Vince McMahon is nothing if not predictable.
In 1984, when McMahon first expanded what was then known as World Wrestling Federation nationally, he signed significantly more wrestlers than he had any idea what to do with, which left once-potent regional stars languishing on undercards or spending their time out of sight on Middle Eastern tours. In 2019, with new competition on the horizon in the form of All Elite Wrestling, McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment has once again been warehousing wrestlers to the point that many barely even get in the ring. M.J. Jenkins, for example, signed a year ago coming off showing a lot of promise on the independent scene, has had just thirty matches since signing.
If this is McMahon’s most wasteful tic, it’s far from his most distinctive. Two weeks ago, on WWE’s Q2 investors’ call, McMahon said that WWE programming may be getting edgier soon, but added that “we’re not gonna do blood and guts and things of that nature, such as being done on perhaps a new potential competitor.” Later, he made a reference to “gory crap that we graduated from” and expressed that “I can’t imagine TNT will put up with that.” He is referring, if you somehow missed it, both to AEW and AEW’s domestic broadcast partner. Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer’s insisted that the message being delivered on an investors’ call was “a very dirty trick” and an “[a]ttempt to portray [AEW] as an unevolved promotion behind the times, to hurt them [in] getting sponsors.”
Of AEW’s three events so far, two have included some kind of bloodletting. The inaugural card, Double Or Nothing during Memorial Day Weekend in Las Vegas, saw Dustin Rhodes bleeding buckets as part of a brutal and dramatic match with his brother, Cody. The second one, Fyter Fest, was headlined by a “non-sanctioned” match between Jon Moxley (formerly Dean Ambrose in WWE) and Joey Janela; that one featured the use of barbed wire and thumbtacks, including the grisly sight of Janela going feet-first into the tacks and coming up bleeding. AEW management has been adamant that their weekly TV show won’t feature that level of violence, or at least not most of the time. It makes sense, too, that these early shows have been bloody by the standards of 2010s television wrestling. Your personal feelings about intentional bloodletting or mine aside, these pre-TV shows, especially Double Or Nothing, have been about setting a tone and differentiating AEW from WWE. This makes sense not just for basic competitive reasons but because WWE so often feels sterile and devoid of either violence or chaos. Cody and Dustin at least made sure to use all that blood in the context of a storytelling epic; Dustin immediately referred to it as the greatest night of his career.
In light of all this, Cody Rhodes, who is also an AEW executive, posted a YouTube video turning the “blood and guts” comment on its head. In explaining how “the entirety of our business is built on blood and guts,” he sought to turn the negative into a positive. Which brings us back to Vince McMahon.
McMahon is not one for new things, and this is not a new strategy on WWE’s part. It also happens to be a hypocritical one. Three years ago, the SummerSlam main event ended with Brock Lesnar legitimately elbowing Randy Orton’s head open; Orton suffered a concussion and needed 10 staples to close the cut. Cutting one’s forehead with a razor blade is undoubtedly safer, but has little plausible deniability, whereas body-on-body contact has plenty; see also the angle two years ago where Vince himself came up bleeding after being headbutted hard by Kevin Owens. The big angle on the very next Monday Night Raw after Vince’s tut-tutting investors’ call featured Seth Rollins coughing up copious amounts of very fake blood.
Again, though, this is not new. WWE existing on a separate plane from reality and holding other promotions to standards to which it would not and does not hold itself shouldn’t surprise anyone.
In 2010, WWE was reportedly behind a whisper campaign “to get [the] UFC banned in many European countries” after the mixed martial arts promotion’s business boomed in the United States and especially Canada, but this tactic goes back much further. Back in the early months of 1996, Turner Broadcasting’s now-defunct wrestling promotion WCW was experiencing its first real business boom after launching Monday Nitro as a flagship series; it aired directly opposite the WWF’s flagship, Monday Night Raw. The promotion’s live event business had also picked up due to an overhauled event promotions department getting its first hot feud in the form of Ric Flair vs. Randy Savage. WCW was a real competitor for a promotion that had gone a long time without one.
In response, Raw started featuring “Billionaire Ted” skits mocking Ted Turner, who had no day-to-day involvement running WCW, as if he did. At the same time, McMahon attempted to start a public dialogue with Turner, sending him letters and releasing some of those publicly. The first dealt with the perceived lack of strict drug testing in WCW, with McMahon acknowledging the communication after the fact on WWF’s page on America Online. But the most memorable missive is also the one most relevant in this moment. That one came on February 8, 1996, with the WWF also distributing copies to both the Observer and Wade Kaller’s Pro Wrestling Torch:
Since there’s been no response to my repeated requests that you and your pro rasslin’ company stop the practice of self-mutilation, I can only assume based on the last two weeks of Nitro that the practice of self-mutilation (slicing one’s self with a razor blade) is not only condoned, but encouraged. As you know, Hulk Hogan has been bleeding all over the place the past two weeks. There have been numerous references on your rasslin’ programming that this weekend’s double-cage match will be so violent that one opponent will be “bleeding to the point of no recognition.”
