WWE’s new stable, Retribution, and its accompanying “politically relevant” storyline, has been met with widespread derision by both wrestling fans and members of the industry. The angle has thus far been handled exactly as clumsily and nonsensically as one might expect from a 75-year-old Trump-supporting millionaire with a long track record of narrative failure and a complete disregard for self-awareness or taste.
In the absence of cohesive plotting, the talent involved has taken to Twitter, doing everything they can to fill in the logic gaps and salvage some semblance of credibility from a situation that has seen them loaded down with ridiculous masks and names like “Slapjack” and “T-Bar,” despite the fact that they already have well-established personas in both independent wrestling and NXT. The reveal of Mustafa Ali as the group’s leader was an intriguing twist, but even then, the decision to turn one of the company’s most natural babyfaces was rightly questioned, especially considering the optics of Ali, formerly a rare positive example of Muslim representation in wrestling, leading a group loosely based on Antifa, In kayfabe, Retribution might be trying to destroy WWE, but in reality, Vince McMahon appears to be the one attempting an act of destruction.
“A stable or faction attempts to destroy [insert promotion here] from the inside” is a time-honoured trope in professional wrestling, and WWE has gone to this well numerous times in the past, despite the fact that they haven’t had a ton of success with it. However, the sheer velocity with which Retribution has become a social media laughing stock has already made it a notable example of this genre of story, and while there’s still time to pull it out, at the moment it seems destined to become known as one of the genre’s most notable failures.
In order to figure out the numerous places in which the Retribution angle is going wrong, it’s instructive to look at an example of the “destruction from the inside” trope that was successful. And while it’s likely that every die-hard wrestling fan has their own candidate in mind, for followers of American independent wrestling, there may be no better example than the story of S.C.U.M. – Suffering, Chaos, Ugliness, and Mayhem, the group that ruled Ring of Honor with a bloody fist for a full calendar year in 2012 and 2013.
This series will provide a deep historical analysis of the S.C.U.M. angle, from its origins in one of ROH’s most iconic feuds to its completion in one of the promotion’s signature matches, Steel Cage Warfare. I will attempt to examine why the angle worked so well, what lessons can be gleaned from it, and why Retribution, in contrast, already seems to be falling short.
Part 1: Kill, Steen, Kill
The story of S.C.U.M. began almost 11 years ago, at the Manhattan Center in New York City. If there’s one inherent advantage a company like Ring of Honor has over WWE in the realm of long-term storytelling, it’s that the majority of their shows take place over a smaller part of the country, and they frequently return to the same venues for their biggest events. The story of SCUM would not have been the same if it hadn’t returned to New York – specifically to the Manhattan Center and the Hammerstein Ballroom – time and time again, each big narrative element taking place in front of the same crowd that witnessed the previous one. On this particular night – December 19th, 2009, at ROH’s traditional year-ending show, Final Battle – that crowd witnessed a shocking betrayal. After losing a tag team match to a promising pair of up-and-comers you may have heard of called the Young Bucks, “Mr Wrestling” Kevin Steen (known to modern WWE fans as Kevin Owens) viciously turned on his long time tag team partner, a masked (though suspiciously red-headed and Canadian) wrestler named El Generico, hitting him with a low blow and a steel chair. This kicked off a bloody war between the two in which Steen, urged along by former ECW wrestler and veteran ROH heel Steve Corino, became increasingly unhinged, at one point unmasking Generico and interacting with the mask like a puppet on his hand for the remainder of the feud.
A full year after the initial turn, in the same venue, Generico, after hitting Steen with the same chair Steen originally used on him, finally defeated his arch-rival in an unsanctioned Fight Without Honor in the main event of Final Battle 2010. By stipulation, Steen was forced to leave the company as a result of the loss (had Generico lost, he would have had to permanently unmask). In the immediate moments after the pinfall, the crowd basked in Generico’s victory. But as Generico left the ring and Steen began to come to his senses, the audience turned supportive. Knowing that they might not see Steen again for some time, they briefly set kayfabe aside, as the best wrestling crowds always do, to cheer one of their favourite wrestlers. The chant of “Thank you, Steen” filled the arena as Mr Wrestling got to his feet. He took a moment to look around at the 2,500 New Yorkers bathing him in their very real appreciation.
