Yesterday went from the early-mid 00’s to the beginning of this decade, meaning we’re just about done.
As WWE hit the 2010’s, it became pretty hard to endure for two reasons. One, it became more and more apparent that their storylines were written on an hour-to-hour basis instead of being agreed on in advance. This is mainly due to McMahon being a mentally questionable dude. The sloppy storytelling had led to such promising and exciting storylines as the Nexus – the contestants from the first NXT season, who had become united against the Raw roster – petering out into a mess of bad ideas. Or Sheamus, a badass and dominant heel who became champ in record time and then went on to become a coward at the drop of a hat, ruining much of his appeal.
The other reason, which was arguably worse, was the idea of turning commentator Michael Cole heel. It started with the first season of NXT, which involved the debut of Daniel Bryan, who as I mentioned before was a big name in the indies. Cole would constantly rag on him for being worthless in every way possible. It’s hard to say if this was punishment for being semi-famous elsewhere, a way to set up Bryan giving Cole his comeuppance or a mix of both. Either way, it didn’t matter because comeuppance means very little when it’s a wrestler attacking a non-wrestler unless it’s an authority figure of some kind. Especially when this non-wrestler has an hour a week to rail on you verbally. Cole went from just hating Bryan to hating everyone on the roster other than a select few. This was entirely problematic. He rarely ever got his much-needed retribution and it didn’t stop him from going off on everyone on the roster for 4-7 hours a week. They seriously had a guy making fun of everyone to the point that WWE’s forcing you to hear about how they’re a company of worthless jokes. He was the antithesis of hype and outright made watching WWE a chore.
Eventually, they realized their folly and gradually brought him back to being a kind of okay commentator. Bryan himself endured several losing streaks, Cole’s constant barrage of insults, a temporary situation where he was fired for a really stupid reason and the issue of being a small man in a big man’s business. He won one of the two major championships, turned heel and slowly began to show how much personality he really had. He’s reached the point where McMahon seems to respect him for tolerating his mistreatment without a single complaint and the crowd has embraced him as a huge heel who’s fun to hate and even more fun to like.
As for Punk, he never got to be much more than a punching bag for whatever major face they were trying to push. He spent about a year or so losing nearly every major match and Punk himself was getting pretty tired of it. His contract was coming up and he wasn’t intent on keeping on. Since the general rule of thumb is for the guy leaving to go out defeated, WWE set up Cena (champion) vs. CM Punk at the PPV Money in the Bank 2011, which was in Punk’s hometown of Chicago. Punk publicly brought up that he was on his way out and threatened to leave the company with the championship, thereby making it a callback to his exit of ROH, only this time he was threatening to leave WWE for ROH. He even MENTIONED ROH on WWE TV during a planned segment where he got to get a lot of genuine opinions on the company and its fans off his chest. The story became huge and behind-the-scenes, agreements were made that Punk wouldn’t be leaving after all, despite appearing to in the storyline. He ended up winning the title and skipped town, leaving the company without a champion.
In true modern WWE fashion, it lost steam despite having some awesome moments. They had a good idea for the story: Cena would earn a new championship, Punk would return to claim that Cena was a fraud and they’d have a rematch to crown the true champion. WWE zipped through the whole thing in more than double the time they should have to the point that it outright hurt the narrative. For instance, they held a tournament for the vacant championship and beloved underdog Rey Mysterio won the finals. Later in the show it was decided that he’d defend the belt against Cena on the spot. Cena hadn’t wrestled at all that night, so he had a clearly unfair advantage and ended up winning. At no point did anyone ever bring this up. Not even Michael Cole.
At this point, Triple H was semi-retired, now dealing with the backstage business of the company. Sensing a popular story in the vicinity, he ended up stepping into the scene and robbing Cena and Punk of the spotlight. The storyline became about Triple H and the returning Kevin Nash (Triple H’s good buddy, remember) while Punk got smacked around by both of them and discarded to the side. They cut him off at the knees, but he still did a lot of good. While his ability to inspire high ratings isn’t very good, he’s still a magnet for good merchandise sales and the backstage folks give a damn about him now.
Not only that, but they seem to have accepted that, hey, maybe working your ass off in the indies is a good thing and not something that should be punished on principle. This is also due to Triple H taking over a lot of the talent scouting projects, as even though he’s got gigantic ego problems when it comes to handling his own character, he appears to have a good head when it comes to most everything else in the business. Over the past year, they’ve hired major indy personalities like Claudio Castagnoli (renamed Antonio Cesaro), Chris Hero (Kassius Ohno), Tyler Black (Seth Rollins), Jon Moxley (Dean Ambrose) and others.
