July 19, 2020 | News | No Comments
Wrestling is all about maintaining a well-balanced synthesis between sports and entertainment. Just removed from a week where the most-discussed thing in wrestling was one of the most surreal segments in recent memory, it is somehow fitting that so much of the conversation this week surrounds something that feels so much more real.
On Wednesday, WWE shone a spotlight on some of the best cruiserweights on the planet with the first episode of the Cruiserweight Classic.
From the CWC Bracketology show and initial marketing, it seemed clear that the company would push the tournament as a straightforward competition between premier athletes from the world over, all motivated by the spirit of competition as opposed to standard pro wrestling feud fare.
By reducing the motivation of the participants to something as basic as winning a tournament and proving themselves to be the best athletes in their weight class, the CWC would have a necessary level of urgency and authenticity that most of WWE’s recent tournaments have lacked absolutely.
The first episode did nothing to dissuade from this notion, apart from some basic face/heel dynamics, the first four matches were all about individuals representing both themselves and their countries, working disparate styles, and looking to progress toward a singular objective.
Nobody played up a gimmick too aggressively, every match went to a clean fall, and every decision had an impact on a larger objective. Even if not one of the first four matches were blow away (though they were all quite good), the show itself was a roaring success.
It feels fresh and authentic and it is likely to be a big hit with fans who still see professional wrestling as something of a sport.
A lot of that has to do with the presentation of the CWC as a genuine contest between superior athletes. Achieving a vibe much more akin to something like the Eddie Bravo Invitational than, say, the 2015 King of the Ring is much to the CWC’s benefit.
Having competitors meet in the middle to shake hands before the start of a match and having them stand side by side so a victor’s hand can be raised at the end gives each bout in the CWC a gravity that matches on Raw and SmackDown lack.
Even when a match has a clearly defined babyface and heel, there is at least the auspice of competitive reverence in so far that the rules are observed and respected.
Not enough can be said about what good commentary does for the product. Every single one of the eight men seen on the debut episode was put over in every imaginable way by Mauro Ranallo and Daniel Bryan, who in one night became the best commentary team in the company right now.
Ranallo and Bryan were extremely effective at treating the subject matter seriously, whether it was acknowledging the histories of the competitors and the business itself (the mind still reels at name drops for the likes of Misawa, Kawada, Kobashi, Okada, and Hero) or speculating as to how real-world factors like travel and inexperience may affect the performance of competitors.
Moreover, Ranallo and Bryan worked hard to put over each and every participant as a viable and credible threat to win the tournament.
In one night, the CWC was more effective at making Ariya Daivari and Sean Maluta seem like future stars than months of Raw, SmackDown, and PPVs have been able to do for Baron Corbin and Apollo Crews.
The CWC seems poised to be a refreshing success because it favors sport as a means to entertain.
While wrestling can be a wonderful thing when it embraces the fantastic and unrealistic aspects of its nature (evinced by everything from the 25-year endurance of a character like The Undertaker to the absurdity of a spectacle like The Final Deletion), it should endeavor to retain at least the illusion of sport in some respects.
When it lacks that ambition, when entertainment takes unbalanced precedent over the idea of competition, you wind up with something similar to the Battle Royal to determine the number one contender for the Intercontinental championship from Raw this week.
While The Miz is quite clearly a cartoon villain who falls under the latter half of WWE’s sports-entertainment dynamic, the upcoming brand split practically necessitates that the I-C title be taken as seriously as a championship should be taken.
Without even getting started on the decision to have Darren Young challenge for the championship at a time where WWE needs compelling feuds on both shows, Young was positioned as the next in line for what should be one of the most prestigious titles in the company by virtue of lying in the corner while Corbin and Crews stupidly eliminated themselves.
Matters don’t get much better for the US championship, with Zack Ryder being named the new number one contender for the title immediately after losing to Sheamus in two minutes.
Consider for a moment that Sheamus now has a very legitimate claim to being next in line for Rusev’s title.
Now consider the fact that he will show no interest in vying for that title, nor indignity that he is not getting a shot that he is probably due, nor any sort of motivation for any of his actions moving forward apart from playing the role of a mean guy.
That’s a pretty damning indictment of both the significance of that particular title and the impetus WWE feels to give its product the illusion of being a competitive sport.
Jacaré Souza took his frustrations to Twitter on Sunday when it was announced that Dan Henderson, not he, was getting the next shot at Michael Bisping’s UFC middleweight championship.
That passion to win a championship and the belief that he is the most deserving of a title fight not only creates a story going into Souza’s next bout, but it helps build the overall narrative for when he ultimately does get his shot at the title.
UFC’s titles remain prestigious even when they are held by relative unknowns because every competitor in each respective division has one goal: to win at the highest level.
Should Souza and Bisping square off for the title, there will presumably be greater interest than there would be if, say, Souza acted as aloof about the whole thing as WWE superstars are about getting title opportunities.
The fact that neither Sheamus nor any participant who came up short in the Battle Royal will show little or no interest in reclaiming a place at the top of the line for a shot at either the US or I-C title shows how little wins and losses actually matter, how little direction the audience can expect for any wrestlers not involved in one of the top two or three storylines, and how far away from the idea of wrestling as a sport WWE has gotten.
Meanwhile, guys like Daivari, Maluta, Alejandro Saez, and Clement Petiot came away from their CWC losses more over than they were going in, not just because they took advantage of an opportunity to showcase some of their abilities, but because they seemed vested in the result and disappointed to have fallen short.
This problem of listlessness and lack of ambition has pervaded WWE’s booking for years and it is the primary reason that the vast majority of the characters involved in Monday’s Battle Royal could be considered tertiary at best.
It extends even beyond that.
Brock Lesnar’s aura as a professional wrestler is now informed and reinforced by the fact that he is a legitimate top-10 ranked heavyweight fighter (to hear Michael Cole tell it, he is also the single greatest athlete in the history of combat sports) and, should he opt to return to the Octagon and then win another match or two, a potential contender for the UFC heavyweight championship.
Yet, when it comes to his next big match for WWE, he has no discernable ambition or motivation to compete.
Matching Lesnar against Orton at SummerSlam, ostensibly just a guy in a higher position on the card than most, doesn’t mesh with the image of a ferocious competitor who thrives on self-motivation and setting up goals to be smashed.
Unless the story is that Lesnar just wants a nice payday for beating up a guy he’s never beat up before, there’s no realistic incentive for him to take the match, and less impetus for casual fans to tune in.
Putting Lesnar in line for a title shot not only makes sense because he would be the most logically deserving, but because it at least suggests that Lesnar is interested in the WWE championship. If we are to believe that he isn’t, then we should also be skeptical of that title’s value.
With Shane McMahon promising to make SmackDown a new product, perhaps WWE could take the concept literally by keeping Raw the brand concerned with making movies and challenging sitcoms, while focusing SmackDown on more closely mirroring legitimate combat sports.
The first place to look would be what it is doing with the CWC, borrowing its tone and presentation, making wins and losses mean something, having a sense of rank and file for championship contenders, making those belts mean something, and emphasizing the spirit of competition overall.
Were SmackDown to become a pure wrestling show aimed at those who long for the days where it was presented as a sport, it would be interesting to see if it ultimately didn’t change the perception of that show and help it thrive on its new night.