Posts tagged with: WWF

Pro Wrestling Alternatives: Are We All In?

It may come as no surprise to you that professional wrestling started off in fairground fighting contests alongside strongman competitions, and as its popularity grew with its dangers, fight fixing became more prevalent along with it – the matches had predetermined outcomes based on what would be most compelling for audiences to come back again the next time the “carnies” were back in town.

Throughout most of the 20th century in the United States, the National Wrestling Alliance oversaw this travelling roadshow through a regional network of local promoters who held events in specific territories, based on handshake agreements and semi-formal committees.

The NWA’s “world” champion, of course, went from territory to territory (sometimes even outside the United States), headlining each show by taking on the region’s top star, and this formula worked very well, especially when the villainous heel champion either used skulduggery to come out on top (and then get beat up after the bell to please the crowd), or lost by running away, or getting disqualified for cheating so that the crowd favourite won but still failed to take the title (belts couldn’t change hands via count-out or disqualification, since pins and submissions were considered more decisive victories).

Of course, sometimes the local hero won the belt, but the storylines often worked best when the heroes chased the villain, and crowds flocked to shows in the hopes he’d finally receive his comeuppance. But which hero was deemed worthy of taking the title was largely decided by the NWA’s committee, based on the territories, upcoming storylines, and the applicant’s attributes. Would crowds still come along in droves to see a hero who keeps winning? These were all important considerations for those booking the events.

The son of events promoter Roderick James “Jess” McMahon, Vince McMahon held his own territory, the WWWF, in the north-east, including New York City’s Madison Square Garden, which was key to him promoting legendary champion Buddy Rogers in New York, where they preferred a popular hero defending the title against various villains, a formula that worked well for them. When, in 1963, the NWA decided Lou Thesz would be the one to dethrone Rogers as NWA World Champion, McMahon withdrew the WWWF’s membership of the NWA, feeling Thesz was unworthy and less of a draw for their following in New York. McMahon declared Rogers the “WWWF World Champion,” and he was publicly presented the brand-new belt on the explanation that he won a tournament in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil (which of course was not true, but without the internet at this time, and everything taken at face value, who would ever know?)

Nonetheless, Vince McMahon agreed to continue promoting the WWWF in the north-eastern territory only, so as not to step on the toes of other NWA-affiliated promoters, and that he did, throughout the 1970s. As the 1980s approached, he then handed over the WWWF to his son, Vince McMahon Jr, who oversaw the change in name to WWF and introduced an Intercontinental Championship, its first champion being Pat Patterson, who – you guessed it – became titleholder after apparently winning a tournament in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil!

Vince McMahon Jr maintained the relationship with Madison Square Garden for a third generation, promoting history-making shows there, with the WWF World Championship centre stage. However, he also reneged on his father’s promise, and aggressively encroached into NWA territories, using his winning formula, its resulting financial success, alongside some risks and a whole lot of luck, to put NWA territories out of business. Vince McMahon Jr hated the NWA, seeing them as a cabal, and genuinely saw himself as the underdog in his fight for pro wrestling dominance (and ethics aside, he was).

After the success of WrestleMania at Madison Square Garden, and further follow-up money-making Pay-Per-View events, Vince enjoyed incredible success, the fan favourite formula still working well for him throughout the 1980s, with Hulk Hogan fighting villainous stereotypes like “evil” Japanese fiends, and, in slightly more up-to-date nationalism, Soviet henchmen, and Iranian sheiks. Hogan’s “Real American” song rang out through Madison Square Garden as he vanquished threat after threat in the Reagan era. Vince, meanwhile, made millions, as WrestleMania became a household name and annual tradition on Pay-Per-View television. In order to avoid sporting regulations, Vince broke “kayfabe” (the pro wrestling equivalent of the Magic Circle) by giving away business secrets in court and happily explaining the planned, predetermined nature of pro wrestling to convince authorities that the WWF should not be subjected to the same scrutiny as other legitimate sporting events.

One NWA promoter who was still enjoyed great success was Jim Crockett, who presented a more traditional “kayfabe” product and promoted stars popular in the south – such as Dusty Rhodes and Ric Flair – and was considered the primary showcase for fans of the NWA. After the huge success of his televised Starrcade events, Crockett decided it was time to offer Pay-Per-View shows as well, and he booked a slot for Thanksgiving in 1987. Vince, meanwhile, told the cable companies that he was going to hold a second annual Pay-Per-View event too, on that very night, called the Survivor Series. The PPV companies accepted the proposal, since pro wrestling fans could enjoy two offerings on the same evening. However, for Vince that wasn’t good enough, and the cable companies had clearly missed his original point: citing the huge success of WrestleMania, Vince made it clear that if they aired Crockett’s Starrcade, they could never have WrestleMania ever again. Almost all PPV networks caved in and refused to offer Starrcade on their broadcast schedule, and this resulted in financial disaster for Crockett.

Nonetheless, Crockett went back to the cable companies and reasoned with them to have another opportunity – one without Vince’s sabotage. They arranged an exclusive slot for Crockett to present Bunkhouse Stampede on PPV, and all seemed well. However, Vince then decided he was creating a third major annual show that would take place on that very same night: the Royal Rumble. Being unable to air it on PPV was fine by him, because he simply showed it on regular television, essentially free of charge. Unsurprisingly, most pro wrestling fans chose to watch the free show rather than the PPV, and Crockett was financially ruined.

While up for sale, Jim Crockett Promotions did enjoy one last bit of revenge against Vince: By the time WrestleMania rolled around again in the spring of 1988, airing as usual on PPV, they offered a special Clash of the Champions event for free on television, taking a chunk out of WrestleMania’s PPV buys and bloodying Vince’s nose.

Billionaire Ted Turner then bought Jim Crockett Promotions later that year, renaming it World Championship Wrestling, or WCW – designed to be a direct competitor to Vince’s WWF. Pro wrestling fans debated on who was the true champion: WCW’s NWA World Champion (more often than not Ric Flair), or Vince’s WWF World Champion (usually Hulk Hogan).

The 1990s saw this war rage throughout the entire decade.

In a coup, Ric Flair showed up on WWF television with the NWA World Championship belt after contract negotiations with Turner’s people broke down and Flair walked out without dropping the title to anyone (almost unheard of at the time). Yet Vince never promoted a Flair-Hogan high profile match, believing nobody in the northeast hotbed or even on PPV wanted to see it.

