Retribution and WWE’s Loose Grasp on Reality

WWE is in a panic right now. Their ratings are declining. The ratings of their chief competitor are climbing. They get roasted on social media every week for appealing to nursing home demographics, criticized for not understanding the strengths and weaknesses of their appallingly large roster, dragged endlessly for how they’ve handled Coronavirus and released talent during a pandemic despite earning ludicrous profits, sued by stockholders over their Saudi Arabian shows, and, according to general consensus, it’s a lucky thing for them that they signed their television deals with Fox and USA when they did, otherwise they’d be completely boned. When cornered about their issues, WWE executives like Vince McMahon and Triple H either weakly admit to a need for fresher, better storylines, or pin their struggles on fans simply being interested in the newer product across the dial.

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This week, on Raw and SmackDown, WWE attempted to address the issue it realistically could, starting two major angles that will likely wither and die in the next few months—Raw Underground, an attempt freshen up the product by presenting wrestlers like Dolph Ziggler as uber-tough pit fighters punching and grappling for the pleasure of a middle aged man in what is essentially his father’s garage, and Retribution, a stable of men dressed like Antifa Supersoldiers ripped right out of a Donald Trump advertisement about the consequences of defunding the police. During Raw, they were briefly seen throwing Molotov cocktails at the WWE Performance Center’s power supply. On SmackDown, they cut the lights during an argument between Mandy and Sonia DeVille, stormed the ring, and “took over,” chasing off camera men and the announce team, attacking lower card NXT talent (including women), and vandalizing the set with “spray paint” and chainsaws.

Despite its trappings, Retribution’s debut follows the template virtually every major stable in WWE has followed since they saw how successful Hulk Hogan’s heel turn and alliance with the nWo was—a surprise attack as a statement of intent, organized chaos, and the implication that this group, unlike every group that’s come before it in the same mould, will change the face of the company forever. As a piece of television, it resembled the 2010 debut of the Nexus, only the Nexus debuted by attacking John Cena and CM Punk, and what they did, particularly what Daniel Bryan did (which was choke ring announcer Justin Roberts with his tie), was seen as dangerous enough that Bryan was fired from the company. Retribution stormed an empty ring with minutes left on the clock for SmackDown and the local news coming up next—if they attacked anything (and that’s debatable) it was the institution of WWE. Given that the letters “WWE” are the biggest draw the company has, but we’ll address that in a moment.

Ripped from the headlines.

Retribution is so obviously the WWE’s rejoinder to the months of protests that followed in the wake of the murder of George Floyd that it’s almost immediately one of the most embarrassing angles the company has ever run. The turtleneck and ski mask crowd at your average protest in Portland, three months into nightly protests against police brutality, has had to fend off tear gas, rubber bullets, squads of local and federal agents disappearing protesters into unmarked cars, innovate a dozen or so ways of protecting themselves with leaf blowers and rebar, and withstand a near constant stream of media coverages that paints them as the aggressor in a war for the soul of America when what’s being asked in many instances is that municipalities defund their aggressively overfunded police and redirect the money towards community services.

In place of the Black Lives Matter movement and rose emoji Twitter, Retribution is a faceless mob of wrestlers spray painting crossed out WWE logos on plexiglass and flipping over tables, imagery meant to evoke scenes like Seattle’s Capitol Hill Organized Protest and the burning of Minneapolis’ 3rd Precinct. The first time I saw this, in GIFs and clips on Twitter, I laughed. Watching it in full on SmackDown later, all I wanted to do was scream. I’ve seen people fight, bleed, loose teeth and eyes, break bones, choke on gas, and die for this movement. I’ve baked in the sun for it, been coughed on and spit at, kept eyes on snipers and National Guardsmen, learned how to handle tear gas canisters, and jumped out of the way of unmarked police vehicles. It’s not that Retribution cheapens any of that, it’s that it’s a malicious belittling of the sacrifices of tens of thousands of people who just want to fucking live on the part of a company whose mission statement, pounded into my brain like the bats and pipes the group carried to the ring, is to put smiles on faces.

