On May 19, 1996, at a house show at Madison Square Garden, the pro wrestling world was altered. There wasn’t much special about the event’s story line: A young Triple H had defeated Razor Ramon earlier that night, and the main event featured WWF champion Shawn Michaels against Diesel in a steel cage. After Michaels downed Diesel with a steel chair and won, Razor came into the ring. It wasn’t a logical narrative pairing, but Michaels and Ramon were both babyfaces, and this was a simpler time, so two good guys together made enough sense for the crowd, who cheered approvingly when they hugged. The fans were probably confused by what happened next — Michaels straddled the fallen Diesel and kissed his forehead. Then Triple H, a heel, entered the ring, and things got decisively stranger. Rather than turn the post-match into a schmozz — a match that ends in a frenzy of kicks and punches, with no decisive finish — Triple H also hugged Shawn and raised his hands in the air. Then Diesel rose from the mat and joined in, and soon all four were hugging.
According to the real-life story, Razor and Diesel were about to leave the WWF for WCW (where they would perform under their given names, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash), and they took their last show as an opportunity to say goodbye to each other and the fans. One fan in the upper deck filmed the moment, which is now known as either the “MSG Incident”1 or “the Curtain Call.” The latter name takes into account the way most stage shows end, with the cast coming out and breaking the fourth wall to accept the adulation of the crowd. That convention is common in theater, but it doesn’t happen in pro wrestling. The degree to which the foursome’s gesture surprised the audience is debatable. In the video, one fan can clearly be heard yelling, “This is the Kliq” — the jokey name the wrestlers had adopted, known only to insiders — as Razor entered the cage and greeted Shawn with a “too sweet” gesture. When Triple H came in, the same fan screamed, “Holy shit!” — not in a voice of confusion, but in reaction to the unlikely spectacle. Nor did the rest of the crowd seem particularly stunned.
The title that conveys the maximum amount of military-industrial-level subterfuge.
Of course, not everybody was happy with the impromptu celebration. “Honestly, it was big to the old timers in the locker room before it was big anywhere else,” Michaels said in a WWE oral history of the event. Vince McMahon seemed OK with it at first, but he later changed his mind and punished Triple H — since Hall and Nash were gone and Michaels was the champion — by booking him in less-significant matches. There’s subtle irony in the way Triple H — now the narrative and real-life face of WWE backroom power — becomes the underdog hero in this story, the fan favorite screwed over by the powers that be. In the bio-DVD Triple H: The Game, the Undertaker says that the way Triple H accepted his demotion without complaint brought him backstage respect. Eventually, Triple H would rise back up the ranks and become a multi-time champion, fall in love with and marry Stephanie McMahon, and take an executive role within the company. (Maybe this helps explain why WWE seems to relish retelling the curtain-call story on the WWE Network.)
But the greater irony is that the Kliq’s disregard for pro wrestling tradition sparked a new era of postmodern storytelling, freed from some of the strictures of old-fashioned kayfabe. By breaking the rules, they forced the industry to take a fresh look at itself. The Attitude Era followed, as Michaels, Triple H, and D-Generation X abandoned traditional wrestling mores. At one point, to antagonize Vince McMahon — made an onscreen character after the Montreal Screwjob in late 1997 — Michaels and Triple H aired the fan video of the Curtain Call live on Raw.
In the intervening years, curtain calls haven’t become the norm, but they aren’t unheard-of, either. Hulk Hogan and the Rock celebrated after their WrestleMania X8 showdown. After a brutal WrestleMania XXVIII brawl between Triple H and the Undertaker (with Michaels as the referee), the three embraced at the top of the exit ramp. But these moments are usually rare, and they tend to arrive when a feud is ending, so that the narrative permits the combatants to bury the hatchet. Even in a post-Kliq world, it’s rare to see a curtain call that violates kayfabe entirely.
This weekend, as WWE put on a three-night wrestling marathon at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, there was lots of hype and no shortage of big moments. But the most poignant moment was another curtain call. With Hall and Nash in attendance, Sasha Banks defended the NXT Women’s Championship against Bayley on Saturday night. It was the match of the night to be sure, and arguably the match of the weekend. After Bayley’s victory, Charlotte and Becky Lynch, two fellow Divas who were recently called up from NXT to the WWE main roster, joined Bayley for a tearful celebration. Then, after Banks, one of WWE’s most deliciously despicable heels, had licked her wounds, she joined the others and the four women celebrated together. They’re real-life friends, and today’s fans certainly know more about their offstage friendship than the MSG-goers of 1996 would have known about the Kliq. Charlotte flashed her father Ric Flair’s Four Horsemen sign, a symbol of unity among these four women, who set out to redefine women’s wrestling in WWE. In front of me, Sasha’s and Bayley’s families cheered them on, side by side. It was a touching moment and perhaps one that will come to define this era: The curtain call is no longer an anomaly. For the rising generation of wrestlers, it’s the status quo.
Of course, a lot has changed in 20 years. In 1996, the WWF would have been surprised to discover that a single fan had smuggled a video recorder into an event. Now, iPhone videos of every moment of every match dot the Internet. So it was hardly a shock that WWE didn’t try to keep the 2015 Curtain Call off the record — the company broadcast it live on the WWE Network.