Turner’s response to Flair leaving and taking the NWA belt with him was to create the WCW World Championship, with its own brand-new belt, and put in charge of WCW one media man named Eric Bischoff, who was able to lure Hulk Hogan away from the WWF to WCW, with help from Turner’s millions. By this time, the NWA was an afterthought: it was all about the WWF and WCW, each with their own exclusive champions, neither affiliated with the NWA.

Vince came up with the weekly show, Monday Night Raw (“uncut, uncensored, and uncooked”) on the USA Network. Bischoff audaciously responded by creating Monday Nitro on TNT network, going head-to-head with Vince’s show. Incredibly, WCW started beating the WWF in the ratings war.

Vince’s response at this time was to claim Ted Turner had a vendetta against him because Vince had refused to sell the WWF to him years before, and claimed Turner was unfair and unethical, and wanted to put the WWF out of business, ‘a monopolist’s dream,’ claimed Vince. He even created a character on his show called “Billionaire Ted” to parody Turner.

And yet this kind of tit-for-tat business competition and aggressive expansion from WCW seemed to reflect Vince’s own efforts against the NWA when he first got into the pro wrestling business. Vince’s trailer park roots and carny promoter heritage are rarely mentioned, as he’s presented himself as a Greenwich businessman who promotes “sports entertainment,” rather than “wrasslin’” (he even asked his TV show commentators to refrain from using the terms “wrestler” or “belt”). He was enamoured by showbusiness, loved nothing more than getting Hollywood celebrities on his shows, and made numerous attempts to succeed in business ventures outside of pro wrestling, almost all of them failures. The more he attempted to run away from carny pro wrestling, the more he was trapped by it.

By now the NWA was solely made up of regional territories with little or nothing to do with the WWF or WCW. One of its promotions, Eastern Championship Wrestling (ECW), in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, gained a cult following by offering something completely different: Mexican and Japanese talent with extreme athleticism, alongside extreme violence, bloodshed, and racy storylines. This affiliate organisation, too, would break away from the NWA, presenting itself as a fresh, modern alternative to both WCW and the WWF, a departure from tradition (including the NWA) and, under brilliant manager/promoter Paul Heyman, renaming itself Extreme Championship Wrestling. Impressively, ECW became the distant third.

Meanwhile, Lex Luger, initially pushed in the WWF as the next Hulk Hogan by Vince McMahon Jr, defected to WCW, appearing on Monday Nitro after deciding not to renegotiate his contract with Vince as had been expected. Alundra Blayze, the WWF’s Women’s Champion, also left in similar circumstances, taking her belt with her to Nitro and dumping it in a trashcan on live TV. WCW even enquired about finally holding a show at WWF’s old stomping ground, Madison Square Garden, who refused due to their loyalty to Vince. Yes, WCW’s Eric Bischoff was as aggressive and merciless as Vince ever was, relentless in his attempts to sabotage the WWF and win the war between the two.

Using Turner’s millions, Bischoff next had his sights set on WWF star Bret “Hit Man” Hart, a legit-tough and cool, charismatic Canadian athlete who did most of his talking in the ring and who was able to fill the vacuum left by Hogan’s departure (and later Flair’s return to WCW). Bischoff offered ridiculous money to Bret, who instead decided to remain loyal to Vince, even for less money, since Vince was still offering him millions of dollars per year, and a 20 year contract: 3 as a performer, 17 as a backstage advisor. Bret seemed to care more about loyalty, values, and credibility than a few million more dollars in the bank.

WCW and especially the WWF began to emulate ECW’s extreme “crash” TV product, in a bid to outdo each other and win over audiences on Monday nights. Bret Hart’s antagonists, D-Generation X, led by Shawn Michaels, publicly urinated, played strip poker in the ring, and encouraged female fans to flash their breasts, while Texan loner “Stone Cold” Steve Austin came in from WCW via ECW and guzzled beer, used colourful language, and beat up corporate “suits,” initially as a villain but then becoming an antihero as working class fans related to him and lived vicariously through him literally giving his boss the finger and walking off drinking a Budweiser. With Austin’s popularity skyrocketing, Bret was instead juxtaposed as his foil. While Americans cheered on Austin, Canadians backed Bret. This stoked a tribal nationalistic feud that still allowed Bret to remain an upstanding role model in his native Canada, where he was nothing less than a national hero. Capturing the ECW vibe, Bret and Austin fought at WrestleMania in a fantastic encounter that saw Bret pummel a bloodied Austin after the bell before the American crowd, solidifying their opposite positions as hero and villain on different sides of the border.

But with the cult following of ECW and its incredible influence on pro wrestling, and the unexpected popularity of DX and Austin, Vince decided they were the future of the WWF, not Bret, and that Bret would not offer a return on the investment from his massive contract that gave him guaranteed downside pay and creative influence, even as a wrestler. Austin, after all, was a WCW reject, a young up-and-coming workhorse who had been hungry for opportunities in a WCW full of Hogan’s old friends way past their prime and getting by mostly on name value. Vince realised it was the younger stars like “Stone Cold” and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson that needed to be centre stage in the WWF, and informed Bret that, with funds so tight at such a crucial time in the ratings war with WCW, he was happy to release Bret from his contract so he could take Bischoff’s outstanding offer and join WCW.

Yet Bret, the WWF World Champion at the time, was still reluctant to leave, and only agreed while insisting to Vince that, in his showdown against Shawn Michaels at Survivor Series in Montreal, Canada, he be allowed to come out of the match victorious at the PPV, before dropping the belt on TV later on in the United States, before going to WCW. Burnt by Lex Luger and especially Alundra Blayze, who infamously took her WWF belt with her and threw it in the garbage on Nitro, Vince was paranoid, unable – or unwilling – to trust Bret, demanding he lose to Shawn in Montreal before Hart’s own fans (when Shawn had defeated “British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith in a title match in Birmingham, England, the fans almost rioted, threatening to attack DX and throwing trash and other objects at them). Bret utilised his creative control, and again insisted that he beat Shawn in Canada, then drop the title in the States before leaving. Vince reluctantly agreed.

