Vince McMahon Jr. took pro wrestling to new heights in the 1980s with his grandiose Wrestlemania concept – a merging of his over the top wrestling superstars with the glitz and celebrity of Hollywood. The concept remains an American staple, filling out the biggest stadiums every year and dominating on PPV.
In the early 90s a young and ambitious Word Championship Wrestling announcer named Eric Bischoff wowed Turner Broadcasting big wigs to get the job of Executive Producer of the promotion, despite being under-qualified and less experienced than several other applicants. He proceeded to take WCW to war with McMahon’s WWF (which was in a creative slump now that 80s were over), raiding the talent, turning Hulk Hogan in to a bad guy and creating the most recognized faction in wrestling history, the New World Order. His flagship Nitro show gave a new lease of life to wrestling, and the soaring TV ratings reflected this.
Meanwhile a local promotion in Philadelphia, that performed out of a glorified warehouse on the corner of South Swanson and West Ritner Street, were putting on some of the most violent matches and adult themed angles to ever hit US audiences. Extreme Championship Wrestling developed a cult following and would influence the biggest boom period in the quasi-sport and entertainment genre to this day – the Attitude Era. McMahon and head writer Vince Russo adopted ECW’s risqué content and amped-up violence, and presented it to their bigger audience, which then got even bigger, with the emergence of charismatic characters like The Rock and Steve Austin. By late 2001 McMahon’s promotion had surpassed WCW and he bought their assets after Time Warner merged with AOL. ECW was also swallowed up in to the WWF brand when owner Paul Heyman failed to balance his books.
Though upstart promotion TNA brought hope of a second war and a revitalization of wrestling, viewership for their Impact show has stayed stagnate for years, and they’ve been unable to capture the audience lost after the closure of WCW nor create a significant one of their own. Meanwhile WWE though ever expanding in to foreign markets, has chosen to stick to its tried and tested brand, which is no longer cool nor cutting edge to American viewers. Vince won the war but wrestling has lacked any real innovation since he monopolized the industry, and WWE ratings are on a downward trend, not too far away from when they were in the post-80s slump. With this in mind there is certainly room for a new approach to pro wrestling, championed by a contemporary Eric Bischoff or Paul Heyman.
As fans it’s something we’ve all pondered. If you were given millions of dollars and a prime time TV slot, how would you run a startup promotion?
Would you push the envelope with a new Attitude Era style philosophy, with hardcore action and adult themes, or would you flip everything on its head and come up with something truly revolutionary?
Fake MMA/Real Wrestling
I’ve had many day-dreams about how to execute a brilliant storyline or who I would put the belt on if I were to run a promotion, but sometimes my mind wanders in to very weird territory.
While Japan has experimented with worked shoot fights – that is MMA fights that were staged – and pro wrestling was born out of a crossover from real catch-wrestling/shoot fights and carnival scams, one concept that I’ve conjured up that I think is truly unique is the fusing of MMA and pro wrestling. The envisioned product would feature shoot fights – real UFC style MMA fights – but scripted storylines and rivalries to promote them.
It would take a lot of effort because you’d have to create multiple scenarios based on the outcomes of a fight, but if executed correctly – in theory – you could capitalize on what makes both wrestling and MMA popular. Real fighting and good storytelling.
In my fictional universe I still chose to brand the product “pro wrestling” and use a wrestling ring because I doubt MMA nerds would accept the idea even if the fights were real, however it might win over disillusioned wrestling fans or the casual viewer who was not previously a fan of wrestling or UFC. My ultimate goal would be the destruction of Vince McMahon’s empire (why not?) because we would be “real wrestling”, and I’d be hated not unlike Vince was when he destroyed the territories and created his glitzy powerhouse.
It would be a rough transition but in the end a new breed of champion would rise to the top, somebody with the charisma of the Rock or Steve Austin, but the legitimate fighting skills of a Jon Jones or Georges St-Pierre.
Of course this is all theoretical, it could just end up like one big Brawl for All.
Although scripted MMA would bring an unheard-of realism to pro wrestling, I’ve also wondered what it would look like if wrestling went the other way and morphed almost completely in to a drama. By that I mean a traditionally scripted drama like Breaking Bad, that just happens to be about a pro wrestling company.
