America’s soul resides in professional wrestling, writes Ajachi Chakrabarti.
“Wrestling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result.”
—Roland Barthes, ‘The World of Wrestling’
Happy Father’s Day, everybody, as we welcome you to the greatest Money in the Bank pay-per-view in history! It’s all about the ladders tonight, as you’re looking live at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, the big fight capital hosting big fights, live, tonight.” Hyperbole is the currency of the professional wrestling hypeman, especially when you consider the carny roots of the job, but there is more than a little truth in WWE commentator Michael Cole’s words as he welcomes you to one of the most anticipated wrestling shows in recent history, featuring a card that wouldn’t be out of place at WrestleMania, the flagship pay-per-view event of the company’s annual calendar.
These are exciting times for fans of professional wrestling. The marketing division at World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. calls it “the New Era”—a terrible tagline, but one whose ambiguity captures the unpredictability that is driving much of that excitement. Unpredictability, after all, is very much in keeping with the spirit of the times, as a member of the WWE Hall of Fame threatens to capture the highest office in the land through a campaign that is changing American politics as we know it.
There are three totems of American culture that describe this particular moment in that country’s history better than any other. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, though written 20 years ago, was prescient about the evolution of technology and its impact on society, and in its narrative structure captured the fractured nature of postmodern society. The 19th season of South Park, one of the best seasons of not just the show but all of television history, is an incisive examination of the culture wars raging through American society and the fundamental disconnect between the town and the city that is making every election in 2016 a referendum on globalisation.
Unpredictability, after all, is very much in keeping with the spirit of the times, as a member of the WWE Hall of Fame threatens to capture the highest office in the land through a campaign that is changing American politics as we know it.
But in order to understand the rise of Donald Trump, in order to understand America, or at least White Male America, Trump’s core constituency, one could do far worse than to try to understand professional wrestling. In fact, given the role white men have played in shaping it, I would argue that America’s soul resides in professional wrestling, in its fetishisation of what Barthes called “the spectacle of excess”, in its quasi-democratic structure, in its Manichaean conflicts, in its displays of patriotism and glorification of the armed forces, in its corporate structure and the challenges to that structure, in its racism and sexism. The internal contradictions of the wrestling business are very similar to the internal contradictions of American capitalism. And its recent history reflects the recent history of American democracy.
ON 6 APRIL 2013, at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony at Madison Square Garden in New York a day before WrestleMania 29, WWE chairman Vincent Kennedy McMahon, Jr introduced Trump as “a WrestleMania institution”, adding that “[when] you think about it, second only to me, Donald might very well be a great president of the United States.” The crowd, however, booed both McMahon and Trump, forcing the latter to cut short his speech.
The MSG crowd booed Trump not because he was a “short-fingered vulgarian” and a repulsive racist demogogue poisoning the body politic—he’d already led the toxic birther movement and teased a presidential run in 2012 before dropping out to concentrate on his reality show—but because he was perceived by the committed wrestling fans from around the world who attend the annual ceremony as not authentic enough to take his place alongside such legends of the industry as André the Giant, Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair and Bret “The Hitman” Hart. However, unlike fellow inductees into the “celebrity wing” such as Drew Carey or Mike Tyson, who made one-time appearances at major events to feed McMahon’s insatiable appetite for mainstream attention, Trump has had a near three-decade association with WWE, a symbiotic relationship that many have argued informed his campaign strategy.
Unlike fellow inductees into the “celebrity wing” such as Drew Carey or Mike Tyson, who made one-time appearances at major events to feed McMahon’s insatiable appetite for mainstream attention, Trump has had a near three-decade association with WWE, a symbiotic relationship that many have argued informed his campaign strategy.
In 1988 and ’89, Trump played host to WrestleMania in Atlantic City, the seat of his (now bankrupt) casino empire. It was the only time that two consecutive editions of the event were held in the same city. He was a frequent audience member at WWE events, including WrestleMania XX in 2004, during which he was interviewed by Jesse “The Body” Ventura, a legendary wrestler and commentator who had turned to politics and in 1998, run an anti-establishment tells-it-like-it-is joke-campaign-until-it-wasn’t to become Governor of Minnesota on a Reform Party ticket. (Trump’s first presidential run, in 2000, was on a Reform ticket; he dropped out soon after Ventura quit the party due to the growing influence of extremists like Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, whose support Trump famously refused to disavow earlier in this election cycle.)
After complimenting Trump’s hair and plugging The Apprentice to muted applause from the audience, Ventura asked him, “If I were to get back into politics, could I expect your moral and financial support?”
“One hundred percent, Jesse.”
“One hundred percent if I get back into politics!”
“One—you know that. One hundred percent.”
“You know what?” Ventura turned to the audience, trying to elicit a reaction—the entire purpose of the segment, after all, was to warm the crowd up for the matches that were to follow. “I think that we may need a wrestler in the White House in 2008!” The crowd finally popped, and the interview ended, with commentator Jerry “The King” Lawler salivating at the prospect of a Ventura-Trump ticket. (Ventura never ran in 2008, citing privacy reasons, and flirted with a run this year before deciding not to seek the nomination of the Libertarian Party.)
TWO YEARS later, when Trump entered a public feud with comedian and The View moderator Rosie O’Donnell—she called him a “snake oil salesman”; he called her “disgusting”, “unattractive” and a “real loser”—McMahon was quick to capitalise, hosting a segment on Monday Night Raw, WWE’s flagship television show, that featured two impersonators playing the two antagonists in a wrestling match. McMahon’s introductions showed where his sympathies lay. “Introducing at a weight of God only knows how much, here is the double-chinned diva from The View, here in all her lesbionic fury, Rosie O’Donnell!”
“Trump”, meanwhile, was introduced as “a personal friend of mine. Like me, he is a billionaire. Like me, he runs his own empire. And like me, he takes great pleasure in saying, ‘You’re fired.’ Here he is, from the hit show The Apprentice, here is the Donald, Donald Trump!” The commentators made fat jokes about “Rosie” throughout the match (“She’s mocking the Hulk, but she’s more like the Bulk”), and the character acted as the heel, riling up the crowd and taking a break to eat some cake. The crowd hated every moment, chanting “Boring”, “TNA! TNA!”—a competitor of WWE—and “We want wrestling!” The match ended with “Trump” grabbing the cake, yelling “I’m gonna fire this broad right now, come on fatty, come on fatty!” and smashing it into “Rosie”’s face to win.
Three weeks later, the actual Donald Trump made an appearance on Raw, interrupting “Vince McMahon Fan Appreciation Night” and setting up a WrestleMania 23 bout billed as the “Battle of the Billionaires”. Both of them would pick their representatives for the fight, with the losing billionaire having his head shaved. McMahon picked Umaga, a member of the Samoan Anoa’i family that has produced many WWE wrestlers, including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Trump picked Bobby Lashley, who was feuding with Umaga at the time, though during an appearance on Don Imus’s radio show, he called him “Bobby Lindsay”. Lashley would win and McMahon had his head shaved, though Trump had to take a stunner from “Stone Cold” Steve Austin for his trouble.
McMahon’s introductions showed where his sympathies lay. “Introducing at a weight of God only knows how much, here is the double-chinned diva from The View, here in all her lesbionic fury, Rosie O’Donnell!”
Trump would return to WWE in June 2009 in a storyline that had him buy Raw from McMahon. Although ratings spiked for the following week’s show—he’d promised a number of innovations in order to make WWE great again, such as a commercial-free episode—a fake press release announcing the sale caused shares of WWE to plunge by 7 percent. The angle was quickly wrapped up, with McMahon “buying back” the show for double of what Trump had paid for it.
IIThe first match at Money in the Bank—on the main card, at least; two bouts have already taken place in the “Kickoff Show”—is a Fatal 4-Way tag team match for the WWE Tag Team Championship. As the entrance music of the first team hits, the crowd goes crazy.
Eric Arndt and William Morrissey met in 2001 as 15-year-olds playing pickup basketball in Manhattan’s West Village. Arndt played American football in high school and then for the Fighting Seagulls of Salisbury University, until one day in junior year, he suffered a stinger, a nerve pinch injury that left his right side paralysed for weeks. He came back and started every game in his senior year, but had to change the way he played, tackling with his left shoulder. A professional career was off the cards. He’d graduated with a degree in journalism—though he claims never to have read a book in his life—but in the recession economy, it wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on, so he worked as a DJ (his father was also a DJ), a piano mover, and a manager at Hooter’s.
Arndt played American football in high school and then for the Fighting Seagulls of Salisbury University, until one day in junior year, he suffered a stinger, a nerve pinch injury that left his right side paralysed for weeks.
Morrissey, meanwhile, was a National Honor Society student who earned a scholarship to study pre-med at New York University. He continued playing basketball for the NYU Violets, his 6’ 9” height ideally suited for center. While preparing for his MCAT, however, he realised his heart wasn’t in medicine; he wanted to follow his childhood dream and become a professional wrestler. He changed his major to economics, and after graduating, paid $3,000 to join a wrestling school. He’d train four days a week, and perform as Big Bill Young, a cowboy from Texas, at shows run by the owner of the school. He also started a ticket brokerage company to pay the bills. In 2011, Morrissey was signed by Florida Championship Wrestling, a developmental promotion run by WWE that is now called NXT, where he wrestled under the name Colin Cassady.
Arndt had also always wanted to be a professional wrestler, but he took a more unconventional path. He shared a trainer with Paul “Triple H” Levesque, a WWE veteran who is Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events and Creative in the company, and made a video of himself training, rapping and delivering a monologue that he got the trainer to pass on. Despite never having wrestled before, he soon got a call from Levesque offering him a tryout, and he was signed to FCW in 2012. He reconnected with Morrissey over a Yankees game, and they were soon paired up in a tag team, becoming massive fan favourites and a vital cog in WWE’s “New Era”.
SUCH IS their popularity that when Arndt, who wrestles under the name of Enzo Amore, begins their usual pre-match spiel, the crowd chants along. “My name is Enzo Amore,” he declares, “and I’m a Certified G and a bona fide stud, and you can’t teach that! And this right here, this is Big Cass, and he’s seven foot tall, and you can’t teach that! Ba da boom, realest guys in the room, how you doin’!” As they run into the ring, it sounds like the crowd is booing, but they’re all chanting “How you doin’!”
