I love pro-wrestling
I don’t know why and at forty-five I am well beyond the point that I care to explain myself. I just love it, everything about wrestling appeals to me. The comic book aspect of the characters, the work in the ring, the masks, the lights, and, as my buddy Tank puts it, the pageantry. Indie wrestling to WWE, I consume it all (or did) and I never get sick of it.
There are fewer things I love more than watching a wrestling event and waiting for the moment when I pop. When a move is so cool, or a match so well done, that I hit a level of excitement usually reserved for kids on Christmas morning.
I’m so passionate about profession wrestling that I started a podcast with Travis, and I started this blog. I watch it constantly. In my spare time, during lunch, on my breaks, on the weekends, anytime I’m not with my wife, I am watching pro-wrestling.
When your gut is ablaze with a passion like this, it’s absolutely heartbreaking to watch part of it crumble into dust. Sadly, that’s what’s happening to WWE. Rome is burning and Vince “Caesar” McMahon is playing the violin as it happens.
This week Cody Rhodes (Stardust) walked away. He quit. He became so sickened by what WWE has become that he left the only career he’s ever had. Don’t worry; I’m not suddenly going to pretend I was a huge Cody Rhodes mark. I wasn’t, at all. I didn’t care about him before Stardust and fully disliked him during that gimmick. That being said, you have to respect a guy who walks away rather than take any more indignities from the McMahon Family.
Rhodes wrote a brief statement when he left, one that was as powerful as CM Punk’s catharsis on the Colt Cabana show. It spoke to Rhodes’ personal issues but it also spoke to the gaping chasm that is WWE. It’s a black hole that is sucking in talent and then abandoning them to the abyss (no pun intended). Good men, who could be huge stars, are stacked on top of each other at the mid-card level so that an egotistical old man can play God.
Part of the issue is change. WWE is not about wrestling it’s about entertainment. WWE Superstars are not wrestlers they are sports-entertainers. That’s a big distinction. Watch Ric Flair against Ricky Steamboat or Magnum TA against Tully Blanchard. That was wrestling. That was a place where stories were told in the ring as well as out, where the physical conflict was just as important as the promo. These men were looking to entertain crowds through their circus-like spectacle.
WWE has long since moved away from that. Even in the beginning, Vince’s idea for the world of professional wrestling had more to do with merchandising and branding than it did wrestling. Foam hands and t-shirts gave way to action figures and then video games. At this stage, WWE is a global economic force, one that has very little interest in professional wrestling.
How can I say that? Because there are two very different animals at work. One is professional wrestling. The other is sports-entertainment. PW Insider made a comparison I think nails it. Look at pro-wrestling vs. sports-entertainment in the same way you would look at professional basketball vs. The Harlem Globetrotters. Both are highly athletic, both are physical and require talent. One is there to further the sport itself, the other is there simply to entertain.
WWE sees sports-entertainment as a launching pad to build superstars and make them viable cash cows. T-Shirts, toys, etc., that’s what the whole “wrestling” thing is there for. Family entertainment that can sell lots of crap to people that they don’t need. Wrestling has nothing to do with any of that. Wrestling is not a priority for WWE. Making stars and making money is. Right or wrong, that’s what they are here to do.
The second, and more devious part of why the quality of the WWE is so poor right now is Vince McMahon. He loves to tell everybody that the buck stops with him and so we must point a collective finger at the man and his ego. Vince McMahon is maybe the largest reason the promotion is so unbearable to watch.
Why? Why when it’s so obvious how upset people are does Vince continue to play his violin as Rome burns? Obviously the default is his ego. He turned professional wrestling into a billion dollar industry. He revolutionized the sport and created something nobody ever thought possible. He did all that so he knows better than everybody else and those who disagree are either removed or ignored.
Ask any successful businessperson, especially in the entertainment field, and they will tell you that the true sign of business genius is the ability to step back. At some point the audience changes, their wants and needs become quite different. A true leader can see that their personal vision may not be what’s actually “Best For Business” and will remove themselves to allow the business to evolve. Vince can’t, or won’t, do that.
Examples abound of this. As successful and adored as NXT is, Vince still sees it as developmental. He sees it as the minor leagues. Roman Reigns. People hate him. Nobody wants him to be champion. Vince doesn’t care. He only sees a good looking Samoan kid and so his naughty bits get all erect at the idea of maybe having found a new Rock. No matter what the reaction of the audience, Vince doesn’t care.
Ironically, who knows if Roman Reigns could be the new Rock? Remember when Dwayne Johnson debuted as Rocky Miavia? Holy hell the audience crucified him. Thankfully, it was during a time of change, a time when WCW was breathing down Vince’s neck. Facing obliteration he had to let go of the reigns and hope for the best. What he got out of that was The Rock from Rocky Miavia and Stone Cold Steve Austin from The Ringmaster.
