2017 was a...year for WWE.
That’s nondescript as hell, I'll admit. But when you really think about it, WWE managed to have a fairly successful, but unnewsworthy year in 2017. Nothing revolutionary, nothing amazing, just a nice year in a list of many.
Think about it: they made money, they lost some guys, they cut some guys, WrestleMania was a big success, ratings are low but pretty much where they’ve always been, the Network is fine and the booking and motivations of people on television are all over the place, as per usual. Anything else I'm missing?
But while nothing major went down, there is a lot to talk about. You could point out that this was the year Vince McMahon was proven right about Roman Reigns. It can also be the year that or that in the WWE compelling characters and stories don’t matter as long as the right motivating factors, like rights fees and Network numbers, hold steady.
It sucks on a creative level, and it won't change while this regime is still in charge. It's just reality. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest stories of the year:
Roman Reigns Is Still The Guy
Long term booking is not WWE’s forte these days. But one overarching storyline that was made abundantly clear throughout storylines in 2017 (going into 2018) should be clear to everyone by now: Roman Reigns is the guy. Brock Lesnar is also the guy, but not the guy like Roman. They do not lose, no matter who gets hot. And Roman Reigns will get crowning achievement number three or four at WrestleMania 34 by defeating Lesnar for the title. That has not budged or changed in the last year, and considering we're headed into January, it's all but confirmed your final WrestleMania images will be Roman Reigns holding the Universal title high.
Some citizens of the internet don’t like this. They want someone else, they'll tell you. They think Roman Reigns is overrated, this and that, blah blah blah. Look, here’s some real talk and I'll be blunt about it -- what mythical human being should be placed above Roman Reigns? Finn Balor isn’t at Reigns’ level as a promo, and while that will sting for some people, to me Balor loses something as a face and got really over in New Japan as a heel. Braun Strowman might be the closest thing, but I don’t think he has some of the qualities that Roman has that would make him a tippity top guy. Nakamura has been wholly unimpressive since being called up to the main roster. Samoa Joe? Maybe. But they're going with this Samoan named Joe.
It's not the reality that people want, but it is the reality that exists. So whether you like it or not, Roman Reigns is the guy. He’s a fantastic worker (though not the best in the world right now, like he actually legit said recently) so let’s stop pretending that’ll change in 2018 or beyond. WWE has put their foot firmly in the ground, and even though they got a ton of crap about it, and it didn't work for years, 2017 had the first signs that they'll probably be fine having him on top.
And in the end, they were right, admit it. It took three years longer due to their own sabotage, but they got it right. It all paid off in the end, and there's no repercussions so they'll do whatever they please. Yay for being a monopoly!
Why Does Anything Matter?
Yes, I’m going to complain about WWE booking, the least shocking thing you’ll ever see on any pro wrestling website ever. Please skip to the next section if you have seen this takes before.
What it boils down to is that Vince McMahon is a 72 year old man who has a very, very short attention span. Angles and ideas that are introduced one week are sometimes dropped cold the following week with no real explanation. Character motivations are often unexplained or so vague one has to come up with ideas just to justify what people do on screen (the Smackdown beat down of the Raw locker room before Survivor Series, anyone?).
One of the best examples went down at Great Balls of Fire. Roman Reigns got in a car and proceeded to commit attempted murder on Braun Strowman, who was in an ambulance, by ramming said car into the ambulance. Now, there was genuine interest in this for twenty four hours. Was it a double turn? Would he face legal action? No one knew, and based on the presentation, it seemed like it would be a big factor into storylines going forward that could change everything. Maybe WWE was going in a new direction on Roman Reigns, which would be a pretty interesting development, right?
So of course the following night, the intrigue was quickly killed off because there were absolutely no repercussions to what Reigns did, and no one really made a big deal about it. When Kurt Angle brought it up, Reigns brushed it off, saying people did worse in the Attitude Era. It was then dropped cold, never to be mentioned again. The end.
