The Season of the Heel: Kevin Owens and “Orange is the New Black”

Kevin Owens on Raw; Vee Parker on Orange is the New Black: Each was the villainous centerpiece of an entire season of their show’s run. Both came to save the day by injecting much-needed conflict during periods that could have easily been creative lulls for their respective shows. Vee appeared in OitNB at the beginning of the second season, at a point where the show’s ensemble cast of characters had been established, but outside of individual person-to-person drama, lacked purpose and direction as a group. Kevin Owens appeared on Raw in May, during the heart of what is often a post-Wrestlemania, pre-Summerslam build swoon for WWE. Vee and Owens are thematically similar in several key ways, and each was the perfect villain to shake things up and carry their respective narrative from point A to point C.

Both are corrupters of youth. Vee’s pre-prison drug business was built on exploiting young people who lacked means and support and forcing them to take dangerous, criminal risks. Her predatory instincts are best encapsulated in a scene where she has sex with one of her dealers, who sees her as a mother figure, just moments before sending him into a trap in which she knows he will be killed.

Kevin Owens might not be sending kids out to the street corner, but he has repeatedly made it clear that he has disdain for innocence and idealism as embodied by children. In his concurrent feuds with John Cena and Finn Balor, Owens derided each man by telling them with a smirk that his son looked up to them. This statement communicates two equally important messages: that Owens equates his son’s innocence and the values of his son’s heroes with stupidity, and, in a more sinister turn, that Owens has made it part of his mission to drive his own child to the dark side by tearing down his fundamentally decent heroes.

Many were upset to see Owens on Raw participating in the Brock-Taker pull apart and a six-man tag, saying he had been reduced to “just another guy” after his feud with Cena ended, but at least Owens wasn’t killed like Vee. It can be difficult to let go of great characters when their run is over, even evil ones, but it’s important to understand that their impact is not reduced just because they are no longer on top. Owens and Vee both had brief, spectacular runs that were extremely meaningful because they shook the entire universe in which they lived.

Part of what makes wrestling a great storytelling genre is that characters can be pushed up and down the card with relative fluidity as long as there’s an angle explaining the rises and falls. Is Kevin Owens positioned to be at the top of the Summerslam card? No. Could his budding feud with Cesaro produce great TV and help carry WWE through another traditional swoon once they get past Summerslam and into the NFL season? Yes. So don’t write Kevin Owens’ obituary yet.

500 Seconds on Wrestling — Episode 2: Dave Breaks Down NXT Episode 286

On this edition of 500 Seconds on Wrestling, Dave takes a close look at NXT Episode 286 and discusses some of the issues he feels have weakened the brand over the last few months.

iTunes Link: 500 Seconds on Wrestling on iTunes

YouTube Link: 500 Seconds on Wrestling Episode 2: Dave Reviews NXT Episode 286

Or, if you prefer, you can stream the podcast right here on the blog:

Owens-Balor: The Title Match of the Century

The build towards Owens-Balor on July 4 in Tokyo has been so impressive because the angle itself is largely just fundamentals. The execution has been such that the journey hasn’t felt formulaic at all, however. The match is built around the most basic raison d’etre of professional wrestling: the championship title. The high-energy babyface Balor has proven he is amongst the best and wants the title as validation of his love and sacrifice. The bully heel Owens has proven he is ruthless and needs to keep the title so he can lord it over people and cover his insecurities. To sweeten the pot, the NXT Championship has been elevated to a level that nobody could’ve expected through its involvement in the Owens-Cena storyline on Monday Night Raw.

It’s really simple wrestling math: Over, worthy, popular babyface + despicable but respected heel + coveted title = money match. (And that formula doesn’t even take into account the “smart mark” anticipation of seeing two world-class workers have a match together!)

What made the build towards July 4 so unique, however, was the fact that both wrestlers were presented as highly-credible stars in completely different ways. The champion Owens was established as a legitimate top dog by feuding with John Cena on Raw, going so far as to score a pinfall win over the face of our era at Elimination Chamber. This made Kevin Owens the biggest major league cross-promotional wrestling star since at least Ken Shamrock in the early days of UFC and perhaps as far back as the territorial era. Being portrayed as a beast in both NXT and WWE proper at the same time elevated Kevin Owens from “indy star and developmental champion” to “World Champion-level star.”

