Just Business: The Highs and Lows of Another Year in the Ring with WWE – 2018’s Hot Topics


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Just Business: The Highs and Lows of Another Year in the Ring with WWE – ‘Plan Asks About the Hot Topics of 2018

From the Author

The final month of the calendar year is upon us, and that means the time is ripe to take a few moments and look back on the last 12 months in WWE. As is tradition, over the next three columns across the next three weeks I’m going to be doing just that.

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be taking a look at my shortlists and Honourable Mentions for Matches of the Year – my usual categories being Main Event, Mid Card, TV, Tag Team and Network – so get your nominations in now before I announce the winners on a January 2nd two-hour special edition of my Wednesday podcast, Sports Entertainment is Dead! Next week, it’ll be MVP day, where I’ll be looking to name the best contributors in WWE these last 12 months (nominations, again, welcome!). For this week, though, I’m going to be looking back on some of the hot topics of WWE’s 2018, sharing my opinions on each and asking whether or not you feel the same way.

My name is Samuel ‘Plan, and I’m here to ask you about some of the highs and lows of another year in the ring with WWE!

’Plan Asks…

…is it just me, or did Royal Rumble 2018 and Summerslam 2018 prove that quality Big Four pay-per-views aren’t yet beyond WWE’s capabilities?

Ever since the decision was made to extend the duration of WrestleMania 32 to an ungodly seven-hours total (including the pre-show), WWE has been blighted with an inability to balance their unquenchable thirst for bigger, for grander, for more is more at every turn with their ability to put on a pay-per-view event of consistent quality across the board.

I’m still unclear as to whether ‘Mania 32 ended up as long as it did because of a conscious decision or because of an accident that then stuck, but WWE, being a creature of habit, of course took little time in deciding every show had to be bigger and longer and their Big Four were at the forefront of the change.

Putting aside my own inherent issues with the philosophy of four hour pay-per-views – I maintain the best wrestling shows average out at between two and two and a half hours long – it should not be completely impossible to balance the creative books and ensure that, even in the case of such mammoth events, we, the fan base, remain evenly entertained for the duration. It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t too long ago, after all, that top quality pay-per-views crammed with excellent wrestling were the rule in WWE, not the exception.

While it has been frustrating waiting for WWE to hit upon a winning formula to achieve such ends, 2018 felt like a year that marked the advent of said formula. The introduction of a Women’s Royal Rumble Match helped overcome the challenges of a longer Rumble event quite easily and opened up new avenues to fiddle with card structure to help make one of their oldest events feel entirely refreshed. It was Summerslam, however, that provided the most robust answer to the conundrum, and lo, it was really quite a simple one: keep the stuff people aren’t interested in short and lend the time to the matches people want to see!

Now all we need is for WWE to apply that same, simple method to their other mega-shows throughout 2019, be they Big Fours or Network Specials, and they’ll have mastered jumping one of the biggest hurdles that has sat in their product’s way these last 12 months.

…is it just me, or does WWE need to transparently reconsider their relationship with Saudi Arabia?

Speaking of Network Specials, 2018 has seen WWE riddled with an issue that is not going to just quietly disappear for them, as they might hope it would. The beginnings of their decade-long business relationship with the government of Saudi Arabia was controversial from the off, and WWE’s narrative – that they were there to help craft social change – didn’t fly with much of the justifiably cynical fan base. Matters only worsened during their second foray to the kingdom thanks to the controversial events in the news at the time that cast shade and doubt on the intentions of the country’s supposedly forward-thinking government.

It was a grubby, complex situation and you can read about it in more detail in fellow LOP The Implication’s fantastic column here.

In typical fashion, Vince McMahon, in a somewhat craven decision, piloted his company straight through the controversy with a hardy eye set on the horizon, wilfully blind and deaf to the hypocrisy his decision made clear – though perhaps with his hands tied, thanks to the short-sighted booking decisions made surrounding the show.

It worked for him in November, but it’s difficult to see it carrying on working for him in the future. It is precisely because this is an issue that won’t quietly disappear for them that WWE need to confront the situation and do so transparently, whatever their decision. I try not to politicise my wrestling as a fan, but most others appear happy to, meaning every venture to Saudi Arabia will serve only to dreg up this same debate time and again, with each refusal to make a clear moral stance known nastier than the last.

