Societies change over time. Shocking, right? It’s a pretty basic fact about culture, and any entertainment company needs to understand it if they want any hope of surviving in the long term and being more than just a flash in the pan fad. That’s why WWE has been around as long as it has: As American culture changed and opinions about what professional wrestling should be shifted, WWE shifted along with it, although not always without resistance. It’s also the main reason WWE history has been defined in so-called “eras”.
We’ve had “The Golden Age” in the 80s when people just plain loved the spectacle and were fine with Hulk Hogan forever being the top guy. There was “The Attitude Era” that followed from the late 90’s counterculture. There was the much-dreaded “PG Era” when WWE realized how easy it was to market John Cena merchandise to children. And starting last year around the time the brand split returned, WWE has been pushing the idea of today’s “New Era”.
What’s so “new” about it? Well we’ve got perhaps the strongest women’s division in WWE history. And we’ve got fresh top stars like AJ Styles and Kevin Owens. And…well…I’m drawing a blank here. This is the big complaint about the New Era. If you long enough to think about it, nothing’s really that different. While there are some more-than-welcome changes from how WWE has operated in the past, there are also many of the same tired old habits that simply don’t work anymore, if they ever actually did.
What do we mean? Well let’s look at 15 examples of old habits ruining the current WWE product.
15 Heels Rarely Winning Clean
Professional wrestling for pretty much its entire existence has relied on the dynamic of faces vs heels. This is the fundamental building block of the storytelling that happens in the squared circle. Where faces are the honest underdogs, heels are despicable cheaters. But it’s a delicate balance with heels. If the heel ONLY ever wins by cheating, it’s hard to buy into the face being the underdog and the moment when the face finally wins feels less powerful. WWE has not handled that balance well recently.
WWE seems to use heels cheating to win simply as a crutch to cover up ineffective storytelling, and it hurts the wrestlers. It’s one of the reasons it’s hard to buy into Jinder Mahal as WWE champion, and it seriously hurt the WWE Championship’s credibility back in Seth Rollins’ run with it in 2015. The good news is WWE has handled this much better with Neville’s run with the Cruiserweight Championship, so hopefully they’re learning what works and what doesn’t.
14 Choosing Feel-Good Moments Over Building Credible Heels
We’re two-for-two on WWE not handling heels correctly. There’s a reason the company only has two or three truly effective heels right now.
Not only does WWE have a bad habit of not letting heels win clean, they also are bad about letting heels win at all. Which is bad for the same fundamental reason: Nobody cares about the heel/face dynamic if everyone knows the face is going to win in the end. I mean, the heel will eventually lose, but it can’t be every single time. Case in point: Bray Wyatt.
Bray Wyatt for years in WWE has been one of the most promising characters on the main roster. The character of a backwoods cultist is teeming with potential and fans constantly wish for more from him. So why isn’t he a top heel? He keeps losing in the end to the likes of Roman Reigns, John Cena and Randy Orton. And even when he does win in the end, like against Daniel Bryan, the stakes don’t feel high enough for anyone to care that he won. The end result is that one of the most unique characters in WWE never has enough momentum for us to care about what he says or does.
13 Promoting Part-Timers Over Everyday Names
This is a problem that people have been talking about ever since CM Punk mentioned it during his famous “Pipebomb” promo back in 2011. And it’s a very simple complaint that still rings true today: If WWE keeps putting part-timers in the top spots of the Big Four pay-per-views, why should anyone care about the weekly RAW and SmackDown shows or B-level pay-per-views when they’re not there? That fundamentally hurts the product as well as the full-time wrestlers.
The number one culprit here is Brock Lesnar, and it’s even more true considering he is RAW’s Universal Champion. While it can work to instantly build credibility for his challengers, like it just did for Samoa Joe at Great Balls of Fire, most often, it just makes the rest of the roster feel less important. Mainly because there’s no stakes in any of their feuds because the champion is nowhere to be found. For all it might do to increase excitement for the big money matches at major pay-per-views, it does so at the expense of every other show the company puts out.
12 Relying On Established Star Power Instead Of Building New Stars
Closely related to this is another fundamental flaw with the current product. WWE has been far too keen to simply rely on established stars to draw crowds rather than give the up and coming wrestlers a chance in the spotlight. While SmackDown Live in particular has been much better about this recently, this is still a problem, especially around the Big Four pay-per-views.
Just this past year, the spotlight from Survivor Series all the way until WrestleMania was hogged by Goldberg, an aging legend who could only wrestle in very short bursts. They put the Universal Championship on him, making Kevin Owens look weak in the process. And what was the big end plan? Who gets the payoff of besting him at the end? Why, another already established star in Brock Lesnar. Dream matches are fun and all, but the old guard taking up main event spots for no payoff to build new stars only makes it harder for the company to go forward.
