Changes. We all go through them. A change of job and the inevitable move from T-shirt and jeans to suit and tie. The end of a relationship. Moving from falling asleep in someone’s arms to being the last, desperate one to leave the nightclub. Moving house and that last look around before you shut the door forever. When we encounter change some of us deal with it well and some fold under the pressure. When we all look at the people we were ten, twenty years ago, the changes are unbelievable. And so it goes.
You can see these changes in wrestling too. Look at the product back in 2003 where, instead of ‘Night of Champions’, we’d have just watched Bill Goldberg pin Triple H at ‘Unforgiven’. 1993? The ‘Summerslam’ main event was Lex Luger beating Yokozuna. 2023? Who knows, but I bet there’s a couple of young wrestlers currently on the roster who are still there (look at Randy Orton versus Shawn Michaels in 2003 for evidence of that). So, from 1993 to 2013 the product has changed massively but, as fans who watch nearly every week, those changes don’t seem so big. In the same way you don’t notice someone ageing if you see them every day, it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that we can see these changes.
Sometimes though the changes are so big that it’s like day and night. It can literally be a return or a void that is left but it’s a change that is felt around the company and, often, around wrestling. Although he’s been back several times since, to either talk up a feud or to referee it, when Shawn Michaels retired, that was a huge change in wrestling. A man who had been with the WWE since 1988 and had ridden the wave of change after change, was finally leaving twenty-two years later with the immortal words, “Shawn Michaels has left the building” and with it, he’d left a huge hole with arguably has never been filled again.
So there are the big shifts in power and there are the smaller changes which might only happen to an individual. There are the moments that we might not notice until we look back, watching the new WWE DVD about that period of history, of there are the moments that make us look on, open-mouthed because things will never be the same again. It is the changes that make up the development of both product and individual.
When General Manager Paul Heyman issued a ‘You’re Fired’ match to the APA, the writing was on the wall for Faarooq after losing to the Tag Tem Champions Rikishi and Scotty 2 Hotty. Bradshaw hesitated. He hadn’t been fired, only his friend. That hesitation was enough for Faarooq to up and leave and for a change to Bradshaw that would make his career.
The JBL character made Bradshaw into a Main Eventer and now a name chanted in arenas around the world – not bad for a heel wrestler. The character was based on Layfield’s actual background as a smart invester and financial analyst. As an individual, he took the idea and ran with it. What was best was that, by turning his back on Ron Simmons and the beer drinking APA, he was set for a heel turn that would keep Smackdown up whilst Evolution ran the Raw brand. He went on to main event pay-per-views, was booed out of buildings and even protected the Mexican border for the good of all. At the time, yes, it was a big individual change and you can see that in the above promo. Only now can we look back and see the changes that came with that heel-turn and the development of ‘The Cabinet’ heel stable that we can look and see that the product has changed. Firstly, Smackdown was still a lead programme in a time when you had to choose between red or blue brands. Also, the heel stable doesn’t really exist anymore. The Shield and The Wyatts are as close as we get but they’re essentially tag teams with an extra member. Compare that to the titles held by The Cabinet or Evolution at one time and how they ‘owned’ their brands.
With the best will in the world, the change for Layfield was huge for him as an individual but only became big for the brand in time. Sometimes a character change really ups the ante and when The Undertaker debuted the American Badass, it really did create a shift. People can look back on the change now and say they prefer ‘The Deadman’ but there is no denying that the change to The Biker bullyboy allowed Mark Calloway a new avenue for a few years. Quite often, when a character changes from heel to face, or vice versa, they remain the same ‘person’. CM Punk for example, began a heel turn at Raw 1000 but he still essentially remained ‘CM Punk’. When a motorcycle riding Undertaker arrived and took down the regime, laying out Mr McMahon in the process, a typical babyface ‘debut’ had been made but it became more interesting when Taker, a known locker-room leader, became a bullying heel. Then we could hear a new voice and see a new side to the gimmick.
