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2014 was a major shift in the wrestling industry, from the birth of the WWE Network to the rise of the influence of wrestling podcasts. 2015 has not been as memorable or transcendent of a year as far as shifting the culture of the business, but there have been numerous major stories that have made it a fascinating year to follow wrestling. Here are my Top 10 pro wrestling stories of 2015.
(10) The Death of an Era
Pro wrestling sees more than its share of premature deaths, but this year, we saw the death of a generation of top stars. We experienced the passing of Rowdy Roddy Piper, Verne Gagne, Dusty Rhodes, and Nick Bockwinkel, four of the biggest stars in wrestling history. On a positive note, none of them were young, premature deaths, but it felt like the end of an era for people that grew up watching the regional promotions. Rest in peace.
(9) The End of Hulkamania
Speaking of the end of an era, 2015 was also the end of Hulkamania, although under much more dubious circumstances. Hulk Hogan became a phenomenon by appealing to children as a “real American” hero. Over the years, that has proven to be a marketing myth, but the Hulkster has been able to survive scandals and keep his popularity.
Unfortunately, it was unveiled that there was a much uglier side to Hogan when a racist tirade from a private sex tape emerged. He was fired from WWE, and his name was taken off current marketing material. Even worse was how Hogan handled the incident. His social media posts were embarrassing, and his reaction shows he has learned little from the incident. If he returns, a dark cloud has been cast on the aura of Hulkamania forever.
(8) John Cena – Mid-Carder?
This year may have been a transition year for the top star of the generation, John Cena. For most of the year, he has been in programs in the middle of the card and holding a mid-card championship that had little credibility in the past decade.
Despite his position on shows, this may have been the best in-ring year of Cena’s career. He had a tremendous set of matches with a wide array of opponents including Rusev, Seth Rollins, and Kevin Owens. He also had some small roles in mainstream movies, and it may be a sign of a move to Hollywood. For years, Cena has been the ultimate company man, but this may have been the year he begins to explore options outside of the WWE realm while showcasing he is more valuable than ever.
(7) The Rise of NXT?
Since the end of WCW, fans have been looking for an alternative to WWE. Ironically, they may have found the independent scene they have been searching for in WWE itself. NXT experienced a huge rise in popularity this year with their live specials becoming a highlight of the Network. They also drew huge crowds at live events proving that they may be a viable traveling entity.
Despite the success of the new brand, at what costs have these gains taken place? NXT is supposed to be a developmental territory for new stars. On the basis of its purpose, it has been a mediocre year at best. The new crop of homegrown talent has not made much of an impact on the main roster, and stars like Samoa Joe that should be in WWE remain in developmental. Hopefully, in 2016 NXT will grow in popularity while fulfilling its mission statement.
(6) The Divas “Revolution”
This brings us to the complete embarrassment that has been the supposed “Divas Revolution.” First of all, with the title of Divas, it is difficult to take any revolution seriously. The execution of the promotion of Charlotte, Sasha Banks, etc. to the main roster was short-sighted. They should have been brought up as individual stars looking to change the industry, but instead it has been an endless series of bad segments and stereotypical promos of catty behavior and excess crying. The reaction to women’s matches on the main stage has been apathetic, and if WWE does not change the direction for the division, it will continue to be viewed as the bathroom break of the show.
(5) Brock Lesnar Re-signs With WWE
He makes very few appearances, but Brock Lesnar may be WWE’s MVP of 2015. He had some spectacular matches including arguably the best match of the year at the Royal Rumble and an strong main event at WrestleMania. When he decided to re-sign with WWE on a very sports-like ESPN announcement the week of Mania, it was the biggest signing of the year. Lesnar rewarded the company by remaining a legitimate Network draw, and his performances in a bloody feud with Undertaker revamped The Dead Man’s career. When he was on television with Paul Heyman by his side, Lesnar was the highlight of professional wrestling in 2015.
(4) The Roman Reigns Experiment
Has any wrestler in recent memory had as many highs and lows in a year as Roman Reigns? At the start of the year, he was on a journey to fulfill his destiny of becoming the top star of the next generation. The fans, especially at the Royal Rumble, decided that he was not ready for the ascension, so WWE was forced to change its plans. He won the Rumble, but WrestleMania ended with another former Shield member as champion.
Then, he lingered in the mid-card and delivered some embarrassing promos that would even make Cena cringe, but WWE did not lose its belief in him as the babyface heir apparent. Despite not having won over fans and being seemingly miscast in his role, WWE delivered a couple riveting performances in December and Reigns is finishing the year where he was expected to, as WWE World Champion.
(3) Raw Ratings Plummet
There are many reasons for the decline in ratings of WWE’s flagship show. There has been a shift in viewing habits to DVR, on-demand, and streaming content, and three-hour Raws have taken their toll on the audience three years into the experiment, but I believe the primary cause of the downfall is some truly inept creative. The storytelling has been completely inconsistent, and there has been a serious dearth in cool characters for audiences to get behind.
Without a sense of internal logic or compelling stars, WWE has had to make excuses for Raw ratings being at an all-time low. Despite injuries and corporate spins, the company needs to claim responsibility with stronger character development and quality control in its stories for ratings, and more importantly, the enjoyment of the show to increase in 2016.
(2) The WWE Network Grows
Despite the fall in Raw ratings and general apathy from its fan base, WWE has found some success in the Network model during the ramp-up period. Subscription numbers have been solid throughout the year, and the company has added some compelling content to satisfy older and newer fans. Although the growth may not be as loft as initial forecasts predicted, WWE should be proud of their streaming model because it has something for all wrestling fans, and it is well worth the reasonable 9.99 monthly price tag. 2015 proved that the WWE Network is here to stay.
(1) Wrestlemania Defies Expectations With a Great Show
This year’s build to Wrestlemania was one of the worst in recent history. Fans rejected the company pushing Reigns down their throats. It was unclear whether Lesnar would resign, and there was little interest in the main matches on the card. The final scene leading into Mania was an embarrassing stare down between the main-eventers.
WWE, as it often does at the Grandest Stage of Them All, surprised fans with an excellent show with no real great matches but full of memorable moments. We saw the Mania debut of Sting, the NWO facing off against DX, and The Rock and Ronda Rousey in a classic segment with Triple H and Stephanie McMahon. It ended with a surprise twist that made sense and made all participating characters stronger as a result. Wrestlemania was proof that even when things look down, WWE usually comes through with an amazing spectacle on its biggest show of the year.