Sunday 27 July 2014

Is It Still Cool To Hate John Cena? By Joey Keogh

On foot of the not-so-shocking revelation that John Cena is to Main Event at Summerslam against Brock Lesnar, Kayfabe News published a piece playing off the idea that Cena looks set to headline every major event for the foreseeable future – maybe even forever. Over the past decade, it’s become fashionable, then unfashionable, then fashionable again to really, really, really hate John Cena. However, lately even the clever “John Cena sucks” sing-along in time with his entrance theme, and the warring chants both for and against him, have become stale. Do we still hate John Cena as much as we used to? Do we even know why we hate him?

Cena may be a royal pain in the ass, but he doesn’t suck as much as we all wish he did – or at least, not in the way some of us think he does. The Miz sucks, Eva Marie sucks. The kind of heat their totally unwelcome presence generates isn’t down to great work, it’s because they’re terrible in every conceivable way and their attitudes stink. A million people have come and gone since Cena’s introduction. He couldn’t possibly be worse than all of them. The reality is we’re just sick of Cena. He’s been woefully mis-sold to us throughout his career and, as a result, everything he does tends to grate. He can’t win with us, which is kind of the root of the problem.

The main issue with the character of John Cena – as opposed to the man himself, who seems like a pretty nice dude – is that everything is predicated on him winning. Even when he was cutting promos for Battleground recently, they were all about him “overcoming the odds” yet again, but that’s what he has to do every goddamn time and what he manages to do no matter what. Permanently-excited commentator Michael Cole might be able to muster up the energy to pretend this is a new angle for him each time, but we can’t. Not now, twelve years and a hundred PPVs later.

It’s really easy to get burned out on Cena, because we know he’s not going to lose, we know it’s all just empty talk, even if it is delivered pretty effectively. Even when he was up against Bray Wyatt, who is arguably the best, and most interesting, heel on the current roster, there was that voice in the back of our collective minds that told us not to believe he could really win against Cena. Lo and behold, when his time finally came at Wrestlemania 30, after a spectacular build-up and in spite of a fantastic match, he didn’t.

The legendary, and very lovable, Chris Jericho may have been drafted in to give him a leg-up since, but their feud feels forced, as though Wyatt is just an afterthought now that Cena is occupied elsewhere. True, he succeeded against him at Extreme Rules, but Wyatt cheated and if Cena doesn’t lose clean, it doesn’t count. If Wyatt had have won against Cena properly, like he deserved, he would’ve totally blown up. All of the elements were there – he was killing it and the fans were completely on his side – but WWE are terrified that if Cena loses clean, we’ll think he’s worth nothing and as a result, Wyatt had to take the hit.

According to the Internet Wrestling Database, Cena has wrestled in almost 700 matches since his debut, including headlining over 80 PPVS. He currently has a win rate of almost 70%, including PPV and non-PPV matches. Legends such as Ultimate Warrior and Shawn Michaels have far better records, and both, in particular Michaels, had their fair share of dodgy wins back in the day too.

It’s interesting, then, that everyone hates Cena so damn much just because he wins so often and it’s, supposedly, so easy for him. Is it purely because we still have to put up with him every single week? Lesnar was an obvious choice for the upcoming PPV, because he’s always going to be a big draw, and let’s not forget that the Network contracts will be up for renewal soon, so WWE had to hook us all in somehow. However, if Lesnar is the obvious draw for fans, is Cena in the Main Event just because he’s the kids’ favourite?

His debut is still a hot video on YouTube, with over 4 million views to date and more than 3,000 comments, the majority of which are overwhelmingly negative. The top comments complain that Cena is slowly destroying the company by winning championships he never deserved, and getting pushes every few months, too. Anyone who tries to stick up for him is dismissed as a child, because what adult could possibly see the worth in someone like Cena?

Although we’re all sick to death of him headlining PPVs and winning belts, he’s been undeniably influential in putting fan favourites over. One of the highlights of last year was when he chose Daniel Bryan out of a line-up of Superstars to face him at Summerslam. With the crowd cheering as loud as they could for Bryan, Cena slowly made his way through several obvious, and often quite bizarre, choices including Rob Van Dam, Chris Jericho and, er, Heath Slater. Throughout this segment, the comparatively diminutive Bryan couldn’t even be seen behind the bigger, buffer Superstars.

