Wrestling is an art form, and just like any other art form, it’s ever-evolving with the current status quo. What would’ve been greenlit 20 years ago wouldn’t see the light of day in this age, i.e. homophobic slurs and racial connotations. There are multiple factors that shape the evolution of wrestling as time passes by, including political factors and technological factors, amongst other things.
Wrestling, in the peak of its popularity, was portrayed in a vastly different manner. A lot of fans were under the impression that wrestling was real, and wrestlers played up to that. Kayfabe existed in its entirety. For those unaware, kayfabe is the portrayal of staged events within the industry as “real” or “true”, specifically the portrayal of competition, rivalries, and relationships between participants as being genuine and not of a staged or predetermined nature of any kind.
Wrestlers would do all they could to maintain kayfabe. If you met a wrestler outside of a wrestling event, that wrestler would keep in character. No matter how unrealistic a segment seemed, it would still be sold as real. WWE wanted us to buy into the fact that their crazy reality was part of our reality.
The aura this generated made the product unique and attractive and is one of the reasons why wrestling was immensely popular in the 90s. It is a tall order to maintain kayfabe in today’s era, however. With the existence of social media, it’s near impossible to stay in character 24/7. Newsletters and dirt sheets that reveal real-life backstage news also exist, and this is another hindrance to kayfabe. Fans are more aware than ever, and as a result, the traditional portrayal of wrestling simply doesn’t work.
Because wrestling was seen as real by many, a lot of the characters were almost superhero or supervillain like, and such storytelling could be pulled off. With kayfabe as good as dead in the present day, the traditional method comes off as cheesy and corny, just like WWE’s current product. With this direction no longer a viable option, there are different directions they can take, and today, I’ll be elaborating on that.
3. Treat it as an actual sport with an actual competition format.
Japanese wrestling is more popular than ever now, with New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) on the forefront of this. Most Japanese wrestling companies work in a competition format. Wins and losses do matter, as opposed to in WWE, where wins and losses have no value at all. There are tournaments throughout the year, the winner of which will earn title shots. Tournaments like the G1 Climax, the Best Of The Super Juniors and the New Japan Cup. The presentation of NJPW further adds to the real fight feel. There are backstage interviews and press conferences like you’d see in any other real sport, and just like in those sports, the interviews are unscripted. The unscripted nature of these interviews help to increase the entertainment value of promos, as the wrestlers come off sounding more natural.
This is one possible direction that WWE could take. The quality of matches will see a drastic improvement, with less corny shenanigans, and more hard-hitting and realistic moves. The unscripted nature of the promos would really be a help to many wrestlers who are handcuffed by their scripts. And if WWE were to implement more tournaments, there’d be value to a lot of matches that would otherwise be pretty pointless. There have been a fair few tournaments in recent years, however, these tournaments are one-offs and aren’t recurring.
Going towards this direction would certainly increase their entertainment value, however, it might also backfire. Fans are conditioned into WWE’s heavily entertainment centred style. This develops short attention spans amongst fans. Too much wrestling could cause burn out. Besides that, if WWE were to adopt this style, they’d be putting their talent through a greater risk of injury. NJPW’s schedule isn’t as packed as WWE’s, and this allows their talent sufficient time to recuperate. WWE’s talents are worked almost 300 days a year. Completely revamping their scheduling to accommodate to this style could cause them financial ramifications. Still, it might be a risk worth taking.
2. Go completely meta and break the fourth wall.
There are plenty of movies and TV shows in today’s day and age that identify as meta and contains a lot of fourth wall breaking. Deadpool and Rick and Morty are just a couple that spring to mind. Even in wrestling, there are elements of fourth wall breaking.
Hit YouTube series, Being The Elite is an example of this. The BTE cast consists of The Young Bucks (Nick Jackson and Matt Jackson), Marty Scurll, Adam ‘Hangman’ Page, Cody and IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kenny Omega. Being the Elite debuted on YouTube in May 2016 and has since aired, on average, once or twice a week. The show is shot and edited entirely on an iPhone with the members of BTE holding complete creative control over the content. Originally intended as a promotional vehicle and a video journal of their life on the road, it has since evolved into a hybrid that also includes skits and storyline developments.
BTE contains multiple elements of fourth wall breaking. One day after they announced that Being The Elite would return for season two, the YouTube channel released another video titled Table Read. In this episode, they break the fourth wall on numerous occasions.
They also take the absolute piss out of traditional wrestling tropes. One example of this is their handling of phone call scenes. On numerous occasions in WWE’s programming, whenever someone is on the phone, you can clearly see the phone’s home screen instead of the call screen. BTE mocks this botch by, well, doing this.
This is just one example of how meta they can get. They also constantly acknowledge that wrestling is fake and use certain insider terms.
With being meta the current trend in entertainment in general, WWE would be smart to follow suit. It would add layers to the depth of the product. One criticism WWE often gets is that they insult their fans’ intelligence. They treat their fans like Alzheimer’s patients by showing replays every few minutes and doing excessive recaps. By going in this direction, they’d be finally treating their fans with some respect, on top of making the product a lot more entertaining.
WWE have broken the fourth wall before, to roaring entertainment success and glowing reviews. They should do this more often and on a more consistent basis. However, too much of a good thing is never good, and if they do head towards this direction, they need to ration their fourth wall breaking. Less is more.
