Thanks to the WWE Network, fans of the current product have the opportunity to revisit the golden years of Vince McMahon’s empire. The mid-late 80’s and the early 90’s represent a time when pro wrestling was pro wrestling (and not sports entertainment). The heroes were noble and the villains were dastardly with their cartoonish misdeeds. Yes, you need a pair of rose-colored glasses whenever you take a stroll down memory lane, but that’s how it is with anything in life.
One thing that becomes clear when you watch that old programming, is the difference in talent between the olden days and the current era. Maybe it would be more appropriate to say “the difference in how one defines a ‘talented’ pro wrestler.” Today’s product is all about athleticism. Even guys like Bray Wyatt, not exactly ripped to shreds, are expected to be able to maintain their stamina well into a 30 minute contest. Rest holds, even dramatically applied, are met with groans from the crowd. We want non-stop action and we will not tolerate you pausing for a breather.
Rewind back to 1986 and the expectations of fans was a little different (largely because WWF fans were conditioned to enjoy a certain kind of perfomer). Workrate was secondary to physique, the ability to go 30 minutes in a world title bout was not awe-inspiring, largely because a standard heavyweight match in those days had maybe a third as many moves performed. Today a body slam is an opening-minute maneuver; back then it was a late-in-the-match move that drew an “oooh” from the crowd and shouts from commentary.
Things have changed in the three decades that Vince McMahon has had control over the WWF/E, but while the look of the product has changed, and while the in-ring action has evolved over the years, there is one constant that has never changed. There is one thing that can’t be adapted or altered. It’s the reason Hulk Hogan was “the man” and not someone like Paul Orndorff; it’s the reason Bret Hart was eclipsed by Shawn Michaels. It’s what made Austin so compelling even when limited by neck injuries. It’s what won The Rock over with the fans after his disastrous start with the company. Big or small, talented in the ring or bland as they come, there is one equalizer in Pro Wresling, no matter the era.
It doesn’t matter how good or bad you are in the ring, whether or not you can cut a promo is 90% of the reason why guys who are over are over. Curtis Axel is 10 times the wrestler that Ryback is, but the star of Rybaxel is “THE BIG GUY” who consistently entertains whenever they put a mic in his hands (or a keyboard under his fingertips). A guy like Jericho achieved mainstream WWF appeal instantly, while a guy like Benoit only ever had the support of hardcore fans. Though both were marvelous workers in the ring, the thing that separated them (and elevated Jericho) was his mic skills.
Looking back at the old days of the WWF and you can find a roster of talent with a mixture of guys who could talk and guys who could not. It’s no different today. The difference is those who couldn’t talk were protected; their deficiencies were masked so as to highlight their strengths. Andre the Giant was never a dynamic promo guy, his thick accent and deep voice made it hard to understand more than a few words. But that was fine, as a heel who needed to sell major feuds, he didn’t need to talk: He had Bobby Heenan.
Have you ever heard Ivan Koloff give a promo? He wasn’t exactly Laurence Olivier out there. He didn’t need to be, however. He had Captain Lou Albano in his corner driving the fans crazy with his promos.
Countless wrestlers who had great looks and talent in the ring were taken to the next level thanks to the work of a great manager. C0uld Earthquake have gotten over as fast as he did without Jimmy Hart’s incessant yet brilliant promos? Could Undertaker have achieved his phenom-status without Paul Bearers high and haunting voice speaking for him in the early 90’s? Without Paul Bearer (who took over for Brother Love early on), Undertaker would have been used as main-event fodder to the real superstars; his great gimmick would have been squandered without a perfect mouthpiece there to keep the fans invested.
The point is there have always been guys who had all the tools needed to achieve super-stardom except for an ability to cut a convincing promo in crunch time. In the old days the WWF used charismatic mouthpieces to give those guys the extra bump they needed to become money making heels. As time went on, specifically into the Attitude Era, the virtue of the manager fell to the wayside. This is largely because, in the Attitude Era, what was emphasized most was the out-of-ring product. If a guy couldn’t cut his own promo he simply wasn’t worth as much to the company as he would have been in the early 90’s or in the mid-2000’s.
