The following is one man’s opinion about the evolution of WWE content from the time he started watching in 1995 to present day.
Wrestling is just like any other form of media. Trends are developed and brought to fever pitch; some overnight, while others a slow burn leading to a monstrous crescendo. The evolution of wrestling over the past 30 years has been an interesting one to say the least, but up until a certain point in the early to mid-2010 years, storyline has always been at the forefront of WWE content.
In the 80’s, the wrestling was hit and miss and the characters were hokey and all based on outlandish bastardizations of a vocation, but everyone’s motivations were laid out for all to see. Some messages were better than others (due to writing, the performer, or both), but everyone had a reason for their place and they told you about it. This perpetuated into the 90’s and 2000’s with the Attitude and Ruthless Aggression era respectively, with each character having motivations that drive a central story. Stone Cold Steve Austin would come out and rip people to shreds both verbally and physically, but he’d do so because there was rhyme to his reason. He attacked those who wronged him; he laced into people who cut him off when he was delivering content related to his motivations and then gave them the stunner for their hubris. The Rock’s vast catalogue of promos were so earthshattering that they can be remembered by fans to this day; each connected to a character, his interpretation of that character, and in relation to a storyline they both shared a path in. Undertaker’s feuds and the various nefarious things he did in every one of his incarnations could be remembered easily, not just because of the acts of violence he would commit or the “magic” he would conjure, but the context in which he worked within. Storylines are the reason we tuned into Raw and Smackdown every week; the unfolding of some new, critical information in the story leaving us salivating to know what the implications are for next week held us captive and yearning for more. That would not last.
First, we must review the climate of the world, as well as the climate of the wrestling community. Kayfabe was long dead at this point; the internet by the 2000’s had caught fire, leading to an influx of information being available to the wrestling community; Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer became more than just a publication for promoters to utilize in understanding what other territories were doing, but a guidebook for the overly nosy fan on how to overexpose the business for themselves. Brock Lesnar vs. Goldberg I marked the first visible time the fans were alerted to backstage politics in such a way that they took matters into their own hands and hijacked the show to voice their opinion. The age of social media developed quickly from the ashes of AOL/AIM and the world began its cascade into the current craze of providing over-extended opinions coupled with a shunted understanding of the ramifications of one’s statements. WWE entered the realm of stocks as a publicly traded company; with the onset of this, Linda’s political campaigns, and the various scandals ranging from re-emerging accusations regarding steroids to Eddie Guerrero’s death and Chris Benoit’s murder-suicide, two letters would forever frame the content presented moving forward: PG. Wrestling minds that dominated the writing of WWE content soon gave way to Hollywood writers over policed by Grapefruits McGee himself (Mr. McMahon). It is to this writer’s detriment as a historian of wrestling content that I dropped off as a wrestling fan from 2007-2014. In other words, I missed almost the entirety of “Lol Cena wins.” I do know that it was during this time period that the Reality era came to be; a time period where the business had become so transparent that wrestling fans, now rubbed deep with the markings of socialization circa late 2000’s and forward, shed their skin of their wild fanatic 90’s selves and entered a phase of fandom that popularized the terms “mark” and “smark.” And lastly, the rise of popularity in Indy wrestling and NJPW, and their lasting effect on how wrestlers practice their craft, and how fans receive the product; here’s where we tie it all together.
With all of the aforementioned zeitgeist material in mind, we are able to take a look at what happened to storylines in WWE in order to better understand where we are today. Wrestling storylines, by the time John Cena took the reigns as the prominent face, were a shell of their former selves. The writing wreaked of content written by people with little to no understanding of the business and its lore; history began being re-written on a constant basis (see Kane’s career) or ignored outright to get the show to progress through the dregs of the three hour Raw and the SmackDown episodes consisting primarily of Raw recaps (notwithstanding brand split eras). The dawn of this time period marked the end of character development for many talent, as only a few performers would ever be so lucky as to draw water from the stone that was WWE’s writing staff. Talent would feud with each other for superficial reasons that a normal adult would find quite ridiculous to be upset about (see Jinder Mahal feuding with Bobby Roode over a top 10 list, Edge and Booker T feuding over being on a Shampoo commercial, and any current Dolph Ziggler program). “Storylines” like these insulted the intelligence of fans, making us cringe to get through the program, and ultimately sending wrestling back into a phase of existence as something that isn’t “cool.” Fans no longer were hungry to find out what would happen on Raw next week, as the content became predictable and bland. Instead, that yearning for something to rabidly kindle an interest in was redirected to behind the wrestling scenes into the backstage political landscape. “What will Stone Cold do next week in response to Vince McMahon’s attack?” was soon replaced by “Superstar suspended for wellness policy violation!” as the primary headline in wrestling news. I reiterate; wrestling stories became so uninteresting that it was more interesting as a fan to pick the business apart from the ground up than to care about the content on the show. As was stated, once in a while, you would find yourself embroiled in a story that has shape to it and gives meaning to the roles of the participants; stories such as CM Punk walking out of the company, Rock vs. Cena, or the Daniel Bryan story (we’ll get to that) would be lighthouses in the vast darkness of WWE content.
