Wrestling fans are embarking on one of the most intriguing builds to Wrestlemania in years, but for all the wrong reasons. We are seemingly heading towards one of the most redundant and unwanted main events since sports entertainment’s equivalent to the Super Bowl began in 1985, which is a considerable achievement in light of the less than illustrious company that the Batista/Orton confrontation will have from the event’s turbulent 30 year history. Even as Batista tweaks his character to take advantage of the fans’ overwhelming rejection of his return and even if the WWE were to move the match down the card or insert CM Punk into the title fight, Wrestlemania 30 as a whole just feels unnecessary and its build devoid of any progression or star power. Wrestlemania 30 is just going to ‘happen’ and although it will be the most lucrative of its past incarnations it has done so despite itself.
Heading towards New Orleans you can’t help but wonder how did we get here? How did the WWE get to its biggest event of the year without any major matches that fans are actually excited to see?
Bringing in Batista to headline Wrestlemania isn’t the problem, the problem is WWE’s unhealthy lack of foresight and its reliance on outside stars for the previous three years. The biggest news to come out of February’s Elimination Chamber pay-per-view was not only that the fans were still rejecting Batista as a good guy but that the WWE was persisting with marketing him as a conquering babyface. Even with Alberto Del Rio pulling out every dastardly trick from the villain playbook the crowd still cheered for him and heckled Batista with an intensity that the WWE had not foreseen. In WWE’s race to lock in a main event for Wrestlemania, it may have terminally damaged wrestling’s biggest night as the closing match looks like fans will take twisted pleasure in universally condemning the match and ensuring it goes down in wrestling infamy as the moment when the crowd destroyed Wrestlemania. Nevertheless, there is still time to save the sinking ship by injecting someone else into the storyline. But with Bryan headed for HHH at Mania, the only real possibility is for Punk to make a dramatic return which would have fantasy bookers delirious with joy but seems unlikely at this stage.
The real problem though isn’t simply with the return of Batista and bad booking. The issue is the WWE’s lack of credible main eventers and foresight for their product. Batista left on a high note, he had perfected his character and was doing some of the best work of his career when he left but the wrestling world has evolved in the years since. Bringing Batista back to headline Wrestlemania as a straight-laced babyface in a climate where the fans are rejecting John Cena and Randy Orton, Batista’s era cohorts, reflects a horrible understanding on the part of WWE and its creative directors for the direction of their product and the tastes of the audience. The fans that are relentlessly booing Batista don’t necessarily hate him, they hate the fact that he was brought in and inserted straight into the main event of Wrestlemania with no consideration of what they, as the paying customers, actually want from the WWE.
The WWE has boxed itself into a corner after three years of short-term booking and continual reliance on outside people to get a casual audience invested. Bringing in Batista with no build continues an unhealthy trend of looking outside the company come Mania time. The logic is sound- it’s the company’s biggest event of the year and they need to get as many eyes on the product as possible. CM Punk, while great, won’t bring any new fans to the table but someone in a hot Hollywood movie might. The problem with this approach is that in doing so the WWE have not managed to build any new homegrown stars that could main event Wrestlemania and looking forward to Wrestlemania 31 the situation seems even more desperate. This year’s confirmed Mania card just doesn’t have any feeling of consequence or significance; the wrestlers and the storylines seem to just be window dressing for an app and a network and no feud seems to make any kind of sense.
John Cena officially entering into a Mania program with The Wyatt Family is perhaps the strangest development heading into March. Cena is undoubtedly the face of not only the WWE (at least to the company itself) but of professional wrestling outside of Mexico and Japan. He is sports entertainment’s most marketable star and continues to be head and shoulders above the rest of the WWE roster in merchandise sales. Although The Wyatt Family are hot at the moment, Bray Wyatt against John Cena just doesn’t feel right at this year’s Wrestlemania. It’s hard to imagine where it might fit on the card let alone how they will get Cena cheered against such a hot, likeable bad guy in Wyatt. In any case this is a notable step into the background for the superstar that has headlined the previous three Wrestlemanias and perhaps an overdue acceptance by the WWE of fan exhaustion with Cena and his position as perennial alpha dog.
