The Nostalgia Trap: Heading Into ‘Hell in a Cell,’ Does WWE Rely Too Much on Its Legends?

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On Monday night, WWE had a Legends homecoming on Raw, trotting out “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Shawn Michaels, and Ric Flair to spice up the proceedings and build hype for Sunday’s Hell in a Cell pay-per-view. The lineup was also something of a test run for next year’s WrestleMania, which will attempt to set an attendance record at Jerry World in North Texas, and rest assured that any wrestling legend who can walk to the ring will be there to squeeze every last ticket sale out of the fans.

Austin, Michaels, and Flair were joined in the parade of yesteryear by the Dudley Boyz, the Undertaker, and Kane, all of whom had their heydays in the ’90s and are still actively wrestling — though Taker’s light schedule these days resembles that of Punxsutawney Phil. Yet overall, the throwback theme is hard to ignore in recent WWE happenings: Kane, who debuted in the ’90s, is wrestling Seth Rollins for the WWE championship on Sunday. Attitude Era great Chris Jericho is still on the road with WWE, and he wrestled at the Night of Champions PPV. The Rock has been reimported from Hollywood for a number of big matches over the past few years. Triple H, the wrestler turned backstage exec, still works a couple of matches a year, such as his WrestleMania 31 match against Sting, which featured wistful run-ins by over-the-hill grappler posses the nWo and D-Generation X. In addition to that, DX members Billy Gunn and the Road Dogg had an endearing comeback in WWE in 2014 and briefly this year as well.1

If you’re thinking that WWE booked the Legends on Raw to boost flagging ratings, then you’re probably right. If you thought this effort would succeed, then, well, I’m afraid I have bad news. Despite all the eminent appearances, despite this being the go-home show before a beloved PPV event, Raw rated a 2.21 share this week. There were extenuating circumstances — Raw ratings always suffer during football season, and Monday Night Football this week had the bonus attraction of a new Star Wars trailer. Even that stings, though, because even in a nostalgia match, WWE can’t win.2

There are a seemingly infinite number of channels and websites to occupy potential viewers’ eyes, so it’s no surprise that wrestling’s ratings numbers are trending down. But this was a notably low rating — with the exception of a Christmas Eve 2012 episode, it was the worst ratings performance by Raw since 1997. That’s eons ago in wrestling years, back when the WWF roster featured names like … the Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin, Hunter Hearst Helmsley, Rocky Maivia, the New Age Outlaws, and Goldust.3 Goldust (much like the Outlaws) was called up in 2013 from his backstage role to resume his in-ring career to give a sentimental boost to the modern story lines, teaming up (and later feuding) with his real-life half-brother Cody Rhodes. The story line was intermittently intriguing — especially when they brought their dad, “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, into the narrative — but it ran out of steam when Goldust went down with a shoulder injury in May.

Injuries in pro wrestling are part of the deal, but they’re particularly heartbreaking when they happen to older performers. Wrestling allows for a special kind of masochism: If you can pop the crowd and take a bump, then you can wrestle, no matter your age. The addiction that most former stars have to the spotlight is rivaled only by promoters’ dependence on converting retired stars’ enduring popularity into monetary gains — and fans’ unquenchable desire to see them wrestle “One more match!” Unsurprisingly, this formula doesn’t always end well. Fifty-six-year-old Sting came back to wrestle for the WWE championship at Night of Champions last month, and he left with a back/neck injury that scuttled the planned ending of the match. The Undertaker was rushed to the hospital with a severe concussion after his match against Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 2014.

For the record, the main event at Hell in a Cell is Undertaker vs. Lesnar again — this time inside the titular steel cage. It’s being billed — loudly — as their last match ever. Because of Taker’s age, it’s probably the only time WWE has honestly promulgated a line like that. Paul Heyman, Lesnar’s baroque-tongued advocate, promised that one of the two combatants will walk out the winner and the other won’t walk out at all. The half-frightening, half-enthralling thing about Heyman’s promise is that listening to it in the moment, it sounded like the truth. Undertaker’s matches have always been must-see spectacles, but since WrestleMania 30, the spectacle has been equal parts farewell tour and disaster porn. Odds are Taker will have another match or two after Sunday — it’s hard to imagine a WrestleMania in Dallas without him — but despite his years-long blood feud with Lesnar, the Taker’s advanced age and previous injuries make up the prevailing story line here. That the match is inside the Cell, where violence is preordained and catastrophe is anticipated, only underscores that.

There’s no denying that Undertaker can still put on a good match, and Sunday’s main event should be one of the biggest matches that WWE has put on in a long time. The co–main event between Rollins and Kane won’t suffer for Kane’s age — he’s the same in-ring presence he’s always been. And as with Taker, the feeling that we’re seeing Kane’s victory lap gives the match some zest. And listen, having old favorites like Austin, Michaels, and Flair pop up is great, as long as they’re used appropriately. I thought Shawn’s interaction with Rollins on Monday was smart, and Flair’s bawling added real sentiment to his daughter Charlotte’s title win last month.

But these things don’t happen in a vacuum. They happen in a world in which WWE has larded its broadband network with Attitude Era–related documentaries, homages to the Curtain Call of 1996, and histories of the Monday Night Wars. Much of the content the WWE has produced on those subjects is good. But for the nostalgia seeker, it’s secondary. If I want to see my favorite legend, I can check out his podcast or his comedy act or his reality show or his metal band. I don’t need an opening promo on Raw to get that fix.

