wrestling / Columns

The State of the Universe Address: Women’s Wrestling, Innovation Stifled, More

October 13, 2017 | Posted by Tony Acero
mae young classic Women's Wrestling

I’ve often times considered 411mania.com similar to the wrestling world as a whole, complete with egotistical heels and James Ellsworth-like writers who just stink up the joint. So much, in fact, that one particulatr writer’s lack of ability was truly a large part of the reason behind this series. If this is true, then for the next four weeks, consider Len and myself the commentary team of the wrestling world, and consider the ring the year that is 2017. We are here to give you our thoughts and opine about the year that is, and where it stands within wrestling lore. By looking at 2017 through a variety of different lenses, we hope to present a column ripe with conversation starters and think pieces. Consider the smaller topics our undercard, with one main topic each week being our Main Event. It is our hope that the column comes off analytical as much as it does conversational, and above all else, that you enjoy it.

A question we fans ask ourselves nearly every day is simply, “Why do we still watch wrestling?” We sit in front of our televisions or computers and await for the answer on a weekly basis. This question – when asked – is almost always rhetorical. The fact is that we are not waiting for the answer to slap us in the face, because we know it is coming. We ask why we still watch so that we have something to talk about amongst one another. So that we can complain. So that the unbridled passion that we stumbled upon the minute we first witnessed a match that blew our mind can come again and again and again. We don’t know when. We don’t know how. We don’t know who will be doing it, but we know it is coming. We are chasing the high. All of us. Even the most cynical.

I think Len said it best nearly three years ago when he said: “One of the absolutely fascinating aspects of professional wrestling is the love/hate relationship it has with its passionate audience. This passion is based on one constant: at some point our lives, a moment, a promo, a move, a story, a performer or the atmosphere of an event absolutely chilled us to the bone and hooked us.”

I had an idea not long ago regarding a column that lasted more than your typical one week stint. The motivation behind it was twofold, yet could be summed up in one word; PASSION. My passion for wrestling is a constant. My passion for writing is another constant. Lately, however, I have felt the writer side of me get lazy. I contemplated a project that would test the boundaries of said passion, and realized that even with the ego I have, I would need some help. The hallways of 411 are bright with new faces, and they all (most) have something to present, but I needed someone who would test the skills, heighten the thoughts, accentuate the column as a whole, and challenge me as a fan and as a writer.

Just as one could feel the passion ooze from every match Daniel Bryan put on, or the sheer joy Shawn Michaels had in his waning years, I sensed an energy in Len that is nowhere else on this site. So, with the passion of wrestling fandom, and the undying fire under my ass that flickers enough to tickle my writer’s funny bone, we bring to you…

Len and I chose twenty three topics to write about, and ended up scraping about 4 of them. Over the course of the month of October, we’re going to share with you our thoughts on various topics with the hope that, above all else, it creates a conversation. At times we may sound bitter, other times we may seem excited, but the ultimate goal here is two-fold. One; create conversation. Two; remind us both, and you, why we love to write and love to watch wrestling. The layout is pretty simple; Len or myself will start, the other will reply/retort. Then we will have a little up-to-date conversation just to see if our minds have changed. Some thoughts may be left open-ended or seemingly incomplete, but it’s mainly to encourage conversation.

We’ll be right there in the comment section with you guys.
Ok enough talking…

Let’s look at this week’s lineup!

Main Event: Women’s Wrestling
In Ring Quality of Wrestling
Historical Relevance

Len Archibald: Progress. What does it really mean? Is it the acceptance of the unknown? A growing tolerance of new ideas? The shedding of past transgressions? The saying is, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” There is also another certainty: time. It always moves forward, always disregarding the past without aplomb. As time escapes, so does the old. Everything evolves. Everything hits the line in the sand where we choose the ideas that move us forward.

For the longest time, female wrestlers were meant to be sideshow acts. First, as carnys, displaying feats of strength that made them outcasts. Mae Young, the Fabulous Moolah, Gladys “Killem” Gillem and Ida May Martinez were the trailblazers who displayed strength and attitude that intimidated even their male counterparts. They were mildly respected, if overlooked. The valets that followed were objectified as nothing more than submissive pretty faces with no other reason to exist. Some stood out, but rarely and even then, they were still considered an extremely minor part of the show. It wasn’t until Chyna, Trish Stratus, Lita, Victoria, Molly Holly, Jazz and Ivory came into the spotlight and began shifting the perception of what women are capable to accomplish in the ring.

So what is happening now – feels like we are in the middle of a strange time in history not only for women’s professional wrestling, but pro wrestling as a whole. We are admittedly cynical that the “Women’s Revolution/Evolution” is just a ploy to display diversity and hang on the coattails of the progress of women in the sporting world. That is entirely possible, but it is deniable that the female wrestlers haven’t taken full advantage of the opportunities given to them over the past few years. Sasha Banks was not only considered the best women’s wrestler in 2015, but was considered one of the best overall that year. Bayley has a natural connection with fans who relate to her superfan living her dream. Becky Lynch seemed to be a mere cog in the wheel – forgettable until she made a dramatic change and became a star. And Charlotte…While carrying the Flair legacy is enough to make others scoff at her time in the limelight, one can’t dismiss her ability to deliver in the ring. These women have been big time players, engaging in Falls Count Anywhere matches, Ladder Matches and even Hell in a Cell. They have main evented and proven that they can engage wrestling fans as much as the men. Asuka is one of the best booked champions in all of WWE – perhaps the best believable monster champion; the female Brock Lesnar where it feels she is simply unbeatable. Add Alexa Bliss who has evolved leaps and bounds, Naomi who has finally shown the promise of her athleticism and Carmella receiving heel heat that most wrestlers would kill to have, we have a great core of women that can spark something truly special over the next decade. We still haven’t scratched the surface of talents like Emma, Nia Jax, Ember Moon, Ruby Riot, Nikki Cross, Billie Kay, Payton Royce and several more yet. We are in the midst of an all-female tournament to celebrate the international reach of women’s wrestling. We have yet to figure out how stars like Kiari Sane will fit into the mix. Have you realized I just named sixteen women who can legitimately make an impact in the history of WWE’s wrestling scene. That’s a good start for a full roster that has potential of several storylines – even some of them intertwining, en route to battle for a championship.

