Chapter 23: Connecting With the Audience
The thing that separates the stars from the also-rans of professional wrestling is the ability to generate an emotional reaction from the audience. Whether they love you or hate you, they have to feel something more than indifference to buy a ticket to see you.
No disrespect meant (funny how that phrase always precedes something unflattering, isn’t it?), but Dean Malenko was never a headliner in WCW or WWE because most fans didn’t care about him. Sure, everybody could see that he was a master technician inside the ring, but those same fans didn’t make their ticket-buying decisions based on his presence or absence from the card. He was an asset to both organizations because he was dependable to have a good match with their worst workers and outstanding matches with their best workers. But he didn’t speak to the crowd; thus, he could never be pushed to main-event status. In Chris Benoit, fans saw intensity and passion. Rey Mysterio spoke for every underdog in the world. Dusty Rhodes spoke for blue-collar America. Because fans could relate to these characters, they drew houses and moved merchandise.
While editing a recent television taping, I watched a perfect contrast of entrances during a match between two inexperienced babyfaces. I hate this type of match — two green guys in a match with no leader and, to complicate things, both babyfaces — but the crowd was 100 percent behind one of them and didn’t care about the other. It began with their entrances. Wrestler One came to the ring fired up, glad to be there, living his dream, and ready to do battle. Enter Wrestler Two, calm and expressionless, as excited as a man folding another man’s laundry. Which wrestler do you suppose the crowd sided with?
You have to act like you care. If you enter the ring like Wrestler Two, how does that crowd feel about paying to see you? He doesn’t seem excited for the match or grateful that you paid your hard-earned money to watch him perform.
Professional wrestling is too black-and-white these days. The babyfaces don’t have enough flaws, indecision, or temptation to take the low road. The heels are shallow and predictable, void of any redeeming qualities and cheating because they simply don’t like to play by the rules. The good are all good and the bad are all bad, and that’s not real. A heel should be the same as a babyface, save a flaw which makes him unlikeable.
In creating an emotional connection with the audience, the two greatest I’ve seen in my generation were Mr. McMahon and Mick Foley.
Mr. McMahon is my pick as a heel because he is the power-hungry, demeaning boss that many people in real life deal with every day. People want to see their boss punched in the mouth and humiliated, but because they can’t, they lived vicariously through “Stone Cold” Steve Austin as it happened to Mr. McMahon.
Mick Foley was the Dusty Rhodes of the ‘90s, a common man doing what he could to earn a living because he has little mouths to feed at home. Like Dusty, he didn’t fit the physical mold of a champion pro wrestler, but had incredible charisma and promo skills to complement an ability to make the crowd feel like they were a big part of his life. The argument can be made that Mick Foley became a legend by taking insane bumps and enduring more pain than a wrestler ever should. I believe those things made Mick Foley a star, but it was his ability to connect with an audience that made him a legend. Best of all, his promos didn’t sound like wrestling promos.
How can you connect with an audience? It varies from one wrestler to the next and one fan to the next and it doesn’t happen overnight. I recently had a discussion with a wrestler who just wanted to “be real” with the fans. I told him that, with few exception, the fans have to care about him as a character before he can expect them to care about him as a person. Shawn Michaels had to establish himself as “the Heartbreak Kid” before he was able to become the Shawn Michaels we see on TV today. Since odds are you’re not in WWE right now, you can try out many different things.
Chapter 24: Backyard Wrestling
I’ve amended this chapter. For a long time, I was a backyard wrestling hater. To backyard wrestlers, here’s all I’ll say about it:
1. Don’t confuse yourself with or refer to yourself as a pro wrestler.
2. If you break your neck, it’s not pro wrestling’s fault.
3. If backyard wrestling keeps you from taking heroin or getting some girl pregnant, then by all means do it.
People working in professional wrestling steer clear of backyard groups. It might screw you at some point in your career to have your name tied to a backyard organization.
Chapter 25: Burning Bridges
In my first book, The Story of a Nobody and the Pursuit to Become a Somebody, I wrote about burning bridges. That wasn’t meant to be a book plug — if you want to read an R-rated story about my life and career, check it out. You’ll be a member of an elite group: one of the very few who bought it. (SIDE NOTE: If you write a book and decide to publish, avoid PublishAmerica like herpes.) Anyway, I wrote in it that those who burn bridges are often left standing in the ashes where that bridge once stood, meaning that they often return, needing to cross a bridge that they’ve burned.
Very few people in professional wrestling ever step away from the business without a burned bridge: it’s the nature of the beast and things happen, but you should do what you can to avoid this as much as possible. It begins with a respect for the wrestling industry. Though it’s an ego-driven profession, nobody is bigger than the business. Respect for the business and for those working in it, along with professional conduct, carries a lot of weight. There comes a time when a wrestler feels his time with a promotion has run its course: it’s business. That doesn’t give the wrestler license to shit on the doorstep on his way out. There may be a time when he’s knocking at that door again, and he can be certain that the pile of shit will be waiting for him.
