Turn That Frown Upside Down
ATTACK! Pro Wrestling is a family friendly promotion that was started by Pete Dunne, Jim Lee, and joined soon after by Mark Andrews. The premise of the shows are that they take place within their own kayfabe, a closed-setting with stories built around a classic goodies vs baddies dynamic. The audience typically doesn’t act in a smarky way, instead playing along with the fiction, cheering on the heroes and booing the villains regardless of their love (or hate) of the wrestler’s character. A good example of this dynamic can be seen with Chris Brookes who will be booed every time he makes an appearance despite the fact that almost everyone in the room is wearing one of his t-shirts!
However, out-of-ring actions have turned the usual ATTACK! audience dynamic on its head in relation to one wrestler: Ryan Smile.
A Bit of a Twit
Smile recently made some unintentionally homophobic tweets (pictured above). Sure, we should all let people be people, however ignoring that there are some segments of society that are systemically disadvantaged is the kind of erasure of collective experience that hinders progress towards that ideal. When looking at the LGBT community we are talking about having less access to stable housing, discrimination in the workplace, increased risk of violent verbal or physical attack, and an increase in mental health issues that are often related to these other problems. Rather than coming across as intended, Ryan’s tweets seemed to be ignoring and erasing people’s experiences.
With this in mind folks took to twitter to challenge Smile’s views, only to have him double down on his original position as he reacted badly to the criticism. He later provided some equally poor commentary about mental health issues which just poured petrol onto what was effectively a raging trash fire.
It was in the aftermath of this online furore that the recent ATTACK! show, Winterslam 2, took place. The event was running smoothly until Smile was due to be involved. The set-up for the match was that Chris Brookes, as mentioned before playing the part of a popular dirty heel, was due to be facing the mostly good Wild Boar.
Brookes come out to booing while Wild Boar got cheers – exactly as would be expected. However, the previously babyfaced Mike Bird then got involved with the situation, ambushing Brookes and giving him a beat-down! This was intended to be a huge turning point in the story of all the characters involved. Bird and Boar become villains while Brookes picks up audience sympathy in order to start the path towards becoming a babyfaced hero – something the fans had been hoping for. Despite the initial audience shock at the betrayal it generally started to work. Now all that was needed was another babyface hero to come in and save Brookes and cement his place on Team Good Guys™.
The last time Ryan Smile appeared in ATTACK! he was booked as an ultra-heroic baby face who had faced off against Bird. Continuity-wise he was the perfect choice to make the save. The problem was that the audience were not so happy with his real life statements.
Instead of being greeted with the customary cheers, Smile came out to “FUCK YOU RYAN” and “YOU’RE NOT SPECIAL” chants from the majority of the audience. Moments where characters turn can be quite confusing at first while the audience catch up with the shock. This was made even more difficult to follow due to the crowd rallying almost violently against Smile.
Ryan Smile then tried to fist bump Brookes to make the match into a tag team match, communicating the shifting alignments by having the established goodie team up with someone who had formerly been bad. The problem was that Smile was still getting jeered by the crowd and so Brookes didn’t accept and rolled out the ring. While we can only speculate, I imagine in the script Brookes was suppose to get booed again, showing that he’s still not fully turned face, and leaving Good Guy Smile to get a beat down in a 2 on 1 match, cementing Boar & Bird as having gone over to the dark side. The problem was that because everyone wanted to see Ryan get beat so bad they started to cheer for Bird and Boar again – the opposite of what was suppose to happen!
The issues created by Smile out of character bled into the dynamic of what was taking place in the ring. While people cheered for Brookes, on the apron you could hear voices having arguments with Smile, specifically calling him out on his twitter comments. Although Ryan was suppose to be the babyface, he was arguing back and shouting people down. Soon a section of the audience were totally going at him with someone actually saying “GO KILL YOURSELF RYAN”.
This was really affecting all of the other performers in the ring. The match was getting sloppy. Everyone was getting distracted and the wrestlers could hardly work. Beyond this, when Ryan Smile got tagged in he was being messy and accidentally bust Boar open. Despite Smile hitting all his big babyface flip spots, which were obviously very impressive, the crowd were never on his side.
As far as the ATTACK! storyline goes this segment went sour because we were suppose to have the big happy ending of Brookes finally turning face which everyone really wanted but instead what we got as the match finished was the performers looking sickened with the crowd and Smile almost crying. While the rest of the show really made up for this blip it still left a weird and uneasy feeling around the day.
Smile: Like You Mean It
The direction ATTACK! choose to take this depends on both their own willingness to engage a problem rather than ignore it, and the actions of Ryan Smile – first with his shoot reaction and then with regard to the kayfabe of the promotion’s own fictional world.
The peeps at ATTACK! need to make sure that Smile sits down with someone who understands (and is sympathetic towards) the reasons people are upset. This also has to be a person Smile will be able to listen to and talk with, as being told to kill yourself is out of order and has the potential to close down most conversation. He also has to feel comfortable making mistakes in front of this person without it being a big deal. Perhaps Jack Sexsmith, who was willing to say in public something along the lines of “he’s not homophobic, he’s just a bit ignorant” and still appear to be on good terms, would be the right person for the task? In any case this has to happen pronto as the shoot response has to happen soon and would roughly be one of two things: either Smile shows understanding of how he fucked up and asks the fans for some understanding while he puts it right OR if he isn’t willing/able to do that then his place at ATTACK! has become untenable and he should dropped from their shows until he comes around.
Unfortunately there have been a few indications that Smile won’t be willing to learn from this experience. He blocks people on Twitter who attempt to engage with him with constructive criticism. Due to this attitude not many wrestlers are going to want to speak out against him either privately or publicly, especially as Smile himself has the ear of a few different promotion owners as well as being co-owner of Lucha Forever. No one wants to have a negative impact on their booking chances in this current boom period. At the same time he has played a variation on the “Some of my best friends are…” argument, ignoring the structural issues that people have taken objection to him passing over, and rationalising away the negative aspects of what was said because he personally treats lesbian and gay people he knows in an equal way.
Given the family friendly and inclusive nature of ATTACK! it would be a massive mistake to try and use this real-life blunder to generate heat for his character, as it transmits the message that being homophobic comes without any material consequences outside of the ring. At the same time simply accepting an apology and telling the fans to just move on and/or get over it won’t work either. Apologising is a good first action, but it also needs Ryan to acknowledge where the original problem was and then take some activity to redress the balance. Being a performer gives you a great platform to do this, but if Ryan and ATTACK! just keep insisting that as he said sorry that the fans should now move on then it doesn’t inspire confidence that anything has been learned or corrected for the future.
However, I’m not going to be a pessimist and so instead let’s assume he goes with the first option and genuinely wants to put things right for a honest mistake. In this case ATTACK! get an amazing opportunity to show that they are a cut above other promotions that would sweep this under the carpet or try to stop discussion of the problems overly-quickly. Instead they can work with Ryan to tell the story of someone learning from their past mistakes in the ring. A story of finding redemption by admitting when you are wrong then putting it right through your actions is pure wrestling.
Let’s hope that in this case that life can live up to the potential presented by the art.