Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A further thought on Bret Hart

I'm sorry to dwell on the Bret Hart situation, but it served as a major turning point for me in understanding the true business nature of wrestling. I dare say if I had not witnessed this live and paid so close attention to the aftermath, I wouldn't have lasted as long as I did working as an indy promoter, which I started about 18 months after this took place.

I would like to say at one point, I sided with Bret Hart, but I don't think I ever really did. It's the popular stance...the multiple-time champion who had been in the WWF for over 10 years finishing up his time with the company and riding away on his white horse. Except unlike the storylines, we're dealing with very real life issues.

There are two main forces at work here, Vince McMahon: promoter, employer and Bret Hart: wrestler, employee.

And those of us who have ever had a job, especially one with a boss from hell, would love to treat their boss the way Bret Hart or Steve Austin or DX have done on screen. But do you think behind the scenes that anyone lays a hand on McMahon? No, because behind the curtains, it's real life. In real life you don't strike the boss or you find yourself fired and/or arrested. You also follow the the demands of the boss because that is what is expected when you take the job. If you're morally opposed to such demands, quit. This applies for a counter guy at 7-11 and Bret Hart. Imagine working as a UPS driver, delivering packages all over, but telling your boss you won't deliver to the town you live in because they think too much of you. He'd laugh at you.

Bret allegedly had a creative control clause offering his reasonable control. I've never seen the contract, nor have I read in any reliable source that he did. But, let's assume he did. The key word is reasonable. Let's say that I work at the Franklin Mint, coming up with the ideas for their collectable plates with Elvis and Star Trek and Wizard of Oz. I've done so well for so many years, that I'm given "reasonable creative control" in my contract. So to show the horrors of animal abuse in the world, I design a series of plates that show things like seals getting clubbed, tigers that have fallen into pits, and cockfighting. My boss is going to come to me and tell me that line of plates is dead. It's not because he doesn't like me, it's not because he doesn't feel the plight of the animals. It's simply because it's bad for business. They'll lose money and many people will see them in a negative light. The creative direction Bret wanted to end his WWF career with was not the right direction for the company.

Today's WWE is a global operation with hundreds of employees. Yet it's just one or two horrible creative and/or business decisions away from becoming half the size it is, and that's true of all business. From all counts I've heard Vince McMahon and Bret Hart had a good relationship before Montreal. However, with the WWF, Vince McMahon had something that his grandfather has started and something he wanted his kids and grandkids to have. By 2025, the fifth generation of McMahons will be working for the WWE. With WWF, Vince was engaged in a do-or-die scenario with WCW (where Bret was headed) and if he didnt' play his cards right he could have gone out of business. He had to watch his back, his family's back and his employees' backs in booking the ending of Bret's tenure. Vince did what he felt he needed to do to keep the WWF out of as much potential trouble as possible. If I were another wrestler, or ring crew guy, or makeup person, I'd be glad because he was protecting me.

Quick story:

With the indy I ran (EWA) I put the lightweight title on a guy I'll just call MJ. This was at the height of our TV show, which was hitting about 100,000 homes in Maine and NH. I always encouraged the wrestlers to wrestle for other organizations, as much as they could, because they'd get better that way. I knew I was working with a few future WWE guys and thought it was stupid to try and limit where they would work. MJ, by the way, was not one of these guys. Because of our large TV presence and our strong local following in central Maine (particularly Lewiston, where we filmed the show) I simply told our wrestlers to protect their gimmicks. I didn't want our goth guy playing a homosexual in Lewiston or to see two guys feuding be a happy tag team.

After Tony "Mr. USA" Atlas was fired from our organization, he decided to try to put on shows in Lewiston as well. I wasn't worried about his promotional acumen and I thought it would be fine if some our wrestlers worked his show. It would give them additional exposure in the place they're known best, and a good chunk of the fans would probably be familiar with them because of the EWA. I heard that MJ was facing a wrestler we'll call SS. While a nice guy, SS was probably 59 years old at the time, pale as a ghost and frankly losing his skills as a wrestler. The EWA had used him when Atlas was there, but once Atlas was gone, he was gone shortly thereafter. I knew Atlas likely booked him on the show to be nice. The guy didn't need the money, nor was he going to WWE.

