WWE Deserves to Fail

Yesterday, per Sean Ross Sapp of Fightful, WWE released John Morrison, Top Dolla, Ashante Adonis, Isaiah “Swerve” Scott, Tegan Nox, Drake Maverick, Shane Thorne, and Jaxson Ryker. Regardless of what you think of the talent listed on an individual basis, those are eight more names in an absolute bloodbath of a year that has seen, according to Denise Salcedo, 80 releases. She put them in a graphic. I am going to put them in a bulleted list. The length here is, I feel, illustrative.

  • Bobby Fish
  • Mercedes Martinez
  • Leon Ruff
  • Tyler Rust
  • Bronson Reed
  • Jake Atlas
  • Ari Sterling
  • Kona Reeves
  • Zechariah Smith
  • Asher Hale
  • Giant Zanjeer
  • Stephon Smith
  • Dezmond Troy
  • Bray Wyatt
  • Chase Parker
  • Matt Martel
  • Killian Dain
  • Marina Shafir
  • Arturo Ruas
  • Curt Stallion
  • Sunil Singh
  • Samir Singh
  • Lars Sullivan
  • Steve Cutler
  • Andrade
  • Billie Kay
  • Peyton Royce
  • Samoa Joe
  • Kallisto
  • Chelsea Green
  • Mickie James
  • Tucker
  • Bo Dallas
  • Mojo Rawley
  • Wesley Blake
  • Jessamyn Duke
  • Kavita Devi
  • Vanessa Bourne
  • Skylar Story
  • Ezra Judge
  • Alexander Wolfe
  • Velveteen Dream
  • Braun Strowman
  • Lana
  • Buddy Murphy
  • Aleister Black
  • Ruby Riott
  • August Gret
  • Ariya Daivari
  • Tony Nese
  • Tyler Breeze
  • Fandango
  • Santana Garrett
  • Tino Sabbatelli
  • Nia Jax
  • Eva Marie
  • Mia Yim
  • Harry Smith
  • Keith Lee
  • Karrion Kross
  • Lince Dorado
  • Gran Metalik
  • Jeet Rama
  • Katrina Cortez
  • Trey Baxter
  • Zayda Ramier
  • Jessi Kamea
  • B-Fab
  • Oney Lorcan
  • Ember Moon
  • Franky Monet
  • Scarlett Bordeaux
  • John Morrison
  • Top Dolla
  • Ashante Adonis
  • Isaiah “Swerve” Scott
  • Tegan Nox
  • Drake Maverick
  • Shane Thorne
  • Jaxson Ryker

How notable it is that Samoa Joe was later re-signed is up to you. Drake Maverick was rehired after his first release, that rehiring and his gratitude for it was briefly his gimmick, and here he is on the list again along with main event talent, long-tenured wrestlers, and pieces that could have slotted into a midcard scene of a company that cared about its midcard, or had the potential to be gamebreaking talent.

I will not get into that here, as the WWE’s failure to actualize the rather easy opportunities for success they’ve hoarded for themselves is not my concern, nor should it be the common wrestling fan’s beyond each release—each fuck-up becomes a data point indicating that WWE’s unassailable empire, like Rome, is crumbling.

WWE Deserves to Fail

In 2019, I wrote about EVOLVE 137, the indie wrestling show where NXT General Manager William Regal came out to offer Shotzi Blackheart an NXT contract. It was meant to be a heartwarming moment, but between it, a Regal promo on a few yet-unsigned EVOLVE talent, and the stronger-than-necessary booking of NXT talent on the card, I felt like what I was watching was the end of a kind of indie wrestling and the beginning of a new branch of WWE’s talent warehouse, where promotions like EVOLVE would act as farm systems. Sorta like baseball. And nothing interesting would ever happen again.

I was wrong. EVOLVE actually died, and the addition of a second hour of NXT (and the existence of 205 Live, and maybe NXT UK hanging out in the Negative Zone with the spoils of a vanquished British/European wrestling scene mounted on its walls) filled that void. I said that I don’t care about mistakes, but in this instance I do: By going this route, WWE exposed a lot of wrestlers who weren’t ready for TV to an audience that would have been ready to rip it to shreds regardless regardless of there being competition across the dial. Coupled with endless, stale feuds up and down the roster, NXT went from the company’s hype machine to the vehicle that handed WWE a rare major loss from the competition.

Worse than all that, the company more broadly compromised the state of independent professional wrestling in a serious way. Their habit of signing every woman with some buzz led to fewer women’s matches on cards. Their habit of signing every man with some buzz, including Shinsuke Nakamura, effectively acted as a hole in the dyke that was the growth of companies like ROH and NJPW. Of course, Cody Rhodes, Kenny Omega, the Young Bucks, and Tony Khan joined forces and created AEW in January 2019, which eventually routed NXT and kicked off the slight peak American wrestling currently finds itself in.

