Fight Forever! – The Elements of a Quality Wrestling Storyline
Published on: September 10, 2016
We Write Wrestling – @WeWriteWrestlin
As I sit back in my chair and watch the climax of the everlasting Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens feud, I smile. I have just received supreme satisfaction not simply from seeing natural babyface Zayn come out on top, but from reaching the end of a rivalry that will go down in history alongside the all-time greats such as The Rock and Steve Austin, Bret and Owen Hart, the Fabulous Freebirds and the Von Erichs, Tanahashi vs Okada.
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Kevin and Zayn’s feud can be traced back much further than recent years, with deep roots from their independent days, especially in Ring of Honor. On February 17th 2007, Kevin Steen and El Generico, as they were then known, teamed together against the Briscoe Brothers in a losing effort. That was the start of a 34 month run together as a tag team, which included a ROH Tag Team title reign of over 200 days. However, on the 19th of December 2009 at Final Battle, following a loss to The Young Bucks, Steen turned on Generico, beginning a year-long feud that ended up winning the Wrestling Observer Feud of the Year award – the only time ROH has done so.
WWE was wise to capitalize on the natural chemistry these two guys have together. One could make an argument that it is the first ingredient to a successful storyline. If the guys in the ring know each other and their styles it is easy to translate that into an engaging match and overall feud for the audience. It enables them to play to their respective strengths and weaknesses by covering each other’s flaws (although let’s be honest, Zayn and Owens don’t exactly have many of those). An example of this however is the AJ Styles vs John Cena feud that has been going on over the last few months. Cena is clearly incredibly comfortable on the mic, and Styles feeds off of that (along with being a heel, a position I feel he’s more natural in) to create some wonderful verbal exchanges. They have their blow-off match at SummerSlam, and it was be epic.
To most hardcore wrestling fans, they will often tell you that a simple singles match is preferable to matches with various stipulations assigned to it (Asylum match anyone?). In this day and age however, stipulations are favored by the more casual audience, hence why we now have mainstay pay-per-views with certain stipulations as part of the selling point (Fatal 4-Way not being one of them, because, you know, it was a dumb idea in the first place). In this writer’s humble opinion (which you’ve already probably disagreed with multiple times), having stipulation based PPV’s forces the match type upon us, often when it doesn’t add anything new to the feud in the first place.
Contrary to what you now believe based on what I have just written, I do not hate stipulations being used at all. Look no further than the Sasha vs Bayley feud, which built on how closely matched the competitors were and that Bayley couldn’t quite grasp that championship victory. As a result, the storyline climaxed at last year’s Takeover: Brooklyn with a 30 minute Iron Man match that showed Bayley finally topple her fellow horsewoman to win that elusive NXT Women’s title. That match stipulation worked in the context. An example of where it doesn’t work is Randy Orton and John Cena’s 10,485,923rd feud in the fall of 2014, which concluded with a Hell in a Cell match at the PPV of the same name. Please WWE, I’m begging you, don’t do this feud again.
To be fair to Randall Keith Orton and John Felix Anthony Cena Jr, they suffered from a lot more than just stipulation misuse. Their entire feud that year felt tired and was at times painful to watch as it had zero innovation to try to re-imagine the feud, leading to a completely duplicated sequence to all their other feuds. You all know the one I’m on about; the one where Orton wins their first match, before ‘Big Match’ John comes back from almost impossible odds (that’s what Michael Cole will have you believe anyway) to win the following two matches to a standing ovation from a capacity crowd. Wait, that last bit’s not right; replace standing ovation with mixed response and capacity crowd with WWE’s made up figure, now that’s more accurate. Sorry, I need to focus.
The whole basis of WWE presenting a ‘New Era’ is that there will be fresh match-ups as a result of an influx of new talent, which can seize and then, more crucially for WWE, hold an audience’s attention – in theory at least. One of the traits that was so captivating about the John Cena vs Kevin Owens feud midway through last year was that it was new and it was different. It allowed the creative team to tap into untold stories that could work between the two. Add in some outstanding matches, and WWE had their best feud of the year.
The feud between the former indy darling and WWE’s franchise player also demonstrated the power that good in-ring storytelling has in determining the heights a storyline can reach. It’s all well and good having verbal sparring between the two to promote the match, but if the match itself is dull, predictable, poorly worked or a combination of the three, then viewers themselves have no incentive to watch future rivalries involving these two men.
Criticism is often launched at John Cena by virtue of the fact that he frequently comes out on top in his feuds, especially when his opponent is an up-and-comer, as it deals a hefty sucker punch to their momentum going forwards. Wrestlers such as Umaga, Wade Barrett, Bray Wyatt and Rusev have had their careers stalled after multiple defeats to ‘Big Match’ John.
One element that is absolutely crucial to dictating the future creative direction of the wrestlers involved is the blow-off to the feud and how each of them look coming out of it. In certain circumstances, the fans don’t mind the supposed heel prevailing as long as he or she provides good entertainment and wrestling and it follows a logical path.
Sadly, for the WWE, logical reasoning can go missing in storylines, especially for midcard and lower-midcard matches. If the bookers can’t find a rational reason to have two wrestlers square off against one another, then don’t book it. That’s just Booking 101. Take the Dolph Ziggler/Baron Corbin feud as evidence; they fought on three straight PPV’s and I still have no idea what they were fighting about. Who had the greasiest hair? Maybe. I get that Corbin is a ‘Lone Wolf’ but if I ask why these two are fighting, no-one is able to answer me (if you can answer that question leave it in the comments below and I apologize for dishonest reporting).
At the end of the day if you can follow all these steps properly, then you are on the right path to booking a very good storyline that will get the fans emotionally invested and happy with the outcome.
Just a side note, when a character debuts on TV, the creative team needs to take measures to develop his or her personality so that the fans can start to understand his or her motives and traits in order to get them over. Because if you book a world-class storyline, but it’s between Curtis Axel and The Great Khali, no-one is going to tune in in the first place.
Those are my thoughts on what contributes to creating quality wrestling that can be engrossing on a weekly basis. Do you have anything to add or want to disagree with me and wish me a slow, painful death? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter.