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On The Apron: ACH-ting!

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Every Tuesday, On The Apron brings you features editor Dominick Mayer’s thoughts on the latest developments in WWE.

Wrestlers aren’t actors. You hear this a lot when you try to explain wrestling as a performative medium, and it seems to be at odds with the biggest attack on the form, which is to say that it’s a fake sport and they’re only actors. And yet, as WWE shifts its focus to summer programs and eventually to Summerslam in mid-August, a lot of the stories they chose to kick off on last night’s Raw were less about Sheamus kicking computers for being smarter than him and more about emotional payoffs to long-running stories. And lo and behold, given a chance to flex, most of WWE’s big stars ably pulled off their big moments with resonance, proving in the process that there’s more to all this than LOUD NOISES. (That said, Ryback is still a thing, so the naysayers aren’t always wrong.)

The biggest story coming out of last night’s show, other than Dolph Ziggler turning into Ralphie from A Christmas Story all over Alberto Del Rio’s Scut Farkus, was Mark Henry’s pseudo-retirement. Most assumed that this was building to a story because a) the only short-form retirement WWE’s ever allowed was when Edge’s body shut the hell down on him and b) Mark Henry is far too tenured to simply get written out on Raw without some sort of proper sendoff, especially given that the autumn years of his career have yielded his best work to date. So, last night, Henry brought Grand Rapids to its knees. Giving a more convincing retirement speech than Triple H has managed in his last 47 attempts, Henry thanked the fans, took the “Sexual Chocolate” chants in stride with a smile and told everybody that he was ready to go out strong and finally be with his family. Even John Cena, who Henry asked to stick around after giving his own, exponentially less well-acted speech, was moved to genuine tears. (I mock Cena a lot in this column, but part of its triumph came from Cena working up some tears of his own, knowing what was coming.) When Cena re-entered the ring to give a respectful hug, Henry gave Cena the World’s Strongest Slam, a moment that actually got the crowd to cheer Henry.

There are a few reasons that HENRY USED EMOTIONAL RESONANCE AND ALSO FULL BODY WEIGHT. IT’S SUPER EFFECTIVE! worked out better than anyone could’ve imagined. For one, Henry’s an excellent performer, and has long managed the physical limitations of being built like Mark Henry with a ring style that suits him and an attitude that manifests itself in subtle (by wrestling standards) ways. From his “That’s what I do!” catchphrase to his trash talk during matches, he has basic ring psychology down pat in a way many modern wrestlers don’t. He also traded brilliantly on the legitimate wrestling retirement, because audiences will always forgive the dastardly deeds of characters when it’s time for somebody to take off their boots for good. This goodwill taps perfectly into one of the central tenets of wrestling, which is that people pay to see these guys entertain them, and if they do it well enough, those people will love them eternally. Henry took that, milked it, and laid out WWE’s equivalent of Superman. To take an audience’s fevered emotions and suddenly force them into a new direction…that’s acting, right?

Though Henry cornered the market on performance , there were quite a few other good moments last night, from subtle to grandiose. There was Brock Lesnar’s tease that we’d get to hear his voice (which in no way fits his body) before laying out CM Punk. There was Paul Heyman telling Punk he loves him and hugging him, both convincing and a deft reenactment of Michael Corleone showing affection to Fredo. There was the likely end of Team Hell No, which is mercifully ending not in a feud that involves Kane singles matches, but instead in two friends realizing that they can’t work as a team and going their separate ways, amicably and sadly. On a less subdued note, there was AJ Lee going toe-to-toe with a McMahon, standing her ground and being dragged out of the ring after delivering the longest promo a non-McMahon female has been allowed in WWE in at least a decade. These are the moments wrestling fans eat up just as much as the in-ring stuff itself, at least when they’re done well. WWE’s willful lack of short-term memory often impedes this, but every once in a while everything comes together like it did last night, and it’s amazing. They may not feign mental handicaps or deliver pandering renditions of homosexuality for statues, but it’s performance all the same. And not always, but sometimes, it’s awesome.