Their claim of being “the realest guys in the room” is no empty boast; unlike the assembly-line “superstars” WWE churns out, they look and sound authentic, like real people who wrestle for a living rather than the catchphrase-spouting two-dimensional characters the “WWE Universe”—as the company refers to its fans—are used to.
“Now I was born a rambling man, and I was born a gambling man,” Arndt says. “The Sin City saint, I’ve got the meanest poker face up in this place. You couldn’t read this if you were Hooked on Phonics, kid. But I’m gonna be honest. Last night, Big Cass, I fell in love. I got love struck by Lady Luck. And, uh, you know, Imma keep it 100 with you, I’m a little in the bag. I’m a little tired.”
“Why is that?”
“Because me and Lady Luck were all the way up, all night long!” The crowd cracks up, and begins another “How you doin’!” chant.
The immense popularity of Enzo and Cass—before their match on the 27 June edition of Raw, Arndt called the audience a giant wave that they are riding to the top—is based on two reasons. Their claim of being “the realest guys in the room” is no empty boast; unlike the assembly-line “superstars” WWE churns out, they look and sound authentic, like real people who wrestle for a living rather than the catchphrase-spouting two-dimensional characters the “WWE Universe”—as the company refers to its fans—are used to. Arndt plays a wiseguy from Jersey, which he is. Morrissey plays a big guy who isn’t just a grunt, which he is. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, who mastered the technique, calls it playing a louder version of himself.
Also, Arndt’s formidable skills on the mic, which were responsible for getting him hired in the first place, are a thing to look forward to every week, as he cracks wise about their opponents du jour to set up Morrissey’s catchphrase, delivered with great passion and aided by the crowd: “There’s only one word to describe you, and I’m going to spell it out for you. S-A-W-F-T!” The crowd chants in unison, in a rising tone, “SAWFT!” As one Redditor describes it, “You can hear WWE’s stock go up every time these guys cut a promo.”
“Promo” is short for promotional interview, though it also refers to monologues; the etymology is important in understanding its importance, for the job of the wrestler is not just to entertain the audience but to get bums in the seats in the first place by either getting fans absorbed in the characters involved in the fight or by selling the intensity of their rivalry.
Wrestlers live and die by the response of the crowd, and their “promo skills” are as important, if not more, as their abilities in the ring. “Promo” is short for promotional interview, though it also refers to monologues; the etymology is important in understanding its importance, for the job of the wrestler is not just to entertain the audience but to get bums in the seats in the first place by either getting fans absorbed in the characters involved in the fight or by selling the intensity of their rivalry. One person who understood this was the late great Muhammad Ali, whose legendary baiting of his opponents and assertion of self-pride was as instrumental in making his fights mean more than just an athletic contest and making boxing more culturally relevant than it has ever been, before or since.
ON THE 6 June episode of Raw, three days after Ali’s death, Enzo and Cass paid tribute to the great one as they prepared to take on The Vaudevillains, one of their three opponents at Money in the Bank. Like them, the Vaudevillains—made up of Aiden English (Matthew Rehwoldt) and Simon Gotch (John Smith)—are a new team in WWE’s main roster, having made their way from NXT earlier this year. The two teams had advanced to the finals of a tournament to crown the #1 Contenders for the Tag Team Titles at a pay-per-view called Payback. Early in their match, however, Rehwoldt pushed Arndt towards the ropes too hard, and the latter slipped, hitting his head against the ropes and ring and suffering a concussion that put him out of action for a month.
Never one to let a good opportunity for a rivalry go to waste, McMahon played up the accident, showing replays of Arndt’s head hitting the mat ad nauseum and having the Vaudevillains claim it was intentional in order to garner the hatred of the crowd, known as “heat”. As they approached the ring for a revenge match, Morrissey invoked Ali. “To quote the greatest of all time, float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Zo, get at these pansies like a Certified G.”
Never one to let a good opportunity for a rivalry go to waste, McMahon played up the accident, showing replays ad nauseum and having the Vaudevillains claim it was intentional in order to garner the hatred of the crowd, known as “heat”.
“RIP Muhammad Ali. Now, to quote the GOAT, I done wrestling alligators, tussled with whales. Handcuffed lightning, threw thunder in jail. Just last week, I slayed a rock, injured a stone and hospitalised a brick. I’m so mean, I make medicine sick. So if you even dream of beating us, you’d better wake up and apologise. ’Cause we’re all the way up, and the realest guys ain’t telling no lies. Now, we fought you at Payback, and my head bounced off the mat. But, besides the fact, I don’t remember that.
“But I bounce back, unlike you ‘Butterscotch’ Simon Gotch and Aiden ‘I Can’t Stop Hatin’’ English. Lemme tell you something, pal. You couldn’t knock me out now, you couldn’t knock me out later. I got a chin like Ali, and my jaw is so strong, I could blow a bubble an hour later.”
Ali’s propensity to talk trash was in fact inspired by a childhood hero, professional wrestler Gorgeous George, whom he met in 1961. As John Capouya, George’s biographer, wrote for Sports Illustrated in 2005,
Clay was already the Louisville Lip. But when he and George met at a Las Vegas radio station, the wrestler’s gale-force trash talking blew the boxer’s ears back. If he lost to Classy Freddie Blassie, George ranted, “I’ll crawl across the ring and cut my hair off! But that’s not gonna happen because I’m the greatest wrestler in the world!” At the match, Ali remembered later, “I saw 15,000 people comin’ to see this man get beat. And his talking did it. I said, ‘This is a gooood idea!’” In the locker room afterward the 46-year-old wrestler told the 19-year-old, “A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing and always be outrageous.” Ali did.
Ali’s propensity to talk trash was in fact inspired by a childhood hero, professional wrestler Gorgeous George, whom he met in 1961.
Three years later, Ali would adopt George’s “I’m the greatest!” schtick as he baited Sonny Liston before their world championship bout. He would maintain ties with professional wrestling, fighting WWE Hall of Fame inductees Gorilla Monsoon and Antonio Inoki—a bout in Tokyo that is considered to be a forebear of mixed martial arts—in 1976, and acting as the referee during the main event at the first WrestleMania in 1985. Indeed, it is a glaring omission that he was never inducted into the Hall of Fame while he was still alive.
IIIAli wasn’t the only one affected by a meeting with Gorgeous George; both James Brown and Bob Dylan claimed to have been inspired by him. George Raymond Wagner was wrestling’s first truly national superstar. Only 5’ 9” and 215 pounds (97 kg), he was smaller than most other wrestlers on the circuit. What he did possess was a character fans loved to hate.
Professional wrestling began soon after the Civil War, as an attraction in travelling carnivals. Like much of America, it was shaped by immigrants from Europe—the “sport” had originated in France in the 1830s—and its popularity was restricted to the Midwest, where those immigrants settled. Though in the early years, fights were legitimate athletic contests, the results of fights began to be predetermined by promoters by the 1880s. By the 1920s, the secret was out; the media began publishing reports that cast doubts on wrestling’s legitimacy, and its popularity waned.
Like much of America, it was shaped by immigrants from Europe, and its popularity was restricted to the Midwest, where those immigrants settled.
In response, wrestling promoters decided to stop pretending to be entirely legitimate, modifying their craft to make it more entertaining instead. Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Billy Sandow and Joseph “Toots” Mondt, three wrestlers who had formed their own promotion called the Gold Dust Trio, led the change. Instead of the slow, deliberate grappling style that looked real but was boring fans, Mondt pioneered what he called “Slam Bang Western-Style Wrestling”, which incorporated boxing, catch-as-catch-can wrestling, lumber-camp fighting and theatre. The results were predetermined, but the manner of the finish would remain a mystery to the fans, even if they could guess who’d win. Instead of having itinerant journeymen fight the champion, the Trio began maintaining a roster of wrestlers, who they would build up over time through matches and storylines. They also came up with the idea of tag team matches and heel tactics like distracting the referee. Although the Trio dissolved in 1928, they had created a new template for a wrestling promotion, and many copycats soon emerged.
The 1930s and ’40s saw a mushrooming of wrestling promotions all over the country, each with its own roster and champions, vying for greater territory and influence. This coincided with the advent of television, and as a relatively inexpensive and popular form of entertainment, all the networks were looking for wrestling shows to telecast. Wagner, therefore, had an audience that even the biggest champions of the decades before him could not boast of, as wrestling entered what is now called its “Golden Age”.
AT ITS heart, wrestling is a battle between good and evil. The good guys, known as “babyfaces”, require powerful and villainous “heels” in order to get the crowd behind them, to keep them invested in their fortunes over time. The early heels were either “ethnic terrors”, pretending to be foreigner types like Nazis or Arabs, or Goliaths for babyface Davids to conquer.
At its heart, wrestling is a battle between good and evil. The good guys, known as “babyfaces”, require powerful and villainous “heels” in order to get the crowd behind them, to keep them invested in their fortunes over time.
Wagner realised the potential of theatre in wrestling when he married his girlfriend Elizabeth Hansen inside a wrestling ring in Eugene, Oregon in 1939. It was such a popular event that they recreated the ceremony in arenas across the country. Then, when he read a profile in Vanity Magazine of “Lord” Patrick Lansdowne, a heel who would come to the ring accompanied by two valets, he decided to take the gimmick one step further.
He got his mother to stitch him elaborate robes, which he would wear to the ring. He was one of the first wrestlers to use entrance music—Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance’, to which he would stroll nobly to the ring, accompanied by his valet, known as “Jeffries”, who would carry a silver mirror while spreading rose petals at his feet. In the ring, Jeffries would spray the ring with Chanel No. 5, used as a disinfectant, though George referred to it as No. 10. (“Why be half safe?” he would ask.) He would have Jeffries spray the referee’s hands as well before allowing him to search him for foreign objects. His platinum-blonde-dyed hair would be held together with gold-plated bobby pins—he called them Georgie pins—that he would throw into the crowd. His ring entrances were often longer than the match itself.
During those matches, Wagner would cheat in whatever way he could in order to garner heel heat. He would punch you in your kidney, gouge your eyes. When the crowd jeered him, he would call them “ignorant peasants” who were “beneath contempt”. However, unlike other gimmick wrestlers, he was also an able technician in the ring, having been a successful amateur wrestler.
