Look, I get it. Pro wrestling is a modern version of Greek tragedy, with tons of drama and pathos to hook and hold the audience. But, like it or not, WWE, the era of Kayfabe is long over, and wrestling fans know the score. As a matter of fact, your company was the prime mover in revealing the man behind the curtain and turning pro wrestling into “Sports Entertainment.”
However, even though the vast majority of wrestling fans are aware the results of the matches are predetermined, they are still willing to suspend disbelief and enjoy the spectacle, if and when the storylines make sense and the wrestlers are allowed to show their athletic skills in the ring.
And that, dear readers, brings us to the heart of the matter. In this writer’s humble opinion, the WWE has failed their audience in recent years and made a mockery out of many of their most talented athletes in favor of confusing storylines, bad soap opera, and offensive bullying. And make no mistake, the men and women who wrestle for the WWE, are, by and large, outstanding athletes.
The issue of bullying has reached epidemic proportions in America, and sadly, many young people have taken their own lives after being bullied. Yet, the WWE builds so many of their storylines around a bullying, loud-mouthed, abusive boss in the person of the daughter of WWE majority owner and CEO Vince McMahon, Stephanie McMahon.
Stephanie has chosen to create the persona of a tyrannical boss just like her father did with his Mr. McMahon character. As part of her storyline, Stephanie fires employees without mercy, slaps people in the face and tells them she owns them, manipulates match results, and insults the fans with regularity.
Wrestling fans are well aware that Stephanie’s antics are scripted, yet Vince McMahon’s daughter has never been able to make her character work for her the way it did for her father because of one essential difference. As my colleague, the excellent wrestling writer, Shawn Lealos, pointed out, “Mr. McMahon never would have worked without Austin being there to fight back.”
Unlike her father, who had one of the all-time great wrestlers, Steve Austin, to confront Mr.McMahon at every opportunity and kick his bullying butt with regularity, Stephanie takes advantage of her gender and position of power to emotionally and physically abuse male wrestlers with impunity. She also decided she would become an in-ring performer, made herself the Women’s World Champion at one point, and used her husband, 14-time WWE World Champion Triple H, as backup when she was challenged.
While all of this is par for the course in the WWE, there is one other factor that makes Stephanie’s “Ms. McMahon” character so offensive and utterly contradictory. Stephanie, in a very public manner, is the face of the WWE’s anti-bullying program and several other charities that do considerable work for seriously ill young people. At some point, Stephanie needs to embrace her role in management. You can’t be a very public bully and abuser in the ring and the face of an anti-bullying campaign at the same time. It makes a mockery of a very important cause.
This writer sincerely believes Stephanie McMahon needs to focus on the positive aspects of her career and retire her authority figure character once and for all. There is no way she can ever say, “What I do in WWE isn’t real, so it’s OK to be an in-character bully and represent a real-life anti-bullying campaign at the same time” and not do serious damage to the credibility of professional wrestling.
WWE, however, has other serious problems that need to be addressed, and nothing has caused more confusion and discontent among the fans than the blurring of the lines between heel and face. As we have mentioned before, the prime example of this is Roman Reigns, who has been pushed as the face of the WWE for the last four years while the fans have rejected him at every turn.
Reigns originally debuted as part of one of the most successful heel factions in WWE history, The Shield, alongside Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose. Of the three men, only Seth Rollins has turned heel, after he attacked Ambrose and Reigns in 2014 and joined forces with The Authority, run by none other than Stephanie McMahon and Triple H.
Despite the fact that Stephanie was involved yet again, and The Authority used Triple H, Kane, The Big Show, Jamie Noble, and Joey Mercury to attack Seth’s opponents, Rollins was a great heel. Seth has always been a fabulous in-ring performer, and he eventually won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship in 2015 with a memorable MITB cash-in before a serious injury sidelined him for almost seven months.
Yet, Roman Reigns has remained a face since The Shield broke up, and the fans have been merciless in their rejection of this very talented wrestler. Roman has consistently performed at the highest levels in the ring, and his promo skills have substantially improved since 2015, but he is still loudly booed at every match. He has all the qualities that would make an excellent heel, yet Vince McMahon refuses to push the reset button and allow Roman to make the turn.
Roman Reigns is now the WWE’s top merchandise seller, and this could explain why management stubbornly clings to their decision to make Roman Reigns the face of the company as a good guy wrestler. However, many wrestling journalists, including your’s truly, disagree with this theory and believe that Roman’s fans would continue to support him as a tough guy heel who fights his own battles in the ring.
This brings us to the latest controversy involving Roman Reigns, which also adds Braun Strowman, Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, Dolph Ziggler, and Drew McIntyre to the mix. Of all the participants, only Ziggler and McIntyre are being portrayed as true heels at the moment, and yes, they are superb heels.
Somehow, the WWE has added to the chaos by turning the ferocious, unstoppable “Monster among Men” into a fan-favorite, with a sickening dose of bad comedy thrown in for good measure. By portraying Strowman as a gruff but likable giant, the WWE has managed to diminish the concept of an unstoppable force of nature that crushes anything that gets in his way.
All-time great manager Jim Cornette has slammed the WWE for their handling of Braun Stowman. While Jim’s language is, as always, quite colorful, and the video just below is probably NSFW, Jim is one of the smartest guys in the wrestling business, and his comments on Braun Strowman are absolutely on target.