Today, as in the olden days, there are several talented guys who lack the character or simply the promo ability to take them either to the next level or to sustain them at the next level. Yet, unlike in the olden days, those guys are not being allowed to use the services of a manager to hide their weaknesses. WWE currently has two guys doing Hall of Fame-worthy work as mouthpieces, but presently they are only representing one full-time superstar.
Zeb Coulter is the man responsible for kicking off the renaissance of the modern manager. His xenophobic, tea party-inspired character found a way to do what had, for years, been thought impossible. He made Jack Swagger relevant. In fact, were it not for Swagger’s arrest just before WrestleMania 28, Zeb Coulter might have been the manager of the World Heavyweight Champion. Instead, Swagger lost to Alberto Del Rio and helped give birth to the next phase of Zeb Coulter’s character: The “extremely frustrated loser” Zeb.
Despite Swagger’s inability to capture a world title, having Zeb as his manager kept him from slipping back into irrelevancy. Zeb added Cesaro to his stable, and together, he and Swagger formed an entertaining tag team: The Real Americans. Cesaro at the time was an aimless performer, extremely talented in the ring, but hamstrung by creative dictates that were designed to win him support among the fans but only managed to make him more invisible. Like Jack Swagger, Cesaro seemed to be destined to the lower mid-card until he joined Zeb’s stable and found his niche.
With Coulter as their mouthpiece, the marble-mouthed Oklahoman and the Swiss-accented superman had someone who could carry the burden of pre-match promo work, allowing the dynamic wrestlers the chance to do what they did best: wrestle. By the end of their run together, at WrestleMania 30, Cesaro had blossomed into a superstar. You can argue he did on his own; his occasional work on NXT solidified him among the hardcore fans as the next Daniel Bryan (a.k.a.the indie guy to get behind) and his high-profile matches with men like John Cena won him over with the casual fans, but it was his association with Zeb Coulter that gave him those opportunities to be spotlighted. Without Zeb, Cesaro would not have had the chance to win fans over.
Meanwhile, there is the other manager who has made waves in WWE. Much has already been said about Paul Heyman’s most recent run with the WWE; even without “The Streak” on his résumé, he still would have held the title of “greatest manager of the present day.” His work with Brock Lesnar (his second run with him, not the work they did together in 2002) was instrumental in saving a multimillion dollar investment WWE put into the former UFC Champion.
When Lesnar returned on the night after WrestleMania 28, he did so with more momentum and enthusiasm behind him than he ever had in his incredible (and incredibly brief) run with the WWE in 2002-2004. His return match with John Cena spiked the buyrate for the April PPV to levels that were thought to have long since departed. The buildup to the match was brilliantly plotted to accentuate Lesnar’s strengths (his brutality, insanity and intimidation-ability) and minimize his weaknesses (his horrible promo skills). The only talking Lesnar really did was in the form of a sit-down interview where he famously said he could see the piss running down John Cena’s leg. His short, no-nonsense speech allowed him to be presented as a “no-nonsense monster who would pulverize anyone in his way.”
His second major feud, however, was a program with Triple H. Such feuds are, historically, more talk-driven affairs, as Triple H likes to trade banter and one-liners with his opponents on Monday nights (and then usually beat them on Sundays). With the spotlight on him and a mic in his hand, Lesnar became exposed as someone who lost whatever skills he had managed to acquire by the end of his first WWE run. He was stilted, stammering, unfocused, and thoroughly un-intimidating. When he was allowed to hit things, Lesnar looked like a million bucks; when he had to talk, he looked like a deer in the headlights.
Enter Paul Heyman.
Heyman returned as “the advocate for my client, Buh-rock Les-nar!” and immediately things felt better. Heyman used his natural ability to get under the skin of the fans with perfectly crafted monologues and scathing verbal jabs, while Lesnar stood in the background and flexed his muscles. It was the formula that led Brock to previously-unheard of success in 2002, and managed to do so again a decade later.
