Tuesday, December 2, 2014


After watching Stone Cold Steve Austin interview Vince McMahon live on the WWE Network for his podcast, I had only one thought:

Steve Austin just performed a public service for professional wrestling.

Before I demonstrate how Austin did so, I will go over the substance of the interview for those who weren't fortunate enough to see it on the Network.

The mere concept of a legitimate sit-down interview between Austin and McMahon is entertaining in of itself. In reality it's a pure joy to watch. McMahon has represented that "big fish" for Steve Austin Show listeners, quite possibly the most wanted guest in the show's history given the relationship between the two.

It's only fitting that the significance of this exchange be featured in a way that is incredibly special, even grand, but also familiar.

Viewers (and eventually listeners) will be surprised by McMahon's candor. Austin, known for his artful use of four-letter-words, actually reigns in his own colorful vocabulary and it's McMahon who opens up and lets a few expletives fly. One of the best moments in the interview is when Austin calls time, and explains that he needs to bring the show to a close. McMahon then says, "we're just getting started." Austin insists "they're" telling him he has to end the show, and then McMahon replies, "Well since I own the Network I say we have another fifteen minutes".

Such moments humanize McMahon in a welcome way, giving us a glimpse into what it's like to actually be around him. He remains an imposing authority figure, even one whose philosophies might clash with your own, equal parts slick and relatable. This interview gives you an inkling into what makes him laugh, what makes him lean forward in a chair, how he thinks about today's roster and today's generation, and what his business priorities are.

This conversation is like watching a father and son come together after having lived several life-times together so that they can reminisce about the past and then butt heads about the future. Topics include: why is Brock Lesnar not on TV, will Randy Savage be inducted into The Hall of Fame, The Monday Night Wars, and how the company has changed since The Attitude Era.

Viewers may also be surprised by Austin's forthrightness. While he keeps it PG (something he's accustomed to doing for Tuesday shows), he doesn't shy away from potentially controversial topics just because he's on The Network. He stares McMahon in the eyes and speaks with the utmost intensity, his hands thrusting in the air to emphasize a point. It's very clear that Austin is cognizant of the importance of this exchange - what it means in history, but also what it means for himself. He modifies his language and remains respectful of the setting without compromising his integrity or deviating from his traditional interview style. Where other interviewers might butter McMahon up or ask about McMahon's childhood, Austin ultimately uses this platform to ask questions any fan of professional wrestling and the WWE would ask.

He starts off discussing the three-hour RAW, the positives and negatives of the show, and lets McMahon give his perspective on what works and what doesn't. To hear McMahon verbalize what pro-wrestling fans have always had to infer about the business and the company's priorities provides something of a relief. A fan's vague impressions are given shape, and so, even if a fan dislikes or disagrees with the company's direction, they're still provided a concrete insight. McMahon very clearly believes in "sports entertainment", and has a particular way of telling the stories he wants to tell in an environment that is inevitably more micromanaged by a wider variety of individuals than it was in the 1990s.

He believes one has to "change with the times". As he makes these arguments, it's possible to see the counterargument brewing in Austin's mind. He doesn't contradict McMahon simply for the sake of doing so. Instead he must navigate a rather precarious situation in a live, high-stakes environment and the result is something special.

Austin asks about Punk (which genuinely shocked me) and he approached the question in the best way he could: "I'm gonna ask you a yes or no question...do you want to talk about CM Punk."

Surprisingly, McMahon gives very straightforward answers about Punk. It's fascinating to hear him speak about Punk especially if one has listened to Colt Cabana's Art of Wrestling podcast where Punk was the special guest last week (Austin also graciously gave a shout out to that podcast), because such seemed an impossibility.

McMahon, at least in this interview, seems to have a fairly mature reaction to the CM Punk situation, a reaction that could only have come from experience. He talks about his issues with Austin, Hogan, Bret, Warrior, and other wrestlers throughout the years, and how he'd love to be able to reconcile with Punk.

One of the most interesting parts of the interview dealt with today's roster. McMahon regards the millennial generation as somewhat timid - people seem more insecure. When I heard him state this, I immediately knew what the "smark" response would be - a kind of lashing out, an angry response arguing that today's roster, very simply, doesn't have the creative freedom that the performers in The Attitude Era had.

My personal reaction to hearing McMahon's view on the millennial generation is layered: today's talent simply must be creatively restricted given they're beholden to a script. I cannot see how that is not a reality, as an outsider looking in. And given that the WWE is "the only game in town", timidity is an understandable byproduct of not wanting to lose one's job. Creativity thrives from the clash of perspectives and the clash of ideas. If talent is afraid that voicing their opinion is tantamount to having their character written off television then creativity (and that potential top guy the WWE needs) is stifled.

