SummerSlam and Smart Marks: A Primer
As a wrestling fan for all of my natural life, I am genuinely excited about the prospect of this weekend's SummerSlam, particularly as it relates to the WWE Title Match. The meteoric rise of Daniel Bryan (to the point where the company is actually moving forward with a rare face vs. face program for its most important title) has been the story of the year, and pitting him against much-maligned company man John Cena has worked well also. Couple the delicate balance of Cena continuing to win matches and look dominant with the trajectory of Bryan, and you've got all the makings of an excellent encounter. We should take time to celebrate such occasions; they don't happen often enough and this feud feels real enough and fresh enough to capture our collective attention in a major way. It, along with CM Punk vs. Brock Lesnar, has that "big fight" feel that World Wrestling Entertainment cards often lack. Those two matches alone might be enough to salvage whatever happens on the rest of the card (still not finalized as of press time, believe it or not).
Making the WWE Title match even more interesting is the possibility that either Randy Orton, Damien Sandow, or both Money In the Bank winners cash in their title shot and potentially walk out of Los Angeles as champion. Not to be dismissive of the World Title match, which features two excellent competitors and workers in champ Alberto Del Rio and challenger Christian, but it's the WWE Title match that will draw the lion's share of the interest, and rightfully so. If there's a cashing in to be had in the short term, that match looks like the place to do it. My personal feeling on two contract winners is that one will use it immediately, striking while the iron is hot, and the other will be built into a more long-term program supporting the briefcase. There's simply no reason to overbook the event with multiple title changes. That's not to say, of course, that such will never be the case, but I don't see it happening here. Of the two MITB winners, clearly it's Orton being presented as the more likely of the two to use it Sunday. WWE is practically hitting us over the head with the tantalizing possibility, as seen by his entrance at the top of the ramp during the very good Cena/Bryan face-to-face last night. That right there may be a very excellent reason why it won't happen, but the mind reels with possibilities.
Monday's Raw also brought the somewhat unwelcome news that Triple H would be the guest referee for the WWE Title match, replacing Mr. McMahon's heel choice, General Manager Brad Maddox. If you were already getting the sinking feeling that the fix was in, your rowboat just hit the bottom of Lake Erie. The only dangerous part of turning Triple H heel would be his "bad boy buddy comedy" angles with Shawn Michaels, but with Shawn off shooting game in the wilderness and growing a Daniel Bryan beard, that may not be an issue for a while. Guest referees of any kind always alarm me as a fan because I feel they are ripe for the kind of creative laziness that plagues some of the best matches. It's not to say that having one always makes the match worse, quite the contrary, but watching the WWE has given me some trust issues. It's like when you tell a young kid not to go into the closet looking for Christmas presents. Ten seconds later, they are knee deep in paper and discovering that they're soon to be getting Tickle Me Elmo. I find the creative team consistently unable to resist the urge to overdo it.
I have no idea what will happen Sunday. More accurately, I have many different ideas, most or all of which will likely be wrong. I am one hundred percent comfortable with that. The WWE has at minimum done an excellent job of keeping me guessing as it relates to both of their big matches. Specifically referring to Cena/Bryan, there are plenty of potential directions for them to go in that would make sense. Has John Cena's nagging injury allowed the opening for someone else to get a run with the belt? Has Bryan gotten over enough with WWE management that it's time to give him a serious run with the World title? Is Orton's long-rumored heel turn going to take place, and will it involve him cashing in the briefcase? How will Trips and the rest of the Funky Gang be involved, and what face/heel repercussions will that bring? Will the other Bella Twin get breast implants thus making them indistinguishable? You get my drift. This is exactly what we as wrestling fans want going into a PPV weekend. We want more questions than answers, and we don't want those questions to only lead to one or two options. Had I written this a year ago, I wouldn't have honestly felt that Daniel Bryan would be facing Cena in a match, let alone having an excellent shot to win it. The prospect that D-Bry does win it only to lose it to Orton or get screwed over by some member of the McMahons is as heartbreaking as it is fantastic.
Much has been written about fans being "smart" marks. I would wear that badge with pride. You're a mark if you love wrestling, so chances are if you're reading this, welcome to Markville. It's not a prerequisite to like Mark "That's What He Used To Do" Henry (incidentally, Mark, saw that insane truck pull and I reserve the right to refute all my comments in person), but it helps. This term comes from the early carnival days that current professional wrestling is based in. A mark was someone that bought into the joy of the carnival enough that they were, in essence, able to be cajoled or otherwise relieved of their cash. Playing most games of chance will lead to the same conclusion. I for one love the history of wrestling as a sport. It's one of the few things that most outsiders don't get about what we love. Regardless of your feelings of the current product (and overall it's pretty damn good a lot of the time), the history of this great sport gets me going. The fact that it's rooted in mystery and magic and con artists just makes it all the better. I've heard wrestling described as a male soap opera, but that's discounting of the many women who love pro wrestling. Wrestling is NOT a male soap opera. It's a neverending circus that you don't have to wait for. And it's beautiful.
