The Masked Man, of former Dead Wrestler of the Week fame and currently writing at Bill Simmon’s Grantland, recently analysed Daniel Bryan’s elevation to the upper card during the build to SummerSlam. It’s a good read–so is his piece from last year on Bryan–but, like many who opine on pro wrestling, it suffers from being too caught up in the now, and of misrepresenting the reality of WWE’s mass audience.
Masked Man had it right when he wrote last year that fans have known pro wrestling isn’t on the level for at least the past century. The April 14 1912 edition of Seattle Times has sportswriter Hugh E. Knough lamenting:
There is only one excuse for professional wrestling, and that is the absence of boxing… It is ‘an exhibition’ game, which … cannot support its players as anything else. Far worse than being crooked, it is stupid. One can overlook the crooked part of it, as one does not have to be deceived, but its stupidity is unforgivable.
Not kind words. This is 1912 and he’s talking like everyone knew it was fixed… because it seems everyone did. 1912 and it’s already old news.
Through territories and time, different promoters have approached the fakery of pro-wrestling in different ways. Where the opinions of Masked Man and myself differ is here: In modern WWE, there has been no grand paradigm shift in creative direction when it comes to working off of news reported outside the WWE Universe. We have not entered a new Reality Era in WWE storytelling or an unprecedented “bizarro, hyper-self-aware moment” necessitated by the circle of new smart fans on the internet. Wink-wink references to Dutch Mantel, to Van Dam’s pot use, to Vince’s predilection for big men… they all pale in comparison to the “reality” of modern wrestling’s most infamous self-stylized writer.
Enter Vince Russo. Feel free to skip to 12:42, but the entire forty-five minute episode is full of ridiculousness.
In this episode of WWF Livewire from 1996, Vince Russo as Vic Venom plays a disgruntled hardcore fan/newsletter writer berating Mr. McMahon in studio, with Paul Heyman calling in to do the same from the vantage point of ECW. Venom, among other “shoot” commentaries, confronts Michael Hayes for using the name Dok Henrdix. Heyman parrots the newsletter talking point of the time that WWF is stealing ideas from ECW. This kind of worked-shoot based off backstage scuttlebutt was the hallmark of Vince Russo’s writing style, and the ridiculous lengths that Russo eventually went to incorporate reality are well-known at this point.
The more subtle winks to the insider fan are nothing new. For example, poorly-hidden gay jokes about Pat Patterson were peppered throughout the 1980s. And neither is the section of the crowd that would cheer for who they were going to cheer for regardless of their face-heel alignment. Even before Ric Flair as the dirtiest player in the game was beloved by fans for his cheatin’ ways, sections of fans and whole cities cheered wildly for him despite his heel alignment.
One of Russo’s more damaging misunderstandings was presupposing that a majority of fans were clued in to what was being copied and pasted around the web. A widely cited example of this came during WCW’s failed reboot. Heel authority figure Eric Bischoff jeeringly asked WCW Champion Sid Vicious if he had “forgot his scissors”. The commentators were shocked at the gall Bischoff had. He was crossing the line bringing up something that had never been mentioned on television and only reported on the web. Sid had stabbed Arn Anderson in a hotel fight seven years prior, and Bischoff’s mentioning of this was supposed to be a high point in the segment, but the crowd doesn’t respond. Bischoff delivers the line again, to similar disinterest from the crowd. Don’t these people read the Observer?
By 2000, a majority of Americans had internet access, but a majority of wrestling’s audience weren’t interested in keeping tabs on backstage lore.
Since the internet, as it did with all information, made more accessible the secrets of pro wrestling, the mantra of “if it didn’t happen on TV, it didn’t happen at all” has held true. That’s the takeaway of Vince Russo’s stint in WWF all the way through WWE running promos on their constantly-pushed app. The majority of viewers have made it clear that if it doesn’t happen on Raw or a PPV, it doesn’t factor into their equation. Therefore, when Masked Man asserts, “In the information age there are few secrets, and in the era of smarks there are even fewer surprises. The only power the wrestling company has left is to exploit the fact that we’re clued in”, he misunderstands in what way the mass WWE audience is clued-in. Fans have known pro wrestling is a work for one hundred years, but that’s remained the extent of it. Most fans aren’t checking PWInsider regularly. To expect that your average WWE fan is watching Raw, Smackdown, PPVs, and then reading more about it online, including at backstage news sites is a bit out of touch.
So when writers — whether they be working in the industry or analyzing the product from the outside — blanketly espouse the benefits of writing for the news site-reading hardcore crowd, they’re working against all evidence.
