Even in an age of oversaturation, has the WWE roster become too good for its own good?
Not too long ago, I was in my living room and was absolutely floored by what I was watching in the final hour of Monday Night Raw. It was in late July and Daniel Bryan was placed in a challenging gauntlet of matches by newly hired Raw general manager Brad Maddox to prove his worth to fans and his eventual SummerSlam opponent, John Cena, that he was a worthy contender. The first match was a quick victory over Jack Swagger while the third and final match was a disqualification victory over the table-happy Ryback. But what really got me off my couch was the second, two-segment-long match between Bryan and Antonio Cesaro. To call it a good TV match would be like calling “Dog Day Afternoon” a decent little movie. It was one of the best, hardest-hitting, and athletically exhausting matches you will see in any walk of pro wrestling today, and I was astounded by how the match came seemingly out of nowhere.
After the match, I had a conversation with one-half of the Hard Travelling Fanboys, the talented Greg Phillips, about how insanely good the wrestling in the WWE had become in the past few months. As the weeks go by, the list of great matches that the WWE has produced for us this year grows longer and longer, almost to a scary degree. It seems as if every weekly program on WWE television has bred at least one must-see contest on a weekly basis not even considering the last couple stellar pay-per-views. Then, as Roger Rabbit once famously said, it hit me like a ton of bricks. Greg mentioned that while Raw has seen better days as a standalone program in years like 1997, 2000, and 2001, the current in-ring product had perhaps reached the elite levels of the “Smackdown Six” era in 2002. The more I thought about it, the more I believed it!
When you consider a lofty claim like that, you have to look at the roster and what different match ups you can mix up with it. When you look at the list of stars the WWE has assembled at this current time, it starts to dawn on you how good these guys really are. Not even considering the part-time Überstars like The Rock, Brock Lesnar, Triple H, and The Undertaker, or the cream of the full-time crop like John Cena, CM Punk, Randy Orton, and Sheamus, you have so many bundles of talented wrestlers either in their prime (Alberto Del Rio), on the cusp of greatness (Daniel Bryan), or waiting in the wings (Bray Wyatt), that it becomes a daunting task just to get all them on the card. I know a statement like this sounds insane as we are one year into what seems like an insufferable experiment of weekly three-hour Raw programs, but weekly greatness like Bryan versus Cesaro seems to drive that point home.
There are plenty of other factors that have played into this new era of assembled greatness at WWE. You have Triple H’s commitment to turn NXT into a highly refined and well-run developmental ground on top of the company’s recent signings of young, talented wrestlers from the independent scene like Kassius Ohno and Sami Zayn. The wait-and-see approach to introducing new stars into the main roster has paid off nicely for the company thanks to the recent success of Bray Wyatt and The Shield, and with a newly opened state-of-the-art performance center, the future looks even brighter. The main shows, especially the pay-per-views, have gotten to a point where you can rightfully predict that more than three matches will be worth your time to tune in to see, and one of them will be a standout showcase in the same vein that we consider many Match of the Year candidates.
You also have to take into account the fact that despite its current standing as the lead alternative to WWE in North America, TNA Wrestling has undergone a series of self-implemented roster cuts in order to save money. The company still produces great matches at times and has many bright stars like Austin Aries, AJ Styles, and the resurgent Bully Ray, but TNA’s product quality has rarely gotten past “pretty good” since Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff were hired. There is also the fact that Ring of Honor Wrestling, while still good independent fare, could be considered at a low point in terms of talent level. Many ROH studs like Bryan Danielson, Tyler Black, Chris Hero, Claudio Castagnoli, and El Generico have signed with WWE in the last few years over going it alone, and the always-turning wheel of transition to new indie stars has been particularly rough for ROH in the past year. I am not saying that independent wrestling is a dying breed because there will always be something other than the big boys to go see in this country, but WWE has done a smarter job in the last few years of signing guys of all shapes and sizes while filling up their cupboards.
