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WRESTLING COLUMNS

The Next Transcendent WWE Star
September 25, 2005 by Patrick Snow


Each sport has its share of athletes who become bigger than the sport itself and enter into multiple facets of our popular culture. Many people who never watch a baseball game or a football game still know who Derek Jeter is or who Tom Brady is because of their many appearances on TV, magazine covers, etc. With sports being such a large part of our cultural landscape, even the people covering sports, such as John Madden and Dick Vitale, have become celebrities outside of their sports. This is partly because of shows like SportsCenter, a show which mixes sports highlights with pop culture references.

Over the years, professional wrestling, which was at one time a niche “sport,” has become accepted as a part of our mainstream culture. This has happened for a variety of reasons, but the roots of this progression can be traced back to the industry boom of the 80s, led by the WWF and its promotion of a wrestling figure who became bigger than the business itself and entered into the mainstream consciousness of American pop culture"Hulk Hogan.

Hogan was one of the first of many wrestlers who became pop culture icons. But what does that mean? What separates a wrestling star that crosses into mainstream success from a regular wrestling performer? I will now attempt to answer these questions by looking at the qualities of past transcendent stars and predicting the potential future of the one such WWE star. This article is not intended to be a biography or fan-worship piece for any particular wrestler, it is not suggesting that we shouldn’t celebrate WWE wrestlers who possess excellent in-ring abilities but haven’t crossed into mainstream success, nor is it meant to criticize the WWE’s current creative team"those issues are beyond the scope of this piece. Instead, I will examine what makes a wrestler a crossover success, and then I will look at the state of the current WWE roster. What this will reveal is that the WWE has lacked a true transcendent star to be the focus of their programs over the last few years, but one current WWE superstar has the potential to be the next pop culture icon.

Creating a Star

In America, we love heroes. Professional wrestling, perhaps more so than other sports, is directly dependent on heroes. Many professional wrestling matches and feuds develop a protagonist and an antagonist (especially in the WWE), and the fans are encouraged to cheer for the heroic protagonist. This doesn’t mean that an individual fan will necessarily cheer for who is supposed to be the “good guy,” but it does mean that one character is supposed to represent the good side of the battle. The best heroes, in wrestling or otherwise, often represent the values we hold deep within our belief systems"strength, truth, justice, freedom, ability to overcome unbeatable odds, etc. However, for a wrestling star to transcend into mainstream culture, that star needs to connect with the viewers in a way that captures a specific set of cultural ideas at the proper time. This is often done through the wrestler’s image created by a combination of his catchphrases, theme music, moves, and feuds. Hulk Hogan epitomized this in the 1980s. His golden boy image, his “Real American” theme song, his waving of the flag, his feuds with foreign wrestlers who opposed the United States (such as The Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff), and his catchphrases (“Say your prayers, eat your vitamins,” “What’cha gonna do when Hulkamania runs wild on you?”) all connected Hogan with the all-American masculine images circulating in other realms of our pop culture during the 80s. Hogan gave fans a point of identification (patriotism) at a time when America was still entrenched in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The fact that he often played the underdog role in the storyline only increased Hogan’s appeal. America loves the underdog and, in many ways, painted itself as the underdog in the Cold War. In a different way, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin formed a point of identification in the late 90s by connecting himself to a set of attitudes that reflected America’s frustrations with the corporate capitalist system. Austin represented the worker who had taken enough flak from his employer, so he undermined his boss. However, he was too valuable to be fired, no matter what outrageous acts of revenge he performed against the company. When Austin rebelled against his boss, Vince McMahon, it allowed wrestling fans to vicariously kick their own boss in the gut, give them the stunner, flick them off, and then drink a brew (I would have loved to do that to so many of my past bosses…).

The Lack of Faces

One of the issues the WWE has been dealing with over the past few years is the lack of talent on the “good” side of the “good vs. evil” split that most of their matches and feuds are structured around"what wrestling fans call “faces.” The WWE has not developed a “face” for the better part of the last three years who has been able to transcend the wrestling storylines to be a point of identification. Just by examining the WWE roster, one can see that there aren’t that many “faces” there. I’m not the first to suggest this lack of “fresh faces” (see Dave Hanson’s piece “Where Are All the Young Faces,” in which he claims that it is difficult for faces to win over the crowd and be widely liked, which has strongly affected the Intercontinental Championship); however, I think we need to explicitly link this lack of faces to the wrestlers’ inability to connect to our cultural values. Many of the faces that have been pushed throughout the card have been part of flash-in-the-pan storylines (such as Randy Orton’s ill-fated face turn or Eugene’s push with Angle), great technical wrestlers with little charisma (Chris Benoit, Shelton Benjamin), or hired help that last for only short runs with the company (Goldberg, Scott Steiner). These performers (and the characters played by them) don’t grasp the fabric of our cultural imagination at this moment in history. I’m not suggesting that they can’t be serviceable in the world of professional wrestling (Benoit, for example, is an outstanding ring technician and generally makes the stories he is involved with better despite lacking charisma), but they are not going to capture the imagination of our culture beyond the snap suplexes and Batista Bombs"not like Hogan captivated patriotic Americans or how Austin attracted disgruntled employees who enjoy beer and giving authority figures “the bird.” It’s not always the wrestler with the best technique or the most original gimmick that transcends the sport"it is the wrestler who can capture a combination of current social ideals and in-ring excitement that crosses over. The WWE produces a better product when it has this type of wrestler; they need a character to develop into the “face”"both literally and figuratively"of the company that the fans can identify with and live through.

