A few days ago, a very big thing happened. Somewhere, lost in the hustle and bustle of the latest unfortunate Daniel Bryan injury news, the latest WWE Network subscription data (I've done MY part to keep Damien Sandow on the payroll), and the kerfuffle over what the hell Sting is doing, one of the best wrestlers of my generation made a remarkable statement. The source wasn't surprising; the advice, perhaps, more so.
The wrestler in question, never timid and always outspoken, was one "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. The remarks were in reference to the WWE's tendency/habit/what-have-you of over-scripting promos for their talent. Recently, I posted a column here at TJR discussing Austin's famous 3:16 commentary and how the power and force of it lingers over professional wrestling even now. You don't even have to be a wrestling fan to know about Austin 3:16, but you do need to be one to truly understand how it captivated, mesmerized and defined a generation. The reason for that reflection is to put in perspective that this is a gentleman whose word on this matter should be taken more seriously than most. Considering that Austin is responsible for one of the most famous promos in WWE history, this is a topic he has some awareness of. Here's what he said:
"I disagree with (scripting). I think the nature of a promo has to come from your heart and your guts and you have to mean everything that you're saying. Now is the perfect time to go back to that formula. You learn to sink or swim. And guys and gals will start to learn to swim again. That's what's going to make the product feel more organic, more spontaneous and more real."
Generally when former greats speak about the current product, you can outright sense the undercurrent of latent hostility that exists. Not so here. Regardless of what side you take when Mick Foley balks at his legends deal, opinions of the former talent has never been less likely to be out there and fit for general consumption. Anybody who's had so much as a cup of coffee in a major promotion seemingly can't wait to get in front of an interviewer and attempt their own version of a pipe bomb. For Austin, he's had nothing but success since injuries forced him to alter his own career path. From reality shows to Tough Enough to his excellent podcast, he's managed to find mainstream success while supporting the business that made him famous and tempering it with a healthy dose of opinion. And he is dead on with these remarks. I don't pretend to imagine that too many in the WWE headquarters are furiously jotting down notes to comply with Austin's view, but they certainly should.
My first column for TJR concerned the masters of the microphone. One of the single most compelling things about pro wrestling is that it's not simply good enough to physically dominate. That's where the entertainment factor comes in. Old school territorial talents had no choice about the matter. They moved around so frequently and had so much competition that they were constantly reinventing their own personal brand depending on which part of the country they were in at any given time. Phenomenal talkers like fellow podcaster Chris Jericho followed a similar path, gaining exposure in other countries and breaking through due to their ability to connect with a crowd. Ultimately, mat prowess plays a big part on how you'll be booked and whether you get opportunities to succeed, but it's the talkers who hang tough and make themselves famous even without all the physical tools.
Since that time, wrestling has steadily become more and more scripted as the guys who blazed the trail lace up their boots for the final time and walk into the sunset. Today's industry has more to do with soap opera scripts and overdramatized pseudo-reality than its predecessors ever dreamed of, and that's NOT all bad. There's some excellent writing for television and, for this viewer at least, television has surpassed movies in terms of quality for the first time in a very long time. Think of how many excellent shows you've seen, and not just on premium cable, long a hotbed for stuff that was well written but floundering for an audience. From Game of Thrones to Walking Dead, from House of Cards to True Detective, you can find any genre you wish and get excellently written characters, a deep mythology, and all the drama you can shake a stick at.
The difficult part for wrestling is that they tell their stories in real time, forcing an odd hybrid of reality television meets scripted action drama that would be challenging to master for even the most hardened scribe. When someone like Vince Russo takes to the internet to defend the writers, he does it with good intentions. Writing is hard, no matter what kind you do, and it's unforgiving at times but ultimately extremely rewarding. While I may not (and do not) agree with plenty of what Vinnie Ru came up with, I appreciate his outlook and his attempt to make what he did better. Did he accomplish it? That's for the wrestling world at large to decide. Well scripted promos have the ability to take someone who might otherwise have little to no chance of success and turn them into a star. Staying there, however, is another story.