But with that trait of plentiful resource comes the fact that you cannot empty every cupboard at the same time; something is going to get left out. As crazy as it sounds, the WWE’s greatest strength in the last year may have also become its most glaring weakness: The fact that despite all of these endless amounts of talented wrestlers at their disposal, there are just not enough spots to put them in for pay-per-view cards, especially WrestleMania when guys like Rock, Lesnar, and Undertaker stake their claims. It reminds me a lot of the position the WWF found themselves in back in 2001 when they bought out WCW and ECW, leaving them with a smorgasbord of wrestlers on the payroll for every weekly show with not a clue about what to do with them. The talent got so mixed up and overpopulated that I actually lost interest in WWF for the first time in years during the weird, multifaceted Alliance feud. Some fans might call this a good problem, but I call it a “too good” problem: Has WWE become so much better than the rest in terms of overall talent that they are somewhat at a loss about how to make it all work?
This topic has a lot of different directions it can go, so we are going to discuss this recent embarrassment of in-ring riches in the WWE with an esteemed panel of Place To Be Nation writers: Marc Clair, Ben Morse, and Kati Price. I’ve worn out my keyboard long enough, so now I pass off to my colleagues a variety of questions: Is this the most talent the WWE has had at one time? Has the ridiculous depth of the WWE become an underlying problem given how interchangeable all of these great matches are? Which wrestler in the company is likely to get left at the cut line by WWE even though he/she is capable of doing so much more, and which one will rise from the masses? Does the fact that there is no clearly defined brand split anymore hurt or help all of these guys in making the final card? Why is Dennis Stamp not booked? TOO MANY QUESTIONS!
I have only been watching wrestling for a very short amount of time. I started watching in 2009 when I realized I married a wrestling fan. I instantly fell in love, but because of my short history with the WWE, I can’t speak of matters pre-2009. I think everyone involved in this roundtable has been watching for quite a bit longer than I, so our perspectives may be different for that reason.
That being said, I don’t necessarily agree with the “Roster is too good” statement. To me, there are plenty of “talents” that aren’t that good that definitely could go and their spot be filled by someone better. The WWE has three weekly prime time slots. There is plenty of space for these stars. Maybe it’s a little harder to put them in PPV matches. I just really think the problem is not using the talent they have in the best way possible. I think about Sin Cara. He is pretty awful and had constantly shown he can’t be relied on, yet the WWE pushed and pushed him. I don’t think Del Rio is as big as they’d like either. He isn’t good on the mic and not amazing in the ring either. He could be in one of the lower card matches and the WWE could do without the Tons of Funk. They still give the Great Khali spots!
As for the question of if making distinct brands would work, I think this would help a lot. I couldn’t even tell you who is supposed to be on each roster. I remember when I first started watching, they were separated and they slowly seemed to merge due to a lack of talent since then. That is clearly not an issue anymore. Another thing I think would help is to have a clear tag team division. For a while there was none to speak of. I’m pretty sure because it would have required taking their huge stars and sticking them with someone and taking away from their singles matches. There is plenty of talent now to have a clear tag team division. They had Team Hell No, Rhode Scholars, Prime Time Players, and recently the Usos. I think this is a great improvement and a good start but I really think this could/ should be expanded. I think it’s safe to say Team Hell No and Rhode Scholars are done so now is the perfect time to take some of the upcoming greats or the mediocre regulars and build up a great tag team division and make a separate name for Smackdown again.
One guy that I think has already been left behind and over looked is Wade Barrett. When he came back, I had high hopes for him, but I think the WWE dropped the ball with him. They just aren’t using him (among others) in the best way possible. I’m only one person and can’t know how everyone else in the “WWE Universe” feels, but in my opinion, the WWE needs to stop pushing some of these lower cards so hard and better utilize some of the other talent.
I want to focus in on something Andrew touched on and Kati expanded on, and that’s the brand split—or lack thereof—because to me it’s the obvious yet difficult solution to the “problem” of having too much talent.
As Andrew mentioned, we’ve been here before back in 2001/2002 following the acquisitions of WCW and ECW leading to a greatly expanded—some would say bloated—WWF roster. The company attempted to take advantage of the talent influx by splitting into Raw and Smackdown, two distinct shows that did not share talent outside of Undisputed and Women’s titleholders, and by the fall that would even change.
