Why #CancelWWENetwork Was the Number One Trend Worldwide

The 2015 Royal Rumble is over. The WWE, the biggest name in what they call “Sports Entertainment” and the rest of the world calls Professional Wrestling has stock that is selling for less than the cost of a hamburger. Their new initiative, the WWE Network, an online service that provides their pay per views for free along with original content, had it’s cancellation page crash under the weight of fleeing users. #CancelWWENetwork was the #1 trending hastag worldwide last night. And anyone watching their shows recently would think the audience was on the verge of a near riot. What happened?

The simple answer is this: Daniel Bryan happened.

You wouldn’t think to look at Daniel Bryan that he was a professional wrestler. The man is certainly built, but the common image of a “professional wrestler” is a six foot five, three hundred pound mound of muscle. Something like Dave Bautista, who you probably saw as Drax the Destroyer in Guardians of the Galaxy. Daniel Bryan is 5′ 10″. He might be over two hundred and fifty pounds on a good day. He has a beard and hair that makes him look like an extra from a Grateful Dead concert movie. And he is the single most popular wrestler in the world.

Daniel Bryan after Wrestlemania last year.

The WWE has been facing a crossroads for the last ten years. The man who is supposed to be the face of their company, is universally loved by fans who are around the age of ten and under, and universally loathed by pretty much everybody else. He’s a Herculean presence in the mold of previously popular wrestlers like Hulk Hogan – he always smiles, never says die, always does the right thing, and never seems genuine for a moment of it. There’s a real human being underneath the veneer that John Cena has to put on week in and week out, but he never gets to show it, and that, combined with a decades long streak of “overcoming the odds” against opponents more talented and charismatic than him, has soured the fans to his very presence.

Enter Daniel Bryan. A man who many thought would never make it in the WWE, Bryan was frequently called the best wrestler in the world by his contemporaries. In this instance, we’re not discussing wrestling as if it were “real.” No one’s done that in about twenty years. But in terms of telling the best story in the ring, there are very few men who can come close to the emotion and excitement Bryan draws out. Over the time that he’s been in the big leagues with the WWE, he’s gotten the chance to show it time and time again, and it’s worked.

When John Cena came out last night, the crowd was split in its hatred or love for him. When Daniel Bryan came out, every single person got out of their chairs.

The other thing you need to know is that the world of professional wrestling has been changing a lot in the past two decades. The hulking, slow paced muscle men you remember from your childhood are largely an extinct breed, except in the WWE. All over the world, younger, faster, more daredevil competitors are doing things like, well, like this.

The Royal Rumble is a preview of things to come. Whoever wins it gets to wrestle in the main event at Wrestlemania, which means that whoever wins it is going to be the lead character in storylines to come for months, if not years. Last year, at the 2014 Royal Rumble, the WWE decided that man would not be Daniel Bryan, who had clearly become the main attraction in the eyes of most of the fans, but Dave Bautista from Guardians of the Galaxy.

The fans revolted to the point that they had to scrap those plans weeks after the Rumble, put Daniel Bryan in the main event at Wrestlemania and give him the company’s world title just to shut us up.

Fast forward to this year. Bryan has just come back from a pretty serious injury. He’s set to enter the Rumble, and given how much he’s loved, he’s the odds on favorite to win it. Just behind him are all the talented, interesting competitors the WWE has fostered over the past year and a half, guys like Bray Wyatt, Dean Ambrose, and Dolph Ziggler (I know, they’re goofy names, it’s wrestling.).

And then there’s Roman Reigns. A guy who looks like Jason Momoa, and has impressed many people with how he’s developed over the two or three years he’s been wrestling. (Keep in mind, most of the guys I mentioned above have been wrestling for decades to get to their spots.) A guy who, in a few years and with some decent coaching, might be something special, but a guy who write now struggles to put on a decent match or say a scripted speech. And a guy who someone high up in the WWE decided needed to be the focus of every storyline from now on.

After a year of dealing with the fallout of pushing a talent like Bryan aside in favor of a guy who is simply big, the WWE went and did it again a year later. Roman Reigns won this year’s Royal Rumble. Bryan was eliminated like a nobody, to the crowd’s instant displeasure. (Have you ever heard thousands of people boo a show for half an hour straight? I have, last night.)

And it was more than that. The most talented wrestlers in the company were constantly shoved aside and down the entire match, in favor of giant, slow, plodding, boring wrestlers who either hit their peak twenty years ago or never will hit a peak. The show, like many shows the WWE puts on, seemed like a deliberate middle finger to what the fans have repeatedly, vocally, stated that they wanted.

In any other entertainment industry, this would seem like madness. Companies retool entire television shows when the fans turn on a particular character. Comic book characters live and die on the whim of fans. But only in professional wrestling do the creative executives and writers believe they know better than their audience what their audience wants. It’s maddening and illogical, and it’s going to cost the WWE a lot of money. Again.

