By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
Can you imagine if Bill Watts had Twitter when he was booking Mid-South Wrestling? How about Ole Anderson during his time leading creative at WCW?
Do you think they would offer up some #sponsoredcontent? You know, shill for a new brand of Mountain Dew or promote some trendy workout gear? Maybe offer up selfies of themselves as they workout in front of a body mirror or tell everyone when they are playing video games or release another installment of their vlog?
You can’t. That’s because in a lot of fans’ eyes, they represent the days when wrestling still felt honest. By all accounts, both guys were rough around the edges, adhering to a my-way-or-the-highway approach to managing talent rosters, and if you crossed them, they had no problem telling you to take a hike.
Now, while that tough-guy aesthetic doesn’t come without its flaws, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t produce consequential success during a time when professional wrestling was in the process of taking some of its biggest leaps it ever took into the mainstream. Here we are, decades later, and a mortgage salesman has developed a multimedia empire built entirely around how much affection people continue to have for the product that was produced in those days.
Speaking of that empire, it wasn’t long ago when on an episode of “Grilling JR,” host Conrad Thompson and legendary announcer Jim Ross found themselves discussing how sensitive the backstage can be. As he reflected on the good old days, Ross explained that certain wrestlers refused to do jobs for other wrestlers, while others complained about their spot on the night’s card. The list of grievances went on and on. In short, the duo discussed, some wrestlers could be temperamental — a living, breathing mass of egos feeling entitled to success for reasons only they can articulate.
And I’ve always found that odd, because ….
ONE MAN’S SHOW
… no matter where you go in the modern history of the sport, you almost always find concentrated power at the top. With the exception of the infamous booking committee that WCW attempted to enlist some time ago and some other cases, the fate of any wrestler’s career by and large falls into the hands of a single person. Vince McMahon isn’t Bill Watts or Ole Anderson because he can’t be anymore — society has changed and perhaps one of McMahon’s biggest accomplishments in the wrestling business is that he’s adapted enough to see the whole thing through.
But make no mistake, all we ever hear is story after story about how the buck stops at Vince. You fall out of favor with him, that’s it. You fall into favor with him, you have a job for life — and a lucrative one at that. Even in AEW, the most recent company hatched to provide WWE with some competition, we’ve heard a plethora of tales about how it’s Tony Khan’s ship, even if he receives help from people like Chris Jericho or any of the EVPs that helped him start the company. Sure, by all accounts, Khan seems nicer, more open and less authoritative than McMahon, but it’s still his show.
My point is that I’ve never understood the notion of fairness in the wrestling world. Or, well, perhaps a lack thereof. Even when I listen to these podcasts dissecting wrestlers or shows from decades ago, I never quite feel like I’m given an adequate answer when someone asks the question “Why didn’t so-and-so have more success?” The answers are always some form of “I don’t know, they just didn’t have charisma on the mic,” or, “they just didn’t put the extra work in that they needed to in order to get to the next level.”
But what does that even mean? The entire industry is subjective. Painfully so. If a wrestler’s fate is tied to the preferences of a single individual — or, for that matter, a very small group of individuals — then who, exactly is judging what “charisma” is in the first place? And if a man or a woman spends 12 hours in a gym, seven days a week, what is this “extra work” about which you speak?
Razor-thin lines separate being a superstar, a star, a professional, and just someone with a dream when it comes to professional wrestling. The system justifies itself every eight to 10 years with someone that becomes so huge, they hop into the pop culture lexicon for a hot minute. The Rock. John Cena. Stone Cold. Hulk Hogan. When wrestlers like that manage to gain that level of success, we tend to hear some version of the same thing: “I always knew he’d be a star; you could tell from the minute you met him.” Or, in other words, “this buys us the social credibility from our peers and employees that we need in order to operate this way by claiming credit for a success that we only had a minor role in.”
Which brings me to this.
“I asked to leave and Vince was like, ‘No.’ He said, ‘I’m gonna give you 30 days to think about it.’ And it took more than 30 days.”
That’s what Sasha Banks said in a B/R interview recently. It’s become a tale as consistent as the sky is blue. You have a nice run in the ring at WWE. Before long, you find yourself on the wrong side of the curtain whenever TV tapings take place. Maybe you appear on WWE Main Event. The Internet and your peers begin clamoring around you, saying you deserve better. You ask for your release. You don’t get it.
And apparently, that’s what happened with Banks not all that long ago, right before she took a break from the business, as referenced in her above quote. Hindsight is a lovely thing, so we can at least say now that the move worked for her. She went to the company’s owner, expressed her unhappiness, presumably while feeling under-utilized, and bam: She’s a champion again, ready to work a high-profile match at WrestleMania.
But Banks isn’t the rule; she’s the exception.
Case in point, Aleister Black. Case in point, Andrade. Case in point, Ricochet. One was one of the most fascinatingly enjoyable wrestlers in all of WWE. Another had a really great heel act going with someone who was unceremoniously let go. Another worked a Universal Title match with Brock Lesnar and was then put on a milk carton for reasons nobody can figure out. All three were NXT Champions. All three felt white hot at specific times.
And now all three can’t even be part of the goof troop that follows the WWE 24/7 Championship around on a weekly basis. Meanwhile, here comes Jaxson Ryker walking down the aisle on Mondays with Elias.
The thing is, it’s not just WWE. As I insinuated a couple weeks ago, who did Miro piss off at AEW to be used so sporadically? Where’d SCU go? Does Kip Sabian even wrestle anymore? Is Sonny Kiss still with the company? Why does AEW get a pass for these types of decisions? Is it because Tony Khan has a reputation as a great guy to work for while Vince McMahon has 70-plus years of questionable stories behind him that he’ll never outrun?
