For weeks now we’ve pondered what Retribution’s purpose was, perhaps for far too long. We’ve wanted answers from a program still in its infancy, from a program that has frankly really not made much sense from week to week as this column has been pointing out.
World Wrestling Entertainment has deserved every iota of criticism prior to Raw and Monday’s revelation should not wash away everything else that’s patently wrong with how this group of pseudo-anarchists has come together. But in the interest of fair criticism, against our collective better judgment, with the reveal of Mustafa Ali as leader of the masked bandits of pop culture’s annals (Dio was a Predator tonight?) we should let this play out and give it a little more time to develop in this more realized form. The potential for the angle with Ali as the focal point is far too intriguing, shining a dim ray of hope into this creative abyss so dark Artorias would be frightened (Dark Souls, look it up).
During a late-show segment on the Oct. 5 edition of Raw, Ali and MVP went toe to toe. During the match, with the Hurt Business present, Retribution arrived and surrounded the ring. In a panic MVP asked Ali if he was with them against Retribution. He briefly joined the trio, before rolling out of the ring. He stared down T-Bar and Mace and then slowly turned around; he then directed them to attack Hurt Business. You can even pinpoint the exact moment MVP knew he was screwed.
Let’s be clear. Holistically, this is all still a runaway mess. However, it’s important to acknowledge potential where it exists and although Retribution conceptually is a dumpster fire at worst and shaky at best, it needs to be acknowledged that narratively this makes sense; Mustafa Ali is a perfect fit for Retribution given his loss of a WWE title opportunity last year, his languishing in the shadows of Main Event and incomprehensibly bad booking since his recent return from hiatus that has given him less and less opportunity with every turn of the corner.
Last week the point was made that Retribution is a reflection of us as fans, and moreover that it’s in some ways a vehicle for WWE to thumb its corporate noses at fans. Let’s not dismiss that, because their track record has earned them that cynicism. Yet, I’d be remiss to the realities of this move if the potential for it was left unacknowledged. It’s a very bold move to turn a natural babyface into the face of a group vying to destroy your foundation. However, size aside — which is a very vapid, antiquated criticism appearing online — Ali possesses every skill you need from a leader of a faction like this one.
First and foremost, Ali’s character trajectory mirrors Retribution’s statements thus far about tearing down WWE; he’s the personification of every statement the group has made to date. Yes, even the many, many speeches that droned on into parody. Nonetheless, the message has been about being overlooked, undervalued and under appreciated; while these statements are hollow and absurd coming from the Retribution core, with them being the words of Ali a new light is cast on them.
Suddenly, somehow, it clicks together and coheres. Suddenly as the face of the group, the group gains character and value it lacked. Make no mistake, Ali is an articulate speaker and is a much better communicator than any other member of the group. So where their message was unfocused before, putting the microphone in his hands centres Retribution and gives them that focus.
Secondly, he’s not a classic heel in this role, which is a clear distinction to make compared to how Orton, Switchblade, MJF, Styles or Jericho works. Ali is/was a thoroughbred fan favourite with a natural charisma, character and fan-friendly style that has brought him the respect of many. And because that fanbase follows him, it would follow they would already have pre-installed contempt (there’s THAT word) for how WWE has treated him. From that point it’s a skip and a jump to following him willingly in this new role. Because above all, he’s one of those handful of people on the roster everyone seems to want to see succeed.
Overt or not, at one point or another we loved WWE. Perhaps we still do, but a constant as we’ve become more jaded and put our time and focus on other promotions is that fans who feel alienated by the company’s direction these last years are justified. WWE further validates that detachment by doubling down on what doesn’t work to the detriment of their own roster’s growth and their fans. With Ali as the vehicle to deliver the group’s message, this booking has bought Retribution time to progress as a story where it previously had already grown long in the tooth. Ali will gather those who are genuinely disatisfied, and in doing so Retribution gains a measure of Ali’s spark, while losing his own in the process.
Third: Tying into this, is the ever-present belief if you listen to wrestlers who have left the company that WWE sucks away your drive, passion or love of the business. Or more appropriately in this case, the literal light Ali carried; having exchanged it for a more perverted version where WWE has extinguished his light, leading him to become a morningstar zeroed in upon the decaying ways of the company. The only way to bring the company forward, is to tear it down in broad daylight. Now we know that won’t actually happen, but that’s the story here. And it’s why it makes sense. Why he makes sense.
Now there are still a plethora of issues with this storyline. Firstly, top of mind is they’ll never take it as far as they need to for it to be effective. They may pick up a Survivor Series victory, Ali will probably get a U.S. title reign, but in the long term where will this be by Wrestlemania? If history is our barometer, they will probably mishandle this and it’ll fizzle before too long. That’s why it needs to be made clear that Ali is not outright a solution, because most of everything we have all argued stands. That doesn’t disappear, we have to hold them to account as fans. However, this is the point where everything going forward now matters. Execution is everything now at this critical juncture.
Prior to last night, Retribution was a unanimous mess. With the addition of Mustafa Ali, the group has got the shot in the arm it needed. Some may argue he’s too small, to which the counter is: that’s what T-BAR and Mace are for. You can also argue that the group would be better served if someone like CM Punk or another big name had the reins. You’d also be wrong, shoehorning a top flight wizard of Oz into the role is the last thing the group needs.
The group needed a voice, a face, it needs direction and it needs to be taken seriously. If you’ve seen an Ali promo you’ll know he can command your attention, not through the flash of what he’s saying but the substance of it. He can suck you into his headspace, and that’s exactly what Retribution needs. Not a CM Punk or someone cut from that cloth.
We have every right to be critical of something we invest so much of our time into. It’s important in holding them accountable. But also, even more importantly, it’s paramount to acknowledge when WWE does something right. Choosing Ali, someone who checks off all the necessary boxes for what this angle needs is the right choice. Perhaps the best one. We should give them time and see where this goes, but the clock is nonetheless ticking towards midnight.