It was not, as the presumably tongue-in-cheek tweet by ESPN's David Shoemaker suggests, the biggest moment in WWE history, but Shane McMahon's return to a WWE ring on Monday night, after half a decade away, was and is an extremely big deal for reasons only partially related to the man himself.
For WWE fans of a newer, post-Cena vintage, the magnitude of the pop Shane received was undoubtedly confusing. If they remember him at all, it's as Bad Shane McMahon, he of the slow-motion punches and impassive faces that defined his dumb feud with Randy Orton. There's no real defending his onscreen work in the promotion prior to his departure to sell cable in China. He was bored-looking and generally indifferent, a fact that McMahon will all but admit to in print interviews.
To get to the heart of Monday's excitement, you have to go back to Good Shane McMahon, the Shane McMahon of the late '90s and early '00s. He was still mostly the same guy, but he established a deep connection with fans due, for lack of a better term, to his willingness to get hurt. Lots of guys in wrestling are willing to get hurt; not many do so when they don't have to. This is a strange point and not one without layers of meaning. Shane, after all, had health insurance and a limitless amount of money to fall back on if he never got up from, say, Kurt Angle trying and failing to throw him through a set. He didn't have to worry about the big spots going wrong; people like Mick Foley and Rob Van Dam did. He was, not to belabor it, a McMahon, and no one else in WWE has it quite so good as the McMahons.
Still, the connection was established. McMahon was built like any normal man his age and simply did not give a shit about his body. It was cool seeing what amounted to a rich, smart-assed version of a mid-20s fan jumping off scaffolding for the amusement of a lot of people. Toss in the fact that it's always seemed like his character's love-hate relationship with his father and sister might be based on believable real-world resentment, and Shane connected on an elemental level with the crowds.
The massive pop he got on the most recent Monday Night Raw is the least interesting part of his return. Something strange is afoot in WWE, and a major reshuffling seems to be underway. There is no way that Shane's announced match—a brutal Hell in a Cell match with Undertaker at WrestleMania, for nothing less than control of the company—goes off as planned. It is now the centerpiece of the show, more than anything they might come up with barring a miraculous Stone Cold Steve Austin recovery. It is also a match that Shane McMahon almost certainly cannot do, given that he's 46 and so far removed from his best days. This swings the gate open for a stand-in, some Champion TBD who'll step in to do battle for Shane. A returning Randy Orton or John Cena, perhaps, both of who look amazing in comparison to the promotion's replacement Superman, Roman Reigns.
Shane's returning promo also revealed an honesty about WWE's situation, which only a McMahon could have delivered. He flatly stated the product sucks and the ratings are in the toilet, both of which are true. But there's a different tone to it when it's delivered in business-speak by a man so close to the inner workings of WWE's royal family than it is when CM Punk is dropping a scripted shoot or the wrestling intelligentsia are reviewing shows on podcasts.
The fact is, WWE knows things are bad. Shane saying this is proof, even if they don't know why they got here or how to get out of it. The numbers don't lie: ratings really are terrible and the WWE Network hasn't set the world on fire in terms of subscriber numbers. Everyone hates Roman Reigns, yet his visage is still plastered everywhere, glowering down with mock intensity from posters and billboards. There's a terrible injury crisis, which has seen a third of the feasible top wrestlers on the roster stuck in physical therapy and hospital rooms for months.
When Shane McMahon says things suck, it's an indication not just that this realization has permeated Vince McMahon's throne room but that something is going to change. There's no telling what that something is, and there's certainly no guarantee that what comes next will be better than the doldrums WWE is suffering through now, but it certainly suggests that there's a shift coming.
That was immediately apparent at the end of Raw. Triple H came out to attack Roman Reigns, his WrestleMania opponent, and bloodied him. And not a little bit of blood, either. Reigns' face was a mess, the proverbial crimson mask, and Triple H took great pains to smear the blood with pulled punches, facing the gore to the hard camera. Whether it was a blood pack or a blade job, it was real as could be in the moment.
This is in direct opposition to WWE's years-old PG policy. When blood has shown up, it's been accidental and downplayed. This was deliberate and played up for the crowd. And Triple H, booed for years and on every wrestling nerd's shitlist for burying other wrestlers for his own gain, was cheered like a conquering gladiator for beating the hell out of the detested Reigns. There's a ring of Daniel Bryan's push to this, a sense that WWE knows that we know something is wrong, that they won't change it but maybe are anyway, until it becomes an ouroboros of petty corporate politics and locker room backstabbing. Nothing means nothing and nothing is real and nothing makes sense.
Then there are the rumors that the endgame of Shane's return is another brand split, placing one half of the roster behind Shane in a war with his father and sister. Tom Holzerman tweeted just that before Shane came out, with Smackdown possibly returning to its status as coequal show with Raw. If that's convoluted for the layperson, just know that the idea of mixed allegiances and outsiders invading the established wrestling order is a long respected trope of pro wrestling storytelling. It sells.
Still, there's the sense that we've seen all this before. No matter what the non-McMahon implications are for how WWE looks post-WrestleMania, the return of Shane means that the next big story the promotion tells will be a story about McMahons. Their psychodrama is, at this point, 20 years old; the return of the purely soap operatic storytelling surrounding them means the reprieve from the all-consuming McMahon drama is over. We've done this before, several times, with nothing ever really changing. They still hate each other on screen, today as in 1998, and they're still conniving against one another. In that sense, the impending changes really aren't that drastic at all.