The audience of one. That is the universal tagline of performers within the WWE system when it comes to getting an angle over with the boss. We will never see the like of Vince McMahon the promoter ever again. His ideals (up to a point), his drive, his determination to succeed and his inhuman work ethic will see him at the helm of the company until the final day. The legacy that he will leave behind will be unmatched by anyone.
For all of his successes. From Hulkamania to birthing WrestleMania, to beating Ted Turner, for the longest time now McMahon has seemingly lost the pulse that he had such a grip of in the late 90s into the mid-2000s. From seemingly listening to the fans and pushing the talent that got the biggest reaction to just listening to himself, McMahon has taken many wrong turns in recent years.
With AEW’s inception, it seems like Vince is working hard to retain talent. Wrestlers making six-figure salaries are great, and I’m all for the guys and girls of the WWE making enough to comfortably take care of themselves and their families. But on the other side of that, McMahon now has a huge roster of talent across all four entities (RAW, SmackDown Live, NXT and NXT UK), and according to Wikipedia (yes, I know, a totally credible source) between the brands, they have 208 active wrestlers on their books.
Because of this, especially over the last few years, we have seen how talent is treated differently on different brands. The most eye-opening of which is when NXT talent is moved to RAW or SmackDown Live respectively. Very few NXT alumni have made the transition well, and this is in large part put down to Vince’s inability to ‘get’ certain talent’s gimmicks.
I was in the live audience the night that both Shawn Spears (FKA Tye Dillinger) and Shinsuke Nakamura made their SmackDown Live debuts. Both got thunderous reactions, and whilst I wasn’t sure about the legs on Dillinger’s ‘Perfect 10’ gimmick, Nakamura was looking like the shot in the arm the main event needed with his larger than life persona. And now…he was on the Extreme Rules pre-show. Winning a title granted, but his debut was over two years ago. Mishandling creative decisions with regards to characters has always been attributed to Vince as he has the final say. If that is the case, looking at his track record with the dreaded 50/50 booking system, it is because of these creative decisions that the only main roster personnel who seems to be fully over with the crowd are Roman Reigns (pre and post health scare) and Brock Lesnar.
Braun Strowman and Bray Wyatt were the two big casualties of Vince’s inability to listen to his audience. The fans chose Strowman as their guy, and Vince pushed him for a short time. This week on RAW, he was eliminated from a number one contender Battle Royal, where Seth Rollins, whose character has been emasculated on screen, won and all of a sudden started getting a lukewarm reaction from the live crowd (I blame the ‘Man’s Man’ t-shirt, literally nobody should buy that tee).
It seems to be the aged old adage that Vince quite clearly doesn’t quite trust anything he didn’t create. That adage is then crushed with the Bray Wyatt example, although that is just one example. I think it’s more of needing to fill three hours on a Monday night and not quite knowing how to save the big matches for the bigger shows. In my opinion, now that they have the Network, it’s probably time to drop the number of big shows they put on (they’re no longer Pay-Per-Views), but what do I know right?
The biggest issue that comes to mind with Vince and his success is his quite frankly disgusting treatment of Jim Ross over the years. I’m talking before Jim lost his wife two years ago. The biggest thing that comes to mind was that abhorrent skit with Vince pulling random stuff from JR’s back passage, knowing full well that JR was going through some lifesaving intestinal surgery.
JR mentioned on his podcast that Vince thought that JR would find it funny, but even as a kid to me it came across as incredibly insensitive, and quite frankly childish. He also had numerous times where JR was humiliated in front of his home town crowd in Oklahoma as well as having him join the Vince McMahon ‘Kiss My Ass’ club too. As JR mentioned, chances are if he sold Vince’s ribs less, he may have simply just let it go.
Vince McMahon isn’t a multi-millionaire by chance. His aggressive and innovative competition techniques in the mid to late 90’s eventually made him the king of the pro wrestling business. With that, though, came complacency, a lack of drive that has now resulted in a completely scripted, overly micro-managed environment where every character has no space to breathe or be themselves. Thus, we as an audience are trying so hard to suspend our disbelief, see the dishonesty in the words said by many of the professionals in the back who are frog-marched out and told to say whatever is written for them.
Wrestling and entertainment go hand-in-hand, and the essence of a great story engaged an entire generation of people who otherwise wouldn’t look twice at pro wrestling. Primarily, McMahon has managed to dwindle his own audience with sub-par booking, uninteresting character evolution, and has managed to make more mistakes over the last decade than he has successes, because of a lack of competition and money from FOX and Saudi Arabia, that can mask the incredible drop in fan participation in many areas of their business.
So what really can be done to undo the stigma that surrounds the creative decisions on character development and story? Well, first and foremost Vince could step away and let a younger mind control the creative aspect, say a Triple H given his good record with NXT. But let’s all be honest, this is NOT going to happen as long as Vince draws breath.
Another option would be to relieve the strain on the creative process and let the individual wrestlers evolve their own characters and work WITH the creative team to come up with stories and speaking roles that suit the character and keep from disconnecting with their audience. Let them ad-lib and be themselves, allow us as an audience to find genuine connections, good and bad so that we invest in them.
Why is Asuka the ‘Empress of Tomorrow’? Why is Ricochet name the ‘One and Only?’ I know why, but tell your audience. Jeez, even Val Venis got vignettes before his debut and he was pretty much self-explanatory. But by seeing him and getting an idea of who his character was, as a member of the fanbase, I was able to see why his character acted and did the things he did on screen.
The greatest heel in the history of professional wrestling hasn’t even been a wrestler. Vince McMahon is no doubt the most influential person in the history of professional wrestling, even if he hates the term. But in the day and age of social media, your past transgressions will always be front and centre of what is considered newsworthy. It’s still my firm belief that there is ‘No Chance In Hell’ of Vince ever giving up his chair, and when his time is called, a piece of the wrestling business will go with him.
All photos and videos courtesy of WWE.com