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On The Apron: The fading old school

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Every week, features editor Dominick Suzanne-Mayer talks the latest happenings in and around WWE within On The Apron.

Last night, WWE offered this year’s Old School Raw. Their yearly tribute to the stars of yesteryear was capped by a triumphant return, and I’m going to start with that, because this is about to become BUMMER COLUMN time. We haven’t had one in a while, so it’s time to retrieve the box of soap.

But anyway, that return. It was the homecoming (not the sad 2005 Raw Homecoming) of Jake “The Snake” Roberts, a guy whose history of substance abuse has been so well-documented that Darren Aronofsky partially based a movie character on him. Roberts has been in and out of rehab for years, but it wasn’t until he moved into Dallas Page’s “Accountability Crib” that he got sober, had a much-needed shoulder operation funded by his fans, and got to strut out, his snake in tow, at the end of Raw to unleash said snake onto a super-stoked Dean Ambrose. Roberts is the ultimate success story of DDP’s yoga and sobriety method, a guy who spent years knocking on death’s door and now looks healthier than he has in some time.

Roberts looked so good, in fact, that he was even allowed back on WWE television after around 17 years (he was let go in February 1997) to do his thing. This is nothing new for WWE, as far as letting “Legends” come back to do their most memorable spots once or twice a year, but it’s pretty unprecedented as far as letting someone with a known, very public history of issues come back and serve as the main event of their flagship show. WWE has a tendency to erase (or, failing that, disclaimer) their dirty laundry, chiefly the long history of drug abuse and death that has long cast a pall over the pro wrestling industry. This isn’t an op-ed about how it’s all WWE’s fault, because that’s an all-too-common argument that’s also a gross over-simplification of a complex issue. But at the same time, as the leading face of the industry, they’re the first ones left carrying the bag when another ex-employee goes into rehab for the dozenth time or passes away in his forties.

The Snake’s return was wonderful, but it also put a lot of the prior three hours of television into harsh perspective. As I mentioned, Roberts looked great, about as fit and healthy as a man at his age with his history possibly can. However, that wasn’t true of a lot of the old-school wrestlers that made appearances throughout the evening. Most of them looked okay, if aged, and Ron Simmons slowly turning into George Jefferson bought a wistful smile to my face. But the show’s opening segment, with Ric Flair coming out to cut a promo with Randy Orton, was a splash of cold water. Flair, long known to be one of wrestling’s all-time great talkers even after his body started to give out from years of notoriously hard living, started slurring his words early and looked vacant by the end of the relatively short segment.

Though Flair’s had quite a few recent issues, WWE tends to treat him both as a living legend (which he still very much is) and as the daffy drunk uncle who makes a scene, but hell, we love him. It’s kind of reckless for them to be doing that, because it draws your attention to all the guys who lived like Flair and aren’t around to be rolled out for nostalgic pops. What’s even odder, and frankly a lot more disconcerting, is the fact that a lot of the same nostalgia acts that appeared when WWE did this sort of thing 10-15 years ago are still the same ones doing it in 2014. And why? Part of it is that more of the recent nostalgia stars are still wrestling (a whole different WWE-related issue for another time), but it’s also because wrestler fatalities are becoming a really serious issue, especially in recent years.

Really, WWE should be bringing out newer legends than Flair and Nikolai Volkoff. They should have better guys than Too Cool around to represent WWE’s second golden era. But then, Chris Benoit can’t come out and get pops. Nor can Eddie Guerrero, or Brian Pillman, or Bam Bam Bigelow, or Mike Awesome, or Curt Hennig, or Doink, or Test, or Big Boss Man, or Umaga, or the British Bulldog, or Rick Rude, or Crash Holly, or any of the other wrestlers from WWE’s lore who’ve passed away in the past decade or so. And that’s scary, and it’s a major problem. One day, sad as it is to think about, Flair will leave the world, as will the rest of the legends. And then where will WWE find its sense of history? Scarier still, who will be left by then to serve as it?