The Post’s Joseph Staszewski will be bringing you around the world of professional wrestling every Tuesday in his weekly column, the Post Match Angle.
Vince McMahon needed to remind you who’s still in control and that WWE is still his company, “then, now and forever.”
The 76-year-old billionaire, in a public and simple show of power, opened “Friday Night SmackDown” last week live on Fox. It came hours after he stepped aside as CEO and chairman of the company while WWE’s board of directors investigates claims of sexual misconduct against him. McMahon’s daughter Stephanie returned from her leave of absence to take over her dad’s executive role, but McMahon is still heading WWE’s creative and that, in many ways, is where the real power lies.
So, there was McMahon after WWE announced earlier in the day that he would appear on the show — in a likely move for ratings that worked as “SmackDown” (2.29 million viewers) saw a big jump in the key 18-49 demo (0.57) that garnered it the top spot on TV that night. McMahon came out playing to the crowd with his normal strut and his “No Chance in Hell” theme blaring. Not a care in the world because I guess the “Mr. McMahon” TV character isn’t being investigated. Vince McMahon is. While there were some boos, he was loudly cheered at moments and the WWE camera cuts of course showed clapping audience members.
When McMahon spoke, there was no mention of the black cloud and serious allegations currently hanging over him. McMahon mentioned WWE’s tagline of “then, now, forever, together,” welcomed everyone to “SmackDown,” smiled and tossed the microphone away. WWE cameras did happen to catch one fan going, “That’s it?”
No remorse? No apology? Nope.
McMahon also made a surprise appearance three days later on “Monday Night Raw” for a pointless segment to basically remind the audience about John Cena returning to the show next week — which was announced weeks ago and the company has run endless television promos for.
It appears McMahon is just doing it because he can at this point. It’s all a way for him to show: “I’m here, I don’t plan on going anywhere and I dare the board to try to get rid of me.” It was also a way to show that it is business as usual in WWE and McMahon is hoping the audience accepts that as they do most everything else he provides for them on TV. It doesn’t benefit McMahon for people to look past the headline and question the bare-minimum way he and the company have treated this so far.
The most publicized accusation against McMahon from last week’s bombshell Wall Street Journal report is that he allegedly paid $3 million in hush money to a 41-year-old former employee with whom he had an affair. She allegedly signed a non-disclosure agreement in January that prevents her from discussing their relationship or disparaging him. The board, according to the report, found that McMahon used his personal funds to pay for it and not WWE money.
The Journal also reported the employee, who was hired as a paralegal, allegedly saw her salary increase from $100,000 to $200,000 after beginning her sexual relationship with McMahon. The report said WWE’s board of directors received anonymous emails from someone claiming to be a friend of the woman in the alleged relationship with McMahon stating that the employee was given “like a toy” to John Laurinaitis, the company’s head of talent relations, by the WWE boss. McMahon’s attorney Jerry McDevitt wrote in a letter to the Journal that the ex-paralegal hadn’t accused McMahon of harassment and WWE spokesperson told the paper the relationship was consensual.
Fightful Select and PWInsider both reported that WWE talent were informed Monday night that Bruce Prichard, the executive director of Raw and SmackDown and McMahon’s longtime right-hand man, is now interim head of talent relations. Laurinaitis, who hasn’t been at a WWE event since the allegations surfaced, was placed on administrative leave. WWE didn’t provide clarification on Laurinaitis’ current job status when requested by The Post prior to Monday’s show.
The board, according to the Journal, also uncovered several older non-disclosure agreements related to misconduct claims that other former female WWE employees brought against McMahon and Laurinaitis. While $3 million in hush money and the affair make for an audience-grabbing headline, the real question isn’t as much about this most recent instance, but is there a pattern here, what is the extent of it, and was it swept under the rug? Did it violate anything in McMahon’s contract or the WWE’s code of conduct? That code of conduct does include a line about how it’s against company policy to “grant or offer an employment quid pro quo for personal intimacy.” But we don’t know if that’s the case here.
You would think, given the seriousness of what McMahon and Laurinaitis are being accused of and the fact we have not gotten a public denial from either, that more action would have been taken by WWE. The company has said it is cooperating with its board’s investigation and takes the allegations seriously. McMahon has pledged his “complete cooperation” to the investigation and pledged to accept its “findings and outcome.” But it feels like McMahon, at least publicly, isn’t taking this seriously enough. He appeared live on TV twice within days of the accusations being uncovered, Laurinaitis was reportedly put on administrative leave but McMahon didn’t step away from running WWE creative and his daughter — who was taking a break from WWE — will potentially keep his seat as CEO and chairman warm for him. In how many other companies in the world would that scenario play out? It’s just a further indication of how much power McMahon holds.
It is basically business as usual in WWE. Nothing to see here, because McMahon can’t afford to lose the audience or confidence in the company’s stock – which had been trending upward prior to the report and has only taken a small hit since — if he wants to maintain control.
It’s why McMahon needed to remind everyone he’s still in power and can do as he pleases. Because if for a second it looks like he isn’t in control, that’s what opens the door to the possibility of losing it.
Oh No, Not You Again
WWE thinks solving its new booking problem with an old answer that’s already underwhelmed is still the way to go. It’s not. With Roman Reigns having run through the majority of the upper-tier of the roster over the past two-plus years and Randy Orton reportedly out for maybe the rest of 2022 with a legitimate back injury, the Tribal Chief needed a “SummerSlam” opponent. So instead of trying to take the next month-plus to build a new, fresh challenger, it broke the emergency glass and brought back Brock Lesnar to face Reigns in a Last Man Standing match in Nashville on July 30 after “The Beast” returned to confront Reigns to close “SmackDown” last week.