There were rumblings that a pilot of this was being shopped around a few years ago, which would focus on the territory era pre-80s, though it most likely just confused TV executives or was too obscure to risk investment.
My own personal concept would take things a step further.
Assuming we have airtime for two TV shows (like RAW and SmackDown) one show would be traditional pro wrestling in a live arena, with storylines and everything else you’d expect from a wrestling product, however the second broadcast would be a one hour drama about the trials and tribulations of the promoter running the wrestling show. Think back to when the McMahon family were hot in the late 90s/early 2000s and imagine a drama about their personal lives, outside the live arena context.
Within the drama’s fictional universe wrestling is real, so Kayfabe would technically never be broken, but the story arcs would focus on the shady activities of the promoter (perhaps he’s connected to organized crime), the ups and downs of his family life, and of course the running of the promotion itself. Though a handful of wrestlers might cross-over in to the show and vice versa, and the time-line would be consistent, (perhaps as the wrestling show builds to a Wrestlemania-like event, the drama focuses on the promoter’s near bankruptcy and last minute survival), storylines would not necessarily merge.
I have this comical vision that at the start of every episode of the drama the promoter is watching the ending to the wrestling show that aired a few days before. Even if it completely bombed, tell me that visual wouldn’t be awesome?
Back to Basics and Realism
The previous two concepts are my fantasies and while if somebody else came up with them I’d probably laugh, I enjoy them in my own head. However if I really did get a blank check from a modern Ted Turner like Eric Bischoff in the 90s, I think tweaking the pro wrestling we all love would probably be the most successful plan. After all despite being some of the most vocal critics, something made us fans and it wasn’t UFC or The Sopranos; it was most likely just good wrestling. The kind that dazzled us with its spectacle (Wrestlemania) shocked us with its aggressiveness or vulgarity (ECW and the Attitude Era), or that was so good in the ring it was believable enough for us to get wrapped up in for a couple of hours (insert legend here).
Many people of my generation (mid to late 20s) look back to the Attitude Era as when wrestling was at its best. Likewise others have fonder memories of WCW or the earlier territory days. The truth is while the Attitude Era made me a fan and I’ll always look back fondly at the crazy cast of characters, there was also a hell of a lot of offensive and unexplainable crap that made it on air, which wrestling fans and the wider public would probably rip apart today.
Remember when one of the Headbangers became Beaver Cleavage? And then broke character and beat his girlfriend?
I believe the Attitude Era was successful because it broke all the previous rules, while still staying within the traditional pro wrestling context. It brought shock and awe to a stale and formulaic (in WWF’s case cartoony) product, and that can be done again in a different way. It’s not about a new Attitude Era, but just a NEW Era.
In fact I’ll go as far as to say what today’s wrestling needs is not a breaking of the rules, but a reestablishing of the rules. It needs a new foundation of realism from which storylines can branch out from. Each promotion (WWE, TNA, ROH, even UFC) has elements of what I define as “the basics”, but I want to put the full puzzle together.
And it all starts with the promotion’s name.
Naming A Promotion For Longterm Success
Changing the WWF to World Wrestling Entertainment was one of the most egotistical and stupid things Vince McMahon has ever done. We all know Vinnie lusts for mainstream acceptance for his “entertainment” company, but short of admitting it’s fake during the show (which sort of worked within the attitude era context when he really did do that) calling the company WWE is tantamount to labeling it World Wrestling Fakery. He could have gone with anything… Alliance, Championship, Council, but instead he went with his own personal vision. We know it’s just entertainment but don’t tell us that while we’re watching it!
They don’t call the motorcycle gang in Sons of Anarchy “SAMCRO Entertainment”.
Then there’s TNA, which on the face of it means Tits and Ass, and by some accounts Jerry Jarrett chose that name specifically to fool people looking for PPV porn or dominatrix wrestling on Wednesday nights. Not exactly the best way to start a “professional” wrestling company.
Check out Ed Ferrara sleazing it up and promoting T & A on their debut show.
Of course it eventually became Total Nonstop Action without the innuendo, which isn’t a bad name for a small Indy fed that wants to differentiate itself from WWE, in that it has all of this crazy high-flying nonstop action, but it’s simply not the name of a Global wrestling juggernaut. It would make much more sense if they just dropped TNA altogether and switched to Impact Wrestling. The Loyal 1.0ers will be there no matter what they call themselves, but in the long-term it may play a role in drawing more than 1.0.
