THE RAW REVIEW
Pro-wrestling is storytelling.
Everything that goes on in a pro-wrestling show is symbolic, a literal representation of something figurative (like theater, film, television etc). The simulated combat of a pro-wrestling match, while resulting in very literal pain, is a metaphor for a real-world sport, a personal conflict, a war, a familial struggle, an identity crisis, or (often in WWE’s case) corporate negotiations. Because pro-wrestling is storytelling, the medium’s symbolism and iconography can be incredibly powerful. Over time, audiences are conditioned to associate maneuvers, phrases, gestures, expressions, and even objects with particular performers or scenarios. The best professional wrestlers tend to be those who use their symbolic power to their advantage, manipulating the audience to incredibly intense Moments of Pop.
For example, if I write, THE PEOPLE'S EYEBROW you instantly imagine The Rock raising an eyebrow, and it instantly makes you feel something. I see him circa 1999 in one of those wonderfully flamboyant shirts, The People’s Eyebrow rising just beyond the frame of his sunglasses.
That image makes me smile. You may have imagined something else. But merely mentioning an eyebrow within the context of professional wrestling will forever lead a generation of television viewers to think about The Rock. And the stream of thought won't stop with his eyebrow. Fans will project The Rock's entire career on the screen of their mind, searching for their favorite memories and feeling, once again, the emotions his performance once inspired.
That’s power. That’s what symbolism can do. That’s what good storytellers do.
It’s a power only a select few possess in any art. Pro-wrestling fans are so indoctrinated into the significance of their chosen heroes that they inevitably forget how such performers are actually few and far between. And that makes the wrestlers who have truly “gotten over” through the symbolism of their stories that much more impressive.
When a wrestler does “get over” it becomes easier and easier to rely on the safe bag of tricks, though. Once-beloved gestures can morph into a disingenuous checklist where an artist starts to do an impersonation of their former self. To not succumb to the allure of that easier style of performance, but rather push your narrative forward through attempts at innovation, is always more rewarding for the artist and for the audience. That's what separates a self-interested performer and a true storyteller.
This is why symbolic gestures such as “passing the torch” to a new generation must be handled carefully.
Last night, on RAW, Mick Foley “passed the torch” to Dean Ambrose with great love and great care.
With just a few minutes of screentime, Mick and Dean offered viewers more emotional resonance and smile-inspiring story than the rest of RAW’s three hours could ever hope to give.
That is not necessarily a knock on the rest of RAW - that is simply an accurate assessment of Barbie’s power.
Even the way Mick said, "Bang! Bang!" as he slipped off-screen was less self-referential homage and more a clue about Dean's new gift. When Mick makes these appearances, he saves the cheap pop for "The Cheap Pop", and let's everything else he does help tell a story. In that brief "Bang! Bang!" moment, Cactus was back as if to say, "Go forth and do great things, my son".
Pro-wrestling fans have often seen a connection between Mick Foley and Dean Ambrose, regarding Ambrose as the spiritual lovechild of Stone Cold Steve Austin and Cactus Jack. Mick Foley and Dean Ambrose do share an important similarity, but it’s not that they’re both “crazy” or that they’re both “masochistic” or that they’re willing to endure “more punishment” than anyone else from their respective eras.
It's about love.
Mick Foley and Dean Ambrose are connected, and simultaneously forge an unbreakable bond with pro-wrestling fans because they're motivated by love.
Although Dean has been aimlessly wandering from opponent to opponent since the Winter of 2014 for no reason other than “HE’S CRAZY!”, at Dean’s core resides an undying love for Seth Rollins and The Shield.
Dean didn’t want to destroy Seth during their masterful feud in the Summer & Fall of 2014 simply because he was a hero who craved revenge on the villain. Dean was heartbroken that his brother in arms would forsake their union. Dean operated like a jilted former lover pushed to the brink of insanity. He wanted to return the pain that Seth had caused, to extract, viciously, the love that he refused to let die. He was the dark-side of love and obsession.
In their SummerSlam 2014 match, just before he gives Seth Rollins a Curb Stomp, Dean Ambrose whispers “I loved you”, as tears and sweat stream down his face.
