I’m not going to be quite the alarmist that others are being right now. I don’t believe that the WWE is in drastic peril just quite yet. It is however having some serious problems. While nothing anyone can suggest will guarantee a quick or surefire fix, there are steps that can be taken now which might begin to bring the WWE out of its seeming long-term nosedive.
I’ll start with the least likely to happen fix first.
Vince McMahon Needs to Gracefully Retire
Vince is an undisputed genius in the pro wrestling business. He saw opportunities and took risks that many others either wouldn’t pursue or wouldn’t be able to capitalize on. His was the hand that shaped one of the biggest pop culture eras in modern wrestling history in the 1980s. He was the driving force in the early race to make wrestling a closed circuit television staple, a concept that would later evolve into the PPVs we know today. He’s sat on top of the wrestling world as its most powerful and most successful figure for almost four decades now.
But he’s also possibly one of the most overrated geniuses in pro wrestling. One of the advantages Vince has made for himself by becoming the only game in town is the ability to write the history books as he sees fit. We largely see looks at his empire in the most positive light possible, but the reality isn’t quite as great as the memory.
As he built his 1980’s wrestling empire, he took the success he had and literally turned it into cartoons. While the idea of hooking them young and letting them graduate to the more adult fare may have some solid marketing merit behind it, he started changing the actual product into a live action cartoon. His vision for wrestling included things like wrestling plumbers, wrestling racecar drivers, wrestling garbage men, a wrestling magician who “magically” stole his opponents underwear for his finisher, and a guy in a bad spacesuit that blew puffs of smoke from his “rocket pack” as he entered the ring. He gave us a trio of rapping wrestlers dressed in shiny purple and yellow outfits whose character names and team name initials spelled M.O.M. He took the Road Warriors, possibly the single most badass powerhouse team of their time, and dressed them in bright colors while giving them a ventriloquist’s dummy as a mascot figure.
Sure, you can credit him for ushering in “attitude” in the late 1990’s to turn everything around, but it wasn’t exactly his plan. He resisted a lot of it early on, and once he finally went with it, in part out of desperation, some of the best of it wasn’t a result of his creative genius. Additionally, shortly after the Monday Night Wars were won Vince began steering his ship back towards the waters that almost sank him ten years earlier.
When Vince has been successful in the past, when he came up with an idea or a creation that fired on all cylinders, it was often a huge success. It had to be, because the fact is that his huge successes were what kept a much larger number of bad ideas and creations from sinking his ship. His failures, in and out of wrestling, were spectacular, but he could put his finger on the pulse of what people wanted powerfully enough to get them to put up with the lowest of the lows he created in order to follow his better creations and ideas.
The problem Vince is facing now is the fact that many artists lose their touch after a while; especially the ones who have to be in precise tune with pop culture attitudes to remain successful. Vince may not be losing his touch entirely, but he’s losing it enough so that his biggest successes are no longer quite as good at counterbalancing his misfires. It’s hard to separate fact from fiction in the world of the wrestling rumor mills, but, even taken with huge grains of salt, many of the less popular aspects of the WWE today are often said to be things that Vince firmly had his hands in.
Vince is driven to succeed, to strive succeed, like few other people. Somehow someone needs to convince him that the next phase of success is letting his baby go and trusting the people he’s put in place to take it over. A new direction minus Vince’s total and final control might not be a cure for what ails the WWE right now, but continuing on under the guidance of a man who more and more seems more and more greatly out of touch with his audience is only going to continue the downward spiral.
WWE Writing and Creative Needs to Change
The WWF had an advantage that the WWE doesn’t have. The WWF was able to build a roster made largely out of stars who honed their craft in the days of the territories. Even the attitude era was built largely out of stars that either fully came up in the territory days or who were a product of the last true days of the territories while aided by stars shaped overseas or by a mad genius in Philadelphia. The WWF was able to take the cream of the crop, the top talent from everywhere else, and let them run with whatever ball they were given.
You had a smaller crew of writers and the writing was less controlling as a result of this. If you ever saw behind the scenes footage of the older days, wrestlers were told to go out and do a promo where they addressed ‘X’ in a certain way. That was often it. They were told to give a certain type of promo and hit a few key points, and then they just went out and winged it. Characters had more unique voices as a result. Now, far too many promos are written by the same team of writers and come across as bland and generic.
