Two weeks ago, my son and I flew to Newark, New Jersey to attend Wrestlemania 29. My son first became interested in professional wrestling when he was nine, and I ended up accompanying him to a range of local and national events. Together, we saw some of the great performers of the 1980s – from Hulk Hogan to Andre the Giant, from Jake the Snake Roberts to Hacksaw Jim Duggan and Rowdy Roddy Piper; we also saw early matches by then-emerging performers, such as The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, Bret “The Hitman” Hart, and Triple H; and as he grew older, we even made it to a live ECW event (a rival league that has since taken on a mythic reputation). I wrote an essay about the ways that professional wrestling constituted a site of masculine melodrama, “Never Trust a Snake,” and my son published his own account of his experiences as a young wrestling fan for Nick Sammond’s Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasures and Pain of Professional Wrestling. My son has remained actively interested in wrestling through the years; my interests have shifted elsewhere, but when my son asked if I would travel with him to Wrestlemania, I jumped at the opportunity.
My son brought me up to speed for several weeks before we left, even preparing a PowerPoint to help me keep the various characters and their storylines straight. We bought into the whole package – the Hall of Fame induction ceremony at Madison Square Gardens, the fan Axxess event at the Izod Center, and floor seats for Wrestlemania 29 itself at Met Life Stadium. What follows is an exchange which the two of us wrote reflecting on what we saw and what we feel are some of the defining traits of the contemporary wrestling world. Here, we hope to share some insights the WWE’s often-feisty relationship with its hardcore fans.
Since many of my readers may know you best from the wrestling article we co-wrote ten years ago, would you like to update them on your life since then?
I graduated from The University of Arizona and immediately interviewed to become an assistant staff writer with the WWE. I got to submit a short script, which Stephanie McMahon and the writing team read out loud and discussed. I wrote a scene in which “The Rated R Superstar” Edge, who was known for his reckless lifestyle, found out he had a teenage daughter and had to reevaluate his life choices.
I didn’t get the job, so I moved to the one-stoplight town of Alamance, North Carolina and became an apprentice promoter for an independent wrestling federation. It was my crazy way of showing I had the gumption to go for my dreams. I got to hear a lot of wrestling’s trade secrets from the athletes themselves and I got to know the real people behind the gimmicks. Mostly I spent a lot of time lugging brutally heavy steel poles and wooden planks around in order to build the wrestling ring at each venue. But I had a really bad time overall, for reasons it wouldn’t be polite to go into here, and I ended up deciding that I didn’t want to work in wrestling.
I became a transmedia writer and content producer instead. I now work for The Alchemists, a Hollywood transmedia production company. Most recently I was the primary author of an elaborate second screen experience for the CW television series Cult. Despite going in a different direction professionally I’ve stayed a fan.
One of the great things about growing up is that you get to make your own dreams come true. Specifically, I’ve made attending Wrestlemania and Comic-Con my two annual traditions. I’ve now followed the WWE around to seven Manias (in Boston, Orlando, Houston, Phoenix, Atlanta, Miami and North Jersey.) I always spend weeks making signs, which almost never actually end up being very visible on TV. I’ve gone with friends, girlfriends and a professor. But I’ve never forgotten how much it meant to me to go to the shows at The Garden with you when I was a kid. I really wanted to go to one more show with you.
Why don’t you set the scene for us? You’ve written about the periodic shifts in the core vision of the WWE and especially its ongoing attempts to balance its hardcore fans with the family trade. What do you see as the current state of the WWE and how did this help to shape what was in the program in New Jersey?
Fans describe the current moment in wrestling as the PG Era. The McMahon family, who runs the WWE, has become consumed by the desire to become a respectable corporate brand. ‘Rasslin has always resided in the cultural ghetto, just a little more respectable than monster truck racing but not as respectable as NASCAR. The WWE achieved its highest ratings in the late 90s and early 2000s when they fully embraced their wild image. The major pro wrestling series were rated PG-14. Characters cursed like sailors. Women’s wrestlers dressed like cheerleaders, Catholic school girls or French maids. They swatted each other on the butt with paddles. Male and female wrestlers alike performed death-defying stunts. The soap opera storylines took a dark turn. Triple H infamously raped his opponent Kane’s dead girlfriend’s corpse in her coffin. Wrestling became mainstream among 20-somethings precisely because it irresponsible and excessive. It provided a carnal thrill you couldn’t find anywhere else on television.
