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Chapter 10: Booking 101 By Matt Murphy

Posted by flairwhoooooo on November 23, 2009

Chapter 10: Booking 101

I won’t pretend to be a longtime booker who knows the ins and outs of booking like no other. I have, however, had a hand in the process for years alongside a man who booked several territories during his career. I’d like to think I’ve learned enough to dedicate a chapter to booking.

An important tool in a booker’s briefcase is a pencil. If you want to get a great briefcase visit https://www.briefcasebash.com/briefcases-guide/. Pencils are used because of the unpredictability of the business: injuries, no-shows, car trouble, and a host of other things can shoot a booker’s plans to hell and create a need for the eraser.

The promoter and booker are often the same guy. Many promoters like to do it all themselves, and there isn’t usually anything wrong with that — they pay the overhead. While I’ve been assisting Harley Race off-and-on for several years, he was the booker and he always had the final say because he signed the checks.

A booker, of course, needs to do is book talent for the event. This is where the “variety of flavors” that I reference throughout the book is most vital. If a booker has access to twelve incredible talents who all look and work similarly, then he should probably only book one or two of them: he needs to balance the card.

Let’s use a six-match card for this example. I’ll use WWE guys so everybody gets the point. I wrote this book in 2008, so some of the wrestlers may have been future-endeavored by the time you read this.

Aside from the main event, the first match is the most important match on the card. It sets the tone for the rest of the night, so you don’t want a spot-fest but you want something that really gets the crowd into it. I want two dependable wrestlers, a babyface and a heel who I know I can count on to deliver a good opener with good crowd response. I’m going with Kofi Kingston vs. Chavo Guerrero, with Kofi going over.
Second, I want a decent match using a less-experienced wrestler who I can push at some point down the road. I also need a decent veteran to lead him through a good match. I’ll put Mike Knox over Stevie Richards here.

Since I went with a slower-paced second match, I need to speed things up before we take an intermission. I want an upper-card wrestler defeating an inferior opponent: I think it’s healthy to pull a main-eventer down the card sometimes to give him strong wins. I’ll put MVP over on Jimmy Wang Yang in this match
Coming out of the intermission, I need something to get fans’ attention. They’ve stood in line to use the restroom, bought merchandise, and have been waiting patiently for the show to resume. This will be a gimmick match, in this case a Divas contest between Mickie James and Beth Phoenix. Since my last two matches saw heels go over, I need Mickie, the babyface, to win this one.

Now we’re coming into the home stretch of the night, but I might want one more intermission before the main event, so I’ll put a tag team match in here so I can get some time out of it. It also needs to have a little star power since it’s on next-to-last. I’ll put Edge and Randy Orton against Matt and Jeff Hardy. One of my top matches next month will be Edge vs. Orton, so I will have Edge cause Orton to get pinned here. Edge will try to apologize, but Orton will hit the RKO and leave Edge lying in the ring, setting the stage for their upcoming match.

Now it’s time for the main event. This is the match everybody paid to see, so I really need it to deliver. At the same time, I need to leave fans eager to buy tickets for next month’s event. I’ll have Umaga vs. The Undertaker for the World Title, with a double-DQ finish. They will continue to brawl wildly until the locker rooms empty (except Edge, Orton, and the Divas) to break them up. The authority figure will come out and make the announcement that next month will be a rematch, but next time anything goes. It will be a no-DQ Last Man Standing match.

This is a solid house show. Fans have got their money’s worth, had their hunger satisfied without getting a bellyache. There was some good wrestling, some flying, some eye candy (not to mention both of those Divas can work), an interesting story in a heel team set to battle each other (though it’s usually a bad idea because the fans have nobody to care about, these two are over enough to be a draw), and the drawing card, a gimmick match next month that relates directly to the finish of this main event. You usually want to leave something unresolved so you don’t have to start from scratch next time.

I’ve worked events where the promoter, booker, and hometown wrestler are all the same person. Instead of doing smart business, he usually wants to be a glory-hound and put himself over all the time. I would do it differently.

Let’s say tonight I’m running an event in my hometown: I’m the local celebrity and I win my match. The fans cheer: they love me the same as they did when the event began (nothing lost, nothing gained). But what if I lose? I wrestle Joe Smith. His rule-breaking friend, Harvey Jones, helps him cheat me out of hometown glory. However, I’m going to get even next month when I team with former star Marty Jannetty to face those cheating what-nots. Now I’ve lost little, because the fans see light at the end of the tunnel, and I’ll get the rub from a name as I seek revenge during next month’s event. Sadly, most hometown wrestlers/bookers/promoters are too caught up in the small-town love they receive to see the potential in this.

