The First Rule of Extreme Rules Is There Are No Rules

The First Rule of Extreme Rules Is There Are No Rules

For the first time in forever, it looks as though Saturday night’s Extreme Ruleswill actually be, well, extreme. Much more important to us here in the Palace of Wisdom, though, is that it also appears many of the matches will have rules. As fans of both logic and truth in advertising, matches that make a show’s title make sense are always nice.

Now, you’re saying to yourself: “Kyle, I am pretty sure four of the last six Extreme Ruleshave had an ‘Extreme Rules’ match as the main event. Check and mate to you, Mr. Idiot!” A statement that would, of course, be both accurate and very wrong. Accurate in the sense that the show has, in fact, been main-evented four times in the past six years—2021, 2019, 2017, and 2016—by an “Extreme Rules” match. Very wrong inasmuch as Extreme Rules matches are, for all intents and purposes, matches in which the entire point is that there are no rules.

This sounds dope in theory, but in practice that lack of adherence to any kind of rules (up to and including “What is the basic premise of the show supposed to be?”) is what usually makes this pay-per-view the least essential on WWE’s calendar outside of whatever happens in Saudi Arabia that year. That’s not to say that these shows can’t be fun or folks are stupid for liking them, but the kind of listlessness that has permeated nearly every other aspect of WWE’s booking meant that because the matches don’t “matter” and don’t have any kind of meaningful cache to them from a branding standpoint, it’s hard to think of a less memorable set of PPVs.

And that lack of raison d’être beyond “it’s October and you know what that means” is—at least for our purposes both as fans in the Palace of Wisdom and members of the information economy here at The Ringer with the Institute of Kayfabemetrics—one of the main reasons that the matches that give this PPV its name aren’t treated as anything special within our Power of the Push (POP) system, or even as something that adds meaningful value to the product as presented.

There is a mathematical reality to these “extreme rules” kind of matches, as well. Their very nature—and, let’s state now and for the record: Hardcore, No-Holds-Barred, and “Extreme Rules” matches are nothing more than No Disqualification, No Count-Out matches with a designer label—make it so that they are often inherently more “valuable” for a performer to win than standard singles or tag-team matches. As the numbers work out, simply because the penalty that one could receive for a DQ or count-out finish (a 50 percent reduction in any win, time, or show bonuses earned) no longer exists, the expected amount of momentum generated from this match is on average higher than that of a standard match.

And for more divergent variations on the basic “no rules” theme, like Falls Count Anywhere matches or (especially) Last Man Standing matches, these gimmicks often have built-in advantages that make them more valuable to performers when they win and, equally importantly, less damaging when they lose. Because of their significantly increased likelihood of lasting long enough to qualify for meaningful boosts (and being almost always long enough to avoid being penalized at all), these matches help a performer’s push directly as a result of the amount of high-stakes screen time they’ve been given.

But, ultimately, the reason superstars don’t receive additional value from this show (beyond that which comes from being an also-ran PPV) or its namesake matches is that they don’t really help anyone get “over” any more than a singles match would. Also, well, they have kind of sucked for the past couple of years? OK, sucked might be a strong word, but even 2020’s Horror Show at Extreme Rules—the most extreme version of the show in recent vintage, which featured Seth Rollins using steel steps to “extract” one of Rey Mysterio’s eyes from its socket and a cinematic match that ended with Bray Wyatt drowning Braun Strowman in a Wyatt Swamp Fight—was ... boring? And, like, a dude had his (fake) eye popped out. I saw it live with my own two (sorry, Rey) eyes.

Shows that should be more consistently lackluster, like WrestleMania Backlash,at least have the off-shoot of the feuds from WWE’s biggest show of the year. Extreme Rules is, mostly, a chance to have one-to-three storylines shoehorned into one-to-three matches with weapons. This isn’t pedantic or an arbitrary tossing out of numbers, to be clear: the lack of narrative cohesion or even basic consistency has even found its way into the matchmaking of the show itself.

