On December 17, 2018—an evening that will surely live in infamy—WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon, his son-in-law and executive VP Triple H, prodigal son and minority owner Shane McMahon, and daughter and chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon stood shoulder to shoulder in front of a live Raw audience in Sacramento. Each took turns stepping out front to deliver variations on a theme: We’ve been lazy and complacent and our product’s not been great and we hear you loud and clear. To put a fine point on it, Triple H declared: “The days of absentee management are over. As of now, the four of us will be taking back Monday Night Raw.” Shane, who’d become the authoritative face of SmackDown as its onscreen commissioner for most of 2016-18, assured fans that his brother-in-law’s decree would go double for Tuesday nights. And as if the message wasn’t clear, Stephanie solemnly swore, “We’re gonna empower our superstars and empower all of you.”
Fast-forward fewer than five months to the May 6, 2019 episode of Raw, where a villainous Shane—fresh off defeating red-hot nemesis the Miz at WrestleMania and sputtering his momentum—was directing traffic as baddies Elias and Drew McIntyre dutifully laid into top babyface Roman Reigns at Shane’s behest. Feel empowered yet?
This is life and logic in present-day WWE, a company under siege with the emergence of billionaire-backed promotion AEW and the looming desertion of some of its top talent that is somehow content to waste months of premiere talents’ time and strengths on a mission to make their boss’s 49-year-old son look good. And to what end? No one’s sure, but the countdown clock to a payoff is ticking away loudly, loud enough to rival the beats blasting from inside Brock Lesnar’s Money in the Boombox.
Since turning heel last winter amid his lengthy feud with Miz, culminating in the aforementioned Mania victory (and a subsequent steel-cage triumph at Money in the Bank), Shane has become a one-stop shop for self-aggrandizing promos, wish-fulfillment beatdowns, and pissant tyrannical behavior on both Raw and SmackDown. This is in large part thanks to his father’s own edicts, specifically his retconning of April’s annual Superstar Shakeup, an occasion to spice up the segregated Raw and SmackDown rosters and enliven each program. When the roster reshuffling landed with a thud, the chairman waved his magic wand and did away with the expectation that superstars stick with their assigned brand. Enter: the wildcard rule, wherein four performers from Raw can essentially crash SmackDown each week, and vice versa. And, naturally, an authority figure such as Shane can shadow them across each broadcast as he pleases. The initial fear with the wildcard rule was that the company’s headliners—Reigns, Styles, etc.—would monopolize TV time on both shows and limit opportunities for up-and-coming talent. That turned out to be true, but nobody expected that WWE’s featured star would be Shane. Last December’s prophecy had been grimly fulfilled.
For Raw viewers, that’s meant watching Braun Strowman spend another insufferable stretch relegated to backstage bits tossing guys half his size into dumpsters; Ricochet bang up his body trading inconsequential wins and losses with Robert Roode and Cesaro so the latter pair can reestablish themselves as singles threats; the IIconics largely idle as the fledgling women’s tag-title belts around their waists wane in value by the day; and the men’s tag scene boil down to the Usos’ playing frat pranks on the Revival while the high-upside Viking Warriors lie dormant and divisional champs Zack Ryder and Curt Hawkins twiddle their thumbs until the next house show.
And on SmackDown, it’s translated to dead air for the Paige-managed duo of Asuka and Kairi Sane; a holding pattern for phenomenal, charismatic high-flyer Ali; a middling mid-card tangle between Intercontinental champion Finn Bálor and Andrade; and lots of lounging around for Rusev and Lana.
Not all of this can be laid at Shane’s feet, conspicuous as they may appear in his constantly rotating selection of pristine athletic kicks. It’s not his fault (we assume) that the MITB briefcase eluded McIntyre, Baron Corbin, Ali, Randy Orton, Ricochet, et al. in deference to Lesnar, who has helicoptered over the Universal championship—and now, to an extent, Kingston’s WWE title—for a wrestling eon. Nor would anyone advise rushing the in-ring return of Bray Wyatt, whose series of “Firefly Funhouse” videos have been goofy but at least served as warning that a bona fide, full-time bad guy is on his way back to Raw. The artist formerly known as Becky “Two Belts” Lynch (now merely Becky “One Belt,” as the IIconics guffawed last week), with an assist from Vince’s vexing wildcard rule, brought Charlotte Flair and Lacey Evans’s shenanigans with her wherever she went for a good month.
And the McMahons (and all of their pre-modern-era stars) are venerated in Saudi Arabia, which will host Super ShowDown next Friday, so it follows that Shane and his clan (including brother-in-law Triple H, who will be in competition there against Orton), will parade around to the Saudi crowd’s delight for 20 minutes. If his heel monopoly is in service of hyping that show, fine. He needs to earn some serious antagonist cred to ensure the cheers go in Roman’s direction. It’s no easy feat, but as we know, Shane loves to shuffle and stick and move, and pleasing the Kingdom—or, pardon me, helping “promote change”—necessitates remaining ethically and creatively nimble.
Ergo, and possibly for all the above reasons, we’ve gotten way more of Shane-O-Mac’s chest-thumping, coast-to-coasting, over-perspiring, MMA-grip-applying insufferableness than we ever thought possible when he resurfaced in 2016 after a self-imposed seven-year exile into the world of global telecommunications. In fairness, his initial splashdown back in February ’16 was an instantly classic Raw highlight, but those early, compulsory pops and chants of “holy shit!” every time he elbowed someone through an announce table have long since curdled into overexposure.
No one can blame the boy wonder for missing the rush of raining blows on men twice his size to great acclaim. Ditto for his desire to help the family business survive and thrive at all costs. But two-plus decades have passed since Shane insinuated himself into story lines, sending up his presumed reputation as a snot-nosed brat from well-heeled Greenwich, Connecticut, serving as an heir-apparent adjunct in his father’s many feuds with rowdy ’90s icons like Steve Austin and D-X, and ultimately earning fans’ affection and genuine cult status for his willingness to take physical risks.
In the Attitude Era, Shane was an underdog with a few giant moves. In today’s WWE, he’s another swole 40-something (soon to be 50) whose neck has expanded faster than his legend. Where he once was a sideshow in the best possible sense, now he’s been recast (and maybe miscast) as the McMahon family’s muscle, the avenging angel of a diminished clan. When Vince stared down Steve Austin, McMahon had the corporate power on his side, but we knew Austin was the superior grappler. In 2019, Shane is 1997 Vince if he had been booked as Kurt Angle. But prevailingly, he’s becomes wrestling’s embodied essence of a cultural cliché that ought to be repugnant to most fans: a pugilistic elitist who bobs and weaves between grounded everyman and muscular figurehead when it suits him. How’s anyone supposed to trump that?