Rob Maltman: Evolve not Revolve

Rob Maltman

While you can listen to the fans and get the pulse of what works and doesn’t, what they do or don’t want…

You’re also a mark if you think that the fans dictate who are heels, faces and story lines.

You call yourself a PROFESSIONAL and then you add WRESTLER to the end of it (or a promoter).

It’s called working the crowd…don’t let the crowd work you.

Sure there are cases when turning a guy heel/face is the right decision because of crowd reaction, but that is the rare exception to the rule.

Which one are YOU? A WORKER or a MARK who gets worked? Because if you let the crowd dictate whether or not you are a heel or a face then YOU are not in control, and YOU are not working the crowd…the crowd is working you – angry wrestling promoter

Naturally I assume anyone reading this will have some form of investment (emotional or physical) in the world of British Wrestling and will be aware of the wealth of ncredible talent and potential we have in this country and on the flip side of that the major problems we have taking the business to the next level.  We have a thriving Indy scene and some of the best talent in the world plying their trade here and in addition we can attract some of the world’s best Indy performers.  But what do these imports think when they come here – a thriving pool of talent ripe for the plucking or just another promotion/tour that offers nothing new to the world of wrestling? Has any big import gone back the states and said “you should see what they are doing over in the UK”

For all of us who take with a love an passion for the UK scene we know the positive points of the UK scene and all have an opinion on why it’s not more popular – but for it to be truly successful it’s the non-fans it needs to attract (Nintendo did this with the release of the Wii, targeting it at multiple generations rather than the traditional gamers, Lego have introduced a range for girls, the new Dr Who has purposely appealed to girls – and to an extent the gay and lesbian communities – all to expand their audiences and generate more sales) the majority of the public who still believe the shadow of the WWE and even world of sport that still hangs over the product and these are the people that need to be ‘brought into the fold’ if wrestling is to be truly successful once again.  The death of Mick McManus was national news (and rightly so) yet the only way a death of one of the current crop of UK wrestlers would make news would be if it was due to a serious accident.  The cream of the crop in British wrestling are good enough to take a place in British pop culture in the way Mick McManus has – the question is how?

If the average age of a UK talent is 25-30, it stands to reason that they got into wrestling around 10-15 years ago.  10 years ago WCW had been over for 2 years and the now beloved / canonized ‘attitude’ era was ending 15 years ago.  It’s no secret that the UK wrestling scene has been dominated by the WWE for the past 30 years (before some of the best UK talent and promoters were even born) and our national psyche and attitude towards wrestling has been Americanized and the current generation of UK talent are heavily influenced by it.  How many times have you seen (or planned) a match that has elements of WWE history in it? This even goes down to the fact that we now use the term ‘face’ more than the UK version ‘blue eye’.  There is a rich history of Japanese and Mexican wrestling that never gets (or hardly ever) referenced in the UK.  We are a very Americanized product due to the over saturation of the US product in this country and we are losing sight of our own wrestling heritage. Which in turn raises its own questions 

  1. Is there anything wrong with the American influence within Brit wrestling? After all Mountevans rules matches don’t hold the same appeal as the showmanship of the WWE, similar with catch as catch can style matches (at least not a full card of them)
  2. Is it the evolution for the UK scene and makes our talent more appealing to the US market, which is where the money is (never forget this is a business)
  3. Can we forge our own national identity that is potentially industry changing?
  4. What actually do the paying public want from UK wrestling or do they know what they want?
  5. Is it possible to change wrestling and offer something new?

It has been said that there are only 8 stories that can be told and all tales are a variant of one of these frameworks. 

  1. Cinderella – an unrecognised virtue that is finally recognised and rewarded
  2. Achilles – the fatal flaw that eventually becomes the undoing
  3. Faust – the debt that must be paid, fate catching up with you
  4. Tristan – the triangular plot between 2 men and 1 woman or vice versa
  5. Circe – use of flattery and charm to disguise true evil intent
  6. Romeo and Juliet – boy meets girls, boy loses girl either they reconcile or they don’t
  7. Orpheus – the gift taken away – either the grief of the loss or the journey to reclaim the loss
  8. The hero that cannot be kept down – Superman, Tarzan, John Cena (!)

All of which are the basis of wrestling storylines, comic books and classical literature and at best effectively serve as a reflection on real life and real emotion.  But wrestling is more than just a morality play, despite that being one of its strong points.  I believe that its core design is to re-create the natural emotion and drama that comes to sport naturally.  This in turn comes from the spirit of competition which has been lost in pro wrestling to an extent (do championships really matter anymore?)  It’s a form of entertainment that seeks to replicate the natural emotion that comes with sports and winning and losing – yet somewhere along the line it has evolved into a showcase of talent rather than a competition.  As a wrestling fan with a keen interest in the business talent like Dolph Ziggler, John Morrison, Shelton Benjamin are more ‘watchable’ than John Cena due to their natural ability and incredible work rate – yet Cena remains front and centre of the promotion and is the biggest star in the wrestling world

