I get to work, just like any other Friday. I fire up the old computer at my desk, go fetch my coffee that I think might be 60% actually coffee grinds, 15% sawdust, 10% natural Colombian dirt and 15% guano and hit up all my morning news. I go to espn.com, and one of the prime inspirations of THE GREAT MAMBINO, Bill Simmons, has his latest article up about WWE entrance music, and the emergence of CM Punk as one of the hottest properties in entertainment right now. Is this a joke? Did someone hack into my computer and photoshop these headlines? Why is ESPN covering professional wrestling?
I have 4 primary interests, in this order: music, sports, comic books and professional wrestling. The first two are very easy, relatable topics. Everyone likes music. If you say you “don’t really listen to music”, then do me a favor; find the nearest window and consider your options. Get with it. This isn’t 1890, where only 1% of the population owns phonographs. Everyone likes music, you fucking robot. Sports are easy too; I know a little bit about most teams so that I can relate to most sports fans (even say, Mily-walk-kay, or as it’s known in Algonquin, “The Good Land”).
My admiration and love for Bill Simmons goes a long way. I devour his podcasts and consume his articles like they were news that actually mattered. I wouldn’t say he’s an “expert” on basketball, baseball or anything, really. That’s reserved for players, coaches or other students of the game that actually have an idea of what it’s like to be in that competitive environment. Bill is a pundit, just like Mike Wilbon, Adrian Wojnarowski, me or you. He’s got an opinion, but unlike me, he gets paid to put it on the internets. That all being said, he’s one of the best and most well-read pundits writing today. I might not agree with him all the time but you bet your ass that he's got evidence and support for everything he writes. That’s why reading this article was so strange for me.
Simmons wrote some 5,000 words on professional wrestling introductions and their accompanying music. Wow. How could I even remotely dislike this? It combines nearly everything I’ve ever had interest in for my whole life. It’s my favorite sports writer counting down his favorite wrestling theme music? I should have had to change my pants. But I...didn't. I didn’t love it. It’s not that he didn’t know what he was talking about. The article was, as I have come to expect, extraordinarily well-written and researched. He reached back into the vault and pulled out some excellent old-school references and mixed them with what he knew of the current wrestling scene. But he just didn’t know enough. And I really have come to expect the opposite from a guy whose 700 page book on basketball I read in 10 days.
I can’t come out and say that an entrance is as important to professional wrestling as the look of the performer, his skills on the microphone, and of course, the goods in the middle of that…very…ring. But would CM Punk’s match with Cena at Money in the Bank be quite as good if not for Punk’s epic entrance? Probably not. It would have taken something away from the entire art (yeah, I said it) of the match. It’s a crucial part of the performance – I’d argue that’s it’s just as important as the finishing sequence of the match itself.
Simmons was right on this count; every entrance has to have a few key ingredients.
The opening hook: The audience has to know who you are, and within a few notes. I have to know your identity immediately, whether you're the asshole that is interrupting that interview or you're the hero that's going to stop this jerkoff from telling me how much he hates my city. In a perfect world, I also agree that the music has to reach a dramatic apex either 1 or 2 minutes into the song, long enough for the wrestler to get in the ring and pose during it.
A music theme that matches with his character: Hulk Hogan's theme wouldn't work quite as well if you played "Back in the USSR" by the Beatles, would it? Still a kick ass song with a recognizable hook, with a solid song structure and great tempo. But it wouldn't make sense for the All-American Hulkster to walk down to the ring with 6 year-olds singing those lyrics, would it?
A professional wrestler's theme music is an incredibly difficult science to master. The song has to work on several different tiers; it's got to match the wrestler's gimmick, but at the same time work within the constraints of what is popular in American music at the time (for example, Alberto del Rio's gimmick is that of a rich Mexican aristocrat, so you'd expect that his theme would sound like Mexican classical music. Instead, it sounds like a Shakira backing track. You get the picture). It has got to have great dynamics and tempo, yet be concise enough that it doesn't lose anyone's attention. It's got to be good enough where you remember it the first time you hear it. Jim Johnston, the writer of 99% of wrestling themes you've ever heard and/or loved since 1985, could be one of the greatest musical minds of our era.
