wrestling / Columns

Hamilton: Going Underground

August 5, 2020 | Posted by Ian Hamilton
Hurt Business WWE Raw Underground

It’s no secret that WWE’s been fighting falling ratings for quite a while now. Especially in the “covid era,” numbers have been plumbing new depths – which has sparked a LOT of panic.

Throughout the history of wrestling, we’ve seen umpteen efforts to revitalise flagging business. Whether it be the tasteless (World Class using Fritz von Erich’s recovery from a kayfabe heart attack to boost ticket sales), to the good ol’ fashioned reset button (WCW vacating all the titles), to the… erm… “what the hell was that?” Sadly, it seems that a lot of WWE’s latest attempts at doing so have fallen flat. This past Monday night was the latest such effort.

Hours ahead of Raw, there were rumblings on social media of “endless rewrites” and “backstage chaos”… while WWE dropped announcements of the return of Shane McMahon and the debut of a new faction, citing that “the group is out to cause chaos and shake up the organization’s structure.” Because in wrestling, very rarely does a new group appear to spread love and happiness… especially when they’ve adopted a name so generic that it’s been used as a show name by several promotions. As for Shane McMahon, well, his appearance began in a non-descript part of the WWE Performance Center, the dimly-lit surrounds were night and day from the bright, light-and-laser-filled presentation of the “main arena.” Sure, we still had to have the usual WWE-formatted lower-third to tell us who Shane McMahon was… even if nobody else in the segment received such treatment.

Those of you who’ve watched much indie wrestling lately will know at least one comparison that springs to mind. GCW’s Bloodsport offshoot and CHIKARA’s Crucible are the two that instantly came to the fore – with surprisingly the CHIKARA version being made more “adult” by WWE’s presentation. Yes, the visual of the dancing nightclub girls as the “TV PG” logo flashed on screen was amusing, but in every other way, this was a carbon copy of the Crucible. Just without the honeycomb blocks and TV screens that made CHIKARA’s entrance stage. For the three of you who saw the final CHIKARA Cibernetico, you could even argue that they were “heavily inspired” by that layout, with the impression that it was an after-hours club, with few hangers on. But I digress.

What is RAW Underground? How is it that after many months of WWE taping at the Performance Center, and many years of the building existing, nobody noticed this was a thing before? Away from the gags about it suddenly appearing from a mystery vortex… what on earth is it’s reason for existence? How do you win? Why would you want to win? Heck, on that front, just what is Shane McMahon’s Underground Fight Club (and yes, those initials aren’t accidental)? What’s the purpose of it? Is that really how you spell Dabba-Kato? Is this meant to be inspired by Pitfighter? Why do we need to keep the WWE formula of a camera cut at least every other second?

As it’s presented, why should anyone care? Is it a lot to ask that on the first night in on a new concept, we know something beyond “it’s here”? At its very core, wrestling – and story telling in general – revolves around having some framework of rules. In wrestling, it tends to be some form of “person X wants to do this, person Y wants to stop them” – regardless of who’s the bad guy, the good guy or whatever the “this” is. It’s what makes the “fake fights” fun – whether it’s cheering for your favourite getting closer to a title, or booing because some dastardly villain has spoiled the fun… and before you bring up the UFC comparison, even they are painting fighters as “good” and “bad”, especially when it comes to the money matches.

Based on what we’ve seen on day one, “RETRIBUTION” is the latter, but what is Underground? Without any kind of introduction, we don’t know if Shane’s “invention” was brought to our screens for. Is it a way to subvert Raw and take it over? Is it a long-standing human cock-fighting ring that’s only just been unearthed? If so, how has this been kept a secret for so long?

Other promotions have done “shoot-style” – with Paradigm Pro on the indies having just held a shoot-style tournament earlier this year… GCW have held some Bloodsport cards… while wXw in Germany have made Ambition something of a staple of their calendars. That being said, those shows are usually ringfenced. You’re not seeing WALTER wrestle the opener in a shoot-style match for wXw, then appear in the main event in a regular wrestling match… that separation is crucial. In the history of WWE, our only point of reference we have to such a jarring change of style is the ill-fated Brawl for All from the summer of 1998. Yep, what’s 22-years-old is sorta new again. At least then, we knew what it was: a tournament, with fixed (albeit wonky) ways to score points or win the match entirely. Even if the cash prizes were initially seen as kayfabed, at least we knew what they were fighting for.

As far as Shane McMahon’s Underground Fight Club – and whatever the hell the masked newbies were vandalizing a generator was – it felt the opposite of organic. Sure, this is just day one, and yes, WWE may be on a hiding to nothing as far as not being able to debut anything without being made a figure of fun, but a lot of this is of their own doing. Announcing stuff to generate buzz that sadly usually falls flat these days.

Remember the past? When WCW announced ahead of time that Scott Hall and Kevin Nash were going to debut? Or when the old AOL keyword WWF announced that Shawn Michaels was going to vacate his WWF title ahead of Raw? Of course you don’t. I don’t want to make this a “things were better in the Attitude era” whinge, because a lot of things damn sure weren’t better then, but a lot of wrestling – the WWE specifically – has lost the ability to make things feel natural. To have things happen and feel organic. To make things in the current “reality era” feel, well, real.

There’s a reason why some promotions have the perception of “getting free passes” when they try new stuff – but that’s because they’ve built up a track record in the months and years gone by. Week one of Raw Underground got a bump in viewers, albeit likely caused by people’s curiosity. Hopefully whatever this Underground Fight Club is meant to be gets fleshed out, keeps viewers’ interest and doesn’t get dropped in a matter of weeks, destined to become just another footnote in a wild 2020 for WWE…

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Ian Hamilton