Is the money worth that? In the eyes of the executives, I have no doubt it will be. But considering these Saudi mega-shows watch like a billionaire club’s fantasy play hour, considering the awful PR look it stains the company with and considering these issues will go nowhere fast, that answer will only look increasingly, unjustifiably craven to even the most staunchly loyal fans as the years progress.

…is it just me, or have WWE’s worst habits ended up worse than ever?

Sadly, the Saudi Arabia situation remains only the tip of the iceberg for WWE, who, in spite of several strong creative successes throughout the year and their ongoing profitability, have seen ratings dive to all-time lows and hardcore fans defect to alternative organisations at a noticeably high rate.

The hard truth is that the company’s bad habits have been seen at arguably the worst they’ve been in a very long time, maybe even ever – as fellow LOP writer Maverick wrote in his brilliant piece here.. What’s more, as 2018 comes to a close, WWE are beginning to reap the results of their short-sighted philosophies.

Putting all their eggs in the Roman Reigns basket at the expense of every other potential top contemporary star has left them seemingly short-changed at the highest echelon now that Reigns has so unfortunately been sidelined with health concerns. Obsessing over what should now be seen as the over-valued fiscal contributions made by the ever-absent Brock Lesnar has poisoned the entire Monday Night Raw product for the vast majority of 2017.

Worst of all, despite gestures being made to suggest the long overdue shift to focussing on the full-time contemporary generation of talent was finally happening (such as in the Men’s Royal Rumble Match and general aftermath of Summerslam), WWE’s most damaging habit of all – relying on over-the-hill part-timers who can no longer get the job done – returned with a vengeance in the back half of the year.

The Undertaker and Triple H were headlining shows despite the former being older than The Stooges Pat Patterson and Gerald Briscoe were at the time of The Corporation in the late 1990s. Shawn Michaels was coming out of retirement at a similar age after an eight year lay-off, tarnishing a lot of fans’ memories of his otherwise perfect retirement. The less said about Shane McMahon becoming ‘The Best in the World’ the better.

With any luck, recent events will prove a wake-up call, then, for a company that 2018 has powerfully reinforced are in desperate need of being jolted out of their self-destructive tendencies.

…is it just me, or must WWE now recognise that women’s wrestling is no longer in a state of flux?

It hasn’t been all bad in 2018, however, and even from a broad perspective there have been some majorly positive developments within WWE – the continued growth of women’s wrestling has been, by far, the best among them.

As we close out 2018 with another pay-per-view that deserves to be headlined by the women – the third cross-gendered, by my count – it is increasingly clear that WWE’s sometimes irritating habit to utilise the women’s division primarily as a positive PR campaign feels oddly misguided. This is not because women’s wrestling is no longer what they claim it to be, but rather because it so obviously is!

Put simply, women’s wrestling in WWE is no longer in a state of flux. The Revolution came and went, and 2018’s focus instead honed in on the idea of the ‘Women’s Evolution.’ Well, now, that has come and gone too. The ‘first-evers’ have continued apace, with Rumbles, Elimination Chambers, main events and even the first all-women’s pay-per-view. Show-stealing efforts from the women are so commonplace it’s hard to consider them acts of theft any more, as much as the fulfilment of deserved expectations. It’s not unwarranted to claim that the company’s biggest stars, even, now come from the women’s division – not just Ronda Rousey, but Becky Lynch of course, and Charlotte too.

Between Rousey’s debut and the introduction of the other ‘Horsewomen of UFC’ in NXT, between Lynch and Charlotte having arguably the best feud of the year, between the innovations, the broken ground and the remarkable consistency of in-ring quality, 2018 should justifiably be remembered as the biggest year for women’s wrestling in company history, setting up what promises to be an even bigger 2019.

There is no Revolution, no Evolution, no sense of flux at all any more – there is only the new status quo. And it may very well be that the women now occupy the spot in the general affection of the fan base that the currently severely struggling male roster always has previously.

…is it just me, or has the time come to reappraise the role of NXT in WWE’s wider product?

