SPOTLIGHTED PODCAST ALERT (YOUR ARTICLE BEGINS A FEW INCHES DOWN)...
So, I noticed something at the AEW and New Japan Pro Wrestling Forbidden Door PPV event last week. Any guesses as to what it was?
Here’s some hints. It was stark, a little concerning, and a little sad all at the same time. Any new guesses?
Fine. The hints are worthless, but here it is. Nobody at the show seemed to give a hoot about the match outcomes. Winner and losers? Psssh. “I’ll take my ‘classic’ please.” Good guys and bad guys? Psssssssssh. “I’m reacting, what else do you want from me?” That tone was palpable throughout the walls of Chicago’s United Center and it will inevitably nail a ceiling on the popularity of professional wrestling.
The issue reared its head countless times during Forbidden Door, but the main culprit in this dead end of an audience reaction was the Orange Cassidy vs. Will Ospreay IWGP United States Championship match. I’ll set the stage.
Cassidy is as babyface of an act as there is, right? Right. The crowd played along and gave him a big reaction. As the heel, Ospreay got a pop, as it was hard to contain the star power reaction he drove for just walking out onto the stage.
The match started and Cassidy took it on the chin for a good chunk of the first half in an attempt to build some sympathy for himself and the audience to get behind. They were there for a ride, but not THAT ride. React they did, but not in a visceral way that articulated the were firmly and solely on the side of Cassidy. Ospreay attacked like a madman, kept a vicious demeanor about him, and mocked the babyface Cassidy to a spattering of boos, but also some chuckles. Yep. Laughs. Audible laughs as the lovable babyface, Cassidy, was beaten up and mocked by the heel, Ospreay. Fast-forward to the end of the match and both men were working at a blistering pace of masterful action that included dramatic near falls and big spots. Then, it happened.
Ospreay connected with Storm Breaker on Cassidy and made the cover to earn the victory. No boos. Nada. Instead, the three count got a nice positive pop from the Chicago crowd. Yep, for the heel. Not only were there cheers abound, but as I scanned my section and other sections around me, this was what was happening:
Friend Number One with his jaw dropped turned to Friend Number Two with her draw dropped. Both in amazement. Then came the verbal cues. “That was awesome,” said Friend Number One. “That’s exactly what I wanted to see,” confirmed Friend Number Two. Had I been Friend Number Three, I’d have leaned over and said, “ya know guys, the mean heel Ospreay won you know. What’s so awesome about that?” A totally logical response in my eyes, but the rest of the arena told me otherwise.
I kid you not. Section by section, you could see this interaction happening. It was universal. Nobody cared that heel Ospreay beat up poor ‘ol Orange Cassidy to win the match. They cared that they saw a great forbidden door match and that was more than enough. Oh, and what championship? Was there one on the line? Stakes? Didn’t matter.
Maybe I’m the “get off my lawn” old man in the wrestling media, but that’s a problem. A big problem.
Pro wrestling is about stories. Good vs. evil. Competitor vs. competitor. Woman vs. woman. Man vs. man. There is human psychology all around each of those match ups that generates investment. If the crowd is simply there to see a good match and only a see a good match, a ceiling has been put on the pro wrestling experience. There’s only so much that can be bought when strictly seeing a good match is the endgame.
Example. Think back to when you watched Return of the Jedi for the first time. When the final showdown between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker ensued, was your reaction, “oh, I hope this light saber battle is wonderful?” Likely not. What was it? “I hope Luke Skywalker wins.” And when poor Luke ran into some issues in the fight, the drama built. Would he be able to pull it off or not? In the end he did, but in that scenario if he didn’t and Darth Vader light sabered him to the chest and walked away, would the reaction have been, “wow, great fight?” NO! The narrative and audience demanded more than that given the investment the story generated and they got it with a suitable ending that they cared about.
Pro wrestling is the same way – it should be, anyway and it’s on the audience and the wrestlers to demand more. I’m sure Will Ospreay and Orange Cassidy were thrilled with the reaction they got to their match. After all, from an in-ring perspective, it was genuinely great. The thing is, it was a great fight, but there was no investment on the audience’s end to get behind a winner.
As pro wrestlers, Ospreay and Cassidy will only get to where they are now as stars and moneymakers in the business if only having a good match is the goal. Achieving that goal serves the people that want to see good wrestling and who are around pro wrestling already. You’re tapped out there, fellas. To attract new eyeballs and grow the platform, stars like Cassidy and Ospreay need to want more than a good match. That’s an indy mindset, which works effectively going town to town in the midst of disconnected creative. The bigger audiences that national episodic television bring come with and expectation of investment and attachment. Good matches are important, but the story, a la Luke vs. Darth, is what sticks in the mind and gets the eyeballs to come back.
As for the audience, go ahead and like what you like, but expect more too. Oh, you’d like to see pro wrestling reach 80s level of public interest? Ok, then I’d suggest not being so easy to please. Take a look at the two most recent peaks in professional wrestling interest. Hulk Hogan in the 80s and Steve Austin in the late 90s. Neither of those eras and the star’s leading them had five-star classics each time out. People cared, though. Big time. The rabid child of 80s bought in hook line and sinker on Hogan’s ability to overcome his monster opponents. Austin? Five-star, two-star, one-star, who the hell cares? Those crowds wanted Austin to win and stick it to Vince McMahon. There is proof in that pudding. Dollars too. Investment matters. Outcomes matter. They generate interest and activity.
Vince McMahon, Nick Khan, Tony Khan, and other wrestling promoters around the world are leveraging the “I want a good match” audience to make gobs and gobs of money. Both WWE and AEW have a talented enough roster where genuinely bad matches are hard to come by. The weekly narratives? The real investment? It’s gotten lost in the shuffle based on what I saw in the United Center.
Remember, folks. The classic matches that are pointed to as the best of all time or standard favorites have a story component. The audiences cared. And not about just seeing a good match either, but about the outcome. Austin/Rock, Hogan/Andrea, Punk/Cen, heck even more recently something like Cody vs. Seth. Those matches were as great as they were because of what they meant and who the audience wanted to see win.
Attention. Wrestling fans, attention please. Wrestling promoters are going to give you the wrestling product that’s enough to make lots of money on. They are business owners. Promoters. Hype people. Simply put. if good matches are good enough, then that’s what will be presented.
They aren’t. Pro wrestling can and needs to be more than that. Make them give it to you.