“George had a postmodern vision: He sensed that the sizzle was as important as the steak. And the market did not contradict this notion. In 1951 Joe DiMaggio retired, walking away from a salary of $100,000; George earned a reported $160,000.”
“Most important,” Capouya wrote in the SI article, “George had a postmodern vision: He sensed that the sizzle was as important as the steak. And the market did not contradict this notion. In 1951 Joe DiMaggio retired, walking away from a salary of $100,000; George earned a reported $160,000.” He was so instrumental in filling arenas that he would often charge 50 percent of the gate receipts. In 1959, when he had his head shaved after losing to longtime rival Whipper Billy Watson, 20,000 gleeful fans looked on at the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, while millions watched on television.
THE MANY wrestling promotions of the time would often “invade” each other by hosting shows in other promotions’ territories, and each proclaimed their own world champions. In an attempt to impose some sort of order on the chaotic industry, a group of six promoters banded together their organisations to form the National Wrestling Alliance in 1948.
It was an arrangement that resembled the consolidation of organised crime in America around the same time. North America and Japan were divided into territories. Promotions would not host shows in each other’s territories, though they would often share talent. Non-NWA promotions would be chased off NWA territories through threats of violence. Wrestlers who appeared in these promotions would find themselves blackballed by the NWA; Nick Lutze, a promoter who wasn’t part of the NWA, complained to the FBI in 1953 that the Alliance controlled 90 percent of all wrestling talent. Most promotions had their own television show, telecast only in its own territory. Instead of a world champion in every promotion, an NWA champion was crowned, who would travel from territory to territory, defending his title against the top local talent. Title changes were decided through a vote by the NWA Board of Directors, made up of the territory owners.
It was an arrangement that resembled the consolidation of organised crime in America around the same time.
If the arrangement seems monopolistic, that is because it was. In his book National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story of the Monopoly that Strangled Pro Wrestling, Tim Hornbaker calls it a cartel:
Just how much power did the NWA have? North America was broken up into more than 30 territories, each run by a select booking agent, and tied into the grand conspiracy to lock out opposition. Associates were responsible for inking deals with local TV stations, and a handful of national programs reached cities far and wide. Influential agents like Joe “Toots” Mondt and Fred Kohler managed hundreds of the most-recognized grapplers, having signed them to exclusive contracts that made it impossible for a nonmember to book them. Local promoters were required to pay hefty booking fees, and it was a situation where you either paid up the ladder or you didn’t play ball.
In each state, the NWA’s tactics trickled down into the heart of professional athletics: the regionally governed athletic commissions. By bonding with the movers and shakers in their particular areas, Alliance bookers reinforced their positions greatly. They donated money to causes, held political fundraisers, and made sure anyone who expected an envelope full of cash got it in a timely fashion. This system of compensation in return for safeguarding their promotional efforts was considered quite normal in most NWA territories.
In August 1953, for instance, the Indiana Athletic Commission passed an ordinance governing pro wrestling, awarding only four licenses, all to NWA members. Anyone else who wished to host a wrestling show in the state would have to negotiate with them.
Complaints started coming in from whistleblowers like Lutze to the Justice Department, which opened an investigation on 17 June 1955, and various antitrust suits were filed, which were eventually consolidated into one case—United States vs. National Wrestling Alliance. Before the civil suit could proceed, however, the NWA and the Justice Department agreed to a consent decree, a voluntary accord by which the defendant agrees to cease its illegal behaviour in exchange for no prosecution. “It is generally believed”, writes Hornbaker, that influential Illinois Congressman Charles Melvin Price, the best friend of NWA President Sam Muchnick, “was instrumental in creating a more moderate environment between the Justice Department and the NWA, paving the way for their negotiations.”
WHAT THE federal government couldn’t achieve happened organically, as the monopoly of the NWA was broken by its own constituents. As was inevitable, given the nature of the alliance, it was over who would hold the NWA World Heavyweight Championship.
Muchnick’s position as President of the NWA derived from the fact that he was the booker for the then champion Aloysius Martin “Lou” Thesz. Still the longest-reigning champion in NWA history, Thesz was chosen to replace the first NWA champion Orville Brown, after the latter’s career was ended in a road accident, primarily because of his skills as a “hooker”—he could inflict painful holds to punish any “shooters” who might try to deviate from the storyline and defeat him. This was a legitimate fear, since the NWA champion had to travel the various territories fighting local champions, many of whom believed they deserved the title.
In 1957, a year after the consent decree, Edmund Quinn, an old associate of Muchnick who was running the Montreal territory, fell out with the NWA over various issues. The timing was ominous. Édouard Carpentier, Quinn’s biggest star, was then in a storyline where both he and Thesz claimed to be champion following a disputed win; the idea was to generate interest for a high-profile rematch. After Quinn walked out of the NWA the following year, however, the rematch never happened, and Muchnick announced that Carpentier had never been the champion.
The NWA was broken by its own constituents. As was inevitable, given the nature of the alliance, it was over who would hold the NWA World Heavyweight Championship.
Quinn used the Carpentier situation to foment further revolution within the NWA’s ranks. He negotiated deals with the territories in Boston, Nebraska and Los Angeles, which had their biggest stars defeat Carpentier, allowing the promotions to claim that they were the legitimate world champions when they broke away from the NWA. Then in 1963, when champion “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers was forced to lose the title back to Thesz, northeastern promoters Vincent J McMahon (father of the current Vince) and Toots Mondt refused to recognise the change—Thesz was never popular in the northeast, and Rogers had been punished for favouring their promotion over the others—breaking away from the NWA and naming Rogers the first World Wide Wrestling Federation World Heavyweight Champion. A month later, Rogers suffered a heart attack, and passed on the title to Bruno Sammartino. In 1971, soon after Mondt left the company, McMahon quietly rejoined the NWA.
Advances in technology further hurt the territory system; fans began trading videotapes of wrestling events, and the rise of cable television meant they had access to wrestling shows from other territories and could see the inconsistencies between the storylines in different territories. A year after he bought the company from his father, Vince, Jr again withdrew the WWF from the NWA in 1983 and got WWF programming nationally syndicated, directly challenging the territories.
The revenue that WWF received from ad revenue and television deals was invested into attracting the top talents in the industry, such as Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, Jesse Ventura and Ricky Steamboat. The popularity of these stars brought more revenues, and soon McMahon was buying out entire territories. Instead of just touring the northeast, the WWF began national tours, the costs of which were borne by the success of WrestleMania. In November 1987, WrestleMania III set an all-time attendance record for a wrestling match, when 93,173 fans gathered at the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit. (The Atlantic City WrestleManias Trump hosted in the two following years were a conscious decision to reduce attendances and maximise profits.) The record was broken earlier this year at WrestleMania 32, which had a reported attendance of 101,763. (Veteran wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer claims both figures were overstated “for entertainment purposes”.)
IVThe third match on the card is a women’s tag team match. For years, women’s wrestling was the most cringe-inducing portion of WWE programming. Although the company signed NWA Women’s Champion The Fabulous Moolah in 1983 and had a number of talented female wrestlers in the 1980s, they were phased out in 1990. Most of the women hired in the latter half of the 1990s, known as the “Attitude Era”, were highly sexualised figures dangled at the audience as eye candy.
The exception was Chyna, “The Ninth Wonder of the World”. (André the Giant was billed as the eighth.) Joanie Laurer was hired by the WWF in 1997, and was the antithesis of the women used as eye candy. She was six feet tall and billed at 180 pounds (82 kg), having taken part in fitness competitions for years. Originally booked as a bodyguard for Paul “Triple H” Levesque, she had an accomplished career in the company, defeating a number of male wrestlers and even holding the WWF Intercontinental Title for a while. However, once her real-life relationship with Levesque came to an end following the latter cheating on her with Vince’s daughter Stephanie McMahon, she was let go by the company. She later claimed that the McMahons had had her blackballed in Hollywood; neither was she inducted in the Hall of Fame, ostensibly because she had done pornography. After her death from a drug overdose earlier this year, however, both Levesque and Stephanie McMahon have said she deserves to be inducted.
Although there was a resurgence in the women’s division around the turn of the century, culminating in a “Golden Era” from 2002–08, the company would revert to hiring lingerie models and wannabe reality TV stars who had no wrestling background and little aptitude for working matches, with the result that matches in the divas division, as it was called, were often downright unwatchable.
For years, women’s wrestling was the most cringe-inducing portion of WWE programming.
The last couple of years, however, have seen a conscious effort by WWE to improve the state of women’s wrestling, with the hiring of a number of talented and experienced female wrestlers in what was called the Divas’ Revolution. (Part of the Revolution’s agenda has been to stop referring to female wrestlers as Divas.) Two of the competitors in this match at Money in the Bank—Becky Lynch and WWE Women’s Champion Charlotte—were part of the Revolution as members of Team PCB (originally called the Submission Sorority, but renamed because Googling the name would throw up porn). Lynch is partnered with Natalya, daughter of Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart and niece of Bret Hart. Charlotte, the daughter of Ric Flair, is paired up with rookie Dana Brooke, a former diver, gymnast and bodybuilder who WWE believes would go far if she’s given the right guidance.
Ashley Fliehr, whose ring name is derived from her hometown, is the textbook cowardly heel, drawn from the same mould as Gorgeous George, or for that matter, her father Richard “Ric Flair” Fliehr, known in his time as “the dirtiest player in the game”. In her four years in the business, she has turned on every ally she has ever had, and used every possible means to hold on to her championship.
In her latest title feud with Natalya, she first lost a match by disqualification after her father interfered. (According to the “rules”, titles don’t change hands after a disqualification.) Then, when Natalya got a rematch with uncle Bret at ringside, referee Charles Robinson—who had a history of aiding Ric Flair over the years—called for an end to the match despite Natalya not submitting, a nod to the “Montreal Screwjob” in 1998, when a similar conclusion led to Hart losing the title against his will in his final WWE match. Natalya got another rematch at Payback, this time with Flair banned from ringside. As she was about to win, however, Brooke came out to Flair’s music, distracting her and allowing Charlotte to pick up another win.
