For a lot of kids growing up in the 1980s, Saturday was spent in front of a glowing TV tube watching professional wrestling. In the mornings, the cartoon characters of the WWE invaded the living room. In early afternoon, the barroom brawlers of the NWA took centerstage. After a couple hours outside doing whatever the hell kids did all day, 6:05 meant World Championship Wrestling on TBS.
The Four Horsemen were the cornerstones of that Saturday night show, appearing several times throughout the two hour program, so that each member could advance their specific feud with whichever babyface dared take a shot at taking their title and ruining their never-ending good time.
Ric Flair, the World Heavyweight Champion, talked the talk and walked the walk. He was easy for fans to hate because of his obvious wealth but because the guy always walked out every match the world champion. Arn and Ole Anderson just looked straight mean. Not fake it for TV mean but the kind of men who’d drag a man out of a bar using just two fingers hooked in his mouth. The faux cousins methodically beating man just for changing the song on the jukebox.
Last but certainly not least was Tully Blanchard – a scrapper a few inches shy of six feet born into the wrestling business who looked like a car salesman but fought like a bareknuckle champion. Tully Blanchard barked the loudest of the dogs because he was the smallest of the group. He escaped matches within an inch of his life and bragged as though he had it won the entire time. He pointed at the camera and loved to tell the world just why he was the best around.
When a professional wrestling promo is done correctly it elicits one of four reactions from fans. It's either A) be that guy just for a day B) have a beer with the guy after the match C) watch the guy get his lights turned off by an opponent or D) murder him with their own bare hands.
The greatest talkers connected on at least one of these levels, in some cases, all of them. Each member of the Horsemen hit one of these points. Everyone wanted to be Flair, drink with Arn, watch Ole get his clock cleaned and, in Tully's case, murder him in the parking lot after the match.
Wrestling promos were simple in the early days of the business. The promos of today, some just as good, are a little harder to pull off.
Mat Men Become Mic Men
The late 1940s and early 1950s is dubbed the Golden Age of wrestling. TVs were making their way into American's living rooms and professional wrestling matches were no longer just sports spectacles held in auditoriums.
From 1948 to 1955, each of the three major television networks broadcast wrestling shows. Each week, local wrestling promotions were beamed into the homes of fans. giving them a closer look at the men they cheered and jeered from afar, inside packed venues.
Promoters and producers soon realized it wasn't enough to just show grapplers in action. There needed to be filler in between, before and after bouts. The wrestling promo eventually became an essential part of the show.
The personality of the professional wrestler became vital to selling out arenas and getting eyeballs to tune in every week. It's only logical that the most popular wrestlers of the era are were the men who's act translated to the small screen. Performers like Gorgeous George were handed microphones with the sole purpose of putting themselves over while explaining why their opponent had no chance.
Brian Zane is the creator of Wrestling With Wregret, a YouTube series dedicated to some of the most unforgettable, and some of the most regrettable, wrestling moments of the last thirty years. He recently did two popular videos on the best promo guys of the last few decades.
"A great promo can be done all kinds of different ways; You can tell a story, you can tell a joke, you can speak softly, you can scream, and so on," Zane says. "As long as it's natural and authentically you, people will believe it if you do. Promos should answer the question 'where’s the money?' A guy can talk for an hour and be hilarious but if he doesn’t tell people why they NEED TO come to the show, it's pointless. The promo is as much an advertisement as it is a monologue."
Cutting a promo is similar to writing a term paper. It should follow a format of "Here's what I'm going to do, here's why I'm going to do it, here's how, here's why you can't stop me" and end with a statement bringing the entire speech back to the original point. In order for a wrestling promo to really connect with an audience, the wrestler needs to hit on all those points in an attempt to either get fans on their side or turn fans against them.
One of the legends of this promo style was "The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes.
The "Hard Times" promo is considered one of the classics, a speech that the former NWA champion even admitted years later that "what was said and what went down at the time, they just don't do interviews like that anymore."
