The Long Road: When a Roster Falls by Jerry Whitworth
Looking at the WWE’s roster right now is like that scene in Gone with the Wind (1939) with the train yard where hundreds of injured soldiers from the Battle of Atlanta are sprawled out on the ground. While certainly not that dramatic, the likes of John Cena, Daniel Bryan, Seth Rollins, Nikki Bella, Randy Orton, Cesaro, Sting, Wade Barrett, and more are out with far reaching consequences in any of WWE’s long term narratives. Likely there is no time in WWE’s history where the company has experienced such loss coming at a time when WWE is in such dire straights (as TV ratings continue to fall, attendance for live events declines, and the WWE Network may still cost more to produce than what it earns back). There may even be a good chance some of the injuries could have arose over talent trying to help turn the company around or try to ascend in status within the WWE as company head Vince McMahon perceives the roster lacks ambition (or, a desire to grab the “brass ring”). However, this isn’t the first time WWE’s head was on the chopping block. In the late ’80s/early ’90s, the company saw a similar decline as rival WCW tried to take over the number one position in the industry with the so-called Monday Night Wars only to inspire and motivate WWE to improve and overcome. While certainly there were injuries (the company’s star “Stone Cold” Steve Austin had his neck broken taking him out of the game for three months near the height of his career and ultimately led to his early retirement), there’s been no where near the degree experienced today. Such begs the question, what’s changed?
Likely something that hasn’t contributed to the rash of injuries in the WWE is the adoption of so-called “high risk maneuvers.” If you look at those injured, most fell to repeated strain to previously injured areas (in many instances during house shows). Some injuries in recent time could be attributed to performers who don’t work as safe as they should (names like Sheamus, Brock Lesnar, and Ryback come to mind). But if you look at a lot of the work being done in Mexico with the high-flying style, they likely have the most dangerous spots in performances and still remain relatively safe. In other words, as far as I know, at no time in the history of CMLL or AAA have I heard of large chunks of the roster being out with injury (the death of Perro Aguayo Jr. a glaring exception whose investigation is still ongoing). Even Japan where you have the “strong style” and mix in high-flying spots with many matches, the dozens of promotions therein seem to avoid high injury rates (though guys like Togi Makabe choose to work despite having a broken jaw). Arguably, the only time New Japan, the top promotion in Japan and the second largest wrestling promotion on Earth (after WWE), has seen a moderately large injury rate was associated with the G1 Climax, a grueling three to four week tournament with the latest featuring 89 matches across nineteen shows with twenty participants where the most recent winner needed to win nine matches. What’s interesting about this is that this schedule and its injury rate could very well explain WWE’s problem.
A casual viewer of WWE could perceive the company’s schedule reflected by two weekly TV programs (Raw and Smackdown) and a special event once a month. However, this only scratches the service. WWE also hosts house shows, or programs only a live audience would generally observe (thus its content wouldn’t be toward the ongoing narrative of the aforementioned programs). In reality, a WWE performer would generally work four to five days a week often with two events in one day on weekends (where foreign tours generally last two weeks with almost daily performances). In other words, the grueling G1 Climax is the common schedule a WWE performer maintains approximately fifty weeks a year. Comparatively, athletes in combat sports like boxing and MMA would train for months for a single match lasting up to about thirty minutes with only a few matches a year. Of course, in those combat sports, athletes are training to actively defeat their opponents where in pro wrestling you put on a performance while protecting your “opponent.” Yet, pro wrestling is perhaps the most brutal performance art today, where you’re commonly slammed multiple times on a ring surface made of plywood with a thin cloth lining, repeatedly thrown into steel cable ring ropes, and taking dives off of ring ropes into barricades, tables, other performers, or floor mats atop cement surfaces. The physical trauma the body endures in this arena is with few parallel which is only exasperated by the demanding schedule WWE maintains. It then comes as little wonder why WWE’s wrestlers are dropping like flies. However, this schedule is nothing new. The company has had it for decades. So, then, why the current crop of downed stars?
WWE is without a doubt the top of the mountain in pro wrestling. However, reflecting on its top stars over its illustrious existence and you come to the depressing realization its wrestlers have a history of dying young. Heart problems (associated with steroids and drug abuse), degenerative brain disease (associated with head trauma), suicide, and drug overdose (or disease associated with drug abuse) are some of the top reasons behind many of the young deaths. Wrestlers of yesteryear were notorious for “partying,” a roundabout way of describing a lifestyle of sex, drugs, and alcohol. Always a temptation in a life surrounding travel and fame, even when performers prefer to try to remain clean, in the past they were often shamed for being a “nerd” or “geek” (which could motivate adopting the party lifestyle for the sake of acceptance). However, there’s another important element. Namely, self-medication. It’s not that wrestlers suddenly started to get injured working WWE’s intense schedule, it’s that past performers were expected to compete hurt and could be viewed negatively in the locker room for seeking aid. So, instead, performers used alcohol, drugs, and painkillers to numb pain because, once in the ring, adrenaline can kick in to pull one through a match. Further, although highly likely steroids were abused to maintain a seeming superhuman physique, they’re employed in medicine toward physical recovery. It then starts to become clear what has changed in recent years is the emergence of the WWE health and wellness policy.
