On the January 8, 2021 episode of Smackdown, WWE Universal Champion Roman Reigns and his cousin Jey Uso interfered in the main event, gang beating the new fan favorite Shinsuke Nakamura. WWE authority figure Adam Pearce grimaced from ringside, pulling out the ghost strands of hair that once filled his head. It was an odd scene, taking place in an empty arena, with a ring circled by TV screens filled with faces of fans told when to cheer and boo. Reactions were amplified. Piped in. Most uncanny was the role the performers played: Pearce—the authority—was a hero, and Reigns—the employee—was a demanding thug.
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Reigns stalked his way under the bottom rope and over to Pearce, sliding his arm around Pearce’s shoulder and clamping it tight. “That’s what you need to understand,” the Champ said, calmly. “We do whatever I [sic] wanna do.”
“C’mon, Roman,” Pearce begged, so low that the microphone didn’t catch it.
“This is my show.” A smiling Reigns looked directly at his nearly shaking boss. “I employ you. Do your job.” The Champ rolled Pierce into the ring where Uso was waiting, ready to pounce.
The blue collar worker vs. The Man
In stark contrast, every Monday night in the late 1990s, my high school peers and I escaped into our TVs, waiting anxiously for Stone Cold Steve Austin to assault his evil employer, Mr. McMahon. On September 22, 1997, in Madison Square Garden, we got it. Austin had been forced to relinquish the Intercontinental and Tag Team titles after Owen Hart injured him with a botched piledriver at Summerslam. Austin showed up to stomp Hart down, and the police quickly swarmed.
McMahon jumped off commentary and into the ring, telling New York’s Finest to stand back. “Don’t you understand,” The WWF (now WWE) owner berated Austin, who was pacing the ring, stopping every few moments to lock eyes with his oppressor. “People care in the World Wrestling Federation.” The WWF was liable.
“You know as well as I do that this is what I do for a living,” Austin said. Then Austin pulled back, agreeing to work within McMahon’s “stupid little system” before changing his mind again and, in an act of glorious insubordination, telling McMahon he could kiss his ass.
Austin stunned the crap out of McMahon and the roars of the crowd reverberated through my high school’s hallways for the next week. A bunch of nobodies living in the quasi-suburbs/quasi-country of Upstate, NY, we wished we were Austin, flipping off authority and rolling our heads. We terrorized our teachers. We viewed our vice principal, Mr. Dragoni, as the principal’s stooge and treated him like he was Gerald Brisco, one of McMahon’s. I called him Mr. Jabroni to his face. We were tired of a stiff mandated curriculum forcing us into boxes, molding us for a world we despised and feared. We became the generation that was less likely to get married. We had fewer children. We rejected religion and embraced skepticism. We basked in Austin’s delinquency.
Before Vince McMahon Jr. became Mr. McMahon, the WWF’s main authority figures were stuffy old dudes who weren’t heels and weren’t faces. They called it down the middle. Jack Tunney was a former Canadian promoter turned figurehead President from 1984-1995. Gorilla Monsoon was slightly cooler, slightly more sympathetic, leading from 1995-1997. Then McMahon gave his “Bret Screwed Bret” speech on November 17, 1997, becoming the ultimate heel in the process. Fans knew McMahon was a bad person, knew he masterminded the Montreal Screwjob, knew he fed his performers steroids, knew he forced them to work seven days a week, twice on Saturday, twice on Sunday. We despised him, yet fed him our money, ordering pay-per-views and draping ourselves in company merch. He grew richer than Scrooge McDuck, and the trope was set, being used in every major promotion, time and time again: evil authority figure vs the common folks.
In the late 90s/early aughts WCW, we had Eric Bischoff (who’d actually turned heel nearly a year before McMahon). Then, we had Vince Russo. Then, Bischoff and Russo together. We despised them especially because they weaseled their ways into our dream jobs. In the mid-2010s TNA, we despised Dixie Carter, seeing her as privileged and ignorant, talking her millionaire daddy into buying a company for her to play with in a sport she knew nothing about. We blamed her for everything wrong with her federation’s product, rarely giving her credit for the superstars whose careers she launched and the innovative concepts the company instituted (disclosure: I really miss Dixie Carter-era TNA). When Bully Ray powerbombed her through a table, the entire locker room rooted from ringside while the crowd went nuts because as much as many of us love seeing bosses get pummeled, we love watching women get pummeled more (these are the moments that make me ashamed of my fandom).
