Watching wrestling isn’t a life and death situation. It’s not like when you take your child to the emergency room at 4 am and a surgeon who’s been woke up in the middle of the night has to be on his game to save your little girl. While life and death isn’t applicable, watching a weekly WWE telecast to relax and entertain viewers for two to three hours of their time during the week is a fair expectation. While it’s not life and death, it is fair to expect Vince McMahon to be on his game to create a World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Universe that creates heroes and villains and entertains us with their journeys. Vince McMahon, the 73 year old CEO of the WWE, has been fighting to create stars and achieve the ratings of the past. He hasn’t had to worry about real competition to fight against for nearly 20 years. That is changing and today’s situation is very is eerily reminiscent of the 80s, when Vince rolled over the competition and changed the wrestling world forever.
How many of the internet savvy fans of today remember when Vince McMahon was the young rebel with a vision of wrestling that was national in scope and full of over the top theatrics that his older competitors deemed crazy? Vince saw a way to shatter the old territory system and create his own empire. But seeing an opening isn’t enough. What circumstances allowed him to exploit the situation? How did the old territory system led by men with decades of experience manage to lose to the brash young businessman? Most importantly, what lessons can we take from the territory collapse and apply to today’s modern day juggernaut, the WWE?
The young McMahon saw the old fashioned wrestling with a focus on headlocks and hammerlocks to be too boring. The uber-serious wrestling that focused on holds over personality was exemplified by the American Wrestling Association (AWA). It was the largest geographical territory in the country and was run by Verne Gagne. Vern was a former wrestling world titlist who debuted in 1949 and had become nationally famous on the Dumont Network. He was reputed to have made $100,000 a year during the 1950s, which was known as the Golden Age of Wrestling. To provide historical context, legendary New York Yankee Mickey Mantle didn’t make $100,000 in a season until 1963.
Verne formed the AWA in 1960 with Wally Karbo and the AWA stretched from Minneapolis, to Milwaukee, Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Phoenix with the heart being in the Midwest. Unlike Vince McMahon (approaching 40 at this time), Verne was nearly 60 when McMahon was building up the WWF with wrestlers and putting together a national cable contract.
Gagne saw what was happening and understood the importance of expansion. Verne was building relationships and moving into struggling territories such as Las Vegas and San Francisco. He was able to see the advantages of a large geographic footprint. He was even willing to partner with several National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) territory partners to form Pro Wrestling USA to combat the WWF. One wonders if in-fighting amongst promoters that doomed this alliance had not happened, would the WWF juggernaut have been slowed or even stopped in its infancy. We’ll never know.
What Gagne still retained, and in large quantities, was his ability to identify and develop talent. Many of the WWF’s most successful wrestlers gained their fame and learned their craft in the AWA. The list is impressive and boasts: Hulk Hogan, Scott Hall (Razor Ramon), The Midnight Rockers (Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty), Leon White (Big Van Vader), The Nasty Boys, and Curt Hennig (Mr. Perfect) were essential in the WWF’s (and WWE’s) success. But Hulk Hogan, or rather why Gagne lost Hulk Hogan, was the essence of why Vince McMahon was to win his war with promoters of another generation.
Hogan was the clear fan favorite in the AWA. His appearance in Rocky III coupled with his unique ability to connect with fans made him the most popular performer in Gagne’s promotion. Hogan’s appeal was based on his charisma, his immense size, and his powerhouse set of moves (which was limited to a very select few). Gagne simply couldn’t abide to put the title on a wrestler that he didn’t feel was the best wrestler in the promotion. Twice Gagne allowed Hogan to win the title against AWA World Champion Nick Bockwinkel. Both times, the title was stripped from him for reasons that simply didn’t even follow the “logic” of professional wrestling. Gagne had to have Bockwinkel as the champion because Bockwinkel was the superior technical wrestler. In Gagne’s eyes, that was want the fans wanted to legitimize his champion.
Conversely, McMahon wanted the charisma, size and theatrics that Hogan could provide. McMahon saw what the elder Gagne could not. The demands of the fans had changed. What wrestling fans wanted in the 50s, 60s, and 70s had evolved - while Gagne’s preferences had not. When Hogan left in December 1983 to become the WWF heavyweight champion in January 1984, the battle was lost. Hogan would be the biggest talent raided by McMahon but he wouldn’t be anywhere near the last. At that point, Gagne and the rest of his territory partners were simply on life support. Survival was impossible and it was just a matter of time before they succumbed. Only Crockett Promotions would survive and they would be purchased by Ted Turner and the resulting World Championship Wrestling would be the last to fall in 2001.