The women’s matches used to be the obligatory bathroom break matches. Within 3-5 minutes, WWE provided their interpretation of women’s wrestling: a semi-athletic exhibition of pretty women pretending to fight. That was the impression the fans were given and the impression WWE itself had of their division. Pillow fights, Playboy pillow fights, etc. held our attention for a small window of time and was never taken seriously. There were exceptions: they mainly had to do with Trish Stratus and Lita facing each other, but anyone else, both the fans and company never cared.

The current scene, bolstered by the success of women in sports that are normally dominated by men, the cult following of SHIMMER and the critical praise of Netflix’s GLOW is beginning to reach a fever pitch. Sasha Banks, arguably the best worker in WWE in 2015 was the common denominator of all the superb matches that year, all clocking in well over 15 minutes. Banks, Bayley, Charlotte and Becky Lynch have been given time to tell complete stories – stories that were primarily afforded to the men. The 30 minute Iron Man match between Sasha Banks and Bayley would not have even existed three years ago. The length of the matches the women have been given has been unprecedented, and it is only a matter of time (haha) where they are given the chance to go Broadway to show exactly how far they have come.

One final note: as a marketing and branding nut, I find it very interesting that Sasha Banks is not only displayed prominently in the opening of WWE’s flagship show, but is slotted as the final image. That is no accident and the implications are powerful and will be wide-reaching. You cannot deny progress.

Tony Acero : I think “progress” is the perfect word to encapsulate the entirety of women’s wrestling in 2017. These past seven months have taken the groundwork that the past couple of years have created and tested the foundation. Amongst the few failures (which could be more opinion than fact), there are far more successes. As we look through the history of wrestling, we can attest that women’s wrestling has had a few moments in the sun, but they are few and far between. And let’s face it, when it wasn’t at some semblance of prominence, it was damn near embarrassing. The Divas Search is a scar on wrestling that I don’t think I’ll ever get over. This is not a holier than thou statement, as I’ve watched my fair share of females eating pies with their asses, and I’m also the same guy that blasted butt pics in the RAW Report just a few weeks ago. There is no touting of the feministic line here. Instead, the reality is the fact that WRESTLING for women has changed, and its thanks in a large part to NXT, to names like Sasha and Charlotte and Becky and, yes, even Bayley. With this change in wrestling comes a change in perspective.

In 2017 alone, we have had ladder matches, Last Man Standing Matches, Cage matches, a Money in the Bank Match, you name it, they’ve tried everything they could to scratch it off the list. Sure, some of these “first ever” monikers can be tested, but the reality of it is that the attempts are not feeble. They are specific, and although the commentary team does a horrible job by way of repetition and hyperbole, it truly is history making and not just because of the type of match, but because of the performers involved. One could have easily made a cage match just a few years ago with Cameron and Naomi, and they could have shouted loudly that it was history in the making, but no one would have bought into it.

This brings up the reality that it’s not just the gimmick of the match that’s creating the history, it’s the women that are involved. Make no mistake about it; the current roster of women wrestlers are the driving force behind the change in our view of women wrestling. We do not look at Sasha and Charlotte the same as Candice Michelle or Torrie Wilson. They are a different breed. They have taken the word wrestling in the term “women’s wrestling” and made that the focal point. Take one look around the wrestling world and notice the huge impact these females have made. From intergender matches on the indy scene where a story is involved (in other words, not just doing the match to call it intergender), to an actual tournament featuring 32 women from around the world. Hell, even Netflix released an entire series dedicated to the promotion that once was GLOW. While it may have had some missteps, the fact remains that this show simply would not have worked as well as it has had it not been for the shift in view of women’s wrestling in 2017. Do not take my statement as the ultimate truth that the WWE ushered in the women’s revolution of wrestling all around the world, but also do not remove the platform that the WWE has to influence the world it is a part of.

We are seven months in at the time of writing, and although I will readily admit that 2017 took a bit of a step back with regards to the focus of talent over character, there is still a huge positive going into the second half of the year. Simply put, we are very much celebrating the growth of women’s wrestling due to its huge growth, but realistically speaking, there is a bit to be desired – especially recently. With the failure of Bayley on the main roster, the back pedaling of Sasha, the turn of Charlotte, and the fire that seemingly never goes full force of Becky Lynch, it’s apparent that the best thing to come out of 2017 is Alexa Bliss and her domineering character and presence.

Conversation Dated 10/9/17:

T: Ok so a majority of our woman’s wrestling talk focused on the tournament and the idea that it’s leaps and bounds better than what we have known women’s wrestling to be. But if we are to talk about just 2017, specifically the first half of the year vs today, would you say we are continuing a gradual incline of quality, or did we take a few steps back over the past few months?

L: The only thing I think pushed women’s wrestling back in WWE are the damn multi-person matches. When they’re able to book more than one female feud at a time then call me. But I feel that we are actually at the tip of the iceberg to see real change just from the reverberations of the MYC. We have a dominant champ on Raw in Alexa Bliss, to SmackDown’s…uh…credit, they at least give the perception that their Women’s title scene is wide open. Any slight on the division isn’t the fault of the performers IMO

T: I feel like that’s truly the problem – or at least one of them. Right now it’s Alexa and Mickie, and everyone else is two levels down, but at the same level. No hierarchy. No side story (except for a weak and unbelievable “I want to face Asuka” story that was just started). No believability that people have just stopped focusing on the title. I also agree that there is so much potential and we have good things coming. Really, I feel like they just put a hold on everything till Asuka gets here. But what then? She’s gonna squash everyone with no actual, formidable opponent, because they’ve made it so that Alicia Fox = Sasha Banks – and she is not. I feel like very rarely is the slight the fault of the performers. One reoccurring theme that we’ll see me talking about is just how weak the writing staff is. I often wonder if Vince stilts them, or they just truly aren’t that talented…

L: I think Askua is the sweeping change. She is not bleach blonde. She is not 5”11. She doesn’t even speak good English. But she kills people. When has WWE, or any mainstream promotion ever gone out of its way to build hype around any other female performer the way Askua has? Triple H himself called her NXTs greatest signee. She went undefeated for two years. TWO YEARS. That is unheard of this day and age – male or female, and the fact that she has been entrusted to run with (and she has run with it) this unreal and lengthy reign is extremely telling of the direction WWE is really trying to move towards. International and not gender-specific as to who their stars are.

