On this week’s edition of WWE’s flagship television program, Monday Night Raw, viewers were treated to a segment in which the tag team The Usos, theoretically the good guys, revealed that they had invented “Ucy Hot,” their own sweat-activated version of Icy Hot, and secretly deployed it to the trunks of their rivals, The Revival. If you think you can see where this is going, congratulations on being right. Shortly after The Revival got under the hot TV lights, both team members, Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder, started Keystone Kop-ing it up as if their uh personal regions were on fire. When The Usos sportingly offered them bottled water, both Dash and Dawson poured it down their trunks, not understanding that this would only make the burning worse and that their rivals had just been offering them drinks. This came a week after The Usos snuck up on The Revival in the shower and recorded them shaving each other’s backs. That gag might have signified any number of things, but it was clearly supposed to be a terrible indictment despite the fact that this is a sport where everyone shaves their backs.
If you’re thinking “this sounds much stupider than the norm even for WWE,” it’s worth remembering that while that is true, it’s also much pettier. The Revival want out of WWE, you see, and as soon as humanly possible. The startup All Elite Wrestling promotion is an obvious destination for the duo, which has long hinted on Twitter at a feud with The Young Bucks, AEW’s top tag team. Per various reports over the last three-plus months, The Revival asked for releases in January in hopes that they could get out of the company long before the April 2020 end date on their contracts. WWE refused and asked them to be patient, ultimately giving them a tag team title run and a shot to have some great televised matches before finally taking the belts off them at WrestleMania.
They still want out, though, and turned down a renegotiated contract with a reported $500,000/year guarantee. WWE responded by extending Wilder’s contract by two months, ostensibly to make up for the time he missed with a jaw injury in 2017. And since Vince McMahon is, if nothing else, a petty man, what else better to “devalue” The Revival than subjecting them to all the humiliation his writers can come up with, from back-shaving to testicular discomfort. Who knows what else is in store for them in the next year?
Oh, and according to Cageside Seats’ transcription of comments from Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer on his post-Raw podcast last week, the point of the back-shaving segment was “to make this reference like they’re these two gay guys...[WWE] can’t say that, but that’s the thing they want you to think.” While Meltzer’s phrasing leaves it unclear how much of that observation was supposition and how much was sourced from the WWE creative team, we are once again talking about a company where almost everyone has a shaved back. If “these fancy dudes shave their backs!” wasn’t the point of the segment, what would it be?
Retaliatory creative decisions in WWE are not new. In 2005, when Eddy Guerrero’s death was worked into storylines just a few weeks after the fact, a wrestler described as “one of Eddie’s [sic] best friends (and one of the company’s biggest stars of the past decade)” wrote a letter to Meltzer that directly acknowledged the possibility of retaliatory booking for any wrestlers who refused to participate in what WWE had planned. “Everyone has the power to say ‘No,’” wrote the wrestler. “Booking reprisals be damned.” In what may or may not be a coincidence, Chris Jericho was one of Guerrero’s best friends and had just left the company to make a go at non-wrestling projects for a couple years. Those booking reprisals, when they happen, aren’t always as heavy-handed as the Revival’s have been so far. Often they are, but not always.
Perhaps most famously and obviously, there was Perry Saturn in 2001. Seconds into a May 7, 2001 match with non-contract “job guy” Mike Bell, Bell mistimed a pair of hip tosses, sending Saturn onto his head. Saturn responded by throwing some hard punches and recklessly throwing Bell out of the ring and onto his head. On the floor, Saturn picks up Bell and sends him into the ring steps, making no evident effort to protect the man; Bell hits the back of his head on the steps. Saturn calms down after that, but he undoubtedly did something very wrong, both morally and in terms of wrestling’s best practices. A few years ago, Steve Austin discussed the incident on his podcast and said that what Saturn should have just immediately skipped to the planned finish and ended the match.
Just two weeks later, Saturn suffered a “head injury” in a match and became a bad caricature of a mentally disabled person; one storyline had him falling in love with Moppy, an anthropomorphic mop. (Saturn, for his part, says he was too fucked up on assorted drugs at the time to remember how Moppy came about.)
In that case, it was obvious that Saturn should have been punished. Whether storyline reprisals were the right punishment or just more dumb stuff from the head office is a more complicated question. And it’s not like WWE hasn’t done similar things for even more petty reasons.
The May 31, 1999 issue of the Observer covered Owen Hart’s death. In that issue, it’s revealed that Hart’s final storyline, in which his masked Blue Blazer persona was brought back as a wholesome geeky killjoy meant to be a stand-in for WWE critics, was not the promotion’s original plan. Instead, Meltzer writes, Hart “was supposed to get a crush on Debra [Marshall nee McMichael], and feud with a jealous [Jeff] Jarrett.” Hart refused to participate in that, “not wanting to put his wife and children through what they would have to go through.” He also vetoed other ideas, which, according to his widow’s book, included a storyline that involved Goldust molesting him. A theoretically lighthearted Blue Blazer reprise was the easiest thing to say yes to, even if, according to Meltzer, Hart “considered it as his punishment, he was the office rib on their enemies.”
Sometimes this kind of thing is easier to parse than others. Mark Henry was, early in his WWE run, considered something of a bust, but had been signed to a lucrative long-term deal. During that time, Henry was booked into storylines in which he admitted a sex addiction, claimed to have had a decades-long incestuous relationship with his sister, was “tricked” into receiving sex acts from a man in drag (this was in 1999, not that it makes the story beat better) with his actual mother looking on as the reveal was played on the big screen, and fathered a rubber hand with a woman in her late 70s. To the best of my recollection, none of that was reported as being retaliatory or an attempt to get Henry to quit, but that never stopped fans from assuming it was. That’s just the way Vince McMahon and his company do things.
Which brings us back to The Revival, and 2019. WWE brass certainly seem to be working to make fans lose faith in the gifted tag team, but early returns suggest that it isn’t weakening them. Nobody’s watching Raw and thinking that The Revival suck for having been put into these dumb storylines. If anything, the retaliation is so blatant that it has galvanized the hardcore fan element and will only make The Revival more of a beloved act. In this case, they’re not just a great tag team, but something like prisoners—held hostage and demeaned by their corporate overlords and denied their due. As it happens, those are the fans that will be watching AEW, too. Spite has always been reason enough for WWE to do this sort of thing, but the promotion might do well to ask what exactly is this ugliness is really accomplishing.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.