It had felt, at least to the relatively observant fan, that the extremity of Extreme Rules had significantly moderated over the last few years. Being myself, I decided to confirm whether this is true with a chart. In attempting to do so with the minimal amount of graphics skill possible, I realized that it had to be something that was easy to read and understand and not just a list of the kind of matches. Then, I thought about the hXc/“no good” emoji and, well, this came out of my brain (and the Adobe Creative Suite):

As you can see, both the communicative power of emojis and the lack of Extreme Rules matches at the Extreme Rules PPVis very real. What takes a little more digging, but shows up clearly if you know to look in the right places, is that at least recently, this de-emphasizing of Extreme Rules has extended to any kind of “extreme” or even nominal stipulation (at least outside of the aforementioned “Horror Show”); a trend that culminated last year, with September 2021’s Extreme Rules having just one match with any kind of stipulation (an “Extreme Rules” main event between Roman Reigns and “The Demon” version of Finn Bálor) while booking the bout before it—a title match between Bianca Belair and Becky Lynch interrupted by a Sasha Banks beatdown on both of them—to end in a no-contest.

The original promise of the PPV—that basically every match be fought under Extreme Rules/unusual stipulations—had clearly been replaced by the “Hell in a Cell” model of booking. Like Cell matches, with Extreme Rules matches, the WWE treats what should be natural ways to end blood feuds used sparingly to tell specific stories and has turned them into symbols of the changing of the seasons that happen at the end (and sometimes beginning) of certain shows. Storytelling choices like this can force matches and feuds that don’t necessarily warrant an ultraviolent (relatively speaking) conclusion/escalation to be forced into them; while those rivalries that could stand to benefit from this kind of treatment can be forced out of the oven before they’ve been fully baked.

That usually works out OK for Hell in a Cell matches, give or take 2019’s infamous Seth Rollins–Fiend match (infamous because it was stopped after the referee was made uncomfortable by Rollins’s use of a hammer in an attempt to be rid of a demon hell spawn who can canonically wrestle you inside of your mind). Hell in a Cell matches, however, have Hell Cells and a storied history of functioning as a wonderful canvas to tell a story. “Extreme Rules” matches have kendo sticks, and occasionally metal garbage cans. They also—as has now been mentioned several times—don’t have any rules. But, unlike WCW’s attempt at the same kind of PPV (UnCensored) or AEW’s versions of the same kinds of matches (Lights Out), the WWE actively sanctions the show and these matches. Which makes, basically, zero sense from a narrative perspective.

If the people in charge can just decide that the rules don’t matter for a particular match and then have to do literally nothing else (as opposed to having logistical or structural reasons that govern your ability to do something like Hell in a Cell) it can lead the viewer to ask: “Why not do this stipulation more often when it makes sense, not just one night?” Even if you’ve accepted the premise that using it more often would make it less special or lead to significantly more injuries, saving yourself long-term booking burnout by relegating the idea to one night, wouldn’t you still ask yourself, “Why not just make the whole thing out of kendo sticks?”

Advocating for rules may seem like a weird stance, as rules can many times just be parameters that exist to make things arbitrarily more challenging, and can often be employed by some kind of state-like organization (or the actual state) to make a specific group’s lives much harder. But that’s for real life, and what we have here is the failure of the WWE to learn lessons from much higher forms of art than itself, like Bluey.

For those who would rather die than watch even a snippet of quality children’s animation (the full seven-minute story is on Disney+), the plot of “Shadowlands” briefly: Bluey (a blue heeler, which is apparently a real kind of dog, though not really thatblue?) and two of her friends, Coco (a pink poodle) and Snickers (a dachshund), are in a tree-strewn park playing the game from the episode’s title. In what is more or less a spin on “the floor is lava,” the trio attempts to make it from one end of the field to the other using only patches of grass covered by shadows.

Coco attempts to give up on the “rules” whenever narrative tensions ratchet up, like when the need arises to overcome something like Snickers’s comically short legs being unable to jump over a gap in the shadows; or when a car leaves its parking spot and takes with it its shadow. The solutions in each instance—Coco and Bluey stacking themselves up so that their shadow created closes the gap for their terrifyingly proportioned friend and Bluey retreating back to safety when the car moves away and then, essentially, chasing a bus (and its shadow) to reunite with her friends—would have never happened without the specific circumstances in which the friends found themselves.

Those circumstances, in turn, wouldn’t have existed with sticking to the parameters that had been previously set. Wanting things to be as facile and low-risk as possible has obvious appeal, but when you’re trying to create entertainment, even when it’s just for yourself and your friends, it leads to worse outcomes for everyone.

Now to be fair to Coco, her concern mostly stems from wanting to see her friends to be able to continue to play the game they were all enjoying, and near the end of their journey, wanting to eat cupcakes. She is also the dog equivalent of a human 6-year-old, so I think we can cut her some slack. But it’s much harder to find sympathy for (and equally easy to find annoyance with) the WWE and what appears to have been a basic oversight that is literally self-explanatory in how to book this show to get it to live up to its full potential.

