Pro wrestling has undergone more change in the past year than in the entire span of the previous decade and a half, with vast and exciting implications for working wrestlers. Unthinkable even two years ago, All Elite Wrestling’s ALL OUT featured several voluntary exiles from WWE doing work far superior to their output in WWE, in top spots far above their positioning in WWE. NXT’s debut on USA may mark the official launch of the Wednesday Night War in just a couple weeks, but this war really began when contract negotiations between The Fed and The Elite fell through. This opened the door for Tony Khan and his plan to start a new promotion. Suddenly, the wrestling industry became a worker’s market.
The list of wrestlers who left the company and proved much better performers and much more valuable assets to competing promotions than they were ever allowed to be under WWE auspices continues to grow. It’s a damning indictment of WWE’s creative process and promotional machine to witness the success of previously misused talents like Cody Rhodes, Chris Jericho, Jon Moxley, PAC, and even former NXT wrestlers like Juice Robinson. In an interesting case, Drew McIntyre totally reinvented himself and did career-best work on his indie run, eventually even earning himself a triumphant return to the “Big Leagues” where he got a super cool job as the sidekick to the Chairman’s son.
The revelation that the WWE machine might be less of a springboard and more of an obstacle for wrestlers trying to realize their potential has exposed an oft-ignored underlying reality which has serious implications for the whole business: WWE is not exactly failing in the task of capitalizing on their performers’ abilities and making the most of their potential, because underutilizing wrestlers and limiting their marketability as individuals is actually an integral feature of the process. The Fed is an edifice propped up by its brand value and its industry dominance and the foundation of its business model is the maximal transfer of a wrestler’s market value to The WWE Brand.
Unlike the traditional promotional model where business depended on money drawing stars driving fans to buy tickets and pay per views and the like, the overwhelming bulk of WWE’s revenue is derived from rights fees and agreements with even larger corporations and entities that want to leverage The WWE Brand for advertising revenue and beneficial public relations. These days the object of the creative process is to absorb the star power of the wrestlers into The WWE Brand and for the wrestler to add as much value as possible to The Brand and retain as little value as possible for themselves.
This isn’t a cynical judgment or caricature of miserly old Vince McMahon; it’s the demonstrable function of the system. Make whatever you will of his “intent,” but few dispute that Vince has a rather rigid and reductive preconceived image of what a star looks, talks, moves, and wrestles like, even if that image has evolved some over the years. The creative process is a tightly calibrated machine designed to mold wrestlers into Vince’s vision of a star. It is calculated to squeeze square pegs into round holes, and any qualities a performer has that get blunted in the process of rounding off those edges inevitably won’t make it to TV. Passing talent through the filters of scripted promos, generic new names, interchangeable segments, and patterned matches drains them of the unique qualities that give them personality and identity and allow them to shine.
This is why Dean Ambrose felt kind of like the Jon Moxley we know now, but with a lobotomy. They put phony, corny words in his mouth and sent him out to the ring with strict orders to wrestle basically the same match almost every night—but they couldn’t rob him of his charisma. Every time he ran up against the creative brick wall that is Vince McMahon, his attitude was ‘if anybody can make it work, it’s me.’
Sadly that kind of (un)collaborative relationship seems to be exactly what Vince is looking for from his talent. The raw charisma and vitality Moxley breathed into an otherwise lifeless and clichéd script is the value he added to The Brand. Other performers may bring workrate or a good look to the table, but they’re all limited to showing those qualities only if they can adapt them to Vince’s “Superstar” mold. In speaking Vince’s words, inevitably with half the feeling they could muster if they were speaking for themselves, few performers can project any personality or communicate what it is that makes them interesting or worth caring about.
And that appears to be the point, because any unique qualities that might get the fans to really invest in an individual wrestler are the qualities the wrestlers can take with them if and when they leave WWE. Creative control is power in wrestling, and in the hands of a wrestler it is a substantial source of negotiating power that a promoter like Vince probably just sees as an open threat.
That may seem like too pointed a reading of Vince’s intentions, but it helps to revisit the context that ushered in the brand-first promotional model after WWE monopolized the industry. Surely Vince Jr. has been ruthlessly snuffing out attempts to build worker power since the day Vince Sr. handed over the keys, and Jesse Ventura can attest to that, but Montreal is perhaps the most important flashpoint in this story.
The Montreal Screwjob should be understood as a brutal and decisive blow struck in the class war Vince has waged against his workers all these years. The fact that a dominant narrative around the event’s legacy has been to ‘both sides’ the issue and shame Bret Hart’s decision not to do the honors that night reveals a great deal about the toxic effect of Vince’s unchecked power in American pro wrestling. Hart negotiated for himself an unprecedented contractual right to decisively influence how his exit from WWF would be framed. It was a measure designed to protect himself from burial, and to protect his market value.
The story has been subject to enough mythmaking and speculation to obscure the proper context, but that context is important: Vince decided that Harthad to lose in Montreal rather than the following month in Massachusetts as they’d previously agreed, effectively concluding the Canada vs. USA angle with the Canadian babyface suffering a humiliating defeat to a hated American rival in Canada and promptly fleeing the territory. You could be forgiven for interpreting that booking as an attempt to damage Hart’s hard-earned status as a major draw in an important market that WCW was planning to take advantage of.
