Disclaimer: This is a guest column requested to be published under my moniker. Unless the demand is honestly there, I still plan to stay on a relaxing hiatus. My Disqus was deactivated over a week ago. Please support this author, as we need more voices in the internet wrestling sphere, regardless of your personal bias towards one “side” or another (and yes, we all have them, whether you want to admit it or not).
Guest Columnist: Steamy Ray Vaughn
“Toxic Wrestling Fandom”
I want to start this column by thanking T5W for allowing me to use his platform to voice my opinion. Not a lot of people would be so willing to publish a stranger’s text and it speaks volumes to his character that he’d be willing to do so.
My name is Steamy Ray Vaughn (ok not really but that’s the handle I use on most social media) and I’ve been a pro wrestling fan for 30+ years. I’ve written wrestling columns in the past, but as I’ve gotten older and time has become more of a scarcity, I prefer going in the comments section, on Reddit or on Twitter to have discussions with other wrestling fans, since that’s what I’ve always liked. I love a good debate and since writing a column doesn’t guarantee engagement, I’ve chosen to go that route.
However, I’ve been seeing a trend coming in the last few years, but it’s gotten worse in the last few months, of really extreme tribalism amongst wrestling fans. I vividly remember the Monday Night Wars, I was in high school and was around for the newsgroups in Usenet, the forums and the birth of what would become the IWC. I was hooked on the Net pretty much the first time I got my own computer (I think I was around 15) and since I always liked wrestling, having the chance to talk with fans from all over the world was fetch as hell (Stop trying to make fetch happen Steamy, it’s not going to happen!).
If you watch documentaries nowadays or hear from WWE, they’ll tell you that there was an all-out war between WCW and WWF, that there were fans on both sides and that there could be only one. Nothing could be further from the truth. I remember very well that while there were people who only watched one product, most wrestling fans watched BOTH. Yes, they might prefer one over the other, but you wouldn’t hear the kind of vitriol you see online today between “WCW” and “WWF” fans. They shared an audience who liked pro wrestling and were interested in what the nWo was doing, as well as what Austin was going to do to Mr. McMahon. Were Vince and Bischoff serious? Of course. But for most fans, it was more fun and games than an “I hate you” war.
So what changed?
1- History is written by the victors
The narrative that has been pushed by WWE over the last 20 years is that it truly was a war, that WWE were in danger and that Ted Turner and Time Warner were out to spend whatever amount they could to steal WWE’s top stars. I’m slightly exaggerating of course, but the message has still been that WWE was the underdog and that basically it was a war to end it all.
Since WCW’s closing, there hasn’t really been a company that has come even close to challenging WWE for talent. Because let’s be clear here, it’s all about talent. Yes, there are other metrics that matter when it comes to running a wrestling company, but the bread and butter, the item that is the scarcest is talent. That’s why WWE built a Performance Center, to try and recruit athletes who may not become wrestlers otherwise and ensure they have talent to put on TV. It can take years for someone to break out of the pack and become a star, so when there’s an International free agent or someone who is making noise on the independent scene available, they become valuable.
Iron sharpens iron. You can teach someone how to do the moves, how to take a bump, but it’s by getting in the ring with someone else, especially someone better, that they’ll grow. When WCW and ECW closed, WWE now had access to all these great pro wrestlers and no one to outbid them. That was a sweet deal and for decades, it went unchecked. Sure there was TNA, but while they had some good young talent, they weren’t going to outbid WWE; the talent that stayed in TNA either loved the company or weren’t on WWE’s radar. When NXT was at its peak, it was the go-to destination for veteran indy talent and international free agents to go and be a part of the WWE system but with more freedom and a much lesser chance to get lost in the shuffle. WWE had the perfect system in place. It could use its Performance Center to find potential gems as well as sign the top independent talent who bring credibility to their developmental brand and potentially become stars on the main roster, it was the best possible scenario for a company that sat alone at the top of an industry.
But then came AEW.
Now financially, WWE’s basically fail-proof at this stage thanks to their huge TV deals and selling the Network to Peacock. Before they sell even a single ticket, they are guaranteed about 750M$ in revenue.
We know they have a ton of revenue, but what about expenses? Well, like any other business, their biggest expense is people, more specifically talent. As a public company, it’s not enough to just make money, they have to show growth quarter over quarter or the stock value falls. If the stock value falls, the net worth of the biggest shareholders (which at the time would have been The McMahon family/Triple H) also falls. Having someone else with money, that’s got a national TV deal in place barely out of the gate, that’s bad news. Now it’s no longer “take it or leave it dear wrestler”. If you don’t like the WWE’s offer, you can go knock on Tony Khan’s door and see if he’s willing to pay. Good for talent, bad for business.
