First things first: Grumpy Cat will be appearing next week on Monday Night Raw, presumably as part of a synergy with Lifetime, which aired a Christmas movie starring the Miz, and will also have one featuring Tarder Sauce herself (the cat’s real name).
This is all part of a strategy by WWE to appeal to women, and without seeing the numbers, I can’t tell if it’s working (it works for Julia, but she was a wrestling fan already). But WWE certainly thinks it does – as I noted last week, the rise of movie-star good-looking champions like John Cena is a key aspect of this. Here’s the problem: most wrestling fans alive today have been conditioned to hate handsome champions.
Think about who the top names were in the ’70s and ’80s. You had guys who looked like athletes, your Bruno Sammartino and Bob Backlund types. There were the guys who looked like they’d win a bar fight, like Dusty Rhodes and Harley Race. And you had superheroes who barely seemed human, like Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant. None of them would be considered especially handsome…with the major exception of Ric Flair, who rubbed his good looks in the fans’ faces.
Now, let’s be real – by movie-star standards, Flair was not outstandingly handsome. Long before he became a crazy old man, his yelling face reminded me of Mumm-Ra from Thundercats. But he believed he was, and he had the extravagant trappings of Liberace-style flamboyance; to Southern fans of the era, this was the worst possible insult – a guy who “looked gay” but would steal their women. (Back when I was an attendee of Smoky Mountain High School, North Carolina, it was not uncommon to hear the illogical phrase, “Don’t touch my girlfriend, you fag!” That bizarre redneck reasoning was manipulated to a tee by Flair.)
It’s not that there weren’t stereotypical handsome guys for the ladies to enjoy, but they were usually mid-carders or tag teams, like the Fantastics, or Tito Santana. Maybe even in more regional promotions, they’d be the champ, like Rick Martel in the AWA, and arguably Kerry Von Erich in World Class, who was booked as if he were a heartthrob, but honestly looked more like a horse than a rock star. They’d beat bad guys the same size as themselves, but often fall to monster heels like Bruiser Brody, who would gain bad guy cred by destroying the pretty face.
The champ – the top guy – would be the one you could believe was the toughest guy, or the most devious guy. It wasn’t until Ted Turner bought up all of WWE’s former big names that we got Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels as main eventers, as Vince McMahon did what he could with what he had and made the most talented midcard guys into his top two. They always had the ability, but at any time prior their look would have held them down. In WCW, Sting was a good-looking guy – but he covered his face with paint so you couldn’t even tell. Even Steve Austin began as a “Stunning” superstar with shiny robes, and didn’t become a top guy until he started drinking beer and swearing on ECW TV. That was more typically how good-looking guys were used: think Ravishing Rick Rude, or The Narcissist Lex Luger. Aside from insulting the local sports team, one of the quickest ways to get a wrestling crowd to boo you is to bring a mirror to the ring and stare at yourself in it.
What changed? The Rock did. Though it’s notable that he began as a stereotypically handsome guy, and fans hated it. Only when he flipped and started acting like an asshole did he become a star, and even now when he probably couldn’t be booed if he tried, it’s that dickish edge that keeps him popular even though ladies love cool Dwayne.
John Cena doesn’t have that edge. He used to, when he was still acting like a rapper. But as the guy who loves the fans and fights for them – the entirety of his gimmick nowadays – he’s not only too clean in personality, but he has the good looks we’ve been conditioned to hate, and he smiles just like Rocky Maivia did. Brock Lesnar may be an unpopular champion for many reasons, but he absolutely looks like the most indestructible guy on the roster. And yeah, he’s ugly.
We hate Cena because, even without the classic bleached-blond hair, he acts like a type we’ve been conditioned not to believe in as champion. He’s like Marcus Bagwell or Chip the Firebreaker if they never went away. Those characters have a role to play, but to longtime fans, the role of champ is not it.
Talk back about Raw below if you wish.