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In this week’s edition of “5 Count”, I’ll be looking at five lessons that WWE can learn from their 2016 looking at the disparity between the starts of the yesterday compared to today, their booking of babyfaces, the women, John Cena, and promo styles. And because there’s so many lessons I could do I’ll be back next week with five more!
(1) The Stars Of Yesterday Continue To Outshine The Stars Of Today
This was as evident as ever with Goldberg’s return and subsequent battle with Brock Lesnar. None of the acts that WWE have debuted in the last decade even come close to getting the type of reaction that Goldberg has received in any of his appearances. And yes, the nostalgia factor has a big part to play in it but it’s also in how Goldberg carries himself. He’s perceived as a badass, as a star, as a good guy to root for because all of that is who he is. You don’t need to be told that Goldberg is a badass, it’s self-evident by his aura, by who he is. It doesn’t need to be rammed home that you should root for this guy to win. To paraphrase Goldberg here, “I wanted to come back for one final match to be a superhero for my kid and all the little children out there watching.” Hell yeah I’m rooting for the guy after that.
None of the acts that WWE has debuted in the past decade come close to being perceived as the type of star that Goldberg is. Or that Brock is. Or that Cena, Triple H or Undertaker are. The lesson here is dual sided. (1) The new influx of talent are for the most part all great wrestlers, but none of them are real genuine stars. None of them are needle movers that fans are desperate to see win a match. But all of the blame for that can’t be put solely on the talent themselves, which brings me to the second side of the lesson… (2) WWE need to do a better job of presenting these acts as stars like they do the stars of yesteryear.
I’m not someone who’s in the camp of so-and-so is a great wrestler therefore WWE should push him to the moon ahead of part timers like Goldberg and Lesnar. Spots like that should be earned and the harsh reality is that guys like Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose have never pushed on to break that glass ceiling and truly warrant that spot beyond any shadow of doubt.
The fact is they’re not even in reaching distance of said glass ceiling. When you put them in a title match, fans are in no way pleading for them to win. When you put them in a big match on TV against their archrival, fans don’t tune in demanding to see it. When you give them the mic they don’t have fans eating up every word that they so and going crazy for their fire. When you put them on a show you don’t suddenly sell a significant amount of extra tickets. Go through this paragraph and how many of them can you say yes to for Rollins or Ambrose. Or even A.J. Styles? Now do it again for John Cena. THAT is the difference between the stars of yesteryear and the stars of today and why WWE simply can’t afford to position them above acts like John Cena and Goldberg, who do make a difference. They return and ratings go up. You add them to a show and ticket sales go up. You give them a mic and they illicit stronger reactions.
WWE booking isn’t helping them but they’re not helping themselves either and 2016 has only driven home a point that has been relevant throughout the 2010’s. Nobody is truly “grabbing the brass ring” so to speak, or picking up the ball and making something out of nothing for themselves. You put a true superstar of a sportsman onto a bad team and while they won’t be maximising their potential, they’ll still be making a notable difference. To use an NBA comparison, WWE don’t have a Russell Westbrook, DEMANDING that people take notice of them even while being dealt a poor hand.
But the lesson is also there for WWE to learn because they sure as hell aren’t helping anyone. They refuse to book anyone in a way even resembling the protection they give to Brock. They refuse to give a babyface a mic and cut a promo that’s relatable and true to who they are like they let Goldberg do. They refuse to book anyone with the revere and aura that they do for Undertaker.
What they’re trying now isn’t working. I’m sure if someone quizzed WWE about it they’d point to the gate that Wrestlemania did this year as a sign that business is better than ever and while that’s factually correct it’s just spin. Miscasting popular acts such as A.J. Styles and Kevin Owens as heels isn’t working. Keeping the shackles on what acts like Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose can say on promos isn’t working. Booking acts like Seth Rollins as collateral damage to preserve this false sense of money drawing heat that Hunter and Steph have isn’t working. Pairing acts like Goldberg and Shane McMahon with Brock and Undertaker isn’t having a lasting impact once they’re gone. And if things aren’t working, what do you do? You try something different. Einstein never actually said that the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results, but that doesn’t make the sentiment any less true. Try something different and you just never know.
(2) WWE Can’t Book A Babyface To Save Their Lives
I’m not a fan of just going through a list to prove a point, but here it works. Let’s just take a quick overview of all of WWE’s babyfaces and how great of a job they’ve done of booking them as babyfaces you can really get behind.