With Lesnar working as a part-timer, Heyman joined with CM Punk. Though the straight-edge superstar never needed a mouthpiece, he found in Heyman the perfect compliment to his newly-turned heel character. Later, Heyman added Curtis Axel and–after ditching CM Punk–Ryback to his stable. Though neither of the later two superstars achieved a world title, Axel went from someone doomed to the bottom of the roster to inter-continental champion (what doomed him as a singles star was no fault of Heyman; it was his incredible lack of natural charisma as an in-ring worker). Ryback’s struggles to get over can’t be blamed on Heyman either; the booking of his feud with the then-WWE champion is to blame. Still, with Heyman in their corner those two managed to find a legitimacy they would never have achieved (Axel) and a level of relevancy on the main-event stage that had seemingly slipped away (Ryback).
At WrestleMania 30, Zeb Coulter was the manager of Cesaro who won the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal. Paul Heyman managed the man who broke the streak. A night later their paths crossed and, as Lesnar took his regularly scheduled hiatus, Cesaro jumped ship and became “A Paul Heyman Guy.” Both managers were essentially left where they started in 2012: With only one guy in their care.
Consider all the success these two manager have had in saving the careers of Swagger and Cesaro, in giving Ryback and Axel a second and a first chance at superstardom and in giving Lesnar the support he needed to make his 2nd run with the company worthwhile. For all their successes, it is ridiculous that they are not being used to help other superstars.
There are several performers on the roster who would benefit greatly by joining a stable managed by Zeb Coulter or Paul Heyman. Consider…
Sheamus. He’s an uppercard guy that can really work in the ring, but his character is stale and as a performer he is directionless. There are nagging rumors that he might join Evolution, but that doesn’t seem a good fit. Can you see Sheamus rocking a suit and shades? Pair him up with Heyman, however, and the Celtic Warrior becomes an instant, legitimate world title contender.
Damian Sandow. After his split with Cody Rhodes, the very talented talker and worker got lost in the shuffle and disappeared as a result. Lately Sandow has become a regular staple on WWE television, but in the worst possible way. He is a comedy act, laughed at for his buffoonery and thus regarded as a threat to no one in the ring. Siding him with Zeb Coulter allows him a chance to change his career trajectory instantly. He sheds his silly side, loses the “intellectual savior” shtick that was dooming him to a life in the midcard, and instantly becomes a tag title contender alongside Jack Swagger. Given enough time and he can pull a Cesaro and branch out into being a legit singles star.
Rybaxel. Heyman of course has paired with both in the past, but hasn’t been associated with them in a while. Together, Ryback and Curtis Axel have flourished as a tag team, showing great chemistry and managing to be marginally over with the live crowds. If Paul Heyman is to be this generation’s Bobby Heenan he needs a tag team in his portfolio. The tag scene has been making a comeback lately but the Usos need more than just random teams to beat. They need a heat-generating team to work alongside their very popular act. A Heyman-managed Rybaxel helps a very talented tag team stand out and a feud with the Usos elevates all parties as well as the tag titles.
Drew McIntyre. Like Sheamus, McIntyre’s problem is not his in-ring ability, it’s his stale persona. There are few workers on the roster more in need of a reboot than Drew. While ethnically it may not seem like a natural pairing, a team-up with Zeb Coulter would instantly force fans to care about McIntyre. Look what such a pairing did for Antonio Cesaro. Right now he is a faceless member of 3MB; as a “Real American” he is a threat to the inter-continental title and potentially could challenge for a world title on a B-PPV.
Sasha Banks. Wanna shake things up? How about adding a Diva to the next-generation “Dangerous Alliance.” Banks isn’t ready to be called up from NXT, but she’s a solid worker with tremendous charisma. Her mic skills are lacking, however, and though promo ability isn’t as big a deal among the divas as it is among the male wrestlers, it’s still a big deal. The few opportunities the divas are given to speak have to be made the most of. Having Heyman as a manager would help remove the one barrier that stands in Sasha’s way. Paige of course is the real obvious choice to become a “Paul Heyman Gal” but WWE seems to want to push her as a babyface right now. Whenever Sasha is ready to join the main-roster, with Heyman in her corner she would be an instant contender for the Divas championship and would rival AJ as the division’s top heel.
That’s just a handful of performers. Some of them are aimless right now, some are floundering or lost in the shuffle. They have great talent but lack one little bit of something to allow them to take their careers to the next level. The WWE has two of the best managers ever in their promotion; it’s time they took better advantage of them.