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Op-Ed: Is something wrong with the WWE?

On the surface? A resounding no. Pat Patterson, the first Intercontinental Champion, and a trusted adviser to WWE Head, Vincent Kennedy McMahon, for years was rumoured to be gay, and came out publicly this past calendar year. His sexual preference never limited him within the organization.

Sasha Banks, a wrestler in WWE’s developmental program NXT, and the current NXT Women’s champion is one of the corporation’s most over (well respected with the fanbase) performers.

A wrestler of Samoan heritage, Roman Reigns, is being sold to the general public as a future champion, who could “win” the primary WWE title as early as the upcoming Wrestlemania. Unfortunately, a handful of recent alleged incidents, combined with long term coincidences has let many asking questions.

Wrestlemania is the most important special event/pay per view broadcast that WWE produces every year. At present, we are nearing the end of what WWE calls Wrestlemania season – a four-month period where all the performances are building towards this financially important showcase.

For those who do not know, professional wrestling — unlike Greco-Roman, Freestyle, Catch, and Folk style wrestling — has predetermined outcomes. This does not eliminate the health risks and dangers that professional wrestlers face. More importantly, as more fans gain access to behind the scene information, the moments when the written fiction and reality behind the scenes becomes part of the performance drive more mature fans into becoming fixated by the product.

An example of this was recently discussed on Radiolab — “The Montreal Screwjob.” At the time, their champion Brett Hart was leaving WWE for their primary competitor – WCW. An agreement on how to write Mr. Hart’s loss of the title could not be reached (He did not want to lose the title in his native Canada.), so WWE changed the script without his knowledge and made him lose. The impact of the act, led to Mr. McMahon admitting that he was the principal owner of WWE, and not just an announcer. This led to what would become the Attitude Era – the most financially successful era in professional wrestling history.

The Radiolab program also explains how influential fan support can be to potentially changing planned scripts. A recent example involves WWE’s female performers (also known as Divas). Other than the exceptional performers, like WWE Hall of Fame members Lita and Trish Stratus, WWE fans were led to believe that Divas couldn’t wrestle. To most fans their matches were washroom break opportunities, or moments to catch their breath before the main event performances. This all changed at NXT Rival.

An event featuring performers not ready to perform on broadcast television, mysteriously had one of the best 3 women’s matches in a decade, in what was arguably the best professional wrestling performance in North America in 2015. The WWE Network exclusive performance featured daughter of legend pro wrestler Rick Flair — Charlotte. Bailey, a wrestler whose gimmick (character traits) involves being cheerful and hugging people. It also featured, the “wannabe” head banger powerhouse Becky Lynch. Most importantly, Snoop Dogg’s cousin, and one of pro wrestling’s most charismatic performers Sasha Banks was part of the performance.

Only one of the performers is presently considered ready by observers for the main roster (Charlotte). However, with a sensible 12 minutes, these talented ladies had the opportunity to create a story with their match. For the first time in a very longtime, within the WWE, female performers were diving over ropes, through ropes, performing suplexes (throws) from the top corner turnbuckle. The conclusion of the performance was a realistic looking submission that led to a pin by the new NXT Women’s champion, Sasha Banks.

Less than a week later, on WWE’s flagship cable television show, Raw, the featured Divas match was a poorly scripted performance that lasted approximately 2 minutes (Not including entrances). In other words, behind a pay wall only the staunchest fans cross, female trainee performers are given the opportunity to showcase their talents. Meanwhile, their more skilled counterparts are forced to follow substandard time restrictions and poorly scripted matches, even though the NXT special that featured the 4-way match was a full hour shorter than its weekly prime time broadcasted counterpart. In response, fans started the #GiveDivasAChance campaign on Twitter. In turn, WWE booked a Diva’s tag team match for Wrestlemania instead of a singles title match. The Diva’s title has not been defended at a Wrestlemania (other than a bizarre mixed gender tag match) since 2007 – when it was still called the Women’s Championship. All of this is going on while in real fighting, the most important mixed martial artist in the world is UFC’s Ronda Rousey. It is no longer believable that women are incapable of solid matches, yet this is what WWE is selling to its largest audiences.