Theatrics that match the performer: Just make sure whatever you do matches the tone of who you're supposed to be. I don't want the supposedly spooky and ominous Kane throwing his arms up and down and motioning to the crowd. Don't swing for the fences when you're a leadoff hitter, kids.
You don't necessarily have to hit all of the above criteria to have an awesome professional wrestling entrance. Yes, to get that 5-star rating you should have all those elements rigged to perfection. But you can't just lump in every entrance and compare it against one another - it wouldn't be fair to measure Stone Cold Steve Austin's against the Undertaker's. Their characters are so completely different that they deserve completely different entrances. In fact, I’ve boiled it down into three categories. Well, four actually. The fourth would be that the entrance just sucks. The Big Show, I'm looking in your direction.
1) The entrance itself isn’t great by any means, nor does the music or theatrics particularly fit the performer, but the entrance becomes great as an extension of that wrestler’s excellence
2) The entrance isn’t spectacular or eye-popping, but fits within the character and tenor of the character himself
3) Everything about the entrance fits the wrestler; the theatrics, the music, the pyro, everything. A perfect extension of the character that man has created
1). I also call this the Mo Williams 2009 All-Star selection entrance. Mo Williams made the All-Star team 2 years ago because the Cavs were good enough to "deserve" a 2nd All-Star. Was Mo having an All-Star caliber year? Probably not, but he made the team anyway as a gift of LeBron's regular season greatness. (Was this an completely unsolicited shot at Mo Williams? Maybe). And thus the Mo Williams 2009 All-Star selection entrance.
The perfect example: Bret "The Hitman" Hart
Don't get me wrong; the Hitman is my favorite wrestler of all-time. One of, if not the best technical wrestler ever. He took the belt in a time where the WWF was not making money and when wrestling was at it's "anti-cool" apex, pasted right in between the departure of Hulkamania and Macho Madness, but right before the anti-authority of the nWo, D-Generation X and Stone Cold Steve Austin. He always delivered in the ring, stood up for what was right and was invincible, yet beatable all at the same time. AND, he got me to put aside my rampant homophobia and wear hot pink at age 10.
That all being said, outside of the squared circle Bret was never the best on the microphone, nor was he overly flashy or bombastic. He didn't make nonsensical promos, or engage in theatrics like Hogan, Ric Flair or the Ultimate Warrior. He looked like a nice guy. His entrance had pretty much nothing to do with his character, nor was it particularly earth-shattering. He came in to this strange 80's metal rip-off backing track; it sounds like the type of guitar loop you hear on a Nintendo video game while the computer is waiting for you to pick what character you're going to fight with.
Bret marched down to the ring, wearing these wrap-around pink reflective sunglasses, with a pink and black admiral's jacket. He'd then give the glasses to a kid at ringside (which, as BockerKnocker points out, was the coolest part of the intro because EVERY kid dreamed of the Hitman putting those glasses on YOU), hit the ring and motioned to the crowd. And that was it.
Putting my nostalgia away, the entrance wasn't great. Aside from giving the glasses to a kid at ringside, there's nothing about the 80's metal ring theme and flashy attire that matched with Bret's character. I feel like I'm slapping my grandfather in the face right now, but the whole thing is just kind of...blah.
But then the bell sounded. And Bret BROUGHT it. It didn't matter who he was fighting - Bam Bam Bigelow, Curt Hennig, Owen Hart, Kevin Nash, Stone Cold, whoever...Bret made that the best match on the card. So when I see his entrance, I think it's awesome. The cheesy metal guitar-riff loops turn into marching music. The pink and black looks less gaudy and more like something I WANT to wear. I still want to be the kid who gets the plastic glasses at ringside. That entrance has become great, because of Bret's greatness in the ring.
The other contenders:
The Rock: This might be heresy in talking about the Great One in such terms. He had that great opening line to the theme music, but ultimately, it's this strange, somewhat plodding reject 80's metal guitar solo, with a pretty blase percussive backing track. A couple lights go off, he walks straight to the ring with intensity and does a short pose on the turnbuckle. People go absolutely crazy, but again, it's only because of the Rock's brilliance in every other facet of his game.
Mankind: Excellent theme music (crunchy, 90's blues-metal, with car-crashing sounds; it's fun and somewhat brutal all at the same time. It's Mick), but ultimately Foley just stumbled down to the ring and raised his fist to the crowd. Not exactly what you'd expect from the Hardcore Legend.
