John Cena and R-Truth were deep into a run-of-the-mill tables match on an otherwise uneventful Monday Night Raw. Emanating from Las Vegas, the WWE was selling the June 27th edition of their flagship show as “Raw Roulette”, a night in which match stipulations were to be chosen by the spin of a roulette wheel. At the time, one had to wonder if this was as unpredictable as professional wrestling was going to get in 2011. Long gone were the days of shock value and cliffhanger endings that gave the viewer an insatiable craving for more. Instead, these sentiments had been replaced by a pattern of two-dimensional characters, stories, and a total disconnection from the average professional wrestling fan.
I was feeling that disconnect wholeheartedly, casually browsing the web as I glanced over and saw the match unfolding. It took CM Punk’s interference to spark my attention, and even then I dismissed the action as predictable build up for their upcoming title match at Money in the Bank. That’s when things took a strange turn. Suddenly, before I knew it, CM Punk was sitting at the top of the entrance ramp, microphone in hand.
The next several minutes would have a profound impact on the world of professional wrestling. There’s no need to pick apart the words of CM Punk’s “worked shoot” or analyze his message, that subject has been covered thoroughly over the past month by nearly every wrestling fan with an internet connection. If you haven’t seen the speech, watch it below;
“Is this the start of a new attitude era?” many questioned throughout message boards shortly after it was revealed that CM Punk’s promo was, in fact, all part of the show, not an off-script rant from a departing employee. It sure seemed like it. After all, wasn’t that what the attitude era was all about? A take no prisoners, spare no names attitude, fueled by reckless rebellion and an undying hatred for your crooked employer. A beer guzzling anti-hero had garnered the company more publicity than it had ever had with that mantra in the late 1990’s, and now it appeared as though the straightedge tattooed underdog was about to do the same in 2011 (An idea further fueled by the fact that Punk mysteriously wore a Stone Cold t-shirt the night of his infamous promo, though Punk says it bears no deep-seeded meaning). Make no mistake; CM Punk is hell bent on making professional wrestling cool again, but not in the same way Stone Cold Steve Austin did almost fifteen years ago.
“If I could call the new era anything, I would call it the reality era…” Punk claimed emphatically on Bill Simmon’s BS Report, “everyone says ‘it’s a new attitude era, you’re the second coming of Steve Austin’, that’s completely false – I’m CM Punk.” There’s a radiating confidence in nearly everything Punk says, whether it be during an engaging rant on Monday Night Raw, or an unscripted interview for Simmons’ podcast. CM Punk is hardly playing a character anymore – he’s simply projecting a version of himself, and in the process, leading the charge as the WWE blurs the lines between reality and fiction. In subscribing to this practice, WWE is finally is able to fully engulf itself in this new dimension of entertainment.
Professional wrestling has always strived to be on the cutting edge of pop culture. In the 80’s and 90’s, the sport was so incredibly popular that it seemed as though Vince McMahon’s conglomerate could pick and mold the trends as they saw fit. As a leading entity in pop-culture, wrestling had a right to determine what was and wasn’t “cool”, and it used that privilege to create mega-stars out of the likes of Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, The Rock, and D-Generation X. As competition dwindled, so did pro wrestling’s place on the hierarchy of entertainment. Now, WWE wasn’t helping to create the trends, but rather, simply hoping to cash in on them.
After ten years of attempting to find their footing again, the WWE has decided to cash in on the biggest trend of them all – reality. America is obsessed with it. Turn to any network television station during the summer and you’re likely to find nearly their entire schedule dedicated to reality competitions and experiments. MTV has rebranded their entire demographic and focus on it, and several cable channels dedicate their very existence to real people doing (maybe not so) real things.
Beginning with CM Punk’s contract disputes and disparages within the company, WWE has set up a mirage of storylines based in reality and carried out in a realm of fiction. The casual viewing audience has been abuzz for years speaking about the grievances, complaints and observations that are now being aired on live television. In addition to Punk’s frequent tangents blasting WWE management and praising performers outside the company, the likes of The Miz and Beth Phoenix have been given the reigns to bring realism into their character’s aggression and rage. The Miz has spoken out, through various outlets, about his frustration with WWE management over not booking him to be a part of the company’s second biggest event of the year, SummerSlam. Beth Phoenix’s character recently turned heel, citing her disdain for the company’s allegiance to “perky, cute, blonde bimbos”.
Her complaints carry weight – the last three WWE Diva’s Champions have been women brought into the company to simply serve as eye candy. There has been a conscious move away from formally trained women who entered the business to be wrestlers. So much so, in fact, that one well-rounded women’s competitor (Gail Kim) asked for her release. Another, Melina, spoke critically of the company for being unappreciated, and was subsequently let go in a recent string of talent cuts. Gail Kim and Melina are being given an indirect chance to live vicariously through Beth Phoenix in a storyline that aims to change the way the women’s division is portrayed on television.
R-Truth has taken advantage of this shift toward realism as well. Truth, a fun-loving rap star turned paranoid conspiracy theorist, had made it a fixation of his character to point out plot holes in WWE’s increasingly confusing landscape of stories, twists and turns. WWE has literally begun to admit their flaws via the words of their characters, and it’s quite effective.
Granted, these stories don’t evoke the same amount of emotion that Punk’s widely publicized, partially true contract disputes have, but they are undoubtedly a step in the right direction.
For those in the business, it has never been more critical than it is right now to develop thick skin. Superstars are being called out on a weekly basis on live television for a variety of detrimental qualities, be it work-rate, backstage politics or the like. While the comments being spewed in their direction may be part of the show, there is far more truth to these words than the typical egomaniacal, hollow insults of the past. The promo of the new era carries deep seeded roots in the truth.
For the fans, this subtle shift in presentation is bringing new elements into the game previously thought to be taboo. Simple put, we’re being let in on the secret. Our mission as fans is not to hold that secret near and dear to our hearts, but to share it with our friends, social media outlets, and anyone else who is willing to listen. The longevity of this new era in pro wrestling is strictly contingent upon our willingness to support it, adopt its players and accept the shortcomings along with the fantastic successes. Hold on tight, because we’re in for an incredible ride.
It’s a great time to be a wrestling fan.