Love. It’s that general feeling of appreciation, admiration and adulation two people feel for one another. When love is in the air that feeling should be proudly shared with the world without fear or reservation. But unlike a typical courtship, where chivalry has a chance to prevail and a relationship can bloom, in wrestling, feuds and storylines can muddle everything for all involved. And, what happens when you attempt to take that relationship to the next level?
In pro wrestling there are a number of instances where real life relationships have been used to develop a scripted storyline. But when an actual relationship is parlayed into an onscreen relationship, the results are mixed. For every successful off screen couple that has worked on screen, like Randy Savage and Elizabeth, there have been those that don’t carry the same amount of substance on camera, like Billy Kidman and Torrie Wilson. The failure of the on-screen matchups becomes more common when those real relationships are scripted in to love triangles.
Over the course of the past few months, we’ve been privy to watching an off screen couple have their on screen relationship become complicated, involving alienated affections and new on screen couples forming. It is well known that Lana and Rusev are an actual couple off screen, yet the attempt to give the rather cold and distant couple a romantic spin to their on screen relationship just didn’t seem to convince many.
In an effort to apologize for his actions and endear himself to Lana, Rusev professed his ‘love’ for her. As he uttered each word, those watching had to be scoffing at even the thought of Rusev essentially beg for Lana’s hand. But if that was the worst of the scripting, then it could easily be dismissed as a one off where desperate times called for desperate measures; just an instance where art was attempting to imitate life. A storyline based on asking ‘What would you be willing to sacrifice if you knew you might lose the one you love’. Many would say if they were in danger of losing Lana they’d just about do anything to keep her.
In recent months an added twist to the love square has involved DolphZiggler and Summer Rae. This is a case of a soap opera that just doesn’t compel fans or have them waiting impatiently for the next episode, but rather a poorly scripted attempt to draw heat. It’s a real shame too because Rusev and Ziggler are talented wrestlers that are able to draw enough attention with their work in the ring and ability to tell a story therein. They don’t need such a melodramatic storyline. The storyline has seen its ups and downs due to injuries, but it hasn’t been good for a number of reasons.
The on-screen chemistry between Lana, as a heel, alongside Rusev was what really captured fans interest. Lana was made to look strong, a forceful character that wouldn’t crack or show emotion, where now that isn’t the case. It just doesn’t register how someone who was so cold on screen could be so easily upset by the thought that her ‘boyfriend’ was cheating on her. The writing has also hurt Rusev, who went from dominant monster to someone that is easily distracted and constantly has his plans thwarted due to his lack of focus. If it wasn’t such a change in character direction than viewers probably wouldn’t have the issues with it that they do.
If this was the first and only instance of a love triangle storyline not working, then we could say it was a one off, and the attempt, while admirable, should be forgotten so we can move on. But love triangles have often been used in wrestling storylines, and the soap opera storytelling around it doesn’t generally work well.
While fans were ready to enjoy the feud between Edge and Matt Hardy, which was based on a love triangle with Lita, Hardy’s off screen girlfriend who actually did cheat on him with Edge, the end didn’t justify the means and the on-screen version of the story didn’t deliver. Fan awareness of the behind the scenes drama got fans worked into a frenzy. This was ‘real life’ and kayfabe didn’t have a place here, and fans couldn’t get enough. When Hardy was fired due to the backstage issues created by this real life situation, fans started chanting for him on Raw.
WWE exploited fan awareness of the problems using various social mediums, such as their Byte This! call in show. But ultimately the biggest problem was the end of the feud. Hardy, scorned in real life and scorned in the feud ultimately had nothing to show for all the ‘real’ heart ache and betrayal. Yes, life doesn’t always have a happy ending, but ultimately the booking didn’t even suggest that Hardy was going to go on to bigger and better things. He lost the battle, the girl and the war. Lita has often said she didn’t feel comfortable during this feud because of how everything Matt was saying in character was true.
Now you may be thinking, fine this happened once before. But even before that example, WCW writers didn’t get it right either.