So again, why get emotionally invested?
By the way, since this fits nowhere else and I just have to get it out there, this was a fantastic year to commit crimes on WWE television without facing any real repercussions. Beyond that specific incident of attempted murder I mentioned above, we also had Randy Orton committing arson by burning down Bray Wyatt’s mysterious shack in the woods and another attempt at Braun Strowman’s life after being trash compacted inside a....well...trash compactor by Kane. Despite video evidence of crimes being committed, no one was arrested, because I guess police don't exist in the WWE Universe unless the Authority calls them or something.
But hey, it’s pro wrestling! None of that matters, people in charge will tell you. Just enjoy the ride that it takes you on, don’t think about too much, they say. Sure, that’s one way of excusing easy, sloppy booking, but when you present a product so disengaging that it can’t offer any emotional investment, there really shouldn’t be any surprise why ratings are what they are, and no one should be really shocked or surprise that pro wrestling at a mainstream level is at an all time low.
Boy, did they not hinder Jinder this year.
I will be real with you (as I always am): I rolled my eyes when I first heard Jinder Mahal was signed back to WWE a year ago. The guy looked great in his first run, at a physical level. But that's about it -- he showed nothing in terms of charisma, work, presence or...well, anything. He wasn’t horrifically bad, but far from being good or even okay. He was a product of the FCW talent development factory, someone with a great body who can work WWE style, but struggles to do much beyond that. When he was resigned, there was nothing to indicate that anything had changed.
So when the Superstar Shakeup went down post Wrestlemania and Jinder Mahal started to get a push on Smackdown, winning a random six man match for the right to face Randy Orton at Backlash, I was bewildered. And when he won the championship later on that month I was so mystified by everything that was going on I couldn't do anything else buy laugh my ass off.
This is a real thing that happened in 2017. The WWE CHAMPIONSHIP, the (purportedly) most important championship in the world, went to JINDER MAHAL, who was not even employed by WWE a year prior, and who a month before was getting beat up by Gronk during the WrestleMania pre-show. WHAT?
Of course, the story goes is that WWE was trying really hard to get into the Indian market this year, as their social media numbers in the region are booming. Cool! That’s something to explore and cultivate over a period of time. But JINDER MAHAL? There were good reasons why it wouldn't work, simply because..well, I just listed all of them in the first paragraph -- he wasn’t the guy. He was never the guy, and to be blunt he’s probably never going to be the guy that cracks open the door to the Indian market.
WWE learned that the hard way when they announced a tour of India in December that ended up being halved when ticket sales were low. Weeks before the tour, Jinder Mahal lost the WWE title to AJ Styles, which was the beginning of the end.
You could argue that even bigger trouble came when it was announced that Triple H would be facing him on the tour, replacing the previous title match against Kevin Owens. So three guesses on what happened here. You only need one, honestly: Triple H beat Jinder Mahal in India. The guy they spent six months building in the hopes he would become an icon in the region so that they could go back to and drive business there for years.
But of course, the Triple H explanation, since he always has one, is simple: Jinder Mahal got the rub by working with Hunter. Hunter was clearly the babyface to Jinder Mahal's heel, despite the fact that they were clearly building him up as the face against Kevin Owens just weeks prior. BUT HEY! He’s a future star just by working with The Game. I wonder how RVD, Sheamus, Booker T felt about hearing that one again.
I don’t want to blame the guy himself. Jinder Mahal tried really hard in the role, and I’ll even admit towards the end of the run he did gain some presence that he didn't have before. And you know what? the Singh Brothers are a fun act. But in the end, he never had it at the main event level, both in work and promo ability, and it was so painfully clear to witness despite contrarians on Twitter insisting that it was working (it never did).
Who knows what the future holds for Jinder Mahal in 2018. But I think there is lesson to be learned here. Or is there? WWE can spend six months building a guy, then decide on a whim that it’s not working then drop the whole concept cold turkey. Again, say it with me now: they can do whatever they want, because nothing matters.
