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THE DEAD ART OF WORKING THE CROWD

by A. Nonymous

There is a civil war growing in the wrestling world. As anyone who listens, watches TV, or especially reads the sheets can tell, there's a vocal division between the new "hard-core" fans as they like to call themselves, who care about table breaking, blood and fancy routines, but little else, and traditionalists, who wish wrestling would get away from theatrics and back to some basics of old. Which faction is "right"? It's like asking, "Is Ranch or Italian dressing better?" You'll get different answers from different people.

One thing is certain. Younger wrestlers now in the limelight have been "educated" in the era of fancy bumps, "hard-core mentality" and opinionated but often inaccurate newsletters. And with the older wrestlers leaving the game, the wrestling world has made a dramatic shift--toward the hardcores and away from traditional fans.

Granted, this is not without merit. You see a lot of fancy moves, and most of the of the "old-timers" never would have done them. If you like that sort of thing, that's great! However, if you go longing for the days when a ready interchange between fans and wrestlers took place, you'll be let down. Watching big time wrestling today is like watching a movie in a theater. Lots of action in front of you, but the viewer is left out--a mere spectator and nothing more. The art of "working a crowd" is dead.

Working the crowd simply refers to the way a wrestler would get the crowd involved, booing or cheering, in the match. Heels would single out particularly vocal fans and at a dull point in the bout--say something to get them going. Babies (good guys) in turn, would rally to get fans vocally on their side! It added to the fun of going to live wrestling. My mother, who never liked wrestling much, actually got a kick out of watching the fans rather than the matches.

Very few in the "Big Two" work the crowd. You can't really count Austin, because flipping people off and saying "son" isn't exactly what I had in mind. Among those who do, however, are Virgil Runnels when he was Goldust (Remember the classic, "If you don't shut up, I will personally come out there and kiss every one of you!"), Michaels and Hogan, (and I hate to admit this) Lawler and a couple of others. That's it. Everyone else concentrates on working the bout, but not the crowd! It's like watching the Rocky Horror Picture Show. The audience might shout at the screen, but no one answers.

In looking back, some of the remarks the wrestles made stick in my mind better than their bouts. Working the crowd has become for the most part a memory, and it leaves behind a trace of nostalgia. For example, Lawler's lines over the years have been great! To a skinny guy--"If you put a dime on your head, you'd look like a nail"--to an old woman, "Look at this, everyone--this is what a mummy looks like without the bandages," and "You look like a beaver--you need to go see Dr. Isaac Yankem" to a girl with bucked teeth. Then, of course, there was his infamous "steroid test"--where he used a cardboard box "steroid tester" which looked like the ping pong machine on Captain Kangaroo to prove Jeff Jarrett and Kerry Von Erich were using roids. On and on. Don Rickles has nothing on this guy!

Others don't stand out as much, but there are plenty of examples. Chris Champion yelling, "Shut up--you're yelling the wrong stuff" and Larry Zybysko's "Listen up, this is important" to vocal fans. Independent wrestler The Time Traveler often repeated, "I've got the microphone, so you people have to listen to me whether you like it or not--because with this I can talk louder than you." All of these antics got the crowd going all the more.

Gestures or simple things can do it, too. Gorgeous George, Bobby Shane, and Buddy Rogers could ignite a crowd just by the way they walked to the ring. George Steele's eating the turnbuckles, Bull Curry's holding his ears, Killer Brooks and his cigar--especially in buildings with no smoking signs posted all over. Sgt. Slaughter led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance after the bloody bunkhouse bout which concluded his feud (and an era) with the Iron Sheik. Even the basic good guys stomping their feet to get the crowd to mimic them. It's all an art long gone.

Likewise, "kay-fabing" was part of "working a crowd." Wrestlers never used to admit under any circumstances that wrestling was phony. Now everyone does, even big names. To see how things change, look back in WT&N and see the article where Dory Funk, Sr. was arrested rather than give away he was a promoter as well as wrestler. Note David Shultz boxing the ears of that 20/20 nerd. "Fake! Was that fake? That was just an open hand slap!" Or one of my favorites--on community cable, when The Time Traveler and David Rose were being interviewed on community cable, and the reporter asked about razor blades. "Yeah, I've carried a razor blade in my pocket, and I've cut myself or my man when managing," said the Time Traveler (Rose looked at him like, "What the fuck are you doing!?") The Time Traveler then went on with one of the most logical explanations ever. "Blood welts . . . Remember in Rocky where the cornerman cuts open the blood welt before the last round--saying, 'You gotta open my eye'? Well, it's the same thing. Yet some idiot saw this and figured, 'That's how they get people to bleed' . . . etc., etc." Hand it to him for creativity! But this "kayfabing," like all other parts of working the crowd, is a dying art.

Bull Curry's simple "Shoddup--Shoddup--Shoddup" to George Steele's "Hey you," the Sheik's "camel trot" in the ring, Rogers with his "To a nicer guy, it couldn't happen," The Time Traveler's "I ain't done nothing" to the ref when caught doing something illegal (that's school teacher inside humor--two negatives make a positive--meaning if I "have not" done nothing--I have done "something."), Jody Arnold pointing to a fan in the audience saying, "I didn't pull his hair--that stupid kid in the front row--he pulled his hair" all beat the hell out of what you see today.

To show you how thing have changed thanks to ECW's "Bleacher Creatures," note this Arizona story from the early 1980s, before saying "Fuck" became acceptable to fans and wrestlers alike. A vocal fan yelled, "We want some fucking action" during Sullivan's match. Sullivan got out of the ring, went up to the fan, and said, "You want some action? Get up and give me some," and slapped his cigar out of his mouth. It nearly started a riot, but no one denied there was action afterward.

I miss it!

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