By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
But wrestling and death (in the real world, at least) is not why we are gathered here today. Instead, that goes to the infuriatingly invincible trope we occasionally see on companies’ programs during which wrestlers or characters on wrestling shows are written to die. As in, that’s it. As in, why aren’t the cops being called to stop this? As in, could you possibly put a more fake spin on the wacky, wide world of professional wrestling than you do when you see someone get blown to pieces on television … only to have them reappear on television the following week?
I get it. To even the kindest of detractors, professional wrestling can often be described as a soap opera, and that categorization isn’t always unfair. It’s drama for drama’s sake in some instances, and as we grow further away from the time when a clothesline was a legitimate finishing move, we grow closer to the modern day aesthetic of no-selling, lightning quick moves, and … well … straight-up acting.
Yet no matter which era of the genre you prefer, to me, one thing — and only this one thing — is unforgivable in the realm of pro wrestling, and that’s staging legitimately criminal acts to literally (in storyline, at least) kill someone. At this point, it’s impossible to not be taken out of the moment whenever you see a guy get shot, run over, or in the case of Sunday’s final pay-per-view of 2020 …
PLAYING WITH PYRO
… set on fire.
For those who missed it, the main event of WWE’s TLC show on Sunday featured The Fiend and Randy Orton in a Firefly Inferno Match, which ostensibly turned out to be an inferno match stretched out to encompass more of the area surrounding the ring than it normally would because, luckily for WWE, there were no fans in attendance. To win, as in past regular inferno matches, you had to set your opponent on fire, which, all things considered, can be accepted in its own way. Throw some flames on a heavily sleeved arm and call it a day. Shoot. With The Fiend’s coat, I figured they could set that thing ablaze, too. The visual would be fantastic. Maybe The Fiend gets out of the predicament somehow. The feud continues. We’re on to the Royal Rumble for what? An electric chair match?
And all of that would have been fine and good … except that’s not where it ended. After The Fiend caught fire and received an RKO, Orton grabbed a few more matches, played up the will he/won’t he drama, and set the defeated body of The Fiend on fire to close the show. By the time the final 15 seconds aired, the camera had been stuck on The Fiend for just a smidge too long, and anyone with functioning eyes could see that it was not a person on the canvass, engulfed in flames, and rather, it appeared to be a scarecrow-looking dummy.
Now, even as I type that, as a man squarely in his mid-30s, I can accept that sequence on paper. Bray Wyatt wasn’t in danger in real life. The visual was wild in its own campy way. WWE went for shock value, and there’s always an adequate amount of shock value in seeing someone being burned alive, so intellectually and practically, I think we can all understand what went down. But …
‘TILL DEATH DO US PART
… the only thing more unbelievable than watching a wrestler get storyline-murdered in the middle of the ring is perhaps a wrestling wedding. But even then, we know the formula: Someone’s going through a cake, the officiant is most likely a plant of some form and God knows where we go from there. But a fake wedding is much more harmless, especially if you consider pomp, circumstance and light-heartedness behind those skits.
This stuff, though? Setting the one indestructible character you had on fire? Insinuating that what we all recognize is just a guy in a mask and a leather coat is burning to death in the middle of the ring? Even I can’t suspend my disbelief for something as impossible as this — and I actually didn’t mind whatever the hell that thing was between Bray Wyatt and John Cena at WrestleMania.
It failed on a bevy of levels, but perhaps the most egregious of which comes in the form of what happens next to The Fiend character. Here’s someone so impervious to pain that a referee had to stop a Hell In A Cell match because he was beaten so badly … even though he never showed an ounce of hurt after Seth Rollins covered him in chairs and bashed his brains in. Here’s someone who laughed when Randy Orton tried to punch him at the beginning of the match on Sunday. Here’s someone who wrestled Braun Strowman in a swamp and either holds the world record for the amount of time he can hold his breath, or, is simply just impossible to drown.
So, what happens now that we’ve seen him be burnt to a crisp? Does he show up tonight? Does he go away for six months and come back once Vince McMahon needs yet another ratings boost? Are we saddled with only the Bray Wyatt character now? If that’s the case, something’s gotta give, because what makes the Wyatt character compelling is his relationship with/ability to become The Fiend. Eliminating that element would make the Firefly Funhouse Bray Wyatt infinitely less interesting.
Perhaps I’m overthinking it, but I’m fine to admit that because …
A SHORT HISTORY OF THE DEAD
… at least I’m thinking at all, which is more than what could be said for some of the people who write this shit. Storyline deaths in wrestling, while my biggest pet peeve, are not new. Once the budgets got bigger and the proximity to the mainstream grew tighter, the impulse to cater to a more movie-loving audience became fundamental.
And I’d love to say that’s only the WWE’s fault, but it’s not. How could we forget 1995’s “Halloween Havoc,” where The Giant fell off the top of the Joe Louis Arena in a monster truck battle with Hulk Hogan, and while a man just presumably fell to his death after riding around in a truck for seven minutes, the show went on. Color me surprised, then, when the same guy who fell hundreds of feet to his demise reappeared a handful of minutes later and walked to the ring to beat up Hogan.
