”The Doc” Chad Matthews has been a featured writer for LOP since 2004. Initially offering detailed recaps and reviews for WWE’s top programs, he transitioned to writing columns in 2010. In addition to his discussion-provoking current event pieces, he has written many acclaimed series about WrestleMania, as well as a popular short story chronicle. The Doc has also penned a book, The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment, published in 2013. It has been called “the best wrestling book I have ever read” and holds a worldwide 5-star rating on Amazon, where it peaked at #3 on the wrestling charts.
QUESTION OF THE DAY: What is the number one thing about WWE that keeps you coming back?
I’ve got a couple of Top 50 series in the works right now and I’m pretty dialed into the NBA Conference Finals at the moment, so I’m fairly detached from the WWE product at present time. Whenever I take a few steps back from WWE, I get a chance to reflect on the highs and lows of my fandom, give myself a reality check here and there, and concurrently prepare to get revved up about the forthcoming possibilities heading into the latest creative cycle. I was thinking, during a recent reflective session, about the role I felt like I played as a long-time columnist for many years, focusing mostly on the aspects of the product that I liked and frequently reminding modern fans through historical countdowns of the amazing things that shaped our glorious pro wrestling pastimes.
There were some things that happened in the past decade and a half that I ranted and raved about certainly, but I think it would be fair to state that I generally was one of the most positive voices on the internet as it pertains to WWE. I took some heat at times from the fans who did not share my enthusiasm and I even labeled some of them “jaded,” as I was genuinely appreciating a fairly lengthy stretch of my fandom that spanned the Invasion through the Seth Rollins reign as WWE Champion. There were creative directions that WWE took that a lot of people I regularly interacted with were enormously turned off by and, to be honest, though there was a part of me that understood it, there was a bigger part of me that had simply enjoyed the ride, powering through Katie Vick, Heidenreich, Great Khali, and the Lost Generations to get to the Mr. WrestleMania matches, The Streak within The Streak, the OVW Class of ’02 (in a good way), The Rock finally coming back, The Reality Era, and The Shield, and I consequently struggled to grasp how people who grew to dislike WWE so much could keep watching it.
To add further context, I was less irritated and more fascinated by the decision by WWE to boldly tell its fanbase during John Cena’s rise, “We aren’t going to listen to the teenage to adult male demographic anymore and we’re going to soldier on with this guy as the white-meat babyface because the other half of the overall viewership loves him.” I always wanted Cena to turn heel (and still do), but I also never thought the negatives of that unique strategy to actively try not to get the vast majority of the audience on the same page about the top star in the company outweighed the positives. I am in the process of finishing my second book – The Greatest Matches and Rivalries of the WrestleMania Era – and, in reviewing a lot of Cena’s most critically acclaimed work, I have confirmed my original notion that I really quite enjoyed his dominant decade. I thought he gave us Rock’s at times controversial (and thunderous) reactions, Hogan’s appeal to kids, a unique take on a lead antagonist (at least in terms of the dichotomy of reactions that he set up between he and the audience), and a number one guy who worked his tail off in the ring to the tune of a vastly underappreciated overall body of work in the ring.
There were a lot of things like that, among a great many others, that I felt like I could pretty easily put a positive spin on. One of the moderators of LOP Forums back in the day, 2TX, would often say that I frequently strapped on my “helmet of positivity.” A few of you earlier this decade referred to me for a while as “The Voice of the Voiceless,” specifically speaking the rare upbeat voice among our diehard wrestling fan online community.
Something shifted for me, though, in the build-up to WrestleMania 32. I spent good money to get what I deemed the perfect seats for Jerry’s World, 50 yard line high enough up to where your eyes were level with the giant, football field-stretching big screen TV; I figured that would be the best of both worlds, watching the most attended WrestleMania of all-time not just in person, but on a massive flat screen too – the ideal blend of the home and live experiences (shame on modern WWE for making wrestling commentary a negative in that equation, by the way). I tried to put my best foot forward come Mania weekend, but while I certainly enjoyed parts of the experience, my memory of it all is soured by some of what happened leading up to and through “The Show of Shows.”
Shane McMahon vs. Undertaker was as big a disconnect between me and the general diehard population as I can ever remember, for instance. His biggest match ever had been against his dad fifteen years prior; he was more of a mid-card attraction at his peak, and to see him brought back to face Taker that year instead of pushing a new guy on the cusp to the forefront on account of Cena’s injury just floored me. “Pure solid ass gold,” Steve Austin called it. Remove the gold from his assessment and never feed me that load of the word prior again.
Obviously, my gripes about the last two years have been well documented via this column and The Doc Says podcast, but I guess you could say that, pretty much ever since Shane ‘O Mac came back, certain basic deals I had subconsciously made to keep renewing my generally positive outlook on the WWE product have been violated, and in rapid succession. We make these subconscious deals all of the time in our lives, including with our pastimes and extracurricular activities. As a long-time sports fanatic, I expect my favorite teams to at least have a logical plan in place that produces results that they themselves taught me to expect. On two separate occasions, for instance, the Orlando Magic have made the NBA Finals and built contenders that conceivably could have won the championship, so through their own success I have a built-in expectation that they will coherently make moves that will bring them back to the brink of a title someday; and I think I could forgive any fellow Magic fan who currently feels like the organization has not lived up to their end of the unspoken agreement between franchise and supporter.