With Cena, the company had still decided that they weren’t going to turn him heel no matter how much the crowd booed him, as he still had a ton of young fans and made a fortune on merchandise and also did a ton of good with Make-a-Wish appearances. They’ve been keeping him out of the title picture for quite a while, mainly distracting him with a feud against the Rock. The Rock quietly stepped away from wrestling during the early 2000’s to jump headfirst into a lucrative movie career, making one final in-ring appearance at Wrestlemania 20 in 2004 and the occasional rare cameo here and there. Notably, he dropped “the Rock” from his name and only called himself Dwayne Johnson, strongly suggesting that he wanted to distance himself from his wrestling career and the stigma that came with it. Toeing the company line, Cena – likely under the orders of McMahon – publicly derided Rock for claiming that the wrestling business meant everything to him and then leaving. Rock seemed to just let it slide off his back when this was brought up in interviews. Eventually, Rock made his return to WWE to start a year-plus rivalry with Cena that brought their real-life animosity into the fictional picture. It came to a head at Wrestlemania 28, where Rock won. Some were annoyed that this guy could leave for eight years and come back to stomp down the top guy in the company, who had been working harder than anyone else on the roster, but really, only by losing could Cena move forward in any meaningful way.
Similarly, Brock Lesnar had also been brought back. After leaving the company in a huff years before, he made a failed attempt at an NFL career before settling on becoming one of the biggest stars in the Ultimate Fighting Championship circuit. While he wasn’t the most skilled, he was still an unstoppable brick wall of brute force and that won him quite a few big matches. He used the skills he learned as a wrestler, not in terms of fighting, but in terms of verbally running everyone down before and after his fights to the point that people would pay money to see somebody shut him up. Just like Gorgeous George told Muhammad Ali to do many decades ago. There was a thorn in there to the UFC fans who hated the idea of the “fake fighter” punking out the real deals, but it only added to the amusement. Especially when he started losing. Due to some high profile losses and some illness issues, Lesnar retired from UFC. WWE, still high on their business with the Rock, is currently paying him a ton of money to work for them for another year with limited appearances.
Right now, WWE is playing with fire in what appears to be the latest in a list of nose-diving endeavors. Over the last twenty years, McMahon has tried branching out from wrestling in many ways. He tried the World Bodybuilding Federation, which would use wrestling-style stories and personalities in the world of bodybuilding, and that didn’t work out so well. His XFL football league is notorious for bringing in the absolute lowest ratings in NBC history during its one season. His wife is setting out for her second attempt to be a senator after the last time cost them millions. WWE Films has yet to pick up any steam for good reason. And now, they’re trying to set up the WWE Network. A 24/7 channel that features years worth of footage that the company has stocked away is certainly something I’d be up for, but many are too cynical on its possibility of success. Especially with reports on how less-than-competent they’ve been in working on the launch.
That brings us to where we are now. ROH is still doing their thing, albeit gutted by losing some of their bigger names to the WWE. They have a TV show that’s also available on YouTube and a good amount of internet PPVs. Underneath them, the other big indies are still going strong as an alternative to the occasionally-hopeless mainstream. They too have been experimenting with iPPVs, giving the fans new ways to get into them and support them.
TNA finally got rid of Vince Russo, but the damage has been done. Hogan and Bischoff have done too much against the brand and the company will be better off once they move on. If anything, they need to find their own identity like they did in the early days instead of trying to latch onto WWE in the desperate hope of being considered competition in any way.
WWE has the tools necessary to increase business. Their talent pool is pretty damn impressive at the moment. If anything is holding them back, it’s the febrile-minded inability to be consistent. Too much second-guessing and changing stories and winners at the last second for the sake of being unpredictable or because McMahon is having one of his weird moods. Despite everything I’ve said against Triple H, I feel that the company has a better shot at a strong future once he takes over completely.
In the end, the cycle will continue. Boys will be boys when they should be men. Potential will be ruined by ego and short-sightedness while some of the real stars will be created by happenstance and the ability to endure antagonistic bullshit from their bosses and coworkers. There will be good matches, there will be great matches and there will be downright unwatchable matches that make zero sense. When it’s good, it’s good and when it’s bad, it’s hilarious. Yet, as always, it’ll always be the men and events behind the curtain that make everything so damn fascinating.