A documentation of the aggressive arts. Written by Sawyer Paul.

Showing posts tagged ❖ Articles and Series

A few thoughts on CM Punk: Best in the World


  • It’s a very good run of the mill WWE superstar documentary. It hits all the major beats that all of their bios portray—a childhood dream, paying dues in the dingy indies, solid performances for a smaller competitor, misunderstood WWE beginnings, and eventual breakthrough—but never breaks away to make it feel like a different kind of thing. Even if you don’t know all the details, you know everything that’s going to happen.
  • It’s still good, though, and Vince McMahon’s belief that he makes movies only really comes true during these docs. Simply hitting the bullet points of Punk’s career is plenty entertaining. As usual, I’d have loved for more detail in certain areas, and also wish they wouldn’t just whitewash over everything that doesn’t fit the overal theme.
  • The most glaring ommission: Punk’s time on commentary in late 2010 all the way through his story with Orton in the spring of 2011. They never mention the Nexus or his miniseries with Cena.
  • The most surprising inclusion: Samoa Joe. They don’t mention that Punk was ever in TNA, but they display a highlight reel of Punk vs Joe from ROH for several minutes. After seeing the footage I was a little surprised not to see him pop up as a talking head, like former WWE wrestlers like they did with Joey Mercury, and Lita.
  • They brought Colt Cabana in to be a talking head, too. Always a pleasure. I’d love to hear just why—with all of Punk’s supposed power these days—Cabana still isn’t part of the show.
  • I think Michael Hayes was the most featured talking head out of everyone outside of Punk himself. What’s interesting is he ends up playing the de facto contrarian, defending the sensibilities of people who didn’t believe in Punk (because someone had to). Hayes references McMahon a few times, but he’s not around for this one.
  • Everything felt cursory. They toured Ring of Honor for like, five seconds. They start talking about Punk’s RV, but then jump to another topic without conclusion. They keep cutting to Kofi Kingston, but never explain why. The talking heads mention that Punk wrestles well, but never go into detail about how that is. They brush over the fact that Punk had literally no formal wrestling training. When it feels like they’re going to go into a thing about tattoos, it gets a quick mention. Same goes for punk rock, and Rancid. It was frustrating.
  • The doc ends with Punk’s WWE Championship win at Money in the Bank. It’s a fitting place to close down, but wouldn’t Wrestlemania XXVIII have been better? He wins a conclusive match on the biggest show of the year as a defending good guy. But, then, they would have had to cover the fall. Couldn’t they have covered the fall? Once again, they chose to fit the story around the accepted WWE doc formula, and not with any specific time frame.
  • Another talking head who leans against Punk is John Cena, who only really has somewhat negative things to say.
  • The Miz just utterly gushes about Punk, however, even though Punk badmouths him on multiple occasions. The one thing I specifically learned from this feature was how angry Punk was that the Miz was given the main event slot at Wrestlemania XXVII.
  • There’s still something fishy about Money in the Bank, and they do literally nothing to address it in the feature. In fact, they go as far as to say Punk signed a two-day contract to appear at the PPV, where they had him win the WWE Championship, and only after did actual contract negotiations arise. They try to make it seem believable, but any longtime fan should know that there is absolutely no chance McMahon would put the biggest championship on a man on his way out. That would go against every single thing we know about WWE. Watching the doc, it sticks out even more than when it all happened, as its truncated and rushed and they just gloss over how unrealistic that is.
  • During Punk’s OVW period, an amusing thing happens. Heyman is trying to push Punk to the upper brass, and every single person they could get fully admits that, hey, nothing against Punk, but they just don’t take Heyman’s suggestions seriously.
  • There wasn’t enough Lita, but there’s never enough Lita.

❖ Will any story conclude at Night of Champions 2012?


When it comes to episodic television, you have to bow down to the king. There isn’t a better company in the world than WWE which can charge money to see a climatic show, then immediately turn a corner the next night, beginning a whole new set of stories, and still not make you regret throwing down money the night before. Summerslam was much like any other major show this year. Most stories didn’t end, but chapters certainly did, and for wrestling fans that’s often enough. PPV scenes are similar to tv scenes, but they’re better. They’re more satisfying. They do their damnedest to make you think you’ve seen something special. On TV, they try their damnedest to make sure you don’t change the channel. There’s rivers and oceans of difference there.

As this column turns 1, I’ve been thinking about its purpose. Are we looking for stories to end on PPV? Or are we simply looking for a better series of scenes and matches? What are we expecting for our money? What is WWE offering? What truly is the difference in satisfaction between 3 hours a month at $50, and 12 hours a month for free?

Like WWE, I’m going to leave these questions open for the time being, and move on to how I did last month.

United States Champion Santino Marella vs. Antonio

It would be weird for Cesaro to get his first WWE title on a pre-show match, but, then again, Cesaro has been under-the-radar in totality since debuting. Maybe it would be apt? Either way, this ‘feud’ isn’t done.

Whoops.

WWE Tag Team Champions Kofi Kingston & R-Truth vs. The Prime Time Players

Because the ‘stories’ involved here are 100% about the meaningless tag titles, expect this to continue in perpetuity for another 6 months.

Swing and a miss.

Intercontinental Champion The Miz vs. Rey Mysterio

Let’s say it continues?

It’s continued in a sense, just the cast has increased. 1 for 3.

Kane vs. Daniel Bryan

Expect both to do other things after this.

This show is killing my predictive credibility.

Chris Jericho vs. Dolph Ziggler

Because this is spirited, I’d like to hope they keep it going, perhaps to some kind of gimmicked affair later?

Technically I was right, even if the next match happened on Raw the next night.

World Heavyweight Champion Sheamus vs Alberto Del Rio

Isn’t it time to give someone else a turn? I’m going to predict that it is.

This is my lowest score so far.

WWE Champion CM Punk vs. John Cena vs. Big Show

The question is: who is CM Punk going to feud with going into the awkward period between now and the Rumble? One of one, and one of the other, then something new for Survivor Series.

Considering Punk’s character shift, he’s unlikely to face the Big Show again in his current state. I’ll be hard on myself and call it a miss.

Triple H vs. Brock Lesnar

This will the the only match between the two, and neither will move on to anything else in the near future.

The second the match concluded, the internet exploded with rematch rumors. But I’ll stick to my story: this one isn’t happening again for a long time, if ever again.

I’m usually pretty good at this, but Summerslam was a killer. I only got 2 out of 8 matches right. But half the matches were conclusive, which is about on par I’d say.

I’m doubling my efforts this month, though. I’ll do better this time. I mean, all the gold is on the line.

Will Any Story Conclude at Night of Champions?

Divas Champion Layla vs. Kaitlyn

Hey, remember when Hulk Hogan “ribbed” Austin Aries by calling him the best wrestler in the world, then made him the world champion? That was pretty funny. It was almost as funny as when Kaitlyn accidentally won a match she supposedly wasn’t, and when she wins this match (or gets screwed by Eve), and they all actually get a real women’s feud, everyone’ll be laughing.