Depressingly, this has always been the WWE’s modus operandi when it comes to angles they rip from reality. These storylines begin disingenuously and end in a whimper—think of how Sgt. Slaughter returned to the WWF as a heel pissed off about glasnost, only to quickly join forces with Saddam Hussein when it became apparent that the United States would be going to war with Iraq over the invasion of Kuwait. The angle, despite such accoutrement as a custom pair of “Arabian-style” pointy boots and doctored photos of Slaughter with Hussein, was an utter flop. Once tapped to headline the 100,000 seat Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, ticket sales were so dismal that the company ginned up “security concerns” over Slaughter’s defection and moved it to the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, where 16,158 people saw it. Despite the Gulf war ending a month before WrestleMania, the Hogan/Slaughter angle continued until SummerSlam. Its January to August run was longer than the war itself.

WWE’s bravado about the whole thing over the past 29 years, the idea that they did something wildly controversial during the red-and-yellow cartoon Hulkamania days, and our willingness as fans to dogpile on bad booking decisions on the merit of wrestling storytelling alone kind of obfuscates the fact that the Gulf War was an armed conflict with real consequences and a bodycount, and that WWE, moreso than when Hogan fought dumpy communists in the mid-80s, was more than willing to be a bellicose propaganda machine for right wing interests without being asked. Sometimes it’s cheap jabs at labor organizations, like the Abe “Knuckleball” Schwartz character and a 1994 ad where Randy Savage tells a sad baseball fan that the WWF’s season never ends. Sometime’s it’s Scott Steiner debating Chris Nowinski about Operation Iraqi Freedom. Sometimes it’s John Cena ending a pay-per-view by announcing the death of Osama bin Laden. And sometimes it’s Retribution.

Muhammad Hassan

There’s no way to contextualize Retribution without revisiting one of WWE’s more infamous attempts at being politically relevant. In 2004, Marc Copani, an Italian American man from Syracuse, New York, was brought up from WWE’s developmental league to portray Muhammad Hassan, an Arab American character from my hometown of Dearborn, Michigan. Joined by Khosrow Daivari, the two made their debut on a December 13, 2004 episode of Raw, interrupting a promo by Mick Foley, who was there to talk about the WWE’s ongoing support for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. This took place in Alabama, who booed Foley early in his promo for mentioning his generally anti-war beliefs and John Kerry bumper stickers, but to the Hardcore Legend, support for the troops was a non-partisan issue and he was proud to show everybody a tear-jerking video of smiles brought to faces. All of this was brought to a screeching halt by music that sounded vaguely like the Islamic call to prayer and the appearance of Hassan and Daivari.

From the jump, you can see how half-assed the whole gimmick is, as Copani doesn’t speak a word of Arabic. So he says something in a measured, middle class New York accent and passes the mic to Daivari, who shouts aggressively in Farsi because that’s automatic heat. What’s their beef with Mick Foley? Well, you see, the troops that Foley is so gung ho to support are fighting an immoral war that has resulted in global embarrassment and domestic racism against people like them, who had nothing to do with 9/11 and loved America until the incident and two wars in their homeland ripped the wool from their eyes. You can guess the reaction to this. Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler hate their guts. The crowd greets them with “USA” and “WHAT?” chants. And Mick Foley, one of the nicest guys in wrestling history, after listening to Hassan talk about being a prisoner of war within his own country, says that while there are some points to what he says, he disagrees with virtually all of it. Eventually this escalates to Foley saying wild things like how his cousin took a bullet in the Battle of the Bulge for Hassan and Daivari’s right to talk shit about America, and how if Hassan would just step into the ring, he’d gladly beat his ass for speaking ill of the Troops.

