Sibling rivalry, fratricide, betrayal, and good old-fashioned good versus evil. To get there, WWE employs a creative director and a team of writers to constantly script and analyze the story lines, most of which are tried out live three times a week. They’re scripted in terms of plotline, matchups, and some of the verbal exchanges directed at each other and to the audience.
“The Superstars and Divas are so well spoken,” says WWE chief operating officer Donna Goldsmith. “They’re very good actresses and actors, and they do a great job.” There are good-guy heroes like John Cena and badguy foils like Chris Jericho, who regularly takes the microphone to rile the audience by calling them sycophants and tapeworms.
Their physicality and athleticism cannot be denied. They leap from 20-foot ladders, do backflips, and land on top of one another. Or on top of a table. Or on top of an opponent who’s lying on top of a table. While the words have been supplied, the in-ring tumbles and throws are theirs, outlined beforehand and then executed with their experienced precision.
Their fortunes are based on audience reaction, as each Superstar and Diva is an independent contractor, and each has a stake in his or her own merchandise sales, though WWE does not disclose how much its talent is paid. The matches, therefore, are arguably instant focus groups or Q ratings. The shows are very fast-paced, with mano a mano or tag-team or Battle Royal matches filling up the ring. Bouts can last anywhere from two to 20 minutes, and television audiences are privy to backstage strategies and planned subterfuge, only to see a surprise twist in the ring.
It’s like a video game come to life, but no one gets seriously hurt. Or, as Goldsmith describes it, a soap opera of superhero dimensions.
That’s why audiences couldn’t believe it when Batista turned on his best friend and tag-team partner, Rey Mysterio, at the end of a Fatal Four Way match for the World Heavyweight Championship. Both competed in the match, but Batista — feeling betrayed by his friend after losing due to the every-man-for-himself nature of the fight — tried to viciously rip off Rey’s head with a clothesline. Audiences were equally astounded when relative newcomer Sheamus received a once-in-a-lifetime shot at the WWE title against champion and fan favorite John Cena. Even more shocking, though, was the moment when Sheamus slammed the champ through a table to become WWE’s first Irish-born champion.
“These rivalries have been going on for years,” Goldsmith says, and to be sure, they have been the mainstay of professional wrestling’s popularity from the very beginning, gilded by the outrageous personalities and outlandish costumes of athletes standing more than seven feet tall and weighing 400-plus pounds, framed by each performer’s theme song, pyrotechnics, and rags-to-riches backstory. The wrestlers you love are pitted against those you love to hate, and they never break character.
Over the years, the heavily accented and overblown ethnic stereotypes have been toned down, but there’s still a play on cultures as WWE boasts very specific Russian, Japanese, Scottish, British, and Indian performers, and the company uses them for appearances and marketing in their home countries. The intensity of rivalries builds to heated confrontations and cliff-hangers promising Hell in a Cell, a Backlash, Bragging Rights, and, of course, Judgment Day, as WWE’s pay-per-view shows are titled.
“If you hear the cheers and jeers, that’s great. It’s when you hear nothing …” Goldsmith trails off, not needing to finish the sentence, because on live TV and in the entertainment industry, there can be no such thing as nothing.