Behold this potato of a man. That’s 49-year-old Shane McMahon, son of WWE chairman Vince McMahon and also somehow an “active wrestling competitor” on SmackDown. The phrase is in quotes because Shane McMahon is not so much a wrestler as he is the beneficiary of a concoction of nostalgia and nepotism heretofore unseen in professional wrestling. And for wrestling fans who pay attention, patience with the old man is quickly running out.
“The boss’s 49-year-old kid goes on TV and wrestles for some reason” seems self-explanatory, but some context helps here. Aside from being the son of the most powerful man in professional wrestling, Shane McMahon is also a relic of the Attitude Era, which WWE looks back on as a golden age. Back then, his character was still A McMahon, but where others in the family happily got humiliated on screen over and over, Shane’s main talent is his blatant disregard for his own body. Exhibit A:
He was never much of a wrestler, at least in the ways you might want a wrestler to be. He had no discernible skill in putting together matches, his punches looked (and still look) like a child’s, and, given that this was not his main profession, his cardio and coordination were far below some of his contemporaries. Now that he’s older, slower, and more red-faced, those deficits are more pronounced. And yet, for some reason, WWE keeps handing him the ball, throwing high-profile matches his way and giving him main event slots, as on Tuesday night’s SmackDown show.
That’s Shane-O-Mac taking on the hyper-talented Chad Gable in the semi-finals of the King of the Ring tournament. If you’re wondering why a barely-capable 49-year-old man is wrestling at this point in a tournament that, at its best, propels up-and-comers to new heights, you’re not alone. The explanation is simple: Elias, a wrestler whose best contribution to the show is his predilection for making up parody songs about the city he is standing in at any given moment, got injured. Rather than throw in another up-and-comer as a replacement, or just advance the delightfully high-flying Ali, who had lost to Elias in the quarter-finals, the brass decided to throw in literally the owner’s 49-year-old son.
This isn’t fully out of left field, but that’s a problem in its own right. See, McMahon is currently the unofficial head of SmackDown, an on-screen role that allows him to filter through a variety of feuds with men much younger and more talented at wrestling than he—men who are reportedly fuming at the attention he’s receiving. One of those men is Kevin Owens, a former bad-ass who has been turned into the world’s biggest geek in this feud, in the interest of making a non-full-time wrestler look better.
The less said the better on this whole feud, which has been both bad and disheartening, but essentially McMahon has abused his power to keep humiliating and firing Owens, as he did on Tuesday. This is punching down in the storyline, but also a clear violation of how and when the McMahons have worked best as characters. You ideally want to build them up as the most evil of evils, so that it makes for a satisfying climax when they get their comeuppance. See Vince McMahon’s feud with Stone Cold Steve Austin, for good example. In this case, though, we’re just watching the CEO’s heir be a lousy boss.
It wasn’t always like this. Shane’s return in 2016 was one of the best moments of that year, and wasn’t spoiled on social media or by any of the prime wrestling reporters, a feat rarely replicated in this pre-planned entertainment. (There was a Reddit “insider” named FalconArrow who hinted at Shane’s return that day, but that turned out to be an ex-WWE employee who was still plugged in; the news didn’t spread beyond the company.) Watching that match again, McMahon really does get an astounding pop when he enters the WWE ring for the first time in seven years:
But that was three-and-a-half years ago, and the initial thrill of that nostalgia has long since worn off. All Shane is good for now is one or two what-the-fuck spots a year, but WWE continues to book him like an everyday wrestler, and a highly-protected one at that. He even beat The Miz at this year’s overlong WrestleMania!
The problem isn’t just that every wrestler on the roster should immediately flatten Shane McMahon, although there’s that. It’s more that Shane holds his own so implausibly well that it makes it clear Vince McMahon enjoys seeing his son as the most important person on the show. It’s been that way since he returned, give or take some brief periods of respite. Shane has gotten matches against some of the best wrestlers in the promotion—he had a match with AJ Styles, for fuck’s sake, and a Hell in a Cell match with The Undertaker, both at WrestleMania. Those are slots that could have been filled by someone with a real future in WWE, but thanks to family connections and the promotion’s continued operating procedure of furiously chucking Attitude Era relics at fans, they have gone to Shane McMahon instead.
It shouldn’t be too much for a wrestling promotion to ask a 49-year-old man, no matter his last name, to take a backseat to the wrestlers of tomorrow. But as we have covered time and time again, the Attitude Era is the high that WWE keeps chasing decades down the line, which ensures that even a minor non-wrestling character like Shane McMahon still gets treated like an all-time great, when all he was really good for was shocking the crowd with his risky stunts.
This is bad storytelling, but it’s also something worse. By continuing to prop Shane up as an important part of the show, WWE is taking away slots from people who could matter well beyond the next few years—I would have rioted if he had beaten Chad Gable on Tuesday, but at least that wondrous little man will get a shot at Baron Corbin for the King of the Ring crown. Shane McMahon’s long-diminishing returns have gone to zero, and it’s time someone reminded him that he was never all that good at this to begin with. The best thing that could happen for the show is Shane taking one last leap of faith, all the way into retirement.