WWE’s Performance Centre in Orlando, Florida, is a 26,000 sq ft complex that houses seven rings, a strength and fitness centre that would rival that of any major American college sports team, green rooms, studios and hundreds of years’ worth of experience and expertise in the form of trainers, producers and creative directors. It is also, more importantly, the place through which all wrestlers must pass if they wish to see their name in lights and their likeness in an action figure. This is the wrestler factory.
It is an impressive investment in the future of professional wrestling no doubt, with the Orlando Sentinel reporting a cost of around $2.3m. And bringing everything in-house means it’s possible to take a holistic approach to moulding wrestlers, from tracking workouts to bringing in Stone Cold Steve Austin to tell the whole class they need more fire, but it also poses a problem: if everyone goes through the same process in the same place, how do you make sure they don’t all come out the same?
The WWE has poisoned its own well. Where once it could pick and choose honed wrestlers in their prime from other promotions – Jerry Lawler from Memphis, Roddy Piper from the Portland, Hulk Hogan from Minnesota – it now must look deeper, having beaten and consumed all relevant competition more than a decade ago. So whether it’s a storied former world champion from Japan like KENTA, or a hopeful retired athlete like ex-San Diego Charger Shawne Merriman, the raw material goes in one end at the Centre, the crank turns, and a wrestler that can draw money on American prime-time television comes out the other end. Or that is the hope.
It’s difficult to tell whether the facility will have a damagingly homogenising effect on a product that is just about around the corner from its darkest, dullest days in the mid- to late-2000s. The nightmare of every hardcore fan is that bringing everything into the corporate machine is going to result in an expansion of the style of PG-era wrestling, a stream of John Cenas and Dave Batistas with intentionally limited movesets, a couple of recognisable affectations and an in-ring playbook that consists of a flowchart pointing from ‘match?’ to ‘false finish’. But it’s not only the inevitable meatheads who are affected. The cream of the remnants of the independent scene – or at least those who are selected for the fact that they might work in a WWE context – are also moulded in the same environment, don’t forget.
Chris Hero, a man once held in similar esteem to CM Punk by fans of the indies, was dropped from the developmental programme after 21 months amid whispers that he was continuously failing to meet physical conditioning expectations – a clear example of the machine rejecting the raw material because it won’t fit. And even the relative success stories thus far run into issues. Cesaro, a man who as Claudio Castagnoli on the indie circuit was Swiss, strong, technical and funny, is all of those things today, but a huge void has also opened up in his personality since he was moulded for TV, a sort of ‘terra incognita’ that comes with WWE style. He’s been through a range of gimmicks from linguist to apparent Tea Party supporter already, with his natural in-ring persona having to struggle, sometimes successfully, to come through.
The easiest way to see what the company is trying to do with its up and coming talent is to watch NXT, the B-league it has set up to let its prospects attempt to entertain human beings before they’re allowed to do it with the weight of $840m in market capitalisation on their backs. NXT has drawn a lot of praise from hardcore fans who are burned out on the constant churn of next-big-things falling to the hate-conquering John Cena in the big leagues, but who recognise that there is only one game in town when it comes to producing wrestling television. But to use a parallel from the Premier League, what NXT gives wrestlers is a youth-team set-up, competing with people on their level in a lower-stakes setting with all the support of the machine around them. What the old territories were, and what today’s indies are closer to being, is the equivalent of toughening up during a loan spell at Leyton Orient, with bitter older pros constantly trying to cut you down and the crowd swinging from expectant to unsympathetic.
And don’t mistake the apparent success of creative at NXT for a genuine improvement in method from the main product. NXT records on the same Orlando college campus every week, drawing smart fans who are willing to latch on to soft gimmicks, like Emma’s bad dancing, in order to make sure everyone has a good time. Commentators explain what’s happening in white-hat, black-hat terms in a way that smarks would utterly deride if it happened on Raw: Adam Rose likes partying, Camacho thinks it’s frivolous, so they fight; Tyler Breeze is a pretty boy, Sami Zayn has a beard, so they fight. Instead of preparing wrestlers to survive the unprecedentedly demanding crowd at the top level, NXT is in danger of becoming an infantilised theme-park version of the real WWE, where things work out how they would on Raw if the fans would stop chanting for CM Punk at inopportune times.
CM Punk himself wrestled in a previous, less rigorous version of developmental at one point, but like the old hands from the territories, the angles that got him over were largely swiped from things he’d done elsewhere: disgust at Jeff Hardy’s drug abuse from an angle with Raven in Ring of Honor, and being legitimately rude from everywhere he’d ever been. How do you learn how to work an angle when your week entails going to a sports complex five days a week and then wrestling in the same building one night?
Being a company man isn’t necessarily a bad thing – corporate functional monopolies the world over produce perfectly serviceable executives I’m sure – but the stakes seem high precisely because WWE is now the only real option if you’re a monoglot Anglophone and like to see wrestlers actually react when they’re punched during a match. But of course, if a short man who drives a hybrid can be the world champion, there’s no reason to guess that organic forces won’t push at least some worthwhile people to the top and draw out their natural talent from behind their broad and poorly defined gimmicks.