The theme for my columns the past two weeks has been WWE’s New Era; we’ve tried to determine to what extent we can trust what we’re seeing on television, how much we believe the changes will last, and what kind of leftover garbage from the previous era is still holding the forward progress of the company back. Because let’s not undersell it, WWE are at a crossroads. With New Japan and AEW whipping up a fervour for an alternative world view of what pro wrestling can be, they need to show that they can move with the times and bring an updated sports entertainment model into being, one that relies on contemporary stars, effective storytelling and strong in-ring product, one that leaves behind the 2007-2018 model of over-reliance on part timers and sloppy week to week television behind. The Royal Rumble 2019 is the first true test of whether WWE are serious about realising this vision; Raw has been better, Smackdown has been consistently excellent, so now it’s time for a pay-per-view that brings it all together, and more importantly, a Wrestlemania season that brings it all together.
The Sunday night experiences of Finn Balor and Seth Rollins will be the true litmus test of WWE’s commitment to the modernisation of their product. To understand why that is, we need to understand a little more about the way the past twenty years has panned out in WWF/E, and how their transitions from one generation to the next suddenly malfunctioned in the middle of the previous decade. We all understand that the acrimonious departure of Bret Hart and subsequent first retirement of Shawn Michaels opened the door for Steve Austin, Mick Foley, The Rock and Triple H to become the lynchpin stars of the movement that would become the Attitude Era. The midcarders of that generation – Edge, Christian, Jericho, Benoit, Guerrero, JBL – would become transitional main eventers in the Ruthless Aggression period that followed, while WWE dealt with the loss of the burned out Austin, broken bodied Foley and Hollywood bound Rock. Meanwhile, new stars were being groomed in Lesnar (who received as fast a push as anyone ever has), Cena, Orton and Batista. However, the unexpected loss of Lesnar in 2004, combined with some unfortunate injuries (as well, perhaps, some cold feet about the veteran midcarders being “drawing” stars with casual fans) prompted Cena, Orton and Batista to be rushed into the headlining roles years before we otherwise might have expected. Randy Orton was 24 when he became World Heavyweight Champion, John Cena only a little older than that. Batista was obviously an older guy, but in ring terms he was still green when he was crowned. What this led to was these stars being on top of the card for unprecedented levels of time: Hart and Michaels had been on top for four to five years, Austin and Rock the same. Cena was still the undisputed alpha in the company as recently as 2013, and that’s at a conservative estimate. Meanwhile, Triple H, Michaels, Undertaker and Edge just kept on wrestling, years past their prime, and in the midcard, the effects of this monopoly on top began to be felt.
As I’ve written about before, it was the midcard class of 2008-10 who found their path to the top barred, because the people above them who should’ve been cycling out of the top roles either were so young when they ascended that there was no age related reason to cycle them out (Cena and Orton) or were displaying exceptional and unprecedented longevity as capable in ring performers (The Undertaker, Triple H). And as the glass ceiling grew thicker, the opportunities were harder and harder to come by. And of that generation who bounced against that glass ceiling, only CM Punk and Daniel Bryan ever burst through it, and even they did so in circumstances so controversial that it would be exhausting to even begin to go into it. It’s worth saying as a side note that the irony of Cody Rhodes now being the greatest threat to the WWE monopoly in 25 years cannot be lost on them, given that he was one of those very midcarders who found his way to the top barred no matter how well his work was received by fans.
However, despite the Wrestlemania model that privileged part timers over full time stars, WWE found themselves lucking into another generation of future stars, who for convenience we’ll call the class of 2014 – in Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, Bray Wyatt, Rusev, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Neville and Finn Balor, WWE had a nucleus of talents ready to finally wrest the torch away from the OVW crew and the Attitude leftovers. More forceful than their 2008 forebears, these guys were more than prepared to take WWE into a new era. And for a time, things seemed promising in this regard: Rollins and Ambrose lit the company up with the feud that came out of The Shield split, after which Rollins seized the world title from Lesnar and Reigns in the “Heist of the Century”. After a difficult start to his run as a top guy, Reigns started to find his feet. Ambrose was as comfortable carrying a midcard belt as he was chasing a top belt. Owens made an eyecatching impact on NXT and then the main roster. Wyatt and Rusev both had Wrestlemania matches against John Cena, even if the feuds had unfortunate outcomes (see last week’s piece for more on that). And of course, in August 2016, Finn Balor became the very first Universal Champion, defeating none other than an over-confident Seth Rollins, who was about to embark on the humbling journey he’s been on ever since.
