The natural order of life is for the old to give way to the new, and as it is in life generally that traditionally too has been the case within professional wrestling.
When it comes to pro wrestling, veterans should be regarded with absolute reverence from the younger contingent of fans and workers alike. When thinking upon this perceived order, I imagine fans cheering Bruno Sammartino through the 1980s well after his second and final championship run ended. I think of the reverence fans show the Great Muta, or more recently the man behind the mystique after 58-year-old Keiji Muto recently became the GHC World Champion for Pro Wrestling NOAH in Japan. I think of the respect that even now someone like Mickie James commands, and how wherever she ends up she’ll be welcomed with adoration.
In those three cases, and there are many more among them, we show love and respect to those who came before us as the tradition has called for it. And when the time came for Bruno, and will come for James and Muto, they will step aside from the spotlight and continue to give back to the business that’s given them everything from a platform to excel on and an audience that will remember them; even if that’s outside of the ring.
Somehow, however, at some point this paradigm became perverted and it’s difficult to pinpoint when. Perhaps it’s always been there in some capacity if some older wrestlers with more political stripes manoeuvred their way toward prolonged status at the top at the detriment of those coming up, and I while I think we have certainly left the Hogans, HBKs, Flairs and the sort known for their own backstage shenanigans in the rearview, there’s still a perception existing in the present as it relates to older wrestlers being ever present on the products we consume across the wrestling spectrum and the cynicism that it’s cultivated now paints seemingly every instance of anyone’s arrival with broad strokes.
With complete respect toward what Goldberg has given wrestling and the iconic moments he’s been responsible for throughout the Monday Night Wars, his past encounters in recent matches inject a sense of sourness into his legacy. Much of his work is predicated upon power moves and displaying feats of strength thought unimaginable. In his prime, he effortlessly Jackhammered +500-pound Paul Wight. Present day, he can barely complete the move on Braun Strowman or Undertaker, two much smaller men comparatively. It needs to be understood that when people criticize Goldberg’s continued work with WWE, it isn’t a simple matter of ageism rearing its contorted face, it’s a matter of his work not speaking to the legacy that preceded it.
It speaks of someone sticking around for the pay cheque to the detriment of those younger wrestlers coming up in the business. Just in the last years alone, whether you agree with their characters and their work or not, Goldberg’s inexplicable victories over Bray Wyatt and Kevin Owens are examples that are not complete replicas of Hogan’s political heyday (as this is clearly promoter-centric), but this Goldberg is not the same person many of us grew up with in the ’90s. This is an extreme example, but it would be like bringing in present day Lex Luger and expecting him to work as he did in his prime, and put Strowman in a torture rack.
Naturally, as some might be sharpening their knives with each sentence here, let’s talk about Sting. I love Sting, I have since I was a kid. It was heartbreaking when he went down injured in his match with Seth Rollins and he should not be wrestling, especially at his age, with his injury. I find myself on edge when he does anything, haunted by the presumptive visions of Mitsuharu Misawa taking a simple back suplex, being paralyzed and ultimately dying in the ring. That powerbomb from Brian Cage was scary.
The difference with Sting compared to Goldberg, however, is that despite his injury history he isn’t being portrayed in a manner that tries to force this idea Sting is still this omnipresent figure capable of leaping from the middle of the ring and crashing into his opponent in the corner, much less rappelling down from the rafters or across from a balcony. But much like his old rival Muta who relied on mind games and deception, the way Sting is being used is not similar to the traditional notion of an old wrestler coming in and dominating without purpose like say Hogan has in the past. Sting the wrestler is diminished. Sting the performer, however, in a theatric setting much like Undertaker in his final match, holds value both in terms of protecting him and his legacy but also treating fans of his to something greater than a broken body fighting to stand.
The reason I bring this is up is the announcement last week that NJPW legend Yuji Nagata will be appearing on AEW Dynamite in the coming weeks to challenge Jon Moxley for the IWGP U.S. title. Nagata is revered for his contributions to professional wrestling, having held both the GHC and IWGP heavyweight titles in Japan. Despite their ages being so close, there’s a stark difference between him and Goldberg: Nagata’s style has allowed for him to age gracefully in the sport, but while he remains active he hardly occupies the upper card in the same way Goldberg does when he wrestles or even Sting with his prominent roles on TV each week (that often lead to absolutely nothing of consequence).