In what became known as the infamous “Montreal Screwjob,” Vince marched to ringside during Bret’s title match with Shawn and – as Shawn held Bret in his very own Sharpshooter submission hold – demanded the referee call for the bell and declare Shawn the winner and new WWF World Champion. Shocked, Bret looked around and saw the faces of the conspirators who agreed to work together to dethrone Bret: Vince McMahon Jr, referee Earl Hebner, and Shawn Michaels, who alongside his DX ally Triple H, avoided a legitimate beating by swearing to Bret that they weren’t in on it, and the finish was as much as a surprise to them as it was to him (they later admitted were lying, and were in on it all along). Vince wasn’t so lucky: Bret confronted him backstage and punched him in the face so hard it lifted Vince up in the air off his feet, leaving him lying in a heap. It was Bret, not Austin, who legitimately fulfilled the fantasy of the working man or woman: he knocked out the boss.

The following day, Vince, complete with black eye, broke character and, appearing before cameras, famously said ‘Bret screwed Bret,’ claiming he was left with no other option than to force a different match outcome to the one agreed because Bret was rejecting a ‘time-honoured tradition’ of dropping a belt before leaving a promotion, even though Bret was outwardly willing to do so at a later date. This from a Vince McMahon who, years before, welcomed Ric Flair on to his own TV show carrying the NWA World Championship belt he had never dropped before arriving in the WWF.

Again, the rules are different for Vince. His WWF went on to destroy the overpaid, stale superstars of WCW anyway with a product heavily influenced by ECW, a libertarian politician by the name of Lowell P. Weicker Jr on his board of directors as the ultra-conservative Parents Television Council targeted WWF advertisers in protest at the sex and violence, only fueling the WWF’s rebranded image as controversial, edgy, must-see TV – helped further by the rise of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and his inevitable storyline feud with boss Vince McMahon, who was now harnessing the hatred of the fans for the “Montreal Screwjob” by playing the evil boss with relish for the cameras.

When what was left of WCW was sold off on the cheap to Vince McMahon himself, he gave a speech about mercilessly and ruthlessly choking out his competition, knocking Ted Turner, and conveniently forgetting his complaints about Turner’s “monopolist’s dream.” Classless as ever, Vince was a sore winner, and again the more he tried to avoid being perceived as a carny promoter, the more he fulfilled the persona of one. He hired Hollywood writers to create pro wrestling storylines when they knew nothing about pro wrestling. The product suffered as a result and has remained stagnant ever since.

By this time, Vince McMahon the Monopolist had put WWF Entertainment (or WWFE) on the stock exchange, and had his wife Linda court favour with politicians so as to avoid those pesky regulations again. Part of this plan to “go public” was to raise funds for the XFL, Vince’s latest non-wrestling venture that joined all of his others in complete failure. When challenged legally by the World Wildlife Fund for use of “WWF,” Vince spun his defeat in the courts as a cool campaign to “Get the ‘F’ Out,” renaming the WWFE simply “WWE.”

With Weicker off their board, and a rehabilitated PG product to appease their shareholders, the McMahons instead pumped money into the Donald Trump presidential campaign, betting on some healthy returns on the investment once he made it to the White House. He did, and promptly made Linda part of his administration, proving their investment paid off. The McMahons now had direct influence in the White House, a dream come true. Meanwhile, with Trump’s tirade against protesting players in the NFL, Vince re-launched the XFL as a strict, anti-protest American football league. Again, Vince is a conservative carny redneck promoter just the same.

The WWE product, meanwhile, has remained corporate and stale with not a single rival in sight. While WWE business interests make more money than ever, its TV ratings are by no means awe-inspiring, and Vince’s formula has become outdated as he refuses to hand the reigns over to the next generation. ‘I’ll die in the chair,’ he claims. You’d better believe it.

But meanwhile, the nonsensical storylines, product placements, corporate WrestleManias high on glitz and low on quality, have all, perhaps inevitably, over time created an opening in the pro wrestling market.

Fans who wanted the actual athleticism to do the talking with such realism as to make suspension of disbelief almost effortless have sought solace in New Japan Pro Wrestling, which has been around since 1972 and is being expanded globally by its newest CEO, the worldly-wise Harold Meij. Those who wanted a Stateside alternative to WWE with a more sporting “code of honour” received refuge in Ring of Honor. Those who wanted comic book characters and storylines that were actually well-written and consistent enjoyed escape in episodes of Lucha Underground, featuring high-end Robert Rodriguez production and stars from Mexican lucha libre and beyond. Those who wanted talent that WWE rejected, missed out on, or have yet to discover, found comfort in Major League Wrestling. And those disappointed in the pro-Trump world of WWE who wanted more modern, progressive alternatives have run riot in the feminist punk product of Pro Wrestling: EVE, who threaten to “piledrive a fascist.” And of course there’s Impact Wrestling, which after years of mismanagement and misdirection attempting to copy WWE as “Total Nonstop Action”, have been revitalised under the guidance of brilliant minds like Don Callis, an intelligent, articulate former wrestler rather than a Hollywood writing reject.

All of these offer something for every fan, and all completely different to WWE, and remarkably refreshing. Essentially, this growing network of “independent” pro wrestling promotions has superseded the National Wrestling Alliance. Many still have agreements, and work with each other. You’ll see Matt Striker on MLW, as well as Lucha Underground. Lucha Underground’s Johnny Mundo is Johnny Impact on, yes, Impact. Impact’s Don Callis commentates for NJPW, as does Kevin Kelly, who worked for ROH as well.

But whatever happened to the NWA itself since the days of Dusty Rhodes and Ric Flair? Well, the NWA carried on as a smaller organisation since the WWF, WCW, and ECW all each abandoned it, and was recently bought by Smashing Pumpkins rock star and pro wrestling fan Billy Corgan. And it just hit the headlines yet again: Cody, son of Dusty Rhodes, captured the NWA World Championship at one of the most important pro wrestling shows in history.

Some of the highest-selling pro wrestling merchandise today is that of the Bullet Club; Cody Rhodes, The Young Bucks, and Kenny Omega, all of whom many would argue are the biggest stars in the business (not a surprise, when you see the tacky, uncool t-shirt designs put out by WWE who must have the same designers as they had when they started). These stars have worked for many of the aforementioned promotions and just this past weekend made history, and not just with Cody’s title win.