THE FOLLOWING night on Raw, the three of them came strutting out to gloat about the victory. Before Charlotte could begin talking, however, Flair took the mic to congratulate her and express paternal pride. “What can I say? As a child, every time I turned around with your mom, you had your hand in the candy jar. You were on fire. Every time I remember when we hid the candy jar, she found it; her hand was in it. And everything she touched in her entire life, she just made happen. She’s that fabulous. And last night, with your back against the wall, once again you prevailed. You even went so far as to get someone like your uncle Arn [Anderson, a longtime Flair ally], I mean Dana Brooke. You prevailed because you’re that damn good, okay? And Dana, without Charlotte Flair, there is no Dana Brooke. So honey, I’m so proud of you. Here,” he returned the mic.
“Well, first of all, I just want to thank one person, and that’s obviously me! And, uh, Dana, I couldn’t be more proud of you, because you naturally made the right decision: if you want to be the best…”
“And you know something?” asked Dana. “I would like to thank you, Charlotte, for giving me the privilege of standing in the ring with the dirtiest player in the game.” The crowd started shouting Flair’s trademark “Wooo!” taunt.
“No, that’s fine, because you know who you’re disrespecting? Him. Dad, you know what I remember growing up? I remember Thanksgivings; I remember Christmases; I remember birthdays.” As she recited the list, deliberately slowing down, the crowd started shouting “What!” in the pauses, a legacy of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
“Speaking of him,” Charlotte said, her smug grin replaced by a straight face. “Dad, you know what I remember growing up?” As the crowd booed, anticipating what was to come, she shouted, “Excuse me, I’m talking!” It’s the sort of heat-generating comment that makes her a great heel. The booing grew louder.
“No, that’s fine, because you know who you’re disrespecting? Him. Dad, you know what I remember growing up? I remember Thanksgivings; I remember Christmases; I remember birthdays.” As she recited the list, deliberately slowing down, the crowd started shouting “What!” in the pauses, a legacy of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. “If you want to ‘What!’ me one more time—”
A much louder “What!”
“That’s fine, because dad, you know what I remember mom saying? That daddy’s always with you. But you know what?”
“You were never there, because I had to watch you on television!”
“This is what’s the problem with this arena, because you think you’re important or something! I’m trying to tell my dad something.” Flair’s crumpled face added to the tension, as the crowd’s booing got softer.
“Do you know what it’s like walking into a room and just [have everyone] say, ‘Look, that’s Ric Flair’s daughter.’ No, you know who you are? You’re Charlotte’s dad.”
“But actually, dad, I really understand why you weren’t there, because all those years I couldn’t understand why you weren’t there. Mom had to, you know, rub my head because I was crying. But now I get it; you know why? Because I’m the WWE Women’s Champion. I’ve never been more powerful!”
“I’ve never been more confident!”
“Dad, now I understand, because you know what it felt like to be the man. I’m the woman!” Serious face now replaced with the shit-eating grin.
“Ah, that’s why I finally have the courage to say it to you, dad. Get out of my ring! What, are you hard of hearing? I said, get out!” Flair appeared stunned. “What, really, really?” she went on. “I figured you’d stand there just looking dumbfounded as you have since I’ve debuted. Everyone from your generation is all the same: they just never want to leave the spotlight! What? Well, I was compassionate to let you bask in mine. Do you know what it’s like walking into a room and just [have everyone] say, ‘Look, that’s Ric Flair’s daughter.’ No, you know who you are? You’re Charlotte’s dad. Oh what, dad, are you going to cry? Oh, are you going to cry? Well, you know what? My spotlight shines brighter than yours ever did. Ever!” The booing grew louder.
“Oh what, you’re gonna boo me? Actually, it’s because of all of you that I actually thought that I couldn’t do this on my own. That I couldn’t do this without the 16-time world champion. That I couldn’t do it without the two-time Hall of Famer. You know what you are? You’re the second dirtiest player in the game, and I don’t have time for people who come in second place. I don’t need you any more!” Flair was in tears by now.
“Oh, listen to your dear fans. Aww! Aww, the Nature Boy is crying, aww! Oh really, you think this isn’t how I felt my whole life? You abandoned me! Abandoned me. Oh what, is your heart hurting? How do you think I felt the last 30 years of my life? You know what you are to all these people? You’re immortal to them. But you’re just, to me, dead.”
IN THE lexicon of professional wrestling, it was what is called a “worked shoot”, a monologue that appears to break the fourth wall and acknowledge tensions behind the scenes, but is in fact pre-planned. It cut too close to the bone, however, because there was much to Charlotte’s outburst that was unimpeachably true.
It cut too close to the bone, however, because there was much to Charlotte’s outburst that was unimpeachably true.
There is no off-season in professional wrestling. Although WWE programming is shown on television twice a week, it also hosts “house shows” that aren’t telecast on an almost daily basis. The typical contract requires a wrestler to make around 200 appearances a year all around the world, and travel on a near-constant basis. The typical week can include four or five shows, all in different cities, driving when convenient, flying when necessary. Meals are usually had at all-night diners—besides the protein shakes and bars wrestlers live on—and they need to scout gyms in every town they travel to in order to stay in shape. Often, the only way to get some time off is to get injured. As wrestler Seth Rollins (Colby Lopez) told GQ last August, three months before suffering a serious knee injury, “The longest stretch I’ve had at home is four days in three years.”
All of this takes a toll. In the old days of the Attitude Era, the matches were more gruelling, often involving being hit by chairs or going through tables—which, even done safely, does hurt—and frequent blading, or cutting yourself in order to draw blood. Concussions were common; this was years before the impact of sustained head injuries in contact sports had been studied and publicised. Almost everyone carries some sort of injury. The key is to ameliorate its effects. As a result, it was very common for wrestlers to indulge in drug use in order to dull the pain. In any case, most wrestlers were on some form of steroids in order to bulk up. Although a Congressional investigation into steroid use in the mid-1990s led to greater oversight and drug testing, it is an open secret that drug use is still rampant on the circuit.
Of course, the physiological toll is only part of the impact of professional wrestling. The long months on the road and the extent of drug and alcohol abuse means that broken families are the norm, rather than the exception. Ric Flair, for instance, is currently undergoing his fourth divorce while dating an old associate from his wrestling days. Things sometimes get much worse, such as on 25 June 2007, when 22-year veteran wrestler Chris Benoit was found hanging from a weight machine in his home, having murdered his wife and son. He had just turned 40. This was just two years after a longtime associate of Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, was found dead of a drug overdose, aged 38.
Of course, the physiological toll is only part of the impact of professional wrestling. The long months on the road and the extent of drug and alcohol abuse means that broken families are the norm, rather than the exception.
Earlier this year, Ray Leppan, a South African wrestler who performed in WWE under the name Adam Rose, was arrested for a domestic disturbance, shortly after failing an internal drug test for a second time, leading to the termination of his contract. In his blog, veteran wrestling commentator and talent manager Jim Ross wrote of the incident:
One can only imagine the level of stress that this man was/is enduring, which absolutely gives him NO free pass to commit domestic battery against his wife. Curious to know what Adam Rose’s Plan B is as every wrestler should have a viable Plan B especially after they get north of their 30th birthday. How does this relate to this incident?
When performers have no Plan B, they often find themselves in a state of helplessness. For example, what do I do to stay in America, for instance, as in South African Leppan’s situation? What can I now do to provide for my family? How do I properly raise my children and be the husband to my wife that I should be? How do I regain my self esteem?
To eliminate the feeling of hopelessness from a talent’s mind set is a primary reason for having a marketable Plan B for all sports entertainers. The job does not last forever nor does the money that the job creates. If all those entertaining the wrestling business understands that fact going in then the product, the performers and all that they touch will be better served.
THE FIRST thing they need to understand is that this is not a job, that they are not employees of the company. Like many corporations in America and the rest of the world, WWE understands the value of hiring its talent as contract workers. It prevents attempts at organising labour, allows them not to have salary norms, and allows them to hire and fire at will.
Often, it does not have to be the fault of the performer for them to be “future endeavoured”—a euphemism for getting fired, derived from the boilerplate “We wish him all the best for his future endeavours” on press releases announcing terminations. Wrestlers perform characters and storylines that are written by WWE’s Creative Department, and if these do not connect with the audience, they are likely to be sidelined to play minor roles until they are quietly let go.
Like many corporations in America and the rest of the world, WWE understands the value of hiring its talent as contract workers. It prevents attempts at organising labour, allows them not to have salary norms, and allows them to hire and fire at will.
One example is Damien Sandow, a pedigreed wrestler with years of experience on the independent circuit who was an excellent technician in the ring and even better on the mic, who was saddled with a series of terrible characters, and despite getting crowd reactions with every one of them, was future endeavoured soon after WrestleMania this year.
Speaking on Howard Stern’s radio show in 2011, Jesse Ventura, who had led an unsuccessful attempt in the 1980s to unionise wrestlers, said that WWE calls its performers independent contractors “so they don’t have to pay social security and the wrestler has to pay 15 percent self-employment tax. How are they self-employed when you’re signed exclusively, you can’t work for nobody else, they tell you when and where you’ll work? They can totally control your life, and yet they’ll call you an independent contractor.”
Darren Aronofsky, director of The Wrestler, in which Mickey Rourke played a professional wrestler coming to terms with the end of his career, was outspoken about labour issues in the industry while promoting the film. “There’s really no reason why these guys are not in SAG,” he said, referring to the Screen Actors’ Guild. “They’re as much screen actors as stuntmen. If not more. They’re in front of a camera performing and doing stunts, and they should have that protection…Or, if they’re not even on TV, the ring is a theatre. So they’re not just screen actors, they’re theatre actors. They’re performers. They should have health insurance and they should be protected.”
Darren Aronofsky, director of The Wrestler, in which Mickey Rourke played a professional wrestler coming to terms with the end of his career, was outspoken about labour issues in the industry while promoting the film. “There’s really no reason why these guys are not in SAG,” he said, referring to the Screen Actors’ Guild.
