Nice Guys Finish First: WWE Needs to Turn this Car Around

Fixing a very broken company is a tall task, but they've already got the tools they need

Picture this; it’s early spring 2001. You sit down to watch Monday Nitro with the knowledge that this is the final WCW broadcast. WWE has won the Monday Night Wars, and AOL Time Warner is taking a hit only slightly less painful than the one they’re going to suffer when WiFid becomes a thing. Throughout the next two decades, WWE is synonymous with pro wrestling; they create talent who go on to become household names and some of the biggest stars in the world. They give us Ruthless Aggression, Dave Bautista in a sleeveless button down, and a crossover with every NBC owned procedural show in the country. Wrestling may not ever reach the pop culture heights it did in the 90s, but WWE is still the giant among niche fan interests.

Now fast forward to March 2020. WWE has had its ups and downs; most things to do with Ryback are pretty unfortunate, Dolph Ziggler’s title run is firmly adequate, and KofiMania is the last pure joy most of us will feel for the following three years. AEW is steadily growing in prominence as the first real challenger to WWE since Ted Turner’s mustache, backed by football money and Florida dreams. Competition is said to make things better for fans of both brands, but WWE seems to have missed that memo. Pirate WrestleMania looks good but not great, with WWE Champion Goldberg leading a moderate card. Unfortunately for them, and absolutely everyone else in the world, things are about to come to a screeching halt with the whole global pandemic business.

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Wrestling during Covid is its own topic, and it deserves several documentaries that I’m looking forward to watching someday. For WWE, this meant the ThunderDome, which replicated the feeling of being six and experiencing RadioShack for the first time. What marked the TD Era was the “cinematic matches”; prerecorded, over-stylized, and, if we were lucky, even scored. Both the Firefly Funhouse and the Boneyard Match at Mania were the first notable examples, which (blissfully) allowed the magic of filmmaking to hide the fact that the Undertaker can’t move like it’s 1996 anymore. AEW followed suit with their own very popular taped matches, and the style began to grow.

WWE began to rely on the recorded matches instead of live entertainment; which, on paper, made perfect sense. It’s easier, safer, and cheaper to knock out filming several matches over one weekend in the same location. But as the company starts to lean on this style, they start to become as sloppy with it as they are with the championship rematch clause. Just because the acting is slightly better than usual doesn’t mean the whole thing is good. The production value lessening as WWE laid off dozens and dozens of wrestlers didn’t do much to improve their public image, although Roman Reigns certainly did his part by wrestling shirtless. Those pecs were doing a whole lot of heavy lifting when it came to people enjoying the product.

You Can’t Go Back (to 2019)

As restrictions started to lift over time and the company returned to live audiences this past summer, WWE tried to slip right back into 2019 like nothing had happened. But like my student loan providers will find out come May, it really isn’t that easy to go back. The cheap pop of audience returns faded away into a reminder that with all the money and talent they possess, WWE can’t help themselves when it comes to fucking up. Sure fire winners—the immense original popularity of The Fiend, Orton and Edge, a father losing his eye on live TV—eventually all petered out. The stories were frequently drawn out until even the biggest fan couldn’t stand it, hammered into the ground as the company failed to come up with new content. As we’ve learned over the last several years, WWE can create magic, but it often can’t follow up on it.

And so we find ourselves at the end of 2021, a huge year for professional wrestling and its fans. We saw the in-ring return of CM Punk, a much anticipated revival of the American Dragon Bryan Danielson, two black women main evented WrestleMania for the first time ever, and the Rock starred in a film based on a mid tier Disney theme park ride. What more could any of us have asked for?

Sasha Banks Bianca Belair
WWE

Out of the milestones for wrestling in 2021, very few belong to WWE. Sasha Banks and Bianca Belair’s historic match surely made it onto several people’s ‘best of’ lists, but I don’t think many of their WWE brethren could say the same, and through little fault of their own. WWE has been steadily losing ground for a long time now, but this year seemed to turn those lost yards into football fields. It’s never been more clear that the company is failing, and rapidly. Now, I’ve spent much of the past two years covering WWE for you guys, so I can (unfortunately) consider myself very familiar with the current state of the company. And things are looking dire.

Righting the Ship

To start, WWE does actually know how to make good wrestling. It’s easy to say they don’t, because a good amount of whatever happens on Raw and SmackDown and NXT 2.0 is groan inducing. But sometimes their product is quite good; Roman Reigns, even if some have soured on the mafia boss gimmick, has been one of the most effective superstars in recent years. Bianca Belair had a shining Mania match and a solid title run—one that was unfortunately cut short as another victim of WWE’s difficulty in sustaining storylines. Becky Lynch and Liv Morgan are currently having one of the better women’s feuds of the year on Raw, and let us not forget the joy of seeing Big E finally become WWE champion. There are winners here, even if it doesn’t always feel like that after consuming eight hours of WWE television every week.

