World Wrestling Entertainment has been known for, among many other things, having one or two stars seemingly handpicked to lead the company in their respective eras. Hulk Hogan & “Macho Man” Randy Savage, The Rock & “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and John Cena are all wrestlers that led their respective eras and crossed over into the mainstream. These are all wrestlers that a non-wrestling fan could most likely name or at the very least, recognize.
Asking a non-watcher to name a current wrestler, they’d probably name John Cena, possibly Triple H, two part-time wrestlers that debuted in wrestling over twenty years ago. As for current wrestlers, they might name Roman Reigns, or possibly Becky Lynch. They won’t name some of the more pushed wrestlers in the company like Drew McIntyre, Asuka, or Seth Rollins. Part of that has to do with wrestling not being as big as it once was, but I believe it has to do with WWE prioritizing the brand of WWE instead of one person as “The Guy”.
WrestleMania sells tickets off the idea of WrestleMania alone, oftentimes months in advance, instead of off the strength of the card. Fans basically buy tickets on hope, on the idea that WrestleMania is as big and important as the WWE says it is. Many pay-per-views and shows work this way. However, on the independent circuit, unless you’re a very trusted promotion like PWG, the strength of the card is typically what sells tickets. The trust is in the performers on the card and the matchups rather than in the brand, for the most part.
The most likely reason for this reprioritization is likely because Vince McMahon feels he has been crossed too many times by wrestlers in the past. When you invest time and effort into building up an “independent contractor” and label them as such, there’s always the possibility they may leave for greener pastures when their contract is up. Looking at someone like CM Punk, regardless of what you think of the situation between him and the WWE, CM Punk is no longer a wrestler, especially not for the WWE. A lot of time and energy was invested in him, and when he and the company “parted ways”, that was a large investment of the company that eventually lost. Granted, they lost him due to their own faults, but they still lost out on being able to have him as an asset.
When you hire the best wrestlers in the world, and present them as the best in the world, they are going to become hot commodities. They are going to have prospects outside of WWE and possibly even outside of wrestling. Becky Lynch and Seth Rollins are a WWE power couple if there ever was one without the name McMahon involved. Becky Lynch has partially crossed over, by making a guest appearance on Showtime’s Billions, and Seth Rollins hasn’t really done too much outside of wrestling. However, if they both decided to leave WWE, never looking back, AEW or someone in the wrestling world in some way would try to scoop them up immediately. But again, WWE would be at a huge disadvantage without them.
As stated before, wrestling is not as big as it once was. The Monday Night Wars did bring record high numbers to wrestling, but we are in the midst of the Wednesday Night Wars, and we are nowhere near the highs that Nitro and Raw did. I have a theory that it is because of this situation that, at least partially, wrestling is not as big as it once was.
Wrestling has always relied on star power to push a promotion into the upper echelon that is mainstream pop culture. The Rock was such a huge star during the late 90s and early 2000s that he hosted Saturday Night Live, while still being an active wrestler, and was even in The Mummy Returns and The Scorpion King while under contract with WWE. Wrestling needs a star of some kind to break through and become “The Guy” to make wrestling must-see again.
In all fairness, there are a certain number of problems with the “The Guy”. John Cena got injured while at the top of the card multiple times, and Hulk Hogan was notoriously hard to work with due to the leverage he had on the company. It’s not a fix-all solution to have a few people typically at the top of the card to cross over into the mainstream for each era.
“The Guy” isn’t a magic idea to make wrestling relevant again and turn record profits. It’s obviously been tried before within the company, and was even tried with Roman Reigns to a certain extent. The problem seems to be that no one on the current roster feels like a gigantic star in the way stars of old did. Part of that has to do with current stars constantly losing to nostalgia acts, and part of it has to do with the problem that currently, “The Guy” in the WWE is the WWE brand itself.