Men in Crisis

Surface Tension

Courtesy of WWE

WWE’s Troll Army

How the McMahon family keeps you interested by pissing you off

On Raw Monday night, a day after John Cena beat Ryback by chucking him through the roof of an ambulance, Cena was wrapping up a triumphant post-Payback soliloquy when Mark Henry politely interrupted him. The behemoth former Olympic weight lifter lumbered to the ring in the nicest outfit he’d worn onscreen since his first date with Chyna — a pink sport coat and black slacks — to announce his retirement. He carried his wrestling boots to the ring as a symbolic gesture. The crowd swooned. Even though Henry hadn’t been the most well-liked performer since he first arrived in the WWF in 1996, the fans had lived with him for the better part of two decades, and they’d grown to love the big guy.

In his early years as a professional wrestler, Henry struggled to find a character that fit. The first bland, baby-faced push he received was forgettable. When he was remade as the heavy in the black-power outfit Nation of Domination, things got uncomfortable. And when he went gonzo — fathering a love child with septuagenarian lady wrestler Mae Young that turned out to be not a baby but a rubber hand — well, it was unwatchable. Aside from these lowlights, Henry also endured periods as a rom-com lead and as a gigantic but mostly unthreatening prop for champions to vanquish. He also endured a litany of stints on the disabled list. Over the years, Henry gave wrestling fans plenty of reasons to groan. It wasn’t him so much as his positioning: WWE had signed the world’s strongest man and made him into the wrestling Barry White.

In mid-2011, Henry finally came into his own in WWE. He ended up in the mix for the World Heavyweight Championship (then the top Smackdown title), and everything changed for him. Rather than play a cartoonish love machine or a blank-slate leviathan, Henry was suddenly an enthusiastic badass. He had memorable brawls with Big Show and Sheamus that left him, finally, in the good graces of WWE fans. After years of being a poster boy for misspent potential, Henry gained popularity by being the guy he should have been all along. But just as quickly as he put it all together, it seemed, Henry’s run was over. A couple of injuries later — and a few disagreements with WWE brass about the legitimacy thereof — Henry seemed ready to call it a career.

So when Henry interrupted Cena on Monday, emotions were running high. It was sad to see him go. And Henry was sad to be leaving. WWE played it perfectly — even if you suspected something was amiss, the act was shockingly convincing. They soft-pedaled the impending announcement with a none-too-subtle series of tweets from Henry.1 Of course — because why else would I be writing about it — in the end it was all a sham. Henry attacked Cena and set himself up as Cena’s next PPV opponent.

This wasn’t just a swerve — WWE was trolling its fans. And it’s something they’ve been doing frequently these days.

In the characteristically Cena speech that Henry cut short, Cena addressed his detractors — as he so often does when they become agitated enough to force a response — and then he said, in so many words, that it doesn’t matter what they think, because life will also present him with adversity to overcome. As if being hated by half the WWE fan base is as minor a concern as tearing a hole in the seat of your jorts. One could argue that Cena’s entire reign has been a lo-fi trolling operation on behalf of the WWE brain trust, but they probably haven’t been trying to antagonize fans, they just don’t care what many fans want. Recently, however, WWE has engaged in subtle, calculated warfare against these fans. Their aim now is to enrage, confuse, and/or frustrate. I mean this in a good way.

Consider the once-looming Punk no-show at Sunday’s Payback pay-per-view. He showed up, in case you missed it, and wrestled a good-if-not-great match against Chris Jericho. It was a mix of technical know-how, MMA theory, and a story line about Punk’s ring rust that was either brilliantly executed or true. But during the period between Paul Heyman agreeing to the match on Punk’s behalf and Punk’s entrance on Sunday night, nobody really knew whether Punk would show. And even if he did, we still didn’t know if he’d wrestle. In the end, we got the most obvious outcome — Punk wrestled and Punk won — which might excuse WWE’s noncommittal buildup if only that buildup hadn’t been so perplexing. And let’s be clear: WWE has never been a company known for subtlety, even within the bombastic norms of pro wrestling. Not knowing whether your favorite wrestler is going to show up isn’t innovative so much as infuriating.

Or take Dolph Ziggler, erstwhile World Heavyweight Champion, he of the severe concussion and monthlong stint on injured reserve. WWE gave a huge donation to concussion research right about the time Ziggler was punted by Jack Swagger. WWE even teased a Triple H concussion angle to insinuate the injury’s onscreen legitimacy. But after languishing off camera for what felt like ages, Ziggler returned to the ring Sunday to meet Alberto Del Rio, who spent their entire match hitting him in the head. OK, so Del Rio had been inching toward the nefarious, and he solidified his return to the dark side in a show-opening promo on Raw Monday night.2 But that really wasn’t clear until deep into his match at Payback. And after Ziggler spent so long in medical limbo — a span in which WWE did little to keep him relevant — one presumed that we were supposed to take these concussions seriously. As Del Rio kept insistently rattling Ziggler’s brain against his skull, the wrestling fans I watched Payback with gritted their teeth. This was compelling storytelling, sure — in the sense that a NASCAR race ending in a fiery wreck is compelling. The fans in the room compared Ziggler to Mick Foley and Chris Benoit, but not in a good way — in a “remember how that guy let himself be brutalized” way. We learned from all that, we internalized Ziggler’s plight, and on Sunday, WWE toyed with that. It’s not the worst thing in the world, I know. I actually think it was a pretty brilliant way to needle WWE fans. But they’re trolling us.

