Sports

WWE, The Prison Of History, And The Problem With Being Bigger Than Life

In professional wrestling, the past is more present than in other sports. This is good, but when it's handled as it was at "Battleground," it feels like a trap.
July 22, 2015, 5:49pm
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The WWE's recent Battleground pay-per-view was not a metaphor, or not just a metaphor. There was a great deal of wrestling, some of it very good, before the metaphorical part hit. That moment came in the big WWE title match between reigning champion and Millennial snot Seth Rollins and legitimately scary man Brock Lesnar. More precisely it came when the Undertaker showed up at the end of the match to avenge his iconic Wrestlemania loss to Lesnar. The lights went out, the gong tolled, and there he was, back hair bristling like a boar's, eyes bugging in method actor rage. And then Undertaker beat Lesnar's ass, setting up a Summerslam match between the two men.

Which was all fine. But what was weird, and extremely rare, was that Seth Rollins simply disappeared once the fists started flying. We didn't see him roll out of the ring. The bell never rang to end the match. There was no disqualification, no announcement of him as retaining—belts can't change hands on disqualification, so the champ always retains—no music, not even a mention. The Undertaker walked to the back, fake lightning crackling on the screen behind him, struck his classic pose, and everything faded to black. The champion just vanished.

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The next night on Raw, Rollins made mention of this strange ending, forcing ring announcer Lilian Garcia to announce his title retention since he didn't get it the night before. It was mightily weird seeing the man who is ostensibly the most important figure in the company reduced to enacting an ironic skit intended to wink recognition to the wrestling nerds in the audience that something strange had indeed happened the night prior. Being aware enough to acknowledge that it's weird when a bloated and undead figure from the past literally makes the current champion disappear is one thing. The issue, for WWE, is that they did it anyway.

There's no other form of live entertainment which is quite so wrapped up in its own past as professional wrestling. The sense of watching history, of seeing the present becomes the revered past in real time, is part of the reason this form has lived so long and remained so vital. But it's also easy to get trapped in a _Groundhog Day_-ish repetition of what's worked before, lost in a maze of long-ago 8.0 ratings and misty Stone Cold Stunners.

When you have just been defeated by a 50-year-old who does not appear to be in the best health. — Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

This is essentially what's happened, and what happened to Seth Rollins. For whatever reason—age, nostalgia for that turn-of-the-millenium heyday, insecurity, or something else—WWE's brain trust is fully drunk on the company's illustrious past. Rumors about the Undertaker returning started up in the week before Battleground amid WWE panic about historically low Raw ratings. And so, almost reflexively, the promotion exhumed a 50-year-old legend who could barely pick Lesnar up.

The other hot rumor was that Sting, he of the one career WWE match, would accompany Undertaker. While that didn't pan out, its plausibility is a window into pro wrestling's mindset, and the view is not flattering. Not only was WWE going to turn to its own past in a tough spot, they were considering—or it seemed believable that they would be—turning to other promotions' pasts to carry the day.

While the close of Battleground was the most egregious example of just how lost in the funhouse WWE is, it was not a unique example. This is just what WWE does, and its refusal to leave the past in the past is making the present crowded to the point of claustrophobia. Bray Wyatt, for example, is currently drifting through a meandering feud with Roman Reigns. Wyatt, a weirdo backwoods cult leader, is billed as "the new face of fear." This gambit could work, except that the old faces of fear, the Undertaker and Kane, won't go away. Indeed—and I swear I'm not trying to go too hard on the man—Undertaker beat Wyatt at the most recent Wrestlemania, the old model literally beating the new. The symbolism was every bit as heavy as it was at Battleground.

There's more history coming. Next year's Wrestlemania is heavily rumored to be the biggest of all time, to the extent that biggest means oldest. McMahon is supposedly pushing for everyone who can still walk, from Hulk Hogan to Shawn Michaels to Steve Austin, to fly in and actively compete on the card. Never mind that the stars of the Attitude Era are either hurtling towards or limping past 50 years of age. Past and present will be together and it will be an open question which one wins.

The undead dude just won't die. — Photo by Vishal Somaiya via Flickr/Wikimedia Commons

The common argument when it comes to the old guys is that it's simply WWE playing it safe; there's an implicit shifting of blame onto the faded stars who don't want to leave the lights behind. Those are real factors, but also too simple. In pro wrestling, the decades melt and mix together, the new is easily consumed by the old, and the raw gestalt that burps forth is presented as spectacle made of flesh and fireworks. The past is never fully past, in a narrative sense as much as in a business one, because wrestling is myth and myth carries emotional and psychological weight.

It's not just laziness, in other words. Wrestling's past has a real gravity which can sometimes prove inescapable. To go back to one of our recently departed legends, it's not just that Dusty Rhodes was a big figure—he was the personification of an age and a region. The best and most meaningful wrestlers are always like that—they express a moment or a mood or a place, they take an abstract thing and fight from within it.

And to honor that, to want those men and women to constantly be present, is natural. To let go of Dusty or Flair, to contemplate never seeing Austin or The Rock again, isn't just to admit that those heroes are gone but that what they represented has faded away. That's not something we do well in an America that refuses to let go of its comic book collection and dusty Reagan-era toys.

Wrestling has always walked this line. At its skillful best, the presence and palpable weight of history in the ring drums up excitement, lending credibility to the emergence of new stars while tying them to the greats who came before. At its worst, though, the intoxication of the past gives us what we saw in the Battleground pay-per-view—a young, promising champion slinking off in the dark while the cameras are pointed at a pentagenarian doing the same things he's always done, just a little bit slower than we remembered.

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