Thursday, June 20, 2013

Regression To The Mean

Posted by Sean Doyle
Chart Graphic by Sean & Colin Doyle

In his last seven pay-per-view appearances (1)*, Ryback has a 0-6-1 record. This tidy performance converts into a 0.0 winning percentage. In other words Ryback doesn't just lose, no sir, he loses with a devoted consistency that would make Barry Horowitz himself, blush.

Yes, yes, of course, we all know pro wrestling is a work.  From the carny days to the current corporate variation, wrasslin' always been a morality play staged with oddballs and strongmen, played with pulled punches and chair shots.  Nobody "wins" in the Olympic sense. However, wins and losses are a bit like equity.  Each "win" bestows credibility, while each "loss" tarnishes it (and yes, perhaps not to an equivalent degree - as cheap heel (villain) wins are a common place multipartite strategy used to protect the loser (babyface), draw heat on the winner (heel) all while extending the narrative to it's inevitable blowoff conclusion).  Given this structural imperative, I feel comfortable devaluing losses relative to wins to say a .75 or three-fourths of a whole, level. (2)*

More on this later. (3)*

Even within the walls of this debased paradigm, Ryback is still lacking credibility.  First introduced to us as an indestructible monster, Ryback made his way through a series of slack-jaw jobbers, rag-dolling them and becoming a minor YouTube sensation in the process.  From there he leapfrogged the obligatory mid-card title run (I.C. or  U.S.) and found himself square in the main event opposite WWE Champion and future Hall of Famer CM Punk.

Whatever equity was created in those first few squash-filled (and fun) months was about to be squandered over an unprecedented losing streak that stretches 8 pay-per-views and counting.  At this point, barring a major reclamation project, Ryback is little more than the American coequal of The Great Khali. (That is to say, a mid-card cartoon monster with just enough credibility to sell action figures but not nearly enough stroke to sellout buildings.)

One wonders if this was McMahon's strategy all along.  The Chairman of The Board loves to puff up monster heels (and faces, to a lesser extent) and then serve them up, fat with hype, to an established hero or veteran baddie of his choice.  It's a time honored sacrifice in the business and a much needed one, (4)* as a superstar is only as great as his/her competition.

And yet, one can't help but feel the nagging sting of buyer's remorse with Mr. 'Back.  Only six months ago the Post-Apocalyptic Turtle from Texas was the hottest act in the sport.  Arena's across the world were larded with lively FEED ME MORE!!! chants, with each Monday night refrain driving a tick louder on the noise-o-meter than the last.  The top spot on the card seemed all but perfunctory then, for the man born Ryan Reeves, and that's about the precise moment he got lost on the Road To Wellville...

Piloting a rising star's ascension is always tricky, particularly in the Information Age.  Fans are savvy to all the old hooks, and weary of them, all while paradoxically yearning to be hooked at every turn.  It is a modern Promoter's nightmare, this Brave New World, a non-linear multiverse of irony layered upon "reality" with a measured dose of smark, and all threaded together by the (occasionally) oppositional forces of dramatic correctness and profit seeking. The superstars who best adapt to this emerging standard will succeed big - think: Daniel Bryan, AJ Lee, The Shield, Damien Sandow, and Punk.  These performers are amongst the gifted few who can go modern or traditional without losing a step.  Listen, on a long enough time-lime, we are all hipsters. It is just a matter of who gets there first.

Ryback, by comparison, is a throwback. He's an old school beast who isn't defined by his move-set or wink-wink promo skills, but by his ability to destroy, and destroy with efficiency. In that regard, he's pure traditional.  And it's a tradition crafted on the value of appearing eternally invincible (think: early Mike Tyson, Clubber Lang, Goldberg, Heel Andre, H.O.P. Mark Henry, Ivan Drago, Typhon, Doomsday, or Larry King). It's within the holds of this hard mythos where the cold arithmetic of wins and losses reemerges, thus regaining its value.

Which brings us back to 0-6-1.

If your character's sole raison d'etre lies within it's imperishable nature, and the whole "what you see is what you get," swag, then what we get had better be greater than 0-6-1 in money matches, which is the mathematical equivalent of fuck all.  Now Ryan Reeves doesn't book the matches, but he does wear the boots.  He'd do well to add some depth behind those grunts.  Ryback has the look and intensity of a superstar, but unless he discovers his "inner man" he may find himself on the high ash heap of history with Vince McMahon's other broken toys.


*(1) Not counting the Royal Rumble match, where technically there are no individual losers.

*(2) Why not devalue wins instead? Because lets face it, a win is a win, and we all love winners. In the uniquely American cultural commitment to victory, a little hustle (mild rule bending) is to be respected (albeit begrudgingly so).

*(3) I've often wondered just what a statistical revolution (a la Sabermetrics) would do to the traditional storytelling models and business imperatives of "sports entertainment." As both a simulated sport, and a long form dramatic narrative, pro wrestling would appear to have conflicting mandates.  But what if a sharpened understanding of the relative value of "wins" and "losses," winning percentage, reign length, ppv streaks, and the like, could lead to a better product overall?

*(4) Just ask any heel who worked for the WWF from 1984-1991. Or any of The Italian Stallion's opponents from Rocky's II-V.  Or any of Taylor Swift's ex-boyfriends...

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