In the modern era of pro wrestling, there’s no such thing as kayfabe. In the information age there are few secrets, and in the era of smarks there are even fewer surprises. The only power the wrestling company has left is to exploit the fact that we’re clued in. They can have worked-shoot promos, but those usually come within the context of traditional wrestling feuds. The only way they can recapture the innocence of the bygone world of kayfabe — the only way they can get truly emotional responses from their fans — is to troll us. Welcome to the age of the worked-shoot match — how else would you describe Ziggler–Del Rio? — and the troll promo. It’s the logical next step in reality programming. It’s putting the power back in the promoters’ hands. It’s getting us back to where we’re supposed to be. On Monday, it was announced that Ziggler wasn’t even at Raw. This was storytelling, but coming on the heels of his lengthy absence, it was oddly believable — which made it all the more gripping when Ziggler appeared at the end of the Punk–Del Rio main event and viciously attacked his rival. “He’s not supposed to be here!” the announcers shouted, echoing their predecessors in the Territorial Era days when a suspended wrestler would violate his restraining order and show up on set. WWE managed to surprise us, which means they’ve got us right where they want us.

Earlier on Monday’s show, Daniel Bryan took on Randy Orton in a no-disqualification match — resulting, unsurprisingly, from them butting heads during their tag team loss to The Shield on Sunday. At one point, Bryan dove from the ring to the floor to tackle Orton, and Orton sidestepped him, sending Bryan plummeting headfirst to the floor. Bryan was discombobulated, still competitive but in obvious discomfort. The referee called to the back for medical attention, crossing his arms into an “X” — the symbol they use for real-life injury. If it was fake, this wouldn’t have been the first time WWE blurred that line. The announcer crew by now has this routine down to an art: The offhanded, bombastic mention of Bryan’s certain injury fades into the slow, soft-voiced seriousness that, not long ago, was only used to describe matters of real-life significance. Call it the Concern Troll Voice. The cameramen didn’t seem clued in to the injury, and Orton was visibly confused — not that that stopped him from continuing the beatdown. WWE.com later said that the match had been stopped by company COO Triple H — he of his own recent pseudo-injury — and that Bryan had argued with him backstage over the decision. Triple H explained: “When it comes to the health and welfare of our talent I will make the right call every single time.” The dirt sheets were reporting that Bryan legitimately suffered a stinger, and that the match was not supposed to end as it did.

If this was real, it’s already seamlessly woven into wrestling’s unreality. If this was scripted, it’s another manipulation of reality to further a story line. Regardless, it was well done. But the bow on the package was having Triple H legitimize the injury post facto. Perhaps the most crass example of WWE’s recent trolling has been the resurgence of the McMahon family — papa Vince, daughter Stephanie, and her husband Triple H. While their various backstage interactions have been largely innocuous, the very idea of the McMahons interjecting themselves into the onscreen product is anathema to many fans who feel that every moment of Vince’s presence since his feud with Steve Austin has been self-aggrandizing or diminishing to the rest of the product.

This is a new era of McMahon family realness, however. Long past is the day when Vince outed himself as the WWF’s owner. Now we have interviews like Triple H’s “right call” spiel, where he appears on camera with other real-life WWE officials and uses insider jargon like “Gorilla,” which refers to “The Gorilla Position” — the area just behind the curtain. Open discussion of post-Vince front office succession plans and Triple H and Steph referencing their children are now part of the story. Vince calls the product “family entertainment” on-air, which is a strictly off-air notion, and, perhaps most bizarrely, Steph was introduced by a graphic as “Executive VP, Creative” when she appeared on Raw Monday night. Well, if we’re supposed to pretend that pro wrestling contains real fighting, then why does WWE need a vice-president on the “creative” side?

So yes, the McMahon family’s intrusions can be jarring. But if my theory holds water, this is intentional. WWE has realized the power of pissing off its fans. Couldn’t WWE have noticed that, as reviled as Michael Cole (the heel commentator) was, he got more of a reaction than just about any of the wrestlers on the roster? Ditto for John Laurinaitis and Vickie Guerrero before they found their respective roles as recurring characters. Isn’t it possible that the impending McMahon power struggle isn’t masturbatory or wrongheaded? It’s by design, and since it’s getting a reaction we know that it’s working. The McMahons know exactly how pissy the Internet gets when they take up screen time, and that’s the point. Maybe Triple H threatened The Shield and Vince endorsed them precisely because it would upset the smart fans. Their simple involvement is trolling us, and we’re playing right into their hands.

From Twitter tricks to inconsistent storytelling to X-Pac heat, antagonizing its audience may be WWE’s most effective way of reaching modern fans. They have us sad, they have us worried, they have us screaming in anger at our TV sets. We’re like grown men screaming at heel characters from the third row in a National Guard armory in the 1960s, or grandmas smacking villains with our purses in the 1970s. We’re like the kids who sent in a dollar for the Hulk Hogan bracelets after Earthquake flattened him. We’re angry, confused, and frustrated. We’re emotionally spent. It’s exactly how wrestling should be.

Filed Under: Movies, Sports, Ted, Wwe

Shoemaker

The Masked Man is David Shoemaker, author of the new book The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Pro Wrestling.

Archive @ AKATheMaskedMan

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