We’re on the road to WrestleMania once again, and to paraphrase incomparable Good Ole’ JR, in my 15 years as a fan in the business I have never seen anything quite like this—only that’s not the astonished high praise that phrase is usually reserved for. Within the WWE Universe, up is down. Black is white. The Voice of the Voiceless has gone silent. Fans have never felt more powerless and…well, like they’re being deliberately f----d with. But is that the point?
To call WWE’s programming over the past seven or eight months an emotional roller coaster would be a severe understatement. WWE seems to be on the cusp of an explosive new era, lead by world-class talents such as Daniel Bryan, Cesaro, Bray Wyatt, The Shield, and more. Triple H has famously said WWE has the greatest focus group in the world, and that they cater to the desires of the people. It’s a nice thought, but how does that explain screwing Bryan out of the championship for seven months? How does that explain Bryan not winning the Rumble? How does that explain Batista?
Ahem. Sorry. BOO-Tista.
The rise of Daniel Bryan is unquestionably the biggest story to come out of professional wrestling since 2011’s “Summer of Punk,” and might be the most meteoric rise to popularity since Stone Cold. Fans are lining up in some random hotel for autographs and pictures with Daniel Bryan, entire basketball arenas are “YES!”ing, USA Today is giving Bryan the oft-coveted mainstream coverage and the Super Bowl champs have adopted his battle cry. Daniel Bryan has done what we all thought was unthinkable in today’s world: he’s a wrestler who has broken through to the mainstream.
Instead of rewarding this obscene amount of self-generated momentum, however, WWE provides mind-blowing insanity such as Big Show hijacking the “YES!” chants and main eventing Survivor Series, Bryan inexplicably turning heel for three weeks, and a 45-year-old grandfather of two winning the Royal Rumble after a four year vacation in the greatest mismanagement of a story that writes itself this side of Nash texting himself. To further compare the situation to Austin, this would be like if in January 1998, instead of Austin finally getting a shot at the title via a Rumble win, Lex Luger came back and won it for some reason. A recognizable, but not necessarily exciting relic of the past usurping the role the people’s chosen champion is supposed to play.
Wrestling fans are no strangers to baffling booking decisions by the WWE, but this sort of writing just subverts all logic to the point where there has to be another explanation outside of the usual “ineptitude.” The truth is anyone’s guess, but a growing idea amongst diehards is that we’re seeing the dawning of something being referred to as “Kayfabe 2.0.”
Kayfabe (Kayfabe 1.0 that is; Kayfabe vanilla)—the idea of taking everything seen on TV as the gospel truth—is a concept that has existed only in principle for some time now. WWE openly admits their products are entertainment, not sport—hell, WWE produces a show that delves into the real lives of stars such as Bryan Danielson, the man behind the “Daniel Bryan” character. This bleeds into the flagship shows’ storylines; moments of extreme concern cause Stephanie McMahon to ‘drop the act’ and address her husband as “Paul” rather than “Triple H.” The nascent days of the Attitude Era saw Shawn Michaels making thinly veiled references to Vince McMahon being the man in charge rather than just a loyal play-by-play commentator. CM Punk’s infamous pipebomb made references to other wrestling companies—heresy in the McMahon kingdom.
But these sorts of things always felt more like neat little easter eggs rather than the focal point; nods to the fans who take the time to dive deeper into the inner workings of professional wrestling—the “Internet fans” or “smart marks” if you will. The problem is that this isn’t 1997 anymore, and inside info isn’t only found in the deep recesses of Internet usenets and message board. In 2014, nearly everybody is an “Internet fan,” because nearly every fan uses the Internet on a daily basis. You don’t even have to seek out the ‘dirt sheets’ anymore; look at any comment thread on anything posted by WWE’s official Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts. Everyone knows CM Punk is gone, and acting like he never existed isn’t sweeping the problem under the rug, it’s exacerbating it tenfold as the news spreads like wildfire.
“Am I f-----g going over?”
But back to the first question posed in the article: what if that’s the point? Triple H and The Authority are ostensibly heels (although sometimes it’s hard to keep track with their schizophrenic booking), which means we are supposed to hate them. In an era where fan support is given to performers with strong in-ring and mic skills and not just to the ones who speak highly of their hometown, it becomes increasingly harder to get the crowd to play nice and boo the heels. So how do you get the crowd to hate you? Simple: Book a s----y show! Push wrestlers no one wants to see!
WWE has seems to have taken the philosophy “If you can’t fool ’em, troll ’em.” Kayfabe 2.0, rather than working the casual fan who might not even be sure if it’s totally real or staged, works the informed fan. The people like you or me who obsess over every nugget of wrestling-related minutiae we can get our hands on. CM Punk walking out on the company? Work. Vince McMahon explaining to his shareholders that Punk is “taking a sabbatical?” Man, Vin-man is really selling that walkout angle! The payoff at ‘Mania will be huge! Daniel Bryan being held back and beat down on nearly every episode of Raw since SummerSlam? SLOW BURN GUYS. They’re just trolling us, Bryan will get his comeuppance at ‘Mania. It just makes too much sense. It writes itself; they just can’t do anything else. Right?
It’s a crazy idea and on the surface seems like self-inflicted sabotage, but we have to remember that Vince McMahon didn’t become a billionaire by accident. He must have some modicum of competency at his job. He must be able to see the writing on the wall and know that Daniel Bryan is a license to print money. This could actually be the “slow burn” that has been heralded for so long it’s to the point of parody. There’s just no logical reason to go forward with a Randy Orton vs. Batista main event, when the fans have made it abundantly clear it’s about the last thing they want to see and fully intend on booing the capstone of the 30th anniversary of WrestleMania out of the building.
So maybe this is suspension of disbelief in the 21st century. Suspending our disbelief at shockingly poor decisions in hopes that good (writing) overcomes evil (contractual obligations). Despite conceptions of Vince McMahon as a curmudgeonly luddite who refuses to get with the times, WWE has in reality always been ahead of the curve; the WWE Network is evidence of that. And in a world where every form of entertainment becomes increasingly meta, maybe this is WWE’s way of getting with the times and working the fans in an entirely new way. After all, I’ve never harbored a more genuine hatred for a professional wrestling heel than I do currently for The Authority, so if that’s their plan, bra-f-----g-vo.
Or, ya know, Kayfabe 2.0 could be a figment of our imaginations and WWE could really have lost their collective minds. Either way, Batista’s got three words for ya: “Deal with it!”