Punk and McMahon, For Real: Wrasslin’ Wednesday 12/10/14

Wrasslin Wednesday Header

Derek: We’re coming to you live (two days later) from Greenville, South Carolina! The inferior Carolina was the site of this year’s Slammy Awards, which we will now go over briefly.

First, let’s put an end to textspeak in awards. I know this isn’t exactly highbrow entertainment, but must we have awards called the OMG Moment of the Year or the LOL Moment of the Year?

Will: Of course we must! Social media! Viral content! Esoteric contemporary marketing jargon!

Derek: Second, the WeeLC match between Hornswoggle and El Turrito was not an “LOL Moment.” It made me legitimately uncomfortable. It was the hands down winner of the “Wow I Can’t Believe I’m Enabling This Company to Make Things Like This By Subscribing to the WWE Network” Moment of the Year.

Will: My god. WeeLC. The stunts pulled in wrestling are not that different from those pulled at the circus, but I would prefer not to think about that fact too often. I can’t wait for a bearded lady wrestler with a hormone disorder.

Derek: Winning Match of the Year was the main event at Survivor Series. I thought it was deserving, recency bias aside. Before the award, I thought the two most deserving matches were that one and the match between Evolution and The Shield at Extreme Rules. Both were nominated, so that was cool. The Survivor Series match was a bit better, though.

Will: Agreed. It was a fine match and a worthy winner, but I have a hunch that the most recent main event would have won no matter what it was. Even if, say, the Evolution vs. Shield match from June was clearly superior, it does WWE little good to shine light on six-month old events. Wrestling basks in its own history as much as any entertainment medium, but not until that history is way back in the rear view mirror. Celebrating the recent past risks marginalizing the present.

Derek: In a bit of an upset, Roman Reigns took home Superstar of the Year. He even showed up to accept the award in person. I thought it would be Rollins, Ambrose, or Daniel Bryan. Ambrose would have been the clear choice if WWE hadn’t murdered his momentum at Hell in a Cell, so I thought Rollins would be the guy. I didn’t think Reigns ever got to the level of the other three, and he missed a good chunk of time with his injury.

WWE claims this stuff is voted on by the fans on the WWE app. Of course, this is wrestling, so they may have just picked the winners themselves. That seems more likely with Reigns winning. He’s scheduled back in the next few weeks, so naming him Superstar of the Year could give him a bit of a push as he eases back in.

Will: Yes, I think there is reasonable doubt that the fan vote alone determined the results. I can’t imagine people voting Reigns for the top individual award with how long he’s been out of commission, but I suppose a lot of the voters are more than a decade my junior, and I haven’t combed that demographic’s polling data recently. Between this award and his occasional promo appearances, everything is pointing to a major Reigns push whenever he gets back to action.

Derek: Oh, and when Raw ended, almost all of the members of Team Cena and Team Authority were beating each other up in and around the ring. There were tables, ladders, and chairs everywhere. I’m not sure why.

Any thoughts on Raw or the Slammys before we move on?

Will: …Nah.

Derek: Terrific! Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk CM Punk and Vince McMahon. Last week, we were criminally unprepared to discuss their podcasts, as we were under the impression Raw wouldn’t be a waste of time and we’d need to discuss it. We aren’t making that mistake again. We have caught up on podcasts of note and are ready to discuss them semi-competently. Care to kick things off, Will? What’s your reaction to the proceedings?

Will: Having active wrestling personalities on podcasts is a funny thing, as many podcasts are built around revealing interviews. But since wrestlers are always in character, at least that’s the perception, what is there for them to reveal? There is a fuzzy line between the actual universe and the WWE universe. For these podcasts, however, Punk and Vince were on opposite sides of that line.

As we now know, Punk has moved on to UFC. He had been estranged from the WWE for months, with ugly rumors circulating about the reasons for and nature of his departure. He used his friend Colt Cabana’s podcast as his soapbox, and he went in hard on how it all went down.

The biggest bombshells were that WWE knowingly sent him his termination papers on his wedding day (Vince claimed it was an accident), he was pumped full of drugs to keep him ring-ready (disturbing, but not shocking), and that Sports Monocle favorite Ryback is a wildly dangerous wrestler and a threat to the livelihood of all who face him in the ring. That last point is one that I wouldn’t think about often, but it makes complete sense. Wrestling is fake, but the bumps are very real, and knowing how to give them is just as important as how to take them.

Punk wanted to tell his side of the story, and I think he accomplished that reasonably well. His take is inevitably one-sided, though I don’t think he took any unreasonable shots. Wrestling–that is, WWE–is known for being less than kind to its workers, notably its sketchy classification of talent as independent contractors, freeing them of obligations to provide insurance and other benefits.

Vince and WWE in general came out of this looking really bad. The controversies facing him and WWE are not dissimilar from those that Roger Goodell and the NFL deal with. Both raise significant moral questions, namely: How can we fans support these institutions given their apparently limited value of human health?

Did Punk make you rethink being a wrestling fan? Do you feel weird shelling out for the Network given his statements?

Derek: Yeah, I kind of do.

If what Punk said about the WWE doctor is anywhere close to true, the man should lose his license. Would’ve been nice if Punk mentioned his name.

It puts me in a tough spot, much like watching the NFL. It’s kind of messed up, but no one’s making them do it and they get paid really well so that makes me feel better. Then when I hear something like “my clear staph infection was ignored so I could wrestle,” that logic is thrown out the window. He was sick for months, and he could have died! And if he had, can you imagine how Vince would have spun it?

