I always look forward to the RAW after WrestleMania. Each year, it serves as a re-set of sorts for WWE bringing new talent, new surprises and new storylines to loyal viewers. It also features some of the rowdiest crowds south of Toronto, who often become part of the show.
The show felt off this year, for a very good reason.
First, the good: I enjoyed this year’s WrestleMania even if my predictions were often off. I think by and large the right people won. Fans got some catharsis as the likes of Edge, Rey Mysterio and Kevin Owens/Sami Zayn won, while preserving Roman Reigns, Gunther and Austin Theory as the Big Bads for the next cycle of heroes to chase. I understand that some fans may have been crushed by Cody Rhodes’ loss to Reigns, but I think it was the right call. Reigns still has life as a dominant heel champ and is now knocking on the door of a top-five title reign. With all due respect to Pedro Morales and understanding that Roman works a much lighter schedule, Cody hasn’t been back in action long enough since returning from injury to be a credible instant champion. He’s a student of the game and likely understands better than anyone that the value of a good guy in wrestling lies in an extended chase vs. a cowardly heel champion. I’m here for it, as I’m here for the serious to the point of self-parody Gunther overtaking the Honky Tonk Man’s 35-year-old Intercontinental championship record. Even the women’s matches were well-decided, privileging younger, athletic and charismatic talent over the Women’s Revolutionaries.
My biggest complaint remains booking Brock Lesnar against Omos, who lost in a similarly convincing fashion to Bobby Lashley last year. My best hope for Omos would be a trip back to developmental (or my Dream Team with Commander Dabba Azeez Kato) and MVP taking advantage of Lashley’s exclusion from ‘Mania due to Bray Wyatt’s alleged injury in favor of a bigger Hurt Business. I also think that it would have been nice to put the Andre the Giant Battle Royal back on the pay-per-view with some kind of stakes…and for the likes of LA Knight, Karrion Kross, Baron Corbin, Xavier Woods and Johnny Gargano to have spots on the main card. Maybe it speaks to how flush the roster is with talent that these men couldn’t grab a spot-even with the likes of Wyatt, AJ Styles, Randy Orton and Matt Riddle (more on him later) out of action.
On the heels of that well-received WrestleMania, it was announced that the long-planned sale of WWE is now officially in the works and due to be completed later this year. Endeavor Group is an entertainment brand owned by super-agent Ariel Emanuel. It boasts a portfolio of sports/entertainment properties including the Professional Bull Riders league, the William Morris talent agency and the Ultimate Fighting Championship. It is poised to acquire an ownership stake in WWE, subject to potential shareholder lawsuits and public investigations. The deal values the newly combined company at over $21 billion: UFC is worth $12.1 billion and WWE is valued at $9.3 billion. Endeavor shareholders will own 51% of the newly combined company, while WWE shareholders are getting 49%.
I think it’s fair to say that for fans who follow the business of wrestling, this was a bigger deal than Reigns vs. Rhodes.
If WWE was going to be sold to another public company, this move makes sense. I never got why larger media conglomerates like Disney or Universal would be interested. WWE comes with a fair share of baggage on screen and behind the scenes, which would make them a poor fit with a straight-laced corporation-it’s hard to see how such an acquisition wouldn’t be the end of WWE, much like AOL Time Warner ultimately pulled the plug on the carny world of WCW. Endeavor already deals with their own carny clown prince in the slap-happy President of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Dana White. The other main suitor was a branch of the Saudi Arabian government. This outcome was falsely reported a few months ago and public condemnation of it was so fierce that I almost wonder whether a leak was issued as a trial balloon in advance of a possible sale, a modern version of “stooging to the dirt sheets” as it were. I’m glad that didn’t happen either. WWE would have been a $9B line item in a government budget…one that could be easily divested or shut down whenever the bureaucrat in charge tires of it.
The news was so big that WWE Executive and now nominal Head of Creative Paul ‘Triple H’ Levesque was compelled to open RAW and thank everyone associated with the company, from the performers to the backstage crew to the fans. In WWE fashion, he never mentioned the sale outright but strove to reassure the thousands in attendance and the millions watching at home that “Nothing. Will. Chaaaaaange”. An odd defense of the status quo from someone who once sought to disrupt wrestling storylines and break the fourth wall as part of D-Generation X, but I guess we all mellow with age and the prospect of a $5 million windfall. His monologue reminded me of the last time a big story hit when Titus O’Neil plumbed the depths of the audience’s goodwill to distract from WWE owner Vince McMahon’s sex scandal. Back then we were directed not to pay attention to the man behind the curtain. Well, part of things “Not Changing” is the full return of that man to Gorilla Position (literally behind the curtain) as Executive Chair with the kind of creative control that would make Bret Hart weep.
