As the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders drop into splits, The Rock emerges, flexes for the crowd, holds a “just a minute” finger to the 100,000 people gathered in AT&T Stadium, disappears for a moment, and returns to the colossal, star-shaped LED stage with a flamethrower.
The Rock shoots plumes of fire into the air a few times before deciding to set a metal sign of his name, conveniently placed nearby, aflame. The stadium quakes with atavistic joy. We have fire, a hero, his theme music—this is the stuff that myths are made of.
But this scene’s delirious blend of farce and violence, like many others at Wrestlemania, the WWE’s annual spectacular, masks painstaking corporate deliberation.
In 1999 WWE became a publicly traded company. Since then, they’ve launched a leading OTT streaming platform (the WWE Network), forged sponsorship deals with blue chip consumer brands, installed better concussion protocols than the NFL and European soccer, and added to their vertically integrated intellectual properties that stretch back to before the end of World War II.
If you haven’t batted an eye toward wrestling for a decade or three, you should know that the WWE doesn’t compete with bass fishing and monster trucks anymore. It competes with Disney and the NFL.
Aside from being the annual climax of a year’s worth of athletic storytelling, the Super Bowl plus cable-drama-season-finale of the genre, this year’s iteration of Wrestlemania served as a referendum on the WWE’s most ambitious corporate plan of all: its attempt to engineer its own talent.
Historically, pro wrestling was something you fell into. It was a backup plan, a way for a tough, independent person to make ends meet. In 1982 the narrative would look like this: A college football player blows out his knee, drops out of school, and begs a local wrestler to train him.
The young wrestler then enters a wrestling ‘territory’ in which he drives hundreds of miles a day to wrestle in various rundown arenas. He treats his constant, quotidian injuries with Percocet and Schlitz. He makes a little money, brings joy to small towns on random Thursday nights, ages, suffers worse injures, nurtures younger wrestlers, then fades away with a broken body and a thin wallet. Think Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” in spandex.
For the rare Hulk Hogan or Ric Flair who made millions, a thousand forgotten journeymen lived a hardscrabble life.
The WWE, then WWF, profited richly from the old territory system. To create a star they merely had to add a memorable ‘gimmick’—the combination of character, costume and catchphrase that makes a wrestler into a totem—to tested, savvy talent.
In the past two decades, the WWE attempted to smooth the inconsistencies of wrestling’s archaic career ladder. They funded minor-league promotions in Kentucky and Georgia to act as proto-development systems. But the results were inconsistent, and the training cultures had, to use a business school lexicon, a high variance. As the WWE expanded in the last decade, they required something more suited to the HR needs of a global media conglomerate.
Enter the WWE Performance Center, founded in 2013 in Orlando.
The brainchild of Triple H, Attitude Era star turned WWE executive,
husband to fellow executive and company scion Stephanie McMahon, the Performance
Center is part Iowa Writers’ Workshop, part Parris Island.
An international mix of respected, retired pro wrestlers is on hand to train recruits who have come from around the world after being identified by the WWE. Like any other publicly traded company thirsty for millennial talent, it scouts aggressively. The WWE hunts for talent at the NCAA wrestling championships, the CrossFit games, strongman competitions, and, critically, through the remaining network of independent wrestling promotions in the U.S. and abroad.
The recruits at the Performance Center receive instruction in the technical skills needed for wrestling the WWE style, in contemporary fitness (out with bodybuilding; in with mobility), in promo work (the on-camera, in-character talking bits), in financial management, and in media training. Instead of schooling themselves in rusted rings in bingo halls, WWE’s recruits learn on their industry’s equivalent of the Facebook campus. Instead of laboring in anonymity in obscure towns, this generation of talent has its own division and TV show, NXT, on the WWE network. What’s more, the Performance Center has its own reality show on the WWE Network, “Breaking Ground,” giving the audience glimpses of the previously shadowy process of who makes it and who doesn’t.
The WWE’s new system is safer, saner, and objectively healthier. But can an industry that’s only ever had its transcendent stars burst into life through serendipitous timing (Hulk Hogan, meet PPV) or through incandescent will (a physically depleted and misused day player wields his existential frustration and becomes Stone Cold Steve Austin) grow new icons in a lab?
The first wave of wrestlers to graduate from this system had their coming out party at this year’s Wrestlemania in Dallas. Their successes and failures provided a window into not just the new system itself, but a clue as to how the WWE’s audience, whose ‘four-quadrant’ diversity mirrors that of any other global media company’s, responds to these workshopped, and systematically managed characters.
