The recent power struggle storyline is the latest shock-tactic offering from Vince McMahon’s WWE following the last few years of exploding limousine, Million Dollar Mania set collapse, Hornswoggle’s father, and CM Punk’s contract “expiry,” all of which were intended to create a ratings spike without necessarily being sustainable – and all of which significantly featured Vinnie Mac himself.
Let’s go back in time, to ten years ago, when Ted Turner’s unwieldy corporation became overrun with AOL Time Warner executives who, right from under him, made the decision to sell the entirety of his failing WCW professional wrestling project for the comparatively paltry sum of $4.2 million (including trademarks and tape library) – to the man who defied him in rejecting sale of the WWF all those years ago, Vince McMahon.
While not all WCW stars were brought over in the package, some contracts were bought, including Booker T, Buff Bagwell, Diamond Dallas Page, Lance Storm, Chavo Guerrero, Stacy Keibler and Torrie Wilson, amongst others. Of course, there were those such as Kevin Nash and Bill Goldberg who sat at home and waited for their lucratively lofty Turner contracts to expire: money for nothing. Nonetheless, the terms “World Championship Wrestling,” “WCW,” and even “nWo” were in complete control of McMahon’s hands. It was all his by this point – to do with what he wished.
Unfortunately, as we know, his wishes were to absolutely defecate on the entire legacy and brand, bury it, and go back to business as usual with the WWF, which would be forced to become WWE, as I’ve explained previously. The nWo were not pitched as McMahon’s “New York” representatives; agents sent to destroy WCW from within. The WWF initials were not explained away through compelling storytelling to actually save face. No, instead, the entire entity was ripped apart and thrown away, and Vince preferred to simply switch his WWF Entertainment (WWFE) name on the New York Stock Exchange from WWFE to WWE with a crude, crass, and rather lame “Get the ‘F’ Out” campaign.
The infamous “Invasion” storyline where WCW and ECW were both in actuality in the hands of McMahon yet presented as invading entities portrayed them as vastly inferior to WWF/E and their bargain basement representatives like the talented yet obscure Chuck Palumbo and Sean O’Haire were forced to simply job to the mighty WWF/E talents. This was on top of the fact that Vince had attempted to publicly humiliate Jeff Jarrett on the Monday Night Wars crossover simulcast by emphasising that he would be “gone” – and thus indirectly leading to the formation of TNA, another occurrence WWE could have, perhaps, done without.
All these decisions carry with them a whiff of insecurity from none other than Vince McMahon himself. Much like his son-in-law Triple H, he seems so paranoid about his status and stature and security in himself that logical and potentially highly profitable business decisions simply take a back seat. WCW was the opportunity of a lifetime, and in fact offered ready-made solutions for Vince that he instead somehow miraculously turned into problems, giving it a kind of reverse Midas Touch where everything around the whole story just turned to something steaming, smelly, and brown, and threw away what was possibly money in the bank for WWE – all that had to be done was basic by-the-numbers booking; one company against the other. Simple. But again instead, Vince created a problem from a solution by instead attempting to divide two television shows (Raw and SmackDown) into separate rosters, despite the fact everyone clearly works for the same company and thus there is no brand loyalty (hence the failure of the short-lived “Bragging Rights” pay-per-view shows). As a result, the “brand extension” has been an absolute mess that has, if anything, confused and deterred fans rather than compelled them.
At the top, I used examples of storylines and angles that prominently featured Vince McMahon and yet, often, they led to not very much at all. They didn’t bring about any revelations. They didn’t shake the company to its foundation. They didn’t even particularly elevate any talents that were just needing that nudge, that push. And then came CM Punk.
The reason Stone Cold Steve Austin’s character rose and endured was also simplistic: the beer-drinking, various vehicle-driving working class hero fought against oppression from his tyrannical boss – a concept not so difficult to understand or to relate to for everyday Americans.
CM Punk, as has also been discussed, despite being gifted and successful on the independent circuit, never won over the support of the politicking cliques and Yes Men to McMahon. He struggled and scratched and clawed and fought to the top, becoming the company’s top titleholder. Then, though, he went on a significant streak of losses on pay-per-view and – after badly booked and aborted Straight Edge Society and Nexus leadership storylines – simply floundered as practically another face in the crowd, despite working with Randy Orton to present the best match on the WrestleMania XXVII card (Triple H – Undertaker being a mere linear sequence of high spots rather than a seamless storytelling match).
