April marks the start of WWE’s new year. Sure, the company never takes a vacation and the weekly show never has a season finale (although they bill one episode in September every year as the “season premiere”), and even though WrestleMania has fewer and fewer resolved storylines than it did in the past, it still is such a humongous event that it marks the annual turning point in the company. All eyes are on the product, with this year’s Raw-After-WrestleMania scoring the highest ratings since the Raw 1000 special back in 2012.
Looking back on the past month, and looking forward to what April holds gives us a good understanding of what kind of shape the company is in. The WWE Network continues to (slowly) pick up subscribers; not at the pace the company would have liked, but still, it’s not treading water and it’s numbers are certainly not trending downward. The company still has a long way to go to reach enough subscribers to exceed the amount of money being brought in through the PPV model. Back then, there were no Network expenses or startup costs, money wasn’t being spent to produce TV shows and documentaries of all stripes. PPV’s weren’t bringing in the kind of money in 2013 that they were in 2003 or 1999, but they were easily produced and produced easy money.
Now the Network is the norm, and though it has potential to bring in more money than the company has ever seen before, there is a lot of work to be done to reach that potential. It can’t be done through free-month specials and the annual WrestleMania surge. The interest in the Network has to be strong in May and July and October and December the way it is from January-March.
WrestleMania is behind us and a lot of the buzz and mainstream press is going away. How do things look with the company? Are there enough building blocks in place to actually retain the WrestleMania audience? Let’s see…
STATE OF THE CHAMPIONS
WWE World Heavyweight Champion
SETH ROLLINS has gone from being the next Jeff Hardy, to being the next Marty Jannetty, to being the next Edge, to being the first Seth Rollins, all in the span of a year. His win at WrestleMania capped off a month that in hindsight seemed perfectly designed to set up his Money in the Bank contract cash-in, despite the fact that such a cash-in was not in the cards until the week of WrestleMania, and wasn’t even known by the now-champion until about an hour before it happened.
His reign has just started so we’ll save our look at how it has gone for next month’s “state of WWE” article. Looking at the past month, however, you can see how Seth has been groomed for this moment from the second he split from the Shield. His time as a heel has blossomed him into one of the most despicable, smarmy and hated villains the WWE has produced in some time. He’s probably doing the best heeling since CM Punk’s Straight Edge Society was causing near-riots on Smackdown a few years ago. Time will tell how they book him, but so far the title is in good hands with him. Fans are already DYING to see Brock Lesnar get his hands on him, and if WWE plays it right, they can keep fans hungry for Lesnar’s payback until WrestleMania NEXT year.
WWE United States Champion
JOHN CENA is in the beginning of his first US title reign since the road to WrestleMania 21, a decade ago. Since then he had a streak from Mania 21 through Mania 29, nine straight show-of-shows where he either main-evented, or was in one of the two top-title matches. Last year’s Mania feud with Bray Wyatt seemed to set Cena up to be a veteran midcard player, out of the main-event spotlight he dominated for a decade. Daniel Bryan’s neck injury through a wrench in those plans and Cena took up the WWE Championship once more, only to be the guy to solidify Brock Lesnar as the new top dog in the promotion. His beatdown of Cena was the most one-sided WWE Championship loss since Diesel beat Bob Backlund in less than half a minute. It was certainly the longest beatdown of champion in history.
After SummerSlam Cena stayed in the main event picture, out of necessity, with Bryan and Reigns both out, and Dean Ambrose tied up in feuds with Rollins and Wyatt. But with WrestleMania 31, Cena and the WWE are trying again to make the biggest star in the company (outside of the partime Lesnar) a special mid-card attraction. His feud with Rusev brought the first real attention to the US title since the belt was brought back on the Smackdown brand over a decade ago.
Rumors are that a new design of the championship is in the works, and that would point to a long title reign from Cena. The champ has already said he intends to defend the belt weekly. We’ll see how long the fickle minds at WWE Creative are with that one, but as of right now the belt looks to be as strongly-positioned as any midcard title has been since the mid-80’s IC belt.
The only worry would be if he fails to elevate the mid-card challengers who come after his title. Bray Wyatt was done no favors working his three-match series with Cena last year. Rusev is 1-1 against him and has a rematch set for the end of the month. It’s expected he’ll lose and end the feud with Cena. What then? Cena is such a huge star that there really is nowhere to go but down after feuding with him. Losses to him, therefore, tend to hurt more because he’s going to win every feud in the end, and then the loser is going to also be knocked down the card. There’s still a chance for some great mid-card work to be done, but it will have to be done creatively to keep the actual mid-card wrestlers looking good.
