Perhaps as a result of having found itself in the curious position of having to navigate their way towards and through a litany of special events over the course of the last month all at the same time – be it Hell in a Cell, Super Showdown, Evolution or even the pending Survivor Series – WWE’s recent output, while enjoying a number of high points, has nevertheless felt curiously like treading water. “Trying to do everything while achieving almost nothing” was the way I described it last Friday on LOP Radio’s The Right Side of the Pond podcast.
This is not necessarily a terrible thing, though, and it could certainly be worse. The focus of creative output has largely remained focussed on contemporary talent, in itself a positive sign, and beginning with this last week’s edition of Monday Night Raw (MNR) we have seen positive glimpses throughout the company’s myriad brands that we probably shouldn’t dare hope might indicate a loosening of one of the company’s most detrimental qualities.
The word is out; not out of the minds of the collective WWE creative staff, but rather the mouth of Ronda Rousey herself. That is the rumour now making its way through the social media-paved streets of the Internet Wrestling Community (IWC) at least, with news emerging over the course of the last several days that the reigning MNR Women’s Champion was responsible for conceptualising that scathing promo she cut at the expense of the Bella Twins this last Monday, as the Baddest Woman on the Planet edges closer to her pending Evolution title defence against Nikki.
Appreciating the requisite pinch of salt that should season any news circling our web-dwelling ranks, it’s a fascinating notion if this were to be true. For a very long time now one of the chief criticisms regarding WWE and their creative model, if not primary among them all, is their attempts to micromanage the output of their talent’s collective imaginations. Notes have been replaced with monologues, so we are told, and it shows. WWE has become a world in which everyone sounds like each other, because they have had their voices replaced with scripts written by ‘wordsmiths’ who do the term little justice.
Consider that last comment not an internet ‘smark’ cliché but an empirically proven truth: some of the scripting on these shows is of a secondary school quality.
If, then, Rousey was afforded the opportunity to formulate her own character’s voice this week, we should take that as a signal of positivity. Fans chattered excitedly about the results. Although it has been generally accepted that not every one of Rousey’s lines landed with the zing that may have been intended and / or desired, that she was able to channel her own ideas and emotions into her work six days ago paid off handsomely. Authenticity counts for something in the world of professional wrestling and last Monday Ronda Rousey felt authentic – eventually, anyway. To be fair, though, it was in part her transformation from waveringly-voiced scripted victim to barely-contained raging revenge artist that helped make her verbal tussle with her next opposition so effective and did more to create the desired hype for Evolution’s presumed main event match than all the weeks of groundwork we have endured thus far.
There is a lesson to be learned in that, one that would be obvious to any company or individual not quite so deeply entrenched in their own heads as the powers-that-be so often are in WWE. It is a lesson history teaches us and one the veterans of the game repeat time and again. That lesson is a frustratingly self-evident truth, and it is this: unleash your talent and you might just laugh your way to the bank making money because of your decisions rather than in spite of them.
Rousey is far from the only individual to have benefitted from this rumoured creative liberty either it would seem. This week has been awash with talents finding their own voices to project their individualism out into the wider world. Whether these are a result of the same unchaining or a testament to the talent of the performers who might have successfully duped this fan into believing one of WWE’s worst traits has been, at least in specific spheres, cast aside I cannot be sure. Nonetheless, these last few days I have experienced just that little bit less homogeneity than I am otherwise used to and the results should be encouraged.
Mustafa Ali’s blistering monologue was an outpouring of frustrated emotion that matched the downpour in which it was delivered, his impassioned words of redemption and untempered pursuit of personal justice projecting his individual personality in the glassy reflection of the Chicago rain. No other character in WWE’s universe could have delivered that.
Even the promo cut by Moustache Mountain on the first episode of NXT UK in front of a thousand fans packed into the Cambridge Corn Exchange felt as tangibly real as the brutal bare-brick beauty of the event’s Victorian venue. Relaxed, injected with wit and speaking on their past achievements in the foreign clime of their brand’s American forefather, it was difficult to imagine any other combination throughout WWE’s universe making that same mission statement in that same way.
