As I continue to watch the start of the Attitude Era, that time in the WWE where the superstars seemed to take control and make much of what they did work, it hit me that it wasn’t just the superstars, it was their freedom. Professional wrestling was always a mesh of script and off-the-cuff work, you never really knew where that line was drawn. With the WWE so polished, the way it has become of late, it’s turned into reality TV, not professional wrestling as we have always known and loved it.
If in 1997, the WWE had tried to keep superstars like Austin, The Rock, (original) DX, and the rest of the solid talkers on script, the WWE would not have beaten WCW in the Monday Night War, even with all the mistakes the WCW made backstage. Those wrestlers are some of the best talkers, some of the best characters. And it’s because they were allowed to go with the flow, work with the fans, say what they needed to say to get their characters over to the point that they are still some of the most beloved to ever step into the squared circle.
Remember the night X-Pac returned from WCW and McMahon handed him a live mic, told him to say whatever he needed to say about whatever he needed to get off his chest? X-Pac took the fan reaction and let it feed his ire to make that segment so much more than just X-Pac on a rant. There was no X-Pac heat that night because his character wasn’t jammed down our throats, he as just brilliant X-Pac on mic saying what he needed to say, not what creative thought he needed to say.
These days the majority of the wrestlers seem almost afraid to go off script and work the live audience. They are more worried about catching heat backstage for not getting their lines right than they are about getting their characters, their personality across to the fans. The entire WWE is suffering for the characters that are nothing more than talking heads. Too many superstars are being told that they are not getting over because the fans just are not understanding, or caring, who they are. These superstars are not getting the chance to connect with the fans because the fans are not able to understand who they are when the superstars are more worried about their lines being delivered correctly than they are about being the superstar they are trying to create.
Of course, Steph and Triple H can say what they want, work with the fans, but they have more leeway than almost anyone else in the company. Cena can go off script without issue and is much more interesting when he does. Think back to the night that there were a number of superstars collected in the ring, Cena was talking, but the fans were all for Bryan. Cena brought Bryan into the center of the ring and talked him up in a huge way. Bryan, as always, was his blushing and humble self as Cena gave him his due. Cena got huge props for doing what the fans wanted, not what he was scripted to say, but if almost anyone else had done that, there would have been heat backstage.
Every once in a while something beautiful happens, and someone other than a top superstar gets the guts to actually work the fans, and not just what they’ve been told to say. This past summer Roman Reigns was in the ring, and the fans were chanting something at him. Rather than ignoring them, as so many superstars do, just so they don’t miss a line, don’t go off script, and don’t mess up the length of their segment, Reigns actually responded and worked with them. In doing this Reigns showed more of his face personality, and manage to garner more fans. Many who had been on the fence about Reigns came around and decided that he really wasn’t all that bad. He did this by simply being Reigns, and not ignoring all personality just to hit all his scripted lines.
In some ways it goes back to what I’ve been saying for a while now about the WWE, they’ve polished off all the grit, all the moxy, and we are left with something that only vaguely resembles the professional wrestling we grew up loving. Everything is so over-scripted, so cleaned up and lustrous, so perfectly executed, filmed and delivered to us on our HDTVs that it’s not even sports entertainment, it’s something to be dissected, not enjoyed. At this point, I’ve been spending much of my time watching the WWE Network, more than I’ve been watching modern WWE! Because it’s something I recognize as WWE wrestling, not that three-hour pseudo-reality show they’ve been airing each Monday on USA that appears to be more scripted, polished, and perfect than most anything else we see on TV these days.