Midway through Monday’s episode of Raw, announcer Jim Ross, with a palpable sense of defeat in his voice, said, “I think the WWE universe is just as confused as we are.” He was referring to a face-off between two guys who both claimed to be Sin Cara,1 but he might as well have been talking about the entire WWE state of affairs.
On Monday night, CM Punk and John Cena were in the center of the ring as usual, but shadowy specters and backstage power players occupied center stage. Somehow, the Reality Era became the Conspiracy Era.
This requires some explanation, I know. I’ve been writing about the Reality Era at such length over the past months that it’s hard to believe these machinations would require further dissection. But if you’ll indulge me: Allow me to piece together an alternate history of WWE over the past four months.
In the beginning was R-Truth. He is a rather peculiar wrestler in the WWE hierarchy, and he’s an extremely unlikely prophet. Truth entered WWE in 2000 as K-Kwik, then left and turned up in minor league rival TNA Wrestling, where he wrestled under his real name — Ron “The Truth” Killings — and held the title during TNA’s early stages. He returned to WWE rather ingloriously, in the midst of a semiscandal that saw a white writer allegedly toss a racial slur at a black wrestler.2 The result, if the Internet is to be believed, was that WWE hired and/or promoted a number of African-American performers to prove they weren’t a racist organization. If this was something of an overreaction, it was necessary all the same. The history of race in pro wrestling is, to say the least, incredibly troublesome. It’s easy to make excuses for the ignorance and prejudice of decades past, or to say things like, Hey, Ted DiBiase’s black man-servant, Virgil, was really an in-joke aimed at Dusty Rhodes,3 so who cares? But it was less than 20 years ago when the tag team Harlem Heat debuted in WCW, where they were originally slated to be a pair of wrestling convicts led to the ring in shackles by a genteel southerner named Col. Robert Parker. This actually happened — they put on the act at house shows, in front of live audiences, which presumably included black fans — before common sense mercifully prevailed. This was 1993. So even if the alleged slur was never uttered, WWE had plenty of racial sins to atone for. “R-Truth,” then, was rehired as a pseudo-affirmative action case, but WWE’s handling of his character hasn’t exactly been enlightened in terms of race. He still came out in baggy jeans, holding a microphone, rapping and breakdancing his way to the ring.4 When R-Truth turned against the fans and his buddies John Morrison and John Cena several months ago, it felt refreshing, but it didn’t exactly portend a major shift — boring good guys often make boring bad guys, after all. But R-Truth has blossomed as a heel. He began obsessing about conspiracy theories in wonderfully lunatic interviews, drawing hilariously inane connections between imaginary spiders and the ambiguous forces that were at work to keep him from reaching the top in the WWE.
Last month, when the Miz — who, after all, once headlined Wrestlemania — realized that he was being ignored in favor of the Punk-Cena angle, he started complaining. It was an apt storyline for a wrestler who was being left in the dust by the emerging Reality Era. Before long, the Miz found common cause with Truth, and the Conspiracy Gospel had its first apostle. Truth and Miz formed a tag team and began coming to the ring preaching about the shadowy forces at work behind the scenes in WWE. They weren’t going to stand for it anymore. They were going to take their rightful place atop WWE, and god help anyone who got in their way. They demanded a shot at the tag titles at Night of Champions and got it, but they were undone by their own paranoia. When defending champs Kofi Kingston and Evan Bourne faked a tag behind the referee’s back — usually a trick reserved for villains, but whatever — Miz tried to alert the ref, but was ignored. Later, when Miz and Truth did tag, the ref disallowed it because he didn’t see it happen. That was all the evidence the conspiracy theorists needed to validate their suspicions. They attacked the referee and the power structure he represented — and forfeited the match.
Later, during the main event, WWE chief operating officer Triple H put his corporate career on the line in a no-disqualification match against CM Punk. After the two beat each other into submission, Miz and R-Truth hit the ring. They had identified their until-then ephemeral scourge: It was Triple H himself, head of the corporate machine that was conspiring to subordinate them. Miz and Truth attacked Triple H and Punk, leaving them seemingly incapacitated, then draped a lifeless Punk on top of Trips to secure a Punk victory and an end to the COO’s reign of terror.5
Their plan didn’t quite pan out. Triple H kicked out of the pin, then he and Punk rallied and dispatched their assailants. That’s when things took another turn: With the referee down and Triple H in position to win the match, WWE vice president John Laurinaitis — a remnant of the pre-Triple H era of WWE management who appears to have been plotting against not just the COO, but also Punk and Cena — came to the ring and directed a substitute ref to check on the condition of the original ref while blatantly ignoring Triple H, who was pinning Punk. Moments later, Laurinaitis text messaged Kevin Nash — the recent Punk foe whom Triple H fired recently (even though they’re longtime, real-life friends) for meddling in the COO’s affairs. Nash came to the ring through the crowd — a deliberate echo of his surprise appearance at SummerSlam — and viciously attacked both Punk and Triple H. He powerbombed Punk and tossed Trips outside the ring, where Triple H miraculously recovered and stung Nash with his illicit weapon of choice, the sledgehammer.