T: So you think once she gets here, it signifies a shift in women’s wrestling yet again?

L: View WWE’s Women’s division like the Marvel Universe. Phase 1 was the 4 Horsewomen, the unveiling of the Women’s Title, the crowning of Charlotte and Sasha Banks as the torchbearers, first great feud and female Pay Per view main event, the rise of Naomi and Alexa Bliss all culminating with Askua’s undefeated streak and exiting NXT with hype Flava Flav would be believing in and the conclusion of the Mae Young Classic. Phase 2 is now Askua’s arrival to the main roster and the fallout of the MYC. How that culminates, I don’t know (Charlotte/Rousey WM main event? All female Elimination Chamber or WarGames?) Either way, I believe WWE is about to unveil their next piece of how it will present female wrestling and it begins with The Empress of Tomorrow.

Len Archibald: Let’s get this out of the way: the in-ring quality around the world yearly tops itself. I had surmised that 2016 was perhaps the best year ever regarding in-ring performances. Kenny Omega, Kazuchika Okada, The Young Bucks, AJ Styles, John Cena, Sasha Banks, Charlotte and The Revival all participated in some of the greatest in-ring action the world had ever seen. The Cruiserweight Classic singlehandedly saved the very idea of what wrestlers under 200lbs can do (before it was ruined on RAW.) NXT Takeover became the place to see high-quality bouts and New Japan continued to raise the bar to heights never seen.

2017 has already blown 2016 away – by a wide margin of containing the best of in-ring athletics and storytelling. New Japan has singlehandedly dominated the rest of the world with their quality and consistency. Kazuchika Okada and Kenny Omega (who battled each other in two of the greatest matches ever put together) are having what is considered one of the best runs in history. New Japan’s G1 Climax Tournament has delighted fans with hit after hit, with each match raising the bar and changing the minds of fans as to what else can compete for match of the year. We can’t shortchange WWE’s efforts either. AJ Styles and John Cena battled at the Royal Rumble at a feverish clip, while Tyler Bate and Pete Dunne rattled fans with a perfect execution of pacing and emotional impact.

The state of in-ring action has evolved to a hybrid of the technical prowess of the Ruthless Aggression era, the frantic pacing and kickout-fest rage of the Attitude Era, and….whatever it is New Japan is doing right now. There is a sense that the world of wrestling within the ropes has evolved, and I’m lovin it.

Tony Acero : When we talk about in ring quality, it would be a huge disservice to leave out everything non-WWE. In fact, the WWE is merely a blip on the radar when comparing it to the world of wrestling as a whole, and everything that it contains. While any of the last five years can be deemed “The Rise of the Indies,” I have to say that 2017 really saw them not only rise, but set themselves apart. Look, we’ve all known for a long time that the ROHs and PWGs of the world are simply different than the WWE product that we are used to. There is little to compare simply because of the expectations of the crowd. In fact, ask yourself what you expect when you’re headed to the nearest WWE house show or RAW. What do you expect when you’re headed to the nearest YMCA to see some guys you’ve never heard of? What do you expect when you head to your first PWG show? I think the responses to those will settle the argument of in-ring quality.

As for the WWE as its own entity, the wrestling quality is there. Everyone on the roster has some semblance of talent (except for maybe Titus O’Neil and Ellsworth), so the possibility of great matches is there. The WWE is hurt moreso by their booking than anything else, and the time constraints that they put on themselves. You put Cesaro out there with Finn Balor and they could destroy in three minutes, but it won’t hold nearly as much weight a solid story behind it and a greater length of time added. It seems that with any match the WWE has, if time was added, it would make for a stronger and more impactful match for the viewer. Truly, one of the things that bother me the most is the idea that seems prevalent on any WWE show, and that is to “get your shit in and end the match.” If we have Dean Ambrose in a match, we know there’s going to be a flying elbow, we know he’s going to do the dumbass rebound from the rope, we know he’ll hit at least one suicide dive. It’s formulaic and cheesy, and after watching wrestling for as many years as we all have, it’s actually quite boring. At any given time, I can guarantee that any one of us can call matches and moves before they happen.

We, as fans, are somewhat programmed to appreciate a match that carries more than just technical prowess. We want emotion involved, storylines, reasons behind the fight, and yet we could also watch a match in a vacuum and be sucked into it so deeply that it’s goosebump-worthy. So where is the divide? Why are we so invested in something like the Cruiserweight Classic, which had minimal story involved? Why would we give a pass to a Ric Flair vs HBK match and herald it as a classic, when it was really just a slightly above average match? One situation sees no emotion involved outside of the ring, while the other had months of buildup leading to a relatively average match considering the players involved.

The answer may surprise you! No, I’m kidding. If I could highlight the CWC real quick, there was a reason it worked and why, as of this writing, the Women’s tournament isn’t exactly lighting the world on fire. You see, while it is true that there was no storytelling outside of the CWC other than the minor videos and some Brian Kendrick antics, they did something that is pretty left behind at times on RAW – they told their story IN THE RING. And this is where we get back to the damned point of this entire thing; in-ring quality. To me, 2017 saw a great usage of in-ring storytelling, even if it was marred or exaggerated by crappy commentary. Take Bate vs Dunne during the UK tournament. Outside of some small video packages, this story was told in the ring. They needed no elaborate sets, no cheesy catalyst, no peeing in tea. They saw a prize, they both wanted it, and they fought for it. One was a jerk, the other was a prized-fighter. The ring was the canvas, and they painted an entire scene. It was great.

During my RAW recaps, I have two rating systems. For the most part, they’re essentially a waste of time, and a lot of times, people call it how they see it. For me, however, they are important. I divide a match on its in-ring quality and on its enjoyment. Maybe taking another look at thing and combining those once again is a better idea…

Conversation Dated 10/9/17:

L: I know we get down on WWE for their lackluster in-ring quality, but I think back just at Hell in a Cell where The Usos and The New Day had a legit match of the year contender and I realized, much like I did a year ago, that in-ring action in a bubble has never been better. We get at least one great WWE match per Pay Per view. Am I alone in thinking this?

