What Does Creative Control Look Like in Pro Wrestling?

Chris Jericho's podcast with Jon Moxley set the wrestling internet ablaze

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Earlier this month, in an interview with wrestling industry icon Chris Jericho that appears to have shaken the entire subculture, pro wrestler Jon Moxley (FKA Dean Ambrose) revealed the tortuous machinations of WWE’s bizarre scripting process. Exploring the Sisyphean tasks that WWE talent endure while attempting to have their voices heard, Moxley berated the tortuous and tyrannical logic of Vince McMahon and his team, who had sucked the joy from Moxley’s career before he was released from his contract in April.

But why was creative control so important for Moxley? And what do artistic liberties have to do with pro wrestling, anyway?

For outsiders, the distinction between what is “real” and “fake” within pro wrestling remains a complicated binary to navigate. Most wrestlers will tell you wrestling isn’t fake, it’s just predetermined—but perhaps that undersells the narrative function of pro wrestling as a medium. Because of the formal structure of pro wrestling, which tends to resemble a serial film sequence more than a traditional competition, an implicit element of fictionality is baked into the sport.

The truth of the matter is that while many of the moves in pro wrestling are delivered with “real” intensity—but are executed with minimizing injuries in mind, barring accidents or mistakes—pretty much everything that happens in the ring is planned for the purposes of telling a story. If you see it, it’s a work—or so I’ve been told by several personalities. Do the performers openly discuss the “fake”-ness of pro wrestling with fans? No, of course not—in the same way that superheroes don’t look into the camera and announce to the audience that they’re watching a movie (Deadpool aside).

But one of the differences between wrestling and big-screen caped crusaders is that wrestlers usually create their own characters, unlike the movie stars who play the Avengers. Wrestlers come up with the concepts, designs, aesthetics, attitudes, gestures and other characterizations for their alter egos all on their own. When an independent wrestler signs with a bigger company, they may find parts of their original vision edited or completely reinvented, but it’s likely they were chosen because of their unique outlook to begin with. It’s not so different from an indie musician signing with a major record label.

The fate of a wrestling character waxes and wanes depending on the bookers of the shows they find themselves on, and wrestlers are expected to obey the people who book them, even if they are booked to lose. In exchange, bookers tend to work in good faith with performers, allowing them some liberties to stay true to their characters within each show. Bookers are usually willing to listen to input from the athletes on the direction and sometimes even outcomes of matches. While some bookers focus on creating epics that may extend over years, decades and sometimes even literal generations, others work harder on easily consumable short-form stories that exist for one night only.

This is part of the problem. In the case of WWE, as per testimony from countless talent and insiders, 73-year-old billionaire Vince McMahon is the sole arbiter of every plot, of every word spoken, of everything within the company at all. Despite or because of this, an entire massive production team of writers, market testers and other assorted executives work to please him and him alone. What appears to have largely gotten left behind is input from the performers themselves.

In Moxley’s words, via Jericho’s podcast: “They take away the thing that you love. Like I was saying, being obsessed with wrestling 24/7, it’s like they take it away from you. ‘Oh, don’t worry about coming up with your own promos, we have a writer. Don’t worry about coming up with cool things to do in your matches, cause we have producers who will tell you exactly what to do in your matches. Don’t bother thinking of story lines, ’cause we’ve already written ’em for you.’”

“Don’t be an artist and be creative,” Jericho echoed.

In an international mega-company worth more than a billion dollars, it’s no surprise that an element of creative spontaneity has to be managed in a careful way so as to minimize unexpected blunders and maximize profits. But it’s also no surprise that the artistic product created from this attitude sometimes comes across as heartless.

This is precisely why the internet is lousy with so many rumors of unhappy WWE talent threatening to leave for smaller brands that may offer them more control over their own characters. In fact, All Elite Wrestling—the burgeoning brand spawned from wrestling scion Cody Rhodes’s discontent with WWE—has already promised that wrestlers will write their own promos, thus returning some autonomy to the performers.

The concept of “creative control” remains idiosyncratic within wrestling, but the dilemmas faced by the current talent, who sometimes must make a choice between financial stability and artistic integrity, are relatively new problems.

As a postscript to these musings, it seems notable that when Moxley popped up at AEW and New Japan Pro-Wrestling within days of his so-called WWE emancipation, he appeared with an entirely new attitude and a new look. No longer the wisecracking and goofy family-friendly lunatic, he literally scratched and bit his way to the IWGP United States Championship, defeating Juice Robinson amidst a flurry of middle fingers. He was himself again.

Recently, ONE37pm chatted with underground wrestling legend Mike Quackenbush

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