“Fuck you all!” Steen screamed, throwing his arms in the air and flipping off the Manhattan Center with both hands. He stormed up the ramp and back through the curtain, Corino by his side. But Final Battle 2010 went off the air to the sound of the audience still resolutely chanting “Mr Wrestling.” It would prove to be a profoundly prophetic moment — the next few years of Kevin Steen and Ring of Honor, summed up in a few fleeting heartbeats.
Shortly before Steen turned on Generico at Final Battle 2009, ROH hired well-known wrestling promoter and personality, Jim Cornette, as the head booker and executive producer for their television product. He also immediately became an on-screen authority figure; ROH has always presented itself as a realistic wrestling show, and upon his arrival, Cornette announced openly his position to the fans, his kayfabe character holding the same titles and wielding the same power as he did in reality. Cornette wasn’t at the very top of the food chain right from the beginning, but by the summer of 2010, he had assumed full creative control over ROH. Both in front of the camera and behind the scenes, Cornette was the man in charge. And for Kevin Steen, that quickly became a problem.
The tumultuous relationship between Steen and Cornette has been documented in various interviews with the two men, and strangely (for wrestling, at least) their accounts paint similar pictures. Cornette has always maintained that he thought Steen was an excellent wrestler, but he didn’t like Steen’s look, and he certainly didn’t like his attitude. The same was true of El Generico, who was Steen’s longtime friend in addition to his rival and former tag team partner. Steen essentially confirms this in a 2013 interview on the Kevin Steen: Hell Rising DVD, saying that Cornette preferred other top-level ROH wrestlers, most notably Davey Richards, who had the more traditional muscular athlete look and was enjoying a steady rise to the top of the promotion.
Steen has also been vocal about the fact that he disliked Cornette’s creative ideas and fundamentally disagreed with his vision for what wrestling should be, a fact that almost certainly led to Steen rebelling against Cornette’s desired booking plans and Cornette’s perception of Steen having a bad attitude. In short, Cornette wanted Steen to lose weight and adopt a wrestling appearance and persona that fit his idea of a pro wrestler. Steen pushed back because he already saw himself as a pro wrestler, and refused to squeeze himself into a traditional wrestling mold that he saw as archaic and restrictive.
The stipulation that Steen would leave Ring of Honor if he lost to Generico at Final Battle 2010 wasn’t his idea, and he had some misgivings about it when it was suggested that he would be gone from the company for six months. With a wife and a young son at home, he needed every source of income he could get to navigate the shaky financial world of independent wrestling, and Ring of Honor didn’t appear to have a solid plan for his return. According to Steen, he ultimately went along with the idea for two reasons: because he didn’t see how his feud with Generico could logically end any other way, and because he believed the feud-winning victory would lead to Generico taking his place at the top of the card. He was wrong about the second part — despite Generico standing triumphant as Final Battle came to a close, he was used as a main eventer only briefly before being shuffled back into the midcard — but it was absolutely the right ending to the feud, and Steen was able to successfully manage his independent work well enough to stay above water during his kayfabe banishment, thanks in part to ROH owner Cary Silkin, who was close with Steen and paid him a small amount of money from the gate of every ROH show he missed.
Unfortunately for Steen, Silkin was in his final days as the owner of the company.
In May 2011, ROH was purchased by the Sinclair Broadcast Group, and in the wake of the subsequent restructuring (in which Cornette retained power), Steen was told he had to wait another six months before making his return. Steen was livid (he had managed to lose 40 pounds during his absence, but ended up gaining the weight back after being shelved for the rest of the year) but there was one silver lining. He had signed a new contract with ROH in February, and due to his distrust of Cornette, he had managed to write in a contractually obligated return date: June 26th, the date of an internet pay-per-view called Best in the World, taking place at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom. ROH and Sinclair Broadcasting, as it turned out, could still keep him away for the rest of the year. But he had to appear at Best in the World. And it was an appearance that ROH fans would never forget.
