Power dynamics in wrestling are shifting

The great author, Alice Walker, once said, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” 

For over 20 years, WWE has held supreme power in the North American wrestling scene. In those 20 years, WWE has been able to cultivate what looks like subservience from both fans as well as wrestlers who work in the company. 

The relationship between business owners and workers is mutually symbiotic. A worker is hired to do a service, the worker is compensated for the service, and a mutually agreed upon payment is rendered to the worker. This in itself is a contract and, contrary to what some might believe, an employer is not doing a one-sided favor by giving someone a job, both sides benefit each other.

Enter Sasha Banks and Naomi. Both of these women are, as of this writing, “independent contractors” for WWE. There’s a great deal of speculation about why they decided not to work the May 16 edition of WWE’s Monday Night Raw, but we haven’t heard from them directly yet.

A mere two weeks later in All Elite Wrestling, MJF, no-showed a fan fest in Las Vegas prior to AEW’s Double or Nothing pay-per-view event and it led to speculation that he would no-show the pay-per-view, itself. Of course, he did show up and wound up on the receiving end of a symphony of powerbombs from Wardlow and was then stretchered out of the arena. Then, on the June 1st edition of AEW Dynamite, he cut a worked shoot promo on Tony Khan and what he deems as Khan’s bias toward former WWE wrestlers.

So within a calendar month we have two different instances of wrestlers making defiant power plays and the wrestling media seems to be concerned with who’s right and who’s wrong. I am more into the business psychology of what is going on in wrestling and what it might mean for the future.

I want to start with Sasha Banks and Naomi, real names Mercedes Varnado and Trinity Fatu. This is a layered situation and no one in the wrestling media can give a definitive reason as to why they left. We do have WWE’s one-sided account of the events in question and their statement reads as follows:

“Even though they had eight hours to rehearse and construct their match, they claimed they were uncomfortable in the ring with two of their opponents even though they’d had matches with those individuals in the past with no consequence. Monday Night Raw is a scripted live TV show, whose characters are expected to perform the requirements of their contract. We regret we were unable to deliver, as advertised, tonight’s main event.”

This public display of disdain is usually frowned upon in the business world. So much that most companies will not even provide negative references for former employees out of fear of possible litigation. Maybe because WWE wrestlers are technically not employees of WWE and the contracts they sign state that they are independent contractors, perhaps this is the reason why WWE feels they can be this brazen with their online and on-air rebuke of two of their wrestlers.

Some in the wrestling media are very quick to say that Sasha and Naomi were unprofessional, and leaving right before an episode of Raw is inconsiderate. I have even heard some emphatically state that Sasha and Naomi’s refusal to “do business” has nothing to do with race or gender. As someone who has followed the WWE product closely since I was a small child, I feel very uncomfortable definitively stating that. I mean, Vince McMahon is the same guy that made Trish Stratus bark like a dog in 2001 while thousands in the arena cheered him on, and the same man who I witnessed on TV use the n-word with a smile on his face in 2005. It is for these reasons and many more that WWE does not get the benefit of the doubt with me.

In business psychology, an entity or person with expert power is defined as one who possesses knowledge or expertise in the field that they work in. It matters in 2022 because WWE is arguably no longer a monopoly and has a legitimate disrupter to their business in AEW. 

One of AEW’s biggest criticisms is their women’s division and additions to their roster like Sasha and Naomi would seemingly complete their women’s division. Perhaps, Sasha or Naomi would not be as bold as they are if AEW did not exist, maybe they have their sights set on Hollywood, or maybe they have just reached a point in their careers where they feel that they are not only defined by what they do in the squared circle.

Maxwell Jacob Friedman’s story is slightly different but the same in a myriad of ways. When MJF signed with AEW in the company’s infancy, he was not as well-known as he is today. As AEW proved itself to be legitimate competition to WWE, it began to attract bigger names and it is assumed that MJF, perhaps felt that his current contract was not matching what he brings to the table.

While I have not always been a fan of MJF and some of his low-hanging fruit promos, I can’t deny the value he brings to the table, and, like Sasha and Naomi, I am sure that he will be able to find greener pastures should he decide that AEW is no longer a good fit for him. 

The event that MJF no-showed was an AEW fan fest. We couldn’t find the original pricing info since the event has already passed, but I recall right, it had a $54 ticket price, plus if you paid upward of $100 you were able to participate in a meet and greet with stars like MJF. Not only did MJF not show up for the fan fest, Fightful reported (subscription required) that he had a plane ticket in his name to fly out of Las Vegas, with the assumption being that he might skip Double or Nothing. We all know now that obviously didn’t happen.

Sasha, Naomi, and MJF’s situations are proof that the power dynamics in wrestling have shifted. Nearer to a monopoly in prior years, WWE had free rein to create their own vision for what they deemed sports entertainment. If WWE did not see value in Sasha and Naomi, or if AEW did not see the value in MJF, I am fully convinced that those wrestlers would have gotten kicked to the curb a long time ago.

This is only the beginning for such power plays for wrestlers. MJF rose up the ranks in a new company and has proven and recognizes his value. When he started off in wrestling he needed AEW. Now that he is an established name, he can bring his name and value to WWE. Likewise, Sasha and Naomi understand that if they are not feeling creatively fulfilled, there is an AEW that they can go to and perhaps thrive in. The power dynamics in wrestling are shifting. In a competitive wrestling industry, talent will recognize their power and need not think that they don’t have any.

Kristoffer Ealy is a political science professor and business psychologist with a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership. He co-hosts the Nubian Wrestling Advocates podcast on POST Wrestling.