By Tony Cline, Columnist
Recently, a heretofore unknown Timekeeper issued a written defense of Vince McMahon’s role in the WWE and his greatness as a leader of the company and the business. Unfortunately, there were some errors in the column, and as the Rhodes Scholar, I naturally feel that it is my responsibility to correct them.
First, I will of course stipulate that Vince McMahon does not run the entire company himself. Of course, Paul Levesque, Stephanie McMahon, and Kevin Dunn play significant roles in the company. However, let us be clear. Vince McMahon runs his company with the iron fist of a tyrant. Yes, there is a board of directors as the Timekeeper points out. Yes, technically, the Chairman of the Board does have to work with and answer to that board since they can override any vote he casts and change the direction of the company. However, moving beyond the superficiality of corporate structure, one sees that Mr. McMahon owns over 80% of the voting stock in the company. This means that he, and he alone, can select the directors on the board, and he can replace any of them at will. What do you think happens if any of them offers up regular opposition to Mr. McMahon’s plans? That’s right, they are out of a cushy part-time job that pays big money. Also, yes, Levesque and others hold creative positions, but Vince holds and routinely exercises absolute veto power. Insider accounts all agree that he clears every bit of creative for Raw and much of creative for SmackDown. As such, it is reasonable to expect that creative is put together in the mold that Vince wants since he will just change it if it is not.
Second, yes, Paul is the VP of Talent Relations, and his tenure there has NOT seen a decline in talent. Instead, in the past few years since Mr. Levesque has ascended to that role, the WWE has seen an unprecedented acquisition of talent. They have acquired performers such as Samoa Joe and AJ Styles, two of the biggest stars in the business that McMahon refused to hire for over a decade. They have added true female athletes and created a respectable women’s division for the first time in the company’s history. They have picked up some of the best talent in the world including Bobby Roode, Kevin Steen, El Generico, Prince Devitt, Johnny Gargano, etc. Have all of these talents found great success at WWE? No, but the fault there is not in the talent relations department, but in creative, which we all know is run with an iron fist by Vince McMahon.
Third, the Timekeeper wants to place much of the creative blame at the feet of Mr. Levesque, and I admit that it can be difficult to tell what on the main shows may be his fault vs. that of Mr. McMahon. However, we can look at the one brand that Mr. Levesque exercises control over with zero McMahon interference: NXT. While the creative quality of the main shows has been poor for a very long time, NXT has been the show that has become a creative juggernaut, single-handedly launching the women’s revolution, showing how tag team wrestling is supposed to be done, and providing some of the greatest matches and events the WWE has seen since the end of the Attitude Era. NXT Takeovers routinely outshine the major event they are paired with, including Wrestlemania. Of course, the Timekeeper points out that there are writers for NXT and that Paul does not write the shows. This is true, though I would maintain that the direction given by Mr. Levesque weighs heavily on how the shows are written. Again, we have a point of reference: Ryan Ward. Mr. Ward is the head writer for SmackDown Live. His previous job was as head writer for NXT. Mr. Ward created excellent shows for NXT, putting his brethren in the bigger shows to shame. However, he has not had as much success on SmackDown as that show continues to nosedive in the ratings. The difference? Mr. McMahon now vetoes and rewrites his scripts rather than allowing Mr. Ward to do his job unmolested. Again, Mr. McMahon’s creative deficits are becoming clear.
Fourth, the Timekeeper asserts that “If Vince McMahon wasn’t any good, then WWE would never have been any good.” Well, that’s pretty simplistic hogwash that simply ignores the complexities of the wrestling business. Mr. McMahon is a business genius, a position I have always held. It is his creative chops I malign. The WWE (formerly WWF, formerly Capitol Wrestling Corp.) has thrived in large part because of Vince’s business acumen and largely due to luck in opposition. Vince came along at a time when cable television was just launching, and he took advantage of that platform to violate the gentlemen’s agreement that kept the territories in their areas. He was the first to push for a national audience and invade others’ territories on a large scale. Then, Jim Crockett began purchasing other territories in an attempt to make the NWA, already a national brand shared among the territories, all his. In the end, Crockett didn’t have the money to grow as fast as he attempted, and he ended up selling out to Ted Turner, a television mogul who knew nothing about wrestling. Turner renamed the product WCW, and went on to be pretty competitive with Vince in the 1990s. Vince, meanwhile, poached Hulk Hogan from the Crocketts and used the one creative gimmick he seems to know on him: All-American patriot that beats up bad foreigners (you’ll recognize this gimmick as it was later bestowed upon John Cena). This was a time of high patriotic feeling in the country, and Hogan and Vince grew the WWF audience. Then came the steroid scandal and the athletic commissions and, in a story that is too long to tell here, Vince McMahon took kayfabe out behind a shed and shot it. Because the internet was not yet a popular institution, the death of kayfabe was not immediately spread to all fans (apparently, I even ruined it for one woman who was a fan as a kid this weekend), but once the truth was out, the business was never going to be the same again. There was a lull in popularity for both major brands until the Monday Night Wars started in the mid-90s, and then popularity took off…for WCW. The WWE lagged far behind, even coming close to failing completely, until some creative decisions saved it from the ash bin of history. Unfortunately for McMahon, those decisions were made despite him, not by him. You see, Vince had saddled Steve Austin with a stupid Ringmaster gimmick and placed Rocky Maivia in a stable that served as little more than a ripoff of the Black Panthers. Mr. McMahon’s creative ideas had both guys buried deep in the mid-card ranks and his company on the ropes.
Luckily for him and his company, Austin and the Rock went off-script and revolutionized the WWE…against Vince’s will. Of course, once they met with success he was desperate enough for a success story that he allowed them and others to go their own ways. Once the WCW had killed itself from the inside, Vince bought the company and reveled in his place alone upon the mountaintop of the business…and he proceeded to reassert his creative control and drive the company downward. Instead of the 7-10 million viewers that the WWE got when McMahon let go of the creative controls, Raw now struggles to poke its head above the 3 million mark. McMahon has helped his company survive with his business acumen, starting the WWE Network and taking the company public while maintaining his iron grip on the voting stock. But his creative tendencies have ravaged the company and the fans, driving them off in droves.
The summation of my column is that Vince is an excellent businessman, but his creative instincts…well, they suck. Paul Levesque is much better at creative, though I am not sure I would want him running the business side of the company on a full-time basis. Let’s give both men credit where it is due, but let’s also recognize that Vince McMahon has some severe shortcomings and he has been the beneficiary of an inordinate amount of luck in his career. The product will be greatly improved once Vince is gone, but the business is likely to take a hit. It is possible to have a realistic view of who Vince is and what he has done without hating him or being a mark. The same goes for Mr. Levesque. Both men have their strengths, and the company overall would be better off if both men stuck to those strengths.