You know when I brought back JV.com in blog form last year, I expected that I’d be writing weekly about wrestling and MMA, if not even more so than that. But a lot has changed since last Fall. Most segments and storylines on WWE television each week are unwatchable, and I typically find myself channel surfing on Monday nights more times than not. And MMA has become so saturated with a UFC pay-per-view every two weeks (and at least one UFC television show a week) that it’s rare to see a fight that you’re truly excited about – the latest Fox special last weekend was headlined by a fight that was good, but had no story or star power and subsequently did a downright brutal TV rating.
Let’s start by talking about Wrestlemania. The show itself, I really enjoyed and thought was a good, entertaining show that proved that when they *want* to and are motivated, WWE can still deliver on the big stage. Taker vs. Hunter was a good match that told a story, and the 50 year old busted up Taker can still go. And love him or hate him due to his backstage clout and political game, 43 year old Triple H is still a hell of a worker. A lot of people seemed to complain about Daniel Bryan losing the World Title in 18 seconds, but I think that those people are predominantly hardcore wrestling fans that don’t see the big picture – the loss didn’t hurt Bryan since it came off as a fluke and a result of Bryan’s distraction by AJ. Sure it would have been nice to see Bryan put in 20+ minutes on the biggest show of the year, but he’s still young so there’s plenty of time for that.
Of course the big draw was The Rock vs. John Cena. It was a year in the making, and Rock’s first singles match in eight years. WWE brought Rock to Raw every week for about a month before Mania in order to do the big build and really sell the show. But for the most part, I absolutely hated the booking, and it seems I wasn’t in the minority since Raw ratings flattened out despite The Rock being live in the building every week.
WWE really needs to listen to their own scripting and “embrace the hate” with John Cena. They need to accept the fact that their fan base – aside from children, teenage girls and some women – despise John Cena’s character. When The Rock first threw down the gauntlet and issued the challenge to Cena in 2011, he “told it like it was” about John Cena, and fans ate it up. Rock talked about Cena’s ridiculous look with the over-sized rainbow colored T-shirts. He talked about Cena’s phony character, always smiling and joking and acting obnoxious, even in serious situations. He talked about Cena’s stupid “You Can’t See Me” catchphrase. He talked about how Cena had done nothing original in years aside from changing his shorts from jeans to camouflage. He said what everyone had always thought about Cena’s wrestling character, but what no one had ever said on television aside from a few brief moments of brilliance out of CM Punk. The fans ate up Rock’s words, and ratings were on the upswing. But then like always, the WWE creative machine screwed it up by snuffing out Rock’s momentum due to their fears of Cena becoming a full fledged heel with the fans. They made Rock tone down his promos to the point that Cena would take the mic and tear into Rock, while Rock in return would just stand there looking angry and say nothing. WWE wanted a 50/50 split with the fans going into Mania, failing to understand that the show was taking place in Rock’s hometown and he’d be treated as the hero regardless. By the time they got to the Raw broadcast the week before Mania, the fans were still booing Cena (big shock there), but now they were also giving Rock a mixed reaction because he’d been booked like a disingenuous wuss in promos with Cena too often. WWE refused to take risks, they refused to do something different, because they were too interested in protecting their full-time cash cow. The company even quietly lowered their internal targets in terms of PPV buys prior to Mania. But luckily for them, Rock vs. Cena, Taker vs. HHH and the draw of the Wrestlemania brand itself was still enough to generate a reported 1.3 million worldwide PPV buys, a record breaking figure for the company.
Rumors began circulating over Wrestlemania weekend that Brock Lesnar had quietly flown to Miami to finalize a new deal with WWE, and there was even anticipation that he’d show up at Mania and interfere in the main event. While that didn’t happen, one night later on Monday Night Raw the live crowd almost blew the roof off the building as Lesnar’s music hit, he walked to the ring (where John Cena stood, having called out The Rock), hit the F5 to a huge pop, then put an exclamation point on the segment by kicking Cena’s bright green hat across the ring. Just like that, WWE became interesting again. Everyone was talking about Lesnar’s return, and various other MMA fighters like Tito Ortiz and “King” Mo Lawal started talking about breaking into pro wrestling themselves. Lesnar reportedly signed a deal unlike any other in the history of the company – $5 million for one year, a requirement for just 24 dates (an average of just 2 per month), and the right to sell and wear his own sponsorship. No one – not Hogan, not Rock, not Austin, not Cena, not Taker – had ever gotten WWE to agree to such a deal. You could sense the momentum that WWE had generated through Lesnar’s signing and his well booked return appearance. But then one week later – again – the creative machine screwed it all up.
