There is a popular meme within circles of the Internet Wrestling Community showing a still of Vince McMahon during the Stone Cold Podcast that aired on December 1st, 2014. Unlike most memes, this one’s humor is not placed in the image’s matching with a silly, unattributable quote, but in its attribution of a direct quote from McMahon in that very podcast episode in which the chairman and CEO told host Stone Cold Steve Austin: “It’s not about what I want. Ever. It’s all about what the audience wants. I’m a pretty good listener.”
The humor here stems from the fact that many fans of professional wrestling, and fans of the WWE brand (affectionately corporatized as the “WWE Universe”) specifically, believe McMahon’s claim to be a bald-faced lie. This belief has appeared to see some substantiation in the three years since the airing of that interview, as fan support for many performers has seemed to fall on deaf ears in favor of more corporately groomed and demographically aimed superstars and narratives. This past year of WWE programming may be the most damning evidence yet in legitimizing this criticism.
This past Sunday night’s Clash of Champions pay-per-view did little to dissuade this perception of the current WWE product. While the show may have presented relatively big wins for favorites of the wrestling community like Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens and AJ Styles, as well as having built momentum in victory for Mojo Rawley, the booking of the event tended to overshadow or undermine what could otherwise be understood as shining moments given other narrative contexts.
Rawley’s win was delegated to a short pre-show match, a spot that has showcased some great work in the past, but remains nonetheless shrouded in the stigma of not actually being on the pay-per-view.
Zayn and Owens’s victory would traditionally carry more weight given its (seeming) position as the climax to a long-burning storyline with Shane McMahon, but the match and performers played more as set pieces for yet another authority figure drama between the two special guest referees, McMahon and Daniel Bryan.
The women were mostly an afterthought, despite the infusion of the Riott Squad to the division.
Lastly, AJ Styles’s retaining of the WWE championship was soured before the match even began thanks to its booking as yet another nobody-asked-for-this style of showcase for Jinder Mahal. This all may matter little to the casual fan of WWE programming, but these issues are indicative of the problems that have been apparent with the WWE product in 2017, and they highlight a lack of audience awareness.
Perhaps the largest issue the WWE has had in recent years is the negative fan reactions to those performers they have chosen to showcase, or push. This is no more apparent than with Roman Reigns, who, despite being positioned as the company’s top babyface, receives consistent, almost unanimous, negative reactions from live crowds. Reigns has consistently, almost defiantly, been positioned as the company’s poster boy, being presented as the center of their weekly programming and promotional materials for years, including performing in the main event of Wrestlemania for the past three years (and possibly a fourth year with the forthcoming Wrestlamania 34). Even so, fans have vehemently voiced their dislike of Reigns’s positioning within the WWE landscape, booing and jeering the wrestler with the mere mention of his name.
This would seem to give credence to the perception of Vince McMahon’s podcast statement as a falsehood, but the fan reactions to Reigns fail to correlate with the economics of merchandise sales. According to an April 2017 edition if the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Roman Reigns is the top-selling “full-time” superstar in WWE’s wide range of branded merchandise – John Cena is still the over-all top seller, but he has transitioned to being a part-time talent (“This Week in WWE Biz”).
Since any serious business would sooner listen to consumers’ wallets than consumers’ arena chants, Reigns’ position atop the WWE megastructure, despite consistent boos, is easily understood. Moreover, the negative reactions to Reigns have far more to do with the forced booking of the performer and the perception of him as a hand-picked, underserving corporate representative than they do with his actual performance, as crowds tend to react positively to the man between bells.
The forced booking and promotion that has characterized Reigns’ career thus far has been put into overdrive this year with the ascension of two other talents. The first is the Raw brand’s Braun Strowman, who fans began the year viewing as yet another corporate pet project but have since thrown their full support behind thanks to more careful booking and storytelling as well as the man’s observable attempts to improve as an all-around performer, putting on exciting and diverse matches with all of his opponents and creating a character with an aura to which fans are attracted. The same positives cannot be said about the other major project in WWE this year – that of the rise of Jinder Mahal not just to the top of the card, but to a six-month reign with what many perceive as the most important title in the history of professional wrestling, the WWE championship.
Sunday’s Clash of Champions marked Mahal’s sixth time being featured in a marquee match on pay-per-view and his third time in the main event proper at one of these events. All of these matches have been contested for the WWE championship. These statistics are in many ways shocking considering Mahal’s position in the company before Wrestlemania 33, held on April 2nd, 2017. Before that event, Mahal was no more than a jobber, a performer whose primary duty is to lose to established and rising talents. At Wrestlemania 33 he was inexplicably featured in one of the final two spots of the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, despite barely having a presence on WWE television since his return to the company in July of the previous year.