On the other hand, Finn Balor’s journey toward this match has been much more about talking than wrestling, and, at times, much more about Fergal Devitt than Finn Balor. The “Finn Balor: The Demon Revealed” promotional packages that aired over the last three weeks of NXT set a new standard for character development in wrestling. They combined the best aspects of an HBO boxing promo, a handmade documentary, and an ESPN “30 for 30” piece. The videos had just enough of that WWE polish to look highly professional without feeling phony or over-produced.

What “The Demon Revealed” did more effectively than anything that’s aired on Raw since the build toward Taker-Michaels 2 at Wrestlemania XXVI, however, was make you care about the match on a personal level. Introducing Fergal Devitt as a human being not just a wrestler, having other familiar faces put him over as a decent guy, and showing clips of him chasing his dream around the world added a bonus layer on top of the classic babyface + heel + title formula. NXT fans already loved and respected Balor as an exciting athlete, but now they are rooting for him on a personal and professional level as well.

NXT may be developmental, but this is the best angle in wrestling.

Dusty Lives: Finn Balor, Starrcade ’83, and an Incredible Legacy

The news of Dusty Rhodes’ passing sent ripples across the American consciousness this week. To wrestling fans, Rhodes was an icon of an era, a powerful kingmaker, and a highly complex figure who had been a part of wrestling’s greatest high- and lowlights in five different decades. To those who know little about wrestling beyond that it’s a thing that some people watch, Rhoades still stood out as a larger-than-life figure. He was a man who you didn’t channel surf past regardless of how you felt about pro wrestling, a captivating figure who came to represent far more than a fake fight ending with a big elbow.

Though his death robbed the wrestling business of one of the last great geniuses from the era of great wrestling geniuses, Rhodes’ legacy can be seen continuing through one of WWE’s hottest commodities, NXT. The build towards Finn Balor facing Kevin Owens in Japan for the NXT Title feels especially marked by Dusty’s touch. The match bears incredible similarity to the main event of one of the most important shows “The American Dream” ever helped put together: Starrcade ’83.

To compare Balor-Owens to Race-Flair may seem far-fetched, considering one represented two men at the pinnacle of the profession while the other is for a developmental title, but if you scale down the splendor that was Starrcade, the tremendous storytelling and structural similarities are clear to see. Both matches feature grizzled, physical heels taking on prettier, more athletic babyfaces. They are both David and Goliath stories in which “hometown” youths take on ugly bullies who came in from the other territory. Each match is strategically located in the place where the hero is most likely to get a megastar reaction: Flair in Greensboro and Balor in Tokyo.

On this week’s episode of NXT, a promo package hyping the upcoming match delivered the pitchline, “Finn Balor Arrives. Tokyo, Japan. July 4th.” The line was remarkably reminiscent of Scarrcade ’83 subtitle “A Flair for the Gold.” Each statement is basically promotional lingo for, “The babyface wins.” An essential part of the build is tipping the audience that they can be assured of consummation and don’t have to worry about being swerved or let down.

Therein lay the brilliance of Dusty Rhodes: he never forgot that for all the cleverness and complexity that can bookers and fans breathe into wrestling, at the end of the day people want to see the babyface win. Even when it was impractical in the large picture, Dusty’s instinct was always to give the people something that looked like a babyface victory. It was that desire to provide the fans with an uplifting moment that led to the creation and eventual over-use of the now-infamous “Dusty Finish.” In a sense, Dusty’s booking was like Marxism: it was highly humanistic and sought to make people happy but was hampered by the over-complexity of all the essential moving parts. Dusty may be gone, but the best parts of him live on.

The Proper Care and Feeding of Demons

Finn Balor and his pet Demon represent the ultimate marriage of two of the biggest stars of an era in WWE: Jeff Hardy and the Undertaker. Since his arrival in NXT, Balor has consistently been portrayed as more Hardy than Hardy. He’s a risk-taker. He’s attractive. He has a personal connection to the fans. He wrestles intensely exciting matches. What he doesn’t have, though, is the recklessness that derailed the much-loved Carolinian’s journey to the top of the mountain.