The Women’s Revolution Continues
The women's revolution continued in 2017. The women that made their mark in NXT years ago have continued to do so in the WWE, with some gaining momentum and others...not so much.
Bayley, as feared, didn’t transition well on the main roster. There’s something about WWE and babyfaces that just doesn’t mesh these days. Every opportunity WWE had at making her feel less like a star, they took it. Lost in her hometown? Check. Book her in embarrassing segments? Double check. Lose key, pivotal matches she really shouldn’t be losing? CHECK CHECK CHECK! Of course, being booked like that isn’t a career killer, but the kind of reactions and momentum Bayley had before joining the main roster are long gone, and the can’t miss aspect of Bayley was, well, missed.
Alexa Bliss was one of the stronger characters this year. Bliss exudes charisma as a heel and has great control of a crowd, an excellent combination one needs on the main roster to get far. Her work isn’t all the way there, but it’s solid, and had some memorable feuds with the likes of Bayley, Sasha Banks and Mickie James by the end of the year. She and Nia Jax should be an interesting pair next year as they're both the top heels, but eventually one is going to have to move aside while the other is on top.
The Money in the Bank match was the highest profile women’s match of the year. It was met with controversy when Carmella, who won the briefcase, had James Ellsworth grab the briefcase and give it to her, causing a ton of outrage. I think it was justified -- I mean, why would you book a fluke finish like that when you're supposed to be pushing the women in the match as next level athletes? It was rectified pretty quickly on the following Smackdown by having Carmella enter a rematch and get the briefcase for herself. She still has the briefcase, so it’ll be interesting to see when she cashes in, though I think something is lost with her act with Ellsworth gone.
2018 looks to be an even more pivotal year for the division, with Stephanie McMahon waltzing out in the midst of a random pull apart brawl between the women to announce that for the first time, a women’s Royal Rumble would be taking place at the coveted event. It's really cool to see a division that had been marginalized for years taken far more seriously, it's long overdue and I look foward to seeing how this Rumble pans out.
Much like how women in the world of MMA have continued to evolve and become better due to UFC’s exposure, we’re only seeing the beginning of just how great women’s wrestling will become over time thanks to the WWE's continued efforts at training women and putting them in high profile matches. It can be a boon for both WWE and independent wrestling in general for women looking to get into the profession. Granted, it comes at the cost WWE's overt branding of the division, but we'll get to that later.
I’m so funny with this headline, right? I took about five seconds to think of it, you can’t tell but that’s for reals.
I do have to admit, that does describe the 205 Live scene at the moment, ,there’s really nothing to it anymore. They have very clearly strayed away from what made the CWC special and have turned it into 2004 Velocity, though that at least had Paul London vs. Akio which are a really great series of matches. When's that coming to the network?
Neville started off as a strong heel in 2017, winning the title and showed a side of him no one had ever seen before, especially in NXT where he struggled on promos as a babyface. But after he won a decisive feud with Austin Aries, he kind of just...did nothing. Then he dropped the title to Enzo Amore, and after that was never seen again. He is missed, that is for sure.
Going with Enzo sounds good on paper: he’s extremely charismatic, and as a heel comes off really well. He's probably one of the best promos in WWE right now that comes off as genuine. But he’s nowhere near anyone’s league as a wrestler, and the gimmick right now is that he’s so bad that he needs a caravan of guys to keep the title on him. Is that really how we want to portray champions, or does that not matter now too?
There are two major problem with 205 Live that really hinders the product: they’re all forced to work this weird, 1980s-esque plodding style which they should absolutely not be doing (the match above represents this well, absolutely dead crowd and everything), and having them tape live after Smackdown which causes the crowd to just die a death whenever a long match starts. It’s downright baffling that a roster with such great talent like Kalisto, Akira Tozawa, Jack Gallagher, Gran Metalik, and so many others constantly put out matches on this show that are so stale and lifeless in execution.
