Pro wrestling is fake. Sorry, hate to burst anyone’s bubble out there, but it’s predetermined. The winners are chosen before anyone takes a bump, or even makes an entrance down a ramp. It’s decided in the back, based on pushes, the future, personal preference, look, nepotism, or any number of other factors.
But it’s a performance, where the end of the movie is known to the participants just as clearly as the opening credits.
However, the difference between going to a movie theater and going to most “big” wrestling shows is that I never wanted to believe The Dark Knight was real, nor did I hope Alec Baldwin really delivered that speech in Glengarry Glen Ross. I do want promoters to try their best to snooker me, though (somewhere, Vince Russo just popped an erection), and thus when everything happens on an obvious timetable and at the most proper and artificial of times, it removes all doubt.
At my age, nothing’s real in entertainment, even the media feuds that prop up both sides and make each participant a bigger star once the tiff comes to a close. That said, I’ve always been willing to try and suspend my disbelief when it comes to professional wrestling. I was conditioned to do it from a young age, just as many of you were. If there was never a moment where you believed, and where “it was still real to you, dammit,” you’re not a true fan. You may be a connoisseur of the art form, but you’re not a wrestling fan.
Last night, AJ Styles defeated Kevin Owens in WWE’s hallowed ground at Madison Square Garden. It wasn’t on RAW, it wasn’t on SmackDown, it wasn’t on Pay Per View. It was at a non-televised house show event, and became a special moment for all those in attendance.
Watching the reaction on Twitter, there was a mixture of those who loved it and many who were confused by the move and didn’t understand what WWE was doing. I’m here to explain exactly what Vince’s thinking was, and exactly why he was dead right in making the decision when and where he did. Once I’m done, you’ll either agree with me, or you’ll be wrong.
I want unpredictability as much as you do. Sure, it’s fun to be the smartest guy in the room, but getting caught up or fooled is so much more enjoyable. It’s why we avoid spoilers for movies and television shows. We want that experience to be as pure as it can be. If you run your mouth to everyone you know and try to predict every single thing on a pro wrestling show, you’re first an asshole and second a douchebag. You’re talking because it’s important to you that everyone knows you know it all.
But you don’t.
And if you get angry when you’re incorrect, I hope I never meet you in any form of life.
What happened at MSG last night was brilliant, and it’s something any promotion the size of WWE should do at least once every calendar year. With the choice to drop that title on Styles, WWE told its audience that every event is worth attending. If you pass up that ticket on a Friday night to do something else, you might miss a title change. That’s huge. House shows are supposed to be light, entertaining, and filled with guys and gals working out the kinks, developing chemistry, and figuring out what works that they can use in the future.
Here, WWE proved the house show is important for more than just an exhibition. When a legitimate title changes hands, even if it’s only for a few weeks, all of a sudden what was once a Friendly becomes a World Cup game worthy of attention. In a business that’s supposed to feel real, despite Vince’s every attempt to kill that ideal, things should happen when the cameras aren’t rolling.
Not just title changes, but injury angles, breakups, technical snafus, and all sorts of things should always be fair game. Because, even though it’s not on television, the promoter should create the illusion that all events could be historic. When Eric Bischoff tried to turn WCW Monday Nitro into the anti-RAW in 1995, his only mistake was in stopping there. House shows were still mundane affairs designed for people to buy shirts and watch meaningless wrestling matches, and the weekend television shows became completely useless.
When you have the opportunity to put your product in front of an audience, while you save all your best stuff for television, you have to find a way to keep things interesting. Last night, Vince McMahon did that as he switched the United States Championship prior to Battleground. It didn’t diminish the moment to be out of the realm of most of the WWE Universe’s eyes. It actually enhanced it, because the moment it happened, Twitter and social media exploded.
All of a sudden the Austin Aries tweets became, “Holy Shit, AJ Styles just pinned Kevin Owens!” tweets. This was news. It was news in the way a win in a few weeks wouldn’t be.
It felt spontaneous.
It felt cool.
It was cool.
This is how you want to own the Internet if you’re WWE. You don’t do it with lame, cliched hashtags or House of Horrors matches. You do it by surprising people that claim they can no longer be surprised. The wrestling fan wants to believe he or she is in the know, but deep down, they really want to be an innocent seven-year-old again. When I was scared of Nikita Koloff, that’s when wrestling hooked me for life. I can’t imagine growing up today and being anywhere near the fan I was when Jim Crockett was humming, Vince was on the rise, and the remnants of the territories still existed.
This one move, even if you’re sad you didn’t see it live, was smart on so many levels. Now, the play is to publicize the hell out of this shocking turn of events all weekend long and make sure it’s mentioned several times during Sunday’s Great Balls of Fire show and on Monday’s RAW. WWE needs to advertise a replay of the match in its entirety either on SmackDown Tuesday night, or immediately after on the WWE Network. It’s a guaranteed title change. People will want to see that pop that comes when the referee slaps that canvas for the third time.
Unpredictability is a virtue in entertainment, and particularly in pro wrestling. They’ve pulled it off. They’ve created positive buzz.
They must capitalize on that fervor, then not forget it in the future, and just as with Samoa Joe and Finn Balor in Lowell, Massachusetts last summer, continue to use this strategy every once in a while just to keep the audience off balance, engrossed, and engaged. WWE did it in New York this time, which makes complete sense. Next time, do it in Des Moines, or in Phoenix, or in Santa Fe. Do it somewhere no one would ever expect, and open that door just a little further.
Bravo on this decision, Vince. This is a 100 percent win for WWE and its fans.