Regardless of the behind the scenes politics (the particulars of which fans can never really know about), I do agree that millennials, generally, are a little more insecure and timid as a generation. Such makes complete sense considering that we've grown up in a world where face-to-face human interaction is no longer the primary means of communication. Given that this is the case, the company simply encourages a greater disconnect by force-feeding dialogue into this supposedly anti-social generation. If the fundamental issue is, as McMahon seems to argue, a lack of camaraderie and communication then people need to be encouraged to state their piece on and off camera. If this generation is less communicative, they need to be put out of their comfort zone and allowed to speak their truth. Only then will superb talent emerge.

And talent needs to be daring enough to add a personal touch to their performances every now and again. Today's talent needs to throw a bit of themselves into a promo or into a move, beyond that script, make the point that the brass wants made, but also add a personal touch that gets the attention of the audience (this is admittedly easy to suggest, but the rigid adherence to a script, out of fear of losing one's job, is no way to live and no way to thrive - there's no point in almost living a dream).

While Austin fervently tries to light a fire under today's roster, he seems to do so with a little more understanding and appreciation for their struggle. He's not resigned, he's encouraging.

Figuring out McMahon's perspective on talent is a little more difficult. He seems slightly less open to a guy like Cesaro. He recognizes Cesaro is lacking something, but he doesn't seem to have a solution, and he doesn't seem to have much hope for a solution.

Austin simply seems to argue that these pro-wrestlers need to walk down to that twenty-by-twenty squared circle with passion and intensity, with the desire to be the absolute best, and the courage to aggravate a few people along the way if need be. And he seems to want to get Vince to create an environment where that's possible.

People who've been listening to Austin's podcast have a pretty good sense of how Austin sees the business - what he thinks and feels it is and should be and who he likes (his fondness for Cesaro comes out in this interview). This informs his approach to the conversation with Vince. He concedes to referring to the medium as "sports entertainment" (though, amusingly, it seems to frustrate him to do so). The effort displayed, on Austin's part, seems to primarily be to ask Vince, in a genuine way, why the WWE is the way it is today, if Vince is listening to viewers, and how viewers might voice their opinions so as to influence the product for the better.

"Are you listening, are you tuned in, are you givin' them what they want..."

It's in this way that Austin has performed a public service for pro-wrestling and fans of pro-wrestling. So passionate about the business, so eager to see the business survive, this interview transforms into a call to action. It's a call to action to Vince, it's a call to action to today's roster, and it's particularly a call to action to pro-wrestling fans who feel their voices should be heard.

McMahon states that he "listens to the live audience".

This is simply an unsatisfying response given that the WWE Universe is larger than the live audience (I'm rarely able to ever add my voice to the sea of live voices, so I've taken to creating this blog, for example). Austin recognizes that this response is unsatisfying and so he keeps asking Vince if there's an email of some kind. Eventually Austin stubbornly (hilariously) states viewers should write to WWE on Twitter and write to Vince McMahon on Twitter to offer their feedback about the product.

McMahon rolls his eyes. He knows a deluge of Tweets are on the way. It's in that eye roll that pro-wrestling fans might see their voices not being heard. But as someone who's rolled his eyes at Twitter many a day, I understand McMahon's reaction. We noisy internet fans do not seem to realize that our listless complaining and our snarky blogs achieve absolutely nothing.

Right now the pro-wrestling community is a universe of screaming heads, all screaming to see who can scream the loudest.

No one gets heard. We just bicker amongst ourselves, no one ever able to appreciate anything other than post-ironically laughing at something we hate.

There needs to be a way for us to calmly, intelligently offer usable feedback to the WWE so that a stronger, more trusting relationship between company and viewer can grow. There needs to be a way for the WWE Universe to take themselves seriously enough for the WWE to take the Universe seriously. Both sides need to extend that olive branch. Both sides need to be frank and honest. This interview offers a transparency that is sorely needed.

In the past, the WWE has demonstrated a seeming ignorance or disdain for a large sect of the audience.

We have demonstrated to the WWE that we are nothing but a collection of petulant children endlessly complaining about every little detail and "Tweeting our displeasure". And then we just end up basking in our own frustrations and fighting amongst ourselves.

Meanwhile McMahon goes on quoting sales figures, user approval ratings, and statistics. There's a fundamental disconnect on all sides.

Perhaps offering more honest, calmer feedback about the product won't help change the WWE. Perhaps the company will never "listen". But for our own health, and our own joy, I suggest we try a new approach, an approach that's so convincing it's not so easily ignored.

I suggest we watch, and emulate, what Steve Austin did in this historic interview.

Thank you for reading. Feel free to offer you own reactions, feedback, and the like in the comments below (they will be read).

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Photos via WWE.com

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