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  1. #1
    Super Moderator Prime Time's Avatar
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    Take Up Thy Wrestling Boots and Walk - The Power of Hate


    Today when I look at wrestling fans, I tend to believe that they aren’t as emotionally invested in their favourites as we were a generation ago.

    I know people who disagree. To be honest I can’t prove them wrong. I cannot get inside their head and see what they feel, nor can I compare it to something lose in the ether. I can only speak as I find, which is as much as to say that if they do love in the same way, they sure as hell don’t look like they do. It seems to me that a ‘this is awesome’ chant just isn’t as impassioned as the kids crying for Hogan, the girls losing their shit for Luger like he was one of The Beatles, or chants like ‘Rock N’ Roll’, ‘Let’s Go Bret’, or ‘Macho, Macho’.

    Arguing about the correct direction of an angle just seems a lot colder than spontaneously bursting into tears at a result.

    For all these and other reasons I trust the evidence of my senses, even though that evidence is always necessarily incomplete, and open to question. But there’s another aspect of emotion that I’m certain doesn’t exist in wrestling anymore, and it’s one which some people might be glad to see the back of. Whether they do or no, it’s certainly to the detriment of the wrestling business.

    That factor is the power of hate.

    Hate understandably gets a bad rap in the world and honestly I can see why you’d be glad to see the back of it. The contemporary wrestling fan, someone who has started watching wrestling since the late nineties or even later, is probably going to be troubled at some level by the idea of holding genuine animus towards a performer for doing nothing more than their job. But that used to be the norm.

    One of the most famous examples I can think of relates to the manager, Sam Bass. In the 1970s he was one of the most hated managers in professional wrestling, and was probably in the same bracket as someone like Bobby Heenan when it came to the kind of heat that he had. Generally, though, he’d work more Southern territories than Heenan, and had particular connections with Memphis. To cut a long story short, Sam Bass died in a car crash in 1976. When the crowd were told that Bass, who had been advertised to appear, had passed on, the crowd popped. And I mean hard.

    If you’re the kind of person who has been brought up on wrestling of the past ten years or so, politely applauding a thumb to the eye as ‘good heel tactics’ you’re probably horrified at people celebrating the death of someone who was, at the end of the day, an entertainer.

    But to react with horror is to miss the point.

    To a heel manager in that era, that kind of reaction is quite literally the warmest tribute a crowd could pay, and while I don’t know if there’s anything in existence that meant Bass would know what happened after his death, I’m sure if was aware of the crowd that night he’d have been grinning from ear to ear. Because the truth is, that meant that he had them in the palm of his hand, and they had been totally invested in him and what he did.

    I’m from a slightly different generation myself, caught on the cusp of two different worlds. I can’t say I’ve ever popped for a death in wrestling; in fact they’ve come so thick and fast over the years that there’s been something incredibly sobering just about the sheer volume.

    But, and it’s a strange thing to say perhaps, I do find that I miss hating people. Wrestling is definitely weaker as an attraction for the fact that it can’t generate that kind of vitriol anymore.

    Let me give you an example. Cast your mind back to the late 1980s, when I first became aware of wrestling – not when I started following religiously but when it first crossed my radar and the pattern was set. At that point in time, Hulk Hogan was the top star in wrestling, and like everyone else whose age was registered in single digits, I loved Hogan. He had charisma, he looked like the strongest man alive, and he was colourful in a way that appealed to callow youths such as myself.

    That only tells half the story, though, because the fact remains Hogan was popular because he could get the job done. It was Hulk Hogan, after all, who had come back to the WWF when they needed someone to take on the hated Iron Sheik and took the title back for America. To tell the truth, that is before my time and not something I was ever invested in, but there were two heels in the WWF that I wanted nowhere near the WWF title. It’s funny to think of it now, given where I ended up on both guys, but I hated Bobby Heenan and Randy Savage.

    Even while I was amused by Bobby, the idea of him conning and conniving his way into representing a champion in the WWF was unthinkable. When he pulled the leg of the Ultimate Warrior to give Rick Rude the win, it wasn’t just that Warrior lost the belt but that Rude had managed to steal it for the dreaded Heenan Family. Remember, this is a world in which you are ultimately supposed to value people standing up, looking each other straight in the eye and competing. Underhanded tricks were a genuine reason for contempt. And if I felt that way about the IC title or the tag titles, imagine just how much worse it would have been had Bobby got his grubby little weasel mitts on the big belt, the ultimate symbol of prestige and talent.

    As for Randy Savage, I think coming along when I did had a lot to do with it. I’m not sure I’d have been so down on Randy had I see ‘cup of coffee in the big time’ Savage a couple of years earlier, when there’s something so infectious about him (and this was the role that led them to turn him babyface in the first place, of course). But in 1989 through to 1991, the heel Savage is just unthinkably evil, and again, it was literally inconceivable that someone like that could hold the title, and a tragedy when they did.