During Steen’s absence, his erstwhile partner in villainy, Steve Corino, had taken his character in a new direction. Recognizing the terrible things he had done with Steen by his side, Corino embarked on a quest for redemption, framed as his own personal 12-step program…for evil. At show after show, he would stand in the middle of the ring with a microphone and address the crowd. “My name is Steve Corino,” he’d say, “and I’m an evil person.” He even had a sponsor — Jimmy Jacobs, whose previous stint in Ring of Honor had seen him lead a psychotic faction of villains called The Age of the Fall. Jacobs had left the company in 2009, but was now back, alongside Corino, to likewise redeem himself of his evil ways. The two men spent the first half of 2011 trying to prove that everybody deserves a second chance, and as Best in the World approached, they sought to demonstrate their newfound altruism by taking on what was then the company’s most prosperous stable of villains: The House of Truth.
Led by their snake oil salesman manager, Truth Martini, the House of Truth was dominant in this era of ROH, with a lineup that featured rising star Michael Elgin and ROH veterans Christopher Daniels and Roderick Strong, the latter holding the ROH World Championship as a representative of the House of Truth from September 2010 to March 2011. They were the perfect foil for the redemption story of Corino and Jacobs.
At Best in the World, Corino, accompanied by Jacobs, would wrestle a match against Elgin, who would be accompanied by Martini. But before the House of Truth could make their entrance, Corino, already in the ring with Jacobs, got on the mic. The crowd knew what was coming. Even before Corino started talking, they were chanting “We want Steen!”
Corino began as he always did. “New York City, and everybody watching around the world, my name is Steve Corino, and I’m an evil person. But each day, Jimmy Jacobs and myself are trying to get just a little bit better. For the last six months, I’ve been trying to do the right things. I never imagined that any of you would have ever cheered me, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.” Accordingly, the crowd cheered.
But Corino wasn’t finished. “Six months ago, Jimmy Jacobs came to me and said I needed to make a change, and I did. And if it wasn’t for you guys, that change wouldn’t have meant anything. But there’s someone else that wants to make a change!” The audience roared.
“Someone else who’s looking for redemption!” Corino continued. The crowd broke out in the same “Mr Wrestling” chant that had closed out Final Battle.
Corino turned to face the camera directly. “Jim Cornette, ROH officials, and the new owners…I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what I had to do, but you guys need to know, and everybody needs to know that people deserve a second chance. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Wrestling, Kevin Steen!”
The crowd went wild, even though they couldn’t see Steen at first. He was among them, standing on the balcony above the arena, basking in the audience’s effusive welcome as they realized that Steen was, in fact, there in the building. Fueled by the cheers, Steen descended toward the ring…but he was stopped by referees, security, and of course, Jim Cornette, who refused to let Steen cross the ringside barricade despite the crowd reaction. Steen ultimately shook Cornette’s hand and backed off willingly in a move that came off as sincere and mature. Maybe Corino was right. Maybe Steen did deserve a second chance.
But his night wasn’t over.
Corino lost the match to Elgin, and afterwards, Elgin and Martini continued the assault, with Elgin delivering a massive powerbomb to Jacobs. It looked like they were prepared to do even more damage…until Steen, who was still in the audience, ran in to make the save, hitting Elgin with a pop-up powerbomb (his finisher at the time was the package piledriver, but he was already using the pop-up powerbomb as a signature move) and superkicking Martini. Of course, security came out again, as did Cornette, surrounding the ring where Steen stood, defiant, in defence of his fallen comrades. Cornette hopped onto the ring apron, shouting for Steen to be removed, but Corino, beaten down, short of breath, unable to even get to his feet, somehow got his hands on a microphone.
“Wait, wait, Jim, wait! Jim, wait! Jim, you saw! Kevin Steen deserves to talk!”
Cornette shook his head violently back and forth, again gesturing for Steen to leave. The audience was already trying to get a chant started, and Corio focused their efforts. “New York! Let him hear it! Let Kevin talk!”
The crowd responded in kind, a strong “Let Kevin talk” chant quickly transforming into a slightly simpler (and significantly louder) version: “Let him talk! Let him talk! Let him talk!”
Cornette dithered for a moment longer, staring out into the crowd in disbelief. Steen just looked at him. “It’s time,” Jimmy Jacobs said. “It’s time, Jim!”
