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On Jim Cornette, Lucha Underground, and the future of pro wrestling

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By Steve Wright Jr. from Conway - Ring of Honor TV-42, CC BY 2.0

If you haven't been keeping up with wrestling legend Jim Cornette, or if you were born after 1990 and haven't gotten into the check-out-the-Southern-territories phase of your wrestling fandom, let me catch you up a little bit.

One of the best heel managers of the 1980s (an era filthy with great heel managers), Cornette moved into booking and promoting around 1990. He's worked in a variety of on-screen and behind-the-scene roles for every major wrestling company of the last 20 years. Often, he leaves an organization following a blow-up or power struggle with another player or players in Creative or management.

For a long while, he was something of an internet wrestling community (IWC) favorite because many of those flare-ups were caused by his love of old school-style booking or his dislike of Vince Russo and the concept of writers in wrestling - things the Louisville native and many so-called smart marks agreed were problems with the 21st century scene, especially the sports entertainment-obsessed WWE.

It was during his tenure with Ring of Honor (ROH) that the love affair between Corny and smarks started to fall apart. The reasons vary depending on whose story you listen to, but whatever they were his tenure as Executive Producer with the super-indy saw popular performers like Colt Cabana, El Generico, and Austin Aries leave while wrestlers such as Davey Richards and Eddie Edwards shot to the top of the card.

From his split with ROH until today, Cornette has used his podcast, The Jim Cornette Experience, and other online platforms to advocate for strictly adhering to kayfabe and a more realistic, but safer, in-ring product. He often does so in a bombastic style designed to rile up fans of his targets, such as the Young Bucks, Joey Ryan. or the latest wrestling phenomenon to enter his cross hairs, Lucha Underground.

For those who missed his review of the El Rey Network show, this is the snippet from last week's Experience on MLW Radio that's making the Twitter rounds:

For supporters of the show, like me, your first reaction is something along the lines of "FUCK THIS GUY". That's a lot of the response he's getting, too (with a substantial helping of racism allegations, which the Louisville Slugger will have to get used to after his anti-Muslim rant on one of last year's episodes of The Experience).

Let's take a deep breath, however, and think through his critique. Before we start, it's important to consider this Tweet - which is both at the core of his every rant and his defense against everyone who shouts "go home, old man" in response to one of them:

Okay. There are two ways to look at it.

One, this is a man who lost something he cared passionately about, and he has no idea how to get it back.

Jim Cornette misses his days as a tennis racket-wielding chickenshit rich kid, walking the Midnight Express to the ring while fans threw their programs (and worse) at them in outrage. He longs for the days when the "Monday Night War" sent bodybuilders and amateur grappling standouts flocking to major federations instead of jiu-jitsu gyms, and the guys who ran those feds trusted him to teach them how to be pro wrestlers.

But Cornette in 2016 doesn't really have any ideas for how to get "his" wrestling back. ROH under his vision became mock-mixed martial arts that turned off fans of the bouts the company used to present while failing to attract the UFC audience he believes wrestling needs to be validated.

It's not a sport. They make no pretence of even attempting to make this shit believable.

In order to get crowds of angry partisans screaming for blood the way Brazilians do at the sight of Conor McGregor and the million buy pay-per-view (PPV) events he believes it needs to be successful, Cornette wants wrestling to convince people that it's "real". Convince an audience who's seen the term "booker" used on screen that we don't know there are men employed to do what he used to do - pick winners and losers. Wave a magic wand so everyone who's listened to Hall of Famers talk about "doing business" thinks every disagreement on the show is based completely in fact.

It's another nail in the coffin of wrestling to being taken seriously as a sport or anything that's not completely predetermined.

That coffin is already nailed shut. And set on fire. And buried (literally, not the oft-misued carny speak version). The word "kayfabe" is in the dictionary for crying out loud!

You can drop a bomb on the Temple. The vast majority of people in the world, fan or not, already know that pro wresting is predetermined.

Accepting that doesn't mean accepting that wrestling is dead, or even that it will never be more popular than it is now. But it requires doing something other than wishing things weren't the way they are.

Two brands are really trying something different in an attempt to someday draw big crowds and ratings and make wrestlers money (Cornette's stated goals). They're taking different approaches, and even sampling from the past, but they're not wasting time trying to put the genie back in the bottle.

Down in Orlando, Triple H and Ryan Ward are steering into the skid of the 'Reality' Era. Rather than pretending we don't know that Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Finn Bálor and Samoa Joe have years of pre-WWE history with one another, or that there are business units in Stamford who'd like to see Eva Marie prominently featured on wrestling shows because she's a hit on Instagram, they take that and use it as the basis from which to build their stories.

Knowing there were agents and writers and bookers putting together Owens' betrayal of Sami or Bayley's defeat of Eva didn't stop them from creating the buzz that's helped NXT sell out buildings around the globe.

In Los Angeles, there's that "fucking Lucha Underground horseshit". By a combination of using performers we don't know quite as well and then creating an entire world for them to play in, LU may be a movie with wrestlers in it, but it's also making a lot of people invest in those wrestlers the way my great-grandmother did when Bruno Sammartino battled Ivan Koloff (and even though Immaculata Angelucci loved her some Bruno, she had her doubts about whether the WWWF was on the up-and-up, if you know what I mean).

Not quite clear why being a "movie" is a pejorative, either. You know what else draws big crowds and ratings and makes the people doing it a bunch of cash? Movies. And it's not as if knowing a story is fictional impacts our enjoyment. Knowing Keanu Reeves and Alfie Allen are actors didn't mean I didn't cheer when John Wick caught up with Iosef Tarasov - nor did the fact that I knew the retired hitman would from the second the mobster's son disrespected him at the gas station.

NXT and Lucha Underground are, admittedly, a long way from making anyone large sums of money. Nothing outside of Vince McMahon's dominance of the market has anyone in wrestling getting rich, though. Dismissing ideas which acknowledge the current pop culture landscape and strive to create something within it that could catch fire is foolish. Unless...

There's nobody on the face of the planet that could watch this shit and believe that there is any legitimacy whatsoever. It shouldn't be called pro wrestling at all.

...you're more interested in making sure a whole form adheres to your definition, as a way to hold on and reject anything that doesn't look like it did when you were on top.

Here's the thing, Mr. Cornette. You don't get to decide what anyone else calls pro wrestling. In fact, using your capitalist gauge, the market gets to decide. That market keeps getting smaller and smaller, and wishing it was 1986 and UFC didn't exist won't change that.

But Lucha Underground, or NXT - or whatever concept a young fan watching one of those shows now comes up with in 10 years - just might.

The other way to look at it?

Jim Cornette is a worker. And whether it's to keep himself relevant, serve as the heel who gets people to rally behind a babyface like Lucha Underground, or probably a bit of both, he just cut a promo that has the internet eating out of the palm of his hand.

Some old school booking will always work.