A Different Fans Perspective
April 21, 2006 by Thomas Covenant
Hi, this is Thomas Covenant, back with yet another different format for a column. I was motivated to write this column based on a couple of things, most notably:
1) The WWE tapings a year back or so in Japan
2) Recent storylines in the WWE
3) Fan interaction with wrestlers
4) Current trend of kayfabe-breaking in North America
First let me say that this column is not meant to promote one medium or style over another. Quite the contrary, I am a lover of all things wrestling, and my tastes very rarely synch up with typical IWC norms, or those of casual fans or marks. I am in no way knocking any of the feds that I will discuss, merely sharing how they affect my enjoyment on a personal level. I pride myself on my diverse wrestling taste, and I hope that trait comes through in my writing.
Large amounts of North American fans are aware of Japanese wrestling, which might surprise a lot of people. While the Liger/Muta feud might not be understood in its entirety, or the intricacies of the Misawa/Akiyama relationship fully grasped by US fans, many of the big names and moves are well known. I believe this is in part due to wrestling videogames, which often feature a large assortment of "puro" moves (Puro is short for the Japanese version of the term Pro Wrestling, "Puroresu". Say it fast!), plus the internet, which has opened up a lot of data to casual fans seeking new forms of entertainment, with sites like OnlineWorldofWrestling.com, wikipedia.org, youtube.com, etc.
That said, there does seem to be a veil of some sort over this foreign form of the sport we adore so much, a type of barrier if you wheeeel. I believe this is both due to the language barrier, and cultural differences. North Americans are used to being entertained by predominantly English-speaking North Americans. Vince Russo and the WWE were aware of that, and the lengths Russo went to in WCW to attempt to de-push non Anglo-Saxon wrestlers are apparent to anyone who watched that era of WCW. So with that said, I guess it's a foregone conclusion that Puro will never be considered an equal by US fans. I believe that quite the opposite is true, that the popularity of Puro despite the barriers is very telling. My column will focus on the above 4 areas of comparison/contrast, and will hopefully encourage some fans to look outside the mainstream for entertainment.
When the WWE taped their shows in Japan, I remember being mesmerized at the crowds reactions. It almost seemed that the WWE looked BETTER in front of a Japanese crowd, and then I began to wonder why that was. Is it the case that the WWE, as an entertainment medium, modified its presentation style to fit the differing audience" Or is it that the fans contribute to the show, and possibly, by their responses and reactions make the show what it is" I believe it is the latter, with possibly a small amount of the former. It seems to me that the Japanese audience is so respectful, and so enthralled, that there is no place for the chants that fill US arenas. I personally find it somewhat irritating at best, and offensive at worst when the WWE encourages an angle where one worker calls another worker "boring", especially when said worker is not overall that charismatic. The Lance Storm/Austin angle would not happen in Japan, and more so, if it did, it wouldn't strike any kind of a chord, the fans wouldn't even know what the point of it was.
That leads me to my next section on recent WWE storylines. I find the difference in the handling of a wrestlers "twilight" very odd. In the past, Andre the Giant was let to go out respectably, but look at what happened to Bret Hart, Jim Ross, Pat Patterson, Jim Duggan (I am referring to his WCW run, the WWE treated him rather well recently IMHO), Ric Flair (Up until recently), Bruno Sammartino, etc. In Japan, after his WWE run was over, Bruno Sammartino was an icon, as was the case for many others. Even the former Bart Gunn has garnered quite a following, with a new shoot-style move set mixed with traditional American moves. In the recent era, the term "Everyone goes out on their back" has been coined to explain how a wrestler must "transfer" his popularity to a younger, up and coming star, so as not to waste it. This tends to discredit the wrestler in the fans eyes, and does not allow for one final match of honor. The differences can be stylistic as well, as in Japan, the last match where the legend passes the torch can STILL preserve the losers legacy, by focusing on how far the new star has come to defeat this legend in his last match, instead of showing how far the legend has fallen, that they lose to this new star in such an (usually) easy fashion.
