Free agent Adam Cole was one of those fortunate enough to be on hand for the instant wrestling classic between Kazuchika Okada and Kenny Omega at Wrestle Kingdom 11 in January. He watched the match by himself backstage on a monitor and couldn't believe the masterpiece unfolding in front of his eyes.
The two performers rocked the crowd of more than 25,000 fans at the Tokyo Dome for over 45 minutes with an in-ring performance among the best that's ever been seen in wrestling. While many have called Omega-Okada I (and even their rematch) the greatest match ever, Cole, who appreciated the match to be sure, isn't one of them.
"With nostalgia, for me, it's the Rock-Stone Cold WrestleMania 17. The only reason being, well it's a great match [too, but] because of how I felt as a kid," Cole told ESPN in April.
The strength of that match is based on far more than what The Rock and Steve Austin did together between the bells, on that night or any other. Their history, and the moments that led up to that all-time classic, were just as much (if not more) about what they had to say on the microphone, and the way their characters fed off each other.
"I remember watching that Limp Bizkit 'My Way' music video. When Stone Cold's music hit and that glass broke, 67,000 people went nuts," Cole recalled. "I got goose bumps for the first time in my life. I remember the moment clear as day. I remember where I was sitting. I remember how I reacted. I remember I was so moved by getting goose bumps and realizing I was feeling some type of way about this match. About pro wrestling. At that moment, I was like, 'OK, I need to be a pro wrestler.' Forever, that will be my all-time favorite match."
Wrestlers who have the ability to talk and feed off the crowd like Austin and The Rock are seemingly a dying breed. Promos are slowly becoming a lost art in professional wrestling, as the current construction of shows, matches and storytelling tend to fall into a familiar, somewhat stifling pattern.
The in-ring work has never been better, with the likes of AJ Styles, Seth Rollins, Cesaro and Sami Zayn, among many others, flying all over the ring every night. But with a few exceptions, the mic work has also arguably never been worse. Much of today's talent, and even several top stars, too often cuts generic promos spoken at fans, designed to sell a specific match or pay-per-view rather than engaging and interacting with the crowd. Some of the blame can be placed on the performers, but they're also victims of an era in which writers play larger roles within a heavily scripted environment.
"I think it's bad for the business," said Raven, who earned a reputation as one of the best talkers of the mid-1990s and early 2000s. "Now they write promos for people. In the old days, you got bullet points. They said, 'Here are the points you gotta hit, so do it in your character.' If you didn't know how to be a character or how to be a star, you didn't get over.
"Now they write for everybody, which is good for the lower-tier guys who can't write, who aren't creative enough yet or don't have enough psychology yet. But for guys who have potential star power, you're really killing it, because [Steve] Austin would've never came alive if they would've been writing his character for him. If they told him to just stay with these promos. It's a whole different world now."
This new world of straightforward, mundane promos has made it more difficult for fans to identify with performers the way that Stone Cold did with an 11-year old Cole. Nuanced characters are increasingly hard to find.
"Ninety-nine percent of the business is two-dimensional. They don't have points of view," Raven said. "People used to complain when they worked with Shane Douglas and he'd go, 'The Franchise doesn't do that,' talking in the third person. I loved that about him because I want a guy that knows what his character would and wouldn't do -- because that I could work with. The character is three-dimensional. You know his point of view. The fans could probably tell you, which is ultimately what I wanted, what he would do in any situation."
Cole is part of that other 1 percent, able to to convey the depth of his character and performance through what he does on the microphone. The three-time former ROH champion has established himself as an elite talker despite having far fewer opportunities to reach a mass audience than his WWE peers. Cole doesn't have a writing staff handing him a promo to read. He also doesn't have WWE's top-notch production to enhance his words. All he needs is his mind ... and a pack of gum.
