Tag Archives: Vince McMahon

Survival of the Fittest: Ultimate Warrior and Hate Speech

12 Apr

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“Leather Hedger had sleeping troubles and anxiety and dealt with terrible mood swings…By today’s standard, though, I do have to agree that he was a great father. Perhaps even greater then the father of the year, Hulk Hogan. After all, Leather Hedger did what it took to kill himself. His kid is without a father, yes, but the negative influence is now removed and his own child has the chance for a full recovery.”

– Ultimate Warrior on Heath Ledger, after the actor’s death

Jim Hellwig, later known as the Ultimate Warrior, was just one week ago enjoying induction into WWE’s Hall of Fame, an appearance at WrestleMania XXX, and a nostalgia promo on Monday Night Raw. He’s now dead. Beyond the wave of tributes for a legendary pro wrestling character, what about the person himself? What about his life’s mission, his beliefs, his passions and his principles?

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The above quote about Heath Ledger, who had starred in a film Warrior considered gay propaganda, Brokeback Mountain, is relatively mild in comparison to Warrior’s infamous homophobic tirades, having spent a substantial proportion of his post-WWF career touring the United States to promote his principle of “survival of the fittest” while engaging in public speaking events where he could be afforded a platform for hate speech – attacking not just homosexuals but also ethnic minorities, women, and even the poor. Sadly, he became more of a figure of ridicule the more he tried to present himself as a serious political commentator of any credibility.

But one week ago, Warrior had ensured himself some forgiveness after burying the hatchet with several pro wrestlers. In perhaps his finest hour – years after his in-ring days had ended – he had every opportunity to follow up such an olive branch by publicly reversing his views on gay people, ethnic minorities, women, and those less wealthy than himself. He chose not to. And the WWE – even under the mask of their anti-bullying PR strategy – failed to have him do so. The mainstream media, meanwhile, remained silent.

Warrior desperately wanted to be perceived as intelligent, even attacking this writer on a forum many years ago using multisyllabic rhetoric, only to fall silent when I pointed out his long words lacked any real meaning; they just demonstrated that he knew such words, and – sometimes – how to use them. He showed his complete ignorance of the term Social Darwinism (animal kingdom principles of “survival of the fittest,” applied on to society) by suggesting it shouldn’t be used simply because, in society, people aren’t dying (unless you consider what he’d no doubt have claimed was the mere coincidence of poor people being more susceptible to low life expectancy). Yet all along, as I do here now, I afforded Warrior the respect of being a human being with a strong set of views that we shouldn’t ignore.

Beyond the Social Darwinist statement above, Warrior maintained an entire website filled with pages of hateful homophobia and bigotry until the day he died. (At the time of writing, much of it remains in the public domain, so you can see for yourself even beyond his death.)

Even as WWE suits from Paul “Triple H” Levesque to Stephanie and Vince McMahon praised pro wrestler Darren Young for being one of their first openly gay stars, their former CEO and Republican politician Linda McMahon inducted Warrior into WWE’s Hall of Fame and exploited the mainstream media’s ignorance towards their industry by getting away with endorsing him when they suddenly saw an opportunity to make money off a man even they had publicly buried.

While even staid international outlets like British newspaper The Independent covered the news of Warrior’s demise, the global mainstream media instead is, of course, armed with few facts about professional wrestling, and reduces itself to ill-informed presentations like those of Nancy Grace, who clumsily gave the impression that steroids killed all those wrestlers who died too young – including Owen Hart, who actually fell to his death when a stunt went awry.

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So long as the media remain ignorant, and open themselves up to criticism and campaigns like #CancelNancy, the pro wrestling industry can conveniently remain relatively free from credible scrutiny, so as to continue making the same mistakes without being held to account, exploiting “independent contractors” with legally questionable binding contracts, no off-season, and no pension or health care coverage. This ignorance set the stage for the rise of the Ultimate Warrior himself, who looked out for himself, cared little for other wrestlers, and then found himself chewed up and spat out, spitting venom upon this outcome, railing against Vince McMahon.

Warrior often spoke of himself in superior tones and even in the third person, capitalised as He or Him or His, and rarely ever admitted flaws, vulnerabilities, or mistakes – his return, as evidenced by his Hall of Fame speech, was only ever about defeating Vince McMahon in his own mind.

Hate kept his blood pumping, and it is perhaps fitting that as soon as he felt redeemed, his heart stopped, following perhaps the greatest amount of steroid abuse known to the pro wrestling industry, an incredible achievement in itself. Yet despite this drug use and abuse, he always felt comfortable mocking the drug addiction of other wrestlers such as Jake “The Snake” Roberts or the drug-induced deaths of high-profile names like Heath Ledger for being “weak” in accordance with his own Social Darwinist outlook. We can only hope that Warrior – after years of ‘roid ravage – receives more respect than he afforded others. So how do we show him respect now?