This in turn relates to fan interactions. In Japan, a press conference where Kenta Kobashi promises that he will use the Moonsault in his upcoming match with Misawa makes sense, and the message is received by the fans in much the same way that Daunte Culpepper announcing that his arm is fine, and that he will be playing Sunday night does. My point here is that in Japan, wrestlers are not celebrities as such, they are athletes. There is a distinct difference, with some overlap. For example, Terrell Owens or Dennis Rodman are celebrities first, Bret Farve or Michael Vick are athletes first and last. The difference might be cosmetic in nature, but there is an inherent respect there for these role models that go to battle in epic contests in the rings of Japan. While some of the sports entertainment trappings have made it to Japan, the bottom line is the match. A Kobashi/Misawa match will not only be looked forward to, but it will play off the past, such as acknowledging past injuries or tactics (Both legit and kayfabe).
My last point is on the breaking of kayfabe in the WWE and TNA as an entertainment tool. For the most part, I am opposed to this, and believe it's a product of the Bret hart Montreal incident that resulted in the formation of the "Mister Mac Ma-own" character. I personally hated when pro wrestling became about one wrestler having "The Stroke", or the "Powers that Be", or it being another anti-hero X vs authority figure feud. Why would Vince want to fire Stone Cold" Everyone talks about the Peoples Elbow, the Canadian Destroyer, or the Five Knuckle Shuffle as exposing the business, but I say the WWE's use of the Macmahons and the "behind the scenes" terminology has done worse. NO boss would fire someone making them more money than they are potentially costing them, which is to say that even if Stone Cold was a rebel, or HBK had peace of mind and Vince didn't, no board of directors would fire its top star. I will take a Peoples Elbow or any of Danshoku's moves over that type of storytelling, and I will find it more believable.
I am not saying that we all should watch UFO, Pride, or the UFC over the sports entertainment that the WWE and TNA currently offer. What I have tried to illustrate is that the differences in style are not merely due to cultural bias, lack of quality of the performers, or even the changing North American culture. What I do believe is that wrestling is dead in North America. By wrestling, I mean the NWA style of wrestling, or even the WWE during the "New Generation" and "Rockin' Wrestling" eras. While the 80's era for the WWE was more Hollywood than competition, it still featured athletes of such a high caliber, that they entertained the fans both with their characters and their in-ring work. It is my belief that this NWA/Old WWF style of wrestling is what influenced the Japanese style, along with some shoot fighting ethics, and that is why it still continues to be super popular among the underground US puro fan base. I liken this love for Puro in the die hard American fans to the increasing WWE DVD sales vs. the decreasing PPV buy rates and television ratings. People preferred the older style (and of course in part, the older workers they grew up watching) of wrestling that has continued in a slightly modified form in japan. I would argue that the Japanese style is much more athletic, much more believable, and in the end much more entertaining. I think Vince booking God in a match is hilarious, I thought the Booker T/Boogeyman build was amazing, and the Goldust/Booker T pairing was easily one of the best things I have watched on WWE TV in years.
But that said, I rarely want to sit through a 20 minute WWE match. I can't remember the last time a WWE match truly captivated me that didn't involve Chris Benoit or Jamie Knoble. I will watch a match between two Puro stars I hardly even know anything about, who obviously look a lot different than the typical US wrestler (toned bodies are not as prevalent in Japan as in NA) with an announcer I can't understand gladly. Maybe I am just "gone native" so to speak, but a big part of me wonders if the WWE really has anything to offer to true wrestling fans anymore.
by Thomas Covenant ..
