Thursday, January 2, 2014

Was 2013 the New Normal for WWE Match Quality?

A huge reason why matches in WWE have been awesome this year
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The calendar year 2013 will mainly be implanted in my wrestling-fan brain as the year WWE went into Boss Mode, at least in terms of promoting matches. I doubt any financial analyst would call it their best year (although they did make a lot of money on WrestleMania and are shopping their television package for sports-league cash), and the storytelling has been of inconsistent providence. However, I could be sure that no matter how bad the plot progression was in a given week, at least one match during the slate would be what I might have termed ten years ago as "pay-per-view quality." If only one match was worth raving about, then WWE would be having a bad week. Sometimes, entire shows would be loaded with stellar matches. If your ideal as a wrestling fan was to have the top company producing great in-ring content, then WWE at least tried to meet you there. Obviously, one must account for taste and opinion, but that's a whole other debate ready to happen.

Of course, the next question to ask is whether this past year can be repeatable. Will RAW, Smackdown, Main Event, and, if you're nasty, Superstars be able to keep up the torrid pace and have guys (and sometimes gals) creating the highest art in the ring on a weekly basis for another 365 day period? In order to see the road ahead, I think I might have to look at what made last year so great. While WWE's roster has been the deepest it has ever been in terms of match quality, most of the roster turned in uneven week-to-week performances. Dolph Ziggler would look great in one match, but then uninspired in another. CM Punk looked like a sure wrestler-of-the-year quality worker from January through WrestleMania, but when he came back from injury, his providence was spotty. Rey Mysterio spent loads of time on the DL, as did Sheamus. Alberto del Rio was mechanically great all year, but he wasn't transcendent enough to overcome his terrible booking. John Cena worked a light schedule, but his worth has rarely ever been week-to-week excellence anyway.

However, the constants for WWE were the best possible ones they could have hoped for. Basically, Daniel Bryan and Antonio Cesaro were the anchors for their singles division. Randy Orton had perhaps the most sneakily solid year I can remember him having. The tag team division came on super-strong at the end of the year, thanks in part to the company showing faith in teams like the Usos and injecting wrestlers like Goldust and Cesaro into heavy rotation. However, the most automatic positive week-to-week has been The Shield.

Trios wrestling in WWE has been a spotty art at worst and a device to fill time while combining feuds for the pay-per-view at the very best. The last time the company even remotely had a situation where multiple trios matches were needed was back in 1997, and I don't think anyone would disagree with me when I say that the Disciples of Apocalypse and Los Boricuas were going to light the world on fire in that environment (with apologies to the Boricuas, who I'm sure were a lot better in their home promotion of WWC in Puerto Rico... different circumstances and all though). Basically, Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose, and Seth Rollins were asked to define an entire subgenre of wrestling in WWE, and the standard they set ended up weighing in at 14 karats.

Sadly, The Shield's run in 2013 will be the least repeatable for this year because they're already imploding upon themselves. If they disintegrate at the Rumble, then they would have lasted 15 months in WWE as a cohesive, functioning group, which in modern WWE parlance is a decade. Nothing good can stay, and all that. The breakup of the group will provide ample fodder for storytelling within WWE, but what about the match quality, which I thought was the strongest thing the group brought to the table? Will the standard of six-man tag style they set hold fast with the Wyatt Family only holding serve? Remember, between WrestleMania and Money in the Bank, one could argue that nearly every excellent match the company produced had at least one member of that group competing in it. Losing that group dynamic (and trust me, singles matches with the three guys won't be the same, for better or worse, after they break up) throws a lot of interference in making an accurate projection.

The best reason not to get scared is that Bryan and Cesaro aren't going anywhere, barring a major injury. Both guys have been pretty lucky not to have gotten hurt since signing with WWE. Even if Orton regresses/gets Wellness'd, Goldust leaves after Mania, and the tag division shrivels back to its pre-Hell No state, the former members of Team Uppercut will provide a solid bedrock for WWE to build upon. Plus, Sheamus will be coming back sooner rather than later. del Rio might come back down to earth from his dalliance in the main event, which might do wonders for him in the ring. Even if Ziggler never regains his pre-concussion form, spotty Ziggler is better than none at all. Heck, WWE might even release Evan Bourne from his hyperbaric chamber at some point in 2014. And even more promising is the emergence of a whole new crop of wrestlers who are providing instant cred in any match they wrestle.

Cody Rhodes, Damien Sandow, Big E Langston, and Fandango are all guys who have emerged in the ring in 2013 (Rhodes, some might argue, had already arrived, but to me, this year was his first year where he was solid all year long). Sami Zayn can't be following too far behind onto the main roster from NXT. The influx of talent through the Performance Center might not ever stop as long as WWE is open. Even with The Shield disintegrating and the tenor of weekly matches potentially changing, the main players of 2014 could be just as good as the ones from last year.

However, even if the cast isn't as good as it was last year, I think WWE has proven that they have changed their philosophy towards the in-ring product in general. In the last five years, the length of the average match has seemingly trended upward. I don't have numbers in front of me, but my perception tells me that WWE has produced more matches that have spanned the commercial break this past year than they have in the year before, and 2012 had more of those than 2011. They are giving more due to the second "W" in their name (even if Vince McMahon insists that the abbreviation stands for nothing), and the trend tells me that modus operandi will more than likely continue in the coming year.

I won't expect WWE to hit the same high notes that it did last year without knowing that a new entity, be it Langston or Zayn or someone unknown to me, gets a shot to hold court, a current stalwart like Bryan or Cesaro morphs his game and changes what he can do in the ring, or if, I don't know, the women are allowed to be more than Total Divas ads or sexy cattle. However, unless a major philosophical shift hits within the company over the next year, the wrestlers will get a chance to top themselves. Even if the results are a slight decline from last year, well, hey, WWE television has been of somewhat high quality since I've come back to it in 2008 every year. The sheer fact that prioritizing the in-ring art has become the new normal within the company is good enough for me to be content with watching as much of it as I can for the coming year.