There are plenty of things that wrestling fans get angry about.
Most are related to the kayfabe world we emotionally invest in, then get criticised for doing so. Some involve the worthiness of pushes afforded to certain people, and often these debates can devolve into ‘don’t like it, don’t watch it’ trivialisation, or absolute garbage like declaring ‘the wrong Anoa’i brother died’. Yeah, it’s probably at that point that we need to take a step back and wonder why we’re getting so cross.
I myself in the past have been accused of being anti-WWE, to a degree. Of being judgemental of the product and not giving it a fair chance whilst not being a full-time viewer. Not unfair at all. However, the latest twist in an ugly behind the scenes story made me truly angry all over again, and was a firm reminder of my real reasons for having a general distrust of WWE.
A wrestler deserving a push to the main event or not, or an announcer being bullied into a mental breakdown and forced out of the company (seemingly) by abuse possibly condoned by the company he worked for?
Of those two, I think the answer as to which to be truly angry about is obvious.
If you’re new around here, or perhaps not a wrestling fan at all, I’ll take it from the top; Mauro Ranallo is a top-line combat sports announcer who up until mid-March was the lead commentator on WWE’s Smackdown Live! weekly TV show. He was missing on the March 14th episode seemingly due to bad weather keeping him away, but then after missing the next two weeks straight, and going silent on Twitter (a platform he is normally VERY active on), concern started to grow. Mauro has been very public about his mental health battles with depression and bipolar disorder, and naturally people became worried that this had taken a negative turn; thankfully though he hasn’t returned to WWE television since then, Mauro has returned to MMA commentary and resumed activity on Twitter, thanking fans for their support and stating that his doctor said to take a break from social media.
This on its own would be a sad state of events. Having a dark mental episode and having to take time off work to rest – around the time of WWE’s biggest show, Wrestlemania, no less – has got to be incredibly tough. I speak as someone with no personal experience of bipolar disorder, but plenty of experience with anxiety and depression, and how debilitating and awful bad mental health episodes can be.
But then the news started to take a sinister turn. As signs mounted that Mauro would not be returning to WWE television full stop, mutterings began to break – lead by top wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer, no less – that Mauro’s colleague on commentary, former wrestler John ‘Bradshaw’ Layfield, may have been partially responsible for Mauro’s breakdown due to backstage ‘hazing’, bullying, and public outbursts such as a weird rant on WWE’s ‘Bring It To The Table’ show complaining about Mauro celebrating the fact he won an award for his wrestling announcing work. Yeah, how dare he be proud of an achievement, huh?
This was already starting to get messy. But news that dropped on Thursday is what pushed me over the edge and compelled me to write this piece.
- It wasn’t just JBL leading the bullying against Ranallo; if anything, such behaviour was endorsed by the company right up to CEO Vince McMahon and VP/head producer Kevin Dunn.
- Initially Ranallo was allowed to be himself on commentary, but over time McMahon wanted him to become more like veteran WWE announcer Michael Cole’s style, and was frustrated when he was not able to do this,
- Due to Ranallo’s unique style and personality, he was treated like the ‘weird kid’ at school and was regularly made the butt of jokes backstage, including a particularly tasteless one where fellow announcer Jerry Lawler would call Ranallo ‘M.R’ on commentary – ostensibly a reference to legendary commentator Jim Ross (known as ‘JR’), but what Meltzer speculated could also have meant ‘mental retard’, an insult familiar to McMahon and Lawler from their youth.
Keep in mind that WWE are the definitive, biggest and most dominant company in professional wrestling. For most fans, WWE IS professional wrestling. They set the tone and lead the industry – where they go, other companies generally follow – and have the money and influence to dominate the business with no feasible rivals to step up to them.
And this is their attitude towards a top employee, a public figure leading their joint-top television show.
I tweeted a screen-grab of the article yesterday, and overnight my notifications lit up as it went around the Twittersphere. I’m happy that it has, it absolutely deserved to be talked about, and some of the reactions I got were very telling. I also speak as someone who has worked in sports commentary before, spending the past two years calling motorsport events.
