When offering any criticism, it’s always important to try to remain constructive. And naturally, it has to be tempered with positivity. But after the much-hyped 1000th episode of Raw this past Monday, that’s very difficult.
Nonetheless, let me deal with the inarguable positive aspects first: this episode was promoted with great momentum, it garnered around a 4.0 rating on the USA Network, and it involved many legends including D-Generation X, The Rock, The Undertaker, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Mick Foley, Lita, Bret Hart, and of course the McMahons themselves. AJ Lee even became “General Manager” of Raw. Those are all positives.
The fact is, like a big box office blockbuster movie whose trailers were fantastic and mobilised millions of viewers who were, in fact, disappointed, Raw was all about the hype; Vince McMahon’s attempt to blow his wad in one night. Ratings of 4.0 are great, if they’re frequent, as they were in the “Attitude” era. How did McMahon use the star power on this historic and crucial night to capture that audience long-term?
After Vince rightly opened the show himself, before introducing D-Generation X (both version two, and version one minus Chyna, for obvious reasons), DX delivered a series of “jokes” that were reminiscent of the embarrassing Hollywood Hogan attempts to seem young and hip while leading the New World Order with the other ex-WWF stars who were past their prime. Thankfully, they were interrupted by Damien Sandow, but as soon as he emerged, it’s a sad fact that my instinct was to sigh at the impending and inevitable burial of an up-and-coming talent. I wasn’t surprised, or given the infamous Vince swerve this time, when it was most needed: DX got together and beat him up. Now, some call that the “rub,” but without a performer being presented as competitive, he’s only remembered for being the wrestler who got owned by predominantly retired DX members. Is that so great?
The Rock branded Daniel Bryan – better than Rocky ever was, even at the height of his career – an “oompa-loompa” because Rock happened to tower over him in ways WWE Champion CM Punk hasn’t, solidifying Bryan’s position as a source of humour and steering his character in that direction of ridicule, rather than a serious course. Rock then unilaterally announced that he gets a WWE Championship shot in the New Year, at the Royal Rumble, after competing in and winning just one single match in 2012. This reinforces the public image of Rock being head and shoulders above any other major star or contender in the company, regardless of how many matches they win. He gets the shot, no matter what. As Rock himself might say, “it doesn’t matter” if other wrestlers win a plethora of matches between now and the Royal Rumble; he leapfrogs them just by virtue of being The Great One.
Recovering from his DX-related comedy of errors, Triple H demanded a response from Brock Lesnar via Paul Heyman, who barely mentioned Triple H’s family at all when Stephanie McMahon-
Helmsley Levesque came storming to the ring to show off her streamlined figure and add to her desired humiliation of Heyman, after his fallout with her and the company in 2006 that led to him being fired and blamed for WWE’s failed December to Dismember Pay-Per-View show – where both Paul Heyman and Paul “Big Show” Wight suggested Show put over rising star CM Punk, an idea which the McMahons at that time nixed.
Calling him a failure, Steph got to offer us yet another attempt at catharses for the infamous McMahon insecurity by trying to bury a former rival promoter. Heyman even rejected Triple H’s request of a SummerSlam match with Brock Lesnar, despite the fact we all knew it was inevitable and simply drawn out to limit the use of Lesnar’s valuable agreed dates in his lucrative WWE contract.
Instead of Brock emerging from the crowd to reveal a set-up and attacking Triple H, he only ran out when Heyman was forced to sell anger at Steph and Hunter – for merely adding to their long list of attempted burials of Heyman and his Attitude-inspiring ECW legacy, to an extent where we were expected to be led to believe that Heyman would reverse Brock’s decision and agree to the match.
It was all very messy, a real stretch, and in addition to Steph verbally and even physically assaulting Heyman, Triple H sent Lesnar from the ring and retreating up the aisle. This was all about the corporate couple; Heyman and Lesnar were humiliated, and now Brock absolutely must win his SummerSlam match to recover from this on top of his loss to John Cena in April at the Extreme Rules Pay-Per-View (the title of which of course wasn’t anything to do with Heyman’s impact on the business, either).
Both Lita and the Undertaker (in conjunction with Kane) were brought in to decimate and humiliate jobbers, cementing these unfortunates’ second-rate status for weeks and months to come. In the case of Heath Slater, the argument will be that the exposure is good for his career, the same argument voiced about Nattie Neidhart’s flatulence gimmick – and we know how high-profile she is these days as a result of that; one of the best women’s wrestlers in the world is barely on television. Mick Foley, meanwhile, under the watch of Triple H, didn’t appear as Cactus Jack, or even Mankind, but instead Dude Love – dancing with the former Snoop Dogg bodyguard, beyond-a-joke Brodus Clay – which probably did more harm to Foley’s career than it helped Clay’s.
