WORKING THE BOYS--FSM#134

Normally, when I write my column for Fighting Spirit, I like for the finished product to be both entertaining and informative--something you enjoyed reading for a few minutes, but also came away from having learned something about wrestling in the process. Usually, I like to impart to the reader a linear train of thought, or a chronological story, something that makes sense out of my subject even if the reader is not well-versed in the history or customs of pro wrestling. This column is different--for this one, ehh, I got nothin'.

Because I don't understand the biggest part of it myself, at least anymore. It's another way the wrestling business has changed, or at least the way some people in it have changed the reasons they have for doing things. It involves a controversial topic these days amongst all the experts on the internet. I almost hate to say these words out loud--well, actually, I'm not, I'm just typing them, so here goes.

Shockingly, some people have found out that wrestling promoters are sometimes WORKING the boys! I know, I was gobsmacked too! The idea that wrestling promoters would actually--shudder--LIE to the wrestlers? It was almost too much to bear. But thankfully, before I lost the will to go on, I realized something--the promoters have ALWAYS lied to the boys and worked the boys, since the dawn of, well, promoters and boys. But it's always been understandable why--never has it been, as it is today, for basically just stupid reasons. So I thought, just to try to work these things out for myself, I'd jot some random thoughts down on paper and see if I could work out exactly when and where everybody in this business lost their feckin' minds.

What's brought all this attention on of late, of course, is the finish between Brock Lesnar and Randy Orton at Summerslam, and more importantly, the beef between Brock and Chris Jericho after the match. In case you've been in a mental home, here's a recap of what I have been led to believe took place:

In the match, Brock pounded Orton with some wicked elbows, as apparently the idea was to do the old "hardway" shot to cut Randy open and get some blood, since the WWE long ago abandoned what they termed "self-inflicted" bleeding as it's felt it's bad for the sponsors and the PG ratings. Even REALLY accidental blood means the match will be stopped until a doctor patches the cut up, which is what they were going for here--an "MMA style" ref stoppage finish designed to get Brock over as the real deal not only in UFC but in WWE. With Orton bloody and unable to continue it would make Brock even more of a monster gate attraction.

Problem was, those elbows opened up a gash in Orton's head the size of, as I said on my hit weekly podcast the Jim Cornette Experience, the Red River Gorge. Seeing this, Chris Jericho was concerned that Brock, being careless or flipping out or whatever, had legitimately caused the main event of one of the biggest shows of the year to be really stopped before the planned finish. Jericho went to the Gorilla position to ask Michael Hayes, a member of creative, if that was indeed what was supposed to happen.

Hayes apparently couldn't trust one of the biggest stars in the company with something resembling the truth, or at least hemmed and hawed long enough that Jericho started calling it "Bullshit" out loud--right, as it happened, when Lesnar came through the curtain to hear it. Quickly escalating from dueling "fuck you's" to shoving each other into walls, they were broken up by HHH and Vince McMahon himself, who was finally the one to tell Chris that was what the finish was supposed to be.

Thus exploded the debate about "working the boys", which is thought to be another byproduct of the cutthroat era of the Monday Night Wars, when things like Vince screwing Bret, Bischoff working the WCW boys on Pillman--and then Pillman working Bischoff--the Fingerpoke of Doom, and a million other "shoot" angles were designed to convince everyone, even the talent, that now that they had admitted everything they did was fake, this one thing was supposed to be real--over and over.

Problem is, as I said before, working the boys was nothing new, it had always just been done for logical reasons. Not condoning it, just explaining it. If there was one thing that promoters almost everywhere were legendary for working the boys about, it was "the house".

The question that every wrestler at every show ever held since amoeba crawled from the sea would ask of the local promoter, office rep or booker at some point during the night was "What's the house?" That meant, simply, what was the gate for the night, since in the territory days, the talent was paid on the gate--if it was up, their money should be too.

