Published on February 23rd, 2015 | by Gareth Davies0
Has Vince McMahon Lost His Audience?
“Out of touch”. Ever since CM Punk dropped some science (DON’T CALL IT A PIPEBOMB) on Colt Cabana’s ‘Art Of Wrestling’ podcast, those words have haunted Vince McMahon like he was a Grammy award winner and they were Kanye West. After a disastrous couple of months where his personally penned promos for Roman Reigns managed to make the former Shield member the least likeable hero since Lance Armstrong, and where he managed to upset his entire roster by claiming they were feckless millennials and that Cesaro was too European to get over, McMahon now must be feeling the heat as a lacklustre build towards WrestleMania limps on.
In a panic move brought about by a raucous Philly crowd and a less than clear vision for the future, the main event for last Sunday’s ‘Fast Lane’ was Reigns versus Daniel Bryan with Da Big Dawg’s shot against Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania on the line. Despite the result, that Bryan should be featured at all in the run up to the Mania main event is an astonishing turn of events, especially considering that Bryan was pencilled in for a meaningless feud with Sheamus on “The Grandest Stage Of Them All” only a few short weeks ago
And yet despite all this it appears that Bryan’s continued popularity is the one thing Vince McMahon can’t quite accept. Even with audiences cheering for him up and down the land, The American Dragon is still not in contention to be the next face of WWE. At least not in Vinny Mac’s eyes. You can almost hear the excuses from here. Too small. Too plain. Not muscular enough. Not a good enough talker. Etc. Etc.
However in blinding himself to Bryan’s strengths as a leading man, McMahon may have missed the boat on the next big trend with today’s wrestling audience. If the Attitude Era perfectly encapsulated Generation X’s patented brand of disenchanted cynicism, then maybe the modern fan voicing their support for the humble and easy going Washington native is symptomatic of a bigger cultural shift.
Take a look at the current pop culture landscape. Gone is the in-your-face, like it or leave it attitude of the late 90’s and early 00’s. In its place is a broader, more eclectic society that is willing to accept and embrace people’s passions and dreams. The digital age has made the entire globe inclusive, a place where genres once shunned by the mainstream have concentrated their audience and suddenly exploded on to cinema screens, televisions, and books. Comedian Dana Gould probably summed it up best when noting that “20 years ago people would laugh at you for going to comic cons. Now those people are the ones running comic cons”. During the attitude era, Eminem, South Park and The Farrelly Brothers dominated the airwaves. Today Hollywood’s biggest female star is Jennifer Lawrence (described recently by Time magazine as “everyone’s bestie”), its biggest male star is Chris Pratt, and the largest crowd puller on YouTube is a stick thin Swedish goofball with strong cheekbones who plays videogames. We’ve gone from Slim Shady encouraging you to spit on someone’s onion rings, to loveable dolt Andy Dwyer becoming the world’s most must-see matinée idol.
Yet WWE’s programming doesn’t really reflect this. Now that’s not to say Vince McMahon is out of touch per se. Anyone who has the sense to launch an OTT streaming service to safeguard his television product could not be accurately described as being behind the times. Instead it’s that this generation’s sensibilities are so far removed from his own that it’s completely alien to him. It’s not an age thing, but a personal one. McMahon is an alpha male, or at least aspires to be one. At 69 years old his physique is jacked, he works 20 hour days, and as history has shown he will use any and all resources in his power to ensure he comes out on top. He considers the Stone Cold Steve Austin character to be based largely on himself, a guy always taking on the bigger boys and someone who would punch you in the mouth if you disrespected him. That’s Vince. A man’s man.
Which is why he let his frustrations about his current roster spill out on Austin’s podcast. McMahon enjoys being challenged and confronted. It’s what motivates him. So when he looks around his locker room and sees no one badgering him about losing to this guy in that match, or complaining about how much they’re getting paid, he thinks no one cares enough. Performers like Shawn Michaels, Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, and Bret Hart did not always act like model professionals. But in McMahon’s eyes such behaviour proved to him that they wanted it more. With the exception of Punk, it appears that type of personality is thin on the ground in today’s WWE.
But that in and of itself is why the fans flock to Bryan. He’s a nice, genuine, normal guy who happens to be a fantastic pro wrestler. He’s someone who folks can identify with. He’s not the “men want to be him, women want to be with him” hero of yesteryear. People want him to succeed because they feel connected to him. In wrestling terms Daniel Bryan is Jennifer Lawrence. He’s your friend who is really good at what they do, and you can’t help but root for them.
That McMahon can’t see this – or if he can he certainly isn’t willing to take advantage of it – is why WWE has ended up in the mess they’re in now. There’s nothing wrong with trying to build Roman Reigns as a top guy, provided you have patience and enough sense to hide his weaknesses until they are conquered. But forcing him down people’s throats and trying to create a Fisher Price John Cena while casting Bryan to one side has created a headache which could and should have easily been avoided.
There’s an argument of course that regardless of the botched Reigns push, there’s no guarantee that a character like Bryan’s could be the one to carry a promotion on his back. After all, just because people chant his name doesn’t mean they’d be willing to follow him when he’s the undisputed focal point of the company. Wrestling has always been about larger-than-life characters, not friendly guys who just want to compete. Cena walks around wearing colours so bright they could startle birds out of the sky. Hulk Hogan was a living cartoon character. Austin would drink beer and greet everyone with a middle finger salute. Maybe guys who are just ‘nice’ can never be true blue main event players.
Except they can. And what’s more, WWE have proved it themselves with NXT. The NXT roster contains any number of competitors who could be its leading light. There’s the egotistical and athletic Tyler Breeze, the self-serving destroyer Kevin Owens, the young up and comer Baron Corbin, the charismatic Finn Balor, the high flying Adrian Neville, and a legit international sensation in Hideo Itami. But the real star is Sami Zayn, a skinny Syrian-Canadian who spent most of his formative years as a fake luchador. “Why is he so popular?” you may ask. Well, its because Sami is nice. There’s no other reason for it. Yes he’s a talented grappler, but probably not as good as either Itami or Neville. Yes he can cut a good promo, but isn’t anywhere near the talker Owens is. And as far as theatrics goes no one can hold a candle to Balor.
But once again, Sami is nice. Not just in how he wrestles and what he says, but the way he carries himself.
For example, recently when NXT backstage interviewer Devin Taylor returned to TV after some time off, Sami greeted her with a “Great to see you back” and a warm smile as if she was on old friend. Another time when Neville interrupted a Sami interview to issue a challenge, Zayn handed Neville his own microphone before picking up another. Not to mention that prior to each match Zayn will take time to say hello to the referee and the ring announcer after entering the ring.
And guess what? The people love him for it. When he recently won his fist NXT title, the crowd was so happy they were jumping up and down and hugging each other. It was a crazy, glorious, wonderful scene. A rhapsody of sheer joy. Because the NXT faithful consider Sami to be one of their own. A good kid, living his dream. And as such he’s the most popular wrestler in NXT by far. There really is no reason why Zayn couldn’t transition that success to a bigger stage.
Except that Sami Zayn will inevitably face the same roadblock that Daniel Bryan has. There is after all only one man who holds the key the WWE’s throne room. And in Vince McMahon’s view, for the moment at least, nice guys always finish last.