WWE has a problem, and it seemingly doesn’t know how to fix it.
Kofi Kingston is WWE Champion.
Becky Lynch is RAW Women’s Champion.
Bayley is SmackDown Women’s Champion.
Seth Rollins is the Universal Champion.
Finn Bálor is the Intercontinental Champion.
Samoa Joe was the United States Champion when I started this draft. Since, Rey Mysterio is the new titleholder.
Seemingly every smark’s dream wrestlers are title holders in WWE. With arguably its deepest talent pool ever, WWE should be knocking it out of the park every single week on television and on all of its pay-per-views, right? There would be no reason for the fans to not be invested in what they’re seeing on television, especially after the turn of the new year was to result in a brand new era of WWE where the fans had control. And to an extent, they do. I firmly believe the only reason the titleholders now are who they are is because of the fans. WWE listened to the audience reaction and planned accordingly. Of course, the women’s and men’s tag team divisions on RAW and SmackDown have been nothing short of terrible, but I’m not at all surprised by that. Tag team wrestling hasn’t been a highlight of WWE programming since the days of the vintage Hardyz, Dudley Boyz, and Edge and Christian. Sure, there have been some entertaining teams since then, but tag team wrestling has never been held in as high regard in Vince McMahon’s company as it was in 1999–2002.
But you look at the singles titleholders and you’d be hard-pressed to find a wrestling fan who isn’t satisfied by just looking at that list. The champions are who they should be. But why does it feel like RAW and SmackDown, despite having champions who the people want to see champions, consistently fall short of interesting storylines that people are clamoring week-to-week to want to see play out? It seems like around WrestleMania time, things pick up creatively — this year’s and last year’s storylines were built really well heading into their respective WrestleManias. The build to WrestleMania 32 at AT&T Stadium was horrendous, but that’s more an outlier than anything. Even though WWE has been geared toward a PG audience for over a decade now, kids aren’t dumb. They understand when something doesn’t make sense and, more times than not, aren’t afraid to call attention to something they’re confused about. Most of the time. When I was a kid, anything I was confused by storyline-wise I just chalked up to either me just not knowing enough, or simply, I just looked past it.
But the audience today holds WWE more accountable for the creative decisions it takes. I’ve said before — as wrestling fans, we know way too much of what goes on behind the scenes, or at least we think we do. We hear so many stories from inside the business that we think we are a part of inside the business. Any decisions we would make would make WWE so much better, right? We’re the best booker in the world in our own yes. Unfortunately for us who have been fans for a very long time, WWE needs to make decisions for the casual majority, not the hardcore minority.
I’m not even talking about ratings, because a lot of times they won’t tell the whole story — just look at WWE in 1997. In that time frame, they had some of the most compelling storylines bleeding into each other despite a rather lackluster undercard. It took until 1998 for the viewing audience numbers to reflect that.
That’s not exactly the case here. While ratings have been on the decline for quite a while, WWE’s storylines have been hit or miss — and recently they’ve mostly missed. The way their champions booked make the audience feel like they’re stupid for cheering them to begin with. And for as much as people inside the company or people who were inside the company describe WWE as a television show, television shows aren’t supposed to make you feel stupid for tuning in. The showrunners and producers are supposed to make you emotionally invest in a story that ultimately has a payoff at the end, complete with twists and turns along the way. And wrestling has done that decade after decade. It’s a formula that’s simple enough to adapt to the current times. It’s a formula that flat-out works.
But Vince McMahon — as a character and as WWE’s CEO — believes he can manipulate his audience into getting the reaction that not only he wants, but he needs. And over the years, he has done that to a certain extent. That’s probably why he continues to be the guy that, at 73 years old, works 23 hours a day. But lately, there’s been a whole lot more misses than hits, and even though the audience is filled with people who might know just a little too much about what goes on behind the scenes, McMahon hasn’t been able to garner huge reactions on a regular basis. People loved Roman Reigns until they found out he was Vince’s new toy, but that’s only part of it. Everything that people loved about Reigns was washed away in a type of character development that only hurt him in 2015. He became uncool to cheer because he became a corporate puppet. And it’s stuck with him no matter if he had a great feud (see: Braun Strowman) or a bad feud (see: Bray Wyatt).