Likewise Ring of Honor is a good name for an alternative, but it doesn’t scream major league. Their defunct competition “Major League Wrestling” had the right idea.
The name of my promotion would be simple, even boring, but like MLW would be professional and recognizable in a “sports” context. Here’s a handful of potentials…
National Wrestling Federation
…National Wrestling Confederation (Council, Championship etc)
National Championship Wrestling
National Wrestling League
Global Wrestling League
World Wrestling League
The idea is that it sounds like what an important wrestling company would sound like. I just can’t decide whether to stick with “National” to play off the NBA, NFL, NHL etc, or go with Global or World – because the ultimate goal would be touring the world. For now we’ll stick with National Wrestling League, because it also works with another concept I’ll get in to soon.
Next we need the storyline structure of the company. Both TNA and WWE use the General Manager role, and WWE have added layers of executives and other confusing nonsense that they pull from the real life corporate structure.
When analyzed in the real world (remember this is about realism) both WWE and TNA’s GMs are self absorbed, power playing, hypocritical failures at their jobs, with little redeeming qualities even if they are face. They pick and choose when to enforce rules, they break the rules or even the law themselves, there’s often no logic to their booking and they love the spotlight.
I would completely reverse this. My GM wouldn’t be called a GM, he would be called the “Booker”, not because it’s an “insider” term but because it does what it says on the tin. The Booker’s job is simple, he books the card, (mostly off-air with only references from the announcers and in promos) and occasionally gets involved when things break down, but only in a “what the hell am I doing on camera” kind of way. For example if two wrestlers are arguing and on the verge of fighting, he may hurry down in his suit (without a damn mic in his hand) quietly whisper to them both, go over for a team talk with his officials at ringside, and then reluctantly book a match.
With the two wrestlers in the ring the camera will zoom in, he’ll cut in the middle and ask them (audible but not with a microphone) “are you sure you guys wanna do this?”
“Are you warmed up, have you stretched today?”
“What about you, you good to go?”
“Ok but I want this clean”
He turns to the ref, gives a signal and a match goes ahead.
In my mind wrestling is a simulated sport that derives its drama from pushing the logical boundaries of the rules laid down. There are checks and balances, people can’t just make matches and fight willy-nilly. Sure two guys who hate each other can get a match booked, but there are a few hoops to jump through first. I don’t consider this boring, it’s a subtle kind of drama, an understated drama that makes the match just as, or more important than some loud and obnoxious character screaming in to a mic about what unshockingly shocking (because it happens every week) match they’re going to excite us with. By building a solid foundation of realism, when the rules are broken it means much more than when it’s done alllll the time.
Matches Are Important
This brings me to how a match itself should start. No jumps or blindsides, even if wrestlers hate each other they should respect the sport they’re in. I really dig the UFC’s “are you ready…are you ready?…let’s get it on!”
Lets mirror this, the referee (perhaps not wearing a striped shirt for once) gets in between the wrestlers, goes over some rules, feels for foreign objects and boot tightness like they did in the old days and slowly brings them in to a Collar & Elbow tie-up; he then says: “are you ready…are you ready?…RING IT!!!” and off they push. (RING IT! or “Riiiiing the bellll!” will become a catchy phrase). The heel of course can then easily break the tie-up underhandedly to get some heat, but the visual of sportsmanship is there, so it actually means something when they do make a cheap-shot.
In a way this also mirror’s ROH’s code of honor, where wrestlers are encouraged to shake hands before and after matches, but to add heat some of them blow it off.
I would also have the ring announcer announce the wrestlers once they’re in the ring (not on the way) and give a bit of a tail of the tape…
“Weighing in today at 6ft 2, 215 lbs.” Why not even do actual press conference/weigh-ins from time to time? “…he is an innovator of the high-flying daredevil ring-style, and the master of the Twist of Fate neckbreaker, Jeff Harrrrrddddyyyy”
TNA does this occasionally and WCW did it as well. It is these little things that I feel add importance and realism to a match. WWE has become a caricature of a wrestling company and lost many of the fundamental rules and tricks that we’ve seen in the past or that we see in MMA and boxing presentations.
I would include time-keepers and match lengths with an on-screen clock like TNA did during the Fox Sports Net days. I would have post match interviews that aren’t necessarily “wrestling promos” like Joe Rogan does with UFC fighters.
