Excellent banter on Twitter today, courtesy of @SedanoESPN, who posited a simple yet thought-provoking question for fans of the graps:
Who is the Mount Rushmore of Wrestlers cutting promos (w/ mic skills)?
— Jorge Sedano (@SedanoESPN) May 2, 2018
My immediate answer: Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, Randy Savage and Steve Austin. Not exactly a quartet with which one could argue, as all four are renowned for their ability to talk fans into buying a ticket or tuning into a show.
Each delivered promos with infectious energy — but energy alone isn’t enough for a monologue to endure generations; otherwise, Ultimate Warrior’s diatribes or interviews with a furiously bouncing Earthquake would be more fondly remembered than they are.
Rather, the reason sports teams social media managers tweet out Ric Flair segments, or “Austin 3:16” is still repeated 22 years later, or that Dusty Rhodes’ “Hard Times” promo is referenced still today comes from a message that transcends wrestling.
Randy Savage’s delivery style didn’t deviate from the typical shouty promos of the 1980s — not to the extent of another elite interviewee, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, or AWA World Champion Nick Bockwinkel, who gave inspiration to Chris Jericho’s career resurgence in the late 2000s.
But while Warrior screamed of a mythology he only fully understood, and the wholly disingenuous Hulk Hogan shouted about dog-paddling into the Pacific Ocean, Randy Savage’s energetic interviews made salient points. I watch his promo cut on Hogan ahead of Wrestlemania V, and say to myself: “Macho’s in the right here.”
Flair and Dusty are fondly remembered in part because of one another. It’s a Darth Vader-Luke Skywalker, Joker-Batman dynamic. The “American Dream” reflected much of the audience: the son of a lower-middle class worker, doing his best every day. Ric Flair represented the proverbial titans, flush with cash and with the common man under their thumb.
Although unintentional, the Flair-Rhodes feud functions as a brilliant avatar for 1980s American culture. Dusty speaks of corporate downsizing and layoffs in his celebrated “Hard Times” promo, which juxtaposes against the thousand-dollar alligator shoes and limousines that represented Ric Flair.
Part of what I love about wrestling is that when the medium is at its best, he can be a live-action comic book, or it can be an allegorical play where, hopefully, the good guy vanquishes a physical representation of some societal ill. Ric Flair representing the widening gap between the wealthy and middle class in America, and Dusty Rhodes as the working-class citizen, perfectly demonstrates the latter.
The same principle played out, and much more explicitly stated, in the long-running feud between Steve Austin and Vince McMahon. However, the promo for which Austin is most remembered came during his time as a heel, effectively launching the career arc that would eventually position him as the lead avatar for wrestling’s audience.
An unofficial begin to the Attitude Era can be argued as any of a variety of moments from 1996 through 1997. McMahon opened a Monday Night Raw in late ’97 definitively stating wrestling is a TV show, and providing a disclaimer that WWF’s show would be edgier. But the shift already began, with Bret Hart using profanity after a match in March 1997…
…Shawn Michaels doing…well, pre-2002 Shawn Michaels things…
…and, what I consider the unofficial launch of the Attitude Era, the 1996 King of the Ring.
Pop culture and entertainment became edgier in general in the early 1990s, and wrestling — as it’s wont to do it — caught up late. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was the first character who represented a culture where gangsta rap, Howard Stern and MTV’s Real World were mainstream.
Much of the Attitude Era has aged poorly. Without going into the specifics of its representation of women, the LGBTQ community, foreigners and racial minorities — that’s material for a much, much longer column — the Attitude and subsequent Ruthless Aggression Eras were chockful of moments that, in retrospect, I can’t believe didn’t make me swear off wrestling altogether.
Why I didn’t — and in the Attitude Era in particular, waited each Monday with bated breath — can be credited to the Steve Austin interviews my friends and I repeated the next day between classes.
Now that’s the definition of a great wrestling promo.