Stay humble. It’s natural to have an ego, but I am living proof that things can all end in an instant.
Remember, you can learn something from every experience, every wrestler, every fan, and every promoter. You are subject everybody’s critique, so listen to it, no matter who it’s from. Never answer a criticism from a peer or a superior with, “I know.” If you already knew then you wouldn’t have done it wrong. If you still insist that you knew, then accept that you screwed up and deserve to be reminded. Once the problem is identified, fix it.
Don’t make excuses. Few things are as annoying as a wrestler, or any human being, who makes excuses for failure.
Unless you have a bona fide emergency or serious injury, do not miss bookings. You’re only as good as your word, and missing a booking means you’ve gone against your word. I did this one time to some idiot promoter who I worked with once before and thought his promotion was the shits (it was really bad). I should have just declined the second booking; instead, I cancelled and took a week-long vacation to visit my family instead. Though I knew I’d never want to work with him again, it was unprofessional and it could have really damaged my name with promoters in that area. I still regret doing that.
Remember, loose lips sink ships. Wrestlers, as a whole, have a hard time keeping secrets. There’s a phrase that goes: Telephone, telegram, tell a wrestler. If somebody asks you to keep your mouth closed about something, pay him the courtesy of doing so. I’ve seen many bridges burned by people who abused somebody’s trust.
If you feel you must bash a wrestler or promoter, you’d better know your audience first. You could be talking about somebody’s best friend, traveling partner, trainer, etc. Word travels fast, and the person you’re backstabbing might end up on your caller ID even before you finish slamming him. The best way to handle this is just not to be a backstabber. Deal with people like a man and expect the same courtesy from others.
When I worked as the producer for WLW’s TV program, I often had to speak up in the office about wrestlers. One former wrestler (and a friend of mine) was on the verge of getting our title, but I observed that he was losing his heart for the business and knew he was a flight risk, so fought hard to get the plans changed. He quit wrestling less than two months later. I’ll say two things about the job I did: I always put the needs of the business before my personal feelings and I never said anything about anybody — in the office or otherwise — that I wouldn’t say to his face. I suggest everybody behave this way. You might not always win popularity contests, but at least you’ll be respected.
Chapter 26: The Internet
The Internet has undoubtedly changed the wrestling industry. Gone are the days when promoters could get away with phantom title switches and airing television tapings out of order. As wrestling evolved from carnival tents, its way of doing business also should have. Unfortunately, the carny mindset still exists, but one of the good things the Internet has done for wrestling is making it more difficult for those working in the business to operate like carnies.
The Internet has become a great resource for promoters and wrestlers to network and market themselves. It has also given fans an outlet to follow the business in an unprecedented way.
Like anything, there is also a negative side to the Internet. It provides a forum for anybody to speak their minds anonymously. They can commit libel, plagiarism, and say whatever the hell they want without consequence. Don’t let yourself get caught up in what’s being said on a message board, especially when they post anonymously. A coward who posts things without attaching his name to it is not somebody whose opinion matters. If you believe it, own it.
Wrestlers should not use message boards to talk trash on other wrestlers or promoters. If a wrestler has a problem with somebody, he should be a man and address it personally. Wrestlers should stay off message boards, for the most part. If a fan congratulates a wrestler on the birth of his child, a simple “Thank You” is okay, but you should have a very good reason for posting on a wrestling message board. It creates too much of a connection between a wrestler and a fan. When a fan looks at a wrestler the same as himself then that wrestler is no longer a star in the fan’s eyes; he becomes the fan’s next-door neighbor.
Something I’m seeing more of is wrestler blogs. It’s cool that people have an outlet to express themselves, but keep in mind that fans can also read most of these. Your rant about your girlfriend cheating on you with your best friend and breaking your heart is not something you should let fans read.
The Internet has bred a new type of wrestling fan. Some call them “smart marks,” but I think ticket-buyers deserve more respect than that to be called “marks”. They have become more informed, more critical, and harder to please. You will likely find reviews on your matches on the Internet at some point during your career. Read them — even fans might point out something that you can benefit from — but don’t beat yourself up over them. Understand that there’s nothing in this world that everybody likes. Some people can be brutal in their reviews, but it’s nothing more than one person’s opinion. Unfortunately, sometimes that opinion can shape the opinions of others, but don’t resent that person. By performing, you are subject to criticism like any other entertainer. I never got a lot of love from people reviewing my matches on the Internet, but I took solace in knowing that 90 percent of the wrestlers I worked with respected me because I got over with the live crowd, worked hard for them, bumped and sold well, had good timing, and didn’t blow spots.
NEXT WEEK: The Go-Home: Chapters 27-28
To order a print or Kindle copy (or to leave a review) of The Professional Wrestler in the World of Sports-Entertainment go to Amazon.com. You can also order a print copy of my first book, The Story of a Nobody and the Pursuit to Become a Somebody, at Amazon.