Brian L. wrote:
Thomas let me first say that this is a great column that brings forth many valid points. I may not agree with all of what you have said, but it does give one much to ponder. I would also like to point out that the Austin/McMahon feud started after Austin broke his neck and Vince wanted him to take time off to heal. Austin didn't like that suggestion so he stunned Vince. From this perspective the angle makes perfect sense and lead to some interesting T.V. I do agree that all these backstage politics are lame and really only take away from what would otherwise be great wrestling. I do, however, approve of Teddy Long as a GM because he seems to be there to ensure nothing gets out of hand, and isn't scheming to ruin a wrestler. He plays the part Jack Tunney (R.I.P.) used to back in the eighties of the law. One thing you could have touched on is the prevalance of run-ins in todays federations. TNA is perhaps the worst transgressor of this as I witnessed three run-ins of more than two people in a recent show. Run-ins used to be exciting, but now are overused and gang beat downs are all too common. Interference and run-ins would be far more effective if used more conservatively. I would also like to point out that most, if not all, western federations seem to ignore big men and high flyers (with some notable exceptions). I can't picture either Kane or the Big Show as being a threat to the title, because they win nearly every T.V. show and lose Pay-per-view events. In closing, as Mick Foley once said in an interview, (and of course I'm paraphrasing): wrestling is a lot like the circus, if you don't like the acrobats, you'll like the lion tamer. He then likened himself to the human cannonball. There is still much that western federations have to offer true wrestling fans, but unfortunately the big money comes from casual fans, so to get what folks like you and I want (a women's title match that contains actual wrestling and not just T and A would be nice every once in a while... to make the belt mean something again) we have to sit through too much talk of politics and way too many run-ins.
Andrew Hill wrote:
I hear you loud and clear. There are times when I have shared your frustration with the antics of the WWE (and yes, even occasionally with TNA, but not nearly as often). But what I find fascinating is that the WWE is capable of putting on good wrestling if it so wishes, even amongst the trash they generally put forth. Matches like Shawn Michaels vs. Kurt Angle (WM XXI), Michaels vs. HHH vs. Benoit (WM XX), and the Iron Man Match between Lesnar and Angle (Smackdown! September, 2003) illustrate this point. Granted, as it pertains to providing this sort of professional wrestling entertainment the least often, WWE is the guiltiest of all promotions. But notice that two out of the three matches I mentioned were WrestleMania main events. I think we can all agree that is not a coincidence. WWE uses the fact that they so rarely display good wrestling as one of the selling points for their largest Pay-Per-Views. Of course, whether or not you'll get such quality for your money is still a crap shoot, but the possibility is there. I agree with you that Japan and promotions like ROH (which I offer as a counterpoint to your statement that wrestling in North America is dead) are far more consistent entertainment providers than the WWE. But as you stated, one thing we have to remember on these columns is that in the end it's about giving your audience something that will keep them coming back. What that is differs for each promotion, as each promotion caters to a different audience. WWE has the largest audience worldwide, and based on ticket sales I think we can assume most of that audience does not share our dissatisfaction with that particular brand of entertainment.
David Barker wrote:
Thomas, I would like to say this is one of the best articles I've ever
read on OWW, and I've read a lot. I, myself, am also a huge fan of
Japanese wrestling, for much of the same reasons you are. One thing
that I think you failed to mention that makes me enjoy Japanese
wrestling more, is that they will take wrestlers from other countires,
and let them become big
stars: Stan Hansen, the Funks, Dynamite Kid, British Bulldog, and now
Low Ki among a whole host of others. I find that in the WWE
especially, foreign talent doesn't get near as much respect, with the
exception of a few Canadians [technically Rey Mysterio counts as an
American, and Eddie claimed El Passo, Texas as his hometown). I
remember when the WWE hired Ultimo Dragon, I was extremely excited as
Ultimo has always been one of my favorites. Then they did nothing with
him. They hyped Kenzo up, and he flopped. William Regal is one of the
best mat wrestlers in the WWE, and made Goldberg look like a complete
fool, and yet he's stuck in a feud with Burchill, who also gets no
respect. I think that Japanese wrestling companies utilize foreign
talent to a better extend than the WWE.
On a side note, I'm a big fan of Ring of Honor, because I feel they
have a lot of elements of Japanese wrestling. Anyway, great article Thomas.
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