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On The Apron: How to make bad wrestling

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Every week, On The Apron brings you features editor Dominick Mayer’s observations on the latest happenings in WWE.

When wrestling is good, it can be amazing; I touched on this in my last piece, and it got me thinking about the inverse. Particularly after last night’s Raw, an egregiously bad show after a string of good to great ones, the gears started turning. How do you objectively define bad wrestling? On some levels, it’s easier than trying to describe bad music or film. If the ring work is incompetent (see: Kozlov-HHH, even if that was a PPV), you can say that a match was bad. Or perhaps a promo was awkward and stilted. However, often it’s at the mercy of bias. For instance, I started foaming at the mouth with anger whenever The Rock would show up on TV earlier this year, while many welcomed him. Others would be miffed that John Cena was laid out at the end of a show, a move that would bring many to rapturous cheers. So, to return to the initial question, how do you explain what bad wrestling is? Using last night’s show as a template, let me give it a whirl, in convenient list form!

1) Stories that go nowhere and benefit nobody.

Alternate title: “The plight of the midcarder.” This has become a wrestling problem in the modern era in general, but it’s especially bad in WWE, who has weeks between each major show to fill and six hours of broadcast content a week, not counting NXT. You’d think that since most of the matches on Main Event or Smackdown are frequently re-done on Raw that there’d be a focus and clarity to the three hours of televised content per week that actually have long-term bearing on the overarching narrative. Instead, you get bits like last night’s Miz-Ryback match, in which the only thing accomplished was the total punking out of Ryback as a character. And really, who wins? Miz and his weak-ass kicks should’ve looked monstrous, but the focus wasn’t on him at all. Jericho-Ryback might be happening at Money in the Bank, but Jericho will leave to tour with his band or be a VH1 talking head again soon enough. And unless WWE has given up on the former Skip Sheffield altogether, Ryback’s character being “guy who cries because his body can’t handle anything cardio-intensive” is an awful idea. And I’m sure next week, Ryback will lay Jericho out during the go-home show, because the point of these stories always ends up being the two or more competitors matched even-steven going into the blow-off match. So all that happened is that everybody showed a bunch of ass and no forward movement occurred. That was pretty endemic of last night’s show as a whole.

2) Comedy that defies the ostensible point of your show.

After last night’s Natalya-AJ segment, in which I continue to get what I deserve for extolling the virtues of a real womens’ feud in WWE by way of Photoshop and fat jokes, I’m starting to wonder exactly who WWE’s target demographic is. Now, we’re all well past the point where the whole issue of WWE not presenting itself as simulated athletic competition is or should be an issue. The plot is as much a part of the narrative as the in-ring action. (Should you find this displeasing, go watch Kevin Steen spew homophobia or something.) What’s an issue is when the plot is at odds with the show for any viewer. Female viewers will, rightly, find this stuff disgusting. Male viewers will hopefully have the good sense to follow suit if they’re adults, and if they’re younger will likely laugh because they don’t know better, or perhaps not care about this at all. Maybe, if they’re raised really well, they’ll know this is bullshit too. If these jokes are aimed at kids, this also runs in counter to WWE’s entire half-assed “B.A. Star” anti-bullying campaign, since body shaming and mocking a character for having defined musculature as being “fat” is pretty much the epitome of bullying. Then again, this is a show overseen by a man who once got several segments of mileage out of one of his employees’ colon cancer operation, so there you go.

3) Guys yell at each other…but with a ladder!

WWE goes to the well with which they opened this week’s show A LOT. If they have too much time left to hype a feud, they have the tendency to directly draw the audience’s attention to this gap in time via overcooked in-ring promo battles. This gets way, way worse when multiple people not on any kind of team are involved, because it ends up like the MITB match promo did, in which guys come out one at a time like ninjas in a Steven Seagal movie to declare that “no, I WILL WIN the MITB briefcase!” And nobody wins or really gets anything across.

4) Bad crowds.

A lot of the blame for last night’s dud of a show can be placed on the shoulders of the good folks of Sioux City, Iowa, who cheered for exactly two things all show long: John Cena, and Zeb Colter’s speech about illegal immigrants. Now, it’s possible that he was getting ironic support, or that Antonio Cesaro’s addition to his stable has made smarky crowds embrace him, but it seemed like people were just really into Colter’s message about how all these non-Americans (read: non-straight cisgender white men, more or less) need to GTFO. The “U-S-A” chants during Cena-Del Rio doesn’t help to disprove this point either. For as much as great crowds can elevate a match to all-time great status (Cena-Punk, Chicago, July 2011), they can irreparably ruin one just as quickly. In last night’s case, they can even screw up an entire show by their indifference. Also, Sioux City: You are not the crowd from the night after WrestleMania. Not even a little bit.

5) Half-assed transitions.

One of the big keys to turning a character from face to heel or vice versa is to make clear that it’s happening. You can be subtle about it; there’s a reason, after all, that the Hart-Austin double turn at WrestleMania 13 is still a gold standard to this day. However, you have to set a path and keep to it. You can’t waffle back and forth on whether you want to push someone by the week (Daniel Bryan) or hesitate with your hand on the trigger because of the potential risks involved (Randy Orton) or, hell, execute a double turn to perfection only to withhold it in later weeks (Alberto Del Rio and poor, poor Dolph Ziggler). The pacing is off, and it’s not just because of WWE’s overdependence on part-timers. WWE won’t commit to defining characters both because shades of grey were big in the Attitude Era and because it’s easier to write wrestling when people can be whatever’s most convenient from week to week. But guess what? That’s how WCW worked, and it ended with David Arquette as the World Heavyweight Champion. And nobody wants that.