Mahal lost the battle royal to Mojo Rawley, and many assumed he was just used as fodder to put over Rawley and play up a gimmick which saw Mahal goad and ultimately be attacked by New England Patriots’ tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is the real-life friend of Rawley’s and was sitting ringside during the match. On the following night’s edition of Raw, it seemed as though Mahal would be back in his role as jobber, losing in very short order to Finn Balor.
However, over the two weeks that followed Wrestlemania 33, Mahal was drafted to the Smackdown Live brand and became the victor of a six-pack challenge to name the number one contender to the WWE championship, which he would go on to win from Randy Orton at the Backlash pay-per-view on May 21.
Mahal’s victory and title reign were largely unprecedented within the history of WWE, drawing comparisons to Stan Stasiak’s nine-day transitional reign in 1973. Again, the WWE seemed to lack an ear for what fans wanted, because, to put it frankly, no one was asking for more Jinder Mahal, much less Jinder Mahal, WWE champion. While some fans and analysts were supportive of the decision to make Mahal champion, spurred on by a desire for fresh faces and causing the hashtag #DontHinderJinder to trend on Twitter, others were skeptical or outright angry about Mahal’s almost instantaneous movement from jobber for lower-card talents to holder of the most prestigious title in the business. Often thought of as a reward for the industry’s top performers, Mahal’s positioning was perceived far less as a culmination of years of hard work or possession of world-class talent than as an abrupt anomaly that occurred for purely capitalist reasons.
Reports began to be published stating that Mahal’s title win and repositioning as a featured part of WWE television was an attempt to grow the company’s audience in India, a market they have had in sight for years. An investor presentation dated December 2015 calls India an international revenue stream that “represents significant opportunity” (Investor Presentation 27), and an earnings press release for the first quarter of 2017 quotes Vince McMahon from a shareholders’ meeting, saying “As we leverage continuing innovation to extend our reach in India, China and around the world, we are confident that the enduring and increasing global power of our brands will provide a solid foundation for long-term growth” (WWE Reports First Quarter 2017 Results 2). While fans of the product can speculate on the reasoning behind the company’s continued support of Roman Reigns and Braun Strowman as corporate mascots (often citing the company and McMahon’s affinity for physical aesthetics in its top performers), documents like these fiscal reports offer something substantial for critics to explain the teleporter-like rise of Jinder Mahal.
Where Mahal differs the most from his Raw counterparts is in the perception of his actual performance, both in his delivery of promos and the quality of his matches. As I noted above, negative reactions to Reigns tend not to reflect in fans’ opinions of his in-ring work, which often results in high-quality matches, and the quick turnaround in opinion of Strowman stems from the observable growth of his talents in very short order, going from a sloppy, incredibly green (inexperienced) rookie to an intriguing and exciting character capable of high-quality matches in the span of just two years. Also unlike Reigns, Mahal’s continued position at the top of the card and repeated wins against more established, more over, and more talented performers like Sami Zayn, Shinsuke Nakamura, AJ Styles, and Randy Orton cannot be explained by merchandise sales – as of this writing, WWEShop.com features a total of five items for Mahal, three of which are men’s, women’s, and youth’s versions of the same t-shirt design.
Despite what seems to be the company line, that Mahal is a hard worker who deserves his spot, the jobber-who-would-be-champion’s in-ring work has not seemed to have met the standards of the current WWE main event scene according to its viewers. This is reflected in the inconsistent ratings for Smackdown Live this year, which saw its lowest viewership of the year just two weeks after Mahal’s title win (“WWE SmackDown Must End the Pushes of Jinder Mahal and Shane McMahon”), and has struggled to remain consistent in its viewership ever since.
My own take on Mahal’s in-ring work, which has been echoed by fans and critics alike, is that he seems to work only one match, which seems to be a small variation on the first match that most developing professional wrestlers learn: lock-up, babyface shines, heel takes over, babyface gets a hope spot, repeat hope spots until it’s time to take it home, finish with either the heel cheating to win or he “slips on a banana peel” and loses.
