Not so long ago I wrote a scathing column about how I had stopped watching the WWE. It detailed all that was frustrating me as a WWE fan and to say it struck a chord was an understatement, that piece received double the amount of comments any column I’d ever written before had and got just as many mentions on social media. I don’t say this to boast but simply to say that while there are many who still love the WWE, it was clear from the feedback I got that this malaise and cynicism I was feeling towards the WWE had hit so many other fans too.
The thing is though, I don’t want to be that fan, I don’t want to be the writer endlessly mourning the death of something I once loved. I started writing about wrestling in 2017 because I was so inspired by the Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins story and wanted to shout it from the rooftops. Even though I now watch and enjoy other promotions, I would actually love nothing more than for the WWE to come roaring back into form, firing creatively on all cylinders and sweep me up as it did when I started watching again in 2014 because when the WWE gets it right, there is no other wrestling organization like it.
So as we embark on the Road to Wrestlemania and I tune back into the WWE properly for the first time since May last year here are the things i want to see
Commit to the guys that are committed to you.
Currently the WWE has an embarrassment of riches on its main roster. Never has any wrestling organisation ever had more great wrestlers under their banner. This should be a good thing but somehow it’s turned into a problem. This roster bloat has combined with the company’s hyperactive creative approach to mean only two male wrestlers who debuted since the brand split in 2016, over three years ago, have been able to properly solidify a regular place on TV and position on the card. Wrestlers like Finn Balor, Andrade Cien Almas, Mustafa Ali, Buddy Murphy, Bobby Roode, Ricochet, Aleister Black and Chad Gable, just to name a few, have come up, received an initial push but after a few weeks, or months if they were fortunate, were consigned to a constant cycle of stop and start booking.
Older fans will remember from many years ago, the six monthly culls of the roster where within a day Vince would cut a bunch of lower and mid card wrestlers the WWE no longer had plans for. While it seemed brutal at the time, there are only so many places on TV and it was a practice that cleared out the excess, making room for newer stars to spread their wings. This kind of cut hasn’t happened for years now and as a result the few spots available on TV have been tossed to whoever happens to be the flavour of the month and just as quickly tossed on to the next wrestler who happens to catch creative’s eye. This approach has meant that no one has been able to rise up and become a star. Wrestlers like Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Triple H, Edge, CM Punk and Daniel Bryan spent years in the midcard establishing themselves and even though they weren’t the top guys on the card, they were always around, building momentum and slowly progressing up the card.
So what I would love to see if for the WWE to pick a few wrestlers who they want to consistently push and stick with them. If Drew McIntyre is gona be a main eventer then I don’t want to see him fighting for the US Championship. Likewise if Andrade is going to be the US Champion then I don’t want to see him in the Andre Battle Royale or going missing for weeks at a time while he is fighting for TV time with five other wrestlers.
To give the WWE credit they seem to have found somewhat of a focus, particularly on Raw, but a month of good work can be undone very quickly, particularly at this time of the year.
Stop making your bad wrestlers bad wrestlers.
One of the cheapest, most cynical and laziest ways the WWE has attempted to create heels in the last few years is by intentionally making their heel wrestlers adopt a boring style of wrestling. It has come as a reaction to fans cheering good wrestlers simply for being good wrestlers and there is a line of argument out there that says if heels are getting boos then no matter what they are doing their job. However this is a gross oversimplification of what it means to be a heel in modern wrestling, being a ‘boring wrestler’ is not an emotionally engaging character trait that makes anyone want to see someone get beat up, it makes people want to switch off. It may work in the short term but trying to rely on this crutch is a sign of poor writing of both your heel and face characters.
If a heel character is written well and put in front of a babyface the audience is invested in, he will get booed. You only need to look at Daniel Bryan, arguably the best wrestler in the world, getting booed out of the building at the start of 2019 to show that it is well and truly possible when you focus on characters. Seth Rollins is another example of how the WWE is getting this right at the moment without having to resort to copious rest holds.
Sadly though these two seem to be the exception to the rule in the WWE. The most obvious example of this trait is Baron Corbin, the guy has become a whipping boy for the IWC and I don’t wish to pile on too hard, but he has admitted in the media that he was directed to tone his style down because fans were starting to speak positively about him during The King of the Ring. Corbin’s arrogance and propensity for being a bully is dislikeable enough that he can wrestle in an explosive fashion and the crowd will still boo him. Corbin is just one example but outside of the WWE wrestlers like Jay White, Zack Sabre Jr. or MJF manage to consistently generate heat with the crowd while still wrestling exciting matches.
