The Importance of Characters in Wrestling OR Character Assassination (Don’t Worry, He Got Better)

In the past year or so, we’ve seen the debuts of Fandango, the Shield, and the Wyatt Family, and lately we’ve been seeing announcements for the debut of a new team, Los Matadores. All of these occurrences have signaled a revival of character-based wrestling in the WWE, which had stagnated (some might go so far as to say “died”) over the past several years. After all the importance that the WWE has placed in drawing back the curtain and making wrestlers as close to their real life alter-egos as possible, it’s refreshing to see that the WWE isn’t beyond having a little fun while striving to provide the best entertainment around. Overall, though, it looks like the WWE might have been just a little late to the party, as this attitude has flourished not only in places like TNA and NXT, but in the industry at large.

In days past, the WWE (then WWF) was chock full of characters. We saw the rise of the Undertaker and his brother Kane, two monsters with supernatural origins. We saw Big Boss Man, a correctional officer that made a gimmick out of his real life profession. There was Umaga, one of many Samoan wild men, and the Hurricane, WWF’s very own superhero. Mick Foley went on to create a few different characters in Mankind, Cactus Jack, and Dude Love. Perhaps the most famous character of them all was Stone Cold Steve Austin, the beer-swilling, trash-talking brawler that carried on one of the most memorable feuds ever seen in wrestling with the boss himself, Vincent Kennedy McMahon. At the same time that he represented what could arguably be called the pinnacle of character-based wrestling, Stone Cold was the beginning of its end, as well. Austin has gone on record countless times in stating that Stone Cold was just Steve Austin turned up to eleven, and that sort of model was what the WWE began to use with future superstars. We began seeing Kurt Angle as the efficient Olympic gold medalist without the light-hearted humor that he sometimes brought to his segments. We got Randy Orton, the third-generation superstar that parlayed his heritage into in-ring success. We got John Cena’s Hustle, Loyalty, and Respect instead of the Doctor of Thuganomics. From the Straight Edge Society, we got CM Punk and his shoot-style pipebombs that set the wrestling world afire. None of these things by themselves are bad things, by any stretch of the imagination, but they do represent a refusal of sorts to recognize that, in the end, wrestling is theater. Everyone has a part to play, and if the actors are just going to play themselves, turning it up to eleven may not be enough for some of them to succeed. That’s why characters were so important, because they gave everyone a chance to succeed. Without the Brooklyn Brawler, Steven Lombardi might have been only a dark match worker; without Umaga, Edward Fatu might only have been one half of Eric Bischoff’s enforcement staff in Three Minute Warning. Fortunately, the WWE seems to have finally remembered this in the way that they’re handling developmental talent down in NXT.

NXT has a lot of characters, and very few of them are as laughable as Santina; in fact, many of them are downright intimidating. Until recently, NXT’s tag team division was dominated by the Wyatt Family, and now that they’re gone, a re-formed Ascension consisting of Conor O’Brian and Ric Victor looks to take that domination to new heights. With their guttural roars, brutally efficient offense, and nigh-apocalyptic entrance, the Ascension has an intimidating presence, and they use it to their advantage ruthlessly. Remaining in the vein of the dark and eerie, we have Leo Kruger, the man-hunting mercenary from South Africa that’s just a little different. Though it’s been dialed back a bit since his debut, Kruger plays the creepy vibe to perfection, and the manner in which he stalks his opponents is nothing short of fascinating. On the totally opposite end of the scale, there sits Xavier Woods, the Doctor of Funk, and yes, he is quite close to adding an actual Ph.D to that title. A man that sings and jives to his own entrance as he heads to the ring, Woods loves to have fun while he practices his craft, but he’s not beyond getting serious when it’s Morphin’ Time, and when you get Lost in the Woods, there’s no coming back. In recent weeks, we’ve also seen the debuts of Scott Dawson, the trailer park protege of French entrepreneur, Sylvester Lefort; Tyler Breeze, a male model that summers in Milan, Italy; Enzo Amore, the loud-mouthed and frenetic denizen of the Jersey Shore club scene (backed up by the New York giant, Colin “Big Cass” Cassidy); and the return of CJ Parker, who now represents the Moonchild Commune as its foremost flower child. It’s safe to say that character-based wrestling is making a hearty recovery in NXT, though it’s not without its own legacies of the old ideology in guys like Bo Dallas, Richie Steamboat, and Big E Langston. Despite the fact that that sort of mix is by no means a bad thing, there are other promotions out there that take character-based wrestling to a whole other level, and frankly, it’s awesome.

Of all the indy promotions out there, Chikara is probably the best known for its varied and inspired characters. With factions like the Colony, the Batiri, and the Spectral Envoy, there’s no question that a lot of the wrestlers on Chikara’s roster have some pretty interesting backgrounds. For instance, the members of the Colony all have ant-based gimmicks, as do the wrestlers that make up the Colony: Xtreme Force. The Batiri are cast as demons hailing from Bled Island, Slovenia, and led by renowned masked wrestler Delirious and joined by the snake-headed Ophidian, they began a crusade last year to end discrimination against monsters. Joined by other teams like the Throwbacks, the Devastation Corporation, and Los Ice Creams as well as fan favorites like Jigsaw and Saturyne, Chikara makes for a very interesting place, and with frequent visits from ROH and Dragon Gate talents like Mike Bennett, the Young Bucks, and Johnny Gargano, you never know what you’ll get next. All you know is that it’ll be worth watching.

TNA is experiencing its own revival of character-based wrestling, if on a smaller scale, with Manik. Formerly known as Suicide, Manik was re-branded only recently as a response to Austin Aries’ theft of the suit in order to gain the X Division title and cash it in for a shot at Bully Ray, the then-World Heavyweight Champion. With TJ Perkins now wearing the suit, Manik has ascended to new heights as the current X Division champion, and there’s no sign of his momentum being halted any time soon. We’ve also seen Shark Boy make a return in recent months, first as a potential tag team partner for James Storm, then on TNA’s website for their own twist on Shark Week as we were treated to a blast from the past in the form of a refresher on Shark Boy’s accomplishments in TNA. It’s unclear whether he’ll be back on a more regular basis anytime soon, but he’s certainly made his presence known. There has also been the debut of British Boot Camp graduate Rockstar Spud, a cocky little guy that’s clearly stuck in the ’80s. He’s spent more time in OVW than in TNA of late, but in a division that’s known for the success of characters such as Jimmy Rave, Black Machismo, and Consequences Creed, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that we’ll see Spud return to the X Division in force quite soon.

For decades, character-based wrestling was almost the only thing we ever saw, but with the advent of the internet and as the audience grew “smarter” to the realities behind the wall of kayfabe, the WWE shifted to more realistic gimmicks and identities that were harder to separate from real life, and the rest of the industry followed suit. Sure, we’ve gotten things like the Summer of Punk as well as the dual rise of Dolph Ziggler and Daniel Bryan in the WWE, as well as a push in TNA to advance original talents like Bobby Roode and James Storm in addition to new stars like Austin Aries, Magnus, and Kenny King, but we got away from the light-hearted humor and entertainment as well as the sense of foreboding and darkness that those characters of the past brought with them to the ring. The theater had vanished, and the character had been assassinated. With the re-branding of NXT, the rebirth of Manik, and the rise of promotions like Chikara, however, that element of theater is stronger than ever, and thank God, the character got better.