Thursday, May 5, 2016

What’s in a Name, WWE?

I got to join in on the ESO-PRO: Pro Wrestling Roundtable podcast the other evening to discuss the WWE Network. Talk shifted at one point to NXT and that shifted to a brief subtopic about wrestlers’ names. I want to expand on that thought a bit here.

When Bryan Danielson landed in the WWE fans were somewhat bemused by the WWE taking a talent with a rep around the world and changing his name. Sure, it wasn’t a big change to make him Daniel Bryan, but fans who knew him still found it a bit silly. Fans made the same comments as stars like Kevin Owens, Finn Balor, Aska, Hideo Itami, Asuka, and others started streaming through the door. The WWE offered up the usual explanations, some legit I’m sure, that included things like trademarks, copyrights, and marketing. Still, fans found that a weak excuse since it wasn’t that long ago that the WWF was a marketing juggernaut despite the use of wrestlers’ real names or longtime professional identities.

But, recently, that’s been changing a bit. When, where, and how it’s changing is, I think, a good thing.

Some of the names to walk into (and back out of) the NXT ring have included Samoa Joe, Austin Aries, Shinsuke Nakamura, Bobby Roode, James Storm, Eric Young, and some others with little or no changes made to their pre-WWE personas. And, of course, A.J. Styles debuted at the Royal Rumble as A.J. Styles, complete with commentary hype about his pre-WWE career. Well, they did avoid mentioning that place that sounds like someone talking about Test & Albert. But they still hyped his past and his rep as a talent known around the world.

So, why is this a good thing? In the case of some stars, you want that background to be a part of their character in the WWE. It adds to their status and it can sometimes build excitement.

It’s kind of a weird thing. We can know who someone is, but if they’re not who they were we sometimes don’t get the same level of excitement about them. Even back in the day we saw this to some degree. In the 1980s and 1990s we had wrestlers moving from one territory and federation to another, and some of them had the kind of name you didn’t screw with. If Hawk & Animal walked into your company, you’d have to have been a fool to completely revamp their look, their names, their basic characters, and their styles. If you got the Road Warriors, you damned sure billed them as the Road Warriors. That’s who the fans wanted them to be, and that was the name people had been throwing around for years as a team they wanted to see face off against some of the WWF’s biggest tag teams. Likewise, when a Jake Roberts, Steamboat, or Flair walked into your ring, you wanted that name value on the signs outside the building.

But there were talent that got the repackaging treatment as well. We knew who they were- well, we knew who they used to be –and were excited to see them in a new territory with fresh matchups, but we sometimes weren’t as excited as we might have been. Sometimes the new personas and styles took some feeling out for both wrestlers and fans alike, and there was a bit of a dampened response to seeing them debut since you weren’t getting what you thought you might otherwise be getting.

Again, it’s kind of a weird thing and kind of hard to articulate. But let me try to throw out two examples of where I’ve seen this mindset in action in the WWF/E.

Dustin Runnels is without a doubt an incredibly talented wrestler. He’s also a wrestler who at this point cannot generate excitement with many fans as just Dustin Runnels. For multiple generations of wrestling fans, Dustin is Goldust and only Goldust. If he were to be off TV for a spell and then return in blue jeans, a white t-shirt, and cowboy boots while marching down to the ring with a bull rope in one hand and a branding iron in the other to inflict great damage on someone in the ring, he would certainly get a pop. It would be a nice pop, but it would be only so big of a pop. But in the same away for a while scenario, the second the Goldust music hit the building would explode. Why? Because at this point in his career we know and love Goldust more than we do Dustin. Dustin coming out as a badass brawler would be a “character” while Goldust would feel like the “real” him and give us something familiar. It would give us something where we know what to expect and relish getting it.

You don’t even have to take someone off TV either. One of the coolest TV moments for one wrestler with a lot of people happened some years back with Mick Foley finally getting to give us a “name” persona. When Mick came to the WWF, he was repackaged as the demented Mankind. People who knew Foley’s career were thrilled to see him, but the new persona did take some time to get used to. They discussed Foley’s past in wrestling while he was Mankind, but they never seemed to really hype his past persona for what it was. Later we got Dude Love. A fun character if one that, again, needed a bit of getting used to.

