Wrestling 102: The Promo
For 500 Tricky Dick Fun Bucks, what do futbol, professional wrestling, tennis and golf all have in common? Give up? While they all involve balls is technically correct, the answer is that at their core, all sports are about telling a story. Whether you're a young female upstart that just kicked the ball in your own goal, or you're the best in the world and just can't stop cheating on your sort of hot wife, in professional sports, it's the tales that keep us coming back for more.
While most traditional forms of sport must rely on the voices of commentators and sports media to help craft their tales, professional wrestling has perhaps the most entertaining and effective framing devices in the industry: the in ring promo. Unlike a traditional press conference or a post game interview, the promo serves a very important purpose in the world of predetermined sporting events.
Professional wrestling is unique in that most story lines are not organic in nature, rarely originating from events outside of the creative nature of the sport. Employing story lines generated from a writers room means that there needs to be a way for the performer to explain to the crowd why exactly they're so god damned pissed off all the time. In pro wrestling, that generally means grabbing a mic and opening your mouth.
Newer fans of pro wrestling may not understand the significance of the in ring promo, as most story lines have been watered down to appeal to even the dumbest rubes. Combine this with a normally twenty minute opening promo, usually performed by The Authority, and you have a recipe to turn what was once among the many highlights of the night, in to a bathroom break... but it wasn't always like this.
Veteran fans remember a day when Chris Jericho, Stone Cold Steve Austin, or Val Venis would come to the ring and ask for a mic and you'd be glued to the television. Whether they were intense, funny, or mean spirited, there was a day when promos were a special and honored tradition. They were treated with a high level of respect and urgency. However, you wrestling virgins may not have had a chance to experience this magic.
Welcome friends to the second season of Wrestling 101, cleverly named Wrestling 102. Wrestling 102 is a semi recurring series dedicated to introducing new fans to the history of some of Wrestling's greatest stars and greatest traditions. Wrestling 102 is also a chance for long time fans to re-familiarize themselves with the work of some of the best in the business. Join us as we introduce you to four examples of promo work that exemplifies what makes wrestling the greatest sport on the planet.
Macho Man Randy Savage Wrestlemania V
Before we get started we must answer the question, what is a promo, and what makes them special? Simply put, a promo is an interview or monologue a wrestler conducts in character, either in the ring or backstage, post or pre match. The purpose of a promo is typically to advance a storyline between characters or to introduce new elements to an existing storyline.
We know what they are, but what makes promos so special, and why do we need them. Dissecting a good promo, you will find that they accomplish three things. They progress or create a story, they progress the growth of a character and, most importantly, they entertain.
Now, with 40 years of WWE promo work to slog through, and the constrictions on the article, there is no way to include every single type of promo, nor is the purpose of the article to rank the best mic men or the best promo work. That being said, by now, everyone has seen the CM Punk “Pipe Bomb” promo or the Stone Cold “3:16” King of the Ring promo. We've all seen Macho Man propose to Miss Elizabeth and if I see the Mike Tyson incident again I'm swearing off wrestling forever. Instead, these are examples of what unsung stick work can do, taking a good show and make it a great show.
Macho Man's personality has always had a larger than life quality, and it always shined through in his mic work. In his era, and even today, he remains among the best at cutting a promo. The video above showcases excellent promo work by way of Savage. While Randy Savage could read aloud a dishwasher manual and make it sound like shakespear, his work above not only tells a story, in doing so it sells a pay per view.
Macho Man has been wronged. Legendary dirt bag Hulk Hogan broke the Mega Powers and took Savage's spotlight, he's trying to take his title, and he's trying to take his girl. Savage shows incredible range of emotion in this promo. From the excitement at the chance to get revenge on the still babyface Hulk Hogan, to the highest level of pissed off at the memory of Hogan telling his darling Elizabeth that he loved her.
Promos like this are sadly a thing of the past. While the method of presenting promos has improved, the passion and execution in modern promo work is clearly lacking. As a final note, for any wide ass internet wrestling fan that claims that good promo work can't exist in the PG era need simply turn to the video above.
