This Could Work #2 - WWE's Burgeoning Weird Midcard
Somewhere over the course of the last decade, the term "gimmick" became a derogatory term among hardcore wrestling fans. The Summer of Punk certainly put the punctuation on this trend, but the entire PG-Era was already dominated by the need to make things seem more "real", as evidenced by the standard bearer of the era making the transition from "rapper who loves to fight" to "armed forces enthusiast" and finally just becoming merging John Cena's real life traits into a loud exaggeration of a real person. That trend has left us with a slew of characters aimed at coming off as "one of the guys", albeit on varying points of the moral spectrum and with vaguely defined character traits that sometimes relate to their nicknames. When it works, we get wrestlers like Dolph Ziggler, Christian, and Daniel Bryan, people who have enough natural personality and in-ring charisma to get so much of themselves over to the crowd. When it doesn't work, we get Wade Barrett.
It wasn't always this way. Younger fans roll their eyes at "ridiculous" characters like Fandango, but there was a time when "Goldust, member of the Rhodes family" was "Goldust, pansexual film obsessive", and we LOVED it even if we cringed. There was a guy who claimed to be a former pornstar, and several legitimately insane people, one of whom carried a mannequin head. Pay Per Views were headlined by a minister of death itself who could control lightning and murdered at least one person on television. Of course it couldn't stay that way forever; part of the success of those characters during the Attitude Era was tied to the ability to push the insanity to so many shocking levels, and genuine emotions needed for great storytelling are easier to convey with characters that are more genuine. Still, there has always been a place for absurd characters in professional wrestling, a sport whose roots trace back to traveling carnivals. They provide the escapism we want in all our television, especially programming so clearly designed to be fun.
This is why it's so exciting to see the makings of a good, old fashioned, absurdist midcard on the horizon. Quietly, over the last couple of years, the WWE has been putting the pieces in place, a Santino here, a Damien Sandow there. These characters have been well-received breaths of fresh air on a roster filled with characters who, on paper, look very similar, and often fail to break out of the quagmire of being blandly relatable. Now, bubbling under the surface of RAW and beginning to dominate the minor leagues of NXT (which has, brilliantly, become a WWE produced "alternative" to WWE flagship programming), there's an approaching onslaught of characters that are, for lack of a better word, silly. Tyler Breeze's catwalk runway entrance, Aiden English singing his way to the ring via spotlight, and LITERALLY EVERYTHING ABOUT BO DALLAS, these are the sort of stupid delights that make us smile and not feel like we have to defend the silly thing that pro wrestling fandom is at its core.
They're also a crucial part of making wrestling on television dynamic. In taking the staggering popularity of wrestlers like John Cena as more relatable, “real” characters and applying it across the board, we’re left with a lot of middling drama that is difficult to care about. Fans in the Monday Night Wars era, by contrast, saw shows whose main even storylines were surrounded by lighter fare. In between the anger and heavy (and often heavy-handed) storytelling of the NWO and Sting and Goldberg’s ascent, you had La Parka and Disco Inferno dancing and fighting over a midcard title, or Eddie and Chavo Guerrero discussing their grandmother’s shame over Chavo’s losing streak. Essentially, it was the “something for everyone” approach that WWE aspires to without forgetting that at the core all of it was wrestling, comedy or heavy drama. Keeping an audience engaged over the course of an entire show by giving them different takes on the medium allows wrestling television to build stories throughout entire shows because people keep watching to see what’s next, as opposed to the eight replays you’ll see of an important moment on RAW over the course of a week. The humor lets the audience catch its breath, and also gives talents the chance to experiment and find ideas that work for them, making for better stories and better characters, which leads to better shows.
