Welcome to a special edition of Top Ten Things, here at Enuffa.com!
It's no secret that WWE's product is in tatters these days, with disorganization at an all time high, ratings and morale nearing all-time lows, storylines with no endgame being thrown at the wall willy-nilly in the hopes that something, anything, sticks, no current roster members getting over (except maybe one), old-timer appearances yielding inevitably diminishing returns, young audiences walking away in droves, etc. Creatively the company is resembling WCW in its dying days more and more, and were it not for the exorbitant fees they're getting from Fox, USA and Saudi Arabia we'd likely be witnessing the death throes of Vince McMahon's juggernaut. Inexplicably virtually everyone in the industry seems to recognize some of the fundamental mistakes Vince has been making for the last fifteen years except Vince himself. Ever the fragile ego, Vince has long surrounded himself with sycophantic yes-men too terrified to challenge him on his creative decisions, and the result is a product that's hopelessly out of touch with what wrestling fans in 2019 want to see.
But I'm here with some constructive suggestions, most of them pretty simple, to fix WWE's creative process and return the product to its former glory. Before you call me a "WWE hater," know that I've been watching this company's product since 1986. I've been a Network subscriber since Week One. I don't hate WWE. I want WWE to put on compelling television again. I've seen them do it and I know they're capable of brilliance, they just need to find it again. So let's get started. Vince, if you're reading (you're not, I know), please take these suggestions to heart...
1. No Scripted Promos
First and foremost, this, this, a thousand times this. Scripted promos are maybe the most counterproductive creative policy in wrestling history. Literally every major star in the history of the business who got over even partially by cutting promos (which is almost all of them) did so because they had the freedom to develop their character and speak in a way that sounded spontaneous and heartfelt. You hired these people because you saw in them something compelling, yes? Presumably they know better than a team of hack writers how their character would speak - after all, the best wrestling characters across the board were simply extensions or exaggerations of the person underneath. Imagine someone like Steve Austin or The Rock or Ric Flair or Dusty Rhodes trying to get over in this climate. We'd never have "Austin 3:16," that promo was a spur-of-the-moment idea in response to something Jake Roberts said earlier on that show. We'd never have smelled what The Rock was cooking, that's just a fun catchphrase he came up with off the cuff. We'd never hear from the "limousine riding, jet flying son of a gun," who was given as much mic time as he needed, or the "son of a plumber," whose promo philosophy was all about selling his upcoming match, not himself. The art of cutting a promo is one of the most vital parts of making a wrestling product successful, and WWE lost that art a long time ago thanks to stilted, forced, unnatural-sounding dialogue, where two people wait for their turn to recite rather than have a conversation. Maybe the worst part of all this is that Vince McMahon for a long time hasn't understood what makes a babyface likable, and therefore every babyface is written as either a shriveling coward or a jerk. Get back to real promos again and you'd see probably 90% of WWE's creative woes go away. A good talker like the former Dean Ambrose would be able to connect with the audience AND hype his big match with Seth Rollins, thus making the fans genuinely care about seeing the former friends duke it out. Ratings and buyrates would go up, thus getting more eyes on the other talent as other natural talkers organically rose to the top like so much cream. We as the audience would believe in these characters and their feuds, and the live audience would actually seem excited to be there. Emotion and excitement are contagious, and a good promo generates both.
2. Stop "Producing" Matches and Commentary
Along those same lines, the practice of "producing" everything else on WWE television, from the corporate buzzword-infested commentary to the matches themselves, needs to end.
No one wants to see a show full of essentially the same match over and over. This philosophy about how WWE has its own "style" of wrestling is pure nonsense. WWE doesn't have a "style," it has a corporate policy wherein nearly all the in-ring creativity of its wildly talented roster is sucked out of nearly every match, resulting in every match feeling meticulously planned out and identical to the last. Compare for example the AJ Styles-Daniel Bryan matches from this past year with their mid-2000s work in Ring of Honor. Yes I get that there's an age difference factor, but their indie matches felt urgent and organic, like they were actually involved in a real fight. They listened to the crowd and proceeded based on what was connecting and what wasn't. Wrestlers need to be able to improvise in response to the audience so they don't lose them over the course of the match. Now look at the Styles-Bryan match from the Royal Rumble, which was already facing an uphill battle because it had to follow Becky Lynch's Rumble win. The bout was slow, overly methodical, lacking any urgency, and too long for a slot following a 72-minute Rumble. These two guys needed the freedom to change the planned bout (like Bret and Owen did in 1994 when Bret realized Owen's aerial tactics would've hurt his effectiveness as a heel) and get the crowd invested, but in 2019 WWE that sort of free-thinking is a no-no.
