Just Business: The Sunday Column, on Stomping Grounds and Star Power in WWE


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Just Business: The Sunday Column, on Stomping Grounds and Star Power in WWE

I am fully onboard the train of criticism aimed at WWE’s current output. I, like so many other fans, am in no way surprised by the fact that WWE’s June pay-per-view has struggled to sell tickets, that they’ve been forced to revert to two-for-one offers and will likely need to cordon off entire sections of the arena because of empty seats. So too do I believe this lack of interest in their product is as a result of their generally sub-par creative, that very well may be of an all-time low quality.

It is turns of events like the struggle to sell tickets for the lamentably named Stomping Grounds event that I am sure trigger WWE’s circular logic that it’s all the fault of the performers. You know the one – where the micromanaged and scripted performers of today who are denied the majority of tools key to success in their trade aren’t hungry enough, don’t want it enough and don’t have what it takes to be mega-stars any more and that’s why everything is so terrible. It’s the same argument that somehow levels blame for WWE’s woes at the wrestlers reciting their scripts, despite the scripts they’re reciting being written by other people and – if Jon Moxley’s recent interviews are in any way indicative of a wider experience – often rewritten by the one man who, we know from the admission of so many veteran stars in so many interviews, has the final say on anything that hits our television screens.

If I sound bitter, it’s because I am. I do not blame the stars of today for WWE’s woes. I have on many occasions both written and said that today’s stable of top tier talent in professional wrestling has had to contend with circumstances that no other generation before them has ever had to contend with. In spite of being denied every opportunity to gain traction, in spite of wrestling constantly in the shadow of older, less relevant and, frankly, less able performers and in spite of being micromanaged, scripted and treated like avatars for the single questionable creative vision of a man out of touch not with a fan base but with a society, the top tier contemporary talent of today have still managed to make something of a success of themselves. That alone is a remarkable achievement, but hints at the blinding possibility of what could be if WWE decided to put a little slack in their entirely unnecessary leash.

It is this situation that is source of my bitterness. If you follow my work, you know I’m a huge Seth Rollins fan. More than that now, I look up to the guy. He has inspired me, both in his fictional arc and his factual career, to constantly strive for better in my own life. Beyond that, though, I just think he’s an absolutely god damn incredible wrestler. WWE seem to see the same thing.

Seth Rollins won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania; has been Mr Money in the Bank, the only one to have cashed in at WrestleMania; has defeated Triple H and Brock Lesnar both at WrestleMania; changed the future of WWE as a member of The Shield; was the first ever NXT Champion; is a Grand Slam Winner; got the Intercontinental Championship back to the main event of a pay-per-view for the first time since 1992; won the Royal Rumble Match; holds the record for the longest single performance in Monday Night Raw (MNR) history, in which he defeated Roman Reigns and John Cena back-to-back; I could go on, but you get the point. His list of accomplishments is quite ridiculous, and he’s only in his early 30s.

So why then, given all of this fuel for star power and given that he is the current Universal Champion, am I, his biggest fan here at LOP, not currently on Cloud 9? Why is it that Stomping Grounds can’t sell out when the company books a man with such an impressive list of accomplishments in its main event?

Find any of the world’s greatest artists and ask them to paint you a masterpiece, then give them a paintbrush and an empty pot to do it with and all you’re going to get back is the same blank canvas the artist sat down to in the first place. But give them even the slightest drop of colour, and they’ll paint you something special.

It’s the story of All Elite Wrestling (AEW) and the lesson their early success teaches us; indeed, that their very existence teaches us. The same things WWE and those critical of talent today say of WWE’s roster now, they once said about a performer like Cody, and in far more pronounced fashion like Jon Moxley. In the latter case, the opinion was even widespread among the fan base! But look at what happened when these apparently satiated, uninspired and lazy performers, who lacked the burning desire to succeed that their so-vaunted predecessors possessed, left that toxic, suffocating environment: the industry changed rapidly, radically and has now started to resemble something most of us, deep down, thought it might never look like again.

Go and ask the likes of the Young Bucks and Kenny Omega if the stars of today lack the passion and the fire that the stars of preceding generations possessed in such apparently bottomless quantity. You needn’t take their word for it either – go ask Chris Jericho, who abandoned a potentially sinking ship for the sake of an opportunity to flex some creative muscle.

