The August 28th Monday Night Raw generated that rarest of things for WWE: genuine buzz. It was all about John Cena and Roman Reigns facing off in a blistering promo contest, in which Cena absolutely buried Reigns in a worked shoot style. Pro wrestling social media immediately lit up, while everyone from Sports Illustrated to Dave Meltzer rushed to sing its praises.
It was the promo of the year, a masterclass in delivery and sick burns. It was also deeply indicative of how deep a rut the WWE has dug for itself and its stars: the promo changed absolutely nothing for anyone involved in the exchange, and only revealed just how much contempt WWE has for its audience.
The worked shoot is a mainstay of pro wrestling, with the idea being that a wrestler clears "real" talking points with management before cutting a promo about "real" issues, thereby confusing the audience as to whether what they're watching is legit or kayfabe. Usually, it leans on the audience's own knowledge that they're willingly giving itself over to pro wrestling's artifice—worked shoots have always tended to lean on backstage issues escaping their bounds and bleeding into the scripted unreality of pro wrestling proper.
The most famous recent example is, of course, CM Punk's famous pipe bomb promo from 2011. In it, the notoriously cranky Punk pontificated on just how bad WWE and John Cena were, comparing Cena to the then-working in TNA Hulk Hogan and calling Triple H (Vince McMahon's son-in-law and probable heir to the company with Stephanie McMahon) a doofus.
It was a list of grievances shared by any any right-thinking pro wrestling fan, a fact which buoyed CM Punk's claim to be the voice of the voiceless. That gets at what makes worked shoots work—it's not so much about reveling in the confusion between what's real and what's not, but about catharsis. One of the hardest things forpro wrestling fans is to set aside what they think could be done better about this angle or that match. It's just not how we're wired; pro wrestling is too interactive and invites too much curiosity about the backstage scene to switch off that little (sometimes loud) voice going, "what if they did it a different way?"
All the stuff we've all been thinking is out there, in the air. The problem is that, unlike with Punk, nothing is going to change.
A worked shoot promo like Punk's let the audience know that they're not alone, with a cult favorite asking all the questions they'd ever wanted to. More importantly, though, things did change, at least for awhile—CM Punk ended up winning the WWE title and holding it for more than a year. And yes, it all went sour at the end and the actual reign had some real down moments, but the worked shoot came through with at least some sort of concrete follow-through on WWE's part.
Which brings us back to the Cena-Reigns promo. It was delightfully well-worked, at least from Cena's side. He ran Reigns down so badly it's a wonder that Vince McMahon and Triple H—who are both hell-bent on eventually making Reigns the next WWE wrestler in the Hogan-Cena dominant babyface mold—allowed it. And once again, it was catharsis. Everyone hates Reigns and there was John Cena, telling him he can't retire because Reigns isn't good enough, that Reigns is going to have to cut a decent promo before he can really make it, that he's a corporate creation. All the stuff we've all been thinking is out there, in the air.
The problem is that, unlike with Punk, nothing is going to change. Remember: these are scripted promos, regardless of whether they tap into frustrations WWE usually ignores. It's not really Cena telling you that stuff, but WWE.
And what WWE is telling you is that they've heard every boo, every groan of disgust with yet another Roman Reigns Wrestlemania main event…and he's still there. The company is even tacitly acknowledging that he's not that good; Cena's running down of Reigns' skills— capped off by the probably ad-libbed and definitely brutal advice from Cena that Reigns really needs to learn how to cut a promo—didn't come from nowhere.
There's nowhere interesting for the aftermath of the promo to go, as well-delivered as it was. There's no real threat that Cena will leave, as there was with Punk (it's important to remember that Punk really did seem to be winding down his WWE contract when he delivered his promo). We all know that Reigns will still be front and center in the medium-term future, and that Cena will be a lingering part-time presence at a banged-up 40 years old. There's no surprise to be had here.
Which leaves the stakes of the match—remember, the match, the thing they're working toward—kind of hollow. It's just another match at another B-level pay-per-view with just a touch more mustard on the rhetoric between the primary actors, rhetoric which will be forgotten in two months, just as with most other worked shoots.
For a worked shoot to mean something, for the shoot part in it to linger, there has to be some threat that the audience's catharsis can translate into something structurally different about the promotion they're watching. And if there's one promotion which doesn't change, it's WWE.
So what was the point? It certainly wasn't the preservation of the lingering parts of kayfabe, the "fake" part of pro wrestling. As wrestling blogger Thomas Holzerman perceptively pointed out in the wake of the promo, the weirdest, wildest stuff from the supposedly kayfabe breaking Kenny Omega or fever dream promotion DDT Pro at least owes fidelity to a shared wrestling reality, which everyone adheres to. The real kayfabe breaker is WWE, whose wrestlers are constantly talking about how good their "performances" are without any storyline purpose. It's hotshotting of the worst sort, with no payoff other than a little extra sizzle for a one-off match, while letting everyone know that the acknowledgement of their frustrations with Reigns isn't real in any concrete manner.
I am assured of nothing so much as this: the promo changed nothing. What it served as was a safety valve, a means of letting just a little steam escape from the audience. It won't plug into any big story. There's no reshuffling of the pecking order, as there was with CM Punk. There's not even going to be much mainstream media coverage past this initial burst, as there was with arguably the greatest worked shoot of all time, the Andy Kaufman-Jerry Lawler feud.
WWE figures structural changes aren't needed and, looking at the numbers, it's not hard to see why the McMahons feel that way. We'll be here again, a few months to a year from now, talking about another worked shoot delivered to another handpicked star. Everyone will gasp with "can you believe they said that" on our lips. And WWE will just keep right on churning as before, as Punk's worked shoot and a WWE that was capable of evolving in reaction to its own truths recede further from view.