‘Professional wrestling hasn’t been good since the 1990s’ is a comment that I hear all too often from lapsed viewers, that haven’t regularly watched the sport since then. They will drop in for a few weeks or a few months, become disenfranchised with the product all over again, then drop back out. Now, anyone that watches wrestling on a consistent basis knows that statement about not being good since the nineties isn’t entirely fair. It was a different market back then and there were not as many alternative entertainment options as there are now. Also, there is some good pro wrestling out there right now from several promotions like New Japan Pro Wrestling, Ring of Honor, Lucha Underground and even TNA at times. However, people are more-oft to judge the entire sub-genre by the big dog, which for the last eighteen years, has been World Wrestling Entertainment. WWE has not been what I call terrible, but for a company that I’ve followed for nearly three decades, I’m finding it difficult to stay interested in their product. As someone who has been a fan of this company and several others during the height of their popularity and the depths of their doldrums, I can make a reasonable assessment of what works and what doesn’t. The following is a rough guide that may not bring ratings back up to a 5.0, but would at least bring back quite a few lapsed viewers and keep them for the long haul.
1.) GET THE ISSUES WITH THE WRITING RESOLVED. This seems to have been the most prevalent issue over the past several years with WWE programming. Events from two to three weeks ago are casually forgotten about, so the expectation that storylines running for several months will have any sort of cohesion is wasted energy. Divas turn from babyface to heel back to babyface with zero logic employed. Talent is handed laughably bad lines to deliver in front of tens of thousands in attendance and millions watching at home (anyone remember Roman Reigns’ painful “sufferin’ succotash” line?) The rumor of WWE employing nearly three dozen writers has never been officially confirmed. However, to anyone watching, it is a reasonable assumption that there are far too many cooks in the kitchen. There are not that many more superstars on the roster now than during the most popular era (the late 1990s) and there were only three to five writers handling creative back then. A complete creative shakeup may be needed to resolve this problem.
2.) QUIT OVER PRODUCING TALENT. This is an extension of the previous issue, but it has been nearly as much of a problem. Once upon a time, wrestlers were handed just a sheet of paper with bullet points for their promos. They were trusted to get the point across by shooting from the hip, which made said promos feel more authentic. Nowadays, the promos, vignettes and nearly every aspect of the show are rumored to be scripted word for word. Characters don’t feel as unique these days and the superstars have to work ten times harder in the ring, because no favors are being done for them when they get on the microphone. Some of the most popular and successful performers of all time have stated that the best characters are the wrestlers’ actual personas turned up to eleven and they perpetuated that success by not being fed canned lines. If it worked for Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Triple H and Mick Foley, then it should work for today’s talent as well.
3.) WORK ON GETTING EVERYONE ON THE ROSTER OVER. Not to beat a dead horse, but Stone Cold Steve Austin (the highest revenue generator during the shortest span) was not the only person that was over to an incredible degree during that period. He had feuds with Mankind, Undertaker, Kane and several others, putting them all over. When Austin was out with injuries, The Rock and Triple H both stepped up to become the top guys on the roster. Austin’s programs with Chris Jericho, Kurt Angle and Booker T made for entertaining programming. Even when he turned heel, Austin helped to get higher profiles for the Hardy Boyz and numerous other mid-carders. This was smart business, as when a main event performer went down with an injury, you had dozens who could fill that spot and it would feel like a smooth transition. Now, look at today. Upper management has built everything around John Cena and Brock Lesnar, as well as Randy Orton and Roman Reigns to a lesser extent. Because they’ve put the talent in the position of not being allowed to be themselves and the company itself being hesitant when it comes to building top stars (this has been painfully obvious ever since 2003-04 with Austin, The Rock, Lesnar, Goldberg and several other big names all leaving within a short period of time), when the roster is plagued with injuries as it currently is, it puts major pay-per-view ticket sales and WWE Network subscription numbers in jeopardy. There is talent on the roster right now that should have already been groomed for main event/world title status. Dolph Ziggler, Rusev, Kevin Owens and more have proven they have the chops. It’s time for more than just a chosen three or four people to get pushed.