When wrestlers do want to cut promos they should be “granted” the time by the booker and stand on a separate platform away from the ring with an interviewer. The ring is sacred, it’s where the wrestling takes place!
UFC TNA/Reality style video packages can be post-produced to get a less talented performer’s point across. Just have them sitting in a chair like Adam Pearce’s Gut Check video. It’s authentic and believable.
Also like TNA I’d utilize a TMZ style roving reporter, and under no circumstances would there be any magic cameras eavesdropping private conversations unless the wrestlers acknowledge it’s there or the reporter gets fined for snooping around.
I would also scale back signature ring entrances. Enough of this boop boop boop, or I’m gonna twist my heels when I walk, or my hand is going to make a machine gun motion when I reach this far down the ramp. Urghhh.
A character can enter the arena in-character without having to resort to a tangible motion or formula. An arrogant or bad guy wrestler can play to the crowd and get in fans faces, a favorite can soak in the atmosphere and slap hands, and many different interactions can occur in-between, BUT mix it up a little. Wrestlers should be thinking “how would my character react to this crowd in this situation and against this opponent”, not I’m going to boooop boooop boooop in 10 seconds. Because it worked once, WWE have made it generic, completely ruining the depth of some of their characters. In a high profile match wrestlers should be focused on their way to the ring, not prancing around.
NWL matches themselves would have much more defined parameters. In regular matches wrestlers will be permitted to leave the ring with a strict 10 count, but once any foul play is involved (steel steps, ring post) they automatically waive their right to initiate an out of ring brawl again. In other words you can cheat once within reason, though this doesn’t apply to springboard maneuvers so as not to limit high-flyers.
The count out is also only applied to the aggressor once foul play is involved. Somebody thrown in to the ring steps for example can have as much time as they want to recover, whereas the wrestler doing the throwing cannot keep coming in and out of the ring to keep their opponent down.
A similar rule applies to tag matches where tag partners are only allowed to make one save each per match.
Managers and Entourages
Bring back managers! Not just as mouth-pieces (though this is important) but also in the context of an entourage. I think it would be cool if a handful of top stars had an an entourage during a ring entrance and near ringside during big PPV matches to add some tension, to rush in after a match, and to give more perspective during pre/post match interviews. Top faces’ entourages could have a couple of lower-card faces with them, and vice versa for heels, to help give the rub to younger talent.
Trusted talent could bring in their own entourage. Imagine CM Punk with band members or other famous friends in his corner. So what if they can’t act, real people don’t act, they just be real and it adds to the atmosphere.
Women Wrestlers are Wrestlers First
Bring back womens wrestling! By all means market good looking women, but also have a mix of scary and normal looking women. Characters also shouldn’t be built solely on their looks. I’d take a talent like Natalya (she’s freaking hot and the audience will dig that) but it would be all about her Hart dungeon training and technical skill. To get the T&A demographic I’d use ring girls, cheerleaders, nitro girls, or cage dancers instead, but I don’t see why a blond bombshell like Natalya, with a cute hint of pink in her attire isn’t enough. Kicking ass is a bonus.
In the NWL there would be no “heavyweight” title. This is a broken prop left behind from when smaller wrestlers didn’t get pushed to the top. It’s not like they have weight limits anymore so why have a title referencing weight? Is Rey Mysterio a heavyweight? It would simply be the NWL World title.
The Champion would be booked for Indy and international dates to defend his title all around the world, highlights of which would be shown on TV or in full depending on the importance and quality of the matches. Announcers can then hype him up as a “real” World Champion because he actually defends it elsewhere.
The lower card belt could be the TV title that has to be defended every single week on TV, with the World title left for special occasions. I certainly wouldn’t use something meaningless like an Intercontinental (You mean all the continents, so like a world title then?) Or a US belt. There’s nothing distinguishable about them other than that lower card wrestlers always seem to win them.
A hardcore division is a possibility, though it would be called something like the “Bareknuckles Cup” (with an actual trophy that changes hands). Participants would have to sign waivers, and referees with first aid bags, gloves etc would be near the action to hammer home how dangerous it is and to clean up dangerous objects that have been used.
