Planet Kayfabe: Nostalgia Poisoning

Planet Kayfabe: Nostalgia Poisoning
By: “KCA” Paul Matthews
Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Hello everyone and thank you again for choosing to read Planet Kayfabe. A lot has happened since my last column back in December. My family has grown and last month I turned one year old. That’s right. I’m now 35. This means one thing, as I’m no longer a person age 18-34 WWE and AEW no longer care if I watch their shows or not. I was 24 when I first started (sort of) contributing to NoDQ by sending questions regularly into Aaron Rift’s Q&A show and a few years later I was given my own column at the age of 27.

Why is all this important today? Because I’m going to talk about nostalgia. The good, the bad and how in more than just wrestling it tends to hold us back. I’m not above nostalgia. We all like a nice trip down memory lane. In fact, the only two wrestling shirts I wear today are an nWo shirt and a vintage style Raw is War logo tee. That’s what feels appropriate and comfortable to me. I won’t judge you if you feel otherwise, but for me, it would feel weird wearing the shirt of some wrestler who is ten years younger than me like some adolescent fanboy. Nope… for me, if I want to outwardly express my wrestling fandom, I turn to the good old 90s. The years of my childhood and when I first became a fan. When everything was new, fresh, and real to me, dammit. It’s harmless. My daughter wears a Bloodline shirt, I wear nWo the same way my dad would sport a Steve Miller Band tour hat while I was rocking a System of a Down hoodie as a teenager. Some would call this part of the circle of life.

However, in the worked world of wrestling the circle of life can be tampered with a little bit. It wasn’t always that way. Pro-wrestling, like every other sport, used to focus on youth and always wanted to be on top of what the crowd saw as the next big thing. You may have loved Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage in 1989 but by 1992 it may as well have been 20 years that have passed in the eyes of many fans and Vince McMahon himself. Vince McMahon certainly wasn’t sentimental at all. Once you were seen as “old” or “dated” to him, it didn’t matter how big you were just a few short years prior, you were a relic. For better or worse. I say that because while Vince McMahon would willingly let go of big stars he saw as “too old”, that allowed them to go to WCW where they would beat the WWF for a period of time. However, WCW would take nostalgia too far and the WWF in the end would pull forward with a new boom period by pushing talent who captured the minds of the late 90’s youth instead of the former youth of the late 80s.

Nostalgia has always been a part of wrestling and when done right, it’s not a bad thing at all. Much like how smoking a little and having a drink isn’t bad when done at the right time and not in excess. In the 90’s we’d occasionally see wrestling greats like Jerry “The King” Lawler, Pat Patterson, Sgt. Slaughter and others occasionally get involved in angles and even have matches, but they were not winning major titles or main eventing big cards and certainly not going over the younger main event talent.

That all changed in the 2010s. The WWE went from a very youth-focused and often dispassionate about the past to the point of being cold to its great history to suddenly embracing its past. Marketing it. Selling it and pushing it on TV. When you think of the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s there are some key stars that come to mind from each decade. Ya know what I remember about the 2010s? The Rock, Goldberg, Triple H, The Undertaker, Sting, Batista, Stephanie McMahon, Shane McMahon… oh and I guess The Shield, Daniel Bryan, and the glory days of NXT.

Recently, Cody Rhodes commented on The Rock having a match at Wrestlemania and his initial comments were that they have a good group of talent and don’t need The Rock. It sounds harsh, but his actual comments were well-worded and polite while also making his opinion known. He later softened his stance saying to Sports Illustrated (yeah, speaking of nostalgia, they’re apparently still a thing) Rhodes said,

“I said the other day, and I said it in a pretty nice way, ‘all respect to the Rock, I like what we have.’ I’m going to walk that one back. WrestleMania is amazing. If Rock decides to come to WrestleMania, please. Simply because, we’re able to have WrestleMania because of someone like The Rock, and Rock was able to have WrestleMania because of somebody like (Hulk) Hogan, and because of the Dustys [Dusty Rhodes], the Flairs [Ric Flair], the Pipers [Roddy Piper]. Our industry doesn’t just exist, the content is so important in keeping it healthy and keeping it going and respecting these long-time fans. I hope I didn’t talk out of turn because I absolutely adore The Rock and would love it if he was present in any setting”

