There were reports that the WWE has been trying to get in touch with their fanbase, sending out surveys to find out what, if anything, they are doing right. I suppose it’s a smaller list than what they’re doing wrong, but the fact that they need these surveys and can’t just listen to their (very) vocal fans is troubling.
For years, the fans have told the WWE exactly what they’ve wanted to see: Zack Ryder, Daniel Bryan, Dolph Ziggler, Cesaro, CM Punk. More recently, they’ve followed that up with more calls for the likes of Kevin Owens, Dean Ambrose, Paige, Sasha Banks, and Becky Lynch. The people running the WWE behind the scenes have outright ignored these desires, mocked them, or distorted them into fitting the people they want to see accepted by the fans, whether the fans like it or not.
It’s this misunderstanding that has led to the sabotage of Roman Reigns. Reigns would have been as big as the WWE would like him to be if they hadn’t interfered with him – the fans didn’t get behind him in a big way at the Royal Rumble in 2014 because they wanted him to win, but because they wanted Batista to lose. The only person they wanted to win that year was Daniel Bryan, though they might have accepted Punk. When Punk was eliminated and Bryan wasn’t in the match, the crowd rebelled.
The WWE is pushing a person who, left to their own devices, might have been able to carry the company. Reigns is talented, has the look, and puts on exciting matches. He can’t talk, really, but he shouldn’t have to – anyone capable of seeing his limitations should be able to play to his strengths, but the WWE doesn’t do that anymore.
The WWE – the largest wrestling company on the planet – doesn’t know how to tell stories involving wrestling anymore. It’s why they’ve lost twenty percent of their viewing audience since July, and this past Monday’s first segment was a perfect example as to why.
Raw opened with a new group of people called the League of Nations who, despite being composed of several individuals of various nations working together, are bad guys. We know this because they are all foreign. We also don’t care because all of them are losers. Rusev has done nothing since losing to John Cena. Barrett is another guy the crowd would love to get behind but the booking committee keeps having him lose whenever the crowd gets behind him. Does anyone care about Alberto del Rio since his return? Have we been given a reason to? Seamus lost for weeks before becoming champion, and likely won’t win anything here.
Seasmus, by the way, has no character. His whole thing is that people think he looks like an idiot, and it’s okay to make fun of him – bullying him – for looking different. That last sentence added more nuance to Seamus than the last two years of WWE storytelling, by the way, so now that you’re up to date…
The League of Nations is interrupted by a hillbilly cult leader who should be terrifying and may be the least threatening person on the roster, because he and his cult never win. Ever. They outnumber people and still get beat. It’s sad, really, because the cult leader is pretty much the best talker in the industry today – so good that he can make a feud seem interesting even when the other person isn’t there – but the people booking this take the gold he gives them and create shit with it.
It’s interesting, because the crowd wants to like this cult, called the Wyatt Family. They like Wyatt, and they like the way two of his cultists, Luke Harper and Eric Rowan, fight. Naturally, this means that the WWE is pushing the fourth late addition to the cult, a talentless lug who can’t talk, wrestle, or act and skipped through their developmental process to become the big gun. His big move is a modified bear hug. The crowd doesn’t care.
The hillbilly cult are more bad guys, so when they are stopped from attacking the other bad people by some good people, it’s confusing. A bunch of guys who were last relevant maybe a decade ago come out to beat a dead horse before being interrupted by the aforementioned Roman Reigns, his younger brothers, and his best buddy.
End result? A four-way tag battle, where if one person is eliminated, so is their team.
Sounds exciting, right? Why is this dumb?
For a start, why did the cult interrupt the league of bad guys? Why did the old stars stop that attack from happening? Why do Roman and friends care about any of this? Nothing makes any sense at all. This is wrestling, yes, so suspension of disbelief is a given. We’re willing to accept snake charmers, necromancers, and a secret world of leprechauns, provided they make sense internally. This doesn’t.