Old School Approach to Developmental
Though WWE’s new performance center is impressive, we only have to look at who has been successful to see that it’s the toiling away on the Indy scene and overseas that creates wrestlers who can work a match and the crowd. By all means tune them up, but it wasn’t WWE who created CM Punk, Daniel Brian, Antonio Cesaro, Damien Sandow, Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, Alberto Del Rio, Sin Cara, Sheamus and so on. They all honed their craft working all across the country or internationally. WWE just gave them a gimmick tweak and marketed them.
Obviously the territories have gone and things aren’t as prosperous for non-WWE wrestlers anymore, but there is still something invaluable about paying dues, working different styles and rising to the top naturally before hitting the big time farm league.
NWL’s developmental system would contract potential stars, pay them a small wage and then get them Indy bookings all around the world, paying the promoter a fee. They can stop by every few months for an evaluation, gimmick tweaks etc, and then head back out to work on their craft. The Internet makes it very simple for them to send over tapes of their ongoing work.
Some of these wrestlers can be used as TV jobbers and non-contracted wrestlers could be brought in as enhancement talent as well. Unlike WWE jobber’s Indy credentials will be highly touted by announcers to demonstrate that there is depth to pro wrestling and everybody wants their chance in the NWL.
An actual League
Back to why I called my envisioned the promotion the National Wrestling League. I did this so TV matches and win/loss records actually mean something. 15 or more contracted wrestlers could be entered in to a yearly soccer style league, with 3 points for a win and so on. Everybody out of this 15 wrestles each other twice a year on TV or at live events, and the wrestler with the most points wins the league and a trophy. They then get a guaranteed World title match at the yearly WrestleFest (Wrestlemania).
There are a handful of legends or “trustees of the league” who show up every so often, and before World title matches the ring announcer can say the match has been sanctioned by “the trustees of the Global Wrestling League”.
Now wrestlers will always be fighting for something, and when two wrestlers clash for a second time there’s added meaning. A heel could tarnish somebody’s league position by cheating or interfering in an important match, rivals or partners may end up having to face off…the potential is endless.
Old timers like Sting and Hulk Hogan who have no business on a legitimate wrestling show fit perfectly as “Trustees”. They could moonlight as company ambassadors, contracted specifically to put over the promotion in interviews and at appearances. They can offer their calm and measured (easy on the “brothers” and “showtimes”) opinions on ongoing storylines or upcoming matches. Have them sit somewhere off to the side and cut to them between big matches like WWE’s recent PPV panels. Their on camera roles would be limited, but they would always be used as live event draws by having meet and greets.
Respect the Product and the Fans
Pro wrestling has a unique and problematic relationship with its fans that other genres such as film do not. This is because of the historical use of Kayfabe. However today I don’t see why the relationship should be any different from other genres. Everybody knows wrestling is fake and older fans enjoy it on the same level as older film fans enjoy movies. They love watching and getting immersed in the product, but when it’s over they also love to critique the art, production and talent behind it.
Wrestlers, wrestling writers and promoters still misunderstand so called “insider” or “smart” fans, interpreting their passion as something unique, that either needs to be stamped out for exposing the product (“what do they know? Can’t they just enjoy it and stop trying to get themselves over”), or utilized to “work” them all over again with “worked shoots” and references to behind the scenes goings on that break the fourth wall, a-la Vince Russo and WCW’s latter angles.
This mentality is not only insulting to the intelligence of wrestling fans but also to the wrestlers, writers, promoters and production staff who are often extremely talented individuals.
The truth is there hasn’t been “smart” fans as a unique phenomenon to wrestling since the late 90s or even earlier. They’re just fans! Fans that love wrestling and also respect what goes in to creating it. You don’t call a film buff a “smart” fan and get mad at them for immersing themselves in film knowledge. And you certainly don’t have Alan in the Hangover suddenly start “shooting” on the director mid scene as a nod to film viewers who are so clever they know what a director is. Of course they know what a director is! Of course anyone over the age of 11 knows that wrestling is scripted!
Finger Poke of Doom:
“Worked shoots” (the variety different from playing up real life character traits and relationships) completely alienate the audience, because the majority that know it’s scripted are face-palming at the very concept that some moron is trying to work them, and everybody else is 5 years old and totally confused as to why Kevin Nash is laying down for Hulk Hogan when they wanted to see a fun match.