Ventura’s efforts failed because he couldn’t get enough fellow wrestlers on board; in fact, he was ratted out to management by none other than Hulk Hogan. In 2008, three wrestlers—Steve “Raven” Levy, Chris “Kanyon” Klucsarits and Michael Sanders—sued WWE, arguing that wrestlers should be treated as employees, but a federal judge dismissed their case, since the statute of limitations had apparently expired. The three were subsequently blackballed by the industry.
Bret Hart had this to say about wrestling unions: “I think that any wrestler that says that they don’t need a union is just a sheep that doesn’t have enough brains to know that they do need a union.”
VAs everyone who finds you watching it will tell you, wrestling is fake. That does not mean it is easy, or that it is safe. It requires years of training, at no small expense to the prospective wrestler, to learn how to perform the moves safely; wrestlers must spend weeks getting comfortable with each other’s styles before embarking upon feuds, which is why the bitterest enemies inside the ring are often the best of friends behind the scene. It requires superlative fitness to be able to wrestle matches that can run up to an hour in length.
As everyone who finds you watching it will tell you, wrestling is fake. That does not mean it is easy, or that it is safe. It requires years of training, at no small expense to the prospective wrestler, to learn how to perform the moves safely.
The “New Era” of WWE is underpinned on the extraordinary success of its feeder system, NXT. Based in Tampa, Florida, the promotion has over the last few years developed a loyal fanbase; at the same time, ratings of its flagship television show Raw have declined. This is because wrestling fans have gradually become disillusioned by the quality of the product the company has been putting out, dismissing it as formulaic and inauthentic.
The high point of WWE’s popularity was in the late 1990s, when the company was regularly pushing the envelope with an edgy product. (After winning the NBA Finals, members of the Cleveland Cavaliers publicly wore vintage WWE T-shirts and were awarded replica title belts; Kevin Love said on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert that they were all fans of the show during the Attitude Era.) It was a decision driven by the compulsions of the market. The rise of WWE in the 1980s had been built on controlling the top stars of the industry and building a monopoly by buying out the competition. However, Jim Cornette, who ran World Championship Wrestling, an NWA franchise based in Atlanta, decided to give the WWE a run for its money, expanding its scope to a national promotion and competing directly with WWE for the Monday night slot.
Under executive producer (and later president) Eric Bischoff, WCW sought to position its product as different from WWE as possible. WWE was targeted at children, and its wrestlers were cartoonish figures, so WCW targeted more mature viewers. It had wrestlers compete under their own names, appear more realistic. WWE was pretaped every alternate week, so WCW made sure they were live every week, sometimes even leaking the results of the matches on Raw so that viewers wouldn’t change channels. They even poached some of WWE’s top stars, and soon WCW Monday Nitro was regularly beating Raw in the ratings.
WCW sought to position its product as different from WWE as possible. WWE was targeted at children, and its wrestlers were cartoonish figures, so WCW targeted more mature viewers. It had wrestlers compete under their own names, appear more realistic.
McMahon responded by imitation, launching the Attitude Era. Stars like Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Mick Foley and D-Generation X won back the fans through their larger-than-life personas that captured the ethos of the times and by fighting bloodier and more exciting matches. He didn’t stop at realism, however; angles often invoked the supernatural, with the roster boasting of a brood of vampires as well as an undead, omnipotent force like The Undertaker. Though the company’s mythmaking claims that the change in programming won the Monday Night Wars, it can be argued that the implosion of WCW through incompetent management—unlike WWE’s centralised structure, WCW’s creative team operated as a sort of collective, with various top wrestlers vying for greater influence—and the drying up of funds from Ted Turner were more responsible.
WHETHER IT was attitude or attrition, however, WWE won, and in 1999, bought out its last remaining national competition and all its assets. The turn of the century saw it flush with talent, on top of the wrestling world. As the only national, leave alone international, wrestling promotion, it possessed an immense amount of power in the labour market for wrestlers; they had to play ball or go freelance on the independent circuit, wrestling in bingo halls and bars for a fraction of what they would make in the big league.
How the company has exerted that power has been a sore point for the wrestling community, both talent and fans. Vince McMahon has always prefered to hire and “push”—have them win more matches, and fight for a title—larger wrestlers with well-chiseled bodies, mostly ex-football players or bodybuilders. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, larger wrestlers make for more dull, plodding matches.
How the company has exerted that power has been a sore point for the wrestling community, both talent and fans. Vince McMahon has always prefered to hire and “push” larger wrestlers with well-chiseled bodies, mostly ex-football players or bodybuilders.
He was forced by the Congressional investigation into steroids to hire and push smaller, more athletic wrestlers, men like Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart, Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero and Chris Jericho. Unlike the Incredible Hulks of the 1980s and early ’90s, they looked like regular people, and put on much more entertaining matches, without having to rely too much on the barbaric practice of blading. However, barring a few extraordinary cases, there remained a mass ceiling in the company, as the championship picture was more often than not dominated by the larger wrestlers.
There’s more than just quality of product at stake when it comes to who gets pushed by management. On 3 May this year, Ryan Reeves, who wrestled for WWE under the name Ryback until talks over the renewal of his contract broke down, posted a long rant on his Facebook and Tumblr pages. In it, he said:
Wrestling is pre determined, we as performers know before we go out to that ring or perform a backstage scene who is winning and losing etc or have a general idea of what we are going to say. It blows my mind how in a sport which is pre determined from a company standpoint winners are paid so much more than the losers. Every single person who works for WWE from top to bottom is absolutely just as valuable as the next. The winners cannot win unless the losers go out there and agree to lose to them.
He was castigated by all and sundry for demanding pay equality, but he does make a valid point that although the “fakeness” of wrestling means that matches are made up and the titles don’t matter, when it comes to the bottom line, they actually do. And it is a fact that such booking decisions are arbitrary in nature; the recent history of WWE is littered with a number of extremely talented performers who were never given a fair shot because they didn’t look a certain way. Of course, he would have got more sympathy from the community if he weren’t the archetype of the McMahon Guy—a near-300-pounder who was nicknamed “Silverback” as a teen, after the gorilla, who couldn’t cut a convincing promo to save his life and is a boring, formulaic wrestler with a reputation for injuring people in the ring. That he never won a title is testament of how bad he was, rather than the egalitarian nature of wrestling.
FOR MOST of the last decade, the villain in this narrative of size discrimination was Paul Levesque. For years on end, the main event picture in WWE was dominated by Triple H. Levesque drew major heat among “smarks”—the carnival origins of wrestling mean that the audience are called marks; smarks are smart marks, that is, fans who are clued into backstage matters—because he had been a member of the Kliq, a group of five wrestlers who are believed to have exerted major influence over McMahon’s decision-making during the 1990s, and because he is married to Stephanie McMahon and considered an heir to the business. He was great on the mic and had a keen sense of ring psychology, but was made to look stronger than virtually the entire roster, many of whom were considered better wrestlers.
After his in-ring career came to a close and a number of senior wrestlers were taken out of the picture by injury, retirement or death, the mantle was taken up by John Cena. Again, Cena was more than competent as a wrestler, though limited in his moveset—he would always cycle through the same five moves in the course of a match, leading to them being called the Five Moves of Doom—but was resented by the smarks because he was built by the company as virtually unbeatable, except by cheating. Even when he was outnumbered, he would often singlehandedly defeat multiple opponents, making them look weak and earning him the nickname SuperCena.
Cena was also a surrogate for a lot of the resentment felt by longtime fans over how the product changed during his career. Most serious fans today came of age during the Attitude Era; it is what drew them into watching wrestling. However, many of the aspects that defined the era—the sexual content, the excessive violence and bleeding, the innuendos and outright cursing—were junked in an attempt to clean up the company’s reputation in anticipation of Linda McMahon’s unsuccessful runs in 2010 and 2012 for the Connecticut Senate seat, as WWE programming became PG-rated.
To those who have not experienced the dehumanising and oppressive power of identity-oriented slurs, political correctness is not a compact of compassion and sensitivity but a sacrifice of authenticity at the altar of public relations and an infantilisation of the culture.
To White Male America, the PG Era of wrestling is emblematic of the PC culture that they believe has run amok in American society at large. To those who have not experienced the dehumanising and oppressive power of identity-oriented slurs, political correctness is not a compact of compassion and sensitivity but a sacrifice of authenticity at the altar of public relations and an infantilisation of the culture. Watching a company that played an important part in accelerating their puberty suddenly pandering to prepubescent children has caused the disillusionment of many a wrestling fan in the last few years.
THE NEW Era is a compromise of sorts in that regard. WWE’s positioning as a global brand, one that caters to children, is too lucrative to risk unnecessary controversy by returning to the adult programming of the Attitude Era. In any case, a large part of the appeal of late-’90s wrestling was that it was pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable on television; those boundaries have been pushed so far in the intervening years that the excesses of the Attitude Era seem tame by comparison. And without the envelope pushing, the quality of the wrestling in those years wasn’t much to write home about, and many of the angles were either childish or in very poor taste. However, the buying power of older fans and the launch earlier this year of the WWE Network, which is targeted at longtime fans, means the WWE cannot continue to ignore the fans in order to capture new ones.
What WWE can change is the staleness of the product, and the New Era is actually testament to the power of globalisation. Instead of changing the way it books matches and builds up wrestlers, the company has decided to reinvigorate the roster by signing some of the biggest talents on the independent circuit, from all over the world. Over the past couple of years, the hottest free agents in the industry have been showing up at the NXT Performance Centre in Tampa to train in the WWE style before making the transition to television. The influx has been accelerated by the impending demise of Total Nonstop Action, the closest thing WWE had to a national competitor with a television presence, as TNA stars and indie darlings like AJ Styles, Samoa Joe, Austin Aries, Bobby Roode and Eric Young jumped ship. (Their decisions were helped by the fact that they were losing influence at TNA because of an influx of WWE discards over the years to that company.) It has led to some incredible matches on NXT, such as the one in April between Sami Zayn and Shinsuke Nakamura, two of the biggest wrestling stars in the globe. They put on such a display that at one point, the crowd were chanting “Fight forever!”
The New Era is actually testament to the power of globalisation. Instead of changing the way it books matches and builds up wrestlers, the company has decided to reinvigorate the roster by signing some of the biggest talents on the independent circuit, from all over the world.