As for the wretched banter that passes for commentary in this company, WWE needs to remember that the commentators are the de facto hosts of the show. We as the audience need to actually like spending time with our hosts. The play-by-play announcer needs to be someone we trust to guide us through the stories being told and enhance them, not a corporate shill we think is trying to sell us more shit. Michael Cole, for as good as he is at navigating Vince's barrage of order-barking through the headset, comes off as the latter. I don't feel anything genuine from Cole as an announcer and he's not someone I'd ever want to hang out with. He's a company man who's there to further a mandated narrative and parrot idiotic buzzwords like "sports entertainer" and "WWE Universe," or cringe-inducing phrases like "controlled frenzy" to describe Kofi Kingston, or "real-life superhero" for Ricochet. He doesn't talk like a real person and he's almost never given a chance to enrich the story in the ring. The color commentator (and there should almost always be one, not two), needs to have an easy chemistry with the PBP announcer, whether from a babyface/neutral position or a heel position (Jesse Ventura and Bobby Heenan were masters at being heel color-men). If both announcers are babyfaces we need to get the sense that they really like hanging out together (JR and Tony Schiavone anyone?). If the color man (or woman) is a heel, they need to disagree with the lead announcer without it coming off as bickering. Gorilla Monsoon and Ventura/Heenan could argue in a way that was amusing. Michael Cole and Corey Graves don't; instead it comes off like petty squabbling and it's like listening to your parents have a fight. If we don't like the people hosting the show, why would we want to spend three hours watching it?
3. Plan Around WrestleMania Early
The two most important questions Vince et al should be asking themselves the day after each WrestleMania (and each month thereafter for the rest of the PPV calendar year) are:
a. Who do we want standing tall at the end of next year's WrestleMania?
b. What is the best possible main event to get them there?
That's it. The night after each 'Mania those questions should be posed, and if not answered immediately, revisited the night after every subsequent PPV. There should be a long-term plan for every WrestleMania main event, plus a backup plan in case a key player gets hurt. The benefit of asking those two questions after each PPV is that it allows for a change in plans if say, Kofi Kingston suddenly gets over huge; you obviously have to be able to respond to an abrupt change in the audience's response or you get stuck with Orton vs. Batista as the 'Mania 30 main event ('course any idiot could've seen a mile away how terrible an idea that was). But fundamentally speaking you should have at least a vague idea one year out what big money match next year's 'Mania will be built around; if you wait until January to address it you end up with Reigns vs. Undertaker as your main event. This strategy would've prevented the clusterfuck we got with Seth Rollins and Bray Wyatt. When The Fiend debuted someone should've said, "He's getting over huge, let's build the WrestleMania main event around him" instead of "He's getting over huge, let's have him main event Hell in a Cell next month....but wait, we don't want him to win the Title yet....uh oh...."
4. Pick Your Big Four to Six from Each Division
Hand-in-hand with planning the end of each WrestleMania is this. The night after 'Mania they should be figuring out who their Big Four (or even Six) will be in each division for the next twelve months. Of course they need to be flexible should the audience not respond to one of their picks (audience reaction should be one of the major factors in determining the hierarchy in the first place), but the company should have a clear quartet or more of top stars in the heavyweight, women's, tag team, and cruiserweight divisions to build around. With the brand split that obviously doubles their workload, but this business of Becky vs. Charlotte fighting each other ad nauseum because there's no other credible challengers, or the 205 Live belt bouncing around from non-star to non-star every couple months, needs to stop. A championship doesn't mean anything if a) only two people are ever seriously contending for it, or b) the division is simply a bunch of people no one cares about. With the tag team division they need to get back to the idea of multiple tag team feuds, where two teams are fighting over the belts and the rest of the contenders are having meaningful rivalries amongst themselves as they climb the ladder. Remember in the late 80s when the WWF had a thriving tag division? You'd see Demolition defending the titles against the British Bulldogs while the Hart Foundation feuded with the Rougeaus and the Rockers had melees with the Brain Busters. You can't have a good division if the spotlight is only ever on the championship match.
