In the late 1990s, something weird happened that made everyone suddenly start giving a crap about wrestling. It was called "The Monday Night Wars," and it basically boiled down to this: Two wrestling programs went head-to-head every Monday night in a battle to nut-slap each other out of existence. What made it so damn addicting was that you could watch these organizations being pricks to each other in real time. They poached each others' stars on a regular basis. WCW would announce WWF spoilers live on the air to prevent people from switching over to their show (which was taped). Hell, at one point, WWE sent a group of wrestlers to interrupt WCW's live broadcast, which was being performed in the next town over.
Don't get me wrong here. I've never worked in the industry. The only people I've ever wrestled didn't know it was going to happen until I pounced on them. I don't know how contracts work or the process they use for creating an episode of RAW. But I do know what made me start watching wrestling, what made me continue watching wrestling, and what eventually made me say "Fuck wrestling." And I know a whole titload of people who feel the same way. The short version is that WWE has lost sight of what makes a TV show (not just a wrestling show) interesting. The long version is a lot more complex. So for the people who aren't afraid of words, let's break that down ...
#5. The "Creative Department" Basically Doesn't Exist
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Some time around 2008, the WWE switched its content from beer, cursing, blood, and ass to a TV-PG rating. Wrestling fans love to speculate as to why that happened, but there's no single underlying reason. You could easily write several books on possible causes, ranging from the double-murder/suicide of Chris Benoit the previous year to an attempt to clean up so they could sell more toys and video games. They're a publicly-traded company with stockholders to protect. So be it. But there's a reason I'm bringing this up, and it's a pretty important point.
When fans talk about how the Attitude Era was so much better (and they talk about it constantly), they often attribute its high ratings to the adult-oriented content. While I'm sure that cursing and titties did play a role in its popularity, what they forget to factor in (aside from the fact that the Monday Night War itself was a huge selling point) was that in that era, every major character had a storyline. Stone Cold was fighting back against a corrupt boss who was actively trying to keep him from becoming the face of the company. The Undertaker had a dark secret from his past: a little brother, whom he thought had died in a fire, was found to be alive and coming for revenge. Mick Foley was slowly going insane and developing split personalities. He was easily manipulated by Vince McMahon, and was being used as a pawn in a greater plot.
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Nobody does a "fuck your mother" look quite like Vince.
It sounds silly, doesn't it? Then again, Star Wars was about a boy with space magic and a sword made out of light who defeated his robot father with love. The point is that everyone had a deeper motivation than just "I want to be the champion."
I can't remember the last good storyline in the modern era of wrestling. They've started a few, but it doesn't feel like anyone in the company knows how to follow through and deliver on them. For instance, they created a mysterious redneck cult called "The Wyatt Family" who are super creepy. They often speak in vague, ominous riddles, which is pretty cool, because it makes you want to stick around to see what it all means. For months, the WWE built up their coming debut, and when they finally arrived, it was pants-shittingly awesome:
So they're coming after Kane? Awesome. Why? What do they want with him? In the following weeks, we'd find out that they were going to show him the true meaning of the word "fear," and they were going to turn him into the demon that they know he is. Even more awesome. So they're going to recruit him into their cult? Turn him to the Dark Side?
Nope, they had a match, and after the Wyatts won, the plot was over. Kane didn't join their cult. The Wyatts didn't progress into a bigger, better story. It turns out that Kane just needed some time off to go film See No Evil 2, and having the Wyatts "injure" him was a means of explaining his absence from TV.
Keep in mind, this is the most interesting story they've had in several years. The majority of the others boil down to, "I want to win this match because I can wrestle better than you." They set up a match between The Rock and John Cena one year in advance, based entirely on the storyline "John Cena talked shit about me." That's not an exaggeration. That was the whole story: a "meet me in the playground after school" beef. And what that tells us as fans is, "If these two extremely popular guys wrestle each other, you will buy tickets or subscribe to our network, no matter what." I've put more effort into wiping my ass than the "creative" team put into that booking, and that's become par for the course in the WWE.
So how do they fix that? A good start would be to come up with defined stories for every single person who enters that ring. Give them a reason to be there. Hell, give us a reason to be there -- make us come back next Monday because we have to find out what happens next. This isn't some radical idea. This is TV 101. It's something they understood back in the Attitude Era, and I'm blown away that they don't understand it now.
#4. There Is No Longer Any Suspense Or Surprise
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In the industry (and for hardcore fans), championship titles mean one thing: This is the person the WWE has marked as the company's highest standard. For most other fans, it is a prop. It's the reward that a hero receives for overcoming the odds and defeating the villain, or the trophy a villain receives for being extra good at evil. Either way you look at it, whoever holds that title is the good guy or the dickhole, as both a performer and a character.
There's a very simple formula that all of wrestling has used since the invention of pay-per-view, and it goes something like this. Good guy wrestles bad guy every week for a month. He loses most of those matches because the bad guy is a cheating asshole. They then have a match at a pay-per-view, and the good guy finally wins the title. The audience feels vindicated. Now, you either up the ante for their story and take it to the next level, or that match becomes the ending point to their feud, and you introduce a brand-new story with a brand-new dickhole.
And you know his name is Chad.
It doesn't always play out that way, but that's the general idea. It's Pavlovian; you feel good when the hero wins, so you keep coming back for that payoff. It's emotional heroin. It's a way to coax people into buying tickets, and it totally works. If you're going to see a title change hands, you're going to see it there, so you might as well buy a ticket and see it firsthand, right? Actually, it's not quite that simple.
