Pro wrestling is, of course, not like other genres of entertainment, with there being numerous differences, large and small, that dictate what does and doesn’t work within its confines. Since pro wrestling is, within the body of its programming, portrayed as a legitimate sporting event, it’s not quite “real enough” or “fake enough” to handle more serious subject matter tastefully most of the time. (There are some very limited exceptions, of course.) There are no credits, nothing distinguishing the performers from their characters, doubly so if they use their real names as their ring names. This dynamic also allows for the possibility of something that doesn’t really have an analogue in other genres of entertainment: The “shoot angle.”
There are multiple ways to go about this, some much more effective than others, but the basic framework of a shoot angle is this: in the more open version of pro wrestling, there is an effort to convince you that something that what happened was not “supposed to happen.” This tends to work much better when the fourth wall is not obliterated, where there aren’t references to pro wrestling usually being anything less than a legitimate competition.
MJF’s “FIRE ME, YOU FUCKING MARK!” promo this past Wednesday on AEW Dynamite, for example, mostly stayed in the preferred lane, but faltered when he slid into the latter. Regardless of what you think of the rest of the promo and if it works on a basic storyline level, throwing in a reference to how “I’m not reckless” because “I don’t dump my opponents on their head[s]” absolutely changes how it comes off. It’s not as overt as the worst WCW and TNA angles brewed in Vince Russo’s laboratory, but it’s too close for comfort.
Macho Man Randy Savage Invades Memphis
The first shoot angle as we know them in American-style wrestling is most likely Randy Savage’s debut in Jerry Jarrett’s Memphis-based territory at the end of 1983. For years, Savage and his family ran an “outlaw” opposition promotion, ICW, that toured the same part of the country, with a fixture of their TV show and newspaper advertisements being grandstand challenges to Jarrett’s wrestlers. (Most memorably, this included guilt tripping the establishment talent for no-showing matches billed as charity fundraisers.) This was well-known enough that, when Savage showed up, it was best treated as something that was not scheduled to happen.
“GET THE CAMERA ON ME RIGHT NOW!” barked the Macho Man, his father, Angelo, by his side, as he “invaded” Jarrett’s live TV show on WMC-TV in Memphis while a match was in the ring. “FIVE YEARS, BABY! Five years. Do you know who you’re talking to right now?” he asked color commentator and beloved local weatherman Dave Brown. “Do you know who you’re talking to right now? The Macho Man, Randy Savage. And I ain’t being [unintelligible] no longer, no. FOUR YEARS, MAN! WHERE’S LAWLER? GET HIM OUT HERE RIGHT NOW! GET HIM OUT HERE RIGHT NOW!”
There were no lines blurred about what pro wrestling is or isn’t, just a seriously unbalanced outlaw trespassing and blowing up a carefully formatted TV show. (Indeed, the Memphis show was rare in that it openly discussed the planned show format and disruptions to said format, making any kind of disruption even more obvious.) Savage would soon become part of the roster, but there couldn’t have been a better way for him to debut, and it certainly felt more “real” than the usual Memphis TV angle.
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The same promotion borrowed from this playbook seven years later when area journeyman The Snowman showed up unannounced in the WMC-TV studio. If you want to read about this in detail, that’s a different article, but the short version is that Snowman had been making noise in the local Black-oriented media about being held down by racism. In a territory where “personal issues draw money” was a mantra and the Black fans made up a larger and larger slice of the audience every year, turning this into a storyline was only natural. So, like Savage, Snowman showed up out of the blue to air his grievances. It turned into a pro wrestling feud, of course, but with more of a veneer of “reality” where the matches were worked like a deliberately sloppy cross between the Tennessee style and the Japanese shoot style.
The Memphis style of shoot angle laid the template for the kind that works best. At no point was there any allusion to the idea that pro wrestling was anything less than on the level. There was no insider terminology used. All that was done was to invoke reality that the fans were aware of but didn’t betray the internal logic of a professional wrestling show.
Detached from a Wrestling Show’s Reality
That would change.
ECW was the first to usher in changes, using more insider terminology and making more references that didn’t entirely make sense if pro wrestling was a legitimate sport. This is probably best illustrated by one of Steve Austin’s promos from late 1995, where he’s explicitly talking about pitching ideas to the creative team and having the U.S. Title given to him as a preordained creative decision. It was entertaining as hell, but in the context of the ECW television show, it made zero sense.
This more nonsensical version of the worked shoot, commonly defined as “everything you’re watching is fake, except for this, which is real,” was later run into the ground by Vince Russo as a creative force. Most notably, there was the three-way match between Scott Steiner, Kevin Nash, and Bill Goldberg at WCW’s New Blood Rising pay-per-view in 2000. There, Goldberg awkwardly bailed on the match after being in position for a Nash powerbomb, argued with Russo in the aisle, and left, leading to…well, this commentary:
Mark Madden: Hey, maybe Goldberg was supposed to do something that wouldn’t have made him look good, but this doesn’t make him look good, either, does it?
Scott Hudson: What it is, I’m thinking Goldberg was supposed to go up for the Jackknife, and wouldn’t do it, he swerved Kevin Nash right there and [Nash] tried to talk him back into it, and he said no.
Tony Schiavone: You see the facial reaction of Nash? He didn’t expect that to happen at all!
It only gets worse from there, with Madden lauding Nash for being so “professional” and Schiavone barking out the memorably insane line “If, in fact, this Jackknife Powerbomb was part of this design, what’re they gonna do now, improvise?” The fourth wall wasn’t just broken, it was rolling in its grave.
The degree to which Russo ran this stupid trope into the ground made it much less palatable for others to touch for years. Even the more grounded version of the worked shoot was dying off. At least it did until CM Punk’s “pipe bomb” promo on WWE Monday Night Raw in June 2011.
Yes, he talks about “the fourth wall.” Yes, he uses some real names. And yes, he name drops rival promotions. But the reality of pro wrestling is never in question and all of the references to people or things outside of WWE canon at the time can have their meaning inferred via context clues. Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling are obviously rival promotions. The “Colt Cabana” that Punk mentioned is obviously a Ring of Honor wrestler. John Laurinaitis is clearly an unpopular member of WWE’s middle management. Everything was laid out carefully so it would work regardless of if you had any prior knowledge of most of what he brought up.
Whatever MJF is doing right now, it is the first real effort at a major line-blurring wrestling storyline in over a decade. And though parts of it didn’t work, at least it wasn’t close to as overtly broken as the Russo stuff was. The big question we have right now is what it will look like week to week. With wrestling geeks at the level of Tony Khan and MJF behind it, there are a lot of different ways it could go. Here’s to hoping that they mostly stay on the right path.