This is the structure used predominately by new performers and for short matches, but Mahal seems to apply it no matter the narrative context, match length, or position on the card, indicating either a refusal or inability to adapt his in-ring work for different levels and situations of storytelling. His limited and basic offense only furthers the issue. This is a matter not helped by the booking of his championship reign, where every match ended the same way – with his opponent getting distracted by his Singh Brothers lackeys and then literally stumbling into Mahal’s finishing maneuver, the Khallas, which Mahal seems to only be able to hit without botching about half the time. While Mahal’s move set, offense, and character may have been passable in another era of the WWE product, it becomes a glaring issue in a time where even casual viewers, thanks to a plethora of avenues across the internet, are far more informed about the product and the art of professional wrestling than the fanbase has ever been before; Mahal’s work just does not hold up to the fluidity and creativeness reflected in the work of his peers, and it is that fluidity and creativeness that fans have come to expect.
What further hinders Jinder Mahal is the rote and tired booking of his character. A rehash of gimmicks played by earlier wrestlers of Indian descent, like Tiger Jeet Singh and his son Tiger Ali Singh, Mahal’s current gimmick is not only derivative, but, like his offense, the character is outdated. The crux of the character’s motivation relies on the dated notions of national pride and racial prejudice. In what quickly became the only note on the character’s scale, Mahal repeatedly cut promos claiming that the audience was against him due to his race and ethnicity, using points of racism and nationalism as the reasoning for the fans’ negative reactions despite no indication from WWE viewers of xenophobia toward Indians or otherwise.
This narrative device reached its breaking point in Mahal’s feud with Shinsuke Nakamura. Not only were the claims that the WWE’s audience was racist undermined by the fans’ rabid support of Nakamura, a Japanese performer, but the character’s, and subsequently the WWE’s, attempts to make this point resulted in a series of racially charged promos by Mahal in which the scripted segment saw the WWE champion mock Nakamura through the use of racial stereotypes, including making fun of Nakamura’s physical appearance and accent, prompting the live audience to chant “That’s too far!” The claim of the company was that these promos were meant to show the hypocritical nature of the Mahal character, but the character’s disturbing revelry in his delivery and the reactionary response to this misguided attempt at character development proved far more detrimental to the product, resulting in some negative press from major new organizations, including The Washington Post.
The point of all of this is to highlight what seems to be a tone deafness that has been apparent in the WWE for some time. Not only did the elevation and focus on Mahal have a negative response in domestic viewership through live audience reactions, a drop in live attendance sales, and loss in television ratings, but the WWE’s market in India has failed to expand as a result of the crowning of the first WWE champion of Indian descent. The Wrestling Observer Newsletter reported in August that the number of WWE Network subscribers had dropped since Mahal’s coronation (“WWE SmackDown Must End the Pushes of Jinder Mahal and Shane McMahon”), and a two-show live event tour in India scheduled for December was reduced to a single event. While neither of these occurrences can definitively be attributed to the WWE’s booking of Mahal, it is, along with the domestic response, damning evidence against the Mahal experiment.
It also shows a lack of audience awareness by the WWE, with some outlets reporting slow ticket sales for the India tour in part because of a pricing structure significantly higher than the average cost of live sporting events in the country, and a suggestion that WWE’s 750 million social media followers in India do not necessarily translate to network subscriptions and ticket sales. It is possible that the issue with WWE in India could highlight a larger issue with the company’s heavy investment in social media as its major marketing statistics tool.
The fact that the WWE chose to highlight Mahal’s ethnicity and then attach it to notions of racism and (to a lesser extent) nationalism shows a disconnect with the cultural zeitgeist in which the company exists and operates. The leaning on racial differences has come across as an easy out in the booking of Mahal, a simple motivation for the character that avoids the work that would have otherwise been necessary to build a character from jobber to champion status; the urgency and suddenness with which Mahal was made champion perhaps caused an oversimplification in the narrative construction of the character and the reasoning for his newfound answers for success.
This style of booking overlooks the fact that WWE’s audience is far different from the heyday of the late 80s and early 90s where American patriots ran roughshod over evil foreigners, and, despite what some disgruntled and lapsed fans insist, the current WWE audience does not want the rampant violence, misogyny, and bigotry that defined the boom known as the “Attitude Era.” The current viewer of WWE’s product, most of whom fall within the “millennial” categorization that McMahon derides as under-ambitious and underachieving in that same Stone Cold Podcast, are far more inclusive, accepting, and desiring of diversity and equality in the media they consume. They are also more aware of quality and artistry in both performance and product than any audience before, and the failure of the Mahal experiment is a reflection of that awareness.