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One thing Warrior – as with any man who fought for his principles – would surely shudder at the thought of, is fans whitewashing his beliefs mere days after his death, and he’d scoff at the fawning from his peers who just years ago were lining up to attack him in any way they could because few of them saw him as a true peer. One former long-time WWE photographer this week painted the picture of the Warrior as a hateful, selfish man.

For Warrior to truly hurt WWE though, and challenge McMahon’s huge corporation, he would have had to admit weakness by accepting the reality that all wrestlers – not just him – have been at risk of exploitation by a largely unregulated industry. He couldn’t bring himself to do that though, because he firmly believed in the Social Darwinist doctrine of “survival of the fittest,” and thus all of his complaints dissipated as soon as Vince shook his hand, booked him a Hall of Fame spot, and inked a lucrative deal that would never be lived out.

No, Warrior saw himself as special; unique – and when you take that to its logical conclusion, you can claim that the exploitation, too, was merely exclusive to you, rather than a symptom of an entire industry. Warrior, then, got to make the Hall of Fame and for him, all was suddenly well with the world.

And yet, when pro wrestling news sites such as the Pro Wrestling Torch take an honest look at Warrior’s life – his actions and words – they are faced with criticism themselves. Suddenly, traces of Warrior’s true endeavours are being removed from the internet; his character is taking over the human being, so that integrity, or intensity, are now entirely attributed to the man born Jim Hellwig. And yet what made the man intense was that integrity to stand by his beliefs even in the face of social decency.

But just as the man sometimes had trouble separating the two, the character has begun to blur with the person, and it’s threatening to consume it if we don’t afford him the respect of honest tributes that absolutely must endure, and survive. If not, are we truly fit to call ourselves commentators of any kind? There have been some websites that have covered Warrior’s life in honest ways; one overtly political site, I provided the source material for just this week. But it’s sad when little more than a blogger has to prompt successful websites to present true retrospectives.

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Former “Million Dollar Man” turned Christian, Ted DiBiase, who has been a leading critic but received a friendly acknowledgement by Warrior at the Hall of Fame, will be expected to reverse his views now, too. Because regardless of the intense and dedicated performances of the limited, reckless, green yet muscular poster boy for McMahon’s steroid-infested 1980’s, Warrior remained a hateful, ultra-right-wing bigot, but this now must not be addressed at all costs.

Indeed, in this wave of apologism for homophobia which just years from now will have stopped being acceptable and be damned to the annals of history alongside slavery, any true statements about Warrior are attacked. Whereas to call Heath Ledger or Philip Seymour Hoffman drug addicts who ran themselves into early graves is, in conservative American society, perfectly acceptable and even commendable, the sad fact remains that it is not yet ready to hear criticisms of dead celebrities if these criticisms don’t suit the cause.

“To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.” – Voltaire

Did Bruno Sammartino Sell His Soul?

30 Mar

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So Bruno Sammartino is headed into the Hall of Fame. Yet the cows haven’t come home. The sun hasn’t gone supernova. The world is much the same. So what miracle occurred for the Living Legend to finally come to terms with WWE?

Before we begin, let’s first acknowledge that there is no doubt that WWE’s version of a pro wrestling Hall of Fame has always lacked credibility until recently. Not just because of the inclusion of the McMahon limousine driver and jobber to the stars, James Dudley (not to be confused with Big Daddy Dudley). And not just because it was inevitably WWWF/WWF/WWE focused (even Abdullah the Butcher, who never had a run with the McMahons, has been inducted). The real reason is a legitimate one: Bruno Sammartino is one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time, one who heavily contributed to the building of the McMahon empire. Without his inclusion – in the initial class of 1993 on the 30th anniversary of the WWWF, which featured Andre the Giant, and especially in the 1994 class that included Bobo Brazil, Gorilla Monsoon, and, shockingly, the aforementioned jobber James Dudley – the Hall of Fame was always going to lack legitimacy.

It was, of course, these years that saw Vince McMahon battling the federal government over accusations of conspiracy to distribute steroids amongst his wrestlers via Dr George Zahorian – and Bruno Sammartino, who had long since soured on McMahon following his post-wrestling run as WWF commentator and mentor to his son David Sammartino, was more than willing to make media appearances to contribute to the avalanche of bad publicity.

In the years following, of course, Bruno continued to criticise the WWF/WWE – for artificial physiques, sexual themes, excessive violence, you name it. In recent years, it’s also become increasingly apparent that Sammartino felt short-changed by Vince McMahon Jr, the man who also caused so much upheaval in the American wrestling world and revolutionised the industry, raising the ire of traditional promoters and commentators in the process.

So what’s changed?

It’s no secret that the influence of Paul “Triple H” Levesque on WWE has grown in the last couple of years. With Shane McMahon cashing in his WWE stock and pursuing sports-centered business opportunities in Asia, and Stephanie McMahon Levesque seemingly content to take a step back from the WWE product, it has become more obvious than ever that the true heir to the Vince McMahon throne is the self-proclaimed “King of Kings” himself, Triple H.

