Welcome, dear readers, and a Happy New Year to you all. Having taken something of a break from watching weekly WWE television towards the second half of last year, my interest was piqued by the falling ratings and the immediate decision to combine kayfabe and reality and announce a “new era” of possibility and opportunity, where underused talents would get their chance and television would become more urgent, and more pregnant with possibility. Of course, anyone who has watched WWE for a long time will immediately scoff at the idea of the company taking their fanbase’s views seriously, and see it as a short term panic move soon to be replaced by the status quo, but I think enough time has elapsed now to evaluate what WWE have changed, and what they haven’t, and see if there’s room for positivity and optimism for the year ahead. For the record, I’ve enjoyed a lot of what they’ve put out, but there’s still room for improvement. I guess the trouble is that some of those improvements would only be possible if Vince were not around, but nevertheless, they’re worth pointing out.
Let’s start with the end of the lamentable Baron Corbin experiment which made Raw unwatchable for months on end. Firstly, Corbin was not sufficiently gifted with a microphone to be successful in such a role, and secondly, he was nowhere near over enough as a heel to make anyone care about his clichéd stacking of the deck for various faces. It was an old and tired rehashing of something we’ve seen so many times before, and mercifully it was ended by the loss to Strowman at TLC and the McMahons the night after. The end of GMs in general is obviously a bonus, since the entire Commissioner/GM dynamic this time around was never very well defined, and they were generally present far too often in the product when we know that the best authority figures are the ones you barely see, the Jack Tunneys and Gorilla Monsoons of the world (younger readers: fire up the Network and watch some mid 90s Raws to see what I’m talking about there). While Paige did a decent enough job as Smackdown GM, she wasn’t exactly the most interesting part of the product either, so it is no great loss to see her no longer in the role.
Another positive to come out of the recent shake up is the creation of more urgency through televised title matches and number one contenders matches. One of the biggest problems with weekly TVs historically is that nothing really seems to matter too much. Matches are booked, whether squashes or competitive, but they have no real bearing on anything, and watching wrestling without a direction isn’t often that engaging. In recent weeks, we’ve seen far more matches with high stakes: Daniel Bryan, Gable and Roode and Rusev have all won gold on television. That creates a buzz, that creates the sense that it’s worth tuning in, the old “anything can happen” (Bret Hart won the WWF Championship at a house show, lest we forget). Meanwhile, Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks have won number one contenders matches for the Smackdown and Raw women’s titles respectively , and Dean Ambrose has defended his Intercontinental Championship against Tyler Breeze, Apollo Crews and Seth Rollins, the latter a match that came out of a six man tag victory for Rollins’ team against Ambrose’s team, and the former out of an opportunity battle royal won by the long neglected Crews. Long may this sort of booking continue; it makes it much more worth your while to tune in. I always want my wrestling to have a sense of urgency, and for each match to matter, and we’re much more in that zone than we have been for a while.
Another bonus of recent weeks is the beginning of a more coherent shared universe approach. Although I am no fan of more McMahons on television (more of which later) I do think that Triple H referencing his past with Seth Rollins, and Vince McMahon reminding AJ Styles of his heel run in 2016-17 are a promising sign of a more coherent product that invests in characters and long term stories in a way that can only be beneficial. Daniel Bryan’s new character is a great example of taking a character’s past and using it as motivation for his present; the scene on Smackdown at the concession stand this week was absolutely one of the best promos I have seen in years, because it took things people always found cute and charming about Bryan – the eco warrior vegan stuff – and put it in a heel context. That always works in pro wrestling, just as it did when Punk turned on Jeff Hardy in 2009 and made Straight Edge about being “better than you”.
As I alluded to above, one thing WWE television does not need is the McMahon Dynasty all over it week after week. Watch back the Attitude Era, and by summer 1999 they have got all the juice they could out of the evil boss character. That was almost twenty years ago, and they’re still at it. It’s time to stop. Triple H and Stephanie are now on their third time through as leading authority figures – 2000, 2013 and now 2019 – what more is there to achieve by putting them front and centre in this way. Everyone was fed up with GM drama, but I guarantee people were not asking for that to be replaced with McMahon drama, and let’s be honest, this is heading to something horrible like a Triple H vs Shane match eventually. You could bet your house on it.
While we’re on the subject of McMahons, Shane’s tag team with The Miz must be up there with my least favourite angles of the past decade. First of all, I do not need or want to be reminded that Shane won a tournament to crown “the best in the world”, thank you. Secondly, he and Miz have very poor chemistry, the backstage skits are embarrassing to watch, and the match with The Bar is clearly leading to some sort of Bret/Owen angle where Miz turns on Shane and they face off at Wrestlemania, and I cannot express in words how much I do not need to see a Miz vs Shane match at Wrestlemania.
Furthermore, we still have far too much dead weight in the midcard; despite his removal as “GM Elect”, Corbin is still regularly wrestling matches on Raw, alongside other marginal talents like Elias and Bobby Lashley, and when there is so much talent on the roster, it’s galling to see that. I’d also suggest that the use of the midcard half of the women’s roster remains extremely poor. Mandy Rose walking around in a towel in 2018 to distract Jimmy Uso is sexist and gross writing honestly, and the least said about the Jim Neidhart printed on a table nonsense the better, good grief. Meanwhile, talents like Ember Moon are badly in need of the kind of spotlight given to male counterparts like Mustafa Ali.
As my colleague Rich Latta pointed out brilliantly here, using Gene Okerlund’s death to bring Hulk Hogan (and all of his merchandise, raised eyebrow) back to the company left an extremely sour taste in the mouth. While Hogan was undoubtedly Gene’s most famous interview, there was no justification for bringing the man back given the views he has expressed and his lack of remorse for what he said.
Finally, I have had it with clichéd talk segments on WWE TV. A Moment of Bliss? Spare me. I’ve not found one of those segments interesting in forever, be it Miz TV, The Cutting Edge, or any other of the numerous rip offs of Piper’s Pit we’ve seen down the years, and as Rich pointed out on Twitter, giving Rousey a mic pretty much amounts to sabotage given how bad a talker she is.
But the creation of these kind of segments is only a symptom of the biggest problem, which is that the shows are two long, especially Raw. History shows us that the most effective weekly shows have always been one hour long: Raw until 1997, NXT, 205 Live, NXT UK to name but three. At least one hour of each three hour Raw has been a black hole of nothingness ever since it came in after Raw 1000. Advertising dollar be damned, it hurts the product so much that it simply has to go. I am not so unrealistic as to believe Raw or Smackdown will ever be one hour again, but for goodness sake, bring Raw down to two hours (as I said at the start, we may have to wait for Vince to step away before this ever comes to pass, but it belongs on the list so I kept it in!)
So, those are my thoughts on how the new era has started, do let me know your thoughts in the comments section below, or come follow me on Twitter @Neil_Pollock79
And until next time, this is Maverick, requesting flyby!