WWE Tag Team Champions R-Truth & Kofi Kingston vs. Kane & Daniel Bryan

WWE knows only one way to deal with a breakthrough comedy duo: have them win the tag team championships. My favorite part of this story is that Kane and Daniel Bryan are still playing on the bad guy side. That’ll likely change soon. The story here is about one team, not both, and we know we’re going to get more anger management.

Randy Orton vs. Dolph Ziggler

Could be fun. Could continue. I don’t know. Let’s say yes?

World Heavyweight Champion Sheamus vs. Alberto Del Rio

I’ve given up. I’m assuming this will take up twenty minutes of every PPV until 2017.

Intercontinental Champion The Miz vs. Rey Mysterio vs. Sin Cara vs. Cody Rhodes

There are really two stories here, and they’re both likely to keep going. I mean, we need some matches on the Hell in the Cell PPV next month that aren’t surrounded by steel.

WWE Champion CM Punk vs. John Cena

Remember what I said a few weeks ago?

WWE has essentially stripped its main event scene to its very core. Which means either we’ll get some fresh blood at the top, or John Cena and CM Punk are about to do a 4-month blood feud.

I guess we’re gonna get a blood feud. Cool. I hear those end up in a cage.

I think I just predicted that absolutely nothing will conclude, which is pretty fitting for the one year anniversary of this particular article.

❖ Irrelevant


Today, TH (if you will) took Mark Madden to task on his latest piece of drek: naming Tyler Reks the 2012 wrestler of the year because he quit the business. I agree with everything TH said about the talentless, bloated husk that is Mark Madden, but I’d like to add something here: Madden is irrelevant, and he’s screaming like a baby because nobody takes him seriously. People are right not too. He’s a dolt. 

Also today, Jim Dalrymple linked to John Gruber’s takedown of Dan Lyons’ hateful, incorrect, and ultimately irrelevant piece on the new iPhone, saying: 

The simple truth is, Lyons is not relevant so he posted stupid articles to get pageviews. Higher traffic doesn’t make you relevant, you still sound stupid.

This is exactly what I feel about the vast majority of professional wrestling journalists, but the folks at Wrestlezone explicitly and Madden specifically. 

One quote from Madden’s hateful, incorrect, and ultimately irrelevant piece sticks out as the worst of all: 

The spotty-faced teens & college dropouts who make up so much of the IWC won’t enjoy reading this, but FOR THE WRESTLERS, fake wrestling was much better in the territorial days, and when WCW provided a viable second option.

Let’s ignore Madden’s inability to tell time (WCW was founded several years after Vince McMahon launched “Rock n Wrestling”, openly declaring wrestling a fiction and moving the industry forward, so it was an alternative in an era when even kids knew it was scripted), and focus on the argument he’s spitting: wrestling was better back before Vince McMahon took over. There are subjective arguments to make regarding Vince’s vision of wrestling (just like there are subjective arguments about the iPhone). And Madden’s probably right in a very narrow way: it might have been better forcertain pocketbooks, but it was inevitable. If Vince McMahon hadn’t put out the territorial fire, someone else would have. Or they would have wrecked it themselves. The NWA sure looks great these days, don’t they? 

The whole ‘territories were better’ argument hinges on the fact that the NWA and others treated wrestling like a sport. Guys like Madden—who like sports and hate the arts—liked that. Once it became clear that wrestling wasn’t a sport, and in fact could be many things that aren’t sport (it could be comedy, drama, improv, and transgressive pulp, among other things), guys like Madden had (and continue to have) a hissy fit. 

Here’s the thing: treating wrestling like a sport means lying to your customers. That may have worked for a while, but it’s never going to work forever. It’s like arguing that magicians were better off back when nobody but them could do card tricks. It’s true, but it’s irrelevant. Have you seen what magicians are doing these days though? It’s incredible. Education eradicates the status quo and breeds innovation. Innovation moves things forward. Things moving forward scares the crap out of morons. It’s been like this for a long time, folks. Across industries, crafts, and theologies, it stands true. The only people who don’t like progress are those who profit off ignorance and oppression, and who are brainwashed by those in positions of so-called power.

I don’t know if wrestling is better under Vince McMahon. But wrestling is in a better place when it’s not pretending to be something it isn’t. And it’s sure as shit better without people like Mark Madden. Nobody except Madden thinks otherwise.

❖ Jerry Lawler


On the September 10, 2012 episode of Monday Night Raw, commentator and legend Jerry Lawler collapsed at his post and was helped to the back. Details are still scattered, but they’re coming and they’re, as of this post, cautiously promising. It should be obvious how much we all want Lawler to pull through.

Due to the nature of live and choreographed violence with real risks, WWE unfortunately has a pretty long list of things that have gone wrong during the show. Wrestlers have been injured, and even died, yet none of these have ground the show to an absolute halt. For reasons we can only speculate, they do not stop shows due to performer injury or health issues. This almost always comes across as cruel: cruel to the injured; cruel to the fans who would certainly rather they get some answers than distractions; hell, even cruel to the performers who are charged with distracting the live and television crowd.

On Raw, this was amplified, as Michael Cole’s sole commentary quickly diminished to nothing. Cole informed us of Lawler’s situation, and then rather promptly stopped talking. It would seem they didn’t have a backup plan, although any regular viewer knows that Josh Matthews and any number of WWE Superstars could have filled in for emergency support. Instead, they let the audio stay cold, out of respect for Jerry. They aired the crowd reaction, but nothing else for the rest of the night. I don’t think this was a decision, but it led to an interesting result: almost half of Raw was a reminder of what the show would be like without Michael Cole and, more importantly, without Jerry Lawler.

A few friends of mine on Twitter asked me to write something about this, mostly because earlier this year I suggested we all try to turn the commentary off for a while. I’m a proponent that sports-inspired audio dilutes the art happening in the ring, as it creates a disonance between what you’re viewing and what you’d like to be viewing (or what they want you to think you’re viewing).

There is a massive difference between turning the volume down on a regular episode of Raw and the crew react to an emergency situation, so it’s not something you can compare. It’s absolutely not fair to anyone. My article wasn’t about trying to eliminate wrestling commentary entirely; it was about removing an element for a small period of time to see if the show needed it, and if it needed changing. If there’s anything I missed from the article, it was in the complimenting what commentators do extremely well. I imagine watching the last hour of Raw without any commentary was incredibly uncomfortable for many, and therein lies the hard work: Jerry Lawler and Michael Cole provided a comfort you don’t even know is keeping you going until it’s gone.

Viewers probably noticed how much more choreographed the wrestling was without commentary. The audio has always done a great job of covering that up. Cues seem more obvious, and the beats of the match play out with a cold predictability. You feel like you’re watching a cowboy movie from a hundred years ago, one who’s plot has been mocked for decades by better productions. For the televised audience, Jerry Lawler and Michael Cole work exceptionally hard to make even poor wrestling matches seem watchable, to make even grave misteps in consistency, loose plots, and tired angles appear like integral acts in the grand play.