The Chris Benoit/Kevin Sullivan feud was a case of a love triangle that didn’t go well for a number of different reasons. For those that aren’t aware, Nancy, who went by the ring name of Woman was married to Kevin Sullivan. Sullivan was engrossed in a feud with Chris Benoit, started when Benoit ‘won’ the affections of Woman. And as most are likely aware, Benoit won those affections off screen as well. As talented as a ring general as he was, Benoit’s ability to promo wasn’t one of his strongest suits. However, Sullivan was quite capable both on the microphone and in the ring. The Task Master and The Crippler fought tooth and nail, but it was a feud that didn’t need that type of angle. Both men were more than capable of telling a story in the ring where Benoit, the fierce, and hungry competitor, faced the grizzled veteran hoping to achieve success. Some may not be as compelled to want to follow a story like that, but the one that was scripted did little to help Kevin Sullivan’s cause, whether it was rooted in real life drama or not.
The next example, while not being a dispute over love per se, was built on jealousy, while at the same time there was futile hope that in the end cooler heads would prevail. When Randy Savage and Hulk Hogan feuded leading up to Wrestlemania V, the feud was built on what Savage believed was ‘lust in the eyes’ of Hogan for Elizabeth. Fans are aware that both Savage and Elizabeth were an item behind the scenes back in 1989 (they were married), while their on screen relationship was, like Rusev and Lana, presented as more Manager and Client. The WWE attempted to transform that into a relationship that was a little bit more than simply business. With Elizabeth at the helm of the Mega Powers, the idea was that something in this trio would eventually give. As we watched this feud develop, it was certainly presented as nothing more than a misunderstanding on the part of Savage. And, Savage was very convincing in making everyone believe that he was jealous. In the end, Hogan won the match, walked away with the title, and Savage and Elizabeth were split at the end of this feud. Where was the payoff for Savage? After the match, he left the ring and Hogan stood in the middle of the ring as the conquering hero. Why not try and bring both Elizabeth and Savage back together by the end of the match? Sadly that didn’t happen, and it wasn’t until they reconciled in a future angle (at WrestleMania VII in 1991) that they were reunited. If Hogan was a true friend he would have done everything in his power to ensure that true love prevailed, and that Savage and Elizabeth were together.
While a number of relationships have developed behind the scenes, and many of those behind the scenes relationships have been carried out on screen, the suggestion of a love triangle, or even putting someone’s significant other in a rather weak and vulnerable position, doesn’t seem to be very effective. In the late 1980s, Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts and ‘Ravishing’ Rick Rude had a feud that started with Rude propositioning a fan at ringside. This wouldn’t seem like much of an issue, but it became one when it was revealed that the fan at ringside was Roberts’ wife; another example of real life being played on screen. If the feud did do anything, it did attempt to open the curtain and allow fans to see behind it temporarily. During the feud, Rude would do everything to aggravate Roberts, from wearing a picture of Roberts’ wife‘s face on his pants to suggesting that he would show her what a real man is like. Roberts always had a dark quality about him, so him being booked like this was really was out of character.
Similarly, there was the Undertaker/DDP stalker angle, built around Taker’s then wife Sara. These instances, while making the characters mortal, don’t really help their overall persona and put them in fact in a weakened state. Part of the appeal of Roberts and even the American Bad Ass Undertaker was that their characters were essentially like Teflon, where regardless of what you said or did to them, they would stay focussed and ultimately prevail.
The reality based love triangle, or scenarios turning real life relationships into onscreen storylines rarely has a solid enough story developed around it, largely because those writing the stories generally don’t have the experience to develop a believable storyline. Daytime soap operas deal with this type of peril all the time. Viewers tune in and are drawn to the storyline because they want to see if love will be thwarted, or hopefully prevail. In wrestling, fans need to care about the fact that true love is in danger of being lost, and hold out hope that even if you don’t get the girl you will have some semblance of peace.
Whether it was Matt Hardy and Edge, Chris Benoit and Kevin Sullivan, Randy Savage and Hulk Hogan, Jake Roberts and Rick Rude or The Undertaker and DDP good storytelling much like everything else has to resonate to become something that fans can be drawn to.