There are other options, but WWE thinks it needs a big box-office match for events the level of “SummerSlam,” so we will get an unwanted sequel. Shinsuke Nakamura is still owed a match with Reigns. Bobby Lashley, especially the way he was put over during his feud with Omos, would make a lot of sense. They could have waited to have his match with Riddle – which was excellent on Friday — until then and continued to build the story around them. Anything, other than bringing back Goldberg, would have more juice than this. Unless … WWE probably won’t do this, but why not have Seth Rollins win Money in the Bank and cash in on a victorious and exhausted Reigns and have history repeat itself?
What’s the story?
Let’s get this straight right off the bat: AEW and New Japan’s pay-per-view “Forbidden Door” this Sunday will not be boring. But the pay-per-view, while filled with exciting matches and tons of talent, feels like it lacks a compelling story – unless the one building around the IWGP world heavyweight championship involving “Hangman” Adam Page, Adam Cole and Jay White becomes one. Still, that’s just one. Even if CM Punk was healthy, him versus Hiroshi Tanahashi was also a “dream match” – something AEW seems to rely on too often.
I’m sure more matches will be added on Wednesday, but it has a better chance of being a last-minute push than anything of great substance. If New Japan and AEW plan to make this a yearly thing, the build for “Forbidden Door” needs to be better. New Japan and AEW working together was supposed to be a massive deal. Right now this feels like just another card of fun matches.
The 10 Count
Christian Cage finally turning on Jungle Boy couldn’t have come at a better time with AEW really in the need of a fresh-feeling babyface. Cage telling Jungle Boy’s mom sitting in the front row she raised a “piece of s—t.” was beautiful heel work. Jungle Boy will be the last of the “Pillars of AEW” to get a singles push.
The Elias, Ezekiel and now Elrod storyline is becoming one of the best on WWE TV after Monday’s split-screen and concert. Kevin Owens’ and Ezekiel’s character work has shined.
It’s a shame Tomasso Ciampa has become nothing more than a jobber on Raw.
Yes, Rhea Ripley not being medically cleared for “Money in the Bank” gave us a Carmella and Bianca Belair SummerSlam rematch for a match that never was. But I’m glad WWE didn’t break away from their women’s ladder match plan for a match Belair will likely win anyway.
The new, more serious Cameron Grimes feels like a character who now has some time and accomplishments in NXT and is growing up. Gone is the more comedy-leaning act we are used to and now we have someone unafraid to challenge the NXT champion and give advice to a young tag team. It’s refreshing, even if it makes him a little less likable.
Taya Valkyrie barely got a chance to get going in NXT as Frankie Monet. Now seven months after her release, she is the AAA Reina de Reinas champion, the inaugural MLW women’s featherweight champion and reunited with Rosemary to win Impact’s Knockouts world tag team championship. Oh, and she also called out AEW women’s champion Thunder Rosa. Heck of a run to be on.
Will Ospreay is making the most of his time in the U.S. He visited Walmart for the first time and also tore it up with Nick Wayne, the 16-year-old rising star who has an AEW contract waiting for him, at GCW’s “I Never Liked You” over the weekend.
Having Wardlow defeat 20 security guards – stacking multiple ones for pins – in the fashion he did felt like one of the most throwaway pieces of television AEW has done. Then to get Tyron Woodley and Matt Hughes in the ring only to have them defy American Top Team boss Dan Lambert and stand down after Warldow’s appeal felt so anticlimactic. No one left that segment better.
While I’m not sold on Sammy Guevara and Tay Conti joining the Jericho Appreciation Society and making it feel even more like The Inner Circle 2.0, I’m glad we at least clearly know Guevara is a heel.
Some new feuds I’m really curious to see play out: Seth Rollins-Riddle, Carmelo Hayes-Tony D’Angelo and Pat McAfee-Happy Corbin.
Bonus: Seth Rollins seems to have taken an interest in last week’s column.
Wrestler of the Week
Dax Harwood, All Elite Wrestling
Harwood continued his unreal recent singles run by having a show-stealing match with Will Ospreay – one of the world’s top wrestlers — on “AEW Dynamite” last week. He has now had top-notch singles matches with CM Punk, partner Cash Wheeler, Adam Cole and Ospreay over the past three months. Doing so has to put him on the level of one of the top all-around workers today considering the magic he and Wheeler also create as a tag team.
Honorable mention: Riddle, Taya Valkyrie
Match to Watch
Jon Moxley vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi, Interim AEW world championship (Forbidden Door, Sunday, 8 p.m., Bleacher Report)
This is a match AEW boss Tony Khan admitted he blocked from happening multiple times to make sure the stage was right and it happened with his company involved. It’s a dream encounter of sorts between one of Japan’s all-time greats and a rejuvenated Moxley. It will be interesting to see the clash of styles play and to see if Mox finally gets an AEW title reign in front of fans.
Honorable Mention: Carmelo Hayes vs. Tony D’Angelo (NXT North American Championship)
Around the Ring
David Hebner, a former WWE referee and brother of Earl Hebner, died Friday. He was 73. We also lost fellow referee Tim White at the age of 68 on Sunday.
Lio Rush, real name Lionel Green, is releasing his EP “Not Found 2” on June 24 on various streaming platforms. It will contain five new tracks and is an extension of his fist EP, Not Found, from September 2021.
He has been sidelined with a shoulder injury since Pro Wrestling Guerilla’s “Battle of Los Angeles.”
Ric Flair’s “Last Match” was moved to the more than-7,000 seat Nashville Municipal Auditorium after it sold out The Nashville Fairgrounds in less than 24 hours.
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