This gets complicated, because there are great reasons to pay attention to the wrestlers and nothing else. I covered those in my article from the winter, so I won’t go over them again. It’s not important here, anyway. What I’m trying to say is Jerry Lawler is really fucking important and good and necessary and a treasure, and I want him to be okay, and if I ever made it seem like I didn’t respect his day job I’m sorry, that wasn’t my intention.

I’m a critic, and sometimes critics can come off as cold, but I do this because I love it. I deconstruct because I love it. I dig deep and think really hard because I respect the people who put on this show, who wake up every day and do a phenomenal job doing a thing that doesn’t get nearly enough respect. I don’t say that enough. None of us do.

❖ Tout

Throughout all of 2011, the one major complaint wrestling fans had about WWE was their over-utilization of Twitter, specifically trending topics. Beginning last month, WWE began pushing a new social platform, Tout, which allowed members to publish 15 second videos (essentially a video tweet). For a TV show, this made a lot of sense, as it’s more exciting to show viewers talking than read what viewers wrote in. But if WWE is going to use some kind of social networking site to bolster viewer interest, why is it preferring Tout to Twitter?

For starters, what I mentioned above may well be enough for most people. WWE apparently has the right to broadcast Touts on its programming, and they’re using it to showcase the (terse, grammatically questionable) thoughts of fans back to them. Portions of WWE programming is now devoted to fans watching other fans.

But Tout’s emergence as WWE’s new favoured outlet made more sense when they released their second-quarter earnings report, and mentioned that they’d “entered a strategic investment agreement with Tout.”

It’s no doubt WWE likes Twitter. It’s perhaps the best platform they’ve ever found for giving them unfettered communication with its fans. But WWE has zero control over Twitter, and a company like WWE must hate that. WWE has no control over how many people on Twitter know about WWE. They have no control over what they see. They have no idea how many WWE fans are even on Twitter. And Twitter, because they’re a much bigger company, would have no interest in working with WWE on issues of control. But Tout is obviously a different story. Tout is a feed of created content for WWE to use however it sees fit.

Going to Tout.com, the first thing you see is a picture of Zack Ryder, WWE superstar. Scroll down a bit and you see John Cena, and WWE’s official Tout account. Importantly, you also see others, like Shaq and Kelly Ripa. This isn’t just for the WWE, but it’s clear that WWE is the most important thing in the world to Tout.

Aesthetically, Tout may make more sense to WWE than Twitter. Unfortunately, it does not have Twitter’s userbase, or activity. There’s also the lack of anonymity: on twitter, you can have a username that isn’t your name, and post whatever you like. On Tout, your face is right there. I’m actually surprised how litte a deterrent that’s been for people thus far, though, so maybe that’s not as big a problem as I thought. Still, there’s also the matter of time. To use Tout, you need either a webcam, an iphone, or an android phone. Windows Phone, Blackberry, and all other types of phones aren’t supported. Twitter can be used by any phone in the world, by anyone, and it takes far less time to tweet a few sentences than to record a video and upload it.

The question for wrestling fans is, then, do you want to participate in this thing? Certainly, it ‘outs’ you as a fan more than Twitter. It also means what you put up there can be used by WWE at any time. What is the percentage of the fan base who wants to enjoy the product, and also wants to possibly be on TV? The middle of that venn diagram are potential Tout users. The question the rest of the WWE fanbase wants answered is, when will WWE just produce some television without asking all of us to help them out?

❖ Hijabs, sports, and wrestling garb

This is hardly the first time this has happened, and it’s probably not even the highest profile. But, yeah, this is the newest from The Province:

Gatineau’s regional soccer association maintains it made the right decision. Until the international organization approves a design, colour and material for headscarves during matches, “scarves of all sorts” will remain banned, said Gatineau’s director of tournaments Marc St-Amour.

The organization suggests that this has nothing at all to do with religious bias, and entirely on unrecognized, supposedly uncomfortable and unsafe ‘equipment’.

Now, this rule is changing, albeit slowly: 

On July 5, the International Football Association Board “agreed to unanimously approve — temporarily during a trial period — the wearing of headscarves.” The organization will define the design, colour and material at a meeting in October.

I’m not trying to make a political statement by referencing this article—and in a moment, decrying the people who don’t let women wearing hijab’s play soccer—, and I’m glad that sports associations are taking inclusion seriously. I’m not trying to support one religion over another, or one’s religious rights over another. What I am doing here is suggesting that something like a headscarf being restrictive for athletic play is utterly ludicrous, and I’m going to use pro wrestling as an example.

Yeah, okay, wrestling isn’t a ‘real’ sport, but the athleticism required to perform meets—and sometimes, exceeds—the amount required in soccer, football, rugby, etc. Not only that, but wrestling gear is almost never as loose-fitting, comfortable, or sweat-resistant as typical sports wear. On top of that, lots of wrestlers perform in masks. There’s entire organizations where that’s a normal thing. There’s a guy in Chikara who wrestles wearing a crazy cobra-sphinx headpiece thing that’s totally not a Nike+ Training product (but how great would it be if it were?).

But hey, it wouldn’t be a religious/political attack issue if gender wan’t involved, and the girl forced to sit on the sidelines due to her hijab was, it turns out, a female. But did you know that there are lots and lots of phenomenal female wrestlers, too? You should, because we published a book about it. Did you also know that they, just like the men, often wrestle in gear you wouldn’t typical think an athletic person could comfortable wear? 

There are loads of examples, but one female wrestler I’d like to highlight (as I’ve done in the past, when this has come up) is Melissa Marie Anderson. Wrestling fans likely know her best as Cheerleader Melissa (it’s more complicated than you’d think), but she’s played a number of characters during her career. In 2008, she played an Islamist wrestler/manager named Raisha Saeed. Dressed entirely in black, covered head to toe, she wrestled a good number of matches wearing far more restrictive garb than any girl could wear playing soccer. 

Here’s a Knockout Cage match from 2008 to give you a visual example: 

Saeed begins wrestling around the 4-minute mark, and she’s good. She plays a villain (foreign—sorry, international characters generally do), but the commentators are at a loss to describe how fluid, vicious, and athletic she is. 

I can’t see how something like this doesn’t settle the issue. The refusal by sports committees and coaches to not let girls play sports has nothing to do with the hijab. The hijab is the macguffin excuse they use. It has to do with religion, politics, and gender, and these are deeper issues that pro wrestling can’t handily explain away. But in my opinion, at least it can push the issue deeper, out of the silliness that is clothing restrictions. 

❖ For we wrestle not with flesh and blood but with principalities

It was 2002, and I’d been in University for two months. Winter was approaching, and I was spending essentially all of my time in my small den room, either studying or procrastinating. One of the ways I procrastinated was by watching wrestling. I don’t remember specific episodes, matches, or plot lines, and I don’t remember exactly when I asked myself a common enough question. All I remember is that I asked it. Why? Why was I watching this? Why was I enjoying this? What drew me to this show, week in and week out?

I had a simple answer for it in high school. Enough of my friends were into wrestling that I felt having less than perfunctory knowledge wouldn’t cut it, so it became a hobby. I went to high school during the late period of the Monday Night Wars. One didn’t need to explain being invested in this colossal story, because so many others were. But I was sitting alone in late 2002. I was supposed to be studying academic-level work, something I figured wrestling had no truck. I had no social excuse, and I had better things to do. What was I doing with this stuff on my TV?

