“Life sucks… and then you die.”
Vince McMahon’s most heelish of words on the May 11, 2000 broadcast of SmackDown were extraordinary even by the boundary-demolishing standards of the World Wrestling Federation in that era.
The chairman’s expert delivery, accentuated by the in-ring presence of his McMahon-Helmsley cronies, was one of those exemplary moments that characterised the acclaimed ‘Attitude’ period of early-2000s WWF programming, so much so that the company itself named this segment as one of the top-100 moments in SmackDown history in a 2009 retrospective.
What is not remembered so vividly, however, are McMahon’s other words throughout this famous promo. Amongst talking up himself and his stablemates as “genetically” superior to the vast majority of people in the arena, the boss expressed an anecdote that was relevant not only in storylines, but the political landscape of WWE behind-the-scenes:
“You are probably the same sort of people who wait in line, wait forever in line, like sheep. You wait in line, waiting your turn, and then you see someone like myself—very aggressively—cut to the front of the line and you’ll say ‘Wait a minute, that’s not fair.’ You say ‘That’s not fair’… and then you have to face the facts: Life is not fair.”
The political overtones embedded within McMahon’s speech—namely, the yuppie approach of aggressively doing whatever it takes to get ahead in the world—could also serve as a guide on how to get ahead in the notoriously bureaucratic world of WWE too. Numerous performers (Diamond Dallas Page, Paul London, Ken “Mr. Kennedy” Anderson, to name a few) have fallen victim to the relentless campaigning of others over the years, and it is a popular notion that life in the McMahon monopoly is, indeed, “not fair.”
The top stars in WWE, by and large, are actively involved in the backstage political system and, in truth, this has always been the case. From Hulk Hogan’s blatant theft of the Ultimate Warrior’s deserved WrestleMania spotlight in 1990 to John Cena selfishly running through a number of recent up-and-coming acts (including Wade Barrett and The Nexus), the top guys, or “the faces of WWE” as they are often known, have a long and intricate history of manipulating events in order to preserve one’s spot at the top.
While the likes of Hogan and Cena will go down in pro wrestling folklore as shrewd political players, it is commonly reported (and often debated upon the droves of internet forums dedicated to professional wrestling) that one man is the undisputed master of backstage politicking. A qualified and astute businessman to his supporters and a vicious, wily self-promoter to his detractors, this man is not only one of the most decorated in-ring performers of the last 20 years but also happens to be a member of the illustrious McMahon family.
Triple H, son-in-law to Vince McMahon and the current Executive Vice President of Talent and Live Events, is widely regarded to be the most overt example of a performer carving a name for himself through constant self-lobbying.
Since his days of rubbing shoulders with political masterminds Shawn Michaels, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash in The Kliq, and his subsequent rise to prominence at the turn of the millennium, Triple H has often been reported to be his own biggest advocate, usually at the expense of others. An excellent worker in his own right, The Game’s unfortunate reputation is so widespread that, upon his 2003 marriage to Stephanie McMahon—the heiress to the WWE throne—many saw it as part of a master plan in preserving his main event status.
Concisely, it speaks volumes that a career which spans over 20 years and 13 world championship reigns is simultaneously remembered as replete with alleged “burials” of other talent. However, while thousands of articles discussing Triple H’s manoeuvring can be found scattered across the web, the intention of this writer is not to discuss the ramifications of such politicking, but rather to focus on the positive effect it may have had.
Namely, it can be argued that it laid the groundwork for WWE’s newest corporate controllers, The Authority—a group consisting of Helmsley, his wife Stephanie, his champion Randy Orton and his hired guns in Kane and The Shield.
Controlled in the Body, Controlled in the Mind
The relationship between Vince McMahon and his son-in-law has been obvious to all for the better part of 15 years. A keen admirer of his son-in-law’s ability both in the ring and behind the curtain, McMahon was clearly impressed by the methods Triple H has been reported to use in order to climb the WWE ladder—after all, it was in a similarly aggressive manner that he took over the American professional wrestling business and, for all intents and purposes, crushed his competition to the point of bankruptcy.