The best test case of the system came in the main event: Triple H (still wrestling despite his EVP corporate title) defended the WWE World Heavyweight Champion against Roman Reigns, the crown jewel of the WWE’s developmental system.
Reigns checks all the boxes for a WWE star 2016. He’s a former Division I athlete and member of a legendary Samoan wrestling family tree that includes Yokozuna and The Rock. Reigns is big, objectively handsome, emotes effectively, has no backstage drawbacks (no drama, no substance habits) and even sports a chic shoulder-sleeve combo tattoo ripe for merchandise and for cosplay. His first two years in the WWE were spent as part of a three-man-team known as The Shield, a sort of SEAL Team Six of the up-and-coming elect (in the Calvinist sense). There, Reigns, flanked by two young acclaimed independent wrestlers—Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose—who did the lion’s share of the in-ring and the microphone work, simply had to look cool and pretend to punch people.
And look cool he did. But while always the trio’s breakout star in the eyes of the company, Reigns has garnered less good will from fans since going solo. He could no longer be the brooding enforcer. He had to wrestle on his own. He had to talk on his own. He had to find his own character. To date, he has made mild progress on these fronts. Adolescent and adult fans, especially this crop of Internet savvy and ‘smart to the business’ wrestling cognoscenti, boo Reigns out of buildings. The WWE has manipulated its audio feed for years, editing out particular non-PG chants and, more intriguingly, sonically tailoring crowd reactions to suit corporate goals. Wrestling journalists (yes, they exist) and the WWE’s own talent have commented on the company’s Pravda-esque approach to crowds.
At Wrestlemania, the WWE shielded the at-home audience from the cascade of boos and cat calls that Reigns elicited by, apparently, lowering the stadium microphones. Find the right clip and you can hear moment the house mikes go dull during his entrance. I can personally attest that the vast majority of the 100,000 plus crowd rippled with distaste for Reigns. In my section alone, the shouts ranged from the dismissive to the violent.
So as much as kids love him—I saw many a Reigns t-shirt and black glove on Sunday, but very few on anyone of voting age—WWE’s traditional bedrock demographic, men 18-35, wants little to do with him.
On the live episode of RAW on the Monday the after Wrestlemania, the crowd—a one-night-a-year blend of international fans extending their holiday by an extra day and the aforementioned US wrestling intelligentsia—volleyed their worst at Reigns. The mere sight of him in video packages evoked the kind of boos Bernie Sanders might receive at an American Enterprise Institute event.
Trawl a wrestling message board and the sentiments crystalize: Reigns is no one. He’s a targeted marketing fantasy, a group-think-ed “edgy” action figure come to life, all flak jacket and fingerless black gloves. His character has neither authentic motivations nor weaknesses (every hardcore wrestling fan is an unconscious Stanislavsky adherent). He’s not “real” and he’s keeping the more “real” wrestlers away from the spotlight. He is, in total, the product and the tool of a massive corporate power trying to overpower the will of the people.
Coming out of Wrestlemania weekend, I can’t help but see the connections between the Roman Reigns hate and the barely controlled delirium of the 2016 election. Reigns, at his worst, does fuse Jeb’s “Please Clap” bathos—listening to Reigns trying to win over a hostile crowd makes one wish for a surprise Barbara Bush run-in—with Rubio’s demographic-pandering-Koch-funded emptiness. The WWE’s insertion of Reigns into the foreground of every promotional material, every charity event, every media appearance, while understandable on a business level, does reinforce a certain fan’s idea that it is the WWE who makes stars and not the energy, voice and money of the audience.
But WWE seems to have no true Trump with whom to counterbalance. Instead, as they did on Monday’s RAW, the crowd howls and whines and distracts itself with its own self-referential chants until a glimmer of ‘true’ hope comes along.
When the show-closing match yielded an unexpected first challenger to Reigns’s title, A.J. Styles, an impeccably skilled, undersized veteran of the independent scene, the crowd roared with approval and gave Styles a five-minute standing ovation. Styles is sure to lose to Reigns in the coming weeks. Every wrestling fan who can separate heart from head would say so. However, for now, the orchestrated cracks in the corporate façade have given the dyspeptic, angsty fan a reason to believe that their choice, their momentary favorite, might just Make Wrestling Great Again.