If I were really hankering for my Legends fix, I could also watch all of the aforementioned fellows in their heyday … on the WWE Network. The network is a great tool for archival purposes and a promising platform for evolving the business. It’s a gift for wrestling fans. But nostalgia is a fleeting emotion, not a story line. It can be a marketing tool, but it’s not a substitute for substance. When reliving the past takes precedence over developing the present, that’s a problem.

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Pro wrestling is a variety show, and there’s room for legends and rookies alike, just like there’s room for monsters and dancers and wrestling bears. But this isn’t an argument about content as much as it is one about priorities. An obsession with the past makes progress in the present nearly impossible — that’s obvious. It also makes the here and now more difficult. When he appeared on The Steve Austin Show, Vince McMahon said the latest generation of wrestlers hasn’t produced transcendent stars because nobody has grabbed the brass ring. He blamed it on millennials. The point was more canny than he probably intended it to be: The reason young wrestlers have a harder time breaking out is because they’re further removed from the late-’90s moment that WWE can’t seem to stop obsessing over. A guest spot from an old favorite can be a great moment in a bigger show, but endlessly mining the past demeans the present. And when the current product can’t get out from under the shadow of the past because WWE’s finances are tied to the network and thus to the glories of yesteryear, the guest spots also feel diminished. Fans can’t tell the difference between meaningful special appearances and the endless circle-jerk of Legends–related marketing synchronicity.

On Sunday at Hell in a Cell, we get Lesnar taking on possibly the greatest wrestler of his generation in the Undertaker. We get Seth Rollins versus a workhorse Hall of Famer in Kane. We get the Dudleys taking on WWE’s newest sensation, the immaculate New Day. And there’s plenty of reason to be excited about the future, if blue-chippers like Roman Reigns, Bray Wyatt, Charlotte, Dean Ambrose, and Kevin Owens4 can transcend the old-school stereotypes in which WWE seems determined to portray them, even as McMahon blames the performers. But there’s a feeling that WWE can never escape its past, its obsession with blowing up the territorial system and vanquishing its later rival in WCW. Like an aging high school football star, WWE is getting fat on the couch, reliving its glory days.

That kind of nostalgia is dangerous — but not, I suppose, as dangerous as the potential plight of a 50-year-old man in a steel-cage death match. Kane, perhaps, is fortunate that he won’t be inside the cell, but his story line of late is every bit as harrowing.

Since his return last month, Kane has been occupying two characters — the red-masked Demon Kane and the besuited Corporate Kane — and treating them as separate people. It’s unclear whether or not he’s gone crazy, but signs point to him working a long con. And as silly as this plotline is, it’s actually sort of brilliant. Because Kane, the real-life long-suffering loyal employee of WWE, has finally reached the end of his career. And his bosses, the real-life execs Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, see him as a useful tool but not necessarily as a big draw, despite his years of service and his preternatural ability to transcend every inane gimmick that’s been thrust upon him. So Kane works a split personality shtick — the silliest gimmick possible, the quintessence of every dumb twist his character has taken over the years — and he turns it on its head. He’s flouting the stupidity of it all, daring his bosses to call him on his antics. But they can’t, because to admit that Kane is two different characters — to admit that the machine has become self-aware — would be breaking kayfabe. And as much as the WWE roster has been allowed to indulge in reality in recent years, the onscreen authority remains committed to wrestling’s grand illusion.

This is the promise of pro wrestling and the potential of nostalgia. This story line works only with someone who possesses as much history as Kane does, someone who has grown out of the Attitude Era and into the Reality Era. It’s a story line two decades in the making — nostalgia with real consequence. Best-case scenario, it’ll be a seriocomic master class, a fitting send-off for a performer who’s brought us tons of joy over the years. Worst-case scenario, it’s a nostalgia trip, and we’d be better off looking up Kane highlights in the WWE Network archives.

As for Undertaker’s match, well, it’s nostalgia with a different kind of consequence. The best-case scenario is that it becomes the match of the year. Worst case, it’s a literal tragedy. Mick Foley, whose Hell in a Cell highlights almost ended in catastrophe, told Peter Rosenberg that it’s actually a great match for an aging wrestler, that — unless you’re jumping off the ceiling — the majority of the most brutal-looking spots are easy on an old body. Maybe that’s true, but it won’t make seeing Taker get dropped from the top of the cage (if it happens) any easier to watch. And I say that as someone looking forward to this match more than any other match I can remember. In Rollins-Kane, reality is played for farce. In Taker-Lesnar, the fake story line is real disregard for life.

It’s hard to watch your idols get old. Austin looks great, and so do Michaels and Flair, compared to some of their contemporaries. Undertaker and Kane are still wrestling, somehow, and the irony isn’t lost on anybody that they were both basically cast as zombies and somehow those roles have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it’s undeniable that the superheroes of our youth are facing mortality. It’s especially weird that WWE would want to parade mortality around like the B-side of nostalgia, as it did on Monday’s Raw. But the tint of our rose-colored glasses is powerful, especially when applied to the past. And if WWE plans to trot out the old guard, perhaps now is the perfect time: Hell in a Cell, traditionally the most brutal PPV event on the calendar, is when mortality is on gruesome display.

So let’s hope for a good show, but one that doesn’t take too much out of wrestlers who’ve already given everything for us. Here’s to hoping Undertaker can walk out for a pointless appearance on Raw in a year or two.

Filed Under: professional wrestling, WWE, Hell in a Cell, The Undertaker, Brock Lesnar, Seth Rollins, Kane, Mick Foley

David Shoemaker , also known as “The Masked Man,” is the author of the The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Pro Wrestling.

Archive @ AKATheMaskedMan