This past Tuesday, the internet world of professional wrestling was a buzz about Smackdown Live. Only it wasn’t for anything that happened on the episode (despite it being the best post-brand split episode of either brand to date) – it was due to one segment on the post show, Smack Talk, a conversation show hosted by Renee Young and featuring Smackdown General Manager and former WWE World Champion Daniel Bryan. After weeks of trash talking Intercontinental Champion The Miz – stemming right from the moment he was drafted – Bryan was confronted by The Miz in hands down the best promo of his career. With Bryan calling The Miz a coward for weeks on end and mocking his title reign, Miz unloaded on Bryan and defended his ‘weaker’ style of wrestling as the reason he managed to stay injury free during his 10-year career in the WWE while a “bingo hall” wrestler like Bryan had to retire early due to his more high impact style of wrestling. By the end of the segment, the word shoot was overused on Twitter more than “burial” in a Triple H conversation.
The internet was going ballistic as it tried to discover the true story of whether Miz’s rant – which seemingly forced Bryan into submission as he walked off the set – was a shoot or a work. While there may be some of the former in the rant, it was most definitely a work. And if you look at some of the past few months biggest trending moments out of WWE, they all revolve around incidents that blurred the lines between fiction and reality, bringing back something that fans have lamented since the early 90’s.
Kayfabe, for nearly a century, was one of professional wrestling’s most sacred codes. It was what kept the magic alive, keeping the secrets of the trade and the blueprint of the industry guarded from the fans and the press. The wrestlers stayed in character for every public appearance, in one of the most extreme forms of method acting the entertainment world has ever seen. In the early 80’s, former wrestling great “Dr D” David Schultz became one of kayfabe’s legendary protectorates when he slapped 20/20 reporter John Stossel for asking The Question: “Is wrestling fake?”
But by the end of the 80’s, the gig was up, when WWE Chairman Vince McMahon proclaimed professional wrestling to be “sports entertainment” at a meeting with the New Jersey Senate in 1989 in order to lessen costs versus actual legitimate combative sports like boxing. And while the cracks were showing, the rise of the internet open doors and closets that the industry was unable to conceal and dirt sheets and online forums began to expose the reality of behind the scenes.
THE PIPEBOMB: June 27, 2011
The WWE’s first real foray back into the realm of kayfabe was CM Punk’s infamous “pipe bomb” from Raw on June 27, 2011. The “Voice of the Voiceless” commandeered the WWE microphone, sat down, and aired a list of grievances that seemed all too true and real (and echoed by much of the growing internet community) to be allowed by WWE management. The online revelation of Punk’s expiring WWE contract and his shocking win over then WWE World Champion John Cena on his “last day” of his contract only fuelled the hype. Many believed Punk had gone against the script and beat Cena on his own, to steal the title from the company. While it was later uncovered that he had signed an extension and it was all a work, this taste back into the foray of kayfabe whet the appetites of wrestling purists around the world. And while there was some brief attempts at similar “pipe bombs”, from such stars as AJ Lee, Dolph Ziggler and Ryback, nothing shook the Universe like Punk’s promo until the summer of 2016.
AJ STYLES vs. JOHN CENA: The Shoot Battle, Raw, June 6, 2016
When AJ Styles and John Cena locked horns in a first encounter promo, both men delivered dynamite performances that seemed to cut awfully close to the bone. Cena’s talk of indie wrestlers having a sense of “entitlement” and Styles’ classic line that “guys like you, bury guys like me” polarized the crowd into choosing sides: the indie purists behind former TNA, ROH and NJPW Champion AJ Styles and stalwart WWE icon John Cena backed by the WWE Universe. The use of insider lingo and the mention of promotions like Ring of Honor fuelled speculation that both men were getting personal in their promos. WWE would never allow them to use words like that…would they?