The rise of Roman Reigns should be considered a demonstration of WWE’s support for cultural diversity. However, actions behind the scenes suggest otherwise. WWE’s 2 most successful Latino wrestlers since the late Eddie Guerrero recently left the promotion for Mexico’s AAA organization and AAA’s USA affiliate, Lucha Underground.

According to the pro wrestler currently wrestling under the name Alberto El Patron, the former WWE performer was fired after physically lashing out at a WWE employee who made racists comments towards him. The alleged racist employee eventually left WWE on his own.

Little is known about Rey Mysterio’s departure. While under contract last year he announced his intentions to join AAA via Satellite at one of their major events. In response WWE refused to release him on what is believed to be contractual obligations until recently.

As far as African-American professional wrestlers, no wrestler who self-identifies as Black has ever “won” WWE’s most prestigious title. WCW which was a Southern US based promotion, and historically WWE’s only real competition, had Black champions. Most notably, WWE Hall of Fame member Ron Simmons, and 5-time champion, Current WWE broadcaster, and WWE Hall of Fame member Booker T. Currently, the Black singles wrestler with the most television time is Ron Killings.

To many Ron Killings’ story is a victory. On his first run, he was nothing more than a sidekick wrestler in the WWE. However, after being let go, and reinventing his gimmick, he returned to become a multiple WWE title champion. Except, none of those have been WWE’s primary individual title. While reinventing himself in the then fledgling TNA promotion, Ron Killings became Ron “The Truth”. The Truth, or R-Truth, was a performer who talked honestly about the hurdles he faced as a wrestler of colour. Yes he rapped, and danced but their was an edge that gave him an authenticity. In one of Ron’s most important promos (promotional speeches) Ron Addressed then TNA and NWA commissioner Ricky Steamboat:

STEAMBOAT: Look son —

TRUTH: I ain’t nobody’s son. And when you talk to me, talk to me with some damn respect.

STEAMBOAT: Truth, Ron, whatever you call yourself, if you want me to give you respect, you’re going to have to earn it. I’ve been listening to you carrying on for the last couple of weeks. And to tell you the truth, I don’t know what card you been dealin’. If you’re talking about “them,” and authoritatively speaking, well you’re talking about me when it comes to authority. Now if you’re talking about “them,” when it comes to the colour of skin, well then, we’ve got another problem. Either way! I’m here to listen to you talk.

TRUTH: First of all, you consider yourself just like them. Look again, you’re not. You mean as much to them as I do. You want me to give you proof? You want more proof to back that up? Let’s talk about your own career, okay? As a matter of fact, let’s talk about your WW[E] career. How about that? Know let’s see, how can I start this off? The great Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat. I grew up a big fan of yours, Ricky. Huge fan. People as of right now, to this very day, is talking about (Randy) Savage and Steamboat, and Wrestlemania 3. And I doubt it’ll ever stop. But you know what, on that same very night, that you reached your goals, at a pinnacle time of your career, you became the Intercontinental Champion. Am I right, or wrong? Well then, why did it just stop? Why’d you didn’t get an opportunity, to become the WW[E] champion? Go for the big goal! Why, did they stop you? Was it them holding you back? Like they hold me back? Rick, Dragon look me in my eyes and tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about. The Intercontinental belt was always for 2nd class citizens… Oh yes, 15 years later, they pullin’ the same [thing] on me. But you know what? I’m tired, I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it…

Ron would eventually return to WWE with his R-Truth character. It would get significantly sanitized, the rapping and dancing wrestler with a cause, would become an airbrushed jean wearing authentic minstrel version of R-Truth. He has consistently either held a title, or been in a title hunt since his return. He’s even had moments when he was allowed to bring back some of the edginess to, “The Truth” character. Unfortunately, those moments are short lived. His current program? He is scheduled to compete in a ladder match at Wrestlemania for the 2nd class citizen title. And while his fellow competitors fight it out for the title, he has been the comic relief, stealing the title belt on tipped-toes.

As stated earlier, WWE is considered to be open to gay performers. Pat Paterson entered WWE in the 70’s, Prime Time Playa’s Darren Young is WWE’s first gay pro wrestler to come out to the public while still actively wrestling for the promotion. It all sounds wonderful until you hear about the allegations being launched at Bill Demott – WWE’s former head developmental trainer, who recently resigned.