Today’s Era, whatever it may come to be named by history, is becoming defined by the upward-facing ceaseless struggle of a hugely talented generation of stars to take their rightful place as the focus of a company phobic about its own future and intent on suffocating its talent with circumstances no preceding generation has ever been asked to contend with. Glimpses of the creative freedom of Eras past, be those glimpses kernels of truth or misleading overachievements, are immensely welcome in such an environment and a stark reminder of just what the contemporary generation could go on to accomplish if their restraints were removed; or even just loosened a little.
But in the midst of characters littered throughout WWE’s fictional universe seemingly finding their own voices this week, what has struck me as curious is the emergent common theme that has bled throughout that same fictional universe for the last several days. It is a theme well-trodden to those who may follow these columns or even my new podcast, Sports Entertainment is Dead, and certainly one fans of Seth Rollins and / or Dean Ambrose will be all too familiar with: regret.
WWE were sure to show their apparent scattershot creativity in the writing of last Tuesday’s celebratory 1000th episode of Smackdown Live (SDL). On the one hand, they decided to lay groundwork for a match absolutely nobody on the planet wants to see by reuniting the infamous Evolution stable on a show Evolution never appeared on during their heyday, but on the other they approached the still red hot SDL Women’s Championship storyline with a fascinatingly original approach in the form of a guest appearance from Rated R Superstar, Edge.
Playing on our memories of the antics of the Ultimate Opportunist when he was at the height of his singles success – that being those few years where his name was synonymous with the Blue Brand – Edge cut a regretful figure, doing his best to forewarn Becky Lynch about the lonely future she faces if she continues to consciously dismantle both her better self and her friendship with current rival Charlotte Flair. Edge spoke compellingly about how his fight to achieve unsponsored, even subversive success fuelled by burning away everything of real value in his life has led him to just such a present.
It is important to note that, while some fans might balk at such a bleeding heart speech in consideration of Edge’s real world marriage to Beth Phoenix and their collective family, there should be a divide defined between Edge and the performer, Adam Copeland. The latter may enjoy married retirement. It is clear, considering the words he so endearingly spoke last Tuesday night, that the former has been left with little more than a trophy case and a draughty lonely old house in which to place it.
In spite of the world-weary tone laced in his voice and the wisdom of experience etched across his weathered complexion, Edge’s well-intended words fell instead on deaf ears as Lynch revealed the true extent of her growing narcissism, a narcissism at first justified by her unquestionable championship victory over Charlotte at Hell in a Cell but now cast in doubt by her dubious survivalist tactics at Super Showdown. Everything now rides on their Last Woman Standing Match at Evolution, including whether or not Lynch will ‘evolve’ into whatever horrific version of herself she is quickly becoming and, seemingly, blindly racing to embrace.
One wonders whether Edge’s words should be heeded by others in WWE’s universe too, though, and not just Lynch. Avarice, greed and ego are all vices eagerly fed by experiences in the world of WWE and time and again have taken our heroes and let them fall from grace. Some currently teeter on the brink, like an impassioned Cedric Alexander, an obsessive Johnny Gargano and a conflicted Dean Ambrose. Others are attempting to build a new life atop it, not just like Becky Lynch but like the Bella Twins, now consumed by their envy, and Drew McIntyre, now defined by his lingering bitterness. Some have avoided disaster bred by it and, through the torture of emotional experience, continue to succeed all the more for surviving it – like the newly self-anointed ‘Best in the World’ and WWE World Cup competitor Seth Rollins.
Even those towering legendary figures of WWE myth are having their friendships rent asunder by it.
It is throughout this heady environment of inevitable regret, permeated by those vices of avarice, greed and ego, that Edge’s warning last Tuesday echoes like the scream of a Dickensian specter reverberating out of the abyss he once gazed into for far too long: if you destroy everything in pursuit of anything, all you end up with is nothing.
Ask Edge. Ask Seth. Tell Dean. Warn Drew. And hope Becky Lynch listens yet.