Therefore, for every Paul Boesch or Sam Muchnick that had a rep for fair payoffs and honesty, there were also the slippers and sliders of the world, who knew that the worse they could whine and gripe about the bad houses, the lower the expectations of the boys would be. The tales are endless of promoters somehow defying all logic to have the last word when it comes to the house.

Bobby Eaton told me a story about noted pennypincher Nick Gulas, who along with pioneer wrestler Roy Welch was the head honcho of the Nashville, Tennessee booking office for forty years until losing most of it and selling the rest to Jerry Jarrett. In the back of the arena one night scoping out the crowd, a young wrestler in the 1970's, when the average ticket was $3.00, remarked to Nick that the house was up. Nick, sensing the wrestler was fishing because he was in the new main event angle that had just been shot and was expecting a good payoff, immediately replied "Boy! What's the matter with you? This building seats 6000 people and it ain't but a quarter full--the house is only $4500!"

Just a few weeks later, Nick had apparently forgotten this conversation. It was his "Fan Appreciation Night" in the same arena, an old trick Nick would use to lure customers during bad periods where for one night, any seat in the house was only $1.00. The arena was packed, not an empty seat to be had, and the same wrestler remarked to Nick about the sellout. Nick barked "Boy! What's the matter with you? All the tickets are $1.00 and the building only holds 4000--the house is only $4000!"

Baton Rouge, Louisiana promoter Jimmie Kilshaw was famous amongst the boys for reporting his houses at the Centroplex, no matter how many people were there, at "Ten-six", or ten thousand, six hundred dollars. In all fairness, during the 22 Mid-South Wrestling shows there in 1984, he only reported "Ten-six" on two shows, "Ten-five" on another and $11,000 even on a fourth, but it did seem to be a popular figure.

And of course, such a classic rasslin' tale it should be apocryphal, but folks who were around swear it really happened: In Detroit, the Funk Brothers had worked a long angle with the Sheik and Abdullah the Butcher to revive wrestling at the Cobo Hall in the main city of Sheik's fading dynasty. Finally, there was a hell of a house there for the blowoff, and the boys were in the locker room counting money in their heads, when the Sheik's son burst in announcing there had been a robbery at the box office--the entire gate had been stolen!

Of course the promoters worked the boys like that, it makes perfect sense, to save themselves money! This is not hard to figure out, and it also never happens anymore, for a number of reasons. One, everybody is on a guarantee, whether it's a six figure contract or a deal for a six-pack and a sandwich. Nobody pays on the house anymore, so no wrestlers ask about it. They say, "What's the crowd like?", wanting to know how MANY folks are out there, not what they paid, and the promoter promptly lies it UP instead of DOWN to make himself look good and the wrestler feel good. In thirty years, it's gone from a money figure some promoters hated to reveal and constantly underestimated, to a head count most promoters exaggerate up to make themselves look better.

Here's something else I don't understand. Thirty years ago, sometimes heel wrestlers, in TV interviews, would accuse the promoters of "playing favorites" with particular babyface talents and giving them breaks to explain why the face kept beating the heel in the end. This was scoffed at by the promotions and announcers, and simply used as fodder for heels to get heat and make the fans boo them. Now, the promoters are heels backing handpicked heels, and the people cheer when these heels are unfairly given wins over the babyfaces. But I digress.

Whether it's about their money, their level of push, their gimmick, their TV time, or whatever, promoters have been in some fashion "working the boys" for years. But there's never been a time where not only do the promoters try to work the boys more than the fans, but also where that may be necessary because the boys are the only ones still susceptible to believing some of this shit. And they've got big mouths.