T: I honestly think that as fans, we are so ready and willing to put down the product of last week, last year, last decade and forget to live in the moment. The in ring quality of the wwe is not hindered by talent, just by bad writing. That cell match was beautiful because it told a story. Literally everything lent to one another. Locking up an Uso behind bars? New Day being forced to be more aggressive than ever before? Their faces when they still couldn’t get the job done? Man, it was beautiful. I’m totally on your side with the matches, in a bubble, being great, as long as we are ready to accept them. Case in point is everyone saying, “Great, they had a good match, can we move on now?” No, how about you revel in the fact that you just witnessed awesomeness? It’s honestly some advice I could take myself.

Do you feel Raw would do better with longer matches, possibly cutting off those recaps that show what we just saw five minutes ago? Or is it just part of the program?

L: Ugh. So I feel it’s both. I know we all like to sit and wax poetic about how Raw could be run better, and I wholeheartedly agree – at the same time I get the nature of the beast. Unfortunately, and let’s sigh at this…WWE is NOT a wrestling company. So when Raw is produced it is thinking of just that…Production. Mass production. Mass production, unfortunately is an amalgamation of several factors to make something as widely available, marketable and APPROACHABLE as possible. The last word is important. When a newbie (do people use that phrase anymore?) is introduced to WWE, they need a sample, a greatest hits of sorts, to get them interested in the product. If it is something to their liking, they probably will stay for the longer matches. Now, do I want longer matches? Of course I do, and so do probably 95% of those reading this. But Chicago made a very good statement that something is a Hard Habit to Break. Once WWE decides that their audience, especially newcomers to the product doesn’t need to be spoon-fed, I think we will get more longer matches consistently. Wow I just aged myself by 30 years.

T: Somewhere in this long ass column, I pointed out that neither of us are spring chickens. I’m sure it’ll be very transparent by the end. I also think there is something to be said about the health of the wrestlers. I challenge anyone at or around the age of almost wrestlers to tangle around with someone else the same age in a jumper or living room floor and truly time how long it lasts. I’ve done so, and I’m telling you, three minutes is no easy feat. Having these guys do this so frequently is probably not the best thing for them.

L: I agree. It would be interesting to see what does more long term damage to a wrestler’s health: A 6 minute sprint or a 30 minute clinic.

Len Archibald: Professional Wrestling, much like other sports is indebted to history. Superfans hold a reverence towards the past events and performers that helped shape what professional wrestling is today. Even though there is no physical location, the WWE Hall of Fame is considered the pinnacle of a wrestler’s career and the respect paid to them on HOF night is (normally) a righteous moment in the sun.

The relevance of wrestling today is honestly at a crossroads. Professional wrestling is over 100 years old and many fans today who are submerged in the speed and instant gratification of social media are moving with such forward momentum that even little things like Edge’s brief time on top of WWE or Samoa Joe, CM Punk, AJ Styles and Daniel Bryan’s time in Ring of Honor have succumbed to the ravages of time, considered relics of a past era. John Cena, the beacon of WWE for over 10 years is looking ahead to life beyond the promotion he helped carry on his back. The Undertaker is retired (or seems to be.) We are firmly in the Shield-Era, where Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose find themselves at either the top of the card or engaged in a high-profile storyline. The part-time appearances of Brock Lesnar and nostalgic acts like Goldberg are becoming the norm.

What is most apparent in regards to how history may view the era we are in is the changing of the guard in regards to size. Gone are the days of Hulk Hogan, Ultimate Warrior and the larger than life behemoths that scattered the WWF, WCW, etc. Promos are no longer used to sell pay per views, but as character studies, where the performers are more willing to engage the audience with an emotional connection. Now, this doesn’t mean there were not performers in the past that evoked emotion, it is just those moments were more plot driven to sell an overarching story. We are now in an era where the wrestler’s individual actions drive the storylines. These two major changes within the historical context of wrestling is two-fold: CM Punk’s “Pipebomb” unleashed a character who engaged the audience with how he felt as an individual realistically within the company he felt disrespected him. It was Punk’s actions that led him to his first WWE title, not the story of potentially of leaving the company as WWE Champion. Daniel Bryan’s growing success from 2011 culminating in one of the biggest coronations as a top guy in WWE at WrestleMania XXX also shifted the perception that smaller “indy-darlings” can reach a state of emotional investment that normally larger competitors can achieve – obliterating WWE’s (and Vince McMahon’s) view of what kind of performers can reach the pinnacle of WWE.

This reflects a shift in power that will affect the entire industry. Vince McMahon will not live forever. The reigns (ha) of the company is transitioning to a regime where Stephanie McMahon, Triple H and Shane McMahon (don’t think he will not have influence behind the scenes) will run the largest wrestling company in the world. As Director of Talent Relations and Live Events, Triple H has begun to mold the new image of the type of performer that will represent the company. As mentioned in my “Civil War” column, while Vince McMahon was interested in primarily the “look” of a wrestler, Triple H is requiring his wrestlers to have “passion” for the business. These are performers who have plied their gifts in the independent scene, in TNA/GFW and Japan. Would we have seen Shinsuke Nakamura, AJ Styles, Bobby Roode, Hideo Itami, Askua, Johnny Gargano, and Samoa Joe under the WWE umbrella five years ago? What changed? This is affecting the entire industry as those whose goal is to reach WWE will work as hard as they can outside the confines of McMahon-Land to build their “brand”.

Cody Rhodes is making waves upon his exit from WWE and growing his “brand” travelling across the independent scene. Drew McIntyre and Kassius Ohno was released by WWE, wreaked havoc in the indy scene and displayed value when they returned to the company.