But neither of those personas was the one Mick Foley made his name with around the world. WWF fans grew to love Mankind, Dude Love, and Mick Foley himself and he was known to get quite the pop when he walked down to the ring. But one of the most insane pops he got on WWF television had to be when he brought his past into the WWF. People in the venue lost their minds when Mankind became Cactus Jack right in front of their eyes.

Mind you, it’s something that on paper should never have worked. He took his mask off and he took his white shirt off to reveal his Cactus Jack shirt while changing the way he spoke. That was it. But, damn, if the audience didn’t react like they were standing next to some dopey reporter with glasses and a clumsy demeanor who suddenly ripped his shirt off to reveal a big red ‘S’ on a yellow field.

And why not? Cactus Jack had a history. Cactus Jack had a legacy in the wrestling landscape. When Cactus Jack marched down to the ring, that legacy- death matches, barbed wire, blood & carnage around the world, WCW, ECW, FMW –marched down there with him. People weren’t wondering what some new persona was going to do, how it was going to act, or what the ultimate outcome was going to be. No, people were on the edge of their seats waiting for Cactus Jack to do what they knew he could do.

When A.J. showed up at the Royal Rumble, he was A.J. Styles. He wasn’t Jay Miles, International Man of Wrestling. He wasn’t repackaged with a new gimmick and told to act a certain way so that fans had a momentary ‘WTF?’ reaction and then started wondering what Jay Miles was going to be like as a character. He looked like A.J. Styles, he acted like A.J. Styles, and he came down to the ring with a name that carried a history and a legacy with it, and the fans went crazy. When Samoa Joe showed up on NXT, he was Samoa Joe. He wasn’t given face paint, a brightly colored outfit, and a big stick of some sort to shake while doing an island dance down to the ring. He marched down to the ring as Samoa Joe, he carried his own name and the history connected to it, and fans knew that Joe was gonna kill you.

Right now, that’s a big thing in wrestling. Most of the stars that have legacies writ large across the modern history of wrestling are getting up there in age. They’re not coming down to the ring to compete. But history is important. It’s a foundation for what we’re about to see. It also creates excitement. We see guys like A.J., Joe, or Roode and we want to see them. We want to see them dive right into the deep end and be the characters we know and love. We’ll still support them if they get saddled with some other personas, but we’ll also wonder why they can’t just be who they are.

We’ll also miss the storytelling excitement. A.J. shows up as A.J., he’s not just treated like some random dude. He’s a former world champion who has held titles in promotions all over the world, and his credentials mean he’s an immediate threat to the top guy in the WWE. They don’t have to clumsily build something for Jay Miles to have credibility, possibly screwing it up, because A.J. walked in the door with it.

All these other guys did too. There are wrestlers who have built names and followings that should be built on in the WWE, not erased and replaced. We’re seeing some of that now with past, pre-WWE feuds being highlighted on WWE TV, and we’re starting to see it again in the form of bringing guys in and treating them like they’re somebody rather than feeling like the WWE has to remake them from scratch.

For me, that’s a good thing. The WWE gets a (sometimes deserved) bad rep for ignoring wrestling that it doesn’t own. But fans want that history embraced. They want it now in the same way they wanted it back when major names could come and go through multiple televised companies and events like L.O.D. vs Demolition could happen or instant feuds could be built with teams like the Rock & Roll Express vs the Midnight Rockers.

Names are powerful things. Names connected to any sort of history and/or legacy are even more powerful. WWE should be embracing that as much as they can right now. 

Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek, dabbling in just about every genre but finding science fiction and horror to be his primary comfort zones. He has also had a lifelong devotion to that form of entertainment known as professional wrestling. When not worrying that his coworkers are going to inflict bodily harm onto him over his sense of humor, he enjoys hitting the convention scene or making indie films with his friends. He also finds talking about himself in third person to be very strange.

No comments:

Post a Comment