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What the WWE fans of today are missing out on

Some long term fans of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) feel sorry for the fans of today. Why do they feel this way? Well, it comes down to this. The WWE has hardcore, dedicated fans. Fans who love the characters, storylines and matches. But despite their love for the WWE, they will never know what it was like to be a fan before the blanket of kayfabe was unveiled.

Kayfabe, for those unfamiliar with professional wrestling terminology, is the portrayal of staged events as genuine or authentic. Once unveiled the blanket of kayfabe could never be put back on. Pre-unveiling, it was a magical time that fans of today will never get to experience. WrestleMania classics such as Hulk Hogan vs Andre the Giant, Ric Flair vs Macho Man Randy Savage, Bret the Hitman Heart vs Rowdy Roddy Piper. Watching these spectacles enthralled fans at the time. The storytelling. The emotion. The attachment to each character.

Even as a kid perhaps you knew things weren’t quite right. Wrestlers would fight each other in a slightly strange way. You could be a 10 year old and still figure out that Hulk Hogan shaking his head like a maniac didn’t grant him some form of invincibility. However there was always some doubt. Back then, some people would assert wrestling was ‘fake’. But was it? You weren’t quite sure. This is what the fans of today are missing. That uncertainty.

Outside of Monday Night RAW, Triple H would give an interview to a reporter dropping a line about he didn’t like The Rock. Was he acting? Did he mean it? We didn’t know. There was always this persistent doubt.

Hulk Hogan walking to the ring. Image appears to be taken in the 1980s.
Hulk Hogan was one of the WWF’s (now WWE) biggest stars. “Hulk Hogan” by noticeofmeowery is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The professional wrestling industry would change forever once kayfabe was no longer protected. The Rock Says was published by Dwayne Johnson, explaining how matches were arranged and winners decided. Programmes like Tough Enough revealed how moves were performed to look devastating, but in reality were practiced to protect wrestlers. Wrestlers didn’t despise each other as they portrayed on screen. Instead they could be the best of friends backstage. The unveiling of kayfabe is arguably the worst decision in the history of the wrestling business. The magic was gone. The WWE still makes money. Lots of it. But for many long term fans, the excitement has never been the same. The theatrics remain. The energy remains. But the magic of kayfabe has gone forever.

Around the same time that kayfabe was fading away, the WWE Attitude Era was in full swing. The Attitude Era, which ran from 1997 to 2002, is considered the peak of WWE programming. A new, edgier product was bringing in millions of fans to professional wrestling. Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Triple H, Kurt Angle and the egomaniacal boss Vince McMahon were becoming household names. But ultimately what was raw, edgy and innovative back then couldn’t remain that way interminably.

On 14th March 2001, Bob Costas interviewed Vince McMahon on his On The Record show. It was a heated interview, memorable because McMahon lost his cool towards the end of the show after having been interrupted many times. In one segment Costas asked McMahon if he thought WWE’s programming “contributed to the incivility and coarseness that’s generally out there in the culture now”, to which McMahon conceded that WWE did play its part.

Vince McMahon pointing at Bob Costas aggressively during an interview.
Vince McMahon lost his cool during his interview with Bob Costas in 2001.

Perhaps this helps explain WWE fans’ disillusionment towards the product. Towards the end of the attitude era, things were getting stale. On 16th May 2002, Costas and McMahon did a follow-up interview. McMahon talked about how the WWE was down by about 10% in the ratings but they had the capability to reinvent themselves. From the perspective of many fans, the WWE didn’t exercise this capability. Costas summed it up in a follow-up interview. The over-the-top crass behaviour exhibited on on screen, the Kiss My Ass club, the Diva matches that were a few steps shy of pornography; it was losing its allure. It wasn’t as disruptive and distinctive as it once was.

At its peak, whether one feels its was in the 80s or 90s, the WWE could transcend barriers. People knew who Hulk Hogan was. Stone Cold Steve Austin was a household name. But now? Can the average non-fan tell you who the main WWE superstars are? The WWE doesn’t appear to have the pull it used to.

So where did things go wrong?

From 2002 onwards, there was a sense that the product was declining drastically in quality, reflected in a decline in revenues from 2002-2005. Around the same time, access to the internet was growing rapidly, providing fans with greater insight into what solutions were being suggested for the WWE to recover. While fans appreciated the fact that the WWE was acknowledging it had a problem – surveys, for example, were posted on WWE.com, asking what fans wanted to see – many found it frustrating how much of a disconnect there was between those actually working in the company and those who paid to watch it.

In an interview with Chris Jericho published on WWE.com, he asserted that fans wanted to see wrestlers “beat the hell out of each other”. This was frustrating for the simple fact that for many fans, it wasn’t true. It served as a reflection that even if you were one of the company’s top performers, it didn’t mean you knew what made for an entertaining product. Once the Attitude Era was over, the product was getting boring. Fans wanted something different. Energy. Innovation. Excitement. It was never about raising the magnitude of violence.

WWE SmackDown! Shut Your Mouth for PlayStation 2
WWE video games such as WWE SmackDown! Shut Your Mouth and WWF Super WrestleMania leveraged wrestling’s popularity.