The CM Punk heel turn was fine if not a summer shocker of the impact we’d expected, but the fresh Rock’s selling of Punk’s single flying clothesline as though he had been attacked by riot police and zapped with a tazer gun was more detrimental to our suspension of disbelief than helpful in putting Punk over. It was one of the most absurd examples of oversell I’d ever seen, even from Rocky, whose notorious comedy selling of the Stone Cold Stunner was legendary.
But again, we have to try and find positives. Try as we might, there are few to be found here.
What talent was elevated as a result of all this? Of course this was a nostalgia show; a retrospective look at the legacy of Monday Night Raw from its inception in 1993. That’s great; that’s fine. But when the one-off appearances by old part-timers portrays them as overwhelmingly superior to the regulars, what will viewers think when they tune in again, for three hours of those full-time stars who were humiliated on this show? All this does is encourages audiences to believe that the only things worth tuning in for are the stars of yesteryear, as though the current crop is inferior talent by miles.
It didn’t have to be that way. WWE could have carefully and cleverly utilised the legends to elevate some stars literally overnight. Imagine a partnership or even a competitive back-and-forth – physically or verbally – between the likes of Trish Stratus and Beth Phoenix, Rocky and Bryan, Undertaker and Ziggler, Lita and AJ, Foley and Ryder, New Age Outlaws and Prime Time Players, Piper and McGillicutty, X-Pac and Sandow? Nobody would have been hurt by any of this, even if the established untouchable legends came off worse. Seeing the hungry lions again next week for three hours, viewers would be more inclined to accept them as superior, credible superstars worthy of investing with emotion, time and money.
Speaking of money, the whole commercial dominance of WWE over the once-diverse industry has not only made McMahon complacent and less inclined to take the gambles he took on Rock, Steve Austin and others, and the product itself, fifteen years ago: It has reduced the brand to a pseudo-PG programme that serves as merely an advertisement for their products that range from
Wrestling Brawling Buddies, to the latest “cool” social media venture, to even John Cena’s kiddie merchandise that serves as his only purpose and perpetual push.
Seeing Michael Cole – whose weaknesses are only exploited more when he has to follow Jim Ross on commentary – actually playing with the Brawling Buddies dolls alongside Jerry “The King” Lawler, was so cringe-inducing that Gorilla Monsoon ands Bobby “The Brain” Heenan debating on Prime Time Wrestling surrounded by WWF action figures seems perfectly tasteful in retrospect. But this is what pro wrestling’s giant has become.
From Triple H and Stephanie’s dominance, to the fawning worship of Hollywood’s Rock, to product placement, “Raw 1000” exemplified everything that is wrong with today’s WWE: the McMahons, more complacent than ever in the absence of any competition, find themselves floating their corporate empire on the stock exchange, re-writing the history books, running for Senate seats to gain tax breaks and boost profits for shareholders, and donating thousands to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign while Republicans everywhere blame WWE for the moral decay of modern America. It’s a company that is quagmired, utterly stuck in its ways, refusing to change, and content with its corporate profit.
This is McMahon’s world now: money-hungry, conservative, and safe. We may dream of the passing of the torch and a legitimate boom to give Attitude a run for its money, we may hope for cutting-edge counterculture, we may long for CM Punk and Daniel Bryan to be revered, and joined by Richie Steamboat, Seth Rollins, Bray Wyatt, and the inevitable future of the industry, Dean Ambrose. But all the McMahons care about is assuaging their collective insecurities, keeping the shareholders happy, and wooing Hollywood at the same time as paradoxically pursuing GOP success in order to bend the laws to benefit their aims of “independent contractor” exploitation and pension plan, health care, and tax avoidance. They won it all, but the McMahon psyche still believes the world owes them something. That’s a lot of insecurity that you or I could never comprehend.
What WWE needs is a kick in the ass. But Ted Turner’s long gone from the picture, and TNA have already been lapped in the race. It’s doubtful Triple H will stray from the path at this point, and he couldn’t anyway while Linda McMahon remains in the public eye. One day, though, he may have to. WWE can only live off its own scratch logo value for so much longer. They may have got the F out, but they have yet to wake the F up.