Like many people, I got really into wrestling during the so-called “Attitude Era”, the period of time from 1997 to about the end of 2002 where Vince McMahon just thought of the most brash, offensive things he could get away with putting on the air and made an internationally produced television show out of it. And also like many people, I stopped watching once the storylines became based in this plane of existence; it just wasn’t fun anymore. When I discovered a friend of mine had been just as big a wrestling dork as I was back in the day, we made the decision to sit down at 9:00 on Monday night and watch RAW like we had so many times in our youth and see just what has been going on in the past ten years. It was like a time capsule that brought us back to the sweet, sweet innocence of childhood. Oh, and we decided to make a drinking game out of it.
(Not that I’m saying you need to be drunk, or at least have a healthy buzz going, to enjoy today’s WWE.)
(Okay, that’s kinda exactly what I’m saying.)
As the weeks went on, however, it became less “Hey, wanna watch RAW again? That’ll be funny and kitschy”, and more “…Not gonna lie, I am really looking forward to RAW this week”. So it IS possible to get back into it, and enjoy it for what it is. Since I’ve been readmitted into the “WWE Universe” (more on that later), I’ve recorded a few infallible truths that if you, the fan who gave up after the Attitude Era when the going got…well, unbearable, wish to start watching pro wrestling again, you’ll have to wholly and unconditionally accept, no matter how difficult it may be to swallow. Shit like:
You Are No Longer a “Fan”. You Are a Member of the “WWE Universe” (And Other Arbitrary Idiosyncrasies)
In 2001, WWE purchased both WCW and ECW, effectively eradicating all of their competition from the face of the planet. So, instead of the envelope-pushing, knee-jerk reaction content we got in the late 90s in an effort to remain fresh in the face of its competition, it seems that the WWE has gone stir-crazy and just competes against itself. Instead of innovation, we’re just kinda left with arcane, esoteric initiatives, like every wrestler (oops, I mean “WWE Superstar”–get used to that one, too. “Wrestling” is as taboo a word as “steroids” is in WWE now) is seemingly required to refer to the fans as members of the “WWE Universe”. Everybody likes to slap some arbitrary label on their fanbase, whether it be The Rock’s Millions, CeNation, or even in mainstream sports with shit like Red Sox Nation, and WWE isn’t going to miss that gravy train for their fanbase proper.
Similarly, commentators almost never say the name of a hold or move unless it’s a finishing move. Texas Cloverleaf? Figure Four? Boston Crab? They’re all “strong submission maneuvers!” Alabama Slam? Powerbomb? “High-impact moves”. Everything off the top rope, even a mere double axe-handle that a geriatric Hulk Hogan could pull off with gusto, is thrown under the umbrella-term “high-risk maneuver”. For some reason, WWE has made it their mission statement to distance themselves as far from professional wrestling, and to be as pretentious as humanly possible. Which, when you think about it, is pretty impressive. Is it even possible for professional wrestling to be pretentious?
It basically comes down to the fact that the WWE is now a publicly traded company. So instead of trying to captivate as many wrestling fans as possible, they’re simply attempting to cater to their shareholders. Which means a lot of “lowest common denominator” kind of entertainment. And since pro wrestling is by definition a pretty “lowest common denominator” form of entertainment, it can get a little dizzying to take it to even blander lengths.
All of this also relates back to the fact that…
WWE Still Bafflingly Wants to Be More Than a “Wrestling” Company
If you were a fan in the Attitude Era, you most likely remember Vince McMahon’s failed foray into pro football with the XFL. If you watched in the early 90s, you may even remember another failed spinoff, the World Bodybuilding Federation. For some reason, it seems that Vince is unhappy with simply being the man who turned professional wrestling from a strange sideshow taking place in high school gyms into a multi-million dollar business with some of the highest ratings in cable TV history. That’s just simply not enough for the guy, and while forward motion and drive are essential qualities for a high-level businessman such as himself, I’m really starting to think Vince should stick to what he knows.
Although, WWE-like gimmicks in pro sports is still a great idea.
And what he knows is wrestling; not football, not bodybuilding competitions, not movies, not anything but wrestling. In 2002, McMahon changed the name of the company from the World Wrestling Federation to World Wrestling Entertainment, effectively the death knell in the concept of kayfabe, openly admitting that their product was “entertainment”, not sport. Which was fine; by the Attitude Era, the fourth wall had only not been broken, it was bulldozed down, lit on fire and Mick Foley was thrown through it.
