Millions of Us Have Stopped Watching Wrestling - Can The Era of Wyatt Bring Us Back?
The following is an editorial submission by Combat Sports Columnist Ralph Welch. You can follow Ralph on Twitter @RalphWelchMMA.
There are millions of us out there who have lost faith in the world of professional wrestling. It was a world we used to love. But since the end of the Attitude Era, so many of us walked away.
Is now the time for us to come back?
And is Bray Wyatt the man to bring us back?
- THE MONDAY NIGHT WAR FOR OUR AFFECTIONS -
In the late Nineties, there was a war between two tribes and our affections were at the heart of it. We watched The Great One, The Deadman and The Game battle to be the King of New York. And we cheered as a Texas Rattlesnake sank his teeth into the billionaire hand that fed him.
In the South, we were transfixed by The House that Hollywood Built and a pack of dogs who ruled the New World. And when Goldberg smashed through the glass ceiling to deliver his own brand of justice, we wondered who – or what – was next.
Every Monday night brought a new instalment, an update from the front line of wrestling’s civil war. The combatants were fighting for prizes that were pre-determined, but the battle between their egos was real.
They matched each other punch-for-punch, blow-for-blow, pushing the human boundaries of pain and creativity. And week after week, as we tuned in by the millions, we became thirsty for more.
Somewhere along the line, that thirst got the better of us.
- THE THIRST FOR KNOWLEDGE -
It’s hard to pinpoint where it started. Maybe it was the books.
Mick Foley took us behind the curtain to tell us about the blood and the sweatsocks. Then came an avalanche of autobiographies which, word-by-word, page-by-page stripped away any mystique there was about the squared circle. Overnight, we’d repositioned ourselves without even realising it. We became self-appointed experts rather than fans. We thought we knew everything, because people were telling us everything. We knew their real names, their training, their backstage stories and how they crafted the words that we used to hang on each and every night.
Vince McMahon was no longer Steve Austin’s arch-nemesis. Instead he was a father-figure, embracing him behind the curtain after another night of top-dollar business. And, boy, did we know it was a business. Now we knew all about the booking committees, the politics and the pay-offs.
Nothing was a secret anymore.
The books brought us the information and the internet helped us share it. It was a 24/7 dirtsheet (that’s what the wrestlers called it, so we did too) that gave us every rumour and scandal from a world that used to be a mystery. Armed with our glossary of wrestling terminology, not only were we talking differently, we were watching differently. We discussed ‘pushes’ and ‘pops’, and as time passed, we stopped appreciating the spectacle in front of us.
- THE VOICE -
We talked about ‘the business’ - a business that Vince McMahon had grown at an exponential rate. By now he’d long since won the war with the South. He’d created a corporate monolith, a magnet to blue-chip brands impressed by his control on the market. With more money than ever before at stake, he had to control the narrative too.
His stars (his salesmen) were no longer trusted to go out on TV every night and deliver their own pitch. They were greeted at the arenas with scripts that must be committed to memory before the curtain jerked. We heard their words, but we knew the voice behind them. Vince was omnipresent. We saw different characters, but they were utterly transparent. We knew who was pulling the strings.
And he knew that we knew.
One of WWE’s favourite assertions is that it listens to the audience. It’s not strictly true. There is only one voice that counts and that belongs to Vince McMahon. He dragged wrasslin’ from the spit and sawdust circus tents into the new age. He created sports entertainment. And he’s not going to be told what his audience likes and dislikes. He’s going to tell them. No matter what the cost.
- THE APATHY -
What followed was a decade of faceless physiques, devoid of the individuality that their predecessors were allowed. The magnetic characters of the Attitude Era were gone, replaced by a conveyor belt of identikit athletes with the same, familiar voice.
The product suffered. The ratings plummeted. Year upon year, we drifted away from what we once loved. We were presented with a world that we knew more about, and yet cared less about than ever before.
Our apathy had overcome our sense of fun.
- THE SPARK -
The reality of being a wrestling fan – in any era - is that no matter how long it has taken for your love of the sport to die out, it needs only a spark to reignite.
There is a lot of conversation about how wrestling can bring back the millions. Is it the return of kayfabe, a return to traditional wrestling values, or a relaxation of the vice-like grip of creative control? They’re all valid theories. Yet maybe the truth is a basic one.
Maybe it needs someone who allows us to suspend our disbelief just enough to remember what it was like to watch pro wrestling and lose ourselves in the memories of our youth.
Maybe that someone is Bray Wyatt.
He’s a world away from the squeaky-clean star of today. He talks of buzzards, not buzz-words. He’s a lifetime away from the corporate sanitisation of the wrestling world we’d drifted away from. When he first walked down that ramp, a spark was lit. He was a lantern on a bland horizon.
The people responded in the arenas, shining their own lights of recognition. It was an organic reaction that confounded the puppeteers in the production truck. After all this man is meant to be the bad guy, right? The people saw something they hadn’t seen in a long time: depth.
Someone whose refusal to adhere to convention made us intrigued.
There have been peaks and troughs in his journey. Horrendous, baffling twists that have left fans scratching their heads and wondering if he was on the road to nowhere. Now their faith has been rewarded. Wyatt, the most compelling character on the roster, has gold around his waist.
- THE FUTURE OF THE WWE AND THE ERA OF WYATT -
If the Era of Wyatt is going to bring back the millions of disenchanted, then two things need to happen.
Firstly, we need to understand that, as fans, we only have ourselves to blame.
We wanted more knowledge than we needed. In hindsight, it would surely have been much more fun if we’d kept the curtain closed. Maybe if we’d just kept a little of the mystique we could enjoy it more now and allow ourselves the escapism that was afforded in our youth.
There is no one in Connecticut who doesn’t want you to enjoy the product. But the man in the penthouse suite won’t be bullied. He is lauded as a genius by all those who have worked with him. And if you’re a genius, in whatever artform, you don’t like being told what to do. That’s not going to change.
Anarchy hasn’t worked. In fact, it’s totally counter-productive.
Look around arenas these days and you’ll see the tell-tale signs: shouting down those holding the microphone, booing the guy you’re meant to cheer, and chanting for bygone stars because there is no emotional link to those of today.
That’s not helping. We’re forcing the performers to take insane risks just to get any kind of approval.
It can’t continue.
If you want to help your favourite performers, then buy their merchandise, rave about them on social media and cheer your heart out when their music hits. Use your energy positively, rather than constantly berating those you don’t like.
Trust me, you’ll enjoy the product a lot more.
Secondly, Bray Wyatt needs to explore the depth of his character organically and allow that to define his path. That means less of the hocus-pocus and the hi-jinks, and more of the depth and intrigue that has captivated us from the outset.
Put simply, he needs the time and space to find his own voice.
Outside of the squared circle, we are living in extraordinary times. Across the world there is uncertainty and apprehension about the future. People are working harder for longer but their futures feel anything but secure.
It’s in these times that artforms like professional wrestling excel. It gives us the escapism that we crave. It gives us storytelling – and the hope that good will always triumph over evil.
Most importantly, it gives us heroes. People who connect with us, who understand us and represent us when we want to rage against the great machine.
That person might, just might, be Bray Wyatt.
Once again, follow Ralph on Twitter @RalphWelchMMA.