It’s very politically correct for a current guy like Cody Rhodes to say “without these guys, we wouldn’t exist” and while that’s true to a degree that doesn’t mean the WWE owes any of them another run or another Wrestlemania main event or another Royal Rumble victory or another world title reign like many of them were given in the 2010s. Yes, to an extent, none of the current talent would be there without Hogan or The Rock, but by the same token, none of the current talent will have a career of their own if the company continues to rely on established names of past decades to carry their big shows.

As I mentioned earlier I’m 35 and I wear a retro Raw is War shirt. When The Rock exploded in popularity, I was 11 years old and he was my favorite wrestler in 2000 when he was huge as a babyface. It seemed like as fast as he came, he was gone as just a couple of years later his in-ring career was already winding down and his Hollywood career had begun. I was a sophomore in high school when he came back at Wrestlemania 20 to team up with Mick Foley. The Rock ‘n Sock connection was a fun memory from when I was a kid. I was now 16 and I watched Mick Foley having his first match in four years, teaming up with The Rock who hadn’t wrestled in a year. They were going against Evolution which featured Batista, a current rising star of the era who would soon go on to superstardom, and a 24-year-old Randy Orton a young darling of the company who they hoped would be their next big mainstream star. Evolution would win, rightfully so, and Randy Orton would go on to have a fantastic feud with Mick Foley who came out of retirement essentially just to put Randy Orton over huge.

It would be Rock’s last match until Wrestlemania 28 in 2012, eight years later. I was ready to cash in on my nostalgia by this point. I was 24 years old myself now. The Rock came back and it was like 2000 again. It was fun. He did some great promos on John Cena, who every guy who was my age at the time hated despite what they try saying now and it was a great comeback. A year old build to a match that we all just figured would end in John Cena winning, but, The Rock won. Hmm… That’s different. The nostalgic legend winning a match CLEAN against the company’s current top babyface? Its weird but no one seemed to mind since most of the ticket-buying fanbase at the time didn’t really care for John Cena that much anymore. I mean, this was 2012. He won that US title off of Big Show 8 years earlier. He’s been THE guy ever since. We have seen him beat everyone. It was nice to see Cena take an ‘L’ for once.

I’m not going to go through a match-by-match history next, but just to paint a picture of how WWE looked later on, their entire mentality changed. People remember CM Punk’s ‘Pipebomb” and the “Summer of Punk” was a fun tagline but do you remember how Punk was used after he beat John Cena at Money in the Bank in Chicago? He put over Alberto Del Rio and feuded with Triple H that ended indecisively when Kevin Nash returned just to have a retirement match with Triple H. CM Punk would later go on to win the world title again and have a 434-day-long run which, while memorable, featured very few main events. Even John Cena vs. the then VP of talent relations was billed higher on the card. Punk’s big run would end in a loss to The Rock who was essentially a transitional champion to get the title back on John Cena at Wrestlemania in a rematch.

At the next year’s Royal Rumble in the middle of Daniel Bryan’s “Yes Movement” that WWE tried with all their might to bury, your Royal Rumble winner was a returning Batista which drew big heat from the Pittsburgh crowd (by the way, Batista returned as a babyface legend, not a heel like he would later be turned to). In 2016 your Royal Rumble winner was Triple H who would also be world champion going into Wrestlemania that year as a main eventer. Throughout this time WWE relied heavily on Brock Lesnar who returned the day after The Rock beat John Cena at Wrestlemania and was WWE’s new nostalgic toy to play with, but not only was Brock nostalgic but he was relatively young still. Through the late 2010s, one sort of mentality in WWE was undeniable: the current talent was just a bunch of full-time worker bees and the old part-time stars of the past were the “real stars”. Guys that would come in with their big names and their big pop a couple of times a year, take a main event spot and maybe even win a title or something like the Royal Rumble. If you looked at any Wrestlemania card in the 2010s, you’d see they were heavily dominated by older stars from past eras in top spots.

