Timing, it seems, is everything. WWE Vince McMahon has made a legitimate fortune playing fast and loose with the laws of both physics and social decorum. His company has become known as a repository for more shadiness and dysfunction than any business outside of the US Congress. On the Monday night “RAW” show that aired Monday night on Spike TV, McMahon hit yet another unprecedented low.
Backstory: this week marks the one-year anniversary of what was probably the darkest day in the history of pro wrestling: the infamous Benoit Family Tragedy, which has been covered in vast, unscrupulous detail all over the place and needs no recap here. The new book by New Orleans lawyer and “true-crime” specialist Matthew Randazzo, “Ring of Hell,” uses the story of Chris Benoit as a template for crafting the most dense compilation of so-called “wrestling sleaze” outside of an old internet comment thread that was itself taken down after the BFT opened the business to greatly enhanced scrutiny by both federal authorities and the mainstream media–which has always carried a grudge against the business, perhaps because their beloved cable news shows struggle to match ratings WWE programming that is sometimes stunningly, suspiciously bad. My review copy arrived on Monday morning, just in time for RAW.
What made the Benoit debacle all the more jarring was that McMahon had faked his own assassination in an exploding limousine the week before it happened, and that Benoit had participated in a show the next night in which the “death” of McMahon’s character played a central role in the storyline, complete with “ten-bell” salute and taped encomiums from colleagues. Recall that Benoit, more than any other wrestler, completely broke down on-air following the death of best friend Eddie Guererro, on two consecutive nights of TV tapings. The following Monday night show was planned as a three-hour tribute to the McMahon character, but instead it aired as a tribute to the Benoits that was renounced by the company the next day, contingent with the purging of all Benoit-related video from their public archives. That of course necessitated losing a lot of their best material of the last decade, including key matches with people like Guererro, Steve Austin, Kurt Angle, and much of Ric Flair’s stuff from the period when Benoit was a Horseman.
McMahon has recently been giving away money on the air, calling up viewers who registered online. Vince doles out $1 million per week to those who recite the week’s password. Randazzo has reportedly claimed that the PR stunt is being done to counter negative publicity from his book, which is selling respectably in a pretty specialized market. That theory was personally obliterated by McMahon Monday night, with one of the most dangerous stunts ever attempted on TV. After the battle royal in the show’s last segment, McMahon gave away $500,000 to a viewer who said “I love you, Vince.”
McMahon replied “I love you, too,” and shortly after a massive lighting rig fell from the arena ceiling, landing a few feet away from McMahon–an eerie reminder of the death of Owen Hart in 1999. He was standing at the podium, looking confused, while what looked like a pyrotechnics mishap occurred around him–an eerier reminder of the real pyro mishap that injured dozens of people at WrestleMania in Miami three months ago. He then stumbled, like he was fainting, and fell off-camera, off the back of the stage through what may have been a table or something. No one seemed to know what was happening, but then Vince got up from where he’d fallen and started walking around in a daze, briefly, before the gigantic steel rig that held up one of their massive digital video screen literally collapsed on top of him.
From the moment the lighting rig fell, about three minutes passed by in which any reasonable viewer could have concluded that Vince McMahon had just become the first major celebrity to die on live TV. But it was apparently all planned in advance. Wrestlers ran up and worked together to free the chairman (who looked unmarked and at one point appeared to be smiling, perhaps grateful to God for an unlikely success) and help EMTs ease him gently out on a stretcher. Vince broke character by addressing real-life son-in-law HHH (whose on-air character is divorced from Stephanie McMahon and has been a constant thorn in her father’s side) by his real name of Paul, crying out that he couldn’t feel his legs. This will presumably be a key storyline in coming weeks, assuming that no wrestling superstar dies for real this week.
The level of risk is absurd. Anything rigged to fall at a specific time could fall at any time, which they know, and the lighting rig was right above the main ramp for wrestlers coming to and from the ring. Pyro is pyro, and the uncertain mechanics of that set collapse could have been a disaster. Unlike the exploding limo stunt, which merely involved airing Vince’s pretaped entry just before the live explosion (which still looks fairly seamless), this time he actually stood there and let it happen around him, and in the process probably cheated death for real. To have his wrestlers on and around the fallen structure while fresh pyro popped off from it made things worse. He’s lucky he didn’t start a damned riot!
It was a shocking end to a night of wrestling action that was weird even by the singular standards of WWE, a night that turned often on injuries, real and fake. Shawn Michaels went face-first into the edge of a table, compounding a fake eye injury received weeks earlier from Chris Jericho (in a feud built around Michaels’ history of faking injuries). Melina Perez did injure her leg while teaming with Victoria against Beth Phoenix and Natalya Neidhart, and former squeeze Batista was busted open after a violent collision with Edge during the battle royal. The cut was probably self-inflicted, but the sound of their heads cracking each other had me briefly worried about Edge’s surgically-fused neck. (He went on to win, though.)
The obverse view, of course, is that Vince indulged this madness as a gesture of trust for a technical crew that had gotten a lot of bad publicity after the WrestleMania accident. One hopes he wasn’t consciously referencing past tragedies, though he must have been aware of the accident that killed a tech worker for rival company TNA about a month ago. All in all, it was really fucked-up, and it could have easily become something that eclipsed the BFT–if such a thing is even possible.