For the most part, pro wrestling is the same as it has always been, the same as it was when guys started faking punches in their tough-man exhibitions at county fairs and in vaudeville halls a century ago. As much as times change, and as much as wrestling tries to innovate, they’re still working off the same basic script they’ve been using for decades. This is part of why we love wrestling — the familiarity, the ceremony. It’s also what frustrates us about the form — when anything fresh is swallowed up into the abyss of tedium in the name of tradition.
After four months of edge-of-your-seat “Reality Era” programming, WWE seemed to flip a switch two Mondays ago. In a matter of moments, the program switched from a reality-referencing, provocative, pro-labor storyline to a new era. Triple H was ousted from his position as WWE’s on-screen chief operating officer in favor of the villainous corporate backstabber John Laurinaitis. WWE chairman Vince McMahon made a momentary (and unexpected) return from exile to announce the changing of the guard. But this new era looked a lot like the old era — that is, the pre-Reality Era. There was an evil, stuffed-shirt GM, John Cena battling a foreigner for the championship, a semi-marginalized CM Punk — it felt like I had fallen asleep and woken up in 2007.
Monday’s episode of Raw was taped in Mexico City. This is, without doubt, the reason for Alberto Del Rio’s current reign as WWE champion; Del Rio is a Mexican national and something of a lucha libre icon. Insider talk had it that his title run was supposed to begin earlier, but that plan was interrupted by the unexpected ascendance of CM Punk and the Reality storyline. Although he is relatively new to WWE (and despite his excellence in the ring and on the mic), Del Rio represents the old guard; Punk, on the other hand, has been wrestling’s “voice of the voiceless,” its stand-in for disaffected fans and disgruntled wrestlers who feel marginalized by WWE’s cardboard characters and recycled narratives.
The tension between Punk’s protest and WWE narrative tropes hasn’t been resolved, but they’d prefer you to believe that it has — Punk’s Reality storyline has been shelved in recent weeks in favor of the new old status quo. Laurinaitis, never a fan of CM Punk (both on-screen and in real life), determined that Punk wouldn’t have a spot in the main event at Sunday’s Vengeance pay-per-view. Instead, the title match will feature Del Rio and Cena, while Punk has been shunted into a buddy comedy with his erstwhile rival Triple H, who has found common cause with Punk in opposing Laurinaitis-backed baddies Miz and R-Truth.
It wasn’t just Punk’s on-screen demotion that made fans start grousing — he’s still near the top of the card, and even if he fell deeper into the undercard, well, we’ve seen him there before. But what’s more disappointing is the feeling that Punk has lost his revolutionary mojo and is disappearing into WWE’s homogenous wrestling gruel. Punk suddenly seems almost subservient — his teaming up with Triple H is one example, but even harder to accept is Punk’s acquiescence to mainstream WWE storytelling. It’s as if the success of his Reality Era has begat a man suddenly more comfortable existing within the status quo. Or, as some might say, a sellout.
It felt strange to watch the Raw walkout earlier this month and not see Punk on the screen. The Punk of June — hell, the Punk of early September — would have been leading the charge. The present Punk, however, rebuked the walkout participants and spelled out his tepid rationale on Twitter. He said that people were “missing the point Walking out is a pussy move. There’s a huge difference in what I did. I want change, and I can’t change shit from my couch. I’m in the fox hole. I’m getting it done. Don’t be a pussy and just tweet about it.”1
It goes without saying that the primary reason Punk didn’t participate in the walkout was because WWE writers decided that he wouldn’t, so Punk was left to defend his inaction as best he could. When he was a few notches down the card, the writers left Punk to his own devices; we fans could see his subtle brilliance and wonder why he wasn’t given a more prominent role. When Punk launched the Reality Era a few months ago, the reaction was so enormous that WWE had to give Punk room to do his thing, and we all reveled in it. But they weren’t going to sit back and watch forever. This is a familiar problem for insurgent movements: Rebellions either fail or get absorbed by the orthodoxy. A mutiny can’t last forever.
In a way, it was fitting that Punk turned to Twitter for the tirade that may have been the Reality Era’s death knell. Since Punk’s ascendance in June, WWE has tried not only to profit from the energy he’s created, but also to define it, distill it to its basic ingredients, and repurpose it for the company’s broader benefit. For example, Punk’s public appearances during his stint away from WWE caught fire on YouTube, and so a few weeks ago we saw Miz and R-Truth (who had been “fired”) plead their case for reinstatement with a YouTube video that — unlike Punk’s — was aired (and ridiculously labeled “exclusive”) on Raw. Similarly, Punk began using his Twitter account not to interact with fans or update them on what he was eating for dinner, but to build his character2 and expand the Reality storyline. In response, WWE began flooding the zone with similar “worked” tweets. Announcer Michael Cole, who had made knocking the “nerds” on Twitter an integral part of his loathsome character, has taken to steering the TV audience toward WWE-sanctioned hashtags. On Raw this week, the wrestlers’ Twitter handles appeared under their names in the graphics accompanying their ring entrances. Within moments of Laurinaitis’ ascension to the GM role, he launched a Twitter feed (@WWERawGM), where he extends his snarky on-screen character into the 140-character world that many of us now consider our reality.3
After the walkout, some wrestlers began tweeting from the point of view of the pro-labor advocates they were pretending to be on-screen. John Morrison, a supremely athletic and equally uncharismatic performer, has been in WWE’s doghouse the past couple of months. Some believe this is due to his relationship with former WWE wrestler Melina4 and his continued comportment with her. Others have noted that Morrison’s contract is about to expire, and it’s conceivable that WWE is reducing his screen time to gain leverage in negotiations over his next deal. Perhaps because of this — or perhaps because WWE wants the situation to look like this — Morrison’s tweets have pushed the union agenda more than anyone else’s:
“If the WWE universe is paying our checks maybe the pay scale among us independent contractors should be a bit more evenly distributed maybe forming a union is a good idea all other entertainment and sporting entities have them getting an individual health insurance policy after neck surgery is not easy. I wonder if HHH has an individual health insurance plan, or gets group coverage because he’s classified as an employee. HHH is a narcissist. He doesn’t think I’m at his level. His main concern is positioning himself as the center of attention maybe walking out will get HHH to realize he can’t do this alone, the WWE Universe wants to see different people in the mix the past is always afraid of the future.”