WWE Intercontinental Champion
DANIEL BRYAN captured the IC title at WrestleMania 31. It was his fifth straight WrestleMania since becoming a WWE superstar. It was also his fifth different championship match at WrestleMania. He had previously wrestled for the US title at Mania 27, then defended the World Heavyweight title at Mania 28, then defended the Tag titles with Kane at Mania 29, and won the WWE World Heavyweight title at Mania 30. With his win at Mania 31 he has become a triple crown winner (WWE, IC, Tag champion), and a Grand Slammer, winning every possible title in the promotion. Not bad for the guy most think the company has no faith in.
Really, let’s say Bryan never has neck problems and never has surgery. His path last year would have ended the same was Cena’s did: A viscous beat down by Brock Lesnar. And fans would have been IRATE. The same fans that reveled in seeing the superman of WWE get demolished would have been livid to see the ultimate underdog Bryan get “buried” by Lesnar. Bryan would have lost and would have shuffled down the card, likely ending up at Mania 31 in a match for the IC title.
He is exactly where he was always going to be. It’s just a shame his injury denied us a nice little run with the title.
Nevertheless, he is the perfect guy to restore prestige back to the Intercontinental Championship. The belt’s legacy was always as a workhorse title, carried by guys who could go in the ring, and won by guys looking to move up to the next level. Bryan has said in interviews he’s happy with his place in the company and he is excited to work with guys in the mid-card and to help them reach main-event status. His popularity with the fans in unquestioned, and he can–like Cena–always be a pinch-hitter if ever the WWE needs a babyface to step in and carry the top title for a while. In the meantime he is set to do great things with the IC belt.
Prognosis: Very Strong!
WWE Divas Champion
NIKKI BELLA is only keeping the title warm at this point. She’s had a good run, and has improved considerably in the ring, but the fans are ready for a title change. Of course the real elephant in the room is the loss of one of the two Divas assumed to take the title in the near future: There’s no way around it, the retirement of AJ Lee is going to hurt. Not only was she the backbone of the division, but she was unquestionably the biggest female star in the company. Paige has really found her groove after a year on the roster, and the Bellas aren’t going anywhere, but after that there’s not a lot of depth in the division. Natalia is busy managing Cesaro and Kidd, Naomi looks like she’s going to get a push but she doesn’t have near the range that Paige or the NXT ladies have.
The best hope for the division is for Charlotte to be called up. Sasha Banks is more than ready as well (she’s probably the best all-around performer in NXT right now), but she just won the title and really needs to hold it for a while in order to pass the torch to the next champ (Bayley I hope and pray). Charlotte would not replace the character of AJ (no one will be able to, not even Bayley, who lacks the ability to work a heel character like AJ could), but she can certainly replace and improve upon the void left in the workrate department. Charlotte could be the dominant Diva of the division that it was thought Kharma would be. She’s got the look, the skills and the pedigree to be, along with Paige, the backbone of the revamped Divas division.
Right now the title is still on Nikki, but I would expect that to change shortly, perhaps by the end of the month. After that, who knows.
WWE Tag Team Champions
CESARO AND KIDD aren’t being given nearly as much promo/sketch time as they need to really get over, but they are the most fully developed tag champs in a long while, so at least that’s something. I keep hoping that this run is just a slow-developing platform to get Cesaro ready for a big main-event run (the way Team Hell No worked for Daniel Bryan), but whether it is or isn’t, it’s at least putting him on my screen every week.
Competition, like with the Divas division, is weak but has potential to improve. The Usos remain the top babyface team but they have had title runs and with few other teams to work with, got stale pretty quick. Most of the rest of the division is a collection of jobbers the audience has been conditioned to ignore (Matadors, Prime Time Players, Ascension).
The real wildcard is New Day. Here’s a trio consisting of a reliable mid-card act (Kofi) a promising new upper mid-card act (Big E) and a guy who can be a great manager, spokesman (Woods). They should be much more popular than they are, but so many of the “little things” have killed them. What’s interesting is how they seem to be getting over ironically, much the same way Damien Sandow did last year. With the right tweak here and there they can become the next top challengers to the tag titles, at least until the Lucha Dragons have had a few months to become accepted by the larger WWE audience. Those three teams, along with the Usos, can carry the division for the next several months. After that there’s still not much depth, and Cesaro and Kidd aren’t going to be teaming forever. The Tag division has been a weakspot on the roster for years and that doesn’t look to really change anytime soon.
