Wrestling is a work.

We understand this as wrestling fans because we have the basic awareness of what fiction is. When people tell us, “You know it’s fake right,” it exposes their dismissal of something as simple and basic as suspension of disbelief. We do it every day when we watch movies, read a book, and place trust in the government.

As wrestling fans, we are hyper-aware of the manufactured nature of this genre of performance art because people won’t stop reminding us about it. It’s part of why many of us put a premium on realism. It is genuinely impressive when the physicality of a wrestling match is able to transcend beyond the limitations of cooperation and appear to be genuinely violent or heated.

Wrestling is about lies. But it only works when we don’t notice that its lying to us. It needs to tap into some aspect of reality to make us believe.

Edge vs. Randy Orton from this year’s WWE Backlash can’t actually be good because everything about it is preoccupied with reminding us that we’re being lied to.

Let’s start with the obvious. Before these two ever touched at the first bell, the WWE advertised this match as “The Greatest Wrestling Match Ever.” A claim so brazenly untrue that both Edge and Orton have themselves taken jabs at the idea that they might live up to it. So from the get go, you’ve got two performers set up for failure entering this match with a defeated mindset. Randy Orton and Edge in their primes could not have the greatest wrestling match ever and they certainly weren’t going to do it in 2020, twenty-five years removed from the actual greatest match ever.

When we get to the match proper, we get our first red flag. The match will take place with “amplified audio.” Don’t let the corporate speak fool you. The WWE are going to add in crowd noise. Their poor, abused Performance Center marks couldn’t be trusted to behold the Greatest Wrestling Match Ever and so they were given help. Each move gets met with a strange audio mix of archival crowd cheers and the echoing reactions of hollow forced reactions inside an empty Performance Center. They even pipe in “This is Awesome” chants at some point. Even worse, the Performance Center marks have the audacity to chant “Fight Forever,” putting the final nail in the coffin of a chant that was good exactly once and never again.

The horror show rolls on as the match’s hype video gets set to Brendon Urie’s cover of “The Greatest Show.” It’s a musical choice so on the nose for all the wrong reasons. Calling back to The Greatest Showman simply brings about all the worst aspects of this match.

The 2017 musical film The Greatest Showman recounts the mostly fictionalized story of PT Barnum starting up his famed circus. The movie focuses on the ideas of whimsy and belonging that Barnum might have put forward as a marketing tactic but without delving into any of the actual hard truths about Barnum: that he was a scam artist who profitted for years off of the abuse of animals.

Underscoring Edge vs. Orton with a song from this film is perfect in ways that I can’t describe. Much like The Greatest Showman, it is a futile attempt to glaze over horror with sugar and brightness. But much like the abyss that gazes back into your sole, such terrors can never be hidden for long.

There’s real ghoulish aspect to this match in how hard it tries to capture the idea of “greatness.” As would be expected of the WWE, the idea of “greatness” seems to be a relic. Nothing present can be truly great, nothing in the future can be great. Innovation and foresight are beyond WWE creative. And so, this match needs to surround itself with the aesthetics of the past. For tonight, at least, perhaps “old” can stand in for “great.” It’s the same kind of sickly nostalgia that plagues the latter Star Wars movies. When old audio clips of Howard Finkel introduce the wrestlers as an old fashioned Madison Square Garden drop down mic hangs over the ring, it can’t help but draw comparisons to what was instead of what could be.

Referee Charles Robinson is decked out in the traditional garb of an 80s WWF official: powder blue button down with a black bow tie. Just two days earlier on WWE television, he refereed one of the best TV matches in recent memory between two generational talents that could bear the burden of creation in a time of crisis. Tonight, Robinson finds himself decked out in the aesthetics of a time when people liked wrestling. They did, once. Let us remind everyone that wrestling was loved once so that they may love it again.

The bell rings and nothing actually sticks. I won’t lie to you and say that I gave this match my full attention and went over it with a close reading. The WWE doesn’t trust me enough to do that so I won’t bother. But I did watch the whole thing and nothing actually stuck out.

Oh sure, mechanically this was pretty decent. Hell, if you’re invested enough in these guys and can look past the gawdy WWE-isms, you might even think this was a pretty good, even great match. Edge moves pretty well for a man who was told he could never wrestle again. Orton certainly seems far more motivated than he’s been in years. They go out of their way to try things here and have actual ideas. Orton gets some early color. Edge takes some gnarly bumps on the announce table. They even do some fundamentally sound attempts at chain wrestling to fill in the connective tissue.

This match could have been a pretty great, compact WWE-style main event . But we can never have good things. We must instead aim for “The Greatest Wrestling Match Ever.”

Orton and Edge respond to this absurd pressure put upon them in the only understandable way that there is: by absolutely losing their minds. Their combined creative energy snaps completely and drains away beneath the load they’ve been given to bear. Instead of actually crafting great, they instead go for the idea of What if we just did all the wrestling?

And that they do.

Orton does a Three Amigos spot for heat as if it was 2006, Edge hits an Unprettier because the more moves the better, Orton hits an Angle Slam because people like Kurt Angle, Edge hits a Rock Bottom because people like The Rock, Orton yanks Edge into the ringpost because people like Bryan and Nigel. They do the finisher near misses that make up the crux of WWE-style main events and which have bled into the New Japan main event style. It gets regurgitated here with a mix of limp nearfalls and even some Taker-face “What do I have to do now” from Edge.

It’s all so nonsensical and detached from anything. It’s the equivalent of watching a compilations video on YouTube from a person’s Top 10 Matches of All Time and declaring the video itself The Greatest Match of All Time.

Even now on Twitter as I write this, I can see the narratives circulating coming out in defense of this match. Perhaps the funniest one is the idea that Orton crafted this match as a satirical send up to the NXT main event style. The problem with that is that satire often requires its intention to be clear, and you know, to actually be clever and funny. If it’s true that this was Orton’s fuck you to the NXT style, then congratulations to you, Randy Orton. You sure showed those kids having bad matches how to have the exact same kind of bad match but worse. What an achievement. Go you.

This isn’t the worst match ever, that goes to One Final Beat. But this is a match that hates you. It doesn’t trust you and it’s self-assured in its ability to fool and mock you. It understands what you love without understanding why you love it. It’s not a match that tells you a story and weaves you a fiction.

It’s one that lies to you.

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