I know that it sounds awfully and insufferably contrarian, me claiming excitement over WWE’s product right now, but it honestly isn’t. Believe me, I’m as surprised as you are. The television is generally poor, several character arcs are as baffling as they are uninspiring and in a number of ways it feels like the positive progress made at Summerslam and in the weeks that followed were ultimately one step forwards to take ten steps back. All of these opinions I recognise and agree with, whole-hearted.
Sometimes it’s difficult to see the forest for the trees when you’re a wrestling fan, especially as a WWE wrestling fan and especially as a WWE wrestling fan living in the moment. Call it hopeless optimism – I may just continue calling it that myself – but my mind wonders if now is just such a time.
For so long WWE has been reticent to change, at worst outwardly contemptuous towards its contemporary generation. WrestleMania 31 felt like an opportunity to move wholeheartedly into a new age, with its carefully constructed balancing act of matching up and coming characters with old hands. It ended with an instantly iconic moment that seemed only to reinforce that notion: the ‘Heist of the Century.’ Just under one year later, Triple H won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship in a Royal Rumble Match at the expense of the man of the moment, Dean Ambrose.
WrestleMania 34 offered up an unprecedented second chance to steer the ship of history back in the right direction again. Its symmetry with its predecessor three years prior was self-evident: a former World Champion opening up with an Intercontinental Championship victory, the in-ring debut of Ronda Rousey to follow-up on her confrontation with the Authority and, of course, the second showdown on the Grandest Stage between Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar. The night ended with Lesnar’s most emphatic victory over Reigns to date.
Summerslam 2018 and its aftermath, then, felt like the moment had finally arrived. Over a weekend that saw WWE finally master the formula for an entertaining four hour pay-per-view, Reigns ousted Lesnar, Braun Strowman sought to cash in his Money in the Bank briefcase, The Shield reunited in full force and the focus was placed firmly on the stars and characters of today. Less than two months later, The Undertaker was limping around the ring headlining an Australia super-show opposite Triple H eventuating in the return match of Shawn Michaels.
It seems fitting, in this Era I once dubbed the Renaissance Era for its desire to resurrect old ideas, that Roman Reigns has become the premier contemporary talent, whose real world career path has become a microcosm of the age in which it has played out. Time and again fate has handed WWE opportunity after opportunity to reset the board and ‘get it right’ and time and again WWE have found a new way to go the same way as before, or worse.
It may be fatalistic to consider recent reports of viewing figures and attendance numbers as karmic, but there is truth in the notion that WWE must now face the consequences of refusing to get behind the generation that defines their company today. With their regular retinue of part-timers injured, aging terribly or demonstrably disinterested and the one contemporary star they’ve (eventually) put some weight behind sadly out of action for an indeterminate amount of time, WWE must now take the risks they’ve been avoiding taking for far too long – with the irony being, had they taken those risks at the obviously opportune moment, they might have been considerably less of a risk.
So while, when we look at WWE, we see the trees of bad television and worse habits, plummeting ratings and absentee stardom, we may be missing the forest of fatefully enforced change. Whether such change plays out this time or whether we face yet another scenario of WWE deliberately seeking to frustrate history is a story we won’t know the conclusion to until after WrestleMania Season 2019, so ask me again in April, but anyone who follows my work may remember me writing last week that it is my belief WrestleMania Season starts with the December pay-per-view: in this case, TLC 2018.
You look at the current card for TLC 2018 as it stands and you find a mixed bag. There are matches on there that are indicative of the many issues many fans understandably hold against the product right now.
While Baron Corbin (and, according to Corbin at least, apparently Vince McMahon) may be happy with his evolving arc as Acting General Manager, it has clearly left fans cold; the prospect, therefore, of seeing him in a Tables, Ladders and Chairs Match to cement his authority opposite a Braun Strowman believed to be getting reared for a third loss against Brock Lesnar (because we apparently didn’t get the point enough the first two times) is less than enticing. It is not the only match on the card that highlights problematic habits.
Drew McIntyre vs. Finn Bálor is a combination that should make any mouth water, but its decided lack of story depth outright limits its capacity to excite or, worse still, achieve. The Triple Threat Tag Team Match for the Smackdown Live (SDL) Tag Team Championships evidences the brand’s inability to move away from the now played out combination of Usos vs. New Day. Ruby Riot vs. Natalya is indicative of the promotion’s inability to flesh out characters in three-dimensional forms beyond any two at any given time, as well as the chronic inability to create engaging narratives in the women’s divisions beyond the title scene. Even Elias vs. Bobby Lashley casts light on the company’s habit of obsessing over acts going nowhere fast (Lashley) to the point of threatening to stall acts that could otherwise succeed inimitably (Elias).
It seems a less than inspiring start to WrestleMania Season, then, right? It looks like WWE are just going to frustrate history all over again.
