People who have followed my various blogs and social-media quips should know by now that I am a fan of the sport and art of professional wrestling. Even so, I have refrained from posting about wrestling on Opus Publicum since I hit the “reset button” in July 2014, mainly because I wanted to focus more specifically on religion and politics (the only two topics beyond pro-wrestling worth discussing). I don’t have any plans to change this “policy,” though I am going to use last night’s World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) show, The Royal Rumble, and the current road to WrestleMania 32, to shamelessly indulge in some armchair commentary on the product; its strengths; and its ever-expanding list of weaknesses. If you have no interesting in wrestling, read no further, and if you truly detest wrestling, rest assured that I won’t be spending much time on it going forward; sometimes, however, I feel compelled to entertain myself.
The two big news items out of last night’s Royal Rumble are AJ Styles making his WWE debut (more on that below) and HHH coming out of semi-retirement to win the Rumble match and capture his 14th WWE Championship. For the past two years the Rumble has been WWE’s most problematic event with increasingly “smart” live crowds comprised of vocal males overtly rejecting the company’s attempt to manufacture who the crowd should get behind rather than letting the fans organically make stars out of performers they have come to love on their own. The quintessential example is Daniel Bryan, a former indie darling who managed to leverage his superior in-ring ability and quirky personality into becoming a fan favorite despite WWE’s seemingly lukewarm opinion of him being anything more than an upper-midcard talent. The company had no interest pushing Bryan into the WrestleMania main-event picture in 2014, choosing instead to re-hire an aged and mediocre talent like Dave Batista on the theory today’s fans would still buy into a character who had pretty much exhausted his star power at the close of the last decade. Needless to say, it didn’t work. When Batista won the Rumble match in 2014, the live crowd revolted and for weeks on WWE live TV, crowds cheered relentlessly for Bryan until the company was finally forced to call an audible, place Bryan in the main event at WrestleMania, and let him win the championship.
Fast forward to 2015 and again the WWE finds its audience solidly behind Bryan to still be the go-to main event star despite nagging injuries and limited appearances. Instead of finding a way to make it work, WWE had it in mind to push a new talent, Roman Reigns, who has “the look,” as they say. He is dark, handsome, muscular, and brings legitimate intensity into the ring. The problem is that the company, not the fans, hand-picked him as the “chosen one,” the “next big superstar” to sell-out arenas, move massive amounts of merchandise, and capture mainstream appeal. That plan didn’t work either, thus forcing WWE to call another audible and put the title on another up-and-coming star, Seth Rollins, at WrestleMania in order to buy time until the fanbase got onboard Reign’s mega-push. Unfortunately for the WWE, the fanbase never really did and much of 2015 was spent focusing on Rollins as a slimy heel champion and re-igniting the Brock Lesnar/Undertaker feud. By the time Survivor Series rolled around last November, it looked like the company had an opportunity to get Reigns over with a one-on-one match against Rollins—and then Rollins blew his knee out and another audible had to be called. A number of observers thought the time was ripe to flip Reigns from babyface into heel, letting him assume the villainous position Rollins had held for the past year. Instead, the powers-that-be anointed Sheamus—a midcard heel no one has taken seriously in years—as the new champion in order to keep Reigns as the babyface in pursuit of the strap. Well, that didn’t really work either, and so WWE wisely had Sheamus drop the belt to Reigns on free TV and also destroy HHH, the only heel in the company anyone seems to care about despite the fact he’s only supposed to have a behind-the-scenes role.
And that brings us to Royal Rumble 2016 which, for the first time, came packaged with the stipulation that Reigns would have to win the entire 30-participant event if he wanted to keep the WWE Championship. The company’s booking process here was simple (and painfully simplistic): The fans will definitely cheer if the top babyface in the company has to overcome impossible odds to keep his hard-earned title. In other words, if the company just recycled one of the oldest storylines in the books, the crowd would eat it up and all would be well in the world. And once again it backfired. Regins’s time in the Rumble match last night was largely met with boos or indifference. Arguably, the only thing keeping the live audience from turning completely on the match early on was the debut of AJ Styles, one of the best performers of his generation and a man who has cultivated a strong following from die-hard fans due to his superb work in TNA Wrestling, Ring of Honor, and New Japan Pro Wrestling. Styles, and a handful of other entrants to the Rumble match which fans have organically gotten behind in recent years (e.g., Kevin Owens, Dean Ambrose, Sami Zayn), kept them engaged until the end when it became clear that Reigns’s “heroic quest” to retain his belt would be cut short by the appearance of HHH as the last participant in the match. The funny thing is, instead of coming out to a chorus of boos, HHH was treated by the crowd as a conquering hero, out to demolish Reigns and put an end to his run. There was a brief moment of excitement during close of the match when it appeared as if Dean Ambrose might grab an upset victory and become the new champion, but alas, it was not to be. Over the top he went; into HHH’s hands went to the WWE Championship; and the show closed with very few people being confident than this year’s WrestleMania will be anything other than a massive disappointment.
