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The Rules of Being Extreme

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I’ve caught a bit of heat for getting down on this past Wednesday’s episode of Lucha Underground when I recorded the corresponding episode of the Facelock Feministas podcast. There were a lot of things happening that didn’t seem to be on par with the rest of this season, but there were a few things I enjoyed immensely. One of those things was the final scene in which Vampiro had Pentagon Jr. suspended in a harness and was beating him with a kendo stick before switching over to a baseball bat covered in barbed wire. This is pure violence being utilized to actually frighten the audience. This form of extreme violence is highly stylized and not used in every episode of the show; when matches have weaponry or blood, it usually comes at a peak moment in a feud. The two (or three or six or twelve) luchadors have been pushed to a point where they will inflict new heights of pain on one another to win. It is as though the show runners book these gory matches with a sense of reverence; you can only go to the well so many times, so it had better be worth it when you do.

The issue I’m encountering while looking at the card for WWE’s Extreme Rules is that they seem to have the entirely opposite reaction to violence that Lucha Underground does. In WWE, they go to the well constantly, but rarely (if ever) deliver. A perfect example comes on the heels of my not only “firing” Dean Ambrose from my fandom, but threatening to erase him entirely following his Asylum Match at Extreme Rules. After his underwhelming performance in the No Holds Barred Street Fight against Brock Lesnar at Wrestlemania 32, I let anyone who follows me on Twitter know that he had been fired. I even put my “Explicit Ambrose Violence” hoodie away. Then he had a steel cage – laced with barbed wire two-by-fours, straight jackets, and fire extinguishers – lowered over the ring this past Monday on RAW and declared that he and Chris Jericho were going to have an Asylum Match at Extreme Rules. That’s when I decided to just erase Dean Ambrose from my memory entirely and move on.

But is it really Dean’s fault? Do we believe for even a moment that the reason the match between him and Lesnar at Wrestlemania 32 was so lack-luster was because of a call they made? Of course not. We all know where that call came from. It was Vince McMahon who ushered in the TV-PG era for WWE and it is Vince who is booking every utterly homogenized match likely to parade across our TV sets on Sunday night. This begs the question: why are you even bothering to book a program called Extreme Rules at all?

Don’t get me wrong: wrestling is dangerous. During a perfectly normal tag team match at Payback, Enzo Amore hit his head and suffered a concussion in a completely freak accident. There is real risk for every wrestler each time they step into the ring. I am not advocating for more death matches or for people to be hitting one another in the head with chairs. However, I do believe properly executing a certain amount a believability in terms of the type of violence seen in the ring is a useful tool to have during big moments in storytelling. To be able to say “this is how serious the situation is. These people are willing to go to great, often dangerous, lengths to win” is important.

Besides being a TV-PG product, WWE exists in a really disadvantageous place in terms of the ability to properly utilize more violent matches. Currently, WWE’s PPV market is pretty much flooded. While one might assume there to only be 12 PPV events in 2016, WWE is beginning to utilize their network more by streaming live events for subscribers. These don’t necessarily move storylines or feuds forward, but they do add to the amount of WWE content the average fan can consume. Plus, out of the 13 regular PPV programs WWE put on in 2015, 7 of them involve some sort of gimmick (Royal Rumble, Extreme Rules, Money in the Bank, Elimination Chamber, Hell in a Cell, Survivor Series, and TLC.) Intersecting with the over-saturation of the “big card” feeling of a PPV event is the multitude of gimmick or stipulation matches that WWE is giving to their audience. It’s hard to get excited about an “asylum match” when we have already seen one steel cage match and three Hell in a Cell matches since Extreme Rules last year. The more times a gimmick is used, and ineffectually at that, the less excited your audience is going to get to see them.

I fully understand and respect the position Vince and WWE have taken on the use of blood in their matches. In today’s climate, it is dangerous both to encourage the wrestlers to draw blood themselves and to expose their coworkers to potential blood-born diseases while sharing the ring. That being said, matches that can never culminate in the appearance of blood can never escalate past a certain level in terms of violence before blood should become a natural product of the action in order to sustain believability. Your heels, you villains, your monsters – they can only be so scary if they are never going to inflict enough damage to draw blood.

Granted, no one is tuning in for a show called “somewhat-extreme rules” or “just extreme enough rules” and you don’t want to lose your audience entirely by trying to sell the show accordingly. Most, if not all, of the WWE roster these days are working very hard to put on quality matches for their audience. I have found little to complain about in terms of the in-ring work. If you’re looking for great wrestling, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed with Extreme Rules on Sunday. But if you’re looking for something actually extreme, look somewhere else.

image via WWE.com

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The Lady J is bringing her personal brand of internet sass via the US capitol, where she lives with her golden doodle roommate Gizmo and cannot find a good bagel to save her life. While it may not seem very lady-like, she is actually cutting a promo on you right now.

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