Falling viewing figures, shoddy box-office returns, and major scandals including a number of Hall of Famers ranging from racism to murder have hit the company hard since WrestleMania 31, last year. As we prepare for what could be a make or break ‘Mania in Texas, let’s take a look at the key bouts at the world’s biggest Sports Entertainment event, to see how they reflect the internal fissures in the WWE universe – as well as society at large.
- New Day vs The League of Nations – We need to talk about race
WWE has come a long way over the past 20 years in how it handles the question of race – in so far as commentators are no longer allowed to make jokes about Mexican fighters having to cross borders illegally, and Steve Austin had to retire. But scratch the surface and you’ll find the same old societal norms at play.
The only way of getting ‘over’ for black athletes is to play the half-crazed fool character that would not be out of place in the days of Amos and Andy. Couple this with the fact that for cheap laughs, New Day were forced to emulate #BlackLivesMatter campaigners when protecting tables from being smashed by the famous Dudley Boys, and you start to question whether marking Martin Luther King Day with a well-made montage really demonstrates anything much of a change in the WWE’s attitude.
This year, the New Day will face The League of Nations – a team made of foreigners, and therefore they are the ‘heel’ bad guys we are supposed boo. Last year one of those foreigners, Rusev, fought John Cena who marched out to a Ronald Reagan speech – and the crowd mostly cheered in his favour. It is hard to tell whether this was out of respect for the spectacle, as Rusev himself entered atop a tank, or general hatred for John Cena, the blandest American-hero-by-numbers outside of a Spiderman comic – but the feud fizzled out because rather than give us meaningful development within a ‘sporting rivalry’, it was built entirely on Cold War stereotypes that would have made Joseph McCarthy blush. This match-up is frankly an embarrassment, and as much as I might enjoy clapping the New Day, I’ll be sitting on my hands for it.
- Becky Lynch vs Charlotte vs Sasha Banks – The Women’s Division
Speaking of out-dated embarrassments, over the past year, the WWE has attempted a top-down “Diva’s Revolution”. To be fair, things have marginally improved – thanks in the main to long-term commentator Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler being confined to pre-shows to prevent him from hollering “LOOK AT THOSE PUPPIES” in audible range of the fights.
The women’s division had become poorly fleshed out, with insultingly named ‘Divas’ staging glorified cat-fights in disproportionately short matches – while female wrestlers were excelling on WWE’s development show NXT. WWE’s response to a model for progressive change was… to ignore it and steal NXT’s best talent for the Divas division.
This Clinton-feminism has delivered mixed results to say the least – as while the pool of talent has improved, storylines ultimately still revolve around the same tired handbag slobber-knockers as before. Despite one of them having gained the Divas belt, Charlotte, Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks have subsequently struggled to carve out a meaningful space for themselves in the programme that isn’t wholly dependent on male identity. This bout is make or break for the women’s wrestling division – and if it goes over poorly, could be about to blow the inadequacies of the “revolution” wide open. (Oh and the less said about the Pre-Show Women’s match between the ‘Total Divas’ and ‘Team Bad and Blonde’ the better.)
- Roman Reigns vs Triple H – Suffering through the succotash
Except your beloved Co-Editor Chris Jarvis, nobody likes Roman Reigns. WWE has invested a metric tonne in building him to be the man on the lunchboxes as of this year – and so rather than heed the wall of boos or the signs denouncing Reigns as a “wank pheasant” when he enters any arena – the WWE dubs out crowd noise, and edits out problematic signs. Reigns has repaid this unwarranted investment by unquestioningly adopting any bland cereal-box catchphrase WWE’s creative department throw him. Meanwhile, he threw his former Shield team-mates Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose, both better liked and more talented, under the bus – publicly trashing them as “journeymen” who held him back. This is the man WWE are trying to sell as a ‘face’ (good guy), to a generation of fans whose dreams were collectively crushed by economic crises and nepotistic corporate elites.