Also, all of your purported main event talent is in this match. Admittedly, all your main event talent boils down to Roman Reigns, who the crowd grudgingly supports, and Seamus, who the crowd doesn’t care about. Barrett and Ambrose and Wyatt could all be main eventers, possessing the talent for it, but the booking had made all of them look like losers for the past year, so…
Sure enough, the cult gets eliminated first, the no-longer-relevant nostalgia act goes out second, and the League of Losers goes out third. Roman Reigns~! Get it? That’s a better slogan than anything WWE creative has managed to give him in the past two years of pushing because they don’t know what the fuck they’re doing.
Lastly, the WWE has an event called the Survivor Series that was built on five-on-five elimination tag team matches. This year, the event sported two of those matches where the participants were not announced until the day of the event, and one of them was played for laughs and featured Seamus – your current heavyweight champion of the world – getting pinned cleanly in the center of the ring.
By contrast, we can look at the WWE training league, a show called NXT. Their title holder is a guy named Finn Balor, whose character is that of a cute geeky Irishman who happens to have a demon inside of him. He’s honorable and polite and, much like the Incredible Hulk, if you piss him off he will unleash the demon on you.
Tonight, on the WWE Network (which you can subscribe to for $9.99!), Finn Balor will team with a former number one contender, Apollo Crews, to face off against his challenger on the next NXT event, Samoa Joe, and a man who wants his title and will do anything to get it, Baron Corbin. All of them have well developed characters and reasons for being in this match, so we care about the tag match tonight and we care about the two matches that are coming up.
NXT has been building this upcoming fight between Finn Balor and Samoa Joe for most of the past year, since Joe’s debut. They presented him as an equal to then-champion Kevin Owens, established a mutual respect with Finn that turned to homicidal jealousy through thwarted ambition in the months since. We care about Joe’s fall from grace, we care about Finn and his broken heart and the demon seeping out of it.
Again, the Raw opening featured too much talking for an overly busy mess where no one looked good and nothing was left for the main event. The NXT main event has been announced ahead of time, has been built to, and makes logical sense. This Raw opener came out of nowhere, meant nothing, accomplished nothing, and wasted everyone’s time.
That was just the opening segment, but the whole show was just as bad and made just as little sense.
Wrestling can, should, and must be messy. It’s a show about a fictional athletic competition that is shot before a live paying audience every week. There is no off-season, there is no safety net, just death-defying stunts and actors that play their characters pretty much twenty-four/seven, three sixty-five and a quarter. The best moments happen from the magic that comes from these people being left alone to do their thing.
“If you smell what the Rock is cookin’?” was a one-off ad-libbed line. “Austin 3:16,” ditto. “The Four Horsemen,” “the NWO,” “the Straight Edge Society,” wrestling’s best and brightest moments come about from people who live their characters. The best promos come from those that are given the confidence to talk and speak their minds. The Pipe Bomb, arguably the greatest wrestling promo of the past decade, happened when one man was given freedom and a microphone.
The most frustrating part about this is that the WWE should know better. The Attitude Era and the era of the Smackdown Six are largely considered the strongest periods for modern wrestling, and they were places where wrestlers were encouraged to roam free. The last time a wrestler cut loose and got himself over in a major way was Zack Ryder, who used social media to make himself one of the most popular people on the roster.
Zack Ryder is a decent worker and talker with a good look, but the WWE seemed incensed that he would dare make an attachment to the crowd without their approval. They punished him by having him lose for years, finally damaging his character and presence so badly that he was relegated to the training league – where he immediately got over again, and is now part of their incredible tag division, teaming with another wrestler named Mojo Rawley to become the Hype Bros.
Was Zack a future world champion? Unlikely, but he could have been one of those secondary guys who could make a believable run for the title. All it would have taken was some half decent storytelling, but the WWE made an example of him and no one has deviated from the script in any real way since.
And that’s a big part of the problem: it’s all scripted. Everything is scripted. No one ever wins and no one ever loses – there’s a sense of stagnation and boredom, because no one ever accomplishes anything. Champions lose non-title matches every week to the point where they look pathetic and the titles lack all meaning or value, or aren’t even booked in any way that makes sense.
