Friday, 12 August 2016
WWE's Cruiserweight Classic - "New is always better"
A common theme in pro wrestling is that a fresh product is often what is most needed to get people interested in it. When NXT hit it's stride in mid 2014, it did so largely on the basis that it's booking strategy's were slightly different than those seen by the majority of its new found audience. Similarly, when NJPW was exposed to a large English-speaking audience following the English broadcasting of their annual January 4th show in 2015, it was a culture shock for many who had never seen a wider sample of Japanese pro wrestling. In one final example, Lucha Underground, while fundamentally flawed, wears it's culture and style on it's sleeve, and attracted a relatively large audience for it's first two seasons based purely on it being slightly different from the other offerings, even though towards the end of the most resent season has shown ratings declines as many found out the emperor had no clothes. Hell, the concept of an alternative has driven a ton of pro wrestling business, especially in the United States. The boom period of the late 90s was based on two companies trying to provide different things to the same audience in better ways. Furthermore, in the late 2000s, TNA built a business based on doing pretty much the exact same thing as the WWE, and simply calling it "alternative." TNA was luckily another example of people seeing something for what it actually was, but still, the concept of freshness holds true in the decent amount of financial success they were able to drum up in their prime.
I say all this, mainly to give context for the pure amount of gushing I am about to do over WWE's new venture: the Cruiserweight Classic. The CWC benefits huge from that feeling of being a fresh new concept, but I want to argue that in this case, the substance is there, and the format is damn near perfect to making sure that fans do not get burned out on the content that it seeks to provide. But I wanted to run down some recent examples of products that benefited from the "new is always better" effect, before being exposed as lacking on a deeper level to keep going. While I may feel very strongly about the CWC, and about it's potential to change the way pro wrestling is consumed, it could very well be that the excitement and buzz of this new product is clouding my judgment, and that in many years to come the concept will be run into the ground and exceedingly de-valued to the point that I no longer care. This is especially the case with the WWE recently announcing that the Main Roster will soon be implementing a Cruiserweight division again. WWE's track record with segregated divisions is not good, and it is likely the larger, more mainstream backstage team on Raw simply will not "get" what makes this implementation of the lower weight division work.
So what does make it work?
Pro wrestling/sports entertainment has always had a bit of a grounding in imitating legitimate sporting competitions, but it's hard to put your finger on what sport it is trying to imitate. I've always found the connection to wrestling to be tenuous at best, and with all the different styles that amalgamate into the end product we see in pro graps, coming from different countries and different backgrounds, the concept of pro wrestling is not unlike the relatively young sport of mixed martial arts. It's not surprising, then, with the rise of MMA giants over the last 10 or so years, that perhaps wrestling in the United States would return, in one form or another, back to its roots, and take a more wrestling-as-sport approach. Recent examples of this trend can be found in EVOLVE, run by former ROH kingpin Gabe Sapolsky and Beyond Wrestling, which is part of the same WWN family as EVOLVE. While Beyond opperates usually like a upper end independent promotion, their usage of former fighters such as Matt Riddle, and using their former legitimate background in storylines, has led to more "real" feeling environments and matches. Meanwhile, the cast of characters at EVOLVE thrive on evolution through good competition, and put getting that competition above personal animousity. This is the mantra of ingrained stable Catch Point, which champions the style now affectionately known as "grapplefuck."
(Above: Catch Point, sans Fred Yehi. Left to right: Drew Gulak, Tracy Williams, Matt Riddle, TJP.)
Being driven purely by competition is a great motivation, it's one that leads to some awesome and easy to tell stories. Furthermore, EVOLVE's hands off approach most of the time when it comes to running angles and stories outside of matches, has led to a "pure" feel that feels, here's that word again: fresh. I talk a lot about EVOLVE because I think it's style, it's success and even a lot of it's talent, has translated really well in the CWC itself. EVOLVE doesn't take the plunge when it comes to presenting the product as a legitimate sport, through and through, but what it does do is give it's characters real motivations, sport-like motivations, and the result of that is a product that feels the way it does. The CWC takes it a step further.
