A large portion of the WWE fan base has been complaining about the Authority recently. Triple H and his onscreen overseers have seemed inconsistent, uneven, and hapless. The issue isn’t their unscrupulous matchmaking, in the face of their professed aim of doing what’s best for business, which has been going on for well over a year. Nor is it a case of the usual fans grumbling — the younger fans aggrieved by the injustice of the big bosses. Instead, it’s the “smart” fans and traditionalists who now have beef with the Authority — or, to be more specific, with the lack of animosity the Authority inspires. Triple H and Stephanie McMahon just aren’t as villainous as they used to be.
On recent episodes of Raw, WWE’s power couple has come out to open the show and to ironically bask in the crowd’s vilification. The louder the jeers, the smarmier the grins on Triple H’s and Stephanie’s faces. Then, the duo sing the praises of their chosen (bad guy) champion, Seth Rollins, and they hype the WWE product — all with a straight face. To be sure: There’s a disconnect between the vile heels that held back Daniel Bryan a couple of years ago and the erratic heel bosses of today. Stephanie can bask in boos in Segment 1 and then act as the judicious commissioner of the Divas division in Segment 3. Triple H can go from hated villain to beloved guru of NXT overnight. Fans are left puzzled: When are we supposed to quit booing? How do we realize that they’re switching gears?
But they’re not switching gears. This is the new normal. It’s been the case ever since early last year, when the monthly price of the WWE Network — “$9.99” — became a catchphrase for the Authority. Fans complained, but the trick worked, and the price of the Network became a brainworm that constantly reminded fans to subscribe. Now, whether WWE is promoting PPVs, advocating for Connor’s Cure, or commissioning a golden statue of Rollins — as they did after his victory over John Cena at SummerSlam1 — Triple H and Steph are their same smarmy selves, even while they assume what are presumably very different roles.
Also without irony, which made it kind of awesome, WWE.com published a photo gallery capturing the making of the statue.
With Triple H and Stephanie being actual executives in WWE, there has always been tension between their onscreen personalities and their corporate personae. This kind of tension has existed since Vince became an onscreen villain, brawling with Steve Austin one week and directing shareholder meetings the next. Stephanie has long been the smiling public face of WWE charity operations, even as she was one of the show’s best villains. Triple H is a regular talking head in WWE documentaries, a sage voice even as he’s making vindictive decisions on Raw. It’s almost as if we’re supposed to understand that wrestling isn’t real — or maybe they’re just trying to blur the line more than ever. They might be violating wrestling tradition, but they’re hewing closer to reality, because seeing these legitimate public faces of the company stand in the ring and monologue blissfully through the crowd’s boos evokes nothing so much as Roger Goodell coming out to kick off the NFL draft.
A similar wave of revulsion swept through the crowd Monday, after Nikki Bella retained the Divas title against upstart Charlotte, using the infamous heel switcheroo tactic — Nikki’s twin, Brie, took her place and got pinned, effectively disqualifying her sister — only for a Connor’s Cure video to follow a few minutes later, featuring the Bellas as congenial altruists. The Bellas themselves have vacillated between babyface and heel since the celebrity they gained from starring in the Total Divas reality show (and their respective relationships with fan-favorite wrestlers John Cena and Daniel Bryan) consumed their in-ring personalities. This effect has grown in recent months as the wrestlers’ portrayal on Raw has been inconsistent.
Sure, this violates every sinew of kayfabe. And given three decades of WWE’s vacillation with other performers, it’s fair to ask if the people in charge know whether the Bellas are heroes or villains in any given week. Part of keeping kayfabe has meant that outside the ring, you stay in character. If you’re a heel, you act like a heel to anyone who recognizes you. You scowl at kids and clock anyone who challenges you. But there’s keeping kayfabe and then there’s existing in real life. In reality, sports villains are defined by what they do on the field or in interviews. When they go home, they hang out with their family and they sign autographs. Ndamukong Suh is the biggest heel in the NFL, stomping opponents like a scarier Randy Orton, but he’s also America’s most charitable athlete. Fans can comprehend that an athlete can occupy a different persona off the field or away from the arena. The UFC uses WWE’s model to build its competitors into superheroes and supervillains, but even MMA’s biggest scoundrels work babyface away from the cage, training kids and giving congenial interviews.