KEVIN OWENS might one day move up to the main roster and become the dominant brawler/mauler that Brock Lesnar is, but on a full time basis. On the other hand, he might one day move up to Raw and Smackdown and be treated like a joke by the commentary team, his great verbal skills might never be allowed to be highlighted, and his unorthodox wrestling style might be handicapped before his first Raw match. You just never know. He could become the next Bray Wyatt, or he could be the next Big E.
Forget that, though. His eventual call-up is at least a year away. Right now he’s the top dog on NXT. He’s the most charismatic and magnetic personilty the upstart promotion has ever had as champion. He’s doing incredible heel work right now and his feud with Sami Zayn (the ultimate babyface) hasn’t even really started. The two month build to TakeOver: Rival was just a prelude to the real feud. Expect that to make NXT much-watch throughout the spring and summer this year.
In the meantime, there’s a rematch with Finn Balor (this time with the Demon unleashed), there’s a one-off with Rhyno sure to come, same with Hideo Itami. By the time Zayn finally recaptures the gold and puts Owens in his place, the champ will be nothing short of a pro wrestling demi god. High high hopes are had with the top title on the Yellow Brand.
Prognosis: Through the roof!
NXT Women’s Champion
SASHA BANKS was secretly the best “sports entertainer” in WWE last year. This year she is obviously the best. No one else so perfectly embodies their character, in and out of the ring. A lot of guys and gals have great characters they play when holding a mic or when walking down the ramp, but during the actual match, the wrestle like generic wrestlers. They hit moves and perform maneuvers, but there’s little of their character in the mannerisms. Not Sasha Banks. Her every posture, pose and performance oozes her “Boss” character. Her matches have gone from “good enough” to “show stealing” in the span of one year.
Behind her is a gauntlet of female challengers, and since the NXT Women’s Division is the best division in the company (due to the great work in developing talent), there’s no end in sight for how many shows the women’s title match can steal. People worry about some of the Divas like Carmella and Dana Brooke. But once upon a time those fears were had about Alexa Bliss and Becky Lynch and, believe it or not, Sasha Banks. Until NXT proves otherwise they deserve the benefit of the doubt in developing women into superstars.
NXT Tag Team Champions
BLAKE AND MURPHY (aka The Dubstep Cowboys) have proven that NXT is on such a roll right now that two jobbers can win the weakest belt in the promotion and manage to get over. All it takes is a little tweak here and there, a little character development, and a commitment to improve in the ring. They have checked all three boxes since winning the Tag titles in surprising fashion a few months ago. Right now they are in a feud with Enzo and Cass (the unquestioned hottest act in the promotion) and though their reign looks to be transitional to be put the belts on the babyfaces, they proved that they are a legit tag team and that any team can become legit if enough care is put into developing them. That’s something the main roster shows seem to have forgotten, but it’s something NXT prides itself on.
Having said that, the division is still very weak. With the Lucha Dragons getting called up, and with Tye Dillinger and Jason Jordon split and feuding, there are really only three name-brand teams left: The champs, the challengers, and the Vaudvillians. What happens when Enzo and Cass win the titles and finish their feud with Wesley and Blake? They will feud with the Vaudvillains. Then what? There’s no one left. With a roster as small as NXT’s, the tag division will always be short-changed. But there are enough guys sitting around who could be repackaged into a team (imagine Mojo Rawley and Bull Dempsey together….or maybe don’t, don’t imagine that), to help flesh out the division and potentially get over the way Blake and Murphy have done. That’s all speculation, though. Right now the division looks weak, despite having the hottest act in NXT working in it.
Looking ahead, it would do the WWE well to think about their plans for Cena after he’s done with Rusev. He needs the right kind of challengers. Rollins has more than enough to keep him busy (Orton and Reigns alone can carry the title picture until Lesnar returns). Provided the WWE keeps Big Show and Kane’s involvement in the Raw main-event scene to a bare minimum, the main-event picture looks solid. Likewise the tag champs have enough around them to stay relevant, but more mic time for the champs and more development for New Day is needed. I don’t worry at all about what Bryan can do with the IC belt, but hopes for the Divas depend on a Charlotte call-up and on her having instant success. Who knows when that will be though. You’d think if she was debuting soon she’d have showed up on the Raw-after-Mania. But then again, maybe the company didn’t know AJ was about the split. That might accelerate their plans.
WWE Prognosis for April: Very good.