The ongoing feud between John Cena and AJ Styles, which includes a match that is one of the three main events at Money in the Bank, is an apotheosis of sorts for this transition, the biggest import from the independent circuit taking on the ultimate company man. WWE has over the past few years acknowledged that Cena’s appeal is no longer universal. Although he debuted as a rapper who called himself the “Doctor of Thuganomics”, he morphed over the years into a character he describes as “goody-two-shoes Superman”, spreading the uplifting message of hard work and dedication triumphing over evil, no matter what the odds. As his push continued, the fans began turning against him.
In 2006, he took on Rob Van Dam in the main event of ECW One Night Stand. ECW, originally Eastern Championship Wrestling, was the Philadelphia territory of the NWA before it seceded and renamed itself Extreme Championship Wrestling. It was the innovator in the excessive blood-and-gore style that defined the Attitude Era, featuring extremely violent matches and edgy superstars. It was in a sense the antithesis of what WWE had become in the Age of Cena, and when McMahon, who bought the assets of the promotion after it closed due to lack of money in 2001, decided to resuscitate it for one show, the crowd of diehard ECW fans at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Philadelphia let their distaste be known. When Cena threw his T-shirt into the crowd, they threw it back at him, along with rolls of toilet paper and other garbage. Throughout the match, they chanted “Fuck you Cena!”, “You can’t wrestle!” and “Same old shit!” Then, when he entered into a three-year feud with The Rock between 2011 and 2013, mostly centred around two matches they had at WrestleMania 28 and 29, the crowd’s loyalty was split. Older fans were solidly in The Rock’s corner, while Cena’s young fans stayed true to their champion; the age divide would be made clear by the difference in pitch between the dueling chants of “Let’s go Cena!” and “Cena sucks!”
Allen Jones, meanwhile, who has wrestled under the name AJ Styles for decades, has worked for every major independent promotion, winning titles everywhere—his Wikipedia page lists championships in 20 different promotions—including the lineal NWA World Championship three times. He is the epitome of the indie style, which privileges the ability to put on a different kind of match every time, a stark contrast to the Five Moves of Doom Cena and WWE are notorious for. When Cena returned from injury on the Memorial Day edition of Raw on 29 May, Styles, who had appeared on WWE programming from January, came to the ring to greet him. A Cena-Styles match has been a fantasy booking staple for years, and the crowd was electrified at the prospect of it finally happening. (Cena would say the following week that he’d only seen a reaction like that with The Rock.)
HOWEVER, ANYONE who was hoping that the match would be a face vs face match, as is usually the norm with such once-in-a-generation feuds, were disappointed. Styles’s booking since he showed up at Raw has been a slow heel turn, although he continues to be cheered by the crowd because of his massive popularity as well as because he’s feuded with Cena and Roman Reigns, who’s even more hated by older fans. As Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson, who were part along with Styles of the popular heel faction Bullet Club in New Japan Pro Wrestling, came towards the ring, Styles turned on Cena, assaulting him with his associates. The following week, Cena demanded an explanation why Styles “took the easy way out” by involving “the junkies from the Bullet Club” instead of waiting for a match at the following WrestleMania.
“Because I had a plan,” Styles responded. “And that plan was to get into the ring with you, shake your hand, look you right in the eyes, and punch you right in the face. And it worked to perfection.” He looked more serious, and embarked on a worked shoot. “You insult me, John Cena. Not with what you’re doing now; no, no, no, that’s what you do. You’re great on the mic. That’s what you do; you’re great at your little morning shows and your late night shows, your movies—not necessarily the ones you star in, but your cameos are very entertaining. But you insult me every time that bell rings.” A section of the crowd began to chant “You can’t wrestle!”
“And I know,” Styles continued, “I know, John, it burns you up inside that even on your best day, you can’t beat me! Hey, I’ll tell you the same thing I told my kids when they asked, ‘Dad, why haven’t you wrestled John Cena?’ It’s simple. John doesn’t want to be in the ring with me, because I would run circles around him.”
“You insult me, John Cena. Not with what you’re doing now; no, no, no, that’s what you do. You’re great on the mic. That’s what you do; you’re great at your little morning shows and your late night shows, your movies—not necessarily the ones you star in, but your cameos are very entertaining. But you insult me every time that bell rings.”
“I’m with you,” Cena said to the crowd, whose reaction was tepid. “The best that gets is a golf clap. I really thought you were better than that, AJ Styles. You’ve had 15 years to get insults and material at me, and the best you can do is say the same damn thing everyone else says when they finally meet me face to face? ‘I’m offended by your skills; you embarrass yourself in the wrestling ring.’ Dude, your jokes are as outdated as my jorts. I’m about to hit you with some truth, homie. You know what I see? I see a man who worked two decades to try to make it, make it on the grandest stage of ’em all, and then finally was a surprise entry into the Royal Rumble, and did nothing. And then was gifted an opportunity at the WWE Championship and failed! And then, failed again! And instead of being a real man, shaking it off, dusting it off, and getting right back in the action, you started to second-guess yourself. Because every one of those cronies you’ve been surrounding yourself with in the last 20 years have been saying you’re God’s gift to sports entertainment. But you get here and you’re a bust. So you look to the one guy, the one guy you think you can take me out is going to save your ass. You can walk around these halls with your head held high and say, ‘I belong here.’ Dude, that’s not phenomenal; that’s freaking desperate. I want to make something clear with you right now. You couldn’t get past Roman Reigns and now you’re picking a fight with John Cena? You do not know who you’re dealing with.”
“Hold on a second, hold on. Let me back it up a little bit. I’m desperate? Me? I have been all over the world. Desperate is for someone who can’t go anywhere else. It doesn’t matter where I go, because they will welcome me back with open arms, whether it be Osaka, Japan, Tokyo—I would sell ’em out in a second! That’s what I do when I step into the ring. Desperate? Nah, John, I got nothing else to prove. But unfortunately for you, I have nothing else to lose, ’cause you and I both know that the guy in the fight who has nothing to lose is the most dangerous.”
“You’re damn right I know that. That’s why I’ve been here for so long doing what I do. I love this and I got nothing to lose every single time I step inside this ring. So Mr Phenomenal, quit ducking the question. Why on Earth is it not AJ Styles against John Cena? Why is it now John Cena versus The Club?”
It was a great promo because it was an accurate reading of WWE’s booking history, which is focussed on making the stars it prefers look strong at the expense of those it doesn’t.
“You wanna know why, John? You really want to know why? It’s simple, ’cause everybody who knows this place knows that once you wrestle John Cena and lose, it’s time to get out the shovels, because guys like you bury guys like me. And these two right here, well, these are my insurance policy. They’re going to make sure that AJ Styles’ head stays above ground.”
IT WAS a great promo because it was an accurate reading of WWE’s booking history, which is focussed on making the stars it prefers look strong at the expense of those it doesn’t. Sure, Styles’ character is being built as a smarmy, cowardly heel, and leaves open the possibility of him realising the error of his ways at a later date and turning babyface, but his arc has caused crowd reactions to him to become more subdued—especially among more casual fans who do not necessarily follow smaller promotions—and McMahon is liable to take that as a sign that he is not connecting with the audience, especially if sales of AJ Styles merchandise go down, and have him languish in the mid-card before future endeavouring him.
Their match at Money in the Bank, however, suggests that he enjoys the confidence of the front office, for he does indeed run circles around Cena in the ring. He has a counter for every bit of textbook offence Cena throws at him, and the two have an immensely entertaining match, with a number of false finishes and exciting twists. However, once the referee is knocked out inadvertently, Gallows and Anderson show up, laying Cena out and allowing Styles to pin him. It solidifies the heel turn, which was to be expected since the company lacks a top heel, but the quality of the match demonstrates the value Styles brings to WWE. After all, his previous matches against Roman Reigns, roundly criticised by fans because he is a terrible worker in the ring, featured some of the best in-ring action he has been involved in.
The prospects of great wrestling in the New Era are further solidified in the Money in the Bank match itself, which features six men who have all had long careers in the indies before coming to WWE.
The prospects of great wrestling in the New Era are further solidified in the Money in the Bank match itself, which features six men who have all had long careers in the indies before coming to WWE. Kevin Owens (real name Kevin Steen; he was a big fan of Owen Hart, who tragically died during a WWE pay-per-view) and Sami Zayn (Rami Sebei, a Syrian-origin Canadian who previously wrestled as a masked luchador called El Generico) are major indie darlings and real-life best friends who have wrestled all over the world before getting a tryout at NXT. Chris Jericho, meanwhile, has had a near two-decades run at WWE, but followed a similar career path to get there, as did Alberto Del Rio, Dean Ambrose and Cesaro, the other three competitors in this ladder match for a contract to challenge for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at a time of their choosing.
None of them has a gimmick; like Enzo and Cass, they are playing people who wrestle, whose only motivation is to win titles or settle old scores, seeking to appear authentic. Authenticity, after all, is a much valued commodity in America today. In any case, in this age of social media, being yourself can work just as well as creating a memorable character in order to connect with the audience.
All of them are adept at constructing matches, at telling a compelling story inside the ring, and with the addition of ladders, which can be used both as weapons as well as a platform for leaping onto opponents, the match brings the house down. “This is awesome!” the crowd chants at various times in the match; the chant is the emblem of everything the New Era is supposed to stand for.
VIThe penultimate match at Money in the Bank, however, is an archetypal WWE match, featuring a 300-pound Bulgarian called Alexander Rusev (Miroslav Barnyashev) whose schtick is that of an America-hating foreign heel and Titus O’ Neil (Thaddeus Bullard), a 270-pound former football player who is the American hero for the crowd to get behind.
The ethnic terror heel is the oldest kind of heel in the business, and WWE has often wrapped prospective babyfaces in the flag in order to get the crowd behind them. The foreign heels have been from countries considered inimical to the US, whether it was Nikolai Volkoff during the Cold War or the Iron Sheikh during the Gulf War or the Un-Americans, a stable of French Canadians who carried an upside-down American (later, a Quebecois) flag during the Iraq War, when the French were considered traitors for not supporting George W Bush. In the mid-2000s, WWE even featured an “Arab” wrestler called Muhammad Hassan (actually an Italian from New York called Mark Capani), a heel who would complain about anti-Muslim prejudice in the US. In 2005, after his manager Khusrow Daivari was defeated in a match by the Undertaker, Hassan got down on his knees and prayed. Five masked men suddenly appeared and assaulted the Undertaker. The angle drew much criticism since it was telecast in the immediate aftermath of the 7/7 London bombings, and the storyline and Hassan himself were quickly buried by the company, never to be heard from again.
