Thursday November 27th was Thanksgiving in most homes in the United States. While most of you were with your families watching football and listening to your uncle talk about Fox and Friends, former WWE wrestler CM Punk broke his 10 month silence since leaving the WWE the day after the Royal Rumble in January. Speculation ran rampant: he was tired, he hated working at WWE, he was hurt, he was suspended, he was fired, he quit, or maybe his leaving was all part of the show. The line between reality and fiction in professional wrestling is pretty thin. Over the course of two hours on his friend’s Colt Cabana’s podcast The Art of Wrestling (The WTF Podcast but for wrestling, with over 200 episodes) Punk aired his grievances and explained why he has been at home the last 10 months.
If you haven’t heard it yet please take the time to listen to the story straight from Punk’s mouth. According to Punk, he was fired on his wedding day, underpaid for his work, his likeness was misused in advertising by WWE licensee 2K Sports, he was concussed, continually disrespected by management, and most seriously, was suffering from an antibiotic-resistant staph infection that could have killed him. In a strange turn of events, Stone Cold Steve Austin (yep that one) will be interviewing Vince McMahon tonight LIVE on the WWE Network following Monday Night Raw. Will Vince address Punk’s accusations? Punk says lawyers have already settled things between him and WWE and he will never be returning. What will Vince say tonight? Will the CEO of a publicly traded company (who also plays the character of the CEO of a publicly traded company on TV) use his platform to speak honestly, or will we get a vaguely worded press release and then an hour of talk about how much fun we all had in the 90s? I have no idea.
The WWE is the NFL of wrestling and it has many of the same problems. Drug abuse, concussions, shady doctors, clearly placing profits over people, a fan base that sides with ownership over players, and far too many deaths related to the lifestyle. Is it time to stop watching? Fellow Bro Jackson writer Robert Rich, The Second City’s Daniel Strauss, and I podcast about wrestling and had a lengthy email chain about our feelings today.
Mark Colomb: What was your first thought when you heard CM Punk’s interview with Colt Cabana?
Robert Rich: Honestly? My first thought was, yeah, sounds about right. I think everybody who’s remotely in tune with wrestling on a non-mark (fanboy) level knows this is the way WWE operates, but it’s still pretty surreal to have it actually confirmed. And from a guy like Punk, who, even though he’s kind of a dick, really does want to be the best in every single thing he does, including wrestling. Based on the stories he told, he was creatively and physically stifled at every opportunity.
Sitting at home, doing our podcast we do every month, tweeting back and forth, watching the shows, it literally seems like the easiest thing in the world to run the WWE, make good storylines, make good matches, and entertain the fuck out of people. And yet, every day they screw it up. Is it harder than it looks, or are they all that fucking stupid?
And on a sidenote, if everything Punk said is entirely true, I’m bummed that HHH isn’t the savior of wrestling we all thought.
Mark Colomb: The appeal of wrestling on some level is identification. Punk was the person that brought me back to wrestling. A dude from Chicago, covered in bad tattoos, that loves punk rock and wrestling? I can relate. Over the course of almost two hours, Punk explained how the WWE exploited him physically and financially and at the end of the podcast I realized I don’t want to watch anymore. I abhor the constant state of faux outrage most people maintain on twitter and the internet. There are about a trillion things more important than wrestling today but I feel like this is something worth getting upset about it (this is how people end up commenting on articles and posting on reddit).
But if it came out that HBO in one calendar year lost a member of “Game of Thrones” due to internal racism (Alberto Del Rio), or that someone died in part due to the things required to be on HBO in the past (R.I.P. Ultimate Warrior) and then another person had a life threatening infection and concussions and couldn’t get help–would you still want to watch “Game of Thrones?” Not to mention all the money stuff. Lets just start with all the health related things Punk mentioned, even if it was limited to that don’t you have trouble watching now? Didn’t we know most of this before? Why don’t wrestling fans care about wrestlers?
RR: Exactly, identification. At the end of the day, Punk is just cool. And he has fun being cool. But the main reason he’s so cool is because he’s the one guy in WWE that doesn’t “act” WWE. He doesn’t care about pissing off the boss, he doesn’t care about speaking his mind, and because of that, he’s able to get himself better angles and better creative and he pushes himself to have great matches. No one else really cares about that though.
Your GoT analogy is perfect. I think, to answer your “why don’t wrestling fans care about wrestlers?” question, as much as I know that this shit happens, it’s almost like I tell myself it doesn’t. This stuff is bad, morally inconceivable, and just plain stupid. There’s no way this really happens, right? Oh it does? But like seriously, it doesn’t really, right? WWE is publicly traded and now pisses themselves every day about shareholders and public perception, and yet they treat their wrestlers like this? That’s messed up.
