Throwback SmackDown Shows that WWE Has Lost Its Grip On Nostalgia

Real Fists > Holo Fists

Yesterday was the “Throwback Edition” of WWE SmackDown. Normally, this wouldn’t be something worth writing about, except that the show that normally gets the throwback treatment is Raw, which that has been on the air since 1993, and between the current WWE roster’s various rap beefs and the three or four times I’ve seen Rey Mysterio trend due to things that happened during the childhoods of people 10 years younger than me, my curiosity was piqued. What would it look like? What would it sound like? Who would be there? Who were they pitching this episode of SmackDown to?

The answer, I think, was Fox, so they could have a loosely held together throwback weekend between SmackDown and a NASCAR race promising classic rides from stock car racing’s past, because only a network that views wrestling as an asset first and artistic endeavor second could be satisfied by the show WWE put on last night. By “show” I don’t mean content—it was an episode of SmackDown, one one that centered on Roman Reigns, Jey Uso, and a returning Jimmy, so it was not without merit.

More professional wrestling:

When I say “show,” I mean the packaging of the show itself, from the graphics to the stage to the music to what logos were used and what outfits were worn. When WWE advertised a “Throwback SmackDown,” complete with the show’s original logo, I thought we were throwing back to the early days of SmackDown as a concept. Instead, we were given a haphazard mishmash of concepts. Referees wore early brand split SmackDown shirts, Teddy Long was in the house to hit us with the expected references to The Undertaker, and while the beloved SmackDown! Fist was unable to attend due to it being large and difficult/not worth the expense to transport from its home in Connecticut to Florida, its hideous, holographic cousin tried the best it could.

The rest missed the mark. The graphics were a mix of early-Hulkamania MSG and TV assets, the music was Jim Johnston’s WrestleMania VI theme, Michael Cole and Pat McAfee wore the powder blue commentary suits of the 80s, there were ICOPRO and Superstars Ice Cream bars ads, and the 80s WWF logo, which never appeared on SmackDown, was constantly within the field of vision. Outside of Long, appearances by or references to prior WWE talent came in the form of old clips and a slideshow of former WWE Women’s Champions, few of whom competed on SmackDown because the women’s division was a Raw thing at the height of the first brand extension, while SmackDown had the cruiserweights.

It’s possible, even likely, that my definition of “throwback” and WWE’s are two different things, and that my memory of one-off specials like “Old School Raw” got whatever hopes I had for the show up too high, but the show registered as thoughtless to a degree that honestly surprised me. WWE’s business relies on nostalgia—it’s a function of their owning vast amounts of footage and physical assets from their past and wrestling’s past in general, and their response to the Toronto crowd turning Hulk Hogan babyface at WrestleMania X8. Despite the week-to-week presentation of Raw and SmackDown as shows for people with goldfish memories, the company is acutely aware that its audience has a long memory, and that its lapsed fanbase can be lured back for one night to catch a glimpse of the old men they grew up watching.

WWE

This is easy to do on Raw. It debuted in 1993, in the dying light of Hulkamania, serving as the transitional vehicle from that era to the Attitude Era, the success of which was the impetus for launching SmackDown. Raw has two eras it can pull from for graphic assets, music, superstars, and everything else that makes a throwback premise look and feel unique.

SmackDown has those assets too, but what’s difficult about them is that the show found its identity during the Ruthless Aggression era, and there are a lot of things about the Ruthless Aggression era the company would rather not pick at, whether it’s their frequently racist and sexist storytelling, the early death of Eddie Guerrero, or the looming specter of Chris Benoit. Many of the wrestlers and staff most identifiable as SmackDown guys—Kurt Angle, Brock Lesnar, Big Show, Batista, Tazz, and Tony Chimel to name a couple—are no longer with the company, some are on Raw, and some work for the company in production/ambassador roles.

Outside of contractual issues, none of that should matter. Throw the SmackDown ring aprons in a garbage bag and ship them to Florida. Pay whoever you’ve got to pay to use Rey Mysterio’s old theme music. Dust off whatever volume of WWF the Music has the first SmackDown theme on it, and get weird. Have Scotty 2 Hotty dance. Book a Cruiserweight Title Unification match between Hornswoggle and KUSHIDA. Let Fit Finlay fight!

Far from being unimportant, Throwback SmackDown was an event that hints at the company’s inability to see the future of its business as a manufacturer of nostalgia. The Rey Mysterio of my youth is not the Rey Mysterio of people 10 years younger than me’s youth, and that will be true of the children growing up watching him wrestle with his son. Along with that progression, one has to assume that the Sgt. Slaughter/Tatanka/Jim Duggan style surprise appearances are growing less and less important to these endeavors.

Except that they aren’t, as WWE’s demographics skew older than the 18-35 demo wrestling traditionally appeals to. So you can see how they got stuck doing a heartless throwback to a style of presentation that predates the first time The Rock said “smackdown” by a good 15 years, let alone SmackDown’s 1999 debut.

But that encapsulates so many of this era of WWE’s problems. Playing it safe. Doing the easy thing. Failing to pay attention to the details. A lot of what makes wrestling fun to watch is the atmosphere, and atmosphere used to be something WWE excelled at. Nostalgia used to be a thing it excelled at! That was dismantled long before the pandemic forced WWE into the pocket realm that is the award-winning ThunderDome, but set against the backdrop of hundreds of gigantic, soundless faces, it was hard not to feel like their grasp on both was slipping away, like they couldn’t see that there was a generation of fans who wanted to celebrate a unique moment in WWE history.

At the end of the show, Roman Reigns said that the night had not gone as he had expected it to. I agree with the Tribal Chief. Paul Heyman could have at least worn a baseball cap to lean into the spirit.

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Colette Arrand

Colette Arrand is a minor transsexual poet and nu-metal enthusiast.

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