Over the summer, something strange started happening on WWE television. The lights would flicker and go out, but it had nothing to do with the Undertaker or Bray Wyatt. People would be attacked backstage by unseen assailants. Masked vigilantes were ‘recorded’ attacking WWE’s Performance Center, and even the company’s head office. Before long, it became apparent that this was the company’s way of introducing us to a new and ‘dangerous’ faction. Retribution had both metaphorically and literally arrived in the world’s biggest pro wrestling company.
For the first few weeks, the masked gang were treated like a big deal. Nobody knew who they were. Indeed, the precise makeup of the people in the group appeared to change week on week. When we eventually came to know a little more about them, we found out that they were a group of wrestlers who felt that they’d been used and abused by WWE’s developmental system, and had come to exact their revenge on the company that had treated them so poorly. That should have been the next step up the ladder in terms of the group’s career progression, but it’s actually where things started to go wrong. There was nothing wrong with Retribution’s look, but there was a lot wrong with their names. Dominik Dijakovic, the big beast who’d gone toe to toe with Keith Lee in NXT, was now to be known as “T-BAR.” Former commentator Dio Maddin was to become “MACE.” Shane Thorne probably drew the short straw, as he was left with “SLAPJACK.” A week later, Mia Yim and Mercedes Martinez were rebranded as “RECKONING” and “RETALIATION” respectively.
The comic book-style names effectively ruined any chance the stable had of being taken seriously. Shortly afterward, their gimmick got watered down. They went from attacking anybody on any WWE-branded show to appearing exclusively on RAW without any explanation. They followed that up by ‘signing WWE contracts’ so they could ‘bring the company down from inside’ – a position that makes no storyline sense for themselves or for the company. They even agreed to take part in the annual WWE Draft, which was generous of a faction that’s allegedly devoted only to causing anarchy and chaos. Refusing to take part in the draft would have been the smallest thing for the writers to feed the fledgling faction as a character moment, but they couldn’t bring themselves to do it.
This past week on RAW, Retribution hit a new low. They were booked in a six man tag match against The Hurt Business – a faction of older wrestlers who, save for Cedric Alexander, are well over 40. The Hurt Business have been beaten by just about every tag team worth naming on the RAW brand, and each of them has been individually beaten by Apollo Crews in the past. Despite that, The Hurt Business beat Retribution when Bobby Lashley forced T-Bar to tap out to the full nelson. In their first major televised match, this allegedly dangerous gang of rebels lost clean to a team of midcarders. Things only got worse from there. As soon as the match was over, “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt and his new sidekick Alexa Bliss appeared in the ring. The Fiend then proceeded to lay out Retribution one at a time until he stood tall over all of them. Hundreds of WWE fans took to social media in the immediate aftermath to declare this a ‘burial’ of the faction, and it’s difficult to disagree with them. It’s impossible that this won’t damage the standing of the members of Retribution in the eyes of casual fans – if there are even any casual fans still watching at this point.
All of this took place only two short weeks after Mustafa Ali was revealed to be the mastermind behind Retribution. That ought to have been a new start for Ali, who has been criminally underused since moving to the main roster, and should also have provided further momentum to the group. Instead, they’ve been squashed like bugs. Later on in the show Ali swore revenge against the Fiend, and also revealed that he was the notorious “SmackDown hacker” who plagued the show earlier in the year during an angle that had seemingly been forgotten about. Had he declared this earlier in the evening, it would have come across as a big deal. To declare it after he and his group had lost a match and then been beaten down by the Fiend, it came across as an afterthought – much like the booking of Retribution in general.
The promotion of established names or names from the past at the expense of younger talent isn’t a new thing for WWE. It’s the reason why Bill Goldberg gets rolled out of the retirement home twice a year. It’s why people are talking about Roman Reigns taking on The Rock at WrestleMania next year. It’s also why, when the Bluberi gaming company signed up to make a series games for online slots wrestlers based on WWE superstars, they went specifically for names from the past. The current WWE Champion in Drew McIntyre. He doesn’t have his own official WWE money casino. John Cena, who has been effectively retired for more than two years, does have his own company-approved online slots game. Ronda Rousey, who hasn’t worked a match for more than eighteen months, gets to have her own WWE online slots game. Shawn Michaels does. Steve Austin does. Nobody in Retribution does, and nor are they likely to while they’re doing the honors for guys like MVP, Shelton Benjamin, and Bobby Lashley – some of whom are literally twice their age.
If WWE wants to make new stars, it has to position younger performers as starts. It has to use the capital that’s been built up in its older performers to make stars out of the people who will carry the company through the next ten years. Time and time again, they fail to do that. Retribution could have been the biggest angle in wrestling for 2020, but now it looks like the Nexus story is going to repeat itself. It was John Cena who derailed Nexus and killed that angle. It will most likely be the Fiend who derails Retribution. Twelve months down the line, WWE still won’t have any new starts, and the people at the top will probably still be wondering why ratings aren’t improving. With each passing week it becomes more evident that this is the company that never learns.