Mishal asks what is probably the most important question in the business today…will we ever have another true defining superstar?
Wrestling is at an interesting point in time as we see it right now. The industry has never quite been in the position it’s been in currently, one of great uncertainty for both fans & wrestlers, creative flux across the product and the fact that above all else, the show goes on in the midst of an ongoing, global pandemic which the United States is feeling the brunt of over the last number of months.
With the change in atmosphere & presentation, there have been many things myself, as well as countless other fans have been able to pick up on countless aspects of the industry that have previously gone unnoticed, both positive & negative depending on what you focus on.
No Crowds Further Exposed The Product
The lack of legitimate crowds has exposed holes in certain forms of storytelling, while matches such as more ‘cinematic’ style contests have thrived under an environment like the WWE Performance Centre where the audience generally gets in the way of these kinds storytelling methods. Certain gimmicks have thrived (Asuka, Drew McIntyre, Bray Wyatt or Randy Orton) while others have struggled to find their place (Braun Strowman, Karrion Kross to name a few). Storylines aren’t presented in the manner we’re used to, instead feeling a little more ‘free’ compared to the restrictions many talents face in front of a live audience of thousands of fans.
And while this is inevitable with the shifting landscape the product has to work around, removing the very core of professional wrestling from the current product is bound to have that kind of effect on something that’s become so intertwined with the product.
More than anything, however, this has exposed the longstanding problem with professional wrestling, but WWE in particular.
I don’t reference WWE, in particular, to make this seem like it’s an issue exclusive to them because it is one that transcends the industry as a whole, but considering WWE’s standing within the industry it is one that affects the industry leader before anybody else due to their standing on a mainstream level. That issue I speak of is the company’s inability to find their next superstar.
What Makes A “Superstar?”
When I use the term ‘superstar,’ I don’t mean the standard use of the term coined on WWE programming, referring to an athlete signed to a specific brand, I’m talking about a star, man or woman, that has the ability to transcend the very boundaries of professional wrestling itself. Someone that beyond getting a solid reaction in front of a live audience, becomes a part of a wider popular culture as a whole, becoming not just a ‘Sports Entertainer’ but someone that becomes a part of other elements of mainstream entertainment beyond the squared circle.
Historically we could point to the likes of The Rock, Steve Austin, John Cena, Undertaker, Goldberg, Hulk Hogan or Brock Lesnar when it comes to men, and despite being pushed to the background for a good portion of time until recently, stars such as Sable, Chyna, Lita or Trish Stratus showed that the women can have just as much star power as their male counterparts in every aspect. The names I just mentioned are larger-than-life, bigger than just their characters & edge their way into history beyond just being a part of a program. Talents such as these shift the very dynamic of the brand they promote, affecting ratings, record-breaking merchandise sales & bring in viewers normal programming generally doesn’t. It’s the reason the Attitude Era did as well as it did during its time, it was more than just wrestling, it was the place to go and see a roster stacked with talent, unlike any other generation.
In today’s WWE, that elements just doesn’t feel present, which has shown even more now that the product must stand on its own without fans there to elevate it beyond what it may be.
None of this is to say that talent isn’t present on today’s roster, because that couldn’t be further from the truth. Talents such as Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, AJ Styles, Jeff Hardy, Randy Orton, Drew McIntyre, Bray Wyatt & Braun Strowman alone have enough skill in their pinkies to make the modern-day product better than any generation that’s proceeded it. Their match quality is generally astoundingly high, the work rate is off the charts compared to what we once saw & you could argue that with the right booking, each talent I just mentioned has the possibility to hit the heights of someone like a John Cena did close to two decades ago.
Booking The Superstar
But that’s where the issue tends to lay, in the booking of the very product itself.
We’re currently living at time where a company like WWE, just isn’t thinking in the long-term for the most part. The days of extensive planning, long-form storytelling or crafting angles or characters that are meant to actually lead to something wider than what’s presented, have more or less gone. A lot of this is due to the COVID-19 pandemic affecting various talents presence on TV, but to completely nudge aside the flaws of having a plan for most of your talent beyond three weeks from now, is something that raises dozens of issues.
