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WWE’s Future Is a Journey Into Its Past

Wrestling fans are trained to believe in immortality. But as WWE moves onto Peacock, it’s taking that approach to new levels—and seems set to double down on its nostalgia play.

WWE/Ringer illustration

On Monday Night Raw, Edge—the 47-year-old winner of Sunday’s Royal Rumble—came to the ring to discuss his future. His win guaranteed him a championship match at WrestleMania on March 28, against either WWE champion Drew McIntyre or Universal champ Roman Reigns. Here, he found himself opposite the Raw titleholder, McIntyre, and instead of the usual champ-versus-potential-challenger interaction—bluster and punches in some combination—Drew lavished him with praise. Edge called him out: “I appreciate the compliments, I do. And Drew, I really like you and I have been a mentor to you, so I have to be blunt with you. What is wrong with you? … Instead of kicking my head off when I came through these ropes, you’re showering me with compliments.”

Edge had a point, but you can excuse Drew for falling back on his fandom. He was 13 when Edge made his WWE debut, in 1998. And he was in a nostalgic mood, having just retained his title the night before against none other than Goldberg, the icon of the Monday Night Wars, who still somehow looks the part. Goldberg has wrestled a handful of times since unretiring in 2016, and if his in-ring skill has deteriorated, it’s hard to tell; he was always more of a phenomenon than technician.

If Drew runs the gamut through WrestleMania, he will have defeated the 54-year-old Goldberg, the 48-year-old Edge (who, after a near-decade of retirement because of a degenerative neck condition, returned to the ring a year ago), and his erstwhile buddy Sheamus, who’s 43 and a 12-year WWE veteran. And Goldberg and Edge weren’t the only mummies unearthed on Sunday. The men’s Royal Rumble match included appearances by Carlito (who debuted in WWE in 2004 and left in 2010), Christian (who’s 47, debuted in 1998, and retired in 2014), Kane (53, debuted in 1995), and Hurricane Helms (46, released in 2010). The women’s Rumble showcased Jillian Hall (left WWE in 2010), Alicia Fox (2019), Torrie Wilson (2008), Victoria (2009), and Mickie James. James debuted way back in 2005, left in 2010, came back in 2016, and was on the WWE active roster as of last fall; she’s segued seamlessly into living-legend-dom. James isn’t alone in that division: Jeff Hardy, Randy Orton, and Rey Mysterio are all icons of bygone eras who are still plugging away. (Mysterio’s son Dominik, who made his first on-screen appearance as a child in 2003, is now a full-time wrestler.)

Wrestling fans are trained to believe in immortality: If Hulk Hogan’s moniker didn’t convince you that superstardom is eternal, maybe his 40-year in-ring career did. But even with that in mind, Sunday’s parade of powerlifting Ponce de Leóns strains credulity. It was a huge victory for sentimentality—and for HGH and testosterone injections—but one has to wonder if there’s a limit to nostalgia’s charms. Edge, Kane, Goldberg, Victoria … I would go nuts if I found that group of action figures at a garage sale. But as my WrestleMania headliners in 2021?

To be fair, wrestling legends populating the upper card is nothing new this time of year. Complaints about part-timers stealing WrestleMania spots from main-roster stalwarts are a refrain every spring. The Rock, Undertaker, Triple H, Goldberg—they have all cashed WrestleMania paychecks while wrestlers in their prime sat in the locker room. WWE took the practice to a new level with the six-year championship run of Brock Lesnar, who returned from his UFC career in 2012 and was only occasionally present for WWE events. The part-time legend is the new archetype.

There is a sort of business logic to this. Ratings are down, and the sea of fans who buoyed the Attitude Era to new levels of pop-culture relevance has departed for greener pastures. Those who want their fix of the Rock or Stone Cold Steve Austin in 2021 can turn to movies, podcasts, or YouTube highlights. WWE’s own streaming service, the WWE Network, has been a modest success to date, but it hasn’t brought that multitude of lapsed fans back into the fold. And if you needed any more proof that this was the goal, look no further than last week’s news that WWE is shuttering the Network after selling it to NBCUniversal’s Peacock streaming service.

As a result, every wrestling fan who was shelling out 10 bucks a month for PPVs and the WWE library will now get the complete catalog of The Office thrown in. More importantly, mainstream viewers who are paying to stream The Office, Yellowstone, and the Saved By the Bell reboot will have WWE at their fingertips. NBCU is making a huge bet on its future-facing channel by playing to viewers’ nostalgia with old shows, old actors, and rebooted versions of old shows. As of this writing, the Peacock homepage features a “Best of WWE” series sandwiched between Charmed and Frasier—which, not coincidentally, is on track for a reboot at the competing Paramount+. Little wonder WWE is pivoting back to the ’90s in earnest. Looking backward is apparently the path into the future.

And little wonder that current stars like McIntyre are paying their respects to their in-ring forebears with such urgency. There was a time not long ago when the returning legend, dragged back into the ring for one last go, was billed as the underdog. Now—after the Undertaker’s decade of Mania moments and the post-career title reigns of Goldberg, Triple H, and the Rock—the real underdog is the full timer. No matter what kind of shape new-age stars are in, they can never surpass the star power of somebody whose prime was in an era of higher viewership.

This is the luxury and the curse of a fake sport. If the NBA could have timed The Last Dance to come out as a 57-year-old Michael Jordan laced back up and won another championship, the league would have done it—or at least, its PR department and network partners would have been in favor of the idea. In the WWE, that kind of inanity is par for the course. And to a world that thinks (at best) of the early 2000s when they think of pro wrestling, the old guard is the institution, the money, and the Q-ratings gods. If Drew McIntyre—or, hell, even Roman Reigns—is ever going to ascend to the level of his predecessors, it will be by literally vanquishing them. There’s a reason why Reigns versus the Rock is on Vince McMahon’s dream wall, and why John Cena’s WrestleMania availability is a constant source of speculation.

Just a few weeks back, WWE turned Raw into a “Legends Night” to try and goose ratings. It didn’t bring back the millions of fans who watched in the ’90s, but it was a teaser for things to come. WWE will debut on Peacock in time for WrestleMania this year, and everybody who’s streaming reruns of their favorite old sitcoms will suddenly have the chance to see some of their favorite old wrestlers try to reinvigorate the WWE’s product. That’s a lot to ask from a bunch of wrestlers who are stomping their way out of highlight packages and “Best of” box sets, but anything is possible inside the squared circle, in the land of baby-oiled and tattooed demigods. Back in WWE’s heyday, when Steve Austin chased Mr. McMahon around the arena in a beer truck to the delight of millions, it was common to say that he appealed to all the folks who’d like to pop their boss one someday. McMahon made the figurative into the literal for the enjoyment of fans. Well, never forget that WWE likes to call WrestleMania the “showcase of the immortals.” “Too literal” isn’t in McMahon’s vocabulary.