Jacob Zinn :: journalist + photographer

WWE needs an Attitude (Adjustment)

Posted in Opinion, Sports, Wrestling by Jacob Zinn on July 27, 2011
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espite being a company solely based on the niche sport of professional wrestling, World Wrestling Entertainment used to have some balls.

That was when Stone Cold Steve Austin was stunning Vince McMahon, D-Generation X was crotch-chopping its opponents, Mick Foley was being chokeslammed through cells and Chris Jericho was outtalking The Rock. That was the Attitude Era.

The era arguably started with the Montréal Screwjob and ended when the then-World Wrestling Federation (WWF) became World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). By that time, McMahon had taken over World Championship Wrestling (WCW), Ted Turner’s rival wrestling promotion that prompted both company’s to deliver more shock value in a five-year ratings war.

Since then, the WWE’s on-screen content has gotten less racy, less provocative and less edgy to the point that it’s family-friendly. Women and children make up 40% of the WWE’s viewing audience, unlike the teenagers and young adults (mostly male) who made up the vast majority of wrestling crowds in the mid-to-late ’90s. Back then, it was unapologetically lowbrow, and we liked it that way, but with a current 12-and-under target audience, the WWE has marketed most of its superstars wrestlers as childhood heroes and upstanding role models.

Old School Attitude

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n the last few weeks, I saw a glimpse of attitude being injected into WWE programming. CM Punk’s anti-WWE angle was a refreshing change from the PG-rated children’s program that is Monday Night RAW.

At the end of RAW on June 27, CM Punk led a brash, cross-legged, viewer-discretion-advised tirade against the WWE, criticizing Vince McMahon and his daughter, his doofus son-in-law (Triple H) and his “douchebag yes men” (name-dropping Executive Vice President of Talent Relations John Laurinaitis) for paying no mind to in-ring talent and pushing overrated, ass-kissing cashcows like John Cena, The Rock and Hulk Hogan. Backstage gripes that would normally be discussed in hushed tones were now being aired on the mic in front of everyone to hear.

With his contract up on July 18, CM Punk threatened to take the WWE Championship with him at the Money in the Bank Pay-Per-View. McMahon responded by indefinitely suspending CM Punk only to be persuaded by Cena to, for once, put on a match that the fans wanted. McMahon begrudgingly accepted the proposition, but raised the stakes: if the champion John Cena lost the title, he would be fired.

Leading up to his departure, CM Punk wasn’t performing for 10 year-olds. It was the teens and young adults who wanted this match, who wanted Cena fired, who wanted CM Punk to leave his hometown of Chicago, where the Pay-Per-View was scheduled, as the last WWE Champion.

See, there’s an online community of grown men who still watch professional wrestling. They read behind-the-scenes blogs and immerse themselves in insider’s knowledge.

They are smarks, an abbreviation of “smart marks,” meaning they understand that wrestling is “fake,” but still get enjoyment out of it. They know the outcomes are predetermined and that most of the on-screen fueds don’t have any off-screen legitimacy to them.

The beauty of this angle is it was a mix of both.

As one of the best on-the-mic talents, CM Punk got to trash the WWE for keeping him off of merchandise, for underusing such talents as Colt Cabana and Drew Hankinson, and for booking the main event of WrestleMania XXVIII a year in advance between the WWE’s poster boy, John Cena, and the wrestler-turned-movie star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. He gave shout-outs to independent promotions Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling; mentioning any current wrestling promotion, mainstream or otherwise, is a no-no in the WWE’s book.

The main event was an exceptional near-45 minute performance and contained some of the best wrestling in recent memory. There were high spots in and out of the ring and numerous edge-of-your-seat counters, reversals and finishers. Around the 40-minute mark, McMahon and Laurinaitis came out to signal to ring the bell for a Chicago Screwjob, but Cena wouldn’t allow that to happen. When Cena got back in the ring, CM Punk hit him with the Go To Sleep and pinned him for the three-count. He took the WWE Championship and ran through the crowd, leaving the Allstate Arena with the belt.

The Show Must Go On

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f course, that was the last of the attitude. The WWE is a business, and what sells is John Cena t-shirts, ball caps, wristbands and collector’s cups. The Next night on RAW, Cena didn’t get fired and the WWE ran an eight-man tournament to crown a new WWE Champion as though the title had simply been vacated. In a twist, Triple H was given the television role as the company’s Chief Operating Officer. The only real part to the storyline is that McMahon will no longer appear on TV as often. (Fingers crossed.)

The next week, the newly named WWE Champion Rey Mysterio lost the title to, surprise surprise, John Cena. Then, a re-signed CM Punk came out to dispute the legitimacy of that title.

Everything was back as it was. We’d been had. But for four heart-pounding weeks, we suspended our disbelief and thought, maybe CM Punk really is leaving the WWE. In reality, it was a worked shoot (a work being something setup and a shoot being something spontaneous and unplanned), a cross between the backstage politics and center stage execution. Unfortunately, following Money in the Bank, the storyline became horribly unbalanced and the disbelief returned.

But if the WWE had more kayfabe-breaking storylines like this, maybe they wouldn’t be losing the long-time fans to ROH or New Japan or TNA iMPACT!

Maybe independent wrestlers wouldn’t dismiss the WWE if it hadn’t become a heavily scripted in-ring soap opera.

Maybe then the WWE would grow a pair.

Instances of Attitude

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ince 2001, there have been spurts of attitude in the WWE. The introduction of the ECW One Night Stand Pay-Per-View in 2005 offered an entire month of hardcore wrestling per year until McMahon created a third television brand based off the defunct promotion. This led to original ECW commentator Joey Styles delivering a fantastic worked shoot promo against the company and how far it had gone away from the traditional ECW format.

The Edge versus Matt Hardy storyline was born from a real-life situation between the two. Hardy, who wasn’t with the WWE at the time, was dating Lita, who was with the WWE. While she was on the road, she cheated on Hardy with Edge. The WWE re-signed Hardy and turned the dispute into a betrayal-fueled feud in which legitimate shots were taken by both parties. Edge established himself as a main-event heel and Hardy was more over with audiences than ever.

The return of DX, while entirely planned, brought back the anti-authority comedy with Triple H and Shawn Michaels embarrassing the McMahon family on a weekly basis.

The rest of the time, the WWE has focused itself on pandering to children, and all they want is John Cena.

In fact, Cena used to have attitude; his former gimmick as a rap artist had him perform profane lyrics (often cutting himself short of anything that would require a Parental Advisory sticker). His finisher used to be called the F-U, named after Brock Lesnar’s F-5, but was later renamed as Cena drew a younger crowd.

Now that he’s on his (disputed) ninth WWE Championship reign, maybe John Cena can drop the title to someone deserving and fued in a non-title main event leading up to his bout with The Rock next April. Or maybe, maybe, he can finally turn heel and single-handedly bring the attitude back to the WWE.

But don’t count on it.

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