Last year, someone on Twitter asked pro wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer if he thought a promotion like ROH could fill an arena with 10,000 fans, to which he replied ‘not any time soon.’ Cody Rhodes replied: ‘I’ll take that bet, Dave.’ Cody and the Young Bucks set about organising an independent pro wrestling show themselves, called “All In,” at the 10,000-seat Sears Center in Chicago, Illinois. Since it was designed to be a one-off show, it was open to almost every non-WWE pro wrestler on the planet whose current contracts and agreements allowed them to appear. Even former WWE star Chris Jericho – who has appeared at NJPW shows in Japan and had reportedly promised Vince he wouldn’t appear on any non-WWE event Stateside – showed up at All In. For the record, there were 10,411 fans in attendance, the show was a critical and commercial success, and there is already talk of a follow-up event. All In was the first non-WWE pro wrestling show to take place before a crowd of 10,000+ people for nearly twenty years.

Because of the success of All In, there is clear evidence of a strong appetite for an alternative to WWE. Even WWE knows this, as evidenced by their own recent actions. Rumour has it Vince will attempt to secure the services of several Bullet Club stars, which would not only capture some of that magic, but also stifle the competition. And it is competition. Everything starts small. There is a huge demand for these alternatives to a WWE product which is worse than it’s ever been. For all their millions of dollars, their product is style over substance, and people demand more. Yes, almost all of these fans will still watch some WWE and even attend WrestleMania (why do you think WrestleMania matches get booed?) But at the same time, more and more WWE fans are also headed in the opposite direction, seeking alternatives – and this flow means the tide is rising.

ROH and NJPW recently announced they were teaming up to host a “G1 Supercard” show at Madison Square Garden. Yes, the Madison Square Garden. During WrestleMania weekend – that time when pro wrestling geeks from all over the world converge in one place with a passion for all things headlocks and histrionics.

While Vince has been busy re-branding his WWE – he demanded his people stop calling WrestleMania “the granddaddy of them all” because he felt it made it sound old, and almost entirely stopped promoting shows at good old Madison Square Garden, instead using the modern Barclays Center in Brooklyn – ROH and NJPW approached Madison Square Garden at an opportune time. With Vince clearly disinterested in the venue, the arena agreed to host G1 Supercard. This news was huge.

However – you guessed it – Vince seemingly got in touch with Madison Square Garden and reminded them that they had an agreement with the McMahons going back three generations, of course. For years, as with many other arenas, Madison Square Garden were held to an agreement by WWE that no other pro wrestling company could hold a show there within so many months of a WWE show (and sure enough, WWE kept repeatedly rolling through town frequently enough that literally no other promotion could have chance to use that arena). Of course, these days – and with seemingly no competition in sight seemingly capable of fully utilising the Madison Square Garden space – Vince had waning interest in the venue, and has barely held shows there compared to years past. But now, suddenly, with the G1 Supercard threatening to sell out the arena and really shake things up, Vince seemed to plead, ‘What about our agreement?’ And yes, Madison Square Garden appeared to buckle under this bullying. The show was suddenly, it seemed, off.

But there’s another big business interest involved. Sinclair Broadcast Group, who now own ROH, also happen to run forty-three Fox affiliate TV stations that are airing WWE’s weekly SmackDown show. That’s a large chunk of the WWE viewing audience. With Sinclair Broadcast Group ready to take action, suddenly WWE issued a public statement: ‘Madison Square Garden are, of course, free to work with ROH however they want.’ And the G1 Supercard was back on.

This is an exciting time in pop culture. For all the wonder and magic offered by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s part of Disney, who also own the Star Wars franchise. In pro wrestling, WWE – despite Vince McMahon Jr’s alternative facts – have monopolised the business for almost twenty years, and it’s not even a good product. It’s not Rogue One. And Infinity War it sure ain’t. No, WWE is akin to a Battlefield Earth, shall we say. It’s great to see so much more on offer – driven by intelligent, ambitious entrepreneurs, chief executives, and presidents with their fingers on the pulse – all offering something different, something better. If you’re even remotely interested in the stunt-work world of professional wrestling, check out some of them when you get chance, and be a part of the solution rather than the problem.

Hogan Doesn’t Know Best

Terry Bollea rode the wave of professional wrestling’s 1980s boom as Hulk Hogan, headlining World Wrestling Federation shows on MTV and hanging out with Cyndi Lauper and Mr T as “WrestleMania” took off and became an annual American tradition. Wearing red and yellow and walking to the ring to the sounds of Rick Derringer’s “Real American,” he told his young followers (or “Hulkamaniacs”) to say their prayers, and eat their vitamins (and of course he offered his own brand of vitamins too).

Unthinkable in today’s fast-paced world of 24/7 pro wrestling networks and short attention spans, Hulk Hogan held the WWF’s World Championship for four whole years until, in 1988, he was finally dethroned due to fiendish cheating from a host of villainous characters, including Andre the Giant, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, and “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, who – the story goes – had bribed match officials. Nonetheless, this only increased sympathy and support for the Hulk Hogan character in the predetermined match-ups, and he’d go on to regain the title just over a year later, with good triumphing over evil once again.

However, Hogan’s ill-fated appearance on Arsenio Hall’s show arguably began his fall from grace. The awkward interview suggested that it wasn’t, in fact, vitamins he had been taking, but steroids. The entire WWF got caught up in the drug scandal, and the WWF’s owner Vince McMahon was indicted by the FBI, barely escaping a prison sentence himself.

Hogan jumped ship to the WWF’s rival, the rising WCW, but despite this change of scenery, and audience, his popularity waned. Co-opting the unfavourable crowd responses, he reinvented himself, cleverly aligning himself with other ex-WWF stars who were younger, hipper, and cooler than him, and “invading” WCW; Hogan dropped the red and yellow for an all-black biker wardrobe, shades, and a beard, and became the leader of the faction calling itself the “New World Order” of pro wrestling. Fans loved to hate him as he took short-cuts to survive against WCW’s heroes. Despite his age, his injuries, and the resulting limited ability, he was back on top of the business yet again by the late 1990s.

Still, nothing stirs up innovation quite like adversity, and despite losing his established stars, Vince McMahon was busy creating fresh, up-and-coming characters like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, with cutting-edge storylines to go with them. WCW, meanwhile, ran out of ideas beyond the “New World Order,” and lost momentum, the “NWO” superstars and their guaranteed big-money contracts still needing to be paid even as revenues declined, and WCW began to collapse under this weight. Hemorrhaging millions of dollars, WCW was put up for sale on the cheap by its parent company looking to cut its losses – and ironically it was McMahon himself who swooped in to buy it.

