As a kid, what attracted you to wrestling the most? Chances were, it was the outlandish characters that were unlike almost anything you’d ever seen before.
The art behind being a character has perhaps lost its way as wrestling moved away from the comic book era of the 80s and into what WWE likes to call the “reality era”. Unless you’re into CHIKARA, it feels like colourful characters are few and far between as more and more people go down the “just yourself, but amplified” route with a slightly changed name.
Back in the summer of 2018, we floated a survey asking you to “sum up” some characters in wrestling, as if you were trying to briefly explain them to a non-wrestling fan. Or, borrowing from Mike Quackenbush’s “7 Keys to Becoming a Better Performer” book – what their “differentiating value proposition is”… the key to what makes that character stand out from the pack. So… who do we have, and what did you think makes them stand-out?
* As a big asterisk to this, since this is an old-ish survey – this was taken before NXT UK was even a thing that aired on TV, so any changes in character since last summer are obviously not reflected.
Chief Deputy Dunne
“Policeman” or “pretend policeman” and “hates fun” were the top answers, which is a nice way to summarise the character. Since the survey, the character’s had a storyline arc that saw him forced to disband the Anti-Fun Police in ATTACK!, before winning the title over Christmas and reforming the group.
As expected, there were quite a few folks who didn’t know of him, but those who did got the character down pat: “Failed reality TV star with school kids as security guards” and “An Irish reality TV star who thinks he’s more famous and adored than he is, gets people’s names wrong, and likes to use dangerous weapons.”
This is perhaps our first example of where we’ve got someone whose versatility perhaps confuses things. Used as a bad guy in PROGRESS, but a good guy pretty much everywhere else, that kinda reflects here: “Great as comedy character, can be dull if used the wrong way. Great wrestling abilities.”; “If Progress haven’t worked out his character yet how the fuck am I meant to?”, “You know Richie McCaw, the hard as fuck, super talented ex-New Zealand rugby captain? Travis Banks is the exact wrestling equivalent” or “Either a cross between a policeman and a stripper, OR an intense scary fighter, OR a smug self-satisfied git who is annoyingly good at the wrestles.”
Although not a favourite of mine in the ring, Grado is undoubtedly a character. One that is very easy to describe: “the dumb guy in class”, “Archetypal babyface. Great entrance but limited ability”, “Your chubby mate who never fails to put a smile on your face and you have a great night whenever he tags along.” You might fall into the Jim Cornette bucket of “funny doesn’t equal money”, but at least Grado’s character is easy to describe to a non-fan…
In the survey, I asked for folks to try and avoid using catchphrases to describe wrestlers… knowing full well that there’d be one or two that people would trip up on. We had many “big strong boi” references (no, I’m not going to space it out!), with other mentions such as “Hypertalented child” (which fits in with the promos PROGRESS aired before Wembley – you know, the one that looked like it was in his parents’ back garden?), and this one which summed up Tyler’s current character better than any promotion I’ve seen: “Really nice guy an underdog. Really talented and young only 20 but as good as his 35 year old mates. Everyone knows he has talent but nobody expects him to win the big one but he does! Still has all the support from the crowd, and does have a dickish side sometimes tho. Good guy all around otherwise and aggressive when needed”
A lot of WALTER’s character seemed to be based on his wrestling style, rather than any particular flash or flair that you’d typically associate with wrestling: “Big German ring general, lots of pride, more traditional, chops the fuck out of you”, “Stoic Teutonic Terminator”, “He’s very stoic and respectful, yet he still lets his emotions get the better of him, especially since he isn’t used to losing. He likes hitting people really hard.” Just about sums it up.
This was an easy one. The name “Prince” appeared in two-thirds of responses, while “flamboyant” appeared in a third. It doesn’t have to be rocket science, and while there’s a difference between “heavily influenced” and “rip-off”, Velveteen Dream is straddling that line beautifully – and to great effect.
This was a pretty divisive one. Someone responded “there is none” to our question about his character, along with “A phenomenal wrestler who loves video games”, “a living cartoon”, “Athletic Japanophile who tries to act cool” and this lengthy one: “This guy has 2 sides. One is T shirt Kenny or ddt Kenny, great comedian who does lot of crazy shit but wins. Other is the serious one, then he’s the best wrestler in the goddamn World. Great stamina and heart, always focused on winning. Has a group bullet club and used to cheat to win but has gained the support of the fans due to his charismatic nature and since stopped cheating and focused on more the fair side of wrestling.”
Much like Grado, Martina’s easy to describe – and someone whose character originally seemed to be one note. Granted, there was a very eggy spell where her “home” crowd in Ireland turned on her, perhaps feeling that that one note had been played out… but since her trips to Japan, things have improved in terms of fan reception and character changes. “Loves booze, silly comedy wrestler but lots of fun to watch”, “Ladette” and “She’s usually quite drunk and quite sexual, wearing leopard print tights and grinding on people for “bants.” Her character is often very dumb, even wondering if the earth is flat on twitter. She proved to also be a great wrestler in Stardom.” were some of the responses.
Now, the sample of wrestlers we picked here are distinctly “those who have a traditional character” and “those who are ‘real life’ just turned up a little.” Not that either of those are bad; after all, in 2019 we’ve seen how limited a roster of comic book-style characters is (just see how little buzz CHIKARA gets, for instance); but on the flip side, if you wanted “folks who looked like your neighbour who goes to the gym”, you’d probably watch UFC instead.
So, where’s the sweet spot?
Every wrestling promotion should have a myriad of performers, some who are full-blown characters, others whom have character but are “normal”; with the idea being that the “man off the street” shouldn’t be able to match the top stars. In the days of yore, the “man off the street” got the “already in the ring” treatment, existing only to get summarily dispatched by stars on TV.
These days, with squash matches largely a thing of the past, we seem to have drifted away from characters. Tyler Bate and Travis Banks, for instance, have/had characters in the past, but in the more prominent promotions (at the end of 2018 at least), what were they? The living meme whose strength wows crowds… and an angry former champion who is mad with the crowd. Those aren’t really fully-fledged characters, but rather traits that become part of a character. Alas, with the current generation of fans, a meme seems to be a shortcut to having a built-out character… and that’s something that’s causing problems with folks who’ve taken the “step up” into NXT UK.
At time of writing, we’ve bemoaned how NXT UK hasn’t done too much in growing characters, instead relying too much on a backstory that took place away from the eyes of most new fans. But what’s the answer? Well, like pushing wrestlers, creating and developing characters can be very hit and miss. Not everything will connect with crowds instantly, and if you chop and change too much then whatever connections that were build up will evaporate quickly.
There is no quick fix, and while you may (correctly) point out that the independent scene has been hot without too many characters – just imagine how much better it could be if everyone involved in the ring had a (kayfabe) reason to be there!