In an industry built on exaggeration, one I’ve been watching for almost three decades, I can safely say, without hyperbole – there has never been a better time to be a professional wrestling fan. Many would point to the 1996-2001 timespan as the industry’s peak, but the stylistic variety and overall quality of ring performance was lower, even if casual interest and cultural prominence was higher.
Others may cite the ‘Golden Age’ of the mid-to-late 80’s, conveniently forgetting the absolute proliferation of squash matches on top tier programming. This, owing largely to an obsession with size and aesthetics at the expense of skill and speed, in an era dominated by cultural superficiality. The reality is today’s big men generally possess all of the above, drug and steroid free no less, and rely on a more credible presentation than the cartoonish excess of those days.
While today’s product in the major leagues of AEW and WWE is far from perfect, there have been more good matches per week in the last five years than in any other era – and that’s not just owing to the overwhelming volume of product on offer today. Even amongst the frequently awful storylines on Monday Night Raw, there are excellent matches on a weekly basis, and while the writing is often of dubious quality, the superstars themselves usually execute to the best of their ability.
It seems that Raw has reverted to it’s earlier identity of The Land of Titans, dominated by larger heavyweights across divisions, as WWE moves away from signing older indie veterans and into their more ‘traditional’ recruiting of athletes from outside the industry. Through the rise of NXT and it’s indie-influenced, internationally informed stylings in the mid-2010’s, a smaller and faster approach came to prominence, eventually filtering through to Raw and Smackdown as NXT superstars were ‘called up’ to those rosters.
With the disconnect between much of the upper management and creative teams and the NXT product, dozens of superstars were misused, not used or simply misunderstood – instead of taking what made them successful in NXT and exaggerating it for the bigger stage, many were renamed or repackaged inauthentically, negating their hype and credibility established in WWE’s third brand. If anything, they should have been looking at NXT’s logical storytelling and simpler, leaner presentation and applying that to their main shows, as the NXT product from 2015 through 2019 is by far the best and most consistent run of any brand in company history, including the vaunted Attitude Era.
What the success of NXT proved was that the ‘smart’ wrestling crowd was now a majority of the audience, and that there was a clear and consistent demand for an edgier, more direct approach to storytelling, both in and out of the ring – one now filled by the looming shadow of competition in the form of AEW. It seems as though the success of Tony Khan’s Jacksonville based juggernaut has forced NXT into an aggressive rebranding, having been soundly whipped in direct competition on TV with AEW’s flagship show, Dynamite.
The lesson WWE should have learned was not to pit their ‘club show’ against an arena show format in a competition for metrics, and that doing so was a petty tactical error of pure arrogance. NXT and Dynamite took turns in being the better show quality wise during the Wednesday Night Wars, but the scale and scope of AEW, coupled with the freshness of it’s brand and less micro-managed presentation, always made it a clear favourite in the ratings battle from an early stage.
WWE lost a war they had no business being in, in an era where the average fan doesn’t need to rely on appointment television to enjoy a product. Cable TV as a format is waning, and long has been, and the move of NXT to Wednesdays and it’s subsequent drubbing in competition against Dynamite was a failure of corporate strategy alone. Not talent, not NXT creative, just classic stupid late stage capitalism in trying to hurt a competitor, instead of concentrating on your own output.
WWE Chairman Vince McMahon does not lose often, but he’s up against a younger, hungrier and more agile opponent, one with even greater personal wealth, a lack of negative press, and without the shackles of shareholder accountability and it’s nebulous interference in matters beyond their limited understanding. Being a shareholder, much like a landlord, is NOT a job, and holders should be obligated to stay out of the way of those actually working, but that’s a conversation for another time.
So WWE reverts to type, going bigger and younger in their recruiting approach again, and discarding many excellent veterans in the process. They posted record profits in a pandemic, but that doesn’t count when doing so through mass layoffs – classic corporate disconnect between the suits in the tower and the boots on the ground. If they wanted to cut payroll budget, the walking liability that is Goldberg, who ‘wrestles’ about ten minutes a year and is hated by most despite being pushed as a hero, would have been the place to start. There are diminishing returns on a man in his fifties, who can barely execute two moves but makes millions and is a danger to both his health and that of others, but somehow still he competed for the WWE title twice in 2021.
Amazing to think that two world champion talents, merchandise powerhouses and creative success stories like Bray Wyatt and Braun Strowman were released instead – after headlining Summerslam just a year ago, and being over with the audience despite horrible writing and stop-start booking. Wyatt was the top act in the company just 18 months ago, and had produced the two most compelling gimmicks of the last decade – if he wasn’t safe, how could anyone not holding a title currently feel that way?
They could have released Aleister (now Malakai) Black months ago, but decided to waste production time and payroll by repackaging him, returning him to TV, and then firing him days later because they didn’t ‘get’ him. Imagine if WWE simply handed WCW The Undertaker in the mid-90’s due to budget cuts, or released CM Punk in the late 2000’s for not understanding his atypical presentation? Those comparisons may seem hyperbolic, but Black’s recent appearances in AEW suggest a potential megastar, one with significantly more poise, presence and sense of self than all but a few of his industry peers.