Naturally, when McMahon wanted to recreate an angle in which he was the main focal point, he turned to his favourite performer and a man who very much reminded him of himself. Aided by his reputation as a performer who has abused his political clout for years, The Authority was made for Triple H, just as The Corporation was made for McMahon in 1998.
The Authority, in almost every practical sense, is an updated version of the “abuse of power” angle that steered McMahon and his company into its most profitable period ever.
Used most famously as the backdrop to McMahon’s acclaimed battles against Stone Cold Steve Austin between 1998 and 2001, the storyline in which people in a position of power become insufferable dictators is as close to a guaranteed stirrer-of-interest as you can get in professional wrestling. Various promotions across the world have taken this idea and ran with it, with notable examples including TNA’s current storyline between the oppressive Dixie Carter and World Champion AJ Styles.
The beginnings of an authority angle in the World Wrestling Federation, though, can be traced back to the eventful Survivor Series pay-per-view broadcast in November 1997. Although certain performers had used the idea of a corporate-influenced stable previously (Ted DiBiase’s Million Dollar Corporation springs to mind), it was not until the unearthing of the villainous Mr. McMahon persona in the immediate aftermath of the Montreal Screwjob that the angle gained steam as a genuine moneymaker. The manner in which McMahon disposed of Bret Hart in the notorious “Bret screwed Bret” speech created a conniving character that fans could believe in, as it was so rooted in reality that the feeling was what you could have been seeing on RAW is WAR could have in fact been legitimate.
The Corporation, as McMahon’s group would come to be known, made for highly enjoyable viewing as 1997 turned into 1998, and served as the impetus for perhaps the most famous storyline in professional wrestling history: Austin, the underdog disobedient who refused to comply with absurd company policies, vs. McMahon, the Machiavellian boss who would do anything to stop said rebel becoming a major player in his organisation.
Of course, this should all sound familiar, as it was almost exactly the same approach in which WWE booked Triple H and the white-hot Daniel Bryan throughout the summer months of this year, a storyline that evolved into the formation of The Authority. Indeed, as Steve Austin himself put it in a recent interview with WWE.com, “It’s obviously a decade removed with two cats in these different roles…but it’s a complete parallel with what went on between myself and Vince.”
While there is surely still a considerable amount of mileage to go in terms of this angle, the way in which the storyline began could not have been executed better. The events of a golden SummerSlam 2013 pay-per-view, with Triple H and Orton’s heel turns in particular, were genuinely entertaining in their simplicity, and the fact that fan-favourite Daniel Bryan, mere minutes into his first reign as WWE champion, was cheated out of his rightful spot earned instant heat for The Authority going forwards.
Of course, just as The Corporation’s continual cheating of Stone Cold Steve Austin served as the backdrop to the prosperous Attitude Era, WWE’s allowing of The Authority angle to start with the group getting in the first shot in the war against Bryan was a clever manoeuvre in creating a storyline instantly worthy of the main event. After all, the money is always in the chase for the championship.
Now that Triple H has graduated from in-ring performer to authority figure, it is important to note how he got there. As evident in his absorbing sit-down interviews with commentator Michael Cole in recent weeks, Helmsley is more than prepared for his role as a master of puppets.
Lord of the Game
Despite the current storyline calling for him to be the centre point of a group of performers, Triple H is certainly no stranger to playing a role inside the confines of a stable. Indeed, Helmsley’s early career is largely defined by his time in not only The Kliq and the various incarnations of D-Generation X as leader and understudy, but his further involvement with McMahon’s Corporation post-WrestleMania XV.
The origins of Triple H’s on-screen political role can be traced back to this period, as his time with The Corporation—coupled with the eventual emergence of the lively McMahon/Helmsley faction—took Helmsley’s character in an alternate direction to the sophomoric rebel he had been previously portraying (a route that, incidentally, led to the WWF Championship).