Almost two years ago, rumors circulated that WWE had decided to do away with traditional babyface and heel concepts. Earlier this year, there were whispers that Stephanie McMahon and Triple H wanted to remake the Divas division in the image of Ronda Rousey — a move toward athleticism and, presumably, realism. Maybe the Bellas’ heel-face incongruity reveals poor writing and planning for WWE shows — but maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe there’s no incongruity after all. Maybe WWE is just letting them behave like real “heel” athletes — dastardly on the WWE screen and as normal people in their everyday lives.
And if that’s true, maybe the Roger Goodell vibe I sensed from the Authority isn’t so far off, either. In the old days, the villainous CEO was just that — a villain for the hero to overcome. In the Reality Era, the vilest CEO is a dupe who thinks he’s doing what’s best for the company. He helps his buddies and makes capricious decisions. He rules with an iron fist, but he believes that he’s a good guy. That he’s in the right. That he’s doing what’s best for business.
This is the new era of the “evil” corporate chief. The members of the Authority are heels because they’re lousy at their jobs. In real life, Triple H and Stephanie perceive themselves as good guys. Every boss thinks he or she is the cool, beloved leader who can dance with employees at the company party. But when they lay you off to save costs, they’re the same cold, uncaring bastards. That’s what makes them so unsympathetic — and so human.
Such shades of gray are a luxury of the WWE product’s upper crust, sadly. The lower you get on the card, the clearer the heel-babyface distinction becomes. On Sunday, WWE brings us Night of Champions, and its pre-show match typifies this trend: Neville and the Lucha Dragons will face Stardust and the Ascension. When you take five of the most cartoonish performers on the roster — plus Neville — and toss them together, fans can tell the good guys from the bad ones based on the colors of the wrestlers’ leotards and the scariness of their respective face paint. Stardust and the Ascension are playing silly, old-fashioned heels, and it’s disappointing to see wrestlers I like in a toss-off match.
The Wyatt Family is another example. Although Bray Wyatt is beloved by many fans, his posse is a throwback, the Dungeon of Doom with armpit stains instead of Halloween masks. And that’s part of their allure — they’re the creepy outsiders in the Reality Era, and their outdated style makes them scary. They’re a zombie cult of silly ’80s gimmicks. When Wyatt’s new henchman Braun Strowman uses a silly choke hold to TKO his foes, you actually fear that the move may be imbued with whatever black magic powered the Heart Punch or the Iron Claw. On Sunday, they’ll take on Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose, and a mystery partner, who better be a good pick, because as old-school evil as those Wyatts are, their opponents don’t get a free pass like ’80s-era heroes did.
Speaking of the ’80s, there’s no character more retro than Rusev, the heinous Bulgarian brute, and no gimmick more dated than his feud with Dolph Ziggler over Rusev’s ex-girlfriend Lana. But even this archetypal story line has become muddled — whether by design or accident is an open question. Rusev has been an oddly sympathetic foreign national throughout his career. Part of it is his retro charm, but more than that, it’s Rusev’s purity of cause, his in-ring acumen, and, in this case, that he’s set up opposite Ziggler, who looks every bit the girlfriend thief (and whose T-shirts have been bragging about his girlfriend-stealing skills since before Lana was a glint in a WWE booker’s eye). It’s hard not to feel compassion for the old bear.
