SPOTLIGHTED PODCAST ALERT (YOUR ARTICLE BEGINS A FEW INCHES DOWN)...
Less than a week out from Fastline I’m more convinced than ever that Vince and the WWE can’t simply have Goldberg squash Kevin Owens and take the Universal Title ahead of his anticipated rematch at WrestleMania with Brock Lesnar. After his violent split with “best friend” Chris Jericho, Owens has started the process of rehabbing his image from comic performer to the Prizefighter persona that served him so well at NXT and his initial call up to the main roster. The two minute match that has been Goldberg’s calling card would serve as a massive setback to the past couple of week’s progress.
If any one factor has held back the WWE since its peak level of popularity during the late 1990s and early 2000s, it’s Vince McMahon’s reluctance to create the sort of mega-star whose popularity may one day transcend pro wrestling. Vince still feels the lingering effects of letting Hulk Hogan go, only to watch him trade in the red and yellow for the black and white of the NWO. That was followed by “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, the biggest draw in the history of wrestling, picking up his ball and going home when it became obvious WWF Creative had nothing of substance lined up for him. Two years after that, The Rock left the WWE behind in order to become one of the biggest box office draws in Hollywood. While The Rock returns to the WWE from time to time, it’s clear to everyone that he’s operating on a whole other level of fame at this stage. The closest thing the WWE has had to a crossover star is John Cena, and it’s only been the past few years that he has started to test the waters outside WWE with regularity.
This reluctance to create new stars, despite having arguably the most athletic and gifted set of performers in history, means that no one on the roster gets the opportunity to stand out. If one of what the WWE ironically dubbed “Superstars” starts to break through in an organic way that Vince didn’t foresee, he turns all his attention on accentuating the negatives of that character rather than shining a spotlight on what’s working and taking in the money while it’s there to be had.
Think this isn’t true? Look at what happened to C.M. Punk after his “pipe bomb” promo drew the attention of mainstream outlets. While it sparked a main event run for Punk, three months of jobbing out on pay-per-view followed by an ill-advised heel turn during his title run ensured that fans would only invest so far in his character. When Daniel Bryan started to take off and his signature “Yes” chant broke out in random ballparks across the country, Vince made it a priority to hammer home what he deemed Bryan’s shortcomings. He was too small to main event. He had a gnarly beard. He was a vegan, for God’s sake! Bryan’s name couldn’t be uttered on television without the phrase “B+” player following it a few moments later. While Bryan rose to the top of the card despite pushback from the top brass, injuries forced him into retirement. You can also look at ways Vince has undercut the “Boss” character central to Sasha Banks’ gimmick or how Bayley’s casual acceptance of her tainted title win does a massive disservice to her pure babyface character.
While the full time roster smashes up against a glass ceiling – one where the proverbial brass ring Vince likes to talk about rests on the opposite side – WWE treats part timers, short timers, and heroes from bygone eras as the true stars worth investing in. Brock Lesnar gets to come out every so often, toss people over his head, bust open Randy Orton the hard way, then retreat to his Canadian compound because he’s a star. Shawn Michaels gets to lose whatever cool points he has left remaining while cutting a promo for his direct-to-video movie debut before super-kicking Rusev into next week because he’s a star. Even though The Undertaker is in such desperate need of a hip replacement it hurt to watch him limp around the ring for five minutes during the Rumble, he’ll get a marquee spot at WrestleMania because he’s a star. Goldberg gets the chance to walk into WrestleMania with the Universal Title belt despite the fact that we all know it’s his last match because he’s treated like a star. All of the above would be okay if it did not come at the expense of the everyday roster.
Think back on KO’s time as champion and name a statement win. He only won the title when Triple H handed it to him by Pedigreeing Seth Rollins right out of The Authority. Owens went on to feud with Rollins and Roman Reigns. Between free television and pay-per-views, Owens has faced off against some version of those two opponents something like 312 with zero clean wins to show for his efforts.
The saving grace for Owens has been his partnership with Chris Jericho. The pairing seemed to breathe new life into Y2J and he’s done some of his most inspired work on the mic of his Hall of Fame-worthy career. Jericho’s preening, prima donna persona has gelled perfectly with Owens’ more caustic and sardonic wit. Their pairing has been a tremendous source of entertainment, which made Owens turning on Y2J during the Festival of Friendship all the more dramatic from a storytelling perspective.
Kevin Owens remains one of the most gifted persons on the current roster. Any time he steps between the ropes he can deliver a match that will steal the show. He can talk better than just about anyone else on the roster right now. Do you want to know why Kevin Owens’ floor is higher than Enzo’s or the New Day’s ceiling? It’s because Kevin Owens can deliver a promo that does not rely on the same stale catchphrases each and every week. The closest thing Owens has to a catchphrase is the subtle working of heel Jake “The Snake” Roberts “trust me” into his turn on the mic these past two weeks. Great stuff. Owens can speak from the heart and deliver a promo that captures the audience in his hand. He can generate real heat from the audience who both boo and respect him. His feuds garner a level of investment from the crowds that few others do, whether it be his debut on the main roster with Cena, his feud of the year with Sami Zayn, or even his work with Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns. No one sits on their hands or heads to the concession stands when it’s time for Owens to fight.
Whether you cheer him or boo him, you should want Kevin Owens to find a way to retain the title Sunday night. Maybe Jericho comes down and interferes one last time, adding more nuclear heat to their upcoming WrestleMania bout. Maybe Goldberg loses another fight with a dressing room door and knocks himself out backstage before his pyro even hits. Maybe Owens proves all the doubters wrong and delivers a pop up powerbomb that gets the 1-2-3. Despite the upcoming Lesnar vs. Goldberg match, it’s not too crazy an idea. Don’t forget that Stone Cold lost his best two-out-of-three falls match with Triple H at No Way Out ahead of WrestleMania match with The Rock. Why? Because it was best for business and helped to keep a new star strong. Whatever way they wind up telling the story, Owens should retain because the night after WrestleMania, Owens will still be appearing on your television screen every week, while Bill Goldberg rides off to the sunset to enjoy a well-deserved retirement.
NOW CHECK OUT LAST WEEK’S ARTICLE: THE CREATIVE CORNER: A scenario for tomorrow night’s Smackdown battle royal that would lead to Bray vs. Randy one-on-one at WrestleMania