The initial effort in keeping the brands separate as well as the addition of new titles at the World, secondary and tag team levels helped create new stars who would not have received a chance even a couple of years earlier. With a landscape where no longer did a half dozen main event level players had to compete and politic for a single major championship and/or TV and pay-per-view spotlight, new stars emerged. Without the brand extension, the likes of Eddie Guerrero and JBL would not have had their own slightly lower pressure proving ground to ascend to the top of the company. I’d say without Smackdown as its own brand, Edge may not have gotten to carry a show, Jeff Hardy wouldn’t have busted through the glass ceiling on Raw and CM Punk may not have had the space to develop his heel character as he did. Heck, it’s even possible John Cena may never have become the face of the company without that initial period where he didn’t have to compete with the likes of Triple H and Shawn Michaels for screen time.
What felled the brand extension to some degree came from that huge reservoir of talent quickly drying up as many younger WCW/ECW guys washed out and others were winding down their careers. By 2007 or so, the developmental talent being called up produced the occasional diamond in the rough, but a lot more guys built for lifelong careers on the mid card. Having two tag team titles became pointless and the secondary belts were used to try and get people over rather than as a reward for already being there.
When WWE more or less killed the brand extension by making Raw a “super show” and allowing liberal crossover between it and Smackdown, it came from the necessity of a thinned roster not in terms of numbers, but stars. Ratings had dropped and only by consolidating all the big names across the board did the company feel it could salvage any success.
Flash forward a couple years and we’ve got the situation Andrew described where there’s talent aplenty and guys just waiting to take the leap into stardom thanks to a greatly improved developmental system complete with tremendous recruiting out of the indies. Unfortunately, with the lack of brand extension and moreover the devaluing of not just the secondary championships but the World title, too many of these guys duke it out in great matches with no stakes as only the handful of men competing to be WWE Champion have any real importance attached to them.
WWE currently has six hours of national television time, not even counting their Internet programming; that’s more than they had during the brand extension. Yes, there’s a three hour Raw to fill every week, so understandably the idea of splitting the roster again might make them apprehensive, but they have the talent to do it. If Smackdown became its own exclusive show again with the World title as the ultimate prize, there would be much more opportunities for rudderless stars like Antonio Cesaro, Kofi Kingston, Wade Barrett, etc. to hone their craft and be ready when Raw needs new main eventers. The struggles of Dolph Ziggler, Damien Sandow and Cody Rhodes to become champion would feel important and not like background.
Honestly, with all the quality wrestlers competing almost exclusively on Superstars and the undercard of Main Event or waiting for the call-up from NXT, WWE could probably produce a third brand with another set of champions. There’s enough tag teams to revive a second pair of belts in that division. This can work.
I’m not calling for titles to be devalued or the roster to be stretched thin, but there’s no denying that the brand extension produced high quality matches at its best with the Smackdown Six and the like; the rub always came from one half of the equation falling off in comparison, but the roster now has enough guys and girls who can work on the mic and in the ring now that that need not be the case. I’m sure the lighter travel schedule for TV tapings wouldn’t hurt the talent any either.
At the end of the day, I get that this comes down to dollars, cents and ratings points, and understand that WWE has apprehension about not being able to advertise all their top stars on every one of their shows, but that short term reliance will come back to bite them at some point when said “top stars” fade away and nobody has been groomed as replacements despite more being ready and able than perhaps at any time in the company’s history.
I come at this issue from a somewhat different perspective. After being a huge wrestling fan my entire life from childhood straight through college and my early post-college years, I went into what you might call a “wrestling coma”, and hardly watched any WWE from late 2005 through the end of 2012. The last angle I can clearly remember was the infamous Katie Vick angle. While I can’t credit that disturbing story on it’s own for my drift away from the product, it may have been the the start of my downward slide. After that, I had slowly been losing interest ever since WrestleMania 20, which to me seemed like a turning point. Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero, two of my favorite “workers” over the years, were the champions. The Attitude Era and the craziness surrounding the WCW/ECW “Invasion” angle were dead and buried, and it seemed a new era had begun.
Yet, by SummerSlam of that very year, both Benoit and Eddie had lost their titles and been shunted back down to the mid card. After I moved to Los Angeles in 2004 I no longer had UPN on my cable system and would see no more of Smackdown. Meanwhile, RAW was headlined by Triple H who I had always been a fan of, but it still seemed like a step back. Combine this fading interest in the product with a new life in Los Angeles where both my professional and social lives saw a major uptick, and fitting in the time to watch wrestling quickly fell down the priority scale. By the end of 2005 I didn’t follow the product at all.