Over a decade ago, WWE instituted a strict health and wellness policy that has seemingly evolved every year as more data emerges around practices in the past that lead to chronic issues for its talent years later. Some could even argue these practices maybe going too far today following the deaths of Chris Benoit and Perro Aguayo Jr. where the former paints a dark picture about head trauma (as litigation against WWE has accumulated surrounding the long term effects of concussion damage) and latter about maneuvers that target the neck of a performer. You need look no further than Daniel Bryan and Seth Rollins, respectively, about the current trends these issues have created ripples toward. However, of note in this discussion is the zero tolerance on the use of male growth hormone and illegal drugs as well as monitoring the use of pain medical treatment (not to mention being under the influence of alcohol when performing). Although with stars like CM Punk and Daniel Bryan who adopted the drug/alcohol-free lifestyle (“straight edge”) signaling a trend toward healthier choices, WWE has all but seemingly extinguished the rampant misuse of various substances by its performers. While surely a positive movement for both the company and those it employs, an unfortunate consequence is the now fully lucid roster who have little means to dull the constant, extreme physical trauma they undergo on an almost daily basis. Further, the locker room culture changed where once wrestling is more akin to a traveling carnival of strong men, today its more of a meeting ground of athlete and actor (more like an action movie star that does their own stunts). This means the boys club of hazing and trying to out-tough guy the other has given way to very much almost regular people that do extraordinary and amazing things (taking a lot of the pretense out of the equation in regards to maintaining some alpha male facade; though, this isn’t to say the business isn’t without its primadonnas). So, if stars can’t self-medicate and don’t really need to maintain some illusion of toughness, how can WWE change in order to help prevent its injury problems?
The question of what WWE needs to do almost answers itself at this point. If the roster is being crushed under the grueling schedule the company maintains then the schedule itself needs to change. Fifty weeks with four to five matches a week (generally two of which in a single day per week) is exceedingly too much (not to mention the foreign tours). The company simply got away with it for so long because its talent was generally doped up and it was the top of the mountain in its industry (meaning, sacrifice was a given to maintain a spot in the top). But things have changed. In addition to the health and wellness policy, WWE isn’t the gem it once was. Undoubtedly still the top of the industry, that distinction doesn’t carry the same price tag it did in years past. While performers like John Cena and Brock Lesnar fetch large paydays, companies like New Japan, TNA, and ROH offer comparable pay for other notable names (just without the degree of stardom). In truth, its been noted many performers on the WWE roster earn a wage in the same ballpark a lot of the top wrestlers on the independent scene earn (especially when you add in merchandise sales as talent has more freedom and higher percentages of profit with companies like Barber Shop Window). In fact, one of the caveats of joining NXT is many indie talents accept a decline in pay in exchange for the opportunity to maybe join the main WWE roster. It should be noted, working for WWE’s competition come with lighter schedules to boot. Why batter yourself to the point of falling apart and perform injured for a company that likely can’t adequately reimburse you for that sacrifice (or even appreciate you given McMahon’s comments about the brass ring)? For the sake of fame? For the astronomical chance you can earn a payday like a Cena or Lesnar? It doesn’t help that since the introduction of the WWE Network, bonuses wrestlers have earned by appearing on pay-per-views have all but shriveled up. Reportedly, morale has been low in the WWE locker room for some time (though something that hasn’t been remarked upon recently, which may have more to do with WWE trying to sew up consistent leaks about behind-doors information). As noted, the company is in a downturn that shows no sign of swinging back up anytime soon. Part of this is the insistence to host house shows though reportedly attendance is in decline for these events (reports even demonstrate lower attendance for Smackdown tapings, with crowds moved into areas the camera films to mask this fact). It would then make sense to abandon house shows, at least until such time the company begins to recover. This way, the roster isn’t killing itself to maintain some image simply because it’s how WWE has done business for so long. The truth is, WWE has changed in so many different ways already that it doesn’t reflect what it once was in any event. The change could also make the appearance of WWE in a given area more important because the occurrence becomes a rarer commodity (which could boost attendance for Smackdown shows). And when the company enters into a better financial situation with a healthier roster, it could develop new stars such that it can stagger appearances to alleviate strain for the re-institution of house shows.