11 Celebrities Getting Over On Wrestlers
Celebrity involvement has always been a staple of the WWE product, providing a special kind of spectacle that smaller promotions simply can’t. However, like the complaints about part-timers and already established stars, this has to be handled carefully or else the full-time wrestlers just look weak. Non-wrestlers beating wrestlers doesn’t make non-wrestlers look strong, it just makes the wrestlers look foolish.
We all saw that in action at WrestleMania as special guest Rob Gronkowski interfered in the Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royal. It’s all fun and games in the moment, but the end result was Mojo Rawley looking weaker for needing help to win, and Jinder Mahal looking even worse for getting knocked around in a wrestling ring by a non-wrestler. Which didn’t help his credibility problem when WWE decided just a couple of months later that he should be the new WWE Champion.
10 Generic Foreign Heels
We’ve already mentioned Jinder Mahal twice now, so let’s just get to the main reason he’s not very compelling as WWE Champion. His heel character is incredibly trite. In a move straight out of The Golden Era, WWE decided he’s an effective heel for no other reason than that he has heritage from a foreign country that’s he proud of. That might have worked back when patriotism was stronger and when people understood less about the backstage scene in WWE, but nowadays people see it for what it really is; lazy writing.
Not only is it far less compelling character work to rely on old tropes, it has a habit of making the future too predictable. When WWE starts ramping up the patriotism in the buildup to a feud, you pretty much know that’s when Mahal will lose the title. And then once that happens, that character has no steam to run off anymore. I mean, come on WWE. We already saw this happen with Rusev two years ago.
9 Favoring Homegrown Talent Over Experienced Indie Stars
It’s safe to say that WWE today has one of the most talented rosters in its history. Thanks mostly to Triple H taking charge as Vice President of Talent, WWE has signed many of the biggest names in the wrestling industry away from independent and international promotions. With the likes of AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Kevin Owens, and Samoa Joe, WWE is overflowing with the most talented wrestlers in the world. Which begs the question, why the hell do they insist on making Roman Reigns their top guy?
The answer is that for pretty much all of WWE’s existence, it’s always had a strong preference for wrestlers who’ve been with them the entire time. It’s the reason why even huge names like Booker T, Rob Van Dam, and Eddie Guerrero took many years to reach the top, simply because they had established their names elsewhere. And though they’ve certainly been better about it in the New Era, Roman Reigns and Braun Strowman in particular show that WWE are still clinging to this idea, arguably against their best interests.
Yes, WWE’s unhealthy favoring of certain wrestlers for poor reasons goes even deeper. To nobody’s shock, the McMahon family kind of has a huge ego and loves to serve itself. I mean, come on. Vince McMahon once put both the WWE and ECW titles on himself. And while Vince himself has largely stepped away from the camera, it hasn’t stopped him from putting his children (including in-laws) in prominent roles.
Triple H pretty much ever since WrestleMania XVII has always found himself in one of the highest profile feuds on the WrestleMania card, and since he returned, Shane McMahon has felt this too. Now, I’d be lying if I said those two aren’t capable of putting together good matches. Hell, AJ Styles vs Shane McMahon was my favorite match from WrestleMania 33. But the fact of the matter is this takes spots away from the full-time wrestlers and goes back to that whole problem of not building future stars. Did they seriously not have anyone else to wrestle AJ Styles?
7 Poor Treatment Of Midcard Titles
Remember way back when the Intercontinental Championship actually meant something? Those were the days. When WWE put the IC Championship on the line in its first ever ladder match on pay-per-view at WrestleMania X. When Bret Hart and The British Bulldog main-evented SummerSlam for the title and put on a match still remembered as an all-time classic. Oh how that title has fallen though.
Where the IC title once represented a stepping stone to even greater things, nowadays it, along with United States Championship, are seemingly just props to keep the midcard busy. Each title has certainly had its flashes of brilliance, especially the US Title when John Cena held it, but WWE has been terrible about keeping each title’s momentum going as it passes around without rhyme or reason from wrestler to wrestler. Here’s a hint, WWE: The title will look strong if you actually make the holder look strong instead of losing non-title matches constantly.
6 Lazy Writing For Undercard And Midcard
Here’s the thing about building a three hour wrestling event card: Title matches can only fill up so much of the time. You’re going to need other matches to fill out the rest of it, but they still need a reason to be competing. That’s in essence the creative team’s job. To develop stories enough to get the audience to invest in the match. The big matches on every pay-per-view always have weeks, even months of buildup until the ultimate conclusion. But WWE has not done that for its lower profile matches and feuds. Need proof? Just take one look at the cruiserweight division.
Neville’s long run with the Cruiserweight Championship has been great fun to watch. WWE has built a great story about hungry challengers trying to put the arrogant “King of the Cruiserweights” in his place. Cool. But what else is happening in the division? A love triangle feud that’s gone on far too long (mercifully, it seems to finally be over), and other than that, a bunch of random matches with no rhyme or reason. The end result? Nobody cares about the cruiserweight division. Neville’s great and can put on a compelling match with anybody, but you can’t build a division around one guy.