In reflection, it is clear that the year 2000 was the breakout period for Triple H as the political champion, married to the boss’ daughter and protected by an army of lower-card running buddies (X-Pac, Road Dogg, Mean Street Posse, etc.). In fact, Helmsley’s performances as the arrogant manipulator were so impressive that, in addition to producing rewarding series with the likes of Mick Foley, Chris Jericho and Kurt Angle, the respected Pro Wrestling Illustrated named him as one of the wrestlers of the year, only second to the incredibly popular Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
As was natural with WWF programming throughout the Attitude Era, however, the storylines were all about the McMahons and, while he was the handpicked champion both in the ring and in the back, Triple H was never truly the one in an unobstructed spotlight. For instance, the main event of the sixteenth WrestleMania in April 2000 should have served as a career-enhancing match for The Game. He was booked to defeat The Rock, but the match ended with—once again—Vince McMahon as the main talking point.
Ironically, the program that started his route towards being a WWE political figure only truly let him realise his potential in that role once it had concluded. Following the dissolution of the McMahon/Helmsley faction and the disappointing (on-screen) marriage-breakup storyline with Stephanie from early 2002, Triple H came up with the idea of a stable that was not only designed to ease in future stars, but also reaffirm his status as a very real cerebral assassin.
Evolution, a group complete with Ric Flair, Randy Orton and Dave Batista, was as much about solidifying Triple H as the politically manipulative champion as it was about making new stars out of Orton and Batista. Again, Helmsley was the champion protected by hired lackeys and, again, he was an effective heel through the audience’s knowledge of his backstage antics—something that transmitted exceptionally well onto WWE programming every Monday night.
As much as Triple H would claim on-screen that Evolution was about turning “coal into diamonds,” it was as much about keeping him at the top of the WWE mountain.
While it has been claimed that this period was Helmsley’s most extensive stretch of backstage burials (Rob Van Dam, Booker T and Goldberg were names reported to have suffered from The Game’s clout with management), Evolution was instrumental in getting Triple H over as the most genuinely hated performer in pro wrestling at the time, and effective in portraying him as the man every fan wants to pay to see beaten up, much like he is today. In that sense, respectable series such as Helmsley vs. Chris Benoit from 2004 could easily be re-created with a member of the current WWE roster (Daniel Bryan and Cody Rhodes, in particular), should the creative team choose to go in this direction.
In essence, it appears that a large section of Triple H’s storylines over the past 15 years have had a hand in preparing both himself and the fans for his future role as head honcho of The Authority. As the on-screen Chief Operating Officer, he has the freedom to use his past experiences as part of corporation angles (combined with a dose of backstage political reality) for his own personal heat—a method made famous in modern pro wrestling by his father-in-law.
Although Triple H’s involvement is, obviously, of high importance to the angle, to say that The Authority is purely a one-man show would be somewhat off the mark. Much like McMahon’s Corporation, Helmsley’s supporting cast has been carefully selected and, as a result, balances out the faction on all levels.
Stephanie McMahon, the often-derided “Billion Dollar Princess,” has also been a key player in the storyline. Having last been involved in a substantial storyline around the time of WrestleMania XXV in 2009, enough time has passed for involvement from Stephanie—in a role presented as equal with her husband in terms of power and influence—to feel somewhat fresh again, unlike the period from 1999-2002 in which her character was the victim of overexposure. In fairness to McMahon, her microphone work has shown much improvement, displayed in a noteworthy interaction with Divas champion AJ Lee on the June 17 broadcast of Raw, one of the best in McMahon's career.
From week-to-week, McMahon seems to be improving at an impressive rate and, while she will forever be one of those love-her-or-loathe-her characters to pro wrestling fans, she remains one of the more entertaining female performers in today’s WWE.
Randy Orton, as the chosen “face of WWE” and WWE champion, is the crown jewel in the corporate crown.
Prior to August, audiences (and the man himself, reportedly) had been calling for an Orton heel turn for the better part of three years, with his once-promising babyface run bombing since the monotonous feud with Wade Barrett in the later stages of 2010. The moment finally came at SummerSlam, with the Triple H-assisted Money in the Bank cash-in earning him both the WWE Championship and a new lease on life that would kick-start fan interest into the Orton persona.