It’s evident that WWE management instructed its wrestlers to tweet their post-walkout “outrage”; at the same time, it’s possible that Morrison went off-script. That’s going to happen from time to time if WWE wants to capture the energy of Punk’s Reality Era. But what is the script in modern pro wrestling? With a few exceptions, wrestlers have always been given only broad strokes of what they need to convey in an interview — or, for that matter, in the ring. From there, they script or improvise the specifics. But they’re working within a set of longstanding expectations about what a wrestling promo looks and sounds like. The world of social media is much less defined, and so less easily controlled.
That won’t stop WWE from trying to control it, however. Like any dominant entity, they absorb, water down, and streamline any countercultural force. They did it to ECW’s hardcore style and the high-flying stunts of Japanese and lucha libre wrestling, and now they’re doing it to CM Punk’s Reality Era. Twitter will be no exception.
Take Jim Ross, for example. He’s probably the most beloved figure in today’s WWE because he’s the best play-by-play guy alive and also because his Oklahoman folksiness lends him an everybody’s-favorite-uncle relatability. Yet he’s also tragic. Ross is a human prop in WWE’s violent farce — McMahon and the WWE writers have humiliated him countless times over the years. He has been fired on-screen; he has been set on fire by Kane and attacked by several other baddies; and he has been made to kiss McMahon’s bare ass in the center of the ring. On top of all this, two separate attacks of Bell’s palsy have nearly paralyzed his face and he has been forced to re-learn his trade with reduced mobility of his facial muscles.
Until recently, Ross’ Twitter account was fully forthright if a bit dull — a repository of straight answers to questions about his career, notes on Sooners football, and an endless stream of retweets promoting his signature line of barbecue sauces (available on wwe.com!!!). Monday before last, after Laurinaitis took control of Raw — and in Oklahoma, of all places — Ross was once again fired from his announcing job. The online rumor mill suggested that the decision was last-minute and that Ross didn’t even know about it beforehand. The website f4wonline noted that Ross’ “wife could be seen at ringside, looking excited as he entered the ring for the segment” that ended with his firing. According to the story, “Ross told a fan on Twitter today that it was embarrassing for his wife and that they both were ‘blindsided.'”
Then, last week, a funny thing happened to Ross on Twitter: He got into character. Immediately after being “fired,” Ross was all Zen cool in his tweets: “I’m leading a blessed life. Happy to be above ground. I may have lost my ‘spot’ but I’ll never lose my dignity.” But, to help promote last Monday’s episode of Raw, Ross suddenly began spewing a stream of invective toward Laurinaitis and WWE’s other nameless decision-makers. Suddenly, Ross was in on the act: “4 the record, play by play in WWE’s dead. Funkhauser, the GM, enforces ‘story telling’ on Raw. Holds don’t exist. WWE board needs counseling. If Laurinaitis & his corporate cronies feel Cole is the ‘voice of Raw‘ then they are more out of touch than I thought. Note to Laurinaitis & peer hungry cronies: over mgmt of all broadcasters akin to putting a bit in a horse’s mouth.” If these tweets reflect Ross’ true feelings, that’s beside the point — these are exactly the sort of opinions that Ross would never broadcast unless instructed to by management.
There’s nothing surprising about the way WWE has exploited Ross’ television character, but it’s far more unsettling to see them co-opt his off-screen persona, his “real” voice, and his fans’ main point of connection with the “real” Jim Ross.5 But if WWE has taken his voice, we wrestling fans shouldn’t be too surprised. After Punk made social media “cool,” the company’s corporate influence was sure to follow. If disgruntled wrestlers were to find their voice anywhere, it probably wouldn’t be on Twitter. We were too captive an audience there, too willing to believe what we were reading was honest. Any place we think we’re getting shoots (that is, real talk), pro wrestling will be there to make it into a work (that is, part of the storyline). It’s the nature of the beast.
Which is to say that in wrestling today, we’re all dupes. The more we try to be Smarts (the industry term for viewers who are in the know) the more they play us for Marks (the old-fashioned fans who thought the whole thing was real). Thanks to CM Punk, we dreamed of a wrestling world in which reality was constantly getting the better of unreality. Now, we find ourselves in a world where unreality bends reality to its will. Which is to say things are the same as they’ve always been. Why should we have expected anything else?
The Masked Man is David Shoemaker, author of the “Dead Wrestler of the Week” column. You can follow him on Twitter at @AKATheMaskedMan.
Previously from The Masked Man:
The Triple H Walkout and the need for a wrestlers’ union
A Brief History of Hell (In a Cell)
WWE Conspiracy Theories
Night of Champions Preview
SummerSlam and the new WWE champion
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