So, I suppose that I have developed a bit of an issue with this group that has emerged among the diehard fanbase that likes to troll the people who have a problem with the current product. I also suppose that it is somewhat hypocritical of me to have developed that issue given that I used to be one of the people who would readily tell super-jaded enthusiasts to stop watching or stop complaining, but I don’t know…I guess I always saw myself as someone who told people such things respectfully out of a desire to see them use their extracurricular time more constructively. I talk to patients every day about having a good attitude; it’s that important to your life and to your health. To actively watch the same people, every week, get so mad about WWE, I figured that their real lives would truly benefit from them doing something else with their time. Anyhow, I do have a real issue with some of the flippant regard I see online to people that have major gripes about WWE.
The natural balance of a largely negative fanbase that frequently rained on the happier sect’s parade was always going to be the polar opposite – people that would readily accept what others would regard as the wrestling product’s equivalent to a 25-57 annual NBA record amidst consistent bad draft picks and boneheaded acquisitions and trades and say to their naysayers, “But they are making tons of money, you’re a butt-hurt basement dweller who doesn’t get what they’re trying to do!” Nevertheless, it is still pretty wild being on the flip side of the coin, being told that I am an idiot because my views skew too negatively (still not sure if that’s true, frankly) after, for so long, being told I was an idiot because my views skewed too positively (not sure if that was ever true either…I like to think that I have spent the past fifteen years learning to be as reasonably objective about something most deem too subjective to objectify as any human being on this planet).
To identify more with the negative herd mentality is a weird place for me to be and, though I certainly think some of the gripes about WWE are ridiculous, I think it’s equally ridiculous not to acknowledge that WWE has made some highly questionable big picture choices creatively over the past few years. Maybe I am poisoned by my own history – maybe studying the WWE product for three decades and picking out about it the core of how it operated like I would studying neurology as it relates to the health of the human body has skewed my perception toward what could be construed as WWE’s evolution – but when I think about Shane McMahon wrestling Undertaker at WrestleMania, I see something unprecedented in the worst possible way; I see hubris beyond the imagination; I see it as the manifestation of the part-timer problem, the essential tearing up of the unspoken contract made between myself/others and WWE that part-timers were brought back because of a down cycle in upper level talent development (their fault) and that, once upper level talents were better developed and deployed, the creative formula that had made each part-timer worthy of being considered the modern equivalent of the celebrity to be utilized when shows like WrestleMania needed a boost would resume.
God, it’s amazing reflecting back to WrestleMania 32. It brought to the forefront so many issues. That was the same night that Brock Lesnar decided that, since he might fight in UFC a few months later, he would phone it in on a match with Dean Ambrose that had people talking about in the weeks before as one that could dramatically elevate The Lunatic Fringe and blast his momentum to among the highest historical levels possible in WWE. My perception of Lesnar changed that night and never recovered because that sort of half-as-invested-as-2012-to-2015 performance became his new normal. He is the equivalent to me of an over-paid, out of shape, under-performing pro basketball player. I guess I would be remiss not to mention The Rock here too, but at least he had the self-awareness to recognize that interest in his 30-minute Raw segments on epically long nights like WrestleMania had fallen off a cliff by the time he left Dallas; I admire self-awareness.
Roman Reigns was, on that same night as well, given the kind of victory over the vestiges of The Authority that Daniel Bryan received against The Authority at its peak to one of the greatest receptions ever given to a WWE star by the audience, only Roman did it to a response mixed with deafening silence, disinterested crowd waves, and chants for NXT roster members. The main-event of WrestleMania 32 was such a clear example of why WWE needed to pursue a different direction in their presentation of Reigns, not for any whiny fan reason, but simply because his strange booking works against the quality and narrative drive of the very product he is supposed to be spearheading as one of the primary figures.
Wrestling is about telling a story with an interactive live audience influencing its flow, but if the protagonist in the story is vociferously booed or worse ignored amidst being presented as a straightforward hero, then it confuses to outright destroys one of the most integral dynamics of professional wrestling. It is not as if Reigns gets that massive “Let’s Go Roman” chant or swells of organic emotion to offset the canned heat or “Roman Sucks” chants; he does not talk like a hero or carry himself like a hero, nor is he an anti-hero. He is Randy Orton in 2004 – there is nothing remotely relatable about his appearance or his attitude – so you can push him like the top babyface and some kids and women will care, but he will never be on the level of his historical peers because, until he proves otherwise, the role just doesn’t suit him. Sure, he sells merch, but so do the LA Lakers; it does not make Roman a good babyface any more than it makes the Lakers a good basketball team.
Bear in mind that I say these things not because of a dislike of Lesnar or Shane ‘O Mac or Roman; there is no presence of malice in these comments whatsoever in fact, but I think treating Shane like he’s a returning massive star (Rock, Goldberg, Sting caliber) is strange considering who WWE portrayed him to be in the 2000s and I think that Brock Lesnar’s pseudo-shoot routine had a shelf life that expired three years ago and I do not think that anyone but John Cena can be asked to do what John Cena did for ten years. I don’t sleep when I’m not tired, I don’t eat when I’m not hungry; I will not sit back and pretend like Lesnar’s Beast Mode style is anything less than 50% of what it was at its peak or that an absentee champion is helping the product’s cause; I will not pretend that there is a shred of evidence that Shane McMahon’s presence helps make the product better – he has a Quality Above Replacement Wrestler score closer to Baron Corbin’s than Braun Strowman’s; and I will not pretend that the way that people react and the reason that people react to Roman Reigns is the same as what happened with John Cena.
There are numerous other things that I could add to the list of WWE decisions I feel disconnected from, but as the creative stagnancy meanders on with no end in sight, the divide between what I expect of WWE and what it is willing to offer is growing. I would like to sign a new unspoken contract, if you will; currently we are having a difficult time coming to agreeable terms. This column has meandered on long enough in its own right, so forgive me for just ending it here, unsure if I have actually formulated a specific point about anything, but I felt compelled to share these thoughts.