During a recent episode of SmackDown Live, eight-time WWE women's champion Charlotte Flair stalked the ring, licking her chops after rewatching footage of the chaos swirling around herself and her primary adversaries for WrestleMania 35: Irish firebrand Becky Lynch and Raw women's champion Ronda Rousey. Flair summoned one-time ally Lynch by deadpanning, "Let's see how I can get my very, very best friend, Bex, to come out here and have a friendly discussion" -- drawing out those final syllables to underscore the oft-rehashed history of their falling out.
Two weeks later on SmackDown, Shane McMahon took the mic to address a pressing question: "Why on earth would I ever beat down my so-called 'co-bestie'" The Miz at WWE's Fastlane pay-per-view? That was only 24 hours after Raw women's staple Natalya stared down big baddies Tamina Snuka and Nia Jax and warned, "I know somebody I can trust to have my back tonight, and that's my best friend," as quasi-retired Hall of Famer -- and Natalya's long-ago Divas of Doom tag partner -- Beth Phoenix came to her side.
Sensing a pattern? Zoom out and you'll realize that promoters throughout the professional wrestling business have been leaning pretty hard on pairing up talent and designating them "best friends" (or some semantic variation thereof). Even companies grappling with far fewer moving parts and hours of TV to fill in a given week than WWE have perpetuated the trope. Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi had their complex bromance as the Golden Lovers in New Japan Pro Wrestling, and the uber-cozy tag team of Chuck Taylor and Trent Beretta, formerly of Pro Wrestling Guerilla and Ring of Honor (and now with rival upstart AEW), literally dubbed themselves "Best Friends."
Sticking strictly to WWE, the sheer volume of on-screen "friendships" -- with some instances playing off genuine rapport as established on social media and reality TV, while others are thrown against the wall by the powers that be with high hopes -- is staggering. Since 2015, we've seen Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho, Naomi and Asuka, Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose, Drew McIntyre and Dolph Ziggler, Sasha Banks and Bayley, Rusev and Aiden English, Mandy Rose and Sonya Deville, Owens and Sami Zayn, Alexa Bliss and Nia Jax, Breezango and The Ascension (which is technically a collective foursome), and Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa (the latter even once trolling his frenemy on #NationalBestFriendDay). And that's only a sampling.
The one individual everyone on that roll call has in common? WWE's Chairman of the Board.
In the experience of Tom Casiello, a writer for WWE from 2011 to 2016 who helped develop some formative best-friend storylines, Vince McMahon's voice is overarching. "At the end of the day, there is one writer, and it's Vince," Casiello says matter-of-factly about the prevailing creative power structure in WWE during his tenure with the company.
His former colleague, Kevin Eck, who's a writer and producer for Ring of Honor, elaborates on why WWE ended up with so many "best friends."
"One of the things Vince stressed to us was we need relationships, because it opens up storyline possibilities if you can establish a friendship."
Eck characterizes the past decade's deluge of WWE BFFs as "definitely a conscious effort," but acknowledges there haven't been a ton of guardrails in place for quality control. Consequently, some of the couplings we've seen on WWE TV come across as "more organic, and sometimes they might seem more forced."
In the grander scheme of wrestling lore, a resilient trope like pairing wrestlers up as "best friends" is at risk of overuse, exposing its inherent limitations in the process. "It's a trend of the day," cautions Jim Ross, who spent 26 years with WWE as an iconic play-by-play man and developer of talent. "It's overutilized, because everybody's friendship cannot be considered equal. After a while, it's meaningless."
Rite of passage
Partnerships and friendships in wrestling, particularly relationships prone to eventual combustion, have always been part of the art form's stock and trade. "I've been in this business since 1974," says Ross, "and there are plenty of illustrations of guys who were buddies or friends, BFFs, all that bulls---, and they ended up having a rivalry develop and it became a personal issue."
Around the time Ross broke into broadcasting, WWWF legend Bruno Sammartino (who died earlier this year) helped chaperone real-life protégé Larry Zbyszko into pro wrestling, and the two were synonymous among wrestling fans as mentor and mentee. That is, until Zbyszko betrayed his surrogate wrestling dad in an effort to break out on his own -- roughly half a decade after they first toured the circuit together. Zbyszko's turn may have been a slow burn, but the subsequent heat he generated (particularly in those kayfabe-reverent territorial days) was nuclear.
More famously, era-defining paragon Hulk Hogan and rising superstar Randy "Macho Man" Savage overcame several years of animosity to form the mother of all baby-face unions in October 1987: the Mega Powers. With WWE offering a scant slate of prime-time TV and PPV showcases at that point, and Hogan splitting his time between wrestling and Hollywood (act like this wasn't worth it), the gimmick was spaced out judiciously over close to a year and a half, leading to the inevitable implosion and a mega-payoff grudge match at WrestleMania V.
