KELLER & POWELL FLAGSHIP (12/5)
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While it’s known that Vince McMahon is not a proponent of factions in the current WWE system, the argument could be made that the inclusion of such groups helped so many wrestlers become stars in the late ’90s leading to a massive boom in business. In a time where WWE is relying so heavily upon former stars to draw ratings for WrestleMania while struggling to nurture and grow its current roster, bringing back meaningful factions could be just the solution and lay the foundation for creating something special.
For what seems like the last decade, WWE has stayed away from featuring any prominent factions on their television programming. Aside from The Authority featuring Seth Rollins as the centerpiece with supporting cast members including Kane, J&J Security, and others, there has been no dominant babyface or heel group at the top of the card. While there has been some epic failures like The Union, 3MB, The League of Nations, The Oddities (sorry Cyrus), successful factions have given new wrestlers the platform to be accepted by the fan base and an opportunity to take chances with a support system around them.
The most successful example of a faction acting as a launching pad for a wrestler is certainly The Rock. Entering WWE with his Samoan lineage, athletic pedigree, and the perfect look, Rocky Maivia had a red carpet rolled out for him to become a top babyface in the company. With all of that going for him, the crowd refused to fully accept him for the whitest of white meat babyface character he was portraying so the “Rocky sucks!” chants were born.
Unlike a situation we have today where the WWE is tirelessly trying to get everyone to love Roman Reigns, Vince listened to his audience and reacted by turning Rocky on the crowd. The problem was, his sudden change of attitude was not fully validated because, while the fans were now “allowed” to boo him, they still did not respect him. Enter the Nation of Domination, a group which elevated every member it took on in its early stages (I try to forget the days where Crush, Ahmed Johnson, and others were involved) and commanded respect for the way they carried themselves and the actions they took against some of the top stars in WWE at the time.
By joining The Nation, Rocky was able to complete his transformation to The Rock, earned the fans’ respect, and was taken seriously because an established star in Farooq trusted him to represent his group and fight for his cause. The Rock was then able to be involved in the various angles that The Nation had going on, participate in tag matches against top babyfaces to establish credibility, and eventually started feuding with others on his own. The ultimate payoff here, and in any faction, was the dissension that played out between he and Farooq.
After The Rock started believing in his own hype, the internal friction that was being presented on WWE television was captivating and left fans wondering when things would eventually explode. Following these two having a series of matches, The Rock was elevated to new heights and started on an unprecedented journey which will definitely end in a Hall of Fame induction. The same could be said for Farooq as well, to a lesser extent of course.
Sure, The Rock made the absolute most of his situation within The Nation, but he was also able to take chances he may have not taken on his own. Being surrounded by men like Farooq, D-Lo Brown, Kama Mustafa, and eventually Mark Henry, Rock had a perfect support system to play off of and count on to pick him up if he ever fell down. So many singles stars these days seem so timid and scripted upon their debuts on the main roster and, if given a support system, may have a better chance at getting over.
Looking at a much more recent example which provides proof that this formula can still work today, I will point to the situations that recently played out with Zack Sabre Jr. and Will Ospray in New Japan Pro Wrestling. The Japanese fans are understandably protective of their promotions’ culture and talent roster and so they tend to be much less likely to take a liking to a foreign wrestler.
At a recent New Japan show, Zack Sabre Jr. was challenging Katsuyori Shibata for the Revolution Pro World Championship. It was Zack’s debut in a New Japan ring and, given the reputation he has built around the global wrestling scene, one would expect the crowd to be excited for him to debut. Unfortunately, that wasn’t really the case as Sabre Jr. entered the ring to almost no reaction while going up against someone who is growing in popularity by the day in Japan.
As the match progressed, Zack began to show the crowd what he was capable of and got a spattering of cheers after certain spots, but nothing overwhelming. As the match started to reach its climax, members of Suzuki-Gun, a hated heel faction in Japan, made their way to the ring. You could hear the uncertainty in the crowd as no one was was sure why Minoru Suzuki and gang were there. It made some sense because Suzuki had an upcoming first round New Japan Cup match with Shibata, but something didn’t seem right. Then it all happened – Sabre Jr. used Suzuki-Gun to secure victory and the championship, turned heel, and joined this group which garnered a massive reaction from the crowd. The move was validated as Zack participated in a tag match with Suzuki-Gun the next night and was booed heavily, exactly what they were looking for. Crazy, right?
