There’s an event starting next Wednesday night on the WWE Network called the Cruiserweight Classic. It’s a 32 man tournament made up of mostly non WWE performers around the world that all weigh less than 205 pounds. That weight distinction (whether it’s rigid or mostly storytelling) means that these are people chosen due to their ability to perform, not because they look like a giant.
It has the potential to be really good. How good? Good in the sense that people sign up for the WWE Network for it the way Game of Thrones and Orange is the New Black lead people to those streaming services.
The winner of the tournament was probably chosen before any two men even wrestled. That’s how this shit works. Don’t get bogged down in that though. That just means that over the next few weeks they are going to tell you a complete story with a beginning and an end. For a lot of the performers, this is their audition for the big stage, so they’ll be eager to give you a show.
That’s my pitch. You should watch it. For most of you, there’s no need to read further. I hope you have a pretty alright day.
For those interested in my ramblings, here’s what I think about wrestling as a narrative form and why the CWC has such a high potential to be amazing.
Wrestling is live theater with high stakes athleticism.
Of every story telling medium I’ve encountered in American culture, it’s got the most uncontrollable variables. That seems like a pretentious way to say, “Shit can go wrong, man” like the entire appeal is akin to someone who watches NASCAR for the crashes, but that’s just one variable, and arguably the most controlled one.
I think wrestling’s closest art form in our culture is probably live magic. Why? Because when wrestling is at its best the audience knows what it’s seeing is not really two men or women destroying each other, but the craft is so refined the audience can’t tell you how they are faking it either. It’s magic, in the performance-craft meaning of the word. The NASCAR-crash appeal isn’t one of the live variables I’m talking about, since it’s our human desire to see the NASCAR crash that they are exploiting.
No, the live variables—aspects capable of diverting storytelling in huge, consequential ways—are things like individual performer motivation, sidelining injury, and the need for a highly diverse skill set as an individual performer where there are several points of failure for verisimilitude.
That’s a lot. Let’s unpack that. Also, I’m kind of a dick for using verisimilitude. That’s a big word that no one sane uses that means the illusion of “realness” in something. It’s that thing that’s going right when you watch Game of Thrones and get actually worked up and angry at characters interactions with each other—even though you know a world with dragons in it isn’t real. It’s the difference between seeing the monster and seeing the zipper down the monsters back.
So let’s talk about these variables and while they will potentially be at their best for the CWC:
Individual Performer Motivation
Let’s step out of wrestling into movies. Even if you’d been smart enough to cast Heath Ledger as the joker and gave him the opportunity, the person that made that a historical, awe-inspiring performance was Heath Ledger. Conversely, the infamous story of Kevin Smith trying to work with Bruce Willis in Cop Out describes a known-money performer simply not giving a damn, refusing to try takes different ways or even a second time. Just coasting.
In wrestling, this variable is more volatile. Almost everything is one take or live. Taking risks wagers not just how the top brass or audience will perceive you if you fail, but also your body’s ability to perform tomorrow, next year, or ten years from now.
But that’s not all. Let’s say you as a performer have that motivation to go out and steal the show (either with the wrestling athleticism, with during-the-match storytelling, with what you say on the microphone, or all of the above). You only look as good as the other guy’s motivation allows. Your killer punch only looks killer if he reacts like its killer. Your amazing insult on the microphone only sounds amazing if we want to see the other character insulted and he reacts like it’s super frustrating.
Wrestling is at its best when good enough isn’t good enough. When the performers aren’t worried about tonight or next week, but immortality. That sentence seems hyperbolic, but I’m serious. Wrestling is at its best when both performers want to make a I-was-there-when moment. Wrestling is at its best when they leave everything on the mat, every piece of art and sweat they could give you.
During the CWC, there’s a high potential for this sort of thing. As I said earlier, for many this is their try out for the big stage, to prove that they can be trusted with big opportunities and big moments. This is their Wrestlemania, because if they hold something back they might not make it to Wrestlemania.
Remember how I dismissed the NASCAR crash appeal as a variable only to later list sidelining injury? What was up with that?