My question to you now is this: will this really change anything? The story got picked up a couple of times, WWE put out a half assed press release about their doctors, but will it make a difference? Will we see more focus on health? Will Punk’s revelations somehow lead to better creative and better storylines? Will this actually be addressed tonight on Austin’s podcast with Vince?
MC: What other thing in entertainment is like the WWE? The circus? “Saturday Night Live?” It’s a traveling weekly variety show. The fan base is perceived to be low rent and undesirable to advertisers. As an adult the first thing people say when you tell them you watch wrestling? “You know it’s fake, right?”
I think that attitude from the populace allows people to dismiss the horrible realities of wrestling. The show is scripted which somehow makes all the terrible things this company does fake too. Or that it doesn’t matter because it’s wrestling. I’ve seen people protest at SeaWorld and the circus about how they treat the animals. Since wrestling is “fake” it is easy to not take seriously when all the elephants keep dying.
I don’t think anything will change, because they don’t have to. There are always people willing to do anything to achieve their dream. With effectively a monopoly on North American wrestling at that scale what will force the WWE to change? If all the wrestlers left tomorrow there would be hundreds of dudes lined up to take their spots. The WWE is losing money this year and probably next year and has made no effort to update the product. If they don’t want to change now I don’t see them ever changing.
One of their former biggest stars just laid it all out and short of TMZ, no one even cares. I don’t believe that Stone Cold is on the WWE payroll right now but that doesn’t mean he’s Mike Wallace. He’s a former wrestler who made millions thanks to Vince McMahon. I bet we get a lawyer approved Q&A on Punk. What would you like to hear?
RR: It has to be the “wrestling is fake, all this drama about WWE being a terrible workplace must be too” mentality. Because while you’re right that there would be 50 million guys lined up if the entire roster quit now, the same can be said about acting. LA is choked with aspiring hopefuls just waiting for their big break while they either slave away at Starbucks or do unspeakable things in amateur porn. So what’s the difference then between acting and wrestling? Aside from the cultural perception that wrestling is low-brow, it’s that acting is unionized. They’ve got a guild. One that gives them benefits and protects them when the corporate studios try to screw them.
And WWE still doesn’t have that. You get put into the machine, you suffer the penalties of cost cutting measures (unless you’re John Cena) and yet you have nobody to take care of you. So you either stand up and say listen, I’m hurt, I can’t work, and then you get either pushed down the card or cut altogether, or you do what Punk did, and you say I can work through this, I will work through this. And then you probably get hurt more.
At the end of the day, I just don’t know what the success metric is in the eyes of WWE executives. People are getting hurt and now CM Punk is calling us out. Eh, we’re still successful. Kids are buying John Cena merch, but every other fan is annoyed with the product. Eh, we’re still successful. We have some guys that are pretty damn over right now, but we keep giving them shitty storylines written by people that don’t understand wrestling and overseen by Vince McMahon, who’s out of touch. Eh, we’re still successful. Why? Who makes that call?
I’m sure you’re right about Austin’s podcast being lawyered up, but honestly, I’d just love to hear some candidness. We screwed up, we let him go, it’s our fault. Even if you don’t talk about the medical stuff, there’s still a ton of possible topics. Honestly, Austin isn’t tied to WWE anymore. He’s made his money, and he’s still got plenty of revenue avenues he can use. There’s no reason he shouldn’t tear into Vince hard and ask him the tough questions. I don’t know if he will, but there’s no good reason not to.
MC: The union thing is huge. These guys are on TV performing scripted material. Why exactly aren’t they SAG/AFTRA? From the outside, it seems like there isn’t a single person that has the performers’ best interests at heart. Having someone backstage advocating for profit-sharing, the performers and some level of medical responsibility from the WWE is a start.
Wrestlers are independent contractors, which allows the WWE to use them up and spit them out. You’re sick? Too bad you have two television shows to tape. You’re injured? Too bad three house shows this week too. Also we need you to promote the network, the video game, do a podcast, tape something for the network, and then pay for all your own medical and travel. That sounds like the kind of job Upton Sinclair would write about it.
Daniel Strauss: I’m very torn right now. Punk is the person who reminded me why I fell in love with wrestling in the first place, and now, ironically, he has reminded me of the reason I stopped watching. Chris Benoit was my favorite wrestler, and when I realized working in this industry had effectively destroyed his brain, I decided this was no longer something I could support. That feeling has definitely returned, and at this point, truly enjoying the WWE product doesn’t really feel like something I can do. It’s remarkable because based on their PR machine, I really did think they’d cleaned things up quite a bit, but I guess just putting on gloves when someone starts bleeding shouldn’t be confused with actually caring about anyone’s health.
