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Shane McMahon returned to WWE Raw last night at the helm of a backroom fight club at the Performance Center dubbed “Raw Underground.” As soon as you saw it, you likely had a visceral reaction. That instant reaction could have been: “This looks cool and different. I’m eager to see where it leads.” Or, understandably, you might have reacted closer to this: “Oh no, WWE’s going to do another Brawl for All where people get hurt or look fake trying to look real.”
My reaction last night was being intrigued, with a healthy dose of concern.
I worry that this is a Shane McMahon concept that hasn’t been fully thought through or planned out, but was impulsively agreed to with a fast turnaround over Vince McMahon’s concern about Raw’s ratings.
If there is a purpose to this that plays itself out and creates a new star or, at least, breaks up the sterile monotony of the three hour Raw, I might be won over.
My general instinct over the years has been that pro wrestling works best when the people running it creatively love pro wrestling in its most organic form and understand how to turn that into money-drawing entertainment fans will watch and spend money on.
To me, there’s little need to stray very far or very often from a one-on-one match with high stakes between two dynamic and entertaining personalities whom viewers ideally have a vested emotional interest in seeing either win or lose. There are so many varied ways to tell that story, I don’t tend to applaud sharp diversions from that.
A match between “Crusher” Jerry Blackwell and “Mad Dog” Vachon in a Death Match was entirely different from Verne Gagne vs. Nick Bockwinkel for the AWA World Hvt. Title as was Greg Gagne vs. Bobby “The Brain” Heenan in a Loser Wears a Weasel Suit match. Those were three matches that hooked me as a kid watching the AWA to become a lifelong fan.
I also love tag team wrestling. The British Bulldogs vs. The Dream Team (Greg Valentine & Brutus Beefcake) or The Hart Foundation (Bret Hart & Jim Neidhart) in the WWF in the mid-1980s opened my eyes to next level athleticism in matches with international influences. The Rock & Roll Express vs. The Midnight Express showed me the art of selling, comebacks, and creative double-team moves. and The Road Warriors vs. The Freebirds or The Koloffs showed off the potential of larger-than-life personalities mixing it up on the mic and in the ring with street smart talk and wit before the match leading to thunderous power moves and devastating finishes.
When the wrestlers have distinct, compelling personalities, and when you have a vested reason to root for one over another in a match inside the ring, and the stakes are high because the wrestling promotion has protected the integrity of the structure of the matches, a reasonable enforcement of the rules (and consequences for getting caught straying too far), and built up a roster of wrestlers who all covet championships and crave the thrill of victory over a rival, you just don’t need anything else.
So that is to say, I look at anything that goes beyond one-on-one or two-on-two matches with a skeptical eye. I first evaluate whether anything in addition to that – a structure like a cage, additional wrestlers, extra stipulations, use of weapons – is a crutch for just not having done the fundamentals well. If you don’t let wrestlers establish compelling personalities distinct from one another and if you don’t protect the value of titles and the emotional gratification that wrestlers gain from wins, then gimmicks and concepts and structures are often thrown out there to make up the difference.
That’s not to say I don’t love and see the value in a cage match to settle a score, or a six-man tag match when the wrestling factions line-up and call for it, but those situations should be done because it adds value to a strong foundation created by doing the basics well in the lead-up, not a substitute for it or a disdain for the art of pro wrestling in its more pure form.
Is Raw Underground a desperation move at a time of record-low viewership or an idea whose time has come that can grow an audience and create new stars regardless of whether ratings are high or low to begin with?
— Shane McMahon (@shanemcmahon) August 4, 2020
In times like these, I understand Vince McMahon looking around for unconventional answers. If they had arenas full of fans, it’d be a significant drawback for ticket paying customers to watch several fight segments that are filmed backstage. Without fans in arenas, the advantage of focusing the cameras at a match inside a ring in the middle of the arena is greatly diminished. It’s liberating in a way to have the crowds taken away, and we’ve seen creative ideas with Cinematic Wrestling month after month since the pandemic shut down live attendance. By no means is fan-free wrestling preferred, but it need not be crippling either. Pro wrestling has great latitude to reinvent how its presented, or at least stray from the usual boundaries, in times like these.
I’m willing to give Raw Underground some time because these aren’t normal times. It’s difficult to build new stars when crowds aren’t popping for their spots. When Darby Allin is leaping off of an entrance tunnel and announcers and a few dozen wrestlers have to create the excitement that a crowd of 10,000 normally would, there is less to lose and thus a greater incentive to shake up the setting and presentation.
There will be some bad ideas executed poorly, some average ideas executed masterfully, and some great ideas executed to near perfection, but even those won’t be for everyone. Personal taste is one criteria for evaluating concepts like Raw Underground. For me, whether I am intrigued and entertained counts for something. But what matters most is whether this concept is planned out and executed well with a specific goal in mind beyond the novelty and shock value of doing something that’s never been done before.
If Raw Underground leads to a compelling Cinematic Match on PPV that makes the event better and gives a couple of wrestlers a memorable stand-out moment in 2020, it might be worth it, even if you think personally some aspects of the concept and execution are cheesy. If Raw Underground helps establish a new wrestler or elevates a fledgling wrestler to new heights, and that translates to traditional wrestling matches for him later, Raw Underground will serve a purpose, even if the execution and presentation creates some eye-rolls along the way.
I’m willing to see this through. I’m not naive to WWE’s history of presenting hot-shot ideas without a plan. It’s not fair to assume already this is nothing more than one of those and judge it harshly after one night. I’m prepared to do that a few weeks or months from now, but until then – because of the circumstances we’re in – I’m willing to not exactly embrace this, but keep an open mind as we see the next chapter or two play out.
P.S. – I’m most intrigued with Dominic Dijakovic becoming the wrestler they try to elevate into a big star from this concept. I think it’s a pathway where he could shine as the bruising badass tough guy who emerges from this underground fight club whose charisma and ring style would translate effectively from there to traditional WWE in-ring wrestling matches.
(Wade Keller is the editor and founder of Pro Wrestling Torch Newsletter and PWTorch.com. He hosts the Wade Keller Pro Wrestling Podcast and Post-shows along with PWTorch VIP exclusive podcasts such as the daily Wade Keller Hotline and the Post-PPV Roundtables. Follow him on Twitter @thewadekeller. Email feedback and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. He was inducted into the George Tragos-Lou Thesz Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in the Class of 2015 in recognition of his decades of independent journalistic reporting on the pro wrestling industry.)