World Wrestling Entertainment had an up and down 2016 to be sure, and a large piece of that seesawing has to be directly attributed to their inability to market a star to the level of John Cena. It’s a bit ironic that Cena himself hasn’t left the company, but his drafting to Smackdown Live signaled strongly to me that the company felt his days of being the main event were diminishing. This isn’t so much the fault of Cena as it is his ability to land commitments outside of WWE’s domain.
While Vince McMahon and company remain firmly committed to pushing the hell out of each and every outside project to get eyeballs onto their product, they know in the back of their minds every single appearance beyond pro wrestling inches the face of WWE one step closer to the other side of the door. It’s a matter of time before John pulls his Rock moment and heads for the Hollywood Hills on a permanent basis. His recent walk back of the “part timer” slams leveled at Mr. Maivia show that truth in spades. Cena’s character matters more than most in Titan Tower, because it’s a marketing machine aimed at the most important segment of their fanbase, the kids. He doesn’t dare risk egg on his face when fans bring up the hypocrisy of JC becoming exactly what he railed against. For those out there that have issues with Cena, take heart: he’s due to become a part time player sooner rather than later, to be dusted off and granted a hero’s welcome every time WrestleMania season rolls around.
Even those with Cena issues can’t avoid the fact that he draws, however. You don’t need a mathematics degree to calculate the influence he’s had on filling the coffers, particularly on house shows all across the country. That led to WWE secretly ferrying Johnny boy into Raw shows as a dark match performer for a good bit of the year. Why bring Cena in if you weren’t going to tell everyone he was there? The brand split had to be protected as an investible idea, but the long term players for WWE have always treated Monday Night Raw as the “A” show (that’s what led the first brand split to the graveyard all those many moons ago) and that means it has to be protected no matter the cost. If a sizable portion of the crowd wants Cena there, they’ll find a way to do it and they did. This was backed off a bit as details leaked on the internet and Cena’s TV commitments picked up, but make no mistake: it showed a complete and utter willingness to leverage their one viable marketing chip to whatever ends were necessary, consequences be damned. And it’s that sort of shortsighted thinking that’s led them to the abyss before.
Cena’s natural progression, of course, was meant to be Roman Reigns. To say that experiment has been a complete and utter failure would be offensive to the Edsel. Much of that fault can’t and won’t be placed at the feet of Reigns himself: he has limited say in his character presentation and his perceived push right over the beloved Daniel Bryan is buried in the minds of each and every wrestling fan. His ring work has been better than he’s given credit for, but he’s no Cena in that regard. His matches lack the compelling nature of Cena’s, and even though his arsenal of moves is presented like a video game and fawned over by each and every member of the announce team, it’s not impressive to the degree of John’s freakish strength or Brock Lesnar’s outright size and build. Where Reigns really suffers, though, is personality. Both of his former Shield mates, Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins, have forced tremendous reactions from the audience due to their ability to work the microphone. While Dean has been unfortunately reduced to snarky comic banter, Rollins has scored from both sides of the aisle and brought the majority of the universe right along with him. Lacking the natural charisma of either, Reigns has to rely on his work in the ring. It also hasn’t done him any favors that WWE’s instruction appears to be to just not react to anything the fans do ever. While it’s understandable that they are refusing to move Reigns to the heel side just to cave to what some want, it weakens him to just show up and pretend everything’s fine while half the building boos. Even if 2017 is the year of Roman Reigns, creative will have to figure out a way to address this if they don’t want to end up starting over yet again.
The situation becomes even more dire once you get past Reigns. It’s downright mystifying that a company which has brought in so much talent is struggling to get someone over, but it’s definitely the case. On the face side of the coin, Finn Balor is a major question mark. While his work in NXT was amazing, he’s already working his way back from a major injury before even really getting started on the main roster and serious inquiries remain about whether Vince will renew his Universal Title reign or appoint him Demon King of the Cruiserweights. Take a look at history and see which side you’re on. The road to the top has seen McMahon change his mind like underwear, and every solid worker from Daniel Bryan to Sasha Banks has been the victim of this back-and-forth multiple personality disorder. AJ Styles, who is frankly the best worker they have right now, will undoubtedly become the face everyone wants him to be again, but it won’t be while Cena is actively wrestling unless one of them switch brands. Guys like Shinsuke Nakamura and Samoa Joe are more than intriguing given their work for other promotions and the reactions they receive in NXT, but they face a double battle: will the WWE brass really throw all their weight behind someone they didn’t have a hand in creating, and will they properly capture the momentum in a way they haven’t demonstrated the ability to so far before the moment is lost? You only get one chance to make a first impression in the wrestling industry, even when you’re a seasoned veteran.