Fast-forward nine years, and “WWE” doesn’t stand for “World Wrestling Entertainment” anymore. It doesn’t stand for anything anymore. It’s an orphan acronym, in the vein of KFC or AOL, in order to show that “wrestling” is no longer the company’s only focus anymore. It’s why wrestlers are now WWE Superstars. It’s why moves aren’t really referred to by name unless it’s a trademarked finishing or signature move that they own and can market. WWE has created this delusional, self-serving microcosm where WWE wrestlers are the only entertainers on the planet, John Cena is the world’s biggest movie star, and Vince McMahon is a revered media mogul instead of a really, really good wrestling promoter. It’s almost as if Vince McMahon has a little brother or “me-too” complex with the other multi-millionaires on the block, and wants to prove that he’s more than just rasslin’. Which would be fine, except for the fact that really, he isn’t.
The New Generation Will Deliver. Give Them Time
It’s easy to start watching again after a hiatus and immediately begin comparing it to everything you were used to. On first glance, yes, The Miz seems like a second-rate The Rock. “The Viper” Randy Orton has nothing on “The Rattlesnake” Steve Austin.
IF YA SMELLLLL…oops, I mean, AWWWWEEESOMMMEEE!
This isn’t the Attitude Era, though, and even if it were, there would be plenty to complain about. The Attitude Era benefits greatly from Rose-Colored-Glasses Syndrome: For every Austin vs. McMahon, beer bath, The Rock, and every other great part of it, you have just as many instances of “Mae Young giving birth to a hand”, GTV, and “Japanese mob chopping off pornstars’ dicks” angles to counteract them. What I’m saying, basically, is the Attitude Era wasn’t perfect.
Neither is this era, but there are lots of good. CM Punk may even outshine Stone Cold Steve Austin on the mic. Dolph Ziggler is one of the most entertaining wrestlers I’ve ever seen, to the point where I think a match between he and Shawn Michaels would be a dream matchup (they locked up when Ziggler was “Nicky”, a member of the Spirit Squad, but he may as well have been a different person back then). The Miz is a great talent from a unique background, who is both good in the ring and comfortable on the mic. He’s also been basically hand-picked to be the next face of the company thanks to his connections to mainstream media. Guys like Zack Ryder and Cody Rhodes, who may not yet have the name recognition that the superstars of yesteryear did, are making a name for themselves, and bringing prestige back to the mid-card. They may not be Chris Jericho or Edge, but give them a chance; you might be surprised.
I Hope You Like Twitter. Like, a Fucking Lot
I’ll be the first person to defend businesses using Twitter, or any social media, to further their product. It’s free, and people love it so much that businesses basically see it as a huge pool of people saying “please advertise to me!” Pro wrestlers are particularly compelling to follow on Twitter in a lot of cases, because it’s one of the few places where kayfabe is sort of preserved. Some wrestlers use Twitter as a regular person would: just basic trials and tribulations of their everyday life. Some use it as their character, saying things only their on-screen counterpart would think or care to say. Some do a little bit of both.
In the latter two uses, Twitter can be used as a subtle way to advance storylines or reveal motivations. It becomes part of the weekly fun. In the former example, it’s still interesting to see what CM Punk or Randy Orton are doing on their day off. Wrestlers that can effectively blend fantasy and reality on Twitter are going to see it pay off for their character. Hell, Zack Ryder started a full-on blitzkrieg on all social media fronts, and it paid off massively. Ryder appeared on WWE television all of two or three times in 2010, going into the first half of 2011. During this time, he put together a YouTube show chronicling what his character has been up to, and taking subtle jabs at WWE for not pushing him further despite his obvious talent in front of the camera. During this time, he also became one of the most followed WWE Superstars on Twitter. WWE finally noticed, and the Long Island Iced Z is now on television on a regular basis.
Corporations tend to take feel-good, grassroots stories like these and attempt to recreate them in the insincere, faceless way only a cold, international conglomerate could. So lately, WWE has become smitten with Twitter. Obsessed, even. Like, Mickie James stalking Trish Status-level obsessed. That insipid blue bird is the first thing Vince McMahon sees upon waking up, and the last thing he dreams of before drifting off to sleep.
