Stone Cold Steve Austin recently commented in his podcast that “It is up to the talent to make management believe in them and give them a push… The doors are wide open, the ceiling is unlimited.” These are wise words from a consummate businessman. The term businessman is not used here casually. Wrestling is a serious business and at the heart of it, it is all about building a career, making money and seizing opportunity.
WWE wrestlers are like entrepreneurs. They set up their own business and market their product with their own respective selling points. The best performers are the ones who display commercial acumen and react to the needs of their client by embracing their strengths and minimizing their weaknesses. John Cena and Hulk Hogan are aware of their limits, yet they know exactly how to appeal to the widest common denominator. They realise the value of publicity and why it is the oxygen for what they offer as businessmen. Along with the desire to do good in the community, that’s why John Cena holds the record for the most Make-a-Wish appearances. Many more people know his name and what his brand stands for. Cena has made an extraordinary effort to market himself to children and families which is key to WWE’s demographic in the so-called PG era. And Cena’s efforts enhance the public reputation of the company he works for.
Love him or hate him, John Cena is at the top of the tree. He earns the most money because he works the hardest and embodies Vince McMahon’s vision of the model employee. These days, WWE superstars are asked to be a whole lot more than purely wrestlers getting it done in the ring. They have to spot opportunity to promote themselves and to demonstrate how they stand out from their peers. Why do you think a gifted athlete like Shelton Benjamin never made it to world champion? The man had some amazing matches – his Gold Rush Raw bout against Shawn Michaels being a classic – yet how much did Shelton connect with the audience? People knew he had a Momma, but they didn’t know who he was or what he stood for. Kofi Kingston is in a similar position today. If Kofi wants to be at the top then he needs to do a whole lot more than smile and show off a flashy move at the Rumble. People need a reason to care about him and Kofi needs to think about how he can add value to his proposition as a performer.
There’s no doubting the athleticism of a guy like Dolph Ziggler and his drive to be the best. But if anyone is working for a company and speaks ill of their company in public then there will be repercussions. That’s why people who speak negatively about their current employer in interviews don’t get the job. Verbally tarnishing the reputation of a publicly-trading, billion-dollar corporation like WWE in public is not conducive to career progress – even if you are feeling frustrated about your position. Punk’s departure is an even more extreme case. When a high-performing employee doesn’t fulfil the obligations of their contract it raises questions about how the company manages talent and also the temperament of the person involved. This is not a cut and dry case at all. However, you won’t ever hear John Cena or Daniel Bryan trash the company or any of their peers. There is an unspoken awareness; a need to demonstrate professionalism even under circumstances that are far from ideal. Bryan is the perfect example. Bryan was fired in 2010, yet conducted himself with dignity in public and did not bash WWE. After his eighteen-second loss to Sheamus at Wrestlemania 28, some performers would have not recovered from a humiliation like that. Yet Bryan did – as did Triple H after his squash match at the hands of Ultimate Warrior – and he went on to surpass all expectation by maximising his minutes and grew into arguably the hottest performer currently in WWE.
How many of you reading has a tough journey to work? There are few schedules like that of a WWE superstar and – to borrow a phrase once applied to legendary singer James Brown – these are some of the hardest working men and women in showbusiness. If you’ve ever commuted more than an hour each way to get to work then you’ll know how tough that is. Add to that the drudgery of working out your expenses. Booking your hotels. Finding time to get a bite to eat in a town you never heard of. Managing your media appearance next week. Squeezing in a workout while you’re tired and cranky. And you’ve got to be at a show in the next hour. Only then do you only begin to scratch the surface of what WWE performers go through.
Wrestlers wander from town to town doing this, at goodness knows what time and constantly travelling hurt. They’re making sacrifices and living a sometimes solitary, vagrant life. While this happens, other people are affected. Wives miss their husbands. Sons and daughters grow up without fathers. The films Beyond the Mat and The Wrestler explored these themes. In particular, Jake the Snake’s battle with demons and addictions were well documented. These are the untold narratives that don’t take place within the squared circle. The toll that it takes on people’s personal lives.
More often than not wrestlers often speak about “the business” and how you shouldn’t be in wrestling unless you want to make money. These are cold, hard facts. WWE is not like any other wrestling company. For people who want to make money in the wrestling business, WWE is the only company to be. To succeed means that you have to be passionate about it. Wrestling is more than a day job – it’s a career choice that takes a particular kind of human being to do it and an exceptional kind of human being to succeed at it. To be motivated enough to spend more time travelling than performing. To live a life filled with pain and nagging injuries. Yet the payoff is the adrenaline when your music hits, the crowd erupts – if you do it well enough. And when you don’t, you’re not generating enough revenue for the company. When you’re not garnering a reaction from the crowd – or your clients – then it means that you need to change things up or risk becoming irrelevant. Then it’s time for you to say goodbye as you get your release and are wished well with your future endeavours.
When a top star is away – temporarily or permanently – it means that there is a spot waiting to be taken and that they have an opportunity to step up and take it. Guys like Stone Cold, William Regal and Jim Ross constantly give out excellent advice about the business of wrestling. Yet who among the current crop of performers is actually applying this model of success? The answer is already in front of your eyes. They’re the ones who are the hungriest. The ones who live their gimmicks 24/7. The ones who are at the top in search of a new dance partner. They’re the ones who want to take the business to the next level and have the ambition and drive to succeed. So, the final question is, who will be the next to take the ball and run with it?