It is often said that WWE does its best booking when backed into a corner. That is, whether through injuries to performers or sudden waves of popularity or other factors, when the company has to change or invent stories on the fly is when it tends to produce its best work. Daniel Bryan is a perfect example of this right now, for the second time.
But when it comes to being pushed into a corner to generate ratings or buzz, the WWE generally only refers to the same tired, frustrating, and frankly insulting playbook. Open the closet marked “Legends” and empties it. And there was no more shining example of WWE’s lack of creativity, lack of empathy, or lack of impetus to do anything about the first two than their announcement that Hulk Hogan will co-host Wrestlemania with Titus O’Neil next month.
A little background: This is the first Mania to be on Peacock, NBC’s streaming service, since the agreement between WWE and NBC to move everything from the WWE Network to Peacock. So you can imagine NBC execs want WWE to do everything they can to make sure a still-altered Wrestlemania, due to the pandemic, is going to draw big numbers and subscribers to Peacock. And Hogan’s inclusion is somehow WWE’s solution, or one of them.
This isn’t the first time that WWE has re-animated Hogan for whatever need they might have, it’s just that each time they do so feels worse than the last. Hogan is, quite simply, a piece of racist shit that no one in the company wants much to do with other than the guy at the top, Vince McMahon. And sadly, his way still goes. It was truly awkward viewing last night, as during the “Fastlane” pay-per-view that had brilliant, Black performers such as Sasha Banks, Bianca Belair, Big E, and Apollo Crews, their appearances were interspersed with promos for Hogan’s inclusion on Mania. It doesn’t exactly make it seem like WWE can read the room or even care to. All four of those wrestlers are slated for Mania matches, and in all four cases it’ll be their first singles match on a Mania card. And all four have the ability to steal the show and vault themselves into superstardom. And the idea that they’ll have to share that stage with Hogan is as dispiriting as it is infuriating. Hogan admits to using offensive language but insists the “people who know [him] know [he’s] not a racist.”
Mania is a celebration of all things WWE, including its past. And Hogan is a huge part of that, and to simply try to whitewash him out of it would also be folly. Hogan might be the biggest reason McMahon is a billionaire today, after all. But not erasing history is different than trying to crowbar it into the present when it clearly doesn’t fit. Wrestling has moved on from Hogan, and thankfully so. Or it would if people like McMahon weren’t so intent on having him around.
One has to feel for O’Neil, a beloved figure in Tampa thanks to his constant charity work and gregarious personality who has to share a stage with a coughed-up hairball like Hogan who has made it clear he doesn’t much care for or understand people like O’Neil, i.e. Black people.
Some have said this is yet another beleaguered attempt by McMahon to rehabilitate Hogan’s image, and certainly positioning him right next to O’Neil could make it look like that. But what’s more likely is that McMahon doesn’t give a flying fuck about Hogan’s image. WWE just signed yet another billion-dollar deal with Peacock, not long after it signed one with Fox for Friday Night Smackdown. What could possibly happen in the backlash to Hogan’s hosting Mania that McMahon would even notice? He’s been handsomely rewarded for all the decisions he’s made, even if more and more of them in recent years defy logic or decency.
It is much more likely that Peacock and NBC demanded that Mania do well, so McMahon went to the only lever he knows in these spots. The one that got him where he is. And all the other stuff that comes with it, the stuff we care about, McMahon is at best unaware of, or more likely uncaring. Or worse yet, McMahon is doing it on purpose, because he knows no one can stop him or make him care. It’s as likely as any other possibility.
We reached out to WWE for comment but received no response.
Meanwhile, over in Japan, New Japan Pro Wrestling concluded one of its two big yearly tournaments over the weekend, the New Japan Cup. Most of the time, NJPW acts as a bastion for fans who want to be free of WWE’s nonsense. But this time, NJPW jumped waist-deep into the kind of bullshit that WWE specializes in.
Will Ospreay won the tournament, and for those who don’t know, Ospreay is also a dumpster of a person. He was one of many names to come to light during the #SpeakingOut movement, and while he wasn’t accused of assault himself, he was accused of getting women wrestlers who had spoken out about their abuse and mistreatment blackballed from shows in the U.K. Ospreay denied the alleged blackballing. Which wasn’t the first time Ospreay has stepped in it.
NJPW has never shown any inclination to do anything about Ospreay, pretty much vaulting him to the top of the company right after those stories became public. And if it wasn’t bad enough that they had Ospreay win one of their premier tournaments and earn himself a title shot at their next PPV, they then capped it off with an angle where Ospreay put his finisher on his real-life girlfriend Bea Priestley to “break up” with her after the match.
While Priestley is an accomplished wrestler herself, this was not positioning to an intergender match. This was Ospreay being an abusive dick. It is impossible to think that both NJPW and Ospreay are unaware of the buzz around him for the past year at least. You’d think one or both would have some interest in trying to repair his image in some fashion. And yet, this is what they gave the fans. That’s not just deaf, it’s insulting. It’s a middle finger to those with genuine, worthy concerns and complaints.
It’s sad that this is what WWE and NJPW could find common ground on.