- Roman Reigns: Struggling bad to get over as a babyface as it is, WWE decides to spend the year booking him against popular babyfaces Dean Ambrose and Brock Lesnar, then against the holistic provider of NXT and future saviour of professional wrestling Triple H, then against freshly debuted and immensely popular A.J. Styles, then against the guy who gets one of the biggest pops of the year returning from injury that everyone is clamouring to cheer Seth Rollins, then they sorta get it right pairing him with Rusev only to proceed to book Rusev as the babyface in the feud, and then finally against the immensely popular duo that make everyone laugh, Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho. Is it any wonder that he continues to be rejected when WWE continue to put him against either quasi or outright babyface acts. And don’t even get me started on the Rumble match because I could quite easily write an essay just on how horribly they booked Roman as a babyface in that match
- Dean Ambrose: Was booked to get his ass kicked constantly by Brock Lesnar without ever getting to return fire, got turned on by James Ellsworth in a turn everyone but him could see coming, and was then booked to completely blow it off and not be bothered about kicking Ellsworth’s ass for revenge
- Seth Rollins: Only turned babyface when the big bad heel boss turned on him and rejected him for a new playtoy and then proceeded to cry about it while expecting the fans to get behind him against fellow fan favourite Kevin Owens.
- Dolph Ziggler: LOSER with a 2-8 W/L PPV record
- Sami Zayn: LOSER with a 2-1-6 W/D/L PPV record
- T.J. Perkins: MORON who lost the title he came through the CWC to win by being the only person in the world to be fooled by Brian Kendrick
- Enzo Amore: Thought it was okay to hit on another man’s wife and unapologetically stand naked in front of her.
- Becky Lynch: LOSER with a 2-7 W/L PPV record, turned on by Natalya with no revenge and outsmarted by Alexa Bliss.
- Sasha Banks: Aanother loser with a 2-6 W/L PPV record, couldn’t defend her title, second best to Charlotte, lost in her hometown in a historical main event and tapped out with two seconds left to lose her title like a STUPID COWARD. Oh and she fooled all her fans into thinking she was retiring due to injury.
That’s not just the occasional issue with booking a babyface, that’s flat out awful booking of every single one of your top babyfaces. Not only are they all losers, they’re stupid, cowardly, selfish, and disrespectful losers.
I actually decided to look up some more W/L records for the babyfaces this year and the only one with a record above .500 is Roman Reigns and he’s only 6-5. Cena is 1-3, Orton was 0-2 as a babyface, A.J. was 1-3 as a babyface, Ambrose is 6-7, Rollins as a babyface is 1-3, Cesaro is 3-4 and all 3 wins came teaming with a heel Sheamus, even New Day are 5-6 despite being champions for the entire year and that’s counting a win as heels over The Usos. Even SHANE McMAHON has been nothing but a loser. They’re literally all losers.
The lesson is simple. Book your babyfaces as acts fans can actually get behind. Letting them win more often than not is a good start but not booking them to be idiots and cowards and people that viewers can respect should be lesson no. 1 in how to book a babyface. In other words, just copy the Goldberg formula from 2016. A likeable person fighting for a respectable cause who kicks ass and wins his matches. It really can be that simple.
(3) The Women Belong
Thankfully the revamped Women’s Division managed to come through the horrible start with Stephanie placing her playtoys into little teams like the little chess pieces they are while the queen emperor plays with them as she pleases. The self-titled oxymoron of a “revolution” was anything but during 2015, but in 2016 the women have shown that they belong as not only a featured part of WWE’s flagship shows but as one of the hottest and most over parts of WWE’s flagship shows.
They were given a marquee match on WrestleMania along with time to have one of the best matches on the show and they did. They’ve been given time on TV to get over and Charlotte, Sasha, Becky and now Bayley are most definitely acts that are over with fans. For as much as we’re told that cookie cutter babyfaces don’t work in the modern era, Bayley and Becky are both over to every demographic of the audience as liked babyfaces.
