Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Feedback of Honor: The Art of the Coward

Lethal's portrayal of a chickenshit Champion is refreshingly on the right side of the fine line
Photo Credit: Scott Finkelstein
The chickenshit heel Champion trope has been one of those things ruined by WWE because of its overuse and poor implementation. The archetype is as old as wrestling itself; most bad guys have shown the color of their hats through nefarious undertakings and shirking away from the good guys' massive power while preferring to hit from the shadows, no matter how noble or not. It's not that those heels have all been categorically lame and feeble. The most prominent example of a chickenshit heel Champion, Ric Flair, could still go 60 minutes against the best any territory had to offer and carry a physical credibility that belied his tactics. Flair could have beaten Ricky Steamboat or Sting or Jumbo Tsuruta or whomever without resorting to underhanded tactics, so the fact that he did have to resort to them was all the more heartbreaking.

Meanwhile, WWE has taken the archetype to mean "sniveling heel who doesn't deserve to win the title wins it anyway and looks like a total jackass defending his title." For example, Jack Swagger won the last WrestleMania-contested Money in the Bank briefcase, and the only match he won as Champion that conveyed his physical credibility (of which he had in legitimate spades as one of the most decorated amateur wrestlers in Oklahoma University history) was his cash-in on Chris Jericho days after he won the briefcase in the first place. When a wrestler isn't presented as being in the league of the peers he's supposed to be running with, the fans pick up on that. Swagger never had a chance, and his title reign flopped.

So when Truth Martini first intervened on Jay Lethal's behalf in a transparent attempt to get disqualified in his Television Championship defense against Mark Briscoe, the groans would have been justified. For better or worse, WWE sets a tone for the way booking mechanisms are handled. But in the follow-through, Lethal was more Flair than Swagger. If one removed the interference from Martini, Jay Diesel, and Donovan Dijak and looked at the match itself, Lethal showed a presence as both Television and World Champion that befit his stature. Briscoe gave him everything he had, and Lethal still hung in there, which begged the question as to why he needed to have his "get DQed" easy button on the ready in the first place.

But that's the difference between booking that takes into account perception of the performers and writing that is basically at the mercy of whatever Vince McMahon had for lunch that day and whether it agreed with his stomach. A certain skill is needed to present a wrestler at the top of the card who feels the need to take every shortcut available to him or her, and it wasn't an art that necessarily needed to be shown or even quantified as something meaningful until that backing was taken away.

Lethal's credibility was able to allow his various goons and seconds to come in like the cavalry without really making it feel hollow. Granted, it's supposed to feel cheap; again, Lethal doesn't need help but wants it anyway. That's the source of his heat. But cheap and hollow are two different things. Cheap heat is good heat. Hollow gestures don't resonate with the desired reactions. ROH may do a few things wrong, but the foundation at the top of the card with Lethal being able to work solid matches and have a support system to make sure his wrestling ability doesn't babyface him with the fans is structurally sound, and it shows a tremendous skill at knowing how to play the coward without it blowing up in everyone's face. Sad to say, but in the wrestling landscape today, that art sometimes feels like it's getting lost.