It’s awful (and frankly painful) stuff that it sometimes hailed as being ahead of its time because the heel had just cause, but everything from debuting the pair in Alabama after a video about the military, the call to prayer, Daivari speaking Farsi, and the vague handwave towards freedom of speech (which also featured in gimmicks like the UnAmericans, who were also heels for being anti-war) is meant to bait the viewer into feeling good about their pre-existing prejudices against a people because the thing they stand for (freedom of speech, for instance) is unequivocally good. It’s Fox News with bodyslams, and this attitude towards marginalized characters has been eternal within WWE, from the Iron Sheik to Hassan, from Adrian Adonis to Billy and Chuck, from Mr. Fuji to Yokozuna, from Slick to the Nation of Domination, and on and on and on.

Hassan was particularly egregious, though. Consider this: Hassan was billed from Detroit, because the city adjacent to it, Dearborn, is 30% Arabic, the largest proportion of any city in the United States, many of whom are refugees from Iraq. If you know Dearborn but haven’t been there, it is more likely than not due to the fact that it has been subject to obviously false allegations that it is subject to sharia law. In 2004 this was a whisper, something that people knew about the city because it had a lot of Arabic people, and when you’ve lost your mind to a tangled web of misinformation and outright lies it’s nice to have an example to point to so you can draw the line around your Walmart and strip mall town and say “not here they won’t.” The whispers never went away, and now we have seven states who’ve explicitly banned sharia law based on the non-history of a city that very much was a hive of Nazism and Jim Crow policies in its day.

I’ve never been able to understand what other white people are on about when they interrogate me about what it was like living in Dearborn, but my best guess as to the paranoia over sharia law was that it was evidence of infiltration—marginalized people moving into spaces and undermining the white, Christian hegemony of them so quietly that someone living there wouldn’t notice until it was too late. The idea that “they” can look like “you,” shop at the same stores, eat at the same restaurants, attend the same schools, and secretly plot for the downfall of your race is a common fantasy of white people, so here’s this guy, Muhammad Hassan, dressed in his sharp suit, speaking in his weatherman accent, talking about America the oppressor. This is it. This is everything you’ve been trained to fear. And now professional wrestling, ensconced in the safety of fiction and the anonymity of being a face in the crowd, has provided you an opportunity to voice those fears as loudly as possible.

And WWE was happy to reward those fans, giving them motive and opportunity to revel in his embarrassment. When he appeared at the Royal Rumble, Hassan was ganged up on by faces and heels alike and eliminated before he could do anything. He crossed paths with Hulk Hogan, Shawn Michaels, Batista, Steve Austin and other main event talent, but in a way that never put him over. In April 2005, his theme music became a popular meme on YTMND, “interrupting” things like the OJ Simpson trial the way Hassan interrupted promos, that vague call to prayer ringing out over thousands tinny computer speakers. When it came time for him to challenge for the WWE Championship, he ate his first pinfall in less than two minutes against John Cena.

During this time, they never did anything more provoking than his debut segment against Foley, keeping the racism at a simmer because he was a hot heel act who could win without hurting the perception of a face and lose without hurting himself. When he was traded to SmackDown after his loss to Cena, that changed. Engaging in a feud against the Undertaker, Hassan’s last major appearance in WWE beyond the mercy killing that was his match against Undertaker at the Great American Bash, was an affair where Daivari was booked to wrestle the Deadman. This goes about how you’d expect it to, with Daivari getting squashed in two moves, but the angle going into the match was that Hassan would use him as a “sacrificial lamb,” and that that sacrifice would be worth it. What did that sacrifice garner? Five men in turtlenecks and ski masks, who beat the Undertaker down and choked him with a piano wire after being summoned to the ring by a praying Hasan. And just like that, the Arab American character who’d made valid points about the treatment of other Arab Americans for seven months was a full-blown terrorist.