5 Favoring Big Men Over Athletic Grapplers
It’s pretty much the biggest meme in the wrestling community that Vince McMahon loves freakishly tall and muscular men. To be fair, the audience is partly to blame for that since so many people bought into Hulk Hogan and later John Cena. But it’s becoming less and less effective and the more devoted wrestling fans are already absolutely sick of it. And again, despite the fact that they have Styles, Nakamura, Owens, and Samoa Joe, WWE still seems to care more about guys like Braun Strowman, mainly because of his look.
There are far too many examples in WWE’s history to prove that wrestlers often make it or break it in the company based only on how they look and not how crisp they are in the ring. Hulk Hogan, Triple H, and John Cena have been some of the biggest names in wrestling history despite putting on almost the exact same match every time. And the success of Strowman and Reigns while guys like Dolph Ziggler and Cesaro squander shows they still haven’t moved away from this mentality.
4 Ignoring When Wrestlers Get Over With Crowds
That little comment about Ziggler and Cesaro getting overlooked seemingly just because they don’t have the look? The treatment of those two in particular still irks many fans. Why? Because fans ate them up and expressed undying love for their wrestling talent, but WWE did nothing with them. WWE, if you don’t do anything when a midcard wrestler becomes popular, what motivation do they have to even try?
Here’s why it’s so frustrating to see that happen. We already mentioned before how the creative team clearly doesn’t try as hard with the midcard and undercard. But sometimes, they’ll get a motivated wrestler to take the ball, run with it, and make it work anyway. Think The New Day. You know how WWE gave them a bad gimmick, but they somehow turned it into gold? And then WWE capitalized on it to turn them into merchandise machines? All we’re asking WWE is to just do that every time someone gets over on their own. They’re literally throwing away money by not doing it.
3 Abruptly Killing Wrestlers’ Momentum
Not only does WWE not keep the ball rolling when the wrestler gets it running, they have a bad habit of suddenly giving up on their own attempts to get them over. Sometimes it’s a matter of them running out of ideas. Other times it’s a much more frustrating matter of backstage pettiness. Obviously not every midcard star is going to pan out into a main event talent, but we’ve seen so many failures of it in today’s WWE that we can only sit and wonder why certain wrestlers are still struggling to get air time.
Why the hell isn’t Rusev a top heel yet? He was handled great in his debut year, going on an undefeated streak and proving himself a vicious monster. Obviously the streak was going to end at some point, and indeed he lost to John Cena. One loss should not suddenly derail a career, but WWE dropped the ball so hard with Rusev. After losing his streak and his US Championship, instead of going back on the hunt, he was put in a love triangle feud. And then WWE even gave up on it suddenly, completely shattering the mystique around a guy who could have been a compelling top heel.
2 Not Treading Carefully With Women’s Wrestling
Women’s wrestling in WWE was almost never a priority. Whether they were viewed as a novelty, or even worse, as eye candy, the women’s division only became the true talent pool it could be two years ago after the Diva’s Revolution. WWE has been better about properly giving their female wrestlers a chance to showcase their talent, but they still slip into their bad habits on occasion. And one particular mistake recently had fans outraged.
WWE occasionally inserts men into the women’s wrestling scene in appalling ways. Harvey Wippleman once won the Women’s Championship, and infamously, Miss WrestleMania was Santino Marella in drag. Recently at Money in the Bank 2017, WWE did a throwback to its appalling past and during the first ever Women’s Money in the Bank match, they had James Ellsworth, a man, pull down the briefcase. Admittedly, it worked amazingly to get HUGE heel heat for Ellsworth and Carmella, but still. It’s the optics of having the first ever Women’s Money in the Bank match being essentially won by a man.
1 Trying To Make Roman Reigns The New John Cena
Roman Reigns is a great wrestler. I don’t care if the fans like him or not, he’s put on enough great matches that it’s hard to keep claiming he’s getting carried by his coworkers. That’s not me saying the fans are wrong for rejecting him. Rather, it’s me saying that it’s entirely WWE’s own fault Roman Reigns is not getting over. And the reason why is because they’re trying to make him John Cena 2.0, and nobody wants that to happen.
WWE has relied on John Cena far too much in the past 15 years, essentially the new millennium’s Hulk Hogan. And faced with the realization that Cena won’t last much longer, they’ve tried to replace him with Reigns. But not only are fans sick and tired of that character, Reigns is easily the least compelling version of this character to date. Hogan was loved by everyone until he got stale. Cena turned off the hardcore fans, but at least the casual fans loved him. Nobody is buying Reigns, and WWE needs to throw away that Hogan-shaped cookie cutter for good.