Scratch that patriotism, however, and you find baser commercial instincts. In 2004, as support for the Iraq War was weakening, the Defense Department launched the “America Supports You” campaign, designed to build “homefront support” for the troops. Organisations like WWE and the NFL were given funds out of the massive defence budget to glorify the armed forces.
The company prides itself on its patriotism. A telecast of SmackDown!, WWE’s B-show, was apparently the first public gathering of any kind after 9/11, and the company often gives free tickets to GIs who show up in uniform and hosts an annual Tribute to the Troops special in military theatres like Afghanistan and Iraq. Scratch that patriotism, however, and you find baser commercial instincts. In 2004, as support for the Iraq War was weakening, the Defense Department launched the “America Supports You” campaign, designed to build “homefront support” for the troops. Organisations like WWE and the NFL were given funds out of the massive defence budget to glorify the armed forces, which in turn translates into acceptance of the state of near-permanent war the US has created following 9/11. It is also a means of furthering the military’s predatory agenda of targeting poor American kids to get them to volunteer, in order to perpetuate war without having to resort to a draft; as former Army Ranger Rory Fanning has written, “there are ten thousand recruiters across the country working with a $700 million-a-year advertising budget. And I think you’re more likely to see the recruiters in schools where kids have less options after graduation.”
One feature of Rusev’s early push as a near-unstoppable fighting machine was that his victims were disproportionately black—he laid out virtually all the African-American members of the roster, until White Knight Cena finally stopped his run. It was evidence, Dion Beary wrote in The Atlantic two years ago, of the systemic racism in the company’s programming:
In the fictional WWE storylines, being the world champion means you are the best wrestler. But in real life, it means you are the best performer. The decision of who gets to be the titleholder simply comes from a team of creative writers with the final call going to WWE owner Vince McMahon himself: Who do we want to be the face of our company? Who do we think is good enough?
In its 62 year history, WWE has never chosen a black wrestler to hold its world championship.
That’s not Rusev’s fault, of course. He just showed up a few months ago, and the black wrestlers he’s effortlessly demolished during his short tenure are just a small fraction of all the talented black wrestlers who’ve never been entrusted to hold WWE’s most important big shiny belt. Rusev is just the flavor of the moment until proven otherwise, a guy in which WWE officials see potential, so they’re having him beat the rogues’ gallery of jobbers in order to bolster his credentials. Fans who jokingly ask why Rusev is beating up all the black dudes are missing the more pressing question: Why are so many of the black dudes jobbers?
Although WWE erased Hulk Hogan from its archives after the latter was found to have made racist statements during a sex tape, there is reason to believe this is just a PR-driven cosmetic change. Beary raised uncomfortable questions about WWE’s treatment of black wrestlers, pointing out how black wrestlers in the company play racial stereotypes or do not play any discernible character or make only sporadic appearances on WWE programming. Often, all three apply to a wrestler, as they did to O’Neil at various points in his career. There has been a slight change in recent years, probably as a response to the criticism. The current Tag Team Champions are The New Day, a stable of three black wrestlers with excellent promo skills, built up as super-optimistic comedic characters and immensely popular with the fans, although they generally shy away from making any utterances that invoke their race. But both O’Neil and Apollo Crews, another star of the New Era, also fit into a blander stereotype. Beary calls it “Guy Who Is Strong”:
[This] too is a stereotype, albeit a bland one. In the WWE Universe, all the wrestlers are athletes, as wrestling is fictionally considered a legitimate athletic sport. So promoting a black wrestler as a Natural Athlete falls in line with the racism displayed by mainstream sports media famously written about in the Boston College study “Brains Versus Brawns.” In an analysis of National Football League commentary, it was found that sports media figures are more likely to refer to a white athlete as a student of the game or a technician, while they will refer to a black athlete as a “beast,” an “animal,” or a “machine.”
Beary raised uncomfortable questions about WWE’s treatment of black wrestlers, pointing out how black wrestlers in the company play racial stereotypes or do not play any discernible character or make only sporadic appearances on WWE programming.
In the contest between black face and foreign heel, Rusev wins, retaining his United States Championship. (The whole feud started because ever since winning the title, Rusev has been calling himself a “true American hero”.) The setback is temporary, however, as this is clearly part of a longer storyline. After the match, Rusev taunts Bullard’s kids, calling their father a loser, setting up a future rematch where he will get his comeuppance.
THE MAIN event is a match between Seth Rollins (Colby Lopez) and Roman Reigns (Leati Anoa’i) for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. Reigns’s career is emblematic of the change the New Era stands for, at least in the minds of serious fans; it also captures the spirit of how the 2016 presidential campaign has played out.
The two competitors came into the WWE in 2012 as part of a stable called The Shield, along with Dean Ambrose (Jonathan Good). They were initially intended to serve as mercenaries for the then champion Phil “CM Punk” Brooks, but after Brooks left the company, became the most popular angle on WWE programming. Lopez and Good both had years of experience in the independent circuit and are talented performers, and Brooks had asked that the third member of the stable be another indie star, someone like Luke Gallows. However, coming from the famed Anoa’i family and as a former football player, possessing the look of a McMahon Guy, Reigns was marked out by WWE’s creative team as a future star, and The Shield was picked as a vehicle to launch his career.
Reigns’s career is emblematic of the change the New Era stands for, at least in the minds of serious fans; it also captures the spirit of how the 2016 presidential campaign has played out.
Probably due to the fact that he is terrible at cutting promos, Reigns was the least talkative member of The Shield. Instead, he was billed as the enforcer of the group, built up to be an almost invincible wrestler. At the 2013 edition of Survivor Series, in the traditional five-on-five tag team elimination match, Reigns singlehandedly eliminated four opponents and was the only member of his team to survive. At the 2014 Royal Rumble, he eliminated 12 wrestlers in the over-the-top-rope battle royale, finishing second and setting a new record for the event.
In a tell-all podcast following his release from the company, Brooks recalled what happened before a 2013 match in which he was supposed to beat all three members of The Shield. “They [the creative department] said, ‘You’re going over.’ I said, ‘Okay, if that’s what you want.’ Then they grabbed me and stressed, ‘But you gotta make Roman look really, really strong.’ I was like, ‘I get it, okay.’ While we’re putting the match together, someone is coming up to me saying, ‘Hey, you gotta make him look really strong.’ Finally I said, ‘You know what would make him look really strong? If they beat me.’ Because three guys can’t be beaten by one guy. That’s dumb. ‘But no, Vince wants you to go over.’ ‘Okay.’ ‘But, you gotta make him look—’ ‘Dammit! I get it. I know how to do the fucking job.’ It’s just a mentality.”
A push in the WWE can often translate to pushing a talent down the audience’s throat. No one is this more true for than Reigns. Although the fans loved The Shield, it was soon obvious that that love did not extend to him. His push, after all, coincided with the end of Brooks’s career as well as a fan rebellion against the lack of opportunities given to Daniel Bryan. Both were major indie stars, possibly the biggest in the world, and came to the company with legions of fans, but were never given the sort of leg up WWE was so keen on giving Reigns. Brooks had to spend years in the company before he was let anywhere near the title picture; when he was, he even overtook Cena in merchandise sales. Bryan Danielson, on the other hand, wrestled all over the independent circuit for a decade before he was given a proper run at WWE in 2010. Based on the quality of his matches, he soon became the biggest fan favourite on the roster. However, he was not given a proper title run for close to four years; again, his size is cited as the reason McMahon never wanted to make him the face of the company.
A push in the WWE can often translate to pushing a talent down the audience’s throat. No one is this more true for than Reigns.
Throughout 2013, the fans grew more and more vocal about their frustration at Bryan not being given a title push. By the 2014 Royal Rumble match, whose winner gets a title shot at the main event of WrestleMania, they had had enough. When Bryan was eliminated, the crowd began booing all the competitors still in the match; Reigns’s heroics that night were drowned out. WWE was forced into incorporating the crowd reaction into the actual storyline, staging an Occupy-like sit-in to work Bryan into the title picture, culminating in him winning the title at WrestleMania. However, he soon suffered a stinger and had to relinquish the title.
The resentment of the WWE Universe soon found a conduit in Reigns, whose invincible build continued after the dissolution of The Shield. In 2015, he went one better and won the Rumble, but the crowd had long been lost after Bryan’s early elimination. WWE then put Bryan in a match against Reigns with the WrestleMania title shot on the line; the night after losing, Bryan had to build him up to the crowd. No dice. As a symbol of WWE’s bias against stars who build their own audience, Reigns continued to be booed throughout 2015 and at all his appearances this year.
WWE management have no idea how to deal with this fan rebellion. They have thrown everything but the kitchen sink in trying to get the fans on his side, having the on-air authority figures throw obstacle after obstacle in his path, and having him overcome every time, but it only looks inauthentic every time said authority figures go out of their way to praise him. They have had him acknowledge his Anoa’i heritage and paired him up with The Rock, but the crowd just ended up booing them both. When he won the title at this year’s WrestleMania against Triple H, the biggest heel in the company this century, the record attendance booed him throughout the match, cheering him only when he inadvertently speared Stephanie McMahon, and began heading for the exits even before the match ended. Unable to organically turn the crowd, the company has resorted to underhanded measures—security guards routinely confiscate anti-Roman signs from audience members; they often pipe artificial cheers for him; when they can’t do so at live events like WrestleMania, they just turn the sound down so nobody can hear the chorus of boos.
Unable to organically turn the crowd, the company has resorted to underhanded measures—security guards routinely confiscate anti-Roman signs from audience members; they often pipe artificial cheers for him; when they can’t do so at live events like WrestleMania, they just turn the sound down so nobody can hear the chorus of boos.
None of these steps have worked. Like the American electorate, the WWE Universe is tired of being told which corporate stooge to support, preferring to cheer for authentic anti-establishment figures. After he won the title, the WWE commentators finally acknowledged that the crowd is not behind Reigns, painting him as a polarising figure. Reigns himself sought to position himself as a “tweener”—“I’m not a good guy, I’m not a bad guy,” he said on the Raw after WrestleMania. “I’m the guy.” It was a decent line, but like Marco Rubio, he ruined it through endless repetition.