Finally, Cornette threw up his hands and allowed Corino to hand Steen the microphone. Steen thanked him, acknowledged that he wasn’t supposed to be there, and promised not to take long. And he didn’t.
“Steve, I’ve been telling you for months that all I want is to make things right. All I want is to come out here and get the chance to apologize. And I’m really thankful to get to stand in the ring today. Because Steve, I told you this, so I could stand here and tell you, and tell you, Jim, tell you, Carey, the new owners, all the boys in the back, everybody here tonight, and everyone watching on the internet…”
He sounded so beautifully sincere. So unabashedly repentant.
“My name is Kevin Steen…AND FUCK RING OF HONOR!”
The second he was done talking, Steen smashed Jacobs in the head with the microphone, delivered a low blow to Corino, and hit him with the package piledriver, while the crowd exploded in shock. Security swarmed Steen while Cornette screamed for them to get him out of there.
Steen didn’t fight the security guards or referees. He allowed himself to be dragged away, laughing maniacally, his eyes rolling in his head like the madman he was. The crowd started up El Generico’s signature “Ole” chant, but that only made Steen laugh harder. When they got him to the ring barricade, Steen spread his arms and fell backwards, allowing himself to be carried out of the arena like Christ on the cross. Except Christ didn’t have both middle fingers extended the entire time.
Cornette, still in the ring and fuming, grabbed the microphone. “Kevin Steen, I swear to God, on my mother’s grave, this is the last any of us will ever see of you in a Ring of Honor ring!” When this proclamation was met by a chorus of boos, Cornette added “And I don’t care if you don’t like it!”
As Cornette checked on Corino and the segment came to a close, the audience began a new chant: “We want Steen! We want Steen! We want Steen!”
Steen has always been open about the fact that despite their personal issues with one another, he and Cornette maintained a professional relationship, and he enjoyed working with Cornette when the cameras were on. Behind the scenes, the conflict between them took the form of duelling creative ideas that were rooted in each man’s vision of professional wrestling. For example, Steen was initially supposed to come back as a babyface, joining up with Corino and Jacobs as a wholesome, reformed Kevin Steen. Steen disliked this idea. “Fans would have shit all over it,” he says in the Hell Rising interview, “because that’s not what they want to see from me! At all!” The plan was ultimately changed so that Steen turned on Corino and Jacobs immediately, but even then, Steen believes that Cornette didn’t quite get it. “I think Jim Cornette expected me to get booed,” he says, theorizing that Cornette believed that his promise to the crowd, that Steen would never return to Ring of Honor, would get him cheers. The fact that the crowd actually wanted to see Kevin Steen hadn’t occurred to him. One of the unique things about wrestling as a medium is that the audience has the power to alter the direction of a story, and that was the case here, as Cornette and the ROH creative team were forced to acknowledge Steen’s rising popularity and write it into the storyline.
One of the reasons for that popularity was Steen’s embrace of Twitter, which he joined in September 2010, only three years after its initial explosion onto the social media scene. Prodded by Colt Cabana, he came up with the handle @killsteenkill, a phrase that would follow him for years in the form of audience chants. He worked with other wrestlers to scrub every mention of his name from Ring of Honor’s website, and cut an unscripted promo outside a venue in New York that got significant traffic on YouTube. Considering the internet saavy independent wrestling fans that comprised the ROH audience, it’s easy to make a connection between Steen’s clever use of social media and his largely organic support from the fan base, making him something of a pioneer in techniques that are ubiquitous among wrestlers today.
Of course, Steen didn’t always get his way creatively. The story that led to his reinstatement featured him hiring a group of lawyers to take action against Cornette, something that wasn’t consistent with Steen’s character and featured actual lawyers playing corny, evil caricatures of themselves, complete with sinister goatee-stroking. This kind of thing was a relic of the older generation to which Cornette belonged, and Steen found it ridiculous. However, it did its job in moving the story along, culminating with an in-ring segment in which Cornette, Corino, and Jacobs offered Steen his job back, on one condition: He had to win a No Disqualification match at Final Battle 2011, the anniversary of his banishment, against Corino himself, with Jacobs as referee and Cornette himself at ringside.