It was speculated earlier this year that the WWE was planning on giving Cena a more relaxed schedule to try and lengthen his career. It’s always difficult to separate fact and fiction with any wrestling news stories that are circulated but this would appear to be a step into not only minimising his workload but also giving others more of an opportunity to grow into bonafide stars. On the other hand Cena has always had the knack of knowing what the fans want and then associating himself with it. Regardless, his beating at the hands of the Wyatts for the second PPV in a row culminated at a really weird time in Cena’s career. For someone who has been involved in the main event storyline for four months he still feels like he has been treading water with no direction, which is symbolic of the entire WWE in 2014 as they perpetually run through the motions, unsure of where they’re headed or who they’re going to hitch their wagon to.
CM Punk became so worn out by this lack of direction he walked out on the company the day after the Royal Rumble PPV. He was candidly gobsmacked by the indecision of the Wrestlemania card and the inability of the WWE to develop any kind of plan for their characters. Something that sounds all too appropriate when talking about the vague air surrounding the direction of the WWE’s current and future main event stars. In Punk’s mind, the uncertainty was because the WWE literally had no idea where it was going and always needed to keep its options open. His absence from the Elimination Chamber and Raw has been notable but not excessive, while the crowd has chanted for his return Daniel Bryan has been shoehorned perfectly into his anti-establishment spot and match with HHH at Mania.
Even so, Vince McMahon must still be very anxious about the number 2 merchandise seller’s absence from his product, evident by his amiable handling of the situation. Where in the past he threw Stone Cold under the bus for walking out, this time around McMahon has been cautious about protecting one of the major characters in his company. Because without a doubt Punk, although disenfranchised, is still one of only four viable top tier full time performers the WWE has right now. Those four being Cena, Orton, Punk and Bryan. Some might argue Sheamus and Batista should be there too but they both don’t fit in the category at this stage (It’s doubtful either will ever reach the level of the mentioned four). A grim reality which has seemingly hit the WWE like a ton of bricks as it scrambles to create new top level talent and fast track new stars.
So at Elimination Chamber fans were confronted with another intriguing mini storyline in the real life WWE machine. As The Wyatt Family battled The Shield or more specifically Bray Wyatt battled Roman Reigns- two fresh characters that WWE have gone a long way to protect and make strong and with good reason. Wyatt has a distinct look and character that has the fans invested and eating out of his hand while Reigns has the look and presence of a star. The Shield are all potential future World Title holders but there isn’t any doubt Reigns is the one with a rocket strapped to him shooting him straight up the WWE pecking order. The Shield and Wyatt match at Elimination Chamber was red hot, perhaps the hottest the crowd has been for anyone not named Daniel Bryan. The Shield, even after more than a year of making their entrance through the crowd, interrupting matches and having six man tags is still as popular as ever with the audience. As a viewer and fan there is no reason to break up The Shield at this point or end their rivalry with The Wyatt family so abruptly but the company is looking to the bigger picture.
The WWE needs new stars quickly, and not just new superstars, they need new top level guys for the company. The handling of Reigns has been quite heavy handed to say the least, especially for someone unproven as a singles competitor. Although he already looks like a main event character and his presence in the ring oozes stardom, the fans have only had to rally behind him in short bursts and that’s after his two stable mates have built the tension leading to his entrance into a match or situation. It harkens back to Punk’s frustration at the WWE’s inability to have foresight and their failure to create new faces because even though Reign’s rise as a competitor has been perfect, the rush to get he and Wyatt further up the card feels like a quick fix solution, not unlike Ryback before them. However, it is no wonder they are looking for quick fixes, their audience is exhausted of Cena and Orton at the top and with Punk gone that leaves only Daniel Bryan as the face of the WWE.
And what about Bryan? The WWE have been continuously hesitant to pull the trigger with him. Storyline wise it’s because The Authority doesn’t have faith in his ability as the face of the WWE and you can’t help but feel there is truth to that belief from the actual WWE powers that be. It’s hard to imagine the thought process the WWE must be having about Bryan right now, it’s easy to see them purposefully using him at specific stages throughout the 3-hour Raw to not only build interest in the program but also limit the live crowds obsession with him. He might not be Vince McMahon’s idea of a face of the WWE but he certainly is the face for the die-hard fans. And with Punk gone the fans are clinging on to Bryan even harder as their anti establishment hero. He personifies what the fans want and that’s change, something that the WWE has struggled with throughout its entire history. After this week’s RAW it has become even more likely that the Bryan/HHH match may indeed headline Wrestlemania after all, which is funny on a few different levels. But it’s not the match fans wanted to end Bryan’s year long search for the WWE Championship and it has come completely out of desperate necessity for the WWE.