It was always understood promoters weren't going to pay a penny more than they had to, but otherwise, both wrestler and promoter were in it together, "kayfabing" the fans and working to run shows and draw money. It wasn't necessary to try to make the boys think something in a storyline was a shoot. They weren't out blabbing about the business to begin with. Most guys could be trusted with info on their finishes and really didn't give a shit about other guys'. Now, I understand why modern bookers only smarten guys up to some things on a "need to know" basis--the boys these days are blabbermouths with contact to the entire cyberworld in their pockets. And part of that comes from the example that's been set by the WWE itself of not keeping kayfabe on just about anything in the real world, outside their TV.

Hardways used to be done in high profile matches or on TV after an expose, or something happening to hurt the credibility of the business in a territory. It was supposed to "prove" wrestling was real. That horse has left the barn. The WWE in particular and most promotions in general have spent the better part of 20 years telling everyone it's all entertainment, i.e. bullshit. So have the wrestlers, for the most part. Now, they come up with something that they think will really get over because you'll believe it's real. That kind of hurts the logic of telling everyone it's fake the last 20 years, but I digress again.

Before any wiseasses go, "Oh, there's Cornette, now he's knocking them for trying to do something that looks REAL!", let me explain. I would have loved the finish if they had used a blade. I think blood in a match adds great drama when used in the right place and amount. I like finishes that look as much like shoots as possible. I think a lot of Brock's working shit looks stiff and believable enough without going ahead and letting him tee off on someone's skull, like he's a Ron Wright-style old master of hardways. But there were a lot of things wrong, to me, with their thinking behind a hardway.

We've been hearing for years they don't want blood, especially blading, in the WWE because of the PG rating and so as not to offend sponsors. So how is it better that they can say this bloodbath was from Randy "accidentally" being busted open? How is it more tasteful that this gore came from a jagged, gaping cut instead of a little razor blade zip? For that matter, since the fans on the internet all ended up knowing it was an intentional hardway and that would mean any sponsor who gave a shit and could read would know it to, the boys are apparently the only ones that bought it to begin with.

What I'm saying is that they should just have done the same thing--almost--and let Randy blade to avoid having to risk a concussion by letting a walking test failure cave his head in. Bret Hart did the same thing more than once, and just told Vince it was an accident. And instead of lying to the boys about whether it was supposed to be the finish--actually, no, they should STILL have lied to all those blabbermouths--they should have lied to the sponsors and told them it was a hardway when he really used a blade. That would have made perfect sense! Now I don't even know what I'M talking about! But past the actual finish, the culture of distrust that it creates in the locker room when the office outright works the boys on storylines is dangerous to a promotion, just as the stooging off of plans by talent that happen to hear about them is epidemic these days.

I said it at the top of the article--I don't understand these things in wrestling today, and now that I've worked some of it out on paper I still don't get it. I want to take a swing at describing for you what I've worked out about Summerslam, so you can help me see if I've got it straight.

After spending twenty years revealing to the world that they are scripted entertainment and not real, the WWE, to get one of their talents over stronger than anyone else, tries to make the fans believe he is real. They are afraid letting Orton surreptitiously blade himself to bleed for Brock will offend sponsors, so they let the former UFC Champion split Randy's head wide open to the tune of 15 staples, thinking that won't be offensive. Most of the fans know that Brock really busted him open, but many on the web also know that he was SUPPOSED to really bust him open, so the debate among the fans becomes about the company okaying the action, rather than it being real. The WWE couldn't tell any of the wrestlers about it, figuring at least a good portion would blab about it and tell everyone what they ended up figuring out anyway. Randy went through a lot of discomfort and probably didn't convince anyone wrestling, as a whole at least, is any realer than they thought it was last week. The only people that actually got into a real fight over whether the finish was real or not, were the wrestlers. This could be the single most fucked-up time for logic in wrestling history.

I leave you with this thought--professional wrestling used to be a sport where two guys simulated beating the shit out of each other, and the fans believed they were hurt. Now, it is an entertainment exhibition where they really do beat the shit out of each other, and everybody thinks it's all fake. The marks have switched places with the workers. It's enough to make a self-respecting carny mad enough to get an honest job.