PAUL HEYMAN: The Conspiracy Theory, “Inside the Ropes”, London, England, July 11, 2016
During a brief period of unemployment from WWE (his contract had expired and he had yet to re-sign a new one), while on a speaking tour of the UK, Paul Heyman revealed a masterful conspiracy theory that instantly became the wrestling version of the “Fake Moon Landing”. Was Brock Lesnar booked to end The Undertaker‘s Streak at Wrestlemania 30? Or did Brock Lesnar simply do what Brock Lesnar wanted to do? The internet went berzerk. People who had never even considered such a shoot occurring suddenly found themselves covered by a shadow of doubt. Heyman, a masterful storyteller in and out of the ring, began his theory with the statement “Is Paul Heyman telling us something we aren’t supposed to know…or is just fucking with us?” And thus the mythology of Brock Lesnar was further enhanced by something that just felt so bone chillingly real, that it must have happened. Right? Right??
CESARO’S RANT: Raw, July 19, 2016
When the GM’s were announced for the Brand Split of 2016 as Mick Foley for Raw and Daniel Bryan for Smackdown Live, it was clearly pointed out that Smackdown Live, under both Bryan and Shane McMahon‘s leadership, would be the wrestling show, using the seemingly banned word from the WWE lexicon as one of its principle selling points. There would be less vignettes and longer matches. So the WWE Universe was shocked when Cesaro, generally regarded as one of the company’s better wrestlers, was drafted to the flashier Raw brand. Following the announcement, being interviewed by JoJo, Cesaro went on a rant that he was disappointed in not going to Smackdown and slamming the very idea of Raw. It cut deep in many people’s souls as being a stone cold shoot, that Cesaro was genuinely upset with the management’s decision to keep him on the brand that would be closest to the regime that had previously undervalued and underused him. Was it a work? Or was it a shoot? Most agree it was wrestling at its best – a work that was allowed to be delivered with some truth and honesty, without the scripted lines WWE had become reliant on.
DOLPH ZIGGLER: The Superkick, Smackdown Live!, August 16, 2016
And impassioned Dolph Ziggler finally showed the world he could cut a promo – so much so that people thought he was simply fed up and telling WWE World Champion Dean Ambrose off for real rather than following any cue cards or scripted lines. The intensity was so overwhelming that the “out of nowhere” superkick to Dean’s jaw left the WWE Universe stunned for days. It’s too bad they didn’t carry that same momentum throughout their match at the PPV that weekend. But not to worry, something else at that PPV rocked the world’s perception.
THE LESNAR ELBOW: SummerSlam, August 21, 2016
One of the biggest reasons The Miz segment from this past Tuesday hit with such a force, was because the WWE Universe was still reeling from another incident just days prior, at this years SummerSlam this past Sunday night. In a shocking main event, Randy Orton returned from nearly a year long injury recovery to a massively hyped main event slot against “The Beast” Brock Lesnar…only to be decimated and left bloodied in the ring, in a scene that left the entire world stunned and questioning whether real life tensions may have carried over and Lesnar had legitimately gone off script and knocked Orton out. WWE has shied away from blood for years now as it fought to maintain it’s PG rating, but the blood that was pooling on the mat indicated a far different story. The shoot was so convincing that reports emerged the next day that locker room leader Chris Jericho confronted Lesnar at the Gorilla position after the match under the presumption that Lesnar had gone off the script and seriously injured Orton, before Triple H and Vince McMahon himself calmed Y2J down under the assurance (from Orton himself) that it was all part of the plan. But those images haunted the WWE Universe and proceeded to build on those words that Heyman had delivered from the stage in London only a few months prior. The WWE Universe, who only months earlier cheered him as a fan favourite and made his “Suplex City” shirts one of the highest selling items of merchandise, now turned on the Beast, calling him a psychotic threat to the safety of the other wrestlers, a limited pro wrestler who was a threat more than a spectacle. Which is exactly what the WWE had been trying to do for the past year without much success.
If the New Era has done anything, it’s help restore some of the lost magic that today’s pro wrestling has had to endure. The loss of true kayfabe, the unknown mystery of the magic trick.
But in age of dirt sheets, Twitter, Snapchat, and whatever new fad comes along tomorrow, we’ll never get it back at a true 100%.
But as long as the WWE keeps inserting moments like this in it’s New Era, then at least we’ve got hope in recapturing those iconic moments that brought us shock and awe and coming back for more.
(Main Photo: Jamie Greer)