Why do you think Becky Lynch became wildly popular after a rather average run the last few years? She was given liberties that most other talent wasn’t. And that’s fine — most talent should actually be given liberties to see if their own ideas work.
And even the great Hall of Famer Jim Ross said on The Straight Shooters — titles are nothing more than a prop. A guy who many fans believe is their link to old school wrestling doesn’t really believe in that old school thought process anymore. But yet, as fans, we believe titles should mean something. Does the title make the star, or does the star make the title? It’s a never-ending debate.
My podcast co-host, Vaughn Johnson (@VaughnMJohnson), probably used the best phrase to describe what the company is currently going through — WWE is “creatively bankrupt” [The Straight Shooters Episode 195]. If you needed and more evidence, this past weekend’s Money in the Bank pay-per-view saw the return of Brock Lesnar, who grabbed the briefcase to ensure he gets a WWE Championship or Universal Championship opportunity.
As of this writing, many wrestling journalists are reporting Lesnar is slated to cash in that title shot against Seth Rollins at the upcoming Super Showdown spectacular from Saudi Arabia in June. If that is the case, it’s just a microcosm of WWE’s lackluster creativity in 2019. Now, Lesnar certainly was entertaining on RAW using that briefcase like a boombox, and teasing a cash-in at the end of the show, but unless WWE swerves us and makes him wait to cash in on Kofi Kingston on the first SmackDown on FOX in October, it seems like another creative idea going to waste. Of course, we’re supposed to hate Lesnar, but wrestling fandom is so different now than it was in the 80s, that hating Lesnar doesn’t mean he’s necessarily being a great heel. That’s where knowing too much gets in the way of the fandom — whereas if we were in the 80s, we might think Lesnar is a great heel, today, we just don’t want to see him because he’s been the same character for five years basically. His matches end the same, even though the story throughout the match is a good one. His selling against Daniel Bryan and AJ Styles was top notch. Get a great worker in there, Lesnar can have a great match. But that’s not what people want. They don’t want to see a champion — or MITB winner — show up every few months.
Now, me? I don’t mind it so much. Lesnar made the WWE World Heavyweight Championship seem more special when he won it in 2014. He did the same for the Universal Championship when he first won it. Before he lost it to Roman Reigns last year, he hadn’t really been that special guy anymore. He sort of lost his luster. Even with Paul Heyman, people got bored with Lesnar.
But now he’s back. He likely will be champion again at some point. If that’s what’s making Vince McMahon money in the way his other stars can’t, I get it. But he can only point to himself. Kofi Kingston should be a larger than life superstar. So should Seth Rollins. Becky Lynch was almost there before she lost some luster after WrestleMania.
So, now where are we? WWE’s still the biggest show in town. All Elite Wrestling hopefully will have a product different enough to garner another competitive pro wrestling era at some point in the future. But we’re stuck. WWE’s shows are so formulaic that it’s not a sin to miss a show anymore. Not only can you log onto social media and see what you missed, but almost none of it is entertaining anymore. Promos scripted down to the punctuation mark, matches that don’t mean anything, commercial breaks during every single match, the same thing over and over, week after week. It’s exhausting to watch. It’s exhausting to keep up with.
WWE’s gotta change something. Make SmackDown different like it was in 2002. Do something. NXT is the company’s best brand for wrestling fans, but I’m not sure the answer is to pillage that roster. Maybe airing it on FS1 in the fall is a possibility, but what good does that do to RAW and SmackDown? The main roster storylines are in a bad way. They need to shake things up. Legitimately. Until then, ratings will continue to fall with some of the best overall champions the company has had in quite some time.
Maybe Vince McMahon has checked out. All of his energy seems to be going toward the XFL for their re-launch in 2020. Creatively in the entertainment world, he’s not on his A game. Nobody around him will make him see that. He has to see it for himself.
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