5. Limit the Big Four PPVs to Five Hours Including Pre-Show
Remember when the main event of WrestleMania was contested in front of a white-hot crowd because a) the fans were excited for it and b) they didn't have to wait six hours to see it? Why in the hell does WWE think anyone, no matter how diehard a fan, wants to watch a six- or seven-hour show? I don't care how many big matches you put on there, six hours is too long for a PPV, period. The fact that the WrestleMania 35 crowd was absolutely dead for a main event they really wanted to see says it all. The show was simply too goddamn long. Not everyone in the company needs to be on the PPV. Go back to the pre-show battle royal (the Andre Battle Royal is meaningless but if it's on the pre-show, go nuts with the trophy if you want), or just give out a WrestleMania bonus to anyone who doesn't make the card. Why not, you're rolling in the cash right now. The main WrestleMania show should be limited to matches of importance, featuring mostly full-time stars (the reliance on old-timers has gotten better but is still too much), and should be no more than four hours, four-and-a-half at the absolute most if the card is super stacked. If you're worried about time constraints, here's an idea, CUT THE VIDEO PACKAGES. There is zero excuse for a match of even minor importance getting cut short or bumped altogether so you can make room for a video package hyping another match we've already paid to see. Trust that your audience has watched the weekly TV shows and knows why the match is happening, and if you don't, hey, that's what YouTube is for. Have the announcers say "In case you need a refresher of why Seth Rollins and Brock Lesnar are about to fight, check out our video package on YouTube." Done. Ten minutes saved right there. Good news - Asuka can still defend her Women's Title at WrestleMania.
6. Move PPVs to Saturday Night or Sunday Afternoon
Cold, hard fact time: kids don't care about WWE right now. They just don't. But it's no wonder, Vince is 74 years old. Think of any septugenarian you know - are they hip to the things kids and teenagers are into? No. Your average retiree will have very little common cultural ground with an adolescent. That's just how it is.
But besides featuring more young 20-something talent (which they desperately need), WWE could also cater to a younger audience by moving PPV events away from Sunday night. Think about it, what ten-year-old gets to stay up until 11pm to watch TV on a school night? I didn't get to until my late high school years when my parents did away with a set bedtime. How about we either move PPVs up to Sunday afternoon (where they used to be in the 80s and early 90s), thus giving the kids and young teens a chance to actually watch them, or Saturday evenings, when kids generally aren't going out anyway? Even teenagers might be coaxed into staying home from 7-10 on a Saturday if there were quality TV to watch. As for the adults, putting it on a Saturday night would lend itself to bringing beer over to a friend's house to watch the show with a group. No one wants to hang out and drink at their buddy's house till 11pm on a Sunday, when they have to get up for work the next morning. A Saturday night or Sunday afternoon time slot makes it cool for the adults to gather 'round the TV and have some beers, and it allows the younger fans to be able to watch the show without staying up past their bedtime.
7. PPV Calendar Overhaul
This entry is sort of a two-parter. One of my gripes is negotiable, the other isn't.
First off, I'd say there are too many PPVs in the year. It's not as bad as when they had sixteen of them, but twelve is still excessive as far as I'm concerned. Unless you're presenting a really compelling PPV every month, these shows just aren't special if they occur every 3-5 weeks, and what happens is the writers scramble to throw together the next show because there's no time to build to it. Hell in a Cell 2019 had exactly four matches announced prior to the day of the PPV. That's inexcusable. So I'd suggest cutting the calendar down to ten, maybe even eight PPVs. You'd have your Big Four and then 4-6 smaller shows in between. That gives the company a solid six weeks to properly build each PPV. WrestleMania in particular should have at least six weeks so it feels different. But as I said, I could be convinced to keep the schedule at twelve PPVs a year if they actually made each one feel special.
But suggestion #2 is a must: get rid of the Hell in a Cell, Money in the Bank and TLC PPVs, and make the Evolution PPV an annual event.
Let's start with the Evolution thing. The 2018 all-women's PPV was one of the best shows the main roster did that year. It was fun, easy to sit through, featured women from every brand, and made it look like the company actually takes women's wrestling seriously. Why aren't they doing another one? Oh right, because Evolution was just damage control to take some of the heat off the Saudi Arabia thing. Does this company not ever do anything genuine? Bring this PPV back.
Now for the others.
The Hell in a Cell match is supposed to be the most dangerous, violent gimmick match in WWE, correct? So it should be reserved for a feud that is so bloodthirsty, so volatile, so personal, that the only way to put it to rest is to let the two participants rip each other apart inside a cage with a roof. So why the fuck would you have an annual show that usually features TWO of these matches (in 2009 it had three, for fuck's sake), regardless if any of the current feuds warrant them? Having one or more mandatory HIAC matches a year simply as a slot to fill negates the purpose of the gimmick.
Ditto for Tables, Ladders and Chairs. Some guys (and gals) are just not well-suited for a daredevil-type gimmick match. TLC was made famous and grew organically out of a feud between three teams who would literally do anything, no matter how dangerous, to push the envelope in stunt wrestling. The Hardys, The Dudleys and Edge & Christian took the ladder match concept and juiced it to the gills, literally shortening their respective careers to give the fans something unprecedented and unforgettable. Simply presenting a slew of these matches and their variations on a PPV every year undermines what the aforementioned six wrestlers achieved two decades ago; it says "Hey look, anyone can do one of these matches." Save TLC for people who can really pull it off and for whom it has some meaning.
