I decided to cancel my subscription after the first match of Hell In A Cell last night. I decided I was cancelling after the first match, once I realized the second match was Bray Wyatt v Roman Reigns. I’ll explain why, but first some context.
Although I only signed up to the Network a couple months ago, I’ve followed WWF (and WCW) on and off since 1990-1991, when I was about six years old. Back then following WWF meant watching tapes of pay per views that belonged to the big brothers of friends, and buying magazines. Pro wrestling was a really exciting form of entertainment for me–the physicality, the costumes, the drama and storylines–and part of that joy has stayed with me ever since. Its stayed with me even as an adult with extensive knowledge of how horrific the wrestling business can be.
I started watching WWF towards the tail end of the Hart Foundation’s run, just before Bret started his singles push. The HF were by far my favourite tag team and Bret was my favourite wrestler, although I loved The Anvil as well. Bret was so damned cool and such a good wrestler too. I loved the stories that he told through his matches. Bret has always had a reputation at being bad at promos, but that made no difference to me. I never watched promos. We never had satellite television, and I only ever watched tapes of pay-per-views and compilation videos. The stories that mattered were the ones told in the ring, which the announcers helped explain. So credit goes to Gorilla Monsoon, Jesse Ventura, Bobby Heenan and the like. The other reason was that my mother hated the promos: she hated seeing me watch steroid freaks like Ultimate Warrior shouting their heads off and behaving like morons. She thought it was stupid, and she didn’t want me watching them. So I always fast-forwarded through those. But when it was someone like Jake Roberts or Bret, I could watch without being told to turn it off.
From an early age I learned to pay close attention to what was happening in the ring and to the little details of what the wrestlers were doing, in order to understand what was going on.
It’s not like I followed wrestling non-stop since 1991. Far from it. There have been long periods where I’ve stopped watching and even stopped looking up the results. I followed it pretty closely from 1991 up to about 1995, when Bret lost the title to Backlund/Nash, and then I started again when wrestling got hot in 1998. But after the triple blow of the death of Owen, Bret’s retirement, and the end of WCW, I completely lost interest until the release of the Hitman DVD collection around 2006. But even then I had little interest in the product and the Benoit murder-suicide made me stop following it again.
But despite everything, I keep coming back to wrestling. My recent subscription to WWE Network was my second serious attempt to get back into pro wrestling as an adult. The first was in 2012-2013 when I introduced my girlfriend to it and we watched a number of pay per views and even Raw and Smackdown for several months. Around that time we both read Bret Hart’s autobiography and I felt that I understood the world of pro wrestling so much better than ever before; I understood the history of wrestling and things I’d seen as a child in a whole new way. I watched wrestling with new insight. Also, we were fortunate that we started watching at the time when CM Punk was starting out as WWE Champion and Daniel Bryan was just starting to take off in a big way. In fact, in hindsight, it was the publicity around and fallout from CM Punk’s match with Cena at MITB 2011 which drew me back in. I had the sense something important was happening, although I don’t think I believed anything had seriously changed. Also, if I’m honest, the fact that Shawn Michaels was no longer wrestling was a big factor too. As a child I always hated Michaels and even today I can’t really even bear to see a picture of him.
For a while we really enjoyed it. But Punk’s title reign never seemed really satisfying–recent revelations by Punk, which have been widely publicized, help explain why–and of course Bryan was never pushed as he should have been. When Brock Lesnar, famed MMA fighter, returned to WWE and was beaten by Cena and started to feud with Triple H, I was disgusted, and stopped watching again.
This year I was drawn back, again. I think there were two things this time. Sting signing up last year was part of it. The other was Paige. I’m from the UK. I watched the documentary on Channel 4 a few years ago about Paige’s family and parts of it reminded me of Bret’s book. Wrestling is her life, for better or worse. It was obvious then that she had talent and I thought she had the looks, personality and talent to make it on the big stage. Then I found out this year that not only was she in WWE, but she had been Divas Champion, was a pretty big star and was playing a prominent role in something called the ‘Divas Revolution’. I like women’s wrestling and so does my girlfriend. I actually felt excited about watching wrestling for the first time in years.
