In which I ramble about wrestling in a way thats vaguely relevant to other things.
So, a little while back, LittleKuriboh, creator of Yu-Gi-Oh The Abridged Series, and The Mark Remark (its kind of like when I whinge about wrestling, except is funny and awesome) tweeted something about the current state of Monday Night RAW:
It was only after watching this week’s edition of Smackdown that I realised just how true this sentiment really is, mainly because Smackdown made me care more about James friggin’ Ellsworth, than a match that had groundbreaking and historic implications, namely Sasha Banks’ and Charlotte’s Hell in a Cell match this past Sunday, and as LittleKuriboh astutely notes, its because of a a simple reason:
James Ellsworth was a part of a story; Sasha and Charlotte were parts of moments. And as title says, moments ain’t stories.
So, in order to illustrate my point, I actually need to walk you all through the grand tale that is the inexplicable rise of James Ellsworth. So, for reference, here’s James Ellsworth:
Oh yeah, get a load of that sexy hunk of man, mmm, mmm
Anyway, so Ellsworth initially rose to fame as a blatant jobber who crowds began cheering ironically. A few weeks ago on Smackdown, current WWE World Champion AJ Styles got to choose his opponent, and he chose Ellsworth as a joke. What AJ didn’t expect was Dean Ambrose, his current arch-nemesis, was named the special guest ref. Predictably, Dean wasn’t entirely impartial in his role and ultimately wound up getting Ellsworth a pinfall victory over Styles.
This minor miracle lead to Smackdown GM Daniel Bryan making it official for Smackdown the next week: The Phenomenal AJ Styles defends the WWE World Title against the Chinless Wonder, James Ellsworth. Of course, Ellsworth got rekt in this match, but thanks to Dean Ambrose once again making himself a nuisance, AJ was goaded into disqualifying himself from the match, meaning that James Ellsworth won again, and now holds more wins over AJ than John Cena. Seriously.
The next week, the main event would be AJ Styles up against Dean Ambrose, and if Ambrose won, then he got a WWE World Title shot. An overjoyed and endlessly grateful Ellsworth accompanied Dean to ringside for the match, but this was where things would go pear shaped. AJ constantly picked on and harassed poor Ellsworth throughout the entire match until Ellsworth would lash out at AJ, in full view of the ref, costing Dean the match and his shot at the WWE World Title, leaving both Ellsworth and Ambrose devastated.
Finally, we arrive to this week’s show: Ambrose gets one more shot at AJ, but if he loses, he’s never getting another one. Wracked with guilt, Ellsworth pleads with Dean to give him the opportunity to help him, but Dean refuses, and quite literally shows Ellsworth the door. The match goes on, and who should put in a timely appearance but the Smackdown Chinderella Story himself, James Ellsworth. Ellsworth’s antics distract AJ long enough to allow Dean to take AJ out and pin him to finally clinch the win and his world title shot. And then Dean gives a beaten but redeemed Ellsworth a big ol’ hug. Awwwwwww.
See that ridiculous little tale right there, that was a story. It had three distinct characters, each with their own conflicting motivations, and they played off each other to create a natural escalation of stakes and dramatic tension to a crowd-pleasing and cathartic climax. Its no Citizen Kane but it was story, and a surprisingly satisfying one at that, and one that turned ironic appreciation for a hapless jobber into genuine affection for a man just wanting to live a dream and be a good friend.
You know what wasn’t a story? Charlotte’s Women’s Championship victory over Sasha Banks at Hell in a Cell. Oh but it was a moment, a historic moment, a ground-breaking moment, as we were constantly bombarded with in the lead-up. Yes, the feud between Sasha and Charlotte hasn’t involved any of the above elements in spite of it going almost the entire year. And in all that time, neither Charlotte or Sasha has actually been given the opportunity to tell their own stories and get people emotionally invested in their match, but rather WWE themselves have taken the reigns away from them to explain how important it all is while showing us none of what would make it important.
The final RAW segment hyping the Hell in a Cell match perfectly accentuated this complete failure in story-telling: a contract signing for the match between Sasha and Charlotte, officiated by RAW GM Mick Foley. In spite of the entire build of this match revolving around how important it was for women’s wrestling and women in the WWE, it wasn’t Sasha or Charlotte who got to tell us this, it was Mick Foley. Yes, Mick Foley all but hijacked this segment to explain to the people having the match why their match was important. Mick actually explained Charlotte and Sasha’s childhoods and life-changing memories to them, and then told us how much it all means.
Couldn’t have Sasha and Charlotte said these things? Couldn’t they have been allowed the opportunity to add more to this match than just saying “historic” over and over again? Why, in a match that’s supposed to be celebrating the pioneering work of Sasha and Charlotte in elevating the prestige and importance of women’s wrestling in the WWE, is the only man in the segment the one who gets to do all the talking and tell us why this matters for women? I don’t know whether its just because WWE didn’t trust Sasha and Charlotte to do a strong enough job of talking in the segment, or if they really are just that oblivious, but this whole train wreck of a segment really does accentuate exactly what was said up top.
Yes, its true that a big part of being a pro wrestling fans are all those wonderful moments of catharsis. The surprise return, the shocking debut, the upset victory, the championship win that comes after months of pursuit. But moments aren’t anything without the story behind them: its that valuable context and understanding of all the pieces involved that gives the moments meaning. Sasha and Charlotte have been trading the title back and forth all year, and yet I can’t think of a single time either woman winning the title felt like it was an earned moment. Oh sure, Sasha’s wins felt great at the time, but that feeling is quickly dashed when Charlotte just wins the title back, and with little effort to make the switch back feel meaningful.
And this isn’t exclusive to this storyline, its really the key difference between the way RAW and Smackdown are written: Smackdown presents us with well-executed angles and story lines and builds that have stakes and characters with clear motivations that make it easy to invest in what’s happening, whereas RAW, well…RAW has moments, then expects us to care about everything that happens after, even if its all meaningless and context-free, because the moment was great. Well sorry guys, but that’s not how story-telling works. Hell, that’s not even how moments work. Moments are the pay off, not the incentive. And until whoever’s writing RAW figures that out, then they’re gonna have to keep telling us to be excited instead of us, y’know, actually being excited.