FIVE COUNT: Five lessons that WWE can learn from 2016 including good heels, Roman Reigns experiment, Shinsuke Nakamura, and NXT revival

By Matt Seabridge, PWTorch Specialist

Shinsuke Nakamura (art credit Travis Beaven © PWTorch)

In the previous instalment of “Five Count,” I looked at five lessons for WWE to learn from 2016 and because there’s so many lessons to be taught from an entire year, I’m back again with five more lessons for WWE to learn from 2016.

(1) Good Heels Will Still Get Good Heel Heat

For some reason we seem to be more accepting of this false mentality that heels can’t get good heel heat anymore so promoters should switch from a more traditional “you want to see the good guy beat the bad guy” philosophy to a more nuanced shades of grey philosophy. These people believe that the only type of heel heat that exists is legit heat towards the act, “go away heat.” They believe that if a wrestler is a good performer as a heel then the crowd will respect and like them as a performer which translates into popping and cheering for the act rather than booing them.

And there’s obviously something to that. Traditional heel heat is near non-existent in professional wrestling in 2016. A lot of that is down to the changing culture of the modern wrestling audience with WWE losing the more casual audience. But it’s also down to the changing culture of the wrestling industry and the performers. Gone are the days when heels were primarily focused on getting the crowd to dislike them and cheer on the babyface in comparison to the heels of today who seem more concerned with having highly rated matches and getting themselves over ahead of the babyface they’re supposed to be getting over. Heels don’t cheat anymore. Heels don’t get theirs anymore. Heels don’t lose anymore. The heels are now cooler than the babyfaces. The heels are the winners. The heels are the kick ass badasses. The heels are what the babyfaces used to be, yet then we then turn around and go “well crowds won’t boo the heel anymore.” Well no shit they won’t boo the cool kick ass guy who wins!

2016 has taught us however, that the new age philosophy towards heel heat is rubbish and that if a heel act works well as a heel act then they’ll still get over as a heel. Last week I wrote about how WWE have absolutely SUCKED at booking babyfaces in 2016. In comparison though, they’ve had three heel acts who have taught us that good heels will still get good heel heat, even in this modern era. None of the reactions that The Revival, Charlotte or The Miz get are “go away heat.” They’re all acts who are respected as good heel acts and don’t get cheered over the babyfaces who the heel is supposed to be getting over.

So how do they do it? None of what they’re doing is revolutionary or exceedingly complex. They’re simply playing classic pro wrestling heels that have got over as heels in the past. And guess what? The same formula gets great wrestlers over as heels in the modern era too. The only difference is these acts are actually good at trying to be a heel rather than trying to be the cool heel selfishly trying to get themselves over at the expense of everything else. They cheat, they back down from fights, they outnumber the good guys, they gloat about winning and (generally) they put the babyface over when it matters. We’ve just been bombarded with an influx of heels working as babyfaces that we’ve fallen into a false perception of how hard it is to for heels to get over properly.

The proof is in the pudding here. Good heels will still draw good heel heat.

(2) The Roman Reigns Experiment Is Beyond Repair

Another year in the books and another year of WWE insisting on pushing Roman Reigns as the top babyface. On one hand you have to admire their insistence that this project will be a success no matter how many years of fans rejecting it they have to go through but on the other you have to just shake your head not only at their blatant refusal to change course and turn Roman heel but also their ineptitude in attempting to making this work.

I’m a fan of Reigns. Another time and this push of his would probably take off but the reality is he’s the wrong guy at the wrong time. The opening was there this time last year when Vince and Sheamus were doing a great job at finally making him click only for his booking in 2016 to not only completely undo all of that but ultimately put him so far back that Roman Reigns as the top babyface is just beyond saving. The longer it goes the more the rejection of him goes from a protest that he’s not our guy and it’s never our guy on top to just sheer apathy for the situation and people just walking away from the entire product.

This babyface push won’t stick at this point. Even the part of the audience that want to like Reigns are losing the will to keep fighting against the tirade of venom from the opposition and he no longer has the claim of drawing in house show crowds to use in his defence. There’s no more “hey Roman got a good reaction this week”. That’s been replaced throughout this year with either “another crowd that made their rejection of Reigns very vocal” or maybe more worryingly “the crowd were just flat for Roman.”