There is hope, however, for those of you out there that think this wrestling thing sounds interesting but don’t want to feel insulted. Here are three alternatives you can catch right now.

Lucha Underground
 
Remember that crazy Mexican wrestling, Lucha Libre, you’re always hearing so much about? Well, it’s finally come to the US. Airing on Robert Rodriguez’s 90’s-soaked television network, El Rey, Lucha Underground is a combination of professional wrestling and the movie Bloodsport. It’s got high octane action and knows damn well to not take itself seriously. Worth a watch, and easy to catch up on.
Chikara Pro
 
Chikara is an independent wrestling federation that performs on the upper East Coast, most of the time. They strive to feel like a Saturday Morning Cartoon, complete with crazy characters like a superpowered Ant Colony (above) or a straight up Necromancer named Ultramantis Black. The show flips back and forth from deathly serious to seriously goofy, and it’s a damn fine way to spend some time. The great thing about Chikara is that, unlike most wrestling companies, their shows have “seasons,” with breaks in storylines in between. It’s easy to just buy the DVDs or the internet streams to jump into the current storyline, and usually worth your time.
Hoodslam
 
Hoodslam is a company that’s local to the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area. In their personal arena, they consistently have more of a crowd than some of the wrestling companies with national television deals. Hoodslam accomplishes this with a combination of favorite characters (Scorpion, Sub Zero, Ryu and Ken make regular appearances), a giant wink to the audience, and copious amounts of lubricating substances. The third is actually the least important to enjoyment of their shows (thank god, this isn’t a Will Ferrell movie), but their embracing of the very important idea that professional wrestling is silly is what makes them so successful. Their shows are fairly stand alone, so grabbing any of the DVDs on their site should do the trick.
So there we have it. I hope I’ve explained to you why your wrestling fan friends are freaking out today, and how you can get a taste of this interesting and wonderful world without sticking your toe in the mire of the WWE. Let us know what you think!
Mike Fatum is the Editor in Chief and Podcast Co-host of the Ace of Geeks. He became a fan of professional wrestling the first time he saw a vampire on the show.
 
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AoG Podcast Episode 131: Christmas in Ankh Morpork

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It’s (almost) Christmas, and Mike, Jarys, Mae Linh and Melissa gather around the fire to share some Christmas Spirit – kinda. Mostly they discuss The Battle of the Five Armies, how Sleepy Hollow is like the X-men, how Gollum is like a cat, dog sizing, and professional wrestling!

Why the Future of Professional Wrestling is the Death of Kayfabe

It’s a Friday night in Oakland, California. The Metro Operahouse is packed to the brim with over eight hundred people, all shoving their way towards the stage. A metal band screams and wails on guitars. And in the center of all of this madness, underneath a cloud of smoke of indeterminate substance, sits a beat up ring. Inside that ring, Scorpion from Mortal Kombat lifts up a woman in a Ms. Marvel costume and slams her to the mat. The crowd starts chanting, “This is real!”

The company is known as Hoodslam, and they’re the fastest growing and most consistently popular independent wrestling company in Northern California. They like to brag that they’ve brought more fans to their shows than the number two televised wrestling company in the nation. And they’ve done it by accepting one simple fact: Kayfabe is dead.

Now, not everyone who reads this blog is a professional wrestling fan, and I can hear you all out there: “What in the hell is kayfabe? Did you make that word up?” Kayfabe is a term that originated in the place where professional wrestling as we know it now began: traveling carnivals. These carnivals would take their strong men and put them into wrestling contests as they traveled the country. Rather than have them consistently trying to beat the hell out of each other, and maybe actually injuring themselves, the carnival folks figured out that they could put on an entertaining show of pretending to fight, with a predetermined outcome. The word “kayfabe” came into being as a way to describe that the fights were predetermined. No one really knows where the word itself came from, although it’s been suggested that it’s a bastardization of the pig latin version of “be fake.”

This was a deep, dark secret, and as professional wrestling began to get bigger and bigger, the secret spread. It was believed that the business of professional wrestling would be destroyed if the greater public knew that it was “fake,” even as its popularity and reach – through the power of television – grew. In his book, Have a Nice Day, Mick Foley describes wrestling schools that would deliberately break legs of potential students so that they would go home and tell their friends the sport was real.

While discerning audiences began to figure out the reality behind the stories they’d all been watching pretty quickly as soon as wrestling was becoming more widespread, it wasn’t until 1989 that it was officially admitted anywhere. Vince McMahon, owner of the then-WWF, was called to the stand to testify in a trial about steriods that nearly ripped his company apart. Since it’s a crime to lie in court, he was forced to admit before the world that the sport was “fake.”

And it was the best thing that could’ve ever happened for the sport of professional wrestling.

