At some point, a string of middling shows and way worse television isn’t an accident. Sunday’s Extreme Rules pay-per-view marked a trifecta of monotonous, plodding WWE shows in the wake of WrestleMania. Backlash sucked. Money in the Bank was boring. Extreme Rules stank.
It’s a strange thing, this settling into the new rote normal of mediocrity. Pro wrestling time doesn’t work like normal time. You’ll watch a famous storyline or series of matches in retrospect and realize that it was a matter of months or just a couple of years, not the long stretch of glory you remember. The Summer of Punk (take your pick of which one) was just a summer, the Attitude Era just a few years. Careers are long, stories are short.
That’s why the long string of at least good WWE pay-per-views of 2016 and 2017 suddenly feel hazy. In pro wrestling time, they’re miles past. That Royal Rumble where Asuka and Shinsuke Nakamura won? That was in January; on Sunday, Asuka lost to Carmella because she’s gone from conquering monster to drooling idiot, while Nakamura tasted gold because all he does is nutshots and Jeff Hardy needs time off.
Nothing in the show eclipsed a little better than average. Braun Strowman threw Kevin Owens off a cage in a needlessly dangerous but nonetheless thrilling homage to the Undertaker and Mick Foley’s iconic match 20 years prior in the same city. Roman Reigns and Bobby Lashley had a decent match, which Lashley won to set up a showdown with Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam on August 19. A.J. Styles and Rusev had a fun match. And that was pretty much it. Everything else was at least a little boring or outright sucked.
But more than that was the sense that it didn’t matter. None of it mattered. Why would it? It was mostly matches we’ve seen over and over. There’s rarely a proper payoff and even fewer actual endings—recall that Nakamura and Styles were supposed to end their feud with a Last Man Standing match in June, only to have a throwaway bout a week ago.
Alexa Bliss and Nia Jax had a hardcore match. Who cares? They fight every week, and a few awkward garbage can bumps don’t change that. On down the line, it was matches we’d seen or new stuff which had bloated buildups due to just how many hours WWE has to fill every week: two on Smackdown, three on Raw, and now four on their expanded (help us all, they expanded them) pay-per-views. We will see every single one of these matches again, ad nauseum, in the coming months.
Again, it wasn’t like this a year ago. A year ago, the whole world was snickering about the dumb name Great Balls of Fire, only to stop when the show went on and it turned out to be one of the best shows of the year. And that was a B-show, where not a ton was going to change, but we got fun, good matches and hot shit angles. Most of 2017 was like this. Most of 2016, too, on down until you have to start digging into 2014 to get to a stretch of truly bad/boring pay-per-views.
It’s like a switch was flipped halfway through WrestleMania (the back half of the show mostly sucked) and WWE turned off the creative lights. Why wouldn’t they? They’ve signed a billion dollar deal with FOX and achieved their dream of getting back on network television once it goes live and Smackdown moves over to FOX's Friday night lineup. They get to run elaborate house shows in Saudi Arabia and suck up all the oxygen through sheer volume wherever they go. Vince McMahon can go chase his inexplicable XFL dreams and just leave WWE to plod on, secure in the knowledge that it’s so rich and well-stocked that it’s become a pro wrestling perpetual motion machine.
The crowd knows. Pittsburgh is catching hell about being disrespectful, not just because they taunted Reigns and Lashley (further proof that Reigns will never have a normal career), but because they novelly dumped on an on-paper barnburner, the Seth Rollins-Dolph Ziggler main event. Every minute, the crowd would count with the timer in a “3, 2, 1, ENNHHHHHHH” cadence which mimicked the Royal Rumble match buzzer. Entitled, self-indulgent, annoying fans.
Yes, they are sometimes all of that, but they’re also fans who are routinely put in arenas for four hour shows where nothing important happens. They’re bored. As wrestling blogger Tom Holzerman pointed out last night, WWE shows are the only place where this happens. Waving away this persistent behavior by WWE fans as something endemic to all pro wrestling fans is a fool’s game, one played on WWE’s turf, because it’s long been the case that the fans can only fail WWE, and never vice versa.
The fans have been failing WWE a lot, apparently. The go-home Raw last week garnered the lowest ratings in the show’s history. Because, again, why would you watch every week? Why would you watch any week? Nothing happens or you’ve seen it before, stuck on an endless loop of pro wrestling purgatory. It doesn’t matter to you. It doesn’t matter to WWE.
It may matter to FOX, though. On the eve of Extreme Rules, WWE released a brief, three sentence statement that Hulk Hogan, pro wrestling’s most famous living racist, is back. He was backstage at Extreme Rules and there’s a very good possibility he’s in front of television cameras soon. WWE’s statement simply refers to Hogan making a “mistake.” There’s no mention of what that was or what his supposed penance was. He’s just back, brother, and he’ll be omnipresent soon enough.
It’s an utterly dismal situation which is absolutely sympatico with the nature of our times. A known racist, who is recorded actually saying he’s a racist, gets to return to his old life of media ubiquity, having paid no price whatsoever beyond a three year banishment from hobnobbing with billionaires and entertainment superstars. This situation is blamed on the media, despite all of us going along with the absolute insanity that what he said doesn’t even warrant a mention in the press release which supposedly closes the book on the thing WWE is insisting we can’t say happened. WWE had a video of him announcing the creation of a “Superstars for Hope” campaign on Monday morning, which would constitute something heartfelt if Stephanie McMahon wasn’t part of the “philanthropy is the future of marketing” crowd. If Hogan’s part of your brand going forward, you better get that philanthropy and good works PR going in. All sins are forgivable if the indulgences are paid for.
WWE gets to rewrite history via reducing racism to a nameless “mistake.” Do the employees like it? They’re faving his return on Instagram and putting up pictures of themselves as kids dressed as Hulk Hogan, but how could we even know what’s real about this? As if WWE would let them speak their minds if they were upset by Hogan’s return. That’s not how corporations work.
Why now? Because the Raw ratings stink, so the nameless nothing which Hogan did disappears into the formless hype of the return of a conquering hero, who we are told is quite contrite but we don’t know is contrite because saying is the same as doing, at least if you’re rich and famous. For the poor, normal rubes, we have to do everything to prove we’re actually sick, actually put-upon, actually in debt, actually in trouble.
There’s also the lingering absurdity of WWE putting on a show—a B-show, but still a big show—and having it all overshadowed by the return of a 64-year-old, who you wouldn’t need if you just did good wrestling. A bunch of 30-somethings and a few people in their early 40s doing the hard work while 60 and 70 year olds get the attention and big money? What is this strange, unrecognizable world?
We joke about how real life is pro wrestling, but this is your Trumpian 2018 in microcosm. Nothing anyone says means anything, the act of doing is only insisted upon for some, and history is mutable, all because a company can simply churn at a standstill forever, like WWE did at Extreme Rules, accruing wealth and power beyond any rational understanding. The G1 Climax started over the weekend, as well. Go watch that, instead, and hope WWE gets its act together.