That the WWE does not seem to see, or at least refuses to acknowledge, this trend in its viewership and in the culture at large is fairly shocking. It’s insistence that Mahal’s heel motivations hinge upon his racial and ethnic identities is especially surprising given the WWE’s own global expansion, which should instead see a drop in isolated patriotism and racially charged narratives. This is especially true given the turbulent cultural and political climates that have come to define 2017, especially in the United States, where concerns over the increased visibility and influence of white nationalism are at the forefront of most news days. Mahal’s presentation as a boy-who-cried-wolf racist does nothing to allay or shed light on these concerns, perhaps instead lending them credence.
With the results of the Clash of Champions pay-per-view, perhaps there is reason to believe that the WWE has taken notice to the fallout of the Mahal experiment, beginning with his loss of the WWE championship to AJ Styles and subsequent replacement in the champion vs. champion match against Brock Lesnar just before last month’s Survivor Series event. Backlash occurred with the initial announcement that Mahal would face Lesnar, with fans being relatively vociferous in their disdain at the mere idea of a match they considered to be a dud weeks before the opening bell even rang. After having Mahal sit out the Survivor Series event altogether, he was thrust back into the main event for his title rematch this past Sunday.
There was a noticeable change in the way Mahal was presented on television leading up to Clash of Champions. The race fueled rhetoric that characterized the past eight months of the character’s motivations was absent, now replaced with Mahal touting more traditional heel rhetoric, insisting that he had lost the title due to the effects of international travel and general unpreparedness and claiming that he had become WWE champion without anyone else’s help, despite the alignment in narrative with the Singh Brothers. This is a marked step away from the one note narrative that had been attached to the character since his push began, and it is one more in tune with the current climate of the WWE audience with its focus on competition and accomplishment, and on the WWE championship. Mahal’s claims still allow for the character to be presented as hypocritical without implications of either the audience or himself (and by extension, the company) as being racially motivated or prejudice.
My personal estimation of Mahal is that the performer’s in-ring skill still leave so very much to be desired, but the character work shows promise if allowed to develop outside of the tired, outdated, and inept race-centered narrative. Ending the Mahal experiment with Styles’ decisive win on Sunday and moving the character away from the main event and the WWE title should give it room to breathe and develop in ways that the forced rise and stubborn title reign would not.
If that is the case, then Mahal’s Clash of Champions loss could possibly be understood as the official closing of a year in which WWE programming was decidedly not “about what the fans want” as McMahon claims. Clash of Champions, for all of its problems, could go down as marking the start of a more aware WWE, in both audience and cultural awareness.
Hopefully that means we’re gifted more Tye Dillinger, but more than likely we’ll be force fed Lesner vs. Reigns 2: The Re-Re-Re-Re-Coronation. Fingers crossed, though…
WWE Clash of Champions 2017. Performances by AJ Styles, Jinder Mahal, Shane McMahon, Daniel Bryan, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, etc. WWE Network, World Wrestling Entertainment, 17 Dec. 2017. http://network.wwe.com/video/v1870048783?contextType=wwe-show&contextId=clash_of_champions&contentId=263555042&watchlistAltButtonConte xt=series
Investor Presentation: December 2015. World Wrestling Entertainment, December 2015, http://corporate.wwe.com/~/media/Files/W/WWE/documents/events/1500078394.PDF
Oestriecher, Blake. “This Week in WWE Biz: Roman Reigns Sales, Brock Lesnar vs. Goldberg Plans, Seth Rollins Feud, More.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 1 Apr. 2017, www.forbes.com/sites/blakeoestriecher/2017/04/01/this-week-in-wwe-biz-roman-reigns-sales-brock-lesnar-vs-goldberg-plans-seth-rollins-feud-more/.
–. “WWE SmackDown Must End the Pushes of Jinder Mahal and Shane McMahon.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 30 Aug. 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/blakeoestriecher/2017/08/30/wwe-smackdown-must-end-the-pushes-of-jinder-mahal-and-shane-mcmahon/#4e3baeab4500
Mr. McMahon.” Stone Cold Podcast. Performances by Stone Cold Steve Austin and Vince McMahon, WWE Network, World Wrestling Entertainment, 1 Dec. 2014. http://network.wwe.com/video/v135281883?contextType=wwe-show&contextId=stone_cold_podcast&contentId=127330862&watchlistAltButtonContext=series Note: The image above is taken from this show. The meme’s creator is unknown.
WWE Reports First Quarter 2017 Results. World Wrestling Entertainment, May 2017, http://corporate.wwe.com/~/media/Files/W/WWE/press-releases/2017/Q1-2017-Earnings-Release-FINAL.pdf