4.) BE MORE CREATIVE WHEN HAVING TO FILL TWO TO THREE HOURS OF TV TIME. Ever since Monday Night Raw has gone to three hours, the decline in ratings from hour to hour has been more apparent. Casual viewers are losing interest about halfway to two-thirds of the way in. I have never been an advocate of filling time on a wrestling program with out of the ring or out of the arena segments. However, I will make the exception with the three hour Raw. Want to highlight how much of a ‘lunatic’ that Dean Ambrose is? Have him trash someone’s car out in the parking lot, or show up to someone’s home to fight them. Want to get to the heart of the Kevin Owens/Sami Zayn feud? Have one of them go back to their old neighborhood while they are bringing up their past. Want to get The Miz over as someone who cares more about fame and Hollywood success than anything? Have him record vignettes while he’s away filming yet another WWE film. Three hours is alot to ask of your audience, so making them watch match after match after match in the same ring in the same arena for over 180 minutes, and it not being a pay-per-view, is just asking for your audience to zone out. Mix it up a bit more, especially on Raw.
5.) CUT BACK ON THE 50/50 BOOKING: People can understand winners and losers. However, people can get behind a babyface that wins more often than not. Viewers can get addicted, watching week in and week out, a dirty and underhanded heel on a win streak to see when they finally get what’s coming to them (unfortunately, it’s hard to factor untelevised house shows into the equation, since they cannot really be used to effectively push storylines forward). To successfully do this, a few babyfaces and a few heels have to go on win streaks. The problem is that, with the exceptions of John Cena and Brock Lesnar, everyone is in a state of win a match-lose a match-win a match-lose a match. A streak can do a hell of alot of good for several on the roster right now (Bray Wyatt, Dean Ambrose, Alberto Del Rio and Sasha Banks for example). If the entire NBA or NFL had nothing but .500 teams, no team would feel special.
6.) HEELS START ACTING LIKE HEELS AGAIN. The term ‘cool heel’ has surfaced in recent years. It took me a while to understand this term, but after only a few short months, it was evident what this truly meant. Bad guys were no longer lying, cheating and stealing to win. They were no longer cringing when a strong hero stood defiantly in front of them. They stopped doing things that made the fans boo them. Instead, heels began doing funny skits that made the crowd cheer for them. They get the crowd to all raise their cell phone lights in unison. They bravely limp down to the ring during a battle royal, after being in a brutal match that would put most superstars out of commission for several weeks. Whether this is by company design, or if it’s the talent themselves concerned that acting like a bad guy will hurt their merchandise bottom line, this is a fad that needs to go out of style fast. A hero is only as good as their villain. If there are no good villains, people won’t care about the heroes either. Merchandise revenue won’t matter because whether it’s twenty percent or forty percent of a dwindling number, it’s still a percentage of a dwindling number.
7.) PHASE OUT TIRED AND DATED CONCEPTS. One of the reasons that Stone Cold Steve Austin was such a hot commodity was because of his feud with WWE Chairman Vince McMahon. It was the ultimate “blue collar working man vs. the authority” storyline that produced several years worth of good stories. And then that feud was done. And then, the company brought back the concept of “the evil family in a seat of power” again, and again, and again. This concept generates less and less heat each time the dust is blown off of it. Just look at the last time that WWE brought back Degeneration-X. It was a hollow shell of its former self. Just as that was mercifully ended, so should the concept of tyrannical authority figure in World Wrestling Entertainment. Because some things don’t work the way they used to.
8.) ELIMINATE GIMMICK-CENTRIC PAY-PER-VIEWS. Once upon a time, when two superstars were in a red hot feud and there seemed to be no way to end it, everything came to a head inside of the Hell in a Cell. When two or more tag teams wanted to take it to the next level, they took it where very few would follow, a Tables Ladders & Chairs match. If the main event scene was loaded with talent, the only way to thin out the herd and find a true number one contender was at Money in the Bank or inside of the Elimination Chamber. We cut to today, where these once special matches, headline pay-per-views that happen on a predictable timetable each year. The saying has been a bit overused, but is quite apropos here; if Christmas happened all the time, then it wouldn’t be Christmas. Pulling back on the frequency of these matches would make them feel unique once more.