As of late the introduction of things such as RAW Underground hosted by Shane McMahon, RETRIBUTION, the women being allowed the freedom to float from brand to brand or the presence of ‘edgier’ storytelling elements (i.e. Jeff Hardy’s battle with his ‘demons’) have shown just how desperate the company is to find something, anything to latch onto. None of these angles feels planned out or with any wider purpose, but seemingly exist to spark some form of controversy, whether that be on social media or a slight bump in the ratings as we’ve seen very briefly. The argument could be made that these will all lead to something down the line, this, however, just isn’t how things are going as of this writing.
Short Term vs. Long Term
WWE seems far more concerned with short-term impacts on their various media platforms rather than effective storytelling, and it’s that very mentality that will progress the company from solving their star-making dilemma in the future. Reports from backstage have also echoed similar vibes, claiming the company is only executing these angles as a way to drag their product out of the mess it’s in currently, rather than using their methods to build to something much larger & more satisfying.
This kind of thinking ruins the potential for storylines to be more than just blips on a radar, or the potential for a superstar to be more than a one-hit-wonder who’ll be forgotten in the coming weeks. You could say the same for the company’s constant use of 50-50 booking, which is a topic that’s been beaten to death by this point. But the very notion of 50-50 booking is what hinders star power or credibility when trying to invest an audience because you’re simply sacrificing one of your stars looking dominant before moving onto the next chapter of their respective careers.
Say what you will about John Cena & his booking during his more frequent days on the main roster a number of years back, the man was a believable threat to everyone he stepped up against because of how protected he was in storyline, always made to be a star. The same can be said of Steve Austin, The Rock, Triple H, Goldberg, heck even Roman Reigns barely eats a loss but is sadly not active at this point in time as a result of COVID-19.
The Stars Of Today
Most other stars on the roster (bar Drew McIntyre who is killing it), just can’t say the same. Talents like Seth Rollins, AJ Styles, Jeff Hardy, Sheamus, Aleister Black, Shinsuke Nakamura, Cesaro or in particular Braun Strowman have severely struggled as a result of inconsistent booking that hinders their overall character development. It’s this kind of absurdity that results in stars never reaching their potential in modern-day WWE, instead, they’re simply talents with incredible degrees of talent behind them, which is still commendable to wrestling fans, just not to the mainstream audience the company needs to target.
But that brings me back to the question; Will Professional Wrestling Ever Have Another Superstar?
For the sake of sheer optimism, yes.
I personally cannot believe that we’ve seen the last ‘John Cena’ of this generation, nor do I think the level of talent is lacking to replicate the lighting in the bottle that was that character at the time.
Where the issues lie is simply within the long-term investment of the company in its stars, which isn’t at its peak right now. All it takes to get a product & its stars back on top is simply that, think ahead of what you’re doing at the moment. Wrestling beyond an art form, is like any other kind of entertainment, it needs consistency, solid storytelling, characters & a really strong presentation to work off of. None of that is completely absent from programming right now, but it is struggling to find its footing in the grander scheme of things.
In the short-term, you’d likely not find me disliking a lot of WWE’s current booking because it does have its entertainment value for you to sink your teeth into, but as the product rolls out, the issues begin to unfold in spades.
All of this is simply to show that despite numerous industry legends (Eric Bischoff, Chris Jericho, Arn Anderson, even Vince McMahon himself) raising issue with the lack of ‘superstars’ in today’s business, there is & always will be a glimmer of hope despite the bleak outlook as we see it right now. We’ve never been a part of an industry so crammed with talent, potentially incredible storylines & range to reach an endless number of untapped audience members who aren’t yet invested in what there is to offer. It’s all a matter of investing in the talent you have & fixing the fundamental structural issues I think a company like WWE has at its core right now, essentially short-term over long-term gains when it comes to its product. And while there is a lot of weight underneath that very topic to tap into, anyone delving into the online wrestling community is bound to be familiar with what I, and many others would refer to.
Professional wrestling will find its next superstar, whether that be tomorrow, next month or next year, there’s something incredible waiting around the corner. It may not be what we’re used to, not even like anything we’ve seen before, but if the current crop of talent is any indicator, it’ll blow our socks off.