Like many forms of entertainment, professional wrestling leans heavily on formula. The most common one being good versus evil. This is a trope that has been used for thousands of years in storytelling and shows up everywhere you look on television today. It’s used because it works. Even my 89-year-old grandmother cheered when the evil marine in Avatar was finally murdered. Yes she cheered murder because he was evil and the killers were not.
Wrestling rocked this formula for decades with it culminating on the back of Hulkamania. No one embodied good like the Hulkster, as he continually destroyed evil monsters. This eventually got stale however, and Vince McMahon ingeniously switched it up. His famous promo before the first ‘Attitude Era’ episode specifically mocked the simplistic notion of ‘good guys versus bad guys’. His new programming would focus on ‘tweeners’, guys that were cool and got the job done, Dirty Harry style. Steve Austin and The Rock discovered monumental success skirting the line and always displaying healthy amounts of badass attitude.
But good/evil is not the only cliche that wrestling has embraced throughout the years. Oh no, there are plenty of predictable ideas floating around. If a fan knows their stuff, they should be able to predict the next few months based on whatever happened that night. A great example is the recent Undertaker return to attack Brock Lesnar at Battleground. Even though nothing was said, fans instantly knew this was the start of a feud and was a guaranteed match at SummerSlam. However, with Triple H and Stephanie ending the following RAW telling everyone how excited they were for the match, clever fans are smelling a swerve.
And that’s half the fun of wrestling. Armchair booking and prediction is incredibly satisfying when you get it right, and even more fun when we are pleasantly surprised by a plot twist.
So let’s take a look at 15 of the biggest cliches the world of professional wrestling relies on to get the job done.
15 Spanish Announce Table
Don’t leave your phone or computer on this table amigos! In fact if your computer is too heavy and the table is gimmicked enough, it just might break before it’s supposed to.
CM Punk broke yet another cliche when he decided against the tradition and instead bowed to the often table-less broadcasters.
14 The telegraphed back body drop
If you see a wrestler Irish whip his opponent and blatantly go for the back body drop incredibly early it’s a guarantee he’s getting a kick to the face. It’s actually become more satisfying to see as years go by. We all know it’s coming and the superstar should know better, which makes the boot of education feel even sweeter.
13 All that stuff underneath the ring
Aluminum trash cans full of garbage (paper only, no gross food of course), kendo sticks, chairs and more can all be found underneath the squared circle. And it's all conveniently located near the edge so a wrestler can quickly grab it and toss it into the ring. This can also create awkward situations where the wrestler can't get quite get the table over or through the top rope and angrily throws it under the bottom rope.
There's even wrestlers down there! Edge and Christian used to play cards, Big Show had adult magazines, and Curt Hennig even dropped a deuce while waiting for an nWo run-in.
12 Rest hold, raised fist, and three elbows
Ah, the fine art of the rest hold. Used to catch a breath, change the pace of the match, and anger the crowd. If it's done correctly, that fan frustration will be transferred into a massive cheer for the babyface as his arm refuses to fall for the third time. The hero will hulk up and break the unbreakable hold with three magic elbows of doom!
Those who have never watched Japanese wrestling would be shocked. They place such a premium on realistic looking shoot fighting that their bouts are chock full of 'rest' holds. It's not because they're lazy either. They do it to more closely mimic Mixed Martial Arts by using chain grappling and very stiff strikes. Instead of three elbows, they use complex and practical reversal moves.
11 The second bodyslam always works
When an underdog hero faces the gigantic monster heel he will always fail to bodyslam him the first time. Either his back gives out or the monster falls on top of him, almost causing a pinfall. But though some crazy logic, as the match wears on the hero gains more strength and is able to finally bodyslam the behemoth.
If it was me, I could probably lift the most at the beginning of the match. You know, before the half hour of punishment and exertion.
10 Evil Russians
The WWE has always loves to capitalize on current issues. The Cold War made for great Russian villains who could easily anger American fans just by waving a different flag. These ‘Russians’ were often ironically played by wrestlers from Eastern European Countries that hated Russia just as much as America; but this is show business, and it doesn’t matter where you were actually born.
