Earlier this year, in the dog days of the weirdest summer I can remember, WWE had their second quarterly earnings call with investors. After a brief preamble, Vince McMahon was immediately asked what they were doing to turn television ratings around going forward. His response was what you would probably expect: new, compelling storylines(!); new dynamic characters(!), and a focus on talent outside of the ring. All wonderful stuff I’m sure we were all expecting.
Meanwhile, with the 2020 presidential election on the horizon, the US political landscape has become particularly tense. One “group” in particular gaining a lot of traction from the media (and the president’s twitter account) was known as ANTIFA. The President had labeled them a threat and was teeing off on them from said Twitter account whenever he saw fit. While I’m not here to get into a discussion about the merits or actions of ANTIFA, I will take a moment to point out that the name ANTIFA is a portmanteau of “anti” and “fascist.” It is not a group. It is closer to the idea of the internet’s Anonymous. It can simply be anyone who opposes fascism.
The name has become a bit of a catch-all for the nationwide protesting that has been going on in the wake of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police in late May. People took to the streets, resulting in both peaceful protests and straight up riots when things turned ugly. People were arrested. Property was damaged. ANTIFA was the culprit, they said! But it wasn’t just a label for anyone trying to riot. Someone carrying a Black Lives Matter sign? ANTIFA. Fighting for a $15 minimum wage? ANTIFA. Simply not telling the president how cool and good and handsome he is at all times? You guessed it, ANTIFA.
Anyways, this particular president just so happens to be WWE Hall of Famer, Donald Trump. Trump has been cozy with Vince’s company since he hosted Wrestlemania 5 at his plaza hotel in Atlantic City. Trump was even visible for parts of the broadcast, sitting front row for the show and interacting with Ted Dibiase. Donald Trump and Vince McMahon once squared off in the Battle of the Billionaires at Wrestlemania 23. Donald Trump once kayfabe purchased Monday Night Raw. He is also to have allegedly called the company following the limousine explosion angle that “killed” Vince McMahon to make sure he was okay. Linda McMahon served within Trump’s administration until 2019. What I’m getting at is they’re all pretty tight.
So what are a couple of old white billionaires to do? One of them needed a new group of dynamic, compelling characters to focus on outside of the ring. The other had a boogeyman (or boogeymen!) group that stoked political tension against him, despite it not actually being a group but rather an ideology that happened to oppose fascism.
RETRIBUTION is simply Vince McMahon’s idea of ANTIFA.
On the August 3 episode of Monday Night RAW, a new group made their presence felt at the end of the show by attacking backstage personnel, vandalizing stuff, and ultimately destroying a power generator with some kind of improvised explosive. The actors were all clad in black with their identities obscured. Anyone who had bothered to listen to the earnings call probably saw this as an immediate response to the investors questions.
The group, which seemed to have a limitless number of members at any given time, would start showing up on television week after week and caused what I would say were inconveniences more than anything, like sawing the ring ropes at the end of the show. Eventually, the main players in the group were established and we started to see the core four of, ahem, T-BAR, MACE, SLAPJACK, and RECKONING as the actual stable.
This, of course, was the main roster debut of the rechristened NXT talents: Domonik Dijakovic, Dio Madden, Shane Thorne, and Mia Yim. Their identities were still obscured, but it was pretty clear who everyone was by this point. In a bit of absolutely embarrassing WWE storytelling, the group had the stated goal of destroying WWE and everything it stood for. Or something. It was eventually determined that the best way for them to do this, and the best way for WWE to do anything about it was…to sign them to WWE contracts? Yeah.
Okay so the group had arrived, but what now? RETRIBUTION set their sights on MVP and his Hurt Business stable, who they would face in a six-man tag in their debut match. This set the stage for an epic encounter and—hahaha, no, sorry, T-BAR tapped out to Bobby Lashley’s full nelson almost immediately.
You see, RETRIBUTION wasn’t just some shoddy storytelling hastily thrown together. They’re also jobbers! Eventually, with their presumed leader already punked out, WWE revealed that Mustafa Ali was the real leader, even trying to tie in their abandoned “Hacker” storyline from earlier in the year. Despite adding Ali, the group has continued to look like absolute goofs. It somehow devalued Ali even more, who was mostly stuck on Main Event duty with Humberto Carillo for the majority of 2020.
There were a lot of people, like with Raw Underground, who wanted to take a wait and see approach with RETRIBUTION. I, however, seemed to see this for what it was almost immediately. RETRIBUTION is simply Vince McMahon’s idea of ANTIFA. It is in his best interests to portray such a group in as poor and as bumbling a light as possible. This is the same guy who keeps trying to shove Lacey Evans down everyone’s throat for simply being One of the Troops.
In the end, what does it all really mean? Not much. Vince McMahon very clearly tried to take something he saw on the news and make it work in his universe. Except in his universe, he isn’t just the president, but all three branches of government. This group was never going to succeed in its stated goal, which again, was to destroy WWE.
I’ll admit, I don’t think this idea was that terrible! I think that if you want to have a group come in and do some “domestic terrorism” on your wrestling show, that could work. Consider what the Nexus did in 2010. They just showed up and beat everyone down and looked like a crew of absolute killers. None of them were named SLAPJACK, they didn’t wear stupid gear (though Michael Tarver DID wear a facemask for a bit.), and they weren’t tapping out to moves you give to Chris Masters.
As we know now, none of this occurred. What’s left is a group of wrestlers who can hopefully have a second life when they take off their goofy masks and hopefully the civil unrest in the world doesn’t give WWE any great ideas. And maybe Vince McMahon can help his buddy Don out with a new gig. I heard he’ll need one.