Dolph Ziggler is equal parts annoyed and inspired that Wrestlemania is going to feature three part-time wrestlers in their two biggest matches on the card? Excellent. He should be. So should everyone else in the WWE locker room, for that matter. The ease with which the bookers swiped away the last year to clear space for old favorites should be a lesson indeed, and one that must be learned before it can be overcome: the hand that giveth is indeed the hand that taketh away.
Celebrities have been around Wrestlemania since the beginning. Nothing makes a McMahon shiver like the thought of a Hollywood type showing up to add "legitimacy" to the proceedings. Even when that legitimacy is in the personage of Liberace. It adds a spectacle, and makes just another PPV have more of a big-game feel. That is why all of us are expected to be excited when Snooki shows up. This takes on an even greater and more alarming aspect when said celebrities wrestle in matches. The results of that are rarely pretty, and so the WWE is faced with what all reality-based programming invariably runs into: nostalgia.
All reality television that has been on for a while inevitably presents "All-Star" versions, where returning players are brought back for our enjoyment. Think of this year's Wrestlemania card as a microcosm of that principle. The solution to a stale product is to inject some old favorites. That of course leads to the guys and girls that have busted their asses for the rest of the calendar year to get a bit grumpy. Who are these folks to come in here and take over, getting the prime real estate of the card and all the promotion that comes with it? Sure, they are legends, but as soon as that payday is collected they are off to film some movie or get back to their other career or whatnot. What about me, as the awesome Owen Hart would say.
Dolph's attitude is the answer to this issue. Rather than decrying the process, he recognizes that this business is built on buzz. In today's digital age, what's new this second is beyond old tomorrow. It's not enough to simply show up and allow the WWE merch machine to push you to glory. You have to deliver a singular experience. Give the crowd something new and different, whether they were looking for it or not. Doubtful that you'll see any of the returning big names add to their arsenal of moves.
You and I know what we're going to get when we tune in, and we love that. So why do matches like Taker vs. HHH steal the show? Storytelling. Leaving it all out on the mat by the end. The flashy moves and the ever-changing attention grabs will capture your interest for a fleeting moment, but the returning big names built their glory on being able to tell a better story. Content always wins.
Anyone on the card should approach this exactly as Dolph suggests. Get mad, but channel that anger into a better performance. Recognize that the reason those guys are back are exactly the reason why the WWE does everything: the almighty dollar. Give the customers a reason to drop it on you and you won't have to plead your case for your spot. Nothing changes the plans like an opportunity to cash in. Look no further than Wrestlemania 18 if you need evidence of that. (I refuse to acknowledge X8, even though I just did.) No matter what the plan was, when the people got behind Hogan as a face the plans were changed. T-shirts, beanie babies and pillow pets were sold. Scrooge McMahon could once again do a backstroke through the piles of gold. And yes, that was a Duck Tales reference.
Rather than lambasting this as a regression into the past, look at it like an opportunity. With all the focus on the names of yore, the athletes in the middle of the pack have a chance to truly shine and make a statement. Nobody gets that more than Mr. Ziggler. He's been a male cheerleader and the valet to Kerwin White. Now he's someone that many of us look at as the future Curt Hennig. Not bad. There is no doubt whatsoever that he has the skill set and personality to become one of those guys with an open invitation to future Wrestlemanias. But standing around like so many members of the current roster and bitching about The Rock being back from a movie is the wrong move. Take it for what it is: an effort to get the buzz going and ultimately get buys. Does anyone realistically think that he'll be the champion for another year or two? Clearly not. But if you can't strike while the iron is hot and show us what you're capable of, you won't be the fallback option when he makes Tooth Fairy 2.
There's always been a really bad effort going on to make wrestlers into movie stars. The charisma that they exert in the ring rarely translates to the multiplex. This phenomenon is not exclusive to the wrestling industry, by the way. Cindy Crawford is a damn good model, but I'm a mite confused as to why she's shilling furniture. Just because you're good at something isn't an excuse to get into everything. It won't ever stop them from trying.
The excitement that some huge name like Mickey Rourke is coming is great to get WWE mentioned on late night television, but the buzz wears off faster than that deluxe can of Red Bull. What ultimately will get and keep the attention are the performers who can leave an indelible impression in the minds of fans. Not just fans that already love wrestling, mind you, but the ones who came to see Pam Anderson.
I've heard other WWE guys commenting on this issue, but none of them got it the way Dolph did. All the usual "it's good for business, so we like it" stuff is fine on the surface, but stretches credibility to the extreme. If anyone in the locker room truly feels that way, it's time to hang it up. We appreciate the touchy-feely sweet nothings, but let's get serious: wrestling is a sport that thrives on competition and outdoing the next match that's up. The attitude that "my match sucked, but the next one is really good so this is a good PPV" is ridiculous. You have to push your opponent and yourself to achieve that four-star affair. Then you go out and do it again and again, and soon everyone is asking what you're doing Wrestlemania weekend instead of manning the Axxess booth.
In the same way, a healthy anger towards that side of the business is a good thing. While I don't think that Ziggler & Big E Langston versus Hell No will come close to being the best match on the card, I appreciate that the guys involved are going into it with that mindset. I am anxious for them to prove me wrong. In many ways, it's precisely those type of matches that have a better chance of being memorable. Expectations for the Rock/Cena and Taker/Punk matches are already ridiculously high. They'll be solid, of course, but how can two guys that haven't wrestled more than a handful of dates in the last year possibly blow our minds with their effort? There's never been a better time for the upper to midcard talents to step up and deliver the goods.
As fans, we have to be careful with nostalgia. I think it's epic when someone whose matches I spent countless years enjoying gets between the ropes and shows they still have it. I enjoy the ability to let someone from the past know just how much I appreciated their work. That said, when Michael Jordan shows up to an NBA game they don't suit him up and ask him to play. Using names of the past here and there to influence the event is a great idea; liberal dumping of these ingredients ruins the soup. Ultimately, though, it's up to the current roster to make us more excited to see what they'll do than have us running back to the familiarity we know and love.
That in essence is why I am incredibly impressed that a highly-regarded next generation grappler like Ziggler is not taking the easy route and getting mad OR getting even. He's planning on doing both, and the show will be the better for it. He's going to take that energy and irritation and release it in the ring, giving us all a glimpse of what we're overlooking when we're busy loading up on snacks for the last third of the show. We as fans can only hope that that mindset translates to the rest of the locker room. It's the best thing for the business that we care so much about.
Mike Holland is a long-suffering Philadelphia sports fan and an equally long-time fan of professional wrestling. When not working on his badminton game or enjoying Jim Ross's enunciation of Grandmaster Sexay, he can be found power napping.