By former Lords of Pain 205 Live reviewer, “205 Clive“.
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We have seen in WWE Superstar Apollo Crews these past weeks a transformation like few before him. Gone is the happy-go-lucky, gosh darn it blank canvass. Whose charisma was as vapid as his offense was arresting. In its stead? A no nonsense, chip on the shoulder warrior, confidence in his own skin bursting from the screen. This in itself is undoubtedly a personal success for Apollo. Based on his words to Corey Graves on the recent After The Bell podcast, it’s a shot in the arm he needed, if not desperately desired. It’s a success also that breathes yet another lease of life into the bustling blue brand that is Smackdown and its midcard. Several of the Friday night flagship’s stories have a sense of really mattering. Apollo’s new character shift, and its intentions on Big E’s Intercontinental Championship, are right up there with them.
So far, so good, so what’s the problem? I hear you ask. Well, on the surface, there isn’t much to complain about. Two men either stuck in catering or in the tag team division are being given a chance to shine in a gritty, challenging rivalry. Two men of colour warring over one of wrestling’s most prestigious prizes, too, in a time where racial divide still sadly remains a sensitive matter. Not so far away from Wrestlemania, no less. The issue I have with it, however, is the use of a trope upon which WWE has been considerably reliant over the years. A trope that is destined to repeat itself till probably the end of time, if the reason for its use isn’t fixed at a fundamental level. That of a heel turn for an otherwise directionless – or even characterless – baby-face wrestler.
It’s happened before with varying levels of success. Sometimes stratospheric, as far as aesthetics are concerned, when considering the Rocky Maivias, John Cenas, and Roman Reignses of the world. In other instances, which Colin Cassidy and Tucker Knight can no doubt attest to, the results have been significantly less than. A question I ask is what lies in such a turn being pulled off well?
One theory is that the frustration and disdain that resides in their new make-up comes from a real place. Frustration from lack of opportunity, held out of reach by the WWE decision makers. Disdain for fans who regularly and relentlessly shit on them online or, worse still, show no interest at all. That this melting pot of emotions finally bubbles to the surface, unleashing a chemistry with the screen and their fellow cast members that nobody knew was even there.
As Stone Cold Steve Austin has famously said, the best characters are those who play themselves turned up to eleven. Well, in these instances, few things are hotter than a fresh heel turn that really hits home and delivers in a big way. Perhaps because these emotions the wrestlers now show are so close to home, it explains how natural they come across. Particularly with Apollo Crews, whose issues with race tinted bullying birthed a powerhouse promo performance this last week. By a man who once upon a very recent time couldn’t string a sentence together that didn’t sound as cookie cutter as it gets. But more on that later.
Another theory is what it says about wrestling fandom today – even society as a whole – when many of us simply think that bad guys are just, well, cooler. I imagine the dawn of the “boxset era” in television played a pivotal part in this shift of mindset and preference. A generation where fictional characters’ moral compasses wavered far more often towards the villainous side than the heroic. Tony Soprano. Walter White. Hell, almost the entire Game of Thrones cast. Go through your streaming services, dust off your DVD shelves, and you’ll find many a character who fascinates with their penchant for the dark side.
Is it simply a case of osmosis? Where the viewing habits of an ageing audience have absorbed and transformed how modern pro wrestling is enjoyed by fans? And is it simply that a Tribal Chief, or a man of Nigerian, military infused royalty are far more compelling than a dude who pumps his fists and another who does cool flips?
Or is it a combination of the above, with this, my final supposition. That WWE really is as out of touch as a vocal portion of fans and pundits believe it to be? That when it comes to presenting to the audience a resilient, relatable baby-face, WWE often misses the mark, and anything – anything at all – is comparatively more palatable? Evidence against this narrative is certainly squashed by the likes of Daniel Bryan, Drew McIntyre, and the Four Horsewomen’s majority. But it’s also hard to ignore several instances over the years where wrestlers are presented as bland as bland can be. Where they are so wooden, so rigid, that it’s clear as day they are more focused on remembering a script verbatim than they are in trying to project its message. That’s even if said message is actually juicier than “I’ll get you for this, this Sunday at X!”.
It could be that those wrestlers don’t believe in what they’re saying. Or that the onus is on them, and them alone, to deliver. And when they don’t, it’s either back to the drawing board, or back of the line. But when you have a literal promo class at your disposal in Florida, and an apparent anality in how weekly television is produced, who should take on the bulk of responsibility, other than the WWE machine itself? It can be argued that your Daniel Bryans, your Becky Lynches etc. got over in spite of the WWE system. If that’s the case, then is it not time for WWE to throw out the rule book and work more closely and personally with its struggling talent? So that some of these out of nowhere heel turns are either a) truly merited, or b) not necessary at all?
Whether the above theorising is indeed accurate in Apollo’s case or not, it’s working for the oft aimless midcarder. He stands opposite a Big E who can do no wrong in many’s eyes. Langston may even feed off Apollo’s new guise and shake off the hammier side of his act even further, which he’s done very well so far. It’s controversial enough, too, to leave a lasting impression. Well, with me, at least, as is evidenced with my wont to write this. Furthermore, it has the potential to stand out as a unique, cerebral story, if it does indeed make its way to Wrestlemania. A stark contrast and refreshing palate cleanser to what is currently a shenanigan heavy Raw main event scene.
And those are just the immediate benefits. Long term? It could certainly go some way in cementing Apollo as a key player, should his moral alignment ever switch back. For, some of those in the past who pulled off impactful one-eighties were then able to use that newfound conviction and guide their improved acting chops towards an equally successful face run. So here’s to Apollo Crews and his future prospects. May the confidence that now clearly exudes from him, and hopefully the trust that WWE currently has in him, provide for him a more fulfilling career. One that is only fitting, of course, for a man of Nigerian royal descent.
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