So is it possible to re address wrestling and focus more on the sports aspect rather than the entertainment? Sports has the ability to convey a full range of emotion and can bring a grown man to tears and wear a football shirt (and merchandise with pride) can wrestling return to its roots of attempting to replicate this?  It is possible to shift the focus on the technique and athletic ability as well as the training and fighting styles employed by each wrestler to create a revisionist spin on a wrestling match similar to a martial arts or points scored in a boxing match.  However by focusing on style, skill and technique does it draw the curtain back further?  There will always be a section of society that have turned their back on wrestling forever since the terming of sports entertainment and the fact it’s common knowledge that is pre-determined and in turn by re focussing on the sporting aspect could alienate them further as it could be deemed as an insult to their intelligence and damage the reputation of wrestling forever. Ironically when Vince McMahon let the cat out of the bag he did it for financial reasons as contact sports had higher regulations and paid more money to sports governing bodies – now he is looking to re brand it as a sports product as sports advertising is the most highly prized as in this era of sky plus sports is the last TV programming watched live.  Plus by focussing on the technique the whole purpose of wrestling is lost, the suspension of disbelief.  The only way to fully replicate the natural emotion of sport with a pre-determined form of entertainment is to allow the audience to loose themselves in what they are seeing.  TV Movies and theatre do this all the time and we, as the public, willingly accept and enjoy it without question.  For years people have cried at The Lion King, yet it’s just drawings of lions – or completely accepted that James Bond has lived for 50 years and had 6 different faces.  For wrestling to truly work there needs to be entertainment, suspension of disbelief.  There needs to be magic.

The parallels between wresting and magic are clear – both have a rich history of entertaining people for 100s of years and stated in local fairs.  Both use skilled performers, with years of practice behind them and tricks and secrets up their sleeves (figuratively and literally) designed to amaze and entertain the public. (I was lucky enough to ask Nigel McGuiness if he subconsciously chose to learn magic due to these parallels – I thought he was going to punch me! It’s all on the Southside YouTube channel) – both forms of entertainment appeal to all ages and require a suspension of disbelief because in both cases the audience are clued up to the open secret that there is more than meets the eye (I am yet to meet someone who believes Paul Daniels is a wizard of Dumbledore proportions).  Another similarity is that both forms of entertainment were hugely popular n TV in the 1970s and 1980s.  However in recent years magic has gone through a revival in pop culture with stars such as Dynamo and Derren Brown.  Derren Brown in particular has created a persona and character that continues to mystify audiences and makes them question his abilities and their own ideas of what magic it – in short they suspend their disbelief.  Every interview ever seen of Derren Brown he is full character talking of his love of Victoriana and taxidermy, in every picture he is dressed in full suit or similar attire which all adds to the general image of Derren brown and adds to the illusion.  Effectively Brown is living the gimmick and fulfilling the rules of kayfabe – something both wrestlers and magicians have been doing for years.   In the early 1900s a stage magician called Chung Ling Soo was popular, however in reality Soo was a Caucasian American named William Ellsworth Robinson who carried out the Asian gimmick to cash in in the modern appeal of all things exotic and from the east, to do this Robinson lived this gimmick both on stage and off to maintain the illusion and allure of his act (his only spoken words in English in public were ‘oh my god, something’s happened, lower the curtain’ when his famous catching the bullet trick went wrong and he was shot on stage) – does this sound any different to the career of Kendo Nagasaki?

Recently on TV a programme called ‘The Happenings’ aired and features 2 magicians, Barry and Stuart, attempting to convince entire communities of mysterious goings on such as alien invasions, vampires and ghosts.  In one episode one of the magicians was in a café convincing people he had a piece of extra-terrestrial rock that unnaturally affected properties of human materials.  To demonstrate this he held the rock above an ordinary bottle opener and caused it to bend.  This trick is no different to what Uri Geller was doing in the 70s (interestingly Geller now has stopped referring to himself as a psychic but a mystifier and entertainer) but the trick in The Happenings seems fresh and unique due to the presentation and the backstory behind it.  If Barry and Stuart had simply done this trick in the same style as Uri Geller had 30/ 40 years ago they wouldn’t be on TV but performing in working men’s clubs and community centres being happy drawing 200 people.   Ask the question who is likely to influence young magicians Dynamo or Paul Daniels? Yet both have successful TV careers and you could argue Daniels had more viewers in his peak than Dynamo has achieved yet.  Dynamo has updated the act of the magician by utilizing aspects of Hip Hop culture and like David Blaine has stripped out the theatrics and flamboyance (or at least less obviously) and taken his tricks to the streets which adds an air of realism to the performance, something that was lost as the 1980s rolled on.

