Pro wrestling is a murky business. Even for obsessives, it's hard to make out how it works from the outside. There are codes of conduct and slang stretching back a hundred years; a culture of practical jokes, sometimes borderline sadistic ones, has existed on the road for nearly as long. Drugs ruled the ring and still do in some places; uppers to get you on the road and downers to get you into bed have been the standard for decades. It is opaque, clannish, secretive, and obsessed with its own jargon, codes, and folklore. Picture the exact midpoint between carny culture and the military and you're pretty close.
The sense of pro wrestling as a mysterious otherworld is sustained by the fact that pro wrestlers still don't talk much about how the business really works. Even after the death of kayfabe, wrestlers still close ranks regarding wrestling's reality through a combination of keeping quiet and telling only truths that are so strange or nonsensical that it's hard to take them at face value. This is true—maybe even truer, oddly enough—in these days of WWE's corporate dominance.
WWE does not like people talking to the media about the seedier side of their operation, and that goes double for issues like pay and hours; at least the pranks and road stories maintain the illusion of a traveling circus act, whereas the details of John Cena's 401k reduce WWE's manic trip through the looking glass as something that exists within the context of our own workaday world. It kind of sours the story, knowing that WWE Superstars are also, in a very real sense, employees. We don't know precisely how the McMahons operate because, honestly, wrestlers don't talk about it much. When you have a monopoly in North America—and WWE is functionally a monopoly, no matter how good the local indies are—you can do things like blacklist employees or snooping media. And WWE does indeed do that.
One notably disgruntled employee is CM Punk, he of the never-quite-here UFC debut and defendant in a lawsuit filed by his former employers at WWE. Punk had the temerity to publicly go in on WWE's medical services and booking practices. The medical stuff is pretty self-explanatory—he claims WWE worked him too much when he was sick and that their doctor was incompetent—while his dissatisfaction with the natural flow of WWE's version of wrestling tended to fall into the same gripes everyone has with the storylines, a strong distaste for overpaid part-timers like the Rock, and a shade of self-interested promotion for one CM Punk.
Punk was the single most vocal critic of WWE's business in recent times, and a rare voice speaking from a position of pure burnout about the cutthroat way the federation does business. This week, he was joined by a somewhat more surprising fellow employee. That would be midcard strongman Ryback, who forcefully spoke out about WWE's pay practices on his Tumblr. (Buried lede alert: Ryback has a Tumblr.) In that post, which is half essay and half rant, Ryback pulled back the curtain on how WWE pays its wrestlers.
It's worth reading in its entirety. Ryback's clearly thought hard about what he wanted to say, and even gets existential at points. "Obviously things have always been this way," he writes, "but does that make them right?" He details something that has long been suspected, but which is no less a bombshell: that there is a winner's purse of some sort, even if it's an abstract one hinging on a wrestler's current push, meaning that losers make less than winners in a wholly predetermined athletic endeavor whose winners are picked by a surpassingly small group of people renowned for pettiness, backbiting, and arbitrariness.
As Ryback describes it, this is something akin to Saturday Night Live paying a cast member less for being the butt of a joke. But even that doesn't quite capture the stupidity of the policy, because wrestling's losers often wind up doing most of the work in making the winner look better than he or she actually is. Whether Ryback is of that quality—popular appraisal of his in-ring ability varies widely but tends to settle somewhere around "merely alright"—is quite beside this point. No jobber means no winner, and no winner means no superstar. To compound things, Ryback stresses that WWE is already an unequal world: the significant pay gap between superstar and midcard exists as expected, but things like merchandise sales mean a loser misses out on added income in addition to the extra money given to wrestling's perpetual winners.
It has to be stressed that Ryback is ambiguous on the Losers Lose Money statement; it's unclear whether he means that, in a larger context, workers lose out on earnings or whether it's that plus a literal winner's purse. It reads more like the latter than anything else, but Ryback is a hugely be-trapezius'ed wrestler, not a writer. What is apparent is that Ryback is frustrated at what is certainly a strange, arbitrary wage structure. He's probably not alone in his frustration.
Ryback's post comes in the context of WWE taking him off television as his contract winds down; it's a contract he shows no intention of renewing, at least not at existing terms. WWE considers its wrestlers independent contractors, but ones that are unable to skip the company at a moment's notice. Essentially, wrestlers with WWE have the worst of possible worlds as employees—unable to leave despite their independent contractor status, perennially underpaid, and dangerously underinsured because of it. WWE running down Ryback's contract rather than letting him work until its termination doesn't just drive down his current wages; by keeping him out of public view, it lowers his value once he leaves. It's the worst, crassest form of hardball imaginable, and Ryback is right to be furious about it.
There's a strange footnote to all this. When CM Punk left and gave his infamous "Hit 'Em Up" of a podcast interview with his friend Colt Cabana, he called out Ryback as an unsafe worker, claiming that the big man broke his ribs with a kick and insinuating that Ryback did steroids. There's been muted but real heat between the two men ever since, albeit mostly from Ryback's quarter, as Punk no longer talks much, if at all, about pro wrestling.
There's a terrible irony that these two men, who should be united by the solidarity that only working for a terrible boss can bring, are at such odds. This is also, sadly, the long and stubborn story of wrestling and labor, which is a generations-spanning game of divide and conquer, with big bonuses for the powerful, encouragement of petty spats by management, and the merciless casting of those who dare to question the status quo into the memory hole. If there is hope for change, it lies in wrestlers talking more and posing less, as Ryback has here. The more we know about the ridiculous framework of their workplace, the easier it is to understand their anger, and the harder it is not to get at least a little bit angry about it ourselves.