“I love you, Pop, and I’m sorry.”
With those unspectacular words, Triple H relieved his real-life father-in-law, WWE chairman Vince McMahon, of his duties. It was a storyline, obviously, but the way it was delivered spoke to a larger theme: For the first time, Triple H, the WWE Board of Directors’ on-screen representative, made unveiled reference to the facts that he’s married to Vince’s daughter and part of the WWE brain trust. John Cena, who was pinned by CM Punk just moments before, threatened to leave for rival promotion TNA Wrestling if Vince lived up to his promise of firing Cena if he lost. Both lines were knee-deep in scripted histrionics, but they also stood as examples of the somewhat real, worked-shoot style that CM Punk brought back into vogue in June.
Despite the fact that he wasn’t even present for the proceedings, Punk’s spirit filled the arena.1 Physically, Punk — your putative WWE champion — was in Chicago, cavorting offscreen with the championship belt. If that seems unusual, well, it is. Allow me to recap.
A few weeks ago, Punk became the no. 1 contender for John Cena’s WWE title and said that he would win the championship at the upcoming Money In the Bank pay-per-view. Since his contract was up the day after the event, Punk also promised to walk away from WWE with the belt. The next week, he delivered a landscape-changing monologue that was littered with real-life particulars that made fans’ jaws drop, regardless of how much they already knew about WWE’s backstage dealings. While explaining his decision to leave, Punk pilloried WWE’s status quo, questioned its resolve, and criticized the company’s handling of his career.2 Vince McMahon then “suspended” Punk for his insubordination — at least until the next week, when John Cena, ever the mensch, petitioned for Punk’s return so fans could see the two wrestle. McMahon relented, but he added the condition that if Cena failed to defeat Punk, Cena would be fired. Make sense?
Then came Sunday night’s pay-per-view. It was in Chicago, Punk’s hometown, and the crowd was loudly in Punk’s corner despite his nominally being the bad guy (and despite Cena’s sizable popularity). Cena and Punk wrestled an incredible match — Cena seems to thrive on the crowd’s opposition — that reached its climax when McMahon and his crony, John Laurinitis, showed up at ringside. When Cena locked Punk in his STF3 submission hold, Vince told Laurinitis to have the timekeeper ring the bell. This was a delicious reference to the famed Montreal Screwjob of 1997, when champion Bret Hart planned on defecting to WCW without losing the title and McMahon plotted (in real life) for the referee to signal the end of the match when opponent Shawn Michaels had Hart locked in a Sharpshooter. This ending conveyed the added insult of employing Hart’s signature move to defeat the champion. It went off successfully, but Bret went ballistic after the match — he decked McMahon (again, in real life) in his dressing room — and the incident became part of wrestling lore. It also marked a transition McMahon’s on-screen role from announcer to diabolical owner.
So when Laurinitis made his move toward ringside during Sunday’s Cena-Punk main event, the implication was clear. Cena — he of the Hustle, Loyalty, Respect credo — recognized what was about to happen, released Punk and intercepted Laurinitis, punching both Laurinitis and the fourth wall in the eye. He shook his head at Vince, telling him he wouldn’t let it go down that way. When Cena reentered the ring, still eyeing McMahon, a recovered Punk hit Cena with his Go To Sleep finisher, pinned him, and won. Vince, visibly shaken, took a headset from one of the announcers and called for Alberto Del Rio to come out. Earlier in the evening, Del Rio had won a Money In the Bank ladder match that guaranteed him a title shot at any time. Vince was now demanding, or scripting — the line of reality was deliberately blurry here — that Del Rio exercise that right.4 Del Rio ran to the ring, but Punk kicked him in the head before the match could start and escaped into the crowd, title belt in hand. He paused just long enough to blow McMahon a goodbye kiss.
