Tuesday, January 19, 2016

2015 Year In Review/2016 Year In Preview: WWE

Taker and Lesnar was a big feud. No it wasn't 2002.
Photo Credit: WWE.com
Honestly, I've spent so much time covering WWE this year, and the company is so omnipresent that I'm going to go off the format and riff on WWE's highs and lows and give a way for WWE to fix an inherent problem or something I want to see in that same vein in 2016. The time has come to begin the journey into WWE's 2015.

January - Roman Reigns and Daniel Bryan came back from injuries of varying severity. Guess which one won the Royal Rumble? Not the guy the crowd wanted to win. Meanwhile, Brock Lesnar, John Cena, and Seth Rollins had perhaps the best match in WWE that wasn't underneath the NXT banner all year long.

What I want WWE to do - Lay out a better Rumble match: The biggest problem with the Royal Rumble match itself wasn't so much that Reigns won, but its layout minimized the effect of every beat the crowd was supposed to be reacting to. Bryan was eliminated weakly early on the match in anti-climactic fashion. Big Show and Kane were Rumble enforcers for the Authority, which went over like an entire first grade classroom had just shit their pants. Reigns' win was exacerbated by a weak reprise of 2011 with him in the Alberto del Rio role and Rusev in the Santino Marella slot. The Rumble match is a layup. Screwing it up that badly is unfathomable. Screwing it up that badly for a second straight year might be death for a lot of fans.

February/March - After the Rumble, Bryan laid down the challenge to Reigns to put his spot at WrestleMania on the line because, uh, reasons? WWE tried making a story over Reigns' legitimacy to the title shot because of Bryan's overwhelming popularity without making kayfabe sense of it. It culminated with a classic match (or so I have heard, still haven't seen it) at Fast Lane, where Reigns won and punched his ticket for Lesnar's title. Also, Dean Ambrose stole Wade Barrett's Intercontinental Championship, and John Cena started his hostilities with Rusev.

What I want WWE to do - Stop crafting stories where babyfaces are giant pissbabies: Bryan's claim to the title shot at Mania had a weird, metaphysical legitimacy because the fans were nearly in revolt over the way WWE was presenting its story, but WWE's way of presenting it in reality was to have him come out and whine. The unappealing nature of the story was masked by how over Bryan was and how much the crowd at that time HATED Reigns, but the story was still bad. In the background of having Ambrose stealing the Intercontinental Championship just because, or the myriad other stories where the supposed good guys act like whiners, bullies, or generally terrible people, it wasn't a good look. WWE is hell-bent on trying to create another Steve Austin it forgot how to tell a goddamn story.

WrestleMania - Daniel Bryan won the Intercontinental Championship in an epic trainwreck of a match. Randy Orton beat Rollins with an impressive deus ex machina RKO. John Cena captured the United States Championship from Rusev. Sting made his grand WWE in-ring debut against Triple H where the former had the nWo (lol) as a backup and the latter D-Generation X. And in the main event, neither Reigns nor Lesnar walked out with the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. Rather, Rollins used his Money in the Bank briefcase in the middle of their scheduled match and emerged triumphant.

What I want WWE to do - Bring Rollins back babyface: Rollins garnered a lot of praise for his role as the Authority's top dog, but he's not cut out to cut the big promo or wrestle as a bad guy. To be completely fair, the WWE's methodology of long set piece promos is terrible for anyone, but Rollins' nasal and meandering delivery bring out the worst. He also has barely changed up his in-ring style from his babyface-friendly big-bumping, high-flying oeuvre to something more methodical. Rollins' bread and butter is being the best possible Jeff Hardy. His knee injury that happened in the fall, while unfortunate for him, may have been the best possible thing to happen for his career if WWE doesn't continue to try going square-peg-round-hole on him.

April/May - Lesnar got himself conveniently "suspended" for going apeshit the night after Mania. That act freed up Rollins to feud primarily with Orton. Reigns was sidetracked feuding with Big Show, although by May, he and Ambrose were sucked into the World Championship vortex. Meanwhile, in addition to continuing his feud with Rusev, Cena instituted the United States Open Challenge, which allowed anyone to come out and challenge him for the title. The most interesting threat to his well-being, however, came from NXT in the debuting Kevin Owens. Additionally, New Day won the Tag Team Championships for a short bit before losing them to the Prime Time Players at Battleground.

What I want WWE to do - Keep the United States Championship as a de facto television Championship: The John Cena Open Challenge kept RAW afloat some weeks. The sheer volume of impressive, or at least ambitious, matches was an achievement to say the last. Cena can't do the same things with the title for awhile since he's hurt, but allowing it to become a signpost for RAW and match quality every week wouldn't be the worst idea, even if phoning-his-ass-in Alberto del Rio continues as US Champion.