The resulting Raw was a repetitive disappointment. Babyface after babyface came out, thanked the crowd and the city of Los Angeles and the WWE Universe, then faced a challenge from a heel and had what felt like an impromptu match. Bad Bunny was layered into the Mysterio storyline in advance of a Puerto Rican pay-per-view (a whole other column could be written about how WWE seems to treat the entire, global Latinx community as a lucha libre monolith). Elias looked disinterested as he walked by himself to face Omos. No new talent debuted, but maybe that was an unreasonable expectation following the host of returns since McMahon took his sabbatical. Brock Lesnar teased teaming with Cody Rhodes in the main event against Roman Reigns and Solo Sikoa but turned heel and destroyed him instead; setting up a top-line feud and real monster for Rhodes to slay as he ultimately chases Reigns’ title.
The whole thing felt like we’d been here before, and in fact, we have. After the show, it came out that McMahon, once again a WWE employee and executive, had set up his office and wrestled creative away-we’re back to doing things his way. Contrary to Triple H’s calming words, this means we’re likely in for a series of cuts backstage and in front of the camera. This likely has less to do with Vince McMahon’s temperament than it does with basic business. Job losses are a common part of mergers and acquisitions. Many performers were brought in or brought back to contribute depth to the roster. New corporate stepsibling UFC famously runs with a lean roster and is quick to jettison fighters after a couple of losses. With majority control of the new company’s Board of Directors, one can imagine them imposing similar discipline on WWE, even if they’re more of a touring company of entertainers than a competitive sport.
This raises one of my bigger questions about WWE’s sale: professional wrestling and Mixed Martial Arts have long been strange bedfellows. Well before Gene LeBell challenged boxer Milo Savage to a quasi-shoot fight in 1963, or Antonio Inoki kicked Muhammad Ali’s shins to smithereens in 1976, pro wrestling anticipated the question of what would happen when tough guys and girls from different disciplines fought to see who’s style reigned supreme.
Pro wrestling has a distinct advantage over MMA in that the fights necessarily follow the hype. Stars can be reliably built and directions can change if audiences reject a purported headliner. In my view, this is an inherent challenge in ‘legitimate’ combat sports. A match can be built up for months only to end in seconds, disappointing those who shell out for pay-per-views or tickets to watch the short-lived spectacle live. Worse, it often happens that the ‘wrong guy’ wins. Especially as MMA’s appeal has grown internationally, we have seen an influx of fighters where English is not a first language and cultural differences like deference to authority, a bias towards humility instead of bluster, or overarching religious convictions are at odds with the over-the-top personas and promos that sell MMA cards in North America, which in turn were stolen from pro wrestling. Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and National Basketball Association have experienced similar shifts, but as team sports, there’s almost always a spot or two for a homegrown hero who carries the popular load, if not the statistical one. WWE is aggressively positioning itself as an international brand, but its biggest hero is the “AMERICAN” Nightmare (American Patriotism is a recurring theme with varying degrees of success-from Cena to Luger to Hogan to Slaughter to Backlund) and a certain amount of jingoism has always been part of its appeal.
The announcement of the sale elicited the usual remarks about ‘synergies’ and how the two brands might fit together in broadcast rights negotiations going forward. To me, this seems counterintuitive. In modern times WWE and UFC have succeeded by being what the other ain’t. WWE has focused on storytelling and pageantry and outsized characters. UFC is still tough guys in shorts beating each other up: both entertaining in their own rights, but when brought head-to-head each exposes the other’s weakness. Sure, Brock Lesnar is a star in both worlds; but he’s physical enough to dominate in the play-fighting world of WWE and charismatic enough to stand out among the dearth of promo men in MMA. Bobby Lashley, Ronda Rousey, Matt Riddle (I know, I’m getting there) Daniel Cormier, Jake Hager and a bunch of others going back to the likes of Ken Shamrock and Dan Severn have crossed over but none have become household names.
