Massive WWE Layoffs Highlight the Company’s Current Struggles

The Week in Wrestling: WWE’s massive layoffs, Steve Kerr on Dennis Rodman’s WCW distraction and more.
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SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every week and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.

A heartbreaking day in pro wrestling

WWE was deemed an essential business by the state of Florida during the COVID-19 pandemic. But make no mistake—while WWE may be considered “essential,” Vince McMahon told the world yesterday that some of his employees were not.

WWE released 21 members of the talent roster, in addition to cuts of numerous backstage workers and writers and furloughs of corporate office employees. More cuts are likely to be announced.

Sports Illustrated connected with a number of people directly affected by the cuts, and all understood that the coronavirus has attacked corporations and hurt bottom lines everywhere, with wrestling being no different. The mass ousting puts those released in an especially difficult position, as WWE just flooded the market with free agents who must now battle each other as they seek new employment in a climate of great uncertainty. 

This could have been an opportunity for McMahon to stand up for his employees. Even if WWE had continued to pay all of its talent, the company has a deep reservoir of money and would have continued to operate without fear of breaching contracts or a risk of going under due to economic hardship.

Investors understand that WWE lost money by not having WrestleMania in front of a packed house at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, and there is no confusion as to why WWE is losing money on merchandise sales or live events. Investors wanted to see expenses reduced, so that is the route McMahon took. The employees were cut because McMahon’s top priority is his fiscal responsibility to his shareholders, and a combination of lost revenue from the WWE and XFL put him in a position where he chose to act before Wall Street completely devalued his stock.

To McMahon, the wrestlers he cut were expendable. The priority here was the company stock, and Wall Street rewards when companies work lean. WWE stock has underperformed throughout 2020, but it took a slight jump on Wednesday following the news of the cuts. It has been common among big corporations to reduce cash and lay it at the feet of the pandemic, and this was McMahon’s chance for WWE to look fiscally responsible.

Another issue for WWE during the pandemic is the lack of institutional creativity.

Raw, SmackDown, and NXT are running empty-arena shows, which has proved to be an ineffective platform for weekly pro wrestling content. Just like WrestleMania was an opportunity to explore a cinematic approach to pro wrestling, the weekly television shows now offer a chance to offer viewers a unique perspective of the talent. Curiously, this is an opportunity WWE has failed to capitalize on.

There are so many different ways to produce a live television show, especially with WWE’s incredible resources. What about video packages on the talent, like Bobby Lashley’s pride in being a father? Or interviews with stars on the meaning of their finishing moves? Even comparing different quarantine workouts—NXT’s Fabian Aichner is working out atop his garage—would bring new content to the broadcasts. The Keith Lee video package that aired on this week’s NXT is the type of content we should see more of. Imagine Daniel Bryan discussing his favorite moments in wrestling. There are so many options for engaging content.

WWE also owns the most extensive tape library in wrestling. Would people watch matches from the past if the New Day or Miz and John Morrison were broadcasting them? Segments like that could be recorded remotely, cutting down on travel and keeping talent at home.

Given the circumstances, a live show featuring minimal wrestling has potential. Instead, we have the same presentation week after week.

WWE is the worldwide leader in professional wrestling. But it isn’t setting new trends. And yesterday, WWE followed the lead of all other global entities by valuing its stock over its employees.

Wrestlers provide a heartbeat to the wrestling business. The ones released will recover, enhancing the industry as a whole through their talent and versatility. Perhaps we’ll eventually see Rusev as AEW world champ, Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson reclaiming the IWGP tag titles in New Japan, Mike Bennett and Maria Kanellis reuniting with Matt Taven in Ring of Honor, or a return for Rockstar Spud in Impact.

None of that erases the coldness of the releases on Wednesday, another dark day in pro wrestling in 2020.

Steve Kerr reflects on Dennis Rodman’s run in WCW, which caused friction among the Bulls

The Bulls won the NBA championship in 1998, which marked the team’s sixth title in eight seasons.

Each championship marked its own roller coaster of emotions for the Bulls, but ’98 stood out for myriad reasons, with a big part being that the team was on the brink of a massive breakup. The legendary Michael Jordan retired following the season, marking his second retirement from the game of basketball—though, in Terry Funk–esque fashion, he would return in 2001. Future Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen and head coach Phil Jackson were both gone by the next season, and the team—and it is fair to say the league as a whole—was growing tired of Dennis Rodman.

Rodman is possibly the greatest rebounder in the history of professional basketball, but, incredibly, he is better known for his antics off the court than he is for his Hall of Fame play on it.

ESPN’s 10-part documentary on the ’98 Bulls, The Last Dance, debuts on Sunday—and there will be lots of footage of the eccentric Rodman, who was making appearances in WCW during the season.

Rodman missed a Bulls practice following Game 3 of the ’98 Finals, a game Chicago won by 42 points over the Jazz, to be part of WCW’s Nitro, which was held, fittingly, at the Palace of Auburn Hills, his former home as a member of the Detroit Pistons.

Steve Kerr, who played a key part on that Bulls team and is now the head coach of the Warriors, recalled Rodman missing practice.

“There wasn’t anything that was really that surprising, at that point, with Dennis,” said Kerr, won five titles as a player and has added three more as a coach. “We sort of understood he was his own man. He did so much for the team, but to do it during the Finals, that was another indication this was all coming to an end.

“There was just a lifespan on that team that wouldn’t allow us to go on any further, even if players were still under contract. We all felt like, ‘This was it.’ And we were fortunate to win that last championship, because there were many difficult times along the way.”