Tony Acero : I was 12 when I first stumbled upon 411wrestling.com. I fell in love immediately. I printed out Smackdown spoilers and studied wrestling on the internet like crazy. I ordered VHS tapes online. I watched them continually. I once recorded an episode of Smackdown over a State of the Union address my parents saved. At the time, I was just doing what I wanted and getting my hands on every bit of wrestling I could get. We lived with my mom’s Uncle, who styled his hair like Ric Flair and once lectured me with an actual Dusty Rhodes promo. I didn’t know it, and it’s possible that many of you shared in this shift, but I was the crossing the bridge of wrestling fandom that would change forever. I was the last of the tape traders, but the first of the Internet Wrestling Community. I was the last of the PPV-Parties but first of the “catch it when I can” viewers. I was the last of the “Smackdown is filmed on TUESDAYS?!” crowd and the first of the, “Betcha didn’t know Smackdown is filmed on Tuesdays,” crowd. The torch was passed and I didn’t even know it.

The assumption is that 411 has a lot of people like me. I don’t see many younger guys reading around here, and I believe that a majority of those that engage are in their early 30’s to early 40’s. If this is true, then like me, you lived through the attitude era and all of its glory and you went from being part of a crowd of kids that loved wrestling to a part from a crowd of adults that asked “You still watch that?” While I won’t say we shy away from our fandom, the conversations we have with non-viewers are pretty damned short. That is, until this year. 2017 saw wrestling enter the world in a big way. In fact, just today I was in a barbershop where everyone was talking about NFL while ESPN was on all screens. A Jets fan made a bet on the better record with a Rams fan, and stats and numbers were thrown around. Then, I hear the words “Intercontinental Champion, The Miz” and I open my eyes to that strapping man we all love to hate on the screen alongside some of the bigger names of ESPN, analyzing basketball. The WWE has entered the world of sports in a huge way, and it will do a lot to change the historical significance of the world of wrestling. We are still a part from the conversation, and not apart of the conversation, but the change is coming, and I wonder if us, as fans, are ready for it or not.

Time is also an interesting factor in terms of relevance, simply because time is elastic. While Hogan ruled the world for seemingly forever, Cena is on year 10 and is already flickering away. Wrestlers wrestle more, have tougher schedules, do more with their time, and are multi-faceted superstars of the world that are making the cross into Hollywood more and more. Their expiration date is much sooner than wrestlers of yesteryear. Len brought Edge. How long was he truly on top? Not that long, and yet we look back on it with fondness as a time period long gone. Not to say it wasn’t impactful or fun, but I do think that we are in the middle of passing moments – we live in the wrestling world, so we don’t know what it looks like until it’s gone. When will we look back on this time and call it what Len called it; The Shield Era?

Conversation Dated 10/11/17:

T: Historical relevance is something wrestling has been challenged with for quite some time. We are the black sheep of entertainment. Do you think 2017 did anything to change this mindset?

L: Over the past five years, I have been approached with the whole “you know no one cares about stupid wrestling or wrestlers, right?” and I always retort with the same six letter question:

So who is paying The Rock?

The question may evolve to John Cena if he has anything to say about it I’m sure (I am watching out to see how Ferdinand does at the box office…it will serve as the counter-programming against fucking STAR WARS. If it survives that onslaught and walks away second that weekend, Cena has written his ticket.)

Anyways, I don’t think the mindset has changed so much as the narrative has shifted. Brock Lesnar is still a big name in UFC, but is vilified (mainly by UFC fans) for his ties to WWE. When comedians and news media sites want to poke fun at our POTUS and give a snippet of how they feel he’s running the country, guess what clip they go to? I’ll take clotheslining the owner of WWE for $1,000, Alex. The biggest female UFC superstar and the worlds richest boxer are all huge fans and have all been involved. Conor McGregor is coming to WWE sooner than later. We still have stadiums doing “YES!” chants at sporting events. I’ve seen some athletes impersonating the Enzo dance (ugh.) the relevance is there and around us. It just isn’t permeating the way fans expect it to, based on either the in-ring product or the superstars themselves. Remember, the performers are no longer the draw, WWE is the draw.

Unless your name is Dwayne Johnson, who has been polled as a front runner for POTUS when he decides to run. Oh, I think he’s going to run. And he’ll fucking win, too.

T: I can’t agree more. I kind of liken it to the world seeing “nerds” differently. True, wrestling nerds are an even rarer form of weirdos of the world, but even we have come into a new fold of the world where acceptance is guaranteed by the successes of those pesky kids who were once mad fun of. I know that goes a little deeper into the psyche of society as a whole, but fuck it, let’s take the trip. It wasn’t so long ago that “nerds” became cool. The fandoms, the cons, the blogs, they’re no longer shunned, And in fact, embraces. Even those that have that slight insulting tone towards wrestling fandom now stop a minute and ask a question or two. It’s like they want to be a part of our world, but don’t want to dive into our nerdy world. That coupled with the fact that we are very protective means our little black eye status is more a badge of honor now, and not so much a shiner on the world

L: I have a friend who out of the blue started asking me questions about WWE and pro wrestling as a whole. He had never watched or had been interested before. Now we have insane convos during Pay Per views and he is even now down with New Japan and Lucha Underground because he wanted to see how far wrestling can go globally. Just a guy out of the blue who was curious. I wear my fandom on my sleeve. A lot of my friends are pretty snobby and we attend a monthly book club. After recommending “Have A Nice Day”, suddenly everyone has a question for me. A few friends came with me to a Smackdown show and begrudgingly had a good time. We now talk about wrestling as a performance art the same we discuss literature, film and dance now. So weird. This is anti-Attitude Era where people just wanted to be on some ride for the sake of it. It’s more internalized…wanting to really get into the mindset of what is so fascinating about pro wrestling.