Now, there are many areas where WWE has improved under the increasing influence of Paul Levesque: the excellent expansion and direction of developmental division NXT; the push for a resurgence of tag team wrestling; the level-headed creative input on the gorilla position headset as “one of the boys”; even the rumours of his comfort with terms like “wrestling” and “belts.” And yes, it has been Levesque who has engaged in diplomatic dialogue with Sammartino to help broker this deal to have him in WWE’s Hall of Fame. Indeed, Levesque’s been a positive influence in many aspects. Whereas ten years ago, pundits expressed concern over the post-Vince era with Stephanie’s idiosyncrasies and Shane’s lack of power, now the future looks just fine with the Triple H era.

But whether he likes it or not, many people will always feel like Triple H played politics to get to where he is: his time carrying bags for the Kliq of Shawn Michaels, Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, and Sean Waltman; his positioning in D-Generation X after the fallout from the Curtain Call incident died down; his affair with Stephanie behind the broad back of Joanie “Chyna” Laurer; and his role in the Montreal Screwjob:

Backstage After Montreal Screwjob by Lollottaja

Yes, that’s Paul “Hunter Hearst Helmsley” Levesque telling Bret Hart’s then-wife Julie, “I swear to God I knew nothing about it…I swear to God.” She wasn’t buying it, suggesting God would strike him down. She was wise to his true character and the part he played in the Kliq/McMahon conspiracy, but was wrong about the involvement of God: despite Shawn Michaels’s conversion to Christianity, given the success of Triple H ever since we can assume the Devil takes care of his own. These were not good people. “I swear to God,” said Triple H, “I knew nothing about it.” But, of course, he did.

“Triple H was a very sincere guy,” says Bruno Sammartino.

And this, according to the Living Legend himself, is what convinced him to allow WWE to induct him into their Hall of Fame.

Now, people do change. Though Triple H was clearly the opposite of a “very sincere guy” in 1997, fifteen years later could have changed him immensely (despite the credible, negative reports from the likes of Matthew Randazzo V, published in Power Slam magazine, in that time). Giving him the benefit of the doubt, he could have become a “very sincere guy.” But given Bruno’s benefit of the doubt, with that in mind, could he not have thought the same of Vince McMahon Jr? Here was a man who reportedly disrespected Bruno and his son David, allegedly flooded the industry with steroids, flaunted his affairs in Playboy magazine, and had men kiss his ass and women crawl across the ring barking like dogs while wearing lingerie. And yet today, from all accounts, Vince introduced a stringent drug-testing policy, made the product PG, and stood by his wife when she ran for Senate. Why would Triple H be a reformed character and Vince McMahon not?

No, the real reasoning behind Bruno Sammartino’s reconciliation with WWE and imminent induction to the Hall of Fame is not about the transformation of a corporation that had already (unlike other promotions) introduced resource-draining drug testing in the mid-1990’s. It’s not about a PG product that features the muscle-bound John Cena and Ryback and the tables, ladders, and chairs using Shield, as well as the foul-mouthed CM Punk and Rock (despite Bruno’s claim that “there is no more vulgarity.”) And it’s clearly got nothing to do with certain key characters being reformed; yes, Triple H was the WWE representative that Bruno Sammartino could stomach speaking to without having to engage with Vince McMahon, thus saving face in the process.

It’s about money, straight and simple.

It’s no secret the Living Legend felt WWE owed him money, and he wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Vince McMahon about it. But if someone – anyone, no matter how unscrupulous otherwise – could do the negotiating and talk numbers, then it became apparent that suddenly Bruno Sammartino could accept a role in a Hall of Fame shared with not just James Dudley, but also Pete Rose, William “The Refrigerator” Perry, Bob Uecker, Drew Carey, Mike Tyson and – on the same day – the odious Donald Trump who supports the McMahons so that they can fight regulations, workers’ rights, and perpetuate the exploitation of professional wrestlers Sammartino supposedly hated so much that he stood his ground.

No, money talks. And Triple H was the one who knew how to put it into words. We may never know the exact figures of the financial rewards reaped by the Sammartino family for this deal. But we can only hope it was worth it. If the Devil takes care of his own, the Sammartinos should be just fine for years to come.

Swagger and the WWE Wellness Problem

28 Feb

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In recent months, WWE have been on a streak so impressive it threatens to eclipse that of The Undertaker’s at WrestleMania.