Let's go back to 1999, when WWE hit their highest ratings. Because of the Monday Night War, both companies had to constantly surprise the audience. They were forced to do something every week that, if you missed it, made you think, "FUCK! Why did I pick that night to feed my kids?!" The easiest way to accomplish that was by throwing away the old pay-per-view payoff format and make new champions on the totally free TV show. That year, the WWE World Heavyweight Championship changed hands 12 times. Six of those times happened on regular TV.
In 2015, the title changed hands four times (two of which happened in the same pay-per-view). Of those four, exactly one happened on RAW. In fact, if you don't count the one time they held a tournament to claim a vacated title, the last time a heavyweight championship was "legitimately" fought for and won by a challenger on regular TV was November of 2010. Before that, June of 2009. Before that, July of 2006. Before that, September of 2003.
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And the belts are really weird-looking now.
But that's the big title, right? What about the Intercontinental Championship? It's not as important in the eyes of regular fans, so there should be more flexibility in moving it around. In 1999, that one changed hands 10 times (technically 11, but that's the year Owen Hart died, so there was a special circumstance involved). Five of those were on TV. In 2015, it happened five times -- only one of them wasn't on a pay-per-view.
So what am I tuning in for, exactly? There aren't any compelling storylines, so it's definitely not for that. I'm not being surprised by an underdog coming out of nowhere and upsetting the champion. Any time they introduce a match and say, "This is for the title," I can say with near-certainty that the title is staying right where it is. You can predict the outcome of those matches before they even start. It takes away 100 percent of the suspense. At that point, I'm just watching two guys pretending to fight ... and that's just kind of weird.
If the WWE wants people to start giving a crap again, they're going to have to reintroduce the element of surprise. If not with the championship titles, then at least with some good old-fashioned heel turns (good guy suddenly turns bad) or face turns (bad guy suddenly becomes good). That used to be a weekly occurrence back in the height of wrestling's popularity, but now they follow the same rules as title switches, which is "NOPE! If you want to see that, you'll PAY for it, fucker!"
#3. There's Something Modern Wrestlers Don't Understand About Their Roles
One of the most valuable assets in all of wrestling, regardless of the company, is a good heel. Someone the fans genuinely hate. It's a lot harder than it sounds, because a lot of guys who try end up sounding like an actor who's playing the role of a villain, instead of a man with genuine disdain for the audience. The person who can do that is vital because when he finally gets the shit kicked out of him by the hero, the audience feels retribution. His defeat is their reward for tuning in week after week. He is an emotional catalyst.
But there's a second part to that role. Given enough time, most heels will inevitably develop a following. Or another wrestler will need to take over that spot in order to prevent the show from becoming a bucket of dead squid. At that point, the villain needs to flip and turn into the hero. Very few people are able to do that.
For example, here's what Alberto Del Rio looks like as a heel:
Every part of that is fucking vile. Not just his actions -- beating up a lowly ring announcer -- but also the look on his face, the sound of his punches and kicks, the way he smugly holds up his belt to the crowd as if to say, "There's not a goddamn thing you can do about it." Watching that makes you want to hurt him.
That is what Alberto Del Rio was born to do: Be a remorseless punching machine. He plays the part of an evil turd perfectly. Here's what he looks like as a babyface:
Every part of that is fucking vile. Not just his ridiculous "I'm a good guy now" speech, but also the way the words unnaturally flop out of his stupid suckhole. The fake gas station manager's smile. Trying so hard to convince us that he's on the level. He wasn't trying to trick the audience there -- he's just that bad at playing a babyface. Watching that makes you want to hurt him.
Now I want you to take a look at Stone Cold Steve Austin as a heel:
That's a pretty damn good heel. It feels like he's going to come right out of the screen and kick your ass, just for having the gall to watch him on TV. Let's see what he looks like as a babyface:
Oh. Well, hell. It's almost like he kept the same exact ass-kicker attitude, except he pointed that aggression toward established heels instead of established faces. Huh. That's weird. I thought that when a wrestler went from villain to hero, he had to put on a big-ass smile and give everyone an enthusiastic thumbs-up. I mean, I know that Stone Cold became one of the biggest stars the WWE has ever seen, but surely he was a fluke, right? Nobody else could make that work ...
This is why people have a hard time accepting guys like The Big Show, Roman Reigns, and John Cena as babyfaces. When they're playing heels (or at least thugs), all three of those guys can pull off "scary ass-kicker." We know that when they enter the ring, someone's getting skull-fucked. But when they switch roles and become babyfaces, they turn into smiling, thumbs-up, pandering jackasses, and it's embarrassing. It's not that the audience doesn't believe in them as good guys. It's that we don't want them representing us.
Let me put it this way, because this is a huge topic of debate among wrestling fans:
The hero in that ring represents the audience. He or she is a projection of who we want to be. They're not just defeating the villain for their own purposes ... they're saving us from his bullshit. When we see ourselves projected into the spot of the good guy, we want that representation to be badass. We don't want to be Superman. We want to be Wolverine or Deadpool or Punisher. Sometimes, Bugs Bunny:
The people who want to see John Cena turn heel aren't just saying it because they're sick of him playing Superman. That's a big factor, but it's not the whole reason. A huge part of their argument is that they know what happens when you take a stale, played-out babyface and inject him with ruthless brutality and anger: He becomes unpredictable, he becomes a threat ... he becomes interesting. Then, after a year or two, when you finally switch him back to the hero role, he keeps that ruthless attitude, and we back him 100 percent. Every guy in the videos I linked above has gone through it, and it made them better characters.
But what you don't do is start high-fiving audience members and sucking their assholes for cheap pops. Am I right, people of beautiful NORTH CAROLINA?! The second a babyface starts doing that is the second we start firing up the "boooooring" chants.