Yet ignorantly so, once the announcement was made last week there were some so consumed with cynicism or whatabout-ism who chastised the move, citing AEW as parading another 50-year-old man on the program while glaring toward a fanbase that also criticizes WWE for parading Goldberg out twice a year to either squash or be squashed. I believe that’s incorrect and a flawed argument, because the three scenarios are not remotely identical.
It’s a slippery slope, but relatively speaking there should not be a definitive “off-switch” for someone’s wrestling career other than when they physically cannot perform at a suitable standard anymore; the last thing we want is another tragic death in the ring. So to paint all wrestlers in broad strokes with the ageist brush is dispassionately, disingenuously ignorant.
Nagata is a 53-year-old man who has wrestled the same grounded strong style attack for years, who while certainly has his share of punched holes in his bump card in combination with injuries, has far less wear and tear on his body than Sting and Goldberg, and his style allows him to still work at the same pace he has for years. There is no clear absolute drop-off in his match quality because it is mostly as it’s always been.
Conversely, Sting isn’t the same person he was 10 years ago or even when he debuted in WWE. At his age he can’t move like he used to, and watching him react to strikes thrown at him is hard to watch, never mind bumping for them. But he isn’t actually wrestling, is he? He took a bump to show he could, he did some trademark moves to show he can move, but he isn’t working a match in the same way Goldberg is asked to by Vince McMahon. That’s a huge difference.
These three are within 9 years of each other, but each tells a different story regarding their legendary places in the business. You can also look at Edge or Christian who although maybe can’t move as quickly as they used to, can still work matches that respect their histories. With Randy Orton, with his style he can work convincingly until he’s 50 without batting an eyelash because it’s built into his style and psychological methodology. Should we apply ageism to him then? Five years from now?
Let’s take Muto’s GHC title reign in NOAH. He is 58 years old, is clearly a shadow of the dynamic Great Muta that tore up the rings of NJPW and WCW throughout the 1990s, but at his age he can still work convincingly through the adaption of his style into more MMA-type holds and submissions in combination with his signature moves. He even recently won a match with a frankensteiner, and did one off the top rope as well. Conversely, as much as I’m a Scott Steiner fan, Steiner who is also 58, is a shadow of the performer he used to be as injuries have piled onto him in conjunction with wear and tear on his body.
The point is simply this: Michael Jordan, when he returned to the NBA for the final time, was not the same person he was during his previous Finals appearance with the Chicago Bulls. During his last All-Star Game he even tried to dunk the ball from the free throw line, came up short and failed miserably. But within the game he still contributed to his team and averaged above 20 points per game. My point, simply, is age is irrelevant in the face of the specifics of a wrestler’s physical realities. Simply because someone is 41, 45, 47, 53, 54, 58 or 62 shouldn’t exclude them from working; it’s a case-by-case basis. As fans, as do the wrestlers who work with them, we need to show each respect, especially if there’s no validity in calling for their retirement or utilization.
However, it’s also incumbent on them and the promoters to disallow them from holding on too long past their primes. It’s something Dana White, despite his many faults, has followed through on multiple times with aging fighters in releasing them or seriously sitting down with them to talk about their professional futures for the sake of their own health. Chuck Liddell being a chief example, who was violently knocked out in his last 4 fights after losing to Tito Ortiz, and was knocked out in 5 of his last 7 fights overall. Conversely, Randy Couture fought in MMA until his late 40s simply because he was physically able to do so.
The cynicism surrounding ageist rhetoric needs to be shelved, especially when there are cases where some older wrestlers still move and work better than their younger counterparts. But to criticize promotions outright, or the wrestlers themselves for wrestling with the debate solely rooted in their age demographic is nothing if not poorly laid out in terms of logic. Let their work, circumstance and skill dictate whether or not they should call it a day, not their age.