What I’m still struggling with is that Punk even says in the interview that he doesn’t mean for this to just be a “shoot” on WWE. That he still has friends (Christ, his own wife) who work there. And lord knows, even Cabana doesn’t agree with him on everything he says. But after listening, I’m not sure I can really enjoy watching any sort of wrestling, at least, for some time unless massive changes are made backstage. The fact that the biggest game in town is running their show like a traveling circus is beyond appalling, and doesn’t bode well for smaller promotions who are barely competing.
Not only that, but if Punk is to be believed, the creative decisions are basically made the way it appears on dirt sheets. Not based on what’s best for the storylines or the wrestlers, or even the fans, but based on the insecurities of retired performers working behind the scenes (???). When Punk’s push got slowed after the “Summer of Punk,” I always figured there was some kind of purpose behind it. But no, the truth is no one can ever be bigger than Cena, because he’s the money maker, and booking is being done by a former B+ player in the Attitude Era who has rewritten the story to make it look like he was the second coming of Bruno (Kevin Nash towards the end of WCW, anyone)?
Finally, another thing that has stayed with me is the biggest difference between guys like Colt and Punk and WWE, and why they will never mesh: to them, wrestling is an art form. It’s about storytelling. It’s about creativity. It’s about making the best move, not for business, but for the story. For WWE, it’s about drawing money. Listening to some of these other wrestling podcasts, that’s what it’s all about: making money and getting paid. That’s why 50% of them are just ads. Not Colt’s show.
So basically, what I’m saying is, does CHIKARA! have a network subscription service yet?
MC: Also going back to the HBO thing. A few horses died and they stopped filming “Luck.” According to America Horses > Wrestlers.
DS: Look at what happened on Grey’s Anatomy when Isaiah Washington called TR Knight a homophobic slur! He was written off the show INSTANTLY. Only in WWE do you fire the guy who was the victim of racism or bigotry first.
MC: It’s funny you mentioned CHIKARA! having a streaming service. As of December 1st, New Japan Pro Wrestling (my personal favorite) has a streaming service for the low price (not a joke) of 999 yen. My WWE subscription is up next week and I think I will stop renewing and give my money to New Japan. I really have no idea what their labor practices are like, but the wrestling is a million times better.
RR: WWE’s the biggest game in town. Pretty much the only game in town in the US. If you want the spectacle, if you want the high production values, you have to watch WWE. They know that. That’s why nothing will change.
It’s a fucking shame because wrestling is such a cool thing. It’s a wonderfully weird mixture of vaudeville / the circus / Shakespeare / sports / Cirque du Soleil / standup comedy, and god knows what else. I love it and I always will. But this is like someone telling you there’s no Santa Claus and then constantly beating you in the face with his severed hand. Not the wrestling is fake part, but the “this terrible, terrible shit happens at this company” part.
MC: It’s like finding out that Santa is only in it for the money and he loves the taste of elf stuffed reindeer.
RR: And Mark, that’s what’s so hard for me. I’m invested in WWE, I know the history, I can look at the back story and all the story lines. With NJPW, I have zero knowledge of what’s going on, and it’s hard to follow story lines based in another language. That makes me reticent to switch. But I’m just sad watching WWE now. I don’t know what to do.
MC: Let’s wrap this up. Will you still watch? What would you change? How did your opinion of Punk change? How did your opinion of WWE change?
Will you still watch?
RR: For now.Raw tonight and the podcast with Vince after are pretty huge for me at this point on if I keep going. But, I still love a lot of the guys out there. I’ll probably keep watching because I love the wrestlers, not the company.
MC: Most likely tonight is it. I would love to hear Vince say that they messed up and are working to change things. If I don’t hear that then yep, I’m changing my money over to yen.
What would you change?
RR: Give the wrestlers a union. Beg, blow, do whatever to CM Punk, bring him back as creative director (pipe dream).
MC: Let the wrestlers into the screen actors guild or AFTRA and get them health insurance.
How did your opinion of Punk change?
RR: Pretty much stayed the same. I’ve always respected his candidness and still do. Good for him that he was frugal enough to save money and make it possible for him to leave when he needed to. And thank god that staph infection didn’t actually kill him.
MC: Nope. Loved him before. Still love him. Not my business if a guy doesn’t want to work somewhere. I just hope he’s healthy and happy.
How did your opinion of WWE change?
RR: Continues to go downhill. I’m not surprised about the shady stuff going on, but I am a little surprised at just how bad that shady stuff is. Basically, it just keeps making me sad that nothing is going to change it seems like.
MC: Horrible things keep happening in the wrestling business. I continue to watch. I know better.