The company reigned in their crude content because they wanted to have their cake and eat it too. They wanted to be ultra-cool, but they didn’t want to be seedy. Vince McMahon saw the WWE as a publicly-traded entertainment studio on the level of Marvel or LucasArts. He produced theatrical films starring their performers; he opened a restaurant in Times Square; he founded a pro football league to compete with the NFL; he even cut rap albums.
All of that went off the rails in 2007 when one of the stars, Chris Benoit, murdered his family and hung himself. The most common theory is that his insanity was brain damage he suffered headbutting opponents during his career. Other past and current stars, such as Eddie Guerrero, Mister Perfect, Miss Elizabeth, Sensational Sherri, Bam Bam Bigelow, The British Bulldog, Pitbull #2, Road Warrior Hawk, Demolition Crush, Crash Holly, Test and Umaga – all died of overdoses and drug-induced heart attacks over a seven year span. Big corporate sponsors dropped their support. Local athletic commissions refused to grant the WWE the licenses necessary to perform in certain markets unless they adopted tougher drug testing. Ratings dropped. I was one of the many long time viewers who stopped watching. It was getting downright difficult to give these people my money. I felt like I was supporting something evil.
The WWE has been obsessed with cleaning up its image ever since. All of their shows are now rated PG. The company does a substantial amount of charity work. This weekend’s Wrestlemania broadcast alone included tributes to Hurricane Sandy relief, the Be A Star anti-bullying campaign, the Special Olympics, Make-a-Wish kids and saluting America’s troops – all campaigns the WWE consistently promotes throughout the year. As a result, top sponsors have returned, and a host of respected figures ranging from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hugh Jackman, Sean “Puffy” Combs and The Muppets have appeared on WWE television.
Fans who started watching because they loved wrestling’s rebellious excesses have become alienated. Many continue to watch because they love what wrestling was, or what they believe it could be again, but they hate what wrestling is today, and they understandably feel like they didn’t change. Wrestling did. They don’t want to be preached to. They find the anti-bullying PSAs hollow coming from a company that allows wrestlers to make homophobic comments. They want the best athletes and biggest personalities to be successful, not the performers who present the cleanest corporate image.
I basically agree with those fans, even if I feel like they can sometimes paint things as more black and white than they are. As I wrote in Steel Chair to the Head wrestling tried so hard to be shocking in those days that it just got gross. But the energy was much rawer then. I liked how wrestling let its hair down. I will still maintain that both from a creative standpoint and a business standpoint the blood, sex and sock puppets weren’t the problem. The rash of drug related deaths were caused by the relentless 320 day a year work schedule and the lack of company health care, which prevented people from recovering naturally from injuries without abusing pain killers. Management has also always had an expectation that wrestlers achieve unrealistic body shapes, which led the stars to abuse steroids. None of that has really changed. Going PG did help the WWE attract more sponsors and celebrity involvement, which was good for their bottom line. But it also made them a lot less cool, and their ratings are now half of what they used to be. Sanitized wrestling is a buzz kill.
Today’s viewers feel that they are the custodians of wrestling. They still remember what wrestling used to be about – what made them fall in love with it – and they intend to keep booing the good guys, chanting “boring” and sitting in stony silence at live events until they force the WWE to change. But the WWE is seemingly willing to lose those fans if it means they can stay respectable. The gulf that separates the viewers and the corporate executives was never more obvious than at Wrestlemania this weekend.
I’ll say! We observed some real tensions all weekend.
Take the Hall of Fame ceremony. Before the event even started, the WWE announced that late 90s star Mick Foley’s Hall of Fame speech would not air on their trimmed-down television broadcast. He would be cut for time. Instead viewers would see Vince McMahon honor Donald Trump, who owned the buildings that several past Wrestlemanias had taken place in. It was a recognition that most of the web fans saw as politically and commercially motivated. After some behind-the-scenes discussion, the WWE extended the broadcast to allow Foley’s lifetime achievement award to be broadcast.