For a company that always spouts out how innovative it is away from the screen, it has always been its stars that force the company to change the on screen product. WWE continue to rely on things that have worked for them in the past and repeatedly go back to the well the instant something doesn’t look to be working. Then when spots need to be filled, Creative rush characters to the top that aren’t ready causing them to be rejected by the crowd; a cycle that has been on repeat for the last few years. It’s a cycle that has existed well and truly since the Hogan era and continues to leave bad tastes in mouths of fans that have been passionate for the product their entire lives. As Triple H and Stephanie McMahon berate Randy Orton for his missteps as their chosen face of the WWE, it’s hard not to imagine the real WWE authority panicking behind the scenes about their top level talent in this current climate. With fans bored of Cena and Orton, Punk seemingly gone and Bryan being incredibly successful as the underdog who is ‘buried’ by The Authority, the WWE has to consider who will market their product for the next year let alone main event their PPVs.
As Wrestlemania 30 fast approaches in a confusing air of last minute match making and an apparent lack of intrigue and card shuffling, the WWE has somehow bumbled into making it the most engaging PPV it has had for the last few years. Outside the matches themselves, the biggest event of the year is proving to be a cauldron of critical debate about the direction of the business and what wrestlers will lead it into the next generation. Regardless of what headlines Mania, the build up has been nothing short of embarrassing for the company outside the ring and the lack of main event wrestlers, never more glaring. By the time Wrestlemania 30 comes and goes, whether we see the spectacle of 80,000 people reject Batista and Orton or scream ‘yes’ alongside Daniel Bryan it’s what happens after the event that is truly the most intriguing.
Will the WWE machine continue to move forward with the lack of foresight that has led them to this near disaster? Will they continue to disregard their audience’s desires and dictate the story rather than let it evolve? And most importantly who in the hell is going to headline Wrestlemania 31?
AEW and the Way Forward for Pro Wrestling
With their first PPV success in the books, a new TV deal signed, we crystal ball what is in store for AEW, as well as predict the future for WWE.
In the second part of our AEW special feature, we continue the discussion of fledgling professional wrestling promotion All Elite Wrestling. In our first part, we covered their new television deal with WarnerMedia channel TNT- once home to WWE’s chief competitor and losing pugilist in wrestling’s Monday Night Wars that took place in the late 90s.
We now turn our focus on AEW’s future in the ring and talk about the current and future stars of the promotion and ask the question, who will be their rising star and first champion? We also spotlight the year ahead for AEW and what fans can, and should, expect from the company before wrapping up the feature with our look at the next 5 years of professional wrestling. We crystal ball what is in store for AEW and the mountain of sports entertainment, WWE.
Who Will Be the Rising Star of AEW?
It is perhaps a bit strange to nominate Kenny Omega as a rising star, considering he’s been widely regarded as the best wrestler in the world for several years now and was subject to a huge cash offer to join WWE, but the reality is that Omega isn’t really known to people outside the Internet Wrestling Community. With the might of the TNT corporate muscle behind him, it’s time for the Best Bout Machine to be delivered to the masses.
Beyond Kenny Omega, the most obvious pick to be a breakout star is Pentagon Jr. From his days on the much loved Lucha Underground where he transformed from evil villain into badass anti-hero, Pentagon Jr has already developed a cult following that seems ripe for expansion. With the best catchphrase in wrestling (Cero Miedo) and an incredible moveset, it won’t take long for Pentagon Jr to get over with the crowd despite the language barrier.
Managing Fan Expectations
So far AEW hasn’t put a foot wrong; it’s constructed an exciting roster of talent, signed a big TV deal and its first show was a runaway success. Since Double or Nothing, social media has been awash with praise, rave reviews and think pieces about AEW’s golden future. Yet all the positivity and good vibes need to be taken with a grain of salt. While Double or Nothing was a terrific show, it was made to feel all the better against the drivel that WWE is force feeding its audience. Anything looks brilliant when compared with the current state of affairs in Stamford and it’s not surprising that fans are flocking to AEW and its promises of a better, more intelligent wrestling product.
