The Ballance Sheet #4 : Smart Fans Allow Wrestlers To Up Their Game

The crowd at the post-WrestleMania episode of Raw this week was, I think many would agree, one of the rowdiest and liveliest that WWE have had in quite some time. While some of the reactions weren’t the ones desired- particularly for the Sheamus/Orton match and Ryback’s heel turn- the noise throughout the night, from some of the bizarre antics and chants, made for an exceptionally entertaining show.

The crowd at the Izod Center in New Jersey was quite different from your regular episode of Raw, in that it was composed of holidaying die-hard fans from all over the world; a so-called “smart mark” audience. Get a “smart” audience on your side, and you’re pretty much made. Lose them, though, and the reaction you get could border on vitriolic, as seen from Sheamus and Orton’s match. Such is the interesting dichotomy of this particular branch of the wrestling audience.

I’ve wrestled for a wide variety of crowds over the years; some who have never seen wrestling before, some who watch it casually, and some who absolutely love it, and are hardcore fans. All have their advantages and disadvantages to work in front of, but the “smart” audience, who devour all forms of wrestling- not just from WWE, but from Japan, Mexico, the UK, and the American independent scene, amongst others- often prove the most interesting.

A positive response from any audience is great to get- whether it’s cheers as a babyface or hatred as a heel- but it’s quite encouraging to get a good reaction from that particular section that watches wrestling often, and appreciates it as an art form. Respectful ‘smart’ fans appreciate the efforts of the performers, and admire the skill it takes to put on a good match or show, so it’s nice to get a nod every now and again, in that regard.

For a fair chunk of my time in Irish Whip Wrestling, we had a small pocket of ‘smart’ fans who would come to a lot of the shows; a dad and his young son, a family from Balbriggan, a quartet of lads from Drogheda, a pair of friends from Blanchardstown- these were some of the folks we’d see regularly, and it was the best possible feedback that you could get that these guys were coming back time and again, following us around the country to check out our events and enjoy them. Moreover, they were appreciating the product they were seeing, as opposed to the casual audience who might go along to see “the wrestling.” (Such audience members are definitely appreciated too, but I guess you always have a soft spot for repeat customers that value what you do.)

Sometimes, the loyalty actually extended past attending shows; I’ve known die-hard fans who have bought Christmas and birthday gifts for wrestlers, given them lifts, even put them up in their homes, if they were stuck for a place to stay while abroad. I’ve been the recipient, myself, of such kindness in the past, and it’s been greatly appreciated.

From personal experience, working for an older audience- that watches wrestling on a more regular basis than the casual spectator- is more liberating, creatively, as well. I love technical wrestling- or ‘chain’ as it’s commonly referred to- but I rarely get to use it extensively on family shows, as it tends to bore kids more used to WWE’s style, who wouldn’t use it that often. Along with that, kids tend to pop (react/cheer) more for the moves they’re used to seeing on TV; 619’s, RKO’s, Attitude Adjustment’s, and so forth. These would usually get the bigger pops of the night. In a sense, wrestling for the family audience is quite a great deal easier- they boo the heels, cheer the ‘faces, and you don’t have to kill yourself (figuratively-speaking) to send them home happy.

I’ve known guys who’ve admitted that they’d happily wrestle the same opponent every night, in the exact same type of match each time. Each to their own, but I couldn’t, personally. Just as, I’m sure, comedians eventually get tired of telling the same jokes, bands tire of playing the same songs, and actors grow weary of the same lines and plays, wrestling the same match night in and night out would bore me to tears, and drive me absolutely insane.

Working for an older audience forces you to adapt your style a little, and gives you a chance to do something different, and tell a more complex story. Older fans, used to seeing chain from independent shows, will tend to have more patience, and appreciation for technical wrestling, and will allow a match to develop at its own pace. In addition to this, the older audience might be more impressed by moves they haven’t seen before, rather than the traditional WWE finishers they see on TV each week. I like coming up with my own moves, so it’s always rewarding to get a positive response for them when I bust them out on shows like these.

One of my main bugbears with family shows is the emphasis on crowd work. To keep the crowd loud and engaged, you have to constantly stay on them to keep clapping, cheering, etc. I hate it, personally.  I totally understand the need for it- I just hate doing it! I always feel that it comes off as pandering. I dunno. Maybe I’m just lazy in that regard, and prefer to put my efforts into the technicalities of the match, itself, and telling the story. At any rate, older shows (for ‘smart’ fans) don’t need to focus on “staying on the crowd” that much to keep them entertained, as they’re there for the wrestling. This is probably the most liberating aspect of working for this type of audience.

There are certainly disadvantages, as well, though. While some ‘smart’ fans are respectful, and appreciative of the efforts of the performers, others aren’t. Some can be utterly obnoxious know-it-alls who think they’ve gained some kind of wrestling omniscience because they’ve seen Beyond the Mat and Tough Enough, and read a few autobiographies. They’ll critique workrate online, without ever having set foot inside a ring. (Or else they have, but only lasted a few classes, as they couldn’t tolerate the pain from the bumps.) They’ll cheer the heels and boo the babyfaces just to be rebels, and provide a negative, pessimistic rundown on everything they see. Ironically, for those who claim to love wrestling the most, they’re the ones who seem to enjoy it the least.

I was wrestling a tag match in Yorkshire a few years ago. The match itself was enjoyable, and got a good reaction from most of the audience. There were these two ‘smart marks’ in the front row on one side, though, who were constantly making stupid chants throughout the show, to try to get themselves over. (Get attention away from the wrestlers and onto themselves.) It was irritating, humourless, and the lads made complete buffoons of themselves. I had a similar experience working in Stonehaven too, in Scotland. A few guys were up in the balcony doing the amazingly original (and certainly-not-dated) “What?” chants while the MC was warming up the crowd. (One of their number was thrown out during the show, too, for trying to run into the ring during one of the matches.) They’re the equivalent of hecklers at comedy shows; a category of idiot I’ve never had much time for.

It’s a double-edged sword, really, with this branch of the wrestling audience. It can be a crapshoot, at times. They can love your work, and appreciate your efforts, or they can bury you and figuratively defecate all over your match (to put it politely.) Sheamus and Orton certainly felt the wrath of the international crowd on Monday- the fans, utterly disinterested and bored by the competitors, took to entertaining themselves, chanting for everyone but the guys in the ring- with the exception of referee Mike Chioda- starting a Mexican wave, and basically displaying their apathy for all to see. (This was in stark contrast to the incredible reaction Dolph Ziggler received for ‘cashing in’ his Money in the Bank contract earlier in the night.)

Last Monday’s Raw was unquestionably memorable and it was down to, in large part, the audience. They were loud all night- unlike the rather listless and subdued WrestleMania crowd the previous evening- and provided an energetic atmosphere for the show’s proceedings. In light of the negative reactions traditional babyfaces like The Miz, Sheamus, Orton (and even Cena) received on the night, one could justifiably question whether “any noise is good noise”, as far as crowd reactions go. In any case, one thing is for certain as regards wrestling for ‘smart fans’: they keep you on your toes, and force you to up your game. They can make or break you on a given night, and they’re nothing if not unpredictable, but they keep things interesting when it comes down to it. Monday’s show was evidence of that, if nothing else.

By Gary “Bingo” Ballance 

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