Ever since the start of the UK’s first COVID-19 lockdown, my colleagues at this fine publication and I have been running a weekly video stream every Wednesday night, so we can have a laugh and feel some togetherness in this necessarily atomised time of general misery. This consisted of three hours per week of classic wrestling clips, until the revelations of the #SpeakingOut movement meant that we couldn’t face watching anything to do with the sport for a good long while, whereupon we started screening a regular medley of any random crap that took our fancy. Nowadays we have a ratio of grappling-to-miscellany that usually sits at about 1:1, and this week was no exception, as we presented a selection of festive clips. Christmas music was there in the form of Slade, The Muppets and a beautiful Irish folk song about beating the ever-loving shit out of British soldiers, and of course we had to include all the major touchstones of Christmassy wrestling: Xanta Claus, future Mayor of Knox County Glen Jacobs as the Christmas Creature, a rude heel Father Christmas copping a hell-raising Stone Cold Stunner, TNA’s infamous and riotously entertaining “Silent Night, Bloody Night” barbed wire Christmas tree match and noted grappler “Big Nasty” Paul Wight stepping to another political titan in the form of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Jingle All The Way. Our main event was the “Miracle on 34th Street Fight” between Dean Ambrose and Bray Wyatt from Monday Night Raw in 2016, and the verdict from the stream watchers was unanimous. Whereas the other festive wrestling content was charming and engaging even in its hokeyness, this match was dull, lifeless and devoid of anything resembling Christmas sparkle.
The thing is, WWE has not always been incapable of booking a fun festive hardcore fight. Just four years prior, in 2012, the company presented not only my favourite Christmas match of all time, but a bout that is probably in my all-time top ten. I love it more than, to name a few, the 1996 AJPW Tag League final between Misawa and Akiyama and the Holy Demon Army, the match where Stan Hansen twatted Vader’s eye out of its socket, and almost every single Wrestlemania main event. I’m talking about another Miracle on 34th Street Fight: John Cena vs. Alberto del Rio from Christmas Eve 2012.
The setup is as follows: del Rio, two weeks into a face run – which was very bad timing considering what I’m about to describe – runs over Santa Claus (played by wrestling legend and real-life Christmas obsessive Mick Foley) with one of his expensive cars. Santa falls into a coma, but before he does so he requests of Raw General Manager Booker T that del Rio should face Cena in the aforementioned match stipulation, which Booker relays to the Mexican aristocrat as the entire locker room – heels included! – chews out del Rio for potentially killing Saint Nick. Cena, playing it totally straight like Michael Caine in The Muppets Christmas Carol, shouts “FOR SANTAAAAAAA!” in the manner of William Wallace inspiring his warriors. Del Rio is introduced to the ring by his personal Spanish-language ring announcer, Ricardo Rodriguez, who is so devastated by the accident that he can barely speak for crying, and then the fight begins. Cena dominates from start to finish as his Christmas “gifts” (boxes with weapons in) contain heavy-duty stuff like a steel chair and a bowling ball, whereas del Rio’s packages bestow upon him a cuddly toy and a delicious-looking pumpkin pie, which his tuxedoed manservant takes straight to the face. Ricardo redeems himself by putting Cena in a sleeper, and it looks like all hope is lost, when Kris Kringle himself ambles down to the ring, hits del Rio with a Christmas Mr. Socko and helps Cena win.
Bear in mind this was 2012, a year where CM Punk’s record-breaking WWE title reign was regularly shunted into the PPV midcard as Cena main evented against such people as the Big Show and the long-retired John Laurinaitis in affairs that ranged from the pedestrian to the frankly embarrassing. John Cena, the scourge of the smarks who had been shoved down the fans’ throats as the unimpeachable top babyface for years, literally saving Christmas should have felt like a right kick in the baubles. And yet…it didn’t. The match was fun, enchanting and genuinely carried within it the joy and magic that Christmas represents for so many people. Even though it was a Christmas Eve Raw, and WWE knew few people would be watching (though I’m sure they’d kill for an audience that big now), they put together an entertaining seasonal edition with an episode-long storyline that had a beginning, a middle and a satisfying end. I watch it every year, and I know many other people who do likewise.