    That, in a nutshell, was a big part of Hogan’s appeal. It wasn’t just that we liked him, but that there were people in the company whose success represented literal nightmares. But Hogan had a proven track record of winning matches, so he could be relied on to keep the worst offenders – and offenders is the right word, because when you are watching in the right way there is something genuinely offensive about these guys getting away with their figurative murders – from the top of the mountain for the most part. Sure, he’d drop the occasional match, but the idea that the Macho King could have been running riot without Hulk certainly added massively to his appeal.

    I could reference the same sort of thing as part of my fandom a few years later. It’s probably fair to say that I hated no one more in my time as a wrestling fan than Jim Cornette in his WWF run. I hated Vader on sight, not just because he attacked the avuncular President Gorilla Monsoon, but because he quite clearly could have taken the title back to Camp Cornette any time he got the opportunity. Vader inspired fear in part because he could put your favourites on the shelf, but also because of just how much success he could have for his manager, who was (along with Jerry Lawler) consistently a top heel at the time.

    But one of the other manifestations of that time is on the babyfaces. There were a number of top guys in 1995 and 1996, and when it came down to it I was always a Bret and Undertaker guy before I was a Shawn and Diesel guy. I liked the latter, but I loved the former. But I was always on the side of the Kliq because the alternative was so often that Cornette’s cronies would come out on top. I was deeply conflicted by the heel Davey Boy in that group, and longed to get behind the man I saw as the biggest success story in British wrestling, but in the end I had to cheer Diesel over him in 1995, and Shawn against him in that famous storyline through the May and June of 1996.

    Hate, then, was a powerful motivator – because it not only gave us something to hope for when we watched wrestling, it also made sure that there were stakes involved. When you hate the idea of the title falling into someone’s hands, you actually have something to lose when you watch, and that’s a whole other level of involvement.

    And it didn’t end there – the Austin and McMahon angle worked so well because for the first year or so, people genuinely hated Vince McMahon. Yes, that wore off and eventually the angle started to resemble something more like what we see today, but in the first instance it wasn’t just that Austin was Steve Austin, the baddest S.O.B. in the WWF, but that he was beating down the guy that we all wished we could beat down ourselves.

    Without hate, what is a heel? So far as I can see it, there are only two choices. There’s either someone you respect for their performance or there is apathy. But in either case this seems like a weaker option than the one that we’ve left behind, a more timid, even milquetoast affair compared with the guy who gets you spitting with rage, someone who leaves you praying please god, let this jobber get an upset win so that this prick can be put in his place for a couple of weeks.

    The guy for whom every single success, however small it may be, gave us cause for mourning.

    Maybe it isn’t always the best thing to admit, but in wrestling at least, I miss the days when I too could be moved enough to hate my fellow man.
    Last edited by Prime Time; 1 Week Ago at 11:04 AM.

    "The worst moron is the one too stupid to realise they're a moron."

  2. #2
    The Brain
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    I don't think I want to go back to a time when the crowd would pop for a man's death.

    But truthfully, I take your point here, and I take it very well. A big key to the best wrestling is investment. The fans need to buy into the characters and react with passion. I think we can still do this with babyfaces, there are cases where you can get behind guys to the point where if something derails them it's almost literally heartbreaking. But hating a heel to that extent? I admit, it's hard to imagine doing that as an adult. I'm not sure I'd even want to. Don't get me wrong, when I'm sitting in the crowd, or caught up in the moment of the match, I'll boo and shout and give myself over to the story of the match as much as possible, as much as the match has earned. But after the show? I'm still going to walk up to that heel and congratulate him if I see him. In some ways I prefer it that way, but I do get your point that something primal, something instinctual has been lost since the old days. That's why I seek wrestling first and foremost that has stories to back up the actions wrestlers take in the ring, it's the best way to get invested and passionate, and I agree it's too bad that it seems to be more rare than ever nowadays.

  3. #3
    LOP's Xavier DynamiteBillington's Avatar
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    Like you, I grew up in the Hogan era, so obviously hated most of the same people.

    The thing is, that was mostly because I didn't know any better. Much like the crowd who cheered the death of Sam Bass, I thought it was real. I had no idea it was scripted. Same goes for the people in that crowd, they didn't know it was scripted - that didn't truly come out until several years down the line.

    Now we know what we know, truly hating the bad guys isn't necessarily the default answer. The Miz is the best heel in the business, but most people love him. For me, that's a great place to be - we boo because we know we're supposed to boo, we cheer because we know we're supposed to cheer, and we can happily love or hate whoever we want.

    And no matter what, people cheering the genuine death of a human being will never happen again.

    Unless maybe Stephanie gets hit by a truck.
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  4. #4
    Super Moderator Prime Time's Avatar
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    Thanks guys.

