It’s a strange time in pro wrestling, but then it’s a strange time everywhere. Unable to tour or have fans attend their shows, and with some roster members unavoidably missing, the various wrestling companies are doing their best to get people to tune in to what we all know is a lesser show than the ideal.
Then again, WWE was in an uncomfortable spot even before the COVID-19 pandemic. They made a hugely lucrative deal to move Smackdown to Fox TV last year, but ratings have consistently been a problem (and even more so since the pandemic began) and they’ve taken an ongoing PR hit for working with the Saudi Arabian government. On top of that, for the first time in decades, they have a solid competitor in the field of mainstream wrestling, with AEW finding a major audience since its launch last year.
WWE and their fans will be quick to point out that All Elite Wrestling isn’t much of a competitor, since they’re just finding their feet and stand no chance of getting as many eyes or as much money as WWE anytime soon. The real risk is that AEW might get more attention, more critical affection, and more general “buzz” than WWE regardless of who’s bringing in the most cash. In short, WWE fears that AEW might be cooler than them.
A problem with being #1 in your field, especially by such a huge margin, is that you don’t get to be the underdog. You can’t really be anti-establishment when you are the establishment. And of course WWE and the McMahon family unavoidably seem even more like part of the establishment for as long as WWE Hall-of-Famer and close McMahon friend Donald Trump is President.
As far as wrestling storylines go, you can come at this problem from a couple of directions. WWE has chosen at least two.
First, there’s Retribution, a mysterious faction in black hoodies and masks who show up at Raw and Smackdown and do stuff like throw two cinder blocks through the same window and cut the ring ropes with a chainsaw. The aesthetics of the whole angle resemble the right wing nightmare version of Antifa, and currently the faction is presented as scary and villainous in exactly the way you’d expect from a company with WWE’s politics doing their take on leftist activism.
I guarantee you, however, as soon as those masks come off and we see who’s in the faction, as soon as the leader of Retribution stars cutting his first promo, WWE will be trying to convince us that these people are cool, even if they’re still heels. They’ll be selling T-shirts on the company’s website while rebelling against the company on TV, just like The Shield and DX and NWO and so on and so forth.
And then there’s Raw Underground. Hosted by Shane McMahon, Underground presents itself as an unauthorized, virtually lawless underground fight club, which seems to be held in the Performance Center basement. With people in street clothes fighting on a ropeless ring, it’s an attempt to be the opposite of everything Raw is, but on Raw.
Right now Raw Underground doesn’t really work that well, because they’ve never explained anything about it, and none of the fights seem to mean anything or lead anywhere. If they give it a little more structure and maybe a belt to fight for, it could actually be a fun addition to Raw. What it can never be, though, is underground. It’s hard to even seem that way, when the face of the whole thing is Shane McMahon, a born-into-wealth mogul of international cable TV whose theme song goes “Money money money, here comes the money!”
WWE would like fans to believe there’s a way to challenge the status quo of pro wrestling by watching WWE, as if they aren’t that status quo. And that’s really nothing new. Pro wrestling has always marketed itself with feelings and idea that aren’t exactly rooted in honesty. So there’s no reason to feel bad if you’re getting a kick out of Raw Underground, or if you’re into where Retribution is going (which might be more apt to happen when they have matches, or at least faces). It’s fine to enjoy that thing you enjoy, but along the way let’s try and keep our eyes open about what’s actually happening.