So instead of telling heels to do more rest holds, let them cut loose on the mic, have them constantly cheat and then rub it in the hero’s face when they win, then have them chuck a tantrum afterwards blaming everyone but themselves when they finally lose. Bad wrestling is boring not engaging.
Limit the spectacle.
I have come to peace with the idea that at Mania veterans and part timers will come back and take big spots, WWE’s creative issues have meant their current roster just aren’t the stars Vince McMahon needs them to be for the scale of Wrestlemania in 2020. While it is entirely his fault this is the case, I understand that the best short term solution is to bring back famous names of the past to draw on nostalgia and create a buzz around the biggest event on the wrestling calendar. In a perfect world they wouldn’t need to do this but I’m trying to be pragmatic so will not immediately switch off to their presence.
However what I would like to see is the WWE make an effort to really limit it so that it is clear the returning veterans are there to support the main act, the full time rosters, not supplant them. Last year the longest match at Wresltemania was Triple H v Batista and while it was a fun match in isolation, it completely killed the crowd in the stadium and at my watch party. This had the knock on effect of leaving the crowd tired for the historic main event which should have been the pinnacle of the night but instead had people wondering when the night was going to be over, if they’d be able to catch a train home and when they would get to go to bed. Two years before that Goldberg and Brock Lesnar needlessly had the Universal Title shoehored into it, an act that Kevin Owen’s career is arguably still recovering from to this day. These are just two examples from the last few years but together sum up exactly the problem the returning wrestlers create.
Instead I would love to see their work kept short and sharp and ideally done to build up a new star. Matches like Triple H v Seth Rollins from Wrestlemania 33 and Baron Corbin v Kurt Angle are blueprints for how it can be done and done well.
While we are on the point of spectacle as well, please WWE keep implementing the lesson you’ve learnt towards the end of the year about PPV length. Wrestlemania doesn’t need to be the length of a day’s work. It should stick around just long enough for us to feel satisfied but still want a bit more not leave us so engorged that we can’t even fit the thinnest after dinner mint of a wrestling match.
Tell stories that make us engage, not just react.
Lastly and possibly most importantly please WWE, please get your stories right. It was Vince himself that said, “we make movies”, well for the bulk of 2019 those ‘movies’ had less depth than a kiddy pool and so much of it comes down to the WWE’s modern penchant for creating a ‘moment’ for us to react to rather than a long term story to truly dig into.
It was actually one of the things the WWE did so well on the road to Wrestlemania last year, over the nine week build from Royal Rumble to Mania they created three emotionally engaging championship matches and the crowd ate it up. Some of the stories were a tad convaluted but by the time Mania rolled around Kofi Kingston, Seth Rollins and Becky Lynch all had the crowd well and truly behind them. This emotional investment and subsequent payoff when all three won went a long way to creating the positive reaction Wrestlemania received (at least compared to the last few).
However in the immediate aftermath of Wrestlemania with the needless and directionless NXT callups, the draft that changed next to nothing and then the creation of the abominable Wild Card Rule the WWE ruined any chance of the audience truly getting emotionally engaged in a match or character. The entire premise of that stretch of TV was based almost solely on creating the kind of shock reaction a surprise return or debut gets, however when that happens week after week eventually the reactions peter out and without a solid base of characters to build on it is nearly impossible to write stories coherently.
The same could be said for Brock Lesnar winning at Money In The Bank. The shock and surprise caused a big reaction in the moment and Brock dancing with it like a boombox after got some laughs, but it squandered an opportunity to start a meaningful story of a new star using the briefcase to rise up the ranks, something the audience could have engaged with on a properly emotional level.
This isn’t an extensive list and I don’t expect the WWE to hit all these boxes, however while observing from afar I have seen positive signs. So this Wrestlemania season I vow to engage with it in good faith, to give the company the benefit of the doubt. I want to love the WWE again but I need to know can it be great again?
That’s it for me this week. How are you feeling heading into the Royal Rumble weekend and the Road to Wrestlemania? Let me know in the comments below or you can reach me on Twitter @Sir_Samuel.
It’s also not too late to enter into our LOP Fantasy Royal Rumble Game down on the LOP Columns Forum where you pick a team of wrestlers and earn points for their performance in the Rumble. Check it out here.