Tony Acero : In July of 2016, the WWE searched the world for a batch of wrestlers that embodied the term “Cruiserweights.” They gathered 32 wrestlers from the entire globe to compete in a bracketed series that would be shown over a number of days solely on the WWE network. Although I’m sure the expectations were not low, nothing could have predicted the sheer joy and adulation that the fans gave the event. It put the wrestling world on pause, and like a reverse rope walk springboard 450 splash to the outside, we all sat, mouth agape, awestruck, waiting for more. Eventually, TJ Perkins was crowned the Cruiserweight Champion, and the tournament was over. We soon heard that said division was moving to RAW and although part of the main show, would be a special attraction scattered throughout. Soon, the title changed hands, more people were introduced, purple ropes were tightly bound, and…no one cared. All the luster and excitement from the tournament disappeared, and what was left was two bathroom breaks for every RAW, and a surefire pre-show match for every PPV. What changed? Considering the sheer density of this column series, there’s no need to go over how the WWE has pretty much NEVER gotten the Cruiserweight Division right…like, ever. Also considering the fact that this is a 2017 overview of the wrestling world as it stands, I’ll just bypass that entire idea and focus on RAW itself as of today.

One would think that with a 3 hour show begging for content, an added division to the show would bring some semblance of tightness in the flow of the television show, but the one thing that the WWE did completely wrong from the offset is to try and differentiate the division as a separate entity from the show. The WWE did everything but lift the lid for our piss break in doing so. These guys were not beneath the rest of the show, and they were not individuals that didn’t interact with the rest of the locker room – they didn’t have a separate dressing room or spot backstage, so why treat them as such? Although we are seeing a fix of sorts now with Tozawa and Titus, there was close to no interaction amongst the rest of the roster – which is a well-known, already emotionally invested in roster – from these newcomers whose names were hardly known. This brings me to my second issue with the Cruiserweights; that of character development.

I’ll dive deeper into this in other sections, but the WWE sucks really badly at created well-rounded, true-to-life characters, and nowhere is this better evident than in the CW Division. Who are these guys? Why is the title so important? Sure we can deduce many things, and some things are better left unsaid – but when a dude comes out and all you know is that he kisses his bicep, what more can you latch onto? What is the motivation behind Sir Bicep Kiss? Why should we pay attention to him over the others? What is his ceiling? Is the Purple Belt his sole reason for living? And if so, what are all the other guys doing? The same thing? No, I don’t want drama. I don’t want Alicia Fox. I don’t want relationships gone sour; I want creativity. I want character. I want levity when necessary and intensity when it’s called for. In the large group of Cruiserweights that stayed on board for a future with the WWE, we can argue that at any given time, at least one was at the top of the pecking order in 2017, but said argument is a bad one, because that’s not how a roster of wrestlers SHOULD work. Their inability to give a boost to more than one person at a time is a huge flaw that showed very strongly this year, and 205 Live didn’t help it.

Having only seen the show a handful of times, I can’t truly speak to the impact it has on the characters of the CW Division, but also having been conditioned as a wrestling fan to care just vaguely about one-hour shows that the WWE produces (Heat, Velocity, Main Event, etc), there is little to no effort to give to watch said show. True, it is where these guys can do the very thing that I am complaining about, but a small replay on RAW isn’t going to help. 205 Live is not important because the WWE has not made it important, thereby making the cruiserweights that inhabit the show unimportant. What started off as a great tournament with beautiful storytelling WITHIN IT (And that is no easy feat itself) resulted in a few new names that still, to this day, have no discernable attributes strong enough to make them stand out, and it’s a damned shame.

On a podcast that I have every Monday after RAW, it was considered a good idea to add Enzo Amore to the Cruiserweight division as a way to add some star power and care to the division. This was nearly 6 months ago that the idea was first presented, when Enzo was – arguably – white hot in terms of popularity. Fast forward to now (as of writing, September), and we finally have Enzo in the Cruiserweight Division, but it’s considered a punishment to the loud mouthed Enzo. A punishment. This is a sign enough to show that the division itself is simply not taken seriously, and looked down upon, essentially sealing its fate as a division that will never truly be what it was destined to be from the offset of the Classic.

Len Archibald: The great gets of 2016’s Cruiserweight Classic was acquiring the talents of submission specialist Zack Sabre Jr. and Japan’s Golden Star, Kota Ibushi. Fans of the two immediately called them out as the favorites to win the entire tournament, and most likely face each other in the finals. It was a potential dream match for hardcore fans who have followed the careers of these talented performers. The thought of both these men signing to exclusive WWE contracts to anchor a rumored (at the time) revitalized cruiserweight division made fans salivate.

The news of Sabre Jr. not signing to WWE should have been a red flag. When Kota Ibushi decided that he wanted to go back to Japan instead of becoming part of the WWE Universe should have been strike 2. Fans still heavily enjoyed the CWC, bursting with countless classic matches and culminating in an absolute barn-burner between TJ Perkins and Gran Metalik in the finals, where TJP was crowned as WWE Cruiserweight champion. Fans felt that perhaps, finally, after years of mistreating and not understanding the impact of having these exciting performers on the roster – something WCW certainly had a great handle of during the height of the Monday Night Wars – WWE was getting it right.

Strike 3: Then RAW GM, Mick Foley absolutely botched and stumbled the introduction of the Cruiserweight division, making it a punchline right from the get go. The biggest, and most obvious mistake WWE made with the Cruiserweights was place the division within the reach of Vince McMahon and the main roster. Some fans felt that if the Cruiserweight division was going to thrive, it should have become a part of SmackDown. Even I disagree with that sentiment. The Cruiserweights are not meant for a casual WWE audience. This is a very cynical, perhaps even sobering thought about the Cruiserweights – but this was a perfect example of “growing too fast.” I blame myself. I feel that we had a hand in this as well.

Those of us who were so excited over the CWC got caught up in the hype of the restarted brand split. We imagined having entirely separate divisions on different shows: The Cruiserweights, Women and IC division with the Universal Title on Raw, while the Tag Titles and U.S. Title division complimented the WWE Title. There was also rumblings of a TV Title on Smackdown. We all figured that WWE would take the Nitro model of having the Crusierweights open the show in hour one to get the crowd amped. That was our thought. That was our desire. That was our booking. Remember, Vince McMahon “listens to his audience”, so it wouldn’t be that hard to believe that he saw a value for the Cruisierweights in WWE, and since there was such excitement over the CWC and with it being one of the most viewed events on the WWE Network, it made sense for the Cruiserweights to appear on a flagship show for the casual audience.

