Six Matches Before Lunch: WWE, The Content Producer

Michael N. Todaro

It Came From the Vault (#9!) is back this week, tying together Triple H's controversial Grantland interview with The MSG Incident and King of the Ring 1996. Also, the Gold Dust (no, not that one) trio.

Because professional wrestling is professional wrestling, it was invented by a guy named "Toots". And, to paraphrase Aaron Sorkin, he didn't invent it in the way Vince McMahon invented professional wrestling: Joseph "Toots" Mondt invented professional wrestling.

Forming the "Gold Dust Trio" with renowned shoot wrestler Ed "Strangler" Lewis and his manager Billy Sandow (no relation), Mondt and company combined their promotional power to maximize gates. They then used this money to give guaranteed contracts to the best workers in smaller, rival promotions, quickly developing a federation of elite wrestlers that drove most other organizations out of business (I know, I know). In order to keep the crowds interested in Lewis as the World’s Champion, and thereby keep the money flowing in, Mondt created the idea of pre-determined finishes and match stipulations, along with pushes and less athletically gifted contenders being given them because of things like charisma and how they appealed to fans.

Fighting to see who is the better of two men -- with loosely-applied rules and very basic storytelling tropes moving the narrative forward --  was enough of a storyline for early fans to follow, but after a few years, (as will always be the case) the fans wanted more.

And Mondt gave them more when he turned an Greek-born Adonis named Chris Theophelos into Jim Londos, the biggest star the business has ever seen. After his falling-out with Billy’s brother, Max Sandow, "Toots" began working with Ray Fabiani to book Londos throughout the Northeast in "Beauty vs. The Beast" matches against ugly opponents, pushing fans towards Jim instead of whatever poor, ugly sap was standing on the other side of the ring.

These matches got a reaction because of the lack of exposure many fans had to the storylines being sold, and because Londos’s his good looks and ties to Greece gave him built-in, if hilariously superficial, hooks for the paying audiences to attach themselves. But, as wrestling gained viewers on television, the superficialness of these attachments began to stretch the patience of the audiences. Over exposure creeped in as the first decades of the television progressed, and promoters were forced to compensate for the drop in star power following the departure of characters like (the world famous) Gorgeous George with more outlandish gimmicks and excessive amounts of blood (I know, I know) in lieu of more interesting or dynamic things.

Following a relatively dark period in the 60s-70s, where most wrestling on television was of the local minor-league variety, new faces like the AWA and the WWWF began to buck against the NWA stranglehold on the business. Using Verne Gagne’s notoriety (in the AWA’s case) and the power of the New York market (in the WWWF’s case) to push their agendas forward, the two organizations eventually broke off not just from the NWA over "who should be champion" related disputes but in different directions. Hulk Hogan, an updated version of Jim Londos, would dictate the future of the business jumping from the AWA to Vince McMahon’s WWF, as the demand for the easily digested battles of good and evil found in Sports Entertainment overwhelmed more nuanced storylines and matches that Gagne preferred promoting.

It was at this point that what we know to be the WWF came into formation as not just name in professional wrestling, but as a major contributor to world of cable television and PPV, creating hours upon hours of entertainment while spreading their brand across the world. And that’s where it stood for much of the last 30 years, with the company riding the popularity of shows like genius strokes like Raw and WrestleMania to the nearly unimaginable heights of popularity, with only one true fallow -- ‘93-’95 -- period in the entire run.

This was accomplished in large part because of Vince McMahon, who along with creating some of the greatest spectacles in wrestling, played perhaps its most indelible character in the take-no-prisoners, leaving-you-no-chance-in-hell Mr. McMahon. As the next media revolution comes, and shows like Total Divas HEAVILY blur the lines between reality and kayfabe, a new larger than life character, like him or Hulk or Jim Londos or Ed "The Stranger" Lewis needs to emerge to pull eyes towards it, as promoters push the boundaries of the medium, and its inherently ambiguous ties to reality, farther into the unknown. There are definitely good reasons to worry whether or not Triple H can be that man, and more importantly, that character, but after his interview with Grantland last week, one thing became clear: he’s been working on it for a long time

***

In perhaps the strangest twist in the last two weeks of Raw, Daniel Bryan has begun referring to Triple H as a "former rebel", who has spent too much time "laying down with trash", succumbing to the whims of money and power, selling out what’s best for everyone in order to grab as much control as possible. While the second bit is clearly a hint at the backstage machinations the Internet Wrestling Community accuses H of,  Bryan calling H a rebel on television, he is referring to his time in D-Generation X -- that fly-by-night organization that he formed with HBK right after the "bag carrying" part of his WWF paid internship -- which saw the two (along with Chyna and the late/great Rick Rude) run roughshod over the company.

To most people, that group began its run -- and Triple H started embracing his persona as a "rebel" -- in the summer of 1997 as D-Generation X feuded with the Hart Foundation , garnering massive heat before the entire thing exploded at the 1997 Survivor Series.