The next morning, one of the wrestlers calls me and runs down the card and everything sounded fine until he got to MJ's match. MJ lost to SS cleanly. Our light heavyweight champion, who had a good mix of speed, charisma and toughness lost to somebody with none of those three things in front of our fans.

So realistically, the question becomes "can I keep this title on MJ or do I take it off?" I liked MJ a lot. He was someone I would consider a friend and he was one of my favorites to watch in the ring. If I could play only favorites, I would have let him keep the belt. I wanted him to keep the belt. But then I thought of the company. We can't have a champion that loses to someone almost getting social security. We can't have our champion losing to someone who is inferior in everyone else's eyes. Our storylines will look fake if we have MJ conquering people twice his size when the audience knows he can't beat the pasty old guy SS was. Would you want to still go see the 2007 Red Sox if the 1972 Pittsburgh Pirates reunited and defeated them? Maybe, but they do become less capable in your eyes.

I went to our next (non-televised) show and posted the booking sheet in the lockerroom about 2 hours before the show. I didn't see MJ look at it, but at one point when I was walking around, I heard him tell his girlfriend (why wrestlers feel the need to bring their skanky girlfriends to all the shows I'll never understand) that he was dropping the title and that it wasn't fair or right. I stopped, walked up to him, reassured MJ I was his friend, but told him that I simply couldn't have a champion losing to someone we wouldn't even consider employing, in of all places, the town we film our TV show in. He told me that he was just doing what the promoter said. I told him that was a great trait, one I appreciated, but he needed to carefully pick which promoters he listened to and where he listened to them. For the wrestlers that worked almost exclusively in Mass., I'd book them much more carefully in a show in Newton or New Bedford than in Northern Maine where nobody had heard of them. I told MJ he could lose to SS wherever he wanted, but it hurt our company for him to do it in Lewiston.

I reassured MJ that in a few months, he'd get the title back. I just needed people's memories of that match to disappear. MJ worked another show or two for us, but I think he felt like he got stung by us, and more specifically, me. It's too bad. He would have been an asset and I think with the proper babyface run, could have started to make both of us money with T-shirts and himself money with photos. After all, that's what this BUSINESS is about, making money. There's no arts funding, no grants, no non-profit status. I liked MJ, but I still think I made the ride decision. I liked Bret Hart, but I still think Vince McMahon made the right decision.


Sam Ford said...

As you mention, siding with Vince was not the most popular move among people in the industry, but I think you are also coming from a different place, so I enjoy your perspective on this one. Thanks for sharing the story, and I think you hit a key here in how much time a promoter does, or at least should, put into the text he or she is promoting.

Wrestling fans are looking for a certain logic or continuity to be upheld in a wrestling show, and wrestling as a whole suffers every time something breaks that continuity. Another interesting point you bring up is that the text of a wrestling show, as opposed to most other forms of entertainment, is very much affected by other places where those same wrestlers work. If an actor is booked as a villain in one movie and a hero the next, it's one thing. If a wrestler is booked in the same area as a heel in one place and a face in another, or as a curtain jerker in one promotion and a champion in another, it is part of the same text to most wrestling fans. In other words, each show or promotion doesn't have their own exclusive text that wrestling fans pay attention to, irrespective of other promotions.

Any other thoughts on that point?

Carolina said...

Thanks for the story, I enjoyed it. I too think that as unfortunate as his stint was in the WWE, there was no other real way for Vince McMahon to handle the situation he was in. He couldn't possibly accept Bret's suggestion for a DQ, because it was obvious that the fact that he never lost "cleanly" would be hyped huge in WCW. Or maybe it wouldn't have, since WCW dropped the ball with Bret anyways. The point is that Vince couldn't take the chance, and I think even though Bret was burned by the whole ordeal, even he has come to realize that Vince was right. I do recall reading that he's stated he understands where Vince was coming from. He was trying to protect his company, and of course he had to be weary of Bret flaunting the championship if he didn't lose it. Yes, it didn't seem like Bret to do it, but it's not like Vince didn't see it happen with the women's championship. You're right, Joshua - it is a business, and Vince understands that, just like you do in the move you made which was the right thing to do as well. That's why the WWE is so successful and still in existence, because if anyone keeps in mind that it's a business, it's definitely Vince McMahon.

