For many, the WWE is pro wrestling. By just about every metric, Vince McMahon‘s empire is more successful than the next biggest company by several times; whether you look at the global reach it has, the moments it’s created, or money it’s made, this promotion is king.
The world leader in sports entertainment may have a chokehold on the industry, but at this point it’s only by default. Complaints from everyone from the wrestlers to the fans have been constant ever since WWE’s only real rival organization, World Championship Wrestling, closed its doors nearly 15 years ago.
Below are some of the issues that have plagued the WWE environment for years.
Most will look at the WWE’s glossy, “clean” visuals and hugely elaborate sets and think – and rightly so – that the company has some of the best visuals in not just wrestling but also maybe all of entertainment. But the overly polished look is also limiting; there are only so many ladders that need to be set up at Monday In The Bank, and having three times as many ladders as there are wrestlers spotlights the objects instead of the performance and the story, which is ultimately what wrestling is about. Would Razor Ramon and Shawn Michaels have created magic had there been 20 ladders surrounding the ring?
The recent explosion in media outlets, especially of the online variety, has given the world tools to connect people in many more ways than before and essentially change the way we communicate. Twitter has replaced message boards as a way to discuss interests, Facebook allows someone to reach an audience in a way they wouldn’t have been able to even a decade ago. While these are powerful tools, they should be handled with care; when you control a form of communication on a large scale, you control a culture, and when you don’t handle that the right way, you will gradually create very deep, very pervasive problems. To a company like World Wrestling Entertainment, which is all about culture, this is especially important to think about.
At its best, Monday Night Raw is like a well put together puzzle; each piece of the presentation works with every other piece to create the overall effect. If certain pieces don’t fit together, they detract from the picture the finished puzzle was intended to be. If only a handful of pieces out of a large group are not placed right, the puzzle may not be perfect, but for the most part you will still see the picture as the creators wanted you to see it.
If too many pieces are out of place, though, you’re left with a puzzle that gives a jarring effect or, worse, just a random assortment of puzzle pieces. If the announcer is drawing attention to what’s trending while a match is taking place, they are telling the home audience that this match is of little consequence; there is a piece out of place that, if big enough, can affect the entire impression the picture leaves on anyone who sees it. Also, if the company spends time promoting itself in a direct way during the story, instead of fully directing attention to the storyline, you are taking the audience out of the story.
Eventually, this changes not just the one show, but the expectation you have of the kind of stories this company tells. I now know, before I watch the show, that someone will go out of their way to mention that something will happen on the WWE Network, regardless of whether it fits the feel of what the segment was trying to accomplish. When the feel of segments is jarred repeatedly, that creates a pattern in the presentation, that leads to the viewer being less likely to engage with and invest in the story.
8. Characters (Or Lack Thereof)
Perhaps most important element to a wrestling company’s success is the cast of characters within it and how and why they interact with each other. The previous decades (specifically parts of the 80s and 90s) have been more successful than this one so far without the grander stages and media available because of the figures meeting on the screen; fleshed out, nuanced personalities that have clear, specific reasons for doing the things they do that are in line with the history of that character – thoughts, facial expressions and actions are tailored to what this specific character would do in response to this specific character(s) in this specific environment.
7. One Size Fits All
The current class of WWE characters is, unlike in the past, made up of mostly generic caricatures (wrestling is built on caricatures, but they work best when they are unique takes on caricatures that do things similar caricatures would not do). Maybe even more problematic than this is that these generic caricatures don’t create the tone of their environment but instead are expected to fit a pre-established tone set long before they entered the space.
The Rock‘s return to Miami in 2016 was vastly different from his return to Miami in 2004. One had the Rock play The Rock, the other had the Rock play a Saturday Night Live sketch artist play a more cartoon version of the Rock – anybody could have been slotted into that role because that character wasn’t being a character at all but acting as an interchangeable “type” with the Rock’s delivery.
This is apparent with more than just past stars coming back for nostalgia; in this period of time WWE characters don’t meet as wrestling personalities that have a history with the other personalities and act on that history as only they would; they deal with each other only using the surface level information associated with that type of person and not as individuals.
6. The Characters Behind The Characters
Wrestling is the most intense marriage of life and art you’ll find on this planet – mostly because it’s a 24/7 job (for everyone involved, including the people who just watch) and also because even things that aren’t planned out become a part of the story and can be brought up at a later time. Fan’s individual reactions have been revisited on television and anyone employed in the industry, including non- wrestlers, has a reputation – even if it’s only known to a few. Everyone and everything can affect the whole presentation, everyone is a character.
So who when looking at the WWE’s deep “environmental” issues it would be helpful to ask questions about these characters. Questions like which characters create wrestling’s success? Which characters create wrestling’s issues?
The most common thought is that the promoters are most responsible – and for good reason: they have the last word on what is put on T.V. However, though they are in charge, they may not have as much power as you think; they control the presentation, true, but when they decide what to put in the presentation, they factor in the interests of several groups – people who invest money in them, organizations they choose to involve themselves in and, though it may not seem like it now, the fans.
4. The Most Powerful Audience Ever
Fans of this industry are unlike fans of anything else; we have one of the most passionate followings around, but also one of the most demanding, and in the last few years they have used their voices to play a larger role in determining what stories were brought to them.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) they also don’t have absolute control; we know this because of the near constant dissatisfaction expressed by almost every type of fan on almost every major platform.