Balor’s superiority to Hardy as a potential top star draw is also evident when one considers their signature alter egos: Willow was Jeff Hardy being someone else, whereas The Demon represents a place that Balor reaches in his mind and spirit when the stakes are most high and the odds most unfavorable. Willow was a failure because people felt as though they were being cheated out of seeing the Jeff Hardy they knew and loved. On the other hand, when people see The Demon, they feel like they are seeing their favorite wrestler turned up way past eleven and into the stratosphere.

The Demon is the closest thing to an Undertaker gimmick on the current wrestling scene. The act has a special mystique that elevates Balor from being a top star on the show to the stop star on any show. His now-signature entrance is exactly the kind of thing that people pay money to see, even more money to see in person, and even more money to see up close in person. If the character is protected, as Undertaker was effectively for the last half-decade, Finn Balor’s entrance at Wrestlemania could become one of the most anticipated aspects of the big show.

However, much of the money in The Demon is in Balor not being The Demon – at least not most of the time. Unlike the Undertaker, who at times in his career was overexposed by week-in, week-out television appearances, Balor has the luxury of being Finn Balor on TV. Ninety-nine percent of the time, he can simply portray the exciting, high-flying, straight-up wrestling babyface with the natural bond to the fans. Living as Jeff Hardy with a slow build to being the Undertaker once every four months would give Balor the chance to be the biggest money babyface of his era.

Unfortunately, NXT Takeover: Unstoppable was the perfect example of a show where the Demon should have remained chained in Hades. The positioning of the match was all wrong for Balor to take things to the supernatural level. A vicious, mystical, quasi-monstrous being should never, under any circumstances, jerk the curtain. Furthermore, even the announcers were openly discussing how the match was less juicy than it should have been due to the injury to Hideo Itami. Add those factors together with the pressure not to burn out the crowd early, and the result is a match that was “just really good.” The Demon shouldn’t be in really good matches; The Demon should be in the match of the season.

N(utshell)XT Takeover: Rivals as a Microcosm of the Territory

If Takeover: Rival was your first NXT show, you now know everything you need to about the WWE’s universe-within-a-universe. The two-hour special was the perfect representation of what NXT provides viewers on a weekly basis, beauty marks, warts, and all.

The Good:

NXT is the place where polished, highly-athletic, highly-motivated independent and international performers make their pitch to be on national TV in front of an audience of millions. The hunger on this show was palpable; you could feel it oozing from Zayn, Owens, Neville, and Balor. The two showcase singles matches both felt like they meant something to the competitors involved. Whether their goal is to get closer to the NXT Championship or closer to the WWE main roster, all four men went to the ring and asserted themselves as ready for the next step.

NXT also provides a platform for women (as in athletic female adults) to prove themselves as equal to their male counterparts in wrestling skill, ability to get over, and drawing potential. The fatal four way match for the NXT Women’s Title was not just a compelling title match, it was deserving of a spot on the short list of all-time four person matches. This battle was truly a testament to what makes NXT unique in the mainstream, as there aren’t even four Divas on Raw or Knockouts on Impact who are over enough to be in a twelve-minute title match.

The Bad:

NXT is a developmental territory where a lot of wrestlers who won’t ever have a good match wind up on the card. Bull Dempsey and Baron Corbin were provided the No DQ stipulation in an attempt to “help” them have a watchable match. It didn’t work. Brawling hossfights can only have two outcomes: both guys look tough, or both guys look like they can’t wrestle. This match was a reminder that even the well-traveled WWE bag of tricks is no substitute for talent. The Tag Title match was similarly hard to watch, containing a whole Botchamania episode of blown, mistimed, or otherwise weak-looking spots, which resulted in the competitors not telling any story beyond “The titles change hands.”

The Ugly:

NXT is a cool wrestling show for cool kids to watch. This was on display more clearly than ever when the crowd in the building for Rival did significant damage to the Zayn-Owens main event. Owens, the thinking heel, goaded his way into a title match he hadn’t earned… and came out to a tremendous pop. He beat up his best friend in a way that pushed beyond the limits of sportsmanship, competition, or good taste… and got tremendous pops as he did it. He won the title in the most controversial, flimsy way possible… and got a tremendous pop. Zayn never got his fired-up comeback because the crowd was too busy showing how much they think they know about wrestling by cheering the violent guy rather than the nice one. The crowd let down Zayn, NXT, and anyone who bought into the angle.