The Macho Man Randy Savage: For as dynamic as he was, Savage's whole entrance was shockingly tame. He didn't sprint down the aisle or bounce around like the maniac that he was. He didn't do any acrobatics to get into to the ring nor when he was inside it. His music was "Pomp and Circumstance". That's the music you graduate to. From high school. But combine that with his legendary performances, wide-eyed, coked-out interviews and attire that he stole from Elton John's closet, you look back on his pre-match hoopla and smile. And may he snap into a Slim Jim in peace.
2) These are for the men whose entrances are understated in their production, but perfect in their simplicity. They said so much about the performer without tons of explosions or mist rising from the stage.
The perfect example: Stone Cold Steve Austin
Even if it's a terrible, sorry, bootleg of a shattering-glass sound effect, when you hear that thing...you know it's on. The 6-time champ came marching out with all the swag in the world. The guitar lines gnarl back and forth, with the bass pulsing in the background. Austin is all business walking down the ramp; he doesn't slap anyone's hand or even look anyone in the eye. He doesn't really interact with the crowd. He just stares at the ring and marches straight for it. By the time he's in the squared circle, the music has already hit it's apex - a "Psycho"-style stabbing guitar lick, as if Hitchcock hired Ted Nugent to write score for his films. Stone Cold marches right for the corner, climbs up to the middle turnbuckle, raises both his fists, puts those middle fingers up and looks at the crowd saying "you're godDAMN right". And everyone's fired up.
No pyro, no fireworks, nothing explodes. The music has no lyrics, just the business of the guitars. All of that would be completely antithetical to who Stone Cold Steve Austin is. He doesn't care who you are, or what you want; he has come to the arena tonight to whup your ass and that's it. Straight to the point and with intensity (the only man in modern WWF history that can really hold a candle to that stare is Jake "The Snake" Roberts). In two minutes, you know who the character of Stone Cold Steve Austin is and what's happening tonight.
The other contenders:
The Ultimate Warrior: Oh boy. That muted, quick strum of the guitar with the heavy kick drum and those crashing cymbals. The lights flicker and all of the sudden this completely roided out, met-head comic book character of a human comes sprinting to the ring. He jumps on to the apron, and shakes the ropes so violently it seems that he might rip them straight off of their hooks. You don't know if whether he's going to throw a punch through his opponents chest or just keep on running laps around the arena. Or maybe both. At the same time. One of the most underrated entrances of all time.
Hulk Hogan: (go to a 1:30 in the video) At it's root, it's just the music, the slow shirt ripping and some pointing. But the music is "Real American", the shirt ripping is iconic and the pointing gives me goosebumps 20 years later. Hulkamania baby.
HHH: This one teeters between category 2 and 3. I keep it at 2 because other than the lighting and the water, there's really no production that goes into it. HHH just keeps that taught, crazy intensity, as if he's just about to snap; and then after a minute of standing at the top of the ramp...SNAP, and the music reflects his every move. The Motorhead tune appropriately fits him (it should; they wrote it specifically for WWE purposes), his intensity and drive. It's amazing how HHH morphed from a "Greenwich blueblood" to Shawn Michael's sidekick in DX all the way to the point where his character's toughness without mercy identifies him with the voice of Lemmy from Motorhead. His body makes him look like a guy that can rough you up, but his entrance lets you know how he's going to do it.
CM Punk: His new Living Colour theme is great, and still totally works ("Cult of Personality" has that opening guitar rip that you can instantly identify, and the lyrics seem like they are written by Punk himself), but nothing can hold a candle to his former music by Killswitch Engage. Killswitch is a veteran hardcore punk band who has existed just below the public eye, teetering on the edge of the mainstream for years with their mix of pop metal sensibilities and DC hardcore know-how. They are popular within their own genre, but yet are constricted by the popularity of the genre itself. They are talented and underrated, but in the end, they seem to be happy with who they are and what they do. However, at any given moment, I wouldn't be surprised if they made a top 10 single. Sound familiar?
3) The whole package. The Undertaker award. Let's just call it like it is.