The debuts of Dean Ambrose (Jon Moxley), Seth Rollins (Tyler Black), and Roman Reigns (no relation to Luther) as The Shield, along with the subsequent storyline development, has been excellent. Coincidentally, Shield-focused shows TLC and Elimination Chamber were also two of the greatest Pay-Per-View offerings in years – in booking, if not in-ring action. Dolph Ziggler went over John Cena and aligned himself with AJ Lee instead of Vickie Guerrero, and freshened up his act further with the addition of “Big” E. Langston. Antonio Cesaro has been pushed despite dropping Aksana. Much-needed babyface turns to Alberto Del Rio and The Miz have been effective. Even Big Show and Sheamus have been putting on great matches. This is a WWE product that seems to be recovering from last year’s dark day of the 1,000th episode of Monday Night Raw, which was a disaster.

But the re-introduction of Jack Swagger has been gold.

Regular readers will know how often I’ve called for WWE to put its finger on the pulse of popular culture and current affairs and tap into modern events, longing for a return to the approach of the Attitude era where McCarthyist Brent Bozell III and his odious Parents Television Council (or PTC) were simply mocked by the creation of heel characters The Right to Censor (or RTC). I’ve also argued for the return of valets and managers to accentuate wrestlers’ positives, while hiding their weaknesses.

Jack Swagger, the “All-American” American, never too confident on the mic – not least with his slight speech impediment – has been given Uncle Zebekiah Blu, formerlt Dutch Mantell, now simply Zeb Colter, as a mouthpiece and manager who has, in turn, turned Swagger into the “Real American” (sorry, Hogan) – a xenophobic, right-wing zealot in opposition to Mexican-American Alberto Del Rio (thus reinforcing their respective face/heel roles).

This has been priceless. It has tapped into an undercurrent through America, and in the process hit a nerve – raising the ire of no less than Glenn Beck himself, the High Priest of the Right-Wing and Tea Party poster boy, that anti-women gun nut who calls progressivism a “disease” – you know, the same progressivism that historically gave the country free schools, libraries, as well as weekends, and got women the right to vote, abolished slavery, and improved civil rights. That disease of progress.

Now, they say you can gauge your value by the enemies you make, so if WWE are provoking Glenn Beck, they’re definitely doing something right. Zeb Coulter Colter’s diatribes on immigration and American “values” are priceless – even with Jack Swagger mouthing Zeb’s words on the autocue as he stands there awaiting his “we the people” finale.

Swagger’s finally had his biggest break since winning the World Championship from Chris Jericho in March of 2010, the beginning of an ill-fated title run and his fall from favour with WWE’s most influential officials. He’s been given another shot. And then he was arrested for speeding, possession of marijuana, and driving under the influence (of marijuana – which leads one to wonder how he managed to start speeding, considering most potheads can usually only drive about 10mph while stoned).

This, of course, did not bode well.

With mainstream media attention all over WWE for their topical and – by their standards – sophisticated storyline, Swagger’s indiscretion couldn’t have come at the worst time. Whether the sudden thrust into the spotlight was too much pressure for Swagger, or whether it was just simple stupidity, the fact remained that Swagger’s arrest was hitting headlines beyond just the TMZ muckrakers.

Now, the arguments on the dirt sheets have largely been focused on what needed to be WWE’s next course of action: fire him at risk of a high profile switch to TNA for a wrestler who just months ago was reportedly requesting his release; suspend him, and jeopardise the pre-WrestleMania creative plans; suspend him later, or even do nothing – the debate went back and forth. And certainly, it was a creative quandary for Vince McMahon, Triple H, and the gang.

On one hand, Swagger had insulted management by throwing their push back in their faces with such recklessness; on the other hand, he’d been caught smoking pot, something that’s been legalised in several states in the U.S. – albeit driving under the influence was not permitted (nor was speeding, an act which actually caused the death of Zeb’s own daughter in real life last summer.)

And this is where it really opens a can of worms.

Irvin Muchnick, a writer who specialises in the sports concussion crisis and covered the Chris Benoit tragedy with rare rationality, reason, and facts as opposed to the then-prevalent mainstream media hysteria over steroids, has not been popular with WWE. The reason? He scrutinises them and their Wellness programme and policies in ways rarely afforded to the sports-entertainment business (as I reiterate constantly, the industry’s lack of categorisation as either sports or performance makes it harder to regulate in the same way athletes and actors enjoy).

We’ve seen R-Truth’s Wellness suspension kick in conveniently after his Survivor Series involvement with headliner The Rock in 2011. Now Swagger’s been arrested for using a drug that WWE’s policy prohibits (albeit admittedly harshly when comparing it to alcohol). So what now? Does the Wellness department still wait for their next random test on Swagger, allowing him to literally piss the pot away? Or do they take the arrest and charges seriously, bring him in for an immediate screening, and suspend him upon finding marijuana in his system? The latter hasn’t happened, so we must assume the former is the case.

I’m not an advocate of Wellness treating marijuana, state to state, as more of a wrongdoing than alcohol. But I do think this gives Muchnick more ammunition to scrutinise the Wellness programme WWE has in place. WWE has to, in this writer’s opinion, revert it back to excluding marijuana – or face an avalanche of further accusations of manipulating the programme to suit their convenience.

