WrestleMania, social media and the dramatic evolution of a franchise
Playwright and writer Christopher Sullivan reflects on last night's WrestleMania 31.
It began with about ten head butts.
In the end, it was Daniel Bryan’s head that emerged victorious, as Dolph Ziggler’s fell from the top rung of the ladder to the floor, allowing Bryan to seize the Intercontinental Championship belt dangling above. Basked in the sunlight of the outdoor arena like a Roman Coliseum, thousands enthusiastically raised their arms up and down chanting the chorus, “Yes!” Bryan’s simple, optimistic, one word slogan.
It was a gift to the WWE’s dedicated fan base at this year’s WrestleMania, but not quite the one they had wanted. Two months earlier, controversy erupted at the Royal Rumble, an event where 30 wrestlers enter the ring and one leaves to go on to face the World Heavyweight Champion at WrestleMania, the WWE’s flagship event of 31 years.
WrestleMania 31 via WWE.com
The fans wanted Bryan to win, but instead got Roman Reigns, an upstart who comes from a dynasty of wrestling royalty, most notably his older cousin Duane “The Rock” Johnson. For Reigns, who many fans consider to be lackluster at best, to win the Rumble was seen as a snub. Fans poured out of the arena chanting “We Want Refunds,” blocked traffic, and on Twitter started #CancelWWENetwork, which trended nationally for days. The online outrage was too much for WWE dramatists to ignore. While not quite the Arab Spring, social media has given wrestling fans a tool to make sure their voices are heard in real time.
The fans’ rage wasn’t quite towards the outcome of the match but towards WWE top brass and writers for not understanding what they had wanted in the first place. Roman Reigns was seen as a manufactured star, given a title shot without gaining the fans’ trust first. In essence, it’s like being upset at any other TV show when the ending doesn’t turn out to your liking. The difference being, most other shows can’t react in real time. The WWE has to.
Professional wrestling, or sports entertainment, has always balanced its larger than life, fantasy storylines with cold reality. Events like injuries and contract negotiations are constantly interrupting the predetermined script. In the late 90’s, the WWE (then the WWF) fought for ratings and talent against World Championship Wrestling (WCW) in what was known as the “Monday Night Wars.” Vince McMahon of the WWE bought WCW in 2001, and in a dramatic mashing of the real world and scripted, McMahon announced the deal to both audiences. Here was the president of a publicly traded company, announcing the acquisition to both the wider world and the fictional universe, which he was now the complete mastermind of. The world of professional wrestling evolves in a unique sphere that neither the world of sports or Hollywood can occupy.
Vince MacMahon announces he bought WCW
As someone who followed wrestling growing up but hasn’t in a long while, what was most striking about WrestleMania 31 was how steeped it was in its own history and mythology. When watching as a kid, the world was very much contained in the present. Now the organization touts its decades of story under the slogan “Then. Now. Forever.” The night was filled with cast throwbacks engineered for fans of yesteryear. Stalwart Triple H faced off against Sting, one of the main WCW stars who never made the jump to WWE. In a clash that had been fantasized by fans of both brands for years, WWE’s D Generation X brawled with WCW’s New World Order, featuring a surprisingly small cameo by a Nike-clad Hulk Hogan. Later in the evening, The Rock, who pops in and out of storylines between his acting work, clashed with Triple H and Stephanie McMahon who run “The Authority,” a sort of throwback to the bad guy “Corporation” her father was the lead heel of in the late 90’s. Then there was the annual crowning of the WWE Hall of Fame, featuring a gaggle of old timers making their way to the ring for their coronation.
The Undertaker entrance, WrestleMania 23
It was all red meat for old fans, especially when The Undertaker returned for his 23rd WrestleMania to take on Bray Wyatt. Wyatt plays a sort of spooky, possessed dark soul, not dissimilar from the character The Undertaker has played for decades. After not being seen since last year’s WrestleMania (and his first loss at the event in his career), Undertaker returned and immediately transported me to my 11-year-old self. The commentators Jerry “The King” Lawler, and John “Bradshaw” Layfield, themselves veterans of the ring, remarked in a moment of candor what good shape the Undertaker was in, even better than last year. He ended up defeating Wyatt to maintain his role as the “face of fear” of the WWE.
After seeing all of these old stars in the ring, it's easy to see why the WWE is anxious to fast track fresh talent like Roman Reigns. As the night neared the headline event, an interview played of Reigns talking about how he “deserved this,” a theme that’s been hammered over and over following his controversial win in Philadelphia in January. It’s an awkward way to address the controversy, and Reigns is an awkward talent. As he walked through the crowd, signs read “Reigns Wins, We Remain Apathetic” and “Reigns is a Wank Pheasant.” Reigns faced off against Brock Lesnar, a truly scary man who himself won the title his first year in the WWE after having been a brutal Ultimate Fighting Champion. The match ended in a surprise twist, as Seth Rollins interrupted to cash in his “Money in the Bank” briefcase, turning the choreography into a three way and giving him a shot at the title. He quickly pinned Reigns and became the new champion.
Overall, fan reaction to the night seemed positive and it’s clear that the organization has learned if it doesn’t keep fans interests at heart, they won’t be afraid to react. It’s a tough balancing act for the company as it grows into its own entertainment behemoth. Ads throughout the night promoted original scripted shows on the WWE Network, its 24-hour streaming service. Rollins, the new champ appeared on NBC’s “Today” show this morning. But even as the brand grows and expands in ways unimaginable during the days of “Monday Night Wars,” it stays amazingly true to itself. When Daniel Bryan was interviewed later in the evening following his win in the ladder match, the fan favorite was joined by some of the newly crowned hall of famers; Ric Flair, Rowdy Roddy Piper, and Bret Hart, all chanting his signature “Yes!” It was a nice moment for fans young and old, during an event that commentator Michael Cole described as “The greatest event in live entertainment.” And it’ll remain so, as long as the dramatists listen to the house.
Chris Sullivan is a writer and playwright living in Brooklyn. He writes for the Youngblood Theater Group.