I first asked myself this question ten years ago. It was five years before I ever wrote a wrestling article, and eight before I began taking it seriously. I knew I was into it, and I knew I didn’t want wrestling to leave my life. I knew that even if I never told another person that I watched it, I’d continue being a fan. But I was incredibly uncomfortable with not knowing. I had to know.

I’ll jump to the end, here. I still don’t know. I’ve spent the last 4 years digging, and I’m still not there. I don’t have an answer that I’m satisfied with. I’ve become more comfortable with the not-knowing, and with that I’m able to sleep on the issue and leave it for months at a time. But I still like to pick it up again, every now and then, and dust off the file to see if I need to add anything. And when I pick it up, I find myself troubled.

I think what’s confused me most about my fandom is how wrestling makes me feel better about almost everything else in my life. It’s constancy is comforting, even when its quality is questionable and rewards thin. For sure, its soap opera tendencies hook in and are tough to cut. But it isn’t just the plot of it, because I’ve seen what happens at the end of every plot (spoiler: it’s the beginning of a new plot). The constancy helps because I know it’s there. Even when I’m not watching, as I am not currently (I’m sure I will come back to this period and wonder how I could voluntarily miss so many good episodes, but so it goes), I like knowing that it is there for me, waiting for me to finally accept the futility of stress and veg out like old buddies. It is somewhat nice to know that my exhaustive pleasure is one that never shows repeats and produces 10 hours of new content every week. This is also infuriating, for other reasons.

There are many more reasons than that, of course, but it would be a waste of time to spend too much time on them. The fact is, they’re not enough for me. They keep me going, searching, prodding, but nothing has come close to an overall clean summary of what it is about this messed up, misunderstood, sloppy art form that keeps me in orbit. I’m sure it has something to do with the title of this piece, just as I’m suspiciously certain I’ll never really find it. I think it’s important to ask, and to keep asking, even if it’s just a personal thing one does in their private time, what am I doing here? What am I getting out of this? Is this informing my life’s work? Is it a healthy or unhealthy distraction? If it’s unhealthy, am I okay with that? What does it say about me that I’m totally okay with that? Why do I gravitate towards time wasters that are bad for me? Does that mean I’m on the right track in my regular life, my career choices, the person I live with, and other major concerns? Or is it a warning that I’m doing it all wrong? I mean, I watch wrestling. How much can I be doing right?

Every now and then I just want to torch this website and go forward pretending I’d never looked into it. I always talk myself out of it, because I believe I’ve helped some people, even if I haven’t necessarily helped myself. The question of wrestling becomes larger than just WWE, or TNA, or whoever. It becomes the wrestling itself, and what that means to each of us. I end up grappling with deeper things, and that is equally interesting and terrifying, simultaneously awakening and depressing.

About two months ago, I scrawled “Wrestling is an Art Form. That makes it more complicated” in giant letters on the front of the site. I know it’s annoying, but it’s there to constantly remind me (and you) of this truth. It’s something that’s got to be hammered in, to crush the current platitudes. This isn’t easy. I need all the help I can get. And I need to keep asking. It’s all I can do.

❖ Professional Wrestling, Agitation Propaganda, and 1996

In one of my theatre courses in university, there were a few lectures about agitation propaganda, and one of them focused on “wrestling.” It was about pro wrestling, sure, but the moment I noticed the lack of the word “pro,” I had a feeling I was getting into something incomplete. Still, I was excited. Here was my favorite past-time being discussed in a university classroom by a professor who seemed interested in the topic. Years of inane message boards conversations and books by “experts” have somewhat diminished my belief that wrestling can be talked about in a way that isn’t elementary at best, so I was hopeful. The professor began by talking about agit prop in general, then “wrestling” in a very general sense (sort of the way George Bush talks about foreign policy), and then began listing off names of wrestlers that he considered worth mentioning. He spoke only of the WWE, and he kept his focus squarely on 1999. Other people in the class seemed fine by this incredibly boring and flat conversation, but all I could think was, “this guy doesn’t like wrestling, doesn’t get, wrestling, and probably doesn’t even want to talk about wrestling.”

Still, why was he talking about 1999? Why was he listing off “superstars” like Austin, Rock, and Hogan? Why did he refuse to go deeper, or, at least, to even connect pro wrestling and the idea of agit prop? My guess would be that he went with 1999 because that’s when wrestling was last considered acceptable to acknowledge by the mainstream (though there is a fervent argument to be made that it’s far more now than it was then), and that he only talked about the top brass wrestlers because that’s all he knew (or all he thought we would recognize). As to why he didn’t bother making any kind of analytical connection to wrestling and anything of meaning? I would guess it’s because he didn’t see the connection. I would also guess that he didn’t see it because you need to watch a whole hell of a lot of wrestling to get anything decent out of it.

I should retreat slightly, because that’s not entirely true. There are two ways to gather enjoyment out of pro wrestling. There’s watching it only when everyone else around you is doing so, because those times tend to be pretty enjoyable, and there’s watching it as if it were an obsession. In other words, there’s catching Wrestlemania in a bar, and there’s purchasing WWE 24/7[1] with your cable package in order to watch weekly programs from 1996 again. I’m pretty much the latter, and that’s why I was disappointed with the lecture. He missed the one time when pro wrestling was successful at the whole agit prop game. While most wrestling fans, when pressed, will probably point to either 1998 or 2000 as their favorite periods in wrestling (1989 will come up if you ask the right people, too), I’m very much one to point on 1996, because this was the time when agit prop became a weekly event in pro wrestling. Whereas every episode of wrestling that had come before had a rigid 4th wall in place, this period destroyed it entirely, dealing a swift blow to the prehistoric ideals of Kayfabe and trying out ideas that would become staple on the various programs.

1996 would treat wrestling fans with the first instances of pro wrestling as a weapon.[2] Well documented on the “Monday Night Wars” dvd, WCW Monday Nitro stumbled fairly accidentally into agit prop by giving away the “results” of WWE’s Monday Night Raw before it aired. They would up the ante by having Alundra Blayze, then WWE Women’s champion, come on Nitro and dump the belt into the trash. These two instances were related only on the idea of lowering the WWE’s status, not necessarily raising their own. That’s part of agit prop, and I have to give credit to the writers at WCW at the time for having a sharp focus. They would follow these historically minute points by destroying the 4th wall altogether.

1996 also gave us the most famous curtain call in pro wrestling, when the “clique”[3] all came together and bowed to the audience, crushing kayfabe and making me a WWE fan again all in one swoop.

When Scott Hall left the WWE and joined WCW and showed up by walking through the crowd in street clothes, it set a stone dog-ear on the history of pro wrestling. Hogan’s turn to villainy two months later would always be the most discussed action from this period, but it couldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for how Hall performed. If Hall hadn’t walked into WCW as if he still worked for WWE—and when lots of people didn’t even know he was gone from WWE—the exact way he did (through the crowd, ie, walking through the 4th wall) it’s difficult to say if the business would have changed as it did. Maybe that’s hyperbole, but it’s equally important not to understate this moment. The followthrough, both involving the emergence of Kevin Nash and the turn of Hogan, and of the absolute perfectly referenced name for their faction[4] was proof that Hall’s entrance wasn’t a fluke. WCW was consciously going in an agit prop-fueled direction.