He wasn’t mentioned as a choice, either, with Cena teasing the crowd as he simply asked “Is there anyone I’m forgetting?” Goofy Cena is the worst kind of Cena – aside from rapping Cena, of course – but he was at his best here, utilising his sense of humour well, and he immediately turned super serious when it was time to choose his opponent. This is a great example of Cena giving someone else a bit of his spotlight and it was a remarkable moment for both of them that paved the way for Bryan to win the title.

For those of us who’ve followed this shit since we were kids, the most infuriating element of the John Cena character is that he’s never properly turned heel. As much as the WWE fear the wrath of toddlers, let’s face it, everyone loves cheering for a heel and, as Bray Wyatt’s recent attempts at cultish sing-alongs prove, you can’t keep a good bad guy down. Do the powers that be have so little faith in Cena that they assume his stock would plummet if he took a step back, or, god forbid, turned heel? Would the kids really cry their eyes out at the sight of him in black jean shorts, waxing lyrical about how sick he is of being the top guy in the company?

A Cena heel angle is so obvious, and so widely-discussed, it’s bizarre that thus far it’s only ever been hinted at here and there. Not only would it shut all of us up, but it’d breathe new life into what has become a very stale character. It’d give Cena an angle, an edge, and he would be able to form alliances with the guys he usually spends half his time scolding. It would totally reinvent him, and maybe even give him a whole new fan base. Nowadays, the main issue with him is that he’s so predictable but, as a heel, there’s no telling what he’d do next.

Considering so much of Cena’s brand, and his worth to fans, hinges on him always, always, always winning, it’s interesting to note that the matches in which he’s lost are some of the most exciting and dynamic of his entire career. In particular, his Summerslam 2011 bout against CM Punk is a highlight, showcasing the best of both participants in a lengthy, well-paced battle of strength, ability and passion. Although Cena always gives his best in the ring, he’s become synonymous with winning in the last minute or two by using a combination of the same moves. At Summerslam 2011, he brought his ‘A’ game, with several near falls during which he seemed predestined to triumph over “adversity” yet again, so when Punk beat him, it was truly glorious.

Often a victim of bad writing that attempts to somehow position him as the underdog, Cena’s match-up against the ultimate underdog Daniel Bryan, again at Summerslam, in 2013, was also exceptional. Losing to Bryan, after he delivered a stunning running knee, Cena managed to simultaneously put his opponent way over and prove that he could not win and still come out on top. WWE backtracked a little following the match – possibly out of fear of the danger of the “Cena is a loser” angle – and indeed Bryan still had a long way to go before the championship was his, but this was a significant moment, and one which epitomised the opposing strengths of both performers.

Cena’s first PPV match was Vengeance, way back in 2002. In triumphing over hot favourite Jericho, he began a path to headline, and mostly win, almost every high-profile show since. A good match, in which he and Jericho fed off each other’s energy well, it marked out what kind of guy Cena was going to be in the ring. Although he only appeared in three out of a possible eight PPVs in 2002, from his first Main Event slot in 2005 onwards Cena was a stalwart of the company, and nowadays we can expect him to headline pretty much every show of the year – including weekly Raw episodes, which he dominates.

Looking back on his debut, Cena hasn’t really aged a day, which is kind of creepy. Maybe he’s a cyborg, programmed only to win matches and grant wishes and sell merch to children and refuse to marry Nikki Bella. His worth to the WWE is obvious, but to fans Cena seems to represent a giant roadblock in the way of our favourites achieving the plaudits they rightly deserve. Cena may still be stealing focus from others, but he’s been taking a backseat more and more often lately, and he’s been owning his brand and his goody-goody image too, facing up to The Authority and choosing Daniel Bryan when he shouldn’t, even triumphing at Battleground so Triple H’s cronies couldn’t.