And then Punk was gone. Since then, photos of Punk celebrating with the belt have popped up all over the Internet. If this was just another WWE storyline, they played it straight. Monday night, Punk went to the Cubs game instead of traveling to Wisconsin for Raw. When Vince, wearing a pink sports coat, opened the show with an awkward State of the Company-style address, he pledged that fans would never hear Punk’s name again on a WWE broadcast. Then Vince announced a one-night, eight-man tournament to crown a new champion. The tourney was full of short, pretty-good matches — most of them ended with abrupt finishes, which was necessary to move things along and protect the losers’ reputations. But before Rey Mysterio and The Miz could begin the final bout, Vince took over the ring to formally fire Cena. The ex-champ came out and stated his case: He loves WWE, but he didn’t want to win the way Michaels beat Hart in Montreal and go down in history as another McMahon crony.
Just before McMahon could fire Cena, however, they were interrupted by Triple H, who hadn’t been seen since WrestleMania in April5 and who was wearing a suit, which is unusual for him. Triple H said he had come from a WWE Board of Directors meeting in which the board, uncomfortable with Vince’s erratic decision-making, decided that Triple H should replace McMahon. The show’s ending was surreal: McMahon, who had been booed loudly all night (and throughout the past few weeks and, to be frank, the past 15 years) stood in the ring, crying in his pink coat while he received a standing ovation. “Thank-You-Vince”, the crowd chanted.
It’s an ovation he deserves if he’s actually leaving, but we should assume that he’s not. Already, fans are predicting that McMahon will side with Punk in an insurgent movement, or that he’ll otherwise be dragged back into the story. Despite the reality-blurring of recent weeks and despite Triple H’s valiant attempt to make Vince’s demotion seem like a real-life development, rather than another wrestling plotline,6 it’s entirely plausible that McMahon will be back on-screen soon. But for now, the chairman has been shunted offscreen and into an undetermined future. One might say it’s a metaphor for the current state of WWE.
Everyone loved Punk’s promo three weeks ago. That’s because worked-shoots are the cherry on top of pro wrestling’s marshmallow sundae. As sweet as they are, worked shoots are worthless without scripted storytelling. What we saw Monday night was an attempt to establish a new middle ground between wrestling’s reality and unreality. Vince’s demotion wasn’t a real-life storyline, but it was a gesture toward reality, and a pretty bold one. The message reinforced what last month’s CM Punk arc suggested more obliquely: that the fans weren’t happy, that the on-screen product wasn’t working, and that it was time for a new direction.
And so comes the offscreen reality. The real world exists off camera, and much of the fake wrestling world not only exists but is also planned there. For years, wrestling has largely denied this uncomfortable truth and only acknowledged it when it served them — with an array of carefully placed backstage cameras. Monday night, WWE admitted that decisions that determine wrestling outcomes are made offscreen. The board met to fire McMahon offscreen; CM Punk, the world champion, was offscreen; and John Cena, the stock hero, was offscreen for almost the entire night.
If all of this doesn’t exactly shatter the fourth wall, then maybe that’s the point. This is, after all, a scripted wrestling show and the real world can be alluded to but not directly addressed on-screen. Punk’s worked shoot launched more than just a championship storyline. His epic rant managed to address real-life issues while also existing semi-comfortably within WWE’s scripted reality. In doing so, it opened the door for a new kind of wrestling narrative. The events of Sunday and Monday are advancing this script, even if they’re following it blindly into uncharted waters. We don’t know what the future will look like, but that’s reality for you. Call it the Worked-Shoot Era.
I’ve said it before: If the history of wrestling were itself a storyline, the central conflict would be the tension between the real world and wrestling’s peculiar unreality. When the Montreal Screwjob happened 15 years ago, this notion was almost unthinkable because the subject hadn’t been broached yet. With a few rare exceptions, action happening offscreen would have been absurd. Viewers weren’t accustomed to it, and they wouldn’t know how to respond. Having your champion wandering around in the real world, his contract expired? That wouldn’t have made any sense.
Times have changed, but the question now is how WWE will address its on-screen product while acknowledging a broader world. No one’s going to watch a wrestling show when the best stuff is happening on Twitter and YouTube. But a wrestling reality that acknowledges that the real world exists? Well, that makes some sense.