Money talks, and as the booker, you are usually given a budget to work with. Spend wisely. While it would be great to bring in five former WWE stars, it’s probably not within your budget to do so. I have worked an event featuring many names, and though there were plenty of paying fans who watched the event, it was not profitable because it was overbooked. Imagine being a promoter who sees 1,000 people sitting in the crowd and knows he’s still going to lose money.

Innovative, captivating finishes are important. You want to be sure that, no matter what, you don’t make fans feel like they’ve wasted their time or money, even if their favorite doesn’t win. Gone are the days of “We’re out of time! Tune in next week to find out the winner!” It may have gotten over in the old days, but not today. A good finish may be complex, but it must be easy to understand whether you are sitting in the crowd or watching on television. You don’t need a highly creative finish for each match, but there should be one or two creative finishes on each show.

My favorite finish of all time was the end of an Arn Anderson vs. Alex Wright match in WCW. Anderson ducked a clothesline and drew back for a punch, Wright ducked, Anderson stopped, hooked Wright’s head, and hit a DDT for the pin. Since Anderson was a seasoned veteran and Wright was a rookie, it made sense for Anderson to bait Wright into the finisher. It was simple but effective as hell.

A tag-team finish I really liked was during Clash of the Champions XVIII in a match pitting Marcus Bagwell and Brian Pillman against Terry Taylor and Tracey Smothers. During the hot tag, a four-way broke out and Pillman was thrown over the top rope to the floor, where he landed on his feet. Taylor and Smothers whipped Bagwell into the ropes and went for a double-backdrop, but Bagwell hit a sunset flip on Taylor. When Smothers popped up, he saw that Taylor was fighting to avoid going down to the sunset flip. Smothers grabbed Taylor’s arm to prevent Bagwell from bringing Taylor down. Pillman slid in the ring and dropkicked Smothers in the back, causing the falling Taylor to propel Smothers out of the ring. Momentum took Taylor to the mat, where he was pinned by Bagwell’s sunset flip. It takes a lot of words to describe it, but it came off really smooth: I about wore out my rewind button when I first watched it.

The best bookers I’ve seen have had great foresight. You’ll get a big pop from having the special guest star, who is twenty years past his prime, knock out the cheating heel champion; however, good bookers understand that after the event is over, the star goes home and the regular members of the roster are left fighting for a title held by a man who was dropped with an aged legend’s single punch.

Another great trait of a great booker is his ability to see the big picture. Maybe he is considering two title changes during the same event. One of those titles is the focal point of the company, and the great booker can see that showing the fans a title change before the big title switch will cheapen the one that matters most. The overuse of title changes waters down what should be memorable. If a fan attends twenty events and sees just one or two title changes, then it means something. I have no problem with bouncing around the lesser titles a bit, but the main title should be changed sparingly. Fans should be able to remember every time they see the main title change hands.

Of course, great angles (“storylines” or “programs”) make great bookers. An angle usually consists of an opposition that the babyface must overcome to achieve his goal. A great angle is one in which the fans make an emotional investment in — one they can relate to. Joe Wrestler’s partner turns against him (they’ve all been betrayed by somebody in the past). Joe is heartbroken because they were like brothers (they’ve all felt the agony that a lost relationship brought). Joe’s ex-partner challenges him but Joe backs down (they’ve all experienced a moment which raised questions about their courage). Finally, Joe’s partner crosses the line. Joe says, “Enough is enough. I will fight you.” (They’ve all had their fill and either stood up for themselves or, more likely, wished they had.) Now those fans, who can relate to Joe’s situation, are going to pay money to see him get revenge on his former partner (and those who have wronged them). Fans want to live vicariously through their heroes, so easy-to-relate-to scenarios really get them to make an emotional, and ultimately a financial, investment in the angle.

Booking backwards

Some great bookers like to work backwards.

Before I begin, note that this was written a couple months before C.M. Punk pinned Edge to win his first World Heavyweight Title.

I want a heel C.M. Punk to defeat Triple-H for the WWE Title in the main event of Wrestlemania XXV. It’s a tough sell, because Punk is a babyface and may not have that kind of star power yet, but I need to find a way to turn him heel and get him over as a Wrestlemania headliner between now and then.
I see the finished product: confetti showers C.M. Punk as he hoists the WWE Championship above his head while fans boo like crazy. Now I need to book backwards. The pay-per-view (which is a pain in the ass to type, so it’s PPV from now on) before Wrestlemania is No Way Out. I definitely need Punk to overcome his greatest obstacle here. Before that, in reverse order, is Royal Rumble, Armageddon, Survivor Series, Cyber Sunday, No Mercy, Unforgiven, Summerslam, The Great American Bash, and Night of Champions.

