The Perils of Anonymity
A couple of weeks ago, an anonymous wrestler labeled as a "top WWE superstar" asked the wrestling website F4WOnline.com to print a letter penned to Internet fans. That letter, presumably written in response to the decidedly poor reaction the Royal Rumble received from a multitude of sources, told fans to "relax and enjoy the product the company gives you." How very Orwellian. The specific areas of gripe to which the unknown author referred involved both the decision by fans to purchase the Royal Rumble despite dissatisfaction with the direction of recent WWE pay-per-views and the mass displeasure of just about everyone regarding Daniel Bryan's lack of involvement beyond his most excellent match with Bray Wyatt.
While WWE certainly did not advertise that Bryan would be involved in the Rumble itself, most of the commentary I heard about him not getting the call was less an objection to a bait and switch routine that an overall disgust with the failure to capitalize on the amazing reaction he's received of late. While ardent fans of wrestling, like passionate fans of just about anything else under the sun, can and do overreact to things, the response of someone involved in that adulation that they should sit down and shut up is authentic heelish behavior, not far removed from the days of "Ravishing" Rick Rude doing the same to the fans in the front row of any town in the country.
Much of the fire of said letter seemed to be due to the fact that despite the WWE's best efforts to earmark the dawn of the WWE Network as the greatest thing since sliced bread (which it very well may be), fans were more concerned with the treatment of a performer they have fully embraced for months now once again getting the short end of the stick. In essence, the poster seemed to say, we as the paying customer should either be completely thankful for the wondrous things the organization has bestowed upon us or shouldn't tune in at all. It certainly seemed an odd point of view to take in a business that thrives on the persistence of its base.
A couple days ago, that same wrestler sent another missive to the website, this time thoroughly lambasting CM Punk's controversial decision to spontaneously walk out on the WWE. The opening remark that "Punk is being a little bitch" should give you some clue as to the letter's content, but you can see it for yourself here if you haven't already. Regardless of whether or not you feel that those sentiments are correct, Punk's departure is at this point a matter of public record. Neither side is talking about it at the moment, but it happened and it's out there and it's up to you and me and anyone else analyzing this business we love to decide how they feel about it. The same can't be said for Mr. Anonymous, who bashes Punk at length for things that he may very well be right about but nonetheless doesn't have the stones to attach his actual name to.
This is especially important given the context of the first letter, as the Internet has always thrived on anonymity. From the start, the ability to put out one's true feelings or opinions without being forced to reveal oneself has been the equal parts frustration and exhilaration of the world wide web. From meat puppetry to catfishing and everything with a catchy moniker in between, anyone who has spent any time at all on this crazy medium knows that, just as in wrestling itself, everything is in no way what it seems. This is a blessing and curse that anyone who writes material on the net knows all to well. From having your tweets stolen to having your Wikipedia page rewritten with questionable facts, nothing is off limits except anything being off limits. It can be enough to make you want to hang up your mouse for good.
But, as with nearly anything in life, the net is wicked good in so many ways that it's totally worth the ride. The ability to reach more people than you ever imagined in no time at all is a salient tonic indeed. Nearly every occupation has been positively impacted by the development of this still-growing technology, and therefore it's worth the price of admission. Take it from someone who's written for most of their life but for an actual living, breathing audience not quite as much: criticism is hard. Even when you steel yourself to the possibility, even when you know from the minute you draw breath that you can take it, it still stings. To attach yourself to your work is to open yourself to the opportunity to be humbled. You begin by dreading that fact. You end by embracing the hell out of it.
It's a bit ironic that comments are down on the site currently, so anything you want to say in regards to this piece will have to be submitted via the other means listed at the end of this column. Thus far, in the nearly 365 days I've had the pleasure of writing for TJR, I've answered almost every one that's been sent my way. Some of those back-and-forths have led to hundreds of words of debate. Through them, I have come to feel that I know many of the great people that frequent this site, even if that's in some small way. I look forward to seeing them express their thoughts and am elated by the idea that I might give them an outlet to express them. As dismayed as I may be at times by the state of the business, I realize that it's because of this business that this column exists, and that will always keep me coming back for more.
The anonymous wrestler has more fame than me by a landslide, and likely always will, at least until that off-off-Broadway play about historical figures playing badminton works out for me. That fame lends itself to some difficulties with all of its benefits, and one of those may very well be the inability to say whatever you want however you want in a public forum. Unfortunately, the brutal honesty of these letters by someone we see on television every day predicates the need for the author to be made clear. Just like Edward Snowden, once those decisions are made, for good or ill, part of the consequence must be the veil falling away. This is not a totalitarian state. Consequences for the admission might be severe, but in the current climate of WWE, it's hard to imagine that any "top star" would enter a permanent state of fame paralysis.