Triple H eventually won the match, which could be seen as one man triumphing against heavy odds or, if you’re R-Truth or the Miz, further proof that a secret cabal controls professional wrestling and, therefore, their careers.
On Monday night, Punk and Triple H met again in the ring, although they were less adversarial than the previous night. Triple H, for his part, was back in his COO role and was more preoccupied with the blighted proceedings at Night of Champions than his beef with Punk. He graciously put Punk back into the title picture, setting the main event — a Triple Threat Match with Cena and Alberto Del Rio with the championship belt at stake — at the upcoming Hell in a Cell pay-per-view. Triple H said that the previous night proved that he wasn’t part of any “conspiracy.”
Interesting choice of words, no? Punk has for weeks been making hay of Triple H’s backstage influence — in real life he’s married to Stephanie McMahon, and he’s long been a power player — but his implication was that Trips was part of the crew that was ruining wrestling, not that he belonged to some cryptic sect of sports-entertainment Freemasons. On Monday, however, Punk sang a new tune. Rather than demand a rematch with Triple H, Punk addressed Triple H almost, well, conspiratorially. He said that after Sunday night, he was sure that someone else is pulling the strings on the both of them — someone “higher up the ladder.” And the Conspiracy Gospel had its second apostle.
Before Punk could reveal his theory behind the supposed plot — and suspiciously timed to prevent him from saying it out loud — Laurinaitis again entered the fray. He argued that the only conspiracy afoot was Punk’s attempt to remake WWE in his image and, of course, to remove Triple H from his post to make it possible. As if he was doing Triple H a favor, Laurinaitis tried to fire Punk, but Triple H overruled it. H did promise, rather ominously, that he would get to the bottom of this by the night’s end and fire somebody.
The evening’s main event saw Punk and Cena6 teaming up against Miz and Truth. Cena and Punk won, and as Miz and Truth were licking their wounds, Triple H stood at the entrance ramp and, with a level of understatement that would probably make his father-in-law cringe, he fired Truth and Miz. They flew into a frenzy — not just because of the firing, but presumably also because of their increasingly loose grip on reality — and attacked Triple H. The fight was broken up by a sea of wrestlers, and Miz and Truth were carried out of the arena, literally kicking and screaming.
In reality, of course, we haven’t seen the last of Miz and Truth. And in honest-to-god reality, if you want to be totally straight about it, there is a shadowy group that controls WWE. They’re called the writers, or, in pro wrestling parlance, the bookers. They’re the minions of WWE chairman Vince McMahon, who, though deposed on-screen, is still calling the shots backstage. This is where the Reality Era and the conspiracy theories meet. CM Punk and the hardcore wrestling fans who populate message boards constantly rail against pro wrestling’s status quo. R-Truth, the Miz, and the conspiracy theorists feel overlooked by the unseen hand that sets the status quo. And Vince McMahon is the embodiment of that status quo.
It’s a safe bet that he’ll be back on WWE television eventually, his disbarment notwithstanding. If I were a betting man, I’d guess he’ll be back relatively soon. The storyline is set up too perfectly for him to stay away.
Jokes about Triple H’s wife aside, Punk and Triple always seemed mismatched as enemies. Triple H may have real-life influence, but he’s not the establishment. In his heyday, he was every bit the opposition figure that Punk is now. Punk’s real beef is with the man who for decades has ultimately decided which wrestlers get hired and fired and which ones get the chance to succeed. The man who famously said that Punk doesn’t look like he could kick anybody’s ass. The man behind the curtain. But even if Punk is co-opting the establishment, if he’s proving through his unusual success that the status quo wasn’t working, he’s still fighting an uphill battle. Mainstream pro wrestling is what it is — what it has been for decades — because McMahon’s sensibility is so firmly ingrained in the product. His product. Behind everything we see on-screen, there is a shadowy cabal of writers and decision-makers who ensure that McMahon’s vision becomes unreality.
That’s the truth today, and that’s been the truth for years. If that sounds like a conspiracy theory to you, then I don’t know what to tell you.
Previously from The Masked Man:
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