Is the WWE Universe Willing to Trust the Process?
A powerful movement has recently engulfed my hometown of Philadelphia; a movement so strong that it has become impossible to ignore. Its heavy presence can be felt whether you’re in the depleted inner-city streets of Kensington, the middle-class neighborhoods of the northeast (where I’m originally from) or the posh avenues of The Main Line. You can’t walk the streets, drive the roads, listen to the radio or patronize a corner store for a soft drink – which now costs less than the new sales taxes associated with it – in the City of Brotherly Love without seeing or hearing the phrase, Trust the Process.
This simple directive has managed to unite the fifth largest population of people within an American city seemingly overnight; a universal battle cry at a time when successfully achieving a consensus on the simplest of truths has become a vexing exercise in futility. Who is responsible for this movement, you ask? The Philadelphia 76ers. That’s right, the city’s professional basketball franchise; a team that has experienced an especially depressing winning percentage for the better part of the last decade. We’re talking hard times bad enough to make Dusty Rhodes himself consider throwing in the towel.
So what does any of this have to do with pro wrestling? Quite a bit actually, particularly as it pertains to WWE.
The storied histories of the 76ers and WWE actually share quite a bit in common, more so than I’ve ever realized until recently. The foundation of the city’s basketball franchise was forged in the 1960s (when the team was still known as the Philadelphia Warriors) thanks to a single player, Wilt Chamberlain. In 1963, one year after Chamberlain became the first player in NBA history to score 100 points, Capitol Wrestling separated from the National Wrestling Alliance, was renamed World Wide Wrestling Federation and took the northeastern territories by storm with a dominating star of its own, Bruno Sammartino. Each franchise would enjoy ownership of the most popular attraction in the respective mediums for the remainder of the decade. In 1967 the renamed 76ers became the first team not named the Boston Celtics to win an NBA title in eight years. While the Sixers were interrupting a dynasty, Sammartino was establishing one – holding the WWWF title from 1963-1971.
The 1970s were a decade of change for both entities; success had not disappeared but it certainly looked different. An aging Chamberlain was replaced by a core of younger and multi-faceted players fit to keep pace with the fast-evolving sport. Sammartino, while still considered a main eventer for most of the decade, would be supplemented with Andre ‘The Giant’, who became the WWWF’s top attraction in 1973.
The 1980s are considered the golden age of both franchises. The jaw-dropping talents of future Hall of Famers, Moses Malone and Julius ‘Dr. J’ Erving (among others) earned the Sixers three conference titles. In 1983, a month prior to my birth, the Sixers won the NBA title in decisive fashion, losing just a single playoff game in the process. Of course the 1980s were even more kind to the franchise renamed World Wrestling Federation in 1979. Under the laser-focused guidance of Vince McMahon Jr. the professional wrestling industry was turned upside down; we all know the story.
By the early 1990s the Sixers and the WWF were both shells of their former selves. Between the years 1992 and 1995 the Sixers averaged a meager 23 wins a year and became the laughing stock of the NBA. Over the same period the WWF depreciated at a rate most private companies do not survive; rampant drug abuse and allegations of an illegal steroid distribution ring ultimately led to a Federal indictment of McMahon; we all know that story too. Though Vince was eventually found not guilty in 1994 the effects of those tumultuous years did not disappear overnight. The WWF went from a pop culture phenomenon to a punch line. In 1995 alone the promotion lost $6 million dollars and was dangerously close to declaring bankruptcy.
1996 brought with it new hope on multiple fronts. The Sixers drafted a scrappy player from Georgetown, who lacked size but more than made up for it with a defiant bravado and an unparalleled will to win. His name was Allen Iverson.
That same year a brash and oft underutilized wrestler by the name of Steve Austin began his meteoric rise to superstardom.
By the end of the decade both the Sixers and the WWF had new life and new polarizing attitudes.
