Brock Lesnar turns heel and no one cares. Rey Mysterio executes one heart-stopping move after another and we just yawn. Chris Benoit is one of the best wrestlers in the world today- and no one gives a damn.
So why don’t we care? Because we know they’ll never be special. We know they’ll never be big time. We know they lack something. Something fundamental. You see, none of them can speak. Now, I don’t mean that they are all mute, so put those conspiracy theories away-there’s no ventriloquial cover-up in the WWE. These guys are incapable of cutting interesting, funny, natural in-ring rants.
Stickwork is such a part of the modern grap game that many wrestlers like Benoit are denied the success their physical talent deserves. And conversely, great motormouth skills can help those whose wrestling is as rusty as Abdullah the Butcher’s forks-Hogan springs to mind instantly, as does Roddy Piper, whose best work was always done out of the ring, and of course Stone Cold (oh, come on, he’s a three move guy-stomp, Lou Thesz Press, Stunner-and a three catchphrase guy too…but what phrases!)
So those speechifying skills really are essential-they can even break a Main Eventer (take a bow, Ultimate Shouter. And you can stand up too, Diesel Nash.) So when we find someone who can put both disciplines together, we cherish him-which can be the only reason why Ric Flair is still wrestling.
But good wrestlers don’t have to be discarded just because they can’t string a coherent sentence (or thought) together; it wasn’t always this way. Gather at my feet children, and let me take you back in time…if you keep pulling that face Goldberg, I won’t tell you the story…thank you.
It’s the late-80’s. Big hair, Reaganomics, aciieeed. I’m just as successful as I always was and you’re still losers-some things never change. The WWF/E is in one of its most lucrative periods. Hercules Hernandes and Dino Bravo are both doing outmoded strongman acts, and Greg “The Hammer” Valentine is so slow in the squared circle that Gorilla Monsoon builds it into his commentary in every one of his matches (“It takes him about half an hour to get warmed up in there, Jess”). And yet these guys are popular with the crowds; no-one’s going for beer when they’re on. These guys had heat. Because they had help. They had someone to talk for them. They had someone to fill out their characters for them. They had managers.
Managers were everywhere in the late ’80’s. They didn’t look after one wrestler; there were groups, stables, gangs almost. Even the lowliest wrestler was part of the managerial masterplan; they had their own feuds and storylines, no matter how unimportant to the big picture. They ran interference for the champ(s) in their group, but those guys would also help the mid-carders. They were important for what they could do in the ring, having a manager played to their strengths.
Perhaps the best manager of that era was Bobby “The Brain” Heenan. He was sneaky (his crowd-led nickname was “weasel”), intelligent, great behind the stick, stood foursquare behind his wrestlers and also demanded their help when physically threatened. He called his wrestlers The Heenan Family, and in this period he had Hercules, Haku, Rick Rude, The Islanders, Mr Perfect and Andre. The Family was one unit, and he used them as either a battering ram or individually for precision surgery. Heenan wasn’t afraid to get involved in order to influence fights (as in Summerslam ’89 when he grabbed hold of the Warrior’s leg to facilitate a winning IC Championship pin for Rude), but it was the fear of what he might do, what he was planning next, which was one of his great strengths. He was a funny guy, provided superb colour commentary with Monsoon, and was properly cowardly in the ring (although he was a tough guy when wrestling for AWA), but the greatest thing about the Brain was that everyone in his Family got a chance, a going-nowhere guy like Hercules had storylines like the battle of the Full Nelsons with Billy Jack Haynes at WMIII and the great angle when Heenan sold his contract to Ted Dibiase without telling him; this was used to turn Hercules-management liked him so much they turned him face, that’s how good the management system had been for him.
One of The Brain’s greatest skills was his ability to get his charges high-profile matches and Championship shots. We were expected to believe that he negotiated behind the scenes with management on behalf of his wrestlers, and cut deals any way he could. I am aware that today’s fans are jaded, they know a little about backstage politics and feel they are plugged in to the real business of the business. This is partially why we have McMahon overload-the fans believe every decision comes from Vincent K, so that’s what we see in the backstage (and increasingly arena-based) segments.
Of course, what Vinnie serves us up isn’t real, it isn’t the way business is done in the WWE, but it stops most of us wondering. This ad hoc (dictionaries out, bozos!) decision-making has grown boring; when Austin, Bischoff and any McMahon can reverse stipulations at the drop of a hat, match rules and backstage business don’t mean much. Managers strengthen the business of the Fed, because their negotiations are done within the intractable rules of ranking-a wrestler had to work his way up to a title shot, unless the manager could offer a deal with one of his other wrestlers.
Reinstating the career progress of wrestlers would bring back the competitive aspect of the WWE, and would mean that titles were something to strive for. Rankings can work for a Federation; we watch our favourite’s progress over the months, until that one night when they get their big shot-and usually fall short, but that’s half the fun, isn’t it?
Reinstating rules gives wrestlers, booker and writers something to work with. What’s the point in Stone Cold playing his badass rule-breaking character if anyone can do it?
So, now you see, managers have an intrinsic worth. They protect wrestlers who need help, they make the business of wrestling intriguing and they provide ready-made heel characters for fans to love to hate. But managers must be allowed to do be who they are, not have characters imposed on them-remember Scott “Raven” Levy’s tenure as Johnny Polo, and Jamieson, the Bushwhackers’ derelict friend-my flesh is starting to crawl…Let the managers use their own characters, Bobby H was stronger for doing so, and Jimmy Hart used one gimmick, a megaphone that he berated opponents with-the rest was all him, and was wonderfully annoying!
I for one have had enough of T&A valets and “executive consultants”-let managers take control of wrestlers who need it. Let them build stables of wrestlers, like Evolution but with a natural hierarchy, a group who have a masterplan, not just a meaningless love of getting involved for no reason.
I know Vinnie reads this column, because I suggested a few weeks ago that Shane should make a reappearance and Hey Presto! (And I have nothing to do with the way he’s booked, so put that chair down) and I hope he heeds my advice. The WWE is too wrestler-led, they are getting what they want when they want, and when that happens, the lunatics really are running the asylum.