How WWE managed to become the biggest blockbuster event of the summer

A decade ago, when I started watching professional wrestling, I was taught two things with absolute certainty: The first was that Vince McMahon, the chairman and guiding creative force behind the world’s biggest wrestling company, was an out-of-touch, possibly psychopathic old man who was strangling the life out of the business. Second was that his son-in-law, 14-time WWE World Champion Paul “Triple H” Levesque, was going to save it.

Levesque is considered the mastermind behind WWE’s popular developmental brand, NXT, which has run concurrently with mainline WWE programming since 2012 and has consistently outshined its big sibling in the eyes of fans and professional wrestling pundits. Now, at last, Levesque’s time has come and the retired wrestler has the creative reins of the entire company, stepping in as chief content officer of WWE, unencumbered by his disgraced father-in-law. Fan enthusiasm is at a fever pitch and ticket sales are reaching record highs. There’s an air of rebirth, a palpable sense of joy and renewal in WWE’s recent programming, and the internet wrestling community — whose favorite pastime is complaining about the product — seems relatively satisfied.

Like everything else in pro wrestling, the idea that WWE has entered “a new era” is at least partially a “work,” part of the con in which the audience has agreed to participate. WWE is a company that has endured decades of well-deserved bad press while owned and operated by McMahon, a proudly predatory businessman who is currently under federal investigation for sex trafficking. (For an exhaustive account of McMahon’s life and many, many alleged misdeeds, check out the book Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America by Polygon contributor Abraham Josephine Riesman.) Now that McMahon is gone, presumably for good, it behooves the publicly traded company, which is now majority owned by media conglomerate Endeavor, to distance itself from its radioactive former chairman as much as possible.

However, WWE has used the occasion of Paul Levesque’s long-awaited rise to creative control over the company’s product to give their programming a new coat of paint, a new confidence, and, arguably, a new peak in quality. Some of these improvements are quantifiable, but there’s also an immeasurable improvement in vibes — and in a medium where perception is reality, vibes can account for a great deal. Perhaps the biggest shift this year in WWE is that, for the first time in recent memory, the fan base seems to want to enjoy it. While commentary and fans have taken to calling this period “the Paul Levesque Era,” you could just as appropriately label it…

The Positive Attitude Era


Photo: WWE/Getty Images

April’s WrestleMania XL wasn’t, strictly speaking, even the first of the annual super-shows to run under Paul Levesque’s creative stewardship. The previous year’s two-night event took place during the limbo period in which Levesque was nominally the chief creative officer but Vince McMahon was reportedly still backstage issuing orders. But in January, McMahon had resigned in disgrace (for the second time) just one day before the de facto kickoff of 2024’s WrestleMania season, meaning that this year would be the first time that the new CCO would get to manage the buildup of every storyline and execute their payoffs on the “grandest stage of them all.” Stephanie McMahon, who hadn’t been seen on WWE TV since being dethroned as chairwoman by her own father in 2023, addressed the purported 72,755 fans in attendance on night two of WrestleMania XL to proudly declare it “the first WrestleMania of the Paul Levesque Era.” This announcement was met with thunderous applause, and the next night on Raw, the assembled die-hards greeted the former Hunter Hearst Helmsley with a chant of “Thank you, Hunter.”

The build to WrestleMania XL was some of the most thrilling WWE TV in years, but some of the credit has to go to one of Levesque’s chief rivals, who also took on a new leadership role this year. On Jan. 23, the day before the NY Post published the latest allegations against Vince McMahon, WWE legend Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson joined the board of directors of TKO, the Endeavor subsidiary that includes both WWE and UFC. Soon, The Rock became a consistent on-screen presence on WWE TV. The return of one of Hollywood’s biggest stars to weekly wrestling television was, naturally, a boon to ratings and a siren song for lapsed WWE fans, and he was expected to leverage his star power as a baby face. However, his insertion into the main event of WrestleMania meant preempting a storyline in which fans were already deeply invested, which accidentally made Rock the promotion’s biggest villain. WWE pivoted to make use of the fan outrage, recasting Rock as a heel and reframing the story as a fight between the company’s past and its future. The story’s climax at WrestleMania XL was transcendent, simultaneously making the most out of The Rock’s intrusion and paying off a story two years in the making between longtime heel champion Roman Reigns and fan-favorite challenger Cody Rhodes. (The Rock is expected to return for next year’s ’Mania, likely in time for Raw’s big move to Netflix in January 2025.)