As to the smart part, who wouldn't want to be called smart? This part of the term refers to you having inside knowledge of the business, but it's thrown around with such abandon to almost become archaic. My excellent editor has contacts within the industry. Many of the writers whose sites we frequent for wrestling rumors and news have contacts as well. I personally (and gleefully) have none. I freely admit that because it works for me. My joy or outrage is untainted by advance knowledge, except the same rumors we all see thrown out there. Many of those rumors are true. Knowing what's going to happen before it does (or wanting to know) is what makes you a smart mark. You don't have to be right, you just have to have an interest in what goes on behind the scenes. It's almost a fait accompli; I don't know how you can't become so intoxicated by the environment and mystique of pro wrestling that you don't want to read everything you possibly can about it. I haven't met too many casual fans, except those who used to watch it regularly and stopped when they stopped cursing (dumb), Shawn Michaels retired (understandable), or Hulk Hogan made his first sex tape (can't blame you there). Once you're into it, you're very very into it. That's part of what makes it special to so many.
Being a smart mark never seems to be a good thing with some people. It's said with derision by aging bookers who want everything to be top secret and nobody to care about their secret plans. This is not just a wrestling issue, incidentally: everyone from Julian Assange to Edward Snowden is a smart mark in one way or another, as they consider it part of their business to give out information that is not necessarily for public consumption. Regardless of your political beliefs, it's easy to see why these issues become very potent and powerful to us in this day and age of instantaneous information. If you want to peek behind the curtain and see what the Wizard of Oz is doing, now is your chance. The risk you take, of course, is that what you'll find back there is Vinnie Vegas, but that's life. As a lifelong fan of magic and great magicians, I have no trouble admitting the enjoyment of seeing a great trick executed and the equal enjoyment of finding out how it's done. It doesn't ruin it for me the next time I see it. On the contrary, I marvel at tricks that are executed well. It becomes a mental contest to figure out how it was done, and you delight equally when you figure it out or when you're totally stumped. From Harry Houdini to Penn Jillette, the proof (and fun) is everywhere.
Wrestling is just like magic. It's rooted in the same carny atmosphere, it relies heavily on pomp and circumstance (and misdirection, wicked amounts of misdirection) and it's about capturing the magic of a forgotten time in a new day and age over and over again. Making people (especially kids) stare in wonderment. I don't have children, but I've seen younger cousins and such react to a great spot or an excellent wrestling personality and it's nothing short of, well, magical. When I do have kids, I will raise them as wrestling fans and fear not for what anyone might think of that. If they decide to hate it after seeing Great Khali, well, that's their choice. But there was a time when a walking giant straight out of a storybook would freak you out too. I can celebrate the absurdity of it all while making my opinion known. Magic and wrestling both combine physicality, comedy, dramatic tension, and good old-fashioned mystery. It's true that less people get hit with chairs at a magic show, but nobody gets sawed in half (yet) in the WWE, so that's a push.
The point I'm making here is that we as fans should wear the smart mark badges with pride. It's that deep desire to know the unknowable that makes us who we are. If we're going to critique plotlines for being too formulaic and repetitive (and I sure have, check the archives) we have to stop and smell the roses when the promoters get it right. A recent example was Chris Jericho's return at the Royal Rumble. I'm sure there were those worthy individuals who had checked Fozzy's touring schedule and their inside info well enough to know it would happen, but it never got enough steam to be confirmed on the dirt sheets prior to the event, and it was great. The happiness and satisfaction of being "worked" as a fan more than made up for any temporary pang of "hey, somebody should have told me that was gonna happen!" As fans, just because we WANT to know doesn't mean we have a RIGHT to know. That said, the major promotions do themselves more harm than good by concerning themselves with what will get out and what won't. The recent posting of PPV results has caused shockwaves in the industry, but the reality is that wrestling is easier to predict than other sports. It's formulaic, repetitive, and often mind-numbingly simple. All of that is said with love, by the way. Because it's scripted entertainment, it's like guessing the fate of characters on your favorite TV show. You take the evidence laid out before you and process it to its logical conclusion. Then, because it's wrestling, you predict the opposite.