WWE has put a lot of time and effort into making John Laurinaitis this era’s Vince McMahon – the evil, crooked corporate boss who pulls the strings, screws the babyfaces, and gets what’s coming to him in the end. The problem is, Laurinaitis sucks as a performer, and the fans don’t give a damn about him. He doesn’t have the, “he’s evil and I’ll pay money to see him get his ass kicked” type of heat that McMahon did during the “Attitude Era” when he feuded with Steve Austin. The fan response to Laurinatis is more like, “Oh God it’s him again… let’s see what else is on TV.” He’s got the face of a corpse, the delivery of Larry Merchant, and quite simply he’s not a draw and there is zero money in him as a heel, just as there was zero money in Michael Cole as a heel (WWE has seemed to finally figure that out, it only took them a year). So what does WWE do? They align Brock Lesnar with John Laurinaitis and announce that his first match back in WWE will be against John Cena at Extreme Rules – a “B” PPV show that never draws – just THREE WEEKS after Brock’s return. Once again, WWE’s poor creative decisions and refusal to take risks wipes out a huge opportunity to engage new or former fans and make some serious money.
To me, booking Brock Lesnar appeared to be so easy and so obvious, they seemingly could have had Stephanie’s young children do it and be successful. Brock represented real fighting, not sports entertainment. They needed to distance him from the “good guy vs. bad guy” world of wrestling and treat him as something different. They also needed to book him on television sparingly and carefully, and hold off his first match back for a major PPV that would allow a long build-up. To a degree, they did that as they produced an excellent video package about Brock’s background, his success in the UFC, and the fact that he was an ass kicker, not a sports entertainer. But by aligning him with a phony heel like Laurinaitis, they took away his edge. By booking him on a “B” level PPV after only three weeks, they ruined the big box office they were sure to get had they waited for a major PPV like Summerslam. And of course the most mind-boggling thing of all – they had him lose his first time out. In his first match in WWE in eight years, and coming off huge momentum from the UFC, where he was the Heavyweight Champion and the biggest PPV attraction in that company’s history, WWE again refused to take any risk, and had John Cena pin Lesnar clean. Wow. Just like that, Lesnar became just another heel wrestler on the roster, albeit a very well paid one.
The very brief Lesnar vs. Cena feud had its moments. Of course Lesnar’s return the night after Mania had everybody talking. One week later, Lesnar took Cena down in the ring and delivered a stuff punch that bloodied Cena’s mouth, making a lot of fans believe that the feud was real and that the two really hated each other. Then at Extreme Rules, the two legitimately beat on each other; Lesnar opened up Cena’s head with elbow smashes just moments into the match, delivered stiff knees to the body later on, and Cena returned the favor with a very stiff chain shot that legit opened a cut on Lesnar. It was the stiffest and most believable pro wrestling match I’d seen in years. But the fact remains that Lesnar lost, and whereas WWE could have at least given Cena some time off to sell the damage that Lesnar had supposedly done to him, they decided to book Cena in another PPV match three weeks later against the guy that they seem to believe is the real star of the show and the real top heel in the company – John Laurinaitis. The whole thing makes my head hurt.
One of the theories that’s been thrown around by guys like Lance Storm and Dave Meltzer is that WWE had Lesnar lose in his first match because Brock is known to be very moody and temperamental, and so there’s no guarantee that he’ll actually last a year in the company, therefore WWE wanted to have footage of one of their stars beating him in case he takes off. The thought process is, WWE wanted Brock to lose now, rather than have him destroy all the top guys on the roster and then get mad and quit before the company is able to get the big win back. Maybe that is WWE’s theory and it makes some sense, but I look at it like this – if you’re unwilling to take any risks with the guy, then don’t sign him, and certainly don’t sign him for $5 million. But if you’re going to put a huge financial investment into one piece of talent, you better get the most on your return even if there are risks involved. And really when it comes right down to it, Brock is 35 this year, his body has been ravaged by diverticulitis, and he only has one option left to make serious money, and that’s in WWE. So to me there was really only one way to go – you have Lesnar on TV sparingly and you have him destroy a top guy whether it’s Cena or Orton or Triple H or whoever. You keep him separate and don’t align him with any of the useless heels on your roster. You save his first match for Summerslam which is one of the biggest shows of the year, and you have him squash a top babyface. Then you do it again at another PPV, maybe Survivor Series. Then at the Rumble he wins the WWE Title, leading to a title match at Wrestlemania with either Rock or Cena, and it’s at that show that Brock loses. His year is up, he leaves the company, WWE gets the big win on the biggest show of the year, and they just sit back and count the millions and millions that they made off Lesnar over that year. Sure you risk that Brock quits halfway through so that all you have on the books are his squash wins over top talent. But again that’s the risk you take when you bring in a star of his magnitude and with his price tag.