If Reigns was allowed to develop naturally, he might be great. Who knows? We never will because Vince has a course and he will stay on it no matter how fast the rocks on shore are approaching. What does he care? If he fucks Reigns’ career it’s no skin off his nose, he just gets a new “It Guy” to replace him. The actual performer doesn’t matter; just how fast Vince can turn a profit.
Another ugly side of Vince’s ego is his inability to learn from his mistakes and to not conform everything to patterns. For example, Roman Reigns is almost a Xerox copy of John Cena. The crowd hates him for the same reasons because no matter how many hits he takes, Reigns kicks out at two. He can take on multiple top talents at once and win and if he does lose he gets umpteen shots at the title until he wins. The difference here is that Cena started out his own thing and grew to fame and popularity before Vince created the Cena-Machine and vilified him. Reigns’ is starting with the hatred. That’s a hard mountain to climb.
Vince thinks the Wyatt Family are an unstoppable force so when they lose to another superstar, to Vince, it serves to help that star. He never considers how bad it makes the Wyatt Family look, hence the reason one of the greatest stables in WWE history is now, essentially, a punch line. The epitome of this was WrestleMania 32. Where a part-timer (The Rock) and a guy who had been on the shelf for months (Cena) kicked the holy hell out of the Wyatts. It was sad.
Perhaps the most egregious sin committed by Vince is his inability to give the green light to push anybody he did not build himself. In NXT Sasha Banks, Charlotte and Beck Lynch revolutionized women’s wrestling. Vince got them onto the main roster and basically shit-canned all of them save Charlotte. He’s allowed Tyler Breeze to be pushed to the mid-card, he released Damien Sandow, Sami Zayn has lost just about every match he’s been in, and Kevin Owens has turned from the ultimate badass to whiney, bitching heel. Meanwhile Baron Corbin and Apollo Cruise have been brought up to the main roster and then ignored.
You might bring up Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose. Okay, Rollins has become a significant star but Vince took a liking to him. Ambrose is a star but that hasn’t stopped Vince from booking him horribly. Ambrose is now little more than a stunt show fall guy. His feuds are all reasons to have stupid gimmick matches. Why? Because Vince thinks that’s what Ambrose should be doing.
Vince saves all his real focus for the stable of stars he built from the ground up. John Cena, Randy Orton, Roman Reigns, The Rock, and so on. Look at The Shining Stars, this is the third go around for a tag team nobody cares about or has ever cared about, Based on how he books wrestlers, it looks as though anyone Vince can’t own entirely is left to play a supporting role to those he can.
Bringing us back to Cody Rhodes. He was never somebody Vince completely owned. He walked in with a pedigree. The son of Dusty Rhodes and the brother of Goldust, Rhodes had his own built in relevance. Almost from day one the WWE went to work beating the shit out of him. First he was a secondary character in a stable centering on Randy Orton. Then he was mid-card, then put with his brother (an established Vince guy), then mid-card again, then the worst of all insults, Stardust. Rhodes put it best himself referring to Stardust as “Dustin’s gimmick”.
Here was Rhodes, a talent who could be utilized and never was. In fact, he was treated in the same shoddy style as Dusty was decades earlier when Vince forced the American Dream, the man who revolutionized the business, to wear polka dots and dance like a monkey. According to his statement, Rhodes tried to have conversations with Triple H and Vince to no avail. More insultingly, a writer pretended to be typing as Rhodes poured out yet another idea but said writer’s computer wasn’t even on.
There is something in all of us that strives to want to be the best. It’s almost human instinct to try and fight out of mediocrity if we believe we are destined for better things. Rhodes did. His pleas were met with deaf ears. He left. His comments afterwards echoed a lot of the same issues that CM Punk had, issues that remain in the WWE.
Fires always burn hottest before the burn out so I'm guessing the temperature at WWE is reaching almost thermonuclear levels. Look at some of the early signs. The third hour of RAW routinely plummets in ratings and, realistically, the show doesn’t do that well to begin with. Critics continuously savage WWE’s product, the fans aren’t happy, Vince's schedule has led to multiple injuries, the problems seem endless. Vince doesn’t care. He stands upon his golden platform, playing his violin, and quotes growth from the year before.
Unless he retires or is forced to step down, Vince’s inability to see the forest for the trees will eventually be the undoing of the WWE. More stars will leave, the current rush of indie stars to the WWE will die off as they see just how poorly they’ll be treated and at some point the allure of watching old wrestling will not be enough and subscribers to the network will diminish.
Worst of all, Vince’s tried and true default of falling back on the old guys and his stars only will fall be the wayside as The Rock, Stone Cold, Orton, Cena, etc. become to old or injured to be involved. That’s when Vince’s penchant for building zero new talent for so long will come back to haunt him as nobody is there to fill that void.
The fire burns. The WWE slowly starts to crumble. And somewhere in all of this, Vince continues to play his violin.