As wrestling fans know by now, last week on Monday Night Raw, Braun was about to cash in his Money in the Bank briefcase on Roman Reigns after a tough match with Finn Balor when The Shield reunited to save Reigns from Strowman. As a result, Roman is still WWE Universal Champion, and Strowman still holds the MITB briefcase.
Although The Shield’s reunion got a tremendous pop from fans, the overall concept of using The Shield to protect Roman from Braun has been severely criticized. It further confuses the entire heel vs. face concept, and it also brings up the issue of bullying.
When The Shield had their first big run, they were highly popular with the fans, but they were still clearly a heel faction, and they made triple teaming a single opponent one of their trademark moves. While this is quite acceptable for a heel faction, today, Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose are now two of the most popular faces in the WWE, and Roman Reigns has been designated as “The Face of the Company” by management.
Complicating matters, The Shield initiated the current round of triple teaming when they attacked Strowman as he quite legitimately tried to cash in his MITB briefcase. This puts The Shield clearly in heel territory as bullies and cheaters, and we have to wonder if the WWE really want fans to cheer face wrestlers for acting like heels?
Adding to the delicious mix of confusion, we witnessed more chaos on this week’s Monday Night Raw on August 27, 2018. The highlight of the evening was Braun Strowman confronting Roman Reigns in the ring and announcing that instead of cashing in his MITB briefcase after a match, he arranged to cash in the briefcase in advance in exchange for a world title match at Hell in a Cell on Sunday, September 16, 2018.
Roman agreed to the match, cut an excellent promo on Braun, and then the two men shook hands, and Strowman left the ring. Fans witnessed two of the top talents in the WWE confront each other and agree to resolve their differences without outside interference in the squared circle. Instead of a confusing soap opera plot, we witnessed two tough wrestlers agree to abandon the “Sports Entertainment” nonsense and duke it out the old-fashioned way.
But, as usual, the WWE couldn’t leave well enough alone, and with the help of their terrible Eric Bischoff clone, Baron Corbin, as a flunky of The Authority, they decided to “order” Roman and Braun to team up together in a tag team match against Dolph Ziggler and Drew McIntyre. Surely, anyone reading this column can already see where this is going.
Strowman and Reigns refused to work as a team throughout the match, and as a result, Roman took a brutal beating while Strowman watched. As the match wound down, Braun refused a tag from Roman, which resulted in Roman getting stomped and double-teamed until the ref finally disqualified Ziggler and Drew McIntyre.
And then, WWE totally took a dump on the entire concept of heel vs. face by having Strowman join the attack on Reigns and form his own faction with Dolph and Drew. As a result, in a matter of two hours, WWE went from two alleged faces, Strowman and Reigns, agreeing to resolve their differences in the ring to Braun Strowman allying with a pair of major heels.
According to an article in Forbes, WWE management was so impressed with the positive reaction to The Shield attacking Braun Strowman that they decided to turn Braun heel for a few months to help Roman get over with the fans. This is a prime example of why the fan’s are not happy with the WWE. Instead of making the obvious choice and turning Roman and The Shield heels, they are continuing to force Reigns on the fans as a babyface.
Eventually, WWE will either wake up to the fact that they have made a mockery of everything fans love about professional wrestling or they will seriously damage their product. While WWE revenues are up due to the company’s diversification into video games, toys, film, and television, Monday Night Raw and SmackDown Live ratings are way down.
Fans, who are also customers, are growing tired of the way the WWE pushes certain wrestlers before they are ready, and they are equally tired of wondering exactly who is a heel and who is a face. It is also apparent that WWE fans are supremely bored with Stephanie McMahon’s antics and bullying, and they are not buying into the bad soap opera storylines.
WWE fans want to see talented athletes showing their wrestling skills in a wrestling ring. While theatrics and melodrama add flavor and suspense when used in moderation, badly-written storylines that often come out of nowhere and never reach a conclusion have taken precedence over good wrestling, and wrestling fans are not enjoying the results.
Indie wrestling is booming, and smaller promotions are challenging the supremacy of the WWE. Judging by Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s remarkable success in a major WWE market when they sold out New York City’s Madison Square Garden for a 2019 show, there are viable alternatives to the WWE.
This follows on the heels of All In, an upcoming September 1, 2018 indie show promoted by former WWE Superstar Cody Rhodes and The Young Bucks. Financed by Rhodes and The Young Bucks and sanctioned by Ring of Honor, All In sold-out Chicago’s 10,000-seat Sears Arena in a matter of hours.
Unless Vince and his upper-level management find a better balance between actual wrestling and “Sports Entertainment,” we can expect that fans will abandon the WWE for Ring of Honor, New Japan Pro-Wrestling, and the many other indie promotions that are growing by leaps and bound on a daily basis.
Yours truly has been a fan of professional wrestling and the WWE in all of its various incarnations for over 60 years. I had the honor of seeing the legendary Bruno Sammartino wrestle live more than a dozen times in NYC’s Madison Square Garden. I was in attendance at Shea Stadium in 1976, when Bruno beat Stan Hansen live, and Muhammad Ali fought Antonio Inoki in a Boxer vs. Wrestler match on a giant, closed circuit screen from Tokyo, Japan.
I love pro wrestling, and nothing would make me happier than to see the WWE find that balance and put the focus back on what transpires in the ring, based on athleticism, wrestling ability, and solid storytelling. As Triple H would say, “It’s what’s best for business.”