When Foley went onto the stage, the auditorium went wild and Mick seemed genuinely touched by the fan response. His remarks were playful and funny, telling stories of his blood and glory days in the ring, He emphasized the match where he lost a sizable chunk of his ear, and he ended by staging a few moments of rough-housing with Chris Jericho, who he had always wanted to beat in the ring, heinous villain CM Punk broke character in order to referee the fight.
When The Donald entered, he was resoundingly booed and the relentless jeers continued throughout his remarks. The Donald got booed again when the Hall of Famers were reintroduced at Wrestlemania.
The fans also jeered, booed, and hissed when former Today show host Maria Menounos went into an overly-long and overly-flattering introduction of Bob Backlund, another featured part of the program that went terribly wrong. Backlund came out and seemed to be shouting at the fans. Then the fans shouted back. After a while, it seemed like Backlund was trying to perform as the heel character he adopted upon his return to the WWE late in his career (a senile man in a bathrobe who believed he was running for president), but by that point, no one was quite clear what was going on, as the speaker was raspy and red in the face, and telling people to shut up.
We were both struck when they showed a segment from the Hall of Fame ceremony during the Wrestlemania broadcast which had been carefully edited to suggest a much saner, more sentimental Backlund, and it looked like it was redubbed to strip out the audience response. Then, Backlund got on the stage and went bat shit crazy all over again, making it even less clear than before if he was trying to perform in character or simply outraged over the fan response. Maria Menounos also chastised the fans in a blog post about the event.
By contrast, the fans seemed to sit on their hands during the heavily billed matched between the Rock and Cena….
The Rock and John Cena epitomize corporatized wrestling. I have been watching since January of 1991 and I can’t remember ever seeing this kind of across-the-board nerd rage towards a Wrestlemania main event. The Rock left wrestling in the prime of his career years ago to focus on his movie career. He claimed that his return to wrestling three years ago was motivated by an enduring love for his fans, but it just happened to be timed to coincide with the marketing push for the movie Fast 5.
Since then he has left several more times, only returning on occasions when he has another movie to promote. Yet the WWE has now pushed aside all of the wrestlers who work for them day in and day out in order to let The Rock main event the biggest show of the year the past three years in a row. Fans see it as a soullessly calculated bit of corporate back scratching arranged by Hollywood agents and executives who aren’t overwhelmingly concerned with what the core audience would most like to see.
John Cena has won 13 world championships since the PG era began, which makes him the face of the moment. He’s constantly seen shaking hands with politicians or ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange. But those aren’t credentials fans care about. They’re liabilities, because they make him look like a square, a corporate puppet. Apologists say that Cena is the most popular wrestler on the planet with casual fans, families, women and children, who simply aren’t as rowdy as the adult men in the audience. But he gets booed out of almost every stadium he performs in. Fans verbally rip him to shreds with chants like “You’re a loser” and “Fuck, you, Cena!” They’re not playing around. They hate him.
Last year’s Wrestlemania main event was The Rock vs. John Cena, and the marketing tagline was “Once in a Lifetime.” But the writers knew the whole time that it was false advertising. They were setting the stage for a rematch, which fans dubbed “Twice in a Lifetime.” They’ve been chanting “Same old shit” every time it’s promoted.
I thought the match itself was thoroughly mediocre. I purposefully didn’t make any noise for it, because I think the WWE management even perceives booing as a passionate response. I didn’t even pay that close attention. I just didn’t care. But from what I observed, The Rock is out of shape. No sooner had they started than he got exhausted and needed to rest. That’s been the case with every time he’s wrestled since he came back. It’s hard to keep up with the younger wrestlers when you only get in the ring once or twice a year.
The outcome of this year’s Mania main event was utterly predictable to most fans, with Cena winning and The Rock raising his hand. I rolled my eyes. The WWE hopes that if The Rock tells the audience to respect Cena we’ll all do as he says. I do respect Cena, but not because The Rock shilled for him.
In many ways, getting a glimpse into WWE fan culture through your eyes was the most interesting aspect of the trip for me. As I see it, we are watching a collision between fans and corporations that is unfolding across multiple media. The WWE has fully and obsessively embraced social media, with constant prods throughout their broadcasts to follow along on Twitter, and even recommended hash tags. The fans have also long used a diverse range of blogs, podcasts, and other online forums to coalesce their own opinions, to share insider knowledge, to formulate their opinions – often in ways, as we are seeing here, which run contrary to the dominant narrative the WWE wants to construct.
