The mid-card can make or break a wrestling promotion. When done well, it resembles a vibrant, diverse coral reef; the young can be nourished and protected by it, the old can seek refuge within when the light shines too brightly at the top. A healthy mid-card has a multitude of unique species; the undersized high-flyer, the oft-injured veteran, the promising rookie, and the charisma-less mat technician. A good mid-card makes use of the imperfect pieces within it.
When a mid-card is booked poorly, it resembles a wasteland. “Has-beens” roll along like tumbleweed, catching on the prickly spines of “Never-wills”. If the mid-card is weak, no matter how flashy the main event is, the promotion is incapable of longevity.
I have noticed there are several story arcs that work well in the mid-card. Good booking is reciprocal; it builds the prestige of the wrestlers involved while simultaneously establishing credibility for the mid-card itself.
The most common (and arguably most important) of these mid-card plot conventions is Up-and-comer gets his first taste of (singles) gold. This plays out just like it sounds; a talented young wrestler that the promotion feels they could build into a main-eventer begins his championship resume with a solid mid-card title reign. The careers that have been launched this way are too numerous to count. I am particularly fond of how this was done with “Macho Man” Randy Savage in ’87-’88 (Intercontinental Title), Rob Van Dam in ’98-’00 (ECW Television Title)*, and more recently Austin Aries in ’11-’12 (TNA X-Division Title). The mid-card title is a perfect way expose an up-and-comer to the audience consistently, build his legitimacy, and test his ability to handle the spot light without putting him in the main event too early.
Another story arc well suited to the mid-card is Established Main-eventer takes time away from chasing the title to settle a grudge. In this formula, a legit headliner that is not directly involved in the main-event title picture can move down to the mid-card temporarily to play out a “score to settle” storyline. This is useful because A) It allows the headliner to stay on the audience’s radar even while he is not involved in the main event, so when he is reintroduced in the title scene it doesn’t seem random, B) it can allow a less established wrestler to get credibility from feuding with a big name star. There is no better example of this than the ’96-’97 Bret Hart/Steve Austin feud. At the time Hart was an established main-eventer who stepped away from the title picture to go to war against Steve Austin, who at that time was just an undecorated anti-hero with a cult following. Needless to say, this feud catapulted Austin’s career into highest rung of the wrestling hierarchy. I also have to mention that Ring of Honor has historically done an excellent job with this plot convention as well. One of my personal favorites is the Bryan Danielson/Tyler Black feud from ’08-’09.
Finally, there is the Sentimental favorite or comic relief gets a moment of glory. Sometimes, it’s difficult for promotions to know how to use their oddballs. Let’s face it, redheaded fake luchadors (El Generico), Elvis Impersonators (Honky Tonk Man) and pimps (The Godfather) are not exactly your prototypical main-eventers. Fans tend to love these characters, but bookers are often hesitant to put comedic wrestlers over their more “serious” talent at the top of the card. So another way a promotion can push its less traditional talent is to let them carry the mid-card title. Any of Santino Marella’s title reigns would qualify as an example of how to affectively run this story arc.
These are just a few of the possible narrative formulas that can be used to give a promotion’s mid-card a wealth of story telling. The best promotions, like the best sports teams, are built from within. Good mid-card management is essential to any wrestling company’s success.
*Rob Van Dam never won the ECW World Championship (accept when WWE resurrected it several years after the promotion went under) but his Television Title reign, solidified his status as an ECW stalwart.