9.) MAKE THE TITLES MEAN SOMETHING AGAIN. There have been spurts of greatness in recent years (John Cena’s United States Championship reign), but in general, the titles haven’t been treated as well as they should have been. The New Day have been solid Tag Team champions, but one wouldn’t know this because of how depleted the tag division is. John Cena’s departure has already hurt the U.S. Championship, because no one seems to fight for the belt but Kalisto and Alberto Del Rio. The Intercontinental Championship has barely been a blip on the radar over the past few years. The top prize in the industry, the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, has been passed around so many times over the past six months that it has lost much of its luster. All of these belts should have meaning. Razor Ramon and Shawn Michaels had a ladder match once that made us give a damn about the IC belt. Booker T. and Chris Benoit once had a Best of Seven series, which elevated the status of the U.S. title. No one can mention feuds for Tag Team gold without mentioning Edge & Christian vs. the Hardy Boyz vs. the Dudleys. Maybe these old feuds and storylines should be studied to see what works and what can be applied today to make these championships matter once more.
10.) SPORTSCASTING AND SPORTS ENTERTAINMENT ARE NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE: I have to give it up to WWE. Since SmackDown moved to USA Network a month ago and they hired former boxing, MMA and New Japan Pro Wrestling broadcaster Mauro Ranallo, it seems to have breathed new life into the commentary. Mauro, unlike their other broadcasters, actually calls the matches as if it was a legit sport, which appeared to be a no-no for several years in World Wrestling Entertainment. He also has quickly developed great chemistry with veteran broadcaster Jerry ‘the King’ Lawler. SmackDown’s commentary feels nearly as good as Raw’s did during the height of the Attitude Era. Today’s broadcasting on Raw, however, is in a bit of a quagmire. This is no knock to Michael Cole, John Bradshaw Layfield or Byron Saxton. They are not bad at all. The problem here goes back to number two on this list. The broadcasters are being fed things to say and they don’t seem to be able to call the action like a sport (out of three broadcasters, at least one should be allowed to be a sportscaster). To the outside viewer, they appear to be only concerned with the soap operatic aspects of storylines and shilling whatever goods or services that TPTB want shilled this week. The commentators on Raw are in an unenviable position and I truly sympathize with them. But until the reign on the commentary for Monday nights is loosened and the broadcasters are allowed to knock it out of the park like I know they can, Raw’s commentary will continue to come across more vanilla than extract.
11.) SELLING IS A LOST ART. I will admit to being one of the most diehard ECW fans of all time. The amount of brutality and high spots were second to none. Though some will not agree, I also feel that this company had some of the most talented workers when it came to selling injuries. From Tommy Dreamer to Mikey Whipwreck to Jerry Lynn to Steve Corino, these men sold phenomenally. They admittedly also did take wrestling to the next level where many critics felt it couldn’t come back from. But it did. Though the violence in the current PG WWE has been curtailed, the spot wrestling has become a bit of a problem. This generation of WWE talent consists of some of the most athletic superstars we’ve ever seen. But the tendency to want to show off said athleticism at the expense of sound ring psychology and telling a story within a match is doing more harm than good. If someone’s finishing move attacks the back, abdomen or ribs, why are they working the arm or any other body part except for the back/abdomen/ribs for the duration of a match (that’s if they even bother to work a body part). Why are six different wrestlers in two or three different matches on the same show doing suicide dives out the ring? Why are people getting pummeled with ten punches in the corner or hit with weapons, yet aren’t even bruised or bleeding? Why are people not selling injuries that would hurt any normal person if they attempted it? Just because the audience has been smartened up over the past two decades doesn’t mean Kayfabe should be completely thrown out of the window.