The CM Punk Fan Incident: Punk’s Not Entirely to Blame

16 Oct

It was apparent on last night’s Monday Night Raw that WWE are hoping that the incident where CM Punk assaulted a fan in the crowd the previous week will be quickly forgotten. The fan in question has since been the subject of various contradictory reports on whether or not he will be taking legal action. WWE acknowledged the incident dismissively on their own website, then moved on, with no news of Punk facing action from the company – unsurprisingly, since he is the premier active star on the roster at this time and holds WWE’s top title.

Pro Wrestling Torch editor Wade Keller wrote a response to the incident this past week and, as we have come to expect from Keller, it was intelligent, progressive, and well argued. However, on this occasion, I have to disagree with him to an extent.

Keller’s points about security and how the incident could have been much worse than it was due to Punk’s flailing fists are, of course, valid. However, “Punk put himself in that position,” Keller claimed, adding “he should have removed himself from that situation.” And it is here that I find fault.

Punk was clearly booked to flee from Vince McMahon into the crowd. Granted, Punk has some influence, but not complete creative control – and if the booking called for him to enter the crowd, naturally, he did so, and he remained there; not to draw out an unspoken response or to increase suspense, but to sell for an ongoing promo from McMahon himself. How could he have easily removed himself from that situation? And how did he entirely put himself in it? “He couldn’t,” and “he didn’t,” are, of course, the answers.

Keller, in his piece, cites the AWA St Paul’s Civic Center shows he attended as a youngster, when Stan Hansen swung a cowbell, and how this remained in a designated area. Jim Cornette, in a recent interview with Fin Martin for Power Slam magazine, also recollects memories from the old days – when he and the Midnight Express would have to literally run for their lives due to their heel heat, going so far as to carry a gun in case they faced a life-or-death situation.

Few heels have faced such dangers for several years, particularly since the fade of kayfabe. Wrestling Scribe poster boy Brian Pillman used to frequently goad fans and dare them to strike him, yet he infamously returned to attack then-WWF rival Stone Cold Steve Austin by running through the crowd and hopping the guard rail. One might argue that his heel character had not been solidly defined at that time, but that claim would be weakened by the fact the late Pillman raised the ire of TV executives and audiences for pulling a handgun on Austin himself months previous. Others might suggest Pillman ran through the crowd, rather than stood amongst fans. And this is a more valid suggestion. And brings us back to Punk.

Punk was, again, booked to flee into the Raw crowd, and remain there to sell Vince’s promo, with no visible security there to protect him. He was a sitting duck. This is by no means an excuse for Punk’s behaviour: lashing out at fans – particularly when he struck an innocent bystander – is terrible. But the situation needs context to understand how powerless Punk was, and no doubt felt, as fans hit him in the back and threatened to push him down the concrete steps. Would that have been okay – being assaulted and sent reeling along the steps?

Keller, like many others, have been wrong to place so much blame on Punk for the situation itself. While he shouldn’t have hit an innocent fan, he understandably felt trapped and in danger, thanks to WWE – not Phil Brooks himself – booking Punk to run into, and remain in, the crowd.

A classy step would be for Punk to publicly and personally apologise to the one fan he struck and who clearly did not pose any threat to him. The behaviour of the rest should be a lesson to WWE to reflect on angles in the stands in future, and reconsider their current crowd security strategy.

Is WWE “Violent”?

1 Aug

Yet again, the McMahon pursuit of power, money, and state deregulation does more harm than good to the WWE product.

As Linda seeks a Senate seat to act as Vince’s voice in the corridors of power, yet more political mudslinging has provoked debate about WWE that wouldn’t be had if it were not for this campaigning.

Linda’s Republican opponent vying for the candidacy, Chris Shays, has again had no shortage of examples to cast his fellow conservative in a poor light: chair shots, the degradation of women, and a Kiss My Ass Club have all been referenced.

Cue the standard WWE response line: “Oh, we’re PG now.”

So while Shays – somewhat justifiably – claims that the McMahons have made a fortune from sex and violence, WWE representatives suggest that this is no longer the case anymore, though, so all is well. Just in time for Linda’s pursuit of political pull, the entire WWE product goes PG, and so come along all the cliches about learning from mistakes, and newfound wholesome conservative family values. Pass the vomit bag.

Is WWE violent today though? Well, while their spokespeople might deny it on one hand, their own PR people are saying otherwise – as evidenced by a press release the very same week, promoting a WWE book named My Favorite Match, stating: “Remember the time Goldust ran over ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper in his gold Cadillac? How about when Randy Orton battled Mick Foley with a barbed-wire bat named ‘Barbie’?” It then adds: “It’s about the moments that stand out and make them smile. Sometimes, it’s the same smile they had when they left the ring, face full of blood and sweat, to the roars of thousands.”

So are WWE saying that, because the McMahons only made their millions from adult-orientated content several years ago, it’s fine because the product is now PG – and by this rationale, it’s okay to promote an upcoming book on the violence of yesteryear and profit from it?