Vince bringing the hammer down like this would also reestablish to his workers that the promoter had full creative control and none of them could expect to protect their stock-in-trade as Hart had. The fact that he used the infamous “Vince Jedi Mind Trick” to persuade Hart’s former colleagues that Hart was wrong and breaking his contractual obligations to Hart was best for all of them is a frustrating failure of worker solidarity and a sad case of an exploitative boss fooling workers into believing that his interests were also their interests.
In the subsequent years WWF’s business experienced a pattern of successes won by promoting major stars “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Rock, and Brock Lesnar, all of which eventually ebbed in the natural course of those stars’ declines and exits. By letting these performers shine and promoting them like the attractions they were, Vince made a lot of money—but these megastars couldn’t be sustainable revenue streams if they kept moving on from Vince’s company… These damned independent-minded human beings with their own lives and plans and interests had the power to just decide they didn’t want to be Vince’s infinitely milk-able cash cows anymore. Infuriating.
What Vince needed was a new cash cow, but one that wouldn’t go away. Couldn’t go away. Vince needed a star performer with all the charisma and marketability of the last few guys, but one who wasn’t such a strong personality or supremely gifted athlete that he might do something foolish like become a major movie star or go try his luck in another pro sport. Vince needed a guy who wouldn’t overpower the rest of the show and could be relied upon to competently recite scripted jokes and wave the WWE flag at all times.
Enter John Cena, company man.
All of this is obviously known history but it bears repeating because the homogenization of the John Cena character became the model for the process by which WWE would present and promote stars from then on. Roman Reigns was subjected to the same push, the same homogenization and superhero booking, and it suffocated his bid for top drawing babyface status in the crib. The creative process was honed to round off the edges of wrestlers’ personalities and make them vessels for Vince’s jokes and Brandspeak and it is applied to every minute of the show, at every level of the card.
The ladder from midcard to main event seems to have vanished. Midcard hell kind of just bloated and swallowed everybody except Vince’s “special attraction” part-timers. The blunting of personalities combined with 50/50 booking has completely flattened any distinguishing characteristics that might give fans the impression that any one wrestler is better or more deserving of our support than the others. If every WWE wrestler is a Superstar, than none of them is really a superstar. That seems to be the image The Brand is designed to project: the illusion of the star power of past legends, transposed onto talented performers who aren’t allowed to stand out from the pack enough to make a difference one way or the other to the bottom line.
Wrestling booms have historically come on the back of standout characters with big personalities building a passionate fanbase and transcending the promotion, the sport, and the niche audience of invested pro wrestling fans. I know we’re all waiting with bated breath to see what the exposure on FOX does for business, but it shouldn’t be all that controversial to say that sustainable growth seems unlikely in an environment designed to subdue the kind of individual creativity and mold-breaking charisma that made Steve Austin must-see TV.
If like me you believe that micromanaging the pulse out of previously vital and exciting performers and shifting them back and forth between interchangeable segments and meaningless feuds is a contributor to the decline in interest, a fundamental overhaul of the product may be in order. But the incentive to make these changes won’t be there unless The WWE Brand is devalued in the eyes of the big-money benefactors who provide WWE its primary revenue streams. Until that time, Vince McMahon can continue feasting on the blood of every rising star in the sport and subsuming their energy into The Almighty Brand.
With that in mind, wrestlers ought to have realistic expectations of the opportunities offered to them by WWE and by its competitors. If they sign with WWE, the potential for exposure is unparalleled, and doing their best with creative limitations as stars like Moxley have could make them an extremely hot property- and the likelihood is that they’ll make a lot of money, more than elsewhere in most if not all cases. But eyes should be open about the fact that squandering talent is essentially WWE’s business model right now.
If they take their chances with emerging competitors they can control their destiny to an extent Vince McMahon would never allow, as the likes of Moxley, Cody, and Jericho have shown in New Japan, AEW, and elsewhere. The prospects for trying new things and working with fresh opponents will renew their appeal to an audience beyond the WWE fans who were conditioned to take them for granted; the work they do will be their own and the ceiling on their market value and growth as performers could well be higher.
If AEW can live up to Cody’s promise to let wrestlers “play their song their way” then it will offer ambitious wrestlers a better chance to prove themselves in performance and marketability than WWE does. A promotion aiming to get wrestlers over as stars in their own right, who are unique and impactful as individuals rather than just another character on a TV show, could give workers a chance to prove their market value concretely. Success in that environment might even have a better long term impact on a wrestler’s negotiating position and marketability than a higher paying job floating aimlessly around WWE’s midcard.
By cutting their losses in WWE and finding success on their own terms wrestlers like Moxley, Cody and PAC represent a couple questions every wrestler should be considering as they field offers. How do I value my creative expression and the pride I take in my work compared to money? Am I worth more than I’m being allowed to show? Is the inflexible position my out-of-touch boss has slotted me into actually diminishing my value and placing an impenetrable ceiling on my earnings?
Wrestlers might look at the emergence of major league alternatives to WWE as a challenge. Of course it makes all the sense in the world to accept a secure and lucrative job with the industry leader and any wrestler who does deserves congratulations and best wishes. But if your ambition is to get over on your merits and make a statement about who you are as a professional wrestler, greener pastures may await you.