At Backlash, Edge and Randy Orton worked very hard and had a genuinely great pro wrestling match. They told a simple story that progressed nicely across the surprisingly breezy 40+ minute runtime. Little things like Orton dodging an armdrag and dominating much of the early grappling were complimented by good facials that never veered into over-acting, and hammered home the story that maybe the more battle-worn Edge wasn’t quite able to hang any more. They worked with intensity and crispness, but never phoniness.
Like a lot of modern matches that intentionally shoot for ‘an epic;’ I would have trimmed more than a few nearfalls, and nixed the section where they imitated finishing moves of their peers — most matches like this need to be reigned in, and this was no exception. But beyond that, this was evidence that both men still have it in them to produce compelling matches — which is honestly as much of a pleasant surprise with regards to Orton as it is with regards to Edge.
Obviously there’s a big ‘but’ coming here.
But (!), the circumstances surrounding this match were so unusual that it might be the largest asterisk I’ve ever put next to a recommendation to watch.
Before I get into what bothered me about this match, I want to highlight two things that actually didn’t.
- Billing it as ‘the greatest wrestling match ever.’ Sure, that’s dumb. But that’s also just wrestling. I have plenty to say about what this company thinks that phrase means — but as a tagline, it’s just a goofy bit of marketing that both guys were making fun of ahead of time. I won’t be the 100,000th wrestling fan to point out the silliness of this slogan.
- That the match was pre-taped, liberally edited, and reportedly had re-shoots and re-takes. I can understand why this irks some people but unless it’s REALLY noticeable on TV; I don’t care. I feel the same way about this as I did about ‘rehearsing’ matches, which was the hot topic of online debate five years ago. I care about the finished product and not much else; unless it’s impossible to ignore such as the very obvious crash-pad spot at this year’s Wrestlemania. There was one or two camera shots that were not feasible unless done via re-shoots which took this down a peg for me, but beyond that it was mostly seamless. And the piped-in crowd noise was… shockingly well done for the most part.
So with all that said, what was the actual problem here?
In recent months, I’ve sporadically tuned in to WWE programming and felt really disconnected from their brand of entertainment; both in terms of their stories, but also their latest endeavour — ‘cinematic’ matches taking place in different settings, with a musical bed, and copious amount of post-production. It’s not so much that experimenting with core tenets of pro wrestling is inherently wrong to me — it’s just that their specific experiments have been largely terrible. Crappy music, an emphasis on over-acting, messy-production with aspirations of being like ‘real TV’ but is anything but. It just feels like an increasingly alien program – divorcing itself from what is recognisable as pro wrestling, but at the same time failing to occupy any sort of new, exciting space.
But let me tell you — nothing has ever made WWE feel more detached from what regular pro wrestling is, than… when they decided to promote two good pro wrestlers having a normal match.
From the very beginning, the bells and whistles on the periphery of this just felt so weird, and detached from normalcy. Despite this not being reflective of the era either man calls their peak; the match’s referee was sporting an old-timey blue shirt/bow tie combo. They lowered the iconic ‘MSG’ microphone from the roof and played a recording of the late great Howard Finkle introducing both men. A lovely homage to a great man but… why? And it was at that stage, before the opening lock up, that it hit me. The divorcing of WWE and traditional, great pro wrestling is not just a feeling I have — it’s something they also have. To promote two great workers having a half-hour classic, to WWE, is a gimmick, almost bordering on nostalgia. It’s like their pay-per-view calendar should read; OCTOBER – WWE HELL IN A CELL, DECEMBER – WWE TABLES, LADDERS, AND CHAIRS, JUNE – WWE FOUR STAR MATCH.
This feeling persisted early on, when the commentators were expending all their energy yelling about the basic rules of this straight wrestling match. Overall, they actually did a pretty good job emphasizing the various beats of the story, but there was an air of fakeness that was hard to shake. As though they were too eager to yell every single nuance, every evasive move, every twinge of a smile — because the gimmick of this supposedly non-gimmicked match was ‘great pro wrestling’ so they put all their WWE Commentator Energy into doing an amped-up impression of a wrasslin’ announcer.
Again, hair splitting about the term ‘greatest,’ doesn’t interest me — regardless of whether or not you think it ever had the chance to hit that level, the purpose of this match was for WWE to have a great pay-per-view main event between two Hall of Famers. And that is such a bizarre concept to both the fans AND the company themselves that they had to throw themselves a ticker tape parade in the process. That brings me to my final, very cynical thought which pestered me throughout this; WWE should be producing matches of this calibre in their sleep. They should be banging out high-end pro wrestling like this at the very least on a monthly basis for their big shows, if not weekly on TV. When the elder statesmen of your roster are the calibre of Edge and Orton — how are they not? And that’s not even taking into consideration the entire generation of great workers they currently have signed. Top guys from major promotions across every continent, cult favourites still in their prime, and homegrown prospects. Seriously; every now and then check their roster page for a reminder of the scope of their talent.
And yet somehow, someway, a straight-up great wrestling match in this promotion is so unusual that even they themselves spend a month hyping it up as a once a year special event.