What’s interesting was the fact that Stone Cold Steve Austin was born during the exact same period. On one hand, you’ve got WCW’s New World Order. Taken as a term, it is so incredibly charged in world politics, stemming back to the publishing of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and somewhat engaged with the Nazis, the UN, and the United States government. Also, if we’re going to talk about terrific metaphorical terminology, that 1996 was the last time we’d see a strong, entertaining, and dominating version of the Four Horsemen. On the WWE side, we’ve got Stone Cold Steve Austin, who spoke a victory interview in June of this year towards born-again Jake “The Snake” Roberts. We all know how that goes. We also know how many “Austin 3:16” signs were present the next time WWE went on the air. Essentially, we’ve got one image of the greatest theoretical government conspiracy of the 20th century, and on the other we’ve a loosely referential and rather blasphemous allusion. Nobody in pro wrestling has since ever come close to enjoying the kind of importance that the NWO and Austin enjoyed, and not for one second can anyone say it wasn’t because of the agit prop involved.

While the NWO would, through the end of 1996, quickly grow into a unit capable of “real” power (with the executive director of WCW, Eric Bischoff, revealing his allegiances to the group in December), Austin found himself in arguably the biggest example of agit prop that wrestling has ever given us. On one of the last episodes of RAW in 1996, Austin threatened to visit the house of the injured Brian Pillman. The cameras followed him to the house. Inside was Pillman, his real-life wife, a camera crew and a WWE “reporter.” When asked whether he was worried about Austin’s imminent arrival, Pillman smiled that deranged psychotic smile of his revealed a pistol. This was the first time a real lethal weapon had appeared on a wrestling program that didn’t feature Cactus Jack (and nobody can really count a flaming table covered in barbed wire, because, well, when does one of those ever appear outside of a wrestling match?). Austin broke into the back door with a tire iron and rushed into the room to be greeted by a maniacal Pillman, grinning ear to ear, pistol locked and aimed. The feed cuts, and we’re left to wonder whether the gun went off or not. We would mostly never find out because the scene’s historical reference was stricken from WWE’s memory until the release of Pillman’s DVD in 2007. There were simply too many complaints of the company going too far, and too many threats to take the show off the air.

Anytime you’ve got someone going “too far,” you’ve got agit prop. I mean, if you’re not agitating people, it’s just not working, is it? Thing is, pro wrestling is where we should be able to go for our recommended dosage of it, because there’s no place that does it better. In 2006, we had the introduction to the Latin American Exchange to TNA wrestling, a group seemingly born to please fans of agit prop. They had it all; a topical real world tension in the Mexican border issue, profound historical imagery displayed as they entered the arena, and a message of being mad as hell about discrimination that actually made a ton of sense. The best propaganda always has been and always will be the truth being screamed louder than the lies.

Don’t take this as me suggesting that they need to return to the “attitude” era of wrestling, because I’m not. 1998–2000 saw the demise of agit prop in pro wrestling, and it was a particularly sad time for me, even though nobody noticed it die because they were too busy chanting along with the Rock. It died with the influx of desperate writing into WCW (the 2000 period is a great example of how not to use agit prop) and the vanillaization of ECW on TNN. But the NWO, Austin 3:16, Pillman’s gun, and other excellent ideas all had one thing in common; yes, they were meant to stir the pot, but they all stirred with a charged purpose that resonates into popular culture, faith, fear, and human history. And one could say that pro wrestling could use more of that.


  1. WWE 24/7 is probably the best thing that company has done in the last 5 years. For ten bucks a month, they give you like 30 hours of old wrestling shows on demand. More importantly, it makes old wrestling seem important, because it’s all of a sudden historical. Bravo to whoever green lit this beauty and made all us smarks smile.  ↩
  2. One that mostly pointed at itself. But since wrestling is a reflection of whatever culture it resides, it was really pointing the gun at all of you, too.  ↩
  3. Consisting of “good guys” Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon and “Bad guys” Diesel and HHH.  ↩
  4. Really, could there ever be a more powerful named group than the “New World Order”?  ↩

❖ Will any story conclude at No Way Out 2012?

When I searched my archives for the previous PPV, I felt I had skipped a month. Has it really only been a month since Over the Limit? It feels like it’s been longer. Full disclosure: Over the Limit was the first WWE PPV in over a year I didn’t watch within a few days of airing, and still to this day haven’t found the time. That doesn’t stop me from scoring myself on predictions, though. How did I do?

Zack Ryder vs Kane

Based on the nature of how the story has unfolded, I honestly can’t say if it’s the last one between the two. It’s probably the last time they tie something they do together to Ryder’s broken entire body, though.

So far as I’ve seen, Ryder is all healed up and back to doing nothing at all. Check.

Beth Phoenix vs Layla

Beth gets the rematch for the belt she never lost (shut up, I’m going with never lost) and will not win it here, nor is this a) a real story, or b) something that’s likely to continue. Kharma? Please? Already?

They’ve got a rematch at No Way Out, which is the textbook definition of continuing. I was incorrect.

Kofi Kingston & R-Truth vs The Swaggles

What? They need a team name. They’ve been teaming for years. Unfortunately, this match is as meaningless as every other one the Swagger and Ziggler have had. Should be fun and innofensive and the titles might change hands but that won’t change anything.

The Swaggles kinda broke up this month, leading to Ziggler getting a World Title shot somehow. I’m calling it on my side.

Sheamus vs Alberto Del Rio vs Chris Jericho vs Randy Orton

Sheamus will go on to feud with one of these guys. The other two will do other things.

Couldn’t have predicted better had I watched the show. Turns out, the losers would end up doing suspensions.

CM Punk vs Daniel Bryan

But then again, we’ve got a ways to go until Summerslam. I’ll still stick with my prediction for Punk last month: there is really no shortage of available villains. One, done, and onto the next one.

I’m taking half a point off, because Bryan is still around. But CM Punk has clearly moved on from feuding with him to feuding with the person who makes his Tshirts.

John Cena vs John Laurinaitis

There are lots of characters in this story sitting on the sidelines, after all. I’ll also go with the ending being satisfying and conclusion-like, but will actually keep going next month.

Ding ding ding.

All in all, I’ve scored 4.5/6, which is the closest I’ve come to a perfect score since beginning this series. Maybe I should stop watching shows altogether?

Something I’ve been meaning to add is a tally on how many stories actually concluded, on top of how many predictions I got right. The only stories that concluded were Ryder vs Kane, and the Tag Team scene. Everything else continued on in relatively identical fashion. People who looked to Over the Limit to provide conclusions were likely disappointed.

Let’s move on to No Way Out, where the most interesting thing continues to be the poster.