The comparisons actually continue but let’s fast-forward to the present day. Only a couple teams have fewer wins than the Sixers in the current NBA campaign and that is a vast improvement from recent years; last season the team earned just 10 wins in 82 games played. Of course, WWE doesn’t maintain a win/loss record, but if one such record was established using television ratings as a barometer it would be fair to say WWE’s record would resemble that of the Sixers’ more than the promotion would like to admit. Years of embarrassingly low win totals have helped the Sixers accumulate several desirable draft positions, many of those draft picks have been used to acquire raw talent with the potential to transform into elite players. Other picks have been traded away for future draft picks deemed more valuable than real production on the court at this point in time. The more the Sixers lose the more potentially transformative draft picks the team obtains; bypassing the traditional progression of a rebuilding franchise in favor of a more fruitful worst-to-first evolution. That’s the theory anyway. That’s the process in which Philadelphians have placed their trust. And so a city notorious for its inability to digest losing sports franchises now cheers each Sixers loss with the same passion they used to cheer wins.
One of those potentially transformative players is center Joel Embiid. The seven-foot superstar was among the top college players of his time and has displayed the ability to transfer his game to the professional level; averaging 20 points and eight rebounds a game. Embiid, a huge WWE fan who has recently taken to recreating Triple H’s infamous ringside entrance during pregame introductions, most definitely trusts the process. Recently Embiid took to Twitter to ask Triple H if WWE was ready for ‘The Process’. While the big man was likely just having some fun with a childhood hero on social media, the tweet sparked something in my brain that I haven’t been able to ignore since.
I learned this by watching you, @TripleH
Is the @WWE ready for The Process?
— Joel Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) January 12, 2017
WWE is in the midst of its own process.
To call it a rebuilding process would not be entirely accurate but the winds of change have quietly begun to howl in Stamford, Connecticut. The promotion appears to have been purposely fractured into two seemingly independent entities. Everything we see on television — the twists and turns of every story, the development of every main roster character, the directions of every pay-per view — are under the firm control of the master puppeteer, Vince McMahon. Then there is the proverbial B-side — The Performance Center and talent development programs, NXT and Network Specials — which is under the control of Triple H, WWE’s heir apparent.
Over the last two plus years everything from the creative approach to the presentation of the two products have been vastly different; the most tangible difference being the willingness of the audience to accept one version (Triple H’s) over the other. Triple H’s version of modern pro wrestling (ranging from the talent acquired and pushed, the structure of weekly television and the psychological devices used to support creative direction) looks and feels much different than the version that currently controls the main roster. This obvious contrast has been a valuable tool for main roster detractors when articulating their growing unhappiness. This brings me back to those three innocent words, trust the process.
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) January 14, 2017
Embiid’s recent round of WWE-related tweets proved to be more profound than he likely intended. A large portion of WWE fans are not happy; they’re not happy about Roman Reigns being the guy; not happy about authority figures maintaining a dominate creative role on weekly television; not happy about cookie-cutter heels and uninspiring babyfaces; not happy about the lack of continuity between the main roster product and the more fulfilling secondary level product crafted in NXT. If the aforementioned television win/loss record did exist you can bet fans would not be happy about it. Though Vince has shown no signs of slowing down, he has clearly established Triple H as the successor to his creative empire. Triple H has been busy building a new foundation for the empire he is set to inherit; a process all his own. And so all of this begs the question; can WWE fans learn to trust the process?
A major concern heading into this Sunday’s Royal Rumble is the creative future of Universal Champion, Kevin Owens and WWE Champion, AJ Styles. As we prepare to embark on WWE’s most important creative period of the calendar year, many fans worry that this year’s Rumble will serve as the catalyst to remove both popular characters from the WrestleMania main event picture in favor of less popular talent Vince associates with being worthy of such slots (Reigns and John Cena). But what if fans chose to focus on the underlying process in play instead; the process that ultimately brought Owens and Styles (and others of the same ilk) to the main roster to begin with.
Events like last week’s United Kingdom Championship, last summer’s Cruiserweight Classic and any number of NXT TakeOver events highlight just how in tune Triple H’s process actually is with today’s viewer; top level talent and compelling storytelling that will no doubt transfer to the main roster when the peaceful transition of pro wrestling power eventually takes place and Triple H assumes the role of the most powerful pro wrestling impresario in the world.
WWE’s future is bright, even if its present is somewhat cloudy.
Like Sixers fans, WWE fans are chomping at the bit to experience that special feeling again; the natural suspension of disbelief that occurs when the magic of athletic talent, creativity and compelling drama all blend together for an experience that leaves you wanting more. In other words, WWE fans want to win again. And they will. You don’t have to trust me…just trust the process.