In truth, most sidelining injuries actually happen off TV and usually on very routine moves, not high risk stunts. There’s very little car crash appeal in these moments. They’re usually just sad. It’s been a big year or two for injuries in wrestling. Seth Rollins had been carrying the narrative football with the entire storyline cooking around him and slowly building towards a climax when he went down for 9 months with a knee injury. One of the announcers for the CWC, Danial Bryan, shouldn’t be announcing at all. He’s one of the most popular wrestlers the WWE has had in a long, long time but had to retire earlier this year due to repeated concussions.
Imagine if Breaking Bad suddenly couldn’t use Walter White for season 4 even though they’d established him as the main character and built all the conflict around him in seasons 1-3.
Imagine if the story diverging deaths in Game of Thrones weren’t carefully plotted but instead random happenstance.
Imagine if Two and a Half Men had to—you know what, never mind that actually happened.
Some of these longer risks will be minimized in the CWC since this is a short tournament with a beginning and end, but remember: anything can happen. The person they picked to win it all before the wrestling ever started has to perform in 5 matches. What happens if he breaks his ankle in the first one? What happens when the next guy is tapped on the shoulder and told, “So it looks like he’s out and we are going to run with you. You up for it?”
But the bigger story here is Daniel Bryan. This is his debut as an announcer and it’s only happening because of career ending injury. Will he be good? Who knows, but he should be at the very least authentically enthusiastic. He epitomizes what this tournament is about: undersized but extremely talented performers.
The need for a highly diverse skill set as an individual performer where there are several points of failure for verisimilitude
Wow, that’s a mouthful. Also, there’s that bullshit V word again. Let’s get into this.
It’s an old joke that acting in porn is terrible. We can all laugh even imaging stilted, bad acting saying lines like “Hey, I’m the plumber, and I’m here to lay some pipe.” That’s because porn stars aren’t chosen for their dialogue acting chops, they’re picked because they perform well on camera mimicking our sexual fantasies. They do that so well that they’re given a pass on the three lines they say to set up the scene.
A few performers however are blessed enough to be talented at both the sexual act enactment and the dialogue delivery. You and I don’t know their names because pornography isn’t really respected and studied as an art form for some good reasons but mostly bad ones. Funny enough though, I’m sure I know more than a few people that respect it a lot more than wrestling.
The wrestling-related-point to all of this porn talk is that similarly, a wrestler could be great at performing simulated fighting, but terrible when a microphone is shoved in his face. And unlike porn, you don’t really get a pass for bad acting. Mostly.
Every performer has strengths and weaknesses. Great architects of wrestling narratives are able to highlight these strengths while hiding the weaknesses. Got a guy who’s great in the ring but weak on the mic? Don’t let him talk. Got a guy who looks huge but is shorter than six foot? Only let him wrestle little guys.
This gets really hard to due over a long period of time as eventually you end up going, “Why doesn’t he ever talk? Why does he only fight little guys?” The CWC should be the perfect vehicle for this sort of thing because it is so short. This is why they’ve even brought in some wrestlers that speak little to no English, but will put on a great show. They don’t need them to carry a show on a microphone and sound believable. They can hide that if it’s lacking.
“We make movies.”
There’s this pretty good documentary called Beyond the Mat. It takes a close look at wrestling as it was in the late nineties. A lot of it is pretty unsettling, as that was during wrestling’s most NASCAR car crash period where extreme violence was maximized and wrestler safety was minimized. This isn’t the case anymore, but it’s a good documentary nonetheless.
In this film though are some candid moments with the still today head of the WWE, Vince McMahon. At one point he’s belittling the idea that they are a wrestling company. “We make movies,” he says.
I’d argue that he’s normally wrong. They make television. They make a seemingly unending show like Dragon Ball or Doctor Who or All My Children, but they make a television show.
But, this? The CWC? This could be a movie. Like I said, they have an opportunity for a beginning and an end, something that they normally don’t have as there is always tomorrow’s show, next week’s show, next year’s show. If they feel they make movies, this is their chance at a great one.
I’m really looking forward to it, and I hope you give it a chance and check it out.