|The Face of Grifting|
I try not to pay much attention to Vince Russo, to be honest. He is the architect of the one era that irreparably damaged the foundation of wrestling forever, and yet people still revere him as some guru because he says things they want to hear about the current product. Sure, those things are facile and reductive and offer absolutely no insight whatsoever. When he says that wrestling should "bring main stream back," he offers no real solutions as to how these companies can do it. He only shifts blame to the "marks and dirt sheets" for liking long wrestling matches. Imagine that, people who watch wrestling and enjoy wrestling matches are the problem? I don't need to think too hard about his insane ramblings, because they are just that - insane. No one serious should take him seriously, and I'm not sure he holds any sway in the industry today. Still, the fact that he can set up his own subscription model where people pay into a crowdfund for opinions that amount to "WWE should push celebrities" or "AEW has too many matches" feels like the biggest waste of money that isn't attached to the federal government. It's why whenever I see a take of his that wanders wild into my timeline, I start to get annoyed to the point of obsessive compulsion.
The central to every single one of his ideas is the mantra that wrestling should appeal to "casual" fans. It's a residual effect of how he overdosed on success in the then-World Wrestling Federation in 1996 through 1999, when he went to World Championship Wrestling and accelerated the death spiral that began with Hulk Hogan's creative control hot-shotting the end of both Goldberg's winning streak and a burgeoning intra-nWo feud that could have carried the company for the entirety of that year. Because he was able to ride Steve Austin, The Rock, and his own boss, Vince McMahon (as an on-screen character) to dizzying successes gave him the wrong impression, that it was his focus on skits, promos, and backstage segments where the audience was to pretend that the people being filmed did not realize there was a camera in the room filming them despite the professional nature of each shot, that drove the business and not the wrestling, or more pointedly, the wrestlers. So he gets interviews with people today who think he might have something trenchant to say and says things like "Wrestling should have more entertainment, BRO. Casual fans don't watch wrestling for the wrestling."
One would be forgiven if they thought he had a point, even by accident, but again, it's a reductive statement that fundamentally misunderstands why people might turn on a professional wrestling program in the first place. To wit, people did not flock to the Sportatorium, Madison Square Garden, or the Rose Garden to see "entertainment." Promos have always been a part of pro wrestling, and as have personalities, angles, comic relief, and other things that aren't wrestling matches. However, wrestling promoters, not even McMahon himself, have never been mistaken that each skit, each promo, each "entertainment thing" that happened had to build to a wrestling match. Otherwise, why would you watch wrestling instead of a sitcom or an hour-long drama/thriller show? Few wrestlers have the acting chops of even the worst actors on a television show that makes a network or cable, so why would you decide to be a "casual" wrestling fan if the entertainment level in a WWE or All Elite Wrestling ring when the action wasn't happening didn't even reach levels of shit like CSI: Pocomoke Beach or The Big Bang Theory Origins: Johnny Galecki's Character?
Yes, that's correct, casual fans tune into wrestling to see things that wrestlers do. It may have been the case that the things Austin did were unorthodox and broke barriers outside a ring, but he was a wrestler. Entire arenas popped for him doing the Stone Cold Stunner, not just the hardcore fans in attendance. The idea that you should build your show for casual fans is anticapitalist in nature anyway, and not in the good way that I tend to lean in most areas of life. Presenting a product without any real aim or specialization, and no, "entertainment" is not specific enough to carry an industry, especially one in a niche like wrestling is and, newsflash, still was even at its height, is a recipe for failure. If you go hard for casual fans, you are destined to fail because casual fans cannot exist without hardcore ones.
Businesses who hate hardcore fans tend to hate money, anyway. Some jitbag who usually watches House Hunters or whatever on Monday or Wednesday night may tune into RAW or whatever if Herbie Househunter or whoever the fuck it is hosts that show appears on the wrestling show and runs roughshod over the full-time guy with whom they're working. That provides a temporary bump in ratings, sure, but if the rest of the show doesn't grab that person, it's just a quick buck from whatever fluctuating spike in ad revenue the company gets from that temporary bump in viewership. Meanwhile, hardcore wrestling fans sub to the WWE Network, or at least they did before McMahon sold out to Dick Ebersol. They spend thousands of dollars on vacations centered around WrestleMania. They buy t-shirts and foam fingers and other tchotchkes. Your business plan shouldn't be to cater to casual fans with bullshit, it should be to create stars that attract casual fans and then do your fucking best to make those casual fans hardcore fans. The fact that Russo never makes that leap is not surprising, because he has the spatial reasoning capability of a sea slug. It is still infuriating to see wrestling fans spend money on that "analysis" and people masquerading as journalists in this shit go to him like he has something insightful to say.