‘and the boo of a fan who would like the WWE to be a
meritocracy generally sounds the same as somebody who
genuinely believes his ‘character’ of the pantomime baddy‘
In this year’s main event, in which the WWE championship is on the line he comes up against the King of Nepotism, Hunter Hurst Helmsley, or Triple H (not formerly of Steps). H is a man Reigns would do well to learn from – as just as the brown stuff tends to float, Hunter has bravely married his way to the top of the company – and just like his conniving father-in-law, is well aware of how to turn real-life heat into “fake” booing. H is a ‘heel’, not because he is particularly charismatic or believable, but because people are all predisposed to dislike him – and the boo of a fan who would like the WWE to be a meritocracy generally sounds the same as somebody who genuinely believes his ‘character’ of the pantomime baddy. It therefore occurs to me that if I cheer for him, and boo Roman Reigns, I undermine the entire process. Cheer for the heel, if you can be bothered to cheer at all.
- Dean Ambrose vs Brock Lesnar – Jobbers of the World Unite
When the only two superstars in the company to wrestle less often than you are Triple H and the Undertaker who nowadays less resemble prize-fighters than cast members from a Last of the Summer Wine revival – you probably need to stop phoning it in. Despite this, Vince McMahon and co. spent so much on keeping “The Beast Incarnate” Brock Lesnar sweet, that he is irrevocably ring-fenced. He is the only wrestler allowed to externally advertise – which considering how poorly paid some of the WWE’s talent is, is a big deal – and has God of Gobshites Paul Heyman dedicated to ‘advocate’ for him to disguise his utter lack of mic-skills. In other words, the company subsidises Lesnar’s input massively, artificially building his invincibility in areas where frankly he could be expected to have to work harder.
This year, the Patron Saint of Ring-rust faces Dean Ambrose – who in stark contrast has been doing the WWE’s donkey-work for a long time now. Ambrose may have been asked to job to a long list of humiliating mid-carders, but that hasn’t stopped him “getting over” – he still looks strong, despite being one of the less built wrestlers, because of his high pain-threshold. This endurance through punishment, crossed with his surly every-grump persona, off-the-chain promos and irreverent attitude have endeared him to a huge portion of the fans – myself included. While this match is really just a fight for honour, it represents a huge opportunity for Ambrose to prove himself as more than just a snarling rodeo-clown.
- Shane McMahon vs The Undertaker – Here comes the ideology
One of the saddest things about Daniel Bryan, the darling of wrestling’s lefty fan-section, being forced into retirement through injury is that he is literally irreplaceable. Fans latched onto him as a means of venting their displeasure at the direction the WWE had taken – and catapulted him into one of the most famous storylines in recent wrestling history, overcoming all the odds to defeat the Authority and become WWE champion at WrestleMania 30. The WWE creative department has tried and failed, miserably, to replicate this underdog story – with the shambles that is Roman Reigns (see above). In the shadow of such a shambolic display, the creative team have fallen back on something as a reliable way to fill seats at their premier event. Nostalgia.
That’s where Shane “O’Mac” McMahon comes in. The real-life son of the company’s owner, Shane left the WWE years ago to make it on his own as some kind of businessman. He’s back now, and recycling a storyline from over a decade ago to help his old man’s floundering company out. As a character who is pretty much entirely defined by his father the owner, Vince, and his stagnant ideology, a nickname that literally translates as “son of, son of” kind of stands to reason.
This year, Shane, who is looking almost as grey and aged as his ‘roid-riddled father these days, will be taking on the Phenom himself, the Undertaker, in a hell in a cell match. On the line; not just ‘Taker’s amazing WrestleMania record of 22:1 victories – but also the kayfabe (in story) control to Monday Night RAW, the core of WWE’s product. In the absence of a Daniel Bryan, and with fans discontent continuously erased by the Stalinist editing procedures and belittled in PR as ‘aimless haters’ many have turned to Shane in their hope for change. Perhaps it is symbolic of the ‘Donald Trump moment’ that those who have lived the past two decades being ignored by a capitalist elite have so readily pegged their hopes to a third-generation millionaire who might be not different in substance, but has an irreverent style and rose-tinted vision of a “great” past that they hark back to. This fight is basically the greatest conservative reflex at the disposal of WWE – as either irreverent, self-made archetypes of American individualism who win will ultimately provide the company an opportunity to avoid making structural changes in the way they address race, gender and mental health… So they’re both heels in the grand scheme of things. How very US Election.