Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Russo Pill

The draw of WrestleMania III
Photo Credit:

 Hypothetical question, if you had a wrestling company on national television and worldwide pay-per-view, would you rather have a television segment draw two million viewers, which today would be a boffo number, or would you rather have your quarterly, or even monthly, paid event draw a quarter-million buys? The answer, to me at least, is quite clear. You want to cultivate a large, faithful audience that will spend more money on you than average, that will be loyal through the lean times, that will proselytize during the good ones. You want the hardcore fan's faith first and then use that base to then try to attract casual fans who might pop in sporadically and artificially inflate the ad rates you can demand on television. The answer is the high number of PPV buys.

This answer will not approach a consensus. A long time ago, over 20 years ago to be exact, pro wrestling was in a television ratings boom. Television was in a weird but unsustainable time, when cable was widespread enough that nearly everyone in the country had it, but not technologically advanced enough to have the wide breadth of programming choices available today. Right now, the sheer amount of content available for visual consumption is so mammoth that cable can't even contain it. Live television, of which cable was an evolution from the over-the-air networks, is kept afloat by sports, artistic competition shows, and the news. Anything where process or story trumps the result can now be viewed at a leisurely pace, whether by on-demand streaming or by digital recording for shows that still air traditionally. Wrestling, though in demand for live content aired 52 weeks a year, can easily be viewed post-first run, because the stories and the match quality and the funny moments are far more important to most viewers than raw wins and losses.

Therefore, the idea that you play to a television audience is antiquated. You get two million viewers for a segment, and you can flex, but real heads know you want to get as many of those viewers to drop money on live event tickets, merchandise, and pay-per-view events. It shouldn't come as a surprise, though, that people who cling to the idea that television ratings are king came up during this ratings boom era. Not all of them take it to the same extremes, but this argument that you need to court casual fans over those who want so bad to support your product that they will plan entire vacations around going to whatever metro area hosts WrestleMania or spending Labor Day weekend in Chicago for All Out stems from one, singular person who for some reason has people paying him money in 2021 to hear relevant wrestling opinions:

Vince Russo's contributions to the wrestling industry are still lauded enough to this day that he can make a living "analyzing" wrestling and supporting other writers through Patreon. I will not give him the courtesy of saying he makes a few good points, because any good point he makes comes entirely by accident and with no clear understanding of how professional wrestling works when it's at its healthiest. Jim Cornette, conversely, might deserve some credit for making a good point any once in awhile, but that goodwill fades like fog in the sunlight when he sics his online attack squad on anyone who likes something he finds personally repulsive. But this is not about ol' red face, it's about the BRO Man.

The consternation with Russo in 2021 is that his analysis often centers on the actual wrestling. He made it big in a time when televised wrestling was, by and large, a non-entity, and the creep of his ideas on what a wrestling match should be sometimes infected pay-per-view matches. It was heavy on the idea that people don't care about the actual matches, but on "moments," or being "entertained." It's easy to see how that brand of snake oil would have intoxicating effects on Vince McMahon, who doesn't like the term wrestling and sees himself and his product as "entertainment." However, when left to run a show without Russo's input, McMahon has always shown a respect to the actual process of a wrestling match, at least in letting it play out.

This sort of war exists on an axis where one extreme is "wrestling doesn't matter at all" and the other is "wrestling is the ONLY thing that matters." There are two facts that I believe are 100 percent true regarding this axis. The first is that Russo, thought probably not all the way on the extreme of "not at all," resides closer to that absolute than anyone who has ever worked in a successful wrestling company was to the OTHER absolute. The blatant disregard for the norms of pro wrestling was never clearer than when he took over creative duties for World Championship Wrestling and didn't have the stern voice in his ear telling him not to "go long with talking segments" like McMahon did regarding the famous "The Rock, This Is Your Life" one that drew one of the highest ratings ever1. Russo is probably not the biggest reason why WCW went tits up, but his supposed remedies for their ratings dips behind WWE were ultimately more like palliative care putting it mildly.

The second truth is that the correct position on that axis is NOT in the middle, and I would venture to guess it's not close to the middle position that says "wrestling doesn't matter more or less than the other stuff." The dirty truth that so many people who are unwitting to the DNA of wrestling is that without the matches, you are left putting on an improv show or a scripted drama with writers who are nowhere near as cogent and witty as the ones already working on actual shows with actors who are nowhere near as competent as thespians as the ones already working in these shows or movies. Wrestling matches are the draw, even if people can hem and haw online as to what manner of wrestling match is the draw.