This is why Dean continues to get over regardless of how he’s booked or whatever lines he has to read during a scripted promo that might misinterpret his draw. WWE fans recognize the love Dean has for the business. WWE fans often connect with a pro-wrestler whose relentless love for professional wrestling shines through their performance in a sincere, selfless way.
That love and excitement and undying passion informs the motivations of the Dean Ambrose character (or at least it should on a regular basis). Ambrose could be (and secretly is) the voice of the millennial generation. He is a walking Yin and Yang symbol, a bundle of conflicting emotions searching for a guide who tempers him and makes him even stronger than he already is.
This complexity makes him the perfect recipient of Mick Foley's Barbie.
Barbie is not just Mick’s classic tool of violence. It’s one of many symbols Mick “got over” throughout his career: Barbie, Mr. Socko, the Wanted Dead tee-shirt, Hell in a Cell, thumbtacks, cheap pops, the double-arm DDT, “Have a nice day!”, an elbow drop to the outside, and “Bang! Bang!” are all chapters in Mick’s never-ending pro-wrestling story.
And if ever there was a love-story in pro-wrestling, it’s Mick's.
Love is what all of Mick’s personas sought; the love of wrestling fans, the love of Mr. McMahon, the love of The Rock, an honest love for himself. Beyond the angles that saw him vying for approval and attention (often to great comedic or dramatic effect), a love of professional wrestling itself continues to define Mick Foley’s connection to the WWE-world.
Over the past few years, whenever he has returned to cut promos with the younger generation be it with Punk, Seth Rollins, or Dean Ambrose, love informed his delivery and his motivation. Today, the Foley character appears, magically, in times of need, attempting to help the younger wrestlers he admires the way a concerned parent (or God) might suddenly intervene.
And his past two interactions with Dean (the last time was before the 2014 Hell in a Cell), embody the value of “putting over” the younger generation. Giving Barbie to Dean is not merely an easy way to pop a Pittsburgh crowd. Giving Barbie to Dean isn’t just giving Dean an “equalizer” against Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania.
Giving Barbie to Dean is like handing Ambrose a religious artifact imbued with the spirits of wrestling gods.
Every time Mick chewed that barbed wire, every time Mick crashed into the steel steps, every time we see that fall from the cell roof in a replay, every cheap pop, every fierce Cactus promo, every unforgiving chair-shot to the head, every life-threatening bump Mick endured is contained in that barbed-wire-wrapped bat.
When people see Barbie, it evokes an entire career’s-worth of imagery; matches and stories and memories that have been forever burnt into their brains. That goodwill and that symbolic gravitas is transferred to Dean Ambrose who is now permitted to "make it his own".
Suddenly, Dean’s battle with Brock Lesnar (already one of the biggest draws on the Mania card anyway) isn’t just a pissing contest between two beloved babyfaces. It’s an epic tale about evolution through the pro-wrestling ages. It’s about how love, passion, dedication, and endurance can lead someone who's not typically regarded as "destined for greatness" down the path to glory.
Suddenly, Dean Ambrose and Brock Lesnar’s Street Fight at WrestleMania has a massive Moment of Pop built into its very fabric. It's been signed, sealed, and delivered. There is an opportunity to tease a captivated crowd in a way that wasn’t possible before, to reveal Barbie at the perfect moment and pop that audience of 100,000 in a way that no other match possibly can.
Barbie can make people believe Dean Ambrose has a shot against Brock Lesnar.
That single pop will be the sum result of all the pops Mick Foley earned throughout his years of sacrifice. And it’s all going to someone who not only deserves it, but to someone who will actually benefit from it.
Mick isn’t a shadow looming over the event trying to give himself another shot at glory (the way so many less gracious veteran wrestlers would). Mick is handing the reigns to a worthy successor, and encouraging him to create a new greatness for a new generation. This is how Foley finds immortality, living on in the symbol itself, and allowing the spirit of Dean Ambrose to carry that flame into the future.
That is the art of "putting someone over", and Mick Foley is a master at it.
It’s no surprise he's such a big fan of the movie Creed.
The stories are similar.
No dancing around what people really want to see.
It all gets right to the heart of what pro-wrestling fans love about professional wrestling.
And that’s precisely why I can’t wait to see Dean Ambrose, The Millennial Hero, take on Brock Lesnar, The Beast Incarnate, at WrestleMania 32.