KELLER'S TAKE KELLER: C.M. Punk is not best utilized as a tweener, despite a recent reader poll; he should be all out heel
Aug 12, 2012 - 5:31:12 PM
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By Wade Keller, PWTorch editor
I was surprised to see poll results over at www.prowrestling.net regarding the best role for C.M. Punk in WWE. Three choices were offered, and with well over 2,000 votes entered, over half say he is best used as a tweener, and only 12 percent say he is best used as a babyface.
I'm surprised on two levels. One, I would have predicted most would have voted for Punk to be a babyface. Two, I think of "tweener" in pro wrestling in 2012 as a failed antiquated ill-advised way to cast and portray a wrestler.
I wasn't against Punk turning heel. I thought business-wise, although there was risk and a downside of depleting the babyface top tier, it made sense since it opened up a chance for him to fight The Rock, perhaps defending the WWE Title against him at the Royal Rumble. Also, there was an outside chance at a match at WrestleMania against "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. There is no sense in Austin coming back for a match if fans are going to be tempted to boo him or have mixed feelings about his hitting a Stunner at the end and scoring a pin. Those two potential dream matches weigh pretty heavily on the decision-making scale, offsetting the lost merchandise revenue and chance to be considered a top two babyface along John Cena.
As for Rock, he deserves and would be best utilized as a babyface. As compelling - and successful - as the Rock vs. John Cena feud was, I'd much rather see Rock the next time cast clearly and decisively as a babyface. Putting him in another situation where what he is best at - holding the crowd in the palm of his hand as they cheer his catch-phrases and well-timed, precisely landed witticisms - seems like the obvious thing to do for his second WrestleMania return match. Punk, as a heel, is a great opponent for Rock.
That's not to say if Rock were cast as the babyface and Punk as the heel that there wouldn't be some fans who rooted for Punk, if only because they see him as more contemporary and "their generation's star." The goal of Punk in that situation, though, should be to minimize the cheers and try to turn those fans against him.
I say that because I believe pro wrestling is ideally presented as a battle between a clear-cut babyface and a clear-cut heel. I think movies based around conflict, especially when sports or fighting is involved, are best when viewers are given a reason to root for one person over the other.
In life we all run into people who act in ways that upset us. The coworker who underperforms but schmoozes his way to the top. The friend who was born into money but acts like he earned it. The boss who is unfair or overly strict. We all run into people whose values we share and admire. We root for the people we admire and against the people we don't.
Pro wrestling is most compelling and effective when it gives us that outlet to cheer for someone who clearly we identify with and admire or have reason to want to see succeed, and against people who don't share our values and remind us of people who we feel cheat to get ahead or have different values.
I don't see any reason to mess with this simple formula very often. That doesn't mean heels can't be entertaining in the sense that we look forward to watching them and perhaps even laugh at them or admire certain aspects about their character. At fight time, though, we should have a definitive reason to want to see the heel lose, if for no other reason than hoping a loss will show them their current attitude or approach isn't working for them. Why would we want to root for someone in the pro wrestling ring who acts in ways that we would resent in real life situations?
Tweeners are bad for business almost always because it muddies the waters and gets in the way of the thrill of seeing your favorite win or the disappointment of seeing his opponent win. Either a wrestler should be cast in a way where there's reason to admire them and want to see them succeed, or not. Anything in between is just sloppy character development.
If Punk isn't going to be an all-out babyface, he should be an all-out heel. We should be given a reason now to despise his change of attitude and his new approach. If a fan liked him before, there should be a good reason for them to feel disillusioned with him now. He should be, at the core, the same person, but it should be revealed that he's not everything we thought he was because he was being phony before. Or it should be revealed to us that he has reacted poorly to losing and has chosen a path that disappoints us.
This is basic storytelling. Yes, on complex, highly-acclaimed, top-shelf dramas on HBO, AMC, Showtime, and, FX we are often presented with ambiguous characters, whom week to week, segment to segment, we have mixed reactions to. Those shows, though, are not a model for pro wrestling. It's a bad match. Pro wrestling simply doesn't have the dialogue and plot progression that supports such layered characters. It's not a genre that lends itself well to ambiguity of characters.
Pro wrestling is more akin to an action movie or, say, "24" where there is a clear hero we have a reason to admire and villains whom that hero is trying to overcome. Even if the lead hero is troubled or faces tough choices and sometimes make wrong choices, we are rooting for him to find the right path and succeed using integrity and outwitting the villain.
Sometimes pro wrestling bookers and writers try to make their jobs tougher than they need to be, perhaps out of boredom or indecision or needlessly trying to "innovate." There are some things that just work best unaltered. Cars have four wheels, two on each side. Toasters have rectangular slots that fit slices of bread. Sidewalks are flat whenever they can be flat. Phones are small enough to hold in your hand and fit in your pocket. And pro wrestlers should be cast as babyfaces or heels, without unneeded, messy ambiguity.
Why would Punk be a tweener? What's the benefit? By being a tweener, that means he'll at times be matched against a babyface that fans otherwise want to root for, but now they'll have to make a tough choice and perhaps look for reason to turn against that babyface. Or Punk will be put against a heel and we'll be forced to ignore reasons we normally would have mixed feelings about Punk and cheer him, or ignore reasons we'd typically dislike the heel and cheer him against Punk. It's just needlessly sloppy. There's a reason there are home teams in sports. There's a reason a Laker-Knicks game wouldn't draw as well in Dallas as a Mavericks-Lakers game.
WWE should give us consistent, clear reasons to dislike Punk, to be disappointed in Punk, to see Punk as having taken the wrong path. We should be given every reason to boo him now, if not because of who he is, at least because we disagree with the path he has chosen, hoping he chooses to go back to his old ways when we admired him.
Watching Punk tear down The Rock verbally in ways that ring true and makes us think maybe Rock isn't all that cool anymore just damages Rock. Punk is smart enough to find a way to not take the tweener shortcut and "just be himself and let the fans choose." He has the wrestling knowledge and intellect to take the tougher road of finding ways to get all of the fans predisposed to cheer him to rethink that and boo his current attitude.
(Wade Keller is supervising editor and founder of Pro Wrestling Torch. He hosts the PWTorch Livecast on Tuesdays and Fridays, presents the daily Wade Keller Hotline for VIP members, and publishes the PWTorch Newsletter for VIP members every week, among other duties. He has interviewed pro wrestling's top stars in their longest insider interviews in their careers including Hulk Hogan, The Rock, Steve Austin, Goldberg, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Eric Bischoff, Vince Russo, and many others.)
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