Since then, the phrase “Paul Levesque Era” has been in common rotation on WWE programming, employed by wrestlers, authority figures, and commentators — though never by Levesque himself. But what that term actually means has been left for the audience to interpret. Levesque has exerted an influence over WWE’s output for years, as the sensibilities of his NXT have trickled onto the main roster along with its performers. One need look no further than the current WWE women’s division, which is unrecognizable from the exploitative sideshow it was 10 years ago. Still, there has been a number of marked changes in the way WWE’s flagship shows, Raw and SmackDown, have been programmed and presented since WrestleMania XL. The literal rules of the fictional sport haven’t changed, but the rules of the show are, in many ways, far less rigid, no longer subject to Vince McMahon’s bizarre bugaboos.

For starters, the yearslong embargo over the words “wrestler” and “wrestling” has finally been lifted, and performers and commentary are no longer required to refer to their profession as “sports entertainment.” This is a symbolic change, but a crucial one, as the return to the terminology of the real sport upon which WWE is based has been accompanied by a greater emphasis on the action taking place in the ring. The cinematography of the action itself has dramatically changed to feel more like a modern combat sports broadcast, as longtime producer Kevin Dunn — loathed by swaths of fans for his rapid cutting and insistence that operators shake their cameras to emphasize the impact of wrestling moves — has been replaced by ESPN veteran Lee Fitting. Long takes and tracking shots have become the norm, allowing the athletes’ work in the ring to speak for itself.

WWE has also expanded the parameters of its kayfabe wrestling universe, acknowledging the histories of its performers outside of WWE programming. For example, on the May 13 episode of Raw, play-by-play commentator Michael Cole referred to the long history between competitors Shayna Baszler and Iyo Sky seven years prior at Japanese promotion Wonder Ring Stardom. During their (admittedly underwhelming) feud just after WrestleMania, Undisputed WWE Champion Cody Rhodes acknowledged his opponent AJ Styles as the only other man to have held both the WWE Championship and the NWA Championship, which was the sport’s grandest prize in the U.S. and Canada before Vince McMahon’s conquest of the wrestling world. Since McMahon purchased his last major domestic competitor in 2000, WWE usually treated itself as if it was the only wrestling company on the planet, and direct references to its performers’ activities beyond its influence were extremely rare. Now, no opportunity to use a wrestler’s full history to raise the stakes of a story is being ignored. This is indicative of a major shift in attitude, encouraging viewers to explore the wider wrestling world rather than dismiss it as insignificant. Simply by referring to its competitors in a respectful tone, WWE’s spokespeople make the company seem less outwardly petty, less insecure — or, in short, less like Vince.

Everyone on screen seems more at ease than they did just months ago, from the in-ring talent to the commentary team. This is one of those “vibes only” alterations, which could be a result of the less adversarial relationship with the fans or a less hostile environment backstage, or simply be a figment of the viewer’s imagination. The backstage culture of professional wrestling has been gradually changing since even before Levesque’s NXT. Wrestlers were once infamous for their hard drinking, drug use, bullying, and partying on the road. Today’s crop of WWE superstars are, in a word, nerds.

The popular pastime among both male and female wrestlers on the road is video gaming, either with their traveling partner or for a streaming audience. (If you want a clear picture of how the culture has changed, watch this video of two recently released WWE wrestlers recounting their “wild” LAN party to a perplexed good ol’ boy from the strippers and coke days.) In a recent interview, wrestling iconoclast CM Punk described the way that the WWE locker room had become less toxic during his eight-year absence from the company — and, in typical CM Punk fashion, gave himself credit for it. Since it runs parallel to an overall shift in interests and attitudes between generations, it probably can’t be attributed to any one person. Pro wrestling may have previously circumvented traditional human resources workflows in favor of carny-style traditions like “wrestler’s court,” but now that WWE is a public company and its workforce includes a lot more millennials, the culture is, reportedly, much more chill.

The gift of low standards

Vince McMahon getting his head shaved by Donald Trump at a Wrestlemania 23

Photo: Leon Halip/WireImage

In truth, it’s not hard to improve upon Vince McMahon’s WWE as either a workplace or a product. On screen, the “sport” of WWE has acquired a sense of earned stakes and consequences that many fans agree were sorely lacking under McMahon. Today, rarely does a match take place that does not figure into at least one ongoing storyline; in fact, more often than not it will advance more than one. To an outsider, this may sound like an obvious expectation to have of any scripted entertainment, but a weary WWE fan will tell you that McMahon’s wrestling booking often made no sense from week to week, as the chairman habitually demanded revisions on promos or match outcomes mere hours before broadcast. Wrestlers would get lost in the shuffle, their storylines abruptly ending or pivoting in some wild direction based purely on McMahon’s gut feelings about what was or wasn’t working. This drove both on-screen and backstage talent — including Levesque, reportedly — up a wall. At present, nearly every performer appearing on Raw and SmackDown is on some sort of trajectory, and their stories are interlocking in a way that builds excitement for what’s coming next.

