There is a common strategy in professional wrestling, often employed by outmatched heels to ensure victory. Someone or something is used as a distraction to draw the referee’s attention away from the action, allowing the heel to cheat, often by using a “foreign object” against their opponent. By the time the referee is back and focused on the action again, the babyface is miraculously on their back, and the referee has no choice but to count 1, 2, 3 and award victory to the heel. It’s a trope as old as wrestling itself and one you can’t help but admire how blatantly and successfully the WWE itself is using right now to draw our attention away from a situation that has them outmatched and in the middle of what is the worst crisis in the company’s history.
On January 25, 2024, the Wall Street Journal revealed horrific allegations against the long-time chairman and CEO of the WWE, Vince McMahon, detailing incidents of sexual assault, sex trafficking, and hush money payments made by a former employee who is suing McMahon and the WWE. McMahon, who stepped down as CEO and chairman of WWE in July of 2022 after unrecorded payments connected to sexual misconduct, eventually totaling 19.6 million dollars, were uncovered, has faced accusations of rape and sexual assault going back to 1992. Six months after stepping down in 2022, McMahon, the majority shareholder at the time, was brought back into the company in part to facilitate a sale to the TKO group (bringing UFC and WWE under the same public banner), before stepping down again on January 26, after the details of the most recent lawsuit were made public. The most recent allegations, if proven, reveal a predator who could rival Harvey Weinstein in his abuse of unchecked power and the support for that abuse by those who surround him.
A multi-billion dollar entertainment product that is dismissed by most media as not far removed from its traveling carnival roots in terms of cultural importance, struck a five billion dollar deal with Netflix the same week. Vince McMahon, along with two stars he helped create, Paul Levesque and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, helped ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange and introduced Dwayne Johnson as the newest board member of TKO Group, just days before the allegations were made public.
In the same week the Netflix deal was signed, the WWE was hosting their second biggest event of the year, Royal Rumble, promising to pave the road to their biggest event, WrestleMania, in March. Despite that positivity, the allegations against McMahon and the WWE threatened to take all the oxygen. At a press conference following the Royal Rumble (only three days after the allegations against McMahon were made public), Paul Levesque, Chief Content Officer of the WWE, insisted it was “an amazing week” for the WWE.
Things were looking bad. For a company that built itself on blurring the lines between kayfabe and reality, the reality was threatening to run over all the good news the WWE wanted the public to focus on. A foreign object was needed.
What the WWE has that most media companies need is a minimum of seven hours of live television a week to control and change narratives surrounding the company. 24 hours after Paul Levesque fumbled his company’s response, he had three hours of television to program. Cody Rhodes, winner of the Royal Rumble and involved in a nearly two-year story to face current WWE champion Roman Reigns, had all the momentum and was one of the most backed and supported faces in recent WWE history. After winning the Rumble on Sunday, he pointed to and addressed Reigns directly in the audience, and the road to WrestleMania seemed set.
Enter the newest board member of TKO Group Holdings and the biggest crossover star in the history of the WWE, The Rock. As two hours of Friday night programming came to its close, Cody Rhodes stood across from Roman Reigns, amping the crowd up for a chance to “finish his story” and set the WrestleMania main event. The Rock’s iconic music hit, and Cody passed his opportunity to the bigger star. As Monday Night Wrestling came to a close, it seemed the main event for the biggest show of the year was set, and The Rock would face his cousin Roman Reigns. Cody Rhodes – the man who had spent two years working to this point walked out of the ring, cucked by the new member of the board and forced to finish his story another time.
Or did he? Or did they? Will Cody finish his story? Is the Rock back? Does it matter when, in the same week, the owner and creative leader of this organization for over 40 years has been alleged to run a multibillion-dollar company that preys on women and silences them? It shouldn’t, but a week later, it’s clear that the distraction has worked. A company whose laziest storytelling is the “distraction finish” could be running the same thing on the public and the media right now, and it’s working to a tee.
Behind the star power of the returning Dwayne Johnson and the sympathetic Cody Rhodes, fans and major media outlets, including Busted Open, ESPN, Forbes, Sports Illustrated and TMZ are changing the story from a real injustice to one built in kayfabe that promises to dominate the road to WrestleMania and draw the questions away from how this business is alleged to have aided and abetted an alleged violent sexual criminal on par with some of the most egregious abusers of power in the entertainment industry.
At its best, professional wrestling reflects and distracts from the real world. It can be embarrassing to be a fan of professional wrestling – Yes, we know it’s fake, folks, but it doesn’t discount or change the stories it’s capable of telling and the positive it can and does do. When these very real moments happen, professional wrestling no longer matters. There is a real chance through this to hold power to account. There are people within the WWE and TKO Group who had to have known every detail, and some who are alleged to have supported and silenced those who spoke out.
To ensure that the product we love is cleaned up and truly welcoming—especially to women and people of color—we cannot be distracted by the latest storyline. While the media can talk about the WWE, TKO, and WrestleMania, it is irresponsible for it not to be under the cloud and context of these allegations and the people who knew what this company knew for the last 40 years. It’s increasingly clear that the Road to WrestleMania and the billion-dollar success of the WWE is paved on the backs of the women who were shut up and told to know their role years ago.
Do not let that fact ever be lost, no matter how sympathetic Cody Rhodes is.