Frequently, I tune into Jim Cornette’s podcast/YouTube show and one of the consistent things he mentioned is the general decline in pro-wrestling over time. Part of his argument for this decline is the result of the lack of true stardom, the numbing to overdone spots, stupid story lines and dis-service these elements play into creating a more exposed, fake view of pro-wrestling in comparison to what former years had been. As someone who grew up with pro-wrestling since 1985, I am inclined to agree and want to talk about where much of this started and how things through time caused pro-wrestling to take major hits and lead to the point of what we’re seeing.
Originally, I wanted to write a blog about my own fandom and how I started out as a fan in the mid 80s and what caught my attention. I might eventually go that route, but I think I can combine part of the ideas I had for that topic into the one for this topic. For the most part, somewhere in the mid 80s, pro-wrestling would have its set of detractors, mostly those of more serious “real” sports that would describe pro-wrestling as “fake”.
My cousin was the first person trying to get me to see through the illusion because he was one such sports fan and detested the notion that pro-wrestling was staged and would often show how some of the moves looked ridiculous (such as hits where the wrestlers would amplify the noise by stomping their feet loudly against the mat from each blow). Other friends at school would likewise ridicule me for my growing obsession between ’85-’86.
Then around that time, there was a show called Fight Back with David Horowitz, which purported was a consumer advocacy program that would attempt to falsify product claims. One such claim was against the legitimacy of pro-wrestling itself. In one distinct episode, an ex- pro-wrestler infamously demonstrated how moves were performed. The result caused quite a commotion both for fans and those internally who were dedicated to protecting the business.
Despite such claims and the show, the business continued to maintain its mask of secrecy and plodded onward, although the business would rise and fall here and there. The WWF in particular started to focus more on cartoon-ish caricatures that had become a hit, especially during the Rock ‘N’ Wrestling cartoon era. Part of their vision was for branding purposes such that the WWF could own the likeness of each persona. The other half was aiming the product clearly at children, which, in my view had probably insulted many of the hardcore fans of yesteryear like those from the Bruno Sammartino days in MSG.
You would get characters such as Akeem, Tugboat, the Big Bossman, etc. Most of them now might be viewed as not so bad in comparison to later years where you’d get completely out-of-touch and unrealistic personalities like Mantaur, Bastion Booger, or Who, which ended up being jokes for or by McMahon. But the cartoon fetish that evolved in the WWF would start a trend that I believe turned off even more of an audience as people would find the product silly.
Likewise, once the NWA was purchased and incorporated into Ted Turner’s empire as WCW, clueless morons like Jim Herd would see the WWF’s success but not understand how they implemented it, just using the cartoon aspect and trying to make it work for a culturally different viewing audience. It would start with horrible concepts such as the Ding Dongs but later lead into utterly bad taste in co-promotional situations such as Robocop that serious appearing wrestlers like Sid Vicious would be forced to sell for (even though everyone would know that Robocop was just a fictional character). But it simply was implied that the management of WCW viewed the average fan as a complete moron, which further damaged the image that pro-wrestling had been attempting to protect.
Then around the early 90s, the steroid trial had come about which further put a black eye against pro-wrestling. I think one of the big eye openers around that time was the death of Lyle Alzado, who was a major media figure around the time, but claimed that the causes leading towards his death was the result of anabolic steroid usage. With that people started to look towards wrestling, especially with the larger-than-life types of Hulk Hogan, etc. as no longer being true athletes since steroids was viewed as a “cheating” mechanism used to get big (and shrink ones testes).
While Vince attempted to rebuild his empire through more realistic wrestlers like Bret Hart, the damage had been done. Wrestling was down, the mystique of Hogan had been tarnished (it already was not just by the trial but people getting sick of him) and the mainstream appeal of wrestling would fall.
When Hulk Hogan resurfaced in ’94 this time in WCW, there was a glimmer of interest just because he was associated with the WWF brand. So a lot more mainstream talk was going around. Yet WCW was not a mainstream company and still had underpinnings connected to the older NWA style audience. Rather than fresh feuds, we would see the continuance of Hogan’s dominance through Eric Bischoff’s way of signing Hogan through a controversial creative control contract that allowed him to handle his own image and character.