WWE’s own attempts to marry MMA and pro wrestling have come across poorly. Before Ken Shamrock WWE introduced the former Papa Shango, Charles Wright as “Kama, the Supreme Fighting Machine”-in a singlet and K mart undershirt to conceal his tattoos. Wright would participate in WWE’s attitude-era attempt to capitalize on MMA by putting its entertainers into the dreadfully unsafe and boring Brawl for All series in 1998. Shane McMahon would resurrect the idea (liberally borrowing from Josh Barnett’s Bloodsport promotion), launching Raw Underground during the pandemic. It came across as a less pretty version of the movie ‘Fight Club” with a similar injury rate as Brawl for All and the same number of new stars produced. If only Meat Loaf had signed a developmental deal.
AEW tried incorporating Dan Lambert’s American Top Team MMA stable into its broadcasts. I think Lambert is a fabulous manager; he cuts the best heel promos this side of Paul Heyman-but his team mostly served as a backdrop for Scorpio Sky and Ethan Page to prowl the mid-card. The likes of Andrei Arlovsky, Junior Dos Santos and Paige VanZandt stood around and looked menacing, or threw the weakest worked punches this side of Snoop Dogg. Infamously, one of Lambert’s last shows featured a rare public appearance by Matt Hughes, who suffered a traumatic brain injury after being hit by a train. It was clear that the injury has had lasting effects, and while it happened well outside the Octagon, the optics of a fighter so clearly compromised by a brain injury, surrounded by active potential CTE cases in waiting were terrible.
Back when Impact Wrestling was TNA, and TNA aired on Spike TV, there was an attempt to integrate that show with the broadcaster’s newest acquisition-the Bellator fight league. MMA veterans like Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Tito Ortiz and King Mo Lawal were featured prominently in a series of angles that always ended up dropped due to the real fighters’ injuries, training schedules, or disinterest. There may well be synergies between wrestling and MMA, but beyond the occasional crossover star, I don’t think anyone has successfully exploited them.
Retrospectively, RAW felt less like a reset and more like a pause: the wrestling equivalent of the office being sent home to wait for dreaded calls from HR. The biggest return was an unwelcome one for many fans and took place behind the scenes. The biggest debut was Vince McMahon’s moustache. We should have known; WWE CEO Nick Khan had done media rounds leading up to WrestleMania and said outright “Only One Person Actually Runs WWE, And That’s Vince McMahon”.
Pro wrestling aside, McMahon’s return and continued involvement even after a sale leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Last summer, Vince was exposed as an alleged serial predator who took advantage of his position within WWE to have a series of inappropriate sexual relationships with his subordinates. If his payouts can be taken as evidence of impropriety, this was a pattern of behavior spanning decades. Vince was able to resume control because he also happened to be WWE’s largest shareholder. His company, his rules, and he was able to negotiate a spot for himself in the new order. But the thought of him having the same opportunities today makes my skin crawl. If Monday’s TV show was an indication (and it may not; it is, after all, just a show), it looks like WWE may be trying to go back to the status quo. It also brings McMahon into an organization that shares space with vulgarian and public wife-slapper Dana White, under the auspices of Mr. Emanuel…who sent a lot of clients Harvey Weinstein’s way. Taken together, the optics of this new entertainment conglomerate double down on the sleaze-so maybe Disney was never in the cards. Vince McMahon’s transformation into Gomez Addams is somehow on point…although Gomez seems to have been more of a family man.
Which brings me back to Riddle. For a RAW that’s usually devoted to showcasing new and returning stars, Riddle was an odd choice. He’s had his kick at the can, and apart from a one-and-done match with Reigns and a brief run with the US title shortly after joining the main roster, he hasn’t done much. His biggest run came as part of the RK-Bro team with Randy Orton, who basically indulged Riddle’s whiny annoying stoner younger brother character. Riddle has yet to show that fans will take him seriously-he’s a second-tier Rob Van Dam with an MMA pedigree that is rarely mentioned in his matches. Riddle disappeared from television for a stint in rehab following multiple drug test failures. He has been accused of being a predator by several partners (none of which has been proven in court), and his most recent social media posts showcase his current relationship with adult film performers. I’ll be clear: I don’t judge Mr. Riddle for his addictions and I’m very glad he got help. I would hope anyone in that boat gets healthy and stays healthy. I also think that what he does in his personal life is his business, as long as it’s consensual (which does seem to be an issue). But he plays a character who is meant to appeal to kids, which seems potentially more concerning than your local library Drag Queen. It also speaks to a skewed sense of priorities among those at the top of WWE or near the top of this new enterprise, which really shouldn’t be a surprise at this point.
So we’ll keep watching the story unfold, and see what SmackDown brings.