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It’s 2017, and WWE seems more married to reality than ever. Backstage controversies often influence real-life booking, and those who follow WWE most intensely—many of whom comprise of WWE Network’s ceiling of 1.63 million subscribers, reported in July by Cageside Seats—understand shocking developments like Baron Corbin suddenly losing Money in the Bank or Enzo Amore turning heel on a dime.
In many ways, 2017 has been the year of the outspoken WWE Superstar, a trait that has never coincided with longevity.
From Enzo Amore to Sasha Banks, speaking one’s mind seems to have led to some degree of backstage heat and speculation as to why certain WWE Superstars might be receiving unfavorable booking.
Controversy can mean many things in the WWE bubble, but for the purpose of this article, “controversy” relates to the level of influence real-life animosity and drama has had on otherwise scripted storylines.
For all the flak pro wrestling gets for being fake, sometimes it’s the behind-the-scenes controversy that inspires the most intriguing angles.
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It’s possible Sasha Banks is so good at portraying a prima donna character because it’s an extension of her real-life persona as a strong female who suffers no fools.
Banks has pulled no punches this summer with her criticism of WWE’s main roster. She was filled with noteworthy quotes in a recent interview with Sam Roberts on his wrestling podcast about everything from the disorganization of Raw to having multiple brief title reigns.
The Boss, who has been clear about her reverence for NXT over Raw, recently told Roberts (h/t William Windsor of Wrestling Inc): “When you see Monday Night Raw, we’re all surprised. Sometimes we’re even confused [about] where we’re going. And sometimes, maybe they don’t even follow through with a storyline, which kind of sucks sometimes.”
Sasha Banks is one of the biggest talents WWE has on either roster, and while her frustrations could be construed as diva behavior, it’s just an extension of her passion for the business, which thrives most when the storytelling is coherent.
Since her infamous interview with Roberts, wherein she discussed her frustrations with short title reigns (h/t Windsor of Wrestling Inc), Banks has won the Raw Women’s Championship only to lose it days later.
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Baron Corbin seemed to be a lock to be a young WWE Superstar on the rise who would be in the mix as a WrestleMania main eventer for years to come.
But following his latest career highlight of winning Money in the Bank, it wasn’t long before Corbin shockingly cashed in the briefcase and—even more surprisingly—failed to win the WWE Championship.
As is the case with most sudden changes of plans, Corbin’s Money in the Bank loss, a rarity in WWE lore, was a result of backstage heat.
Per PWInsider (h/t Marc Middleton of Wrestling Inc), Corbin was on the wrong end of an argument with the WWE-approved Dr. Joseph Maroon during a talent meeting about concussions.
Apparently Corbin’s actions were seen as insubordinate. Days later, he was pinned by WWE champion Jinder Mahal in only the second instance of a Money in the Bank winner losing a cash-in match outright.
Corbin is feuding with AJ Styles for the United States Championship, so there seems to still be hope for some kind of recovery. But his surprising defeat was the subject of seemingly endless conjecture, especially among the fans who are paying the most attention.
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Should he be WWE champion? Should he not be champion? Is this all some type of experiment?!
Jinder Mahal’s WWE Championship reign has been peppered with questions after the longtime enhancement talent suddenly rose to prominence as the holder of WWE’s most prestigious title.
Mahal’s divisive run somehow became even more controversial by way of a (kayfabe) racist promo that allowed WWE to receive coverage from the Washington Post for one week before the publication went back to Johnny-come-lately articles about President Donald Trump.
Mahal has been a lightning rod since winning the WWE Championship in May, as the Indo-Canadian star has dealt with pressing questions about everything from being an immigrant world champion to accusations of steroid abuse, as Mick Rouse of GQ discussed.
I love Jinder Mahal as a WWE champion and feel he can check all the boxes of being a legit heel world champion that hardcore favorites like Kevin Owens cannot. Many try to pin the blame for SmackDown Live’s recent attendance woes on Mahal when it’s a combination of WWE’s struggles in the fall season, as detailed in an article I penned for Forbes, and John Cena’s departure, per Dave Meltzer of Wrestling Observer Radio.
Jinder Mahal is a controversial heel, which is the best type of villain. With the Singh Brothers in tow, there’s a short list of heels who can outdo him at this moment.
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Roman Reigns is so controversial that he inspires the type of pro wrestling paranoia you would hear from an unnamed rural city in a UFO movie.
“WWE mutes the sound when he makes his entrance!”
“WWE feeds him lines during his promos!”
“WWE is bringing back The Shield as a ploy to get us to cheer for him!”
“The aliens are coming to get us!”
OK, the last one isn’t a paranoid complaint from the wrestling community, but you get it.
Reigns will always be a pillar of controversy for wrestling fans—both hardcore and casual—to digest. He represents the intersection between WWE philosophy and spectator protest.
There’s no doubt the three-time WWE champion is a polarizing figure. He was the first babyface to win Pro Wrestling Illustrated‘s “most hated wrestler” award.
He gets booed just as much as he gets cheered, if not more. Sometimes, WWE goes out of its way to have a legend endorse him after a hard-fought match, which only makes thing worse because he’s already an established star, and having John Cena raise his hand following a loss is transparent.
Reigns is a fascinating case study in WWE and pro wrestling in general. Most wrestlers love him. Some fans hate him. He gets the biggest reaction out of anyone in the WWE locker room. He’s a star. He’s a talent. He’s a pariah. He moves merchandise. He’s controversial.
And that’s why it all works. Because, as Eric Bischoff once famously said, controversy creates cash.
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It’s tough to figure out whether Enzo Amore’s real-life backstage controversies will end up being the best thing for his career or the worst.
Since Meltzer reported Amore was kicked off a tour bus, WWE has gone against the natural booking pattern of its otherwise lovable star.
Amore has been portrayed as an annoying loudmouth who cares about nobody but himself as WWE is intent on sabotaging his merchandise sales in favor of a draconian vanity project.
Enzo Amore has an Odell Beckham Jr. quality to him in that he has undeniable star power yet draws heat from those of an old-school mindset while being highly popular with children and millennials. As an independent contractor with the ol’ boys’ network that is WWE, Amore is like if Beckham played Major League Baseball.
Unwritten rules and bygone principles have gotten in the way of Enzo’s otherwise entertaining run in the cruiserweight division. And as Amore continues to pursue outside projects, per Meltzer (h/t Wrestling Inc), it will be interesting to see just how long he endures WWE’s obsessively disciplinarian philosophies.