Things need to change for the brand. Hideo Itami has lost something after all the injuries in NXT, and it's becoming clear as he starts his run on the main roster. Enzo is an okay stopgap due to the shot of charisma, but he isn't going to solve the underlying problems that the rest of 205 Live has. As long as the direction is lifeless and the same as any other match on the WWE scale, 205 Live will continue to draw little to no interest.
The Mauro Stuff
The situation between Mauro Ranallo and WWE was always going to get weird eventually.
Ranallo has a voice and announcing style that is...different. You can take it or leave it. Personally, I like that it's different from WWE's normal fare; at the very least, he stands out in a sea of bland Micheal Cole clones who are all told to look and say the same things over and over. But of course, Vince McMahon, who hammers home one announcing style into oblivion on the main roster, got tired of Ranallo being different, so the relationship started to sour from there.
It didn't help matters that on an edition of Bring it to the Table, a now canceled show where someone from WWE takes internet talking points then had people on the show tow the company line and say how stupid they were, JBL trashed Ranallo for acknowledging his Best Announcer award from the Wrestling Observer for his work the previous year. It felt like a blurring of the lines where JBL was acting like how his character normally behaves, but was taking shots that were outside of WWE's normal storylines. It was weird, in other words.
This led to a situation where Ranallo stopped appearing on Smackdown or 205 Live, both of the shows he was calling at the time. Internet speculation deduced that JBL's comments had caused Ranallo to suffer some sort of depressive episode, as Ranallo has been very open about suffering from depression in the past. Mob mentality on Twitter kicked in and targeted JBL, with many people bringing up his hazing past. People were openly calling for his dismissal.
Granted, it's easy to connect the dots and point to JBL. Any one of the hundreds of shoot interviews conducted over the last 20 years will tell you some sort of story about JBL's bullying past; he's become synonymous as the face of WWE bullying culture that has lingered there to this day.
But at the same time, it also made me aware of this mob mentality like atmosphere that social media sites like Twitter and Facebook can foster. Yes, you can argue JBL's comments were out of line and perpetuated his image many on the internet have when it comes to him. But that doesn't mean that he was the factor that drove Mauro Ranallo out of the WWE. It was a weird situation that ultimately led to Ranallo leaving the WWE for a bit, putting out a statement explicitly stating that JBL had nothing to do with his departure. It is utterly convenient that this statement came out right as Newsweek was about to put out an investigative piece on JBL's hazing past, but if Ranallo says it wasn't JBL, then that's what we have to go with.
Ranallo and WWE eventually did make up, with him coming back as a part of NXT's announcing team. It's probably better for all parties involved -- the micromanagement on NXT is nothing compared to WWE's, and the backstage culture is different than it is on the main roster. JBL did end up leaving in the fall, though reports were that it had nothing to do with the Ranallo incident.
Still, it was a weird lesson for me in terms of mob mentality online. There were plenty of people out there who wanted JBL's head for this, and there was enough smoke in the fire where it seemed like the right thing to do. I even got sucked into it, thinking that enough was enough. But at the end of the day, none of us have the full details of what went down. And when you really look at how WWE is ran, and considering the stories past announcers have had about their job being incredibly stressful, can one really think JBL's rambling was the sole factor in Ranallo's decision to leave?
Sometimes things aren't always as they appear -- people forget that on social media where everything is driven on impulses. We should probably be better at that in 2018. Due process matters.
I Did Like Some Stuff
I did, honest! This whole article wasn’t intentionally written to be a 4,000+ diatribe on WWE, it just sorta...happened. Honest!
The tag team division in WWE this year was really great. Cesaro and Sheamus dominated the Raw scene for most of the year, and had fantastic matches with the likes of The Shield and The Hardy Boyz. The Usos dominated Smackdown with their excellent work, with their feud with the New Day easily being some of the best in-ring work of the year on the main roster, with their Hell in a Cell match being a highlight.