The frustration is exacerbated by the fact that even after years of putting together Extreme Rules—and, if we are being honest, for too long using this kind of match to keep a shred of the ECW identity going without realizing the valuable part of that brand’s legacy was the DIY bit and not the “Extreme” part, per se—the WWE still didn’t fully appreciate what Coco eventually learns:

Rules that make sense and add beneficial structure, because of the ways in which they help provide focus for creative people to solve problems through (often unorthodox) solutions that may not have happened otherwise, are almost more “freeing” than a complete lack of them. When used correctly, they create a world and universe in which these things happen, which can give them the equivalent narrative role that physics has in the physical world.

Which, shockingly, is a concept that WWE has embraced over the past few months and has manifested itself perhaps most explicitly in the new regime’s reimagining of what it means to have a gimmick match in the WWE. WarGames replacing what is arguably the long-standing gimmick in WWE history at Survivor Series is, like Extreme Rules has done this year, an attempt to find a way into the future by using ideas from the past and evolving them to fit into the modern presentation of the show.

Although only one match is being promoted as “Extreme Rules”—Liv Morgan and Ronda Rousey for the SmackDown Women’s championship, which has a better than an outside chance of main-eventing—each of the six already-announced fights has their special niche on the show along with legacies in the industry.

Bianca Belair and Bayley will be working a ladder match for the RawWomen’s title, which is just the third ladder match in Extreme Ruleshistory (a fact that is likely a function of the Tables, Ladders & ChairsPPV, which ran until 2020 and dipped into a great deal of ER’s Kool-Aid). This one will definitely not end the same way that the first one did, as the Punk-cash-in-on-Jeff scenario is completely off the table—although the chance of Belair losing the title (and almost certainly her no. 1 ranking on the Big Board) is still on it.

Karrion Kross and Drew McIntyre will be renewing a dormant Extreme tradition with their strap match—a gimmick family that, along with its cousin(s), the chain match (and a country whipping (?) match?) has appeared five previous times at Extreme Rules shows—while Edge and Finn Bálor have been booked in an “I Quit” match, the third such match of its kind in the history of the show (or the sixth, if you include submission matches). The Brawling Brutes get their own branding in a six-man “Old Fashioned Donnybrook” hardcore tag match, which based on the Koloff/Rusev “Russian Chain” Corollary, means that they will almost certainly be losing to Imperium but we will all have fun getting there.

Even the “Fight Pit” planned between Seth Rollins and Matt Riddle is the evolution of the WWE’s dabbling in mixed martial arts showcases like they’ve done previously with Riddle in NXT against Timothy Thatcher as well as several points of Ken Shamrock’s career with the “Lion’s Den” matches. (Though the closest equivalent to one on an Extreme Rules PPV would have to be Santina Marella’s Hog Pen match from 2009 against Chavo and Vickie Guerrero, which was as dumb and bad and regressive as it sounds, before you include that they were battling for the title of “Miss WrestleMania.”)

Each of the Raw-brand matches (Bálor-Edge, Bayley-Belair, and Rollins-Riddle) also had their stories shown (but not told) on this week’s Raw as a way to tease what’s to come without putting the whole movie in the trailer. Friday night’s SmackDown did largely the same, with Kross-McIntyre doing more to sell Kross’s character in one segment than his the entirety of his main roster career to that point. Sheamus and Gunther, our big strong boi, had—you guessed it—another banger to cap off an excellent episode, even if Rousey and Morgan were relegated to a promo package to sell what might be SmackDown’s best chance to main event the show (as both the titular match of the PPV and the one with the most famous name in it).

While we will eventually—sooner is more likely than later—be able to put together a more in-depth breakdown of the difference between this regime and the last one, there is perhaps no better way to illustrate it succinctly than that last paragraph. WWE seems to no longer presuppose that people will watch a show simply because it’s got WWE branding. There is real effort being put into the stories, both in the sense of how they are told and how they are sold, without relying on shortcuts, or regressive tactics like open misogyny or the overuse of blood (sorry, Phil) .

Which is to say that Triple H and Co. have learned perhaps the most important rule in all of modern entertainment: Yellow and red may no longer equal green, but Blueysure does.

Nick Bond (@TheN1ckster) is the cofounder of the Institute of Kayfabermetrics and provides weekly updates toThe Ringer’s WWE Power Board.

Images Powered by Shutterstock