"What is old is new again."
It is a sentiment that has been embraced by the wrestling industry over the last decade as it welcomed legend after legend back into the fold. Some came for the short term, while others had a more expanded role.
Whatever the case, each return further enhances the idea that the business has a nostalgia problem that greatly affects its ability to look ahead and build to the future.
Larger-Than-Life Personalities and the Emotional Connection
One of the biggest criticisms of the current wrestling landscape is the lack of characters and iconic personas.
The wrestling is better, sure, but is anyone going to remember Drew McIntyre's Scottish badass the way they can easily recall Hulk Hogan's catchphrases or "Macho Man" Randy Savage's most unforgettable promos?
Will they remember Cody Rhodes' fiery rhetoric in the same manner that they can spout off "Austin 3:16 says I just whooped your ass!" or throw up a middle finger in defiance of their megalomaniac boss?
The answer, simply, is "no."
There used to be greater emphasis placed on developing characters and stories than there is today. Promoters, bookers and creative teams once reveled in the opportunity to craft angles and story arcs that sucked the fans in and forced them to invest in the plight of a babyface or the dastardly actions of a heel.
By exercising those creative muscles, the industry forged an emotional bond with the audience that proved impenetrable. The fans lived and breathed The Rock's battles against the McMahon-Helmsley Era, cheered wildly as The Rock 'n' Roll Express combated Jim Cornette and the devious Midnight Express, and they passionately rooted for the Von Erich family as it waged war with The Fabulous Freebirds.
The Monday Night Wars represent wrestling's hottest period. It was a five-year span of unprecedented popularity and creativity. It is no wonder that WWE and AEW have reached back to that era in an attempt to bring eyes to their shows.
The B/R Wrestling Twitter account recently featured a quote from Austin regarding one more match with The Rock.
That the tweet exists tells you about the draw that is nostalgia in wrestling. That the proposed match would be more anticipated than any McIntyre-Randy Orton contest or Roman Reigns-Kevin Owens war is proof of that relationship those stars have with the audience.
Today, that connection does not exist because there is less emphasis placed on the development of characters and more attention paid to delivering the best in-ring content.
There is nothing wrong with that, especially as the most hardcore and passionate portion of the audience touts star ratings and terms like "work rate." What it does, though, is rob the casual audience of personas to lure them back to a product they once loved.
So, when that hardcore audience tires of the monotony of good matches with little else to invest in, wrestling companies turn to the men and women of yesteryear, bringing them back under the guise of using their star power to help elevate today's talent to their level.
An Inconvenient Truth
That never happens, though.
Sure, the intention is there. Management and legends work together with the idea that they will be utilized to help bring along stars who need a boost in credibility, but ever-evolving booking decisions or management inevitably fails to best position its talent to benefit from working with the icons.
We have seen it time and time again over the years, and we recognize it immediately.
Is Bray Wyatt better off for having faced Goldberg in Saudi Arabia last year? Did Randy Orton benefit from working with Hulk Hogan 15 years ago at SummerSlam? Was John Cena really any bigger a star for squaring off with The Rock in consecutive WrestleMania main events? Has Brock Lesnar really created a genuine star, despite every attempt on his part to put them over strongly in a pay-per-view main event?
The answer in every one of those instances, and countless more, is "no."
And why? Again, it goes back to the emotional connection the audience has with these wrestlers.
The fans simply don't care about the underdeveloped, sometimes bland and characterless Superstars of today. They are men and women fighting for the sake of fighting. WWE has attempted to produce them in a performance center rather than letting them find themselves or adopt a personality for fans to cherish.
AEW isn't immune to the nostalgia bug, either. Arn Anderson, Tully Blanchard, Jake Roberts, Taz and Sting have all been brought in with the intent of elevating other stars but have received as much, if not more, attention from fans than those they are tasked with helping.
And wrestling isn't the only business facing such a problem. The entertainment industry as a whole has been bitten by the nostalgia bug.
Sure, there are critically acclaimed television shows and movies, but one stroll through a local mall portrays a pop-culture industry obsessed with retro. Nickelodeon's cartoon merchandise, Prince T-shirts, and Ghostbusters pop vinyls are just a few things that catch the eye of those harking back to the days when they cared about the characters and personalities on their screens.
There's a reason why there are so many reboots and remakes in the film and television pipeline.
How does wrestling fix its problem, though?
Focusing on characters, letting talent express themselves outside the confines of a scripted environment and creating angles and storylines people can invest in.
Leave the five-star wrestling matches to the pay-per-view events and leave the television for developing characters and story arcs that fans can buy into.
Utilize promos as more than filler. Let performers get over on the microphone at the same clip you let them express themselves between the ropes.
The key is to allow the audience to feel...something. Anything. Let them connect with the wrestlers of today because without that connection, both WWE and AEW will be trotting out Hulk Hogan, Goldberg, Sting, Ric Flair, Ricky Morton, Tatanka, Torrie Wilson, Irwin R. Schyster and yes, The Boogeyman, until they are well into their 80s and unable to walk without support.
We have spent years insisting the future is bright, but until promoters recognize the importance of emotion in the sport, there will always be an urge to turn to the past to make up for the lack of enthusiasm for the now.
And as long as that continues, nostalgia will serve only as a Band-Aid on a much larger wound.