The “surprise” twist is a standard tool in wrestling storytelling. From the very first run-in, crowds have been taught to expect the unexpected. Bray Wyatt debuted a new cult member on Monday’s Raw — a bulky developmental wrestler named Braun Stroman — in a decidedly old-school way. New villain appears out of nowhere, shocks heroes and fans, beats up heroes, stands over their prone bodies victoriously.2 The other two big shockers on Monday night were old-school as well — not merely in presentation but in personage. The Dudley Boyz, a tag team founded in 1995, made a surprise return to WWE to challenge the tag team champions, and, at the show’s end, WCW legend Sting made an unannounced return. Triple H and Stephanie were set to unveil a bronze statue of Seth Rollins, who defended the WWE title and won the U.S. championship from John Cena at SummerSlam, and after a long preamble, the curtain was raised to expose Sting, who was last seen in April at WrestleMania.
Stroman was also ignoring their assaults in a very retro, I’m-not-sure-he-knows-how-to-bump Road Warriors kind of way.
The fans went nuts. It was a long weekend seemingly in wait for the Big Swerve, and finally they had something to sink their teeth into. Fans become attuned to the swerves, and come to expect them — especially around events like SummerSlam, when rumors circulate about potential heel turns and shocking appearances. But there’s a fine line between swerve and schmozz.
WWE tested those limits with the endings to the two biggest matches on the SummerSlam card. John Cena lost to Seth Rollins due to a run-in with none other than a chair-swinging Jon Stewart. If something can be both a schmozz and a swerve at the same time (a schmerve?), this was the ne plus ultra — an ending both surprising and shambolic that left no one satisfied. (Stewart sort of explained himself — and got his comeuppance — on Raw.) In the final match of the night, the Undertaker defeated Brock Lesnar in a bizarre sequence of events that saw the timekeeper ring the bell to end the match, the referee restart the match, and Taker illegally hit Lesnar in the crotch to set up his Hell’s Gate finisher. Again, the schmerve — nobody could have seen that coming, and nobody was happy to have it. Fans left the arena on Sunday night booing in unison.
As WWE crowds have come to realize the effect their reactions and chants can have on live shows, fans have begun to relish hijacking broadcasts. WWE knows this, which made the SummerSlam endings even more bewildering, because New York is full of the notoriously “smart” Internet fans who are most likely to boo those matches to kingdom come. Remember, 19 years ago it was here in New York that fans cheered the Curtain Call. Moreover, consider that the fans can’t hear the announcers, so whatever positive spin the broadcast team can put on an oddball ending is lost on the audience. Sunday was WWE’s second-biggest show of the year, and despite the coverage and the sellout crowd and the astronomical prices in the secondary market,3 SummerSlam was not a creative success. The night was a schmerve.
I saw scalpers selling nosebleeds for $250 on Sunday.
By Monday, irony had set in, and fans were chanting “Thank you, Stew-art!” because, even though Stewart had ruined the championship match, he had at least “prevented” Cena from winning the belt. Earlier on Raw, the fans made a schmerve of their own during a multiperson Divas match, when the crowd degenerated into a sea of non sequitur chants and eventually did the wave — a masturbatory gesture meant, one assumes, to convey malaise and boredom after an addled weekend. Even if you hated the two big endings at SummerSlam, you were seduced by them. It was like lousy candy messing up your taste buds. As Stephen Totilo of Kotaku put it: “Raw had the best surprises but also the weakest crowd, one that responded to a bad match not with apathy but by doing the wave and chanting ‘we are awesome.’ Well, no, the NXT crowd was awesome.” The weird thing about it was that the NXT crowd was essentially the same as the Raw crowd. But after a weekend of schmerves, fans forgot what wrestling is.
Fan reactions aren’t a symptom of the end of wrestling any more than SummerSlam’s two terrible endings were — and neither will ruin wrestling any more than the Curtain Call did. Pro wrestling is a surprisingly resilient art form.
But what we saw at SummerSlam and at the Raw that followed isn’t pushing pro wrestling into a bold new era. There will be no new Curtain Call to shake up the business because there isn’t a fourth wall left to break anymore. If there’s one force charting a path into a bold new future, it’s NXT, and despite all the wrestling antiques trotted out over the weekend — Undertaker, Sting, the Dudleys — NXT is the most old-school thing WWE has going. It’s a labor of love by the recently departed Dusty Rhodes and William Regal and a brain trust of brilliant trainers. They’ve helped turn a new generation of wrestlers into future stars by teaching them the most basic things — like how to tell a story in the ring that will get the crowd excited without a swerve.
The unlikely protagonist of the original Curtain Call was Triple H, the lowest man on the totem pole who somehow ascended to become one of the bosses. On Saturday night, when he came out to introduce the broadcast, the crowd erupted into a chorus of “Thank you, Hunter!” for his dedication to giving wrestling fans NXT as an alternative — and a path to the future. For a few moments, he was the hero of Saturday, too, and then he went backstage and let the performers steal the spotlight — which is what pro wrestling is all about.