As Max Castor and Anthony Bowens, a tag team known as The Acclaimed, step through the ropes of the AEW ring, thousands of fans–many male and statistically very likely to be cis-hetero-identifying–sing in unison to the tune of the main riff from “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes:
Thousands of people–grown men, kids, some of the most outwardly tough people you’re likely to encounter, are emboldened to chant a phrase most popularized in a queer context. To me, this is emblematic of the kind of happening that can only be cultivated in a pro wrestling environment. It’s absurd at first, but when you think about it, it makes all the sense in the world.
Wrestling is uniquely suited to build connections between performers and the audience over the strangest things. It’s a place where an undead MMA-enthusiast mortician with lightning powers is one of the medium’s most enduring stars. It’s a place where a guy who spouted nonsense and mildly-problematic phrases like “roody poo candy ass” at his opponents not only became the biggest wrestling star to ever live, but transcended the industry to become a movie star and media icon. Wrestling created masked stars like Blue Demon and El Santo, Mexican heroes so beloved from both their wrestling careers and from fighting all manner of monsters–vampires, mummies, and more–on screen with dozens of film credits that the latter’s funeral in 1984 was one of the most widely-attended in Mexican history, all while never publicly revealing his face until after he retired.
Every wrestling promoter, big and small, has tried to reverse-engineer the secret sauce needed to get their performers over, and to create stars. Some, whether as a result of sour grapes or in order to drum up their podcast listener counts, get downright dogmatic about how their preferred philosophies are the singular correct way to get audiences onside. These pundits are almost always wrong, though. Because there’s never any one way to make a star. It’s an imprecise science, if it’s a science at all.
Wrestling Observer editor and historian Dave Meltzer often says on this topic that, “what gets over is what gets over.” And I think that’s largely true, even though it sounds dismissive or trite. What he’s saying is that trying to predict what wrestling gimmick will get over with wrestling audiences is like reading tea leaves to figure out what the next blockbuster movie or hit album will be. You can look at historic sales/popularity metrics, but they’re not especially useful for finding the next artist or piece of art that’ll resonate with audiences because the things that really hit and are truly memorable and progressive are artistic endeavours that are entirely new. And anyone that thinks they have the answer is almost certainly incorrect. Tastes change over time, and audiences gravitate towards so many different aspects of wrestling in different towns and even on different nights. A New York crowd may be into flashy moves, like those of a Rey Mysterio or a Dante Martin. An audience in Ohio might be into the over-the-top theatrics of an Malakai Black and his goth faction The House of Black, which draws influence from folk horror and black metal.
I’d offer that wrestling gimmicks are even less predictable than most other forms of art. I can be reasonably certain that the next Marvel or Mission Impossible theatrical release will do, at minimum, decent business regardless of quality. The decision to greenlight projects of that scale is mostly business calculus based on audience polling and sales data and other boring indicators, and while some properties under those umbrellas do better than others, they’re all but fail-proof. Wrestling, even at its highest levels, really doesn’t use any of that sort of audience testing or data when creating characters or gimmicks though. Wrestlers generally create characters themselves, often drawing on aspects of their own personalities. Stone Cold Steve Austin is an extension of Steve Williams, a guy who likes beer and who doesn’t take shit from people. His wrestling persona is a funhouse magnification of that “turned up to 11.” Where Steve Williams might enjoy a beer, Steve Austin will drink five at once and then start fighting his boss. Dwayne Johnson, outside of the ring, is about as opposite from the brash persona of The Rock (though the jury’s still out on his ego). Promoters can and do dole gimmicks out to wrestlers sometimes, but it’s up to the performer themselves to make the role their own, in an even more complex way than many actors, because they have to do so in a series of single-take improvised action, drama, and comedy scenes in front of merciless live audiences.
My favourite wrestling gimmicks are all ideas that, if you were to try to explain them to someone unfamiliar with wrestling or that particular wrestler, would make you sound nutterbutters. Consider Orange Cassidy. There’s no reason why a guy who rarely speaks, and whose gimmick is based on putting in as little effort as possible, should work. But Orange is one of the most popular stars in All Elite Wrestling, and it’s not at all unusual to see kids dressing up in his signature getup of ripped jeans, denim jacket, and aviator sunglasses. His laid-back quality is part of the appeal, and a guy who doesn’t waver or even react in the face of danger, insults, or violence is about as close to an objective definition of cool as exists. And like the best that pro wrestling offers, Cassidy’s in-ring style is unique and immediately recognizable. That nonchalant persona belies an incredibly athletic and compelling wrestling style. You try to do a sequence of moves, including a dropkick, with your hands in your pockets.
Or maybe frequent associate of Orange Cassidy, Danhausen is a better example. Looking as though someone explained The Exorcist’s Pazuzu through a broken telephone, Danhausen is a cartoonish, campy version of a demon. He collects teeth and curses people, but is likable in his quirky way. He doesn’t even wrestle all that much in AEW, but is one of the most popular stars and one of the company’s top merchandise sellers. You can find Danhausen’s mug emblazoned on t-shirts, masks, and even mugs!
Wrestling gimmicks, whether simple or esoteric and complex, have to be able to elicit a reaction from the always-fickle wrestling audience. When fans get behind a character, either by cheering and supporting them (usually, but not always a heroic character or babyface) or by allowing themselves to become angered and booing them (usually but not always a villain, or heel), that’s a success. And wrestling characters, by the nature of wrestling itself – a narrative and world that’s persistent over the course of years with no established beginning or end–are constantly being workshopped and tweaked over the course of time, live in front of an audience. It’s quite possible for the audience to turn on a wrestler or gimmick when it takes a turn they don’t like, or just when it becomes tiresome. Other times, fans will turn on a wrestler to get to the management of the company that dared to spotlight (“push”) them. WWE fans famously turned against Roman Reigns and John Cena, two ultra-popular stars under normal circumstances, when their preferred performers–Daniel Bryan and CM Punk–were relegated to second or third fiddle.
As The Acclaimed, Danhausen, and Orange Cassidy have shown us, a wrestling gimmick doesn’t have to make sense in order to get over. If I, myself, had the formula to creating stars in wrestling (or, for that matter, music, art, or movies), I’d probably be much wealthier than I am. I can tell you what’s gotten over in the past, and to what degree. I can tell you, based on history, what sorts of gimmicks tend to work (or not work) in certain geographic regions like Japan and Mexico. But neither are a reliable predictor of what the next big thing will be, or what wrestling fans will grab onto next. Getting over is a complex equation with many variables; the gimmick itself, the way the performer inhabits it, the presentation, and the audience on any given night. It’s not something that’s easily mastered, and even the biggest promotors and sharpest minds of the industry don’t always get it right. But when they do, it’s nothing short of magic. Ultimately, as Meltzer says, what gets over is what gets over.
Sachin Hingoo’s wrestling gimmick may or may not be that of a giant possum
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