To say that this is not how to run a pro-wrestling organization would be a gross understatement, and yet the WWE keeps plugging along despite losing ratings, revenue, and respect. An unexpected series of injuries has left them without a lot of top-tier names (e.g., John Cena, Rollins, Randy Orton, Bryan, and Cesaro), but the company’s talent roster is deep enough to where that shouldn’t be an insurmountable problem. But short-sighted booking coupled with off-and-on pushes for legitimately talented wrestlers like Bray Wyatt, Dolph Ziggler, and, to a lesser extent, Ambrose, means that the company is lacking in wrestlers who casual fans (i.e., those who make-up the majority of WWE’s audience) are willing to believe in. Brock Lesnar—who is only a part-time performer who serves as a “special attraction”—has the most legitimacy of any guy in the company, which means that his matches should always be up against either established superstars or up-and-comers that the company is willing to double-down on. This year, however, Lesnar is getting fed Bray Wyatt whose most distinguishing feature right now is that he can never win marquee matches. Never mind the fact that he is an impressive big man with loads of charisma; there is just no one fans are going to see him as a real threat to Lesnar, even if Wyatt uses his band of henchman to give himself an illicit advantage. With the way WWE has booked Wyatt over the past year, his match with Lesnar should last approximately 90 seconds, or about one-third as long as it takes for Lesnar to walk down to the ring.
And what else is on tap for WrestleMania? A frequent source of hype for the event has historically been the Undertaker’s matches, particularly when his 21-0 undefeated streak was in play. Well, WWE killed the streak in 2014 in an effort to get Lesnar over as an unstoppable force (a wise move in retrospect) and the only real interest in last year’s Undertaker/Bray Wyatt match was to see if Undertaker could still go after looking like a broken-down shell of his former self the year before. Since then ‘Taker has returned to the ring thrice to conclude his feuds with Lesnar and Wyatt, respectively, but now it doesn’t seem like he has anything interesting left to do. His unbeatable aura is gone; his physical limitations are obvious; and there are no natural opponents left in the company for him to face. The most likely candidate at this point is Kevin Owens who has the mic chops and mannerisms to get almost any feud over with the crowd, but what would be the point of the match unless the WWE and ‘Taker were willing to add a radical stipulation, like making it a retirement match? It’s doubtful the WWE would let Owens retire the Undertaker, but it does Owens’s future no good to have him lose clean to ‘Taker either. Besides, based on last night’s Rumble performance, it appears WWE is committing to letting Owens feud with Styles, which should produce some great matches at least.
The main event picture for WrestleMania should have the company very worried. As it stands right now, it will be HHH v. Reigns with the likely scenario that Reigns will have to overcome even more obstacles in order to earn a shot at the belt he lost last night. Who cares? Surely WWE wants to avoid the nightmare scenario of HHH coming out at WrestleMania to the audience’s adulation while Reigns is met with a chorus of boos, but that is where things are headed. With the event only 69 days away, WWE is going to be hard pressed to find a replacement for Reigns or, barring that, some angle or element that will redirect the fanbase away from hating Reigns and loving (or at least tolerating) HHH. A “miracle return” for Daniel Bryan would be the best case scenario at this point, but many harbor grave doubts that the company will ever medically clear him to wrestle following his numerous debilitating injuries. Though WWE was willing to put a spotlight on his appearance last night, it doesn’t seem like they are ready to push AJ Styles as a full-blooded main event talent despite his sterling indie and overseas resume. That’s too bad, because mixing up the main event at WrestleMania with something unobvious is what the company needs desperately right now. If they still want Reigns to be in it, fine. But why not expand the main event into a three-way with Styles included to draw interest from hardcore fans while adding significantly to the overall quality of the bout? The match can still be booked to have Reigns go over, but have him do it only after it appears that Styles has HHH soundly defeated. That way Styles comes out looking strong (and wronged); Reigns still gets to be the “golden boy”; and the company can build a Reigns/Styles program right after WrestleMania. If the live audiences boo Reigns at that point, it won’t matter since they’ll now be focusing on Styles chasing the championship rather than being told they ought to care about Reigns’s pathetic pursuit.
I have very little hope that my “ideal scenario” will come to fruition or that WWE will deviate all that much from its plan to keep telling its dwindling audience who they ought to cheer for and why. Committed wrestling fans have other sources of entertainment to go to, such as WWE’s developmental promotion, NXT (which, at this point, has enough star power and interest to becoming its own freestanding promotion rather than just a talent-feeder for the main roster). Indie and international content is now widely available legitimately (and illegitimately) online, as is a wealth of historic wrestling material from all across the globe. Upstart promotions like Lucha Underground are gaining a noticeable amount of hype and New Japan Pro Wrestling has become increasingly accessible to American audiences through its weekly English-language show and talent partnership with Ring of Honor. None of this means that any one company—or collaboration of companies—will knock WWE out of its #1 position. WWE has enough money to sign away any other promotion’s talent, even if WWE rarely has much sense of how to utilize them (though exceptions do exist). What this all means for the future of wrestling is hard to say. A point may come in the not-so-distant future when real fans of professional wrestling simply stop viewing WWE as a source of wrestling at all, viewing it instead as simply an entertainment machine which provides some in-ring excitement in addition to truckloads of pedestrian (if not awful) media content.