But it’s worth remembering that the highest point is reached just before the fall. Fans will need to prevent their emotions from running too far ahead. AEW will have missteps along the way. Some storylines won’t go exactly to plan. Some angles will not work out and some feuds will be disappointing. It will be important for fans to expect some bumps in the road and to keep a fair perspective on the product before rushing to snap judgments in the heat of a social media moment.
Who should be the inaugural AEW Champion?
In the aftermath of Double or Nothing, it was announced that Chris Jericho will face off against Hangman Adam Page for the honor of being the first wrestler to raise the championship belt that Bret Hart debuted to a shocked Las Vegas crowd. The match will take place at their next major show, All Out, in Chicago at the end of August.
This booking is smart. Jericho is the legend whose presence automatically brings legitimacy not just to AEW but to whoever he’s in the ring with, while Page is immediately been pegged as one of the young studs that AEW is hoping to build around.
Diehard fans will want to see Page be crowned champion, but pro wrestling is all about, long term storytelling, gradual builds, and delayed gratification. Page is undoubtedly championship material and AEW is wise to hitch their wagon to his star, but he’s still a relative unknown. What better way to build him up by having him lose to Jericho in their first match, most likely through nefarious means, then tell the story of the rookie chasing down the veteran over several months.
Jericho winning now will give prestige to the belt and make Page’s eventual victory all the more meaningful and satisfying for the crowd. As wrestlers since time immemorial have always said: “the money is in the chase.”
Predictions for the next 12 months
Last week Jon Moxley gave a tell-all interview on Chris Jericho’s podcast Talk Is Jericho. Over 90 minutes Moxley pulled back WWE’s curtain to reveal a stifling and idiotic creative process that has seemingly led to several unhappy performers biding their time until they can escape WWE for pastures new. Fans were shocked by what they heard, yet they weren’t surprised by what Moxley said, rather they were shocked by how much Moxley’s revelations corroborated the rumors and innuendo that have been haunting WWE’s creative process for over a decade.
Naturally, upon hearing Moxley’s account, fans immediately began fantasy booking all the wasted WWE talent that will be gracing an AEW ring in the near future. Yet while we can’t stop rampant speculation over who might jump ship, we shouldn’t expect more than a handful of WWE stars to switch to AEW. There also won’t be any main event or upper card talent leave WWE. What we can expect is to see some overlooked and wasted lower-card performers move over. Tag teams such as The Revival and The Club seem tailor-made for AEW and now that they have a viable alternative to languishing in the WWE doldrums, there’s a good chance that some of them will head to TNT’s new show.
The great unknown is Sasha Banks. The victim of misuse and bad booking, Banks is allegedly unhappy with her status in the company and wants out. In the past, WWE might have granted her wish, comfortable in the knowledge that there wasn’t anywhere she could go, but now that AEW is on the scene, there is no way WWE will fathom allowing someone like Sasha Banks and her potential for megastardom to join their competition. If WWE was unwilling to release the unused and forgotten Luke Harper from his contract despite not having anywhere near the star power of The Boss, there’s zero possibility of WWE setting Sasha Banks free.
TLDR: One or two ex-WWE talents will join AEW at some point in the next twelve months but don’t expect a stampede. Instead, AEW will need to rely on its creative booking and match quality to build their roster of unknowns into stars.
What will wrestling look like in five years?
The last few years really have been the best of times and the worst of times for pro wrestling. The standard of in-ring action has never been higher with breathtaking athleticism almost taken for granted in every match, the WWE roster has never been this loaded top to bottom with incredible performers and thanks to the power of the internet, indie wrestlers have been able to build huge fanbases by themselves that would have been impossible even a decade ago. Wrestling has also gained a level of mainstream recognition that it hasn’t had for twenty years and in October WWE’s second show, Smackdown, will debut on Fox Sports in a huge multi-million dollar that will flood Vince McMahon’s wallet with even more cash.
Yet for all that, there is an undeniable smell about the WWE product. Repetitive booking, various members of the McMahon clan putting themselves over at the expense of the actual wrestlers, a never-ending series of pointless and meandering promos that always end up with a three-man tag match that already happened the previous week and that’s just the first hour. Then when you factor in the prevalence of juvenile and childish angles at a time when the wrestling audience is skewing towards older men who want more logical and sophisticated storytelling that doesn’t make them feel stupid for spending their time watching men and women fake punch their enemies, it’s unsurprising that there’s considerable dissatisfaction with WWE.