In turn, WCW would get the Hogan name but the types of matches were more or less a continuation of the cartoonish, outdated style that made him popular with children in the 80s. However, this time the audience was a hardened type that did not want to see their favorites such as Sting, Flair, etc. pushed to the side in favor of Hogan and his buddies (like Jim Duggan) with the less realistic and less punishing style Hogan was bringing compared to the edgier aspects of wrestling starting to appear with Cactus Jack and ECW.
Up North, the WWF began driving a petty campaign against Hogan’s new allegiance to WCW by using the imagery of age against them. Giving guys like Diesel, Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart the moniker of the leaders of “The New Generation”, they would add small skits of “Billionaire Ted” as well as the Nacho Man and a faltering Hogan, despite having a 45 year old but still capable Bob Backlund winning against Bret Hart, albeit for a VERY brief moment.
While these two companies started their war, another company began drawing in a new type of crowd that would crave the more realistic, edgier and hardcore aspects of wrestling. ECW would cater to blood thirsty north eastern crowds who would get frequent bouts of blood and what would later be labeled “garbage wrestling” with the occasional decent worker (like Benoit, Malenko, Guerrero, Mysterio) thrown in.
Then the boundaries in pro-wrestling started to become blurred again where the border between reality and behind-the-scenes where the internet was growing and helping to shape wrestling merged. For instance, Brian Pillman, as the Loose Cannon, would help evolve the first breaking of the 4th Wall with the infamous “fuck you Mr. Bookerman” incident with Kevin Sullivan on Nitro. Then the wars would heat up as contracts expired and Bischoff was making WCW edgier by signing WWF players that would show up and make offhand remarks about their former employer.
Of course, this would lead to the NWO and the Monday Night Wars. While ratings took a massive leap forward through a fandom craving insider information, the new technical style of wrestling that was being ushered in through the cruiserweights, the hardcore brawling aspects pioneered with Mick Foley’s crazy bouts in the WWF and ECW, much of the demographic around this time was centered around the college audience (like myself who was in my 4th year around that time). The internet helped play a key role in this with the growth of websites of the rumor mill that would fascinate people who grew up in the 80s with all their stars now showing up on the opposing program.
Similarly, the WWF was moving towards an edgier style too. A huge break occurred in the controversial Montreal Screwjob that exposed the business with McMahon becoming inadvertently the bad guy. However, the idea of “not insulting the intelligence of the viewers with more sophisticated programming” speech that McMahon gave was going to head towards the crash course TV of the now infamous Attitude Era, which some call the 2nd wave of the wrestling.
The Attitude Era took mainstream what ECW (and FMW) had started and focused around cutting edge promos with harsh language, more violence, frequent jabs that bordered on shoots, the pre-Divas with Sunny, Sable, Terri Runnels, etc. as near naked/borderline porno style marketed figures and of course the classic worker vs evil asshole boss storyline of Austin vs the Corporation/Vince McMahon that would coincide in timing as many people in college, that had internet access and was following voraciously the Monday Night Wars, now were entering the increasingly capitalistic work place of the booming and greedy Dot Coms and era.
The soap opera stories of the McMahon vs Austin were fantasies being played out voyeuristically for the fans in the work force who wished they could tell their micromanaging, overbearing bosses as symbolized by Vince McMahon “fuck you” through Austin’s and later on The Rock’s antics.
However, on the other side of the street, WCW was not doing so well. Vince Russo would get gobbled up by WCW as the head writer while AOL/Time Warner went through their merger. Russo, without the gate keeper of McMahon keeping him in check, was unleashed using his crash TV vision to bring dumber and dumber stories that caused a steep decline in WCW’s popularity, some of which would culminate with things like David Arquette winning the WCW title or Bill Goldberg getting tazored.