Despite himself being partly responsible for the decline of WCW – leveraging his creative control to stay on top and ensuring those close to him had all the best spots on the show even at the expense of younger, better talent – Hogan’s own “brand” survived yet again. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the WWF (by now known as WWE after being taken to court by the World Worldlife Fund). He’d even harnessed the power of nostalgia, as well as the cheap junk-food formula of “reality” television as the star of “Hogan Knows Best,” helping his daughter, Brooke, launch her own showbusiness career as a result.

Gawker then revealed Hulk Hogan spouting racism, via transcripts of its tapes.

WWE promptly removed him from their Hall of Fame listing as the news spread of Hogan’s vile prejudiced remarks. Mattel refused to produce Hulk Hogan action figures. Hulk Hogan merchandise was removed from the shelves in major stores such as Walmart and Toys R Us. But the news of the scandal took on a life of its own, and has done ever since, to the point where Hogan’s peers, fans, and critics all too often discuss the incident without actually addressing the words used. Because Hogan’s diatribe speaks for itself:

On the topic of Brooke allegedly offered financial support for her music career from a black billionaire while being linked with his son, Hogan went on a tirade:

I don’t know if Brooke was f***ing the black guy’s son…I mean, I don’t have double standards. I mean, I am a racist, to a point, f***ing n*****s…I mean, I’d rather if she was going to f*** some n*****, I’d rather have her marry an 8-foot-tall n***** worth a hundred million dollars! Like a basketball player!…I guess we’re all a little racist. Fucking n*****.

– Hulk Hogan

Yes, it’s hateful stuff. It’s sickening.

Since that time, while business interests have kept a safe distance from Hulk Hogan for public relations purposes, discussion has continued on what he represents; his reputation; his aura; his mystique. Many people saw him differently, of course, while others – including black wrestlers who worked with him – said this is the first time they had noted any hint of racism from him; some even claimed he stuck his neck out for them at a time when it was tough to get ahead in pro wrestling as an African-American star, and Hogan had pushed for them to be his headline opponent in storyline matches. Beyond this, many have downright denied Hogan is a racist – despite Hogan’s own admission of ‘I am a racist.’ Incredible.

The brilliant businessman behind the Inside the Ropes venture, Kenny McIntosh, covers many pro wrestling topics on his outstanding podcast, and on a recent episode alongside probably the best-ever pro wrestling writer Fin Martin, he tackled the racism controversy as Hulk Hogan begins to attempt to rehabilitate his image in the public eye. McIntosh made the superb point that many people are perhaps in denial about Hogan because they have a nostalgic view – and this can cover both his fans and fellow wrestlers, too. But many more, present-day black WWE stars – from Mark Henry, to Titus O’Neil – do not seem to have a view clouded by nostalgia; they are stars bravely speaking out and saying that Hogan’s words were racist, offensive, and hurtful, and are not easy to forgive.

Hogan’s own opinion is that he was “in a dark place” – that mysterious, mystical location all celebrities claim they visited when they don’t want to take responsibility for their actions. Most decent human beings, of course, don’t suddenly become racist just because they’re having a bad day. Again, Hogan’s exact words were ‘I am a racist.’

When Hogan was finally invited by WWE suits to a recent show, he had the opportunity to address the current roster to express regret for bringing their business into disrepute. Reportedly, Hogan began his speech to the other stars by telling them to be careful what they say in case they’re being recorded. Immediately, this put off the likes of O’Neil (who expressed his disappointment publicly) because Hogan seemed to be saying he was more regretful of being caught, than by what he did.

What McIntosh and Martin intelligently suggested were that Hogan should have actually had a meeting behind closed doors with the black wrestlers of WWE and simply listened to them. Because clearly he doesn’t have any grasp of the seriousness of the offensive views he expressed, whether caught on tape or not. This is a great idea.

The problem here is that WWE are driven by public relations, not values. They’ll allow Hogan a platform to help him repair his reputation, they’ll promote women into positions of prominence on their shows, and anything else with a money-making opportunity attached to it, but they still hold shows in Saudi Arabia where women wrestlers are prohibited, and fund Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in return for a position of power in his rotten administration.

Intersectionality is driven by values committed to opposing all forms of oppression, understanding the way these separate issues link with one another.

With that in mind, an interesting point raised is that, according to McIntosh, O’Neil apparently wore an Ultimate Warrior t-shirt in homage to the man who had died after enjoying a successful pro wrestling career yet who was, as I’ve examined before, a raging hateful homophobe. Despite being best friends with his on-screen tag team partner Darren Young, one of pro wrestling’s first openly gay stars, O’Neil was at ease wearing a t-shirt bearing the image of the bigoted Ultimate Warrior. Martin, who while editor of Power Slam magazine had helped raise awareness of the homophobic campaign Warrior had embarked on, acknowledged the hypocrisy in this.

But the trouble with all this is that, as McIntosh and Martin suggested, it risks becoming a discussion amongst white people, and while any decent white person should be offended by racism, ultimately the buck stops with black people, and it’s those voices that should be heard – especially by Hogan.

McIntosh thankfully acknowledged the issue with white privilege, albeit claiming many of us Caucasian folks have been utilising our white privilege by claiming Hogan is a racist, when that must be turned on its head, because most of the narrative on the internet has been white people saying Hogan isn’t a racist – and that is a far more important and dangerous reflection of white privilege that McIntosh could have (and indeed should have) highlighted. Again, Hogan didn’t just use racist language (rather than “racial” language as McIntosh put it – there’s an important distinction); Hogan said, ‘I am a racist.’ Let’s not forget his exact words, which included ‘n****’ repeatedly: racist – not “racial” – language.

The issue here is that McIntosh talked about “separation,” where you can respect an artist for their work, without liking them as people. So how far does that reach? If McIntosh can, for example, enjoy the works of the right-wing libertarian Clint Eastwood, or the accused sexual harasser Kevin Spacey, but not, I’d assume, the songs of paedophiles Gary Glitter and Ian Watkins, or the architecture of Nazi Albert Speer, isn’t that the same kind of hypocrisy?