It occurred to me last night as we were slogging our way through 2016’s edition of the Miracle on 34th Street Fight that current-day WWE has forgotten how to present Christmas because it has forgotten how to present wrestling. (Or, if you like, it has forgotten how to present wrestling because it has forgotten how to present Christmas.) Just four years after what was in my view the greatest Christmas wrestling match in the history of all Christmases, the Fed threw Bray Wyatt and Dean Ambrose out there to put each other through tables and take candy-cane-shaped kendo stick shots for absolutely no reason other than it was Christmas and they felt they needed to have something vaguely festive on the show. It was by no means the most egregious example of the “fuck it, this’ll do” attitude that had already begun to seep into the company in 2016 and is utterly endemic now, the kind of thing that happens when a limited and ebbing amount of creative talent is spread over a mind-boggling amount of weekly content, but last night’s stream really brought it all home in an especially stark manner.
Anyone who argues that 2020 WWE is bad because of the pandemic is deluding themselves. Yes, live crowds are the lifeblood of wrestling and I dearly wish it were safe for the fans to come back to the arenas in their droves, but it is possible to book entertaining and exciting empty arena shows. Stardom have managed it. Tokyo Joshi have managed it. Even, God help me, as much as they’re really not the second coming that some would have you believe, AEW have managed it. Yet WWE doesn’t seem able to. Their arena shows, whether emanating from the Capitol Wrestling Centre or *sigh* the Thunderdome, have proven far too wedded to the way their crew has filmed live wrestling for the past thirty years to adjust to the fact there is no longer an audience for the performers to play off, and the promotion’s attempts at “cinematic wrestling” (which, again, can be good – look at Lucha Underground!) have, for the most part, made me wonder why I even started watching the sport in the first place. This year’s Money in the Bank represented the ne plus ultra of this, a bloated rat race to the top of Titan Towers featuring brief, pointless cameos from a plethora of past wrestling luminaries from Stephanie McMahon to Brother Love that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the organisation possessing the richest library of wrestling footage and collective grappling imaginary the world has ever seen cannot make use of it besides a cavalcade of flat, surface-level referents to figures from a time when the company was relevant, in the hope that some of the winnowing stardust will rub off on the attenuated present. It’s like a bad Peter Kay routine. “Remember Jim Duggan? What were all that about?” Fuck it, this’ll do.
All of which is to say, in a slightly roundabout way, that WWE sowed the seeds for 2020’s horrendous creative years ago, in the same way that their Hall of Famer President Donald J. Trump sowed the seeds for his administration’s criminally negligent handling of the COVID-19 crisis when he defunded the US government’s pandemic early warning programme. As I argued in my last article on this site, in which I charted NXT’s decline from must-see television to utter chore, WWE has ceased to put the care and attention into its storylines that it did earlier in the decade, now relying on deadening repetition, under-written indie darlings and the fading glitz of its increasingly dated presentation. 2012 was hardly a golden era for the company, but can you imagine the current WWE setup managing to make Super Cena saving Christmas a genuinely funny and heartwarming moment, even if fans were allowed in the building? Somewhere between then and now, something got lost, and it’s for that reason that I can say with certainty that the coronavirus isn’t the reason WWE is crap. The pandemic has merely shone a harsh light on inefficiencies and complacencies that have been present in the company’s fabric for a long time.
And in case you were wondering, I haven’t even checked out what WWE served up for its festive programming this year. The spectre of a cinematic Miracle on 34th Street Fight, featuring Braun Snowman, the Brooklyn Brawler as Santa and a cadaverous Vince McMahon patching in via Zoom, is about as welcome as Jacob Marley’s Ghost was in Mr. Scrooge’s bedroom.