Of course, it wasn’t to last.
So I signed up for my free month, expecting to watch a bunch of old pay per views as well as the new product. The nostalgia kick wore thin pretty fast–when you get down to it, it feels a bit weird in your early 30s to spend too much time rehashing stuff you watched as a small child. There are plenty of other things that I can do with my time. Ultimately I was only going to keep the subscription going if the product could keep my interest.
Now, up to a point I know what I’m getting with WWE. So much of Vince and WWE’s history have been widely discussed, and I followed WWE in the 90s, including the Montreal Screwjob and the death of Owen Hart. I’ve watched thousands of hours of wrestling; spent far too long reading stuff on the internet; I’ve read Bret’s book, seen Wrestling with Shadows and Beyond the Mat a bunch of times, listened to countless wrestling podcasts, etc. So I knew what I was getting when I signed up to the WWE Network, but even then I’ve been disappointed.
The wrestlers are great. They always have been. The wrestlers have never been the problem with wrestling. Most of them are talented guys who love the artistry of what they do and go all out day after day to entertain people. Its always been that way. The problem was always the business. Vince does what he always did but but now there’s also Stephanie McMahon and Paul Levesque to contend with.
First, the promos. I’ve never been able to listen to 90% of WWE promos, simply because they are so incredibly stupid and contrived. There’s the occasional guy who is good to listen to, like CM Punk or Daniel Bryan; but for the most part they’re insufferable. That’s because the stuff they’re reading has been written by Vince, or by a team of goofy writers and then edited by Vince. So little of the personality, individuality, or reality of these wrestlers comes through. Often when it does, it seems like the wrestlers are punished for it.
I have absolutely no interest, none whatsoever, in seeing either Paul Levesque or Stephanie McMahon on my television screen, unless it’s a documentary about what’s wrong with the wrestling business. I always loathed Levesque as a wrestler when I was a kid, when he debuted with his lame aristocrat gimmick. I thought he was a boring worker, and an ugly and charmless wrestler with no charisma. Watching him insinuate himself into position as the second most powerful man in wrestling over the past 20 years has been hugely depressing. Stephanie McMahon has always seemed to me to share the values and priorities of her father and I think that sense is reinforced in her choice of life partner.
Why on earth do Levesque and McMahon think putting themselves at the heart of everything that happens on WWE TV is going to help business? In 2015, is this what people want? If this is what people ever wanted, which I doubt? Who wants this except Levesque and McMahon? The funny thing about wrestling fans is that they generally watch for the wrestling, not for the other stuff; that’s supposed to help provide a context for meaningful wrestling matches. How does Levesque and McMahon being at the centre of everything help build storylines or shape meaningful wrestling matches? Seeing Stephanie preside over the women’s division is like Brooke Hogan running the TNA Knockouts. But it’s nothing compared to watching Levesque put himself at the centre of everything, from WWE title feuds, to being the centre of attention for NXT where he’s hailed as some sort of demigod because he allows people to work normal wrestling matches. Watching Sasha Banks talk in the buildup to the Bayley v Banks ironman match about how Levesque is like a father figure to all the NXT wrestlers, and how they all want to do him proud, really made me sad, knowing what this man has done and how many wrestlers’ careers he has helped to bury. Levesque is doing the same thing he always did, exploit everyone and everything around him to put himself over at all costs. The ones who lose out are the fans and the wrestlers.