This may seem like a real statement of the obvious to say that WWE need to turn Reigns heel but it really is the only choice that they have left now. This time last year you could very easily make a convincing argument for sticking by the push but after the further damage done in 2016, it’s time for WWE to hold their hands up, admit failure, turn him heel, hope that works and then revisit this Roman Reigns babyface push after a run as a heel that will hopefully allow him to reinvent himself and wash away the stink of the last couple of years.

(3) NXT Needs To Be Constantly Ready To Replace Talent

This was emphasised more than ever before in 2016. Since the brand split where the NXT women’s division was raided in order to fulfil WWE’s desire to have a women’s division on each show, the NXT women’s division has been at a standstill while Asuka waits for a suddenly rebooted division to build up some challengers to her untouchable dominance atop the division. Since the summer NXT lost Bayley, Alexa Bliss, Nia Jax and Carmella who along with Asuka WERE the NXT women’s division. Every now and again a Liv Morgan or a Billie Kay would show up but only ever to put over one of those five. Then out of nowhere NXT were left with a division consisting of a group of girls who weren’t featured acts and a champion who they had built up to the point of being untouchable by featured acts such as Bayley and Nia Jax, let alone the acts who were even less of a threat to the people who were barely a threat to Asuka. NXT had a major problem where even in the realms of pro wrestling logic they couldn’t convincingly match Asuka against anyone else on the roster. This forced them to bring in Mickie James from the cold to bide time and get through another Takeover but the problem still exists with Asuka once again lacking worthy opponents for the next Takeover show in San Antonio.

This lesson relates to the top of the cards too. If WWE continue trying to run these bigger venues for NXT tours then they better make sure that they constantly have major attractions that will be big draws for the audience that NXT serves and there’s a very limited number of talents that can fill the voids that Nakamura and Joe will leave. If both acts get pulled out of NXT by the end of January in order to bolster Wrestlemania then NXT is in a real pickle in terms of drawing power, again falling reliant on making some major signings to maintain NXT as a touring brand that can draw thousands of fans into venues.

If NXT was truly a developmental product then this wouldn’t be a cause for concern. It would just part of the natural life cycle. The problem comes when you start expecting NXT to be a touring brand drawing thousands of fans on a regular basis in a wide variety of markets. The reality of NXT is that it is a “developmental” brand that is expected to work the same as Raw and Smackdown but when Raw loses a top act you can just replace them with someone from Smackdown or debut a new act. NXT don’t have that luxury. That means that WWE either need to get their performance centre working to the level that the centre itself is producing talent that are at least ready to be a featured part of NXT and maintain the standard that NXT has set for itself, or WWE need to be continuously signing the very top attractions from elsewhere that can match up to the likes of Finn Balor, Kevin Owens, Shinsuke Nakamura and Samoa Joe.

(4) Shinsuke Nakamura May Not Be The Phenomenon That He’s Been Hyped To Be

When Nakamura first came into NXT he was the hottest debut in NXT history. His signing in January was met with incredible excitement and subsequent hype that only ballooned to another level after his match with Sami Zayn at Takeover: Dallas. But since then reality has slowly began to sink in and Nakamura’s run in NXT has been on the decline ever since, epitomised by a lacklustre series of matches with Samoa Joe.

The matches between the pair haven’t been bad but I think the vast majority of viewers would agree that despite their varying enjoyment of their matches, they never quite lived up to expectations. The most concerning aspect of their series of matches from WWE’s perspective should be the crowd reactions. Yes Shinsuke’s entrance continues to get a huge reaction but that reaction isn’t sustained throughout the matches and thus he runs into the same problem that the likes of Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins face, crowds only pop for them and highspots, not for the actual match and the outcome. At Takeover: Brooklyn the lack of buzz and excitement during the middle portion of the match was pretty alarming to me and was the first real indicator that the Shinsuke Nakamura hype train had started off way out of control and was setting expectations for fans that he simply couldn’t live up to.

Nakamura is definitely a great asset. He’ll be a precious commodity to the growth of the WWE Network throughout Japan and despite the fact that he continues to neglect even attempting to sell the leg work featured in all of his matches, he’s a great wrestler and he’s massive popular with the type of viewer that NXT appeals to. WWE have popular acts who are great wrestlers though and none of them are breaking through to draw a mainstream audience back into the product. Great wrestling alone isn’t breaking through. Now granted Nakamura has more charisma than most who fall into that category but it hasn’t been translating into getting the actual matches over and that’s the ultimate goal and the truest indicator that someone will be something special. Right now, it’s still just his entrance and the highspots that are over. And let’s not forget that Nakamura also has the massive hurdle of being Japanese and speaking limited English to overcome before drawing new viewers into watching Raw or Smackdown.