Vince Russo has always claimed he included little “insider” nods here and there in his scripts because he didn’t want to insult the intelligence of wrestling fans, because they knew it was fake, but that’s the very thing he was doing. We don’t want to be told it’s fake during the show, we watch it like we watch any movie… for escapism!
The mythical Kayfabe conundrum is also a disservice to the writers, staff and wrestlers themselves. While Vince McMahon pushes his promotion as “entertainment” ad-nauseum during the damn show; ruining the suspension of disbelief for wrestling fans, the writers are quietly locked away, barred from discussing their story arcs and past successes in public, to the media, or on podcasts. They’re not allowed to bask in their creative glory until they’re fired and then have to resort to websites and small radio shows when the mainstream couldn’t care less.
Wrestlers are also encouraged to keep up Kayfabe outside of the show, doing goofy interviews to local news affiliates and hamming it up on talks shows without much substance, even if they are out of character. Some stars let it all hang out, usually on smaller Internet based shows, but I believe it should be embraced as a marketing and PR tool, not relegated to the shoot interview niche.
Vince has it backwards, he’s trying to be accepted as respectable entertainment, but then rarely explains to the media why it’s entertainment and why it’s awesome, unless it’s in WWE’s annoying corporate-speak at press-conferences or in obscure trade publications. And then it’s just PR babble.
The writers of Breaking Bad have their own podcast, AMC’s the Walking Dead has a popular chat show called the Talking Dead where they “break Kayfabe” and talk about their favorite characters and the awesomeness of recent episodes – even with some of the actors and industry people themselves. Imagine the same format with WWE. It would be a must watch.
If I ran a promotion I would stop insulting everybody. I’d respect the fans and the team I work with. The TV broadcast itself would be fine-tooth-combed for flaws in logic and silliness, but my writers and wrestlers would be given free reign to engage viewers with their art-form outside of the show. I obviously wouldn’t have the World champ on TV during the build for a mega-event discussing his storyline, but there’s plenty of room for putting over the art-form without harming the product.
I also wouldn’t use Kayfabe as an excuse to screw over fans when a wrestler gets busted for drugs or no-shows an event. For example I wouldn’t book Jeff Hardy to get hit with a hammer to write him off TV for the overseas tour, I’d tell the audience he has a drug charge and isn’t allowed in to the UK and discuss the implications of this on air. Every Jeff Hardy fan has read his Wikipedia, they know why he isn’t turning up. It’s this kind of breaking the fourth wall that actually works in wrestling, because it shows fans you’re being honest and above board, without breaking the parameters of what could actually happen in a real sport…real people in a real fighting sport really can get busted for drugs. In fact it strengthens the show because those who already know Hardy has a drug charge aren’t going to be snapped out of the action by witnessing a lame and obvious angle to cover up the truth.
I’m aware that there are umpteen different factors that go in to making a successful wrestling promotion beyond some quick creative foresight, but as a fan I’d very much enjoy a back to basics, logic driven and realistically presented product.
Unfortunately the likelihood of any of us stumbling in to millions and getting TV time to promote our ideas is thin, and despite wrestling having a proven track record since the dawn of television, no major network is going to commission a wrestling show for the sake of it, possibly because Vince breaks Kayfabe in the wrong way and doesn’t allow his wrestlers and employees to truly “sell” wrestling for him.
While small Indy feds could and have adopted unique concepts, the market is so monopolized they never get the exposure that would have a real impact on the industry, let alone revolutionize it.
You might think the onus is on WWE to implement changes, yet while creatively the characters are picking up, there’s no sign of them breaking out of the WWE bubble. The only promotion that has enough exposure to gain ground, but aren’t too big to experiment is TNA. They have what can be described as the “we’ll watch anything that has wrestling in the title and is moderately well produced” crowd. Hulk Hogan never really gave them a ratings boost, but not having Hulk Hogan didn’t hurt their ratings either. They will always get about a 1.0 if Impact is recognized as a wrestling show and stays on a decent network.
So Dixie what are you afraid of? Are you going to be a pre-Wrestlemania Vince McMahon Jr, pre-Nitro Eric Bischoff, or ECW Paul Heyman…or somebody desperately clinging on to what those men created without bringing anything significantly different to the table? Make an Impact!
Have you ever pondered how you would revolutionize pro wrestling? Let me know your ideas below…