As emblematic as the current state of the TLC 2018 card is of WWE’s chronic issues, so too is it indicative of their latest, arguably most fatefully-provided chance to change.
There are opportunities a week today for WWE to make vital symbolic gestures as they place their most important journey of the year – the Road to WrestleMania – in the hands of a generation of talent they have neglected but now must come to trust. And here’s the hopelessly optimistic part: should those gestures be made, far from being ‘just another show,’ TLC 2018 might begin our walk towards a new Era-defining ‘Mania that comes to mark a maturation point for the current product and its generation.
Should Elias defeat Lashley one month out from Royal Rumble, WWE could be seen to be letting go of their obsession with ‘dream matches’ born from wilfully warped versions of history superseding acts getting hot today, Lashley being a man who mere months ago was wrestling Roman Reigns for the right to challenge Brock Lesnar to the Universal Championship Match that the so-called Dominator was reportedly brought back for in the first place.
Should Riot and Natalya be given the time and the platform to put together an above-average match, WWE could be seen to be further embracing the post-Evolution landscape of a women’s division increasingly dominating the televised product and not needing their own pay-per-view to get grudge matches on major cards.
Should the SDL Tag Team Championship Triple Threat be appropriately acknowledged and allowed to proceed to a definitive conclusion, WWE will have staged a match between the three most iconic generation-defining teams of this current, second brand extension Era with the victors establishing themselves as the top combination of their time – a huge match worthy of proportionate production.
Should McIntyre vs. Bálor be plumbed for its hidden creative depths, WWE will have a mid card match opening up the gateway into the very issues this column is examining: the stalled contemporary generation, that the Scottish Psychopath has been so verbally critical of since his return, and of which Finn Bálor – who defeated Roman Reigns on his first night on the main roster to go on and win the Universal Championship against Seth Rollins on his first pay-per-view on the main roster – is indicative of.
And then there are the main events. Ronda Rousey, whose signing proved to be the beginning of the peak year of the Women’s Evolution, wrestles Nia Jax, the woman who provided Rousey her first championship opportunity and, arguably more importantly, broke the face of the first ‘Shouldn’t-Have-Been’ success of the Evolution, Becky Lynch.
For her part, ‘The Man’ Lynch is set to reprise the rivalry of the peak year of the Women’s Evolution opposite another of the four women who peaked a Revolution for us to get where we are today, that being Charlotte. Theirs will be the first women’s TLC Match in history to end a year that started with the first Women’s Royal Rumble Match in history, and also include Asuka – the woman Charlotte should have closed WrestleMania out with and who boasts one of the longest undefeated streaks in WWE’s history. It’ll be the fourth time this year women should close a co-gendered pay-per-view and, hopefully, this time they will.
And then there are the men.
In Strowman vs. Corbin, WWE have an opportunity to once again reassert the why and how behind the Monster Among Men’s ascent to unexpectedly becoming one of the most popular acts in the company by having him decimate the woefully vanilla Corbin in the same short order he obliterated Kevin Owens at Summerslam. In doing so, WWE would also in part replicate their success behind the Summerslam production formula: keep the boring stuff short.
In Daniel Bryan vs. AJ Styles, WWE have an opportunity to address two of the Era’s most surprising, most defining narratives at the same time: Bryan’s impossible in-ring return and the disappointing results that have come with it, as well as Styles’ arrival in WWE and his meteoric rise to replace Bryan as the perennial sentimental fan favourite, especially in the retired absence of the current WWE Champion. The fickle nature of contemporary WWE fandom would play into those themes heavily, making it even more of a powerful comment on the current Era playing out – especially if Bryan loses, in a signal of his waning relevance.
And finally, in Seth Rollins vs. Dean Ambrose, WWE have the chance to revisit the single most iconic rivalry of the current Era with a fresh perspective thanks to the switch in moral alignment, as well as the opportunity to bring down their one remaining pure hero, Rollins, to his lowest level right in time to raise him to higher heights en-route, I hope, to a career-defining victory over the Beast Incarnate (or American Dragon) on the Grandest Stage of Them All, finally crowning a top star of the current age not named Roman Reigns.
I’m not saying these gestures will be given, these decisions made or these results compiled. I, like so many of you reading this article, have come to believe there will be no end to this new habit of relying on part-time veteran talent and celebrating – no, fetishising – the past at the expense of the present and future. But the best part of hopeless optimism is exactly what the first word in the phrase implies – you don’t need to be hopeful to be the optimist.
Regardless of the chances of any of these symbolic gestures being made, regardless of how likely or unlikely WWE are to begin their Road to WrestleMania 2019 at TLC next Sunday by placing their present in the hands of the generation they have eschewed now on three major occasions in the past, I for one find myself excited – if only mildly – about WWE’s product right now and the historic opportunity fate has seemingly granted them in seven days’ time.
Could TLC become a generation-defining pay-per-view? Ask me again, in April.
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