Despite what some might say, trying to improve the situation by simply having everyone leave would not lead to the desired outcome; either the WWE dies off and everyone loses or WWE fans return quickly out of habit and nothing happens (wrestling is a long-term commitment, and most will put up with a lot before they end it for good).
But what about the wrestlers themselves?
3. The On-Screen Story Tellers
Not the part time megastars: most of their stories have already been told, and it’s unlikely anyone will influence a place or time they are not fully a part of or invested in. The active, current, invested wrestlers, though – the people behind the characters seen on T.V. every week? They have perhaps the biggest opportunity to influence the environment because they are the most highlighted part of the wrestling experience.
Most who make their money in the ring won’t realize this opportunity exists because they have grown up with the WWE always being the goal, and now that they have “arrived” they are comfortable just being employed.
A documentary-style interview of the R-Truth character on the WWE YouTube page had him state that a match for the WWE title was “once in a lifetime,” and this is after being in the business since 1999. It’s hard to tell if that was R-Truth speaking or an executive speaking through R-Truth. Ron Killings, the performer, is established as a lower-card, comedic worker because that is what he has been given and he accepts it presumably because he is happy to make semi-regular appearances on television while being compensated fairly – and he is not the only one like this.
While the goings on behind the scenes are not fully visible to the viewers, by most accounts the workers do not actively try to advance their careers for fear of jeopardizing them by upsetting fans, management, whoever – the cost is too high.
2. Shattering The Environment
Worth considering, though, is that the most important piece of WWE television in the last 5 years happened when CM Punk sat, cross-legged, on stage and spoke his mind; he aired his true, real-life grievances that were specific to his career – acting in stark contrast to what was expected of a superstar in 2011, lashed out against the people who were cheering him, and attacked his employers until they had to cut his microphone to prevent more damage to the company’s image. All this happened as he was set to have his very first crack at the top title against the top star – on Pay Per View, no less.
The immediate outcome of this was, to put it mildly, interesting. After Raw had gone off the air, discussion in the wrestling community was almost solely focused on this segment; it was called the best promo in years, debate raged as to whether this was a thought out part of the script – a “work” – or Phil Brooks the performer had gone completely off script – a “shoot”. It garnered the industry media attention, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the late 90s.
The story of the industry at the time was unlike anything the industry had seen, ever. CM Punk would walk out of Money In The Bank – and the company altogether, it appeared – with the WWE Championship in hand. He would post pictures of it in his fridge at home, take it to independent promotions, and bring it to events the WWE were represented at without being under contract to them (at least it appeared that way). John Laurinaitis would appear in a storyline for the first time since the 90s off a passing mention in Punk’s monologue, and the phrase “pipe bomb” entered the wrestling lexicon; the list goes on.
Now many would look at this and say we need a new anti-establishment star, but that shouldn’t be the main takeaway here. Contrary to popular belief, just fighting against your bosses in and of itself doesn’t mean you’ll be successful, and CM Punk wasn’t the next Steve Austin at all. Their stories had similarities, but they were in fact polar opposites; the fact that one was straight edge and one was the opposite of that should tell you that they were always going to play vastly different roles in wrestling history.
What they both did was use the time they had in the business where they weren’t as visible – so they weren’t already defined – to develop wrestling characters that resembled their real life personalities (Punk was drafted in ROH, Austin was created in ECW) then used the small windows of opportunity they had – in each case, live PPV time – to freely express these personalities, with little consideration of the tones set by history or by their current surroundings. As a result, both ended up creating their own periods in the industry, and maybe more importantly, both would later have those time periods associated with their names.
It would seem most aspiring pro-wrestlers would do well to look at these examples. Many, it seems, let their dreams cloud their judgement. These passionate people who dedicate themselves to one day working for a big organization equate being employed or wearing championship gold with success in the industry. And, in a way, they may be right to think that way.
But it’s important to understand that the industry employs many people and many people win championships. Being one of these people does not guarantee any sort of importance in the overall story of professional wrestling; all it really guarantees is an opportunity.
Though he worked long and hard to get it, I remember less of The Miz‘s title reign than I do a promo of his describing his career struggles up to that point – the promo highlighted a career story specific to him and was no doubt a catalyst for his rise throughout that year. The problem was once he got the top title – his best opportunity – he would stop expressing the honest thoughts unique to him and allow himself to be overshadowed by other characters; he stopped influencing the environment so the environment put him in the background and he has not had the same opportunity since.
He did not truly consider the specific place he wanted to have in wrestling beyond a holding a belt, so he ended up not having anything other than what would later reveal itself to be a footnote title reign, not unlike many other footnote title reigns. Is his career trajectory defined because of the misuse of his temporary spotlight? Only time will tell, and though I do know what it’s like to be in a hole you have to climb out of, I can say from experience that it’s not the best place to start from.
1. Attitude (Not The Era)
It’s up to the wrestlers to decide whether having the job title of “WWE Superstar” is enough, with the many perks that come with it, or if they want to take the chance to truly live the title – which could lead to you being an important figure in the business or a cautionary tale. Whatever they choose, everyone within the WWE environment could use more Superstars.