During the segment, Steen brought up the specter of both Corino’s and Jacobs’ past, openly wondering what had happened to two of the most sadistic men in wrestling history. “You know what’s sad,” Steen told Corino as they stood face to face, “is that you let them cut your balls off!” He turned to Jacobs. “What’s sad is that I was a part of getting you out of Ring of Honor two years ago” — referring to Steen’s role, prior to turning on Generico, in fighting to rid ROH of Jacobs and the Age of the Fall — “and the real Jimmy Jacobs woulda came back and made me bleed, but instead, you cut your own balls off for them, and now you’re both as pathetic as Jim Cornette!”
But Corino remembered his past just as well. He told Steen he was walking the exact same road Corino had walked, and he would end up in the exact same place. And he made Steen a promise for their match at Final Battle.
“You’re not gonna face the guy who’s had egg on his face for the last year,” Corino said. “You’re not gonna face the guy who’s been losing matches left and right because I’m trying to do the right thing. Kevin, my name is Steven Corino, and on December 23rd, for one last night, I am an evil person.”
“I hope that’s true, Steve!” Steen shouted back. “That sounds great to me!”
Corino was true to his word, and so was Steen. Their match at Final Battle 2011 wasn’t the goriest ever, though both ended up bleeding from the head. It was, however, a total encapsulation of everything that had happened in the story to that point. The usually dark-haired Corino entered first and revealed that he had dyed his hair blonde, a throwback to his old look, sported during his bloody past in ECW and numerous other promotions. Steen, not technically a member of the roster and banned from the ROH locker room, came down from the Hammerstein Ballroom’s balcony and through the crowd, exactly as he had at Best in the World. His shirt bore the Twitter handle @steenisright, a tribute to his online fans, and as he approached the ring, he stared into the lens of a nearby camera. “Karina, Owen, this for you! Colt Cabana, Shane Hagadorn, this is for you!”
Not exactly the words of a heel, least of all a psychopath like Steen, but in that moment, he wasn’t entirely in character. Steen’s wife and son had endured a massive disruption in their lives as a result of Steen’s year-long hiatus from Ring of Honor, and Cabana and Hagadorn had both been heavily involved in the Steen/Generico story and were likewise not favourites of Cornette. What made the story work at a fundamental level was that despite the artifice, Steen harboured very real feelings of resentment toward Cornette and ROH, and he was able to channel those feelings into a character that felt both real, and, somehow, relatable. There was just enough blurring of kayfabe to lend Steen sympathy in the eyes of the crowd, and he was good enough at toeing the line between his actual feelings of anger and his dangerously insane character that he was able to become incredibly popular without ever looking like anything other than the worst person in the world.
The match itself was built around a series of slowly escalating hardcore spots, as Corino proved for one night that he still had the old evil inside him, while Steen took everything Corino had and managed to keep coming back for more. Moves that would typically signal the end of a match, such as Steen’s powerbomb on the ring apron, occurred within the first couple minutes. Steel chairs came out early and were used liberally. At one point, Steen placed a garbage can lid over the head of a prone Corino, then delivered a front flip leg drop that busted Corino open. Steen crawled across the ring so he could talk shit to Cornette on the outside. Cornette didn’t back down, screaming at Steen about how much he hated him.
“You hate me more than you hate Vince Russo, motherfucker?” Steen asked, grinning, referring to Cornette’s real-life rivalry with the controversial writer and booker.
“I hate you more than I hate Vince Russo, Kevin Steen!” Cornette spat back.
“That’s awesome,” Steen laughed.
The barricade itself was used as a weapon before being dragged inside the ring and laid atop four chairs so Corino could superplex Steen through it. Makeshift structures like this one were a recurring element, and as the match wore on, Steen started taking the majority of the punishment — in one instance, Corino sent Steen flying from the top rope to the floor, smashing through a small tower of chairs that Steen himself had constructed on his way down. The crowd had begun the match chanting “Kill, Steen, Kill,” but as Corino delivered righteous punishment to his one-time ally in evil, chants of “Steve Corino” rose up to challenge the chants for Steen. Meanwhile, every time Corino brought Steen down with some brutal maneuver, Cornette shot to his feet, screaming for Corino to go for the pin, only to throw up his arms in frustration when Steen inevitably kicked out. Cornette began to get upset with Jacobs, who to that point had done an excellent job of impartiality.
