Yesterday, at 9:19am, the WWE Twitter account announced that Mr. McMahon would open SmackDown. It is crucial that they said Mr. McMahon and not Vince McMahon, as, since 1997, there has been some separation between the Vince McMahon who runs WWE in reality, and the Mr. McMahon who runs the product that WWE sells. A CNBC source said that the Mr. McMahon on SmackDown would be his “traditional,” “ruthless” self.
Given all of that, McMahon’s appearance on SmackDown may have registered as a disappointment. He didn’t scream, he didn’t strain his neck muscles past human limits, and he didn’t even mention the allegations he was facing, nor deflect blame from himself, nor attach blame to anybody else.
That was calculated. He had all day, two whole days, to figure out what he was going to do, did it, and left tossing his microphone in the air like a batter admiring a particularly gorgeous home run.
Every second of it was hatable, but McMahon accomplished exactly what he set out to do.
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What his SmackDown appearance did was effectively leverage the WWE Universe against an internal investigation, muddying the waters that were, until he had given his audience an occasion to celebrate him, pretty clear as to the scale of the moral impropriety he is under investigation for.
It was, in effect, a grand performance, positing McMahon as a trod upon Person You’re Familiar With beset upon by a vague horde of People Who Don’t Like Vince McMahon, which is, in this case, the board of his own company, the law firm investigating him, the media, and the women he allegedly paid off, though they didn’t instigate the investigation against McMahon or break their non-disclosure agreements. But in a post Depp/Heard world, in a world that has never particularly favored women where money, NDAs, and the word “mistress” are concerned, they are useful as an idea, especially as many on the outside of this investigation looking in will take those three things as an implication of consent, and thus see McMahon at fault for nothing more than cheating on his wife, which is a private matter.
I feel like I’m entering the realm of speculation somewhat, so I’d like to pull this back to McMahon’s appearance on SmackDown. It began, of course, with his theme music.
More than anything else, I am hung up on Vince McMahon’s entrance last night. His theme song, “No Chance,” has long stood as polite shorthand for “The boss is about to fuck you over.”
It’s a simple composition, one verse and a chorus. It is a definitive wrestling theme song, maddeningly befitting its character, and wildly inappropriate to the issue Vince McMahon appeared on SmackDown to address.
But the whole scene was inappropriate, beginning with the arena shot, moving through the various crowd shots that seemed a little less enthused than the audible cheering sounded like on television, and culminating with McMahon appearing, arms outstretched, right as the song hit the word “puppets.”
While I’d bet my life on the crowd being sweetened, I was shocked at how many smiling, clapping faces Kevin Dunn was able to find in the crowd, surprised that they were either willing to take this as another surreal thing in Vince McMahon’s life or that they just found the whole thing amusing.
McMahon, smiling and hitting his “Billionaire Strut” far more confidently than he has in his last several on-camera appearances, wound up getting sung to the ring. 51 seconds into an astonishingly brief appearance, and he had already won without saying a word. That’s as effective as propaganda gets. Puppets, indeed.
The WWE Universe
I think the WWE Universe is one of Vince McMahon’s most brilliant creations. Granted the social network the term sprouted from in 2008 was a failure, the term alone has more than paid off. Before then, WWE’s audience were either WWE fans or wrestling fans. Those are fine things to be, but are tough to address and market to en masse. WWE Universe doesn’t just do that, it gave fans an identity, something to belong to regardless of where WWE was that week.
It’s also an easy means of flattening out an audience into a singular presence, complicit in whatever WWE does by virtue of attending shows and watching on television.
So of course it’s an honor for Vince McMahon to stand before the WWE Universe — who in the WWE Universe doesn’t love Vince McMahon? The crowd pops for this and the mention of Minnesota were legitimate. People love to belong.
After ingratiating himself with what Mick Foley would call cheap pops, McMahon cited the four words in the opening signature:
Then. Now. Together. Forever.
The “Together” is new as of April of last year, introduced as WWE was gearing up to return to touring in July. It was a post-COVID gesture (so far as we’re “post” COVID), as well as a call to the members of the WWE Universe that didn’t bleed off during the Thunderdome era that the continued prosperity of WWE was a collective effort.
I don’t know how much weight should be placed on an entertainment company’s signature, but WWE’s draws together nearly 70 years of wrestling history, much of it plundered, presenting itself as the very heart and soul of sports entertainment, which, in fairness, it has been for a very, very long time.
Now “Then. Now. Together. Forever.” means that you stand with Vince McMahon. Big pop for the word “together,” which McMahon asserts is the most important word.
He then hits an emphatic “Welcome to SmackDown,” swinging his arm out like he’s introducing WrestleMania to the world, and spirals the microphone back to ringside. And that’s all.
Saying Nothing, Saying Everything
It would be easy to write off McMahon’s appearance on SmackDown as nothing. From open to close, the 2:23 it takes up is mostly occupied by McMahon’s entrance. SmackDown’s title follows, and the show just happens.
But it’s the most important segment of WWE television in longer than I can remember.
In retaining his position as head of WWE creative, Vince McMahon has given himself a pulpit from which he can say whatever he wants, whenever he needs to. SmackDown wasn’t the time or place for McMahon to spill his guts or go on the offensive, it was a moment where he could make a public show of confidence and activate the concept of the WWE Universe as a weapon.
Vince McMahon never stopped smiling. The crowd gave him everything he wanted. It was over before anybody could realize they got worked.
It was, in other words, perfect.
How much it affects the investigation into his alleged wrongdoings, I don’t know. Generally speaking, I’d like to think that people outside the wrestling bubble are smarter now than they were when WWE stock took a dip because Donald Trump “bought” Raw, but watching McMahon call for unity and receiving an amen, it’s clear that a lot of people inside the wrestling bubble either can’t see or don’t mind what McMahon is doing, which is transforming the investigation into a circus.
On Friday night, Vince McMahon strolled into his ring and asserted himself as the center of his industry. For better or for worse, he is.