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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

It's Now Or Never For "The Show-Off"

Dolph Ziggler has, for some time now, been on the cusp of becoming a true main-eventer. The Money in the Bank briefcase, ever in his grasp, has served as a visual reminder to fans that Ziggler is “almost there.” At any moment, in fact, Dolph could opt to take his guaranteed World title shot and, in all likelihood, he would become champion. With the exception of a fluke loss by John Cena last year, everyone who has cashed in a MITB briefcase has struck gold. So, with the odds heavily weighted in Ziggler’s favor, what’s he waiting for?

It’s possible that, if he sits idle too much longer, Dolph may regret biding his time. Sure, Edge went almost nine months before cashing in the first-ever Money in the Bank briefcase, and it worked out splendidly for him. Edge, however, remained dominant while holding on to his contract, finally striking only when he was most ready to be a credible champion. This has, arguably, not been the case with Dolph. When Ziggler captured the MITB briefcase last July, he seemed poised to become the hottest commodity in WWE. In recent months, he’s underachieved, to say the least. We’re not suggesting that Daniel Bryan and Kofi Kingston aren’t great athletes, but a near-main-eventer like Dolph should be steamrolling over that kind of competition. Instead, his infrequent wins have come only through the assistance of Big E Langston and AJ Lee.

Say Dolph cashes in successfully at WrestleMania, capturing the World title from the winner of the Alberto Del Rio/Jack Swagger match. Will he be ready to rebuff attempts by Del Rio or Swagger to reclaim the strap? Assuming he makes it past those men, he’ll find the entire Smackdown roster standing in line. Randy Orton, Sheamus, Big Show, and other heavy hitters will all be gunning for the target around Ziggler’s waist. Given the way Dolph has been performing lately, we’re not convinced he'll be up to the task.

According to established Money in the Bank rules, any man who holds the briefcase has a full calendar year to cash in his championship opportunity. Dolph may not seem ready for the demands of a World title reign just yet, but, if he continues to wait, things might only be that much harder. Without a legitimate need to prove himself, Ziggler has faltered. As he spends more time putzing around the middle of the card, the “Show-Off” continues to become less effective at actually winning matches.

Maybe the pressure put upon main-event performers is exactly what Ziggler needs to flourish. After all, he has been labeled an underachiever in the past. In fact, it was his drive to succeed, to silence his critics, that propelled him to where he was last summer. It’s a gamble, of course, but abruptly taking the next step may be the only way for Ziggler to get back on his game.

So Dolph, if you’re reading this, you might want to consider cashing in that briefcase now. The longer you wait, the more difficult this is going to be.

Then again, maybe that’s exactly what the “Show-Off” wants …

Kevin McElvaney
PWI Contributing Writer
@OfficialPWI Contributor

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Serious WWE Blunder

The opinions expressed in this blog post are not necessarily shared by the staff of Pro Wrestling Illustrated. Not by a long shot.

In fact, I’ve been hard pressed to find many wrestling fans who believe, as I do, that this Youtube video posted by WWE a couple of weeks ago was downright disgraceful.

In case you haven’t seen the video, which was the talk of the Internet wrestling community for a few days, it begins with Jack Swagger and Zeb Colter spewing the same anti-immigrant rhetoric as they have on television for weeks. That’s not the problem.

My beef comes with the drastic turn the promo takes around the 1:40 mark. The cameras pull back to reveal a production set and a green screen background. Colter and Swagger come out of character, even introducing themselves by their real names. They explain how wrestling promos work, and that they are simply entertainers playing roles. Colter goes as far as to say that in real-life he is friends with Jose Rodriguez, the performer portraying his mortal enemy, Alberto Del Rio. Way to sell a WrestleMania World title match.

This was all done as a retort to criticisms made by conservative political commentator Glenn Beck, who had dismissed the Swagger/Colter storyline as having been devised by “stupid wrestling people.”

The video mobilized fans to the defense of WWE. Throughout social media, even the most jaded of fans proclaimed that they were never prouder to be part of the WWE Universe and praised Swagger, Colter, and the entire promotion for “telling it like it is.”
But amid all their appreciation for the message behind the groundbreaking video, fans failed to see the considerable damage it did to the entire pro wrestling industry.

Like few other things in the sport’s history, the Swagger/Colter video shattered the illusion necessary for fans to fully enjoy pro wrestling, and it did so in a particularly flippant and reckless manner.

