Monday, August 23, 2021

Underpromising and Overdelivering

Punk's AEW debut shows how to create satisfying wrestling
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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."

That being said, the fever pitch of people expecting Punk to show up at the United Center on Friday night wasn't based on an explicit promise. It was a refreshing change of pace for wrestling fans who spent the last few decades languishing in Vince McMahon's backwards policy of "tell, don't show" booking that infected the minds of wrestling fans enough to think that all of these trappings setting the stage for Punk was an elaborate work to get heat for MJF or the Young Bucks. I've been working on a hypothesis for a few months now that the in-the-gutter perception of professional wrestling is all due to McMahon's transparently capitalist, even more than any promoter that came before or after him, methodology of running the ship. Part of why that perception is deep in the mud is because he has a nasty habit of promising the world and delivering not even a grain from the Sahara.

Even as far back as Survivor Series 1990, when the then-World Wrestling Federation was at the peak of its Hulk Hogan-fueled hegemony over the territory system, McMahon couldn't help himself, counting down moments on his syndicated shows to a moment that debuted a member of the legendary Guerrero wrestling family, in this case Hector, in a full body turkey suit under the name "The Gobbledy Gooker." Granted, there's only so much intrigue you can mine out of a literal egg hatching on a big stage, and the mind of the fantasy booker wasn't nearly as sophisticated as it would be even eight years later when people started getting the Internet in their homes en masse. Additionally, McMahon was deep in the cartoon bag, straining hard to create larger than life personalities festooned in hokey personae that may or may not have been culturally or racially insensitive as well. The Gooker was the idea of Saba Simba (Tony Atlas), the Dragon (Ricky Steamboat), and the Red Rooster (Terry Taylor) taken to its graphic and lurid extreme.

That didn't stop the Guerrero's feather-laden debut from becoming a landmark moment of WrestleCrap. It probably wasn't the first time McMahon crowed about something changing the landscape and failing to deliver. It wouldn't be the last, or the worst, or the most egregious, or the one he tried to make happen the most despite rejection from his audience. In early 1996, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash decided not to renew their WWF contracts. In May of that year, they embraced Shawn Michaels and Triple H in the middle of the ring at Madison Square Garden, and then, shortly thereafter, they debuted in World Championship Wrestling as The Outsiders, the building block that would soon become the New World Order. They debuted in WCW under their real names, but McMahon owned the personae they used in the WWF as his intellectual property, Razor Ramon and Diesel. Jim Ross promised that Razor Ramon and Diesel were coming back to RAW, and when he did unveil them, they were not Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, who by that time had already not only joined with Hulk Hogan as the "third man," but also added Ted DiBiase, Sean Waltman (Syxx), a fake Sting, The Giant, Vincent/Virgil, Miss Elizabeth, and even Kyle Petty, but the late Rick Bognar as "Razor" and Glenn Jacobs as "Diesel."

The stunt left a sour taste in many people's mouths, one that would not easily be washed out until WrestleMania 13 in 1997, when Steve Austin and Bret Hart reignited the WWF's viability and arguably turned the tide on the northern company's perception, setting the stage for the Montreal Screwjob to give the company the boost it would use to outpace and ultimately defeat WCW in the Monday Night Wars. However, for whatever gains his wrestlers ever gave him, from Hogan to Hart to Michaels to Austin to The Rock to Brock Lesnar and Kurt Angle and Batista and John Cena and Punk and Daniel Bryan and The Shield and Drew McIntyre and Becky Lynch, McMahon never lost sight of his ultimate strategy, and that was crow loudly about how good and cool and awesome his product was without ever regularly showing his work on it. Few examples could ever match the brazen and shameless as "Razor and Diesel." Even after 25 years, it's the garbage standard upon which all his decisions could be measured.

It's almost hilarious to think how much monetary success WWE has had over the years despite McMahon's utterly backwards philosophy on promotion. It's not just wrestling where the maxim "show, don't tell" is true. In fact, you can probably refine that down to a different slogan, "underpromise and overdeliver." However, in a business built on twists, turns, swerves, and surprises, that slogan is the only truth in an industry built on not only deception, but on feel. Wrestling isn't about following formulas when it's at its most successful and interesting. It's about probing a crowd, finding what the people in it want, and mining it in ways they didn't even know they explicitly wanted. The only truth is that you can't promise more than what you're willing and/or able to deliver. Tony Khan and AEW found that out the hard way at Revolution, when either by Khan's thrift or by an unfortunate malfunction, the pyro at the end of the exploding ring death match between Kenny Omega and Jon Moxley didn't go the way it should have gone. Whether or not it was a fault of Khan's or someone else, it was the only time AEW talked a bigger game than it delivered.

The company, arguably, has been as much a critical and commercial success as it has been because it speaks softy and carries a big stick. The PR team could paper each town with random ravings of Twitter users who will pump anything up as long as it's not WWE, but they don't. Every time something big and memorable has happened, it has happened with simply a match announcement, or off the cuff, or with nothing big foreshadowing it. Khan knows that people want to be the ones talking about how great something they watched is. They don't want to be told how great it is by someone with a lot of money and a burning need to assert their taste on more people than themselves and their yes-men.

And that's why Friday night in the United Center was so magical and yet so foreign to wrestling fans, some of whom only know a world where WWE was the only big league game in town. AEW teased something big. They played with the margins and toyed with fans' expectations. They didn't tell you Punk was going to be there, but they delivered him in one of the most emotional and supercharged moments in wrestling history, perhaps the most supercharged since Punk himself absconded with the WWE Championship ten years prior in an arena not far from where he made his return.

Just because WWE has conditioned fans to expect the worst does not mean the worst should be considered default. People have let that company poison their perception of wrestling for far too long, and they show no signs of stopping the way they do things. Even Saturday, when they faked out a bait and switch with Sasha Banks in the Smackdown Women's Championship match at SummerSlam, the grand surprise of Becky Lynch came out only to beat Bianca Belair in a matter of seconds, mirroring the grotesque erasure of Kofi Kingston's title win from WrestleMania in 2019 at SummerSlam via a Brock Lesnar-ing. Fans were more enraged that Belair, a wrestler they've organically gotten behind, was derailed while sycophants and surrogates yelled "WAIT AND SEE" at them than they were excited for perhaps the most beloved wrestler from two years ago finally returning to active competition.

The truth is that there is another way. AEW has shown that. Really, other companies have shown it as well, but none have been able to do it with the mainstream exposure that AEW has done to date. Wrestling doesn't have to beat you down on the reg and give you crumbs every fifth WrestleMania and say "yeah, we put smiles on faces, jack." All anyone has to do is be coy while promising the tip of an iceberg before unveiling the view that goes as deep into the ocean as that block of ice does. It's not rocket science, and yet McMahon has been able to make untold billions defying that logic. If that doesn't tell you that capitalism doesn't reward innovation or execution, just monetary pressure, I don't know what does.