Revenge of the Nerds

What set Money in the Bank apart from the standard professional wrestling events of the past few years wasn’t the hot crowd in Chicago, or the slick production values, or even the great in-ring work.  Every WWE pay-per-view features at least some of those qualities, if not all.

No, what made MITB so extraordinary (and what will make it memorable[1]) was the booking.  Specifically, the outcomes of two matches: Daniel Bryan’s triumph in the Smackdown Money in the Bank match, and, of course, C. M. Punk’s victory over John Cena in the WWE Title contest.

Both represent triumphs by what might be termed “internet darlings.”  Punk, who is listed at 6-foot-1, but is likely south of that number in reality, and Bryan, who is billed at under six feet tall, don’t fit the conventional mold of WWE superstars.

None of that is breaking news. Understandably, wrestling skews towards larger-than-life, superhero-esque figures[2], with the occasional exception for a supremely-gifted in-ring performer like Shawn Michaels. But Bryan and Punk take it a step further, because they are also somewhat divisive.

Daniel Bryan might be equated to the Punk of several years ago: A talented “indy” performer who is a proven worker.  Both made names for themselves in the top American independent promotion, Ring of Honor, where each won the ROH World Title.  Bryan already had a substantial cache of credibility before even setting foot in a WWE ring thanks in large measure to “smart” fans: Wrestling geeks who pride themselves on being connoisseurs of the sport and understanding its inner-workings.

While that got Bryan’s foot in the proverbial door, there was nonetheless a credibility problem among younger and/or casual wrestling fans.  Put simply: Was it believable that a guy who looked like Bryan (or Punk, for that matter) could defeat someone who looked like, say, Sheamus?

The tension between the two schools of thought may even more complex than it would appear.  Many of the high-ranking officials who craft the creative direction of WWE are older, or, at least, operate from a more traditional position intellectually.  To the point: A large part of wrestling from its inception as a choreographed art form up until just a few years ago was creating a product that could pass as a legitimate sport.  Certainly, the need to do so has waned in the last decade-plus, and even the most antiquated wrestling mind at WWE would never suggest the game hasn’t changed over time.  However, the remnants of that mentality still exist[3].

That’s the hurdle that must be overcome by sub-six-foot non-badasses.  And it’s a big one.

WWE has played this up to great effect.  Heel commentator Michael Cole gets Bryan over by repeatedly making reference to Bryan’s “internet” origins and “dorky” qualities, going so far as to call him a “loser” nearly every time Bryan appears on WWE programming.

Yet, there was Daniel Bryan, unhooking the big blue briefcase last night.  Bryan—already a former U. S. Champion—guaranteed himself a high-profile World Title shot at some date in the next year.  Sure, he may be the first not to cash in successfully (or he may not), but the point is that he continues to be elevated to levels that probably would have been impossible for someone like him even ten years ago.

And then there’s Punk.  With all due respect to Bryan, Punk is on another plane of stardom.  His abilities—especially as a talker—have never shone brighter than in the past month.

What’s so amazing is that an angle set up as “a win by Punk could (legitimately) undermine this company on multiple levels” was paid off in precisely those terms.  Punk walked out of Chicago the champion.  John Cena is theoretically going to be storyline-fired as a result.  The WWE Title is MIA.

All of these are outcomes that primarily service the “smart” agenda.

Cena is emblematic of the more traditional WWE mentality: A clean-cut, incredibly muscular champion who appeals directly to a younger demographic in a PG-oriented way.  Punk is none of those things.  He is an unshaven, incredibly tattooed, undersized guy with indy roots and a personality that is, by nearly all accounts, abrasive.  But he can work, and he can talk, and that’s what counts.

Moreover, the content of what he has to say penetrates the cartoonish bubble that forms the boundaries of the world that Cena et al often craft.  Punk appeals to those who take this absurd endeavor seriously and treat it as a quasi-art form[4].

And, yet, Punk has the belt championship.

What happens tonight will tell us a lot about whether this is truly the start of a new creative direction for the WWE, or whether it’s simply a Nexus-like “blip” that makes little long-term difference.  However, if the WWE does commit to this, I can’t help but wonder if it’s a nod to a more complete vision of how to accomplish quality storytelling.

The WWE knows that the typical Monday Night Raw audience skews much more to the “casual fan / younger fan” demo than, say, a pay-per-view, where the increasingly-high cost[5] pushes the needle in the “internet / smart / older fan” direction.

Is it possible, then, to tailor shows to the anticipated audience while keeping all groups reasonably satisfied with the product?

I believe that it’s not only possible, but that the lead-up to MITB and the PPV itself provided a blueprint for how to do it.  Namely, have one or two buzz-generating segments on Raw that satiate the “geeks,” while the other ninety minutes are standard wrestling fare that’s perfectly fine for all but the most cynical “smarts,” but appeals more directly to casual fans.  Then, on the PPV, adjust that ratio with added weight on the “smart” side.  That’s what happened last night with the Bryan and Punk triumphs, Orton’s post-match viciousness[6], and, to a lesser extent, the decisive Mark Henry win over the Big Show.

Good for business

Over and above all of that, courting the internet crowd to a greater degree is a savvy business decision that acknowledges the exponentially greater role that social media has in all our lives today.  Doing things like posting a picture of the WWE Title in a refrigerator equates to free publicity for the company that will also get people talking.

As I said, I don’t know whether this is an anomaly or a bona fide change in direction.  I think we’ll have our answer by the time Summerslam goes off the air in less than four weeks.  Either way, I don’t think there’s ever been a time in the WWE when “smart” fans[7] had a greater influence on certain aspects of the product, and that’s probably a good thing for the long-term health of the company.  In an even bigger-picture sense, storylines like the one we’ve seen for the past month serve to blur the line between smart and mark in such a way as to unite (and confuse in a fun way) wrestling fans of all stripes.

_______________________

[1] Perhaps the most elusive quality in a pro wrestling context.
[2] Think Hulk Hogan, the Undertaker, or the Rock, all of whom are/were legitimately huge individuals. Even a “smaller” star like Steve Austin is a big guy by normal human standards.
[3] This isn’t entirely a bad thing. Keeping a modicum of realism helps keep the sport grounded. In a perfect world, wrestling needs to maintain a balance between “sports” and “entertainment,” not skew too far one way or the other.
[4] Myself included. Not that I hate Cena.
[5] Money in the Bank in HD cost $55! Fifty-five dollars! For a non-“Big Four” PPV! Note that it was more than worth it. But, still . . .
[6] To wit: If you’re deadset on Orton being a face, you can keep him as the smiling “good guy” on Smackdown, but save his brutality for PPV.
[7] In case you couldn’t pick up on this, I’m not particularly fond of the term “smart,” because it implies (well, more than implies) that non-smart fans are ignorant of the inner-workings of the business on even a superficial level. While that may be true for very young fans, a lot of the “smart” vs. “mark” debate comes down to what kind of show you like better.  I find that I can appreciate elements of both camps, so I’m hesitant to declare myself a full-on “smart” fan (despite the fact that I understand the difference between kayfabe and non-kayfabe).
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One Response to Revenge of the Nerds

  1. Pingback: An Untimely Knight Rider Rant | The Axis of Ego

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