Brodus Clay vs. David Otunga

I haven’t been the closest viewer of Raw this past month, so a few of my predictions may be wild shots in the dark. Let’s see…The Big Show signed a contract with Johnny, which led to him demolishing Brodus Clay, which let to Clay being barred from Raw, which led to him fighting Otunga…somehow? Sure, why not. It’s the pre-show match, so it won’t matter, but I see it continuing, and by it I mean Brodus winning matches against meaningless bad guys.

Divas Champion Layla vs. Beth Phoenix

Again? Okay, sure, it was fun last time. Both gave spirited performances, but how many times can you have the same two ladies fighting on PPV? I predict a new challenger appears.

Intercontinental Champion Christian vs. Cody Rhodes

I’ve quite enjoyed this feud between upcoming WWE superstar Rhodes and TNA veteran Christian. It doesn’t have a ton of meat on the bone, but all the matches the two have been in this month have been lengthy and well-performed. It’s tough to call, though, as the feud began impromptu on PPV (I don’t have a prediction for it because it wasn’t announced prior to the show), and I don’t know how far they want to go. If they’re in a holding pattern until Rhodes gets a shot at Sheamus (or, I guess, Christian gets a shot at Del Rio), then I’m fine with them fighting one another.

WWE Champion CM Punk vs. Daniel Bryan vs. Kane – Triple Threat Match

Unlike last month, this match screams middle chapter. Nothing will conclude. I don’t know why Kane’s there either, other than to steal everyone’s girlfriend.

World Heavyweight Champion Sheamus vs. Dolph Ziggler

For my money, this is the only giant question mark. This match was supposed to be Sheamus vs Del Rio, but Rio was sidelined with an injury. Ziggler’s inclusion makes it much more interesting. I don’t think I’m the only person who’s felt Sheamus’ run with the title has been milquetoast at best. He’s just not a good hero. I feel like Ziggler losing and falling back to the midcard would be predictable, and, frankly, insulting.

The interesting thing to do here is have Ziggler win somehow, and let them fight again at Money in the Bank. And since wishes in prediction articles always come true, that’s what I’m going to suggest happens here.

John Cena vs. Big Show – Steel Cage Match

There’s a guillotine stipulation here that says if Big Show loses, Johnny gets fired. That’s going to happen, because we can’t end two PPVs in a row with Johnny on top. There are rumours going around about his release, and his removal from the executive page is very real. Cena winning would continue his win/lose/win pattern this year, and would set him up to fight, oh, I don’t know, let’s say Samoa Joe.

There you have it. This is another show I am purposefuly going to miss. They are in a holding pattern until the 1000th Raw, and, of course, Money in the Bank. Don’t expect too much to happen until then.

❖ Structuring the WWE Network

Satellite radio and great ideas that came too late

The WWE network is a potentially great idea. Since WWE is a niche product with a passionate fanbase, it makes all the sense in the world to build a solid platform for its distributed content. But the way WWE is supposedly going about it is entirely wrong for the current market.

There’s this thing out there called satellite radio. The idea is, you pay for a service, and you get a great deal more channels than regular FM radio. The quality is better, the choices are better, and there’s pretty much something for everyone. The monthly fee is relatively low, and it exists mainly in places where radio generally exists: the car.

The only problem satellite radio faced was instant obsolescence. Because it launched in the early 2000s, it went right up against a torrent of change brought on by file sharing, iPods, and podcasts, let alone the influx of thousands of free internet radio stations. It must have taken years for satellite radio to be thought up, figured out, and created, and it certainly was a great idea five years before it launched. But it wasn’t as great when it actually did.

And yes, satellite radio is still around. Lots of people still use it. They figured out a way to survive and perhaps thrive in their own space. But I don’t think anyone thinks it wouldn’t have been way, way bigger had it not launched ten years earlier.

Launching a TV network today, in 2012, is actually way more shortsighted than the satellite radio companies at the turn of the century, because the disruption in how people watch video content began shifting years ago. WWE is apparently looking to launch a network on cable in 2012, years after it became clear that the internet and app distribution is the way to go.

The proposed plan (the TCM model)

Around a year ago, WWE finally announced their long-rumoured network. It would be a channel of some sort, though that wasn’t specified at the time. It would have new and old content, and you could watch it all the time.

This is what I wrote at the time, as speculation:

WWE would like to have a wrestling channel. They would like to take advantage of their vast library and leverage it for profit. They believe there is audience out there who will watch it, but perhaps not pay for it. If they did want to pay for it, the on-demand channel and WWE.com’s greatest matches would have probably already sufficed. I’m going to say now that I don’t believe that this will be a pay channel, but it may not be available to all cable subscribers. It will be something similar to, say, the Golf Channel or ESPN Classic. It will exist on a higher channel on cable, undoubtedly in the hundreds, and it will be in HD. It will likely be offered inside a sports package, as well as on its own.

Few details emerged right away, but what did confirmed my theory. Later on in the year, a few details spilled, and although they haven’t been verified, they offer potential clues:

The channel is likely 24 hours, not on demand. The channel might have “repeats” of Raw and Smackdown, which likely means USA and Syfy will still be the place to go to see first-run episodes. There may be two new weekly in-ring shows (my guess is repackaged versions of Superstars and NXT) There will be a wrestling news show, like Sportscenter (no mention of a talk show, like Tuesday Night Titans) The cost of the channel might be between $7-12 per month, paid through a standard cable bill (much like most other “extra” channels).

A little bit after these rumours, a few more details came out, the most notable being that the channel would have a staff of 200. But since then, we haven’t heard much. Details remained sparse even on the most recent WWE conference call, where they admitted it was delayed but still coming. In the same conference call, they defend going TV as opposed to an internet channel by suggesting that revenues are still heavily sided with network television.

The delay has not fully been explained, nor likely will we ever get the full story. The going theory is that they are having trouble negotiating terms with network distributors. Essentially, it’s a money issue. But I hope it’s something more than details. I hope it’s that they’re not sure they’re headed in the right direction with this thing. Because they aren’t.

I imagine the envisioned plan is something like Turner Classic Movies: a wonderful, curated selection of classic films from the beginning of the art form, appreciated by all. TCM is a vanity project in a sense: commercial-free classic movies, free to watch by anyone with a somewhat decent cable package. It’s nostalgia done right, which is probably at least half of WWE’s intent with the network.

The problem with cable is that nobody wants it

People hate cable. It’s expensive. It’s clunky. There are too many channels. What you’d like to watch is never on when you want to watch it. They’ll sell you a DVR to fix that last problem, but then you’re stuck with an even more expensive and even clunkier box to deal with. The experience is terrible.

WWE actually already has a channel. It’s called WWE Classics on Demand, and it’s actually kind of cool. They curate 20-30 hours a month of content, and you pick from a menu to watch it. It costs about $8 a month and is totally worth it. But Classics on Demand hasn’t become a cornerstone of the company, so why would they think a channel that doesn’t have on-demand functionality perform better? Isn’t a stream of content worse than a menu of content? Wouldn’t a paying customer (and you would have to pay extra for this network channel, naturally) prefer to choose what they’d like to watch, rather than watch whatever’s on?