This encouraged practice of self-mutilation is disgusting, violent, potentially infectious, and completely contradictory in every way to your testimony before Congress in June of ’93 and contrary to your 1995 participation in “Voices against Violence.” Notwithstanding numerous unprecedented predatory practices against the World Wrestling Federation, if you continue to promote self-mutilation, I hope your stockholders hold you accountable for this unethically, gutteral (sic), potentially unhealthy practice.
Try to guess whether this claiming of the high ground was hypocritical or not.
Congratulations, you’re right! Not only had the December 1995 WWF pay-per-view main event featured Bret Hart bleeding all over the ring, but that match was replayed in its entirety on Raw a few weeks later, albeit with a disclaimer. McMahon, who had suddenly become very cozy with the wrestling newsletters, had an answer for that.
“I knew the Bret stuff would cause controversy,” he told the Torch. “The nature of the cut wasn’t clean. All the cynics thought immediately it was a blade job. I was wondering that myself because he’s been such a super trooper. We all sat around and looked at the footage on tape later. Bruce Prichard or Jim Ross would say, ‘He could be doing it now!’ ‘Well, is he?’ I would ask in return. I have to take Bret’s word.” In fairness to McMahon, Bret was lying; he would subsequently admit in his memoir that he had developed a technique where he would intentionally “blade” in a jagged pattern so that the cut would not look like an intentional slash of a razor blade. On the night in question, the athletic commission doctor took one look at him and proclaimed that it looked like Hart got cut open going headfirst into the ring steps.
Regardless, this all coincided with WWF going in an “edgier” direction, just as McMahon says WWE will now. Then as now, he insisted that this would not involve blood. “We have become more aggressive and added sex appeal,” McMahon told Keller. “But we’re not selling sex or violence. I mean, what comes after the chainsaw? A more judicious use of those elements is the way to go. I know what we’re doing. I pay attention to what else is on TV and also what daypart our show airs on. In certain markets we digitized Diesel’s [middle finger] ‘high sign’—although, let’s face it, kids do that to each other every day on the playground.”
As all this was made public via the insider wrestling media, McMahon’s larger tactic, there and in the mainstream media and on WWF programming, was to claim that WCW—well, Turner, at least in his eyes—was using greater resources and predatory business practices to bully him. It was far from believable then, given that Turner had no known involvement in WCW’s daily operations. It was also hypocritical given McMahon’s similar tactics in the ‘80s. Today, though, there’s no way to portray WWE as the underdog. Both companies are funded by billionaires, and while McMahon has less than half the net worth of fellow billionaire and AEW financier/Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, WWE is publicly traded and in every way the incumbent after going without meaningful competition for 18 years. It has also increasingly been losing fan goodwill. AEW’s backing is comparable, if not outright superior, but as the startup and change agent, the new promotion is going to viewed, at least by the hardcore fan, as the underdog in any new wrestling war.
And two new stories, which broke on Thursday in the new Observer, demonstrate that the two groups are already at war. One had been brewing for a while: NXT, WWE’s developmental brand, seems likely to have its TV show expand from a taped, hourlong show on the streaming-only WWE Network to a two-hour live broadcast from 8 to 10 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1. That will put it directly opposite AEW on TNT. If NXT loses the ratings war, WWE can argue that it’s just the developmental show on a weaker network. If NXT wins the ratings war, then AEW lost to the developmental show on a weaker network, making them look minor league. (Complicating this is that NXT is in look, feel, and wrestling style, much closer to what AEW is aiming for than main-roster WWE is.) The other news item came out of nowhere: That WWE is looking into buying streaming platform FITE TV, and that there have been meetings between the two sides, though FITE denied ongoing talks in a tweet early Friday morning.
That can’t be about expanding WWE Network’s non-WWE wrestling programming slate, as almost all of FITE’s notable deals are for pay-per-view streams. But FITE is AEW’s streaming provider internationally, and offers panels from the AEW-friendly Starrcast conventions, events from numerous independent promotions, and free streams of Ring of Honor’s weekly TV show. Such a purchase would also appear to take FITE COO Mike Weber off the table when it comes to working with WWE competitors, which is a big deal because he has unmatched decades of experience in P.R. and marketing across most major wrestling promotions, including WWE.
So yeah: it’s war. The petty, sniping, deal-making kind, but that’s the type Vince McMahon likes best.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. He writes the Babyface v. Heel subscription blog/newsletter and co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com/everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.