Several days ago, LOP’s own SirSam asked who should be the man to defeat Brock Lesnar for the Universal Championship. Then, LOP’s own TheImplications asked when it should happen: is this WrestleMania too soon, is next WrestleMania too late?
The answer to both of those questions is “no.”
I cannot help but feel that, as a collective, it’s time we got out of our own heads. Why would this WrestleMania be too soon for stars in their prime? Why would next WrestleMania be too late for stars still in their prime? Why is it we seem so hesitant to get excited about, to have some faith in the future stars of WWE? I write ‘future stars’ in deliberate apocrypha – in a just world, they are the stars of the here and now.
Just this week, on my podcast Sports Entertainment is Dead, I discuss the creative success of how WWE continued the evolving latest chapter in the legacy that is Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins’ story. From the cinematic visuals to the tell-all body language, it was another sterling entry in the canon of their relationship, one of many that have, across the years, helped solidify their saga as foremost among their generation So too have they come to mark out the Ambrose / Rollins epic as something special.
“Ambrose and Rollins is Becoming Iconic” is the not-so-subtle title of Sports Entertainment is Dead this week. A bold statement, I am sure, that many will launch to disagree with, but one I am unapologetic in making and firmly in support of. The reasons for that are many. For today, let the primary among them be this: I will not shy away from being excited about, from having faith in the contemporary generation and their achievements – those that have been and those yet to come.
Are they mega-stars capable of matching the likes of Hulk Hogan or Steve Austin or The Rock in box office power? No, they are not. Are they beneficiaries of a steady campaign of support from a company intent on portraying them as being on the same keel as those aforementioned legends, that plays out with relentless consistency across a decade? These men are not John Cena or Randy Orton or Batista; so no, they are not. Are they capable of compiling the timeless in-ring classics that the likes of Bret Hart or Shawn Michaels could, built on the back of linear years-long character arcs and tight-knit creative output? They are denied the latter so that, regarding the former, no, they are not (quite).
The success of any generation is relative to the circumstances in which they are allowed to work, though, and this should not be forgotten. The Hitman and the Heartbreak Kid, even Big Daddy Cool might not have attracted the leviathan crowds that the likes of Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior did before them, but circumstances were different. They were caught between cultural zeitgeists and working in a company in financial peril because of the legal tribulations of its then-owner. Alternatively, Steve Austin and The Rock were able to transcend the traditional barriers ring-fencing the industry and enter the lexicon of popular culture because all bets were off as they enjoyed a creative freedom on every level no other generation of talent have been able to take advantage of. Both generations succeeded inimitably in the context of their time.
Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, AJ Styles, Kevin Owens, Bray Wyatt and all of the talent a part of this contemporary generation operate in a unique time of their own. Every word is scripted, every action is micro-managed, every tweet monitored. They must build their work on the slightest of creative foundations as script writers and creative teams offer up little in the way of original thought and instead present only an abundance of hesitation to engage with and develop character depth. Storylines are often inconsistent, episodes of television produced with lethargy and the top pay-per-view paydays are reserved for performers who should be resigned to the past.
These circumstances make for a toxic cocktail.
Yet look at what the contemporary generation have achieved all the same. Robbed of the benefits enjoyed by generations past, they have fought their way still to a level of infamy that they had no right to achieve. Roman Reigns has fought past historically unique levels of inconsistent production to maintain his place in the collective passion of the fan base. Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose have survived the company’s abject failure to commit to them when they reached, through their hard work, the verge of superstardom, and are now set to thrive off of it, mark my words. AJ Styles has delivered a library of consensus classics between the ropes that will find their way to stand shoulder to shoulder with the venerated greats littering WWE-sponsored playlists across mediums, all without solid storytelling to underpin his artistry. Even those failed ‘fourth pillars’ – Bray Wyatt and, latterly, Kevin Owens – have proven themselves more resilient to the self-destructive whims of World Wrestling Entertainment than we might have expected. Their relevance, their future prospects may waver more frantically than their contemporaries, but still they are here and still they are clawing for their share of that rarefied spotlight.
These successes may sound slight in comparison to monolithic concepts like Hulkamania and Austin 3:16, or even the considerably lesser Cenation, but the success of any generation is relative to the circumstances in which they are allowed to work. In consideration of the circumstances in which this contemporary generation are allowed to work, their accomplishments should be justifiably considered ‘successes’ to be revered.
