Returning the Gold Watch

As I mentioned in my prologue, on June 13, 2009 I watched one of my best friends wrestle his last match. It was Ric Byrne’s retirement match at WWC No Escape 2009 — an “impromptu” four corners match for the VCW World Heavyweight Title against JT Stahr, Ben Kimera and Shirley Doe. It was a fantastic match. Afterwards there was a lot of heart-felt sentiment, including both Ben and Shirely breaking character in the ring as heels to express their gratitude to a crowd of over 200 people for Byrne’s contributions to not only the midwestern professional wrestling scene, but to the industry as a whole. I was at Byrne’s premiere match, and there was absolutely nothing that would stop me from being there for his final one as well.

I was also present for the retirement of another Ric: Ric Flair’s final match against Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania XXIV. Again, it was a fantastic match, easily one of the best of the year. Again, there was a lot of emotion afterward, both on Raw the next day and in the following weeks as Flair bid farewell to a long and legendary career in professional wrestling. From there he went on to do a number of publicity appearances, as well as a few on-mic roles for WWE and some for Ring of Honor. We didn’t expect Flair to stay away from wrestling forever, but he had certainly retired from the ring.

On June 1st, 2009, Flair had a planned “backstage brawl” with Randy Orton on Raw. Although Flair himself said repeatedly that he wasn’t having a match, there have certainly been enough sanctioned street fights, parking-lot bouts and other matches-that-aren’t-inside-a-ring in WWE history that most fans I know call bullshit on the semantics. It was a match. It was a match on a professional wrestling program. It was a match on a professional wrestling program that he claimed he retired from.

As far as I’m concerned, Flair broke his word to his fans. He returned the gold watch.

Now, there’s certainly a history of leaving retirement in professional wrestling. There are a number of angles where the loser leaves town or a wrestler retires only to come back several months or years later. (For example, Mick Foley retired in 2000 from the WWF, only to start wrestling again in TNA in 2009.) Certainly fans can point to the rich history of wrestling and claim that it’s actually very rare that a wrestler stays retired. I’m not saying that there isn’t a tradition of breaking retirement. But there’s the other side to consider: a lot of wrestlers are forced to retire due to medical conditions or personal decisions, and may get nothing more than a short speech and a tournament over their vacated belt, if they’re not just mentioned in passing at the next show. There’s no consistency as to how a wrestler retires, and it seems that a particular performer has to build up a lot of respect in the industry before they’re given any kind of retirement match at all.

This tradition of false retirements and sudden returns means that we, as the fans, often don’t know if a retirement is legitimate until it’s too late. We become blase and suspicious of retirement matches or speeches, only to feel bad when we find out later that the retirement is legitimate. At Wrestlemania 25, I saw JBL’s last match, but at the time I didn’t know it was his last match, because he’s “quit” a number of times before in the WWE. On June 8, 2009, Vickie Guerrero suddenly quit as Raw General Manager, and we as fans didn’t realize until later that she had decided to leave the company to spend more time with her children. So when a wrestler has a lengthy build-up to retirement and a chance to put out a fantastic match, and when that match is able to overcome our inherent skepticism and get us emotionally involved, that’s something special. It’s special to the wrestler, to the industry and to the fans.

Which is why I’m so pissed that Flair had a chance to do something classy with his retirement, and barely waited a year before he was mixing it up again.

His decision makes the problem of future sendoffs so much worse. Now just about every retirement is going to be mocked or ignored. We won’t realize someone is gone until a few years go by and someone asks “Hey, whatever happened to so-and-so?” Nothing is going to be taken at face value. This isn’t exciting. This isn’t clever. This is disrespectful to the fans, the wrestlers and the industry as a whole, because now if a wrestler does have to retire and does put himself through one last amazing match to celebrate his career (like Ric Byrne), it doesn’t mean a damned thing. It’s going to be harder and harder for the guys in future to have respectful, dignified retirements, because I’m going to be thinking “If the legendary Ric Flair couldn’t stay retired, why will you?”

I saw that we declare this particular swerve over and done with. I’m sick of it. It can be done with class and dignity. For example, Chris Jericho didn’t “retire” in 2005. He was (kayfabe) fired from the WWE, but he said that he was just leaving wrestling “for now,” and that if and when he came back, it would be with the WWE again. Others have quietly left for other feds or other opportunities, such as mixed martial arts. That’s fine — I can accept that. But if you use the word retired, be serious about it. Make it rare, make it special, and make it stick. I’m tired of being emotionally abused by fake retirements.

If you take the gold watch, you’d better damn well keep it.

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