Smackdown’s tag team division in particular looks pretty great next year, with Rusev Day rapidly gaining momentum, the Bludgeon Brothers ready to hammer their way into the tag title scene and the team of Gable and Benjamin (Training Day? American Alpha II?) are also starting to gel well. WWE is really making up for all those years where they ignored the tag team division with a deep roster full of great talent.
Chris Jericho and Kevin Owens’ feud was one of the storyline highlights of the year, particularly the Festival of Friendship segment that had Owens blindside Jericho to set up their match for WrestleMania. The two clicked together instantly as a unit. They were a fun duo, and the split was among one of the better segments WWE had on their television all year. Jericho is very strong on making his angles mean something and putting out a good story to move things along, and when you couple that with Owens’ great heel persona, there was a ton of great stuff between the two early on in the year.
The Miz continues to be one of the stronger promos in WWE right now, a fantastic talker who's gained back stock after years of flopping around on the midcard with a lame direct-to-DVD Hollywood star gimmick. Whether it was his spoof of Total Bellas with Maryse, the epic promo between him and Daniel Bryan or the great connection he and Maryse have as a couple, Miz is one of the most gifted talkers in WWE right now and has a level of confidence I haven’t seen in him since his WWE title run earlier in the decade.
And give John Cena where credit is due. Despite being gone on and off for most of the year, he had some tremendous matches with the likes of Roman Reigns and AJ Styles. Whenever he does return to the ring, it’s special, and usually worth the wait. Except Survivor Series, that was weird. Also keep this in mind I wrote most of this before the Christmas Raw, where he and Elias had one of the most boring matches on planet Earth.
Not everything in WWE is bad. If you look hard enough, there's always some great stuff. I just wish it could happen more often.
2018: The Brand Above All Else
2018 for WWE means we’ll see more of the brand pushed above all else.
It really started in 2013 with the rise of the Authority, but it’s becoming increasingly clear as the years go by that the McMahons and Triple H are the stars of the show. They’re the biggest heels, but they can also be the biggest babyfaces when the time's right. Best example? Stephanie McMahon, who most weeks eviscerates any babyface that might show a little backbone, came out earlier this month and announced the women's Royal Rumble match. It's clear that, yes, the women in WWE are now doing great things, but it's all because of Stephanie McMahon's great passion for the women's revolution. Isn't she great?
Triple H, Stephanie and others will “do the job” when the time is right, but the day after their loss nothing feels like it’s changed. Nothing in WWE ever really changes from the core story. Triple H and Stephanie will take the next few months off, then return by fall to start eviscerating everyone into oblivion until it's time to do the deed again at WrestleMania. It’s the same story that's been beaten to death for years now, but who exactly is going to stop them from being the stars of their own brand?
One interesting thing that could have an effect on WWE in the next year is Vince McMahon's actions in the last month. He's sold a large amount of stock to fund a new entity called Alpha Entertainment, and the rumor is that he's looking to bring back the XFL, the butt of every television executive's joke in 2001, back from the dead. It sounds ludicrous. It sounds downright batty. It sounds like Vince McMahon.
If the project becomes reality, the question then is what will happen to WWE without Vince McMahon's full attention. It didn't work well last time, and considering Vince McMahon is now in his seventies and is quick to change his mind on things, well, that isn't a very good combination.
Not to say that WWE in 2018 is going to be bad -- nothing's happened yet, after all. But it'll be more of the same we've seen in previous year, bar an extraordinary event no one can foresee. It'll be interesting to see where they go with Roman Reigns, what they do on Smackdown, who they call up and who becomes an afterthought. But I could have told you that all last year. WWE is fine, is going nowhere, and will probably continue to be fine as long as that sweet TV rights fee cash keeps flowing in.
But hey, no, really...I want to see the XFL come back. LOS ANGELES XTREME FOREVER, BABY!