wrestling / Columns

Shining a Spotlight 11.01.12: Ryback, Goldberg and Selling

November 1, 2012 | Posted by Michael Weyer

So after all the talk, Hell in the Cell ended with Punk getting a cheap win over Ryback after a low blow from the ref of all people. It’s pretty much a sudden end to his win streak and word is there was a lot of debate on an ending that could keep Punk as champ without weakening Ryback too much. It just shows the trap WWE had in pushing Ryback, not exactly the major star WWE acts like he is although it does seem right to push someone new. It’s something that happens time and again in wrestling and continues to bring up the comparisons between Ryback and Goldberg and shows how much the business has shifted yet remains the same.

The Big Lie

The concept has existed since the beginning of entertainment itself: Tell the public something is a big deal and you’ll be able to make them one. For modern times, it goes back to the days of the old Hollywood studios, how they’d take some no-name and push them as a huge star with publicity machines and such before they’d made a single picture. Ironically, this push actually hurt many a would-be career, exposing a person as simply not ready for the big time just yet. It happened in music too, so many acts manipulated by greedy managers and promoters in various ways. I was just reading an article on how Milli Vanilli could only have worked in 1990; today, it would take about ten seconds for the scam to be exposed, someone on You Tube doing recordings showing it wasn’t the guys actually singing and a dozen bloggers noting how they could sing in perfect English but talk with thick accents.

It continues today as every week, you’ll see networks boasting of “TV’s number one show” and “fans everywhere are talking” when the ratings don’t quite back it up. And you’ll still see people pushed as big stars without much experience. Just witness poor Taylor Kitsch, set up as the next hot young star only to end up starring in the two biggest box office bombs of 2012. Not to mention setting up more stars like Megan Fox, pushed as a new hot thing but a backlash afterward. It’s happened time and again as the attempt to convince you someone is a star often does more harm than good. That includes movies as well. I’m a loyal reader of Entertainment Weekly but I’m hardly the only one annoyed about their obsession with making Twilight and 50 Shades of Gray massively beloved works of literature.

It also leads to the question of trying to create a new mentality over some film or star. It’s not just how we see people in new light; for example, the recent HBO movie The Girl pretty much exposes Alfred Hitchcock as a twisted, misogynist freak who becomes obsessed with Tippi Hendren and then tried to destroy her when she spurned his advances. For four years, I’ve put up with folks ripping me for actually enjoying Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the mentality coming that it’s a horrible movie. However, the recent Blu-Ray release of the entire saga had a lot of guys on boards commenting on how Crystal Skull isn’t that bad and actually better than Temple of Doom, letting me know I’m not alone. I don’t mind the fact a lot of people hate The Phantom Menace, that’s perfectly their right. What I hate is this elitist mentality that’s taken over that if you don’t loathe that movie with a passion, you can’t consider yourself a real Star Wars fan.

With wrestling, promoters have done this for years, selling a guy as a huge deal without him really warranting it. It was easier in the old days before the Internet, when the marks were a lot more prevalent and could be sold on this. The Apter mags were expert helping Crockett/Turner and various smaller promotions with stories that sold things as real so people could be elevated without really coming off high on a push. It’s a main reason the NWA title was seen as the top belt in the business for so long, how Verne Gagne was able to convince people the AWA was on the same level, how Vince McMahon helped sell WWF as the biggest name in sports. Watch any show today and you’ll see it, the announcers talking of the stardom even of mid-card guys, making it sound like anyone can be a champion, that’s their job and it’s worked well as seen with Ryback. And yet the man Ryback is so compared to managed to be a big deal without much of that push.

Goldberg

Bill Goldberg’s rise was as much timing as anything else. When he debuted in late 1997, he had potential but some dismissed him as just a muscleman and a Stone Cold lookalike, nothing really special. It was in early 1998 that he began to take off as fans responded to his “undefeated” streak and the way he would totally manhandle opponents in the ring. The reason he was getting more attention was that by early 1998, despite what Eric Bischoff would believe, the New World Order was losing favor with fans. I’ve said it before and say it again, one of the key issues with how WCW lost their domination of the Monday Night War was that Bischoff really thought the NWO would last forever, shoving it way past the date fans were happy with, especially after blowing the Hogan-Sting Starrcade showdown. Fans wanted something fresh, as shown by their response to the Chris Jericho/Dean Malenko Crusierweight feud. So Goldberg was perfect for that need.

