It would be fair to say that the build to Sunday's WrestleMania 33 has not gone well as few of the matches have captured people’s imagination, and every week in the final stretch on the Road to Wrestlemania has resulted in fans getting progressively less interested.
To me, the reason for this disinterest is because of Vince McMahon’s fatal flaw as a booker: a lack of emotional intelligence.
Pro wrestling is a business built around trying to elicit reactions from the audiences. Promoters make money by making the fans cry, cheer, laugh, leer, gasp, jeer, shout, or scream; sometimes a combination of all of them. A good promoter understands emotions and works to manipulate them.
Like his father, McMahon was never the most adventurous booker. Throughout the 80s, all he would have to do is develop heels that would rile up the Hulkamanics. In the 90s, he used himself to antagonise Steve Austin’s growing army of fans. Along the way, McMahon seems to have confused the ease with which he convinced fans to hate their beloved hero’s opponent with a more thorough ability to manipulate his audience.
The best example is when WWF finally defeated WCW in the Monday Night Wars. At the point that he led his promotion to victory over its hated rival, McMahon refused to let the fanbase revel in the shared triumph. Instead, he tried to turn WCW babyface to further the pre-existing storyline between him and his son, Shane.
McMahon’s belief that the hatred WWF partisans had for WCW was less important than his family soap opera is a telling expose of his mental process. It shows his deluded belief in a bull-headed kayfabe, believing that his storylines can triumph the reality of his fans' emotional reactions to the product.
This insistence on ploughing ahead with pre-planned storylines is badly undermining interest in this year’s WrestleMania card. Look at Seth Rollins. That him missing Wrestlemania after being WWE’s 2015 MVP would ender him to viewers was obvious to all but those booking Raw. Even people within the promotion clearly understood as the WWE 24/7 documentary was clearly a salvage job of footage previously planned to help hype Rollins’ return ala HHH in 2001-02.
And if fighting the fans’ desire to embrace Rollins upon his return was a mistake, what happened next was a fiasco. Somehow, WWE thought that the crowd was ready to embrace Rollins after he had injured yet another popular performer (Finn Balor), cementing his reputation as a reckless worker. The second that injury tcost Balor his title and months of his career, Balor returning to seek revenge on the man who injured him was the natural direction. Instead, Balor is sitting out this year’s WrestleMania because they can’t find a place on the show for him.
Another good example is Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho. The growth of the two men’s friendship dominated Raw throughout the winter, and the comedic bantering between the two best friends became a highlight of WWE programming. There was no indication that fans were tiring of the act, and every piece of evidence suggested that fans were desperate to embrace both men. It’s amazing that a promotion who has long highlighted WCW’s idiocy in breaking up the Hollywood Blondes when recounting Steve Austin’s career insists on doing the same to an even more successful act.
If WWE booked with a grain of fans’ desires, they would have sought to turn both men babyface. Imagine if the Festival of Friendship had ended with Owens revealing HHH's attempts to persuade him to betray Jericho, and the best friends united to face HHH and Samoa Joe at Fastlane, leading to two fresh singles matches at WrestleMania for the two Raw singles championships. Instead, Joe is not even wrestling on the biggest show of the year.
We see similar mistakes with the booking of the world championships. Goldberg cannot be a credible world champion in 2017. This is not acting and just because he looks the part does not mean he can pull off the role. Yes, he has charisma but his ring work clearly lacks the credibility and consistency required.
Whereas in his prime he could participate in relatively prolonged and even exchanges of power moves (look to his excellent matches with Scott Steiner), today it seems he would struggle to simply deliver more than five. Whereas in his prime he could work a full house show schedule, in the current culture, he will most likely win and lose a world title during a return to WWE that has encompassed four matches...and one of them was a battle royal!
It’s exactly like the 2002 revival of Hulkamania. Fans were happy to see Hulk Hogan back and were excited to see dream matches, but felt their intelligence was being insulted when he was given the world title. That Goldberg won the title in yet another short match compounded the problem, whereas at Survivor Series it seemed like an ingenious surprise finish. Now the realisation is dawning on even the most credulous fans that maybe Goldberg just isn’t capable of doing anything extensive anymore.
What too many people fail to accept is that the world title has never just been put on the biggest star with plenty of money-drawing acts being denied the championship because promoters didn't feel they could credibly promote them as the best in the world.
At the other end of the spectrum is AJ Styles who is quite clearly the premiere performer on SmackDown. Since the Brand Extension, Styles has been the dominant personality on Tuesdays, whether it be through his surprisingly effective promos or his typically excellent ringwork. And yet, SmackDown’s world championship will be contested between two performers who, until January, were languishing in the midcard; one a failed cult leader and the other a successful arsonist.
Meanwhile, Styles will be in a match with Shane McMahon that would have much more naturally played to Dean Ambrose’s strengths.
It’s wrong to say that fans don’t care about WWE performers. They really do. The problem is that Vince McMahon doesn't understand their feelings towards to his superstars. He couldn’t understand their appreciation for Rollins' superb 2015 performances, nor their dismay as he cost Balor his opportunity to be a headliner. He couldn’t appreciate how much fans enjoyed Jericho and Owens' comedic bantering, nor their desire to see them turn on the corporate overlords seeking to split them up.
He couldn’t recognise that people enjoy Goldberg as nostalgic special attraction, nor that they recognise Styles as the best performer on Tuesday nights. Rather than booking to capitalise on these emotions, he’s ploughed ahead with storylines completely divorced from his fanbase’s feelings.
So, it's no wonder that part of his fanbase feels completely divorced from his storylines on the biggest night of their year.
Will Cooling writes for Fighting Spirit Magazine, the UK's biggest and best full-colour pro-wrestling and mixed martial arts newsstand magazine. This month, he interviews Travis Banks about what it takes to successfully manage the business side of the pro wrestling business. FSM is available in print from all good British and Irish newsagents, and the digital edition is avaiable worldwide through www.tinyurl.com/PocketFSM.