WWE acting as its own undertaker

By
Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Over winter break, I went to see the movie “The Wrestler,” and as I watched Mickey Rourke portray Randy “The Ram” Robinson, an aging professional wrestler, it got me thinking. First, I realized that I had found the perfect Halloween costume for next year, as my friends will attest to my love of blond glamor wigs. But secondly, it occurred to me that if I were asked to name a single current professional wrestling star, I would draw a blank.

Now, I was never a wrestling fan by any means, but in the ’90s, I was certainly aware of the stars of the wrestling world, like Hulk Hogan, Duane “The Rock” Johnson and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Today’s professional wrestling scene seems to have lost any of its mainstream appeal, for a variety of reasons. Over the last decade, Americans have developed a taste for greater authenticity in their television programs, with an explosion of reality TV and laugh-track-less sitcoms. Meanwhile, increasingly popular mixed martial arts organizations, particularly the Ultimate Fighting Championship, have filled the niche of “no-holds-barred” fighting, eliminating the theatrics and planned stunts that characterize professional wrestling matches.

The front page of the World Wrestling Entertainment SmackDown Web site features a promo for “Royal Rumble,” which comes in the wake of a WWE championship match in which Jeff Hardy, who was competing for the title, was knocked out. By a metal chair. By his brother, Matt Hardy, a fellow wrestler, who was not competing in the match. Pure sport at its finest, indeed.

The worst part is that the match that the WWE is advertising is only available on Pay Per View. The WWE is digging its own grave if it expects to keep a significant paying fan base on the basis of absurd stunts, while other sports, like mixed martial arts and even football, offer action just as extreme, minus the shenanigans, which greatly detract from the realness that draws so many people to sports.

Even more confusing was the WWE’s decision last July to tailor its PPV events to a TV-PG rating, rather than TV-14, in what the organization described in a statement as an effort to make its product more “family friendly.” It seems that wrestling is struggling to find an identity, and though, according to its Web site, the WWE still attracts 15 million viewers weekly, the sport will decline if it fails to maintain any aura of uniqueness. Currently, though, the no-holds-barred fighting style is no longer limited to wrestling, and a need to suit TV-PG parameters has the potential to lessen the entertainment value of the sport’s theatrics. It’s going to be awfully tough for organizations like the WWE to maintain popularity if their business models become heavily dependent on PPV events.

Boxing, too, appears to have suffered a decline in mainstream appeal, in large part due to the lack of cooperation between the four major boxing organizations. While the title of Heavyweight Champion used to be a label associated with larger-than-life stars like Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, the four boxing organizations currently recognize three different heavyweight champions, and those three boxers can hardly be called celebrities. I mean, I certainly couldn’t envision a grill marketed by Nikolay Valuev (the World Boxing Association champion) to be all that popular a consumer product.

On Saturday, Shane Mosley defeated Antonio Margarito at the Staples Center in Los Angeles for the world welterweight title, in front of a crowd outside of only 20,000 – which ESPN boxing analyst Dan Raphael nevertheless cited as evidence that “the dopes who insist boxing is dead have no clue.”

Raphael is right, in a sense, in that boxing still has a core of extremely dedicated fans. Despite this core of fans, boxing has damaged its widespread appeal, putting too many championship fights on PPV, alienating all those except fanatics from enjoying the sport.

America loves violence and drama, and at their best, wrestling and boxing can deliver those elements as well as any sport. Those sports, though, are demanding more commitment and more money out of fans at a time when both sports have started to lose their individual niches in the athletic world.

Benjy Asher ’10 is going to go start a fight with someone.