1. Just go batshit insane with their product.
Ever seen something so bad it’s good. Ever seen something so insane it becomes unique. With everyone aware that wrestling is fake, WWE could play up to that and produce something on the absolute batshit crazy end of the spectrum. Something that is unquestionably fake, but you’d still watch because of how crazy it is.
Lucha Underground has embraced this direction and it’s served them well thus far. Perhaps a better example of this is the Broken Hardys gimmick.
During an “I Quit” match on Impact Wrestling in April 2016, Jeff Hardy smashed his brother Matt through a table with a 15-ft Swanton Bomb. Matt was carried off on a stretcher and when he returned to attack Jeff the next month he was “Broken”. He had a shock of white skunk-like hair and began talking and dressing like some kind of 16th Century baddie. “Wonderful”, “Delightful”, and “Exquisite” all became regular catchphrases. But the most iconic catchphrase of his was “DELETE!”. Broken Matt claimed that according to the seven deities, whoever they are, his body was just a vessel for a soul that was thousands of years old, and he must “delete” opponents.
First on the list for deletion was “Brother Nero”. Who is “Brother Nero,” you ask? It’s actually Jeff. Nero is his middle name. Broken Matt eventually challenged Jeff to a match at TNA’s Slammiversary pay-per-view. Check out this insane contract signing. It had the whole wrestling world talking. The acting is hammy and the concept is ludicrous, but it’s ridiculous wrestling genius. At one point a baby gets thrown at Jeff before he’s smashed through a table.
After losing at Slammiversary, Matt challenged Jeff to a Final Deletion match, with the Hardy brand on the line. In short, if Matt won then Jeff would lose all rights to the Hardy name and would have to officially become Brother Nero. Final Deletion happened on Impact Wrestling in July 2016. It was shot in Matt’s actual backyard and features more craziness. Jeff chases a drone on his dirt bike and tries to punch it out of the air, he later jumps off a tree, and the brothers shoot fireworks at each other. It’s filmed like a movie, with music, special effects, and a surprise appearance of Willow, Jeff’s other alter-ego, who emerged from the “Lake of Reincarnation” to attack Matt. The whole thing was bonkers, or Broken brilliance, as Matt would say.
Their skits and videos were unlike anything in wrestling before. In one series of videos, Matt gets amnesia and wants to become a chef, until he’s struck by lightning and regains his full Broken personality. Matt’s oddball mannerisms and language have also been a huge hit (he calls the Young Bucks the “Bucks of Youth”) as well as his commitment to the character, on and off screen. The Broken Hardys quickly became the hottest and most relevant act outside WWE, giving the brothers an unexpected career resurgence.
When they signed with WWE, the expectation amongst fans was that WWE would ride the wave of momentum the Broken Hardys generated and give them full creative control. However, that was not the case. WWE took these two and completely bastardised their characters and reduced them to mere catchphrases. Their traditional style was the death of this iconic gimmick.
If WWE were to actually head towards this direction, there’s an entire world of possibilities for them to explore. Currently, Impact Wrestling is heading in this direction, producing some absolute quality content. It’s no surprise or coincidence they’ve made a massive resurgence in recent months.
WWE should definitely follow suit, and heading in this direction would also reinvigorate certain talents who’ve long been stale.
Will things actually change?
The short answer, no. The long answer, no. WWE’s current product is stale and downright unwatchable at certain points. However, they’re making more money than ever. They recently signed a deal with Fox worth $205 million annually and $1.025 billion over the life of the pact. They’ve also closed a new five-year pact with NBC to keep the Monday night showcase Raw on USA Network. That deal is worth $265 million annually. They’re also set to earn a staggering $45 million per year for the next ten years as part of their deal with the Saudi Arabian administration. With WWE minting money in spite of really bad programming, why would they change? Where is the incentive to do so?
There are plenty of fans who hold on to hopes that when Triple H eventually gains control of the company, things will change. But he’ll always have his wife, Stephanie McMahon at the back of his ear. And if rumours are to be believed, it was Stephanie that campaigned for John Cena and Roman Reigns to be the face of the company. On top of that, she constantly plasters herself over the product, especially when it comes to women’s wrestling. She makes herself the centre of attention when it comes to historic announcements regarding women’s wrestling.
She also famously fell out with Paul Heyman. In 2002, Stephanie McMahon was the creative head of Raw while Paul Heyman was in charge of SmackDown. While Raw under Stephanie became more of a story and drama-driven show, SmackDown under Heyman became ‘the wrestling show’. SmackDown was centred far more on action and athletics, and as the unofficial ‘B’ show, it was meant to showcase lesser stars than those on Raw and to act as a launching pad for WWE’s future stars.
With Paul as the creative genius leading the way, SmackDown enjoyed what many consider its greatest run, which lasted until Paul Heyman’s time as head booker came to an end. Heyman’s time as SmackDown’s top creative mind ended sometime in mid-2004, and his creative influence gradually waned. No one is certain why, but rumours circulating at the time suggested that Stephanie McMahon was incredibly jealous of SmackDown’s success at the time, especially since it was beating Raw in virtually every metric. There’s every possibility that Stephanies’s power hungry, self-centred nature will deter the quality of the product.
The future of WWE’s programming looks rather bleak, in terms of quality. It might be a long while before we see actual change in the direction of the product. But wrestling isn’t restricted to the WWE, and there will always be other companies and promotions capable of satiating our hunger for quality content. There is no shortage of quality wrestling outside of the WWE, and in this age, there’s pretty much something for everyone.
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