Vince McMahon has committed many sins in his life (And by “sin,” I mean the original meaning of the word: “falling short.”), but this is perhaps the one sin for which a wrestling promoter can never be forgiven: he has lost control of his audience.
Everything you see in a wrestling show leads to a single purpose: to control the audience. Make them cheer, make them boo, make them laugh, make them cry. Wrestlers do this in their matches by structuring the contest in such a way that you feel what they want you to feel. The villain cheats, you shout angry epithets at the ring. The hero makes a comeback, you jump to your feet and cheer. And a wrestling show is constructed in the very same way. Just like plays, movies, books, and TV shows, promoters design their wrestling shows to manipulate the emotions of the audience.
Last night on WWE’s 2018 edition of Survivor Series, after taking a brutal and seemingly endless beating which left Ronda Rousey with a beet red chest, a broken lip, a bleeding ear, criss-cross marks on her arms, and visible open wounds, the crowd boo’d her out of the building. The problem was, the beating she took was designed to make the crowd boo her opponent…who walked out of the arena with cheers and chants of “Thank you!” It was the exact opposite result McMahon and his writers wanted.
Watching Rousey walk the ramp to the back choked me up right to the edge of tears. Yes, wrestling matches are choreographed stunt shows, but you can’t fake gravity and you can’t ignore pain. The beating Rousey went through was real. You can watch it. Just do a Google search and look at what her body looked like.
See those marks on her arm? Those aren’t make up. Those are legit marks from getting hit over and over and over again with a shinai. The woman was in pain. The attack—performed by Ric Flair’s daughter, Charlotte—was one of the cruelest and vicious things I’ve seen in years. And as a wrestling fan, I lived through the Horseman beatings in GCW. I saw the Piper-Valentine strap match. I’ve seen Bruiser Brody and Abdullah the Butcher. And I watched the Mick Foley-Undertaker Hell in a Cell match live, holding my breath the whole time. This was uncomfortable to watch because Charlotte did not pull any punches. It felt real.
And yet, when it was over, Charlotte was the one who was cheered and Rousey’s hometown crowd simply turned on her. The exact opposite effect of what the creators desired.
How could this happen?
Because Vince McMahon has lost control of his audience. And tonight was just a symptom of a much deeper problem: he thinks his fanbase is stupid.
Let me explain using an example from last night. In wrestling, there’s a long tradition of something called “the promoter’s son effect.” That is, whoever happens to be in charge of the wrestling company pushes his (or sometimes her) son above all the other talent. This creates resentment in the locker room as they watch someone without as much talent, charisma, or wrestling skill gets pushed above and beyond everyone else. It was true of the Von Erich boys in World Class, it was true of Greg Gagne in the AWA, it was true of Erik Watts in WCW…the list simply goes on and on.
Last night’s PPV was to pit the two WWE shows against each other: Raw vs Smackdown. And in the end, Raw won 6-out-of-6 matches, giving them a clean sweep. Why was the show written this way? To give Shane McMahon—Vince’s son—a reason to “turn heel.” That is, to become a villain.
That’s right. Vince threw an entire show’s roster under the bus so his son could have an excuse to become a villain. He made everyone on that show look weak and/or foolish for his son. Perhaps the ultimate example of the promoter’s son effect.
And he does this thinking the fanbase won’t notice. But there’s a problem here. Wrestling fans are a lot more media savvy than they were back in the ’70’s and ’80’s. More savvy than they were in the ’90’s, when wrestling had its Modern Golden Age. We’ve been through TV and media that have demanded a lot from us. Shows like Lost, American Horror Story, Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad actually forced its audience to smarten up and watch with a critical eye. Websites devoted to finding easter eggs and foreshadowing in shows have made their audiences keener than they’ve ever been before.
Problem is, the WWE thinks they’re still selling their product to rubes and marks.
Used to be, when a villain cheated to win a match, the crowd would get angry at the villain. They left the sports auditorium thinking, “That dirty Ole Anderson is gonna get it when Dusty gets his hands on him!”