For example, the WWE Divas belt was being held by a woman named Nikki Bella, and we were told that she was approaching a record for longest champion ever. Her challenger at the time was Charlotte Flair, daughter of Ric Flair, and the story being told revolved around the idea of Charlotte stopping Nikki from achieving her goal of being the longest running champion: she got a bunch of matches and never quite won, not until Nikki had achieved her goal.
That could work as a story, if Nikki were the good guy trying to do something incredible and Charlotte was the bad guy trying to keep her from achieving her dream. There’s even pathos there in the aftermath – an exhausted good guy Nikki losing to Charlotte, but taking solace in achieving her goal. Both women were playing the opposite roles, however, and the story suffered as a result. With the good guy unable to keep the bad guy from getting that record, it robbed the story of its pull. Charlotte stopped Nikki after it was too late to matter.
Again, contrast that with the last big feud for the NXT Women’s Title. First up, it’s the Women’s Title, not the Diva’s Title. The Women’s Title looks and sounds like a championship belt, while the Diva’s Title looks and sounds like a fashion accessory. The champion was Sasha Banks, a woman who improved herself and made a character over a period of years, cultivating a cut-throat arrogance to match her incredible skill in the ring. Her character is based on being better than everyone and backing it up when called to do so.
Her opponent was Bayley, a girl-next-door type who had dreamed of being a woman wrestler her whole life, a happy-go-lucky ingenue who tries hard and works hard and makes a go of it and is so impossibly earnest that it’s impossible not to like her. She toiled and struggled and earned her shot at the title, and Sasha mocked her for it.
The two of them had one of the best wrestling matches, with one of the best storylines, this year. No one had to tell us how awesome they were, or who they were, or why we should care: we knew by watching them, and everything else was just icing. Bayley has continued to be awesome on NXT. Sasha Banks was brought up to the main roster, where she has done nothing.
In short, WWE, your fans have been vocal about who they want to see, and your stubborn insistence is driving us away in droves. Those of us that know about NXT are tuning there for our fix, but those that don’t will leave and might not come back – and even those of us that watch NXT live in fear of what you’ll do to the people we care about when they’re called up.
Neville, a former NXT champion, languishes as nothing and has nothing going for him despite being able to deliver terribly smarmy interviews while wrestling a lightning fast style that can make anyone look good. The Ascension, former angry space vikings and all around ass-kickers, were turned into hypocritical eighties rejects before losing to everyone and being forgotten about. Sasha Banks, possibly the most talented wrestler on the roster, sits unused somewhere.
We know what we want, WWE. We know you can give it to us, and we know you like to bitch and moan about how we won’t accept the shit you try to shovel down our throats week in and week out. Your challenge was “love it or leave it.”
Twenty percent of us have.
More of us are going to leave, too. Raw is three hours long, Smackdown is two hours – five hours on a non-event week is a lot of time to sit there and not be entertained, to be insulted, to be bored. Most of the fans you have left are there out of inertia instead of passion, but even that is trickling down and away. The computer-controlled AI in your video games makes more sense than you do and is more entertaining, to boot.
Hell, if you added different commentators as DLC for the video game – specifically Corey Graves, Renee Young, and William Regal – you’d probably make a lot of money. The commentary on Raw is generally terrible, excelling only at reminding us how awful the product is and insulting those that haven’t or aren’t able to get the WWE Network (only $9.99~!). Those commentators I named are from NXT, by the by, and are just further proof that there is not one thing that Raw and Smackdown do that NXT doesn’t do better.
“Love it or leave it.” That’s your challenge, and while I don’t love it, I do want to. Your roster of on-air talent is ludicrously good, moreso than at any other time in the company’s history, but whatever is happening behind the scenes is poison and it’s tainted the on-air product, driving it towards unwatchability. Please fix this. I don’t want to leave. I want to love your product. I want to give you my money and my attention.
All I’m asking is that you give me a reason to care.