When you watch WWE programming for a long time, certain patterns emerge, ranging from production quirks to how matches are laid out to certain tropes that consistently recur in the storytelling. One of these is the way WWE lets show its utter contempt for its audience. Hell, it showed up recently when, in the “Bayley: This is Your Life” segment, the Bayley character—a virtuous, sometimes childlike superfan—was derided for wanting to watch SmackDown and Monday Night Raw every week. At the end of the day, WWE tells fans, we’re stupid dorks, dumb marks to be conned.
That contempt for the fanbase was a huge, yet largely forgotten part of one of most famous, yet disastrous storylines that WWE has ever produced, which kicked off 10 years ago this month.
In 2007, WWE was in excellent shape. The weekly television programming was the most consistent it had been in a long time, with quality matches and storytelling up and down the cards on both the Raw and SmackDown brands. Business was up, thanks to the rise of John Cena and, to a lesser extent, Batista, to the point that veteran wrestling journalists were bullish about a new boom period for WWE. That year’s WrestleMania was the biggest ever in terms of pay-per-view buys, thanks to the Vince McMahon and Donald Trump putting up their hair in a match where they were represented by, respectively, Umaga and Bobby Lashley. Trump was riding the wave of the huge success of The Apprentice, and his iconic hair being at stake against McMahon’s had the kind of larger pop-culture relevance that WWE has usually lacked. Umaga lost, of course, resulting in McMahon losing a mane so perfect that he often asked heel color commentators to joke that it was a wig.
The McMahon-Trump interplay was just the cherry on top of WrestleMania 23. Not only was it a rousing business success, but it’s a strong contender for the best top-to-bottom show in WWE history.
At the time, Lashley was the ECW champion. (WWE had revived the extinct indie promotion as a third on-air brand.) He was also the beneficiary of McMahon’s latest attempt to create a genuine new mainstream superstar. To prolong their on-screen rivalry, the hair match led to McMahon trying to get revenge with an assist by his son Shane, as well as Umaga. Eventually, this resulted in Vince winning the ECW title in screwy fashion. In terms of sheer trolling, McMahon was never a better performer than he was here, dubbing himself “The Doctor of Hardcore” to rile up the old ECW fans after he got an honorary doctorate from Sacred Heart University. Eventually, he lost the belt back to Lashley, triggering another wild storyline in which the promoter went into a deep depression and had a breakdown as a result of the title loss.
It was magnificently weird and entertaining television, which led up to “Mr. McMahon Appreciation Night” being held to cheer up the company chairman. Numerous stars from the past made cameo appearances. (This included Bret Hart, who had not appeared on WWE programming in a decade, sending in a video from his home in Hawaii.) The show built to Vince coming to the ring to address the crowd, only to muster up a meek “Thank you” before retreating backstage.
There, he was greeted by much of the locker room, all looking solemn except for Paul London, who was grinning like an idiot on purpose. (This eventually led to his firing, but he maintains that nobody gave him the proper guidance on what was happening.) Mr. McMahon slowly made his way out of the building en route to his white stretch limousine. As he walked outside, the camera pulled back to show two random guys passing a joint back and forth in the background. It took a good minute for Vince to get into the limo, as he repeatedly turned back to glare at the arena door and the random pot smokers. He stepped into the limo, hesitated a bit, and then closed the door. As soon as it shut, the limo exploded. The flaming wreckage was all that television viewers saw as the copyright notice appeared on screen and the show went off the air.
If you were watching, you probably had one of two reactions: Either you were turned off by WWE doing a death storyline, or you burst into maniacal laughter and hailed the avant-garde brilliance of it all, especially coming 24 hours after the series finale of The Sopranos. Within moments, WWE.com announced that Mr. McMahon was presumed dead, and the company put out a press release the next day that was entirely in-universe:
STAMFORD, Conn.—(BUSINESS WIRE)—While some might say “The Sopranos” went out with a whimper, last night on USA Network, WWE’s “Monday Night RAW®” went out with a bang. At the end of his self-anointed “Mr. McMahon Appreciation Night,” WWE Chairman Mr. McMahon entered his limousine when it suddenly exploded. The shocking ending raised a myriad of questions: How could Mr. McMahon have survived the fiery explosion? And who could’ve committed such a heinous act?