12.) IF SOMEONE IS OVER, THEN THEY’RE OVER. Please, STOP USING YOU’RE OUTDATED BLUEPRINT FOR WHAT YOU THINK A TOP SUPERSTAR SHOULD BE. Furthermore, do not hold someone back just because they weren’t one of your creations. Nothing is more frustrating than hearing sold out arena after sold out arena chanting for superstars, completely drowning out the cheers for top guys like Cena or Orton, yet the company waits until it’s far too late to capitalize on this (Dolph Ziggler, Zack Ryder, Cesaro, Dean Ambrose, etc) or even when these performers move more merchandise than the top guys within the company (as CM Punk and Daniel Bryan did for a bit), the company puts the belt on these guys, but it always feels like they’re not really behind the guy. Just as problematic has been the tendency to avoid pushing, or pushing and then burying superstars who were over as main eventers in other promotions (Booker T, Taz, Goldberg, Kevin Owens, etc). While it is true that, just because someone clicked with the audience in another company doesn’t mean they’ll automatically resonate with the WWE Universe. But when they do, the company seems almost steadfast in refusing to ride the wave of heat for that performer. WWE needs to get over themselves in this area, as someone that was allegedly said to resemble a “short order fry cook” (CM Punk) proved that he can outsell merchandise of their protected top babyface (John Cena). I didn’t buy that excuse that was given on Stone Cold’s podcast about “millenials not reaching for the brass ring”, did you?
13.) STOP BEING STUBBORN. This is referring to the 260 pound elephant in the room. Roman Reigns is a talented performer and in a few years, I feel he may be ready to take that top spot in the company that upper management seems hell bent on forcing him into. But this two year experiment doesn’t appear to be working as planned. Every time he gains a bit of traction, creative either over does it with making him ‘look strong’ or they go too far with trying to gain sympathy and make him look weak (him needing help to walk to the back at the Royal Rumble) and then he gets booed again by half the crowd, and not just by the “smart” crowds in cities like Philadelphia or New York. His push was mishandled for the longest time, yet because he’s set to be the company’s new golden boy, Make-A-Wish champ, the company has dug their heels into the ground and refused to do the one thing that they should have done at least six months ago, something that would have alleviated all of the problems with this push. Four words, turn Roman Reigns heel. Him as the leader of a Samoan heel faction with the Usos and Tamina as they ran roughshod over the WWE men’s and women’s divisions seems like it would write itself. This is far from the only case of WWE refusing to make adjustments to something that is clearly not working. The character of Eugene, the Great Khali, Ryback, there are almost too many to count. The company would be better served by not digging their heels in the sand so often.
14.) STOP TRYING TO FIX WHAT ISN’T BROKEN. This is specifically in regards to the talent in NXT when they’re called up to Raw and SmackDown. This incessant need for creative to tinker and screw with a winning formula has hurt many a superstar. Every now and then a Sasha Banks or a Kevin Owens will come up to the main roster and are allowed to keep their character intact. But nine times out of ten, they are unnecessarily placed with valets or managers who take attention away from them (Tyler Breeze, Charlotte), they are given silly gimmicks (Emma, the Ascension) or are made to look completely weak or dumb (Becky Lynch). These performers did just fine with the NXT writers and bookers. Whatever the issue is with the main roster writers and bookers needs to get resolved fast, lest we see the same fate befall Bayley, Enzo Amore & Cassidy, Sami Zayn and countless other future superstars.
15.) SMARTER USAGE OF CELEBRITY GUEST STARS. Thankfully, we are long past the era of weekly guest hosts, however on the few occasions that WWE has guest stars pop up, it needs to be planned out much better. Some of the guest hosts actually worked well. Shaquille O’Neal is a good example. He is charismatic, he’s athletic and was willing to get into the ring and wasn’t half bad. Surprisingly, the Muppets actually worked well on the program as they were used with superstars that made sense and were used sparingly. The Stephen Amell vs. Stardust feud is still running strong. We need more guest spots and feuds like this. We need less Botchamania spots by Jeremy Piven and Ken Jeong, or deer in the headlights glare of Florida Georgia Line, or the grating rap battle between Flo Rida and the Social Outcasts. Which leads us to…
16.) JETTISON THE BAD COMEDY SKITS. We all understand that this is more an entertainment company than a wrestling promotion and as such, WWE has to cater to more than just the diehard wrestling fans. It is also understood that comedy is subjective. However, when the crowd can clearly let you know that the skit is not getting the pop one hoped, and that has been the case more often than not the past decade or so, maybe this is the equivalent of Ric Flair going to the top rope, as in they should take that page completely out of their playbook. Vince McMahon occasionally dancing back in the day was quite hilarious. Triple H and Stephanie McMahon dancing, not so much. J.O.B. Squad’s self-referential and self-deprecating humor worked. The Social Outcasts’ bad promos every time they touch the microphone (even though all four men are capable of better) doesn’t work. Goldust doing the stuttering thing again, a well that WWE keeps going back to (early Bubba Ray Dudley, Matt Morgan), doesn’t work. If you’re going to use comedy, at least make it a little funny.