Clearly, WWE took their nostalgia too far. I don’t love FTR as much as many of you reading this do, but a “highlight” of their WWE run is getting beat up by DX during a one-off reunion on the 25 anniversary of Raw special. The best they saw for Cody Rhodes was making him a mini-PG Goldust who couldn’t buy a midcard win. The one guy they put all their effort in was Roman Reigns and even that was a corporate manufactured movement and Roman himself didn’t truly become a superstar until he turned heel. (Something I said WWE would have to do if they wanted Roman to truly get over, by the way, in case you’re taking notes).

In the 2010s, WWE prioritized nostalgia. Instead of putting faith and effort in the full-time talent they had, they were seen as just a bunch of millennials who lacked drive and could never hang with the wrestlers of generations passed. I’m not making that up. Go watch Steve Austin’s interview with Vince McMahon. That’s what he said about the current locker room at the time. A remark so baffling that you can see Austin’s expression afterward and sighs as he says “millennials…” with a tone that said, “are you seriously using that excuse?” While WWE’s push for nostalgia helped them fill a few seats at big shows and pop a few good ratings here or there, it sure didn’t help locker room morale as the guys who were making towns 300 days a year would find that creative would have nothing significant for them between the months of January and April. The faces on posters for Wrestlemania and Summerslam were the same faces you’d see on posters in the late 90s. This was largely a problem with the male superstars, though. WWE also had their “women’s revolution” and while you’d see old women from the past here or there pop up, they largely pushed the current women and presented them as the best women’s division they ever had, whether it was true or not. The result? They had a bunch of new female stars and fans took them seriously because the company took them seriously. Whereas with the men, all the current stars, except Roman Reigns, were afterthoughts and presented as lesser than the legends of the 80s and 90s.

When the pandemic started, it pretty much forced WWE to take the team they had and put them on the field. They couldn’t entirely rely on their crutch of nostalgia as much as they had in recent years. It was up to the full-time superstars to carry the show and what happened since? The WWE has taken over AEW in terms of public approval. The Usos have become recognized as one of the best tag teams ever. The Bloodline became a hall-of-fame level stable. Roman Reigns actually got over huge. Sami Zayn is having the run of his career. Interest is up. Ratings are up. They used to lose AEW in the key demo (the one I’m no longer apart of) and now I can’t remember the last time AEW even mentioned the key demo because no one can remember the last time AEW ever beat WWE in the key demo.

All this a result of pushing the current talent and their world champion of the past 900+ days actually being a current full-time guy who is part of this generation of superstars. Last year at Wrestlemania Stone Cold Steve Austin came out of retirement to have one more match. This was an example of nostalgia done right. It was well done for these reasons, 1. it was Texas, Austin’s home state and he hasn’t wrestled at all in 19 years, 2. even though he was going over a current talent, he went over an established current talent who was only elevated by having a match that was also the main event and received critical acclaim, 3. Austin didn’t just come out, hit his signature moves, and win in a burial 4. Austin did not become a world champion or overstay his welcome. He wasn’t on Raw the next day making everyone look bad. He didn’t come back to win the Royal Rumble. He didn’t beat Roman Reigns for the title. Austin’s involvement was so well done that Wrestlemania received universal praise. It highlighted many of the current stars. Also, this is where the momentum shifted in favor of WWE in the battle against AEW. Since Wrestlemania on last year people have been more interested in WWE.

Earlier on it may have sounded like I was just picking on The Rock since Cody brought him up, but I’m not. In fact, I think The Rock’s return against John Cena the first time is one of the better nostalgic runs that WWE has done. I’m just saying that Cody was right the first time. They don’t need The Rock in 2023. That may sound crazy to the middle-aged millennials out there, but its true. WWE in 2023 doesn’t need The Rock. Just like how WWE in the Cena era didn’t need Hulk Hogan coming around once a year to take his spot.