There is a distinct reason why some acts that are wildly successful in NXT do not enjoy the same success on the main WWE roster. There is a wide chasm between the perception and value of talent between hardcore followers of professional wrestling and those who follow WWE as nothing more than another form of entertainment, easily digestible like a television show they follow to simply have a few hours to get away from life. The reason the Cruiserweight Classic was considered an unmitigated success according to fans was because of the “realistic”, sport-like presentation of the event. Some WWE fans, for better or for worse (no judgement, honestly – because I view WWE programming in the same prism sometimes myself) do not care for sport. WWE is not mat wrestling. WWE is a show. WWE is about characters. WWE is about stories, shocks and general emotional engagement between performer and fan. The Cruiserweight Division never stood a chance debuting on the main roster. Fans were not used to the presentation. They needed to be built up slowly, over time – on NXT, where the presentation and development of the Cruiserweight division could have been tweaked and altered and evolved. This may have taken a decade. Who knows? The truth is, nothing gains credibility unless it shows growing success over a consistent period of time. Neville, Tozawa, Cedric Alexander, Jack Gallagher, etc. are doing their best – they are doing their goddamn best, but until either a) Vince McMahon commits to keeping the division as a true staple of WWE for a very long time so audiences grow an appreciation of the Cruiserweight style, or the reigns are given back to Triple H and NXT to reset and organically grow, the growing pains for the CWs will be an annual root canal for fans of the style. For a good chunk of time. And preferably when Enzo is able to do more and embrace the style of the division instead of just a talk magnet.

Zack Sabre Jr. and Kota Ibushi may have seen the writing on the wall from the beginning. Either way, they made the right decision not signing.

Conversation Dated 10/4/17:

T: Considering we started this a couple of months ago, our “conversations” will begin with acknowledging what had happened between when we wrote and today. For example, the cruiseerwieght section; has our mindset changed? Is it better now? Did Enzo save it?

L:I won’t say he saved it yet. Enzo’s still got a ways to go. And poor Kalisto…it isn’t his fault though. He should have been part of 205 Live from the start but instead Raw had Braun Strowman calling him trash…the dumping him in a dumpster. That kinda ruined poor Lucha Lucha boy and his Lucha Lucha things.

T: Literally, in a dumpster. Yeah, I recall Angle ready to announce the one guy that could touch Enzo and being pumped. Then Kalisto came out and…well?

L: Honestly, Kalisto could have had an effective heel turn way back after the CWC and claiming he was insulted that he wasn’t part of it, or even pissed at Gran Metallik for representing Lucha when he was right there. So many options.

I will admit that Enzo becoming champ is serving as a reset of sorts…almost like Vince said, “See, Hunter (pal), the universe doesn’t care about wrestling, they want personalities, goddammit!” So we have inverted the style of the Cruiserweight division as a result. Enzo is #theworst in the ring but he is on another galaxy on the stick.

T: Man that segment when Neville sacrificed himself and his shot at the title for the good of the division was sooooo well done. And Enzo as champ is great! All the truly needed was a face that we could rally behind. The story is weak. Kalisto is yet again, apart of the pack, not a part of the pack.

Tony Acero : One thing John Cena, the wrestler, would constantly get lambasted over was his patented Five Moves of Doom. Cena would get his ass handed to him for roughly 95% of the match only to pull out these five moves, overcome the odds, and stand the victor. Years later, and even though the stigma of Supercena is gone, those Five Moves are still the catalyst for boos all over the arena. While I was an avid Cena detractor, the idea of Five Moves of Doom always bothered me simply because…everyone has them. I was never upset that John Cena did it, I was simply upset due to the lack of innovation. This argument is difficult, however, because we know why these moves are created and done in this significant order. The familiarity of these moves is what keep fans engaged and expecting the end. These moves pop the crowd and, admittedly, create an expectation of a finish that can easily be turned on its head to create more drama. It is perhaps because of this, however, that innovation is somewhat waning in a majority of matches under the WWE Umbrella.

A lot of innovation is stifled, mostly, by time. Simply put, when you have a three to five minute match, and the agent requires a particular finish, you’re going to get a match that is entirely predictable and, essentially, uneventful. Take Ambrose and Miz as an example. Having seen these guys wrestler perhaps too many times, the interest is gone and the innovation is dead. No, I’m not talking about Dean Ambrose dressed up as a bear or Miz elbow dropping a grandfather clock as “innovation,” I’m talking about in the ring. We know Miz is going to attempt his clothesline in the corner, and if he hits it, he’ll toss Ambrose down and scowl at the camera. We know Ambrose, at one point, will no sell a right hand and bounce off the ropes unaffected with a clothesline, sending Miz down. We know they’re coming; we know that everything in between is going to be average, at best. Now take any Cruiserweight match that is given more than five minutes and watch the action, watch the storytelling, watch the innovation! I’m not knocking one match over the other, but I’m hypothesizing that perhaps we are the stiflers of innovation. Simply put, the CW Division is not where it should be in terms of popularity – we simply don’t care. If there are no eyes on wrestlers, then they have freedom to essentially do their own thing and look good at doing it. Whereas Miz and Ambrose, we are watching intently and waiting for that rebound clothesline or neckbreaker/backbreaker move.

There are always stories about a particular wrestler being told not to do a certain move because someone else is doing it, or it’s too similar to another, more popular wrestler. While I don’t side by these stories and rumors (rarely do), that also doesn’t mean that there are ways around both using these five moves of doom and still coming off as innovative, and a perfect example of that is Kevin Owens. Honestly, this man must actively tell himself on a daily basis that he mustn’t do the same move the same way two matches in a row, because he (and AJ Styles is another glaring example) are stellar at making each match seem new. Owens has moves that are now known as signature. He’s got a cannonball, he’s got the senton, he’s even got a split-legged moonsault or a suplex off the top rope. They’re all involved in more than one of his matches, yet he finds a way to make them seem new, or at the very least, the match around said moves seem new.

The indies are full of innovation. Any given PWG show will blow your mind, NJPW has been a staple of innovation, even the way Lucha Underground is potrayed and filmed is innovative, so it’s not like there aren’t new ways to digest the wrestling product. Why is it that the WWE seems to be so saturated with the blandest seasoning, then? Where is the Lawrys?