McMahon shamelessly tried to cash in on the Gulf War by turning Sgt Slaughter into an Iraqi sympathizer. This bombed as by the time SummerSlam rolled around the conflict was over.
9 Contract Signings
These always feel so random as only a few main event matches get them, but I suppose that’s better than over saturation.
CM Punk hilariously called out the contract signing when he asked ‘is this the part where I flip the table over?’.
It’s a gimmick that makes perfect sense for TV. You can put the two competitors in the same ring and build some heat without actually giving away the fight for free. It speaks to the ‘common man’ who gets frustrated with BS paperwork and just wants to fight it out.
8 The Ref gets knocked out
7 Ladders are hard to climb
Perhaps the greatest acting challenge a wrestler faces is how to make it look like you are actually trying to climb a ladder. Their destiny waits atop that ladder yet they climb one step at a time and stop for multiple breathers, looking around for when their opponent is supposed to come pull them down. The only way to make the win believable is if they climb it just as slow when they do actually grab the prize.
Oh and you know a heel is falling off that ladder and landing groin first on the ropes.
6 Jumping off the cage instead of exiting
We’ve all seen this before. The opponent is down for the count and one wrestler manages to climb to the top of the cage. But instead of easily climbing down the other side and ending the match early he decided to risk his life and perform a flying whatever instead. This is almost always reversed, yet they keep doing it.
5 Tag Matches
4 Evil Authority Figure
Ever since Vince screwed Bret, the WWE has had a diabolical corporate type as one of its top heels. It’s hard to argue against the explosive success that Vince’s evil boss persona had with Steve Austin. Their feud is one of the all-time greatest that wrestling has ever seen and was a huge part in the Attitude Era’s mainstream popularity.
But after years of corporations, authorities, and general managers has the angle played out? It’s hard to say as the current product has its roots so deep into reality and the real boss Stephanie has evolved into a fantastic heel. Her ability to emasculate grown men is almost too effective.
Lance Storm raised a fabulous point on Jim Cornette’s show about the evil authority character being a bad idea for the WWE. He mused that training the fans to hate management backfired bigtime when it was leaked that Roman Reigns was getting a gigantic push. The fans are learning that they can hijack shows and even change the storylines if they are vocal enough.
But as long as the fans are in the seats and vocal, that’s all that really matters.
3 The False Finish
It used to be a pretty big deal to kick out of a finisher. It was so rare that it shocked the crowd to see it. Now it's become so common place that any PPV match (and even many RAW matches) is guaranteed to feature several of them.
The negative of this is that it devalues the power of the finisher. With the general lack of selling, the industry is at risk of painting itself into a corner. If a top rope power bomb through a table doesn't keep you down what will?
2 Backstage segments
If a random backstage interview begins, you can be pretty sure it's about to get interrupted. This leads to a badly acted soap opera scene that usually ends with an incredibly awkward stare down.
And if they interrupt with more than just words? Well that attack is much more powerful than anything that can happen in the ring. Getting punched and kicked backstage in your jeans is usually described as a 'vicious and brutal beatdown'. But if the same thing happened in a match it would be nothing more than a setup for another move (or in the case of some brawlers, their only move).
I find the backstage action almost as awkward as the bad acting and cringe worthy staredowns. Without the crowd sound and energy it feels empty and starts to look quite ridiculous.
1 Three/Four way knockouts
If a match involves more than two competitors in the ring at one time, someone is getting knocked out! Sure there will be some highly choreographed spots involving everyone simultaneously, but after the initial rush, someone's going down. Most likely whomever is on the receiving end of one of those choreographed high spots is going to laying on the outside for a good 10 minutes. A four-way dance sounds exciting but the amount of planning can really suck the feeling out of it and leave it looking......fake.
It makes sense for a cowardly heel to milk an injury in order to survive (Ric Flair, Royal Rumble '92) but when the tough good guy is laid out by the same move he normally bounces back from it's a bit jarring.
The WWE loves these matches (and the rest of this list) so be prepared for plenty more examples to come.
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