Give me three character traits about each of these new WWE wrestlers:
Ryback, Damien Sandow, Antonio Cesaro, Brad Maddox, Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns, Big E Langston
I can do this for maybe four of the eight listed here, and I’d be stretching in a couple of cases. So tell me why I should spend $40 on a ticket or $60 on a pay-per-view to watch them do anything.
WWE introduced a number of new characters throughout 2012, including a glut of them in the past 10 weeks, with only a couple of them receiving proper character development beyond superficial “I hate this guy and want to beat him up” or “I hate you people and want you to stop booing me” type stuff. Most of them are rookies to the WWE main roster, others are repackaged familiar faces, but they are all a part of an unlabeled “new talent initiative” coursing through WWE.
But what good is new talent when you hardly know a thing about them? The basis of pro wrestling is emotional investment: Do you care enough about this guy to pay to see him get beaten up? Do you care enough about that guy to pay to see him get his revenge? WWE has proven itself over the decades as a master emotion manipulator, but especially when they put forth a great deal of effort. It’s when they introduce a new character and let him languish that things get frustrating.
Take the example of Antonio Cesaro (with a white wine pairing), the former Claudio Castagnoli who enraged and then endeared himself to Ring of Honor fans through his actions and his character development. When he landed in WWE, he became a nondescript European rugby player (so of course he’d “go pro” by becoming a wrestler, just like plumber TL Hopper and dentist Isaac Yankem) who may or may not be the strongest man pound-for-pound in WWE, depending on how the Smackdown announce team feels that Friday. To hear him talk, well, you’d know he thinks he’s superior to Americans, because aren’t all British royalty? Oh, that’s right, he’s a Swiss rugby guy. Huge disconnect there for me, that can’t be corrected just because he gives Brodus Clay a face plant.
Or how about Brad Maddox, who, ummm, has white teeth and only ever wanted to be a WWE superstar. (That third character trait escapes me.)
WWE has done a fantastic job skyrocketing Ryback – the former NXT rookie and Nexus middle-of-the-packer Skip Sheffield – to the top of the card, and all it took were a handful of traits: He’s strong as 10 bulls, he wants to be fed helpless people, he basically only moves forward, and he’s articulate in sort of an Ultimate Warrior sort of way. You know what you’re gonna get with Ryback, and it’s up to you to decide how to react to him.
To that point, fans started reacting to him with chants of “GOLD-BERG,” given that he’s basically a Xerox copy of the late-‘90s superhero. Add this trait, then: Let that shit roll of your back, and kick ass no matter what. It only took a few weeks for the 20-80 split to change to 80 percent “FEED ME MORE” and 20 percent that other bald ass-kicker.
WWE banked on the trio of The Shield for an off-month semi-main event, and the six-man tag team match was great – why wouldn’t it have been, given the participants? – and we did get one sitdown interview with the guys, but for the most part, I couldn’t tell you one thing about the men who comprise the team. Seth Rollins? He likes to dye part of his hair. Dean Ambrose? He went to the Ken Kennedy School of Slack-Jawed Acting. Roman Reigns? A big dude who may or may not be Samoan. Or Roman. I knew their match versus Ryback, Kane and Daniel Bryan would be good. You knew it would be good. But that’s because we spend all day on YouTube; how much of the paying audience knows enough about the Shield to truly care, outside of their initial “shock factor” interaction with Ryback? Time to work with them before they’re counted on to hold up their end of a real feud.
There is no one right way to introduce a new character in professional wrestling. Some, like Goldberg, are seemingly organic, beating low-card talent enhancement before moving onto midcard titleholders and then finally the big one. Some make an immediate splash (or at least a fast-forwarded version of the first example), like Brock Lesnar, who beat an icon for a world title within 4 months of his debut. Some get weeks worth of vignettes to get over aspects of their character (and frankly, some of those peter out in record time, a la Outback Jack). But one sure way to position a character to fail is to spend no time helping it develop, especially right out of the gate. This may be a way to separate wheat from chaff; it may be a sign that the wrestler isn’t worth the time investment, or it may be an indication that WWE would rather throw noodles at a wall than concern itself with the ones that stick.