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Art is the creation of something from nothing that elicits a reaction. Pro wrestling embodies that definition. In wrestling, men and women step inside the squared circle and create with their actions, expressions, words, and bodies to garner a specific and distinct reaction from their audience. In turn, the audience responds to, engages with, and affects the work. No other art form in the world carries that uniqueness. In this column, we explore that art form inside real and relevant examples. Enjoy.
Not all art in the wrestling ring has to come in the form scripted promos, planned segments, and point to point matches. In fact, some of the best artistic moments in the history of the business have been rooted in spontaneity and surprise. Hulk Hogan and The Rock staring each other down and slowly glancing at the audience as they cheered a potential dream match, Daniel Bryan smiling along with adoring fans as they hijacked Raw in his hometown of Seattle, and Roman Reigns going mute the night after beating The Undertaker at WrestleMania while fans from around the world rejected him in legendary fashion are all prime examples. Those moments, and others, lived off the page and inside the shadowy confines of the ad-lib. In each of those examples, the crowd’s reaction and the performer’s on the spot reaction to that reaction created unforgettable works of in-ring art that will stand the test of time in the WWE. They are the epitome of the difference between good and great and in all of them, spontaneity is the common denominator for success.
We know WWE believes in the art of scripting everything. They sell, resell, and oversell what’s happening in the ring to further their brand and the narrative they’re interested in pushing. There is certainly merit in debating that argument, but there is no debate in the obvious notion that that type of scripting automatically takes some spontaneity and surprise away. Sometimes though, it’s impossible to fully fight the rising tide of an audience reaction and an artistic ad-lib the likes of Hogan, Rock, Bryan, or Reigns is unavoidable. After Monday night, Seth Rollins can be added to that list too. Rollins responded to a blistering hot crowd in Montreal with an unscripted sincerity and genuineness that catapulted his promo and self into a new stratosphere while creating a potential career defining moment.
The segment began with “Burn It Down” being screamed by the Canadian fans as Rollins walked out from behind the curtain and onto the entrance ramp. In the ring and with a confident glare in his eye, Rollins addressed the loud audience by saying that they were wild and then identified with them by telling them how much he loved that wildness. From there, Rollins ran down his own wild ride since winning the WWE Intercontinental Championship at WrestleMania. Rollins took the crowd on a mini timeline from New Orleans through St. Louis, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and now Montreal. Not all performers could have made a timeline like that work. If not presented in the right way, it could have come across as gloating and arrogant. Rollins executed it to perfection. He was able to mirror his accomplishments with tact and it went a long way with the crowd. His expressions and mannerisms in the ring while speaking the words came off as appreciative and the crowd was able to connect with it and be proud of it as his promo continued on. Except, it didn’t continue on. Instead of Rollins diving deeper into his statement, the audience took over and maintained their cheers for the Seth Rollins post WrestleMania journey. This is where the artistic magic began.
Rollins soaked in the cheers by standing tall in the ring while looking around at the cheering audience. From there, the audience began an “Olay” chant, to which Rollins responded by laughing along and smiling. Once the chant died down, the cheering continued and Rollins slowly walked to the ring ropes and leaned against them as he looked out at his audience. This move was important as it brought him closer to his Montreal admirers literally and figuratively. In this moment, Rollins obviously had scripted words to say, but instead, he recognized the special moment brewing and held them back. By not saying a word during this moment, Rollins enhanced his reaction more than any words could have. The way in which he said nothing was important too. Throughout, Seth conveyed truly earnest feelings. He smiled like he was actually happy and paced the ring like the confident star that he is. His lean over the ropes further showed his appreciation and in turn, it let the audience in. Ultimately, by soaking in the reaction with a layer of humbleness in his emotions, he embodied all the reasons why the audience gave him the reaction they did. By speaking or trying to control the crowd in a moment like this, you can easily choke the life out of it and make it disappear. Rollins simply reacted patiently. The recognition and decision to do that is brilliant art in it of itself.
The artistic spontaneity that Rollins showed within this promo takes loads of courage, confidence, and skill. Just thinking about going off script is often unheard of as it’s a direct contrast with the company’s vision and strategy. Going against that grain, even with the greatest reaction in the world, takes courage because it’s a significant risk. That courage is a result of intense confidence. Only characters that are humming on all cylinders and performing at high levels can pull off the element of surprise well. For one thing, audiences don’t react wildly for acts that aren’t confident. The other side of that coin is being able to execute. It’s the ability to feel a moment on the horizon and then act on it. The confidence to do that is rooted in skill. You need to have the ability to not only recognize a unique situation, but harness it. Just being able to feel a moment isn’t enough. Only skillful performers can utilize a reaction and then react to it off script to increase its impact. As Rollins showed on Monday, the expressions need to be there, the content of the words to need to be there, and the ability to understand and then mirror the psyche of the audience needs to be there as well.
Rollins combined all of those pieces into a career defining moment. He had the courage to take advantage of an unscripted situation because he was skillful and therefore confident enough to do so. He expressed himself well, used his facials to convey his emotions, and said words that the crowd could relate to. We won’t know the true and outright effect of this promo until years down the road. It could end up being a blip on the radar of Seth’s mediocrity in WWE. The bigger question is, was this the Seth Rollins “Austin 3:16” moment? Vince McMahon typically isn’t deaf when it comes to crowd reactions and it only takes one to change his mindset. After a couple of years toiling around the mid-card scene, maybe this promo changed Seth’s fortunes in the eyes of the maker in WWE. It certainly should have.
I’d put a strong bet on the latter. Reactions like the one Rollins received on Monday don’t just grow on trees. Period. The ability to generate a larger reaction from the initial one doesn’t abound in WWE either. Seth Rollins is getting both. Add that in with the fact that he’s fully capable of having main event level matches at the drop of hat and the top guy formula in WWE suddenly becomes solved. If Rollins goes on to fulfill his dream and become WWE’s number one star, this promo and the art within it will be a foundational pillar of what made that success possible.
NOW CHECK OUT LAST WEEK’S COLUMN: ARTISTRY OF WRESTLING: Braun Strowman gets the hot tag on Raw and burns bright as WWE’s true lead babyface