Another form of TV entertainment popular in the 1970s that is having a revival and is even more dominant in pop culture than Magic is the talent show.  Opportunity knocks raided the UK club scene for comics and gave them valuable TV time and potentially their big break. Eventually the format got tired, as happens with popular trends, and the talent show vanished from the air, until in the early 2000s Simon Cowell took the most popular aspect of the format and revitalised the whole concept.  Cowell realised that the most entertaining aspect is not the acts but the interaction of the general public, everyone will have their favourite entertainer which will create opinion, debate and even arguments with households, workplaces and pubs across the country – shows like the X factor, Britain’s got talent and pop idol not only gave people the chance to be entertained and have an opinion but an opinion that mattered and all the while paying for that opinion to be counted.  The real trick behind these shows is just how much is that opinion our own?  During the airing of these shows we are bombarded with stories in all the newspapers, social media and TV programmes outside of its own shows, including the news.  All this is to manipulate the emotions and opinions of the public to steer us in the direction required for the right winner to win, and in turn make us believe it’s our idea to download/buy the single.  Every year we are given a variety of characters boy bands for the young girls, beautiful women, handsome men, inspiring stories of achieving dreams late in life and escaping the drudgery of 9-5.  Essentially it’s a 3 ring circus that tries to appeal to a broad spectrum with a simple morality tale, dreams can come true and all done with kayfabe albeit multimedia kayfabe.  How many times have you heard the rumours that the contestants are handpicked? Or all the little changes in judges and ‘scandals’ are just done to encourage ratings and therefore votes and therefor money?  By choosing to make the ‘prize’ of the X factor the Christmas number 1 single is also a stroke of genius as it creates an urgency to buy the product rather than wait because it has a deadline.  its forcers those who have invested time, effort and money into the TV show to part with a bit more cash in a bid to get their favourite artist to number one by a certain date, rather than think about it.  Did the public want a new generation of talent show and kayfabe or was it given to them and they loved it regardless?  What do the public want/expect from British wrestling or do they know or care?

The Stand-up comedy circuit also has its similarities to the wrestling Indy scene.  It appears in pubs and clubs up and down the country and again for years has suffered from a reputation of unpopularity and a dated form of entertainment.  Within recent years stand up DVDs have been a staple of Christmas presents and Christmas day family viewing.  Stand up is cheap to film and produce however its production values are top quality with its sets, performers clothing, camera quality and editing.  In the early days of TV, wrestling was chose to broadcast because it was easy to film and cheap to produce yet provided family entertainment. Whilst wrestling culture has changed the it can still be relatively cheap and easy to broadcast professional wrestling should the product become ready.

What does all this mean for British wrestling or Indy wrestling as a whole?  Some would argue that the WWE is too big and too wide reaching to be taken on, however people would have said the same about Sega and Nintendo in the 90s before Sony and Microsoft entered the gaming market, similar with Disney animation before Pixar showed them up, and the BBC before the age of multi-channel multimedia and Sky TV.  WCW famously beat the WWE in ratings every week for over a year and the Monday night wars could have gone either way.  Admittedly WCW had a large financial backing, but ECW didn’t and arguably create a form of pro wrestling that was truly revolutionary and to which the effects are still visible today.  ECW was created as an anti-establishment hard-core wrestling promotion to rival the WWE.  As Paul Heyman as repeatedly said he highlighted the strengths and buried the weaknesses and in turn didn’t attempt to be the WWE as you can’t match them for production value and budget, but there are thing you can do better.  It is my belief that the true legacy of ECW was its commitment to story lines, building of new stars and the involvement of the fans.  Heyman saw that the WWE was growing stale and its fans were getting older and looking for a product that suited there tastes, it was the rise of the wrestling smark.  ECW embodied the innovative and daredevil theatrics that the public craved and the grungy hard-core aesthetic just added to the sense of realism that the wrestling fans were craving, but it was the storylines and involvement of the fans that made it special.  It was counter culture, dangerous looking and a secret club were only the true wrestling fans were aware of and offered fresh dynamics on the established ideology of what wrestling ‘should be’ according to Vince McMahon.  Talent like Rob Van Dam and Sabu were fresh and exciting and unlike the over grown cartoon characters that the WWE was presenting.  In the same way dynamo has borrowed from hip hop culture and taken is act out of the theatre and onto the streets – ECW reflected the grunge culture of the time and took its act down to the public.

 Even before that Vince himself was the revolutionary, by investing a vast wealth and tearing up the US territory system by taking all of its top talent and buying up their footage.  In addition to that he practically (depending on which story you hear) invented PPV TV and national wrestling programming which went against the grain of the established order.  WWE is fallible and although Vince will go down in history as the most successful wrestling promoter of all time, is he really as good as he can be? Many will argue that the attitude era that won the Monday night wars was a carbon copy of what ECW were doing and what other of Vince’s businesses have been a success? The world body building federation, the XFL, the WWE network? There is a history of being reactive rather than proactive to trends.

I don’t proclaim to know the answers to taking Brit wrestling to the next step but I am simply asking the question.  Would a large cash investment solve the problem? It depends who was given the job of getting it TV ready.  It’s nice to think that a creative genius is out there waiting to grab the wrestling bull by the horns – but the thing with geniuses is that they don’t come around that often.  By their very nature a genius is only a genius because they are above the average – if there were loads of geniuses it would become average by default. Plus he/she would already be working in Brit wrestling and making a difference.  Do the British public want wrestling to return to the screens? We already have WWE on every day and TNA showcasing a British Champion (which I imagine they will parade around this country in the way Vince did Davey boy smith in the early 80s) is there room for more?

Variety is the spice of life and we can provide a UK specific product that appeals to our national identity – if you copy someone you will always be second best, if you innovate they will copy you