We all watched Wrestlemania, the WWE’s marquee event of the year. Or did we?
Even moreso than the scripted storylines going into the weekend, the conversation among wrestling fans was as much about who wasn’t on the bill as who was. The WWE roster is a list of the proverbial walking wounded at the moment, from main event stars to female wrestlers to athletes on the fringes of Vince McMahon’s employ.
But going up and down the Wrestlemania 32 card, to the layman (of a certain age), it doesn’t look like one in distress. After all…Triple H in the main event? Sure, I’ve heard of that guy. I don’t know the long haired fellow he’s facing, but damn is that guy handsome.
Brock Lesnar? No, I don’t know the guy he’s fighting, but Brock is one bad dude.
Undertaker? Shane McMahon?
The Dudley Boyz?
Big Show? Kane?
A ladder match?
Oh, and Shawn Michaels, Mick Foley, Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock showed up? I’m there! This card sounds packed!
There was nothing distressing about any combination of those wrestlers fighting each other on the WWE’s biggest night of the year. At least, not on the surface.
Vince McMahon—the real life Godfather of the company—had a titanic task in organizing his signature event last Sunday. Not only is it the company’s primary revenue-driving live card on the calendar, but it’s also the main catalyst for getting paying customers to buy into the WWE Network, their two-year old online, a la carte station. And not only that, but the eldest McMahon was looking at throwing his annual spectacle in perhaps the most spectacular stadium in the world, AT&T Stadium in Dallas, Texas. Looking to break a thirty-year-old Wrestlemania attendance record—set in 1987 at the Pontiac Silverdome for Wrestlemania III—the stakes couldn’t have been higher.
As Vince had done for the past several years, he looked not only to his stars of the present, but also his still beaming creations of the past. The last few Wrestlemanias featured performers such as The Rock, Triple H, The Undertaker, Batista, Austin and the immortal Hulk Hogan in main event spotlights, each of whom could be considered partially or—in the case of Hogan or Austin—fully retired. By combining them with guys in their prime, including John Cena, Daniel Bryan, Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose and Bray Wyatt, the WWE could create a card that would bring in both the casual fan, satisfy the hardcore wrestling addict and end up with a sack full of their collective dollars. It is a complex formula, but generally speaking, nearly flawless in its execution. Fifty years ago, there were dozens of powerful wrestling promotions scattered around the country. Now there is only one that matters. Vince McMahon must be doing something right.
But with this Wrestlemania? It would be as challenging as it’s ever been. The active (and even inactive) roster was rife with injuries. In no particular order, the following household and not-so-household names were on the shelf for the spring’s biggest wrestling event: Cena, Sting, Rollins, Bryan, Randy Orton, Cesaro, Nikki Bella and Tyson Kidd. Regardless of whether the WWE wanted it or not, a real-life changing of the guard was unfolding before their very eyes. It wasn’t a choice—it was a necessity. But this time, the revolution was coming from forces mostly out of their control.
What’s interesting about the professional wrestling crowd is that the tastemakers are often the live crowds. Back in the ’90s, Stone Cold Steve Austin became the company’s biggest draw despite guzzling beer in the ring, flipping off everyone in sight and giving Stone Cold Stunners to fifty year old men. Why? Because the live crowds ate it up. He was cool. And as cool as you may have thought he looked at home watching on TV, wasn’t your opinion emboldened by the fact that you heard 20,000 people on a weekly basis agreeing with you?
Wrestling has always been a copycat business. Everyone’s on-TV character is merely a pale imitation of five guys that came before. Another guy has always had that finishing move, or a better variation of it. The fans are no different. Kids imitate the atmosphere around them, for the most part. The WWE Universe—the company’s corporate-filtered name for their audience—has widely rejected Roman Reigns, the current World Heavyweight Champion, despite being made in the same mold as the ultra popular Hulk Hogan and John Cena before him. He was a “white-meat babyface” in every sense of the word, an avenger for justice and bastion for truth. However, the kids in the audience are turning against him too. Why? If I had to venture a guess, I’d say it’s because of the live crowd. The audience at large is booing Reigns out of the building, despite the fact that his good guy character hasn’t changed one bit. As I said, wrestling has always been a copycat business. The changing of the guard has followed suit.
In the past six to twelve months, new wrestlers have rocketed into the main or semi-main event picture. Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, AJ Styles, Charlotte, Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks and Kalisto have become integral—and sometimes the best—parts of the show. For the most part, these new gladiators have come from WWE’s “farm system.” NXT, as it’s called, is a training ground for wrestlers to hone their craft by performing on a weekly show via the WWE Network. The brain child of real-life WWE VP Triple H, NXT is a show that, more than USA’s Monday Night Raw or Smackdown, showcases wrestling and upstart youngsters, both of which are tantalizing for the hardcore fan who’s tired of the sometimes decade-long acts performing on network TV week after week.
Like baseball or hockey, there is a call-up system in place in which these rookie wrestlers can be brought to the main roster, graduating from their internet-only platform to the “big show” (that ironically, features the Big Show). Hardcore fans, lovingly dubbed the IWC (Internet Wrestling Community), watch these transactions with baited breath, just like you and your nerdy friends get fired up when Corey Seager or Aaron Nola make it up to the big leagues. The explosion from that vocal minority at the live shows is, well, vocal. Very, very vocal.
And that’s how this Wrestlemania and the subsequent Monday Night Raw turned into victorious year end cappers for McMahon and his billion-dollar enterprise. The next wrestling revolution—and most likely, many revolutions thereafter—has come from within. The vocal fan minority, those that watch NXT and consume every single bit of media WWE puts out, has turned every live show and broadcast into their bedroom fantasy baseball drafts. Every new wrestler coming up, from Apollo Crews to Enzo & Cass, is treated with an explosive welcome cheer that defies the fact that 70% of the in-arena audience had maybe only seen their names on reddit message boards or Twitter. This incredibly passionate minority has swayed the viewing public with their enthusiasm, an incredible testament to the power of peer pressure. It’s an infectious type of adrenal exclamation, one that’s unbelievably contagious. It’s surprising and at the same time, refreshing. It’s also the best formula for the WWE to create new stars.
Kevin Owens has jumped to the top of the card despite spending less than a year with the main roster. Sami Zayn is main eventing RAW, despite having less than a half-dozen televised matches. AJ Styles never wrestled in NXT, but the handful of audience members that watched the WWE’s rival promotion TNA lets the rest of the crowd know that he’s a big deal. And now he is likely the good guy they cheer for the loudest.
For years, the WWE has been criticized for not making new stars. Now, the company is using their most vocal critics to their advantage. The new stars of the company are being made by an audience that have become more and more active participants in their live shows. The very same folks that complained for ages about not having their voices heard have become the biggest agents of change. They are, in part, making the newest stars. They are, in part, the reason Wrestlemania was still a marquee event.
Not bad for a card full of distress.