Speaking of Punk, the most anticipated return in wrestling history has seen AEW move into the realm of genuine ratings threat to Raw and WWE’s current flagship, Smackdown. For all the petty dismissal by WWE veterans of his ‘needle moving’ power, the metrics are there and the hype is real. He generates a level of noise and hype that the John Cenas of the world can only wish for, and does so in a much more organic and intelligent fashion – one only need compare their recent returns for proof, as Cena simply brought the same old excrement in a different coloured bucket, and was swiftly exposed by his competition both inside and outside WWE.
The industry has passed Cena by, and the revisionist history of WWE spin fails to account for the fact that for all his merch sales and youth appeal, he never connected with the audience in the universal manner that Punk or Daniel Bryan (Bryan Danielson) did. Allegedly, the latter is soon arriving in AEW also, and with the likes of Wyatt likely soon to follow, AEW has reached an almost level pegging in terms of talent base.
Cena may bring in the kids (and a few nostalgic adults), but his appeal is more to the casual fan and not the ones that watch week to week. The value of that casual fan has waned in an era where the hardcore base is more than sufficient to sustain a company, as wrestling has evolved from being a niche itself to an entertainment phenomenon with many niches, most capable of self-sustaining – a lesson WWE would do well to remember.
WWE could – and should – have a lot more main eventers, but their bad habit of getting cold feet on pushing former NXT champions to the top levels of the company has harmed all involved, and damaged the trust of fans – it’s hard to get excited about stars coming to Raw or Smackdown, given the track record of WWE missing with ready made superstars that SHOULD have been megastars. That, and the tendency to fire them at random.
It hasn’t all been bad though – their track record with black athletes has improved, and extremely credible, popular African American champions like Big E, Bobby Lashley and
Bianca Belair have been featured prominently and effectively. In Roman Reigns, they have one of the best storylines and characters ever, and for once that act is also the company’s top draw, an extremely believable and nuanced performer who may yet become it’s most dominant main eventer ever.
For the many talents they have wasted and released, those people have a multitude of options for employment, many of which offering a better level of remuneration relative to stress and workload, and a more creative, collaborative work environment. The notion of ‘wrestler as artist’ has finally come to the fore, and for many creative satisfaction surpasses the desire for material wealth.
Where once WWE was the be all, end all, for many it’s just a line on a career checklist. The collaborations between companies like New Japan, AEW and Impact open intriguing possibilities and an unprecedented level of professional freedom, one far more appealing to many than the risk of the WWE corporate machine.
While WWE’s mass firings are inexcusable, given both the pandemic and the established company wealth, those released are spoilt for choice in terms of potential employers, and I feel more hopeful for their futures elsewhere than anything. The shallower talent pool in WWE will also force them to committing to pushing people all the way, for better or worse. If that doesn’t, then AEW’s proven track record in building new stars (and also rebuilding damaged ex-WWE veterans) might.
So here we are. WWE cycles back to a more ‘classic’ presentation with bigger athletes, slower bouts, and a focus on star power and spectacle over a stylistic emphasis on in-ring competition, as it tends to every decade or so. The market once cornered by NXT is now thoroughly satiated by AEW, which has advanced the industry in terms of everything from work/life balance to inter-company collaboration.
Best of all, nobody has to choose, despite the rampant, pathetic tribalism between their respective fanbases. These diehards need to learn to focus on the overwhelming positives a LOT more, and enjoy the wealth of options (and ease of access) at their disposal.
Maybe Raw’s often silly booking isn’t for you, but the leaner, meaner style of Smackdown appeals. Perhaps that’s not to your taste, but the youthful vigor and logical, simple storytelling of NXT and NXT UK are. Even within WWE, there are many options, before you consider AEW has four of it’s own shows, with Rampage and Dynamite feeling distinct from the youth development approach and laidback announcing of Dark and Elevation.
The indies are thriving, the NWA has returned to prominence, Ring Of Honor is still going strong, New Japan has reached legitimate international market penetration, and even Impact is thriving, having shed the stigma of the old TNA days. The industry has been in a boom period for years, except this time it’s reliant on the core fanbase, and not the fleeting attention of the casual fan, for whom far too much catering has already been done in the past, often to wrestling’s detriment.
The industry has evolved to cater to fans of all persuasions, and now all that’s left is for those fans to evolve their behaviour and focus on the overwhelming positives. Many of them don’t know how lucky they are, and I can only hope they learn to better appreciate the differences between preferences and products. There really is something for everyone now, and the industry has a truly international flavour with the massive rise in popularity of Mexican, Japanese and British styles over the last decade.
Wrestling is an entertainment buffet – you don’t have to hate on the pasta just because you like the salad better, and there is so much to enjoy that it seems ridiculous to waste time berating things you don’t watch when there’s hours upon of something you do like every week. Great matches, mostly excellent commentary, actual women’s WRESTLING, better stylistic and representational diversity, and best of all no channel flipping required, if indeed a remote control is even required – pro wrestling TV no longer being strictly the domain of those who can afford cable.
It’s never been a perfect industry, and it never will be. But in terms of physical and financial health, cultural acceptance and sheer volume and variety, it’s genuinely never been better.