Come clean: WWE has always made money from its owned content, past and present; only the Benoit double murder suicide has made them relent from including significant portions of old footage in contemporary product offerings. Any other claim is a lie, and Linda, Vince, and WWE are going to experience more trouble the more they stick to their campaign cliches.

This is yet another example of why the McMahons – who have now also donated money to the doomed Mitt Romney Republican campaign – must abandon this ill-advised and counter-productive mission to woo conservatives at the same time as paradoxically courting favour with Hollywood: WWE, who once had a liberal politician sit on their board of directors for years while under attack from the ultra-conservative Parents Television Council, aren’t content with avoiding pension plans and health care provision to its employees “independent contractors” who are forced to change their names for intellectual property purposes, restricted from outside pursuits, and bound to 90-day no-compete clauses. Despite all there is to be gained from putting fingers on the pulse and striking a chord in pop culture – as they did with their “Attitude” era influenced by Paul Heyman – the McMahons sell out even their own spirit. The trademark McMahon traits of insecurity and greed will drive them to continue through this minefield.

As for whether they’re violent or not, chances are you already know the answer to such a question. It’s simulated violence, like many television shows and movies. Kids are exposed to raunchy music videos and brain-busting boxing during daylight hours, and despite what the McMahons’ conservative friends might keep saying, the pro wrestling form of sports entertainment is the least of our media concerns, merely the most accessible and working class, which never sits well with those in high places, so it’s often the first in line for scrutiny or scapegoating.

Here’s to a return of car attacks, barbed wire, and blood in the name of sports entertainment and simulated “violence.” And a hope that we have some showbusiness-loving liberals in charge one day, willing to stand up for it.

Was Raw 1000 WWE’s Death Knell?

26 Jul

When offering any criticism, it’s always important to try to remain constructive. And naturally, it has to be tempered with positivity. But after the much-hyped 1000th episode of Raw this past Monday, that’s very difficult.

Nonetheless, let me deal with the inarguable positive aspects first: this episode was promoted with great momentum, it garnered around a 4.0 rating on the USA Network, and it involved many legends including D-Generation X, The Rock, The Undertaker, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Mick Foley, Lita, Bret Hart, and of course the McMahons themselves. AJ Lee even became “General Manager” of Raw. Those are all positives.

The fact is, like a big box office blockbuster movie whose trailers were fantastic and mobilised millions of viewers who were, in fact, disappointed, Raw was all about the hype; Vince McMahon’s attempt to blow his wad in one night. Ratings of 4.0 are great, if they’re frequent, as they were in the “Attitude” era. How did McMahon use the star power on this historic and crucial night to capture that audience long-term?

After Vince rightly opened the show himself, before introducing D-Generation X (both version two, and version one minus Chyna, for obvious reasons), DX delivered a series of “jokes” that were reminiscent of the embarrassing Hollywood Hogan attempts to seem young and hip while leading the New World Order with the other ex-WWF stars who were past their prime. Thankfully, they were interrupted by Damien Sandow, but as soon as he emerged, it’s a sad fact that my instinct was to sigh at the impending and inevitable burial of an up-and-coming talent. I wasn’t surprised, or given the infamous Vince swerve this time, when it was most needed: DX got together and beat him up. Now, some call that the “rub,” but without a performer being presented as competitive, he’s only remembered for being the wrestler who got owned by predominantly retired DX members. Is that so great?

The Rock branded Daniel Bryan – better than Rocky ever was, even at the height of his career – an “oompa-loompa” because Rock happened to tower over him in ways WWE Champion CM Punk hasn’t, solidifying Bryan’s position as a source of humour and steering his character in that direction of ridicule, rather than a serious course. Rock then unilaterally announced that he gets a WWE Championship shot in the New Year, at the Royal Rumble, after competing in and winning just one single match in 2012. This reinforces the public image of Rock being head and shoulders above any other major star or contender in the company, regardless of how many matches they win. He gets the shot, no matter what. As Rock himself might say, “it doesn’t matter” if other wrestlers win a plethora of matches between now and the Royal Rumble; he leapfrogs them just by virtue of being The Great One.

Recovering from his DX-related comedy of errors, Triple H demanded a response from Brock Lesnar via Paul Heyman, who barely mentioned Triple H’s family at all when Stephanie McMahon-Helmsley Levesque came storming to the ring to show off her streamlined figure and add to her desired humiliation of Heyman, after his fallout with her and the company in 2006 that led to him being fired and blamed for WWE’s failed December to Dismember Pay-Per-View show – where both Paul Heyman and Paul “Big Show” Wight suggested Show put over rising star CM Punk, an idea which the McMahons at that time nixed.