If you disagree then tell me why. Why do they need The Rock? To pop a buy rate? Don’t need to worry about that. To sell more tickets? Tickets are pretty hot in WWE right now. To pass the torch to Roman? The dude has been the champion for over 900 days and has been the face of the company for seven years. It’s safe to say that torch has long since been passed to him. Also, think realistically. It has been a full decade since The Rock’s last match and he walked out of that one with a bunch of injuries. It’s not 1999 anymore. It’s not even 2013 anymore. It’s 2023. The Rock is 50 and he is actually one of the younger legends of the 1990s wrestling boom.

Since I’m well aware of the polarizing nature of the internet, let it be clear, this is not a hard and fast rule. I’m not anti-nostalgia. I just think Cody Rhodes was right the first time and he doesn’t need to apologize for it and that WWE in the 2010s ran way too hard to nostalgia. When Goldberg came back I voted for him as babyface of the year. Now that I hear him say WWE owes him a retirement match I’m like fuck that. Goldberg had his run. WWE more than made good on what was that terrible 2003 run he had with the company. I loved Austin’s return last year, but I breathed a sigh of relief when he said he wasn’t going to have another match this year. Why? Because there’s no point. Last year was the match. This year would just be another match. The same goes for Rock. We got his great send-off 10 years ago. There is no reason to do another one now and certainly not while Roman Reigns is world champion.

WWE has a good crop of talent right now and they have proven that they can generate interest. They’re doing it right now. This full time locker room are the guys who made WWE better when so many others ran to AEW where many thought they’d have a better life, but very few actually have. Really for everyone one Moxley there have been like ten Miro’s. It is this crop of talent who have made WWE more popular with the young crowd. It is this crop of talent who got WWE to be a hot product again for the first time in a very long time. It is this crop of talent who deserves all the spotlight at Wrestlemania this year.


There is a such thing as nostalgia poisoning. I’m a big music fan and I see it in the world of rock. All the great bands of the past have been put on pedestals to the point where there are no new bands taking over the mainstream. I mean, you have Ghost but even  they have been around for 13 years now and have been a hit band for almost a decade and even still they are just one band. I guess there is Greta Van Fleet too but they aren’t anywhere near the size of a band like Nickelback was in 2005. No the rock world dismisses every new movement as “not real rock” and creates an environment to where no one can reach the levels of the legends of old. Whereas if you turn on country or hip-hop radio right now chances are you will hear a new artist because those genres actually push and support new music and that’s why those genres are still culturally relevant and with rock the last real mainstream movement was the nu-metal or alternative metal movements of the late 90s and early 2000s which took place at the same time as the pop-punk movement that all the old people dismissed as “not real punk”. I guess there was the emo movement too in the late 2000s that was, again, mocked by the older puritans.

You see it in Hollywood. They trot out the same old actors and reboot the same old franchises and when actors die, they just CG them into the film anyway. That’s bullshit. WWE was practically doing the same thing for a while. Nostalgia shouldn’t be winning world titles and Royal Rumbles. Nostalgia shouldn’t be going over rising stars. Nostalgia shouldn’t be the main focus. Nostalgia shouldn’t be main eventing Wrestlemania. Nostalgia should just be peppered in at the right time to give a show a nice little boost. A nice little feel-good moment. A quick wave to the older fans. Even the occasional one-off match.

WWE, you have this fancy performance center and a developmental league for a reason. You built up Roman Reigns from the start. You gave Cody his start, trained him and then he went away to become an even bigger star. There is your main event. 2023. Roman Reigns and Cody Rhodes. That’s what makes sense. That is current. That is living right now. The way it should be.  Forget the easy nostalgia band-aid, WWE. You’re not in danger of going out of business any time soon. This crew can get the job done.


Thanks again for reading everyone. For NoDQ I’m Paul Matthews. Take care, God bless, and happy St. Patrick’s Day and happy Easter if I’m not back before then.