It isn’t just the role of female talent that has changed irreversibly this year either. One of the most remarkable and important pieces of news to come out of WWE’s sphere in 2018 passed by with barely a comment made about it – but more people on the Network watched Takeover than did Survivor Series.

The popularity of NXT in comparison to that of the main roster has hardly been any kind of a secret now for the better part of three, even four years, but such an occurrence can hardly be ignored.

NXT is becoming a major problem for the company, though, precisely because of this overachievement. Amazingly, perhaps deservedly, its popularity continues to grow year upon year without any sign of cresting. With that comes infamy, infamy that attracts new fans and talent from all corners of the globe. As one of the hottest brands in the industry today, with the benefits of the atmosphere and creative zeal of an Indy promotion coupled with the production values and promotional weight of WWE, I can imagine it’s very difficult to turn down an invitation to join NXT’s ranks. This results in bigger Takeover events, more tours, greater prominence, even international expansion.

Such growth for such an entertaining product amidst such a difficult promotion to continue supporting is a good thing for sure, but above all else it necessitates vaster talent recruitment, and currently the simple fact cannot be escaped that NXT also remains WWE’s developmental territory. That means stays there are only ever designed to be temporary, the main roster being the ultimate destination. More recruitment means more promotions, more promotions means more talent, more talent means exacerbated problems ‘up top.’

NXT has never been as big a deal as it has been in 2018. In turn, never has it been more vital for the company to address the growing conflict at the heart of the project – make it a fully-fledged brand, or even a ‘competing promotion,’ otherwise restrict it to ‘only’ being a developmental territory. Trying to be both has fundamentally broken the talent economy of the company, and conflated the already crippling mix of issues facing the main roster.

…is it just me, or are WWE starting to realise what a potential commodity 205 Live and its roster can be?

Quite alternatively to the unaddressed situation surrounding NXT, as the year has closed out we have seen WWE begin to seemingly address the opposing situation surrounding what is arguably their second most prominent peripheral product: 205 Live.

The story of the cruiserweight division has been a choppy one to say the least. It is telling that WWE are yet to repeat what proved to be a strong start for the sub-205 pound roster in the form of the Cruiserweight Classic two years ago, and it was similarly telling that no star from the 205 Live roster was apparently allowed to break free from the confines of the now-Wednesday night Network exclusive. Being filmed after Smackdown Live placed the cruisers in a difficult situation, wrestling in front of tired and departing crowds, and the creative direction of the brand left a lot of fans cold from the off. The struggle to find an anchor for the show – and the subsequent loss of the only successful one to date, Neville, because of the unnecessary closed door the brand provided – has hardly helped either.

2018 started with signs of positive change. Triple H took charge behind the scenes. Focus shifted away from character-driven segments and towards action packed matches. The introduction of Drake Maverick as General Manager lent a fresh atmosphere. Sadly, the misguided decision to place the show’s strap on the lamentable Cedric Alexander only stalled growth for the majority of what could have otherwise been a breakout year.

Luckily, as 2018 ends, WWE has perhaps placed the cruisers in a position to make 2019 that breakout year instead – quite literally. The roster of 205 Live have been making more prominent appearances on Monday Night Raw and Smackdown Live in recent months, peaking with Mustafa Ali’s challenge of WWE Champion Daniel Bryan this last week; the title has been removed from the dead weight that is Alexander, leading to Survivor Series hosting the first main pay-per-view Cruiserweight Championship Match in many, many months; and the shift in scheduling, of both recording and airing, has helped remove a lot of unnecessary barriers for WWE’s smallest contingent.

With any luck, these are all signals that WWE are finally realising what a boon the world’s greatest cruiserweight wrestlers can be for them. Long may these developing trends continue.

In Closing

So tell me, is it just me? Share your thoughts with me on any of the issues I’ve discussed in this column in the comments below or over on social media! Better yet, alternatively, why not sign up to LOPForums and have a crack at writing your own column in response?!

Next week, I’ll be back to take a look at who I believe were the MVPs of the Year, and until then be sure to catch me on LOP Radio for tonight’s TLC 2018 edition of Aftershock airing LIVE immediately following the pay-per-view, then again with my Performance Art Review of the event on Wednesday’s edition of Sports Entertainment is Dead!

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