On the other side of the locker room (they still separate heels and babyface on the tour busses and locker rooms in Japan; nice to see kayfabe alive and well somewhere in the world!), Will Ospray was set to make his debut and challenge for the Junior Heavyweight Championship a number of months ago. There was no grand video package that played out over the course of a month or so, just a subtle video message from Ospray who was introduced by Kazuchika Okada as the newest member of his faction, Chaos.
This group hovers between heel and babyface, but Okada is a star. As soon as he welcomed Ospray into Chaos and let the fans know Okada has put his faith in the newcomer, he was instantly legitimized to the Japanese crowd before ever entering the country. Since then, Ospray has endeared himself to the New Japan faithful and has grown in popularity after appearing in different tag matches alongside Okada and also performing on his own.
Now, I understand that New Japan Pro Wrestling has a MUCH different structure than WWE in a sense that almost every wrestler on the roster is a member of a faction. You have The Bullet Club, Chaos, Suzuki-Gun, Los Ingobernobles de Japon, GBH, and others all giving wrestlers the opportunity to have a support system while trying to find their way in a new promotion. The Bullet Club alone has helped propel North American stars like Kenny Omega, A.J. Styles, The Young Bucks, and most recently Cody to stardom in Japan.
In no way am I suggesting that WWE should completely shift their entire structure to mirror that of New Japan, but lessons like these could be learned and implemented to help new wrestlers in WWE get over. Look no further than so many of the most recent NXT call ups like Apollo Crews, Tyler Breeze, The Ascension, Carmella, The Vaudevillians, and Mojo Rawley. All of these wrestlers have completely flat-lined upon their main roster debut and, with no support system around them, failed to get over or leave any impression with the fans.
Recalling my earlier point about the feud that developed between The Rock and Farooq, factions also provide storyline ideas that basically write themselves. Whether it be a struggle for leadership (such as the storyline we are seeing develop between Kenny Omega and Adam Cole within The Bullet Club), conflict between members who are longing for more attention from a leader, or a complete split due to fundamental and/or philosophical differences, the formation of factions leads to some of the best stories and matches upon its dissension and break up.
The argument can be made that one of the most anticipated matches at this year’s WrestleMania is the blow-off match between Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho. While these two weren’t necessary a faction; they were a team that invested a lot of time in making the fans believe that they were inseparable. In the weeks leading up to the Festival of Friendship, a split was being teased and kept fans in suspense as to if and when it would actually happen. Now that it has, WWE fans are so excited to see how the match will play out with only Brock vs. Goldberg and Roman vs. Undertaker arguably being more anticipated. Ardent fans, however, will probably tell you that they are most looking forward to Jericho vs. Owens.
The reason for this is not only because they are two phenomenal wrestlers who could absolutely steal the show, but there was a personal connection between the two that was broken. Much like in a faction, a veteran like Jericho put his trust and unwavering support behind and younger Kevin Owens and helped him take his career to the next level. Once Owens gained the confidence to believe in himself and his abilities, though, Jericho was expendable and tossed to the side. Now WWE is building to a match that not only has a championship on the line, but also the pride of each man involved because so much equity was built up into their relationship.
If you were to look back at the WrestleMania cards during the peak of WWE in the late-1990s and early-2000s, you see very little need to rely on stars of the past to sell tickets and fill the top of the card. Stars were made slowly with a calculated build which allowed wrestlers to climb the proverbial ladder, many with the assistance of factions or partnerships to help launch them to new heights.
In today’s WWE, we are building towards a WrestleMania main event match between Brock Lesnar and Goldberg, two men who peaked in popularity years ago. On the same card, we are also seeing arguably the best wrestler in the world taking on the promoter’s son.
Now to be fair, while I am not entirely sold on these matches having to take place, I completely understand why WWE is going in this direction. Most of the current wrestlers on the roster do not have the drawing power of men like Lesnar, Goldberg, Undertaker, and Shane – and WrestleMania needs to be a vehicle that drives PPV buys and the ever-growing important WWE Network subscriber count. The hope here is that fairweather fans will tune into the show to see the main event matches, but be captivated enough by the full-time wrestlers to stick around and keep their subscription.
That being said, the main event matches that are being advertised are filled with wrestlers that will not be sticking around much longer after WrestleMania concludes, and WWE will be back to the drawing board to see how they can reset and build towards next year’s event. If they plan to continue the trend of calling up wrestlers from NXT, debut new signees, or change someone’s attitude, it may be in their best interest to give those wrestlers an on-air support system. Factions have so much upside if thought out and executed properly. It could be just the solution WWE needs to build depth within their roster and rely much less on part-time attractions who usually come with some liability.
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