And here's perhaps the suggestion most people will take issue with. It's time to retire the Money in the Bank concept. It's been around for nearly fifteen years and it's outlived its purpose. MITB was originally designed to help a new star get over, to groom them for a main event push that would most likely end in a title run. But what eventually started happening was the company used it to hotshot someone to a championship without requiring the discipline to fully invest in them, and then when it inevitably went bad he could just be dumped back to the midcard. Worse, the company started just beating the briefcase-holder over and over, under the false assumption that repeated losses wouldn't damage him simply because he's carrying the briefcase. Kinda like what they've done with secondary and tag team champions the last fifteen years. "Hey it's okay that he hasn't won a televised match in six months, he's still the US Champion." When was the last time the Money in the Bank winner actually benefited from it? When was the last time it permanently elevated a career? Seth Rollins, five years ago? It's time to move on from this goofy booking device.
8. Jobber Matches
One invaluable tool for building and maintaining stars is the old-school jobber match. WWE occasionally still does this, but when a new talent debuts on TV, they need to be given a series of spotlight matches designed to get the fans familiar with their style and moveset, and of course their character. What used to happen is a wrestler would have tune-up matches against local job dudes, kick their asses for 3-5 minutes and get an easy win. But the audience learned so much about them in those 3-5 minutes, and thus became invested by the time they had their first real opponent. Vignette, promo, squash match. Those were the three steps to building new stars. Now when a new guy shows up, he's lucky to even get vignettes or promos, and he's usually given a 50-50 match against an established member of the roster. So either you're sacrificing someone who's already there by feeding him to the new guy, or you're making the new guy look just average by having his debut be a competitive match. A three-hour show like RAW should have numerous squash matches every week, to build up anyone who needs it. You can still feature real, full-length matches too, but wouldn't you rather see Ricochet put on a dazzling squash exhibition match than have him look middling against Apollo Crews for the fourth week in a row?
Another fantastic way to help stars who don't talk well is to pair them with a manager, someone who cuts great promos and who lends the newbie instant credibility by association. Bobby Heenan and Jimmy Hart were brilliant at this back in the day. Simply by joining their respective stables, a new star would gain instant recognition. And if it was a veteran who didn't have the gift of gab, having a great promo like Heenan allowed them to just stand there and look fearsome. Aside from Paul Heyman is there anyone in the company used for this purpose? Bring back managers with stables.
10. Sports Feel
Maybe the biggest tonal shift that needs to happen with this product is to make it feel like a sports show again. Pro wrestling, in spite of the general public knowing full well it was predetermined, used to still be treated like a legitimate sport. Within the context of this pretend universe, wins and losses mattered, championships meant the world to the characters vying for them, matches used to be booked and hyped ahead of time, and the announcers would sell the idea that these athletes actually had to train for big bouts. It was presented like a combat sport, with some storylines. In New Japan, and thus far in AEW, this is still the case. But WWE spent so much energy over the years hammering home that this stuff is fake and these are just characters, that nothing about it can be taken seriously anymore. They aren't wrestlers who want to win matches and championships, they're "WWE Superstars" who want to "innovate" and "have their WrestleMania moment." Just about everyone's win-loss record is 50-50, losing a title is shrugged off, every weekly show is booked on the fly, the authority figures constantly feud with the wrestlers, the camerawork involves absurd in-and-out zooms and excessive cutaways like a Michael Bay movie, and every PPV lineup has the important matches scattered throughout the show instead of building to a peak, making the show feel twice as long as it is. The wrestlers shouldn't have to be aware at all times where the camera is, the camera should be following the action. There should be no such thing as a "buffer match," each match on the card should either be better or bigger than the last. When a big title match is announced there should be footage of each participant training for it, as with a marquee MMA fight. Remember how cool it was to see The Rock and Brock Lesnar training for their title match in 2002? It felt different, like a legit competition, and the Nassau crowd was electric for it. Can we bring back at least some of that feel and spend less time throwing together storylines that make no sense and have no payoff? Maybe casual fans would actually take WWE seriously again.
This is just my two cents. Or considering the length of this list, more like two hundred bucks. I'm just tryin' to help here. If WWE would just take these ten steps, none of them particularly difficult or costly, I guarantee you'd see lapsed fans start returning to the product and the company would earn back some of the goodwill they've lost over the years. It's really not that complicated to fix WWE, it just takes the courage to question and reevaluate one's approach to the business. Make it happen Vince, before it's too late.
**You'll notice, contrary to my usual stance, I didn't include "Vince Must Resign" as one of my suggestions. While that would certainly be an automatic fix for some of these problems, I know it's not at all realistic and it felt like a cop-out, so I skipped it.**
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