One of the aspects of wrestling from my days growing up that I miss tremendously is the nature and role of being a fan. If you tune in to a wrestling show today-be it WWE RAW or TNA IMPACT, you will notice that the fans are considered a part of the show. They all have signs to flash towards the cameras; they all try to mug for the camera whenever the shot of the ring action contains them; they start chants-often that have little-to-nothing to do with the match in progress. Perhaps most disconcerting is the fact that much of the time, the fans' attention is directed to the large screen that simulcasts the broadcast. The fans gaze at the screen waiting to see…themselves.
I miss the days when fans were fans of the wrestling rather than fans of the show. If I could do one thing in terms of the wrestling product that is presented today, I would take a page from wrestling past. I would turn out the lights. Back in the day, after introductions were completed, the entire arena would be in the dark-except for a large light, or perhaps set of lights that stayed alit, hanging over the ring. This focused all the attention of what was happening in the ring-the match. If people had held up signs for attention, they would have received nothing but a complaint to put down their darn sign so the people behind them could watch the match. That focus is missing today-the concept that the match in progress is what matters and not "being part of the show".
I trace this habit to ECW. ECW was one of the first companies to actively encourage fan participation during the matches. People would bring all manner of household items to the ECW arena in the hopes that one of the wrestlers would use their frying pan, or soiled diaper as a weapon during the match. ECW fans also started the "smartmark chants" that are so prevalent and so annoying in wrestling shows currently. Ultimately, the fans became mini-celebrities. The "Hawaiian Shirt Guy"; the "Hat Guy", and ultimately the "Sign Guy" who wound up being part of the Dudley entourage. At the time it was novel, it was fresh and ultimately-it hurt the business more than Vince McMahon ever did. It drew attention away from the action in the ring and made everyone part of the show. In the end, all of the "smart" fans in ECW wound up looking like the biggest marks in the world, because they forgot why a fan exists, and thought that THEY were the show.
Traditionally fans were always part of the show-just not in such an obtrusive manner. Fans played the most important role in wrestling. They were more important than the promoter, the booker or the guys working the main event. The fans were the most important part of a wrestling card for two, simple reasons.
The first reason was financial. Without fans paying money to come see the wrestlers, the wrestlers would not have been paid. That is the obvious reason. The second-but no less important-reason is that the fans were the barometer of a promotion's success or lack thereof. By keeping the fans focused on the matches and listening to their reactions and responses, the promoter as well as the wrestler could gauge how successful they were at any given point in a match or in an angle. If the fans cheered and booed as hoped (at the proper time), the promoter knew that he was on the right track. If not, changes had to be made-and quickly.
"Playboy" Gary Hart explained during a shoot interview on the role of the manager in wrestling that the worst sound you could hear during a match was the "chink-chink" noise that the ropes made when being hit by a wrestler. Why? Because if you could hear that noise, that meant that the crowd was silent. No cheers, no boos-they were disinterested. Silence during a match was a death knell. It was a signal to the heel to start amping up the heat-or else he might face a termination in employment when the match concluded.
The fans were vital to the success or failure of a wrestler and that wrestler's promotion. Fans gave an honest reaction to what they watched in the ring. If a high spot was done at the proper time in the match, the fans would cheer wildly, or "pop". If it were done at the wrong point during the match, their reaction would be far more subdued. The fans were the trainers of inexperienced performers. Listening to the fans gave a wrestler immediate feedback as to whether what he was doing was working or if he still needed to work on what he was doing. By obtaining honest reactions from the fans; by keeping their interest in the match sustained; by being aware that they were the show-the wrestlers could keep their livelihood intact. The wrestling fan was the cornerstone of the business.
Now? Now fans are programmed to cheer or boo. Now, matches are so rehearsed that gaining a real reaction from the fans is nearly impossible. Now the fans would rather wave their signs and chant their chants while being oblivious to the reason that they attended the show in the first place-the wrestling itself. How many times do you see fans chant "One! Two! ..Awwww!" during a pinfall attempt? They are completely aware that there will be no third count, and have taken it upon themselves to give a mocking response to something that is supposed to be a dramatic moment. It is sad, and most fans today have no idea of how much they miss by not playing the role that they should play.
Is there a solution? Yes-but it is not a simple solution, nor is it guaranteed to be successful. The solution is to return to certain aspects of what is colloquially referred to as "the old school". Number one-kill the lights when the matches start. Force attention on the ring. Number two: Stop encouraging the crowd to be an active part of the match. No camera shots of the crowd; request that signs be put on the floor at the start of the match (so that all can see), etc. Give the fans no reason or opportunity to see themselves rather than the wrestlers. Number three: (This is the hard one) Retrain the wrestlers to wrestle for reactions, not pre-programmed responses. Cut down in-ring interviews to nearly zero-leave the interviews for vignettes from the locker room. Let the ring become seen as the place where the fighting takes places and nothing more. Put the focus back where it always should have been-on the matches in the ring.
It's long past due. It's time for fans to be fans and not to be the show.
By Harry Grover
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