Those examples, and a handful of others, helped codify the unspoken arc of a classic boom-and-bust wrestling friendship. They also personified the idea that patiently identifying and maximizing the right talent could inspire viewer loyalty on a par with any long-running soap opera, all while planting the seeds for priceless future nostalgia.
But that was then. In the intervening years, WWE, WCW, ECW and, in time, Ring of Honor and other more recent upstart independent outfits collectively carved out more space via cable TV, seized opportunities to enhance storylines through ancillary web and DVD content, and adjusted to the expectations of audiences craving authenticity. That audience has increasingly been pulled in myriad directions for their attention, and as such, promotions invariably leaned upon reliable crutches like best friendship as an efficient means of manufacturing stakes and keeping as much of their talent roster involved in active storylines as possible.
While fans began to chafe against some of the more traditional examples of "best friends," they did warm up to duos that felt genuine and otherwise improbable. On the surface, The Rock and Mick Foley's Rock 'N' Sock Connection or, later, Kane and Daniel Bryan's Team Hell No seemed classically outlandish. But they were also edgy and tuned into the broader culture, and clearly making up their own rules (and often dialogue) as they went along. They neither overstayed their welcome nor fell apart under the weight of contrivance.
Undoubtedly, however, the biggest change between earlier in the millennium and today has been social media's contribution to blurring the lines between what fans anticipate and creative can keep sacred.
"I think the WWE has been forced to add dimensions to such storylines because of the greater TV and social-media demands," suggests wrestling historian and author Tim Hornbaker. "Characters are developed in a different way than they were in the '80s and '90s. Imagine if Hogan and [Shawn] Michaels could've tweeted about their respective angles, building up to the big moment, or immediately afterwards."
Essentially, onscreen wrestling friendships have become more immediately and overtly emotional, precisely at a point in time when -- as Eck alluded to Vince McMahon having intuited -- emotionally charged content has matured into a major form of currency with modern audiences. Viewed through that paradigm, a catchy, catch-all qualifier like "best friends" can communicate months' worth of build that neither WWE nor any other promotion can afford to luxuriate in.
The flip side is that boiling down every other segment to bestie makeups and breakups might, to Ross' observation, water down what works, or possibly alienate older, hardcore fans longing for a bit less in the way of teen text-message lingo and more old-school attitude.
"One of the things Vince stressed to us was we need relationships, because it opens up storyline possibilities if you can establish a friendship." Former WWE writer Kevin Eck
"My fundamental issue is that's not how grown men speak when they're supposed to be picking their sides for battle," rues Andrew Goldstein, who was a creative writer and segment producer for WWE between 2006 and 2007. "It's that balance of catering to an audience that's 12, 13, 14 years old and using their language, but then also, 'These are grown men and women, and they're engaging in combat.'"
The result is that for every gangbusters, self-aware program like Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho -- who spent much of 2016-'17 poking fun at the absurdity of their platonic courtship while planting the seeds for a satisfying parting of ways and climactic WrestleMania blowoff -- there's the blink-and-miss-it misfire of fleeting 2018 BFF bad guys Dolph Ziggler and Drew McIntyre. And while Bayley and Sasha's current run as women's tag champs and closest of comrades is a believable carryover from their documented backstage bond dating back to NXT (we'll pretend that whole Dr. Shelby intervention never happened), Naomi and Asuka were only asked to "best friend" it up for a hot minute to help legitimize WWE's fledgling women's tag scene, with no fallout or payoff to be had.
The hope, clearly, is that with so much story spinning through the Raw and SmackDown centrifuge each week, no one will even notice when a sample goes missing.
"If you say something enough, it just becomes true, doesn't it?" argues Jimmy Jacobs, who was a writer for WWE between 2015 and '17 and now works as a producer and in-ring performer for Nashville-based Impact Wrestling. Jacobs, incidentally, had a hand in the aforementioned Owens/Jericho saga, and reflects that the two performers "were best friends in the same way John C. Reilly and Will Ferrell were best friends in 'Step Brothers.'"
As producers keep duking it out amid today's zero-sum game for eyeballs, subscriptions and social-media mentions, doubling back to best friends as a beacon -- no matter how indiscriminately it happens, at times -- might be paramount until someone figures out how to slow everything down and, if not reinvent the wheel, rotate it ninety degrees. As Ross says pragmatically of the "best friends" merry-go-round, "It's so abrupt now, but the general idea of creating personal issues is more paramount than advertising a title match."
Show or tell?
For conspiratorial message-board warriors who've long groaned about Vince McMahon's perceived death grip on WWE creative, ex-writer Casiello assigning credit/blame to the 73-year-old Chairman for revisiting the same conceptual well is probably a vindication of sorts.
