The Most Telling Moment in Pro Wrestling Accountability

Dustin Waters
Dustin Waters is a writer from Macon, Ga, currently living in D.C. After years as a beat reporter in the Lowcountry, he now focuses his time on historical oddities, trashy movies, and the merits of professional wrestling.

Kayfabe: (noun) the tacit agreement between professional wrestlers and their fans to pretend that overtly staged wrestling events, stories, characters, etc., are genuine. Broadly, the tacit agreement to behave as if something is real, sincere, or genuine when it is not.

— Merriam-Webster

Professional wrestling is compelling because it asks the most of its audience. But within that buy-in, there also exists levels of deception and self delusion. 

Following a new lawsuit with claims of sex trafficking, WWE boss Vince McMahon’s resignation from the pro wrestling empire he built came on the eve of one of the company’s biggest events, the Royal Rumble. While McMahon had survived decades of allegations, the shocking claims spelled out in the 67-page lawsuit were revealed at a time when McMahon’s stranglehold on the company was weakened after a very lucrative corporate merger. 

In response to the most grotesque allegation to date against McMahon, WWE sponsor Slim Jim pulled their ad dollars. Finally feeling the pressure, McMahon was out. And his departure from the company allowed for the Royal Rumble to proceed as planned. 

Almost.

One recent development in professional wrestling has been the rise of post-event press conferences. These are intended to bring professional wrestling in line with other traditional sports and serve to generate a little extra content. 

The difference is that the wrestlers who face questions also face another dilemma. Do they keep kayfabe?

That meaning, do they maintain their on-camera characters while fielding questions, or do they openly acknowledge the true nature of the business? This dilemma was recently crystalized during a post-event press conference following All Elite Wrestling’s Worlds End pay-per view. 

AEW owner Tony Khan sat alongside wrestler Toni Storm, whose current persona is that of a deranged Old Hollywood starlet. Fittingly she arrived with a vintage fur hat and large sunglasses, which she passed over to Khan. 

Khan, not the most polished media personality, was awkwardly still wearing the hat and sunglasses later when questioned about the rumors of sexual harassment surfacing online against one of his biggest stars.  

An AEW employee earned his paycheck during said press conference when he raced over to Khan and removed the hat and sunglasses before the owner was asked any additional questions regarding the allegations. Learning to maintain the line between the jokey fake stuff and the bitter reality of a situation is a key skill for any PR professional in the entertainment industry.

Looking back at WWE’s fallout from the Vince McMahon lawsuit and the post-Royal Rumble presser, we find another strange issue regarding kayfabe. Wrestling journalists also face a unique dilemma during these press conferences. Do you follow along with the narrative of the storylines presented by the wrestlers, or do you acknowledge that this all occurs within layers of artifice?

Wrestling journalists often receive criticism because they go along with what is presented before them, either to ensure continued access to their sources or just through pure love of the sport. This can result in a lack of accountability from the public-facing figures representing the company.

The post-Royal Rumble press conference was to feature McMahon’s son-in-law Paul Levesque, the former professional wrestler known as HHH. Levesque replaced McMahon in creative control of the company. He also served on the company committee that claimed to have investigated the allegations against McMahon spelled out in the lawsuit. Professional wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer summed it up well. 

So the Royal Rumble press conference came with two questions related to the soul of the industry. Would professional wrestling journalists step up and ask the tough questions? And would those in the industry be accountable? The answer is largely no.

Levesque entered the press conference and launched into a filibuster that seemed intended to run out much of the time available to reporters. He spoke for 10 minutes about the successes of the night and all the great winners, but it felt like a kid running their lips to avoid taking their medicine. 

Finally it came time for the first question. And it was about the newly announced Netflix deal with WWE. 

Well, that’s a bad start. But then we do have journalists asking Levesque to account for the new allegations that imply systemic failures within the culture of the company. Especially his own knowledge of McMahon’s actions. And Levesque decides to plead ignorance and focus only on the positives. That exchange begins shortly into this clip. 

Levesque later claims that he hasn’t even read the lawsuit against his father-in-law that may very well implicate him in the alleged criminal activity that existed within WWE. While this could be a simple maneuver to avoid more questioning from journalists, it implies that the current head of creative at WWE couldn’t be bothered to read the lawsuit against the man he followed. 

More questions about the lawsuit followed, but Levesque refused to speak about anything other than how successful the evening of wrestling had been and the incredible stories the performers had told. 

Reporters eventually shifted to the usual benign talking points that fill these press conferences. The night finally wrapped up leaving more questions than answers. It’s ugly because the business of professional wrestling is booming. It just needs to shed the easy outs set in place for an industry built on a shared agreement to go along with what is put in front of you. 

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