So what did WWE do? Immediately they put NXT on the USA Network for 2 hours (whereas it used to be a 1 hour taped show on the WWE network). Now I don’t believe this was done just because of AEW. It makes sense to sell the rights and get even more money, but the timing sure was convenient. All of a sudden there’s competition for talent, and WWE paint the target on AEW. A new generation of wrestling fans have grown up hearing that competing with WWE is bad and that WWE is the be all and end all. They now aim for a repeat of what they did against WCW, but it backfires. The tactic doesn’t work and NXT moves nights to Tuesday. This was a big blow to WWE’s ego. NXT was their ace in the hole. Putting RAW or Smackdown against Dynamite would have absolutely won them the “ratings war”, but not only would it have been overkill, there could have been no denying that the WWE wanted to put AEW out to pasture before it could even become a thing. But NXT? It’s a small show, it’s also very similar in nature to the product AEW would put on and they can spin it as a coincidence. With that, the seeds were planted. While the discourse wasn’t as toxic as it would get later on, there was some partisanship on both sides. The “Wednesday Night War” they called it.
And so the whispers started.
2 – The American Nightmare returns
In 2019, Cody Rhodes, The Young Bucks, Kenny Omega and ROH put on a massive event in Chicago. A love letter to independent wrestling; no letters on the marquee, just two words: All In. That night, sitting in the stands is a lifelong wrestling fan and son of a billionaire, (Shahid Khan, owner of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and EPL’s Fulham FC), Tony Khan.
The success of that event, combined with the clear passion and desire of The Elite to stand out and prove that you can have a successful and lucrative career without the WWE, results in the Elite joining forces with Tony Khan to form AEW. They start off hot with their first event, Double or Nothing in 2019. Here is this new company that’s never put on a show before, and they go straight to PPV. It was a bold move, and it worked. To put a cherry on top of a successful event, Jon Moxley, previously known as Dean Ambrose, debuts. Mox had just left WWE voluntarily, letting his contract expire and choosing to join a brand-new promotion instead of staying in WWE and the security that comes with a steady paycheck. Soon after, we learned that AEW will be airing a TV show on TNT every Wednesday starting in October 2019. The whispers now become murmurs, especially given that 4 of their wrestlers are going to be Executive Vice President. Is this going to cause a conflict of interest? What kind of power will they have and can they co-exist? Wrestling is a business of egos and while they may all be aligned now; their backgrounds couldn’t be more different. The grandson of a plumber, born into wrestling royalty and who made a name for himself in the biggest promotion in the world; two skinny brothers from California who became experts at marketing themselves and helped bring attention to tag team wrestling, and a young Canadian gaijin who made a name for himself in Japan by having incredible matches that caught the attention of the IWC.
And for the next few years, we see talent leave WWE to go to AEW. Some of it due to releases during the pandemic, some of them choose not to renew their deals in order to take advantage of an opportunity to have freedom and be themselves while making good money. It seems it’s a one-way street. And then, a shocker, Cody Rhodes, one of the founding members of AEW, an EVP and one of the biggest stars on the original roster, leaves and returns to WWE in early 2022. He comes back to WWE in triumphant fashion, at WrestleMania, with the exact same presentation he had in AEW. Same gear, same nickname, same music, same entrance. He’s welcomed like a conquering hero and presented as a star.
This isn’t Stardust, it’s not Legacy Cody, the message is clear…this is the man. WWE doesn’t do this often. Right away it’s clear that Cody isn’t being brought in just to be another guy, but a top guy. This was the Cody who was stuck in the “Codyverse” in AEW, refusing to turn heel and who was floundering in the midcard. By doing this, WWE was sending a message to wrestling fans and to any potential AEW talent that was hesitant about possibly joining WWE.
Now this event starts discussions. What happened backstage to make Cody leave his own company? Did he not get along with The Bucks? Were his ideas ignored? There are rumors that the inmates run the asylum in AEW and now the backlash starts. Fans who ignored AEW, who made fun of Cody for his work in AEW celebrate his return at WrestleMania as the conquering hero who came home. It’s not just that someone from AEW signed with WWE, that was going to happen one day, but it was Cody Rhodes, who was the most visible EVP. To be fair, we don’t truly know what the EVP job entails, there’s never been much clarity given apart from having some influence over creative, but Cody was on TV wearing the headset, he was much more open and transparent about his duties. People therefore assumed he was happy and was looking forward to AEW’s continued growth and then, he goes to WWE. Not only were there murmurs, now there’s rumblings. The earth is shaking amongst the fandom and while we’re not at the catalyst yet, it would soon come.
END OF PART 1
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