The tag team match starts to muddy the waters. The New Day are heels because they think they’re babyfaces — in an irritating, full-of-themselves way — and because they routinely cheat and use their numbers advantage to overpower opponents. But as much as the crowd loves to yell “New Day sucks,” they have the opportunity only because New Day gave it to them by starting a “New Day rocks” chant that seems as if it were created to be bastardized. That’s a perfect microcosm of New Day’s whole gimmick — they’re so great at playing annoying heels that we’re happy to boo them. Lately they’ve started coming to the ring accompanied by Xavier Woods playing the trombone, which is basically the X-Pac heat of music. It’s so ridiculous that it’s beautiful. But despite their best efforts at being loathsome, it’s hard to find another tag team that crowds would rather cheer for. That’s probably why WWE brought back the Dudley Boyz, and so far their nostalgia and table-busting show has kept audiences cheering in the right direction.
In Sunday’s Intercontinental title match between champ Ryback and Kevin Owens, we find ourselves in the more comfortable environs of the smark vortex. Like a bush league version of John Cena versus CM Punk, Ryback and Owens are plainly playing face and heel, respectively, but only the under-12 portion of the audience is rooting that way. It’s safe to assume that the Night of Champions crowd will be pro-Owens, but the Canadian upstart isn’t trying to blur the lines with his character. Owens is trying his damndest to play heel, even in the face of massive popularity. Just look at him try to out-weasel his partners in this six-man tag match. His work during the commercial break was even better — taunting the babyfaces from behind Big Show and cackling. This is not the work of a man afraid to get booed.
One clear babyface who might not be one for long is Paige, the former Divas champ who’s now acting as a second for the newbie Charlotte. If Charlotte wins the championship from Nikki Bella and leapfrogs Paige in the Divas pecking order, the heel turn that Paige has been teasing in recent weeks should come to fruition. Not that Paige fans would complain — her babyface characters are one-dimensional rah-rah acts, and she can play the dark side with a more human touch.
All of which brings us back to the Bellas and the Authority. Onscreen humanity is tough to come by in a world that draws its characters so broadly. And I’ll be the first to admit that even if the convoluted portrayals of the Bellas and the Authority are signals of the shift to more nuanced characterization, the transition is still in an awkward stage. In the best-case scenario, today’s inconsistencies are growing pains on the way to a better product. If it feels like WWE is awkwardly forcing this new style on fans at the moment — well, maybe it is. Maybe it decided that if this is wrestling’s new course, then it’s time to rip off the Band-Aid and get on with it. It’s tough love.
The Authority are no stranger to tough love in their onscreen incarnation. Their protégé, Seth Rollins, has allowed his ego to swell during his title reign, and so even after winning the U.S. Championship to go along with the WWE World belt he’s held since WrestleMania — and even after commissioning the aforementioned statue — the Authority decided to make Rollins defend his titles twice at Night of Champions. In the first, he takes on Cena in a rematch for the U.S. strap, and in the main event Rollins will face WCW icon Sting for the world belt.
It’s somewhat strange for the Authority to put their prized pig through such a grueling ringer, but look at it this way: Sometimes, even when you have a favorite; even when you help them bend the rules to win the championship and overlook their underhanded deeds to keep them on top; even when all the other wrestlers are complaining about his special treatment; well, sometimes that wrestler gets a little too big for his britches and you have to knock him down a peg. If the Authority is Roger Goodell, then Seth Rollins is the Patriots.
And in giving us these two title bouts, there’s no doubt the Authority are doing what’s best for business. Rollins-Cena I was great, and my guess is that the rematch will be the highlight of Sunday’s show. Sting is an all-time great whom everybody will be geared up to watch. Both matches have the potential to be memorable, and the combination of the two could do for Rollins what that gold statue could only imply — Sunday could be the day that turns Rollins into a bona fide legend.
Of course, Rollins is a heel, so why should we care? Right? Even under the new system, Rollins is a pure heel, a Terrell Owens–meets–Justin Bieber combination of unself-aware villainy. Cena refuses to see himself as a villain even in the face of booming boos. Sting is a fan favorite specifically because he eschews the easy face-heel dialectic. But Rollins is just too caught up in himself to realize he’s working heel.
In real life, though, even Rollins would see himself as a hero. And after two title matches, he’ll probably see himself as the little underdog that could, the Daniel Bryan of 2015. And who knows? By the end of Night of Champions, maybe we’ll see him that way, too.