PopCult Rudy Panucci on Pop Culture

The Changing Face Of Professional Wrestling

Last weekend there was a seismic shift on the professional wrestling landscape. Double or Nothing was the debut pay per view from All Elite Wrestling, a new company formed by a group of maverick wrestlers and financed by the billionaire Khan family, who also own the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and London’s Fulham Football Club.

For the first time since WWE purchased WCW, back in 2001, Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment has real competition. This can only be good for fans of professional wrestling.

McMahon has a reputation as a mad genius, who took a dying, regionalized industry and turned it into a huge pop culture phenomenon, making billions of dollars in the process. Starting the in 1980s McMahon systematically bought out all the smaller regional wrestling federations and took his company, which had been based in the Northeast, national. Along the way he created Wrestlemania and a large roster of colorful wrestlers who became household names, something which hadn’t happened since the early days of television in the 1950s and early 1960s.

His success drew the attention of another mad genius, Ted Turner, who decided to buy one of McMahon’s last surviving competitors, Jim Crockett Promotions, and rename it “World Championship Wrestling,” after his long-running wrestling program on his Superstation, WTBS. McMahon launched Monday Night RAW in January, 1993 on the USA Network, bringing wrestling back to prime time for the first time in a long time, and within a couple of years, Turner, who had been hiring away McMahon’s top stars with insanely lucrative contracts, decided to go head-to-head with RAW by programming WCW Nitro in the same timeslot on TNT.

Books have been written about the ensuing “Monday Night Wars,” and more will be written in the future, but the gist is this: Nitro eventually surpassed RAW in the ratings, beating them for 83 consecutive weeks, before the tide turned and RAW became the dominant show behind new stars like Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, HHH, The Undertaker and the whole “Attitude Era.” It’s looked on as the golden age of RAW by many fans, and was reportedly the most successful period of the company in terms of ticket sales and merchandise. Truth be told, the battle between what was then the WWF and WCW got more people interested in wrestling than ever before.

At the end of the battle, WCW was undone by inept management, with its demise hastened by the merger of Ted Turner’s Turner Communications with Time Warner. As Turner’s power diminished in the new, larger corporation, the pride factor that drove Turner to take on McMahon became a non-issue. When Time Warner merged with AOL, bean counters started counting all the beans, and discovered that WCW was hemmoraging money due to those insanely lucrative contracts I mentioned earlier. Wrestlers were being paid tens of millions of dollars to sit at home, while Nitro was sinking in the ratings because none of their storylines made any sense, and the company was now being run by people who didn’t understand the basics of professional wrestling.

Vince McMahon (right) won the Monday Night War, not because he was a mad genius, but because the other mad genius got tired, sold his business, and quit. WCW had unwittingly done McMahon the biggest favor in the world by hiring away his aging talents, and making the rest of their acquired roster look horrible with lousy booking. McMahon was forced to build up new stars and lucked into a run of really compelling storylines that attracted more fans than ever.

On May 10, 1999, RAW achieved it’s highest-rating ever, as it drew close to ten milion viewers over the course of the show.

In 2001, Time Warner decided to cut their losses (which were over a hundred million dollars a year by that point) and cancelled the WCW programming on the Turner networks, and also sold WCW and it’s tape library, some wrestlers contracts and intellectual property to Vince McMahon.

Almost immediately, the quality of WWE (then WWF, I’ll get to that later) programming began to decline. Many of the talents in the ring and behind the scenes who contributed to WCW’s downfall were brought in to work at WWE. Storylines stagnated, stopped making sense, and in far to many cases were simply dropped with no resolution. Vince McMahon was busy taking a victory lap, and the WWE shows fell into a formula, one that was providing diminishing returns.

It is to McMahon’s credit that, during an eighteen-year period when ratings for his flagship show have posted year-to-year declines every single year, he managed to take his company public, make billions of dollars, and expand it even further with its own streaming service. The man and his family are wealthier than ever. This is the “genius” part of the “mad genius” on display.

For the “mad” part of that, we have plenty of evidence too. For instance, a completely unnecessary legal battle with the World Wildlife Fund ended badly as McMahon was forced to rebrand the “World Wrestling Federation” as “World Wrestling Entertainment,” when he refused to share the initials and lost a court battle over them. Further evidence of McMahon’s madness can be seen every week on RAW and Smackdown! Live, as the shows no longer make any sense.