Perhaps I’m reading the temperature of the modern living room incorrectly. Perhaps the majority of people have no problem shelling over $100 per month for premium cable packages and DVRs, and perhaps a huge number of people haven’t switched to downloading (legally or illegally) their content. Maybe people still prefer their Time Warner box to an Xbox 360. But even if that’s true today, you’d be an idiot to think it’s still going to be true in a few years.

Xbox, PS3, Wii, Roku, Apple TV: Apps on television

Increasingly, the box underneath a TV is not one connected to a cable service, but rather a multimedia gaming or streaming service. The five boxes mentioned in the title have collectively sold in the hundreds of millions. They all connect to Netflix at the very least, and, in the case of the Xbox 360, new content apps are being added regularly. With the Roku box, all you need to know is the address of a content provider and you can receive their network. All of them play content you downloaded off the internet, and some of them rival cable packages for available TV, movies, and music.

There is a UFC app on the Xbox, but not a WWE one. Thousands of TNA episodes and PPVs are available on any number of these devices, but scant few WWE shows. Live sports streaming is available on the Apple TV, Xbox, and others. Where is WWE? They have woefully fallen behind. Announcing compatible devices for online networks of content is what everyone else is doing. WWE is ten years behind.

Better, different, or worse

Right now, WWE’s available content is without doubt worse than any of its competitors (in this case, I consider any major content provider a competitor). The WWE Network would be a different move, sure, but it would undoubtedly be a worse experience. It would not only go against the grain of how people are increasingly devouring content, but it would essentially lock out the youth market (the kids don’t care about cable). Since WWE is unlikely to do something like the UFC app, or the TNA route of making its content available across every single store (if you buy a show on the xbox, you can’t watch it on your iPad, and vice versa), what can they do? Or, better yet (and more fun), what would I like them to do?

A reasonable network plan

A WWE Account

First things first, WWE should set up a username/password system for everyone interested. This account will work everywhere on their site, from wweshop.com, to ticket purchasing, comments, and even merchandise booths at live arenas. The obvious thing to do here is set up some kind of points system (Nintento Points-style) where buying stuff gives you a macguffin that makes you buy more stuff.

Apps

There should be a WWE app on every popular device. iOS, Android, Xbox, Windows 8, etc., You can login to this app to get content, buy stuff, and be part of the WWE Universe. Hell, call it “The WWE Universe.” It’s right there. Define it.

Buy once, watch everywhere

If you buy a WWE PPV on itunes, you can watch it on any iOS device. You can watch it however many times you like, and it never goes away. You should be able to do that with your WWE account. If you really want to own Money in the Bank 2011, you should be able to give them money and trust that that file is available, rewatchable, and downloadable (at least, in the app) for a long, long time.

A curated monthly buffet

I’m putting this here for selfish reasons, because I really like Classics on Demand. I think the concept and curation is very well-done, but it’s suffocated on cable. It sits up on channel 397 for me, which isn’t a place I regularly surf. It can’t give me notifications, and I can’t watch it anywhere but my TV. Throw it in the app, charge me the same price, and let me cache for offline viewing.

PPV for less

In-store, Apple sold Aperture, its pro photo software, for $199. In the Mac App Store, it’s $79. Why is it less? Because it’s a much easier purchase. To buy Aperture in the store, you have to physically show up to a store (that they have to rent, heat, and light), buy a box (that had to be designed, printed, assembled, packaged, and shipped), go home, insert a DVD into your Mac, install the software, and enter a serial number (that had to be encrypted and databased). To buy Aperture in the Mac App Store, you hit a button and input your password. The cost of the Mac App Store isn’t nothing, but it’s conveniently covered under the 30% take that Apple gets off each purchase.

With less cruft comes greater sales, and with greater sales comes greater margins. Lowering the price means more people buy it, but lowering the price while lowering your own investment means making more money in volume. Buying a PPV is somewhat easy today if you have cable, but you still need cable. How is this possible in 2012? How many more PPV events would WWE sell if they cut the price by half and made it ubiquitous across every device? Call it $19.99 for most PPVs, and $29.99 for Wrestlemania. Put it on the iPad, and people will buy the hell out of it.

With an account, one could also subscribe to PPV events in bulk. Make it $149 for the year. PPV is expensive because cable deals are expensive. Remove those, and WWE could set their own price.

An ongoing stream

If all these price ideas sound complicated, then you’re probably in the pocket of people who just plain prefer to have content shown to them instead of choosing one’s own level of involvement. That’s fine. I absolutely believe there’s a place for a stream, but it shouldn’t be confined to TV. Make the stream a channel you click on in the app or the website, make it free, and limit it to a small rotation of things. People who a) aren’t going to pay for things, and b) don’t care about choice are perfect for this, because a) they wouldn’t pay for something that’s only slightly better, and b) they don’t care about choice. Brand it with the Vintage Collection (or, better yet, just stream Vintage Collecton) set it, and forget it.

My lack of faith is disturbing

A lot of my hopes for WWE distribution are up there, and it’s a path I think would work for them worldwide. But I don’t actually believe they’ll do any of it. They used to be so good at being at the forefront of technology. WWE had VHS collections before TV shows. WWE had PPV before movies. They were on the DVD bandwagon before most people owned DVD players. They’ve experimented with online video, and I always thought they’d figure it out. But with them trying to get cable TV, I don’t really believe they think the “internet” is a viable distribution platform. It’s a shame, because I honestly believe that it’s going to be the only distribution platform sooner than people think. WWE has the might, brand power, and nerdy, obsessed fan base capable of pulling something like this off. I just really wish they would.

❖ The best of Raw and Smackdown 2011 Review

best of raw and smackdown 2011

Buy it from Amazon from this link and I’ll get a kickback

The general question regarding most frivolous purchases is: “Will I enjoy this?” It’s a question I’ve been mulling over in regards to this DVD. The fact is, I don’t know. I don’t know if this is your thing. I can’t answer that question for you. All I can do is unpack what the motivations are behind compilation DVDs, what I believe the kind of person who buys these things might enjoy, and whether The Best of Raw and Smackdown 2011 stacks up to these ideals. Essentially, I can’t answer a simple question without making it  too complicated for it’s own good.

WWE has been producing compilation tapes since before you were born. Early on, the compilation tape made loads of sense, especially to the casual viewer: it was a curated collection of highlights and matches (more often than not heavily clipped matches) that fit into a tidy 2-3 hour VHS, offering glimpses into missed out and/or unforgettable moments. These compilations always varied in time-span, quality, and method, and shifted back and forth from heavily over-played clips to rare, untelevised matches.

WWE’s compilations played into a somewhat dead concept in the era: tape trading. Since no region in the world carried every wrestling broadcast, tapes were the way to watch things you’d missed. It was also the only way many people saw PPV matches, since PPV didn’t become ubiquitous until the 90s. I personally saw my first several PPVs on VHS, months after they aired. I didn’t care that I knew what happened. To me, wrestling wasn’t about finding out a conclusion. It was about the thrill of the match, the story being told. If the story is good, you can watch the match over and over.