Similarly, ECW was on a decline as Paul E no longer was able to pay his roster, losing out talent frequently to the bigger wallets of the WWF or WCW. Worse yet, ECW was going to go bankrupt, leaving just one more place that talent no longer could turn towards when either promotion wasn’t an option.
With WCW dying, a buyer was sought which ended up being WWF, who now became the de facto pro-wrestling force in the world. But another change was going on even though from a purist stand point, the WWF would be at one of its peaks in terms of having the greatest able roster seen in a very long time. The WWF would move towards going IPO which would turn McMahon into a billionaire.
However, a different battle loomed in a very strange area where the other WWF, the World Wildlife Fund, would battle them in courts and legally win the WWF title itself. But timing is everything and around that time, the WWF dropped all pretenses of its vestiges of pro-wrestling, instead fully embracing the sports entertainment title in dropping the F for an E and becoming the WWE.
Up to this point though, the growth of story writers behind the scenes was becoming a huge deal. The promo was bigger than the wrestling itself as catch phrases were the keys to selling merchandise rather than the idea of a great match. It didn’t matter how silly a catch phrase would sound as long as it was repeated enough for the audience to eventually adopt it and buy more T-shirts or whatever. Thus, the WWE was shedding the last of its skin of pro-wrestling and becoming a marketing company..
Despite the ever growing numbers for the bottom line of the WWE, something else was happening to wrestling on a whole at various levels. First, as more writers were introduced, wrestlers started becoming less natural in the ring in terms of the promos and feeling more corporate. While John Cena’s popularity had been growing from his character as a wigger (basically a free style white rapper), he had been forced down people’s throats as a farce in many people’s minds (where people knocked his no selling as being “Super Cena” and earning him negative chants, despite his popularity and sales with the kids).
Another thing was that many wrestlers were starting to die out. Guys like Eddie Guerrero, Rick Rude, Road Warrior Hawk, Curt Hennig, etc. were passing away at young ages, quite often being reported to have enlarged hearts from various drugs (growth hormone, painkillers, mixing, etc.) Then came the infamous murder-suicide of Nancy Benoit, Chris Benoit and their son, which brought up the subject of steroid abuse as the cause.
While steroids ended up not being the actual cause (and no actual cause being nailed down), another major black eye against pro-wrestling had been struck, creating another gloom. A side effect of this situation was that many pro-wrestlers started to look smaller or even out of shape compared to before. You eventually would see a guy like CM Punk pushing the “straight edge” life style becoming a champion and speaker. Coincidence perhaps?
Yet pro-wrestling felt as though the oomph was slowly being deflated. For every CM Punk you produced, you had a ton of other guys that would be squandered or never reach true superstardom. Other promotions across the US would pop up but never truly reach the height of the territory system since the WWE had become the ultimate measuring stick.
But part of the growth of these smaller promotions you had also the indy side of wrestling where the art slowly has been lost as more evident choreographed style resembling an arcade/computer game became popularized. If not that then riskier garbage wrestling would evolve. Yet the art was dying in favor of “outlaw mud shows” with guys who weren’t trained properly and ever moreso expose the business.
At the same time, on the side the UFC was growing as the true alternative to pro-wrestling (i.e. WWE). While it doesn’t necessarily have the showmanship of pro-wrestling, it does satisfy that middle ground craving of violence, realism and what’s possible and does not seem to slow.
However, pro-wrestling is something that is shrinking. The COVID-19 pandemic put a massive dent into one of the few remaining features of pro-wrestling that remains an attraction: the live show and attendance itself. Even if wrestling fans can accept the scripted ways of pro-wrestling, the pro-wrestling fans themselves are the last remnants of the dynamic nature of pro-wrestling. However, with audiences being minimized or shot in a censored, background screen version, the entire product feels sterile and lacking the life pro-wrestling once had.
The one sad but bright light left seems to be in the behind the scenes aspect of pro-wrestling as shows like the Dark Side of Wrestling and A&E’s recent biographies have proven. Why is that though? In many cases, wrestlers long dead provide a source of entertainment or macabre interest for fans?
