Photo: WWE

Monday’s episode of Raw closed with The Miz hosting a contract signing for what was supposed to be a SummerSlam match with Dolph Ziggler, which certainly sounds like typical WWE stuff. The fact that it was happening in the main event was a bit suspicious, though, as was the presence of Shawn Michaels a former WWE legend and current NXT trainer. Why would something as mundane as this be the final segment on the final show before the second biggest pay-per-view of the year? If you’ve followed the promotion of late, you already know why—because it would provide an excuse for WWE to lean into its recent over-reliance on part-timers and nostalgia acts.

And this is how we got Goldberg, seemingly out of nowhere, challenging Ziggler to a match at SummerSlam. I say “seemingly” because the only hint that this feud could possibly be a thing has been Ziggler name-dropping Goldberg in promos over the last month or so. This now looks like a way to build to a feud that reached its apex with seven words from Goldberg on Monday: “Dolph Ziggler, guess what, son? You’re next.”

On paper, this is one of the stranger pairings in recent memory. Ziggler has had his moments but is clearly just treading water at this point; Goldberg is an Attitude Era legend who hasn’t had a good match since the early 2000s—unless you count his sprint vs. Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 33, which was at least entertaining but maybe not quite a good wrestling match.

Dig a bit deeper, and this all starts to make more sense. We’ve covered this extensively this year, but 2019 has been and continues to be a ratings disaster for WWE. They’ve dipped and dipped until they were bumping along the rocky bottom, with only a few spikes here and there demonstrating that they can still attract a decent audience. WWE has suffered lulls before—the late 2000s were stagnant until CM Punk came around and gave them a kick in the arm, for instance—but with the existential terror of meeting FOX’s expectations later this year hanging over everything, every dip in the ratings felt like a new reason to fret over wrestling’s place in popular culture.

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And so, as he generally tends to do under pressure, WWE CEO Vince McMahon broke into his vault of legends and grabbed Goldberg; the assumption, as always, seems to be that what worked before will necessarily work again. And it did work, at least somewhat; although he wasn’t announced for the show, Ziggler’s name-drops of Goldberg were unsubtle enough that fans were chanting “Goldberg” before he even appeared. And the ratings for the third hour of Raw really were high, and higher than the first hour, which is a rare occurrence these days. There were 2.44 million viewers at the end of the show, compared to 2.41 million at the start; the second hour had an even stronger 2.57 million number. If throwing part-timers on TV encourages people to stay tuned, then why wouldn’t McMahon resort to this whenever he thinks he has to?

Here’s one good reason: part-timers are part-timers for a reason, and the full-time roster that has to carry the load throughout the rest of the season. By taking precious TV time away from up-and-coming stars and giving the spotlight to 50-somethings whose names everyone already knows, WWE is prioritizing a short-term bump over long-term building. When nothing matters but legends of the past, you can’t create legends of the future.

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What this says about WWE’s ratings panic is both worrying and obvious, but it’s also worth considering what the Goldberg match does to the SummerSlam card. One of the more intriguing matches announced for SummerSlam was Aleister Black vs. Sami Zayn, a pairing of two of WWE’s most beloved “indie darlings” that have been trapped in circular promo chains for the past few months. Black has been confined to the backstage area, where he talks about the occult; Zayn’s post-injury character is mostly just “the fans suck, they suck so much, god I hate you all.” Bad creative is confining that way, and there’s plenty of it in WWE at the moment, but this match looked like a way to reset that loop and get both guys back to doing what they do best, which is put on melodramatic and athletic wrestling matches.

Because of the SummerSlam juggling that the Goldberg one-off requires—with ten matches in a two-hour show, there’s not a lot of empty space to work with—WWE instead blew through the Black-Zayn match on Tuesday’s episode of SmackDown Live. It was fine, but by nature of being on the weekly show rather than a huge spectacle in Toronto this weekend, it was immediately devalued. What could have been a match of the night contender was instead Just Another Match, shoved between a Kevin Owens-Shane McMahon talking segment (more on this in a bit) and a tag match that ended in a disqualification, the most wet-fart finish in WWE.