It would be less reductive to ask Russo or any fool who decides he has something insightful enough to say why they hate wrestling if they're so hard-on for not seeing matches. Of course, the answer is, "Uh, BRO, I don't hate wrestling! I just wanna see wrestlers make money by prolonging their careers!" That answer, of course, is given in bad faith, because Russo knows how unfair the pay structures are in WWE and probably are in AEW. I suspect AEW is better comparatively given the revenue that they bring in compared to WWE, and AEW also allows their independent contractors to take indie dates and make money off their own names, but that's not the point. Russo was part of what folks like me call the Professional Managerial Class, or PMC. Even now in his freelance days after his mere presence got TNA kicked off the last widespread network they were ever part and parcel to, he still acts as part of that PMC, acting as the scout troops to enforce the will of capital. He knows that the wrestlers make shit, and he would stand to make more if any wrestling company would hire his bobo ass to do anything but get put in stocks have people throw rotten produce at him.
Besides, it's not the "marks and dirt sheets" who have control over the matches. In nationally televised wrestling, it's not the workers either. The agents/producers put matches together with direct input from the top. If you want a reason why careers get shortened, it comes from the top. If you want reasons there are so many dives, it's because Vince McMahon wants it to be so. If you want reasons why the entertainment portion of the show doesn't keep Russo's precious strawman "casual" fans, it's because of McMahon. If you want a reason why wrestling has been ghettoized to the point where a once proud, regional attraction that got favorable newspaper coverage now is made fun of as the dregs of entertainment, it's all McMahon's fault, and Russo helped make it that way with his rotten and degrading view of what wrestlers should act like.
The root of the problem is that Russo is a grifter, and judging from the fact that he's not a talking head on Twitter and actually has content that can support paying a bunch of ex-wrestlers producing it shows his grift is good. The same thing goes for Jim Cornette, which is funny because if you put Cornette and Russo in the same room as each other, they might kill each other. However, they both come from the same place. They tell you what you like is wrong, or more pointedly, what all those nerds and apostates who enjoy what they watch are wrong. What they produced when they were in charge of wrestling? That was the good stuff. They can tell you how they'd fix wrestling even though no company with anything resembling a national reach would hire them, but they won't tell you for free. That's how they make their living off wrestling despite being pariahs to the relevant product. And it's disgusting, especially when their influence leaks out into the general public.
Granted, comparatively speaking, Russo's influence is more benign on a social level. I have never once heard of Russo leading a targeted harassment campaign against a wrestler because he didn't like their gimmick. Cornette has several of those under his belt, and he probably should be banned from every platform where he could disseminate his platform and make money from it because one of these days, he's going to get someone killed. However, Russo's talking points are annoying and irritating in a different way, one that prioritizes money being put into a billionaire's pocket ahead of creating something organic and worthy of buzz being put on it. He's a dinosaur with a dinosaur's brain, and the fact people give him a platform to do anything but cut old-school Vic Venom promos on Cameo is a stunning waste of money.
All his energy going into defending the most disgusting class of people in the wrestling industry still isn't something you should say nice things about. Saying that it's the fans and the journalists in wrestling who are ruining things when McMahon has done a good job enough by himself to do it is lying for the sake of profit, and the fact that he can support a whole network doing it feels like a failure at every single level where it was allowed to happen. If you take Russo seriously, and I honestly and sincerely hope no one who reads this blog or has read this blog in its decade-plus history does, then you need to ask yourself seriously. Are you a wrestling fan, or were you a fan of late '90s WWF and are chasing a dragon that is never coming out of hiding again?
Because let me tell you, if you take his words seriously, then what you're looking for is a variety show, not a wrestling program. Wrestling companies historically are not good at producing variety shows, especially now, when everything in the company that DOES believe a modicum of what Russo has to say is filtered through the lens of a 75-year old septuagenarian who was deranged coming out of the womb. If you want a variety show, might I suggest The Muppet Show? It's all on Disney Plus, which is a far better streaming service than Peacock, which is where WWE resides now. It has comedy, violence, music, everything that will tickle your "entertainment" impulses much better than a wrestling show will. Sure, giving your money to a global conglomerate bent on subverting all of entertainment to its will is far worse morally than giving your money to a single man, no matter how bad he is, but the good part is the product you'll be paying for will bring you joy, not seething regret and anger over something that can never, ever be what you want it to be. Leave wrestling to the wrestling fans.