Ready or Not

For better or worse, WWE signaled a changing of the guard at Payback.

One, two, three. Randy’s shoulders on the mat. Keith Lee on top. It’s a whole new era in WWE. (For now.)

New eras of wrestling are about as common as new eras of Batman movies. As soon as the financials start to plateau, the folks in charge decide to freshen things up. Bale begets Affleck begets Pattinson, as Cena begets Reigns begets Lee.

We shall see, with Lee. Two months ago, two very wise men — Stone Cold Steve Austin and Mark Henry — ruminated aloud that Keith Lee was a rare breed of big man, but not ready. Did the hefty Texan finish his NXT PHD in record time, or is the company desperate? The coming weeks and months will write the story.

Ready or not, the timing of the Keith Lee superpush — ostensibly joined in this quarter-century-later New Generation reboot by Matt Riddle and Big E — makes sense. AEW’s schedule is scattershot until mid-October. Football is not yet here to drink Raw’s milkshake. Thunderdome has attracted curious eyeballs, ostensibly willing to give the product a second (or ninth or tenth) chance.

This is wrestling, and therefore fans will view last night’s Payback results with cynicism. Riddle and Lee are 1.88 meter physical freaks (that’s 6′ 2″ for my American brethren), and Big E is a Sammartino-style powerhouse. Vince McMahon’s affection for the tall, ripped and strong is well known, and ostensibly unchanged.

There is also the followup. WWE’s reputation — earned or not — is for a ceiling made bulletproof glass. Getting a win is one thing. Getting over is another. The victims of last night’s Payback Putsch were Randy Orton, Baron Corbin and Sheamus. Their reputations as office favorites and savvy politicians are well known. They are heels and heels lose. These particular heels have a history of winning when fans don’t want them to win, and of stealing the spotlight from dance partners.

The Reader may be showing his age, but in some ways Payback harkened back to the post-New Generation days of the old WWF.

In early 1996, the Federation was built around four new babyfaces: Shawn, Taker, Bret and Warrior. “The New Generation” was mentioned incessantly on television, as contrast to WCW’s belabored promotion of 80’s stars Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair and Randy Savage as titleists. The experiment failed; Bret fled to Hollywood in March, Warrior blew up in April and Shawn’s house show gates — the business’s second-most important metric at the time, after pay-per-view buyrates — disappointed after he became champ.

By mid-1996, with Nitro reliably beating Raw’s TV ratings every week and the nWo emerging as wrestling’s hottest angle of the decade-so-far, Vince course corrected. Mankind (as Mick Foley) beat Undertaker at King of the Ring, then doubled up via a falls-count-anywhere match at SummerSlam. Stone Cold won King of the Ring, then started calling out Bret Hart. Psycho Sid returned, and immediately entered the title picture.

Foley, Sid and Austin were all in their thirties, just like Lee, Riddle and Big E. All were known to wrestling fans. All were short of being major stars. All had pockets of hardcore fans who viewed them as worthy future world champions.

As was the case with the risers of 1996, Payback’s beneficiaries work very different styles. That variety may aid their attempted ascension.

Humility often begets clarity, and Vince McMahon has been humbled. He now realizes that AEW is more than a hipster’s haven. Their TV ratings have remained stable, his have cratered. That clarity may result in earnest pushes for Lee, Riddle and Big E. The tired cliche of rising WWE talent having their legs cut off by the veteran stars may not apply here.

Tonight’s Raw and Friday’s Smackdown are important. Successful rebuilding projects have advances and they have setbacks. What they tend not to have is careless missteps. The championship spotlight may be focused elsewhere, but it’s time for all three men — and their dance partners — to shine.

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