My take on the situation is that fans always want something authentic. In a world impinging upon lie after lie, these series are the remaining secrets left that are slowly being told of the bizarre yet magnetically fascinating world of pro-wrestling. The wrestling world itself had been built upon absolute secrecy but many hardcore insiders are starting to see the writing on the wall themselves and figuring that if a dime can be made, they’ll do it because there’s not much left.
But perhaps the issue has been this core problem of insulting the intelligence of the audience for so long that has been part of wrestling culture or as cynics might label as “carny.” Fans have been constantly deceived left and right and even those on the inside by their own comrades that the wrestling world has inevitably killed itself because it’s been unable to come to terms with what appears to be a ticking time bomb.
Bobby Heenan once mentioned that the blame really isn’t on the fans but the people internal to the business for allowing it to be exposed. And that might be partially true in hindsight. But I have thought even if McMahon had failed and that the evolution of the internet had continued, the business would have at some point burst open just by the very nature of itself.
When looking at people involved in pro-wrestling these days with their shoot interviews, autobiographies and documentaries on the subject, I cannot help but feel a confession type of aspect to the manner in which these things have come about. Those internal into the business treat each other almost like a cult where outsiders have been traditionally kept out. Yet it’s quite apparent to me that the immense secrecy kept within the wrestling business results in this absolute desire for each person involved to tell their own stories as like a psychological release as though they hold some form of complicit guilt.
So where does pro-wrestling go from here? Will we see a resurgence, especially when COVID-19 passes and live events make a come back? Or will the ever increasing exposure of the business proportionally increase the cyncism of non-fans to view pro-wrestling in a pejorative light?
My feeling is that pro-wrestling itself needs a paradigm shift in the mechanics of how things are done. The basis of pro-wrestling has been in part of live events and the symbiotic relationship to its fans. The rise of computer games and other distractions dissolves the need for kids growing up to see such things when they themselves can watch streamers do a simulation or play the simulation themselves. So for pro-wrestling to see a stimulus, it will require a new format of a relationship with the fans, or else be lost to the increasingly realistic virtual world (which is where I believe the WWE will attempt to gravitate towards in the next 10 years).
Pro-wrestling also needs to re-evaluate the idea of kayfabe and treating the customer as a “dumb mark” in trying to trick them into purchasing tickets. Instead of viewing the customer in this negative light, pro-wrestling must view customers as an equal participant such that they are part of the show. ECW had moved towards this direction with their core audience but they failed on the business end or capitalizing on what social media could bring to the table.
To me kayfabe is the real remnant of the death bed for traditional pro-wrestling. With pro-wrestling exposed almost fully now, kayfabe as viewed in the past can no longer exist. Equal in that equation is the ancient alpha male persona that brings along toxic masculinity, which is how this brotherhood of secrecy has formed but also managed to turn on itself over time. Instead, sincerity, realness not just on what occurs outside the ring, but how wrestlers speak, react and treat their fans/audience will become ever increasingly critical to their success. Social media obviously has been playing a role but it’s both beneficial and a death knell for those who can and cannot handle it.
But the real thing is that people love good stories, which is the aspect in pro-wrestling that I think draws people in no matter what. Pro-wrestling can be described as the ultimate in a morality play, the standard good vs evil. But rather than having polarized, traditional views on what it means to be good vs evil, we can turn towards a quote from William Faulkner and has been popularized in more recent years by George RR Martin:
he said that the human heart in conflict with itself is the only thing worth writing about
Taking a story like Brian Pillman Jr, a person who has gone through hardships, the loss of his father, his abusive step father and strained but now mending relationship with his mother, you have someone that actually is a natural baby face that people can grow to love. Promotions need to listen to the stories of the wrestlers themselves and bring those to light to show the morality story that we look up to in making fans believe in people who can rise and do that which most normal people cannot. The question is whether or not the promotions themselves can smarten themselves up and get rid of the gaga of stupidity and silliness of their own Dada-istic demeaning of pro-wrestling and empower wrestlers to produce their own stories to bring to fans to believe in them once again.