Punk still wasn’t liked by the suits. So he refused to sign a contract extension or renewal unless he was promised more. He was, and the whole thing was turned into an angle – and a clever one at that, with Punk complaining about Vince, Stephanie and Triple H, lack of exposure and opportunities, and generally spoke from the heart in worked-shoot segments where his microphone was even cut off and he had to resort to wielding a megaphone like a rally leader on a demonstration protesting oppression by those who abuse power; he even called himself “the voice of the voiceless.” Then, WWE did what they rarely do: they took a gamble, and pulled the trigger, with Punk’s “last match” seeing him walk out of WWE with the belt.
What this did, though, was simply serve to bring about Vince’s on-screen “removal” by the board of directors, the rise to power of Triple H, and controversy surrounding real-life Executive Vice President of Talent Relations, John Laurinaitis. Within days, Punk was already back. No YouTube videos with his belt, no independent bookings carrying it to the ring, in fact nothing of note to make the whole angle’s compelling believability continue. Even more remarkable, John Cena had won a reinstated version of the title, and the two promptly met, at SummerSlam, to declare an undisputed champion. Though Punk surprised everyone again by being booked to win, he immediately lost the belt to Alberto Del Rio as merely part of the bigger Laurinaitis conspiracy story, featuring Kevin Nash, who never even returned to action after an undisclosed medical condition (or, perhaps, failing a wellness test but saved from embarrassment by buddy Triple H – we may never know).
As Triple H “lost control” as Vince’s successor – the Raw general manager not only by now anonymous, but suddenly inexplicably non-existent – wrestlers were portraying concern for working conditions, despite the fact sneak-attacks and referee assaults have been going on for years, proving that this was parody of the very valid and serious concerns cited in the press surrounding wrestlers’ status as “independent contractors” to lessen WWE’s corporate responsibility to their livelihoods.
In the midst of one of the most massive movements in American history – with hundreds of cities playing host to protests featuring thousands of ordinary hard-working citizens angry at financial institutions leeching an economy subsequently failing the common man – WWE created a “walk-out” angle where the wrestlers and other on-screen talents gave Triple H a vote of “no confidence” and refused to return to work. Now, despite recent events enjoying overwhelming support from everyday Americans, and actions against corporate greed being incredibly popular, Vince McMahon did what he always does: used his TV show as an opportunity to vent his personal, partisan political perspectives; what the Pro Wrestling Torch’s James Caldwell called a two-hour “therapy session.” As a result, Triple H, the traditional tyrant who was “called to rule” according to the Latin on his Titan Tron video, was portrayed as the victim, the hero, while, presumably, the entire roster were the cowardly villains – yes, even the babyfaces got booed, right on cue.
All the roster except the likes of Sheamus, John Cena…and CM Punk.
Punk was by now not only teaming with John Cena, the “boy scout” who represents everything Punk supposedly hates about WWE, but he was delivering warm banter with him and Triple H, too. Each of them were all smiles all of a sudden; best buddies! Punk even took a page from Michael Cole’s Daniel Bryan-bashing book by referring to the rest of the wrestlers who walked out in protest as “tofu dog-frying hippies.” Yes: Punk was now suddenly denouncing rebellion and portraying that as weakness. The spin by all these rammed-down-your-throat front office favourites like John Cena and Triple H’s best buddy Sheamus, was that, when you have an issue in WWE, you fight. No one provided a “voice for the voiceless” here in pointing out the obvious: that to protest power in walking out is fighting. That’s what separated them from the likes of the fiendish, unscrupulous Miz and R-Truth characters.
But again, it comes back to Vince’s therapy sessions due to his insecurities. He has to stick it to Ted Turner, to the FBI, to Barack Obama even, and those fighting financial injustice on Wall Street, and why? Because, clearly, he isn’t so sure of himself after all. He will sacrifice money for it if he has to, to feed his insecurities, and I don’t just mean the $30 million of the McMahon family fortune spent on trying to get Vince’s wife Linda into the Senate so that she can look out for the corporation she still has personal interests in.
Sadly, yet again, Vince doesn’t seem to realise he’s missing another golden opportunity as potentially rewarding as Austin 3:16 itself: that Americans are hungry for rebellion, for true lone voices and colourful characters in the beige corporate world, and – rightly or wrongly – countercultural icons, protesting protagonists, and even hacking heroes savvy with social media that WWE is so hungry to utilise for its upcoming TV network. This past Monday, Vince told Triple H that the people in the parks and pavements at Wall Street were “standing up for what they believe in.” Unfortunately, thanks to the direction of the now-corporate company man CM Punk, none of his “superstars” reflect that spirit.
We can hope Vince receives help for his neurotic insecurities, perhaps he even needs shock therapy; something – anything – so that the product itself isn’t constantly subjected to them and can instead reflect the feelings of those majority of Americans who are not able to throw $30 million at a campaign to protect their greedy business interests. With greater audience investment in the product, and bigger revenues, perhaps then Vince, and his wife, wouldn’t need to.