But the problem was that WWE’s commitment to this new wave of talents faltered. They kept going back to the “proven” brand names. Wrestlemanias XXXII to XXXIV were overblown, pompous and committed to retreads like Goldberg, Lesnar, Shane McMahon and a broken down Undertaker. Bad booking decisions were taken: why didn’t Ambrose win the 2016 Royal Rumble instead of Triple H? Or failing that, why could he not have beaten Brock Lesnar at Wrestlemania XXXII to cement the fact that he’s been the only star to show no fear of the Beast? Why was Kevin Owens sacrificed to Goldberg of all people? Why did Bray Wyatt have to job to Randy Orton (or even The Undertaker given that the Streak was gone by then anyway)? And most of all, after all the trouble they went to, all the fan sentiment they ignored, why did they not have Reigns beat Lesnar sooner? The main event of Wrestlemania XXXIV was a sick, bloody joke. Suddenly, this promising generation were in danger of becoming as lost as their forerunners from 2008.
And yet, there is hope, and it lies in the positioning of Balor and Rollins for this pay-per-view. Balor’s WWE career has been a curate’s egg to this point, but there’s no denying the man’s talent. Stripped, for the most part, of the Demon gimmick that made him such a huge deal in NXT, Balor on the main roster has been cast essentially as a genial Irishman in a leather jacket, someone who, since his injury, they’ve been happy to throw into multi-man title matches, but not someone they’ve really pinned key storylines on. Suddenly, by having him fly to England to take on his protege Jordan Devlin at NXT Takeover: Blackpool and then having him fly back to the States to complete a one night story where he went from zero to hero, WWE have built some momentum for him. As Rich Latta discussed last week, now is the time to capitalise on that. Is Balor all the way there? No – the Balor Club stuff is more awkward than 1996 Shawn Michaels referencing the fans as his “Kliq”, he hasn’t had the chance to develop his character much past “underdog” and he has been stripped of the thing that made him most interesting, but in a sense none of that matters, because fans are reacting to him. People have enjoyed the story, enjoyed seeing a contemporary star rise to an unexpected title shot. So follow through with it. Fifteen years ago, Eddie Guerrero went into No Way Out and won the world title from Brock Lesnar, to a rapturous, emotional reception. The assist came from Goldberg, who was miffed at Lesnar for eliminating him from the Rumble. Well…why can’t history repeat itself? Why could we not have Strowman appear mid-match after a ref bump, destroy Lesnar and leave him vulnerable to a Coup De Grace? The Beast Incarnate would still be booked for Wrestlemania, but it would be in a non-title attraction match, something which I believe is a much better fit for him at this stage (if WWE insist on keeping him around, which I’d rather they didn’t, but it is what it is).
So, as unlikely as it still seems, if WWE did have the stones to put the Universal Title on Balor, he’d be made for life, having done what barely anyone has done in this run, and beat Brock Lesnar. And hopefully, ready and waiting for him for Mania season would be Seth Rollins. Let us not forget that Rollins and Balor have history, having fought in that inaugural Universal Title match at Summerslam 2016, and it would also be a match that allowed for the kind of catch-as-catch-can classic title match Wrestlemania has not featured since Daniel Bryan’s night under the lights at Wrestlemania XXX. Let’s be clear, Seth Rollins has to win the Royal Rumble. His redemptive story arc, from injury, to betrayal by Triple H, to banishing The King of Kings from his own kingdom, to making things right with Ambrose and Reigns, to fighting midcard champion proving himself night after night, to his most recent setback at the hands of his former brother- the entire three year story is crying out to climax in Rollins winning the Royal Rumble, going to Wrestlemania, and standing on top of the mountain. Everything he’s done, from the respect with which he handled the Intercontinental Championship and Tag Title runs, to intense moments of brilliance like the gauntlet match on Raw, to emotional segments with Ambrose and Triple H, have led him to this. It’s on WWE to finish the story the right way, and again, it’s ready made for them. Seth wins the Rumble, has to fight through “challenge me for the title shot” matches at Elimination Chamber and Fast Lane against someone like Drew McIntyre, and emerges into the programme with Balor, one on one, and all the story needs to be is this: who is the better wrestler on the night?
WWE have done a good deal of course correcting in recent weeks, but unless they can provide the “new era” with signature pay-per-view moments where contemporary stars triumph in big spots, the whole thing is just the white noise of cynicism that WWE critics suspected it was. Think big, WWE. Be bold. Crown Balor, and let the end of the Rumble see an exhausted Rollins point at the Wrestlemania sign. They deserve it, but perhaps even more importantly, the fans deserve it.
This is Maverick, requesting flyby.