Charismatic Talent

Throughout the past twenty years, the WWE has had wrestlers who have been charismatic enough to branch out into other entertainment industries. From Hulk Hogan to The Rock (an interesting example of a heel who turned face because of his crossover appeal), the WWE has had wrestlers take their name and spread it throughout our pop culture in movies, books, music, TV, and so on. However, many of these wrestlers leave wrestling behind or become “part-time” wrestlers because of their mainstream success. Once this happens, another wrestler or set of wrestlers need to fill the void. In the past, the WWE has gone through cycles where they develop a transcendent star that eventually leaves but is replaced by another one shortly thereafter. Hulk Hogan, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Andre the Giant, Jesse the Body, and, to a lesser extent, Randy Savage and Ultimate Warrior carried the 80s with their bigger-than-wrestling personas; Mick Foley, Steve Austin, and The Rock largely carried the 90s. After this group, however, the WWE has been unable to cultivate a charismatic talent to carry on the tradition of these pop culture icons. Triple H, Kurt Angle, The Undertaker, Eddie Guerrero, Booker T, Rey Mysterio, RVD, Kane, Randy Orton"these wrestlers may put on great matches or have memorable feuds, but my friends who don’t watch wrestling have no idea who most of these wrestlers are. My mother, who can’t stand wrestling, is clueless when it comes to Edge and Lita; she couldn’t pick out Eric Bishoff from a line-up even with his goofy hairdo (Note to Eric"don’t trust a blind stylist!); she knows nothing of the pathetic way that Nick Dinsmore is being utilized. However, my mother knew that Hogan slammed Andre during their WrestleMania III match"it was that monumental! And let’s face it"if The Undertaker turns heel again, it won’t make SportsCenter that night"Hogan’s nWo heel turn did.

The Future of the WWE?

There are a few WWE wrestlers who have had limited success in other pop culture avenues. Chris Jericho has branched out with his band, Fozzy, and found limited success. He also hosts his own radio show for Sirius Satellite Radio and has been on those VH1 I Love the Blah, Blah, Blah shows. Triple H was in Blade: Trinity (2004) and is slated to be in the film Jornada de Muerte in 2007. Some sports fans remember Kurt Angle as a gold medal winner. However, all of these wrestlers have been around a long time, and if they were going to find significant pop culture success, they would most likely be there by now. The WWE cross-promotes its brands and stars to death, so the transformation of these wrestling stars into pop culture icons would have most likely already occurred.

There is one WWE superstar with pop icon potential, however"John Cena. He is young, charismatic, and has been able to “get over” in the wrestling world with limited wrestling talent. Add to that his ability to harness the Caucasian, suburban hip-hop culture, and you have the recipe for mainstream success. He is built in the same mode as the pop icon wrestlers that preceded him"he is drawing on the popular themes of the day in other areas of our culture (namely hip-hop and working-class themes); he has a collection of catchphrases and witty sayings (much like Hogan, Austin, or The Rock); he is often marked as the underdog facing unbeatable odds (as in his recent handicap match with Angle and Tomko); he is currently taking on the authority figure in Eric Bishoff (much like Austin did with Vince McMahon"see Freddy Sturguess’ column and the reader responses on Cena posted July 18th for more on that specific topic); he has a name for his fan base (“The Chain Gang”) which presents the idea that they are more than common fans"they belong to a movement (much like “Hulkamania” or “Macho Madness”).

The combination of these things has already led to some success elsewhere"his album debuted in May at #15 on the Billboard chart and, although it has since fallen out of the Top 30, it still achieved moderate success. Along with this, his music videos have gotten some airplay on MTV. Love it or hate it, MTV is still a major influence on our pop culture, and appearing on that network is a sure sign that Cena has a chance to be a pop culture star. He has also been on the cover of fitness magazines. Finally, he has a film (The Marine) scheduled for release next year.

Cena’s effect can be seen within the WWE as well. According to WWE.com, RAW’s TV ratings have been steadily increasing over the last year. However, since Cena was “traded” to RAW in June, their ratings have increased significantly, especially with males ages 12-34. This doesn’t necessarily mean the product is better based on storylines or promo spots; it only suggests that Cena heightens the new or marginal viewers’ interest because his appeal is (or has the potential to be) larger than wrestling. Interestingly, it is difficult to be sure if it is Cena’s presence on RAW or the fact that Hulk Hogan made several appearances leading up to SummerSlam that boosted the ratings. However, this debate really isn’t important, because what the increased ratings show is that Cena, Hogan, or a combination of both is attracting a larger audience"which is exactly what sports (and sports entertainment, by extension) hope their transcendent stars will produce. It is not coincidental that Hogan was back on RAW and defeated Shawn Michaels at SummerSlam at the same time that his VH1 reality show premiered. The WWE is still capitalizing on Hogan’s pop culture appeal 20 years after his debut with the company. I know we wrestling purists hate it, but the truth is that the WWE is a business that tries, as does any form of entertainment business, to sell its products to as many people as possible. The WWE knows die-hard wrestling fans will watch their TV programs and attend their live events; it is the marginal wrestling fan and the new wrestling fan that the transcendent star attracts.

by Patrick Snow ..


Casey Carr wrote:
The next HUGE star for WWE will be a man by the name of Bobbie Lashley. He debuted this past Friday on Smackdown. I've seen him maybe 5 times total, but each time I seen him I took instant notice of him. He has a certain presence to him that is second to none. It will be only a matter of time before he becomes a major player and then from there become "The next transcendent WWE star". See for your self and make sure to watch Smackdown this Friday evening.
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