Game 3 of the Finals was on a Sunday, and Rodman’s surprise appearance on Nitro came the following day, when he and “Hollywood” Hogan attacked “Diamond” Dallas Page. As exciting as it was for WCW, Rodman was causing endless headaches for his team.

Fortunately for Rodman, he had a practice on Tuesday and shootaround before the series’ fourth game that Wednesday, which the Bulls won to take a commanding lead in the series, three games to one. Rodman, who was coming off the bench, played just over 29 minutes and grabbed 14 rebounds.

“That put the coach in a terribly difficult position,” said Kerr. “That was part of Phil’s genius—understanding how to maintain authority, and the team’s momentum, in the face of adversity. Whether it was something brought on that was unforeseen, or a player missing practice during the Finals, he found the right tone and the right message.”

The (online) week in wrestling

  • Ronda Rousey has ensured her position as the top heel in wrestling. She criticized WWE’s fan base on the Wild Ride! w/Steve-O podcast, then added even more fuel to the fire by following that up with the tried-and-true “fighters are tougher than pro wrestlers” argument that always fires up a debate. Is there a bigger villain than Ronda if (when?) she ever returns to WWE? 
  • There is potential for a Drew McIntyre–Seth Rollins program, but there needs to be a storyline as to why Rollins—who lost to Kevin Owens at WrestleMania—is getting a shot at the title instead of Owens. 
  • The Revival are wrestling’s newest, and most desirable, free agents. Should they go straight to AEW? Wait until more promotions reopen and win the NWA tag titles? Or spend some time in New Japan? If AEW is the destination in mind, they could close out pay per views with the Young Bucks as well as Kenny Omega–Hangman Page. 
  • Another fascinating interview was Bill Goldberg on the Carcast podcast, where Goldberg detailed how there were still attempts to have Roman Reigns wrestle the WrestleMania match for the Universal title. The timing here makes sense, as it explains why WWE was so hesitant to mention that Reigns had been replaced on the card until a night before WrestleMania.
  • I still would have preferred Bray Wyatt to get a win and a rematch against Bill Goldberg, but Wyatt and Strowman’s history and chemistry brings potential for their upcoming program. 
  • The stars of WWE shined the #DontRushChallenge, and it showcases TikTok’s ability to make a song that did well in last year’s U.K. hip hop scene into a massive viral hit. 
  • AEW announced it was running its own tournament, and it didn’t take long for WWE to announce a tournament of its own. The interim cruiserweight championship tourney is not single-elimination, it is based on advancing through head-to-head record.
  • There is a big main event on next week’s 200th episode of Being the Elite, as the Young Bucks will face each other in a singles match. 
  • Beyond Wrestling founder Drew Cordeiro is creating a new project, where fans can see wrestlers excel in an environment outside the confines of the ring. 
  • This week’s episode of Dark Side of the Ring certainly made the title of the show ring true, with a look at the tragic story of Jimmy Snuka and Nancy Argentino. 

And as interesting as the show was, this tweet from Dave Meltzer should also be highlighted, considering the Dark Side team highlighted the revelation from Tonga Kid that poked holes in Snuka’s story. 

  • It is interesting to take a look at the approach taken by the wrestling leaders in Japan and how it has differed from their counterparts in the United States. 

Conrad Thompson previews this week’s edition of ‘Something to Wrestle With Bruce Prichard’

A new episode of Something to Wrestle With Bruce Prichard is set for this Friday, as Prichard and cohost Conrad Thompson discuss the brief but memorable WWE career of Nailz.

WWE hired Kevin Wacholz to work as Nailz, an ex-convict who was seeking revenge against the Big Boss Man. Wacholz had wrestled in the AWA under a very different persona as “Mr. Magnificent” Kevin Kelly, and a feud with the Boss Man, one of the company’s high-profile stars in May 1992, was a big opportunity.

“They built a character around one story line,” said Thompson. “They needed an opponent for Boss Man for a pay-per-view, but then what? The character was half-baked. This is an era where Hulk is not front and center, and they’re giving big opportunities to Razor Ramon, Bret Hart and British Bulldog, trying to move up some new players. This is the beginning of throwing things against the wall to see what sticks.

“Why was he still wearing his prison outfit? He’d come out and say the same things over and over again. ‘I’m coming for you, Big Boss … Man’ or ‘I was imprisoned for crimes I did not do,’ never using the word ‘commit.’ They put a voice effect on his promos, his matches were a little bit of offense and a lot of chokes. He had an issue with Boss Man, which I get in theory, but I don’t think they knew what to do with this character.”

The feud with the Big Boss Man built to a “Nightstick on a Pole” match at Survivor Series in November 1992, but it was a quick loss for Nailz that didn’t even last six minutes. He started a new feud with the Undertaker, and the two shared the cover of WWF Magazine in January 1993, which ran after he was already gone from the company following a physical altercation with Vince McMahon in December.

“We’ll talk about how it all came to an end in one of the most blaze of glory exits in WWE history,” said Thompson. “Vince is a polarizing figure. Boys in the business and promoters would always say they’d kick Vince’s a--, and this is when one finally does.”

Wacholz filed a pair of lawsuits against McMahon, alleging that McMahon gave him steroids on a number of occasions and that McMahon sexually assaulted him—and WWE filed a counterclaim, but all were ultimately dropped. Wacholz briefly worked Slamboree for WCW in May 1993 against Sting, but his most memorable run took place in WWE.

“This story has only gotten bigger and bigger,” said Thompson. “We’ll do our best to separate fact from fiction about one of the more unique stories in WWE history.”

Tweet of the Week

Howard Finkel had no peer as a ring announcer. His voice enhanced so many moments in wrestling, giving them that larger-than-life feel.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.