The thing is, the man had a great charisma and drive, the way he’d just totally destroy anyone in his path winning fans over well. WCW added to it with the music, the great fireworks entrance and the announcers selling him as this unstoppable monster with Bobby Heenan’s great proclamations of “The Man!” making fans believe Goldberg truly was the future of WCW. His victory over Raven for the U.S. title, where he single-handedly ravaged the entire Flock, was huge, the fans going crazy and more and more the cheers for Goldberg grew, his segments one of the more highly-rated parts of “Nitro” or “Thunder.” WCW realized that, knowing the time was right and had Goldberg beat Hogan for the title in probably the biggest pop of WCW in 1998. Of course, they dropped the ball with Goldberg not having really great challengers for the most part and actually having their World Champion either on the midcard of a PPV or even taking it off. He would prove his stardom with stuff like he and DDP salvaging the terrible Halloween Havoc card but it seemed he was still considered an afterthought despite the fans responding to him huge.

So of course, WCW blew it by having him lose the belt to Nash and following that with the Fingerpoke of Doom as the NWO was all that mattered to Bischoff. While he’d still get pops, other felt Goldberg was now exposed as not quite a great worker, more hype than anything and shoved around too far. He’s hardly alone in that regard; after all, Hogan was mostly a hype machine in his prime and there’s the cases of fathers pushing their sons despite lack of stardom or ability (see Erik Watts). However, the fact remains that Goldberg did have a lot going for him when he debuted, fans responding well to him, truly lightning in a bottle…which is something that can’t be said for Ryback.

Modern Times

Some will say the whole concept of trying to sell the Big Lie today is for naught thanks to the rise of the IWC and exposing of backstage stories. There’s also the slew of opinions around and how so many guys (myself included) will make snap judgments of angles before they even begin. However, as Raven astutely said, the “smart” fans who think they know everything are the easiest guys to con. You’ll see folks reacting big to stuff that turns out to be planted and a work and plenty of guys have used the Internet to push angles in a believable way and make themselves a huge deal.

It’s led to the debate on whether or not the IWC pushing guys is good or bad. As the old joke goes, if the IWC did the booking, WWE would be out of business in a year. Guys who are technical darlings do not equal mega-stardom and that’s what’s needed to carry a company. The folks in the IWC may moan and groan on Cena but guess what? He still gets massive crowd reactions, cheers or boos and more importantly, he’s proven he can handle the pressures of being the face of the company which is something not a lot of guys can say. That includes a lot of the ones the IWC loves to push as darlings. Punk has proven he can hold it but some guys you can’t be as sure of. In a way, the IWC can create the Big Lie as much as WWE or TNA can, pushing a guy as a huge deal the fans want when the reactions to them on TV aren’t really that good. I’m as guilty as anyone of this, pushing guys big and creating a viewpoint of things that others don’t share, it’s all too common for critics, not quite liking when something new comes along we’re not ready for.

However, you do need to try now and then, especially with the main event scene of WWE so stagnant. You have to roll the dice on someone and see if they can maybe make it work. Personally, I was never sold on Ryback, the guy seeming too rough in the ring and the whole “Feed Me More!” thing way too contrived. Goldberg was more organic, coming into his own before WCW put the big push to him, fans responding well whereas Ryback is so obviously modeled after Goldberg, it’s not funny. But the fans have responded, chanting and such, as programmed as it may be. It shows that this model of selling someone big still works, folks buying into it just as they have with AJ as a major player and how TNA is able to sell themselves to so many fans as being on WWE’s level. Sure, reality may not show that as ratings haven’t exactly skyrocketed during Ryback’s reign but they’ll continue to push that idea and hope it takes off.

Again, this is a concept as old as entertainment, not like WWE is doing anything new here. It shows once more how the whole “slow build” concept has faded over the last several years, guys getting these big pushes with little preparation. Again, Goldberg at least had a while to win fans over before WCW pushed him hard but now folks get the shoves right off. It brings up the issue of how the brand seems to sell rather than the stars, a whole other argument but also illustrates how important this perception is. All you have to do is look at any election to know how perception can be more important than facts and with a business that already mixes reality and fiction, that becomes just as important. WWE has sold the idea of Ryback a huge star, fans responding but his loss to Punk could be a downfall for him, expose him as not really that level yet. Again, it’s tough to figure who can and can’t carry a belt and no surprise WWE prefers the familiar faces at the top.

Ryback was built as a star by WWE but now faces the key problem of many a guy in that sudden position: Having gotten to the main event, he now has to prove he can make it. And sadly, he doesn’t seem to be proving it as the fans in arenas cheer but the IWC is cool and it’s not like he’s a draw as Goldberg was in his rise. In 1998, when fans were sick and tired of the NWO, they’d still tune in to watch Goldberg run roughshod over whoever was in his path, his segments always big winners. Yes, the business has changed but the point of selling someone as big is to improve the bottom line and Ryback hasn’t done that any more than a lot of IWC darlings do either. It won’t change though as wrestling will always have the need to sell someone as bigger as they are, that’s the nature of the beast and we can only hope the next person who gets in that position proves worthy of that as the Big Lie does no good without a nugget of truth to it.

For this week, the spotlight is off.

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Michael Weyer

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