You’re right about it being super one-sided, and I’d pay good money for a podcast featuring just McMahon and Punk. I guess I just have two problems with Punk’s side of the story.

First, if the doctor was such an incompetent scumbag, Punk should have seen his own doctor much earlier than he did.

Second, it’s clear that he said yes too much. I’ve seen it happen before, and been a victim of it as well. If you say yes too much, your boss will start to take advantage of you. Saying yes becomes expected. Then it seems like you’re the jerk for saying no when your boss is the jerk for always asking you to do crappy and unenviable jobs. It’s lose-lose no matter how you handle it.

It was clear that Punk was trying to be the guy who would always say yes and could be counted on to do whatever was needed. Vince pounced, and Punk took it much longer than he should have. His story was full of stories that went “Vince asked me to do something I didn’t want to do, I didn’t like it, but he kept asking, so I eventually agreed.” As I was listening, I kept wondering why Punk didn’t try politely telling Vince to go to hell on a few occasions instead of just letting it all build up and walking out on the company hours before Raw.

Other than that, it’s tough to side against Punk. WWE goes through great lengths (for PR purposes, I’m sure) to inform the audience that the performers are trained professionals and we shouldn’t try what they do at home (or anywhere). But, if Punk is to be believed, Ryback isn’t a trained professional. He kicked Punk so  hard he broke his ribs, and threw him on the wrong part of a table. McMahon trotted him out there anyway.

McMahon, for his part, seems almost as heel as his onscreen character. He apologizes for Punk’s wedding day severance papers on Stone Cold’s podcast though, according to Punk, he won’t apologize to Punk personally or on the phone. Vince loves his company, and it seems that he will say or do just about anything to keep it afloat. I enjoyed how he kept stubbornly refusing to call WWE “wrestling” and how he acted like only WCW was saying negative things about WWE during the Monday Night Wars. He simply improved his product and left the WCW to their childish tactics.

Yeah, right. Remember Gillberg?

Will: I loved Vince and Stone Cold quibble over wrestling vs. sports entertainment. I loved Vince say the WWE Network was doing fine, and then favorably comparing it to Netflix, with a straight face. I loved Vince saying WWE beat WCW because they had more passion. I loved how clearly Vince’s god complex came through the speakers. Man, he seems like an ass, which is exactly why we love him on-screen.

Derek: So, yeah, it feels pretty weird supporting a guy who probably wouldn’t think twice about putting a bullet between my eyes if it would help his company.

I wouldn’t say I’m thinking twice about watching WWE just yet. I enjoy it, and not actually seeing this stuff removes it from my consciousness to some degree. They’re on notice, though. Some of the stuff they’re doing is horrible, and the only protest they understand is when you stop giving them money. Plus, Punk was my favorite wrestler, and now he says he’s never coming back.

Do you believe Punk when he says that? And how about his UFC future? Are you buying it, or do you think it will be a spectacular failure?

Will: I do not know a thing about UFC. Mixed martial arts has never tickled my fancy — ironically, given the tenor of this conversation, because it’s so brutal.

In my mind, there are two contrasting elements that will guide Punk’s UFC experience. First, he’s a big draw. The only reason you and I are talking about UFC is because Punk made it a story. The same is true of wrestling fans everywhere, and of casual sports (entertainment) fans who are intrigued enough to offer an ear. Accordingly, UFC doesn’t want him to get embarrassed, because then they would be embarrassed, so expect Punk to get a couple winnable fights early on. The only people who would benefit from him getting squashed A) have the surname “McMahon,” or B) are UFC fighters whose space Punk is occupying.

The other driving factor is that Punk is not really a qualified MMA fighter, far as I can tell. There are reports that he has trained significantly, and I don’t doubt that that’s true, but he doesn’t have a background in any one UFC-ready skillset. He isn’t a grappler or a striker. He can’t skate by on his brute power like Brock Lesnar. What is he as a fighter?

I wish Punk the best. I hope he has a life after WWE. That said, I don’t rule out a return to wrestling for him. We’ve seen the Rock leave, we’ve seen Brock leave; we’ve seen all kinds of superstars move on to bigger and better things, only to come back when the grass wasn’t greener or because Vince made it worth their while.

Despite the shady healthcare and Vince’s posturing and the million reasons not to do it, guys come back to pro wrestling. There’s something about it that we can’t grasp from the outside, a brotherhood and spirit to it that The Wrestler tried to capture. Punk spoke about this during his podcast, and I imagine he felt conflicted about leaving “the boys” behind.

I support Punk not because I wholeheartedly agree with him — there’s a disconnect between his bristling at not being a WWE main eventer despite putting in all the work, and then taking the spot of such a worker in UFC — but because he’s taking the wrestling conversation to places that it needs to go. Insofar as we love the characters and the stories and the blood, it’s easy to forget that those are real people out there. Maybe it’s more comfortable to ignore that fact.

Either way, I’m interested. I’m interested in how the Punk/McMahon feud plays out in the long run. I’m interested in how Punk fares in UFC, and how that will affect WWE. I’m interested in how WWE will move on without Punk, if WWE addresses him further, and if he will ever return.

I’m interested because this whole saga is brilliant sports entertainment. Of course it is. That’s been Vince’s business all along.

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