As I write this, I have ten PPVs to make C.M. Punk a heel who will draw as a Wrestlemania headliner. I know that I need to give him the ‘Mania push, but before I do that I have to set his sights on the WWE Title. Before that, I need to give him a win over a babyface who is a former WWE Champion. Before I even do that, I will need to turn him heel. Before he turns, I will need to plant the seeds for his heel turn. Before I plant those seeds, I need to give him some babyface momentum so his heel turn will mean the most. Call Guinness — I have just set the world record for most times using “before” in a paragraph. Now that I’ve gone in reverse, I’ll lay things out in chronological order.

To begin, Punk will win the U.S. Title in a three-way match against MVP and Matt Hardy at Night of Champions. I need MVP in the match to protect Punk from being booed against Hardy, whose popularity may be greater than Punk’s right now.

1. I need Punk to be a good guy and gladly give Hardy a one-on-one rematch at The Great American Bash, since Punk is a fighting champion and can sympathize with the babyface ex-champ who lost a title even though he wasn’t pinned. They work a respectable match until Hardy takes a nasty spill to the floor. Punk could just take the count-out win and keep his title, but he’s a babyface, so he rolls out and helps Hardy back into the ring. Out of nowhere, Hardy hits the Twist of Fate to regain the title and goes back to selling his floor bump. Punk is visibly upset, but he lets the crowd talk him into begrudgingly helps Hardy to his feet after the match. This foreshadowing plants a seed for the heel turn because taking the high road bit him in the ass.

2. I move Punk to Raw, probably in a draft, and put him in a feud with Chris Jericho (who should be a heel by that time) that spans two PPVs, Summerslam and Unforgiven, with Jericho winning the first bout and Punk winning the last.

3. I need to push Punk as an upper-card babyface. The best heel turn occurs when a babyface’s popularity hasn’t hit a plateau. Punk becomes involved in a feud with Randy Orton. This feud brings us to No Mercy, where he shows he’s almost in Orton’s league in a losing effort. Punk isn’t satisfied with the loss. He wants one more match with Orton on Raw, which ends with JBL running in just as Punk is about to hit the Go To Sleep on Orton and surely get the win. Orton and JBL double-team Punk until Triple-H makes the save, setting the table for my Cyber Sunday main event, Punk and Triple-H against Orton and JBL. Main-eventing him on a secondary PPV is the safe route and, while it may not spike the buyrate, is elevates him to main-event status. Here in Matt’s fantasy world, WWE has that kind of foresight.

4. Triple-H can barely stand after winning a brutal main-event match against John Cena in the main event of Survivor Series. Punk appears on the stage, his eyes shifting between a battered Triple-H and the Money in the Bank briefcase. Punk slowly descends the ramp, but decides against cashing in for an easy WWE Championship victory because he’s a babyface who is going to take the high road; he doesn’t want to become WWE Champion like this. I also subtly create a little bit of a buzz for the possibility of Shawn Michaels vs. Triple-H at Wrestlemania around this time.

5. The night after Survivor Series, Punk loses his Money in the Bank briefcase in a match. Now he’s really screwed himself. He could have just gone out to the ring the night before, laid across Triple-H, and became WWE Champ, but now he doesn’t even have the voucher to claim a title shot.

6. After a great pep talk from Shawn Michaels, Punk grins and bears it for now. When Michaels gets involved in a spat with Carlito and Santino Marella, he enlists the help of a happy-to-oblige Punk — or so it seems. During their tag match, Punk turns against Michaels, leading to their showdown at Armageddon. I do a 30-minute time-limit draw against Shawn Michaels to show that Punk is a big-leaguer.

7. In the next few weeks, I would create a huge buzz for Michaels vs. Triple-H at Wrestlemania, maybe with both of them stating that they would love to do it.

8. Punk earns the WWE Title shot by surprisingly winning the Royal Rumble, last eliminating Michaels. Punk gets to challenge for either the WWE or World Title at Wrestlemania.