The fact of the matter is that no one kind of wrestling is a skeleton key. If it was, and the kind of stuff AEW that Russo derides as "ALL WORKRATE, BRO" has going on for it would not be drawing the same number of fans that it is. AEW has taken an audience, plied it, and grew it by executing on what that original fanbase wanted and then proselytized to others, be they lapsed fans or non-fans altogether looking for something cool to get into. They understand that everything that is done in any segment, any vignette, any promo, any backstage beatdown, any pre-produced puff piece, anything that isn't a wrestling match, and even some things that ARE wrestling matches have to lead to a wrestling match down the line, specifically, to a finish of one. There has to be stakes. There has to be consequences. Everything has to flow through the conduit of the fight simulacrum that wrestling produces as its main avenue of conflict and, more importantly, resolution.

Promos are great. Everyone remembers promos, and every wrestling promoter, from the most who tend most towards in-ring action to the ones that are more inclined towards not caring about it at all, knows this. However, the promo is not the steak. It is the sizzle. No matter how good the promo is, if it does not entice the person watching it to tune into the match, it is a failure. If soliloquys or dialogues were the draw, you wouldn't be watching wrestling for the reasons stated above. It doesn't matter if the match is something like Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega or Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant. The argument between those two kinds of matches among several thousands more different "types" is one you have after you realize that you're here to see a simulacrum of a real fight, done way more theatrically for entertainment value. And really, the argument over "what style is better" isn't so much that argument literally. Rather, it's "how well does the promoter understand their audience," and "what kind of wrestling has the biggest potential audience." The answer to the first question depends on the promoter, and the answer to the last varies with time and region and any number of other variables, including the answer to the first question. But I'm getting off track.

The point is that any time someone brings up the "This Is Your Life" segment as a rebuttal to people saying "wrestling matters," they have taken the Russo Pill. The Russo Pill is not a good thing to take. It has the detrimental side effects of your favorite narcotics with none of the fun highs you get from them. You'd be better off developing a mean case of pica and eating household items not meant for consumption than taking this. The Russo Pill causes a fundamental misunderstanding of wrestling. It claims the window-shopping portion of wrestling is better than the point of sale. For a business that is so married to capitalism like wrestling is, it's hilarious that such a backwards mentality can take such a hold in the business.

You can cite ad rates all you want, until you're blue in the face and gasping for air because you're forgetting to breathe between syllables. Ad rates are important, but prioritizing them as an "either/or" over building fans who will actually pay you directly for goods and services is so cognitively dissonant that one might think it was developed in a mental institution and not among the staff. Creating content that appeals to both the hardcore fans and the casual fans is not hard to do in theory. Finding something that will pop a viral audience, and let's face it, the casual fans in the '90s are equivalent to viral crowds now, is less a skill and more a crapshoot. The real viable companies, the ones throughout history, have always relied on getting people to stick around to see the payoffs.

That's why a quarter-million PPV buys is greater than two-million TV viewers. Those buys, which might represent more than one person per buy anyway, represent people who wanted to see the payoff. They're the fans you're going have coming back to you if you make them happy. Hell, judging by the return audience of WWE, you're going to get people coming back to you even if you piss them off. It's not either or, but it's plus. That's what happens when your view sees the whole picture. It's what happens when your view isn't clouded because you took the Russo Pill.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Poachers Delight, Case Number Four: Bron Breakker

Breakker, on the right here with Tommaso Ciampa, may find fulfillment in AEW
Photo Credit:

 All Elite Wrestling is here to stay. Whether you're a WWE partisan, a wrestling-promotion agnostic, or a lapsed fan leery that the surging Jacksonville-based promotion is for real, you have to take notice that even if WWE is still number one in all financial metrics, AEW is a threat to their hegemony. That's a good thing, unless you're Vince McMahon or one of his sycophants. A second wrestling company that provides the mainstream access to stardom AND competitive pay is everything that this business needs in America.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Poacher's Delight, Case Number Three: Big E

Big sweaty men slappin' meat in AEW? Maybe...
Photo Credit:

 All Elite Wrestling has done what WWE has conditioned people to think could never be done. They got Tony Schiavone and CM Punk to return to wrestling and overcome the malaise they developed for that business in their prior stints. They made a deal to honor Owen Hart with Hart's widow and family when WWE CONVINCED everyone that Martha's problem was with wrestling and not with the negligent and callous company that killed her husband. And they've overrun New York City, WWE's home base for DECADES, setting attendance records and exciting the city with wrestling at levels not seen since at least Rock vs. John Cena, once in a lifetime part two. All signs point to them not just being a fringe alternative to WWE in the North American wrestling market, but as legit competition and a future potential market leader.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Instant Feedback: He Has 'Til Five, Ref