In the main event, Rollins beats Reigns, winning back the title he had had to relinquish last year after a knee injury. Immediately after the match, Dean Ambrose’s music hits and he attacks Rollins from behind, and cashes in the Money in the Bank contract that he won in the ladder match, just like he had predicted on the previous Raw, setting up a three-way feud for the title. It soon comes out why Reigns was forced to lose the title; he had previously failed a drug test, leading to a mandatory 30-day suspension. The haters haven’t stopped gloating yet.
VIIThe 4 July episode of Raw begins with an “Earlier Today” segment, at an Independence Day barbecue for the entire roster. Everybody, face and heel alike, is breaking bread together to celebrate America’s 240th birthday. Ron “R-Truth” Killings and Dustin “Goldust” Runnels—a tag team of the two most bizarre characters left on the roster, who have come together after a will-they-won’t-they-team-up storyline with homoerotic undertones that spanned several months—have commandeered the stage. Killings, a high school athlete who refused a college football scholarship to concentrate on his music, but ended up serving time in prison for dealing drugs before meeting a cameraman for WCW who convinced him to turn to wrestling, is rapping.
He made the switch to professional wrestling after realising that the combative alter ego he created for the show would be a great gimmick. He’s made the gimmick last into a 10-year career on WWE’s main roster, with five Intercontinental Championships as a cowardly but arrogant heel.
They are interrupted by the Vaudevillains. Rehwoldt, a trained stage actor, takes the mic and begins a musical rendition of the Declaration of Independence. The wrestlers start jeering, and someone throws some mashed potato at him to shut him up. As he confronts his assailant, he is interrupted by Michael “The Miz” Mizanin, who last week celebrated the 15th anniversary of dropping out of college to take part in the 10th season of the MTV reality show The Real World. He made the switch to professional wrestling after realising that the combative alter ego he created for the show would be a great gimmick. He’s made the gimmick last into a 10-year career on WWE’s main roster, with five Intercontinental Championships as a cowardly but arrogant heel.
“This is not going to happen,” he says. “I will not allow another WWE holiday party ruined by a food fight. It’s the only reason we can’t celebrate Thanksgiving on SmackDown! anymore. Well, food fights and the fact that SmackDown! Live will be on Tuesdays starting July 19! But that’s besides the point. The point is, today is not about food fights. Today is—” Someone spurts Hershey’s syrup on his suit. A food fight breaks out; later, Michael Cole will call it “the world’s largest food fight”. Everyone joins in, except for Kevin Owens, who grabs a packet of crisps and settles under his table.
Once everyone leaves, Owens comes out from under the table and inspects the carnage with a chuckle. “You know, this would never happen on a Canada Day,” he says, before being hit in the face by a pie.
“Now it is the 4th of July, eh? So it’s only right that me and Big Cass give you a little star-spangled banter. After all, we’re stars; we take meteor showers, how you doin’?”
The first match is a rematch of the Rusev-Titus O’ Neil match at Money in the Bank. O’Neil loses again, another black victim in Rusev’s path to glory. This is followed by a tag team match. The Social Outcasts, a stable of jobbers who serve as a comedy act, come out dressed as minutemen.
Their opponents are Enzo and Cass. “Now it is the 4th of July, eh? So it’s only right that me and Big Cass give you a little star-spangled banter. After all, we’re stars; we take meteor showers, how you doin’? And with that said, we came to rain on your parade, pal. This ain’t a debate. You’re about to get presidentially dissed.”
“How you doin’?” Big Cass says it this time, but the crowd takes over.
“How you doin’?”
“How you doin’?”
“How you doin’?”
“Adams, Jackson, Van Buren!”
“How you doin’?”
“Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Lincoln.”
“How you doin’?”
“How you doin’?”
“Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison, Cleveland, McKinley, Roosevelt.”
“How you doin’?”
“Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman.”
“How you doin’?”
“Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama—”
“How you doin’?”
“…would all be insulted if they were looking at what I’m looking at in that ring right now!”
“Zo, that was really impressive.”
“How you doin’?”
“I had a whole Paul Revere, ‘The British are coming’ thing planned, but I’m not even going to try to top that. Instead, I’ll do this. Social Outcasts, there’s only one word for you, and I’m going to spell it out for you! S-A-W-F-T!”
THIS WEEK’S show is in Columbus, Ohio. As a big city in the Midwest, one would expect a raucous crowd, especially on this festive occasion, but it’s a fairly sedate atmosphere at the Nationwide Arena, home of the Columbus Blue Jackets ice hockey team. When John Cena’s music hits, the camera zooms out over the arena to capture the standing ovation. Most people are sitting.
Cena sells it like it is a major reaction, even though it is a distant fourth for the night behind Ambrose, Enzo and Cass and the New Day. “This is what I’m talking about. Man, I came out here, I was thinking you guys may be a little disappointed, ’cause you’re not as fired up as you normally are.” Loud boos from one section, some cheering from another; most of the crowd is apathetic.
“Y’all disappointed about something, or are you ready to have some fun tonight?” Yay. Boo. Meh.
Cena sells it like it is a major reaction, even though it is a distant fourth for the night behind Ambrose, Enzo and Cass and the New Day.
“I mean, is this the WWE Universe that gets wild and crazy tonight?” Mostly meh.
“Are we gonna have some excitement tonight?” A collective yeah.
“I don’t know. Sounds like you guys maybe a little disappointed.” Almost as if by compulsion, a “Let’s go Cena!” “Cena sucks!” duel, barely audible over white noise. Reading crowds is an inexact science, but this crowd is subdued partly because it’s a holiday episode—WWE are notorious for some atrocious holiday shows—partly because the two major wrestling matches involving Rollins and Ambrose are over, and they have little to look forward to for the rest of the show.
This crowd is subdued partly because it’s a holiday episode—WWE are notorious for some atrocious holiday shows—partly because the two major wrestling matches involving Rollins and Ambrose are over, and they have little to look forward to for the rest of the show.
Cena is out here to demand an explanation for why the Club attacked him the week before, costing him a title shot in the process. “Today is the day that every American looks forward to, but instead I just find myself looking over my shoulder. Yeah, I’m banged up, I’m bruised. But I’m still standing. And I’m sick and tired of looking over my shoulder. So I’m about to send a message of my own to the Club: You want some, come get some!”
Styles repeats the bit about the insurance policy, and mentions how much they love beating Cena up. “Here’s the great thing about it, John. We found out last week that no WWE superstar is coming out to help you. No one. You got nobody. You wanna know why? You wanna know why, John? Because it’s you! That’s why they don’t come out, because you have put yourself on an island that no one can relate to. You wanna know who most WWE superstars relate to? The Club. And I would imagine that most WWE superstars would want to be in our position, beating you up. But here’s the thing. The Club, we’re the only ones with big enough balls to actually get it done. So John, every week you come here, we’re going to beat you up. I mean, come on! What’s more fun than beating up John Cena? Week after week after week after week after week after week oh my God after week and then sooner or later it’s Labor Day. And what are you going to do for Labor Day, Karl?”
“I’m going to dress up like Bushwacker Luke-ski, lick your face, and beat up John Cena!”
“Oh jeez, AJ, thanks for asking. Um, I’m gonna beat up John Cena.”
“Oh, that’s a great idea! Oh my God! Hold on, then what’s the next holiday, Halloween?” He turns to Gallows. “What are you going to do for Halloween?”
“I’m going to dress up like Bushwacker Luke-ski, lick your face, and beat up John Cena!”
“Oh man! Hey, wait a minute. I was going to dress up like Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake, cuttin’ and a-struttin’, and then I was gonna beat up John Cena! Christmas is coming, that’ll be week after week—”
“Christmas. I’m gonna wrap some presents for my kids with my hot Asian wife. And then I’m gonna beat up John Cena!”
“God! Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Guys, this is a huge holiday today. It’s July 4th. That’s America’s birthday. We gotta do something on the best holiday of the year, right? I got an idea, let’s BEAT UP JOHN CENA!” The three make their way into the ring and begin the assault of the week, but they are interrupted by Enzo and Cass, who run in to even the odds. The realest guys in the room have made it all the way up, into a storyline with the biggest stars in the company.
THE MAIN event is a 16-man tag team elimination match between Team USA and the “Multi National Alliance”. In a couple of backstage segments, the teams prepare for the coming match. As the senior wrestler on the home team Paul “Big Show” White gives a rousing speech asking his teammates to cast aside personal rivalries and defend the realm. Over in the foreigner’s huddle, Chris Jericho tries his own inspirational speech.
The realest guys in the room have made it all the way up, into a storyline with the biggest stars in the company.
“Hey listen, listen. All everybody’s talking about today is Independence Day. Independence Day, I’ve had enough of Independence Day. I’ve got something more important to say. I want to wish all of you a belated Happy Canada Day. On top of that, tonight we are the Multi National Alliance, and where I come from, that means something. And all we have to do is stay aligned, and we’ll win our match tonight.”
However, where he is is America, the Lone Wolf. Here, multilateralism is equated with the Tower of Babel, and everybody starts bickering in their native tongues over who died and put Jericho in charge. It’s left to Owens to restore order. “You know what? I don’t care who speaks what language, who’s from where, or who doesn’t like who. Because after what happened in that food fight earlier, I’m ready to beat the hell out of some stupid idiot Americans.” The match goes as expected, the Americans suffering early losses, before dissent takes root in the Alliance camp, allowing a late rally for the win. The crowd doesn’t even bother to chant “U-S-A!”
And so it’s over, time to pack it in and drive to Toledo for the next day’s show, then on to Oshawa, Ontario, then Danville, Illinois. The traveling carnival chugs along, into the great unknown. In two weeks’ time, the roster will be divided into two, one for each show, as SmackDown! goes live. It was what they did the last time they had such a surfeit of talent, after the collapse of WCW and ECW. Nobody knows who will end up where. It’s anybody’s guess how the New Era will progress, how much of it will actually be New. They’ll just have to keep watching, week after week after week after week.