The point I'm making here is that wrestling fans should celebrate this term when it's used, both for historical and current purposes. There are some awfully good times to be a smart mark, and this weekend will be one of them. No matter what happens on the entire card or the main event of the evening, each and every one of us will be thinking about the result in our head all week long and celebrating or castigating it when it occurs. That's the sign of a well-done match, and it's something we haven't gotten to experience too much lately. I'm quite sure that faithful readers of this space will know how I'd want it to end. Whether or not that's meant to be is far less important than the WWE and its athletes telling a solid story through words and actions that culminates in (hopefully) a big surprise or two. Celebrate the moment and then turn your attention to the next one. Revel in the absurdity and ingenuity. Most importantly, don't forget that first time you tuned in to a wrestling match in wide-eyed wonder. Let it out on Sunday, and revel in your smart mark status. I sure do.
*With the card perhaps not yet complete, the rest of SummerSlam on paper appears a tad underwhelming. As mentioned, Del Rio/Christian should be solid, but it seems a longshot that Christian will win and that irks me a bit. The build for that feud has been pretty random. I'm glad to see that Rob Van Dam and US Champion Dean Ambrose got onto the card, but I again question the choice of putting that in the preshow. Dump Ziggler/Big E or, better yet, Brie Bella/Natalya. Does every women's match have to be the result of them slapping each other? No chance of that happening as WWE pimps out Total Divas to a ridiculous degree, I suppose. Van Dam's schedule appears to be the reason he hasn't been given a solid feud since his return, but I could really care less. He and Ambrose have a very real risk of stealing the show before it begins should they get the time to do so. Sandow/Rhodes will be entertaining, but most of the lower tier matches seem to be storyline wrapups rather than noteworthy bouts. As for Bray Wyatt, the Ring of Fire/Disco Inferno/Boy Named Sue match is a perfect opportunity for him to take out a big name in a dominant way in a special kind of match. Overall, this PPV will be worth the money, but you'll be able to take a few bathroom breaks.
*Big Show is finally back, and appears to be a face again. He made the rescue on last night's Raw (sort of), as his appearance at ringside was enough to send The Shield scurrying to the back right before they attacked Battle Royal finalists RVD and Henry. One would logically conclude that Show/Henry (ShowMo?) vs. Rollins & Reigns is imminent. I'm flabbergasted at the bad booking of The Shield. The focus on the Wyatts has really pushed them to the back burner. Monday night's backstage promo gave me hope that perhaps we were headed in the right direction, but since when do The Shield run away from even equal numbers? They routinely would attack 3-on-3 during their early time in the company and still get the upper hand. Show has a funny side but the WWE is clearly desperate for faces moving both he and Henry to the good guy side. One of them should, frankly, not be. I will say I love the battle royal angle for getting someone a championship match. It's done just enough to not be played out, and it's always exciting to watch even with the commercial breaks.
*Never good to see anyone injured, but I think a break for Sheamus is just what the doctor ordered (pun intended). Sheamus is a guy the company (especially Trips) is high on and I think he's a compelling character, mainly because he looks so much different than anyone on the roster. Adding in international superstars in a way that's not over-the-top is especially important in the here and now, but Sheamus has been on the sidelines wrestling in various middling feuds since his run-ins with The Shield earlier this year. As someone who was all over the win columns and PPVs, creative appears stuck in neutral with the character since the face turn. Perhaps some time on the disabled list will give both Sheamus and the writers a chance to give him a fresh feud upon his return. Wade Barrett would be an obvious choice, given the natural English/Irish rivalry, but could do wonders for both men. Those matches would be physical to be sure. We will see what the future holds, but I'd like to think it's a chance for a new start for what has the potential to be a more developed and intriguing character.
*If I could change one thing about wrestling that some might consider peripheral, it would be the books. As mentioned, I love reading about the history of wrestling, and let's face it: what's more interesting that the cast of characters represented in wrestling archives? That's why I am continually disappointed by the books that come out regarding this great sport. By the way, my issue is (generally) not with content. It's with editing. Many sports books have issues, but I've noticed that books about wrestling often look like they were written by a 12-year-old at a science fair. It's unfortunate that these books are regarded with so little concern that they make it to press and out to the public without a simple edit. It's also offensive to us as readers. If a book is truly great, you can bypass and ignore the spelling and punctuation to get right to the story, but it's a simple fix and it's about time someone did it. WWE's DVDs, CDs, etc., are all presented professionally, and someone needs to step in and do the same here. Stop treating wrestling fans like morons and you'll not only sell more books, you'll grow the business. Imagine that.
That is all I have for you this week. I thank you for reading and hope you enjoyed. I will be back on Friday with another dose of headlines as we count down the hours to what should be quite the weekend in wrestling. In the meantime, you can reach me on Twitter @coffeyfan77 or feel free to leave a comment below. Until next time, this is Mike Holland saying have a great week and enjoy SummerFest!