If Goldberg-Ziggler has been planned for a while, it’s certainly possible that Black-Zayn wasn’t actually a scheduling victim to this late addition. It might also have been some other match that nudged it off the card, perhaps another legend-versus-wrestler matchup like the Trish Stratus-Charlotte Flair bout. It doesn’t matter, really, because perception is more than half the battle in pro wrestling, and it sure looks like a match between two young stars was shelved from the second biggest show of the year because Vince McMahon wanted to get Goldberg back into the ring and replace the memory of his horrible Saudi Arabia match against The Undertaker with a fun squashing of Ziggler. That could be exactly what happens—Ziggler is at least properly ridiculous when selling, meaning he makes his opponents moves look like they damn near killed him—but it’s not really a good idea.

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Which leads us to a bigger problem: this year’s SummerSlam reeks of WrestleMania, and that’s not a good thing. There are three high-profile matches on Sunday that will prominently feature part-timers: Goldberg-Ziggler, Stratus-Flair, and the Universal Championship match between Brock Lesnar and Seth Rollins, which we coincidentally already saw at WrestleMania in April. There is also the Kevin Owens-Shane McMahon match, and while McMahon has been a full-timer for a bit now, he’s clearly a nostalgia act in his own right, and more to the point a worse-than-mediocre wrestler who is taking valuable screen-time from one of the many superior performers who aren’t the 49-year-old son of the company’s owner.

That’s almost half the card devoted to hangers-on from the Attitude Era; Brock Lesnar, who came right after that in the early 2000s, also kind of counts there. This sprint into the past is happening while matches like Zayn-Black get shelved, and in a way that relegates what promises to be a fantastic showdown between Oney Lorcan and Cruiserweight champion Drew Gulak to the pre-show, where two of the promotion’s most promising performers will wrestle in front of a half-filled arena. For years, the conventional wisdom in wrestling circles was that WrestleMania was for the casual fans, who wanted to see names they recognized from wrestling’s last boom period, while SummerSlam was the so-called “Smark’s WrestleMania,” meaning the show that would deliver for the hardcore fans who stick with the product year-round. This year’s edition seems like an attempt at a WrestleMania redux.

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If this seems like a silly and shortsighted move, it’s because it is. But the ratings panic of 2019 does bear out that there are less people watching, and recent legacy cameos suggest that more people tune in when there are names from the past on the card. It’s easy to see why a promotion that’s otherwise out of answers might decide to feature more of those big names of yesteryear, year-round. That’s how we got the Undertaker doing a fun-but-irrelevant tag match at last month’s Extreme Rules PPV, and it’s how Goldberg can walk into the main event of the final Raw before the second biggest show of the year and take a spot on the SummerSlam card.

It can’t go on like this. Goldberg is 52. Stratus is 42, and likely not planning any more matches with the company. Lesnar is a 42-year-old champion who shows up a handful of times a year at most, even when he’s holding the belt. Last month’s Raw Reunion show devoted plenty of airtime to old men and women who are, for all they did in the past, just not a part of WWE’s future. While this has kept the ratings afloat for now, those old-timers will eventually get too old to actually compete. What then?

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Well, then the promotion will once again be left with wrestlers like Sami Zayn and Aleister Black—intriguing characters for those who pay attention, but relative unknowns to the audience that WWE chases like one more hit. Shows like SummerSlam could and should be a way to further develop the bond between WWE’s next generation and the fans who may tune in two or three times a year; if WWE were more confident in its ability to right the ship, it would be. Instead the event will devote a near-majority of its matches to wrestlers whose best moments in the ring occurred before Twitter was even a thing. It’s a shame, but that’s business as usual in WWE now: the past over the present, the future is for some other day, all praise Goldberg.