The handshake seals the contract
From the contract, there’s no turning back
The turning point of a career
In Korea, being insincere
The holiday was fun-packed
The contract still intactEverything Counts by Depeche Mode
In 1995, a pro wrestling event was televised via Pay-Per-View and held before crowds of over one hundred thousand people in North Korea – the post-Soviet military dictatorship at odds with the United States for decades, and recently threatened with “fire and fury” by sabre-rattling U.S. President Donald Trump.
The Collision in Korea, as it was called, was promoted by both NJPW (from Japan) and WCW (from the U.S.) as a joint venture, and was the first time an American fanbase had the opportunity to witness their favourite promotion’s top stars such as Ric Flair, Chris Benoit, and the Steiner Brothers wrestle in North Korea. The significance of this event cannot be overstated; aside from attracting the largest crowd ever for a pro wrestling event anywhere in the world, it essentially brought so many different peoples together through this performance art. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea itself is not recognised by either the United States or Japan – yet here was a simple event where the “squared circle” played host to pro wrestlers from various countries before throngs of fans, presented by American and Japanese promoters in collaboration alongside the North Korean government itself. Of course, there’s still an argument for complete boycotts of undemocratic countries (although depending on your criteria, that would probably remove most options on the map).
Nonetheless, after that bold move, back in the States, WCW went on to improve their product and actually beat Vince McMahon’s WWF in television ratings on a regular basis and enjoyed a good solid five years of dominance, with WCW owner Ted Turner also having access to his very own Turner Network Television (TNT) as a platform for the pro wrestling shows.
However, WCW made fatal mistakes: they happily signed WWF defectors while failing to create their own stars, and had so much money, keeping so much talent on their books, that even extended airtime didn’t allow them to introduce, develop, or elevate every star – particularly while the same old names were standing firmly on that glass ceiling. If anything, extended airtime actually arguably over-exposed the product itself. Frustrations took over. Politicking was rife backstage. Shows were being rushed and planned last-minute before airtime. Locker room morale took a downturn. It became a bad place to work. Yes, it was a roller coaster ride for WCW: they reached their pinnacle, but they came down even faster.
The graph on the wall
Tells the story of it all
Picture it now, see just how
The lies and deceit gained a little more power
Confidence taken in by a suntan and a grinEverything Counts by Depeche Mode
As I’ve looked at on this blog before, in-depth, WCW was later bought by McMahon’s WWF (now WWE) and after achieving such dominance through ruthlessly aggressive and morally questionable promoting practices across the States – as I’ve cited – McMahon put WWE on the stock exchange to help raise funds for his ill-advised and ill-fated XFL venture, and welcomed masses of shareholders to influence the direction of WWE.
Again, as I’ve said here before, what followed was less an art form and more of a vacuous product driven by hapless Hollywood rejects writing a wrestling show that saw every performer’s lines written verbatim and delivered without feeling and the commentators mugging for the cameras while sipping on soft drinks that were sponsoring the show, all so that partnering companies, advertisers – and of course shareholders – would remain happy. Creative freedom was not only discouraged; it was essentially off-limits. When one star, Zack Ryder, utilised the internet to develop his own character and a fan base, many feel he was punished for it.
But McMahon was happy with everything just ticking over, allowing no creativity, taking no chances – being inoffensive enough to keep corporations content yet steering clear of any moral fables so as not to upset his friend Donald Trump, whose rabid right-wing attacks on women, Muslims, LGBT+ communities, and Black Lives Matter extended to the NFL’s player protests (perhaps not coincidentally, McMahon has felt it an opportune time to relaunch the failed XFL which he has said will ban such protests).
The grabbing hands grab all they can
All for themselves, after all
It’s a competitive worldEverything Counts by Depeche Mode
When it comes to WWE, McMahon is terribly short-sighted. With no competition, a monopoly on the industry and its talent, and an increasingly stale product that was also over-exposed with weekly TV episodes of up to three hours and Pay-Per-View shows of up to seven hours (sometimes with only 45 minutes of actual quality wrestling, according to Jim Cornette) – presumably in frantic attempts to feature everyone on their books – viewers actually began to turn away from the product in droves.