With the rise of NXT (the current incarnation; not the game show) off the backs of the growing popularity of the Indy scene and NJPW as alternatives to WWE’s bland repetition on the main roster, fans became attuned to wrestlers performing death defying feats that were ever only performed by cruiserweight divisions and technical wrestlers of old (Angle, Benoit, Guerrero, Malenko, etc.). Wrestling would soon enter a metamorphic phase in which all talent would aspire to blend every style available to them. Fast forward a bit, and you find that WWE has their eyes fixed on capitalizing on this new era of wrestling. The big man archetype has faded from existence, initially by popular demand by wrestling fans, and was replaced by smaller, leaner, more agile wrestlers. CM Punk was, in my opinion, proof that WWE did not get the allure of this oncoming change in trends at the time, but they would go on to attempt redemption through their eventual push of Daniel Bryan. His success as a prime star in a big man dominated world opened doors for men like Finn Balor, AJ Styles, Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, Andrade Cien Almas, Shinsuke Nakamura, and countless others to make the jump to WWE. Again, I have set the tone, but where is this leading?
Look to the aforementioned names and forget that you ever saw them in NXT (if they were in it at all). Do you actually know anything about that character? Do you know what drives them and motivates them? What makes them happy and sad? What sets them off as a person and puts them into that next gear where the ass whooping they hand out has an extra level of stank on it? Who is this person who has come to the ring and demanded my attention, and why should I give it to them? These questions don’t get to have answers 85% of the time, and therein lays the problem. Wrestling as a whole had taken to the trend of abandoning characters and story for the sake of in ring finesse. We have outlined a myriad of reasons ranging from the change in writing staff and the pressures they feel from all angles, to fan culture, to Vince McMahon and his various factors, to WWE’s position as a publicly traded company, etc. Wrestling story telling has died a death before the advent of today’s current wrestling style, but that style serves as the coffin in which storylines lay. What we have now are people, the horrible script they’re forced to learn and deliver 15 minutes prior to their scene, their entrance music, their movefset, loose alignments they may have made with other characters off s ly to balance out the Face/Heel ratio, and the nicknames Michael Cole has been instructed to call them. That’s who they are. Seth Rollins at the height of his time in the Shield and as a heel champion for the authority had every right to be called the “Architect;” it resonated with every action he did. Today’s Seth Rollins is “Architect” and “Kingslayer” in name only; what those titles mean in today’s incarnation of Seth remains to be seen, leaving them with little value beyond marketability. There is no intrigue for many of these characters; their stories either start out as stale as hospital food, or they start out with a large fizz only to go flat like a bottle of soda pop left out with the cap off (see Bray Wyatt vs. Randy Orton leading into WM 33).
It is not surprising to see WWE content end up in its current modality as an uncool product with stories that insult the intelligence of its fans; that was in fact the very tagline Vince McMahon attached to upon launching the Attitude era. He recognized the product had become stale and aimless, with the 80’s stars and stories leading the company into stagnant waters, ultimately forcing his hand to make changes. That is where we are today. So how do we fix this?
The hardest task will be changing the crowd dynamic. The values we hold as a community has to become fair and level across the board; that means re-engaging in an attempt to suspend our belief for the sake of enjoying the product, and vocalizing our need for an interesting story. WWE is not hurting for talent by any means; they can give us a show with intrigue, but it is up to the fans to express a desire for this change. This means recognizing that while amazing matches have permeated the WWE product and assisted in making the content tolerable, diminishing returns is a thing. A dive doesn’t mean as much when you see them every other match; high flying can’t be special if everyone can do it. The specialty act with the specialty personality is the way to go. This is the WWE’s task to complete, and they have already started to show signs that they are aware of this need (we’ll get to that). The next thing fans would have to understand is trends themselves. WWE fans circa 2014-2016 wanted Vince’s big sweaty man fetish gone and the lean, mean cuisine machines in the spotlight. 2017 – Present saw the popularity of big men in wrestling resurge to the point that the former opinions have all but dissipated. Trends are cyclic, meaning they repeat overtime; it is no surprise that bulky brutes performing feats of freakish strength won the spotlight back in recent times; they have become a commodity in today’s climate. This leads me to my last point of this lengthy, overinflated article.
Wrestlers are people, and people are multi-layered, complex beings. Each person has their quirks and their strengths, and a good promoter will know how to play to a character’s strengths and hide their weaknesses. They will make them a specialty item in the eyes of the public; they will become unique. Enter Braun Strowman, Broken/Woken Matt Hardy, Elias, Kevin Owens, Alexa Bliss, Neville, Samoa Joe and Sami Zayn. These characters are the pioneers of actual character structure in WWE. I know EXACTLY who each of these people are and what motivates them: Braun Strowman is a bulldozer of a man who yearns for competition to test himself against; he seeks a challenge in Brock Lesnar because he has performed actions hinting that he can best the man. He panders to the crowd and destroys the arena at their behest, only deviating to destroy for his own personal gain if the motivation arises to do so. Woken Matt Hardy would literally require his own article for me to explain his character, so do your own research if you don’t know. Elias is a musician who wants to spread his word with the people of the world and does so through mockery and the conducting of the crowd. Kevin Owens is the prize fighter whose attachments to others are gimped by his obsession to provide for his family as the dominant force in all of wrestling. Alexa Bliss is a beautiful egomaniac with a mean girl attitude and a penchant for manipulation. Neville is a bitter British man whom resents WWE and society for having overlooked him up until his debut on 205 Live. Samoa Joe… a god on the mic; there is nothing more I can say beyond go watch him yourself. And then there’s Sami Zayn; the lovable underdog who fell from grace to become WWE’s most obnoxious sentient rubber band present in the company. The take away from this is simple: if you give me a product that has an interesting story with an engaging cast of characters, I will watch with excitement and eagerness to see what happens next. If you do not, my motivations to come back next week diminish just a little bit more.