But even Casiello is careful to remind that McMahon and his team have far more to consider than the ratio of what resonates as real versus fake from week to week. He cites market research showing that viewers would only stay glued to Raw for finite stretches each hour, and that, for better or worse, "Vince will have the commentators hammer points home just for the casual fan."
That casual fan may not catalog every narrative milestone or engage with Raw and SmackDown in a particularly conscientious way, but they're essential to any promotion's survival and, writ large, can alter the course of a multi-billion-dollar business with every impulse purchase and enthusiastic tweet. For each lifelong fan who grumbles (but still tunes in) about what Ross referred to as overreliance on "the trend of the day" -- in this case, a veritable buddy system of onscreen "best friends" -- there's an untold number of less jaded novices likely to take the bait.
"For older purists, it would be great to be reminded of the old mentor versus protégé feuds of the past with classic storytelling," sympathizes Hornbaker. "But things have changed, and feuds are developing differently." Even if it's a shortcut or crutch, Hornbaker is confident that flooding the market with "best friends" is "an essential and effective tool" in one's contemporary storytelling kit.
Yet there may be a middle ground. The very multimedia fatberg obstructing promoters' clear pathways to pulling apart from the pack can be an asset. As mentioned, there have never been so many dynamic ways to portray and enhance performers' personalities and interpersonal bonds. Take cult-favorite California-based promotion Lucha Underground, which teamed up with filmmaker Robert Rodriguez to launch an eponymous TV show that doubled as a combat-sport telenovela. Or Australia's Underworld Wrestling, with its high-concept, end-times mythos that makes every bout a do-or-die affair.
WWE is comparatively rooted in reality, but given the grittier, more verité direction of its promos in recent months, there's little explanation for why that same experimental spirit can't suffuse the "best friend" brigade. And while not every tandem or group can gel with the wordless, antic and, of late, potent brotherly ease of New Day (though they certainly model another rebuke to the rote way of doing things), Jericho and Owens and select others successfully played off the notion that wrestling relationships can better simulate the rapid, real-time processing of Instagram stories, as opposed to the deliberate development of instant film.
Combine that with the fact that so many superstars are known to be legitimately close off camera, or arrived at WWE with competing or overlapping indie-scene cred, and you get a formula that can be replicated and deepened down the line, no matter how much excess story, at present, goes to waste. Technological innovation has brought us full circle back to wrestling's most ancient axiom: show, don't tell.
"Anytime you can back up what's going on with actual old footage or pictures, it really does help show the audience what you mean," encourages former WWE writer Jacobs. "There's always an effort to reframe things and make them stronger ... We have more at our disposal and the fans are more in the know, so you can use those elements to establish your stories in the realm of believability, if not reality, which always makes your stories more effective."
Former early 2010s WWE writer Eck heartily supports that initiative, and describes how shortly after coming on board with Ring of Honor creative last year, he zeroed in on Trent Beretta and Chuck Taylor's "Best Friends" partnership as a chance to marry classic storytelling with a postmodern gimmick. In one 2018 meeting, the conversation came down to, "'OK, they call themselves Best Friends, and I think they're close in real life, and I see them hug in the ring, but what makes these guys tick?'" Eck recounts. "And I said, 'We need to shoot some vignettes with them doing best friend-type things together.'"
His prevailing thought was, "Let's get a little deeper than the superficial, 'Hey, they're called Best Friends.'" (Beretta told ESPN in a phone interview that he wasn't aware of Eck's plans, but that, "I'm sure doing the actual backstory thing could work.")
The rising tide
Does any of this actually matter? If branding every other set of two competitors as "best friends" is the rising tide keeping WWE and other promotions' creative afloat while they adapt to massive sea changes in the culture, is it so hard to suspend disbelief?
Depends whom you ask. Celeste Bonin, a former two-time WWE Divas champion as Kaitlyn between 2010 and 2014, was only 2 years old when Hogan and Savage headlined Mania V. She also, along with AJ Lee, anchored a "best friends" storyline that was, in retrospect, a trial balloon for how BFF arcs are crafted today.
In her estimation, "A lot of emotion is lost in these friendships that are formed overnight" and the thought process apparently starts and stops with, "Oh, they're baby faces, so they're best friends and here's the story."
Hornbaker, who's all for "best friends" or any shorthand that helps get the product over, harbors cautious optimism that inspiration will continue to evolve. "Creatively, so many things can be done differently," he says, "and I think some fans are waiting for the change that may or may not ultimately happen."
If the "best friends" trend is a symbol of complacency, or at minimum betrays some kind of rut, the sport's current, unprecedented atmosphere of direct competition should light a fire in everyone's bellies, be it Vince McMahon or the 20-year-old kid putting on no-holds-barred matches in his backyard.
To invoke the McMahon clan's own familiar in-character family motto, that is truly what's best for business.