17.) MORE DIVERSITY IN THE MAIN EVENT SCENE: And that’s not just racial diversity. Also, size and body type needs to look a bit different in the world title scene. Once upon a time, The Rock was the WWE Champion. Many years ago, we had talent like Eddie Guerrero (R.I.P) fighting Rey Mysterio, JBL, Mark Henry, Batista and Booker T for the World Heavyweight Championship. Yes, Seth Rollins did have the championship for the better part of a year, but who all did he fight during that reign? Yes, Roman Reigns had the championship, but for how long? The WWE is trying to gain traction in several markets. If so, why is Alberto Del Rio, a multi-time champ, not in the main event scene? Why has R-Truth, who has won the NWA championship a few times, not been given a legit main event push? Big E fits the physique that WWE upper management loves, can actually go in the ring and is quite entertaining on the microphone, so why has he never been given that push? Kevin Owens beat John Cena in his first WWE pay-per-view, yet has been relegated to mid-card status ever since. Rusev, Kofi Kingston, Cesaro, Titus O’Neil, Sin Cara, the list just goes on and on. Who knows, those other markets that are rather ambivalent towards WWE right now could just be bored because the main event scene are a bunch of Triple H, Sheamus and Brock Lesnar clones. Variety, it’s what’s best for business.
18.) BRING BACK THE BRAND SPLIT: I know that many out there will not agree with this. But when Raw and SmackDown had separate rosters, there were many benefits. Certain superstars weren’t as overexposed as they are now. Road schedules were still exhausting, but not as exhausting for the talent. Creative didn’t have to work the same storylines across several shows per week. Each show had a unique flavor, so neither felt like the B show (the way that Smackdown has felt for about 5 years). I really implore WWE to revisit the brand split, not only for the sake of keeping viewers interested, but for the safety and well being of their superstars.
19.) FRESHEN UP THE PRODUCTION ASTHETIC: When Raw launched in 1993, it had a pretty standard look. But within two years, the look of the set evolved. By 1998, Raw developed an iconic look, but it kept evolving. In 1999, SmackDown debuted and had its own unique aesthetic. Within three to four years, the set was transformed again and again, until SmackDown had its own definitive look. But, about ten or eleven years ago, the look of both sets stopped evolving. Not only does SmackDown have nearly the exact same look as Raw, but neither set has been revamped or even tweaked in the longest time. The look of the set, the backstage interview area, the announcers’ table, everything looks stale. Perhaps some new blood is needed within the production staff, maybe from MMA or some other sport. This change is needed sooner rather than later.
20.) REASSESSMENT OF LEADERSHIP ROLES: This is coming from someone who has watched the product for about 30 years and have thoroughly enjoyed it at times, but it feels like WWE being out of touch and not tuned to the zeitgeist or the pulse of what the audience wants has been an issue dating back several years, even when CM Punk stated as such five years ago as he broke Kayfabe during an angle. Tropes and gimmicks that made the audience groan and tune out during the early-mid 1990s seem to be seeping back in. The evolution of the show feels stagnant. The same tired blueprint for what a main eventer should be is still adhered to, even though the audience has all but rejected this. Nearly everything on this list leads back to the top and making those decisions at the top are Vince McMahon and Kevin Dunn. It is long overdue that the staff and upper management, or worst case scenario, the board of directors, all sit down and discuss the future. NXT seems to avoid many of the pitfalls of Raw and SmackDown. Merchandise sales and weekly ratings show that it may just be time for the torch to be passed to Stephanie McMahon and Triple H.
To be perfectly honest, I had another 30 things that are major points of concern that World Wrestling Entertainment really needs to address. But brevity was the best course of action in this article. I truly hope that these honest criticisms, along with those made by others, will be listened to and a massive course correction is undertaken to take the WWE back to the heights of greatness that they enjoyed 15 years ago. There would be less pissed off or indifferent fans, more money for the company, more money for the talent. Seems like a winning formula to me. What would be on your list of issues that WWE needs to address?
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