That changed after Steen took control of the match once more. Corino was on his knees while Steen stood above him, chair in hand. Corino spread his arms wide and spat in Steen’s face, and Steen replied with a vicious chair shot to the head. Steen covered Corino, but Corino kicked out, and Jacobs, obligated to inform Steen that it had only been a two count, shoved a middle finger in Steen’s face to signify “one” before adding a second finger for “two.” Jacobs went to check on Corino, but Steen tossed him aside, preparing to swing the chair again. Jacobs prevented it, ripping the chair from Steen’s hands. Steen jawed at Jacobs, but as he turned back to Corino, his jaw suddenly went in a different direction. Corino, ever the crafty veteran, had hidden a roll of quarters in his boot, and had wrapped his fist around it before connecting with Steen’s face. Jacobs dropped excitedly to count the three, but Steen kicked out yet again.
So Corino decided to do what he had been doing all night: He built one more structure. It wasn’t terribly elaborate, just four unfolded chairs pushed together in the middle of the ring. He climbed on top of them, dragging Steen up with him, trying to get him in position for a move that would end Steen’s ROH career once and for all. But Steen slipped out of Corino’s grasp and hit Corino with a low blow. With both wrestlers now standing on the chairs, Steen hit the package piledriver, driving Corino’s head through the center of the structure.
Steen rolled Corino over and covered him. Jacobs counted one…and stopped. Steen’s head slowly turned toward the hesitant referee, his eyes blazing. Jacobs slapped the mat a second time, and stopped again. He and Steen stared at each other for a moment, and a slow, malicious smile spread across Steen’s face. Jacobs looked over at Cornette with an expression of sorrow, regret, and resolve. Cornette was going crazy, his whole body seeming to flail in frustration. Jacobs hesitated for another second. Then he counted the three.
Kevin Steen was back in Ring of Honor. Cornette was bug-eyed with disbelief. Jacobs was checking on Corino, but Steen wanted Jacobs to raise his arm in victory, the way a referee normally would. Jacobs refused, so Steen, laughing, raised his own arm. The audience chanted “Welcome back” and threw streamers in the ring. It had probably been clear to most of the people in the Hammerstein Ballroom, as well as most of those watching at home on iPPV, that Steen had been going to win — the match was very obviously ROH’s mechanism for writing Steen back into the regular program. But the journey had been worth the destination, and they were legitimately glad to have him back.
So of course, he had to remind them all how evil he actually was.
“Merry Christmas,” Steen shouted after getting his hands on a post-match microphone, “the devil is back!” The audience roared.
“I came here tonight to do three things,” Steen continued. “Number one was to destroy Corino and win my job back. Check!” The crowd cheered again. Cornette and Jacobs were still in the ring, tending to Corino’s fallen form.
“Number two,” Steen went on…and then dropped the mic, grabbed Jacobs, and delivered the package piledriver to him, as well. More cheers. Steen basked in the adulation as Cornette rushed to Jacobs’ side. But after a moment, Cornette realized Steen was staring at him, a blank expression on his face, blood running down his forehead and between his cold, sadistic eyes. Steen held up three fingers, smiling like a snake. Cornette snapped a few words at him, but Steen just kept smiling.
Cornette lunged toward the ropes, desperately trying to get out of the ring. But Steen caught him before he could escape, and began putting him in position for the package piledriver…
…which is when El Generico slid into the ring.
It had been a year since they had stood face to face in the squared circle. At Final Battle 2010, Generico thought he had rid himself of Steen for good. Now, at Final Battle 2011, Steen was back. Which meant, of course, that their war was back on. New York came unglued as Steen and Generico fell upon each other with punches, re-igniting the conflict that had come to define both men as professional wrestlers, and that would continue to define them for another decade to come. Generico hit a running Yakuza kick on Steen and tried to set him up for his signature top rope brainbuster, but Steen wrestled Generico onto the ring apron and kicked him hard between his legs. Then Steen delivered yet another package piledriver, this time stepping sideways off the ring apron and dropped Generico’s head through a conveniently placed table on the outside.
