The first full month of WWE under Paul “Triple H” Levesque’s thumb is about to wrap up, with all creative direction steering toward the company’s next big show Clash at the Castle taking place this weekend. Slowly but surely, changes are being made to the product, with most having a positive effect. The biggest mistake Vince McMahon made during his tenure as chairman and CEO had its first sign of being corrected on last night’s Raw in an angle involving Seth Rollins and Matt Riddle.
Yes, the former UFC competitor gained his first name back on camera. That’s obviously not what I’m referring to. It’s the end of their interview, building hype for their match this weekend. There was a not-so-subtle shift in language that falls outside of WWE’s TV-PG rating. No apologies from commentators can mistake hearing multiple articulations of the word “bitch” coming from Rollins’ mouth. And the designed bleeping of F-bombs from Riddle show it was all in the script.
That 1-minute exchange falls square into the TV-14 system where Triple H made his name. Nothing out it was PG. WWE’s highest television ratings of all time existed in the late 1990s with some of the company’s biggest stars ever thriving under the cussing, bleeding, and provocative guidelines. Are Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock firmly in wrestling Mount Rushmore discussions if they have to cater to fans of all ages with every action? Nope. John Cena doesn’t become a tremendous star without his early days of freestyle rap and smacking Stephanie McMahon’s ass (it was consensual).
WWE changed its product to TV-PG in July 2008 with the company labeling the end in 2013 or 2014 for a more reality-based tagline. The television rating has stayed in place into the present day and calling WWE’s bluff: It’s the PG era is still taking place, even if you’ve claimed it has ended. When’s the last cage match, or no-hold-barred scrap, where someone bled on purpose? No one on the roster blurts out a good ol’ “asshole” anymore.
There’s no need to overreact to a 60-second segment. The aftermath and long-term benefits are worth a closer look. Rollins and Riddle have much more intrigue in their match. Having more freedom in promos shows more character flexibility and gives wrestlers the ability to tell better stories. Opening those avenues for two guys like Rollins and Riddle and the possibilities are endless.
Rollins first drew WWE’s attention in 2007 after appearing on Wrestling Society X, MTV’s foray into professional wrestling that was canceled 43 days after its premiere. Under the ring name Tyler Black, he showed out. He was one of the most gifted in-ring independent wrestlers this century. Rollins matched that with an ability to be a captivating face and a despicable heel, much like his current character. That’s why he’s been successful in WWE for a dozen years. Riddle only started wrestling in 2015 and became a prodigy because of the unique way he could emote in matches. The barefoot brawler’s complexion turned bright red in several matches a year, giving a sense of relatability to the pain he’s going through, as he did after Rollins mentioned his real-life divorce on Monday.
The rivalry between Riddle and Rollins has much more momentum because of breaking the TV-PG mold. The art form can be successful in a family-friendly atmosphere — look at CHIKARA for example — but it has to be over the top and pulled off seamlessly to have fans over 18 feel fulfilled as well. WWE’s booking had been subpar at best with a PG product. There’s been no declaration as to a rating switch but if Rollins and Riddle’s verbal jabs were the first effort back into that territory, call it a major success. I’m hyped for Clash at the Castle and I can’t remember the last time I genuinely said that about a WWE show.