Down Goes the Good Guy

The WWE tried to clean up its image, but fans have embraced the heel like never before.
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The WWE owed its crazy late-90s popularity boom to a simple idea: The whole concept of good guys and bad guys was obsolete, and crowds wanted to cheer assholes. In the Age of Durst, this whole idea had some serious cultural currency. And so we got Stone Cold Steve Austin, the sociopathic hillbilly alcoholic whose greatest mission in life was to beat up his employers and assorted innocent bystanders, often while spraying Miller Lite at them. We got the Rock, a raging motormouthed egomaniac who only ever referred to himself in the third person and who displayed a completely inexplicable Elvis fascination. We got Mankind, a squeaky-voiced lunatic with acute parental-abandonment issues whose sense of humor revolved almost entirely around the idea of sock puppets. In your daily life, if you had to spend any time interacting with these people, they would be unbearable and possibly dangerous. On TV, as they mowed their way through various corporate authority-figure types, they were magnetic in the basest of ways.

After that cultural wave inevitably ended, the WWE made a few changes. Linda McMahon, Vince's wife, was running for a Connecticut Senate seat, and the company had a lucrative new action-figure deal with Mattel. Both factors probably contributed to the institutional decision to move the WWE TV shows toward a nebulously family-friendly place—a place where gratuitous violence and paleolithic gender relations and bizarre racial stereotypes still reign but where nobody says "ass" and the bad guys do things that clearly delineate them as "bad." A couple of weeks ago on Raw, Chris Jericho, practically twirling a nonexistent mustache, dumped an entire case of Natural Bohemian over the head of CM Punk, the straight-edge good-guy champion. It was a total dick move, of course, but it's also the exact thing that Steve Austin once drew huge cheers for.

Lately, though, something interesting has been happening with the WWE and its audience -- at least with certain crowds, in certain cities. For the past half-decade, the company's dominant figure has been John Cena, who started out as a janky white rapper but whose metaphorical jaw eventually became Dick Tracy-square. Cena smiles and waves and supports troops and does Make-A-Wish Foundation stuff, and he also reliably destroys bad guys. For a while, this worked well enough that he could be the face of the company and nobody would think it was weird.

In about the past year, though, the WWE's audience has grown furiously sick of Cena. Especially in major cities, he gets booed out of just about every arena, even when he's fighting obviously evil types whom the crowd doesn't like. For a while, the company seemed determined to ignore what was going on. Popular online wisdom has it that they can't just make Cena a bad guy. He still sells a ton of merchandise to his loyal little-kid base, and they'd be cutting off a major revenue stream if he started actively disparaging those kids in classic bad-guy fashion. So he just goes out every night, does his standard aw-shucks superhero thing, and grins right through the crowd's disdain. And now the WWE seems resigned to the idea that two thirds of the arena will mercilessly boo Cena on any given night. They've started selling "Cena Sucks" T-shirts to go along with all the pro-Cena stuff. Cena himself gets royalties every time they sell one.

This whole thing has been unfolding for a while now, but the new thing in the company is Brock Lesnar, the unstoppable brute who left the company eight years ago and eventually found his way to the UFC, where he essentially played the same character as he had in the WWE. Lesnar is back in the WWE now, and he's targeted Cena, wrecking him with an out-of-nowhere finishing move one week and then brawling with him and bloodying his face the next. Lesnar's character is an absolute dick, an overconfident bully who settles for cheap shots even when he could destroy just about anyone in a fair fight. In promo speeches or interviews, he rants about his own dominance in a semi-catatonic upper-midwest honk. ("What's running through John Cena's mind? I don't give a crap what's running through his mind. What's more important is what's running down his leg. [Long pause.] Piss." And they bleeped "piss.") The crowd, naturally, greets Lesnar with absolute rapture every time he shows up.

This is different from the chaotically amoral atmosphere that characterized the late 90s. This is a situation where the company is presenting one wrestler as a hero and another as a villain, knowing full well that most of the audience will flip things around completely. The villain is the hero, and everybody knows it. It's weird, and it's fun.

The same thing has started happening, on a smaller level, with the feud over the company's World Heavyweight Championship. For a few months, the beloved indie-wrestling character Daniel Bryan has done excellent work playing a scheming, deluded bad guy, holding onto his title through fluke wins and subtle cheats, screaming about how great he is the whole time. He finally lost that title at Wrestlemania when, in the opening bout, the gigantic Irishman Sheamus decapitated Bryan with a kick and pinned him in 18 seconds. That win, surely, was meant to solidify Sheamus as a heroic juggernaut. Instead, it made him a weirdly hated figure and elevated Bryan into a sympathetic crowd hero, and that sympathy hasn't wavered even as Bryan's actual onscreen behavior has pushed further and further into shitheadedness.

"For my first [Wrestlemania match] to be an 18-second loss, it actually generated a lot of anger," said Bryan when I interviewedhim last week. "I feel like part of it was a backlash against how short my match at Wrestlemania was. A lot of it is that people like to boo me, but they kind of like me. They don't want bad things to happen to me, like an 18-second loss at Wrestlemania—especially the hardcore fans, which is mostly who comes for Wrestlemania. People come from all over the world. They travel to Wrestlemania, and a lot of those people know my story, how long it took me to get a Wrestlemania match."He's not wrong. And now that crowd, for the most part, has flipped things around, treating Bryan like a conquering hero and giving Sheamus either hatred or indifference every time he shows up.

That tension—between the reaction the WWE has conditioned the crowd to give and the one it's actually giving—has made for some pretty fascinating TV in recent weeks. The next pay-per-view, Extreme Rules, goes down at the end of the month in Chicago, a city that's always been notorious for cheering pro-wrestling bad guys. At that show, the WWE fans' willingness to go off-script could reach record levels, and the WWE knows it. The company has effectively built its fans' discontent into its business model, and I definitely had some Marxist English professors who would have a few things to say about that.

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