Culture

The Spinning Lariat: Bully Ray

bully ray

Every Friday, Trent Zuberi brings you The Spinning Lariat, a look at the latest developments from America’s 2nd major wrestling promotion, TNA (Total Nonstop Action).

It echoed so prominently when Bully Ray, current TNA World Heavyweight Champion and leader of the Aces & Eights, took the microphone at the end of a recent episode of Impact Wrestling and delivered the line that exemplifies everything the group stands for. With his deep, peering eyes, he focused on the hard camera that broadcasts his face to millions across the world and with staunch conviction said, “When you ride with the Aces & Eights, you never walk alone!”

I felt something as I heard this line. I watched Bully Ray (Bubba Ray Dudley, to you old-school fans) stand as the top guy in one of the biggest promotions in the world amongst his fellow henchmen, raising a world championship belt and basking in the mixed echoes of boos and cheers as the show went off the air. I felt proud of the guy. I felt like when that line was delivered, he fully arrived as a character. As a fan that supported him for the last 17 years of his career, I took pride seeing him on top of the game. It’s strange, though. What was I proud of? We all know it’s a scripted business; the point has been beaten to death, and if I have to endure the question “you do know it’s fake, right?” the next time I tell someone I watch wrestling, I’m going to act like I’m the last guy in the world to find out. But I was proud of the journey up to that point. As his fan, I took that journey with him, because I’ve seen every step of his ascension. To see someone you’ve been a fan of get the brass ring makes you feel like you’re part of that victory too. I guess it’s the same reason why people watch industry awards shows. At the end of the day, it has nothing to do with us, but in our hearts, we attach ourselves to those wins because we supported the art.

There are a few terms to describe wrestling fans these days. There is the classic mark, essentially an old carny term that describes the fan that suspends all disbelief and watches the show for what it is. They think it’s real and get wrapped up in the performance to the point where they take it to heart. The other term is a smart mark, or smark. This is clearly a term created by internet-savvy wrestling nerds to feel a notch above the people who believe it’s real. This comes from not only knowing the inner workings of the business, but also letting that knowledge justify their emotional involvement. Sound ridiculous? It is. Just look at a pro wrestling message/debate board sometime. Trekkies are girl scouts compared to opinionated wrestling nerds.

What I’m getting at here is at the end of the day, every wrestling fan is a mark. You have to be in order to enjoy this sport at its fullest. In some form or another we all get emotionally tied into this business through a storyline, favorite wrestler, etc. because there’s always that part of us that wants to feel that emotion we did when we all thought it was real. Going back to the Aces & Eights angle, I’m in full markout mode for it now; in true nerd fashion, I even ordered the official t-shirt.

The storyline started off very slow in June 2012 and was at times directionless. It was clear that the initial foundation of the look and image was being built off the current hit drama Sons of Anarchy, in that you essentially had a biker gang of various characters invading TNA Wrestling. They would make their presence known on a weekly basis by jumping talent, holding boardroom-like meetings in their clubhouse and making threats toward management in the ever-famous power struggle that encompasses so many wrestling storylines.

The group’s strength and direction floundered a bit since its beginnings. I saw fellow fans and critics write the storyline off early on, because they felt it was not progressing fast enough and had very little name recognition to make it credible. I agree that the story needed something to put it over the top. That something came in the form of one of the best reveals in recent memory. The entire time this story was going on, everything was done to keep Bully Ray out of that group. There was, however, the “will he or won’t he?” question. We were never 100% sure, until the Lockdown pay-per-view this past March where Bully finally turned, joined, and literally set the storyline on fire.

It’s amazing to see how one character can instantly legitimize a storyline in professional wrestling. The second Bully Ray joined, the floodgates opened. When I was at the live Impact broadcast in Chicago, it was the first show after he joined the group and within the first hour they had completely sold out of Aces & Eights merchandise. Not bad for a group that struggled to keep the attention of many viewers mere weeks before. Ever since he joined, the group has been written to be stronger, more dominant and extremely credible, and it all started with putting the right guy in the lead role. It’s the lead storyline in the company right now.

As of this writing, the build is on toward TNA Wrestling’s annual event Slammiversary this June, which will happen in Boston this year, marking the company’s 12th year in business. After that, the home stretch is on towards Bound for Glory in October, which is the company’s flagship annual event. Predictions have it that the subject of next week’s article, AJ Styles, is slated for a huge storyline build to be in the main event of that show against Bully Ray. Next week I will look at the build toward that as it stands right now, and provide a little insight on what needs to be done to keep it attractive for the viewer.

Please make sure to check out the following YouTube playlist, which is a short five-part series totaling about 15 minutes, narrated by Bully Ray and explaining all the twists and turns of the Aces & Eights storyline to get it to the point of his joining. It is brilliantly done and has been heavily praised for its detail and attention to storytelling.

(Questions, comments, feedback? Please feel free to contact me at trentzuberi@gmail.com.)