It’s in this context that the arrival of AEW has been so eagerly anticipated among wrestling fans. Given the state of WWE, AEW has a golden opportunity to carve a market share for itself.
While it’s nigh impossible that AEW will ever supersede WWE as the biggest and most well-known wrestling company in the world, the very presence of AEW on a major television network will force WWE to look more closely at what it’s presenting to audiences on a weekly basis. For the first time in nearly twenty years, WWE is facing external competition. If AEW can garner any kind of critical acclaim and further momentum behind it, logic suggests that WWE will be shaken from its creative stupor and begin rejuvenating its storylines to keep pace with the upstart company from Jacksonville and keep the attention of a fanbase that will suddenly have a viable alternative to WWE.
What could this rejuvenation look like? Believe it or not the best wrestling brand on the market right now, isn’t AEW and it certainly isn’t Raw or Smackdown but rather it’s WWE’s third brand, NXT.
While NXT is still nominally WWE’s development brand where young prospects hone their craft and characters before being promoted to the bright lights of Raw or Smackdown, NXT has grown into something far more than that. Its incredible matches and long-form storytelling that add layers to the characters and culminate in the quarterly Takeover specials have become the modern pinnacle of the artform. NXT by itself is enough to justify a subscription to the WWE Network.
So far NXT has existed mostly in its own little universe and none of its unique flavors has found its way to Raw despite its obvious success. The emergence of AEW could force the WWE to integrate more elements of the NXT style into the rest of its products and finally put aside the stale and frustrating crutches that have plagued Raw and Smackdown for years.
Long term it’s hard to project where AEW will be in five years. There are so many variables. Its best wrestlers could get godfather offers from McMahon, the ratings may not be there or TNT might decide to pull the plug. Regardless, wrestling fans can’t lose. More wrestling shows means competition and competition will compel WWE to stop resting on its laurels and lift its game. Even if you’re the biggest WWE mark this side of a McMahon family dinner, you should be cheering for the success and good fortune of Cody Rhodes, the Young Bucks, Kenny Omega and AEW because their already considerable achievement of building a wrestling promotion from nothing will go a long way to determining the quality of the wrestling we will be watching into the future.
Before Expectations Start Running Wild: A look at AEW’s television future
We analyze what wrestling fans can expect to see when AEW makes its TV debut in the coming months
After selling out the GM Grand in less than five minutes and months of steady hype that had wrestling fans dreaming of a new golden age for spandex-clad entertainers, the new wrestling promotion “All Elite Wrestling” staged its first major show, Double or Nothing.
For the uninitiated, AEW is the brainchild of a coterie of indy wrestling savants and backed by the billionaire Khan family who also own the Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham Football Club in England. AEW’s roster is loaded with the cream of the wrestlers plying their trade outside WWE and topped off by the star power of the legendary Chris Jericho.
Despite the odds being stacked against it- launching a new company in a monopolised industry, dealing with the unreasonable expectations of a rabid and hypercritical fanbase and a last minute change to the card after one of company’s biggest talents dropped out due to creative differences- AEW’s debut can be considered nothing less than a major success. Delivering stellar in-ring performances that catered to a wide variety of wrestling styles as well as providing genuine surprises that shocked and thrilled the audience, the internet wrestling community was left buzzing as they pondered what could happen next.
In the lead up to Double or Nothing, the company announced a TV deal with major network TNT that will see them launch a weekly wrestling show, rekindling memories of the fabled Monday Night Wars of the late 1990s. Despite the runaway hype social media and Reddit, AEW has been careful to reiterate that it isn’t trying to compete with the monolithic WWE but instead is promising to offer an alternative wrestling product to bored and lapsed fans who have become tired with what Vince McMahon and co have been serving up. Yet while it would be foolish to say the nascent AEW poses any kind of commercial threat to WWE, there can be little doubt that it does present the first genuine competition it’s faced in two decades.
In an ongoing series, the experts at Sound the Sirens analyse what wrestling fans can expect to see when AEW makes its TV debut in the coming months.