We can’t hate John Cena because he’s champion yet again. We can hate the character they’ve made him, for WWE vicariously burying new talents through him, and for him headlining every PPV in sight, but when he’s not featured, something feels off, and the balance isn’t right. He’s a fixture whether we like it or not, and the WWE would be a very different place without him. All things considered, he’s a wonderful performer and, when in the right mode, he can be great on the mic, too. He’s the ultimate face, he’s just in desperate need of a heel turn.

However, in spite of the fact that he’s guaranteed to win every single time, it’s unlikely that Lesnar won’t defeat him after beating the streak at Wrestlemania 30 and, when he does, it may just spark the turn that’ll reignite the fuse inside John Cena, and indeed all of us. Cena may always be the Superstar we love to hate, but at least we only have a few more weeks of bullshit before he (hopefully) loses in spectacular fashion and things get interesting again for a bit.

For the moment, though, it makes no sense to hate the player when, really, we should be hating the game.

Thursday 24 July 2014

Why Story Telling Is Vital to Wrestling By Shaun Nichols

In the past few days I have been trying to explain to a friend why the Sting vs. Hollywood Hogan match at Starrcade 1997 is one worst examples of psychology and booking. In response I was told that it's a good match which lots of people wanted to watch. Also it's listed on the WWE's Starrcade: The Essential Collection at a very respectable fourth place, though I think it's more down to the fact that it's a match featuring two big names and the WWE marketing team felt it couldn't be placed any lower.

Wrestling is a very unique model on the PPV platform, unlike boxing and UFC who succeed mainly on unique individuals (think Floyd Mayweather and Georges St Pierre) that appear maybe 1 or 2 times in the way. These are guys who fans can connect to, it really is unimportant if you want to see win or lose you just have to care.

Wrestling doesn't work that way, wrestling stars are always on TV or on the monthly PPV shows. It is supported through episodic weekly television programming leading to grudges and matches that hopefully fans will pay for. It's not a real contest so it relies on creating an emotional connection that the fans can buy into so they'll spend money either on attending live or ordering the PPV. It works like a good TV drama or a movie blockbuster, something that makes you go out of your away to watch the hero win in the end.

I'm going to compare the Hulk Hogan vs. Sting encounter to the match that topped the WWE Starrcade list which was Ric Flair challenging Vader for the WCW title at Starrcade 1993. I'll explain why one was great example of story telling and the other was terrible.

Vader vs. Ric Flair (Starrcade 1993)

The Build: Ric Flair had returned to WCW in February 1993 to a tremendous reception but although he had his moments such as a great tag team match with Arn Anderson vs. The Hollywood Blonds and winning the NWA title against Barry Windham. In general it wasn't the great return that many of us had hoped for, he soon dropped the NWA title to Rick Rude in a very dull and boring affair at Fall Brawl 1993. The plan was to phase him out of the main event picture.

The original plan for Starrcade that year was for Sid to beat Vader and become the top star in WCW, but a night in Blackburn which included a fight in a hotel room with Arn Anderson and a pair of scissors and next thing you know Big Sid was let go. A new plan was required.

Ric Flair was really Mr Starrcade, a man right from the first event in 1983 who was dominating the event either defending or challenging for the world title. He was clearly the most obvious choice to take the vacant challenger spot, it also didn't hurt that the show was being held in Charlotte, NC which is Flair's hometown.

To add to the intrigue, the dominant champion was managed by Harley Race who just happened to have lost the NWA title to Ric Flair at the first Starrcade show back in 1983. This was perfect time for Race to get his revenge, to add the icing on the cake a stipulation was added if Ric Flair failed to win the WCW title then he would be forced to retire, the scene had been set.

The Match: This was exactly what it should have been, this wasn't a battle between two equally matched wrestlers. This was a vicious dominate monster trying to end the career of the overmatched company legend. We've all seen Hollywood films where the hero has to come back one more time and defeat all the odds to save the day. It's one of the easiest and most successful plots of all time and most importantly everyone can relate to.

Ric Flair takes a terrible beating and for the vast majority of the match he's on the defensive as Vader completely dominates proceedings. Occasionally Flair makes a comeback and teases that he's about to turn the tide before Vader again takes control. Each time the fans react louder as they implore Flair to defeat the champion. Finally the hero finally gets the win, he's gone through hell and he's got the bruises to show for it but he leaves victorious.

