For anyone unfamiliar with The Great Dictator, it is understandable. It was made in 1940 before the United States was even involved in World War II. The movie was a political satire about Adolf Hitler starring silent film star Charlie Chaplin in his first movie role with sound. Chaplin also wrote, directed, scored and produced the film. If you haven’t seen it, it’s one of my favorite movies of all time and it is worth a watch. Chaplin even cuts an incredible promo for the virtues of love and human life in the ending of the movie. Aside from it being a incredible story and performance, it shares a few parallels with Vincent Kennedy McMahon. While he is no Adolf Hitler and I’d never imply that, Vince is definitely the dictator of WWE. There is no one else who overrides him on any decisions about the product and ultimately everything we see on Mondays, Thursdays and Sundays have his fingerprints all over them.
Starting with the positive comparison, there was a time when Vince McMahon was pure brilliance. Much like Carlie Chaplin being in complete control of his film, Vince was running everything creatively, in charge of hiring and firing and was arguably the most important on-screen character. All credit to Stone Cold Steve Austin for achieving the heights he did, but he isn’t nearly as compelling without Mr. McMahon as his major obstacle. When the WWF was in trouble in the mid-1990’s, it was Vince who pulled out all the stops to ultimately lead his company to ultimate victory over every other pro wrestling promotion. He came, he saw and he conquered which left him in a position of unchecked power, completely unopposed with a belief that everything he does will be successful. He was truly a dictator at this point, not just in a sense that he controlled the entire company, but that he completely controlled the entire wrestling world. And this is what leads me to the negative part of this comparison and the spot WWE finds itself in currently.
While WWE is far and away the biggest and most successful pro wrestling promotion in the world, they find themselves in a position of waining popularity. Television ratings are down. Fans are increasingly dissatisfied with the product. Casual fans have all but vanished. People who cover the business seem to unanimously question the quality of the product that is being presented. Former employees as well as some current employees all have a very similar story when it comes to working for WWE. I have been listening to wrestling podcasts fairly regularly and I’ve heard quite a few instances that have raised my eyebrows.
First was Cody Rhodes asking for his release, which was shocking to me although it shouldn’t have been. He was forced to play a silly character that was a psychopathic knockoff of his older brother for far too long. His father was wrestling royalty and he simply wanted his name back. WWE wouldn’t allow him to drop the Stardust character despite the fact that the character wasn’t being used for anything of significance. He is a young guy who has a very creative mind and he wanted to use it. He was stifled and found his way out the door. Over the next week or so I heard former WWE writer Andrew Goldstein on the Ross Report discussing his time with the company. When asked about the Cody Rhodes situation he said the writers really have no control over the use of talent as ultimately the decisions are Vince’s. It doesn’t matter what you want to write for a talent unless it’s something Vince wants to do.
My concern grew a little more when I heard Seth Rollins discussing his return with Chris Jericho. He said as he neared full health he reached out to WWE to discuss ideas for his big comeback. Those feelers went unanswered until WWE informed him of his impending return just a week in advance, prior to even being medically cleared. This guy was the WWE Champion for seven months, carrying the company on his back and they didn’t even allow him any input on his creative direction upon his return. They didn’t even keep him informed of their plans for him. If anyone deserved more consideration it was Seth Rollins.
What really set me on the course of the subject for this column was hearing Damien Sandow on both Chris Jericho’s show and Vince Russo’s. Also the fact that I won’t get to watch Money In The Bank due to family and NBA related issues played a part. But Sandow mentioned a very specific thing when asked about the Mizdow gimmick. He said it was amazing what a little freedom can do. Freedom. Such a basic thing but something that almost no one on the roster is afforded. Everything is so overly scripted and sterilized that there is a lack of connection with the characters. We see that there are performers that are predetermined to be in certain spots, no matter how they are received. We as a collective group of fans can buy into a certain performer and if Vince doesn’t want him to matter he won’t. If Vince decides someone should be at the top, it doesn’t matter if everyone turns on them.
Not only does this turn us off as the most ardent supporters of WWE, but it turns off a lot of the roster as well. One of the worst environments that can be created in a workplace is a lack of upward mobility. If you feel that you have no hope of gaining a promotion or earning a raise, sooner or later you will be checked out. You will feel less invested in the job you’re doing and your performance will suffer. I feel like that is what’s happening at WWE. Luckily for the company, working there is a dream come true for everyone that makes it, but that won’t be enough in the long run.
CM Punk has said that while it was his dream, it wasn’t worth how miserable it made him. He says, and I believe him, that he is so much happier now that he is out of that toxic environment. Another point Sandow made was the idea of balance. He was able to deal without ever getting a payoff for the great work he had done because he was able to achieve balance. He realized that he had made the most of every opportunity but was never rewarded for it. He accepted that he had done his best and was at peace with whatever the results were. Luckily it seems that his post-WWE career is being met with exciting opportunities, but it shouldn’t come to that. At a certain point WWE needs to be responsible for identifying the talent they have and making the most of it.
With a great dictator in place, that will never happen. He sits atop his company and decides who goes where on first sight. No one questions him and no one tries to change his mind. With the lack of true creative freedom there is no way any of these performers will ever truly reach their true potential. With talent walking on eggshells and being kept in a box, they can never blossom. The product is so buttoned up that no one is able to just go out there, let it rip and have fun. They have managed to take a lot of the excitement out of a live broadcast.
Wrestling is supposed to fun and it’s supposed to be ENTERTAINMENT. Vince McMahon has been calling it the entertainment business for as long as I can remember. He claimed that WWE was in the business of making movies. Over the course of time as his grip on the professional wrestling world has grown stronger and more dominant, he has choked much of the life out of it. The movies they used to make have turned into a series of disjointed segments that don’t quite fit together and defy logic. There is a problem with extreme negativity among the hardcore fanbase which I’ve discussed many times, but I think some of it is a negative culture within the company leaking out and spreading among those that watch most closely.
A dictatorship rarely, if ever, has a good outcome. Vince McMahon had a lot of success and generated a lot of incredible programming in my lifetime. Most of it was during his rise to this place of absolute power, not during his reign in his current position. Eventually, Vince needs to relinquish this power that he has consolidated and allow his team of writers and his talent roster to explore new terrains and push boundaries once again. There is a time for WWE to be something that exists outside the mind Vince McMahon and to quote his favorite superstar, his time is up and that time is now.
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