Sorry WWE, But Vince McMahon Created The Smarks

Vince McMahon, inventor of Sports Entertainment
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For Vince McMahon, owner and questionable visionary of WWE, pro wrestling has always been one thing: entertainment. It’s a vision that’s informed his relationship with wrestling as long as he’s been part of the industry. When Ted Turner bought WCW and told McMahon he was now in the ‘rasslin’ business’, Vince kindly informed the TV mogul: ‘that’s nice, Ted. I’m in the sports entertainment business.’

In the eyes of many, McMahon’s approach was a master stroke. The rock n’ wrestling era of the 1980s brought us some of the biggest personalities in the history of the industry – Macho Man Randy Savage, Hulk Hogan and Rowdy Roddy Piper were turned into household names. In the 90s this crystallised into what McMahon now calls sports entertainment with its most successful period ever: the Attitude Era. No one knows how history would have turned out had McMahon not seen his vision through, but it’s probably safe to say wrestling would have been even more of a niche product than it is today.

There is just one pesky little reality Vince had to face for his vision to be a success. If wrestling is entertainment, it can’t be a sport.


The End of Kayfabe

We could argue over the meaning of entertainment all day, but here’s the facts: on February 10 1989 McMahon revealed in front of the State of New Jersey Senate that pro wrestling was: ‘an activity in which participants struggle hand-in-hand primarily for the purposes of providing entertainment to spectators rather than conducting a bona fide athletic contest.’

It was a massive moment in wrestling history; the illusion and mystique of pro wrestling gone forever. Kayfabe, a wrestling term meaning what’s treated as true and real within a wrestling show, was laid bare. The moment Hulk Hogan bodyslammed Andre the Giant at Wrestlemania 3? That was staged. It was a performance.

Vince McMahon and Brock Lesnar
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After McMahon’s admission in New Jersey, which saw pro-wrestling become deregulated by the state’s tax-taking sporting commission,  many things changed about the industry. The rise of ECW, the proliferation of indie promotions and the Monday Night Wars to name a handful. But what about the fans?

See, as much as some fans still like to compare pro-wrestling to other sports, our relationship with WWE will never again be the same as what we may have with the English Premier League or the NFL. Fans of a sport will route for a team or a player, agonising over failures and gloating over successes with full knowledge they’re watching real triumphs and defeats. As popular as Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers might be right now, every sports fan has to admit that they were outclassed by the Denver Broncos at Superbowl 50.

Pro-wrestling though? Would a wrestling promoter have booked the Broncos to go over the Panthers at the biggest event of the year? Wrestling is a performance. It’s a story, with writers and television production values. Back in 1989 this probably made very little difference to a largely uninformed fan base. In 2016 though, with the advent of the internet and the dozens of websites that cover WWE and other promotions, it means fans interact with wrestling the same way we interact with Game of Thrones.

Wrestling vs. Television

Tyrion trail

If an episode of Game of Thrones sucks, fans will blame the writers. If a WWE show or wrestler is boring fans will blame the writers too. When your sports team loses you’ll grumble about the players and the coaches, but you’ll not ask ‘who writes this shit?’

People who obsess over TV shows like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead are called fanboys and fangirls. If you obsess over pro-wrestling, you’re called a smark.

The way modern wrestling fandom interacts with wrestling has fascinated me for a while – and I say this as one of the very smarky smarks I’ve just been garbling about. I am an adult man who watches athletes portraying pretend characters in fights I know to be choreographed and predetermined. Understanding this means my enjoyment of wrestling boils down to two things: firstly, are the athletes portraying entertaining characters in interesting stories? Secondly, how exciting and engaging are the choreographed fights?

If we’re being honest with ourselves, these two considerations probably account for a huge amount of the smarkish grumblings slung WWE’s way. Why do people dislike Roman Reigns? His character is boring and his pretend fights are pedestrian. Certainly he looks like a marquee idol, but so did Hayden Christensen. Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley are both conventionally attractive leads, but it turns out the real star of Pirates of the Caribbean was Johnny Depp channelling Keith Richards.

What am I saying exactly? In the run up to Wrestlemania 32, Roman Reigns was Orlando Bloom and Dean Ambrose was Johnny Depp.


Sports Entertainment

If Vince McMahon wants wrestling to be entertainment, that’s fine, but no other form of entertainment is managed as counter-intuitively as WWE. Perhaps in the early days of Hollywood, stars were chosen solely for how attractive they looked on posters and talk shows. But as Megan Fox and Robert Pattinson prove, sooner or later in the internet age, you’ll be found out if you’re not the real deal. Perhaps Roman Reigns has been badly managed – pushed too hard too fast before he could establish a true fan connection – but with all the chances he’s failed to take, he’s starting to look more like a Liam Hemsworth than a Chris Hemsworth.

When wrestling commentators criticise smarks for complaining about who WWE pushes, I think they might be missing the point. We’re living in a golden age of television. TV shows with season long story arcs full of drama, action and humour are ten-a-penny right now. This is WWE’s real competition; not the NFL, World Series or March Madness.

Vince McMahon turned wrestling into entertainment. We have eyes and ears, and we know who the most entertaining sports entertainers are.  Spoiler: it’s not Roman Reigns. It’s Kevin Owens, the bad guy we love to pretend to hate. It’s Dean Ambrose, the cool dude whose antics make us laugh. It’s Bayley (I love Bayley), your earnest, unironic sister. It’s AJ Styles, who does that phenomenal elbow off the top rope.

It’s 2016. Hulk Hogan would dissolve in a chorus of ‘Boring!’ and fans would hold arenas hostage until Roddy Piper got a world title run. Bodybuilders with Hollywood chins might look nice on a poster, but Sami Zayn just did a flying DDT through the corner turnbuckle.

That’s entertainment, Vince. Next time you curse us for pointing this out, just remember that you created us.

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