What? Disrespectful?

25 Apr

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“Stone Cold” Steve Austin was recently interviewed by Power Slam magazine here in Britain. When asked about the “What?” chants as part of his legacy, he expressed no regret in starting them, and suggested wrestlers can avoid them in their promos by the pacing of their remarks.

Pro Wrestling Torch’s Sean Radican is often dead-on in his columns, and his recent entry on the episode of Raw, from London, England, is another quality offering. “(WWE’s) stars and storylines aren’t connecting with live crowds. Some crowds greet the wrestlers and storylines with apathy,” he states. “Last night, WWE brought Raw to London and when the circus comes to town once a year, the crowd is going to be energetic and react to the show unlike other crowds. This time around in London, it was clear what WWE is doing isn’t connecting with the crowd.” But then he added, “However, it was ridiculous to see the treatment the crowd gave to Foley and Undertaker, both of whom deserved better than a crowd trying to go into business for themselves.” He was referring to the “What?” chants during Mick Foley’s promo, as well as the “You’ve still got it” chants in Undertaker’s match.

Now, as we know, wrestling fans pay good money to attend WWE shows, and, as Radican points out, these shows roll around through England only once or twice a year. Naturally, they are going to be full of emotion, and expression. But still, reactions of most entertainment audiences are utilised as a gauge of a successful performance. When pop stars sing badly and are booed for it, it’s largely accepted. When sports crowds are humble when their team gets humiliatingly defeated, it’s understandable. It’s WWE’s job, as Radican again rightly suggests, to construct a performance that creates the correct response from their audiences.

I’m probably one of Mick Foley’s biggest fans. A decent human being, critical thinker, intelligent writer, and revolutionary wrestler in his time, I’ll be seeing him perform stand up here next week. But despite my admiration and respect for Foley, if fans are chanting “What?” during his promo, I ask two things: “Have the writers made a mistake?” and “Is Foley’s delivery weak?” Radican’s right first time: WWE creative are all too often failing to connect the product to audiences; they lose emotional investment, and fans, as Radican puts it, “go into business for themselves.” It isn’t ideal, but it happens. The show goes on, and the audience response has to be taken on board as experience; a note for future promo writing.

But where I really take exception to Radican’s article is when he suggests fans chanting “You’ve still got it” is disrespectful. That’s right, you read that correctly: disrespectful – for telling a 48 year-old wrestler who had performed only once the year previously that he hasn’t lost a step. Before I go on, I’ll be fair to Radican here and offer context. He says, “Undertaker is someone that hasn’t had a regression in his in-ring performance and if anything, he has gotten better with time since his WrestleMania winning streak went from being a statistic to being one of the biggest staples of WrestleMania each year.”

Okay, fair points. But if a 48 year-old wrestles WrestleMania XXVII, is carried away on a stretcher, returns for WrestleMania XXVIII, then, not counting a cameo at Raw 1000, goes away for a year before reappearing for a global audience at WrestleMania XXIX…it is absolutely acceptable, even respectable (and respectful) for an audience to tell him “You’ve still got it” in unison. When Undertaker went away for a mere eight months in 2000-2001, he referred to his trademark arm-twist rope-walk chop as going “old school” – and nobody questioned that. There was, in fact, nothing “old school” about it at all; he was using it in 2000, returned, and picked up where he left off, using it again, just as a Hell’s Angels-type biker instead of a Satanic leader of the Ministry of Darkness. Today, Undertaker wrestles one high profile match a year, and much more has changed, far more than the referencing of one single move in his arsenal: he’s at an age where each year makes all the difference – just ask Hulk Hogan, or ask Ric Flair…the matches get harder; the wrinkles get deeper.

The idea that Undertaker, at 48, is beyond scrutiny; that he is unquestionably excellent whenever he appears, is absurd. His last WrestleMania match with CM Punk was fantastic, yes, though this may have had a great deal to do with Punk’s involvement; his two previous WrestleMania bouts with Triple H were both a series of spot-fests dependent on weak storyline-driven psychology hindered by the foregone conclusion of an untouchable Streak.

The Streak is the only thing about the Undertaker that should ever be untouchable. At 48, the “Dead Man” is still pushing his luck – and his body to its limits, largely for the traditional annual appearance and big WrestleMania pay-day. But for a man who’s had numerous surgeries and is easily at the standard age of retirement for wrestlers who take pride in their work, telling him “You’ve still got it” is not only fair, it’s deeply respectful. To suggest that – and a “What?” chant during a Mick Foley promo – is disrespectful to legends in London, is simply disrespecting the fans in London.

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