After nearly two years of pretending AEW was not a threat, WWE has made moves to show it too is a believer that the competition is real. They hot-shotted their television angles. They tacked a half hour onto SmackDown to counter-program AEW Rampage. WWE clearly realizes it has a fight on its hands. So far, these moves have done little to curtail AEW from competing in the key demographics with WWE. If you want proof, you can check out Paul Fontaine’s excellent ratings breakdowns here on the site.
The issue goes far beyond programming and television time slots. Recent episodes of RAW, SmackDown and NXT 2.0 have shown WWE leans heavily on certain tropes that have grown tired. These are angles or concepts they go to time and time again with little variation. The fact is, despite having a room full of writers and tremendous in-ring talent, WWE Creative just isn’t very creative these days.
Are those writers allowed to be creative? Or is Vince McMahon sending them back with instructions to draw from the same wells over and over again? Nothing long-term goes on those shows without his stamp of approval, and he has come to rely on some standard topes that have made some angles feel like fans are watching remakes rather than originals.
HEEL AUTHORITY FIGURES
This is a crutch on which the company has relied for nearly 25 years. It was phenomenally successful with Vince McMahon trying to hold back Steve Austin. The feud was a pillar of one of the biggest runs in industry history, but WWE got addicted to it. Over time, Shane McMahon, Stephanie McMahon, John Laurinaitis, HHH and Stephanie as a team and a host of others have played the role of the malevolent boss.
It worked with Shane and the Rock. It was still effective with John Cena and Laurinaitis, although not to previous levels. It worked accidentally with Daniel Bryan versus HHH and Stephanie, but other versions grew tiresome and played out.
They backed away from it for a while, with Adam Pearce and Sonya Deville playing the beleaguered, but well-intentioned authority figures. In the end, they couldn’t help themselves. Deville began a random feud with Naomi in which she’s the bully and now Pearce is portrayed as the one keeping Brock Lesnar away from the company.
Over the years, portraying the company as the heel has become an excellent example of diminishing returns. It irritates the audience more than excites it now.
Fans have gone into open rebellion on the company when it pushes what they consider the wrong people, more than in any other organization. Roman Reigns was booed despite his monster babyface push. Becky Lynch was defiantly cheered despite her heel turn going into the Ronda Rousey storyline. The portrayal of the company itself as the heel only makes that easier.
It’s no coincidence WWE’s main brand is the only one that doesn’t get fan appreciation chants. During good matches, chants of “A-E-W” ring out. You hear “New Japan” chants when NJPW has run in the United States. This happens across wrestling, except in WWE. The only brand that gets those chants is NXT which is the one with an authority figure portrayed as a babyface. WWE has trained the fans to dislike the company itself.
STRONG PATTERNS IN STIPULATION MATCHES
WWE tends to book ladder matches frequently. They made the three-way match for the NXT Women’s Tag Team titles at Halloween Havoc a ladder match. Then they put together a four-way contenders ladder match and stuck it on RAW the night before the Havoc match. There have been so many ladder matches over time they don’t seem special anymore. This is especially true when they are not part of a pay-per-view show, and instead are just thrown together for a TV episode.
Their strong patterns extend to other types of matches. Lumberjack matches invariably end with a huge brawl among the lumberjacks. That wasn’t always the case. In the past, when these matches were more effective as part of a long-term program, the focus was kept on the people in the ring. The lumberjacks were there to serve the story’s purpose of keeping the combatants from running away. Sometimes one would get involved as part of an angle, but it was to further the story going on in the match. Now you can set your watch to the big brawl breaking out.
They also lean too heavily on the wacky holiday-themed matches. WWE is in a rut of thinking pumpkins must be smashed every Halloween. A few weeks after that, a food fight must break out around Thanksgiving. These get fans rolling their eyes more than getting them excited, but it’s become an annual segment to get through. We had our pumpkins match on SmackDown, so watch out for flying mashed potatoes and bad comedy in the coming weeks.
THE DREADED GUEST COMMENTATOR
This pattern is particularly stark. A wrestler joins the announcing team on commentary. A match is going on, but at some point they fall outside of the ring near the guest commentator and the guest is “accidentally” bumped or hit, or the commentator interferes. This leads to more brawling between the commentator and participants. There is little to no variation on this, and they do it more weeks than they don’t now.
THE KING STUFF
With Xavier Woods’ coronation and knighting segments, he becomes the sixth consecutive King of the Ring winner to make the royal thing part of his gimmick. The company has also leaned into it with Zelina Vega. She even developed an intermittent British accent.
— Austin #HailKingWoods – King of The Ring (@AustinCreedWins) November 4, 2021
Woods has enough equity with fans they are going along with this for now, but it’s easy to see them rolling their eyes soon enough. It’s frustrating that a tournament originally designed to elevate talent to a higher level has been reduced to a vehicle for silly comedy.
Nothing would be wrong with someone winning the tournament and saying it’s going to launch then into title contention, but they can’t seem to help themselves from shoving a scepter and a silly crown on the winners’ head, marking them as small-time right away.
TIME TO SHAKE THINGS UP?
Of course, having all the writers in the world won’t help if the editor only likes a handful of things. It will take a change in philosophy at the top before we find out if all these writers have the creativity needed to showcase the excellent athletes populating the WWE’s roster. That can only come from one place which is Vince McMahon’s office. Fans are ready for something new. They’re just waiting for WWE to give it to them.
These are just a few examples of the ruts in which WWE has found itself. Make no mistake, WWE has a real fight on its hands. AEW is a major factor in the American wrestling scene. They will continue to be one. Doing these same things over and over again with little innovation has led to a large erosion of the audience. Relying on these same things over and over will not be what carries WWE to a victory. It could be what ultimately leaves them behind.