In the WWF/E, we had McMahon after McMahon, from Shane, to Stephanie, to HHH (Stephanie’s husband, once a degenerate himself), to Shane, to Vince, to Stephanie, to Vince, to Stephanie and HHH, to Stephanie and Shane.But recently, something flipped. Over the past year or two, the authority figures have become faces. AEW owner Tony Khan is portrayed as an ingenious hero for funding an alternative to WWE, meanwhile he shows up weekly on Impact to heckle the smaller federation. He calls himself the “Forbidden Door” controlling opportunities in the industry, and boasts about the money he throws around, much more than Impact Wrestling (the former TNA) has since Carter left. The way some people react to Khan compared to Carter is jarring. Both come from massive wealth, but he’s a cis male, so therefore he’s seen as competent to run a wrestling company. At the same time, Khan acts as if he’s an underdog battling the behemoth McMahon. Paul Heyman pulled this act off in ECW, acting as one of the only predominantly babyface authorities during the 90s, but Heyman was legit broke. In reality, AEW vs. WWE is millionaire vs. millionaire.
Meanwhile, in Impact, we have co-Executive Vice Presidents Scott D’Amore and Don Callis (who also regularly appears in AEW). Good guy D’Amore is fair, claiming his responsibility is “not just to the wrestlers in the back, not just to the holder of the Impact World’s Championship, but it’s to you, the fans….” He is constantly trying to keep the company in order as the underlings try to pull things over on him. Meanwhile, Callis rarely makes on-screen day-to-day decisions, instead pulling strings behind the scenes as the “invisible hand” throughout the industry. He’s more a throwback heel manager, looking like a sheisty used-car salesman and acting like a doofus. There is no doubt he is a heel, but he is crafty and hilarious and reunited much of the Bullet Club—THE BULLET CLUB—in America. Every week, he shocks fans with surprises. Watching him brings back some of the excitement from the Monday Night Wars. You can’t help but root for the dude.
And somehow, somehow, this past year into the current one, as the pandemic destroyed independent promotions that couldn’t run shows, stripping performers of work, we are fed the authority in WWE as faces.
The Man is actually your friend now.
In April of last year, WWE fired or furloughed over 30 employees, including 22 wrestlers and 10 producers. That quarter, the WWE made $43.8 million in profits. Roman Reigns, a family man who had just survived a second bout with Leukemia, took off March through August. He had every right to worry about the lackluster precautions the WWE was taking as they ran shows during a global pandemic. But when he returned to the ring at Summerslam, he was booked as a heel for the first time in years. Because he did what he wanted, when he wanted. Because he didn’t take direction from anyone. Because he was a ruffian.
And Adam Pearce was the hero for attempting to enforce rules. Not just rules for Reigns, but for Styles, and Shamus, and Zayn (another performer who took time off during the early months of the pandemic). Wrestlers put Pearce down. They assault him, yet he stands firm for what is right. This story occurs in a WWE that has been bitten by COVID numerous times, but told through McMahon’s eyes, the employees that remain employed should be grateful for not being laid off, for having work in such awful conditions.
For much of the pandemic, America’s unemployment rate was frozen at 6.7%, with 9.9% of Black workers unemployed and 9.3% of Latinx workers unemployed this past December. Around 15.1 million adults in rental housing are behind on paying rent. About 10.3 million are behind on mortgage payments. Eleven percent of the country, about 24 million adults, don’t have enough food for their households. Fifteen percent of households with children are hungry. The CDC estimates there are approximately 87 million essential workers. Many can’t afford to take time off like Reigns. Many have comorbidities and underlying conditions that increase COVID-19 mortality risk.
Wrestling fans turn on our TVs to escape reality. What we get are vilified employees. My generation felt hopeless, so we rebelled throughout our teens and early twenties. When we tried to pull it together, we watched our fears spiral into reality, bludgeoning us into submission. We were hit with recession after recession. The dreams our parents tried to sell us, where we pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps and earned a house and family, didn’t exist. Still, we buttoned our uniforms, whether it was a suit or t-shirt billboarding a company logo from the store we worked at in the mall. We glued on our smiles, and forced ourselves through, day after day, at jobs we despised. It was all so common, and the common man and woman became something to be ashamed of.
I live in the city of Albany, New York now. Our high school has been closed the entire year. The halls are empty. No one’s discussing Monday’s programming. My generation had no faith in society, but we rallied for the underdog. The current generation can’t even do that. This year, wrestling reinvented itself. The McMahons innovated new ways to get rich. They thrived. But any cheers echoing through the barren arenas were piped in.