Len Archibald: Imagine playing EWR, or any other pro-wrestling promotion simulator. Most of us would be sure to try and acquire the greatest talent possible that would hold enough star power to appeal to the masses and keep the networks happy, engage fans with great in-ring action, house larger-than-life characters and amazing talkers on the microphone. A good mix of both current and past stars, and exciting up and coming talent to round out the roster. Who would you imagine?

AJ Styles? Seth Rollins? Brock Lesnar? Samoa Joe? Kevin Owens? Sami Zayn? Shinsuke Nakamura? John Cena for star power? That’s a pretty damn good roster. A great roster, even. Ample opportunities for great stories and even greater matches. Certainly a roster that would never exist, because it is just too good to be true.

Wake up and smell reality. This is the current WWE roster. The most talented roster ever. I am using hyperbole. I truly believe in terms of sheer in-ring talent, this is the best roster in history. The possibilities for innovation, both in and out of the ring is endless. We have outlets like social media to promote, build and continue storylines. We have talents who are amazing talkers. The talents I have listed above, according to several wrestling reviewers have been involved in at least one truly great match in their careers. So what is going on?

Lucha Underground, with matches like Aztec Warfare is innovating and evolving WWE staples. LU has redefined the Casket Match. New Japan has perfected the art of the tournament, between the G1 and Best of the Super Juniors. The talents between these promotions are given free reign to perform to the best of their ability. Matches are able to vary in style and tone. Professional wrestling, outside WWE is accomplishing its primary function – serve as performance art. Theater is a fluid artform, always changing. A two week run of Hamilton, Amadeus or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are never the same. Inflictions differ, nuances change upon ever new read from the environment or fellow actors who are generous enough to allow that evolution. Audiences differ and actors must be able to read the atmosphere and give them what they came to see. The ability to improvise and innovate are absolute necessaries to seamlessly mask any flaws in the performance. Professional wrestling is no different. Two, four, etc. performers are given a script and direction in the ring and it is up to them to interpret their role to engage the audience. A match between Kenny Omega and Okada somehow feel both similar and different at the same time. Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat were somehow able to tell the same story with wildly different variations and continued to layer the complexity of their feud. The Rock and Steve Austin’s trilogy evolved with each new punch, new finisher, new kickout and finally, with the final Rock Bottom and pin that definitively ended their feud, fed the fans a complete crescendo. Everything made sense. There was enough variation and innovation to keep the fans on their toes.

It is not the fault of the WWE talent. When given the chance and time to tell a complete story, we can view greatness. For my money, the first WWE Women’s Title match between Sasha Banks and Charlotte on RAW is one of the greatest Women’s matches I have ever seen. Dolph Ziggler and Luke Harper stole the show with one of the best ladder matches in WWE history, but is also one of the least talked about. As much flak as fans give Roman Reigns, the WrestleMania 31 match between him and Brock Lesnar is becoming a classic in the eyes of fans. AJ Styles vs. John Cena, John Cena vs. Kevin Owens…these are current matchups that fans view with fondness. Why? They felt organic. They had innovation – they were allowed time to breathe and tell a full story. Innovation still exists in WWE. Don’t believe me? Go to a house show and be prepared to watch matches that make you wonder why they don’t do this on television – even on Pay Per View sometimes.

Conversation Dated 10/9/17:

L: So you brought up your favorite wrestling move, the Ambrose Clothesline and it made me think about match layout. Sometimes when innovation is mentioned in wrestling, it means a new move invented or an old move being executed in a new way. But, match layout in itself can be innovative. The first time the world saw a Hulk-Up people shitted kittens, for example. We have been seeing a trend in WWE where matches are good, maybe even great, but what is setting them apart from a Classic is general match layout. We are seeing the formula and the heat spots and the finisher fest before it starts. We are told that every story ever thought of has been told. I am not so sure that applies to pro wrestling yet.

T: That’s one of my biggest gripes! The idea that every story has been told! It just hasn’t! Because we got so many characters that are fresh and ripe and ready for an innovative new story to be involved in. I think too often, the writers depend on the very idea that all stories have been told so might as well tell it again, but as a writer – even with the notion that there are truly only “seven” stories to tell, we are capable of creating entire worlds, universes, and they are all important an dcool and bad ass because of…CHARACTER! It’s these characters that bleed through the screen in the ring, and the stories that aren’t blatant, that aren’t spelled out in script, should come alive. It’s just not always transparent because of the formulaic approach.

L: I watched Game of Thrones’ Battle of the Bastards at a friends house. Close to the end, as Jon Snow was about to be buried by his own dying soldiers, my friend turned to me, “this is more gripping than a WWE main event.” I rolled my eyes, because he was right. Again, no fault of the performers, but there is a very clear notion that SPECTACLE makes a match special and any layout can make the match spectacular. Spectacle and atmosphere is one part of a great match. Just because I watch Monkeybone in IMAX doesn’t give it some heightened sense of greatness. It’s fucking Monkeybone. It sucks. All the IMAX is doing is magnifying the fact how much it’s sucks. WWE needs to get away from plot-driven storytelling. Everyone wants the title is great for Rocky II and III, but after a while, we’re going to want to know WHY and what motivates them. It is these motives that dictate what they do in the ring, how vicious, intelligent or brutish their strategies are and how they react to losses and consequences. Not, we fight, you win, I lose, I fight someone else again. My 4 year old niece could write that…but she doesn’t because she knows better.

T: And it’s deeper than you win, I lose. It’s you win, I lose, then I win, then you lose, then something else bugs me and we start again. And let’s not get started on Bray, who went to the ring and promised vengeance upon all those who defeated him before…..then proceeded to lose against Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, Finn Balor (and I bet Joe would have been added had he not got injured). So is it safe to say that innovation is stifled in the WWE?
L: Innovation isn’t stifled, my friend. It’s in rigor mortis.

T: Deader than Katie Vick?

L: That’s not a game I’m willing to play.

T: No, just something The Game played.

There you have it, folks! Week 1 of our joint column. Looking forward to all of the responses. Look for next week where we talk about Promotion Saturation and Indy Promotions amongst other things! Thank you all for reading.
Truly, we are honored and humbled.

Tony And Len