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Todd Thomas




The other day I was sitting around with some friends, both informed marks and smarks, talking about the changes in wrestling over the past few years. Dave, who was at Great American Bash 89, is sort of our old school guru, while Laura only started watching a couple of years ago and likes a liberal dose of interview, vignette, and backstory. Based on all of our thoughts, I began talking to some of the other people I knew, mainly around the internet, about recent history. It seems that the "Vince made Wrestling" theory is in full effect around the internet, due to the whole "WWF Attitude" campaign. But it was the theory of how it changed wrestling that I didn't agree with.

The common perception around the world of wrestling fandom is that Vince McMahon's Attitude era, fueled by comments from Vince himself, began with the end of the heel/face structure and the creation of a whole new mythos filled with only shades of grey. I'd argue that this is just Vincent K.'s trademarked hyperbole, since heels and faces are still there, just in a new, more interesting form.

There were some blurred lines caused in the mid to late 90s by the addition of a whole new layer of reality and the end of cartoon superhero faces and evil foreigner heels. Pretty much everyone would agree with this. There might be questions about who the first of the new anti-heroes was, or when, or the motivation, or a bunch of other quibbles. Despite that, no one represents this more than Steve Austin, who was foulmouthed and violent, but still performed in the a lot of face ways. It reflects real life in some ways. Most of us are pretty nice people in our day to day life, but that doesn't mean we have to like everyone else who is a "nice person", and there are wicked people that we find ourselves working with because of common goals.

All McMahon did, and no disrespect intended, because its a pretty big "all", was the transfer this social phenomenon into the larger than life, over the top world of wrestling. It makes no sense that just because two guys are "good guys" that they need to always help each other out and work together against the "bad guys." One great example of this is the Royal Rumble. It's never been a great wrestling spectacle, but I found it got a lot more interesting in the early stages of "attitude" when the heel/face lines faded and it became all about winning and getting that title shot. That's a lot more lifelike than very simple good vs. evil matchups.

When I was watching a WWF show this week, I heard how the crowd reacted to the faces. It was monstrous. The faces never went away, they just got repackaged. The biggest reaction of the night was for a face/tweener when he acted in face ways. It wasn't a reaction just for the "good guys" but for the wrestlers that were doing good things, a semantic difference that has put the WWF on top. That's a major part of what fans of any drama, but especially wrestling fans, like to see, and its a masterstroke of McMahon's to give it to us--when the good guy was expected and required to be good, it was uneventful. When the new face is truly good--Austin rescuing Stephanie from UT's wedding is a historic example, HHH running into the title match to rescue Steph this past Sunday--it is now not as expected, and it takes on that epic heroic nature that makes us want to care.

This whole thought came out while skimming a WCW program a couple of weeks ago. It seems no one is a bigger mark for the WWF's successes than Vince Russo. He seems to truly believe that there are no heels and no faces. But no matter how many shades of grey are in one place, it doesn't get all that interesting to look at. He has stables where some guys work as heels one match and a couple others as faces two matches later, then turn on each other and then they all team with the top face later on. Successful storytelling needs not only conflict, which Russo does well, but some sort of characters we can relate to, not just chant along with.

When it comes to "chant along with", no one stands out more in the internet smarks mind than Rocky. But he's also a perfect example of how booking and characters have changed. Look at this Rikishi angle--it's made Rocky look like a moral and upstanding guy who is angry about what was done for him, even if it was done out of love from a family member. It's made him look like a face. And it's beginning to make the obessive and angry Austin look like a heel. Sure it's got some shades of grey, but its also compelling storytelling that makes us all think a little bit about good and evil.

In the end, there never was an end to the heel/face structure, as trumpeted in that quote by McMahon. It was merely tweaked and made much more relevant to the common fan, and that's the key reason for the WWF success.

Todd Thomas

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