Summer - Rollins continued his Championship run unabated, facing challenges from Dean Ambrose early on. However, Lesnar made his return after Money in the Bank and made it clear he wanted his fair shot at the title he was never pinned for. He received it, only to have his shot nabbed away from him via Undertaker interference. Meanwhile, Sheamus underwhelmingly won Money in the Bank after Bray Wyatt cost Reigns an easy grab of the briefcase. Reigns and Wyatt kept each other occupied for the rest of the summer and beyond. Nikki Bella's Divas Championship reign looked to continue unabated until Stephanie McMahon mandated that a Divas Revolution (lol) take place, introducing Sasha Banks, Charlotte, and Becky Lynch to the RAW roster. The stage for SummerSlam was set in that Lesnar would battle Undertaker with a controversial decision at the end that gave Taker the duke. Rollins won the US Championship with help from Jon Stewart (!!!). The Divas Revolution was reduced to a triple-threat trios match, and New Day regained the Tag Team Championships, which they would hold through the end of the year.

What I want WWE to do - Do better by women: The start of 2016 has shown promise in this department, as Charlotte and Lynch are embroiled in what is the best and probably only well-thought-out story in the company right now. But the growth of the division has to be unimpeded. It can't go back to catty factions and BITCHES, AMIRITE? again once Paige and Nikki Bella return from injury. And for the love of Christ, when Banks gets back from whatever hiatus she's on (injury or not), give her a fucking platform. She ruled NXT for a reason.

September/October - Rollins' success started to get to his head a little bit, so the Authority thought it would knock him down a peg or two by making him defend both of his titles at Night of Champions, the WWE World Championship against Sting and the US Title against Cena. He'd keep the former but lose back the latter. Rollins would segue into a feud with Kane, while Cena was sent into his year-end hiatus by dropping the US Title to a returning Alberto del Rio. Meanwhile, the monstrous Braun Strowman debuted as the newest member of the Wyatt Family as an extra measure against Reigns and his buddy Ambrose the night after SummerSlam. The ex-Shield had an ally in Chris Jericho at Night of Champions, but he ended up costing them the match against the Family. Reigns had enough of the shenanigans and challenged Wyatt to a Cell match, which he won. The Divas Revolution got more focused as Charlotte emerged as a contender to Bella's Divas Championship. While she didn't win the title before Bella broke AJ Lee's record title reign length, she got gold at Night of Champions and defended it successfully at Hell in a Cell. Owens ended up as Intercontinental Champion, defeating Ryback and then fending him off at Night of Champions and Hell in a Cell respectively. Finally, Lesnar gave Undertaker his receipt from SummerSlam at Hell in a Cell in a brutal (by PG WWE standards) Cell match.

What I want WWE to do - Some fresh matchups for Brock Lesnar, please: Outside of Reigns and possibly Rollins (and Shinsuke Nakamura), what rematches for Lesnar have any cache anymore? Cena, Triple H, and Undertaker have all exhausted their luster as Lesnar opponents, if they had any in the first place. The roster is rife with guys who need to take the next step, and getting into the ring with a guy like Lesnar would raise the profiles of those on-the-cuspers even if they lost. Wyatt, Owens, or even apparent also-rans like Sheamus or Ryback might get some life injected into them if they had pay-per-view dates with The Beast Incarnate.

Survivor Series/End of the Year - Rollins looked to head into Survivor Series into a tilt with Reigns, but he screwed up his knee in a house show match against Kane. Oops. The Authority vacated the title and held a tournament, which came down to Reigns and Ambrose in the final. Reigns won and had all of ten minutes in the sun before he spurned Triple H's handshake, speared him, and got cashed in upon by Sheamus. Reigns would chase the Celtic Warrior through TLC, when again he had victory snatched from him underhandedly. Frustrated, he lashed out destroying Triple H and putting him out indefinitely (he's still kayfabe gone). The next night on RAW, Reigns hopped through several McMahon family hoops and finally claimed the title he'd been chasing since he came back from his injury a year earlier. Meanwhile, Ambrose claimed the Intercontinental Championship from Owens at TLC. Charlotte and Paige engaged in a feud that got embarrassingly personal in ways I don't even want to reiterate. Oh, and Kalisto nearly broke his butt falling off from the hanging Tag Titles onto a ladder. Ouch.

What I want WWE to do - Change things up, dammit: The RAW set has been the same for nearly two decades. The Smackdown and PPV sets have been homogenized to fit that mold. If a match needs to go to commercial, the same crash-to-break is used no matter what the context. The show opens with the same fucking promo every time. Everyone does a dive, even fucking Ryback. The same fuck finishes are used, sometimes multiple times on the same show. The same non-stories are told. Everyone who debuts starts hot and most of them get forgotten after a PPV cycle or two. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Change. Things. Up.

What to look for in 2016: Doing a forecast two/three weeks into the year might be cheating a little bit, since part of the blueprint has been revealed. Obviously, Triple H vs. Roman Reigns is going to happen, but will it be at Fast Lane or WrestleMania? And will it be for the title? Brock Lesnar's dance card hasn't been punched yet, but he could be tangling with Bray Wyatt. Or will it be Kevin Owens? For a roster that has been decimated, absolutely destroyed by injury, the predictability of the future isn't there.

However, new blood is on the way, mainly in the form of the four talents poached from New Japan Pro Wrestling. AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, and Karl "Machine Gun" Anderson all are new to the main WWE narrative (Styles worked a Velocity/Jakked/Whatev. enhancement match), and Doc Gallows will make his return. How many of them will start out in NXT is a good question to ask. However, my guess is if Styles and Nakamura start in Full Sail, they won't stay there too long. Anderson and Gallows, however, could be in NXT as long as their buddy Finn Bálor stays there.