Mike W. said...

"I'm sorry to dwell on the Bret Hart situation, but it served as a major turning point for me in understanding the true business nature of wrestling."

That's the most concise summary of the incident. It's true that Montreal was, more than "sports entertainment" entering our vernacular, more than John Stossel, more than any single thing ever, the ultimate moment that changed wrestling for everybody. It's pro wrestling's version of discovering that there is no Santa Claus - wrestling fans *want* to suspend their disbelief, but Montreal made it almost impossible.

The business changed after that, in a number of ways - the "Mr. McMahon" character was playing the role of "evil owner," but part of his on-air character was that of "booker," too. I recall being amazed when Marc Mero (that's who I think said it first) called Tom Brandi/Salvatore Sincere a "jabroni" on TV; how cutting edge and off-script that was. Eventually, it became a word of its own, devoid of its wrestling meaning, and something far too commonly used.

Now, can all that wrestling currently is be tied back to Bret Hart and Montreal? Absolutely not, as the WWF's business approach, at the time, was unsustainable and also infantile. From a business perspective, they were ready to do anything to post a profit again. It just happened that Bret Hart inadvertently helped the WWF become massively profitable over the next decade following his leaving. He was the catalyst that helped make the decision of a company that was ready for change.

Your anecdote about "MJ" further intrigues me with regard to how shows are set up and how writing occurs, in pro wrestling and elsewhere. Sure, we expect Steve Austin to tell the writers "I don't do that" or "I don't think that will work," but I can't help but keep wondering if this occurs on other television shows/movies? The merging of two identities of "person" and "pro wrestler" makes one's actions as a wrestler more meaningful and longer lasting than can be said of actors. Leo DiCaprio is Leo Dicaprio if you run into him in the grocery store - you don't talk to him as if he were the character in "The Departed." However, that's how we interact with wrestlers: we praise them on their incredible victories (as if it were something achieved!), we console them on their unfortunate losses, and we offer them support for future success in the business!

Maybe it is just the ego that separates wrestlers and actors. Sure, that light heavyweight title is just "MJ the wrestler's." But pick up a big, heavy, shiny wrestling belt, sling it on your shoulder, wrap it around your waist (we've all done it!), and try telling me that the imagined accolades *don't* feel great, and that, even though a championship is a scripted event, it is painful and devastating to the ego to give it up?

(Despite having said all that, I offer no support for Bret Hart, simply because there was no single shred of egoless reasoning for him to not drop the belt in Montreal).

Mike W. said...

Sam, the most visible evidence of wrestlers being treated differently in two promotions can be seen in TNA and ROH. Austin Aries is not the same as Austin Starr, and it's hard to take the latter seriously. Samoa Joe was lucky enough to be treated similarly in both places. Christopher Daniels was regularly working there when on TNA sabbatical. Perhaps wrestling is still working under this "if it didn't happen on TV, it didn't happen" framework; one which, with the presence of the internet and readily-available DVDs (of EVERY ROH show), is, quite frankly, an absurd and outdated mentality.

(I still think the internet is a wholly unexploited resource for promoting pro wrestling, but that's for another day).

Joshua Shea said...

Those of you who read my first post introducing myself will know that I crazily followed the WWE like some Deadhead for a couple of years and along the way, got to know many workers and worm my way backstage a few times. To me, the then-WWF was simply a large wrestling company, and I think that's how it was seen internally, especially by the older wrestlers, who were raised in a territory, not an indy world. Today, it's clearly an entertainment company with the theme of wrestling. On every level, from new media to new markets, the WWE has expanded. It's corporate now.

One final thing (sure, whatever) about Montreal. Do you think that they get PPV in Canada? If the show would have been in Anaheim, wouldn't they have seen it on TV in Canada? Even though the event was in Montreal, weren't 99% of Canadian fans probably watching on TV and not in the building? Then what's the difference to them? And if there would have been a difference, I'm sure they would have got over it by now. It's only wrestling, not the Prime Minister election.