No, a boycott of an artist’s work must be consistent for all of us (yes, including O’Neil, although he perhaps feels more established now so as to use his influence for causes he can fight for at this point in his career). But artistic boycotts aren’t just commercial: taking in the works of lyricists or screenwriters or playwrights with intolerant, fascist views is to open yourself up to their artistic expressions and even their perspectives and prejudices. Media is manipulative by nature.

So until such a time as Hulk Hogan actually cares enough to spend time with black people, understand their history, their culture, their views, and why he was so very wrong – and works to highlight the importance of causes like Black Lives Matter – then we’d all do well to boycott any companies he’s involved in. And, yes, WWE comes top of that list.

Survival of the Fittest: Ultimate Warrior and Hate Speech

[UPDATE: Since this was first published, WWE and the Ultimate Warrior’s estate have erased most of the sources from his own website, as well as footage from YouTube. I will try to find the links in archives but they have gone to great pains to rewrite history – if you’ve read this post, you’ll know why.]

Leather Hedger had sleeping troubles and anxiety and dealt with terrible mood swings…By today’s standard, though, I do have to agree that he was a great father. Perhaps even greater then the father of the year, Hulk Hogan. After all, Leather Hedger did what it took to kill himself. His kid is without a father, yes, but the negative influence is now removed and his own child has the chance for a full recovery.

– Ultimate Warrior on Heath Ledger, after the actor’s death

Jim Hellwig, later known as the Ultimate Warrior, was just one week ago enjoying induction into WWE’s Hall of Fame, an appearance at WrestleMania XXX, and a nostalgia promo on Monday Night Raw. He’s now dead. Beyond the wave of tributes for a legendary pro wrestling character, what about the person himself? What about his life’s mission, his beliefs, his passions and his principles?

The above quote about Heath Ledger, who had starred in a film Warrior considered gay propaganda, Brokeback Mountain, is relatively mild in comparison to Warrior’s infamous homophobic tirades, having spent a substantial proportion of his post-WWF career touring the United States to promote his principle of “survival of the fittest” while engaging in public speaking events where he could be afforded a platform for hate speech – attacking not just homosexuals but also ethnic minorities, women, and even the poor. Sadly, he became more of a figure of ridicule the more he tried to present himself as a serious political commentator of any credibility.

But one week ago, Warrior had ensured himself some forgiveness after burying the hatchet with several pro wrestlers. In perhaps his finest hour – years after his in-ring days had ended – he had every opportunity to follow up such an olive branch by publicly reversing his views on gay people, ethnic minorities, women, and those less wealthy than himself. He chose not to. And the WWE – even under the mask of their anti-bullying PR strategy – failed to have him do so. The mainstream media, meanwhile, remained silent.

Warrior desperately wanted to be perceived as intelligent, even attacking this writer on a forum many years ago using multisyllabic rhetoric, only to fall silent when I pointed out his long words lacked any real meaning; they just demonstrated that he knew such words, and – sometimes – how to use them. He showed his complete ignorance of the term Social Darwinism (animal kingdom principles of “survival of the fittest,” applied on to society) by suggesting it shouldn’t be used simply because, in society, people aren’t dying (unless you consider what he’d no doubt have claimed was the mere coincidence of poor people being more susceptible to low life expectancy). Yet all along, as I do here now, I afforded Warrior the respect of being a human being with a strong set of views that we shouldn’t ignore.

Beyond the Social Darwinist statement above, Warrior maintained an entire website filled with pages of hateful homophobia and bigotry until the day he died. (At the time of writing, much of it remains in the public domain, so you can see for yourself even beyond his death.)

Even as WWE suits from Paul “Triple H” Levesque to Stephanie and Vince McMahon praised pro wrestler Darren Young for being one of their first openly gay stars, their former CEO and Republican politician Linda McMahon inducted Warrior into WWE’s Hall of Fame and exploited the mainstream media’s ignorance towards their industry by getting away with endorsing him when they suddenly saw an opportunity to make money off a man even they had publicly buried.

While even staid international outlets like British newspaper The Independent covered the news of Warrior’s demise, the global mainstream media instead is, of course, armed with few facts about professional wrestling, and reduces itself to ill-informed presentations like those of Nancy Grace, who clumsily gave the impression that steroids killed all those wrestlers who died too young – including Owen Hart, who actually fell to his death when a stunt went awry.

So long as the media remain ignorant, and open themselves up to criticism and campaigns like #CancelNancy, the pro wrestling industry can conveniently remain relatively free from credible scrutiny, so as to continue making the same mistakes without being held to account, exploiting “independent contractors” with legally questionable binding contracts, no off-season, and no pension or health care coverage. This ignorance set the stage for the rise of the Ultimate Warrior himself, who looked out for himself, cared little for other wrestlers, and then found himself chewed up and spat out, spitting venom upon this outcome, railing against Vince McMahon.

Warrior often spoke of himself in superior tones and even in the third person, capitalised as He or Him or His, and rarely ever admitted flaws, vulnerabilities, or mistakes – his return, as evidenced by his Hall of Fame speech, was only ever about defeating Vince McMahon in his own mind.

Hate kept his blood pumping, and it is perhaps fitting that as soon as he felt redeemed, his heart stopped, following perhaps the greatest amount of steroid abuse known to the pro wrestling industry, an incredible achievement in itself. Yet despite this drug use and abuse, he always felt comfortable mocking the drug addiction of other wrestlers such as Jake “The Snake” Roberts or the drug-induced deaths of high-profile names like Heath Ledger for being “weak” in accordance with his own Social Darwinist outlook. We can only hope that Warrior – after years of ‘roid ravage – receives more respect than he afforded others. So how do we show him respect now?

One thing Warrior – as with any man who fought for his principles – would surely shudder at the thought of, is fans whitewashing his beliefs mere days after his death, and he’d scoff at the fawning from his peers who just years ago were lining up to attack him in any way they could because few of them saw him as a true peer. One former long-time WWE photographer this week painted the picture of the Warrior as a hateful, selfish man.

For Warrior to truly hurt WWE though, and challenge McMahon’s huge corporation, he would have had to admit weakness by accepting the reality that all wrestlers – not just him – have been at risk of exploitation by a largely unregulated industry. He couldn’t bring himself to do that though, because he firmly believed in the Social Darwinist doctrine of “survival of the fittest,” and thus all of his complaints dissipated as soon as Vince shook his hand, booked him a Hall of Fame spot, and inked a lucrative deal that would never be lived out.