It appears now that WWE is trying to salvage Brock’s momentum; they had him take out Triple H the night after Extreme Rules, and will now apparently keep Brock mostly off television until the build for his expected match with Triple H at Summerslam. They’ve also brought in Paul Heyman as Brock’s mouthpiece for now (since they’ve already gone through 5 or 6 of Brock’s 24 contracted appearances for the year and have to use him sparingly from here on out) which I think is a nice touch. WWE may still profit off Brock Lesnar and get a good return on their investment, but it could have been so much bigger had they done it right. I guess time will tell.
Some additional thoughts…
* WWE’s mid-card roster is probably in the worst shape it’s ever been in, and it’s frustrating to see given some of the talent they have like Miz, Ziggler, Swagger, Kingston, Truth, Santino and others. Week in and week out, WWE books any combination of these guys into meaningless matches with stupid distraction finishes that serve no purpose and as a result, these guys are in a constant holding pattern. You could literally miss several months worth of Raw matches with any of these guys, and you wouldn’t miss a thing because nothing changes. One year ago, Kingston and Evan Bourne were battling Swagger and Ziggler on Raw over the buried and useless tag titles, and now one year later it’s the same stuff except they’ve got Truth in there instead of Bourne. Every now and then when the company realizes they have no new top level stars, they will elevate someone like Ziggler into a World Title program long enough to get through a PPV or two, then job him out and put him right back where he was. It’s just really unfortunate, but it’s indicative of how useless WWE’s overall creative process is today, particularly on Raw.
* The brand extension is so dead, I’m almost embarrassed for the company whenever they try to pull off another tired Raw vs. Smackdown! angle like what they did with Laurinaitis and Teddy Long at Wrestlemania. It’s become so stupid, you will now routinely see a Raw guy (like Chris Jericho) challenge for the World Heavyweight Title (which is supposed to be a Smackdown! belt), or a Smackdown! guy (like Mark Henry) challenge for the Raw brand’s supposed title, the WWE Title. They need to officially abolish the “brand war” once and for all, unify the world titles, unify the United States and Intercontinental Titles, and have one set of champions defending on both shows, like how it was in 1999 when Smackdown! was created. They can still have two rosters on simultaneous tours, so they might as well give up the brand extension and stop making me want to kick my own ass for continuing to watch this disorganized mess.
* I wonder if the WWE brain trust will ever realize that the hardcore wrestling fans on the Internet still make up only a fraction of the 4-5M viewers that watch Raw on USA Network every week. I’m asking this because the company continues to change angles on the fly after word gets out on the Internet. WWE had planned to bring Kharma back as a surprise opponent for Nikki Bella at Extreme Rules, and have Kharma win the Divas Title to not only settle her grudge with the Bella Twins from last year, but also to set up Kharma vs. Beth Phoenix as the money match of the Divas division. But as soon as word got out on the Internet that the company planned to do this, they scrapped the plan, brought back Layla to no interest, and went so far as to have Eve tell the Bellas on television (in regards to who the mystery opponent would be), “Don’t worry, it’s not Kharma,” which basically confirmed that they’d changed the plan due to the Internet leak when in reality, most viewers had no clue that Kharma was scheduled to return.
* I like Matt “A-Train/Albert/Lord Tensai” Bloom a lot. A number of years ago I did an interview with him that turned into a several hour discussion, and I found him to be a good and genuine person, the type of guy you want to see succeed. Unfortunately, this Lord Tensai thing just isn’t working. It’s no fault of Bloom’s, he’s doing everything he’s being told to do. But the fans remember him from his previous WWE run as a mid-carder and so despite WWE’s attempts to put him over as a main event heel, he’s not getting any heat and every match is filled with “Albert” chants. I hope that WWE doesn’t give up on him too soon since he’s a big, talented, well liked guy. But they have to tweak the character somewhat, maybe cover him up, have him win a title, something to get the fans to look at him differently.
* I applaud WWE for continuing to give Great Khali a means of making a living for himself and his family. But it’s becoming sadder and sadder watching him hobble out there, and I can’t help but think about Andre the Giant in his final years in the ring. Khali has trouble walking, has trouble getting up after taking a bump, and is just very limited in what he can do. WWE may be better off giving him a salary but keeping him at home or using him as an international ambassador for the business.
Finally, Happy Mother’s Day to my mom, and to all the moms and expecting moms out there!