If you’re an actor, that’s one of the first questions you ask yourself before approaching any given scene. What’s my motivation? What is it that makes my character do the things he’s doing? What is he trying to accomplish? What’s his end goal? What drives him through the scene? It can be something as mundane as making a sandwich, or as vast as solving world hunger. It all depends on the character and the scene.
Regardless of what you want to say about the sport element of professional wrestling (and I’m not discounting that at all), the fact is that pro wrestlers are actors. In many ways, they’re the best kind of actor because they have to give a fresh performance every time they appear on their stage. But just like any other actor in a scene, wrestlers need to fuel their characters with motivation. Thankfully, this isn’t too hard as every pro wrestler has two core motivations that are with them from their very first match to their final night in a ring:
1. Overcome your opponent and win the match. Pretty obvious, right? It’s the fuel for almost every segment of every wrestling show, ever. Sometimes it gets pushed into the background when you’ve got a character with a more sadistic edge (Kane comes to mind) or if they’re playing up the personal animosity between two wrestlers more than the actual wrestling match. But usually it all comes down to winning, whether the match is on that night’s show, or they’re building to it at a pay per view.
From there, we build toward our second motive, which can be a bit subdued depending on a wrestler’s placement on the card…
2. Become Heavyweight Champion. No matter what promotion they work for, where they are on the card, no matter how their skills stack up to everyone else’s, every wrestler’s end goal must be to become that promotion’s Heavyweight Champion. It’s why you work so hard to win your matches, so you can advance up the card and inch closer and closer to the big title. Tag team titles, Intercontinental titles and the like are all great, and definitely carry their own brand of prestige. But at the end of the day, they all play second fiddle to the ultimate prize. It’s the holy grail, the ultimate honor. It signifies that you’re the best at what you do. This is especially true when it comes to WWE, the brightest and most widely seen stage in the industry. A professional wrestler can’t get a higher honor than to hold the WWE Heavyweight Championship (or whatever belt happens to hold the top spot on Raw). Stone Cold Steve Austin used to say something to the effect of: “If you’re not here to win the World Wrestling Federation Title, then you’re in the wrong line of work.”
With all of that being said, let’s take a look at the matches that have main evented every pay per view broadcast by WWE this year…
ROYAL RUMBLE: Royal Rumble Match
ELIMINATION CHAMBER: John Cena vs. Kane in an ambulance match
WRESTLEMANIA: John Cena vs. The Rock
EXTREME RULES: John Cena vs. Brock Lesnar
OVER THE LIMIT: John Cena vs. John Laurinaitis
NO WAY OUT: John Cena vs. The Big Show in a steel cage match
MONEY IN THE BANK: John Cena and four other guys in a ladder match
SUMMERSLAM: John Cena vs. CM Punk for the WWE Championship
Let me emphasize that I’m NOT a Cena hater, nor do I believe that the Heavyweight title needs to be the main event at each and every show. Sometimes the belt has to take a back seat to dream matches (Cena/Rock, Cena/Lesnar), matches that involve authority figures and could change the status quo (Austin/McMahon, WWF/Alliance, Cena/Laurinaitis…maybe), or even sometimes just to break up the pattern a bit. But it’s been a whole year, and thus far the only time we’ve seen the WWE Championship (presumably) positioned to be in the main event of a pay per view is when John Cena, the main who’s main evented each and every pay per view, is in a position to challenge for it. That’s bad for a variety of reasons.
Though Punk has (out of the character) shrugged off his placement on the card, saying it’s the quality of his matches that ultimately makes him a main eventer. While I understand and respect what he’s saying, the championship’s placement on the card DOES matter. One or two big shows in the sub main event position is one thing. But when it becomes a consistent pattern it starts to subtly tarnish the value of the title.
Ric Flair talks about this from an old school perspective in his book, To Be The Man. In so many words, he says the champion should always be the last person we see enter the arena at a show. He’s the most important person there. He holds the holy grail. He’s the champion! Flair added that he couldn’t picture a promoter telling a champion like Harley Race that he had to go out first so Shawn Michaels could dance around in his chaps.
Fundamentally speaking, we’re seeing this problem with John Cena and CM Punk right now. To be fair, it’s not necessarily a problem that’s exclusive to Punk. Any babyface would have a hard time keeping his spot with Cena on the same card. Either way, the booking is subconsciously (or perhaps not so subconsciously) telling us that the WWE Championship is NOT the most valuable prize on the show, John Cena’s attention is. Kane attacks Cena? He’s in the main event despite having been gone for months. Big Show punches Cena at a pay per view? Instant top of the fold headline. At this month’s Money in the Bank pay per view, a match about wrestlers trying to earn a shot at the title got the top spot on the card, over a match that was actually being contested for the title. Why? Because John Cena was in it.
This is one of the reasons people don’t like John Cena. He’s gotten so big that he overshadows almost everything and everyone else on the show, making all their battles to be the champion and stand on top of the proverbial mountain effectively obsolete. If one guy gets treated like the champion whether he’s got the belt or not, then what’s the point of even having a championship at all? And if there’s no point in having a championship, then there’s no point in having all these wrestlers wrestle. So why even show up?
I understand that professional wrestling exists in a bizarre, impossible surreality. But if left unchecked, little details like these have the ability to deflate tension from scenes and story lines by unintentionally placing doubt in the audience’s mind about the importance of some of the things that are at stake when we’re watching. If we’re doubting whether or not something’s important, we inevitably start to not care about it. And not caring about something that’s supposed to be the Holy Grail of professional wrestling?
Yeah, that’s a problem.
Another problem? The fact that this big Irish guy is walking around with a big gold belt claiming he’s the World Heavyweight Champion, a title bestowed upon the best wrestler on Smackdown. But given that Raw and Smackdown wrestlers can seemingly go where they please these days, and the roster split is essentially nullified, that’s a pretty confusing scenario that leaves the program in an even more unfocused place.
But that’s another story for another day…
Rob Siebert was a contributing writer for The Wrestling Daily and he is a co-founder of PrimaryIgnition.com. He also sings and dances for money.
To read more about Rob’s time with TWD, check out “The Rise and Fall of TWD, part two.”