How often has this topic traveled across the fathomless swathes of bandwidth, upon which are carried discussions of pro wrestling: “WWE doesn’t create new stars.” It’s a sword upon which many have fallen on both sides of the debate, as hordes wonder why the largest wrestling promotion in the world perpetually seems to rely on former stars. But that’s the thing: once you take a step back and look at what they do, you realize that WWE is only developing its one and true superstar: Nostalgia.
Nostalgia isn’t an exclusive thing, it exists healthily in pro wrestling. In fact, pro wrestling’s history is important and should be celebrated, but I can’t help but feel there’s a problem when it becomes the center stage of a promotion’s activities.
It became somewhat apparent to me when the buildup to the Royal Rumble began, and rumors of Dwyane “The Rock” Johnson appearing at WrestleMania began to bubble up again. More specifically, a main event title match against Roman Reigns. This situation lit up the fires among legions of WWE fans and got everyone excited at this prospect.
Before moving forward, I get it – WrestleMania isn’t about wrestling, it’s about spectacle, it’s about the moments, and it’s about WWE getting some of that sweet, sweet mainstream acceptance for a glimmering moment in the year. And how could you get more mainstream than having the biggest box office draw in the movie industry today play a significant role in your show?
But if it were only that. If it were only the prospect of an attraction match. Instead, WWE fans began hoping excitedly that Rock would win the Royal Rumble and/or take the title off Roman. The fantasy booking spread like wildfire.
Anyone who observes pro wrestling enough could only wonder why this was considered a highly probable and coveted scenario?
With a roster filled with potential suitors for Roman’s throne, why settle for someone who hasn’t stepped into a wrestling ring in eight years? What good would it be for him to get the shine from ending Roman’s historic run? Not to mention, being the aforementioned box office mastodon that he is, why would he need to return to any multiple-date working capacity with WWE? Then the rumors of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin returning for another match spring forward, including some regarding current dependable nostalgia stalwart John Cena, and we’re getting fever-pitch excitement. It sets the table clearly afterward: WWE fans thrive on the past acts, the superstars that made them love wrestling.
I’m not here to wonder why WWE is building new stars or not. It’s beside the point of this article. Au contraire, I would rather point out that their long-term strategy is creating the nostalgia acts of the future.
Take this example from over the past couple of years: WWE began dimming the glow of the fabled Attitude Era in favor of the romanticization of the Ruthless Aggression Era. It was crucial for them to bring some spotlight to people and events from another period of their history for two reasons. Firstly, to avoid spotlighting oft-dated (see, cancellable) moments of the Attitude Era, which is probably good for business in the year 2023. Sure, they’ll still remind us how cool DX was for invading Nitro with a tank (it was actually a jeep), but it’s best nobody ever mentions their impersonation of the Nation of Domination. In this PG rating, premium-sponsorship-hungry period of WWE (we’re a far cry from 5-Hour Energy, friends), that kind of stuff can look pretty bad in hindsight.
But most importantly, it allows WWE to curate a whole new stable of legends for its future “legends nights.” Right now, some old-timers are just getting up there in age. While important to WWE history, others are at odds with the company. I used the term “curate” with purpose because that’s what they’ll do: pick and choose whichever achievements these soon-to-be legends have and push them forward as mountainous achievements, regardless of their actual impact during their day.
When the time comes, fans might become enamored with Mike The Miz’s “legendary” WrestleMania win while the sizzling Summer of Punk will be relegated to a footnote. This is not implausible, we know WWE adapts and tweaks its history to suit its needs and who they get along with, we need only think about the years of silence of Chyna’s contribution to elevating women’s wrestling in the company. WWE-endorsed legends. We’ll tell you who you need to remember.
Observably, WWE is currently creating its biggest nostalgia act in the form of Roman Reigns. The word “legendary” has been thrown around excessively over his current two-year reign to not see the writing on the wall. They need a new Cena – a guy they can call in once or twice a year to run in, sell some tickets, pop a quarter-hour, and sell some pay-per-v… um, I mean, drive some subscriptions to whoever is licensing their content. In ten years, it will be Roman who fans will be begging to show up at WrestleMania, not Dwayne. They don’t talk about Bruno anymore, because Bruno isn’t around to pop a Monday night after football is done.
And around Roman will be a supporting cast of equally fabricated legends, some more deserving than others, whose WWE career paths will be offset for “moments” that paint them in a special light: Kevin Owens was Universal Champion that one time. Sami Zayn gave that chair shot. AJ Styles had a surprise entrance in the Royal Rumble. Remember those chills Bray Wyatt’s entrances gave us? It’s these things that matter for WWE and in which its nostalgia is built: short, easily consumable visions of what you felt while skillfully leaving out whatever they don’t want you to remember. Otherwise, the first black WCW World Champion Ron Simmons wouldn’t be relegated to a one-word gag every time he’s on TV.
But that’s what nostalgia is, isn’t it?
A romanticized recollection of events that may not be entirely based on facts. It’s based on feeling, on emotion, and hindsight is always more forgiving. There will always be a place for nostalgia in pro wrestling and as long as WWE continues down this path, nostalgia will continue to be their biggest star.
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