Paul Bearer reveals the existence of Kane
Few argue that The Undertaker is Vince McMahon's greatest creation. Some 25 years later, the man is still working, and is likely to be working in some six months at 'Mania 32. However, Undertaker wouldn't be the monster he is today had it not been for the help of perhaps the greatest manager in the history of professional wrestling.
Paul Bearer stood by the side of The Phenom for throughout much of early 90s and late 80s before turning to the dark side, managing The Undertaker's brother, the demon Kane. Like Savage, Bearer possesses a legendary voice and personality, turning even a mediocre promo into stuff of legend.
In the video above, Bearer takes the opportunity to reveal a dark secret from the Undertaker's past. During this period in WWE, the era of wrestling parking attendants and clowns was coming to an end, and the Attitude Era was right around the corner. In telling the story of the murder of Undertaker's parents and brother, Bearer takes a character on the edge of attitude and pushes him over the cliff. With the promo above, Bearer creates an entirely new character and helps breath life into a show and company that was in real danger.
While I'm not implying that Paul Bearer single handedly saved WWE with this promo, turning The Undertaker into a much darker and complex character certainly saved him. This promo meets all the criteria of what makes a good promo. With Bearer's help, Undertaker has been cemented as a deep and complex character, and we as fans are left wondering not only why Undertaker would do such a thing, but just who the hell is this Kane fella.
Mr McMahon takes a lie detector test
Full disclaimer: This is one of my favorite promos/skits in WWE's history, and Its usually one of the first promos I share with a new wrestling fan, even if I have to tell them who Mae Young is. This promo more than meets each criteria of a good promo, but where it shines is entertainment. As the camera pans around the audience, notice that there are no rowdy fans, nor people on the edge of their seats, just cheers and laughter. Its just goddamned funny.
Sadly, the story behind this excellent promo is no where near as entertaining. Hulk Hogan had been fired a few weeks prior and Stephanie McMahon, the then General Manager of Smackdown, hired a masked wrestler by the name of Mr. America, who vehemently denied that he was Hulk Hogan, despite obvious evidence to the contrary. The gag, of course was that Mr. McMahon was furious that Hogan had been hired back into WWE, and sought to do everything he could to prove that Mr. America was indeed, Hulk Hogan.
While the Mr. America storyline is largely forgettable, this promo is a great example of performers taking a poor and uninteresting storyline and giving it relevance through an entertaining skit. McMahon is a hell of a showman, and it shows here. Willing to get shit on for the sake of entertainment, McMahon's promo and skit work are stuff of legend for good reason. Do yourself a favor and familiarize yourself with the McMahon brand of promo work, as he has cut some of the best.
Bret Hart goes completely batshit crazy
Sometimes, promos don't go exactly the way they're planned, and things tend to go off the rails. Look up any promo featuring Scott Steiner and you'll see what I mean. However, sometimes things go so far off the rails that what's left after the shit hits the proverbial fan is far more interesting and entertaining than what was put on paper.
A precursor to the infamous Montreal Screwjob, Bret Hart's star in WWE was fading fast. A traditionalist in an industry that was clearly leaving him and his values behind, tension had been building inside Hart for weeks, and this was the outcome. After being screwed out of the belt one too many times, the outcome is seen in the video above.
Whether or not this was a “work” is up for debate, however I for one like to believe it's genuine anger and disdain for his employer. What is certainly genuine is Vince McMahon's face and body language. On one hand, he has to answer to a network who is airing a broadcast filled with obscenities. On the other, Bret Hart is in the ring printing money at an incredible rate... its clear to see which decision McMahon went with.
While this promo only furthers a story by proxy, what it does accomplish is furthering the development of the Bret Hart character. Hart, who was once the guy that stood for family friendly values in a legitimate sport, now finds himself in a locker room full of guys pointing at their crotches and telling the audience to “suck it.” Its an interesting story of a man past his prime trying to find his way in a rapidly changing world... that's something a lot of people can relate to.
Promo work doesn't need to be gritty, nor does it need to constantly push the envelope in regard to content. Today's wrestling promotions treat the promo as time filler, a chance to simply mention the name of the next pay per view and go one with the next sideshow. But there was a day when the promo was more than a long winded commercial for Battleground 2015. There was a day where Promos made us cry, they made us laugh, and most importantly, they kept us watching.