An interesting shift has occurred in recent years. WWE’s DVD collections have become much better compared to the VHS collections. Matches are shown in full, sometimes even with alternate commentary, and collections are introduced with hosts, who educate viewers on the context of the collection (often poorly, as the case was with the Macho Man DVD. But at least they’re trying.) The money-to-time ratio has also never been better: The Best of Raw and Smackdown 2011 was $24 at Best Buy (conversely, you can buy it from Amazon from this link and I’ll get a kickback), and it has a little over 10 hours of footage.

But at the same time, I don’t really feel like anything on this disc needed to be seen again so soon, and nothing on this DVD wasn’t aired on high-rated cable and network television. Obviously this is a time-sensitive issue, and this collection’s value will increase as the year 2011 is drawn further into the past, But all of it is still so fresh today, when the DVD is on the shelf. It’s worth noting that the title of the DVD is repeated on a circular sticker for some reason. It’s there so you know exactly what you’re getting, I suppose. Maybe they think wrestling fans need to be hit over the head over and over with information? Then again, this DVD is nothing if not a repeated assault on your immediate nostalgia. Remember when the Rock came back? When Edge retired? When CM Punk said hi to Colt Cabana? Weren’t these moments just the best?

As I said, nostalgia is relative and increases over time. This DVD will be better ten years from now. But today, while you can actually buy it, it’s partially only as great as your memory is poor. Its value, however, is not only in reminding you of what happened, but what happened well. 2011 will almost certainly be remembered as the year that WWE tightened up and presented a concise image of itself. It’s clear right away, from the upfront admission that there is no brand split. Raw and Smackdown are presented as under one umbrella for the first time in ten years, and it’s finally nice to see them admit what we’ve wanted all along. It’s basically impossible to know which show any match or scene comes from, since the sets are identical and the announcers jump from show to show anyway.

Even with this concision, the DVD is only half the story. The Best PPV Matches of 2011 (iTunes link, where the matches are available a la carte) is the other half, and you really do need both to make sense of things. Almost every non-wrestling chapter is something that advertises a PPV match you can find on its sister collection. But 2011 actually offers more PPV-quality wrestling matches than you’d think: there are 23 matches in total, and most of them go over ten minutes. The best matches hold up wonderfully, and some are even better out of context. John Cena vs Rey Mysterio (July 25) is a great deal better than you remember, as is Christian vs Randy Orton (May 6). There isn’t a stinker in the set, as even poor wrestlers like Alex Riley and Mason Ryan are stuck behind multi-man tag matches. The ‘best’ in the title isn’t hyperbole, and I honestly can’t think of a serious omission.

The real highlight is disc 3, which covers Mark Henry’s rise to utter dominance. the Cutting Edge with Randy Orton and Mark Henry (September 16) is worth watching multiple times. It’s a master stroke, and possibly the best scene Mark Henry has ever performed. That disc also features Alberto del Rio vs Daniel Bryan (August 19), which is a quiet classic among many, as well as John Morrison vs R-Truth (August 15), a match that makes both Morrisson fans and detractors happy.

As disc 4 wound to a close with four excellent, detached matches, I began to realize just who would most enjoy this compilation. It’s the person who can sit down and enjoy a street fight between Randy Orton and Cody Rhodes without knowing their story, before or after. It’s the kind of person who can delight in the acrobatics of CM Punk vs Dolph Ziggler without caring about the WWE Championship. It’s the person who can revel in Mark Henry’s physical marvels without rolling their eyes at his previous mediocrity. Essentially, the greatest audience for this DVD is the fan of professional wrestling matches, but not necessarily professional wrestling characters or plots. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that matches outnumber scenes 24-12, and take up the vast majority of airtime. Fans of pro wrestling characters love the singular DVDs (like Edge’s), while fans of wrestling plots enjoy the rare DVDs that compile stories (like Bret vs Shawn). But best-ofs are the dominion of match-lovers, and for them The Best of Raw and Smackdown 2011 is a treat, even if perhaps you should cellar it for a few years, like wine.

If I can offer an idea for improvement, I would leave off the scenes entirely, and allow the ‘narrator’ to explain a little backstory before each match, Robert Osborne-style. Move the scenes to the PPV-matches DVD, where they are contextually appropriate (not one scene leads to a TV match). Let the compilation be what the wrestling match-lovers want: unimpeded wrestling. And god, please, let us have the live audio track, so we don’t have to listen to the announcers talk about what was trending on twitter in the past.

❖ Choose your own meaning

Sometimes, I get a lightbulb by looking at a puff piece. To be quite honest, that’s why I read the puff pieces on WWE.com. It’s not because they’re super interesting, or that I really love clicking “next” three times to read a 500-word report. It’s because sometimes, they inadvertently tip their hand. This article appears harmless, but you’ve got to look really close at the title. In fact, you can ignore the rest of the article, since it doesn’t even try to answer the question.

What will happen if Brock Lesnar beats John Cena?

That’s a question they want you to think about. They’re not going to answer it for you. They won’t even answer it on Sunday, at the PPV, or at Raw the next night. It’s not a question that’s going to be answered by WWE. It’s a question that’s going to be answered by you.

I’ve been thinking about what things mean in WWE for a long time. I’ve often ruminated on the meaning of titles, feuds, and character motivations. Later today, you can hear a podcast chat with myself and Rich Thomas about this subject. We dig deep on the motivations behind certain wrestlers. It’s an important question, but to WWE, it’s an important question you have to answer yourself.

WWE doesn’t define their titles. They don’t put a ‘purse’, they don’t set weight limits, and they don’t set clearly designated roles. Quick, what does it mean to be the US Champion? What do you get for holding onto the intercontinental title? What comes with the WWE Championship? You might have an answer to these questions, but ask someone else and they might give a different answer. WWE has allowed—really, encouraged—the definitions of these things to remain opaque. You choose your own meaning. Edge maybe said it best in his retirement speech last year. He said, “the World Championship is symbolic.” He went on to say that it belonged to everyone. I don’t think he was just saying those things lightly.

Look, there’s a turtles-all-the-way-down argument to be made here about the meaninglessness of battle. People fight for championships, but the championships don’t really mean anything. People fight for pride, but their pride is compromised when they lower themselves to fight. People fight for revenge, love, etc., but the people they’re fighting for would really rather have them in one piece. I’m not here to ruminate on the meaning of conflict, or what makes a conflict worth hashing out on PPV. But I do think it’s interesting that WWE is increasingly encouraging its fans to paint the meaning with their own brush.

The main event of Wrestlemania XXVIII was the largest case of this in the history of the company. The Rock vs John Cena was a thinly-told story, and it left most of us scratching their heads as to why—with a year—they couldn’t come up with something meatier. But as I suggested with Jason Mann a recent wrestlespective podcast, I truly believe this was by design. WWE wanted you to fill in the blanks. What would it mean to you if Cena won or lost? What would it mean to you if Rock won or lost? This answer is different for everyone.

If it seems like John Cena and Brock Lesnar are fighting over nothing, it might be that you have no skin in this game. There might be nothing in your life that reflects off this story. But WWE is betting that there is. They’re betting that by pitting a hulking bully on top of the wounded hero, they can touch a nerve.