Initially, due to the common consensus that Orton is more effective as a villain than a hero, WWE must have been wary of the possibility of The Viper becoming a “cool heel,” much like The Rock in his latter days as part of The Corporation. However, largely due to the incredible fanfare of long-term opponent Daniel Bryan, Orton has been able to extract enough heel heat to sustain his status as the top in-ring villain in the company.
At the lower end of the spectrum, it appears that Kane and The Shield’s association with the group is strictly as “the muscle.”
Throughout professional wrestling history, every effective stable, from the Four Horsemen to the New World Order, has had one role in common: the enforcer. A performer that is accustomed to playing this role in a group or team (Kane even played a bit part in The Corporation in 1999), The Big Red Machine has undergone a dramatic character change, with creative scrapping the planned return match with Bray Wyatt in favour of joining The Authority. Up to this point, it has been uncertain as to when Kane will be unleashed properly as part of his role as Director of Operations, but the fact that Triple H and Stephanie have another (and in this case extremely volatile) threat at their disposal may be more compelling than actually seeing him on the attack.
The Shield, the notorious pack of dogs that only listens to a select few, are still one of the most refreshing acts to come out of WWE since the original Nexus in June 2010. Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns have come along well in the year since their debut at the 2012 Survivor Series event and, as part of The Authority, all three can benefit massively through an association with such established acts like Triple H, Randy Orton and the McMahons.
Their recent series with Cody Rhodes and an invigorated Goldust has been some of the most entertaining brawls in recent memory, so much so that the show-stealing tag clash at October’s Battleground pay-per-view is, in the eyes of this writer, a contender for Match of the Year. The Shield members, and Reigns and Ambrose in particular, seem primed for sustained singles pushes in the coming year, and their involvement as Triple H’s underlings may be the final step in preparation for going it alone.
Keep Moving Forward
As the dominance of The Authority is so overtly the top priority in terms of storylines in WWE today, the blow-off to the entire story will presumably occur at the biggest show in recent history, the upcoming WrestleMania XXX.
The top storyline deserves to take centre stage at the biggest show, but the conclusion to this particular angle may be prove to be problematic.
In terms of opponents for The Authority, it appears that WWE may have exhausted its options already.
Following the dispatching of Daniel Bryan at two successive pay-per-view events in the autumn and the gargantuan flop that was Randy Orton vs. Big Show at Survivor Series, it seems that WWE has jumped the gun in giving the green light to the inevitable Authority/John Cena program.
Amongst the worrying rumours of a potential Triple H vs. Vince McMahon storyline headline into New Orleans, as reported by the Wrestling Observer Newsletter (via WrestlingInc.com) Orton vs. Cena was originally believed to be pencilled in as next year’s WrestleMania main event according to PWInsider.com (via Wrestlezone.com). The bout between the two, one which would unify the WWE and World Championships, has now been scheduled for the upcoming TLC event in the middle of December, almost four months before the “Show of Shows.”
Even if WWE does the predictable and somehow has both men leave still in possession of a championship belt, a stretched out Orton/Cena storyline that culminates at WrestleMania would appeal to an extremely limited amount of fans, as WWE audiences have seen the two square off on numerous occasions since 2007.
Another scenario could call for Cena to become the unified champion and to be challenged at the big event by Triple H, who would be making his return to in-ring competition after a 12-month absence. Even then, that program has been done several times over the past decade, including a previous WrestleMania main event in Chicago in 2006.
Perhaps WWE is intending to rebuild Daniel Bryan by April, and he could be booked in a capacity where he finally gains his revenge on Orton, Triple H and the rest of the posse after several months. That, however, would take a tremendous amount of faith in Bryan’s ability to draw PPV numbers, a risk that the company would be hesitant to take. By the same token, CM Punk could be elevated to the top spot against Orton, but that would take a sustained push (a booking method that has caused WWE trouble for years) and an element of character recovery as babyface Punk has been going nowhere since his dismal runs with the Paul Heyman-influenced Curtis Axel and Ryback.