At the same time, the WWE seeks to stage a spectacular broadcast, that reaches viewers all over the planet. As a scripted program (i.e. “sports entertainment”), they have enormous control over what happens in the ring, yet they have far less control over what the fans do at ringside. Some of the first generation of scholars writing about the WWE stressed the nature of this fan performance – the ways fans perform for each other and for the cameras in ways that help everyone to suspend disbelief and lend credibility to the staged spectacle. When wrestling fans resist, they do so in a highly public manner: they chant, they shout, they hold up signs, they often become so loud that they get heard on the broadcast even if the management doesn’t like what they have to say.
Yes, the announcers have some ability to re-narrate the fan pushback, to re-inscribe it into the narrative. As you say, above all, the WWE wants to generate “heat.” They want to provoke strong emotions, and so, they can always describe the fans as “rowdy” or “raucous” or “out of control” or “going crazy”, even when the response does not seem to support the preferred storyline. Wrestlemania and Raw are going out via a live feed so they can only do so much to control the fan reaction. We saw with the Hall of Fame ceremony, which was taped for later broadcast, that they were almost Orwellian in re-sculpting the experience, cutting out awkward moments, reducing the sound of the crowd so you can’t quite understand what they are shouting, editing it so that it looks like one happy family. Bob Backlund comes across as sentimental in the edit for television, but he came across as crazed and angry for those of us at the live event.
And, of course, the fan’s engagement with the events can shift pretty dramatically from match to match. My nostalgia draws me back to the generation of wrestlers who were performing when you were little, the ones I wrote about in my original “Never Trust a Snake” essay. So, I was perhaps most engaged by the Undertaker/C.M. Punk match. We saw the Undertaker fight some of his early matches and now, he has a 21-0 lifetime record at Wrestlemania. He is an aging lion, who only rarely fights, and who has been rumored for several years to be on the verge of retirement. Yet, the guy knows how to sell the melodramatic dimensions of the storyline. Leading into this match, they did everything they could to make Punk a despicable figure. Paul Bearer, the Undertaker’s long-time friend and supporter, had passed away, in real life. The Undertaker was paying tribute to him on Raw when Punk snuck into the ring and stole the urn which, for storyline purposes, held Bearer’s ashes. We saw broadcasts where he was casually tossing the urn around and then, on the eve of Wrestlemania, he dumped the ashes in the Undertaker’s face and bathed in them himself.
What they delivered at Wrestlemania was an old fashioned "slobberknocker," full of melodramatic twists in fortune, two counts and kick outs.
My sense is that the fans were eating it up. Sure, there were plenty of people rooting for Punk, who has a strong cult following, but they were also being earnest when they chanted “this is awesome” at several points during the match. And it was fun to me to see that the WWE still knows how to play upon those classic elements in their performances.
It was awesome. Most of the blogs I follow gave the match 4 ½ to 5 stars, and I agree. It was the highlight of the night. In that instance, yes, at least ½ the fans were rooting for the bad guy, CM Punk, but the point wasn’t to disrupt the broadcast. It was to show their love for a great performer. Chanting Punk’s name is very different from chanting “same old shit” towards John Cena and The Rock.
In baseball they would call Punk a five-tool player. He’s a charismatic speaker. He can emote very nuanced reactions for the TV close-ups. He can gesture broadly to get a response from the live audience in the balcony. He’s graceful in the ring, and he knows a broad variety of tactics to make each match feel unique. He can play an identifiable good guy or a despicable bad guy more or less equally well. He’s just got the total package.
Two other wrestlers, Dolph Ziggler and Daniel Bryan, lose more often than they win, but the decibel level for their brief appearances can often exceed those for the better promoted stars. Fans create elaborate signs on poster board and fabric to waive in tribute to them. I think in all fairness they’re probably not quite as charismatic as guys like The Rock or Cena, but they’re better natural athletes and great performers just the same. The fact that they so often draw the short straw when it comes to wins and losses just makes fans respect them more for paying their dues.
(MORE TO COME)