"For me, I like to just do it," Cole said. "I can get in a zone for my promo material fairly quick. If it's one of those deals where I arrive and immediately they're like, 'Hey, come and cut a promo,' I love having like 30 seconds to shut my eyes and think about completely morphing into Adam Cole and thinking that way. This is gonna sound silly, but if I have gum, chomping on my gum like an idiot really, really helps me kind of get in the zone. I walk different. My face is different. I just try my best to get the most prepared and then let everything naturally flow. My thing is, when I'm talking, I want people to think and completely believe that I believe everything that I'm saying."
As natural as Cole seems on the mic, his skills were realized thanks to hours and hours of practice behind the scenes. Cole tries to watch one hour of in-ring work and one hour of promos every day, despite having already become one of the top talkers in wrestling. He often finds himself watching the same wrestler over and over for his promo studies.
"Nine times out of 10 the promo stuff that I watched was all CM Punk," Cole said. "Just the way that he spoke, the cadence that he had, the confidence that he had, the look in his eyes was so believable. Punk was so smart with his promos. He talked intelligently, to where you thought he was an intelligent guy and you thought this was a fresh idea, but it wasn't so over-the-top or so over your head that you didn't understand it. He was very, very good at carrying himself in promos. He was definitely a guy that I studied quite a bit and still study going forward and cutting promos."
The similarities between Punk and Cole on the mic are obvious. Cole's quick-witted remarks, steady rhythm and cynical nature are reminiscent of a young Punk during his own run with Ring of Honor. Coincidentally, Punk has credited Raven for being the first veteran to teach him psychology during their ROH feud in 2003.
"I never realized I helped him that much. Maybe he was listening when I thought he was arguing with me," Raven said. "I thought he would've looked back with less than fondness on me because we butted heads quite a bit, but I'm glad he didn't."
The connection between Punk and Raven is interesting considering their different promo styles. Punk verbally attacked his opponents with direct, hard-hitting jabs. Raven preferred to engage in what he calls "psychological warfare." Raven tapped into the deepest and darkest places in his soul to unleash poetic-yet-sinister promos to his opponents. Sometimes fans would have to dig deeper to understand the meaning behind Raven's promos. During his run with WCW, even Eric Bischoff often struggled to understand Raven's words. But for Raven, it was by design.
"Bischoff pulled me aside one time and said, 'I think you're talking over the fans' heads,'" Raven said. "I go, 'I may be, but I don't think it matters because it's mystifying and elegant and eloquent.' The fans listen to Kurt Cobain music and get the point, but they don't understand what every word means. They understand the concept of what he's talking about, and that's the same thing with my promos. You understood the concept. If you were a misfit, you felt, 'Here's somebody who gets me.' If you were a normal person, you're like, 'I hate misfits. Misfits are a pain in the ass. They whine. They complain.' It was a unique perspective on the world."
While Raven would cut his promos and let fans react, Cole prefers to tinker with his promos midstream, depending on fan reaction.
"For me, my best promos are structured like the best matches," Cole said. "When you plan a match, at least for me, I like to have bullet points of what I'd like to do, then not overdo it and have the rest of it be on feel based on the audience and based on how they're reacting. So it's the same exact thing, only with my words with promos. My favorite promos or my favorite ideas that I've had is stuff where I've had a couple ideas that I'd like to say, but then I kind of base the in-between to get to Point B based on how I deliver Point A and how I'm feeling in this promo. A lot of times too, in your brain, you imagine speaking a certain way, but then they just come out a different way and realize you like it better or you don't like it as much."
Neither Raven nor Cole typifies your average professional wrestler. Raven was an average-sized, modestly built wrestler donning ripped jeans and a T-shirt. Cole is even smaller and doesn't have the high-flying skills that many wrestlers his size need to reach the WWE. But because of their promo skills and ability to connect with fans through words, both have become larger-than-life personalities. Often, that can be more memorable than a five-star (or six-star) match.
"I tell people all the time at seminars, the importance of talking is so vital and so crucial to your career in pro wrestling, especially as a main-event guy," Cole said. "Most promoters in the world would rather have a really, really good promo guy and an OK wrestler than a really good wrestler and a guy who couldn't talk at all. If you could do both, that's even better. I truly believe that talking is not only just as important but in some cases more important. Especially for long-term development of your character. Promos are so important."