No, Warrior saw himself as special; unique – and when you take that to its logical conclusion, you can claim that the exploitation, too, was merely exclusive to you, rather than a symptom of an entire industry. Warrior, then, got to make the Hall of Fame and for him, all was suddenly well with the world.

And yet, when pro wrestling news sites such as the Pro Wrestling Torch take an honest look at Warrior’s life – his actions and words – they are faced with criticism themselves. Suddenly, traces of Warrior’s true endeavours are being removed from the internet; his character is taking over the human being, so that integrity, or intensity, are now entirely attributed to the man born Jim Hellwig. And yet what made the man intense was that integrity to stand by his beliefs even in the face of social decency.

But just as the man sometimes had trouble separating the two, the character has begun to blur with the person, and it’s threatening to consume it if we don’t afford him the respect of honest tributes that absolutely must endure, and survive. If not, are we truly fit to call ourselves commentators of any kind? There have been some websites that have covered Warrior’s life in honest ways; one overtly political site, I provided the source material for just this week. But it’s sad when little more than a blogger has to prompt successful websites to present true retrospectives.

Former “Million Dollar Man” turned Christian, Ted DiBiase, who has been a leading critic but received a friendly acknowledgement by Warrior at the Hall of Fame, will be expected to reverse his views now, too. Because regardless of the intense and dedicated performances of the limited, reckless, green yet muscular poster boy for McMahon’s steroid-infested 1980’s, Warrior remained a hateful, ultra-right-wing bigot, but this now must not be addressed at all costs.

Indeed, in this wave of apologism for homophobia which just years from now will have stopped being acceptable and be damned to the annals of history alongside slavery, any true statements about Warrior are attacked. Whereas to call Heath Ledger or Philip Seymour Hoffman drug addicts who ran themselves into early graves is, in conservative American society, perfectly acceptable and even commendable, the sad fact remains that it is not yet ready to hear criticisms of dead celebrities if these criticisms don’t suit the cause.

To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.

– Voltaire

Somebody Needs a Hug: Mick Foley’s Tales from Wrestling Past

On April 29th, I had the opportunity to catch newly-inducted WWE Hall of Famer, Mick Foley, on his Tales from Wrestling Past tour. It was an interesting but disappointing night.

I’ve always been one of Mick Foley’s biggest supporters. You only have to watch his matches with Shawn Michaels or Vader to see that he wasn’t just what Ric Flair referred to as a “stunt-man”; he was a genuine talent who understood the art form, and knew how to adopt different styles while always presenting himself as a brawler and bump-taker, selflessly selling for his opponents and contributing great psychology.

Famous for the insane Hell In A Cell dive from the roof through the commentary table, as well as losing an ear in a match in Germany, Foley is also immensely intelligent. Speaking fluent German, he’s also mastered the English language to the point of writing books that hit the New York Times bestseller lists.

Foley has also been someone with good solid principles. In his beautifully titled book Foley Is Good (And The Real World Is Faker Than Wrestling), he cleverly exposed the Parents Television Council assault on the WWF’s Attitude era as McCarthyist in nature, by tracing the links between the PTC’s leader, Brent Bozell III, and Joseph McCarthy himself. As his friendship with singer Tori Amos developed, also volunteered for RAINN to support victims of sexual violence.

While writing for, Foley mentions meeting Amos and asking if he could hug her. I wonder how he’d have felt, had her response had been as frosty as his demeanour on April 29th, in Sheffield’s City Hall…

Firstly, I must say that Foley remains a good guy who tries hard. But there’s a sense from this night’s performance that he gets easily frustrated with himself, and agitated by other things as a result. His performance, though very funny in parts, largely veered away from pure stand-up – which is fine, as it was never presented as just that – but ran in to all sorts of problems by the fact Foley felt the need to both try and keep the content PG, and, moreover, try to explain insider wrestling terms for what seemed to be all of one non-wrestling fan in attendance. So it was a little tiresome, and lost a great deal, in its explanations, in the same way explaining a joke to someone who doesn’t get it straight away kind of kills it. He needs to decide who he expects his target audience to be, and stick to that, delivering on that basis.

Mick also lost his temper when the sound guy cued up the music for his final joke too soon, petulantly abandoning the whole portion of his act to the point where right-hand man Chris Brooker couldn’t even console him. What made this worse was the obvious angst Foley felt the whole time afterwards having lost his cool, repeatedly referring to the incident, and apologising profusely, only to deliver the planned routine in the end anyway having calmed down, yielded, and come back to it. It was all very strange.

Foley also one moment asked people not to take photographs of him, which was odd, and yet again changed his mind by then suddenly offering photo opportunities to fans who had paid around £30 for the show. If this was a joke on the audience, then it was lost on them, and certainly didn’t seem to be a joke as he remained seated for the meet-and-greet, and looked miserable almost the entire time. For this reason – feeling like it was almost too much trouble – I declined the offer to go up and speak with him; no matter what I might have come up with, I felt like Foley would treat me, too, like someone stuck in an elevator with him while he wished he was somewhere else.

In the above-mentioned article, Foley referred to his book Countdown to Lockdown, entitled as such because of his run in TNA, the company that host the Lockdown Pay-Per-View show. Yet in the Sheffield show, when someone asked Mick about his TNA World Championship reign, he told him ‘I don’t count that.’ As mischievously funny as that remark was, he certainly did count it all as important when he wrote and titled his book, and, during promotion for the book, courted favour with Linda McMahon as she ran a Republican political campaign in direct contrast to the values Foley had demonstrated before that point.

The show, then, is a little reflective of the tainted Mick Foley career itself, leaving a bit of a bitter taste in your mouth, and wondering if he’s really cut out for this sort of stuff. The travelling and touring and pressure of planning it all and trying to please everybody really doesn’t seem him at all, because he’s destined to fail, and then feel so much worse, and project it all onto the crowd. Chris Brooker was an excellent warm-up act, and Carl Hutchinson was the highlight of the night with his Geordie accent and absolutely hilarious observational wrestling fan anecdotes. But I’m afraid Mick Foley didn’t live up to expectations, or the ticket price.

If you’re a Mick Foley fan, I’d recommend keeping yourself that way by missing one of his live shows. You won’t be left feeling like he did when he hugged Tori Amos.

Did Bruno Sammartino Sell His Soul?