    Mizfan - I think the mistake is thinking that it's the time that has changed. I've got a feeling that the people who popped then would still pop for the death of someone they hated. The thing that has changed is the seriousness with which wrestling is treated - then, it mattered. Now, it doesn't really. That's basically what it boils down to. Though as I admit in the column, that isn't my era, and I look back at that with a strange fascination rather than recognition. Though I wonder what would have happened, how I would have reacted, if Jim Cornette had dropped dead in 1996. The truth is probably that it wouldn't have been treated in the same way. In the 1970s it was just announced while there'd have doubtless been a video package that made him seem like a much better guy than the stories had to that point. But I think I'm into something of a digression here. I guess what it comes down to is that 'give myself over to the story of the match as much as possible' is always going to be less, if there's never any genuine antipathy towards the heel, than was possible in the past.

    Billington - I don't really like the idea of it being 'not knowing any better', because I think the relationship between wrestling being real/fake and how it's presented and the crowd is a bit more nuanced than just 'people thought it was real until 1989), because I'm not sure that is the case. It's more of a blurred line thing for me, and it's about how you present it as if it were real, rather than actually convincing people that it is real. But yeah, I don't think we're in the great place to be, and I don't think booing or cheering who we want has done an iota of good for the business. That whole booing and cheering because it's what we are supposed to do, rather than because it is what we're moved to do, has led to a far more sterile, cold, wrestling industry than existed in the past. And I think a big reason for that is quite simply, that there's no fear, no downside, to what we watch now. In the past, when you really loathed the guy and didn't want to see him win, you had some real skin in the game, and there's no substitute for having something to lose. Don't believe me, put 50 on a random football match and see how much you suddenly give a shit!



    Alright thanks guys. I didn't expect this to be the most popular piece or everyone to agree with me but I guess you can't just write what you think will get universal agreement. Thanks for reading and especially to you two for the conversation.

    "The worst moron is the one too stupid to realise they're a moron."

  5. #5
    Love this column! And I largely agree. As much as I'm a fan of WWE, if WrestleMania ever coincided with my favorite sports team playing a Game 7 (in any round of the playoffs, even), I am picking to watch Game 7 every single time. Why? I have a much larger emotional attachment to my team. I have a blast watching WWE, I have my favorite wrestlers past and present, but I think part of it is that sense of realness that truly grabs me that much more when my team takes the ice compared to my favorite wrestler enters the ring. I think the inverse is true as well - which is more about what you wrote. My least-liked wrestlers don't set off my ire alarm nearly as much as my truly hated hockey teams do, particularly when they are in a playoff match-up with my favorite team. Last year's NHL playoffs, Round 2 - Ducks vs. Oilers - the hate I harbored for Anaheim during that series seriously overpowers any level of negative feelings I've had toward any wrestler. And I think that's what pulls me emotionally. And I think that's what you're getting at!

    Getting on a bit of a tangent now. It's interesting, though, because the more I think about the WWE/sports comparison, I would rather sit down and watch 3 hours of my favorite WWE matches from the past than sit down and watch an old game that the Oilers won. I think part of that is my enjoyment of watching hockey is so much more largely tied to my investment in the outcome. Obviously I enjoy how the game plays out, but it's so much more suspenseful and in-the-moment. When I watch WWE, I do have some level of investment in the winner - I want my guys to win - but the ratio between enjoyment in who wins and how the match plays out in getting there is much more balanced. I can watch Taker/Edge Hell in a Cell a dozen times even though I would've preferred Edge winning, just because he's my all-time favorite. That doesn't particularly mar my enjoyment of the match - which I love. But that's because I don't harbor hate for his opponent. On the other hand, take the Oilers vs. Ducks, and if they played an objectively amazing game in terms of excitement, I would be glued to the screen while it happened - but if the Ducks won, I'd never rewatch that. Ever.

    It's really interesting when it comes to wrestling about "how" we hate certain wrestlers. Some people hate Roman Reigns - but take his Mania match against Lesnar, for example, and the fact that he lost doesn't give many of them enough joy to say that they loved the match. Is the hate coming from wanting to see someone beat, or simply not wanting to see someone at all? Back in 2014, after the Rumble but before it was announced that Bryan would compete in a triple threat at Mania, I wrote a column about how Batista was the best heel at the moment, because he genuinely got under fans' skin. The fact that he strolled in from Hollywood and got a Mania main event while Bryan was seemingly snubbed (and the fact that he played it up so much in his gradual heel turn, asking things like "where had all the real men gone" since he departed in 2010) was like serious friction to many fans. (I really hated him too, though less of a Bryan thing and more of the fact that I haven't really liked Batista since about late '05.) I think the comment on that column that has stuck with me the most was by Freeman, and it was something along the lines of, "WWE knows if they have a truly successful heel if people will pay money to see him get his ass kicked". And I think that statement covers a lot and is pretty much correct.

    Will fans hate a wrestler in the sense that they will pay money to see him get his ass kicked? Or will fans hate a wrestler so that they don't want to watch him? Powerful distinction, and it's something I think you truly touched on well in this column.

    Excellent piece!

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