And Another Thing: The Champion
Posted by Hyatte on 07.09.2001
You can have all the money in the world, an arena stuffed with talented wrestlers, an iron clad reputation as someone who can put butts in the seats and deliver a lot of money to a house promoter, none of it matters if you don't have one, vital ingredient to your new company.
You want to start a wrestling company? What do you need to get it going?
Money? Sure. Let's say you have plenty of that.
Talent? Definitely. You have that too. Some of it raw. Some of it with a history of attitude problems. Most with potential just waiting to be let out, begging in fact.
A solid reputation? Yes. If you've been around the business for a while, always worked on the up and up, and always delivered quality, you're all set.
Now, let's add in the fact that you currently run a very successful company already, and this new franchise you are starting up used to be your chief competitor that collapsed and basically fell into your lap. Well, starting the new company should be a snap, right?
Wrong. Through injuries, tactical errors, the stinging bite of past financial endeavors, and the loss of acceptance within pop culture, you find yourself having difficulty getting your new company underway. It would be easier if you had some "name brands" attached to the company. Familiar faces that people associate with the business and it's tradition, but through mismanagement of it's previous owner, you are unable to have access to them. You have talent, but much of it is unproven and only fairly known to the audience that you want to sell it too.
The task is now much more difficult, especially since you don't want to sacrifice the loyal stars of your original company in order to "put over" the (hopefully) up & coming stars of the new. It's a tough balance, you really want to create a viable second company without abusing the loyalty of your "home team". A happy locker room is a productive locker room, so it's necessary to keep his loyal staff happy while reassuring the newcomers that they will have their chance to finally shine and make some serious cash. How on earth to you get this thing going?
Is the "Invasion" storyline a disaster? All signs point to "so far, yes", but if we try to reverse the clichй by seeing the trees individually from the forest- if we look deeper- we may find something else. Something brilliant.
You can have all the money in the world, an arena stuffed with talented wrestlers, an iron clad reputation as someone who can put butts in the seats and deliver a lot of money to a house promoter, none of it matters if you don't have one, vital ingredient to your new company. That one basic element that every company has needed since the birth of Professional Wrestling. Simple, pure, and as necessary to your creation as the heart is to your body. The engine won't turn without it, not for all the money in the world.
The Champion. You first need the Champion. Without him, nothing else will go. The entire project is doomed before it gets to the drawing board.
The Champion must be the very best. The personification of your company. All major routes go through him. All satellites revolve around him. If you want your company to be one where the Faces are in dire straights, your Champion is a Heel. If you want your company to be one where the Heels are constantly scheming and plotting, then your Champion is a Face. The image of your company begins with your Champion. He is your Flagship. Your brightest star in the sky. The attitude of your company is embodied by your Champion. Period. End of story.
The WWF has long centered it's changing (always with the times, never on a simple whim) attitudes around it's Champion. The McMahons are the Masters of placing the right Champion to go along with the climate of the times regarding Sports Entertainment. Sure, sometimes they changed their direction too early, and sometimes they were a bit late, but they've always been able to alter the company so it best reflects the state of their business in general.
When the WWF first began (as the WWWF, a territory firmly rooted in the Northeast) fans of the sport were accustomed to hard nosed, rugged brawlers who kept things simple in the ring, and were sure to be well grounded in reality. Bruno Sammartino was the perfect man for the job, tougher than well-chewed leather and as strong as a Grizzly, was able to relate to his audience as "one of their own". His Italian heritage as deep as it was proud, his smile as warm and inviting as a camp fire, Bruno filled Madison Square Garden each month by fighting back the challenges of almost-equally-as-tough thugs such as Fritz Von Erich, Bobby Duncum, and Stan Hansen (who couldn't even beat Bruno after breaking his neck). For the times, Professional Wrestling was more gladiatorial than theatrical, and Bruno provided the means to get the WWWF into the black. He fit the atmosphere.
When the times changed, the WWWF did too, after a experimental title run from Pedro Morales (no doubt to provide even deeper relations with the ethnicity of the Northeastern audience), Bruno's era eventually gave way to a more sophisticated environment. By using "Superstar" Billy Graham as the middle man, Bob Backlund was made the WWWF's embodiment. Classic brawls were out. Now it was time for the Heels to be dismayed and thwarted by a scientific tactician who resisted the impulse to punch unless pushed to the ultimate brink of anger. Fans became fascinated by the science of the mat, and Backlund, with his howdy-doody face and his upper body- oxenlike in power, yet still covered with baby fat- offered a non-threatening yet extremely potent Champion for children and adults to root for. Once again, the formula worked. Backlund stayed Champion for quite some time and the WWWF profited from it.