Take the King and Queen of the Ring tournaments, which occupied the entire month of May on both Raw and SmackDown. Sixteen women and 16 men competed in a pair of single-elimination tournaments, and though not everyone knocked out in the first round was immediately propelled into a new storyline, there have been a number of new feuds set up between those who did not make the finals. LA Knight and Carmelo Hayes didn’t face each other in the tournament, but they matched wits and traded braggadocious barbs backstage between matches and (even though neither will be King of the Ring) they’ve both got a big money match on deck. Next big thing/Storm cosplayer Jade Cargill lost by disqualification to “the irresistible force” Nia Jax, preserving both wrestlers’ reputations and saving a showdown between Jade and her tag-team partner Bianca Belair for a future main event. Hell, young NXT call-up Bron Breakker now has a fiery feud with Raw general manager Adam Pierce over having missed the tournament altogether. Outside of the men’s tag-team division, which got squeezed almost entirely off television by the sheer number of tournament matches, the month of May was good for just about everybody.

The tournament helped to build momentum during what is usually one of the slower periods in the WWE calendar. In years past, the winner of the King of the Ring tournament would earn the right to wear a robe and crown and act regal. This year, the winners of each tournament will be awarded a world title opportunity at SummerSlam, one of WWE’s biggest shows of the year, giving the tournament stakes and importance comparable to the Royal Rumble. The tournament matches themselves have felt worthy of those stakes, with each competitor giving their all for the opportunity at the throne. Now, with the winners crowned, there’s an instant long-term story to carry the main event scenes to SummerSlam in August.

Logan Paul in air against Cody Rhodes during King and Queen of the Ring 2024

Photo: WWE/Getty Images

Alas, the King and Queen of the Ring tournaments were also a reminder of everything that hasn’t changed at WWE. The finals of the two tourneys took place in Saudi Arabia, where the company returns for two stadium shows every year. WWE began a long-term business relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 2018 as part of Mohammed bin Salman’s “Vision 2030” public relations and tourism campaign. WWE’s Saudi events are heavily subsidized by the local government and the broadcasts are frequently interrupted with what are, essentially, propaganda packages about progressive reforms in the country. Most WWE premium live events have similar tourism ad spots from the host’s tourism board, but given the KSA’s history of human rights violations, it is an unsettling reminder of how WWE, as a company, has no scruples. (One fan nickname for the Saudi PLEs is “blood money shows.”) Lest anyone think that the new management might reconsider the relationship, TKO’s board has already announced its intention to extend it, and the chairman of KSA’s sports commission has expressed interest in hosting one of WWE’s “big four” events, such as the Royal Rumble or even WrestleMania. Given the Saudi authorities’ deep pockets, it seems unlikely that TKO’s board would turn them down.

The removal of Vince McMahon also doesn’t magically cleanse the company or its current leadership of responsibility for his decades of alleged sexual misconduct. In addition to McMahon himself, former head of talent relations John Laurinaitis and seven-time WWE Champion Brock Lesnar have also been named in former WWE employee Janel Grant’s sex trafficking allegations. Paul Levesque is McMahon’s son-in-law and has worked closely with him for decades; as much as fans may be enjoying Levesque’s presence and the company’s output under his leadership, they must also brace themselves for the possibility that he, or some other beloved member of the cast and crew, will be found to be knowingly complicit in McMahon’s crimes, or worse, a participant.

It’s ironic that professional wrestling, a medium that deliberately exploits the real-life personalities and relationships of its performers, often requires socially conscious viewers to willfully detach the art from the artist. It’s not just show business, it’s business as show, and as fascinating as the business side of wrestling may be, it’s also a major bummer. Deception and exploitation have been baked into the art form since it rose up from its roots as a carnival hustle. Today, we dress it up in the respectable trappings of publicly traded mass media, but that hardly makes it less shady, predatory, or exploitative.

The industry’s most notorious ghoul has finally been banished, lifting an enormous weight off the shoulders of performers, executives, and fans. With the rise of Paul Levesque in his place, WWE has given fans an occasion to celebrate Vince McMahon’s absence without speaking his name aloud. It’s an era of good feelings. Does that really represent a bold new beginning for WWE, a clean slate both on screen and behind the scenes? Time will tell. For now, pro wrestling fans will have to do what we’ve always done — choose to believe.

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