At the time of this writing, and rather predictably, the only possible match worthy of headlining would involve either Orton or Triple H squaring off in a championship match against WWE’s former corporate champion and most trusted part-time main eventer.
Although a proven draw with the past two WrestleManias (both headlined by high-profile showdowns with John Cena) doing record numbers, another return by The Rock could prove to be both beneficial and disadvantageous.
The way in which The Corporation made Stone Cold Steve Austin a star worked because the latter was an up-and-coming performer looking to ascend to the top of his profession. Conversely, The Rock, established as one of the most legitimate superstars since 1999, does not need the rub of being the man to finally defeat The Authority on the biggest stage. A rising talent in the shape of Daniel Bryan, CM Punk, or even a performer in the vein of Cody Rhodes or Dolph Ziggler could benefit exponentially from such a moment, and would surely set them up for a run as the top babyface in the company for the foreseeable future.
In truth, though, that is neither here nor there when it comes to WWE, as management, at this present moment in time, is only interested in massive PPV numbers and an event as big as WrestleMania XXX needs a proven performer that can produce record-breaking buyrates.
Regardless of the way in which the story concludes, WWE needs to be certain that The Authority do not outstay their welcome.
It is well-documented that pro wrestling fans of 2013 are no longer as interested in long and drawn-out storylines as they once were. Alas, if The Authority were to be handed the 3-year existence that McMahon’s Corporation was afforded with a babyface roster as depleted as it is today, RAW viewing figures on a Monday night would almost certainly drop even further than the record-low of December 2 (via WrestlingInc.com).
Alas, as mentioned earlier in this piece, WrestleMania XXX in April 2014, eight months after the angle’s inception, would be an ideal setting to draw the curtain.
Happily, WWE is already showing signs of slowly building towards life after The Authority.
Roman Reigns’ dominance over respected veterans Goldust and Rey Mysterio in their elimination tag match at Survivor Series seems to be the first step towards his long-touted singles run away from The Shield, and may act as the building blocks for a face turn and an eventual United States title feud against leader Dean Ambrose. Reigns, an athletic big man with the look that Vince McMahon is highly attracted to, has shown enormous potential since his debut in late 2012, and early indications point towards him becoming the breakout star of the group, a la Dave Batista in 2005, provided he is given sufficient time to develop.
The much-improved Stephanie McMahon will most likely step back into her real-life office duties once The Authority story draws to a close. In all honesty, when considering her recent promotion to Chief Brand Officer, it may be a matter of time before she withdraws from her television role.
Of course, it is still too early to call anything of real importance, but it is almost a given that either Triple H or Randy Orton will turn babyface once The Authority’s time is up, and one would assume that a feud between the two would occur soon after. Although a repeat of happenings from various points in 2004, 2007 and 2009, a Helmsley/Orton feud could have leverage depending on the creative team’s willingness to give them fresh material to work with (i.e. no involvement from the McMahon family whatsoever).
It is also conceivable that this may be the last big run of Helmsley’s career. As is the case with his wife, Triple H’s backstage duties have increased greatly in the last few years, and although he has reduced his in-ring appearances significantly since 2010, it is a growing theory that his time to step back completely may be coming soon. In a career that has only seen sporadic respites (usually due to severe injuries), The Game has undoubtedly earned the right to walk away for a permanent in-ring vacation.
Heading into 2014 and the beginning of the traditionally exciting “Road to WrestleMania” period, it is still fairly unclear which direction The Authority will take. What is strikingly clear, however, is the fact that an uncharacteristically large amount of time, consideration and forward-thinking has been displayed by WWE creative, and one can hope that the payoff will culminate in enjoyable viewing.
Potentially, The Authority can elevate a number of performers who are in need of a breakthrough, and for a storyline heavily involving a man whose backstage reputation for getting others over is less than commendable, that may be the greatest possible achievement.
“Game on,” as they say.
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