At Wrestlemania, WWE Refused To Give Fans What It Knows They Want
Everyone knew that Wrestlemania would end with WWE pushing Roman Reigns, its chosen champion, over the top. The surprise was how defiantly unsurprising it was.
Photo via YouTube
Wrestlemania 32 ended the way everyone expected, with Roman Reigns holding the WWE title aloft, bathing in the boos of nearly 100,000 "haters" with a smile on his face that never made it all the way to his eyes. Except that's not quite what viewers saw live.
It was odd. The crowd was loud all night, as expected, but the acoustics of AT&T Stadium made everything bigger. This should have been a good thing, and it was a good thing, mostly. The exception was the case of Roman Reigns, WWE's chosen standard bearer and a performer bland enough to enrage scores of wrestling fans. The cheers the McMahons want for their man were never going to come, but the likelihood of boos being amplified to rocket launch levels by the acoustics of the cavernous stadium was an existential threat to Reigns' top of the card status.
Reigns was going to win, and everyone knew he was going to win—this was never going to change. The mystery was how badly it would go over; the apathetic listlessness that greeted Lesnar and Goldberg at Wrestlemania 20 seemed almost like a best case scenario, here. And that couldn't be allowed to happen.
Set aside the debate about whether Reigns deserves to be champion, or even if he's a good wrestler or not. The desire for control that WWE displayed on Sunday reached the level of the ridiculous—we're talking rushed live sound mixing and choppy crowd shots that didn't even seem to be from the same match. WWE aspires to full-spectrum control of the stories it tells, with nothing getting in or out without its approval. That's fine as it goes, and pro wrestling has a long history of shuffling the order of cards and pulling tricks to manipulate crowd reaction. But a promotion that spends six hours touting a crowd of around 100,000 fans while simultaneously muting them, has crossed into uncharted territory.
And there it was. Reigns came out and the crowd's microphone was obviously mixed lower. The boos were audible but the sound quality, so crisp for hours, suddenly sounded like your neighbor's bass coming through the wall on a Friday night. So it remained until the outright strangeness of the ending, which was highlighted by a sudden, tinny, obviously dubbed-in roar of cheers and abrupt jump cuts to four and five men at a time standing and cheering. Then, silence; the crowd was muted entirely, leading to the eerie spectacle of people gesturing thumbs down at the beaming Roman Reigns with virtually no sound escaping their open mouths.
What kind of paranoia drives a promotion to take this sort of sharp turn into avant-garde filmmaking? WWE is not our friend or companion, which is not news. They're a company, and all companies seek to shape and spike public opinion. Only here, instead of fudging label claims or stretching the limits of truth in advertising, WWE's willing and able to do that old Bush administration trick of making its own reality, leaving us to talk about it. WWE is an empire; perversely, Reigns' nickname is the Roman Empire, dovetailing just slightly too neatly with Karl Rove's old quote about what empires do to reality.
They're not even particularly interested in hiding it. Just before Triple H entered for the main event, Stephanie McMahon, his wife and scion of the company, delivered a thunderous promo while dressed as the barbarian queen to Triple H's Conan. In it, McMahon boomed that all hope was lost, that what the crowd wanted was not going to come true that night or, indeed, ever again. Ostensibly, her speech played to the fiction that people wanted Reigns to win and that he wouldn't, that Triple H would vanquish the hero forever. Only it wasn't that. It was foreshadowing that it was the hated Reigns who was going to win and there was nothing anyone in that crowd could do about it. They could boo, of course, but they don't have control of the mute button, let alone the story.
Indeed, the entire show seemed to revolve around the notion that fan fervor cannot and must not have any influence on a match's outcome. The other big angle, involving Shane McMahon facing the Undertaker in a Hell in a Cell match for control of the company, fizzled to nothing, with Shane taking a frankly too dangerous dive off the cage, and still losing. The context, there, was that Shane clashed with his father Vince over the direction of WWE, stating that the promotion was going to be dead if the old man kept insisting on shit booking and shit storylines. With Shane's defeat, WWE once more was rubbing it in: Shane being allowed to say that on television was tacit admission that WWE hears fans' concerns, and his loss, particularly after such a dramatic moment, was WWE's reminder that what they want doesn't matter. Nothing changes. Nothing will change.
The entire show was like this. For all the lead-up, every single match on the card, save for the truly unanticipated Zach Ryder win for the Intercontinental title, maintained the status quo. Charlotte retained the Divas-now-Women's title. AJ Styles lost to Jericho, meaning neither's standing really changes—if anything, Styles now seems utterly bereft of purpose in the promotion. Dean Ambrose got the biggest pop of the night, only to have a meandering match with Brock Lesnar which he lost. The state of the company after Wrestlemania this year is exactly the same as going in. Nothing mattered, and nothing changed.
Again, this isn't really a matter of good or bad so much as it's about the strange lengths WWE will go to in order to keep control of its environment. The old saw that Vince McMahon would rather lose money his way than make money someone else's holds here. All that transpired this past week—even the scintillating NXT show on Friday, showcasing Sami Zayn vs the debuting Shinsuke Nakamura in an early match of the year candidate—is about maintaining that control. Nothing in, nothing out, without WWE's approval.
A coda to this was the interview between WWE announcer JBL and Fabulous Freebirds ringleader Michael PS Hayes. Hayes is a problematic figure, to say the least. His legendary stable (of which he and lately arrived member Jimmy Garvin are the only surviving members) drank, swore, and wore Confederate flags all over the South. Now a member of WWE's backstage staff, he got in trouble for calling Mark Henry the n-word and giving Rosa Mendes, a recovering alcoholic, booze upon her return. Wrestling's past is, if we're being generous, ethically precarious, and its present tendency to overlook current problems for the sake of nostalgia is a tic. The Freebirds are a more complicated case.
JBL's interview of Hayes was, shockingly, not bad. He asked Hayes about the flag, about the racial epithets, and about the drinking. Hayes, equally shockingly, was forthcoming and seemingly contrite; while (paraphrasing) "it was the 80s and we were all pretty stupid, that's how I grew up, and I never should've done either the flag or called Henry that" isn't as good as not doing it in the first fucking place, it's also not bad for a Georgia redneck who was painting his face to look like the rebel flag a scant 30 years ago. Certainly, those are tougher questions than the mainstream press is allowed to ask when they sit down with wrestlers, provided they can even work through WWE's press approval process.
But this was still a WWE employee interviewing a WWE employee about events at WWE and its antecedents; it happened before a WWE ceremony, on the WWE Network. Whatever the quality of the interview, it was conducted on WWE's terms, wholly and explicitly, and that lent Hayes' act of contrition the slight air of a Maoist self-criticism session. For all that was revealed, there was the sense that turning the public eye away from Hayes' past grotesqueries outweighed anything else, and that the new, shiny WWE would rather put a coat of varnish on its past than grapple with it. It made the interview surreal to watch.
That's appropriate, since this Wrestlemania, more than any other event, seemed dedicated to keeping the reins so taut, to the point where 100,000 screaming fans were edited to the company's specifications. Even by WWE's standards, Wrestlemania was airtight and hermetic; it felt like, and finally was, a product that came out of a box in Stamford, Connecticut, produced by a group that keeps the shades very tightly drawn.