But real life has a way of messing with WWE’s most shocking angles, as Hassan’s attack on the Undertaker was shot July 4, three days before the July 7 bombings in London, England. SmackDown airs on Thursday, and it’s reasonable to assume that the episode was in UPN’s hands with little time to do much more than add advisories to the footage and edit it for international markets. The coincidence did not go unnoticed by the media, who pressured UPN into pressuring WWE to keep Hassan off of SmackDown, killing the angle, the character, and Copani’s career. What’s incredible about this isn’t that WWE pulled the plug on the character, but that had there been no bombings on July 7, Hassan may have won the World Heavyweight Championship as early as SummerSlam, the character growing more and more vile en route to becoming the youngest champion in company history.

How does wrestling handle reality?

Wrestling can do a lot of things very well; it’s often a much better commentary on the tensions that exist in American society than it’s given credit for being, but the way it is made means that it is necessarily several steps removed from the reality it broadcasts to. When you build a character, design their look, compose their theme song, and block out their narrative, you’re committing to dedicating months of programming to that project. When you tie that project to something like Desert Storm and it ends before the first act of your program, you’re pretty much fucked and have to keep going. When you tie that project to racism and xenophobia and something happens in the world that looks too much like the thing you filmed for your wrestling show, you’re pretty much fucked and at the mercy of your network.

So it’s incredible that we’re here in 2020, watching a wrestling stable hurl Molotov cocktails at WWE’s imperfect vacuum, a white supremacist fantasia dreamed up by very close friends of Donald Trump. It goes without saying that this will blow up in WWE’s face—it isn’t just gross, but it’s a complete farce, booked in a panic with no real vision for how this would actually play out in reality. On Raw, when they were hurling cocktails at the transformer, nobody in Raw Underground stopped to ask what the explosion just beyond the bay door was? On SmackDown, there were enough cameramen left at ringside for the editor in the truck to remain as trigger happy as ever? These men with bats and pipes were casting aside their bats and pipes to throw wrestling punches? Nobody went after the expensive LED panels in the ring posts or ring apron? They couldn’t bother to gimmick a pane of plexiglass to shatter on contact? You want to convince me that this is anything approximating real? Burn the ring down. Don’t run 205 Live on the WWE Network.

The thing about the WWE bubble is that now more than ever every single show is connected in a way that nobody in power seems able to grasp. If you’re a WWE Superstar who shows up to work on Mondays and you tune in to watch your friends on SmackDown and see a bunch of Antifa supersoliders running roughshod, beating up women and using chainsaws on the ring, are you going to want to show up? You can be the toughest guy on Raw Underground, and if your answer is anything other than no, you’d be a goddamn liar. Why wouldn’t they show up on NXT? Why wouldn’t they absolutely crush everybody on 205 Live? I’m asking these questions one show into what’s going to be a long fall and winter with this group, but if this is what you’re going for, give me real terror, not a PG facsimile that’s supposed to make the middle aged men they’re playing to feel comfortable in hating marginalized people. Have a fucking backbone.

But that’s the problem with Retribution before it even begins: WWE, in stating again and again that it is non-political entertainment, can’t push the envelope anywhere remotely interesting. You can ask “What does Retribution want?” but the answer, based on them crossing out the SmackDown ring apron and crudely painting anti-WWE symbols on the plexiglass, is “opportunity.” What else can they be after? Societal change? Imagine those scripts. A redress of unsafe working conditions and subpar pay during a global pandemic? Can’t exactly criticize yourself on your own platform. So you’re left with the brass ring, a bunch of thugs who can’t go about it the “right” way and are instead resorting to violence and propaganda. The issues with how derivative this is are obvious, and the way Retribution has been packaged is less a dogwhistle than it is a Klaxon. But as this group gains definition, mark it—they’ll talk about being held down, about having opportunities snatched from them, and they’ll be castigated as bratty opportunists who’ll eventually be shown the door by someone who actually paid their dues. That’s fine. With WWE pissing away viewers the way it is, so few people will see this storyline play out that it’ll be fodder for bad listicles about shocking moments within a year. But if you want to know one of the reasons why WWE is losing young viewers, here it is: This is how they see us. Why stick around and be insulted?