Although full details have not been disclosed, initial reports indicate that Mr. McMahon is presumed dead. An official investigation into Monday night’s events is currently underway with no one being ruled out as a suspect. Throughout the night, people from Mr. McMahon’s past - from Donald Trump to Snoop Dogg to Bob Costas to Stone Cold Steve Austin™— had less than flattering things to say about the WWE Chairman, but would any go so far as to actually blow him up? The question of “whodunit,” as well as the fate of Mr. McMahon, will be on everyone’s minds as the WWE saga continues on “Monday Night RAW” on USA (9 p.m. ET/8C).
It was easy to bask in the complete ridiculousness of it all, which included the WWE flag on the roof of the company headquarters being flown at half-mast. After all, if WWE wants to say that its programming is more action-adventure soap opera than a pseudo-sport, then let them be an action-adventure soap opera. The mood changed quickly, however. WWE TV shows became wall-to-wall Mr. McMahon tributes, which was expected. The way that the tributes were handled, however, was not.
Going back to when Owen Hart died in a rigging accident in 1999, WWE had a well-established template for episodes of Raw or SmackDown directly following wrestler deaths and major tragedies like 9/11. The show would open with a 10-bell salute to the departed, and ongoing storylines would be thrown out the window for the night. Instead, the balance of the program would consist of straight wrestling matches done live in the arena between the broadcast of testimonial video tributes shot in front of a generic backdrop backstage. Many of the tributes were touching, though some there were occasional skeptics. Still, if a wrestler on the roster died, or America was attacked in utterly catastrophic fashion, this is what you had come to expect from WWE.
WWE proceeded to use that as the template for the Mr. McMahon tribute shows.
It’s hard to tell just how much this was thought through by McMahon and his deputies on the creative team. If they didn’t think it through at all, that would be better, because if they did, they made the conscious decision to spend a good week or so pointing and laughing at the emotions wrestlers and fans showed during past tribute shows. Note for note, everything was essentially a parody of the past tributes, which were fresh in fans’ minds because they had seen two of them just over a year and a half earlier when Eddy Guerrero died. The announcers mimicked the same flat, dejected tone of voice first used by Jim Ross to explain to pay-per-view buyers that Owen Hart had suffered a tragic fall in 1999; the shows were formatted the same; the testimonials were shot and lit the same.
Being that this started as an insane, outsized parody of major TV show stunts used to hotshot ratings and get attention, didn’t that mean that the past tribute shows were, in fact, ratings stunts? What did this say about what had taken place less than two years earlier, when Guerrero, just about everyone’s favorite wrestler—a son, brother, uncle, and father who was considered the nicest human being on the face of the planet by just about everyone who worked with him—actually died, and was mourned in at times ugly, sobbing fashion throughout said four hours of tribute shows?
It was troubling, perhaps especially so because wrestler deaths were common enough that it seemed inevitable that one would come along soon that would “ruin” the storyline. That happened when then-recently inducted WWE Hall of Famer Sherri Martel died just four days into the storyline. WWE soldiered on, with the real-life McMahon clearly emboldened by the criticism.
A realization soon set in: WWE wasn’t dropping this unless someone on the roster died. If that happened, they would have no choice but to throw the story out, not just because McMahon would have to appear, but because the company would be forced to scramble and figure out how to memorialize someone without using the existing tribute-show template that had been needlessly made useles. Openly reveling in prostituting the grief of not just your labor force, but also your customers, was a puzzling decision, and before long, it was obvious to everyone outside of WWE that the promotion would eventually have to deal with the consequences.
Less than two weeks after Mr. McMahon was blown to smithereens, the WWE office got a call from Chris Benoit. His wife and son were violently ill with food poisoning, he said. Benoit was told not to worry: Just take care of his family, skip a show, and take another flight to make the next day’s pay-per-view event in Houston. Why would anyone in WWE talent relations worry? This was one of the most dependable wrestlers on the roster.
Chris Benoit, of course, never made it to Houston.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.