Like many wrestling fans, I have been thoroughly enjoying the heel work of The New Daniel Bryan, but in particular the promos. The most spectacular of these took place just before the Royal Rumble, with Bryan walking through the arena chastising fans.
IMPOTENT! CHANGE IT!
FICKLE! CHANGE IT!
WEAK! CHANGE IT!
Is it just me, or does this seem apropos of the entire concept of the Road To Wrestlemania over the past decade?
What was once an exciting countdown to the biggest spectacle of the year has become convoluted, clogged and dull. I think radical surgery is needed to prevent the kind of fan apathy of the Brock Lesnar era, or the kind of fan rebellion we’ve seen against Roman Reigns. WWE have oscillated between trying to please the fans (inserting Bryan into the Wrestlemania XXX title picture), trying to please themselves (four years of Roman Reigns main events) and not pleasing the fans or themselves (Lesnar retaining through Wrestlemania XXXIV and Greatest Royal Rumble despite them building Reigns up as THEE GUY for half a decade) which is a pretty bizarre state of affairs, but I’m absolutely certain that the way they construct the first quarter of the wrestling year exacerbates their poor decision making.
It used to be simple, you see. In the beginning, there was no Royal Rumble, and no February pay-per-view. Television and house shows were exclusively used to build the feuds for Wrestlemania until 1989, when the Royal Rumble began the explosion of The Mega Powers and initiated Ravishing Rick Rude’s feud with The Ultimate Warrior. Even then, the Rumble had no direct bearing on the title picture until 1992, when the vacant belt was up for grabs in the Rumble and won by Ric Flair, before the now traditional “winner gets a title shot at Wrestlemania” was instituted with Yokozuna in 1993. Even then, the first February pay-per-view was not until In Your House: Rage in the Cage in 1996, where Bret Hart retained his title against Diesel in a steel cage match, whilst in the semi-main, Shawn Michaels put his WWF Title shot on the line against Owen Hart. You therefore had various genuine possibilities for the top match at Wrestlemania XII – a Hart brothers rematch from Wrestlemania X, a Kliq rematch from Wrestlemania XI, or even Owen vs Diesel. What we got of course was the obvious outcome, the two top guys of the era facing off in their epic Ironman Match, but the company creative team understood that they needed to give the illusion of unpredictability for the concept of the Road To Wrestlemania to work.
Over the years, WWF/E managed this trick well most of the time up until the early 2000s; judging the path of the Royal Rumble winner was always a tricky affair. Steve Austin in 1998 was having to manage a broken neck, and his opponent, Shawn Michaels, had ruined his back and would have to retire immediately after Wrestlemania XIV. The company therefore had to scramble to book something in February and came up with a massive garbage brawl where Austin, Owen Hart, Cactus Jack and Chainsaw Charlie took on D-Generation X (minus Shawn), The New Age Outlaws and Savio Vega. This fed into the tag titles feud for Wrestlemania XIV and also gave Hunter his first taste of leading a faction, something he would do full time with great skill once Michaels retired. In 1999, Vince McMahon had won the Royal Rumble to screw Stone Cold, but as his champion was “his” guy in Corporate Champion The Rock, Vince intended to vacate the number one contender spot, but as the spot would go the runner up if this happened, he instead ended up facing Austin in a steel cage match to determine the number one contender for Wrestlemania XV, which the Rattlesnake won when the debuting Big Show tried to interfere for McMahon and instead gifted Austin the win by accident. In 2000, the controversy over who actually won the Rumble, and the unfinished nature of the Mick Foley/Triple H rivalry led to the McMahon in each corner fatal fourway elimination match, whilst in 2001 they kept Austin busy with the Three Stages of Hell against Triple H at No Way Out while The Rock won the title from Kurt Angle on the same show.