Let’s address a few things you might be saying right now; yes, as things stand, a lot of this is just rumour. WWE themselves seem keen to sweep it under the rug, and given Ranallo is being offered a settlement not to talk about any of this once he departs for good, it might be a while before we hear directly from anyone in this situation. However, Meltzer is highly respected in the industry, and his reporting is generally very much on the money; he has nothing to gain out of smearing a company that by existing helps him have a job, and has a track record of breaking stories initially denied that turned out to be true. This is also not the first time we’ve heard negative stories of backstage politics in WWE, nor the first time we’ve heard of JBL, Vince McMahon et al treating people like garbage.
I also saw a particularly nasty comeback; ‘Well he sucked on commentary, so he deserved it, I’m glad he’s gone.’ The logic here being ‘I don’t think this person is good at their job, so they deserved to get bullied into a mental breakdown and forced out of the company.’ Actually if you believe that, I’m sure Vince has a job for you, because that appears to be his company policy – just don’t complain to me when you end up being the butt of their jokes.
I personally really enjoyed Ranallo’s commentary work, and thought it added much-needed hutzpah and energy to shows, but I know plenty of people who thought his penchant for screaming certain catchphrases and breathless style was grating. That’s absolutely fine. You’re allowed to think that. And if WWE thought that, then fair enough. But if that was the case, all they had to do was call Ranallo into the office one day and say ‘listen, we don’t think this is working out, you’re not the right fit for what we want from an announcer, let’s shake hands and we’ll pay off the rest of your contract, best of luck in your future endeavours’. I mean, isn’t that the logical thing? Isn’t that the mature, adult way of going about business?
Not when we’re dealing with, in Meltzer’s words, ‘a company stuck in the 1980s’ and ‘the last carny promotion left’.
And here’s where we come back to that old crux that I briefly hinted at earlier. The old ‘don’t like it, don’t watch it’ chestnut. I got some replies and subtweets along those lines – ‘you’ll keep watching though’, ‘bet you’ll still pay your 9.99 a month for the network though right?’ etc – but interestingly, I did also get plenty of correspondence openly discussing cancelling network subscriptions, refusing to support the company and considering turning their backs on WWE.
And really, that’s what makes this situation leave such a bad taste in the mouth.
As I said earlier, WWE are the dominant force in wrestling; they have the money and influence to sign whichever wrestlers they want, crush competition or co-opt them as they see fit, and guide every single wrestling fan into a situation where, no matter what your relationship is with wrestling, it’ll involve supporting and giving money to WWE in some way. Your favourite indie guys? They’ve just been signed by WWE, so that’ll be a network subscription to watch them on NXT or whatever shows they end up on, plus more money for merch sales, plus some more money for the nostalgic DVDs they put out every so often – hell, I shelled out myself recently for the ‘Best of NXT Volume 1’ collection – plus more on top of that for overpriced tickets to house shows, TV tapings and live PPVs.
Think I’m exaggerating? In the last financial year, WWE announced record revenue. They’re making more and more money than EVER.
Yet for a company with such vast influence and wealth, one that proudly declares itself to be a company that accepts everyone without judgement and condemns bullying and discrimination, stories like this pull the curtain back in a very different way to merely revealing that wrestling is scripted. And ultimately it’s one of the real reasons I find myself in a position of resenting WWE, and not wanting to support such a company. Will me not paying $9.99 a month be a dealbreaker? Of course not. And will me buying my favourite indie wrestler’s t-shirts stop them eventually accepting an offer to go to WWE? Probably not – it’s the dream of almost every pro wrestler, and every single one believes they can be the exception to the rule. That they won’t be the one stuck in dead-end storylines on-screen and humiliated and hazed backstage.
But if the bottom line is the only thing they listen to, then my money won’t feature in it. In good conscience as someone who suffered the crushing effects of persistent bullying in my teens and the mental health struggles that arose from it, I’m standing on Mauro’s side on this one. And whilst I’d never tell you how to spend your money or who to support in wrestling, I’d say stories like this one are things much more worthy of getting angry about and threatening to cancel your subscription over than Jinder Mahal being placed in the main event.