It’s Still #4HorsemenWeek. And we’re taking some time to celebrate Tully Blanchard, The High Chief of the Mid-Card.
Until very recently in wrestling history, there was a whole class of wrestlers who had spectacular careers, made great money and matches, while stimulated those feelings of love or hatred that make wrestling work. They were happy there, and they didn’t really want to wrestle tippy top stars regularly if they weren’t positioned to go over.
But now, everyone wants their favorite wrestler to be a main eventer.
Most fans — in particular, the “smart” ones — don’t feel like they can fully appreciate Dolph Ziggler or Bray Wyatt or The Shield if they’re not positioned in the top angles with World Champions. Much of this consternation is rooted in the thoroughly incorrect belief that wrestling (or life in general) is somehow a meritocracy. A place where the best and most-deserving get the first lick at the cream, and not the biggest and the best looking.
The parts of this misguided notion that don’t come from the cognitive dissonance that one’s personal opinion isn’t always shared with the paying majority comes from a twisted understanding of the importance of belts in the modern era. Nostalgia for a time when the midcard system worked simply because there were so many titles that were over in whatever podunk region the various promotions ran shows in.
Wrestlers understood their individual brand — their only tool to make money in a pre-guaranteed contract era — was far more likely to be enhanced by being perceived as the holder or number one contender to the United States or Intercontinental Title than a “main event” wrestler outside of the title picture. If you had a title, you were guaranteed bookings. It didn’t matter if it was the Southern States Title or the Six-Man Tag Title, or the Brass Knuckles Title; having your hands on a strap meant you were going to get dates and have at least one very good payday when you dropped the belt.
The Four Horsemen’s own Tully Blanchard was in many ways the avatar of this approach. Blanchard held many titles, although never the World Title, and was involved in some of the most memorable feuds of the mid-to-late 80s. Tully could cut promos that sounded like the ones from main event wrestlers, have matches on their level, and because of this, got as much heat from the crowd as anyone at the top of the card. However, he was firmly planted in the middle where he could make the most hay.
Blanchard had basically the same skill set as Flair: he cut the cocky heel promo, bumped big, and even strutted. There was no place in the main event for a shorter, slightly less charismatic Ric Flair, but there was tons of money to be made in the midcard. Wrestlers like Magnum TA and Nikita Koloff could work with Tully and have a great match where they looked strong and could leave fans thinking, “If he beat up Tully like that, what would he do to Flair?” Understanding what a powerful promotional tool this was, Flair, booker Dusty Rhodes, and the Crocketts positioned Tully right next to Flair in The Four Horsemen.
So, given how successful Blanchard was with a single run in the main event, why do so many fans “in the know” want all their favorite stars to be main eventers?
For one, “smart” fans are still stinking marks — just like we are, and just like the fans of previous eras were — even if they don’t seem to realize it. Most hardcore wrestling fans reading dirt sheets filled with “insider” knowledge use the backstage drama in professional wrestling to take the place of actual angles. There’s a very specific portion of the audience who think investing in “the man” Bryan Danielson rather than “the character” Daniel Bryan makes them a student of the game and not a mark, a more misguided thought than the dream of wrestling is a meritocracy.
Even when Daniel Bryan is in a World Title feud with John Cena, fans discuss his chances of becoming “the face of WWE” (a marketing term) rather than “beating Cena and becoming the Champion” (a sports-oriented term). Which, was exactly what the WWE wanted to have happen to people who only love one thing more than Shawn Michaels and HHH making insider jokes about what happened when they went hunting the week before: complaining about Shawn Michaels and HHH making insider jokes.
And since the politics of cracking into the main event (especially in a post-nWo, post-Triple H world) have been so aired out on shoot tapes, insider interviews, and wrestling blogs, internet-era fans have come to see the entire midcard as “less than.” The problem is that this is significantly getting in the way of their enjoyment of the product and their appreciation of great midcard performances.
Whether or not it will come, there should be a day when we stop asking “When is Kofi Kingston going to be pushed into the main event?” and start appreciating him as a fantastic midcard performer who you can just sit back and enjoy. He, like Tully Blanchard before him, has won titles, made money and given you no reason to feel sorry for him.