Note from John Canton: Mike Holland was one of the seven writers picked to write for TJR in our 2013 Writer Search held this month. This is the column that earned him a spot on the site. Enjoy.
When I recently read the news that Triple H was mandating a change in the way promos are being done at NXT, I did a quiet dance of joy. The art of the promo is what has always attracted me to professional wrestling. The plotlines may be the same, the faces may come and go, but what a great talker says on the microphone resonates for generations to come. And it doesn't take a wrestling historian to see that this art has been lost for far too long.
Every fan has their own ideas of the best talkers in the business or the best promo they ever heard, but chances are unless you're bringing up CM Punk's "Pipe Bomb" you're going way back in the day for your answer. On the current WWE roster (excluding Ric Flair, naturally, more on that in a bit) you're hard-pressed to list anyone memorable on the microphone not named Punk, Rock, or Jericho. The reason for that is no big secret. Vince McMahon has always favored the muscular and defined look, and figured someone could connect the personality dots later. But there is a bigger problem at work here, and it's staring us right in the face: the writing.
Make no mistake, I completely respect what professional wrestling writers do for a living. It's a job where you don't get recognized when you do well, and don't have a long shelf life when you don't. Wrestling is a cyclical business and everyone gets at least two bites at the apple. Hell, Mike Adamle got rehired. But writers come and go with no pomp or circumstance to speak of. All of that said, one of the top qualities I'd be looking for when hiring a wrestling writer is love of the business. And that's a characteristic that modern day promos show me is lacking big time in the WWE writing room. The last five years have gotten progressively worse, as the WWE has raided reality shows and soap operas trying to find anyone who can effectively tell a story. The problem? It's the WRESTLERS who have to tell that story.
Names of the past illustrate men who could do just that, even without the prized physical look of a Randy Orton or a (gulp!) Mason Ryan. Rowdy Roddy Piper. Jake Roberts. Dusty Rhodes. Kevin Sullivan. The list goes on and on, but you get the idea. These are guys that could tell a story without even getting in the ring. They went against type and against the obvious, and they used whatever methods were necessary to get a reaction from the crowd and from their opponents. You couldn't wait to hear the next interview, and you certainly couldn't bear the thought of a villain not getting his comeuppance. Just like a great movie or book, they completely entranced you and made you feel in a way you hadn't before. This range of emotion has all but been replaced by a current roster who look like they could beat you senseless but leave you mainly with a sense of "been there, seen that" that is completely poisonous to what we love as wrestling fans.
One thing that strikes me when watching tapes from the '80s, aside from the fashion, is how much the talkers drove the business even then. I don't need to tell anyone reading this how amazing the promos from Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Ric Flair, or even the unhinged Ultimate Warrior were. They are worthy of scouring YouTube for a whole afternoon. It wasn't shock value or ripped from the headlines nonsense, it was larger than life athletes coming into your living room and trying desperately to make something that seemed so unreal so very real. And it worked. You felt the breakup of the Mega Powers. You tasted the exhilaration of a Nature Boy victory. You were captivated.
These days, writers are paid to script out everything your favorite superstars say. I'm by no means privy to the inner workings of the locker room, but I'm sure you need to be pretty high on the food chain to write your own stuff, much less use it. We're told that creativity is rewarded and that some guys bring the writers ideas, which is great, but too many segments look and sound like a bad Saturday Night Live skit. I've heard that the reason for this is PG era, but that's the stuff of nonsense: plenty of stand-up comedians don't use profanity at all and are hilarious. The reason for it is that it's the wrestlers who need to get the fans to buy in, and that won't happen using choice snippets of five peoples' ideas of what they should sound like.
In the rare case when someone completely different DOES show up, the WWE pulls a Kizarny on them. They flat out have to try harder. Wrestlers today have every advantage when it comes to exposure. 30 years ago, you had to wrestle your way through half of the country just to get on a show that would come on early Saturday morning. Now you can set up a Twitter account in ten seconds and be viral before you know it. There should be far more great talkers now than at any point in wrestling history. So why aren't there? Because the people writing for those talkers are writing them out of the same mold. Great athletes with interesting skill sets like Kofi Kingston, Shelton Benjamin, and Tyson Kidd are as entertaining as paint drying outside of the squared circle. As for the heels, close your eyes and a Wade Barrett promo might as well be from the mouth of Dolph Ziggler.
It should be no surprise, then, that all of those guys came up through the ranks of WWE fairly recently. When they were cutting their teeth in the minor leagues, it wasn't like the days of yore when you had an idea or two in mind and the creative expression to get it out any way you saw fit. That method has been replaced by heavily scripted and overwritten sketches where everyone sounds identical. How natural can it sound when someone tells you exactly what to say? Especially when that someone has potentially very little to no connection to your business? Instead of covering up the differences and encouraging uniformity, how about giving characters a chance to live and breathe? It won't always work out, but imagine how much more effective the Shield could be if anything they do could be explained in terms that didn't sound like a Game of Thrones outtake. I'm supposed to believe these renegade badasses use stealth and surveillance, but say things like "We shield the WWE from injustice" and "Welcome to consequences"? Not so much.
The practice of putting a manager in the role of talker to help offset problems has made a minor resurgence, and for that I am grateful. Pairing Paul Heyman with Brock Lesnar and Zeb Colter with Jack Swagger has benefited all parties and made for some of the more compelling television lately. I can only hope that Triple H continues in this direction, as lack of solid managers has been a major issue in my view. But even better is this news that we might be finally doing away with the misguided scripted promos and going back to what it should be, bullet points to be expounded upon by the talent. Let their attitudes and idiosyncracies shine through and you might be surprised at the result.
I do appreciate the irony of using a writing search column to blast writing, but it's something that needs to be said. Wrestling can survive just about anything, as it's shown, but amazing promos will be what pushes it back to the forefront of water cooler talk. In addition to making the characters more believable and the stories more intense, it will draw fans back in to the moment in ways that the match itself cannot.
I've never been the biggest fan of Triple H's promos (or matches, for that matter), but this would be one of the biggest victories he's ever had. And I'll be cheering the loudest.
Starting next week, Mike Holland's columns will regularly appear on TJRWrestling.com on Tuesdays. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment on the column below.