But a modern audience doesn’t think that way anymore. When they’re unhappy with a match’s results, they get mad at the promoter.
Case in point: two years ago was the Year of Daniel Bryan. Bryan is a wrestler with incredible skills, one of the best performers in the world. And at the time, WWE treated him like a joke because he didn’t look like Hulk Hogan, John Cena or Roman Reigns. He was a comedy act. The fans hated this and voiced their displeasure whenever they could. They’d chant his name during his matches. They’d chant his name during other peoples’ matches. And when he lost, they’d boo, even though he was a heel. The fans simply did not care how McMahon treated Bryan, they cheered. Because, at the time, the crowd felt that if they cheered loud enough, Vince would change his mind.
Well, their plan worked. Sort of. Daniel Bryan did become the WWE champion…but his reign would be short-lived. He would be played off as a fluke and lose the title to someone of McMahon’s choosing and the fans would be happy to watch it happen. Circumstances would strip Daniel Bryan of the title early: a lifetime of hard matches convinced the WWE medical staff that wrestling was no longer safe. And for two years, Bryan was a non-wrestling talent in the WWE, serving as a manager.
But Bryan was, like last night’s event, a symptom of that same problem. So were wrestlers such as Sasha Banks, Bayley, Asuka, and Finn Balor. All great talents that the fans were ready to get behind…but Vince remained unconvinced. So, he buried them in the middle of the roster while his hand-picked heroes and villains thrived, despite what the audience wanted.
The crowd believed it could change Vince’s mind. After all, it worked with Daniel Bryan. So, they continued to cheer for their favorites, regardless of what Vince was doing with them. This includes a woman named Becky Lynch.
The fans have decided they love Becky Lynch. And, as a lifetime wrestling fan, I can see why. She’s got talent. She looks fantastic in the ring. She has charisma. And she can put on a damn good show. Everyone loves Becky Lynch…
…so Vince made her a villain.
And the crowd didn’t care. They kept cheering her, no matter what the WWE tried to do.
Last night, Becky was supposed to be on the show. It was supposed to be Becky Lynch vs Ronda Rousey. Unfortunately, one of Vince’s hand picked golden tickets—the Rock’s cousin, Nia Jax—hit Becky in the face, breaking her nose and giving her a concussion. (The latest in a long string of injuries dealt by the severely undertrained Nia Jax.) That meant the WWE needed to replace Becky Lynch. They replaced her with Charlotte Flair.
As soon as the match started, the crowd started chanting Becky’s name. They didn’t want this match. They wanted Becky Lynch. Fortunately, the two women put on one of the best WWE matches I’ve seen in years. And I mean any match, put on by men or women. I was on the edge of my seat.
And then, in the middle of it, Charlotte just decided, “Screw this, I’m disqualifying myself.” In wrestling parlance, it’s called a “F—ck finish.” And when you do one of these, you have to make sure the crowd is with you, or they’ll turn on the match.
And that’s exactly what happened last night. The crowd was so pissed at the “non ending” of the match, they started booing the hero and cheering the villain.
At long last, the crowd has figured out a troubling truth: if they can’t yell at Vince, they’ll yell at the talent.
Last night’s audience turned into an angry mob, and they were going to throw their feces and fire at someone. Vince wasn’t there, so they decided to throw it at Ronda Rousey. The woman who just went through a real beating, had open wounds on her scalp, on her ear, on her arms and legs. And as she walked up the stage, and she heard those people throwing their derision at her, she started to cry.
That’s when I knew I just couldn’t watch the WWE anymore. I just can’t.
I can’t watch Vince McMahon take talent like Asuka, Bayley, Daniel Bryan, Finn Balor, and many, many others and piss their careers down the drain because he doesn’t know how to “get them over” with the crowd.
Sorry, Vince. Your failure of imagination is not my problem. And I’m tired of rewarding it.