Punk walking away from the WWE due to reported conflicts over his role at WrestleMania is perhaps best understood by others that have done so before him. It's clearly not good for his fanbase, but neither would be his continuing on in a situation that he has deemed untenable. While I don't know the man personally, I have very little difficulty believing the letter sender's observations that Punk has a small circle of contacts and would love to be the "face of the company" despite his image of the opposite. The difference between Punk and Bryan, in essence, is that Punk's pipe bomb approach has pushed him into more of a corner than perhaps even he would have thought. It makes him immediate social media material, but hinders him in that anything he does has to be couched in the terms of a man who answers to no one. Bryan's more natural rise has been purely based on his ability to deliver in the ring. While less catchy and with far less microphone time, that pursuit of greatness while being constantly pushed back under the water allows anyone and everyone to relate to him. There are no secret passwords or references you need to know to get behind DB.
Punk's disappearing act has left the WWE in a very tough spot, which is, perhaps, the point. While nobody is irreplaceable in the transitory world of pro wrestling, storylines are built around the select few top talents, and Punk is most certainly regarded as one. The build for his rumored match against Triple H had already begun, and the merchandising and promotion of Punk was consistent. He was without question one of the crown jewels set into the fledgling Network, and the timing of his "announcement" left a lot of confused and angry potential purchasers. WWE can confiscate signs, send The Shield out to cut anti-Punk promos at house shows, and remove any semblance of him all they'd like, but it will last just about as long as the first day of the Network, when fans can immediately access hours of recent content in which he plays a major role.
This shouldn't be construed as "siding" with Punk. He hasn't explained his position either, and that's one of many reasons why commenting too heavily upon it would be a mistake. It would be to the benefit of everyone involved for him to wrestle in a WWE ring again, and that's why I think it will happen. I could say the same of Kurt Angle or Chris Jericho or Rob Van Dam. That said, as someone who has given quite a bit of blood, sweat and tears to his fellow performers and the fans, he has at least earned the right to know his accuser. Most of us will never encounter Punk in a social setting where we can get to better understand the man behind the persona. To have these perceptions tossed about as reality can be very damaging.
Much has been made of Triple H and the McMahons and where wrestling is headed. While I agree with many of those observations, there can be no denying that ultimately the market will determine what happens. Nobody wants to be embarrassed, and even in a storyline-driven business that can change on a dime, courses will be corrected post haste if it becomes clear it has to be done. (Daniel Wyatt, anyone?) While all of the talent has a right to their opinion, and certainly it can be related to that some may be upset with Punk not appreciating his spot, they have the benefit of working in the shadows. True to the carny nature of the business, what goes on behind closed doors stays behind closed doors. That's part of the mystique of this business, and it's a major part of why CM Punk is not tossing around his gripes on any podcast that would have him. Which, incidentally, is all of them.
Some of the bits and pieces of the second letter seem ostensibly true. It's hard to know with any degree of certainty what truly goes on, but I'd be willing to agree that Punk's behavior at Tribute to the Troops didn't help anybody, least of all himself. Some seem like complete and utter stretches, such as the penman's assertion that Divas champ AJ Lee wouldn't have the title if she wasn't dating Punk. While anyone who has read even snippets of wrestling history know that cronyism can be king, the fact remains that crowds were responding to AJ's character and presentation way before she ever dropped a pipe bomb. AJ wearing the strap consistently is no different than Dean Ambrose sporting the US Title for quite a while now. You can read it as a lack of competition or as a failure of direction, but nobody is suggesting that Ambrose is dating Stephanie. I don't THINK they are, at least.
At the end of the day, this major story will play out in front of all of us, at least in one form or another. Just like the Ultimate Warrior's reappearance and induction to the Hall of Fame, we'll find out some of what went down, but maybe not all of it. Perhaps that's part of what makes wrestling so addictive. We are transfixed because we know we'll rarely find out the whole story, but we'll always want to know. It's that innate curiosity and passion that has allowed the WWE to negotiate unheard-of television rights and opened the door for them to display their massive content library in an untested format to huge customer demand. To disparage those that watch it and those that have performed in it while failing to admit to those opinions is, frankly, a disgrace. I am the biggest advocate for free speech that you'll ever see, and I most certainly defend the right of this individual to say it. But they should know that they fall victim to the same barbs they launch at the Internet and Punk. They put themselves as the center of attention while critiquing that same desire, and they mask their identity while blasting others that often do the same. It's hypocritical.
I do think that things that happen in pro wrestling should be taken lightly. It's a story, after all, and a rather absurd one at that. But it matters in its own way, just as trying to explain your favorite sports team or actor/actress could be impossible to someone who's not at all a fan. And to take the justified disappointment of someone struggling to be the best at what they do, be it fan or performer, and to rearrange it as misplaced concern is a very large mistake. That's just my opinion, of course. But at least I'm putting my name on it.
As I mentioned above, with comments down currently, I still very much welcome your response. Feel free to drop me a line via Twitter @DharmanRockwell or via email at email@example.com. I will include some of them in my next column. Thanks so much for your continued support and reading!