According to wrestling great, WWE corporate executive, live event producer and son-in-law of Mr. McMahon, Paul Levesque kayfabe is dead. What’s kayfabe? The idea that we don’t know that the outcomes are predetermined. In the kayfabe past, professional wrestlers had to be the toughest person wherever they walked. Why? Because locals would want to test their mettle against a pro. If wrestlers could not beat up amateurs in real fights, how could anyone believe that fake fights were real?

In this environment, post kayfabe, Demott was selected, above more qualified teachers to ‘toughen up’ trainees. I’m a fan of Demott’s in ring work. Demott was a larger performer who was capable of athletic performances expected of smaller pro wrestlers. He never was more than fodder for other wrestlers. His job was to lose, but make his competitor look good while doing so. As a trainer, however, the accusations made against him include everything from sexual harassment to physical abuse of candidates.

Rumours of his bizarre behaviour began as early as 2007. Until DSW lost their developmental contract with WWE in 2007, they were the promotion where potential WWE wrestlers went to learn their craft. Demott was in charge there. Soon after the agreement with DSW and WWE dissolved wrestling candidates began accusing him of unusual methods that included an incident where 2 wrestlers (1 male, 1 female) took bumps (physical attacks) from a naked male wrestler with a jelly doughnut lodged between his buttocks.

NSFW

So it was with great surprise that Demott was given the reigns of FCW, the predecessor of WWE’s current training center, and trainee promotion NXT. Before Wrestlemania 2013, recently leaked complaints were sent to WWE Human Resources that accused Demott of using racist and homophobic language, ordering talent to be injured, striking concussed wrestlers on their head, and striking the cast of at least one trainee who had a broken leg.

For their part, WWE claims that a full investigation took place. However, a number of Demott’s alleged victims, no longer trainees with WWE, are claiming that they were never interviewed. The number of victims, and the consistency of their statements has led many to believe that WWE may be facing a legal battle over these incidents.

Many wonder how Demott has been able to keep his job. A quick scan of trainees that have made it to the main roster during his time (starting with his return in 2011) and the more knowledgeable fan realizes that all of his successes are wrestlers who became finished products in the independent wrestling scene before joining WWE, or 2nd generation wrestlers, whose parents were pros that likely trained them before entering the system. Meanwhile, the current Womens trainer Sara Del Rey (The Queen of Wrestling), in a significantly shorter time has turned fitness models into performers capable of 4 star matches.

Demott hasn’t been the primary trainer of a wrestler to make a significant impact on the main roster since his successes with WCW. Those successes include Hall of Fame performers, but those were many years ago.

But will any of this effect WWE’s bottom line? It likely already has. Thanks to Demott’s alleged bullying tactics many potential stars left wrestling. We may have lost our chance of witnessing the first great openly gay wrestler. The Black wrestler capable of a believable championship run probably left thanks to Demott’s alleged behavior as well. We will get a better grasp at the end of WWE’s financial quarter 2 days after Wrestlemania.

This is the first year that WWE has become dependent on their own network instead of pay-per-view to share their exclusive content. Though they proclaimed hitting a million subscribers earlier in 2015, financial press has questions. A million people may have subscribed for the service, but how many people are staying? How many of those are non-paying subscribers? WWE needs 1.4 million subscribers to break even on the project.

With the move to an online/television Network, their have been social media campaigns by fans to protest issues by cancelling subscriptions. Has that worked? Or, has the added publicity led to more subscribers? There’s more pro wrestling available to the general public than ever.

TNA is on a Discovery Channel owned network, Lucha Underground is on Robert Rodriguez’s network, there’s Ring of Honor, even New Japan Pro Wrestling, the world’s 2nd largest promotion, has an online on demand network and has begun broadcasting programs in North America.

There’s finally options for the discerning fan. No behemoth like WCW exists, but there are options that give their female wrestlers time, and allow their wrestlers of colour the chance to become primary champions of their promotions. The question is whether fans will migrate to these choices, or willingly support discriminatory behaviour by a publicly traded company blindly. We should find out after Wrestlemania.

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