9. Both Michaels and Triple-H want to square off at Wrestlemania. Triple-H says he dreams of stealing the show at Wrestlemania with Shawn Michaels and pleads with Punk to step aside, but Punk has a better idea. He’ll take on Michaels in a 60-minute Iron Man match at No Way Out. If Punk wins, then he wrestles Triple-H at ‘Mania. If Punk loses, then Michaels gets his match with Triple-H, but Punk can challenge for the WWE Championship at any time afterwards. I usually don’t like following through on previous stipulations, but given the WWE history of the Royal Rumble winner not challenging for a title in a one-on-one match at Wrestlemania, we’ll go with it.

10. With no falls for either man and five minutes remaining in the match, Triple-H comes to ringside and cheers Michaels. Inside 15 seconds left in the match, Punk ducks Sweet Chin Music and hits the Go To Sleep to get the first and deciding fall just before time expires. Punk retains his claim to the title shot.

11. During the next several weeks before Wrestlemania, Punk gets wins over former WWE Champions to give him a big push leading into his main-event match.

12. Now that Wrestlemania is here, we’ve built C.M. Punk as a main-event heel. His win over Michaels in the Iron Man match is what really makes him a star, but he also has wins over several other WWE Champions to make the fans buy him as a legitimate contender worth paying to see. He wins the WWE Title from Triple-H at Wrestlemania.

13. I follow this with Punk dropping the WWE Title to Michaels in a three-way also including Triple-H at Backlash and failing to regain it at the next PPV. Then I’d do a slow-build angle leading to Michaels vs. Triple-H at Summerslam.

14. So Punk’s main-event status wasn’t tarnished, I’d make him the first pick of the 2009 Draft, sending him to Smackdown as a top-level heel.

State Athletic Commissions

This applies to everybody working in this business: if you’re in a state governed by an athletic commission, don’t screw with them. Do everything by the book. If you are required to be licensed, get it early. Promoters, don’t be that guy who books twelve wrestlers to work an event that gets shut down because you didn’t get an event license. Wrestlers, don’t be the one who drives nine hours to work an event, didn’t get his physical and, thus, isn’t allowed to get licensed, doesn’t get to work the event, and doesn’t get paid. And to sprinkle salt in the wound, that wrestler shouldn’t expect another call from that promoter.

Don’t screw with the commission. If you pull a shenanigan in Georgia and the state suspends your license, it can and likely will affect your licensing status in other commissioned states. If the promoter is screwing with the commission, a wrestler’s license may also be affected when the promoter’s license is suspended. Wrestlers, make sure you’re working with reputable promotions who do things by the book.

When promoting an event, don’t count on a sellout crowd to fulfill your financial obligations. Optimism is wonderful and all, but there are a ton of variables that can make or break an event, and if your event flops, your debts are still your responsibility. It is not a wrestler’s job to sell tickets, it’s yours, and you should have cash on hand to pay the wrestlers even if your event ends up with a paid attendance of zero.

I have heard venue representatives state many times that they were burned by a wrestling promotion in the past and no longer want to have anything to do with wrestling. Either the promotion left their building half-demolished, the check for renting the building bounced, or the beneficiary of a fund-raiser didn’t get the promised proceeds. If you promote, book, wrestle, referee, manage, or do anything else that classifies as “working” in professional wrestling, you have a responsibility to do good business. If you can’t do good business, get the hell out of it.

Promotion Wars

The days of territories are gone, so there is no reason for an independent promoter to tell a wrestler he can’t work for another promotion. Unless said promoter is paying the wrestler a salary and has him under contract, he has no say in where that wrestler works and it should not affect the promoter’s decision on whether to continue booking the wrestler. That said, promoters working within the same region could spread a lot of goodwill amongst themselves if they would protect each others’ champions. I see why Promoter A gets mad because his champion did the job to a guy while working for Promoter B.

In Missouri and just about every other state, it seems that promotions were at each other’s throats for a long time. That seems to have improved, though. It’s a good thing; it was ridiculous and it could get stupid. During WLW’s first year, guys from a small indy group showed up at one of our events. They bought front-row tickets and heckled us the entire time. If there was a screw-up, they’d say, “You blew that spot.” Harley spoke to them during our first intermission, and they were dead-quiet the rest of the show. I’m guessing he didn’t invite them to one of his famous barbecues. Later, a few of them sent promo packages and Harley had forgotten about them. I didn’t forget, and when he gave me the tapes to review, I recorded “Crank Yankers” over them.

The problem with promotion wars is that there is no reason at all for them. If you present a solid product then you should have nothing to worry about.


If you’re interested in ordering a print or Kindle copy or to leave a review of The Professional Wrestler in the World of Sports-Entertainment go to Amazon.com. You can also order a print copy of my first book, The Story of a Nobody and the Pursuit to Become a Somebody, at Amazon.

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