When inquisitive shareholders enquired as to why this was the case, McMahon cited injuries to his top draws as the cause. His previous excuses about TV being unimportant had grown as stale as his show, and also failed to explain the correlation in decreased live attendances, so blaming a supposed injury crisis seemed like a safe bet for now.
TV was, for McMahon, often downplayed as an important gauge of audience interest largely due to his development of his streaming WWE Network, which features not just decades’ worth of WWE and WWF archive footage, but also video libraries of the other pro wrestling companies McMahon had put out of business before swallowing up their archives, too, such as Stampede Wrestling, AWA, ECW and, of course, WCW itself.
Absent from this seemingly endless treasure trove of pro wrestling footage, however, is one show: the Collision in Korea. Of course, it would be a stretch to believe WWE have omitted this purely because the event was held on the land of an official enemy of their precious ally Donald Trump; where there’s money to be made, beyond the risk of bad publicity, they’re quite happy to associate their name with pretty much anyone. And if they were withholding the footage of that historic event for ethical reasons, they’d be pretty hypocritical, given their series of shows currently taking place in none other than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, who actually pay WWE millions of dollars in return for providing propaganda for them to the West.
In most rankings of the countries with the worst records on human rights, North Korea and Saudi Arabia both frequently feature prominently; if such damning statuses were a part of WrestleMania, these two might be the main event, complete with bad haircuts and hacksaws. Saudi Arabia would win by pinfall or submission, no doubt, since North Korea can’t even get a single pissant American company to run shows there these days. That gives the Saudis the edge in this violent, bloody brawl for it all.
In seriousness, top WWE stars (such as John Cena and Daniel Bryan) have been able to express their refusal to even appear on shows in Saudi Arabia, and have had their wishes granted. Of course, not everyone can be a top star, and many of the performers feel they have no way of dissuading WWE promoters from sending them there; they’re contractually obligated to do the job WWE wants them to. Meanwhile, the women don’t have such a dilemma – simply because Saudi Arabia forbids women from wrestling on their territory (again, as mentioned on this blog before, WWE timed their announcement of the first-ever all-women’s Pay-Per-View show stateside to coincide with this bad publicity regarding the women last year, and it largely worked as damage control).
Reportedly, morale is extremely low in the WWE locker room, which is incredible for such a “successful” pro wrestling company – sorry, I mean “sports entertainment” company, since McMahon doesn’t like being known as a pro wrestling promoter, although at the rate he’s going, there’s becoming less danger of that, anyway.
Morale isn’t low simply because WWE run shows in Saudi Arabia and force talent to go. That’s probably quite far along their list of gripes – most would probably dream of a workplace where their only complaint was their company doing business with a horrible regime.
John Oliver recently did service to legions of pro wrestling fans around the world by providing much-needed serious coverage of the industry after years of reporters, say, dismissing Chris Benoit’s brain damage and subsequent double murder-suicide as a result of “‘roid rage” which swept the actual epidemic of concussions under the carpet, or using pro wrestling’s predetermined nature as a rationale for ridicule while at the same time giving “reality” television programmes, soap operas, and movies considerable, considered coverage. Even the usual suspects and guilty parties like The Guardian had to suddenly report on the topic in serious fashion, thanks to John Oliver.
His criticisms, as my regular readers will know, are very valid indeed. He attacked WWE for its monopoly, its mistreatment and exploitation of its workers, and as part of that, its disgustingly unethical contracts that many wrestlers from the independent scene felt they had no choice but to sign in order to actually make a decent living on a consistent basis for their trade. WWE contracts in these wrestlers as “independent contractors” and therefore don’t have to pay for their health care, pension plans, or anything of the like; however, these contracts stop such “independent contractors” from wrestling anywhere else, for anyone else, unless WWE agrees to it (which they almost never do). They’re treated as employees when WWE needs to control them and, oh yes, they’re certainly not treated as employees when WWE are expected to be responsible for them in any way.