To a lot of wrestling fans, mine may come off like an outdated philosophy, especially in an era when just about every fan older than four (and even many younger) can separate reality from sports entertainment. But my gripe isn’t with the fact that WWE came out and said it’s all a show. It’s how they said it.

Imagine that you’re engrossed in a particularly suspenseful episode of Law & Order SVU. Detective Benson kicks down a door, opens fire, and shoots a perp to death.

Then you hear, “Cut!”

Benson looks at the camera, introduces herself as actress Mariska Hargitay, and goes on to lash out at a particular television critic who panned her show. When she’s done, the director audibly calls out, “Action!” and the scene continues.

That would be pretty absurd, wouldn’t it? Well, it’s no different than what WWE pulled with its video, complete with Colter and Swagger resuming their wrestling promo after they finished delivering their message to Beck.

To be sure, a lot has changed since the days when “Dr. D” David Shultz was ordered to assault 20/20 reporter John Stossel for even suggesting that wrestling was fake. But if the Colter/Swagger Youtube video showed anything, it’s that the collective wrestling universe has moved too far in the other direction.

Back then, protecting “kayfabe” was about pulling the wool over the fans eyes. But over the years, wrestling has evolved to the point that the wrestlers, promoters, and fans are all in on it together. To some extent, giving fans a peak behind the curtain is a good thing, as it shows that promoters and wrestlers respect fans enough to know that they don’t need to believe what they’re watching is “real” in order to enjoy it. The open nature of modern pro wrestling has also allowed wrestlers, promoters, and journalists to share—in the right context—compelling stories about what happens away from the ring without fear of reprisal.

But none of that is to say that wrestlers or promoters—especially WWE—should so flippantly tear down the fourth fall that’s necessary for pro wrestling to be successful. If you’ve followed this business for any length of time, you’ve heard about the importance of “suspending disbelief” in enjoying wrestling. Sadly, I think too many fans, wrestlers, and promoters don’t understand what that actually means.

Perhaps no institution values the importance of kayfabe more than Pro Wrestling Illustrated. We realize that for fans to fully enjoying the escapist entertainment that is pro wrestling, they need to lose themselves in its characters and storylines. That might seem obvious to some, but promoters have chipped away so much at that principle over the years that they don’t even realize when they’re breaking that rule. Ironically, much of the damage has been done by promoters intent on presenting wrestling as more “real” and “not insulting the intelligence” of fans. That kind of thing often leads to the bane of my existence as a wrestling fan: the “worked shoot.”

And really, at its core, that’s what the Colter/Swagger video was—a manufactured promotional tactic aimed at inciting emotion in fans by making them think they were watching something that wasn’t part of the show. The true nature of the video as nothing more than a publicity stunt was exposed when WWE sent TV cameras to Beck’s studio to confront him, and then put out a press release accusing him of “hiding” from WWE.

I’m all for WWE defending its fans, of which I count myself as one, from the ignorant remarks of critics who don’t understand the appeal of pro wrestling. There were several different ways for WWE to make the same point. Vince McMahon or some other WWE executive could have recorded a video message responding to Beck. I would have even accepted, somewhat begrudgingly, if the video began with Colter and Swagger out of character delivering the message to Beck.

But there’s an obvious, better option: Having Colter and Swagger respond to Beck in character. Alas, WWE apparently realized that, pulled down the original video, and replaced it with this one.

And then there’s what I’d say is the best option of all: Ignoring Beck all together. Another often-misused wrestling term is “mark.” WWE tried to prove to us that Beck was a mark for thinking WWE and its fans were comprised of “stupid wrestling people,” but ended up going out of their way to respond to a throw-away remark, and in doing so just left Beck with a worse impression of the wrestling business than he already had.

Fans who enjoyed the “shoot” promo by Colter and Swagger may have seen it as a proclamation of the fact that they’re not marks. But, along the way, they were roped into the most transparent attempt to exploit fans’ loyalty this side of the “Stand Up For WWE” political campaign.

In its truest sense, a mark is a sucker; one too gullible to realize he’s been had.

I’ll leave it at that.

Al Castle
PWI Senior Writer

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

¿Quien Es “El Generico”?

