By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
“If you look at the gory self-mutilation that bloodied several women in the December 31 event on TNT, it quickly becomes clear that these are very different businesses. We had an edgier product in the ‘Attitude’ area and in a 2022 world, we don’t believe that type of dangerous and brutal display is appealing to network partners, sponsors, venues, children or the general public as a whole.”
That, of course, came from a story published by the Toronto Star over the weekend. For the one-millionth time, a mainstream media outlet decided to write about the prospect of AEW giving WWE a run for its money. A new twist this time around, however, was the fact that WWE actually offered up a comment for the piece.
As you can imagine …
… Boom went the dynamite (pun intended).
I don’t know about your Twitter feed, but mine was flooded with dozens of takes, mostly the same, rushing to the defense of AEW. Even the women involved in the supposed self-mutilation — The Bunny, Tay Conti, etc. — posted a bloody picture or two, some of which may or may not have featured the middle finger. A chorus of cries of hypocrisy ran down from everyone from the most menial of fans to some of the most celebrated wrestling personalities. The arguments?
Remember how Brock Lesnar was instructed to open up Randy Orton the hard way recently? (Actually, it was all the way back in 2016, but who’s counting?). How about the time Kevin Owens head-butted Vince McMahon, making him gush everywhere? (If memory serves, the Chairman of the Board wasn’t necessarily gushing, and that was an example from 2017). Or, what about when Becky Lynch went from just another roster member on the verge of breaking through to being The Man after she had her nose busted, bled everywhere and turned into the company’s biggest start? (While it was a landmark moment in Lynch’s career, we all know that it was little more than a happy accident — one that WWE would have been silly to ignore).
Those were just some of the points making the rounds over the weekend. It was like WWE gathered up all the cutest kittens and puppies, threw them into a cage and then started blindly shooting shotguns into the cage. Oh, the audacity of what WWE said. How dare its spokesperson or focus group or whoever the hell concocted that statement for a newspaper story go as far to supposedly look down on “self-mutilation.” Throw WWE into wrestling jail and set the key on fire.
Actually, before you do that, wait. I have one small question.
Can someone please explain to me what, exactly, WWE was supposed to say?
No, really. Can you?
“Those AEW guys and gals sure are swell!”
“When AEW began, we dismissed it and called it a pissant company, but boy were we wrong! Those ratings they get are great!”
“Truth be told, we’re happy they run a show on Wednesdays because their product is just so much better than ours and we love tuning in!”
Or, if you don’t want to go that far, then let’s pretend WWE officials took the route they’ve mostly taken since AEW was formed and it continued to dismiss AEW as a second-rate, lower-level wrestling company. Wouldn’t that be worse? To actually pretend like AEW hasn’t made sizable strides over the last few years would be even more tone-deaf than what the company decided to say in the first place. AEW is real. AEW has made an impact. AEW deserves WWE’s attention.
And, it appears, AEW has it. Which is best for the fan because it inspires competition and encourages both companies to up their game as high as they can. Part of that competition, however, is inevitably going to include gamesmanship from both sides. Let’s not act like Tony Khan doesn’t hop on the Twitter machine every now and then to take pot shots at WWE. Whenever that happens, he’s celebrated as fun, an inspired CEO that goes to bat for his employees and company at all costs. When WWE does that, sound the alarms. You could call it somewhat of a double standard and I don’t think you’d be entirely wrong.
Actually, speaking of double standards …
WHAT’S IN A BUSINESS?
AEW likes to pat itself on the back for being recognized as The Company That Allows Its Wrestlers To Wrestle. Bryan Danielson leaned on that a lot when we went over to AEW and he hasn’t been the only one to be vocal about how much fun he has had being able to get back to the core of professional wrestling, rather than worry about sports entertainment at the other shop across the block.
Well, all right. If that’s the case, then why are so many people so up in arms about WWE saying the two companies aren’t in the same business? It seemed convenient to embrace that narrative when it meant AEW was the cooler brand because it brought wrestling back to wrestling. And shoot, every AEW apologist, including many people in the company itself, seemed to love talking about how AEW offers things WWE doesn’t offer anymore when it benefited the perception of their brand.