He's back

 I didn't know what to expect from Bryan Danielson's return to a ring outside of WWE's purview. Honestly, I should have gone with my gut. He is, after all, the greatest wrestler in the history of the sport, the art, the whatever the fuck this thing everyone reading this rag loves. You don't lose the ability to have a great wrestling match, especially against Kenny Omega, who takes his craft more seriously than anyone ever has at least since Randy Savage was still alive and active. The means by which you have a great match may change. Genichiro Tenryu did not have the same incredible bouts in 2005 that he did in 1985 after all. Yeah, Danielson didn't have the same exact excellent match in 2021 that he had in 2006, but how close a simulacrum it was to what his wars with folks like Takeshi Morishima or Low Ki or Nigel McGuinness was now, post-medical retirement, post-years of being in a WWE environment not known for stimulation was, in a word, incredible.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

The TWB Draft: Judgment Day, Part One

The winning roster had these two guys on it

Roster construction is the first phase of creating a wrestling promotion. For this exercise, a hypothetical scenario was created where the WWE was dismantled and the McMahon family was jailed for their crimes. In the ashes, six promotions in six different distinct North American territories sprang up, and the talent in this country was allocated via draft and a post-draft free agency period. Everyone's rosters are complete, and before the second part of this exercise, the booking of the first pay-per-view cycle, is begun, judgment must come for the roster construction.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Poacher's Delight, Case Number Two: Charlotte Flair

Would Flair be too big to succeed in AEW?
Photo Credit:

 With Bryan Danielson, Ruby Soho, and Adam Cole debuting at All Out and more names rumored to be on the way, AEW is well on its way to becoming a legitimate contender to WWE's wrestling hegemony. If you read into the ratings numbers and think Dynamite's larger draw of the much-desired 18-49 male demographic is not an aberration and a sign of a trend to come, then they already are a competitor. Folks who were not around when World Championship Wrestling was in business don't know the excitement of wrestlers who were on one program one week showing up on the other team's programming the next. All in all, that was half the mystique of watching each Monday night between the years of 1996 and 2000.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

On Representation in Modern Booking

Sky has been a missed opportunity for AEW so far

Brian Cage is not happy in All Elite Wrestling. He hasn't said anything, but his wife, former Lucha Underground ring announcer Melissa Santos, has been vocal on social media about how he's been "misused." As an interested observer, I was baffled by the notion that Cage, who has been a fixture on AEW television since his debut at the Double or Nothing 2020 Casino Battle Royale, was misused. He has been in a feud with Sting and Darby Allin, including a payoff in a memorable cinematic match where Sting wrestled for the first time since his infamous Seth Rollins match in WWE years ago. He got to have a mini title program with Jon Moxley when he was Champion. He was the centerpiece of the Team Taz story, both as a member at first and now as the babyface fighting them. What else more could you want than having all that exposure in a hot company where fans react to everything (except for.... you).

Friday, September 10, 2021

Poacher's Delight, Case Number One: Baron Corbin

Corbin, All Elite? Not as shocking as you think
Photo Credit:

All Out was the best mainstream American wrestling pay-per-view of all-time even without the shock of all the debuts into All Elite Wrestling. However, those debuts, namely, Bryan Danielson and Adam Cole, have opened a lot of minds to the possibility of big names from WWE leaving the company and signing with AEW not because they've been jettisoned from their deals in cost-cutting measures (the way FTR and Ruby Soho were), but because they now had choices for places of employ. WWE wanted to keep Danielson and Cole, and they couldn't because they refused to offer them things they wanted. Now, other wrestlers may have that option on the table.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

The TWB Draft: Free Agency

Mauro and Corey, together again
Screengrab via SportsKeeda

When I last left off describing the TWB Draft to one and all, I summarized the actual draft portion. It's called the "TWB Draft," so that should be the most important thing, right? Well, sure, but what good is roster allocation if you don't use it? Twenty-five wrestlers comprise a good start for any promotion, but post-draft, so many other viable wrestlers were left available, as well as all the non-wrestling staff that had now become bereft of employment. The commentators, managers, and agents of the world needed to be signed. Referees, under this plan, would become the domain of the Federal Wrestling Bureau.

Monday, September 6, 2021

The Best Wrestling Pay-Per-View, Ever: An All Out 2021 Conceptual Review

He's here

The last time I did one of these "conceptual reviews," I called Double or Nothing earlier this year the "best show since WrestleMania XXX." I thought it would be hard to top, especially with such a rushed build and the lack of All Elite Wrestling's rising star and possible Most Valuable Wrestler, Hangman Page. With his desire to be present for the birth of his first child, a desire that I understand, support, and think AEW was absolutely correct to accommodate, the presumed tension point at the top of the card was out the window. They replaced him with Christian Cage, which I thought was something you'd do for one of those heretofore unnamed Clash of the Champion-tribute shows they're going to start running next year, not for their biggest show of the year.

