Can you feel it in the air? This Sunday is Wrestlemania 32, and that means it is Christmas for dorks like me who love combat based morality plays. For its 32nd incarnation, WWE will present an unmatched night of spectacle that no other live performance can touch.
But I’m just not as excited this year. There’s something off about everything: There are a ton of names missing from the marquee this year: some, like John Cena, you’ll recognize. Others, like Adrian Neville and Cesaro, you won’t. But if you’d like to gauge the amount of sympathy necessary to empathize with me, watching Cesaro wrestle is my Hamilton. Thank you for your support.
Where are all of these missing gladiators? Injured. WWE is suffering from a plague of injured wrestlers the level of which I can’t ever remember seeing, and I’ve been watching since I was 8. It’s certainly never been this bad around their crucial Wrestlemania season. Currently the following performers are down for the count: Seth Rollins, John Cena, Sting, Randy Orton, Luke Harper, Nikki Bella, Bray Wyatt, Adrian Neville, Cesaro, Tyson Kidd, Hideo Itami, Dana Brooke, and Tye Dillinger, among others.
An injured John Cena visits his girlfriend Nikki Bella, whose recent neck injury is career ending.
While I am of course sad I won’t see these folks in the ring this weekend, there’s more to it than that. I’m not just disappointed. I’m angry. I’m angry because all of these people more or less hurt themselves for nothing, because the creative forces behind the scenes of WWE have nothing to offer most of them.
Some explanation to get us all on the same page, since most of Pajiba’s regulars aren’t wrestling fans. Wrestling is a choreographed combat and stunt show, but it’s not fake. The impact and damage these men and women absorb is very real, and they take that hurt night after night. For instance, Bryan Danielson (WWE’s ‘Daniel Bryan’) recently had to retire at his prime due to injuries building up over his career. He also gave one of the classiest retirement speeches in sports:
The physical in-ring aspect of wrestling is supported by characters and storylines that are supposed to provide stakes and context. To make you give a shit about who is suplexing who and why. Sometimes the stories are complex, and sometimes they are as satisfyingly simple as ‘bad guy doing bad things gets punched finally.’
But more often than not in the WWE, those stories are just badly done. Or worse, they don’t exist at all. These characters wander directionless week after week, because WWE’s creative team could give a shit about 85 percent of their roster.
Here’s why that makes me more than a little nauseated when I think about it:
Imagine a beloved show like Game of Thrones. The writers have decided that the main focus of the show is going to be Bran Stark from now on. Sure, everyone else shows up sometimes, but their scenes rarely make sense, their plots are constantly dropped and ignored, and their characters have no consistency. You’d feel like HBO was going out of its way to make you not care about anyone but Bran Stark.
Now imagine that on top of all of this, all of the fighting and stunts were done by the actors for real. This becomes an insanely dangerous set to work on as every week your favorite actors are punching, falling, and being set on fire. If Natalie Dormer’s character gets tossed off of a castle wall, she’s taking that fall at the risk of her own health. But she has no real story. Nothing has built to this moment. You’ve barely seen her this season, but here she is, taking this fall because she’s worked her whole life to get onto this show. Because if the fans react positively to this, they’ll want more Dormer, and if the producers realize that more Dormer means more money, she’ll be rewarded with better stories.
Except that the producers are just going to make her keep jumping off that wall. No reward in sight. Wouldn’t you be furious? That’s what watching wrestling is. I don’t know why I still do it sometimes. Maybe I feel like I’d be abandoning Natalie Dormer to that wall jump if I left. I don’t even know if this analogy works. It’s honestly hard to explain the connection between crowd and performer at a pro wrestling show. It’s like watching a cool movie but also being in the crowd at the Superbowl.
Here’s a match between Dolph Ziggler and Luke Harper. It’s an intense, epic, and violent battle from last year that I loved. They stole the show, and killed themselves to prove that the sky was the limit with how far they could go. How high they could both climb the ladder.
Both of these guys put in that same amount of passion every time they perform. Dolph Ziggler is a fan favorite, and a complete afterthought on Monday Night Raw. Luke Harper is now a glorified extra, and was recently injured in a throwaway un-televised match that he wasn’t even the focus of.
I can’t imagine being a writer or producer with final say (which is basically just Vince McMahon) in the WWE and not respecting the men and women breaking themselves for my show enough to even give them the most basic of storylines, character arcs, or TV time. It’s not just about ‘ugh, this storyline suuucks’ or Vince McMahon being an out of touch old man.
It’s about him not giving a shit about the performers who have literally broken themselves to make him rich. It’s about a man who knows the risks of what these people do for a living and having zero respect for it.
McMahon has more than six weekly hours of television to fill. He has no excuse. It’s time he stopped being a monster, find some basic human decency, and use that time to allow the entire roster to do what they do best: perform.