Talking Change and the WWE with Mihir Joshi 
Talking Change and the WWE with Mihir Joshi 

Misogynist, exploitative and crass — if there’s one entertainment property that’s been rife with rough days it is the WWE. Their official India Commentator helps us chart 30 years of change, most of which has been for the better

If you grew up in urban India in the ‘80s, ‘90s and early ‘00s, there’s a fair chance that you’ve participated in the near-mythic eras of entertainment wrestling. Night after night, names like Bret Hart and The Undertaker graced our television screens, inspiring mock-matches between siblings in bedrooms and schoolmates in classrooms, all the while, capturing the imaginations of millions. 


Mihir Joshi is one such late ‘80s kid for whom the edgy antics of the then-WWF’s ‘Attitude Era’ meant love at first sight. The musician and presenter continued exploring his lifelong fandom through twenty years in the entertainment industry, nine of which have had an official connection with the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) franchise. Flaunting what might be the greatest collection of related merch owned by an Indian, he now serves as the official WWE India commentator, covering key storylines and developments from the front row of the country’s massive fanbase. 


On the first weekend of April, the WWE hosted Wrestlemania 39, a marquee event that serves as the cornerstone of modern sports entertainment. Last year’s edition pulled in a whopping 1.1 billion digital views, with Joshi claiming that 60 million of them came from India alone. Despite our enthusiasm for the event, this was definitely not the kind of wrestling we grew up with — that one is mired with a long, dark chapter before becoming the example of diversity, inclusion and athletic talent that it is today.  


Wrestlemania 39 also featured a thrilling 8-woman tag team match, won by MMA stars Ronda Rousey and Shayna Baszler


“The product has changed significantly now. One reason is, of course, the fact that WWE became a publicly traded company,” says Joshi, referring to the company’s 1999 stock listings. Prior to the 2000s, things were seriously over the top, and set the stage for problematic programming for the next decade. 


To wipe out his old Warner Group-owned competitor, World Championship Wrestling, the WWE’s founder and long-time CEO, Vince McMahon, decided to ramp up bloodshed, spectacle, and of course, sex appeal. In and out of the ring, gore, drugs, sex, and machismo ruled the roost. This instantly raised the viewership numbers, although only one group of wrestlers were taken seriously — men. “Women were pretty much just models, who were not expected to be good at wrestling. They were supposed to be eye candy — especially with those ‘stipulation’ matches with lingerie involved,” Joshi adds, referencing the infamous ‘Bra and Panties’ matches that for a good six years of the 2000s, featured women wrestlers ripping each other’s clothes off to win. Just to be clear, no-one was tearing off the Undertaker’s trench coat during this time. Stars were hired on the basis of credits in Playboy magazine, storylines were rife with rape jokes and casual sexism, and the women’s championship belt was replaced with a ‘Divas’ title — a sparkly butterfly-motif deal that channelled Barbie rather than pro-wrestling. The company — and the industry as a whole — has had a history that actively suppressed female talent through coercion and sexual misconduct. And Vince McMahon — the man responsible for the careers of John Cena, The Rock, and several other legends — was forced to step down as chairman following allegations of paying off $12.5 million as hush money in sexual misconduct cases.  


While now temporarily back in place to facilitate the sale of the WWE to big-name Saudi investors (a la Manchester United), the majority shareholder and founder’s actions cast a shadow over many fans’ memories, as ‘Mr. McMahon’ wasn’t just a murky boardroom figure. He united America’s  disparate wrestling leagues, was a regular in-ring performer and penned several of the property’s most iconic storylines across the last thirty years. It’s safe to say that without him, there would be no WWE. Joshi condemns McMahon’s scandals in no uncertain terms, but also points out that the 77-year-old businessman is just one of countless names in showbiz, who are admirable from a distance, but not so much up close. “Watch those movies about Ray Charles, Elvis, Johnny Cash… the moment people become great professionally, problems creep in on the personal front, whether its drugs, alcohol, sexual misconduct…” he trails off. 


As the WWE grew into a multi-billion-dollar business, the decision to go public also ushered in what we refer to as the ‘PG’ era. “Wrestling stopped being so outlandish because audiences ultimately wanted relatable people,” reflects Joshi. “The characters we saw became amplified versions of the fans themselves — maybe someone’s a father, or gay, or getting married, or going clean from drugs — we got to follow their lives, hear them talk. See their ups and downs.” It was this humanising effect that paved the way for real talent to gain recognition across the WWE’s Raw and Smackdown rosters, regardless of gender.  


Mihir Joshi with Jinder Mahal, 2017 — the first time an Indian brought the championship title home


Joshi notes that while hiring talented female wrestlers was a step in the right direction, systematic change was required. “Everything changed when WWE made their own performance centre and developmental ring, called NXT,” he explains, referencing the current Content Chief Paul Levesque’s passion project. Better known as 14-time World Champion Triple H, Levesque’s decades in the ring, facing the same challenges as many of his fellow wrestlers, sensitised him to the need for a talent-focused recruitment process, though during Vince’s prime years, he also participated in problematic storylines. Most interesting of all, Levesque is married to Vince’s daughter, Stephanie McMahon — adding a personal stake to the WWE’s ongoing probe of Vince’s actions, the erasure of his approach to branding women within the roster, and ultimately, his expulsion from the current list of shareholders with the aforementioned Saudi takeover. 


Post 2016, women were drawing crowds at main events during pay-per-view wrestling specials and doing so in formats previously reserved for men. “They realised, ‘Hey, we are getting some of the best female athletes in the world.’ These are not ‘Divas’. They are not here to flaunt their assets and draw eyeballs,” asserts Joshi, “they are here to compete at the top level and show that they’re better than any man in wrestling.” 


This month, Wrestlemania’s big-name event was an electrifying Sunday night brawl between Roman Reigns and Cody Rhodes for the WWE Universal Championship. That said, my personal favourite event was a RAW title match between Bianca Belair and Asuka — two women who have climbed to the peak of the industry. Their faceoff was also a testament to how far the wrestling has come. And while the founder’s legacy makes me question whether it’s too little too late, a part of me simply wants to focus on how far the WWE can go from here on out. 


Images: Mihir Joshi, World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc

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