Friday, September 3, 2021

RIP Daffney Unger

Daffney, shown here at a 2011 meet and greet, passed away September 1
Photo Credit: Scott Finkelstein
Shannon Spruill, better known from her performing days in World Championship Wrestling and the independent circuit as Daffney Unger or Shark Girl, passed away Wednesday night. She was 46. Spruill had shown erratic behavior on Instagram Live, which had sparked concern across all the people she had touched over her career across social media and real life. Attempts were made to send help to her house, but she died before they could arrive. During her Instagram Live session, she had made reference to wanting her brain to be studied for signs of CTE from her wrestling career. This desire has shown to be common among suicidal people from industries, like wrestling, American football, and hockey, with increased risk for head trauma. The most notable among these was former NFL linebacker Junior Seau, who took his own life after requesting his brain be studied.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

The TWB Draft: The Results of the Draft

Which territory got this as their top feud?
Photo Credit:

You know the story so far. The McMahon family and WWE braintrust have been compromised to a perman... I mean, they're in jail. The post-apocalyptic landscape of wrestling is in disarray. Luckily, six regional promotions have sprung up to fill the void in North America under the central authority of the Federal Wrestling Bureau. As a review, those six promotions are as follows:
  • International Wrestling Federation (Northeast and Maritimes)
  • World Ass Championship Wrestling (Southeast)
  • Midwest Federation of Wrestling (Midwest and Central Provinces)
  • Lone Star Wrestling (Texas and the Southwest)
  • Rocky Mountain Wrestling (Mountain States and Provinces)
  • Pacific Championship Wrestling (West Coast and Hawaii)

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Don't Cut Yourself on the Edge(Lord) of the Knife

Lambert has fire, but does he fit on a "progressive" show?
Screengrab courtesy of Wrestling Inc.

Personally, I've found Dan Lambert of American Top Team an entertaining part of any All Elite Wrestling show he's graced with his presence. I'm not rooting for him, obviously. He's basically taking Jim Cornette's real life criticisms of the show, which amount to an old man yelling at a cloud, and turning them into heel heat. At first, it was unclear which wrestler was going to take the bumps for him, although he took lumps his first appearance from an irate Lance Archer. His second appearance was a fakeout in that he had two UFC fighters, Andrei Arlovski and Junior dos Santos, flanking him but it was The Men of the Year, Ethan Page and Scorpio Sky, who laid in wait to ambush Archer as he predictably went to defend the honor of pro wrestling and his home company. Lambert appears to have taken on a regular role as Sky's and Page's manager, as he appeared in a pre-taped segment with the tag team flanking him.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Underpromising and Overdelivering

Punk's AEW debut shows how to create satisfying wrestling
Graphics Credit:

Before Friday night at 10 PM Eastern, at no point in time did All Elite Wrestling promise they were signing and delivering CM Punk. Okay, so I know that's really not the story. There was a lot of winking and nudging. Darby Allin said he wanted "The Best in the World" for the August 20th edition of Rampage. The sheer fact that they booked the United Center for their B-show instead of the Sears Center or something smaller in the area had to be BLATANT foreshadowing. If Tony Khan or the executive vice presidents didn't themselves leak word of Punk signing to the dirtsheets weeks in advance, they certainly looked the other way when people in the office did. You know they were stirring the pot even if they never at once said the names "CM Punk" or "Phil Brooks."

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Introducing The TWB Draft: McMahon Apocalypse

Enjoy jail, bozos
Photo Credit:
Imagine a hypothetical scenario, one that is probably too farfetched for the current state of America, but one that I feel leads to the most fun for this exercise. The United States of America has finally decided that pro wrestling, the pristine artform we all know and love, has been poisoned too much by carny bullshit over the years. The Departments of Labor and Justice have finally cracked down on Vince McMahon’s abuses of the independent contractor label, seized his assets, and liquidated WWE. For good measure, they used a few Predator drones to level Titan Towers. WWE is no more. While McMahon, his blood family, son-in-law Paul Levesque, and associated cronies like Nick Khan and Kevin Dunn have been prosecuted and brought to justice, the penalties for other wrestling promoters and promotions were less severe. All Elite Wrestling, Ring Of Honor, Major League Wrestling, and all other promotions based in the United States are also liquidated, and wrestling has become nationalized. The people behind those promotions, like Tony Khan, Court Bauer, and even the slipshod and haphazard team running Impact Wrestling, have been spared.