The fans who willed him to victory, cared about his journey and wanted him to get one final run on top and they got the victory they craved and the memorable moment they came to see.

The Aftermath: The emotional journey for the fans was all about Flair's title chase and saving his career, the continuation of the Vader feud didn't reach the same heights. This was followed by a fun feud with Ricky Steamboat which gave a nod to their great series of 1989 but it was clear that WCW was treading water until Hulk Hogan arrival in the summer of 1994. Flair soon turned heel so he could feud with Hogan and to drop the title in the Hulkster's first WCW match.

Hollywood Hogan vs. Sting (Starrcade 1997)

The Build: There is no denying that the build up for Sting's challenge for the WCW title was really a thing of beauty. Ever since Hogan had turned heel and formed the nWo with Scott Hall and Kevin Nash at Bash at the Beach 1996 PPV they had run roughshod over everyone in WCW.

Well that's not quite correct, they ran roughshod over everyone apart from one man, that man was Sting. The match was planned out for over a year, it had started at Fall Brawl 1996 when the nWo faced Team WCW in the Wargames main event. The nWo claimed that Sting would be their fourth man (well it was a Fake Sting), this caused some mistrust from the other members of the WCW team and although Sting took his part in the main event to show that he had not turned on the promotion. He soon the left the match which led to the nWo team getting the win.

Soon the fun loving Sting character that fans had known for a nearly decade had gone, replaced by a Brandon Lee inspired gimmick based on The Crow film. He started hanging around the rafters and carrying a black baseball bat. While the rest of WCW were getting beaten and embarrassed on a weekly basis, Sting stood on the sidelines biding his time. Eventually he would save WCW, beat Hogan and the nWo and take the WCW title. The build up was excellent, they built it up so slowly and carefully. This was the final battle and the good guys were finally getting their ultimate revenge, right??

The Match: Everything screamed that Sting should just go out and kick Hogan's ass, eventually through the usual nWo shenanigans you'd think Hogan would eventually get control over the match but Sting would make his comeback and pin Hogan clean. How could it be anything else?

Sting was booked like a superhero, he was someone who would not let you down and someone who would defeat the evil Hogan convincingly and take WCW forward. Instead it was Hogan who dominated the match with Sting getting a little bit of offensive in here and there. Fans expected to see Hogan to get his ass kicked but here he was dominating the saviour of WCW.

The farce of the fast count that never was, just to allow Bret Hart 'to save the day' only made Sting look more like a goof and loser than anyone thought was possible. WCW had spent nearly 18 months building up to Sting getting his biggest win, on the biggest WCW show of the year and then when it came down to it they got it horribly wrong.

While Flair in 1993 was playing the role of the underdog going through hell and eventually overcoming the biggest odds, Sting was supposed to be the hero finally saving the town from the evil group who made everyone's lives miserable. He was supposed to be the WCW version of John Wayne or Bruce Lee winning the final standoff to send everyone happy. How could they have got it so wrong?

The Aftermath: This could be seen really as the beginning of WCW's troubles, sure they had drawn the most successful PPV buy-rate in company history with Starrcade 1997. But they had forgotten the golden rule they you have to give the fans what they wanted to see.

They had made the fans wait over a year to see Hogan get what was surely due at the hands of the 'WCW Icon' Sting and failed to deliver it. Even with Bret Hart saving the day, it turned out to be a Dusty finish because the title was held up. Sting did finally win the title at Superbrawl VIII also against Hogan to win the vacant title after Hogan was hit in the head with a spray can by Randy Savage. Again showing that WCW just couldn't bring themselves to have their biggest babyface actually beating Hulk Hogan clean. From a PPV buy-rate perspective, it is interesting to note that Starrcade 1997 drew a rating of 1.9 but the re-match just two months later drew a rating of 1.1 which equates to a drop of over 40%. That's the price you pay for lousy story telling.