In Mick Foley’s book, Have A Nice Day: A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks, he wrote about the importance of putting in the same amount of effort during a house show as in a televised event. A house show is a non-televised event. In principle, it sounded like a good idea. The more effort exerted during house shows could convert regular fans into more loyal ones; or so the reasoning went. In reality, however, it was neither practical nor sensible.

Professional wrestling is an incredibly tough business. More often than not, it takes more away from you than it gives you. Only a tiny fraction of wrestlers make a successful career out of it. Injuries occur regularly. Painkiller addiction is widespread. Drugs are commonplace. Each time a wrestler performs, they’re putting themselves at risk. At the time Foley published his book in 1999, the era of smartphones and virality was still a long way away. It simply wasn’t worth it for a wrestler to put in maximum effort during a house show when the audience size was so limited, particularly given the ever-present risk of career-ending injuries. If you were going to go all out, it was much better to do it in front of a worldwide audience.

Importantly, taking it a bit easier on house shows didn’t mean a wrestler gave the audience a second-rate performance. House shows could have been and were used to try out new ideas. Experiment with new moves. Test out a new promo. Mix things up a bit. It’s in house shows where innovation and creativity could have been explored, ready to be delivered to a worldwide television audience. Treating house shows in the same manner as televised events demonstrated a short-sightedness that was not only detrimental to the wrestlers and the product, but also an impediment for it to improve.

And then there was Rob Van Dam; well, maybe. Soon after Wrestlemania XIX in 2003 an article was posted by an anonymous writer who claimed to be a wrestler in the WWE. He wrote at length about the WWE’s failings and in particular the management’s poor booking decisions. He lambasted the Miller Lite Pillow Fight at WrestleMania XIX, a match involving four ‘scantily clad’ women, to use WWE lingo, attacking each other with pillows. It irked him that his spot on the WrestleMania card had been replaced by the pillow fight.

DVD cover of WrestleMania XIX
WrestleMania XIX took place during WWE’s downturn.

The assumption that it was RVD who’d written the article stemmed from his clear discontent. In WWE’s online broadcast show Byte This, the same show in which Steve Austin had called WWE writing ‘piss poor’, he (RVD) was a guest on the show and tore into the segment, particularly expressing his anger at having been replaced on the WrestleMania card. In the article, again still assuming it was RVD, he wrote about his idea to kick-start a new Attitude Era. He explained that the previous era got its start from a confrontation between Mike Tyson and Steve Austin. This, he says, ignited a new era of rebellion, middle fingers and telling your boss to shove it! A celebrity is what WWE needed, he said, and Eminem was the person who’d take the WWE to new heights.

Reception to this article was largely critical. Could we really pinpoint the most successful era in the wrestling industry on a specific person or confrontation? Success the scale of which the Attitude Era generated depended on numerous factors, not a single one. Matches, promos, booking, storytelling, wrestler development, programming; they all contributed to the magic of professional wrestling back then. Many argued that the Mike Tyson segment certainly was memorable, but WWE would still have been successful without it. The same goes for Eminem. He could have fit into a good storyline at the time but a celebrity wasn’t what the WWE needed back then. It needed an overhaul. The appearance of an individual in a storyline will likely never be enough to save a sinking ship.

But if the WWE was struggling to reinvent itself, fans themselves were very much divided on the way forward. And as more people began to contribute to online discussions in the early-to-mid 2000s, a theme soon emerged that suggested the following: WWE fans complain about everything! No matter what the WWE does, fans won’t be satisfied with the product. The Attitude Era had raised expectations so high, it was almost impossible to match as the WWE experienced its downturn from 2003 onwards.

Screenshot of the RajahWWF Fan Forums in June 2003.
The RajahWWF Fan Forums were a popular online hangout for wrestling fans during the early 2000s.

By the end of the Attitude Era an online culture had emerged whereby you were considered a ‘mark’ if you liked wrestlers such as The Rock or Triple H. The term ‘mark’ simply means a fan of professional wrestling, however it was transformed into a derogatory term. If you were a mark, you were considered a dumb fan who ate everything the WWE fed you. You should have liked wrestlers such as Lance Storm and Bret Hart, but instead you didn’t understand the business. You weren’t an insider who knew how the industry really worked.

The segmentation of fans depending on their knowledge of the industry gave birth to another term, the ‘smark’ – a portmanteau of ‘smart’ and ‘mark’. A smark was a fan of the business who also understood its inner workings. They’d look down on marks and their primitive way of evaluating the product. Conversely, marks felt smarks tried a bit too hard. They’d complain about everything the WWE did, to the point that Jim Ross even addressed online smark dissatisfaction in his weekly columns on the WWE website.

Two decades later, one could reasonably state that the culture of dissatisfaction has never really left the WWE online fan community. Some argue that it’s the fans who ruin their own enjoyment, rather than their complaints being a reflection of a poor product. Perhaps there’s some truth to this. The WWE share price is the highest its been in its 20+ year history. Could the product be that bad if the company is making significant profits? If the product is as bad as the smarks make it out to be, why do so many people tune in? The days of kayfabe are over. The Attitude Era had its time. It’ll be remembered as the peak years. But it’s time to evolve. With the WWE’s sale to Endeavor in March 2023, ther’es hope among marks and smarks alike. Perhaps the WWE is on the cusp of a new era.

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