The announcers were going crazy and the crowd was chanting “Holy shit.” Corino was down. Jacobs was down. Cornette was nowhere to be seen. Steen and Generico lay side by side in the wreckage, and Steen, of course, was grinning. His head lolled lazily toward Generico’s and he reached over to cup Generico’s face in his hand, turning his enemy’s ear toward his lips.
“It’s never going to be over,” Steen said, laughing.
Then he rolled back into the ring, stood in the center of his swath of destruction, and threw back his head and arms. The audience embraced him, once again chanting “Welcome back!”
Kevin Steen was home, and Ring of Honor’s nightmare was just beginning.
We haven’t even gotten to 2012 yet, and the official formation of S.C.U.M., but there are already several factors that went into making that story a success which are sadly lacking from the Retribution angle.
For one thing, the very fact that this analysis had to begin in 2009, and that we covered two years of territory (with more to come) before even getting to the stable in question, is a testament to the long-term storytelling at work here. Of course, it’s next to impossible to execute this kind of storytelling in WWE, which lives and dies on short-term planning and whose flagship television product is regularly re-written at the last minute by the world’s biggest fart joke fan. I think the more instructive point is not how long it took the story to unfold (which was a product of outside factors as much as narrative decisions) but the fact that it was built entirely on well-defined, nuanced, and established characters.
It’s impossible to imagine Kevin Steen’s return to Ring of Honor without the existing context of Corino, Jacobs, and Generico, and without Steen’s real-life issues with Cornette. This isn’t to say that these stories can’t be good unless the performers involved hold real grudges against management, or have years’ worth of long, intertwined histories with one another. But if your angle is going to be about the promotion itself being under attack, it helps for the attackers to have some kind of motivation. At the very least, they should be recognizable, particularly when you’re using wrestlers that, for the most part, have had significant exposure on WWE TV.
Dominik Dijakovic, Dio Maddin, Shane Thorne, and Mia Yim weren’t exactly the best choices for Retribution in the first place – while it’s true that none of them have held titles in WWE, it’s also difficult to make an argument that they’ve been actively held down by the company – and putting them in masks and changing their names only makes a bad situation worse.
While Mustafa Ali has really only cut one promo vaguely explaining Retribution’s actions and intentions, it’s at least easy to believe that he believes WWE has done him wrong, and he and the rest of his group have been using Twitter to its fullest advantage. But the group as a whole would have more of a connection with the fans, especially now that wrestling has fully and completely embraced social media, if it had been comprised of wrestlers who had been on Raw and Smackdown for a while and had seen any chance of success taken away at every turn. Take your pick of ex-NXT call-ups: Bo Dallas, Cesaro, Shinsuke Nakamura, Ricochet, Samoa Joe, Bobby Roode; any of these, plus probably a dozen more, could have fit seamlessly into this storyline, not to mention, ironically, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, the former Steen and Generico.
Blending kayfabe and reality has always been a stable of professional wrestling, and most of WWE’s best angles over the past several decades have taken advantage of that strategy. From CM Punk’s pipe bomb to Daniel Bryan’s Yes Movement to Bray Wyatt’s Firefly Funhouse, and really going as far back as Vince McMahon becoming “Mr. McMahon,” WWE has found success in playing on what the fans know, or think they know, about what’s going on behind the scenes. But in the case of Retribution, the company has gone to staggering lengths to prevent any such success.
The fact that Mercedes Martinez was quietly removed from the group without ever even being given an official Retribution name is all the proof you need that aside from Ali, it doesn’t matter who’s in Retribution. It’s just a collection of nameless thugs in stupid masks, which, to be honest, is probably what McMahon wants. He doesn’t care about making them into bigger stars, and he definitely doesn’t want them connecting with the crowd. He just wants to make fun of protesters.
Ring of Honor, on the other hand, saw the opportunity to turn Kevin Steen into a white-hot superstar, and despite Jim Cornette’s reservations, they took it. In Part 2, we’ll get into how S.C.U.M. actually formed, and the move ROH made that McMahon has never had the courage to pull off.