The response to John Oliver from the offices of WWE was almost laughable in its ignorance: initially, they addressed his remarks in a manner that did not even acknowledge any of his criticisms, blatantly side-stepping the points and hoping no one noticed; more recently, Vince McMahon himself told Variety, “Anybody who wants time off can get time off. That’s easy…In addition to that, it’s easy to weave a talent in and out of a storyline. If they get injured, you’re not expecting that. Or if they have a family matter. Our characters are real people with real problems. It’s a revolving situation where this talent will work these dates, that talent will work those dates.” Uh, wow. This statement completely contradicts his explanation to shareholders that WWE was in decline simply because of injuries. I’ll leave them to follow up on that one, if they’re so inclined.
Recently I blogged about the awe-inspiring and exciting launch of All Elite Wrestling (AEW), and how it has suddenly provided what seemed to appear to be a genuine alternative to WWE, albeit without a weekly television slot or a series of regular live shows. Since the emergence of AEW, as I mentioned, there have been numerous WWE wrestlers requesting their releases from these contracts, often with a view to finding work with AEW (who have been offering flexible contracts, where stars can work pretty much wherever they want, and if not, and it’s an exclusive deal, they’ll offer the worker in question a series of benefits). Apart from Dustin Rhodes, who will wrestle his brother Cody at AEW’s first Pay-Per-View, Double or Nothing, in Las Vegas, Nevada, on May 25th, 2019, WWE have been refusing such releases.
It seems every contract is slightly different; you or I might not have access to their details, but we can only make guesses based on each different individual saga. Jon Moxley, a favourite of mine who I loathed as the watered down “Dean Ambrose” in WWE, waited until the end of his contract, and escaped relatively unscathed (although it’s uncertain he’ll appear for AEW). Top guys The Revival requested their release, which was rejected, and they were appeased with a championship run, until they refused to then sign a contract extension, so they’ve lost the belts and been written into humiliating storylines designed to reduce their credibility by the time their contracts expire and they’re free to ply their trade elsewhere. However, Sasha Banks went home and was seemingly able to simply refuse to work any more for WWE at the time of writing, as did Luke Harper, whose request for a release was rejected, with time on the contract extended for periods when he was unable to perform due to injury. That’s right: if you’re injured, you can’t make more money for WWE and their shareholders, so the office extend time on to your contract.
If that sounds like a prison sentence, no wonder Jon Moxley celebrated his newfound freedom from WWE with a video showing him breaking out of a cell and escaping the penitentiary to walk the street starting a new life as a free man.
WWE may sound like purgatory, but really it’s simply an entity ignorant to history – in many ways, its own history. WCW failed, as we’ve seen, because it signed talent for the sake of having it, because it was overexposed, because its shows were being re-written last-minute, because it failed to heed the warning signs of downward trends or backstage discontent, or resurgent rivals and alternatives. Vince McMahon is really not helping himself or his company by presenting an outdated, tired old formulaic product with predictable content.
WWE have made the occasional petty digs at AEW in recent months, and if that didn’t show that they were worried, refusing releases certainly does. They offered Rhyno twice his salary with apparently no intention to utilise him as a character on television – essentially paying him more to simply stay at home. That’s essentially double for nothing! He still left. WWE are prepared to keep talent locked in for the sole purpose of preventing them working elsewhere – particularly AEW. In turn, AEW are simply laughing at them.
The more wrestlers become wise to WWE’s disgusting contracts, the fewer will choose to sign them. Those around WWE have repeatedly claimed AEW cannot be a viable alternative, let alone a threat, since they have no TV deal. That all changed just today – when none other than TNT cheekily announced that they were “back in the wrestling business” as the home of AEW’s weekly show starting later this year. If they did indeed need a weekly TV deal to attract viewers and talent, they did it; if they needed talent and a fanbase to attract a TV deal, they did that too. Either way, this is bad news for WWE, and good news for the rest of us.
TNT are part of WarnerMedia Entertainment – the production resources now available to AEW are almost limitless. They’ll need these to be able to make a splash at Double or Nothing and beyond. Indeed, that’s AEW’s first big chance to present so many pro wrestling fans with a viable alternative to the vacuous, stale monster that is WWE; to grab their attention, and keep it. Everything they do on that day will matter a great deal. There really is a lot riding on that show in Las Vegas. Wish them luck.
Everything counts in large amountsEverything Counts by Depeche Mode