WWE

In February 2019, WWE signed ACH, Trevor Lee, Rachel Ellering, Karen Q, Bronson Reed, Dexter Lumis, 2.0, and Nick Comoroto, among others. They were followed later by Santana Garrett, Austin Theory, Malcolm Bivens, Kushida, Angel Garza, Isaiah “Swerve” Scott, Scarlett Bordeaux, Shotzi Blackheart, and a number of prospects from pro wrestling, sports and elsewhere. with those names off the board, the Wrestling Observer Newsletter reported that “WWE has opened up talks about bringing a number of people in that they’ve never had any interest in, with the obvious reason that there is a belief they could be of value to the opposition.”

While their signing spree slowed down tremendously in 2020, the year they began slashing contracts, is is worth noting that 2020 was the year  COVID-19 transformed the WWE Performance Center into a closed set for tapings of every in-ring WWE show until the creation of the WWE ThunderDome. The company site’s news section, hacky and unreliable as it is, doesn’t show any new signings until after the SummerSlam mass tryout, and of the major ones we did get pre-COVID—Mercedes Martinez, Jake Atlas, Timothy Thatcher, Karrion Kross, and Sarray—three of them were subsequently released this year.

WWE Deserves to Fail

This is upsetting stuff. On the one hand you have the sheer human misery of 80 people losing their jobs. On the other hand, here’s the largest wrestling company in the history of the world. It has all this money, all this talent, but even playing on easy mode it can’t help but fuck up and lose nearly every game it decides to play. One such game is Tetris, where you take various shapes and stack them in a way that won’t overload the space in which you’ve been given to play.

The WWE runs a warehouse, and its inner workings are imperceptible to the common fan because the WWE Performance Center is a developmental space. There’s nothing more boring than watching people run drills. For whatever reason — let’s just guess it’s the distracting war of attrition the company is waging against AEW and, surprise surprise, losing — WWE is playing Tetris on an absolutely galaxy brain level. It stacks up squares and rectangles against the walls because those are the really good bits, yet scrambles to handle the Ls and the T-shaped pieces. Meanwhile, the available space above just keeps filling up. The business folks scramble to account for this, moving this piece here and that piece there.

Only the blocks are falling so rapidly that you lose track of someone like Tegan Nox, drafted to SmackDown, placed in a team, and, uhhh… nothing. Or a Karrion Kross, called up during a title reign, jobbed out, separated from the one part of his act that worked, and, uhh… Yeah.

The screen fills up. There too many fucking pieces everywhere and you have to clear them out somehow.

So they do, and rather than use the old “creative has nothing for you” line — which is the actual truth, given that they were doing things like assigning Keith Lee a nickname like “Bearcat” — they blame with “budget cuts” as if everyone can’t see how much money the company is making.

This is why WWE deserves to fail — why it is failing. Its public-facing product is professional wrestling, but the way talent is managed has been brutal and miserable for as long as anyone can remember. It’s the same cycle of signings and releases starting shortly after the company bought WCW in 2001. The difference between the snarky message-board yuks of the post-WrestleMania release season and now is that, due to social media, wrestlers aren’t just wrestlers anymore; they’re people. Visible people. Not only that, they’re people capable of building their own fanbases beyond how they’re presented by a single brand. That illuminates issues like WWE’s attempt to control its talent’s Twitch streams, leading to a Fightful Select report stating that Xavier Woods hardly receives anything from UpUpDownDown, his gaming YouTube channel with 2.27M subscribers.

If you’re into Xavier Woods enough that you watch his YouTube videos — not just his in-ring performance — you take that kind of thing seriously. It paints his employer as ruthlessly greedy in a time of almost impossible prosperity. For them, anyway. It makes Woods a victim. And when eight people are released on the same day, in the same environment of impossible prosperity, “budget cuts” being the reason given, you’re bound to feel a little sore. In wrestling, when a company betrays your confidence enough times, it offers three options: Suffer, Leave, or Seek an Alternative. For most of the past two decades, McMahon and Co. haven’t needed to worry about alternatives. Now that they do, every time they do a mass release, they risk losing people to that alternative. That’s a failure.
Not being able to position obviously talented performers in a way that benefits your company? That’s a failure. Fan blowback? A failure. Not properly addressing that blowback? A failure. And on and on it goes, these small failures piling up like their own Tetris stack. Only it’s one that used to be winnable because what audience the WWE had — and there is a big audience for easily accessible professional wrestling — was a captive one. Letting that dwindle due to boredom or revolt? That’s a failure.

So is watching ex-talent show up elsewhere, suddenly motivated and every bit the star WWE should have made them. That so many have accomplished this is why it’s hard to be truly sad about a wrestler departing the company. Beyond the interpersonal hurt it causes for them and their friends and family, of course. It’s not exactly being set free from prison, as the videos have it, but it’s not a failing on a wrestler’s part, either. It is, however, an opportunity. For those stuck in the WWE warehouse, there were too few such opportunities for too long. Wild as it sounds, this is Vince McMahon’s brass ring: an opportunity to escape the culture of failure that pervades management and creative at WWE. Only nobody has to reach out and take it. It’s fallen directly into their hands. I hope they use it. I hope that wrestlers succeed where the WWE failed them.

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Colette Arrand

Colette Arrand is a minor transsexual poet and nu-metal enthusiast.

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