The perfect example: The Undertaker
Does this even need any explanation? Even people that aren't wrestling fans know this. The gong, the lights go down, the mist, the fire, the slow walk down the aisle, the lights go up, taking off the hat, the lightning and thunder effects and of course the eye roll - the best entrance in the history of professional wrestling. It's dynamic, it has a dramatic crescendo and the ominous organ music fits perfectly. Sure it's cheesy as hell and the theatrics are incredibly over the top - but if you're not down with that, then you shouldn't be watching professional wrestling.
The other contenders
Kane: (Hop ahead to 3:00) This gets some demerits because it echoes the Undertaker's, but is excusable seeing as their characters are so closely related to one another's. On the other hand, Kane gets points here for the production of it all (the exploding fire, the red lighting), that makes you immediately know that a giant, ugly, bald guy coming down to do the same move set you've seen for 14 years. A brilliant thing that Jim Johnston does is put small instrumental devices into otherwise slow moving entrance themes to give them a little more juice; the melodies may be slow moving, but there's always a guitar line or drum loop that propels the music moving forward. That is why you don't think a giant, ugly, bald guy walking slowly to the tune of organ music isn't boring - because it subtly pushes you forward. And the explosions don't hurt either.
Batista: Simmons got this down perfectly. Batista's entrance may be the only reason why it is acceptable for the band Saliva to exist.
Goldust: THE forgotten gem of wrestling entrances. Genuinely one of the most unique bits of theatrics and production I've ever seen. After the camera was set to letterbox view (how many times do they adjust the picture filter for a wrestler?), gold confetti or pyro streamed down from the rafters. Then that music hit; an absolutely perplexing mix of low-rent porn, Cirque du Soleil and Phil Collins. On an aside, I really love how in the mid-nineties, Vince McMahon wasn't afraid to play up against America's general homophobia to make someone a "bad guy". Goldust came down to the ring in these bizarre cat suits, and in most matches would massage the wrestler he was facing, sometimes even kissing or licking his opponents after they had been knocked out. Of course the crowds HATED him with a passion. Note to wrestlers today - if you really want to get over with a crowd and create a response, just summon up the biggest flamer you can muster.
Gangrel: Just because you suck doesn't mean you can't have a kick-ass entrance (true story: Gangrel always came down to the ring wearing these weird, Seinfeld-esque puffy shirts. He wrestled with it in every match; one of the very few wrestlers not to go shirtless. But a few years following his debut, it accidentally got ripped off in the ring, revealing a huge pot belly. He was exposed for what he was; a marginally talented, overweight professional wrestler who masqueraded as a vampire. He got fired about 2 weeks after that match. Coincidence? You be the judge).
Edge: I often try to forget the fact that Edge's latest theme song was by a band called Alter Bridge, who was the remnants of Creed, sans lead singer Scott Stapp. If you have to ask who Creed is, they're the band you heard on modern rock radio 5 years ago and HATED.
Regardless, Edge's entrance was fire. As you as you hear "you think you know me", followed by those double kick drum metal riffs, everyone in the arena knows who it is. Edge channels his inner Warrior here; running around the stage like a mad man, diving into the ring was exploding and yelling at the crowd like they needed to be fired up even more. Predictably and stupidly enough, the song is called "Metalingus", but has great pace, dramatic apexes and attitude. All of which fit Edge.
I've been watching wrestling for nearly 20 years. It's not a subject I bring up at dinner parties, nor would it be the first point of conversation I'd bring up with my girlfriend's father upon meeting him. But just because it's not socially acceptable on the tier of, well, subjects that matter, doesn't mean that it's an industry that's without it's levels of complexity. Ring entrances are just a microcosm of the intricate structure that is professional wrestling.
Ultimately, the wrestlers many times don't get to choose what their gimmick is and how they are presented to the world. Sometimes it's the choice of promotion's creative team, or born out of a man's natural look (do you think that the Big Show could get over being a Mexican aristocrat? Or a former high school teacher turned wrestler?). The only thing a guy can control is the excellence of his matches and the charisma he projects to the audience. Sure it's great to have a ring entrance like the Undertaker's, but most people aren't going to be undead wrestler whose look necessitates mist and lightning. Bring it in the ring and on the mic. If the creative team saddles you with a lame entrance, it won't matter. Just ask the Hitman.
Man, it's still so weird to discuss professional wrestling in public. Well, if anyone read this, it'd be weird. Womp womp.