This last point is especially important when surveying the midcard talent scene today. Characters like Tyler Breeze or Fandango or even the burgeoning midcard silliness of Zeb Colter and the Real Americans need the chance to find what works for them, and often times that search is better served by letting these talents, all of whom have found some gimmick that works for them on some level, push that gimmick out to its extremes. Doing that in the main event picture obviously doesn’t work in the era of fans wanting stories in which they readily see themselves, but in the midcard, there should be a natural place for the high concept characters to test the limits of their world without the pressures of needing to have immediate mass appeal. “Grudge” matches between Miz and Wade Barrett (who has taken it on the chin here but really is exactly the kind of charismatic performer who would benefit from a big, bold character trait) are basically just poor impressions of the main event scene, eliciting similarly diluted crowd responses; give fans something different, whether it’s Santino and Cesaro battling over American legitimacy or Fandango, Breeze and English in a triple threat match for artistic supremacy, and you at least give performers and fans the chance to connect with something new, and “something new” is the most valuable commodity found in wrestling these days.
The most common complaint with regard to these characters is that “they’ll never be anything more than midcarders,” which is something we really need to stop saying. First of all, it’s just not true. Damien Sandow is on the brink of an almost certain World Heavyweight Title reign, Santino has been in an Elimination Chamber, and Mick Foley (who absolutely fits into this discussion) is a multi-time champion and a hall of famer. Oh, and there’s photographic evidence of how ridiculous “Doctor of Thuganomics” John Cena used to be. These wrestlers were able to grow with, beyond, and indeed because of their initially ridiculous, somewhat simple gimmicks, and I’m convinced it’s because they were able to use the crutch of their gimmick to find what it was about them that they could use to connect with the audience on a consistent, dynamic basis. Dolph Ziggler built a character off of his natural charisma, but he’s the exception, and you can see in his current struggles just how hard it is to capture an audience both as a villain and a hero without something easy to use to connect with viewers (the “Show Off” thing has only sort-of worked as a gimmick, and even then only as a heel).
Most wrestlers need the time to get confident just being who they are as a storyteller, and while the goal should eventually be for them to put out as much genuine, believable, and relatable material as possible in their characters to generate mass appeal, the time it takes to get to that point is best spent building confidence in front of crowds that comes from success in communicating with them. That success is often most easily rooted in simple concepts that audience and wrestler can understand, even if that concept is something as silly as “he’s a dancer” or “he’s oblivious”. In the journey to main event status, you crawl before you walk.
But secondly, and more importantly, does everyone need to be a main event wrestler? Is that even a world worth aspiring towards? Yes, the idea that “anyone can wrestle for the title” is a good one, and the occasional “midcarder puts on a hell of a fight for the title” match is great (Rey Mysterio was the KING of these in WCW), but that’s not any sort of foundation for consistency. Maybe we need to consider that the reason the midcard titles and undercard matches of pay per views have lost their sense of urgency is because the pressure we as fans and the WWE as a company put on every wrestler to inevitably become either a main event star or a failure makes those matches and titles seem like checkpoints on the side of the road instead of legitimate destinations, and unimportant checkpoints at that. This not only forces wrestlers to try and immediately make their characters into something broader and more immediately relatable than they may be ready to achieve, but also robs fans of the pleasure that can come from watching the sort of insular silliness that an over-the-top wrestling midcard is capable of creating. Yes, the march of Goldberg from “who is that” to “phenomenon” was great to watch, but so was Disco Inferno being an overweight contender for the Cruiserweight Title. Steve Austin’s quest against the McMahons was compelling, but fans were equally caught up in the soap opera style saga of Goldust and Val Venis battling over Terri Runnels. I’ll take one weird Bo Dallas “what the hell are they doing here” promo over a million vaguely good or vaguely bad “I’m a guy on the rise” microphone moments of Kofi Kingston or Wade Barrett (#PoorWadeBarrett).
The point isn’t the wrestling hipster talking point of “main eventers are lame because people like them”; it’s that wrestling can build more characters that more people like if they just let big, weird characters exist for a while as big, weird characters, stretching the boundaries of the stories that can be told and seeing how audiences respond. With so many over-the-top ideas on the horizon, I’m hopeful that the WWE will let these ideas coexist, and perhaps even enhance each other, finding new ways for the upcoming crop of silly characters to fight or collaborate, creating new, unexpected, and, ideally, uniquely interesting stories. The makings of a reinvigorated, exciting, and, most importantly, unapologetically weird midcard are there, and fans stand to benefit the most if they let the WWE know that they’re interested in something new, no mater how silly it seems at first.