It all leads to my biggest issue.
ALL THE CREDIT
One is not better than the other. In fact, both are so inherently flawed, that I don’t understand why this hasn’t been a bigger deal among modern day wrestlers — and that’s not even to suggest it’s not a big deal. Wrestlers get on their social media accounts all the time to sound off in cryptic ways, sometimes playing into their on-screen stories, other times just to whine as though they didn’t already know this was how the professional wrestling business came to be.Which, then, begs the question. Who’s fault is it? Could you blame Vince McMahon for running his business the way a business like his has been traditionally run for as long as there’s been turnbuckles and top ropes? Plus, it’s not like he hasn’t been successful at it. If he’s just following a template that was already established, who are we to fault him for doing so?
The same goes for Tony Khan. While I do think he’s given the benefit of the doubt way too much by way too many people only because he’s running a top wrestling company in the United States and his name isn’t Vince McMahon, I’m not so sure he should take the heat if these were the cards the wrestling business gave him. A lot of people have tried a lot of different things to revolutionize wrestling through the years, but from the beginning of AEW, it’s kind of/sort of felt like the leaders there subscribe to the keep-it-simple-stupid mantra, which has served them well, considering how so many people were so hungry for a basic professional wrestling show with traditional professional wrestling qualities.
So, then, back to the question. Who’s fault is it? Well, currently, it’s unfair to pin that on any one person or any one thing. What someone could do in order to begin the shift of the structure is at least address and acknowledge it. And you know damn well, Vince isn’t doing that, so that leaves Khan as the leader in the clubhouse when it comes to the possibility of changing how the top of a wrestling company is run. In truth, it wouldn’t be all that bad if the utilitarianism wasn’t so obvious, accepted and rampant. But at this point, it feels like it’s so much a part of the business’s fabric that it might never be changed.
And that, of course, brings us full circle.
SENSITIVE TO SENSITIVITIES
When you combine this type of quasi-accepted-dictatorship model with the supposed sensitivity and fragile egos of many that decide to pursue professional wrestling for a living, you have a recipe for disaster. Why do you think those who aren’t being used on TV are so angry that they can’t get on Twitch anymore? Why do you think you constantly hear about requests for releases, requests to be sent to NXT, or requests for more air time on things like Raw Talk?
I don’t know how the professional wrestling business is going to work, moving forward, because once Pandora’s box opens up, you can’t stuff its contents back inside it. With the advent of social media and the ability for wrestlers to be regular people so quickly and easily, I can’t imagine that we are going to suddenly stop hearing about their frustrations over night. If anything, my guess is that disgruntled wrestlers will only grow more disenfranchised, more vocal, more petulant.
What I think will truly be fascinating is the day that someone in AEW leaves the company and says something bad about it. Because, no matter what you think, that will happen. In any company, in any line of work, that happens. The wrestling business is no different. Look at Impact Wrestling, which continues to have a rough-smelling stench on top of its name for years of failing its employees. There was a time when I thought Ring of Honor might not survive because of the things that were being said about it from unhappy ex-employees. And New Japan … well, that’s a whole different world.
AEW, though? When will somebody leave that workplace with a bad taste in their mouth and what exactly will they have to say about it? For now, they are reaping the benefits of being so new that the shine isn’t quite off, even though everybody knows the shine always dissipates with time. Plus, the wrestling world isn’t not like the political world these days, where a line is drawn in the sand and you’re either with or against whomever you’re with or against. Fandom and belief in any walk of life is as contentious as ever, so it ought to be interesting to see how those reactions are received, both good and bad.
For now, though …
CHANGE IS NECESSARY
… All we are left with is a broken system fueled by power, personal taste, and very little actual competition. Such is why I have a hard time thinking Bill Watts or Ole Anderson would approve of Twitter, let alone Twitch, TikTok, or whatever else you want to throw into that pile. They’d be outraged to see their employees calling out management, let alone make a video of them dancing to some pop song.
And what would they do? Fire them. Or, at least that’s my guess. From there, we can delve back into the unionization talk, and would that work with wrestlers and yada-yada. But in truth, what I’m saying isn’t about the wrestlers banning together; rather, it’s about acknowledging how the discovery of absolute power at the top of wrestling companies has dampened the business. Raw’s a bad television show each week, but do we think about Raw having bad matches or bad workers or bad segments? No. Our first thought is how bad Vince McMahon is at producing these television shows these days. Our disdain and frustration then grows with him, not necessarily the wrestlers, the camera men, or the announcers.
Likewise, if AEW throws together a brilliant two hours of television, like it did after Brodie Lee passed away, Khan gets the lion’s share of the credit. We don’t think of all the many things that went into making everything happen. At the end of the day, he’s the one who gets the accolades.
Is that fair? Maybe. Is it the bed that professional wrestling made for itself decades ago? I think so. Does that spell trouble for the future? In my mind, it does. Because eventually, with the way the world continues to evolve, and the way the wrestling business is forced to change the practices it steadfastly approved of for about a million years, someone’s going to come along and figure out a way to spread the power in a manner that works for everybody. In fact, it’s going to have to happen for the business to survive. Maybe not tomorrow, or next year or in the next ten years, but as sensitivities emerge and a bigger premium is put on inclusivity, this isn’t a model that can last forever.
Just don’t let Cowboy and Ole know.