But the centrality of Levesque to WWE programming doesn’t just strike me as being about his own sheer egotism. It’s also about maintaining the centrality and supremacy of the WWE brand. Having married into the McMahon family, Levesque is the ultimate company man, and is routinely used by Vince to demonstrate the superiority of his company and product to that of everyone else. When Brock Lesnar returned to WWE in 2012, his mainstream reputation as an MMA fighter and legitimate badass was unquestioned. Of course, Lesnar lost his first big match after his return to John Cena, and then entered a feud with Triple H in which he lost the highest profile match at Wrestlemania 29. Although Lesnar was later to have significant win streaks and took Undertaker’s undefeated streak at Wrestlemania 30, this was only after he had safely put over the WWE brand via his losses to Cena and Triple H and himself became subordinated to the WWE brand. So long, UFC.
A similar process happened after the WWE signed Sting in 2014. Sting is a legendary figure in pro wrestling history and also iconic as the only North American wrestling superstar to have had a decades-long career since the 1980s and never signed with McMahon. As of time of writing, Sting has had two WWE matches. His first, inevitably, was a loss to Triple H at Wrestlemania 32. His second was a loss to WWE Champion Seth Rollins, in which Rollins injured Sting in a hard-hitting match after a series of buckle bombs. Rollins beat Sting having gone back-to-back after a match against John Cena in which Rollins lost, and after which Cena left Rollins laid out after multiple finishers. The very talented Rollins was also in the midst of what can only be described as a chickenshit heel champion run where he was about 1-20 in singles matches in the last couple of months; but he still managed to beat Sting! So, regardless of whether Sting would ever have any more matches in WWE after his injury, the fact that he was inferior to the company man (Triple H) and the heel WWE champion, who routinely lost to everyone else, was established.
This kind of strategy is central to WWE booking. The ultimate goal of it is not to create new stars, or to get wrestlers over with fans in a big way, but rather to perpetuate and maintain the WWE brand. Everything is subordinate to that. This makes sense from a standpoint of corporate strategy, but it sure makes for lousy entertainment. This is also reflected in the quality, or lack thereof, of the announcers. From an entertainment or storytelling point of view, it is hard to imagine how the likes of Jerry Lawler, JBL, or Michael Cole could be much worse. But again, they are there not because they are good announcers, but because they are slavishly loyal to the company line and will put over whatever McMahon wants. What he wants is nearly always something about the WWE brand rather than anything about the wrestlers or the match they are trying to have.
This was one of the things that infuriated me about the Cena v Del Rio match at HIAC. I personally don’t care for either wrestler. That said, I saw a good deal of Del Rio’s main event run in 2012, and thought it was underwhelming, to say the least. But of course the announcers were putting it over that his previous feud with Cena was legendary and one of the greatest things in WWE history. It was really absurd and completely untrue. The feud wasn’t even one of the best things in WWE in 2012. I’m willing–no, like most fans, I want–to suspend my disbelief when watching wrestling. It’s part of the entertainment and escapism. But when I’m being told obvious lies to my face the scales fall from my eyes and I’m left looking at the product for what it is. And I don’t want to see it.
Of course, one of the other reasons I was so angry about this match was that I knew Cena was taking time off after HIAC, and would be out for a couple of months. So, I figured whoever he faced would be winning the US Title. I was gutted when I found out this would be Del Rio. He was clearly going to be hot-shotted to a title, and that even rarer honour, beating Cena, immediately after re-signing. I wouldn’t care about this if the guys who actually deserved a break in WWE got them in a timely fashion (Danielson, Ziggler, Tyson Kidd, etc). Would it really be so hard to have given Dolph a win over Cena instead? Before he suffers a career-threatening injury like Kidd or Daniel Bryan? I guess so.
I was angry enough at that point, and the fact the second match was Wyatt v Reigns was enough to make me switch off. By all accounts it was a surprisingly good match, but the point here is that WWE has done absolutely nothing to make me care about either of these characters, and even worse, I have no faith that a match featuring them will mean anything or be any good. So, I switched the network off, and cancelled my subscription.
With the pay-per-view business collapsing and Raw TV ratings tanking, I wonder what state the business will be in the next time I decide to give it a look.