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WWE Is The Big Leagues, But That Doesn't Matter Anymore

Jun 5, 2019

During my formative years, I never watched WCW.
Today, that's something I regret. It represents a blind spot in my pro-wrestling fandom.
The main reason I didn't watch WCW was because it just didn't seem to be as good as WWE.
Not necessarily in terms of wrestling - unfortunately, I never gave it enough  of a chance to judge its wrestling. But, when it came to production value and tone, it seemed obvious it wasn't on WWE's level. That perception was reinforced, for better or worse, by the WWE and its top superstars. For years, the company hammered home the point that even if it didn't always win the ratings war, it always won the quality war.
That sense of higher production value, greater depth of characterization, and "legitimacy" gave WWE a cachet  WCW lacked. Even during the company's dark times, it was viewed as The Big Leagues, according to legends like Stone Cold Steve Austin and Bret Hart. That idea, in part, helped sustain WWE, drawing some of the art's greatest talents and inspiring some of the company's greatest angles. While there was another promotion for wrestlers should they get fired or frustrated, leaving WWE was tantamount to punching a one-way ticket to mediocrity.
Even throughout my twenties, during some of the WWE's most creatively bankrupt periods, I still maintained this belief. Then, into my thirties, even with the increased popularization and accessibility of indy promotions like New Japan Pro-Wrestling and Lucha Underground, I remained steadfast in my conviction that WWE was, overall, the superior product.
And just so the point is clear; by "superior product" I do not mean the booking or writing was better in WWE than those other promotions. I mean that WWE exuded a vibe of superiority that, on the surface, was easy to believe. The company's status as The Big Leagues Of Sports Entertainment successfully conveyed the idea that such status contains inherent value. As a wrestling fan indoctrinated into the medium by WWE, it's difficult to renounce that belief-system.
While it's difficult to renounce, it's never been easier to question.
With the recent departure of Dean Ambrose, the insight he's provided into WWE's creative process, and the rise of AEW, it's become hard to maintain my faith in WWE's inherent superiority. The cachet just isn't there anymore. Why? The company remains atop its throne in Stamford, dictating the direction of mass-produced pro-wrestling, but the consistently poor quality of its product undermines its Big League status. The significance of being "The Best", despite some shortcomings (like low ratings) is only effective if it's actually true.
While it's true WWE is still "the biggest", that's simply not more important than producing the best television in an entertainment era of endless streaming options, let alone an era of instantly accessible indy wrestling promotions.
When I turn on RAW and SmackDown, or I watch one of the company's many pay-per-views, I see nothing that indicates superiority (save individual wrestlers who break their bodies for little in return).
What I see is stagnation.
And when I look online to check the pulse of the audience, I see utter resignation, total frustration, or determined delusion. It's even worse for the live crowd, whose responses are tepid. I know this firsthand, because I sat among them in the rafters of MetLife Stadium for WrestleMania. While we cheered and sang and found joy in each other (and a couple matches), by the end we were left depleted, wondering what we'd seen and whether or not it was worth it. Some of us didn't even make it home because WWE broke the New Jersey transit system (how's that for putting smiles on faces?).
The practical experience of being a WWE-fan, diehard and casual alike, is harder than ever. 
The fans I saw, in person, and the reactions I read, online, are not of the "obnoxious, perpetually dissatisfied smart mark" variety. These are human beings who are tired. Their frustration is rooted in the fact that they want to love WWE, and they know WWE could be great.
These are wrestling fans who've seen enough six-man tag matches and fifteen minute promos to last a lifetime. These are fans who have cracked WWE's code just by watching the show every week.
The code is:
Don't get too excited about anything, because it will be ruined.
While nothing Dean Ambrose, now Jon Moxley, said in his interviews with Chris Jericho and Wade Keller came as a surprise, it was a necessary reminder that there's a tangible reason fans are so dissatisfied. Listening to Moxley carefully describe WWE's creative process (especially with Jericho), as we see that creative process manifest on weekly WWE television, makes it even harder to believe in WWE's Big League superiority.
Even if WWE is "more important" than other promotions, that doesn't make it good. What use is "being important" if it doesn't result in something of value? And that question points to why a talent like Jon Moxley is happy to leave WWE.
Moxley's testimony is so useful because he's not bitter.
CM Punk's comparable testimony on The Art of Wrestling podcast in 2013 was an effective first step in dispelling WWE's Big League allure. It was just as insightful as Moxley's, but it was delivered through the prism of an individual's anger and resentment. That anger and resentment was earned (given his experience) but anger and resentment are less convincing than clarity and hope. Punk could be dismissed by detractors as a bitter wrestler grinding his axe. Moxley, who calmly worked through the remainder of his contract without causing trouble, explained his reasons for leaving through the prism of gratitude and excitement. That's why it's such a compelling story that can't be as easily dismissed.
Moxley's story, paired with the rise of AEW, represents a turning point in professional wrestling.
These stories are two necessary sides of the same coin (one dark, one light) working in concert to dismantle what has become a destructive mythology.
WWE is not the shining city on the hill.
It is no longer the place that promises superior creative and superior production despite low ratings. Instead, it promises low ratings, scripted promos, brass rings, and, worst of all...pooper scoopers.
Given those circumstances, what value does Big League status hold? It has become a Big League, literally, of its own, with increasingly empty seats and fewer reasons to watch.
If a wrestler values creative freedom, the right to self-determine, and a more humane travel-schedule, why would they even consider going to WWE?
If a fan values their intelligence, their need to be entertained, and their time, why would they keep watching WWE television?
The answers have already been given.
Wrestlers are looking elsewhere and they are finding success.
Fans are looking elsewhere and they are finding entertainment.
Soon, with the launch of AEW on TNT this Fall, more and more wrestlers & fans will have even more incentive to jump WWE's ship. Those who already have may find new, dry land.
A few years ago, I would have ended this article with: "If WWE isn't careful they're at risk of losing their cachet, that much-needed sense of Big League superiority they've worked so hard to build".
Today, I can't write that because they weren't careful, and they've already lost it.
Regardless of whatever AEW or indy-wrestling becomes, WWE will remain the land of fifteen minute scripted promos, awkward backstage segments, dubious political affiliations, questionable business practices, fifty-fifty booking, interchangeable gimmicks, frustrated fans, and creative stagnation.
That is, of course, unless it decides to change. 
For now, the company's reality has replaced its old mythology, and the only viable solution for a disillusioned wrestling fan is to believe in something new.