Back in October, I drafted my dream scenario for E vs Reigns at Survivor Series. My dreams, unsurprisingly, did not come to pass, but I’m going to rely on an old WWE favorite storytelling tactic and just rehash it here: they need to cash in on Big E. E himself cashed in earlier this fall, dropping Bobby Lashley like a sack of potatoes, but the company hasn’t quite leaned on him the same as they have Reigns. It’s a mystery; the man is talented, charismatic, and very good looking. His face should be on several trucks, if it isn’t already. While Reigns rules SmackDown with an iron clad Bloodline fist, E is beloved on his brand. WWE isn’t always great at celebrating faces (unless they run the place), but they gotta get over that real quick.

The Reigns story only has so many places to go. The manager community watched in horror as Roman fired his special council after Heyman admitted he believed Lesnar could beat the Tribal Chief. Lucky for Paul, he has another be(a)st friend to save him from Superman Punches, but this is a much needed (and delayed) interesting move for Reigns. He’s turning his back on the man who helped him get here, how long until he does the same to his cousins? Without the backup and with the biggest head (and strongest shoulders) we’ve seen, could the Big Dog finally slip up? When there’s no tricks left to pull, what becomes of the Head of the Table?

Roman Reigns Big E
WWE

This sets the stage for the rematch to one of WWE’s only recent bangers, Big E vs Reigns. We want it, we deserve it, and with the state of the world, I’d like to get it sooner rather than later. These two had a fantastic clash last month, and there’s plenty more we could get out of a second bout. Especially if E finally is the one to topple the Big Dog. Logically, I know it’ll definitely be Lesnar at the Rumble, but a girl can dream.

Big E is the perfect face to lead the company right now. He’s proof that if you stay true to who you are, work hard, and support your friends and community, your time will come. He’s fun to watch, he’s capable of going with anyone, and he’s a bright spot in a company that’s failing to make them and struggling to know what to do when they fall into their laps anyway. WWE doesn’t like to push babyfaces out in the spotlight because it’ll reveal how they generally can’t write for them, but E has that special something that makes literally anything he does watchable. Cringe-worthy T-Mobile commercial? Music awards show appearance that includes a shoehorned PPV spiel? Talking head during every single USA show? He can make it all work, and we know this. WWE just needs to give him the green light to step up as the guy. Give us what we deserve! Give us main champion Big E!

The Women’s Division

As I’ve eagerly demonstrated, I could wax poetic about Big E as Big Champ, but I’ll toss on my fantasy booker hat again and move to the women’s division. Bianca Belair, talented, charismatic, beloved, and personable, has barely managed to avoid being absolutely crushed by the terrible booking WWE has delivered her. We can call that Asuka syndrome; a package so perfect, and yet the presentation almost makes you not want it at all. Without getting into the excruciating details, Belair has floundered since her 15 second loss to Becky Lynch at SummerSlam. Her stock has fallen in ways that the EST does not deserve. She’s feuding with Doudrop right now, which is fine, it’s whatever, but a four minute match every other week isn’t the best use of someone who made wrestling history just eight months ago.

Bianca Belair vs. Bayley -- SmackDown Women's Championship Match
WWE

While her feud with Banks was a classic, I’d argue Bianca’s best opponent was Bayley. The Role Model knows how to constantly make her opponents looks good, without sacrificing any of her own personality. Have Bayley come back at the Rumble, nearly win the whole thing before getting knocked out by Liv Morgan or Naomi(I’m not picky), then go after Bianca, who accomplished that same goal just last year. Bayley and Reigns share some similarities in their heel turns, but Bayley never tried to be a “cool heel” about it. She just woke up one day and decided she was done with all this shit. And her constant teenage angst in a suburban mom’s haircut works perfectly against Belair’s well earned confidence.

A program with the long tenured star is just what Belair deserves to get back on track. Right now, another feud with Lynch isn’t worth it. But, and again, this is my ideal world and we’re all living in it, once Naomi beats Lynch at Mania, we’d get yet another dream match in Naomi vs Bianca. Two extremely over babyfaces proving themselves in a contest of who can look the coolest on tv, talk the most shit, hit the wildest spots, and do it all with a smile. It’d be damn good.

Of course, since Angel Garza isn’t currently WWE champion, I don’t have much faith that the company cares about my opinions. But they can’t say I never tried to help them out. Times are tough (unprecedented, some may say) and wrestling is escapism. Call me a big old mark, but I want to see the good guys win, even in fiction. Another year of the Head of the Table bullying his family is fine, I guess, but a year of Big E as the guy, cracking skulls in the name of positivity? A year of pancakes and hip gyrating plastered all over WWE’s promotion? I’ll take that over any sexy bad guy. Likewise, Lynch and Flair, along with their respective large coats, are both excellent villains, but 2011 Tumblr has come to an end. It’s time to be cool with the good guys again.

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