The changes and ‘debuts’ also show a difference in wrestling these days. The majority of people will not have known that Undertaker would be appearing that night, same with the fact that Ron Simmons was leaving the company. Now, the internet, if you choose to follow it, basically ‘ruins’ any and all surprises we may get. It was obvious last year, the night after Wrestlemania when Cena was discussing his loss against The Rock and the crowd were chanting for Brock Lesnar. Cena tried to brush it off but the truth was that everyone had seen the photos online of Brock being back with the company and so, as loud as everyone popped for the return of The Beast, the actual surprise had been taken away.
These individual changes have different repercussions for those involved. Sometimes, there is a more seismic shift which alters wrestling forever. The most obvious recent one was the WCW buy-out and subsequent merger with WWE. In the past, we’d seen the buy-out of the regional territories and the massive shift that created, when WCW folded, it was the destruction of a once powerful rival. If TNA were to fold, and I sincerely hope they don’t even with their current troubles, it wouldn’t really create a huge impact (no pun intended) because they are simply not on a high enough level to create a crack in the wrestling world. If they were, WWE would already have tried to poach a few of their top talents and yet all they’ve done is bring back some of their own guys like Christian and RVD.
The fact that a behemoth like WCW, that had ruled the ratings war for so long, could now be an afterthought was a shocking change. It changed the industry to the point where WWE’s dominance cannot be fought and it changed so many careers along the way. Some wrestlers fell by the wayside. Some became cherished WWE names themselves. Some have so far avoided the product as much as they can...well, one man has anyway. This was not only a storyline change, it was a change which, when watching live, you really didn’t know what to make of it. When JBL debuted, no-one really knew the sort of career he’d go on to have, watching the final WCW, everyone knew this was history they were watching.
Obviously, the final WCW is about as big as it gets but there are other shocking changes that, for a moment, regardless of how they end up, leave us staring wide-eyed at the screen as it goes to black. The debut of the Nexus did that. Now, in no way am I putting the debut of a faction alongside the end of a company, but that initial shock factor was there. Up until that point, NXT was just a good first series for new wrestlers. When Wade Barrett stood on top of the ramp and watched Cena versus Punk, no-one really knew what to make of it. When those rookies not only took down the two poster-boys of the product (granted, one was yet to become a ‘poster-boy’) but then took out the commentators and destroyed the ring, no-one had a clue what was going on. Yes, that change, with hindsight, was massively derailed, but at the time we all felt a shift in the product. There was a change though. Daniel Bryan is a main-eventer, Skip Sheffield is now Ryback, Wade Barrett is still around (and will hopefully begin to climb his way back up the ladder), 3MB are an outlet for Heath Slater, Darren Young is being heralded as a brave man for recently coming out, and Justin Gabriel is still with them. Oh, and David Otunga is on the opening WWE signature so he’s obviously doing something right. Basically, that Nexus debut changed the product not because of that night, but because of the new stars it gave us. It showed that, for years of negative press, the WWE was going to commit to young stars in an era when the old guard were slowly retiring.
So, for all of these changes, some individual, some seismic shifts, the impact is often not immediately known. Do we know how history will treat the ‘New Corporation’ that was created by a pedigree on Daniel Bryan at SummerSlam? No. It feels like we’re in the middle of something that might define this era of wrestling but beyond that, we don’t know. We watch wrestling for these changes though. For those moments where we think everything has changed. For the returns which alter a storyline or a new character who will one day be regarded as a Hall of Famer. Being a wrestling fan is a lot like riding a rollercoaster. It’s got its ups and downs, its slow moments and its fast moments, its shocks and its turns. The point of a rollercoaster is that it constantly changes and we go along for the ride. Some of us might not enjoy it as much as others but one thing is certain, when the ride changes to a screaming downhill bend, we’re on there together to see where we’ll end up next. Hell, ‘it’s just a ride’.
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Ta ta for now and hopefully see you next week.