Over the past few weeks, I think it’s fair to say that the biggest buzzword across the WWE universe has been RETRIBUTION.
The fledgeling stable, whom WWE had been building in the weeks prior to the September 21st edition of Monday Night RAW, had finally set their stall and revealed some of their membership.
Mia Yim, now known as Reckoning, and Donovan Dijakovic, now T-Bar, took turns on the mic, confirming the faction’s official signing with the WWE along with their desire to destroy their new employers from within.
And after weeks of run-ins, beat downs and generally disturbing behaviour, this promo should have been the stable’s coming out party. But it wasn’t, at least not yet anyway.
Fans took to social media to trash the act’s 80’s fiction-Esque names and appearance, whilst others decried the stilted nature of their unveiling. In fact, it was even reported that the segment had been ridiculed by those backstage at RAW.
An inauspicious start indeed.
The Turning Point
On the following day, things began to change. First, the announced RETRIBUTION members, (T-Bar, Dio Maddin’s Mace and Shane Thorne’s Slapjack) each launched new Twitter handles, swiftly followed by Reckoning and Retaliation (Mercedez Martinez).
From there, the members mirrored their on-screen antics by marauding through the social media platform, leaving destruction in their wake.
CM Punk, Bryan Alvarez, Chris Jericho and Eric Bischoff were all on the receiving end of RETRIBUTION’S humorous, if spiky, Twitter takedowns. T-Bar, in particular, was seemingly a man possessed, responding to fan and peer criticism alike with witty, self-aware rebuttals that were retweeted and screenshotted for future prosperity.
The tide had turned.
Only days prior, RETRIBUTION had floundered under the weight of a WWE script, yet here, left to their own devices (we assume) they had rejuvenated interest and become the most talked-about act in wrestling.
As my colleague Gary Cassidy tweeted out:
RETRIBUTION turned face by creating Twitter accounts.
— Gary Cassidy (@WrestlingGary) September 26, 2020
Going in to the next instalment of Monday Night RAW, fans were now eager to see what RETRIBUTION might do, or more pertinently, might say. The outpouring of disappointment that greeted news of the group’s absence from the show marked an unprecedented turnaround in audience sentiment.
But make no mistake: it was the talent who had turned things around.
Not the writers, the agents or even Vince McMahon himself. The talent.
And with this, it begs the question of whether WWE’s policy of strictly scripted promos is, at this point, doing more harm than good?
A Change In Attitude
Over the years, we’ve grown accustomed to the stories of ex-WWE talent citing how the meticulously laid out wording, often presented at the eleventh hour for memorising, to be delivered verbatim regardless of its reception, had hampered their ability to ‘get over’.
Steve Austin’s legendary ‘Austin 3:16’ promo, now a noun for breakout moments in the genre, would be considered an impossibility in today’s climate. Austin, despite years of promo work under his belt, would quite simply have never been allowed to utter those fateful words, with their loosely religious undertones, in this micromanaged PG environment.
It’s mind boggling.
The company’s lucrative Attitude Era was built on talkers, often working from bullet points and responding organically to the crowd. The Rock, Mick Foley and the man who would be king, Triple H, were all renowned for their ability to improvise.
That the key element of the period’s greatest successes, it’s natural play and spontaneity, would since be completely eradicated from the company’s creative processes is dumbfounding, to say the least.
You can sympathise to an extent. WWE, or F as it was back then, was not answerable to shareholders or the leviathan television deals of 2020 in the way that they are now. Checks and balances do need to be in place.
But the ‘E need only look at two that got away in Cody and Jon Moxley, to recognise the sterility of their in-house writing system. Both Cody and Mox, now free to express themselves in a way that is natural and innate to their respective characters, are bona fide main event talents in their new home and viewed as such from the outside.
That neither man was considered as such in the WWE, a company bereft of truly engaging talkers, makes a better point than I ever could.
Harnessing The Socials
With social media now a key element of WWE’s overall strategy surely now is the time to bring the talents that can flourish within this medium in from the cold.
RETRIBUTION are hardly the first act in WWE to use the internet to their advantage. Zack Ryder is the obvious other example, with his hugely successful ‘Z! True Long Island Story’ having briefly gained enough traction to warrant renewed attention from management, albeit fleetingly.
But more recently, Mustafa Ali had used his time off from television to produce a sterling series of videos that left fans wanting more from the former 205 Live man. It’s a huge shame that these never made it on to WWE TV.
One suspects that if WWE were better able to align themselves with such content, its superstars would be able to connect with their audience more organically.
As such, I suspect there is a grand total of zero fans that wish to see T-Bar return to TV muttering ill-fitting lines straight from a hasty re-write session. Nor Reckoning offering a beating to ‘each and every’ person in the back. The time has simply passed.
After seeing what the talents can offer with the legroom of social media, WWE’s audience will want to see those that are able to take advantage continue to express themselves in a manner that befits the characters they’ve been brought in to play.
After all, aren’t we always told that these characters are the performers themselves turned up to eleven?
Well if so, then it’s time for WWE to align their writing team with their talent’s inherent creativity.
Work with them, not against them, and in doing so, create memorable characters and moments, the likes of which we have rarely seen since Austin and co’s early noughties pomp.
I have no doubt that there will be bumps along the way (‘Lucha things’ anyone?) but if WWE backs its talent’s instincts and affords them a scintilla of the freedom that social media provides, RETRIBUTION may yet stand to reap the benefits.