So, what’s the matter now? AEW and WWE aren’t really in the same business. AEW does concentrate on the traditional ethos of professional wrestling and it also doesn’t actually shy away from the term “professional wrestling.” WWE, meanwhile, invented the phrase “sports entertainment” and it’s been the subject of many a joke and ridicule over the years because it essentially took all the piss out of this genre of sport that so many of us love.
At the end of the day, it’s not really the worst thing in the world for WWE to release a statement that leans heavily into that narrative. It’d be one thing if the company was introducing poker players, shamans, heads of universities and a tag team that loves to attend EDM concerts and still call it professional wrestling. But that’s not what WWE does. Instead, it openly admits to moving away from what we’ve known to be professional wrestling and toward some weird form of entertainment that has some kind of historical pro wrestling ethos every once in a while.
And you want to know what?
A SINCERE COMPANY?
I believe them.
I believe WWE when they tout this stuff. I don’t think it’s just a convenient talking point that the company only breaks out when it appears it has nothing else to say. Like it or not, WWE has actually made large strides toward becoming its own blend of entertainment that actually isn’t like anything else. It doesn’t necessarily always appeal to a wrestling fan, but it might just appeal to a subsection of people about which die-hards know nothing.
So, when WWE constantly reminds everyone that they aren’t all that interested in being a professional wrestling brand, I’m not quite sure why, at this point, it comes as a surprise to anybody. Yeah, the “we make movies” line is obnoxious, and sure, when you’ve built decades of branding around what most know as pro wrestling, it isn’t necessarily a popular move to shun what got you to the dance in the first place. Wrigley was once nothing more than a soap producer. Then it decided to try its hand at chewing gum. Look how that turned out.
That’s not to say I believe one day WWE will be a pioneer in a worldwide phenomenon called “sports entertainment” and spawn dozens of other billion-dollar companies that strive to be like what the current WWE product is today. That’s just to say that you can disagree with the shift away from pro wrestling and toward something else, but you can’t really be all that mad at it. Business is business and only those who own or know something about business get to make those types of choices for their businesses. It’s their money, their ideas.
It’s all to suggest that I don’t know how wrong WWE is when it says that AEW and WWE are essentially not in the same industry. There’s overlap, sure, and the perception of tradition will forever have our minds programmed to believe that these two are waging war on each other for the top spot in a niche form of sport. Then again, that’s just as much our fault, too, considering how the common wrestling fan prays for a return to the Monday Night Wars of yesteryear. It wouldn’t matter if WWE became a vacuum manufacturer tomorrow; we’d all still insist that it was going head to head with AEW if only because we love to watch the drama unfold.
But this time …
Well, this time, there really isn’t much drama of which to speak.
Was WWE somewhat hypocritical in its statement? Sure. But let’s keep in mind that a statement like that is kind of/sort of WWE’s move anyway. No, that doesn’t mean the company should be immediately and automatically forgiven for these things, but it does probably mean we ought to know better and grade WWE on a curve. For all we know, they had 25 people sitting around a conference table concocting that statement, while we are all under the impression AEW movers and shakers would kick back, have a soda pop, laugh, love, and work out what to say as a family.
Such illustrates the dichotomy and, to some degree, unfairness between the two companies. If you defend AEW, it suggests to some you have good taste. If you defend WWE, it suggests to those same people that you’re a mindless fool with no grasp of what’s good in pro wrestling. How we got here has little to do with how great AEW is and more to do with how fed up everyone has become with WWE and Vince McMahon. If you either die a hero or live long enough to become a villain, WWE has lived the life of a million cats and the nine lives each has to offer.
It’s not fair, but fairness doesn’t count here, of course. It’s just the cool kids versus … well, the not-so-cool kids. Why that gives so many people the liberty to jump down WWE’s throat for taking a shot at a company it’s been married to for a few years now is something I don’t quite understand. If WWE starts calling itself professional wrestling again in five years and starts having its wrestlers blade every third match, gushing pints of blood on a dime, then we can talk.
For now, though, this is just the reality of where we are. Gory, self-mutilation, and all.