The other indicator would be house show attendances. They’re good. And good is good. But they’re not exactly deafening proof that Nakamura is someone who should be pushed to the very top of WWE and would be a big success in that role. And the reality is that he was never that guy in New Japan either. Hiroshi Tanahashi was the real attraction that drew the biggest crowds. Nakamura was his running partner who while greatly popular himself, was never positioned as the top attraction of New Japan during its recent rise.

Nakamura is great. He’ll probably be great on the main roster too. But he’s been hyped up to be a level above all these other great wrestlers that WWE have signed. He’s been hyped up to be the big draw that WWE need to hook a more casual viewer back into the product. He’s been hyped up to be someone who should be getting the biggest rub WWE had to give by beating Brock Lesnar. 2016 hasn’t really provided any proof that he can live up to that hype and if WWE do have any plans to elevate him to that status, 2016 should be a lesson for them to proceed with caution and test the waters before jumping in all guns blazing with Nakamura.

(5) NXT TV Needs To Get Back To Being An Attraction

2016 was a mixed bag for NXT. The Takeover shows all delivered as being great shows yet could still be considered as weaker than 2015’s collection. Running NXT in the same venue as Summerslam and Survivor Series was a strategy that paid off and for a product that’s exclusive to a niche portion of a declining wrestling audience, their house show attendances are generally very good. 2016 saw the loss of top acts like Finn Balor and Bayley but they were replaced with the rise of Asuka and the introduction of Shinsuke Nakamura, along with The Revival, #DIY and Bobby Roode all becoming top attractions throughout 2016. You could argue that despite the call ups, NXT’s collection of talent throughout 2016 was their best to date. Yet NXT doesn’t feel quite the like the raging force that it once was. But why?

The major reason for me is the weekly show. Before 2016, NXT every Wednesday night was must see viewing for the disciples of its revolution. It was the perfect mix of attractions from the Indies and the WWE machine all with a common goal, to make stars of themselves and make it to the big leagues. It had that ECW vibe where everyone involved from the wrestlers to the fans to Papa Hunter himself were all part of a common cause aiming to change the wrestling industry. And it was cool and it became incredibly popular. The Takeover events garnered a reputation as the best wrestling shows going and the weekly show was just as hot, featuring MOTYCs that were an extension of the standard that the Takeover shows set. But in the last year, the TV has become more and more skippable. The level of character development and storylines which featured such great moments such as Sami Zayn’s redemption storyline and his rivalries with Cesaro and Kevin Owens, Neville’s heel turn and the rise of The Four Horsewomen were no longer present. Instead all the must see matches were being saved for the more frequent Takeover shows and the level of character development was being neglected in favour of an over reliance on pre-established acts. Throughout 2016 you could quite easily follow NXT without missing a great deal just by watching the Takeover shows. The Revival vs #DIY had nothing that you needed to see on TV that couldn’t be quickly summarised in the pre-match video package. Likewise for Bayley vs Asuka. Asuka vs Mickie James was a quite literal example of this. If you catch Bobby Roode on the Takeover shows but not on the weekly show then you’re not missing anything. You can get everything you need from just watching the Takeover shows.

But is that a problem? The Takeover shows aren’t falling in popularity and they’re still drawing very well in large venues. The weekly show is a major part of selling the WWE Network. When that is must see viewing you have a subscriber who won’t cancel for select months and that’s the ultimate goal of the network. They need subscriptions that don’t come and go or just cherry pick certain months with the big WWE and NXT shows. With them now running the bulk of the Takeover shows the same weekend as the big WWE PPVs, it’s easier than ever for someone to just subscribe for those four months and cancel for the other eight. So the weekly show is absolutely an important selling point of WWE’s most important revenue channel.

The weekly NXT show needs to get back to what it was under the direction of Ryan Ward. A show that didn’t feel like a placeholder between Takeover events, a show that wasn’t over-reliant on squash matches, a show that wasn’t getting the sloppy seconds from house show matches. It needs to become a show that gets to back to turning potential into reality, that gets back to showcasing the best wrestling around and a show that doesn’t come across as an afterthought or that plays second fiddle to the live tours.


NOW CHECK OUT THE PREVIOUS “FIVE COUNT” ARTICLE: FIVE COUNT: Five lessons that WWE can learn from 2016 including stars of past outshining today’s stars, women, babyface losers, more

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