Was Montreal the turning point? I think that both on a storyline and on a business basis everything changed. McMahon, who admits he can't always tell the difference between the character and the person, evolved as both McMahon the person who puts business above all and as a pompous ego-driven owner character. The WWF changed as well in presentation. No longer was the Monday Night Raw set the cheesy R-A-W that likely cost $500 (I got to help load it into a truck once. They were flimsy as hell) but it was replaced with what had to be a million dollar ramp and TitanTron, not to mention and expanded pyro budget.

Jesus, I ramble. Anyway, my point here was more about my writing for the indies, which I hope to teach at MIT next year. I would be happy to explain the process, or answer any of your questions in advance of my visit (or visits depending on how nice you treat me.)

There were wrestlers who would call me every day and want to talk for hours just to say hi...and try to pitch storylines. There were wrestlers we didn't use (including some who worked for ECW at the time) that would call and offer to work for next to nothing just to get ring time. There were people who hated each other in real life, there were cliques that formed, and boy, there sure was a lot of drugs. There were wrestlers held down for the wrong reasons and elevated for reasons just as bad. There was a huge shift in wrestler opinion when I went from booker to owner/promoter that was largely not positive. I learned many, many lessons in business not associated with wrestling when I went down that ownership road. There are plenty of interesting things I learned playing a heel and a face character over the years. And then there was how communication with everyone who I previously worked with stopped when I walked away.

Next to raising a child and owning a magazine for 18 months, my 4 years in wrestling (interrupted by 5 months living in Japan, but I got an education in wrestling at Korakuen Hall in Tokyo almost every night) were the most interesting and most intense in my life.

I'd be happy to answer any questions or tell any stories. Just let me know what you want to know, although maybe a new post is the place to do that.

I think you're all listening to Jim Ross right now. Tomorrow ask him why he is willing to regularly get humiliated in his hometown, but Bret couldn't do a simple job in Montreal. He's too nice to give the real answer.

Sean york said...

I too have worked in the Wrestling industry here in the UK and with respect your logic in booking doesn't make any sense to me at all.

You are saying that all your promotions fans know of the match in another promotion and that what someone else has booked suddenly means you have to change all your plans?! Please!

If the Wrestling business was run like that then it would die very quickly. One of the first rules of promoting is that what happened outside your promotion or 6 months ago only matters if it is going to make you money. Otherwise who cares?! Matt and Jeff Hardy spent years a jobbers in WWE. Should we bring that up everytime they now have a match? Or that HHH lost to Alex Wright in WCW?

When an old past his prime Hogan beat Shawn Michaels did that kill Michaels? No he is headlining Wrestlemania. Likewise The Undertaker has lost to lots of untalented oversized idiots but is over all the time. It's called creative booking and not dwelling on the past.

Sam Ford said...

Sean, I think you are correct in pointing out that becoming too obsessed with outside influences can be negative, but if you are talking about someone on rival shows simultaneously and a curtain-jerker on one and a champ in the other, some fans link those texts together.

Especially in regard to some indies, fans don't seem to distinguish brands as distinctly and focus more on characters, so you do have the issue of people going to seeing indy shows with talent on them and not paying much attention to the letters on the billing as to who is promoting the card.

Joshua Shea said...


Setting up chairs doesn't mean you worked in wrestling. If you didn't understand my booking dilemma, I have a hard time believing you did anything too major.

Yes, the Hardy Boys were jobbers years ago. Let's say they were the tag champs in WWE. What happens if they went to TNA today and started jobbing, while still working at TNA? Let's say there was no contracts, much like the indies. What would happpen come Monday at RAW? The WWE writers would pull the belts from the Hardys because they now look weak, and not worthy of the titles.

I was clearly talking about events happening within miles of each other and happening basically at the same time. Our TV show aired just a few hours before the Tony Atlas show MJ lost at. On that episode, MJ had a win. I bet a lot of people at Atlas' show thought MJ lost the EWA title to SS. If they thought that, I had to make it happen.

Peter "The Malcontent" Rauch said...

The phrase "reasonable creative control" almost made me laugh out loud when I heard it the first time. Creative control is a big deal, and a fluid concept--the idea of "reasonable" is a bullshit word designed to nullify the meaning of the words it precedes.

I find it difficult to believe someone who'd worked for the WWE for that long wouldn't know that.