Wrestling may be staged, but there’s nothing fake about what these guys put their bodies through each and every night for our entertainment. It’s a performance art, like ballet, or the opera that usually takes place where Hoodslam plies their trade. Just like we appreciate the fights on a show like Arrow, we appreciate the choreography and stunt work that goes into a professional wrestling match. And we’re able to enjoy that much more because we know that the men in front of us are actors, working for our entertainment.

Since the inevitable death of kayfabe, the major wrestling organizations like WWE and TNA have been trying to pretend it never happened. They portray their shows as “realistically” as possible, with most of the writing attempting to create believable characters and events happening in real time. (Except for the rare exception, like a certain seven foot tall undead wizard.)

And for the last two decades, they’ve been plateauing or declining in popularity.

The other night, I watched the newest addition to televised wrestling – Lucha Underground. In between their in-ring action and matches, they had the usual pretaped segments, just like the WWE. But unlike the WWE, their pretaped segments were shot as if they were part of a professional television show. There was no attempt to make it appear like it was “really happening.” And it made the show so much better. The cartoonish storylines that are the hallmark of wrestling suddenly snapped into much greater focus, and felt at home in a show that wasn’t even trying to be real.

Hoodslam, and other companies like Chikara, take this one step further. There’s no John Cenas or Randy Ortons – instead the ring is populated with sentient ant colonies, marching band drummers, video game characters, superheroes, and a drug sniffing mafioso bunny. (No, really.) Last week, this clip suddenly exploded in popularity across the internet.


Why? Because this is what people want from professional wrestling. Not the die-hard fans, maybe, but the mainstream people who remember the Ultimate Warriors and Stone Cold Steve Austins of their youth. The WWE hasn’t been able to connect to audiences today because audiences today want to feel like their smarter than the show they’re watching. They don’t want to be tricked, they want to be able to laugh along with the fun. And a company like Hoodslam delivers that.

To find out more, I went to one of my favorite sources. Meet Doc Atrocity:

In addition to being a multi-decade veteran of the world of professional wrestling, he’s also a time traveling megalomaniac from the future, and a former mayor of Hoodslam. He’s currently trying to turn over a new leaf and be more human, which he’s doing by wearing a mask made of human skin. It’s not going well.

As one of the creative forces behind Hoodslam, I asked the good Doctor what he thought about the world of wrestling and kayfabe. And this is what he said:

“My feelings on the subject of Kayfabe is that it’s a lot like stage magic. One hundred years ago, stage magicians would pull rabbits out of hats and try to convince their audience that they possessed magical powers to summon rodents from head wear. Over time, audiences became smarter. They figured out the rabbit-in-the-hat trick and garnered that the magicians did not, in fact, possess any supernatural powers. The audience was “smartened up” and the stage magic had no choice to evolve, to recognize it’s audience’s awareness of sleight of hand and illusion. It adapted.
Modern stage magic acknowledges illusion over sorcery. It doesn’t try to talk down to it’s audience and treat them like children. It recognizes that the audience has become more sophisticated.
Pro Wrestling needs to follow stage magic’s lead and adapt. It needs to acknowledge that it’s audience isn’t made up entirely of naive children and hicks. Pro wrestling insists on having it’s cake and eating it to. It wants it’s audience to jump back and forth from “real sport” to “staged entertainment” depending on what suits it’s needs. “Take us seriously as athletes, but when we act like clowns and bufoons don’t hold it against us when we want to be taken seriously again.”
Pro Wrestling’s inate sense of machismo and confused sense of pride keeps it from simply giving it’s own audience the wink and smile it wants to let them know that we’re all in on the joke, and that we the performers are not looking down at them as simple “marks and rubes.”
Vince McMahon, Triple H, Bischoff, etc. all have reputations for mean-spirited attitudes towards peers and a particular contempt for their audience and business demographic.
This new mentality of evolving, adapting or outright ignoring Kayfabe has created a mutual understanding between audience and performer that both parties can engage completely, without shame or feelings of being “a mark” or being looked down at for finding enjoyment in a truly primal form of entertainment.
There will always be secrets behind the curtain. There will always be ways to engage the audience, make them say “How did they do that?” and even momentarily suspend their disbelief and become part of an emotionally resonating performance of the age-old battle between good and evil.
Every artform must evolve with it’s audience.”

I couldn’t have said it better.

Mike Fatum is the Editor in Chief and Podcast Co-host for the Ace of Geeks, and first fell in love with wrestling when he saw a real, live vampire on RAW.

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AoG Podcast Episode 125: Extra Halloween Ultron!

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Happy Halloween, everybody! The Ace of Geeks brings you our latest podcast, where we discuss the Giants’ World Series victory, the awesomeness of our Extra Life experience, LARPing, and a pretty deep discussion on Marvel’s heroes and their politics, in the wake of the excellent scenes we saw this week from Avengers: Age of Ultron!