Saturday 12 July 2014

British Boot Camp 2 - Who Will It Be? By Dave Green (@dagreeno)

So TNA have just announced the new series of British Bootcamp. The last series saw Brit standouts Marty Scurl, Rockstar Spud and the Blossom Twins take part in an overly scripted reality show to gain a contract with the US company. I say scripted as during the course of a match, Spud went into business for himself at the end of an OVW tag match with Scurl, to which he received a severe bollocking from Al Snow. There is no way that someone that is trying to get a contract with a big company would do this. Despite the lack of actual reality, the series was entertaining and did well on Challenge. Plus the winner Spud is currently one of the only things worth watching on TNA television. So a new series is not a huge surprise, but the information from Dixie Carter's Twitter is that there are 12 wrestlers in consideration. No idea who is in that list, but here's who I believe should being given huge consideration.

1 - Rampage Brown. The big man straight out of Compton (the Leeds one) must be on the list. He's a power house, solid as a technician and has a scary demeanour. Plus (and this is a major reason for why I think he will be included) he is wrestling TNA's own Samoa Joe at PROGRESS Wrestling forthcoming show. Maybe Joe will have some influence on the short list decision.

2 - Nathan Cruz. Although he has recently been on WWE TV as a Rosebud, Cruz may be considered simply on his reputation as a great talker and a great knack for psychology and storytelling. Plus he's still insanely young. And of course he's a pro.

3 - El Ligero. The "native" of Los Sanchez will be a major consideration, being one of the busiest competitors on the scene. He can do it all in the ring, plus the gimmick would do great business for merchandise. The only drawback would be that he would have to talk in the show, something he does not do due to the gimmick.

4 - Kris Travis. When a discussion takes place about Britain's top wrestler, Travis is usually a name brought up. A fantastic look, which would help with the female demographic, great ability and sheer charisma.

5 - Martin Kirby. If we're talking about Travis, we have to consider his regular tag partner. Kirby can sometimes be overlooked when compared to Travis, but having seen his work at Southside as a vicious heel, Kirby could be a dark horse. Plus the drama on the show brought about by tag partners competing for one contract could draw the viewers in.

6 - Nikki Storm. There will inevitably be a female wrestler involved, so Storm is definitely at the top of the list for UK women to be considered. Apart from the obvious in-ring talent and ability to rile a crowd, she has a lot of international experience, having worked for Shimmer and Shine.

7 - Kay Lee Ray. The other lady I would consider in this list due to her unique look and high flying moveset. Very comparable to Lita, which I'm sure TNA will see as a major plus.

8 - Joe Coffey. An absolute beast, his facepainted look in ICW may be compared to Jeff Hardy, but his rough high impact style would be a welcome addition to the roster.

9 - Joe Hendry. Sticking with the Scots for the moment, I believe Hendry is the next big thing. While still in his early years as a wrestler, he's very skilled. But his major selling point is his talking ability and singing gimmick. His immense charisma reminds me of The Rock, so TNA should definitely have this guy on their radar.

10 - Will Ospreay. The Aerial Assasin would of course be thrust straight into the X Division, but even so he would be an easy fit. Plus, from what I've seen from his recent work at PROGRESS when being tortured (watch the free YouTube show to see what I mean), his selling of a storyline is highly realistic.

11 - Noam Dar. He's young. Bloody young. Despite his age, his ability is beyond his years. Despite some recent injury setbacks, he's a jack of all trades in that he has great technical ability, has personality and can do the high flying when needed.

12 - Dave Mastiff. The Bastard from the Black Country may have some things that hold him back appearance wise (and I mean that from a first impressions from a US audience) but as soon as he wrestles, those impressions soon disappear. He would be compared to Samoa Joe, but his experience and no nonsense style would still impress.

So that's my list. I know there's many I haven't listed that could easily be considered - Mark Andrews, The London Riots, T-Bone, Joey Hayes, Wild Boar - just to name a few. A couple I haven't mentioned for a few reasons would be Mark Haskins and Zack Sabre Jr. Haskins was part of TNA many moons ago, but was messed around by them so I doubt he would consider it. Zack is undoubtedly one of the best wrestlers ever to come out of Britain, but his regular work in Japan would probably preclude him from being considered.

Whoever is chosen, I hope that the winner is given a bit more to do than being an assistant to the boss.

Please do let me know who you think should be part of the show.