As for NXT, the roster has increased lately with the addition of Rhyno and The Bryan Kendrick. Goldust has hinted at moving down there to train, so maybe he becomes a semi-regular. Either way, two-thirds of the promotion is rock-solid, and at least the Tag division is going to center around Enzo and Cass. Wednesday nights are going to be must-watch all year, I think.
NXT Prognosis for April: Outstanding!
THREE YAYS FROM MARCH
Rollins winning the world title:
Both in the booking (it was the perfect finish) and in the execution (everyone came out of the match looking strong, even Roman Reigns, which I thought would be impossible, win or lose).
Lesnar’s face turn:
He’s been a defacto babyface since the Royal Rumble, but Stephanie cemented it on Raw when she suspended him. Lesnar’s destruction that followed might have seemed heelish, but really it just reinforced the notion that Lesnar is just an uncontrollable force of nature. He’s going to hurt everyone, and when he’s pointed in the direction of a heel (or a hated commentary team), the fans eat it up like it’s chocolate. He’s the closest thing we have to Steve Austin’s take no prisoners, heel or face, mantra.
Renewed focus on midcard titles:
It’s been a long time since even one of those belts meant anything. I don’t think both of them have ever mattered at the same time. Here’s hoping Bryan and Cena continue their reigns through at least SummerSlam. They don’t have to be undefeated, and in fact a loss and a regaining of the title might actually do a lot to help get them over as big deals. Either way, the titles on RAW and PPV are going to mean a lot more going forward. That’s a great thing.
THREE NAYS FROM MARCH
The you suck __________ chants on Raw:
I was there. It was shameful. To be fair, they started as a simple, cliched “you suck” chant at the Bellas. Frustration with booking has been a theme with these sorts of crowds for over a year now, and it was only a matter of time before a line was crossed. Here’s hoping it’s not crossed again.
For the second WrestleMania in a row he comes out of a hot feud a loser. I don’t think he will be hurt as much as he was last year, since Undertaker won’t be around to continue it, but as of right now Bray Wyatt has nowhere to go but down. He’s starting to come off as a paper tiger; someone who talks a big game but ends up looking like a chump when it counts. His losses on PPV have been so high profile, you might be surprised to know how few of them there have been. He’s only lost four times since his SummerSlam 2013 PPV debut (twice to Cena, once to Jericho, once to Undertaker). But they’ve all been high profile matches, especially the two WrestleMania bouts. What’s next for him? Being fed to Roman Reigns? A second feud with Daniel Bryan? Really a face turn might do wonders for him, but that doesn’t look to be in the cards right now. Which means right now he is aimless, and that’s a shame for such a brilliant character.
Horrible Mania buildup across the board:
March wasn’t just about Mania; that was just the end of the month. The whole build up to the show was pitiful. Cena played a heel. Bryan and company treated the IC belt like a gag gift at a secret santa party. Triple H insisted on reliving the Monday Night Wars. Reigns and Lesnar barely interacted. Rollins was treated like a total idiot and loser compared to Randy Orton. Randy Orton’s booking was completely baffling. WrestleMania 31 had no business being any good. That it ended up being a top five event is a minor miracle considering how poorly the show was built in the weeks preceding it.
Golden Hogan of the (prior) month = Best segment/match from March
Lesnar vs Reigns (vs Rollins) @ WrestleMania 31
It wasn’t a classic match, but it told an amazing story, had a marvelous atmosphere and a brilliant finish. It’s not going to be a match you go out of your way to rewatch, unlike, say, the WrestleMania 30 main event. But it’s not a match you will turn off, like the WrestleMania 29 main event. It was great in the moment it existed in.
Gobbeldy Gooker of the (prior) month = Worst segment/match from March
Big Show & Kane & Rollins vs Reigns & Ryback & Orton @ the March 30th Raw
Words can’t express how wrong headed, stubborn and downright idiotic the booking her was. Who in their right mind thought that combination of six guys was the best way to close out the Raw after WrestleMania. R.A.W. has become an event unto itself. It’s closing moments have seen the kick off of the Once in a Lifetime feud (2011) ,the return of Brock Lesnar (2012), the Ryback heel turn on Cena (2013), and the Shield/Daniel Bryan vs Evolution standoff (2014). This year they give us…Big Show and Kane slowly meandering through a tag match. The crowd had every right to crap on such a foolish show-capper. Big Show and Kane have no business main-eventing an episode of Superstars much less Raw, much LESS the Raw after WrestleMania. All the goodwill that the company had won with the previous night’s success and with the red hot first two hours of Raw was sucked out of the room with that final hour.
March is in the books. April is here. We’ll see how things progress with WrestleMania fully behind us now.