The storylines also often come across as overly thought out in the wrong kind of way. They come across as too heavily plotted, too heavily scripted, and, again, too often feel like the same voice is telling every story. When we see breakouts anymore, it’s often because a wrestler managed to get more input into his own character and stories and more freedom in his promos. You can’t have the dreaded “creative control” level of freedom, but more input from the wrestlers, less scripting, and looser guidance may be the way to go in wrestling once again.
Wrestlers will be in more of a sink or swim situation, but the need to swim may allow for more of their own character to come out and build more watchable characters. The level of available talent and the ability to find refined talent is mostly as gone as the territories themselves, but there is some hope with NXT. While it’s not the replacement it needs to be, it’s better than the situation was a few years ago. But you’ll need something more to help both the writers and the wrestlers who can’t just yet find that voice they need.
Bring Back Managers
One obvious usage for managers is being a mouthpiece for wrestlers who haven’t mastered the art of the promo, but there’s more they can do to help in more than a few ways.
There are wrestlers out there who are past the point of being physical performers, but they can still talk like nobody’s business. By hooking them up with wrestlers who haven’t gotten good at doing their own promo work, you give a solid in-ring performer the extra help he or she needs to get over. But the managers would also serve as teachers. If you have a manager and wrestler traveling together, you have a lot of travel time for an old pro to help sharpen the promo and character skills of a younger wrestler. It could be an invaluable aid for younger wrestlers who no longer have the benefit of the territories to hone their craft in before ending up in the big show.
But managers could also be a big help with some storytelling shortcuts. We’ve seen a lot of wrestlers enter the title scene in recent years where the logic of the storyline motivation is convoluted and confusing. There are times when managers simplify such matters greatly.
Remember Bobby "The Brain" Heenan? Heenan was one of the best managers in the WWF. He also simplified the creation of challengers for the title quite a few times. Heenan hated Hogan, and he also wanted the championship belt around the waste of someone he managed. Wrestlers could be introduced as a challenger to Hogan with no more simple a concept as Heenan putting them under contract in pursuit of his goal of putting the championship under his control and maybe even directing him to sneak attack Hogan after a match. Sure, Hogan could defeat threat after threat in the ring, sending each and every new challenger away with their tails between their legs, but he couldn’t defeat Heenan in the same way. Heenan (or Fuji, Blassie, etc.) was always there to bring someone new into the title picture to challenge Hogan.
Managers also allow the face to heel turn make somewhat more sense than the random ‘WTF’ turns we see from creative now. Andre the Giant was riding high as a fan favorite, loved by adults and adored by kids. He was one of Hogan’s best friends. When he came out on Piper’s Pit to turn on Hogan, it shocked the wrestling world. Today they might just have him walk out to the ring, pretend to be friends with the champ, and the clothesline him when his back was turned. We might not even get no good rationale for the heel turn. When Andre walked out on Piper’s Pit, there was a reason for the heel turn walking out with him- Heenan got into his head. We knew Heenan, we knew what a weasel he was, and we knew in an instant that Heenan had played a hand in this.
Managers also gave us a reason to find a motivation other than winning a belt. A boastful manager might declare that no one could do ‘X’ to their wrestler, putting a sizable amount of cash up as the prize to anyone who could do ‘X’ to the wrestler. Managers who were extremely gifted at getting under the skin of the fans could also become a target by having the stipulation being the face getting the manager in the ring if he defeated the manager’s big new threat.
There’s a lot that managers can add to the mix. There are a lot of storyline options they open up. It might be time to start bringing them back into the mix.
Authority Figures Need to Shift Back into the Background
As much as I want to see managers come back, I want the evil authority figure to go away.
The Monday Night Wars brought us the evil head of the company screwing with anyone and everyone who wouldn’t kneel before them or (literally in some cases) kiss their ass. It worked when it was fresher and it worked amazingly well when you had the dynamic of a McMahon/Austin feud, but it’s used as a bad storytelling device way too often these days. A less intrusive company head as was seen back in the days of WWF “President” Jack Tunney only making onscreen appearances for major announcements or when a major storyline punishment needed to be handed out would be a welcome change.