Times changed again, and again, and again, and still again. The "WWWF" became the "WWF", Vince McMahon steamrolled the company across the country. Backlund's love for the science gave way to Hulk Hogan's super hero role model. The audience now wanted larger than life characters and Hogan was perfect for the role as the central figure*. When Hogan wasn't available, Randy Savage's volatile persona filled the bill nicely. While many considered the Ultimate Warrior a wrestling joke and a failure, he still fit the times, (yet his limited style and over-exaggerated build definitely pushed the issue). As the audience began losing interest in the product as a whole, the WWF tried to keep it's head above water by installing Bret Hart's dignified, poised, work-hard-enough-and-you-can-succeed character as the company Champion. When the business took a frightful downward turn, the WWF panicked (Vince McMahon is human, after all) and tried several variations of past successes: putting Hogan back as Champion, creating Diesel as the "new" larger than life super hero, using Shawn Michaels' flamboyant charm, "regular guy" build and tireless work ethic, and finally Yokozuna's Evil Monster from an Evil Country. To a degree, all of these figureheads worked. Yet the WWF wasn't moving ahead, they were simply staying above water. Again, it was the times, they were adjusting to them.
The times moved upward. Momentum surged. The audience regained interest in the business, and the WWF changed to meet their desires. Enter "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. A Bruno-like brawler, to be sure, yet his skill isn't what kept the houses filled, it was his attitude. The times were/are about having less respect for the integrity of the law (Rodney King) or the competence of it either (O.J. Simpson). Rules were now made to be broken, if not personally, then by a representative, and who better to live these dreams vicariously through than the foul mouthed Texan who thrived on sticking it to the pompous, arrogant owner of the WWF itself with a pair of middle fingers and a mouthful of beer? Even the "Rock", who began his role as Champion by embracing that which Austin opposed, eventually settled in as the brash rebel who played the Champion that pissed off his boss. The times called for it, the times demanded it. The WWF responded. It's what they do, and they are the experts at it**.
It was in considering the WWF's history of creating the right Champion for the right time that led me to a realization concerning WCW. With the general attitude towards wrestling on the downswing again, it's not the optimum time to build a new company, but as I said, WCW just fell into McMahon's lap and he had to move ahead before the concept of WCW ceased to even exist. With the WWF, their Champion is the former rebel who has submitted to the "company" while the "company" has compromised to accommodate the personality of the rebel. The current audience enjoys watching the inter-company politics and maneuvering that they go through each day played out on "stage", the WWF is delivering just that, and throwing in a generous amount of comic relief to boot. Yet, they cannot do the same with WCW, as repetitiveness breeds boredom and the real life drama of the company's recent history is still an open wound. No, for WCW to succeed in these times, the WWF has to create a new, Champion to represent a distinctly unique entity that the audience will approve of and cheer for. How do you do it?
Booker T. is known. He's skilled. He's charismatic. He's diverse. He is a man of dignity. He is just not as famous as the WWF Champions. In the "Invasion" storyline, he is the WCW champion who is not afraid to walk past a sea of glaring WWF Superstars and look each one of them right in the eye. Booker T will not blink. He is too proud for that. Gang up on him. Beat him. Kick him. Throw him out of the building and into the street. He'll walk into the next arena in the next town with his head held eye and his arms proudly holding his championship. He has a title defense tonight in enemy territory and he's going to make the appointment. He's worked very hard for his title and he will fight to keep it. He considers it an honor. He considers it a privilege.
Sooner rather than later, the WWF locker room will stop considering him a second rater and look at him as a "Champion". This moment will occur when the first WWF Superstar stops Booker as he walks, head held high, through the glaring eyes of the enemy locker room and extends his hand in respect. After a pause that could last as long as a moment or a week, other hands will follow. Wrestlers who worked their hearts out every night knowing that the mid-card is as far as they will ever get respect nothing as much as the mid-carder who made it to the main event honestly and stayed there through hard work. Then, when the WWF locker room accepts Booker T as the WCW champion, then WCW will have it's Champion. You have your key ingredient.
The beautiful part of all this, while the fans are looking at the forest and calling it a failure, they don't see how the WWF is discreetly making sure the root of the biggest tree is firmly entrenched so that it can support all the other plants around it for a long, long time. So long as the main tree is secure, the forest will be able to bloom fully and wildly. It's easy to see, so long as you look deeper.
The People's Champion? It's taken.
The Rebel Champion? Been there, done that.
The Fighting Champion? Too corny.
How about Booker T: The Wrestler's Champion?
A Champion is being planted in front of our eyes, and we still missed it.
This is Hyatte too
*as a counter to Hogan's representation, the WWF's chief rival, the NWA/WCW wisely used Ric Flair's flamboyance and playboy image as their Champion to help them stay active as an alternative to the WWF's clear cut vision of Good vs Evil. Flair's perverse charisma and smooth mat skills presented the audience with the Heel Champion you could not help but enjoy. As Dusty Rhodes' down-home redneck image provided the perfect foil to "Slick Ric".
**acknowledging the "hiccups" of short lived WWF Champions, most noticeably The Big Show. Many, if not all of whom, were there to serve as the aforementioned "middle men" to the ultimate Champion for the current landscape.