Calling him a failure, Steph got to offer us yet another attempt at catharses for the infamous McMahon insecurity by trying to bury a former rival promoter. Heyman even rejected Triple H’s request of a SummerSlam match with Brock Lesnar, despite the fact we all knew it was inevitable and simply drawn out to limit the use of Lesnar’s valuable agreed dates in his lucrative WWE contract.

Instead of Brock emerging from the crowd to reveal a set-up and attacking Triple H, he only ran out when Heyman was forced to sell anger at Steph and Hunter – for merely adding to their long list of attempted burials of Heyman and his Attitude-inspiring ECW legacy, to an extent where we were expected to be led to believe that Heyman would reverse Brock’s decision and agree to the match.

It was all very messy, a real stretch, and in addition to Steph verbally and even physically assaulting Heyman, Triple H sent Lesnar from the ring and retreating up the aisle. This was all about the corporate couple; Heyman and Lesnar were humiliated, and now Brock absolutely must win his SummerSlam match to recover from this on top of his loss to John Cena in April at the Extreme Rules Pay-Per-View (the title of which of course wasn’t anything to do with Heyman’s impact on the business, either).

Both Lita and the Undertaker (in conjunction with Kane) were brought in to decimate and humiliate jobbers, cementing these unfortunates’ second-rate status for weeks and months to come. In the case of Heath Slater, the argument will be that the exposure is good for his career, the same argument voiced about Nattie Neidhart’s flatulence gimmick – and we know how high-profile she is these days as a result of that; one of the best women’s wrestlers in the world is barely on television. Mick Foley, meanwhile, under the watch of Triple H, didn’t appear as Cactus Jack, or even Mankind, but instead Dude Love – dancing with the former Snoop Dogg bodyguard, beyond-a-joke Brodus Clay – which probably did more harm to Foley’s career than it helped Clay’s.

The CM Punk heel turn was fine if not a summer shocker of the impact we’d expected, but the fresh Rock’s selling of Punk’s single flying clothesline as though he had been attacked by riot police and zapped with a tazer gun was more detrimental to our suspension of disbelief than helpful in putting Punk over. It was one of the most absurd examples of oversell I’d ever seen, even from Rocky, whose notorious comedy selling of the Stone Cold Stunner was legendary.

But again, we have to try and find positives. Try as we might, there are few to be found here.

What talent was elevated as a result of all this? Of course this was a nostalgia show; a retrospective look at the legacy of Monday Night Raw from its inception in 1993. That’s great; that’s fine. But when the one-off appearances by old part-timers portrays them as overwhelmingly superior to the regulars, what will viewers think when they tune in again, for three hours of those full-time stars who were humiliated on this show? All this does is encourages audiences to believe that the only things worth tuning in for are the stars of yesteryear, as though the current crop is inferior talent by miles.

It didn’t have to be that way. WWE could have carefully and cleverly utilised the legends to elevate some stars literally overnight. Imagine a partnership or even a competitive back-and-forth – physically or verbally – between the likes of Trish Stratus and Beth Phoenix, Rocky and Bryan, Undertaker and Ziggler, Lita and AJ, Foley and Ryder, New Age Outlaws and Prime Time Players, Piper and McGillicutty, X-Pac and Sandow? Nobody would have been hurt by any of this, even if the established untouchable legends came off worse. Seeing the hungry lions again next week for three hours, viewers would be more inclined to accept them as superior, credible superstars worthy of investing with emotion, time and money.

Speaking of money, the whole commercial dominance of WWE over the once-diverse industry has not only made McMahon complacent and less inclined to take the gambles he took on Rock, Steve Austin and others, and the product itself, fifteen years ago: It has reduced the brand to a pseudo-PG programme that serves as merely an advertisement for their products that range from Wrestling Brawling Buddies, to the latest “cool” social media venture, to even John Cena’s kiddie merchandise that serves as his only purpose and perpetual push.

Seeing Michael Cole – whose weaknesses are only exploited more when he has to follow Jim Ross on commentary – actually playing with the Brawling Buddies dolls alongside Jerry “The King” Lawler, was so cringe-inducing that Gorilla Monsoon ands Bobby “The Brain” Heenan debating on Prime Time Wrestling surrounded by WWF action figures seems perfectly tasteful in retrospect. But this is what pro wrestling’s giant has become.

From Triple H and Stephanie’s dominance, to the fawning worship of Hollywood’s Rock, to product placement, “Raw 1000” exemplified everything that is wrong with today’s WWE: the McMahons, more complacent than ever in the absence of any competition, find themselves floating their corporate empire on the stock exchange, re-writing the history books, running for Senate seats to gain tax breaks and boost profits for shareholders, and donating thousands to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign while Republicans everywhere blame WWE for the moral decay of modern America. It’s a company that is quagmired, utterly stuck in its ways, refusing to change, and content with its corporate profit.