WWE currently has the largest and most talented roster of wrestlers ever assembled in history, and they can’t get people to keep watching their flagships shows because the storylines are stupid and nonsensical. A recent example is the lead-up to their Money In The Bank Pay Per View. This event happens every year. Six to eight talented wrestlers compete in a brutal ladder match for a chance to capture a briefcase that holds a contract which can be cashed in at any time in the following year for a shot at the main championship title.

Like I said, this show happens every year. They know this and have plenty of time to develop stories for the wrestlers involved. However this year they didn’t even bother to hold any qualifying matches, which are a popular feature of the shows leading up to the match. They just named random wrestlers. Then in the weeks after naming them, they had two wrestlers face challenges for their spot. There was no logic to this. Making matters worse, at the actual match, one competitor was incapacitated beforehand, while the other seven wrestlers worked their asses off, and just as Ali, a young crowd favorite, was about to get the briefcase, Brock Lesnar, a crossover WWE/UFC star of some magnitude, runs in, knocks Ali off the ladder, and seizes the Money In The Bank contract.

He did that even though he wasn’t in the match. Also, fans have been sick of Lesnar for two or three years, at least, and wish he would go away.

You can only do that Lucy Van Pelt booking thing so many times before people just lose interest and quit watching. And that’s what has been happening. WWE is losing audience to videogames, Netflix, news programming, and ironically to their own WWE Network, a streaming service that gives viewers access to thousands of hours of classic wrestling programs, including the episodes of RAW and Nitro that, combined, originally drew five times as many viewers as RAW does now. I know people who, every Monday night, sit down with the WWE Network and watch the episode of RAW that aired twenty years earlier, instead of watching the new, live show.

It’s not just fans who are frustrated with WWE’s booking. The talent is getting fed up, and with AEW now in place, complete with a weekly TV show on TNT beginning this fall, WWE is not in a good place. When faced with competition from WCW, McMahon lost his top wrestlers like Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Scott Hall, Kevin Nash and Lex Luger. This time he’s not losing wrestlers who have already peaked. He losing guys who could sell out arenas for years to come.

Dean Ambrose (who is now using the name “Jon Moxley,” which was the name he used when he wrestled locally for IWA East Coast), turned down a contract extension worth millions so that he could go elsewhere. His character had been so badly written for the past several years that he’d already decided not to renew his contract last July. As Deam Ambrose, Moxley was one of the top stars in WWE. A member of The Shield Faction, along with Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins (seen right), he was a top merchandise-seller for the company and was so popular with fans that they didn’t respond when WWE tried to turn him into a bad guy. He was extremely unhappy, to the point of feeling sick and depressed when it was time to go to do the television shows.

He’s detailed all this in an interview with former WWE Superstar and current AEW top dog, Chris Jericho on Jericho’s podcast (which you can listen to below this paragraph). Moxley gives several examples of how he had to fight to not do or say stupid things on the air, and how he usually lost those battles. It became so bad that he had to walk away, despite the fact that his wife, Renee Young, is one of the lead announcers on RAW.

Moxley’s story is typical of the frustration many WWE Superstars are facing, as they have to fight harder backstage to get to do good material, and usually wind up tapping out to Vince and getting stuck with drivel. Now when their contracts are up they can walk out the door, and then you get this…

There is a problem at the top in WWE. Vince McMahon, at the age of 73, remains convinced that he knows what his audience wants better than they do. The fact that RAW has lost more than six million viewers over the last 18 years should be enough to convince him that he might not be the arbitor of taste that he thinks he is, but he just looks at the billions of dollars that he’s made over that time and convinces himself that it’s all because he’s smart, and not lucky. It’s easy to make money when you own a monopoly.

WWE has people who can produce compelling, high-quality professional wrestling TV shows. The weekly hour of NXT, which is WWE’s “third brand,” is the most-watched show on WWE Network. 205 Live, which was unwatchably bad while McMahon was running the show, has been thriving under the creative direction of HHH (who also handles NXT), and is more entertaining that RAW or Smackdown now.

HHH (real name, Paul Levesque, seen right) is married to McMahon’s daughter, Stephanie, and still wrestles on occasion, even though he’s pushing 50. He was the top heel of the Attitude era, knows and respects the business, and most importantly, knows when something looks idiotic on TV. It’s past the time to hand him the reigns of RAW and Smackdown and let Vince concentrate on his revival of the XFL.

It’s not that McMahon is elderly or demented that makes it time for him to step aside. He’s simply a spent creative force who’s surrounded himself with far too many writers who try to stay on his good side rather than pitch sound ideas. If your job is to make the one billionaire who signs your checks happy, instead of making the most viewers happy, you’re not going to produce quality work. That gets even worse if that billionaire is somebody who reportedly spends a good chunk of his day laughing at his own farts.