So Bruno Sammartino is headed into the Hall of Fame. Yet the cows haven’t come home. The sun hasn’t gone supernova. The world is much the same. So what miracle occurred for the Living Legend to finally come to terms with WWE?

Before we begin, let’s first acknowledge that there is no doubt that WWE’s version of a pro wrestling Hall of Fame has always lacked credibility until recently. Not just because of the inclusion of the McMahon limousine driver and jobber to the stars, James Dudley (not to be confused with Big Daddy Dudley). And not just because it was inevitably WWWF/WWF/WWE focused (even Abdullah the Butcher, who never had a run with the McMahons, has been inducted). The real reason is a legitimate one: Bruno Sammartino is one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time, one who heavily contributed to the building of the McMahon empire. Without his inclusion – in the initial class of 1993 on the 30th anniversary of the WWWF, which featured Andre the Giant, and especially in the 1994 class that included Bobo Brazil, Gorilla Monsoon, and, shockingly, the aforementioned jobber James Dudley – the Hall of Fame was always going to lack legitimacy.

It was, of course, these years that saw Vince McMahon battling the federal government over accusations of conspiracy to distribute steroids amongst his wrestlers via Dr George Zahorian – and Bruno Sammartino, who had long since soured on McMahon following his post-wrestling run as WWF commentator and mentor to his son David Sammartino, was more than willing to make media appearances to contribute to the avalanche of bad publicity.

In the years following, of course, Bruno continued to criticise the WWF/WWE – for artificial physiques, sexual themes, excessive violence, you name it. In recent years, it’s also become increasingly apparent that Sammartino felt short-changed by Vince McMahon Jr, the man who also caused so much upheaval in the American wrestling world and revolutionised the industry, raising the ire of traditional promoters and commentators in the process.

So what’s changed?

It’s no secret that the influence of Paul “Triple H” Levesque on WWE has grown in the last couple of years. With Shane McMahon cashing in his WWE stock and pursuing sports-centered business opportunities in Asia, and Stephanie McMahon Levesque seemingly content to take a step back from the WWE product, it has become more obvious than ever that the true heir to the Vince McMahon throne is the self-proclaimed “King of Kings” himself, Triple H.

Now, there are many areas where WWE has improved under the increasing influence of Paul Levesque: the excellent expansion and direction of developmental division NXT; the push for a resurgence of tag team wrestling; the level-headed creative input on the gorilla position headset as “one of the boys”; even the rumours of his comfort with terms like “wrestling” and “belts.” And yes, it has been Levesque who has engaged in diplomatic dialogue with Sammartino to help broker this deal to have him in WWE’s Hall of Fame. Indeed, Levesque’s been a positive influence in many aspects. Whereas ten years ago, pundits expressed concern over the post-Vince era with Stephanie’s idiosyncrasies and Shane’s lack of power, now the future looks just fine with the Triple H era.

But whether he likes it or not, many people will always feel like Triple H played politics to get to where he is: his time carrying bags for the Kliq of Shawn Michaels, Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, and Sean Waltman; his positioning in D-Generation X after the fallout from the Curtain Call incident died down; his affair with Stephanie behind the broad back of Joanie “Chyna” Laurer; and his role in the Montreal Screwjob:

Yes, that’s Paul “Hunter Hearst Helmsley” Levesque telling Bret Hart’s then-wife Julie, ‘I swear to God I knew nothing about it…I swear to God.’ She wasn’t buying it, suggesting God would strike him down. She was wise to his true character and the part he played in the Kliq/McMahon conspiracy, but was wrong about the involvement of God: despite Shawn Michaels’s conversion to Christianity, given the success of Triple H ever since we can assume the Devil takes care of his own. These were not good people. ‘I swear to God,’ said Triple H, ‘I knew nothing about it.’ But, of course, he did.

‘Triple H was a very sincere guy,’ says Bruno Sammartino.

And this, according to the Living Legend himself, is what convinced him to allow WWE to induct him into their Hall of Fame.

Now, people do change. Though Triple H was clearly the opposite of a “very sincere guy” in 1997, fifteen years later could have changed him immensely (despite the credible, negative reports from the likes of Matthew Randazzo V, published in Power Slam magazine, in that time). Giving him the benefit of the doubt, he could have become a “very sincere guy.” But given Bruno’s benefit of the doubt, with that in mind, could he not have thought the same of Vince McMahon Jr? Here was a man who reportedly disrespected Bruno and his son David, allegedly flooded the industry with steroids, flaunted his affairs in Playboy magazine, and had men kiss his ass and women crawl across the ring barking like dogs while wearing lingerie. And yet today, from all accounts, Vince introduced a stringent drug-testing policy, made the product PG, and stood by his wife when she ran for Senate. Why would Triple H be a reformed character and Vince McMahon not?

No, the real reasoning behind Bruno Sammartino’s reconciliation with WWE and imminent induction to the Hall of Fame is not about the transformation of a corporation that had already (unlike other promotions) introduced resource-draining drug testing in the mid-1990’s. It’s not about a PG product that features the muscle-bound John Cena and Ryback and the tables, ladders, and chairs using Shield, as well as the foul-mouthed CM Punk and Rock (despite Bruno’s claim that ‘there is no more vulgarity.’) And it’s clearly got nothing to do with certain key characters being reformed; yes, Triple H was the WWE representative that Bruno Sammartino could stomach speaking to without having to engage with Vince McMahon, thus saving face in the process.

It’s about money, straight and simple.

It’s no secret the Living Legend felt WWE owed him money, and he wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Vince McMahon about it. But if someone – anyone, no matter how unscrupulous otherwise – could do the negotiating and talk numbers, then it became apparent that suddenly Bruno Sammartino could accept a role in a Hall of Fame shared with not just James Dudley, but also Pete Rose, William “The Refrigerator” Perry, Bob Uecker, Drew Carey, Mike Tyson and – on the same day – the odious Donald Trump who supports the McMahons so that they can fight regulations, workers’ rights, and perpetuate the exploitation of professional wrestlers Sammartino supposedly hated so much that he stood his ground.

No, money talks. And Triple H was the one who knew how to put it into words. We may never know the exact figures of the financial rewards reaped by the Sammartino family for this deal. But we can only hope it was worth it. If the Devil takes care of his own, the Sammartinos should be just fine for years to come.