This is McMahon’s world now: money-hungry, conservative, and safe. We may dream of the passing of the torch and a legitimate boom to give Attitude a run for its money, we may hope for cutting-edge counterculture, we may long for CM Punk and Daniel Bryan to be revered, and joined by Richie Steamboat, Seth Rollins, Bray Wyatt, and the inevitable future of the industry, Dean Ambrose. But all the McMahons care about is assuaging their collective insecurities, keeping the shareholders happy, and wooing Hollywood at the same time as paradoxically pursuing GOP success in order to bend the laws to benefit their aims of “independent contractor” exploitation and pension plan, health care, and tax avoidance. They won it all, but the McMahon psyche still believes the world owes them something. That’s a lot of insecurity that you or I could never comprehend.

What WWE needs is a kick in the ass. But Ted Turner’s long gone from the picture, and TNA have already been lapped in the race. It’s doubtful Triple H will stray from the path at this point, and he couldn’t anyway while Linda McMahon remains in the public eye. One day, though, he may have to. WWE can only live off its own scratch logo value for so much longer. They may have got the F out, but they have yet to wake the F up.

What’s Your Competition, Vince?

22 May

Since the rise of mixed martial arts and, in particular, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, coincidentally or otherwise WWE ratings have been in decline.

Now, your writer doesn’t believe there are many outside factors that have ever harmed the WWF (in, say, the mid-1990’s) or WWE in recent years – the downturn in business has only ever coincided with a downturn in the product quality itself; the theory of outside forces harming business is merely one which Vince McMahon throws out to shareholders in hopes they’ll eat it up.

The problem here is with Vince’s blatant hypocrisy.

In 2010, McMahon certainly took the approach of rejecting UFC as competition that could have harmed his WrestleMania Pay-Per-View buyrate, saying, “You’re talking about two completely different audiences. The UFC audience is more of a boxing audience than an entertainment audience.”

And yet, when CM Punk wanted to attend a UFC event to accompany one of their top MMA stars, he was prevented from doing so, reportedly by McMahon’s office. Since UFC signed with Fox, they’ve slowed down their pursuit of their own MMA-based television channel, which some believe was the reason for such a terribly rash announcement of the WWE Network announced to launch in spring of 2012 and, as I write, still yet to materialise, with plans still very vague.

Vince shows his famous insecurities again when it comes to UFC, and he protests too much in claiming they aren’t competition. Who is he really trying to convince?

When WCW was battling with the WWF in the Monday Night War, McMahon would still often be heard claiming that Ted Turner’s company weren’t competition because WCW were “in the wrasslin’ business,” while the WWF, he said, “make movies.” Many of us are fully aware of Vince’s fawning love for Hollywood glitz and glamour and credibility, but in claiming his product was more akin to that brand of showbusiness thus wasn’t competing with its ratings rivals WCW was absurd.

And, as I’ve written before, the more McMahon remains in self-denial about being a born-and-bred pro wrestling promoter, the more “wrasslin'” he himself seems to Hollywood. Even WWE Hall of Famer Mike Tyson comes across as more progressive and in-keeping with the Hollywood crowd that throws fundraisers for Barack Obama, than Vince and his old school tax-hating, deregulation-seeking Republican candidate wife Linda. All the while the right-wingers hate the McMahons for their inherently liberal product of simulated violence and sexual undertones. It’s a doomed approach.

And yet even after his conquer of WCW, where he bought what he suddenly referred to as his competition when announcing the deal on Monday Night Raw, along came TNA – and while not as successful as WCW, certainly the second major pro wrestling promotion in the United States – they weren’t competition either: “My concern with TNA is not in terms of competition,” said Vince. “My concern with TNA is that they are TV-14, and we are PG. They have to change with the times. I think some of the things they do on television are reprehensible.” This from the man who created the “Kiss My Ass” club and pushed D-Generation X, in addition to airing a segment where Triple H supposedly had sex with a corpse. But he has “changed with the times,” so he can now judge, even while calling for Kane to have a three-foot long penis in his WWE movie.

Instead of claiming changes to WWE are due to aiming for a more “sophisticated” product, Vince would do well to accept that both sports and entertainment are potential competition, because they’re all on television and all battling for ratings, while at the same time focusing on his own product rather than he and his wife spending millions of their personal fortunes on getting her political power so they can increase their profits. What would likely also please their shareholders far more, too, would be less airtime on “Standing up for Linda WWE,” and more dedicated to creating and elevating stars within a clear and coherent product that has direction. As I’ve also written before, with no WCW breathing down their necks, they can afford to settle for the status quo, Super Cena, and political aspirations while behaving like a dog at a dinner table seeking attention from a Hollywood that will never accept them, no matter how many more dozens of their writers they bring in to spoil the broth.

It’s funny, also, how Brock Lesnar was so sought-after – and so easily re-transitioned – to the WWE from a UFC that Vince McMahon claims is not competition. It’s a good thing for Vince’s psyche, though. Because the more he dismisses all these other competitors, the easier it will continue to be to take as so many of them surpass his own “sophisticated” product.