The reason I felt compelled to use some more cyber-ink on Austin and these comments is due to this past Monday's Raw. Three of the most compelling characters on a weekly basis are the former members of The Shield, Messrs. Ambrose, Reigns & Rollins. As they go, so goes the WWE. These are the symbols of the vaunted next generation that we will need to embrace, and they can certainly get it done in the ring. The future from that standpoint looks bright indeed. The Performance Center and the frequent wrestling camps, the abundance of talented road agents, and the exciting technological advances in the sport ensure that the current crop of wrestlers will have a great head start on the wrestling side of things. When it comes to the promo side of the business, however, I remain underwhelmed. As hard as it must be to take a regular person and turn them into a great wrestler, it seems damn near impossible to take a great wrestler and turn them into a great talker. Imagine how tough that makes it for the marginal ones.
Roman Reigns is green as the day is long, and that's perfectly fine for what he's asked to do in the ring. Great look, great presence, high impact, badass warrior. He may truly be the next World Champion. At some point, though, he'll have to do what all great champions before him have done, both those who match or surpass his wrestling ability and those who could simply bluff their way through it. He will have to take hold of each and every fan in the audience and cause an emotion. This is not a rant for his work Monday; it's more an ongoing complaint that I regularly discussed when The Shield was together that hiding guys in the background and muttering preconceived spoonfed promos will in no way prepare said talent for the jungle out there that is the top of the heap in wrestling. Ditto for Seth Rollins, who currently occupies one of the premier seats on the roster with his hot feud with Ambrose, uneasy partnership with Randy Orton, and briefcased title shot. Rollins looks like he's trying way too hard, because he is; the words he spouts seem generic and not his own.
When it works, it really works. I have no idea who is able to go off script, but one would reasonably assume that A-listers like Triple H and John Cena can say just about whatever they want as long as they get their point across. That's identical to the world of Hollywood, where the biggest names can (and do) routinely get an opportunity to augment the words on the page. Often times that leads to the best dialogue in the movie. That's not to criticize the guys who wrote the film; on the contrary, it's to celebrate the actors who are in the thick of things and can take someone else's vision and find a way to put their spin on it. I could give you a dozen examples off the top of my head, and I'm sure you have your own, but I'll go with a personal favorite from the Quentin Tarantino-written and fantastically underrated True Romance: when you discover that the fateful standoff between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken was pretty much those actors getting together and getting it done, you realize you're seeing genius at work. And it makes you appreciate an unbelievable scene that much more.
The point is, WWE does Reigns or Rollins no favors when it insists on having them issue forth the standard proclamations. I'm going to assume that Bray Wyatt isn't following a complete script, frankly because I don't think anyone could write that way. Even if he is, his particular cadence and demeanor make what he's saying that much more powerful. He's certainly a unique and well crafted character, but it's not some cardboard cutout that anyone on the roster could pull off. Counter that with the underwhelming verbiage of newcomers like Adam Rose, and you see where I'm going with this. Even gimmicks that are fun and different will fall to earth quickly when it's the same damn thing every week.
Therein lies the rub for the modern wrestling writer. The days of Hulk Hogan trotting down, tossing out his mega catchphrases, and heading back out next week are a thing of the past. The attention span of our social media culture forces you to develop ever quicker and bring those tools to bear in multiple arenas faster than ever. Some of the most entertaining wrestlers you can follow on Twitter are some of the least fascinating guys to watch on TV, and there's something wrong with that equation. If a wrestler paid to appear in front of live crowds every day and television every week can't find a way to reach into his soul and bare it to you as a fan, he (or she) is in the wrong business. And yet that's exactly what the WWE and other promotions continue to do by forcing intricately scripted promos on the talent. Austin 3:16 didn't come from the well-prepared, hastily scribbled minds of WWE's creative team. It came from a performer who had been through the wars taking some chance remarks and his belly full of animosity and unleashing it upon the world. He better than anyone realizes what World Wrestling Entertainment needs to do to get things back on track: let the talent be themselves. Let them be large, and win (or lose) partially by their own design. Let them create. Anything less is hot air.