However, things get more complex when we get to the brand extension. Suddenly, they had to crown two number one contenders, which meant they had to run through an entire array of tricks to try and write interesting television for both top titles. From 2004 onwards, the Rumble winner could move brands to challenge for the “other” title. These extra complications led to some not so great television leading into the Wrestlemanias of the mid to late 2000s, and eventually, from 2008, the Elimination Chamber became an integral part of the Road To Wrestlemania, with one brand determining its number one contender that way, and the other through the Rumble, or sometimes even switching the champions through the Chamber. There’s no doubt that a year like 2010 showed the merits of this approach, but equally we have nonsense like Jack Swagger returning to no fanfare whatsoever in 2013 and winning the “former world champions only” Smackdown chamber to challenge Alberto Del Rio at Wrestlemania XXIX. A further problem once we move beyond 2010 is the way in which the Rumble winner for a period of some years went after the “secondary” world title, diminishing the prestige of the Royal Rumble: Edge, Alberto Del Rio, and Sheamus were all victims of this, whilst the dreadful part timer trend reared its head once we moved towards the brands reuniting, with wins for Cena in the last year of the brand extension (he was full time, but his opponent The Rock was not), Batista in 2014, and Triple H in 2016. From Wrestlemania XXXIII onwards we have also had to deal with two world title matches again following the re-introduction of a roster split in the summer of 2016, meaning we’ve once again got the likes of Orton and Wyatt and Styles and Nakamura going on in the middle of the show.
I think it should be clear from this little history lesson that the Road To Wrestlemania is a deeply problematic concept. With the way in which the product has evolved, several major problems have reared their heads: the vast expanse of time between the Royal Rumble and Wrestlemania leaves the winner of the Royal Rumble in limbo and prevents the very idea of Wrestlemania from gathering momentum; the other world title number one contendership has to be determined in some way; having a February and a March pay-per-view causes more problems than it solves, as events are either bland so as not to take away from what will happen at ‘Mania, or advance Wrestlemania storylines in a way that makes the Rumble moot; having absentee champions and part timers like Lesnar and Goldberg makes those feuds disjointed and silly.
So rather than merely complaining, I have workshopped four suggestions for what WWE could do to fix the issues at the heart of the Road To Wrestlemania:
Move The Royal Rumble to late February
I know this sounds like heresy, but it would benefit the product enormously; the winner could point to the Wrestlemania sign knowing that they really are only weeks away from main eventing the Show of Shows rather than realising in their heart of hearts that they’ll be spinning their wheels for weeks on end and will have completely cooled off by the time the Showcase of Immortals rolls around.
Keep The Royal Rumble in January, but move Wrestlemania to late February
Again, not one for the traditionalists perhaps, and it would certainly restrict WWE to warm weather cities and domes for their Wrestlemania production, but again it would solve the lag time between the Rumble and ‘Mania, as well as maybe mimicking the way Wrestle Kingdom in New Japan is the biggest show of the year at the start of the year. The familiar problem of the April to July “off-season” might be alleviated a little by doing it this way.
Ditch February Pay-Per-Views, but especially Elimination Chamber
My feeling on gimmick pay-per-views has always been that they need to die a swift death, mostly because it forces WWE into shoehorning storylines into gimmicks rather than the other way around. Now, as it happens, I thought last Sunday’s show featured the best version of the match type for many years, and the tag women’s Chamber was excellent too. But this isn’t about match quality. It’s about using gimmick matches when it’s appropriate to the feud: no-one wants to see a random TLC match when there’s no heat to the feud and neither man has any history with risk taking. Equally, putting Elimination Chamber on every February straight after the Rumble- which serves a very similar purpose – is just making your life difficult. Either you end up having to “shake things up” or you’re just putting your stars in a dangerous match only to book the same ‘Mania main events you were always going to book. Getting rid of February pay-per-views just seems like a no brainer to me. Force your goddam writers to write some decent weekly TV for a change and build it that way.
Use the time between the Royal Rumble to shine a light on your alternative brands
I appreciate that for WWE, the ticket sales and Network subscriptions triggered by February and March special events are important, so why not use this time to put on additional NXT Takeovers, NXT UK Takeovers and even a 205 Live pay-per-view? Your hardcore fanbase adore the Takeover concept, and by putting them on during “dead time” you would perhaps attract more “casual” fans to these alternative brands. And put it this way, I’d watch a February Takeover over a bland February main roster show any day of the week.
So there we have it, the reasons why the Road To Wrestlemania needs surgery, and the surgical actions that WWE could take to solve the issues. How would YOU change the Road To Wrestlemania to make it function better? Let me know in the comments below!
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