As a wrestler walks down the aisle, their nameplate proudly displays their Twitter handle underneath their name, which I don’t mind terribly. WWE has always invested huge amounts of time into the Internet, and rightfully so. Remember when The Rock came down the aisle, and his nameplate would implore you to visit WWFTheRock.com? Having “@TheRock” where that used to be is basically just the 2011 evolution of the same concept. Hell, they’ve been pushing the Internet for as far back as I can remember, urging you to check out their AOL Channel and chat rooms during and after events in 1996, where a doe-eyed Todd Pettengill would be longingly awaiting your virtual arrival.
I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but I’d take this guy over Michael Cole any day of the week.
WWE has always been surprisingly ahead of the curve when it comes to technology. The problem, however, with their recent Twitter marriage is twofold. First, they’re about two years too late. Twitter, while huge, is no longer really “cutting edge” anymore. Donut shops ask you to follow them on Twitter now. CNN seemingly uses tweets as veritable eyewitness reports at this point. Twitter has permeated our society, and it seems like WWE is making up for lost time by going absolutely balls to the wall with it, which would be the second problem: Extreme oversaturation. Awesome old-school pre-match interviews are being replaced with a sidebar on the screen displaying the wrestler’s last tweet. Josh Matthews will seemingly self-destruct if he doesn’t mention what WWE-related phrase is a Trending Topic at that moment in time every five minutes. Major storyline components are being revealed on Twitter. It’s just getting to be too much.
There Won’t Be Blood (There Won’t Be Chairshots or Piledrivers Either)
Remember the things that differentiated professional wrestling from those boring, “real” sports? Any time somebody lambasted you for watching a “fake” sport, all you had to do was show them Mankind being thrown off a 20 foot cell, wanton blood spewing from Ric Flair’s forehead after a stiff breeze, or any of the myriad steel chair shots straight to the skull. It becomes difficult to not respect people who willingly put themselves through that kind of hell just for the entertainment of jaded, entitled fans. Actually, I don’t know if “respect” is the phrase for it. Maybe “question the sanity of” is a more appropriate phrase.
You’re not gonna get this sort of thing these days. In 2008, when WWE toned down everything and spearheaded the much-loathed “PG Era”, blood was one of the first things to go, and honestly, it’s a little weird. I understand that contaminated blood can cause some HUGE medical issues, but these guys are tested regularly (or at least should be). I’m not some bloodthirsty simp, either: Blood simply adds an air of brutality, of personal hatred, of believability. If someone is repeatedly being punched in the face, I expect blood eventually. It’s just natural, and it takes away from the ever-important believability factor that pro wrestling needs to strive for when the blood doesn’t flow.
I don’t want a bloodbath every match, and I agree that the Attitude Era was downright egregious in its use of the stuff. But the fact that match concepts like Street Fights, Hell in a Cells and Extreme Rules matches still exist in a company that bans blood is a little perplexing. It’s not just blading, either; even accidental blood will cause the cameras to focus on somebody else while the busted-wide-open competitor is cleaned up, or if it occurs on SmackDown, it’ll simply be edited out before it airs.
A couple months ago, Randy Orton and Cody Rhodes were in the beginning stages of a fairly heated feud, and Orton smashed Rhodes upside the head with the ring bell, legitimately busting Rhodes wide open to the point where he needed nine staples in his skull after the match. Showing this act of unabashed brutality would have done wonders for both Orton’s character, the emotionless, violent “Viper”, as well as Rhodes, the disfigured, woe-is-me, psychologically tormented mess. It would have taken the feud to a whole other level; hell, if this feud happened even five years ago, it would probably have been written into the script. But since it happened on tape delay on SmackDown (which is recorded Tuesdays and aired Fridays), it was nicely edited out. You could still see blood on his chest after the match, and if you watch closely following the ring bell hit, you can see pints of blood immediately leaving his head and pooling on the announce table, but for the most part it was not even mentioned. They curiously do play up the fact that he legit needed nine staples, but again, without seeing it happen, it causes a disconnect that WWE can’t really have at this point.
