Wrestling is a funny old business. It’s all pretend, but we pretend it’s not. Except, nowadays, we kind of don’t. Back in the day, Kane was billed as an actual demon, borne from the underworld to take on The Rock or something. These days, he’s Glenn Jacobs, Mayor of Knoxville, and moonlights as the devil incarnate when he needs a payday or adrenaline rush. Or ‘Corporate Kane’ whenever he decides to wear a suit and help out the bad guys.
The lines between what’s real and what’s storyline – or kayfabe, in wrestling terms – have become even more blurred with the advent of social media. Wrestlers feud via tweets and subtweets, call out opponents online to start a battle of words that will end in a match at WrestleMania, and it’s even harder to tell if they’re being their real selves or embodying their characters online. It’s usually the latter, but sometimes I do wonder if a legitimate beef is cleverly packaged into an angle to smooth over a Twitter spat these days.
CM Punk is the master of blurring the lines of kayfabe, after his infamous Pipebomb promo sat on the ramp ahead of facing John Cena at Money in the Bank and then leaving the company. The promo took shots at the WWE, the very company he worked for, and he accused superstars like Cena, Hulk Hogan, and The Rock of kissing CEO Vince McMahon’s arse before saying “oops, I’m breaking the fourth wall,” directly to a camera. The promo divides fans to this day, some believe it was a shoot – his real thoughts – and others that it was a work – planned and scripted. I believe that Vince would have pulled the plug if it was a shoot, but we’ll likely never know. That’s the power of one man sitting on a ramp in his pants.
CM Punk joining WWE rivals AEW only cemented his status as a kayfabe blurrer. The new wrestling company on the block, AEW’s mainstream success has brought another element to the situation: contracts. In the 90s, entire storylines were built on wrestlers surprising fans by turning up at rival companies after signing a secret contract or being bought out of existing deals. The Monday Night Wars between WWF and WCW were practically built on this stuff. These days though, we know whose contracts are expiring, where they want to end up, who’s been released, and who WWE has no plans for months in advance. There’s no surprises any more.
This is all to say, we know that wrestlers are actors. They may wear more spandex than your Daniel Day Lewises or Anthony Hopkinses, they may verge on the line of stunt people, and they may have shitty contracts as independent contractors, but they’re actors and everyone but the youngest fans know this. Sorry if you’re reading this, young’uns.
This is why Freddie Prinze Jr.’s recently announced wrestling company could change the game. Yes, you read that right. Freddie Prinze Jr., of I Know What You Did Last Summer, Scooby Doo, and Sarah Michelle Gellar fame. (Speaking of, Buffy is a ready-made wrestling gimmick and SMG has still got it, just saying Freddie). Apparently he’s a lifelong wrestling fan, and has taken inspiration from Tony Khan and is creating his own promotion. The plans look bold, he wants to start in 18 months, he wants to give male and female wrestlers equal billing and screen time (no word on equal pay as of yet), and most importantly, he wants it to be a Screen Actors’ Guild show – that is, a unionised promotion.
Whether any of this will happen remains to be seen – Khan promised similar gender equality at AEW’s inception and has failed to live up to his word – but it could have huge repercussions on the industry. WWE comes under fire on an annual basis for releasing swathes of talent, likely a symptom of McMahon hoarding more wrestlers than one company could possibly use and the awful independent contractor contracts they are forced to sign. But there aren’t many other options, or at least there weren’t until AEW came along, and WWE remains the biggest name in the business. A unionised wrestling company would change all of this.
Freddie Prinze Jr.’s company is unlikely to be as big as WWE or AEW, and I doubt he has the millions to spend that McMahon and Khan do. But apparently he has enough budget for three years of wrestling, and the idea is obviously to earn more to keep things running. This will be a more moderately sized promotion, maybe more similar to Ring of Honor or Progress. However, it may be able to attract talent with its unionised status. Don’t expect Bryan Danielson or Kota Ibushi to be gracing Freddie’s squared circle, but young stars who might otherwise be tempted by WWE’s developmental brand NXT might have their minds swayed by things like sick pay and union-enforced working conditions.
If he does indeed go for a more grassroots approach, the bigger companies might have to take note. They might have the money to throw at future stars who emerge on unionised promotions to tempt them to the big leagues, but if developing talent wants a better ride on their way to the big leagues, smaller promotions might have to start acknowledging unions, which will only improve conditions for wrestlers across the board. It’s early days yet, but Freddie Prinze Jr. could make waves. I bet he could cut a killer promo, too.
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