There is no reason why, with the talent they have assembled, WWE cannot produce the best wrestling shows in the world week-in-week-out.

Writing a weekly wrestling show is not unlike writing a daily soap opera (another fading art form). I watched Guiding Light on CBS for close to thirty years. I saw the ups and downs as the producers changed writing teams and the show hit new highs and creative low points. Many times the actors had a better grasp of their characters than the latest team of writers did. Sometimes they’d get so upset at the quality of the writing that they’d quit, rather than do material that didn’t ring true.

Right now WWE is at a creative low point. The writers don’t understand the characters that they’re writing. They’re cranking out five hours of television on a weekly basis with no off season and no reruns. 52 weeks a year they have to produce these TV shows. Many of the wrestlers are unhappy, and now with AEW, they have someplace to go where they have a chance to make just as much money doing what they love and still be on national television each week.

For me, as a fan who just started watching a bit more than twenty years ago, it’s an interesting time. I still watch RAW and Smackdown each week. However, I find that the big attraction for me is that, at some point during the shows, I will be lulled into a deep, relaxing sleep. I’ll usually dose off during the first hour, and wake up refreshed about sixty minutes later. Then I’ll go online to read a recap and discover that I slept through something really, really dumb.

When I first started watching wrestling it was primarily so I’d know who the wrestlers were because I was writing a monthly action figure column for Toy Trader Magazine. I tuned in to Nitro one week and found it to be really bad, but the next week I watched RAW, and got hooked. The first episode I watched was when Mankind won the WWF Championship. I got so hooked that I started reading the “dirt sheets,” which at the time were mainly two weekly newsletters, one published by Dave Meltzer and one by Wade Keller. I also went to the occasional live event, but found that I prefer watching WWE on TV, and watching local shows like IWA East Coast or ASW in person.

I have to say, watching WWE crash and burn is fascinating. I’m reading the websites for the dirt sheets again for the first time in more than ten years. What’s happening backstage at WWE these days is so much more compelling than what they put on TV. Due to new television deals that start this fall, WWE is going to make more money over the next five years than they ever have before, but if they don’t make a major change they won’t be able to keep their gigantic TV deals in place when it comes time to renew those deals. While it’s cool to read about the behind-the-scenes mess, I’d rather have cool shows to watch that keep me awake.

It may take the success of AEW to make WWE change their creative process.Sort of like the rivalry with WCW propelled MCMahon to new heights back in the 1990s

AEW is basically the Khan family’s money bankrolling a group of former-WWE stars who teamed up with hot independent wrestlers. Last year, Cody Runnels (left), formerly known as “Cody Rhodes” in WWE, and the son of the legendary Dusty Rhodes, and brother of Goldust, teamed up with The Young Bucks, a tag team that was huge in Japan, and highly-sought-after by WWE, and produced an independent show in Chicago called “All In.”

They sold out a 12,000-seat arena in record time and snagged a PPV deal. The success of that show proved that there were fans who were hungry for an alternative to WWE.

Tony Khan (right) is a longtime wrestling fan from a very weatlhy family, and teamed up with this crew to form the nucleus of All Elite Wrestling. Former WWE Superstar Chris Jericho was brought on board to lend the company instant credibility, and they hired longtime WWE announcer, Jim Ross, as a creative consultant and lead voice for their broadcasts.

Jim Ross was criminally underused in WWE in recent years, having been bumped off the main broadcasts and given a “Legends” contract. He’s not the only very experienced backstage hire that AEW has scored at the expense of WWE. From agents like Billy Gunn and Dean Malenko to referee Earl Hebner, AEW is stacking the deck with people who know exactly what it takes to produced weekly wrestling shows on television.

Add to that AEW’s stated goal of making their show more sports-like, where wins and losses matter, and not wasting time on stupid backstage skits, and AEW stands a good chance of recapturing some of the millions of viewers that McMahon has driven off over the last eighteen years of his “We beat WCW!” victory lap.

Best of all, with there being no chance of WWE being driven completely out of business any time soon, they’ll be forced to react and improve their shows to retain a significant portion of their market share. They have had a virtual monopoly on Professional Wrestling for nearly two decades now, and finally having serious competition might finally force them to do their best, instead of just running on automatic.

It could turn out to be a “win-win” for fans of professional wrestling.