WWE’s Old School RAW last week got me thinking a lot about what made the WWF seem so captivating when I was a kid, and what it is about the WWE nowadays that’s just… not quite hitting that same chord now. What’s different? I mean, aside from the entirely different roster and set and stuff. It took me a while, but I think I’ve finally figured it out.
Back in the early ’90s, wrestling didn’t have writers. Relatedly, angles were more important than storylines. The two terms are used fairly interchangeably, but as Lance Storm wrote on his blog, they are not. The purpose of an angle was to take two wrestlers and set them on a path that led to a match (the intersection of the angle). The journey toward that match was focused entirely on making the audience want to see these two guys fight each other. It’s a similar principle to how the UFC promotes its fights. With the advent of the internet, anybody can get the results of matches seconds after they conclude, so promoters need to make the audience want to see the fight itself. The audience needs to want to see one guy beat the everloving crap out of the other guy.
How are storylines different? Well look at the WWE now. This past Sunday’s Survivor Series was headlined by Randy Orton defending the WWE Championship against Wade Barrett with John Cena as the guest referee. Going into that match, where was all the hype? On Cena. The referee. The focus wasn’t about whether dastardly heel Barrett could outsmart Orton and capture the title or whether Orton would prove that Barrett was all talk. It was about whether Cena would hand the belt to Barrett, in essence, or be fired. Watching RAW the next night not only gave me all the information I needed to continue following the story, it gave me a Barrett/Orton rematch. Cena’s farewell speech? Longer than the Barrett/Orton rematch.
What does this have to do with writers? You need writers to write storylines. You don’t need them to create an angle. In 1994 one of the strongest angles of the year was the family feud between Bret Hart and younger brother Owen Hart, which lasted the entire year. It was delightfully simple: younger brother Owen was jealous of always being in the shadow of older brother Bret’s success. No several-minute-long, pre-written promos. Really, not even any particularly top notch promos (the Harts, while fantastic workers, have never been particularly skilled on the mic). No kidnappings. No attempts to murder people with automobiles even though that makes no sense at all. Just two brothers who had a falling out and wanted to prove who was best.
At the Royal Rumble, Bret and Owen’s bid to win the WWF Tag Team titles were thwarted when the Quebecers injured Bret’s knee and pinned him before he was able to tag Owen. Owen made his heel turn at the end of the match, kicking Bret’s injured knee and blaming his selfishness for costing Owen a shot at WWF glory. Later that night, Bret limped into the Royal Rumble match and came out as co-winner with Lex Luger. His brother getting a WWF title match after denying Owen his chance at gold? Owen’s jealousy was triggered and set up what turned out to be a brilliant match between the brothers at WrestleMania, which Owen won. Later that night, Bret won the WWF title from Yokozuna, and the show ended with Owen Hart standing, dejected, in the aisle while his brother celebrated.
At the King of the Ring, Bret Hart retained his WWF Championship with help from brother-in-law Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart. Later in the night, the Anvil returned to help out a relative once again as Owen won the King of the Ring tournament, leading to speculation that the Anvil had helped Bret retain his title so that Owen could get a crack at it. Which was entirely true. As King of the Ring, Owen demanded a championship match. And he got it at SummerSlam in a steel cage. The two brothers would finally settle the score, and Bret came out victorious. But Owen would have the last laugh, nearly a year after the whole thing started. At the Survivor Series in 1994, Bret Hart defended his title against Bob Backlund in a submission match, during which Owen tricked his mother into throwing in the towel, costing Bret the WWF title.
Okay, that summary went on longer than I intended it to, but I do have a point here: could you imagine what would happen nowadays if WWE’s writers tried to craft a year-long storyline between two wrestlers? They would wrestle each other forty-some times, for one. There would be something in the neighbourhood of 100 hours of monologue. And unlike 1994, I would not be buying the pay-per-views.