Ditch the Divas and Unleash Women’s Wrestling
You want to know one of the things I really like about NXT? Their women’s champion is actually called the NXT Women’s Champion and not the NXT Diva’s Champion. That should be the next step in the WWE’s main roster of ladies. Get rid of the “Divas” label for the division and just call them women wrestlers.
After that? There are a lot of talented women working overseas and in the indie scene who have been passed over by the WWE in recent years because they didn’t fit the “Diva” pinup mold. It’s time for that mold to be broken. If the WWE is serious about developing a women’s division in the wake of the recent “revolution” they’re crowing so much about, they need to treat it more like the men’s side of the show.
If you look at the men in the WWE, you have a fair variety of shapes and sizes. You’ve got the small, dynamic fighters, the giant monsters, the slower powerhouses built like a tank, the faster wiry fighters, and more than a few other types in between. This is stuff that’s used in the storytelling. You put a guy like Rey Mysterio Jr. up against a guy like Big Show in a feud and you had an extreme dynamic. You build a monster heel like Mark Henry up and put the belt on him and it’s a more impressive feat when a smaller, never say die face wins the championship by beating that monster. Likewise, you can play up the tension, the idea that the face champ may be overmatched, if you build up a monster like Brock before having him face off against the champ.
These are things we respond to in the storytelling. We even argue about outcomes in a scripted, predetermined event over whether or not a wrestler is too mismatched with his opponent to have a believable shot at winning. In the current Diva’s division, you have no ability to create these dynamics because every Diva is damned near a cookie cutter duplicate of every other Diva.
The fans are more than willing to embrace this as well. Fans exploded when Kharma walked out into a WWE ring and NXT fans have embraced the idea of Nia Jax as a monster heel. Seriously, how huge of a shakeup do you think it would be in the WWE if a stable of monster heels, Jessicka Havok, Terra Calaway, Kharma, and Nia Jax walked out in the middle of a “Diva” match, maybe even a championship match, laid waste to everyone in the ring and at ringside, and declared the day of the “Diva” over? Bring in wrestlers like Faby Apache. Bring in some solid indie and international stars that first and foremost can wrestle and build the division back up as a Women’s Division.
And let them fight. If you’ve got women who can handle an Elimination Chamber Match, a ladder match, a TLC match, or a Hell in the Cell, let them show off what they can do in such an environment.
Bring Back the Brand Split
The WWE has no competition, and that’s hurting it. I hated the brand split when it started. I disliked it still later on when, even when Smackdown was putting on better shows than Raw and pulling better ratings than Raw, it felt like it was still being treated like the second string show by the WWE powers that be. I’d love to see it come back more than just about anything these days. Give us two different brands again, and treat them almost like two different companies.
Give them two different creative teams, give them each six PPVs staggered every other month for more story buildup, give them each a generally hands off General Manager in the Tunney mold, and then give them some form of incentive to compete. Treat the annual draft lottery somewhat more fairly than it used to come off, less like being all about making Raw better, and create interest from time to time over which brand will be able to get a top star from NXT.
Hell, give them the ability to create brand trademarked matches. WWF and WCW used to have matches that the other company didn’t have. It gave them a different flavor and when a wrestler moved from one company to the other it created new ways for fans to see them wrestle on top of a fresh batch of new feuds. Give the creative teams behind each brand the ability to create something that’s theirs to compete against the other brand with.
Hopefully the “filler” content we get with five hours of weekly programming can be cut back a bit if nothing else. Beyond that, it was legitimately a better system for creating and/or showcasing more stars.
I want my Freebird Rule and six man tag belts because why the hell not.
What would you do?
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek, dabbling in just about every genre but finding science fiction and horror to be his primary comfort zones. He has also had a lifelong devotion to that form of entertainment known as professional wrestling. When not worrying that his coworkers are going to inflict bodily harm onto him over his sense of humor, he enjoys hitting the convention scene or making indie films with his friends. He also finds talking about himself in third person to be very strange.