Let’s fast forward to 2019. Vince McMahon at 73 is living atop the wrestling world as the largest company in the industry. The WWE has two large television deals, one with Fox to start in October of 2019 and the other with USA Network. To add to their revenue streams, the WWE has over a million subscribers on its WWE Network. What could possibly go wrong?
In truth, not much, but without competition, McMahon seems to have stopped evolving with his fan base. Much like Gagne who faced a young competitor who knew what the fans of the 80s wanted, McMahon is stuck in the 80s and late 90s when he was at his professional peak. But in 2019, a new organization appeared, AEW (All Elite Wrestling). In AEW, Vince faces a young man, Tony Khan, flanked by younger wrestlers Cody Rhodes, Matt and Nick Jackson (the Young Bucks) and Kenny Omega. These wrestlers have the pulse of today’s wrestling fans at their fingertips and they’ve dabbled at the promoter role working with independent wrestling promotions across the country. While Khan doesn’t have much expertise in wrestling management, his father, Shahid Khan (owner of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and the Premier League’s Fulham F.C.) has pockets that are deeper than Vince McMahon’s. For the first time in Vince’s career, someone can outspend the WWE.
Since the retirement of Stone Cold Steve Austin and the move of Duane “The Rock” Johnson to Hollywood, the WWE has struggled to generate breakout stars. Worse, Vince’s pushing of who he thinks should be the stars over/above/despite the wishes of the fans has created fan backlash at WWE stars, anger at the stories Vince books for them, and has forced Vince to downplay a number of WWE stars in order to push the ones he has chosen. For example, Daniel Bryan was the biggest surprise sensation of a wrestling generation. Yet, Vince’s refusal to slow down the push of Roman Reigns angered fans when they clearly preferred Bryan. That was over four years ago.
Seth Rollins came back from a horrible knee injury and was immediately forced to play the heel role when fans were ecstatic to welcome him back as a face. Why? Because Vince had to push Reigns and make people want to cheer him. This year at Summer Slam, Rollins was white hot, but he wasn’t allowed to take the title off of Lesnar. Why? Because Vince had to push Reigns and make people want to cheer him. Similarly, Braun Strowman was hot and ready to be the number one face, but had to flip for no reason to a heel. Why? Because Vince had to push Reigns and make people want to cheer him. Brock Lesnar, the #1 “invincible monster” attraction since Andre the Giant, had to be called out as a champion who doesn’t like wrestling and is only around when he’s paid to be around. Why? Because Vince had to push Reigns and make people want to cheer him. And now, Becky Lynch was the hottest act since Daniel Bryan’s first title run and maybe since Stone Cold Steve Austin. She was cooled off because Vince wants to push a Charlotte Flair versus Ronda Rousey match. It has yet to be seen if the fans will get their Lynch versus Rousey match or if Vince will push the match he wants.
Vince McMahon seems to have an Oppositional Defiance Disorder against his “authority figures” - the WWE fans. This consistent behavior of misreading the fans (or worse, deeming their feelings irrelevant) and forcing stars down their throats has made WWE fans angry, resulted in the lowest WWE television ratings of all time, and has fans cheering more for and against storylines (called booking) rather than the wrestlers themselves. This side effect of Vince’s decision making began with his Mr. McMahon character in the Stone Cold era. The pervasive use of McMahon influencing the behavior/result of wrestlers has made the emotion of the fans much less intense. Everyone realizes wrestling isn’t real, but during the show you don’t want the story to feel stupid or foolish any more than a science fiction fan wants a Marvel super hero or Star Trek character to behave illogically during a movie or television show. No one wants your entertainment experience interrupted by bad writing, no matter if the threshold is lower (as the public assumes for wrestling or even super heroes) or for higher level entertainment one would find on Masterpiece Theatre.
AEW is run by a fan boy (Tony Khan) with a resume full of professional sports experience. He’s got a staff of pro wrestlers who have worked the independent circuit and know what fans like and what they want to cheer. This is shaping up to being the reverse of the McMahon versus the territories wars of the 1980s. Now Vince is the aging icon stuck in his ways. Several questions are out there to help determine the narrative. Can AEW get a television contract that will allow them to truly compete? Will AEW be able to successfully program an hour or two a week for a wrestling show that will feel new and be what current fans desire? Will Vince hand the wheel to his son-in-law Triple H (a former WWE wrestling star), the man who has set up and run the uber-successful WWE developmental wrestling organization, NxT?
There are plenty of questions that remain to be answered. One must never downplay Vince’s ability to rise to the occasion when competition threatens. At the same time, habits are hard to break and Vince has quite a few bad booking habits that will leave the door open for an AEW promotion to exploit. Whether AEW will stumble across the threshold, will walk through the door, or will kick it down will be the big wrestling story of 2019.