The NWO And Attitude Era Blurring The Lines
The MSG "curtain call," WWE superstars Shawn Michaels and Triple H hugged with the outgoing Kevin Nash and Scott Hall in the middle of the ring at the end of a match is a watershed moment that changed the business of wrestling forever so it only makes sense that two of the men involved be credited with changing the art of the wrestling promo. Scott Hall and Kevin Nash showed up in WCW and pretended to be from "up north," a nod to the WWE being base in Stanford and WCW being down south.
The initial fan response to Hall and Nash in the WCW was mixed but a majority of the audience didn't want WWE stars on their favorite wrestling program. During the in-ring promo at Bash at the Beach, after Hulk Hogan's legendary heel turn, the chorus of boos and avalanche of garbage in the ring make it obvious that fans were enraged with the immortal star turning his back on his little Hulkamaniacs.
Fast forward to a few weeks later and the N.W.O would become the hottest ticket in professional wrestling, many of the fans realizing their wiseass style and middle finger in the face of management was actually pretty awesome.
The biggest stars in WCW and during WWE’s Attitude Era blurred the lines between good and bad. The most popular wrestlers usually had a mean streak, both in the ring and on the mic. The Outsiders, Degeneration X, The Rock and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin cut promos that weren’t much different than the days of the Horsemen except the crowd had changed.
The wrestling promos soon out numbered the matches on Monday Night Nitro and Monday Night Raw as the programs ballooned to 3 hours. With all that time devoted to the brand, more and more guys were handed live mics. All that camera time led to some amazing wrestling moments (Chris Jericho’s is a man of 1,004 holds) and some not so great moments (Sid Vicious has half a brain).
The Wrestling Promo of Today
The changed dynamic of the sport has made it harder to get a response from the crowd besides reciting of a catchphrase or a What? The most memorable promos of the last ten years are those that seemed to go "off script" –such as CM Punk's "pipebomb" or The Miz going on on Talking Smack – were it feels as though performers go off script in the heat of the moment.
These moments of performers becoming unhinged are always popular with fans but nerve-racking to the faces behind the curtain.
"You can't just let people go out there and do whatever the hell they want to do," explained Paul Heyman in an interview with ESPN. Heyman, considered by man to be one of the best promo men of all time, continued that allowing every wrestler free reign on the microphone would be “a violation of WWE's responsibility to shareholders not to control everything that goes out under its brand."
A responsibility to a board of directors is partially to blame for some of the bland promos of the last few years. Except for a handful of top level stars, most of the performers are given guidelines and even scripts to follow. The scripted leads to the dull as many guys spend far too much time talking about inconsequential things that are important for the WWE bottomline but not the storyline. This was evident during the countless "$9.99" plugs for the WWE Network worked into speeches in 2014.
"Speaking strictly on a WWE level," explains Zane, "the biggest problem with promos today is that they're all written by the same group of people. An Apollo Crews promo can sound the same as a Roman Reigns promo can sound the same as a Becky Lynch promo because for the most part, the wrestlers are being told to recite from an exact script that's written by a committee, instead of being given a few bullet points to go off on."
Zane adds that this writing by committee style ruins the overall product because "no one is allowed to speak in their own voice and no one comes off as believable."
Wrestlers are equal parts athletes and method actors, individual characters in the grand performance of professional wrestling. To be convincing, a professional wrestler must understand his character. He needs a backstory to explain why he acts the way he does inside and out of the ring. Every gimmick is a professional wrestler's real personality jacked up to 100. Wrestlers should be reacting to the fictional world around them and not handed a script and told how to react.
There are some performers both in the WWE and in other organizations with the ability to work the crow into a lather like Dusty, Tully and talkers of the Attitude Era. Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho are doing some of the best promo work of their careers right now. Ethan Carter III, Ring of Honor's Dalton Castle, New Japan's Kenny Omega and "Broseph" Joe Brody are just some of the more entertaining wrestlers both on the microphone. Broken Matt Hardy reinvented both himself and his promo style and is experiencing a career resurgence proving the evolution of character and practice are a wrestler's biggest ally.
So how does the next wrestler get their break from the pack? Talk.
"If you're a wrestler who needs to work on promos," Zane adds, "the mirror and the car are your best friends."