The Weekly Television Grind
Billy: One of the best things that AEW has going for it now is its scarcity in programming. Each AEW event is a big deal because we’ve waited months to see what they’ve concocted. The fear is that once the weekly television grind kicks in, the surprises and ideas that work become formulas, and then the formulas become repetition, and then the repetition becomes the grind. Like any good television show, the anticipation of any quality programming tapers off when the weekly wait becomes less- bi-weekly, or even daily. AEW events will become episodes and the fear is that the depth-pool of the AEW roster at the moment isn’t quite deep enough to sustain weekly television. Watching the Rhodes brothers feud weekly is a wonderful concept, and the thought of Kenny Omega and Jon Moxley battling it out week in and week out is fantastic, but what happens if Cody is out injured? Or Chris Jericho? What if Mox is out long-term like he was all through 2018? Sure MJF is a future heel superstar, but at the moment, Miz 2.0 isn’t going to cut it. You can sustain the drama when the injury replacement for a major title push is Kofi Kingston, but when it’s Jungle Boy? I don’t think so.
Brad: Anyone who doubts the impact that the weekly grind of television has on wrestling need only watch a few episodes of Raw and Smackdown. Even the epic Becky Lynch storyline that dominated the last six months of Raw huffed and puffed down the final stretch. As Mania drew nearer, the storyline became increasingly circular and convoluted as the creative team struggled to find ways to pad out an angle without actually moving it forward in any kind of way that would take away from the inevitable payoff at the Showcase of the Immortals.
This isn’t meant as a criticism of WWE, as the Lynch storyline was one of the best things to happen in wrestling for years, but a reminder of just how difficult it is to plot an ongoing weekly series and maintain audience engagement. This grind could be mitigated by keeping the show to two hours and perhaps using a periodic season break to allow the talent to refresh and audience interest to replenish.
There’s a reason that the unexpected return is one of wrestling’s greatest tricks- absence makes the crowd’s heart grow fonder.
How AEW manages the weekly format will be one of the biggest challenges it will face.
What has AEW and TNT brass learned from Nitro?
Brad: One distinct pothole that AEW has deftly sidestepped which doomed WCW and multiple reincarnations of TNA and Impact Wrestling, is opening up the checkbook to overpay for washed up or overrated WWE talent. Instead, AEW has opted to sign the best young talent available outside WWE with the intention of creating their own stars that they can mold and develop.
While some might point out that Double Or Nothing ended its show with WWE legend Chris Jericho in the main event and ex-WWE outcast Jon Moxley standing tall, both those signings serve distinct purposes. Jericho is the legend that brings gravitas to the fledgling brand and will help put over the younger but less identifiable talent on AEW’s roster. Meanwhile, Jon Moxley, criminally wasted and underutilized by Stamford, is still in his prime and already has fans fantasy booking matches with Kenny Omega and Hangman Page.
Billy: Television fatigue is a real thing, and while AEW has the luxury of a blank canvas, TNT does not. TNT is a television company that needs to abide by ratings and regulations- something AEW has not had to worry with their two PPVs.
In the WWE Untold episode ‘The Failed Relaunch of WCW’, we learn that the deal that would have seen Eric Bischoff’s Fusient Media buy WCW from Turner soured because then Turner executive Jamie Kellner balked at the idea of giving Fusient Media a weekly two-hour block on Wednesday night for WCW. In the end, the deal fell through because Kellner just didn’t want wrestling on TNT. It’s the nature of the television business as ratings rise and fall and executives come and go. AEW will now have to maintain quality week and week out, something they have not had to do.
One advantage WWE has right now is that if RAW stinks and Smackdown is a bore, you can watch NXT, or even 205 Live (or fire up the network to watch old episodes of RAW), but if AEW stinks, you just turn it off.
On the flipside, AEW has the advantage of being a surprise. Perhaps we have been absolutely ravaged by all the episodes of television ads interrupted by RAW, or that IMPACT has changed networks more times than we can remember that we’ve become so jaded and cynical about the potential of AEW on TNT. But maybe AEW will subvert our expectations of what weekly episodic professional wrestling can be and that TNT will let them do their thing. The best thing that can happen? Old curmudgeon channel changers like myself will be left eating crow every Wednesday night.
IN PART 2: Sound the Sirens turns our crystal ball on what we think will happen in the early days of AEW and who will be the breakout star.