As for heels, Brock Lesnar continues to remain the focal point of the business for them, even though he’s infrequently on television. This arrangement has been good for WWE over its lifetime, and I give them credit for doing it despite their reliance on exclusivity. But Brock lost quickly to Goldberg at Survivor Series, and even if he redeems that decision at the Rumble or down the line you get the sense that they’re willing to trade off with Lesnar in a way they haven’t been for quite some time. McMahon’s infatuation with UFC talent remains high, and as they clear the deck for the short-term profitability of Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey it’s clear Lesnar won’t be fading from the WWE roster any time soon. But most of the dream matches have been had, and that has painted them into a bit of a corner with the Beast. It’s also weakened the presence of Paul Heyman, their best talker by far. Brock has shown he doesn’t need pro wrestling before, at least in his mind, so putting eggs into his basket may leave you with no breakfast at all.
What, then, will be the result of all of this lost traction? McMahon and his creative roundtable must focus their collective efforts on presenting the next monster, the one ready to take Brock Lesnar’s place at the top of the food chain and out-beast the Beast. Vince has always kept the streak of the carnival barker, harkening back to wrestling’s circus roots by placing the big guy at the top and firmly ensconcing him. It was one thing during the eighties when you could get away with a lunkhead with limited moves, but that won’t fly now. In this era of social media, you’ve got to bring it or you’re toast before you get started. Add to that the fact that guys like Hulk Hogan could talk a blue streak to make up for their wrestling inadequacies, and you’re in rarified air. Building around a heel is always challenging, as kids won’t cheer a bad dude. But the stronger you build the villain, the bigger the moment when the hero conquers. That has to be WWE’s game plan given everything just discussed. And that is where Braun Strowman comes in.
Strowman fits the bill perfectly. He’s a former strongman, for heaven’s sake. He’s broken away from his previous role as silent partner in the Wyatt Family to his presentation as an unstoppable force, first against the brief jobber experiment (last used during Ryback’s run!) and then decimating some of Raw’s lesser lights each and every week while demanding monosyllabic competition from GM Mick Foley. While that may not fly to the extent it would have in previous eras, it did score points with making Strowman look unbeatable. It also turned his silent mean streak into an outright nasty disposition, something all the great heels have. Between his frenzied mountain man appearance and his limited but forceful moveset, he’d look right at home coming out of a monster movie. It’s like the freakish offspring of Bruiser Brody and Kane, and you’re welcome for the visual. The latest development, placing Braun in a “feud” with Sami Zayn in which Zayn is presented as having success by simply eluding the big man for ten minutes, is genius in its simplicity. You’ve essentially taken the plot of every Tom & Jerry short and turned it into a win-win. The only loser here is, naturally, the cruiser division, which has been treated as the prop it’s always been, existing only to get some overtime out of the ring crew as they turn the ring purple and providing Strowman some extras to annihilate mid-match on his way to more important matters.
The next hurdle is to turn this beast into championship material, and that will prove to be the hardest hurdle to clear. Strowman and Reigns has already been teased, and with Roman both sporting the United States Title and challenging for Kevin Owens’ Universal strap, the conclusion is obvious. Reigns will need a championship dance partner, and while I don’t see him losing to Strowman outright in this moment in time, Braun claiming the US belt once Reigns is otherwise engaged places both in a manageable holding pattern. Braun’s been protected nicely since the brand split, and while his work in the ring hasn’t gotten noticeably better, he’s mobile and agile enough to pull off a solid effort against the right opponent. Carving his way through the midcard while the WWE readies the next chapter of the story is simple. While it’s a fair point that Frankenstein’s monster doesn’t have to have a belt, I think it would secure him some cred.
Long term, though, it’s a bit more murky. Braun is limited in the ring with little upside, and would need a cornerman the caliber of Heyman to progress on the microphone. When he loses he’ll have to reinvent, and that’s a tough task when your personality is nonexistent or underdeveloped. And therein lies the crux of WWE’s dilemma: the short-term quick fix leads to another when the first runs out of gas, and before you know it you’re broken down on the highway looking to thumb a ride to redemption. The WWE isn’t foolish to attempt to brand Braun as a viable monster, but they aren’t covering any ground not previously traveled. The story is only as good as the antagonist, but the hook is equally important. Fans have to have a reason to come back again, so it’s present something not seen before or pretend we haven’t. The first is way harder to do, but the second can be wicked challenging when you don’t have the long view in mind. Strowman will likely end up being the latest short-term solution to a problem with seemingly no end in sight: locating the next WWE megastar.