Fast forward to late 2012 when I discovered the amazing podcast of my old friends Justin and Scott. Between the vintage vaults and hearing them discuss the current product, my interest was rekindled. Not only that, but I discovered that all of these wrestling shows were on Hulu Plus, and as a man who gave up cable years ago this was spectacular news.
I missed a lot over the years, and have done plenty of catching up, but it appears that I chose a great time to come back. As Andrew has pointed out, the roster is simply loaded with talent right now. In the last six months I’ve witnessed some of the most exciting and skilled wrestling talent I’ve ever seen on WWE programming – Daniel Bryan, Antonio Cesaro, The Shield, CM Punk (new to me, if you can believe that!), Dolph Ziggler, Alberto del Rio (bored me at first, but he’s great as a heel), Big E Langston. While the idea of a three hour Raw seemed daunting at first, it seems to at least have given creative the leeway to allow for longer matches, the kind these great talents deserve. Seeing these guys interact with some of the old familiar faces like The Rock, Brock Lesnar, Kane, Big Show, Rob Van Dam, Christian and so many others has been a real treat for me. And this is all before we get into any of the guys waiting in the wings on NXT. This may be the best collection of talent under one umbrella I’ve seen, right on par with the “Smackdown Six” days, though I feel there is even more diversity on the roster now.
But with all this talent I’ve noticed a problem, which brings us back to Andrew’s original point. The WWE is so saturated with talent that it leaves them with the difficult dilemma. They must find a balance between finding enough air time and storylines for all of these guys, while at the same time deciding which of these great talents end up “going over.” There are some who are clearly being pushed as top guys – Daniel Bryan and The Shield stick out here. While others who with great talent are jobbed out week after week because hey, somebody’s gotta do it. The most glaring example of this problem was seen when then U.S. Champion Antonio Cesario and then Intercontinental Champion Wade Barrett seemingly went months without a win in “non-title” matches. While a title belt may look pretty, it quickly loses meaning when the champion is constantly booked as a loser.
Of course, nobody longs for the return of the days of a show full of jobber matches followed by one competitive main event (though I do reminisce a bit about my favorite jobber, Barry Horowitz, but I digress…). The Mondays Night Wars blew the days of jobber matches out of the water and wrestling has seemingly not looked back. While we do have some modern day “jobber-esque wrestlers” such as 3MB, Great Khali and Tons of Funk, these were guys that at least got a real push at one point and are treated as somewhat legitimate threats.
So what is the solution? This brings me back to Andrew’s introduction. I think we saw a good example of how WWE can both job guys out and put guys over at the same time. The answer is to simply give the guys you intend to push competitive matches, even if they have to lose. The Bryan/Cesaro match from RAW several weeks ago was a great example of this. These two put on a wrestling clinic and while it was obvious Bryan had to go over, Cesaro looked strong, even in defeat. Especially Bryan uses the small package finisher, Cesaro can still maintain some cred as Bryan merely eeked out a fluke pin instead of a straight up pinfall or a tapout.
Contrast this with how Cesaro and Barrett were booked as U.S. and I.C. Champs respectively. It seemed like they jobbed every single week! When WWE selects certain guys to push as champions, those guys need to remain strong, especially in non-title matches. WWE has been doing more of this lately, booking Dean Ambrose as a strong U.S. Champion along with his Shield cohorts Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns as tag champs. Sure, let an USO get a pin in a six man match to push a feud, nothing wrong with that. But overall, nobody views the Shield as weak champions, and when one of them gets pinned it is seen as a fluke. This is in stark contrast to the championship reigns of Cesaro and Barrett, who were seemingly expected to lose every week.
It seems that in many ways WWE is already starting to find the balance with the talent on their roster. Using NXT as a stepping stone for upcoming talent is a huge help, as it gives these great young talents not only the time to develop, but also serves to keep them on TV and keep them away from doing weekly jobs. Leave the legitimate jobs to the 3MB’s and Tons of Funks of the world.
Overall, while the plethora of talent gives WWE a few dilemmas when it comes to booking their stars, I believe we as fans should be incredibly thrilled to be seeing a WWE that, absent major competition (sorry, TNA), are starting to showcase *wrestlers* doing what they were always meant to do – wrestle. Even if I have to suffer through the occasional job of one of my new favorites like Antonio Cesaro, I’d say its well worth the tradeoff when we compare it to the jobber match days of old.