Impact Wrestling even pulled the same trick two months ago when John E. Bravo was shot after saying “I do” to Rosemary and the proceeding handful of weeks saw the “who did it?” story get a bunch of television time. Yeah, the wedding was hokey, and sure Impact is always and forever gonna Impact, but even for that company, at that time, the move felt desperate. I mean, aren’t we supposed to be moving toward taking wrestling seriously again as more athletic competition is gaining popularity among the casual fan?
Bravo’s “shooting” reminded me of the Stone Cold/Brian Pillman angle that got WWE in trouble back in 1996. At 12 years old, I went to bed on the verge of tears wondering if Pillman actually shot Austin. Why? Because they didn’t try and sell us on the idea that Austin was shot. There was no campy shooting sequence, no wretched attempt at faking a death. This, of course, runs counter to Mr. McMahon’s death in 2007, when he hopped in a limo, only to have it explode. Knowing the guy ran the company and knowing the explosion didn’t lead the evening news that night sort of/kind of suggested that he was most likely still alive.
And because we knew he was still alive, it left me, all the way back then, with only one question.
DO THE ENDS JUSTIFY THE MEANS?
What’s the point? Actually living and actually dying are two things that are no laughing matters, especially in an industry where some things can actually go horrifically wrong, and actual people can actually die. Is there any good reason we have to take some stories to this place? After Owen Hart tragically passed away due to a needless stunt at a pay-per-view in 1999, why are we even fooling around with life and death, no matter if it’s kayfabe or not?
It adds nothing to the story, and I can’t recall a time when it didn’t force more questions than anybody had answers for anyway. If the goal is to create a product as real as possible to begin with, how can any executive or any writer or any booker anywhere think they can pass this kind of stuff off as believable in the first place?
For my money, it takes viewers out of the moment, even if something is accompanied by a good visual, and even if we all know despite what we see in front of us, nobody is actually dying in the real world. So, why do it? I’m not going to slam my fist down on a desk and declare that all “sports entertainment” sucks; on the contrary, I do think there is value in that aspect of the equation these days, especially when it’s done intelligently and sparingly.
But I’m also not going to say that pretending someone (or, I guess in the case of The Fiend, something) is dead is also the most fruitful way to advance what you’re trying to do. Maybe in the very, very short-term, it can get people talking, but anywhere beyond that, all it does is force us to roll our eyes — and in the case of WWE lately, our eyes roll so much, our eyelashes might be better known as bowling pins.
Especially in the case of The Fiend …
… who, at this point, nobody knows what to do with. The consensus when Bray Wyatt began trickling out the notion that he was going to change things up was that most of us were intrigued. As I’ve said in the past, The Wyatt Family was as responsible as anything for me getting back into becoming a fan of professional wrestling, and even if you knock his in-ring work, you can’t deny that he has one of the most daring imaginations in the history of the business.
But what’s going to happen now? If this is the end of The Fiend for a bit, I think we can safely say that WWE dropped the ball on what could have been consistently entertaining television when it comes to Wyatt’s split personalities. Plus, the addition of Alexa Bliss to the act, in my mind, helped a bunch, and suggested an expansion of such an ambitious vision that for a minute, I thought there was no way anyone could mess it up.
And maybe — though it’ll take a Christmas miracle — that’s not what will happen, even if as far as I’m concerned there are only really a couple options for what’s next. One, The Fiend comes out very very sparingly (maybe once or twice a year), and it’s special, and we forget about those pesky, clumsy matches he’s actually lost (which defeats the character in the first place, because it should never lose, but I digress). Or two, the first thing on our televisions on Christmas night is some re-birth of The Fiend and back he goes with Randy Orton.
Neither one of those things sounds good, and that’s because neither one of those things is good. Which, of course, leads me to the point of all this: Stay away from death, professional wrestling bookers. I understand it’s a different time and the business has evolved, but we don’t really need to take it that far if only because it paints you into a corner that yields not a single viable option moving forward.
As fans, we can stomach some of the campiness of wrestling, and no, before you get too defensive, we aren’t trying to be too precious about this thing that we all love. We just don’t want you to keep insulting our intelligence in the way you continuously insult it these days. You’re better than that, guys. We know it. Because we lived through things like Wrestlemania 3, the NWO, The Attitude Era, Goldberg, ECW, the Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega trilogy, the invention of AEW and so on and so forth, we know you can do better.
So, please. For Christmas, just give us a gift that will last beyond a Friday in December — give us the respect we deserve as people who very much enjoy a good professional wrestling show. Stop it with the gimmicks. Stop shooting people or setting people on fire or pushing them off the top of arenas. Just tell a good story and execute some good wrestling. This Christmas season, that’s all we can hope to find under our tree.
And since we all know that you hope Santa brings you a boost in ratings, what do you say we work together to make this a happy holiday for us all … and to all, a good night.