And for who hasn’t seen the documentary Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows, while H’s involvement in the Screwjob is denied, it’s clear that he was (again) taking a brunt of the abuse for something which was (at the very least) not believed to be his idea at the time, as Hart’s wife rips into Helmsley in the movie’s most uncomfortable scene. She accusing him of being "in" on it, which he, of course, denied. We know, after he was eventually outed by Michaels that the double-cross finish was his idea to begin with, but one could chalk his denial up to maintaining plausible deniability, or at the very least, maintaining kayfabe, a topic that would have been particularly hot-button for him at the time.

That’s because, while we see Triple H’s rebellious streak on camera as the genesis of D-X, in WWE Universe’s permeable membrane of kayfabe of Triple H being a "rebel" happened a full year before the on-screen formation of the group. Known to the type of people that frequent sites like this, Triple H -- whose real name is Paul Levesque -- was a part of a backstage cadre of wrestlers that included Kevin Nash, Scott Hall and Sean Waltman and referred to themselves as The Kliq. Notorious for many things, their most infamous moment occurred in May of 1996, when after a Michaels-Nash title match at a house show in Madison Square Garden, Hall (as Razor Ramon) came down to ringside with H to share a tender moment in the ring with HBK and Nash (as Diesel), who along with Hall was leaving for WCW. We accept that Triple H will sometimes do things because "he feels like", that he's really "a rebel" as a result of this, and of what happened after.

According to legend, this mind-blowing break of kayfabe (for the time) mushroomed into the MSG Incident (or "Curtain Call"), and because he was the only one who could be reprimanded (with Michael as WWE champion and Hall/Nash leaving), saw H take the brunt of the punishment. He lost a promised push, which included a victory at the King of the Ring PPV the following month, making way for "Stone Cold" Steve Austin to use his transcendent "3:16" promo to make himself the next in the line of "Strangler" Lewises: the superstar for his age.

That the Curtain Call had positive on-screen repercussions for the company (giving the industry its brightest star since Londos) is often included in retelling of the story. This is put alongside the redemption of Triple H off-screen, who took his punishment without complaint. Doing so helped to turn the opinions of "the boys" on him -- someone who was seen as a jerk, and even worse, a jerk with major stroke backstage -- as a member of their team.

H, for his part, has stated in the past he took his punishment because he knew there was no other option, and ultimately necessary for his reputation backstage. And, up until last week, we probably could have believed him.

***

A lot has happened since Triple H’s interview with Grantland writer David Shoemaker (and his boss, Bill Simmons), an impromptu discussion done in the build up to SummerSlam. Like, SummerSlam for instance.

Beginning with that and stretching smoothly over the last two Raws, Hunter has been doing his best Phantom Limb impression, laying waste to the heroes and positioning himself as the Sovereign for the WWE’s equivalent of the Guild of Calamitous Intent (or, as I like to call them: The Better for Business Bureau). In doing so, he’s established both himself and Randy Orton as the kind of dastardly heels people pay to see get their come-uppance and, on an equal level of significance, Daniel Bryan as the Chosen One that the fans will pay to see deliver it.

And in the piece, Triple H hints at going in-depth with the two writers: giving insider details, telling (apparently untrue) stories out of school, and, most importantly, publicly establishing a timeline for his involvement in the backstage goings-on that has long ( and perhaps unfairly) put a blemish on his record as a performer.

He plays them, on some level, because that’s what you do when you’ve spent your entire adult life pretending in front of an audience for money. But, ultimately, it seems like he’s played us yet again, when he revealed that he’d been on the booking committee since 1995, working with Vince on a personal level, making the very idea of things like the MSG Incident and everything we’ve ever seen from him -- outside of his very real marriage to Stephanie -- feel like yet another work by a promoter in a never ending parade of them.

Not that that’s a bad thing.

As the WWE turns from a maker of TV shows -- like when they took over Turner’s Superstation in the 80’s in order to drive competitors out of business -- into a mix between Pixar in underpants and Netflix, they need a promoter (and characters) who can help tell a big-picture story that is both fresh and easy to understand. They must create a massive amount of content in order put on a show that gives everyone something to watch, while trying to make everything they make worth seeing. And they must make it all seem "real".

On the storytelling side, simple underdog tales with larger themes that speak to both those in the know and those don’t even know what they like have never been more important, but with performers like Daniel Bryan and Dolph Ziggler, those things have never been easier. The real trick is making it all seem just real enough, which has always been the most important thing a promoter can do. With the world (or, Universe) he and his father-in-law have created, it's up to Triple H to make sure that what's real and fake never becomes too obvious one way or the other. Through his last 20 years IN THIS BUSINESS -- that seems like he should be able to do.

Which is a good thing for the industry, and more specifically, the company. The WWE has been trying things like this since it was the WWWF,  founded by Vince's father when he and his business partner needed (but weren't able to) get their chosen champion, Buddy Rogers, recognized by the NWA. They would eventually give Rogers his own title, before screwing him out of it, with McMahon’s business partner supposedly dragged him out of a hospital bed (following a heart attack) in order to drop the belt a wrestler he had a feeling was the future of the business, despite protests from McMahon himself regarding the fellow’s viability in a difficult New York market.

That man's name was, of course, Bruno Sammartino. The promoter? Some guy named "Toots".

I know, I know. But sometimes you have to go with what’s worked.

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