Let’s compare two nearly-equally successful, but radically different, PPV builds:
CM Punk’s Money in the Bank 2011 main event.
Ryback’s first title shot at Hell in a Cell 2012.
CM Punk’s post-pipebomb Money in the Bank did 144,000 North American buys, approximately 48,000 more than the year prior.
Ryback’s first title shot at Hell in a Cell 2012 coming off a winning streak did 152,000 North American buys, approximately 59,000 more than the year prior and just 7,000 fewer buys than Brock Lesnar’s return to a WWE ring earlier that year. Ryback’s main event was without any insider wink-and-a-nods, with a rising star who by all rights should have been despised by hardcore fans if the the workrate-obsessed caricature of us is to be believed. The takeaway? Ryback as an intense, unstoppable monster and Punk as an anti-corporate rebel were both equally believable in the eyes of WWE’s mass audience. Believability is the common factor, but believability isn’t dependent upon appealing to what hardcore fans feel reality is.
Don’t misunderstand me. CM Punk became a star after his 2011 Summer of Punk, but shootouts to New Japan Pro Wrestling and Colt Cabana lighting up the social feeds of a relatively small circle of hardcore fans wasn’t what got him there. He beat John Cena in the midst of a heated angle centered on his threats to bolt with the WWE Championship –an angle that really drove home the point that who won and who lost had serious consequences. For the first time it what seemed like a long time tension was injected back into the equation. Whether his contract was really up or not was irrelevant for most fans.
Jim Cornette recently retold a piece of advice passed on to him from Jerry Jarrett:
Tell the fans the truth as much as you can, for as long as you can because then when you work them, they’ll think well A was the truth, B was the truth, and C was the truth, [so] maybe D is the truth too.’ Don’t give them a bunch of bullshit from day one. Tell them the truth from day one and then when you wanna work them, then you can slide that little white one in there.”
It falls in line with the old truism that the most successful guys are the ones that take an aspect of who they really are and turn it up to 11: Ric Flair, Jeff Hardy, Bruno Sammartino, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Terry Funk, Harley Race, Lou Albano, Shawn Michaels in the late 1990s and the modern-day Paul Heyman. So I’m not saying that incorporating real-life into wrestling is irrelevant. Kurt Angle was a star out of the gate partially because he could be pushed as a former Olympic gold medalist in wrestling. It helped people buy into him. I am saying that, unless the WWE pushes it on television, it hasn’t entered the consciousness of WWE’s mass audience. And when it’s pushed on television, it stops being “real” and becomes pro wrestling.
Similarly, Masked Man’s assertion that Daniel Bryan had “no legitimate claim to the SummerSlam main event, aside from widespread Internet speculation that Bryan was being penciled in for the match” goes against the past two months of WWE television. In June, Daniel Bryan was the man who virtually single-handedly ended The Shield’s trios match winning streak, an event replayed repeatedly, and pushed majorly as a big deal on Raw. In July, he had a string of impressive and decisive wins over Randy Orton, the low man in the Cena-Punk-Orton top dog triumvirate. He’s been featured in top-of-the-hour segments reserved for big talent. Wrestling 101 says that if the guy can hang, and beat, top tier talent consistently–and the promotion gives them primo mic time — he’s top tier talent as well. The average Raw fan is smart enough to get when a guy has momentum on TV. If Daniel Bryan wasn’t the most deserving challenger to John Cena’s WWE Championship… who was? He certainly had a better claim that Mark Henry did a month prior.
If all it took was Daniel Bryan being rejected by Vince McMahon to be wildly embraced by WWE fans, he would have been where he is now when he debuted three years ago. But he wasn’t. So we see that wins and losses on television do still matter (a lot) in the eyes of the fans, as does getting mic time, and (possibly) so does Bryan’s bulked-up physique make his hanging with heavyweights seem more believable.
To most fans, Vince McMahon’s on-screen dislike of Daniel Bryan is just another in a long string of on-air McMahon vs. rising rebel feuds, a template used most recently by CM Punk.
But I do agree with Masked Man when he says something different is in the air. We’re approaching the light at the end of a years-long tunnel that saw no new young stars created. The sea change in WWE is the furthering of a trend which previously peaked in 2004 where smaller men such as Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero were holding the top titles and main eventing. Just as Eddie rang in a new (albeit brief) era, we have Punk to thank for paving the way in WWE showing, again, that with the promotion’s backing, smaller men can hang at the top of the card. WWE is comfortable again with mortal-sized men.
As far as what Vince McMahon really feels about Daniel Bryan? Most people just don’t care.
AND THAT’S ME REALLY SHOOTIN’, BRO.