This may be a big statement, and it may even seem a tad ridiculous. But I think it can fairly be said that WWE is as mainstream as it has ever been at this moment in time.
Now as I said, that may sound ridiculous. Of course wrestling isn’t as mainstream now as it was before! You had Hulk Hogan in movies, Randy Savage in commercials, Andre The Giant on the most popular late night talk shows. You had the biggest sporting stars, the biggest actors, people like Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali, Mr T, Cyndi Lauper making guest appearances – not the z-list “celebs” we get nowadays like Snooki. There isn’t the same crossover appeal – WWE Superstars starred in outside movie projects. Edge was in Highlander, The Rock became the Scorpion King. Now you just get token wrestlers in WWE Studios productions.
The Rock hosted Saturday Night Live. There were WWE editions of quiz shows. Things that just generally don’t happen now.
I’ll counter that by saying WWE is more mainstream than ever before, because it’s mainstream in ways that we have never seen before.
Instead of having guest appearances on TV shows or films, we now have things that go viral. Earlier this year there was a whole host of videos, where WWE Superstars performing their finishers were edited into people falling over or being knocked down. Yes, I’m talking about the RKO Vine craze. But it went further than just some videos of Randy Orton doing what he does best. People have started “performing” the RKO as a joke. I saw a video a couple of days ago of someone sitting over a pool, and their friend (at least, I hope it was their friend) RKO’d them into the water. It’s gone way past this niche clip that only a relatively small group of people will see and find funny. It really was a global phenomenon. It branched out too, I saw videos where instead of Orton RKO’ing someone, it was The Dudley Boyz 3D’ing someone, or Shawn Michaels hitting an unsuspecting victim with Sweet Chin Music. The possibilities for it really were endless.
The realisation hit me when I saw this Tweet from a friend. He said “I’m not even a casual fan of wrestling, couldn’t even tell you who’s ever won what… but by Christ I love these John Cena memes.” He’s right. They are hilarious. Even if you don’t like Cena you will laugh nine times out of ten. If you haven’t seen them, I believe it all started from a prank call on a radio show (where else?), where the presenters kept calling the same woman, and bugging her by fitting John Cena into the conversation any way they could. And of course, whenever they managed to bring Cena up, his music would kick in and the sirens would keep repeating. The original was hilarious, because of the woman’s reaction. But again, it’s branched out so far from there.
Now I see clips of TV Shows, movies, music videos, where you can bet at some point there is something in there somewhere that sets up a John Cena entrance. And I see these clips every day. Not just once in a while. They’re getting to the RKO out of nowhere level, and by that I mean non-wrestling fans are sharing them and enjoying them. I would hazard a guess that between them, these memes have reached far more people than The Rock on SNL ever did, just because of the instant and global reach of a short video online.
Let’s not underestimate the significance of ESPN covering Summerslam either. Former WWE personality Jonathan Coachman was leading the ESPN coverage, and WWE was treated like a “real” big sporting event. That will add so much credibility in the eyes of a casual viewer, and is also a form of positive mainstream recognition that is hard to come by. It’s the same effect that bringing celebrities in has on WWE’s presence on the regular news, only it’s focused on the athleticism and competition between the wrestlers. That was huge for WWE, and if it becomes a regular thing can only work in their favour.
It may not feel like today’s stars are as big as a Hulk Hogan, a Stone Cold Steve Austin or The Rock. But they are. It’s just that the measuring stick has changed for how we judge them. Think of all the flash in the pan celebrities that are around for five minutes then you never hear about them again. Randy Orton’s RKOs have lasted for a lifetime compared to that. John Cena could be going the same way with the increase in memes for his entrance. It’s seriously impressive that these guys have staying power to this extent, such that non-wrestling fans are familiar with them, like them, and are a part of making them what they are. It’s a huge achievement, and should be regarded as such. Wrestlers today can become bonafide celebrities completely outside of the wrestling industry, which is just cool to think, and has to be applauded.