When word got out that perennial indy favorite, El Generico, had signed with WWE, the news was met with a mixture of reactions and questions. Generico’s Twitter account was flooded with congratulations, well wishes, and more than a few wistful “goodbyes.” Indy wrestling fans were largely happy for the man who’d entertained crowds across the globe for the better part of a decade. They were also full of queries about his transition to WWE. Would Generico still wear his trademark mask? Would he retain his name? Would he be transformed into an entirely different character?

Fans had apparently gotten their answer last month, when El Generico made an appearance, mask and all, for NXT. This made sense, some fans mused, because Generico’s tongue-in-cheek persona had played a huge role in making him such a sensation on the independent circuit. Why mess with a good thing? Last week, many of these same fans were shocked when it was reported that the man they’d known as El Generico made another appearance for NXT – this time sans mask, wrestling under his real name, Rami Sebei.

Sebei’s sudden changes made some fans uneasy, but there’s hardly any reason for concern. While he made a name for himself under the “Generico” persona, it was Sebei’s technical skill and in-ring presence that really made him click with fans. Indy devotees everywhere will eagerly tell you about their favorite El Generico matches, every bit as quickly as they’ll talk about his charisma and famous ring entrance.

Yes, Rami Sebei is currently competing for NXT without his trademark mask. With or without it, though, he’ll find his niche. Sebei’s natural talents and ability to connect with fans will ensure he finds a way to be successful within the realm of WWE. Previous name aside, there is nothing “generic” about this man whatsoever.

Kevin McElvaney
PWI Contributing Writer

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Double-Edged Sword of Social Media

French philosopher Michel Foucault once framed the general idea of perpetual and omnipresent surveillance under a generalized theoretical term called “panopticism.”  Foucault’s research and theory was largely applied to the study of crime and punishment, predating the rise of social media by a few decades. But the notion that people anywhere and everywhere are increasingly under close watch of the unblinking eyes of cyberspace is now an inescapable reality. And perhaps no single group of people know this better than the men and women of independent wrestling.

Of course, the decision to use social media is, by and large, a voluntary one. But while most folks might dabble a bit in one forum or another, indy grapplers often opt to go “all in” when it comes to the 'net: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Tout…all that jazz.  I’m not going to pretend that I don’t like it at some level, either. How else would I know what my favorite indy guy had for dinner last Thursday, right? And I can deal with the steady stream of promos that wrestlers post to my Facebook wall, many in hopes that I’ll tweet them out via our official Twitter page or write about them in the next issue of PWI (Don’t worry guys and gals; I still love you all). Hey, I can’t blame them. If Zack Ryder has taught us anything, it’s that social media is the best way to get yourself over in this day and age, especially when there are so many people competing for fans’ overloaded attention spans.

The ugly side of all this is that there is such a thing as too much information, especially when the ever-present spirit of openness and one-upmanship that’s rampant in social media encourages us to share too much with casual acquaintances and friends of friends. With respect to indy wrestlers, it’s all too often that their personal foibles and the details of their “shoot” lives bleed into their in-ring personas via Facebook and Twitter, tainting the public image that they’ve worked hard to create over the course of months and years. Even when it’s a guy who has done a lot of rough and nasty stuff in the ring, sometimes a gaffe or misstep on the 'net has enough “ick factor” to alienate a handful of sensitive fans or  offend and insult en masse. I’ll never forget how psyched I was to get a Facebook friend request from an up-and-coming hardcore/smashmouth grappler from the East Coast. Then one day I saw him cutting up with his real-life friends on Facebook about the very serious subject of spousal abuse. Having spent over 10 years of my professional life working directly with the victims of intimate partner violence hasn’t left me with much of a sense of humor for the subject, it seems. Was I the only person who found that guy’s comments detestable? Don’t know. Don’t care, really. While I could’ve easily hidden his status updates from that point forward and kept some kind of personal or quasi-professional connection to him, I was far too disgusted to even consider that as an option. So much for our virtual “friendship.”

