestling. After six years of this, Dusty turned on Pak Song and Gary Hart, and this move was enough to catapult him to superstar status in the Florida territory and start him on a path that would yield 3 NWA World Championships.
There are plenty of other examples, and to be honest they read a bit like a who’s who of top stars in wrestling – Roddy Piper’s turn in 1986 after years of being a heel, Shawn Michaels throwing Janetty through the barbershop window after being part of a babyface team for virtually his whole career. When you have got a babyface like Michaels, if he is to turn after a long time as a fan favourite then there is a genuine sense of betrayal about it all. Fans have a chance to build up a connection. On the other hand, when Big Show turned recently, I reckon that virtually everyone just thought ‘OK, so he’s a bad guy again now’.
What I think this stems from is the idea that you aren’t really meant to have favourite wrestlers, particularly with the WWE, anymore. You are meant to have a favourite wrestling company, or better still, a favourite TV show. Connection with individual wrestlers – despite it being proven many, many times over that this is the best way to sell tickets and draw other viewers in – is secondary to being a fan of WWE, TNA, or whatever. ECW were probably the first people that were really to blame for this, with ECW chants routinely heard more often than those for individual wrestlers.
Consequently, unless your favourite wrestler is one of those that the company actually hangs their hat on to lead – a John Cena, for example – then rather than being superstars, or even fully fleshed out characters, they become nothing more than devices. I mean, think about it, really. How are you meant to work out any kind of consistent personality for Big Show when he changes his attitude more than the weather changes during the British Summer? And Kane, too, for that matter? I mean, sure, we can draw some common threads between them, but I think the only real, logical way you might even begin to try and explain these things away would have to be by acknowledging that, above all, they are stark-staring, raving schizophrenics. Yet, in 13 years for the Big Show and 15 for Kane, no one has ever thought to comment on, or seek help for, the kind of mental condition that it’d take to produce these kinds of changes?!
Apparently it’s perfectly reasonable to suppose that people who routinely snap and wipe out talent, often with little rhyme or reason, would be kept around by a multinational public corporation.
These logical peculiarities are purely the result of one thing, and that is lazy booking. Now, you might be thinking that logic really has nothing to do with pro-wrestling, and one level it’d be hard to argue against that, but what it is worth remembering is that all narratives have some kind of logic about them. Even the most warped, nonsensical postmodern spectacle has to have an internal consistency, even if it isn’t necessarily apparent to the audience what that is. It is no different in wrestling. At the end of the day, the story is god, and it must make sense within itself. If the things that make it make sense are ambiguous or unsaid, then so be it – if Big Show has to be schizophrenic to make his character work, even if they’ve never said it, then that is what he has to be!
Again, this is all the result of lazy booking. Only the top level stars are ever booked with anything approaching a consistency of character. Other wrestlers are basically used around them, they are tools that can be used to make the stars look good, or they are plot contrivances. I mean that in its most literal sense: they aren’t characters written into stories, rather they are purely obstacles to be overcome, like monsters from Viking sagas. That’s all Big Show has usually been, when he is a heel, an obstacle for the likes of Cena or Lesnar. I guess the people in charge either think that it doesn’t matter, that it isn’t worth, or that it is just too difficult, to book a wrestling show that gives due consideration to each of the characters on it.
I guess this is why I’ve recently started to think that John Cena, despite what a lot of people seem to want, should probably be the last person to turn heel right now. I’m not saying that there isn’t a future in a Cena heel turn, but he’s one of the few people to spend a long time working in one role for the company, and I think they shouldn’t squander that by having Cena become just like everyone else. For me, he should probably only turn twice more in his career, if he is going to at all. Probably once more to get that heel run out of him, when other people stand up and lead at the top of the card, and then I expect a final babyface run out of him – the ‘thank you’ run at the end of his career.
I say this not because I’m a huge Cena fan, or because what I think he is doing is all that great. I say it because turns can mean something, but they have to be done right. You need to follow all the usual rules of having a clear motivation for your action, but it also has to make sense with what has gone before in that characters backstory. Not only that, it also works so much better when there is a clear contrast, when it feels like someone has crossed some kind of emotional line. Repeated turns muddy the water, and if you keep doing it (despite wrestling’s popularity, in many ways 1999 was really a shit year, and this is one of the reasons) over and over again it becomes very difficult to even make out that line at all. I won’t say that every time you turn someone it means less and less, but in general I think that is often the case.
So that’s all I’ve got to say on this one. I usually like to end these columns with some thought that ties it all in together, something a bit profound, but all I’ve got is some common sense. To sum up, I’d just call on wrestling to think about turns in future. Don’t turn people for the sake of it, just because it’s the first thing that you can think of for them to do. Spend a bit longer on it. Give them some time off, if necessary, to heal and go be with their families. Maybe give their TV time to an up-and-comer, to see what they can make of it. Then, bring them back when you’ve got something that actually makes sense, and you’ll reap the benefits. Not only will people who like wrestlers further down the card start to feel connected with them again, because they’ll be a bit more stable in their identity, but on top of that you’ll also really get people hooked when you get turns right.
Most important of all, I hope someone from the WWE sees this, and takes heed. I mean – do they realise how crazy I must sound? I’m reduced to telling people that to make his 13 year run make sense, Big Show must have a secret mental disorder. I’ll leave you, friends, with that thought.