A WWE spokesperson recently criticized AEW’s “gory self-mutilation” from the Dec. 31 episode of Rampage. That AEW event featured a violent women’s tag team match that included thumbtacks, barbed wire, and lots of blood. In criticizing that level of violence, WWE was trying to position itself as the company that actually cares about children, sponsors, and the health of the wrestlers.
It might be tempting to look at WWE’s current PG product, in contrast to AEW’s more mature content, and think they are simply telling it like it is (aside from the strange assertion that they are in a different business from AEW). But all you have to do is go back to a letter from February 1996 to see WWE’s hypocrisy and underlying motivation.
Vince McMahon was struggling to deal with the rise of WCW in early 1996. He decided to attack Ted Turner and the older WCW roster through various skits on WWF programming. In an attempt to hurt WCW’s relationship with its sponsors, he wrote the following letter to Turner on Feb. 8, 1996, once again focused on “self-mutilation”. Here is the full letter, per the Wrestling Observer Newsletter:
Since there has been no response to my repeated request and you and your pro-wrasslin’ company stop the practice of self mutilation, I can only assume based upon the last two weeks of Nitro that the practice of self mutilation (slicing oneself with a razor blade) is not only condoned but encouraged. As you know, Hulk Hogan has been bleeding all over the place the past two weeks. There have been numerous references on your wrasslin programming that this weekend’s double cage match will be so violent that one opponent will be “bleeding to the point of no recognition.” This encouraged practice of self mutilation is disgusting, violent, potentially infectious and completely contradictory in everyway to your testimony before Congress in June of 1993 and contrary to your 1995 participation of “Voices against Violence.” Notwithstanding numerous unprecedented predatory practices against the World Wrestling Federation, if you continue to promote self mutilation, I hope your stockholders hold you accountable for this unethically, guttural, potentially unhealthy practice.”
Of course, we know it didn’t take long for WWF to embrace the “self-mutilation” that Vince was criticizing in that letter. The edgier Attitude Era helped propel WWF to new levels of success from 1998 through 2001, and it culminated with WCW going out of business. When it was financially beneficial for WWF to embrace “self-mutilation” in their content, Vince McMahon suddenly didn’t seem to mind how violent, guttural, unhealthy, or potentially infectious it was.
Fast forward to today, and WWE no longer embraces that kind of violence in their programming. But let’s be clear here: the reason why they present a PG product today is because they think that is the best way to make money right now. As Vince’s letter from 1996 shows, if WWE thought edgier content and hardcore violence was the best way to make money today, they would flip their stance with a snap of the fingers. Keep in mind, as recently as 2016, WWE booked a controversial angle where Brock Lesnar busted open and concussed Randy Orton with legit elbow strikes to the head. When WWE thinks that is the best way to create interest in their product and make money, they suddenly don’t mind looking the other way on the potential danger and health risk involved.
It’s also worth noting that WWE has no problem making money on “self-mutilation” today via their streaming archives available on WWE Network and Peacock, where there is plenty of that violent content around for nostalgic fans to hand over their money to watch.
Don’t kid yourself into thinking that WWE is more concerned about the health of its wrestlers than AEW, WWE cares more about family values than AEW, or that WWE is standing on some kind of higher moral ground. Just like in 1996 with Vince’s letter to Ted Turner, WWE’s recent criticism of AEW’s violent content was another attempt to hurt AEW’s relationship with its network partners, as well as AEW’s ability to make money through sponsorships.
It’s always about money and market position for WWE. They’ll even get into a disgusting long-term relationship with a government that sanctions the murder of journalists and commits horrific human rights abuses, as long as there is huge money to be made. That’s what WWE cares about more than anything else.