These men of the contemporary generation stepped away, or avoided entirely the environment of WWE and proved that there is no lack of passion or fire, drive or determination or inherently natural star power in the wrestling locker rooms of 2019. They did this by succeeding to a degree stars of yesteryear didn’t even begin to consider, let alone attempt. That AEW’s All Out sold out in fifteen minutes, and that the word on the internet is there was a queue of potentially over 100, 000 waiting to get their hands on a stub, is proof enough, even if the resounding success of Double or Nothing wasn’t already.

So with knowledge of what the talents of today can achieve when they needn’t compete with unnecessary restrictions that their predecessors never had to compete with, you turn back to WWE and a card like Stomping Grounds, you look down the roster of talent involved and you become bitter because you can’t become excited; or, at the very least, as excited as you know you should be in a just world. Seth Rollins, Daniel Bryan, New Day, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Samoa Joe, Ricochet, Roman Reigns, Drew McIntyre, Becky Lynch, Alexa Bliss, Drew Gulak – imagine what we could be looking forward to tonight if every last minute of the show wasn’t going to be scripted, overseen and quite possibly written by Vince McMahon.

I believe to a certainty that if the leash was removed the talent would soar and so would the product, and these seemingly effortless successes of a competing promotion still in its infancy would be met with greater competitive challenge. That said leash won’t be removed at all, that’s why tonight’s pay-per-view has struggled to sell tickets. We’ll see the same old obstacles placed in front of our favourites and feel the same old anger over it.

But there’s a reason they’re our favourites, and there’s a reason that, while I have little intention of wasting another four hours of my life to endure a full length WWE pay-per-view, I’ll still dip in to check out a number of the enticing matches booked. For it is a testament to the true star power of the contemporary generation that they consistently are able to rise above the diminishing returns of WWE’s shambling efforts to deliver matches better than we might expect and, collectively, shows that are sometimes able to impossibly lift their head above the crest of the quicksand the product is relentlessly being dragged down by.

I have defended Baron Corbin longer than most, but it’s difficult to agree he’s in a position he is poorly suited for. He is wrestling Seth Rollins, however, who has precedent in elevating even the likes of Mojo Rawley and Jinder Mahal to good matches, and Corbin has considerably more talent than either of those men. The special guest referee stipulation, though off-putting I am sure to some and perhaps the source of comparisons to the In Your House pay-per-view franchise (far more of a compliment than it ever is an insult by the way – fight me!), gives the match a sense of intrigue that I for one feel plays nicely into the storyline’s recent focus on this more aggressive cut-throat version of Rollins emerging from the dark of Brock Lesnar’s spectre.

Kofi Kingston and Dolph Ziggler’s Steel Cage Match for the WWE Championship offers up belated satisfaction to those of us who endured the company’s unwarranted scuppering of the Lost Generation of the late 2000s, and has enough precedent to be relied upon to deliver an exhilarating encounter. Thematically, it rather strikes at the heart of the issue behind Stomping Ground’s struggle to sell tickets in fact, discussed at length in this column. That meta-narrative, coupled with the infinitely reliable chemistry the two share, is enough to earn my attention and see me invest critically, if not quite emotionally.

Elsewhere, the undercard offers up its own share of hooks. Roman Reigns and Drew McIntyre, if able to overcome the albatross of Shane McMahon weighing heavily around their necks, have an opportunity to expand upon their fun encounter at WrestleMania. Samoa Joe vs. Ricochet offers up an unsuspecting but undeniable dream pairing on paper that should deliver in spades stylistically. And Daniel Bryan gets to bring his brand of magnetic star power and blinding career-form to the Smackdown Live (SDL) tag division in what should become a surprise hit of a tag bout and Heavy Machinery’s highest profile exposure yet.

With this selection of the card in mind, frankly I think it would be a stroke of genius for Stomping Grounds to resemble an In Your House pay-per-view – borrowing the narrative structure, lean run-times and tight focus on in-ring action that were the hallmarks of that franchise would, I feel, ensure tonight’s pay-per-view far exceeds any expectations.

That’s because, while I can’t quite come to lend my support to my boy Seth Rollins’ tweet this weekend that WWE is home to the greatest professional wrestling on the planet, I can say that it is a firm belief of mine that it is home to the best professional wrestlers on the planet, and quite possibly the best single collection of them in history. WWE has just become the best promotion on the planet at hiding them.

And I reckon tonight’s Stomping Grounds is about to prove both of these beliefs to be true.

NOW, TELL ME…

What are YOUR thoughts on today’s WWE roster and the company’s recent struggles to sell tickets? Or on tonight’s Stomping Grounds pay-per-view? Sound off in the comments below, over on social media or by joining LOPForums today!

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