For as much as we’re told that heels can’t get heel heat while being a respected talent, Charlotte is one of the best performers in WWE (no qualifiers needed) and gets legit heel heat. Charlotte and Sasha have been allowed to main event Monday Night Raw on multiple occasions and have delivered in terms of showing the women can get reactions and have matches just as good, if not better, than the men in that spot. They’ve shown that they can not only hold a respectable TV viewership but outdraw the likes of Kevin Owens, Roman Reigns, and Seth Rollins in the same spot. They’ve shown that women can be part of gimmick matches like Hell in a Cell and not look out of their depths. They’ve shown that they can main event a PPV and perform to a hot crowd. They’ve shown that they well and truly belong.
(4) John Cena Is Moving On
John Cena has been the face of WWE for the last decade, but 2016 was a very John Cena-less year. In that time away from WWE he’s expanded the John Cena brand into mainstream media in ways that were never possible as WWE’s no-days-off loyal servant. And now that he’s got a taste of the life outside of the WWE bubble, it’s unlikely that he’s coming back to be Mr. 365 days a year again.
So WWE cannot rely on him to be THE guy anymore. Either through filming for other ventures or just sheer wear and tear on his body forcing him to take a look in the mirror and finally realise that a more relaxed in-ring schedule may be more beneficial to not only his long term health but his longevity as a WWE wrestler, the chances of John Cena being the guy that Vince has on retainer to put a plaster on bleeding ratings and dwindling attendances are at slim to none.
WWE need badly more than ever now to find a babyface who can be what John Cena has been for WWE for the past decade. An ever present babyface box office draw. That term can describe nobody other than Cena at present and it’s not a hole that WWE can afford to leave empty (or maybe more appropriately, try to force a square peg into). Granted, there isn’t an obvious choice to indeed fill that hole but there’s enough talent that can be given opportunities to make that spot their own and they need to be given those opportunities ASAP now.
That’s the downside of the John Cena situation. The upside, however, can be great for WWE if they can capitalize on Cena’s increased mainstream exposure. John Cena hosting the ESPYs and Saturday Night Live should introduce him to a new audience that weren’t familiar with him from WWE and, given his impressive performances in these spots, his drawing ability should be being expanded to a much wider potential audience that can be used to give WWE a much needed boost to decreasing TV viewership and live attendance figures.
So despite John Cena no longer being a viable option to be THE guy 52 weeks a year, he should still be right next to THE guy. 1B to their 1A. They just need to ensure that whichever brand Cena is on has another babyface in the same boat as Cena to hold up the burden of drawing ratings and gates while Cena isn’t there.
(5) Loosening The Chains On Promos Is A Good Thing
2016 saw the debut of Talking Smack and while “must-see television” is overstating the importance of the show, it’s definitely a critically acclaimed success. Maybe most importantly, though, it’s an indicator that a less tightly scripted product could actually be beneficial.
But it’s still only Talking Smack being broadcasted to a niche audience. This style of more loosely scripted interview-based promos should be copied and used more prominently on Raw and Smackdown. It gives acts a more relaxed and conversational platform to feature their personalities better than the overly-scripted and mundane start of the show monologue while also getting the most out of a real talent in Renee Young who gets more out of acts like Baron Corbin and The Usos on Talking Smack than the current in ring promo formula does.
And they may as well act on the success of Talking Smack because the rewards have been far greater than the rewards the promos on Raw and Smackdown have produced in front of a much larger audience. Try to think of one memorable promo from 2016 on Raw or Smackdown that got someone over. I’m struggling. All I can think of is Goldberg’s return promo, and that only strengthens the argument for a more loosely scripted style of promos.
Without doubt the hottest promo of the year was between The Miz and Daniel Bryan on Talking Smack which while scripted maintained a sense of drama and reality to force viewers to question if what they just saw was actually going against the script. And it actually got an act more over than he was before and promoted something that you wanted to see. Now granted the “something” was a match that can’t happen, but it’s at least a start!
And sure, you will get a mess every now and again like Kalisto’s draft night promo, but the good has far outweighed the not so good. Changing a style that has struggled to reap any success for a style that has at least produced some success on a smaller platform seems a pretty common sense lesson to me.
NOW CHECK OUT THE PREVIOUS “FIVE COUNT” COLUMN: Five Lessons to be learned from the early failure of the Cruiserweight Division
(“Five Count” is a new weekly Specialist column by PWTorch Specialist Matt Seabridge who will present a list of five lessons to be learned from various categories, theme, shows, eras, or events in pro wrestling.)