In the same vein, anything that could conceivably cause a concussion is outlawed. Which, again, is totally understandable. After the connections between Chris Benoit’s horrifying behavior and concussions, as well as former wrestler Chris Nowinski’s dissertations on the subject, unprotected chair shots to the head are unnecessary risks. Same goes for standard piledrivers (inverted versions of it, such as the Tombstone Piledriver, are still permitted). But why can’t there be PROTECTED chairshots to the head? You know, the kind where the victim puts his hands up, and his palms absorb most, if not all of the impact?
It’s just another instance, much like blood, where it becomes unbelievable. I can’t really suspend disbelief and truly invest in a match when a man, seething with hatred for his opponent, grabs a chair and instead of swinging for the fences as would be instinct, nicely jabs him in the gut and smacks him evenly across the surface area of his back. It just looks campy.
And “campy” MIGHT be something WWE wants to distance itself from.
And as a result of this…
Your Childhood Favorites Will Be Unrecognizably Chopped Up and Edited to Hell
WWE has a massive back catalog of matches at this point by its own merit. Add those to the libraries of WCW, ECW, AWA, and several other old-school territories that they have purchased over the past decade, and you have a TON of wrestling to watch. WWE has done a great job of making these available in a myriad of formats, whether it be standard DVD releases, WWE Classics On Demand, or its new WWEGreatestMatches.com subscription. The problem is, anything filmed during the Attitude Era has had the proverbial machete taken to it, and the result is at best an eyesore.
WWE lost a lawsuit to the World Wildlife Foundation in 2002 regarding WWE’s breach of an agreement between the two companies where they would not market certain home videos in the UK under the name WWF. They did, and the offending logo was the Attitude Era’s “scratch” WWF logo (the same exact thing as the current logo, but with an “F” transposed onto the two “W”s). WWE’s current name reflects the results of this lawsuit, and as part of the agreement they had to edit out all past and present references to that logo, and also any spoken reference to “WWF” (references to “World Wrestling Federation” are fine, as is the “Golden Era” logo used in some form from the birth of the WWF up until late 1997) must also be edited out.
The result is messy, with blurred blotches appearing everywhere from the TitanTron to T-shirts to fan signs to the turnbuckles themselves. That’s unfortunate, but it’s court-mandated. It sucks, but there’s nothing they can do it about it. What they can do, however, is leave everything else alone. I mentioned earlier that blood and chairshots to the head are now banned, and in many cases rightfully so. But that doesn’t mean it never happened. Not in WWE’s mind!
Remember the microcosm mentality WWE has? In their world, they can alter the past, and they do, egregiously. Chairshots to the head are awkwardly faded out. Bloody moments are either turned greyscale or just chopped out altogether. Some of your favorite moments have never even happened according to the WWE. Remember Chris Benoit? WWE doesn’t. Sure, he committed a horrible atrocity, but he was also one of the best technical wrestlers of all time, and a pretty important wrestler historically to boot. WrestleMania 20 was basically dedicated to he and Eddie Guerrero both being world champions. Now, however, it’s like any time they mention the Radicalz or Four Horsemen, they have to get all George Lucas on us, gleefully destroying their own masterpieces.
In the Special Edition, Nancy shoots first. It’s bullshit.
It’s okay though, because the original content the video editors are working on are awesome. Maybe it’s because…
WWE’s Camera Crew/Video Editors Are Some of the Most Talented on the Planet
I remember WWE’s video promos being good when I was a kid. Hell, I even contributed to a site dedicated to making custom versions of them before the days of YouTube (R.I.P, WrestleVideos2.com). But these days, the promos these guys make are damn-near Oscar worthy.
In Shawn Michaels’ retirement speech last year, he personally thanked one of the heads of the WWE video team for making him look better than he really was. From one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, that’s pretty high praise, but he’s right. Watch this video leading up to HBK’s final match against The Undertaker. If you don’t get one chill, if you aren’t captivated by this video for even just a second, I declare you have no soul:
Here’s another example, from WrestleMania XXVII earlier this year, chronicling The Miz’s rise to the top of the WWE. Even if you hate The Miz, after watching this video, you immediately feel some sort of empathy for him, some kind of connection:
WWE is great at making the mundane seem glorious. It’s always been one of the things I’ve loved most about it, ever since I was a kid. I appreciate “real” wrestling, the indies, Ring of Honor, what have you, but the production value, the larger-than-life feel that WWE excels at is what keeps me watching, and they’re on top of their game in this department more than ever before.
Now, if only we could get Michael Cole off television…