First of all, the CWC takes some lovely steps from Japanese tournament play such as implementing a time limit, and making that time limit very clear to the audience. While it has yet to come into play, and it would have been nice to see it be re-enforced even further, making the rules of the competition clear and important gives the matches themselves more important. Additionally, the CWC enforces pre-match handshakes, a move right out of Gabe Sapolsky's mid 2000s ROH, and it serves a similar purpose now as it did then. It makes this product feel important, like everything matters, and the constant enforcement of the rules makes the tournament itself feel important, almost sacred. Which brings me on to my next point...
With a firmly established environment that feels safe, important, sacred, those who go outside that environment effortlessly earn the ire of the viewer-base. Similar to Christopher Daniels in the before mentioned period of ROH, breaking the Code of Honor and thus feeling like a legitimately dislike-able character, ruining the promotion for everyone who wanted to play by the rules, one of the most entertaining parts of the CWC so far has been the character of The Brian Kendrick. It's a great story, this is Kendrick's last chance to really make something of his career, feeling like he may have messed up a few opportunities in the past. He blames himself somewhat for not making something of his career beforehand, but also wants to make sure he seizes this one last opportunity. When he realizes the competition is a little tougher than he expected, and he may not quite be up for the challenge, he doesn't let that stop him from chasing glory one last time. Taking cheap shots, feigning injury, the standard heel fare feels so much more enticing when it's backed up by such an amazing story, and when the character beats are being hit perfectly. Little stories like that are everywhere in the CWC, and it's told by amazing pre-match interviews, and then continued in the ring, like real top-notch products do.
What's also so great about the stories being told in the CWC, because the form is so simple to tell them, it eliminates potential problems you could have with international stars and the language barrier. The interview with Tajiri before his second round match with Gran Metalik (formerly Mascara Dorada), is completely in Japanese, but it's subtitled, and the way it's edited means the emotion of the story is conveyed excellently. The same can be said of many, many videos from the first round, some of which were also spoken in other languages. In fact, the usage of so many other languages adds an international flair to the tournament that helps add to the culture and provide that fresh feeling I talked about at the top of the article.
Finally, this tournament is made so much better for having some of the best wrestling talent in the world right now. Johnny Gargano is a consistently good worker who seems to be hitting his peak in 2016, the same could be said for Tommaso Ciampa. The former Mascara Dorada was one of the hottest post-Mistico prospects in all of Mexico, and is honestly one of the more well known workers of that generation. (Dragon Lee is probably a bigger star in Mexico, but Dorada had a little more reach in all likelyhood.) People like Tajiri and Brian Kendrick add so much to the tournament based on character alone, but have proven that their bodies are not limiting them at all. Jack Gallagher, Noam Dar, Rich Swann and others appeal to Full Sail, as well as a specific audience at home, even if I don't expect them to have amazing matches, they add to the variety of the tournament. Amazingly, the scouting team for a wrestling promotion have also managed to find some legit great hidden gems for once too! Lince Dorado/Mustafa Ali is a nigh-on great match, and going into that night of the show I had only seen a few matches from Ali, and never pegged him as one to look out for. Add to all of that the inclusion of Kota Ibushi and Zack Sabre Jr, one of which is probably the best and most successful Junior Heavyweight for many decades, and the other is one of the best wrestlers on the planet while working a style I feel is bound to be the future of the industry.
There you have it, a brief look at why this show seems to be gaining a ton of traction, (beating out NXT for viewers according to WON this week) and why it continues to be the best pro wrestling show on a weekly basis, in my humble opinion, and this is without going into detail about my favorite match of the tournament so far (Gargano/Ciampa) or the one that has every banging the MOTYC war drum this week! (Alexander/Ibushi)
Let me know what you think of the CWC, if you enjoyed this article, and want to see more like it in the future. I plan to write up a G1 Climax watchlist later this week once the tournament finishes, but it may be a more or less detailed depending on how this does.