There is no guarantee that comparative historical stars would have succeeded to any greater degree under the same circumstances. The same can be said vice versa too. Reigns, Rollins, Ambrose, Styles et al operate in an environment of corporate restrictions that no other generation of pro wrestling talent has ever had to operate in and still they have managed to inch their way gradually towards infamy reserved for the greatest to ever grapple. Strip those restrictions away and, in lieu of that observation, it isn’t difficult to envision what they could be truly capable of.
Find me the pro wrestling mega-star that was a guaranteed jackpot before he or she was bet upon. Find me the pro wrestling mega-star who became a pro wrestling mega-star before the company ever put any concerted effort into lifting them to such lofty status. There isn’t one, but there has always been an inherent level of risk involved whenever WWE has placed its weight behind a man it wanted to become a mega-star. Hulk Hogan wasn’t guaranteed to succeed. Steve Austin wasn’t guaranteed to succeed. John Cena wasn’t guaranteed to succeed. In each instance, a combination of the performer’s passion, the company’s promotional machine and a little touch of fate took them to the pinnacle of the profession. In each instance, each man needed all three.
Today, no man has the second.
I am reminded of the segment during the infamous Invasion angle when Vince McMahon tried to goad the Rattlesnake to revert to his former self. I am reminded of this because we need the old Vince McMahon – the radical who nationalised and internationalised his organisation and bet the house on a concept called WrestleMania that was never guaranteed to succeed. We do not need the new Vince McMahon – creatively conservative to the point of being craven, fearful of the undiscovered country that is the future and greedy to the point of avarice as he guarantees his fistful of dollars by whoring his organisation’s past to peddle nostalgia as a distraction from the deep-rooted issues of the present.
And here’s the punch-line: in this age of the new Vince McMahon where the alternating benefits of past Eras have been stripped away, Seth Rollins is a performer who finds himself benefitting, quite by fate, from several of them. He has the linear character arc that has developed as a story across a course of years. He has the library of in-ring classics built on the back of that arc – he calls it ‘2018.’ He even has, to some degree at least, the backing of the company who, throughout this summer, openly conceded that he was the most popular talent on their roster; who have, over the years, provided him with a laundry list of accomplishments to match, even in cases supersede comparative lists of Hall of Fame alumni.
He is not alone. Dean Ambrose is right there with him.
In his second book The Greatest Matches and Rivalries of the WrestleMania Era, currently available to buy on Amazon, my recently-retired friend Chad ‘The Doc’ Matthews wrote this of the Seth Rollins vs. Dean Ambrose rivalry:
“[It] has the potential to become the Hart vs. Michaels or Rock vs. Triple H of its time.”
I disagree. It is already exactly that. We need not hesitate to get excited about the creative accomplishments of this rivalry that has seen the two constituent performers rise in harmony through the ranks of WWE, if anything in a far more symmetrical degree than Doc’s historical comparators. I would confidently place any match wrestled by Rollins and Ambrose, together or against one another, alongside the litany of classics offered by Doc’s historical comparators. In fact, place either of those historical comparators in today’s Era and they would likely look just like Rollins vs. Ambrose has come to look, and maybe they’d struggle to achieve even that.
It may be you disagree. It may be you think very little of the Rollins / Ambrose rivalry. That is fair enough. My point is not so specific. Instead it is that this contemporary generation are worth being excited about, should not be written off because what they have achieved doesn’t match up to what others in the same positions have achieved in years past, because context is king. That we need to stop over-thinking it all and allowing WWE’s forceful, even militant insistence on the role of the part-timer, of the veteran, of the ‘special attraction star’ to warp us into believing the fiction they have seemingly consciously spun, that there are no longer any stars to be found in wrestling.
We need to remember that Vince McMahon built his reputation on the back of taking risks. His company became what it is on the back of taking risks. There is no such thing as a sure fire bet, that’s why it’s called gambling. So we don’t need to wait another year to let characters develop. We know that they won’t. We don’t need to worry about the next WrestleMania flopping because two full-time contemporary talents not called Roman Reigns close out the show in the headline match. We know that it won’t. We don’t need to accept that ‘Then is Now, Forever’ because we know that it isn’t.
What we need is to hurtle headlong into a full, impassioned and unapologetic embrace of an extremely talented, extremely dedicated and, frankly, superlative generation of WWE talent that have long since earned the right to get their fair shake.
Truthfully, this hasn’t been about breaking glass ceilings for the longest time, it’s nothing so grand. Those ceilings have been shattered several times over by several performers from what I can tell. So WWE don’t need to build a bigger roof, Imp. They just need to stop moving the god damn goalposts.
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