Pro wrestling, when viewed through the lenses of a child, can be as pure as the driven snow. In 1990 I was an impressionable seven-year-old obsessed with the action and heroes pro wrestling provided and dismissive of just about everything else in the world around me. The first time I saw The Undertaker walk to the ring; the disconcerting echo of an organ playing in the background, I was instantly drawn to the character and completely terrified at the same time. A year later that fear dissolved when The Undertaker actually pinned Hulk Hogan and won the WWE Championship.
Most kids my age undoubtedly viewed Hogan as a demigod at the time; an unstoppable force of good; a superhero. Not me, but that’s another story for another time. The Undertaker’s title win, however brief, was my first experience witnessing something I previously believed to be impossible- an influential moment for all young pro wrestling fans. It was then that the medium became more than something I just watched on television like Saturday morning cartoons, but rather something I actively participated in. It was as if a switch went off in my brain making it clear that the matches I was watching weren’t taking place in a vacuum, I was allowed to have a vested interest in the outcome. On a subconscious level I stopped viewing the performers as television characters and started viewing them as real people – even if they were of the undead variety.
The Undertaker was the character that allowed me to step through that imaginary door and plunge down the winding kayfabe rabbit hole. Undertaker officially turned babyface shortly after his feud with Hogan, using his powers of the darkside to slay every monster Harvey Wippleman could find. The architecture of Undertaker’s character made it difficult to view him as a traditional hero. Instead, he was more of a mythological conqueror; a real life version of Odysseus or Sinbad with a little Michael Myers thrown in for good measure. The Undertaker may not have been my hero but he certainly showed me that heroes could exist within the confines of the squared circle.
Bret Hart was my first real childhood hero in every sense of the word. The Hitman represented everything I thought a hero should be, he didn’t shy away from a challenge, always backed his words with action and he was cool in an understated way that made him different from every other babyface on the roster. Looking back on those days it’s difficult to imagine watching wrestling without the presence of a hero like Hart to support unconditionally. Without one, it’s quite possible I would have slowly strayed away from the medium entirely as I became more interested in other things.
The presence of an incorruptible, white-meat babyface at the top of the WWE mountain has been a staple of the McMahon brand of pro wrestling for over half a century. It’s the one fundamental law that has withstood the test of time since the birth of the World Wide Wrestling Federation in 1962 and each of the promotion’s subsequent reincarnations. Vincent J. McMahon introduced the law, which I affectionately refer to as The McMahon Doctrine, not long after opting out of the National Wrestling Alliance.
Building the McMahon Doctrine
The McMahon Doctrine requires all major events within a promotion to go through a single, larger than life protagonist character. Once established, this character must be fed a steady dose of heels in order to maintain his supreme hero status. This hero may encounter adversity but he may never be bested. The equity earned from this hero over the course of time is then distributed throughout the promotion to establish other stars. No star, however, can ever reach equal status with the supreme hero; his prominence must never be called into question by the audience.
For many readers, particularly the ones under the age of 30, the philosophy just described is not a philosophy at all, but rather a simplified explanation of how pro wrestling works. Those of us who are a bit longer in the tooth can remember pro wrestling outside the strict confines of the WWE universe. A time when pro wrestling was still a territorial republic under the banner of NWA; every territory had a distinct style and formula in terms of presentation and storytelling methodology.
The McMahon Doctrine is largely responsible for the unprecedented success that transformed WWE from a regional independent promotion into a billion-dollar global empire in less than 50 years. McMahon Sr. set the precedent with Bruno Sammartino and Bob Backlund, each of whom held firm atop the summit for nearly a decade. Madison Square Garden, The Philadelphia Spectrum and the Boston Garden became pro wrestling hallowed ground from the sweat spilled by those two untouchable heroes.
Not long after assuming the helm, Vince Jr. tore down most every facet of his father’s business in order to fulfill his global sports entertainment vision. The McMahon Doctrine, however, was left untouched, serving as a pseudo theological booking guide closed to interpretation or revision. The doctrine was used to create Hulk Hogan and a revolution that ultimately lifted pro wrestling out of smoke-filled halls and into massive sporting arenas.
A fresh supreme hero was molded, polished and presented as the face of the WWE – of pro wrestling – for each new generation of WWE fans. For me it was The Excellence of Execution. For those like my younger brother it was Shawn Michaels. For those who previously held their nose at the mere mention of pro wrestling it was Steve Austin or The Rock. For millennials it was John Cena. The foundation of one’s WWE fandom is based on their ability to see one or more of these talented performers as their hero at one point in time. It is the basis of which all other time as a fan is predicated upon, even after the veil is lifted and the magic of pro wrestling becomes exposed.
At least it was.
A careful examination of the current WWE roster produces a troublesome question, where have all the heroes gone? WWE’s failure to create a viable successor to Cena not only sullied how the current audience has viewed Cena for the latter part of his run, but runs the risk of alienating an entire generation of potential new fans. WWE has never operated under such a prolonged period with such an absence of a supreme hero.
Who Are the New Heroes?
Sure there was Daniel Bryan, but he was the manifestation of the audience, not the McMahon Doctrine. Bryan was anything but untouchable; certainly not unbeatable. Bryan was the ultimate underdog. He won just enough to make his defeats meaningful and not the other way around. When he did finally reach the mountaintop he was present long enough for WWE to rewrite his character’s history and send him down the road of fabricated immortality. Sadly, Dean Ambrose, a tremendous candidate for the role of supreme hero, appears to have been chosen as the next ultimate underdog. Underdogs cannot be supreme heroes; their appeal lies in the impracticality of victory. The transition from underdog to standard bearer is the basis for a heel turn, not hero status.
And then there’s Roman Reigns. When booked correctly Reigns is precisely as Paul Heyman calls him, a Samoan badass; a modern day incarnation of Achilles, who destroys all who enter his path. But Achilles was not a hero, a tragic hero perhaps but certainly not a traditional hero. Warriors fight because it’s their job to do so, it’s the only thing they’re good at. They are respected, even honored but hardly ever considered heroes. The line between good and evil does not exist with warriors, only opposing sides of battling forces. Warriors make compelling characters (Brock Lesnar is a better example than Reigns) but not heroes.
When booked poorly Reigns is presented as a sympathetic figure; a clumsy underdog or a victim of circumstance. The McMahon Doctrine has never allowed for a supreme hero to be booked in such a manner. A supreme hero does not garner sympathy he instills confidence. He is not outsmarted by devious heels; he is always in a position to deliver justice. The supreme hero is the smartest man in the ring, the most inspiring babyface on the roster. The supreme hero is not Roman Reigns.
WWE is rapidly approaching a vital crossroads, one that could potentially change the creative course of the promotion for the next half century. Either a new supreme hero will be identified and created in the near future using the tenets of the McMahon Doctrine, or the longstanding law will finally be vetoed in favor of a new approach. There is no right or wrong answer, both options present an opportunity to present compelling stories. The status quo, on the other hand, is not an option.
A promotion that presents the same similar characters taking turns winning and losing the same championship is not compelling storytelling, it’s not compelling pro wrestling and it’s not compelling sports entertainment– it’s the NBA.