Does that hurt the guy’s career in the broad scheme of things? Nope. But it could have if the stakes were higher and if his audience was bigger. Consider the incident last year in which Tensai posted a racially insensitive tweet; the backlash was swift and significant, leaving the publicly traded corporate monolith WWE in damage-control mode.  They’ve been there before, too. In 2011, Michael Cole garnered a healthy amount of criticism for a homophobic comment he’d posted on Twitter about his colleague Josh Matthews. (Conversely, CM Punk didn’t attract much scorn at all when he invited one of his Twitter followers to commit suicide a few months ago when the fan took issue with CM Punk's support for gay marriage.) It’s a safe bet that WWE and TNA would absolutely love to do without these kind of periodic prairie fires, which is why both companies often set specific parameters and expectations regarding wrestlers’ participation in social media, as well as podcasts and small-market radio shows. Indy folks usually aren’t subject to those kinds of controls and filters, though. Individual sensibilities vary from person to person; that is, what is offensive to some might well be hilarious to others. And sometimes, one can’t depend on his or her own standards to determine what could invoke intrigue and anger versus what will provoke anger and resentment. A few months ago, I saw a scenario play out over Facebook in which two indy workers – one Arab-American and the other Native American – traded video promos laden with ethnic jokes over an extended period of time. Most fans didn’t bat an eye, and some even lapped it up. But once their work together ended, the Arab-American found that standards and sensibilities were very, very different when he directed some racially charged language and imagery against his next opponent, who happened to be African-American. The ensuing backlash required him to walk back and retract the offending material, but in doing so, he also made a candidly personal appeal to his peers and fans, while noting that he was genuinely surprised at the reaction he’d received.

Most of the worker/fan dynamic that social media brings about is decidedly positive. Workers feel closer to their fans and fans enjoy an occasional brush with greatness. I don’t mean to blame the wrestlers for making things weird, either. Besides, it’s not only the wrestlers that cross the line on social media. There is, in fact, a lot of concern about obsessive fans who might be tempted to take things too far, an issue that was recently brought to the forefront when TNA required scores of indy wrestlers to disclose their real-life names to participate in their 'net-driven “Gut Check Challenge.” Dating back to the good ol’ days of kayfabe, the danger of a single misguided fan was always there, perhaps exemplified in the 1976 incident in which Ole Anderson was stabbed by a disgruntled fan after wrestling a match in Greenville, South Carolina. Harrowing as that tale is, the potential for some fans to become obsessive is magnified through social media.

Generally speaking, cyberstalking – defined by the National Institute of Justice as  “the use of technology to stalk victims… [including] the pursuit, harassment, or contact of others in an unsolicited fashion initially via the Internet and e-mail” is a burgeoning problem. It’s difficult to ascertain valid and reliable statistic on conduct that is both widespread and under-reported, but the lack of hard and fast data regarding victimization shouldn’t discourage folks from using common sense in deciding whether or not to allow relative strangers to become too invested in their professional and private lives.

For the most part, indy wrestlers don’t make a lot of money in their line of work. Many of them do what they do week in and week out in hopes that they’ll make the jump to the big leagues someday. They keep the faith at great personal expense, spending days on the road with no compensation for travel, lodging, gear and all the other expenses that come with the territory.  Reaching out to fans for financial assistance in the form of gifts has, for some indy grapplers, become a relatively common practice. Lots of people have “wish lists” on sites like and there’s certainly not anything wrong with that. But it is just a little weird to see wrestlers actively soliciting their lists via social media. I was particularly taken aback when I recently saw a Chicago-area lady grappler hitting up a fan for some pricey Star Wars-themed merch via the guy’s Facebook wall. There’s certainly no room to blame the victim when bad things happen, but there is something to be said for establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries when it comes to putting yourself out there for everyone to see. Some might explain this away in the name of the “free market” created by a quid pro quo relationship between an entertainer and a fan. But what if the fan has a diminished mental capacity; someone who is easily persuaded to spend large amounts of a fixed income just to bring a fleeting smile to the face of his favorite female wrestler? At best, targeting someone like that in hopes that he’ll buy a lavish gift or two is almost predatory. What if he’s unhinged, infatuated, or some kind of predator? In those cases, encouraging such a person to believe that he or she enjoys any level of intimacy with an object of affection that is, in reality, not actually reciprocated is almost certainly a recipe for disaster.

Social media is so many things all at the same time: It’s an outlet, a resource, a forum, and a marketplace. It’s also a field of land mines, poisonous snakes, and every kind of perp your parents ever warned you about. Navigating it requires a lot of common sense and vigilance, tempered with a good amount self-respect. 

Mike Bessler
PWI Contributing Writer
@OfficialPWI Contributor