By Chuck Carroll
It’s an interesting time for WWE. Then again, it always is after WrestleMania. It’s not because of sizzling storylines. This is the time of year when WWE creative has to get, well, creative. There were so many weeks of hype leading up to WrestleMania that there was really no way to sustain the momentum. It’s just impossible not to dip after such a large climax.
The roster shakeup has worked well to retain some of the audience and give writers an opportunity to hit the reset button and freshen things up. Some of what we’re seeing seems a little weird to me. If you would have said a month ago that Jinder Mahal would be a main-event guy, no WWE fan would have taken you seriously. And yet, the guy who has been a mid-carder at best for his entire career is holding his own in the main event. Then there’s the case of Lana, who was one of the hottest acts in WWE as Rusev’s manager. The on and off-screen husband and wife have been off TV since before WrestleMania, and when they return, they will no longer be working together. WWE is rolling the dice and promoting her debut as a women’s competitor on SmackDown.
Creatively, the company also faces a bit of a dilemma with Braun Strowman reportedly out of action for up to eight weeks. He’s been a major bright spot of late and outshone almost everyone since the shakeup. Yet, his absence isn’t a major blow to WWE, according to Taz, former pro wrestling champion and host of The Taz Show.
I had the opportunity to pick Taz’s brain about Strowman, Lana’s chances for success as well as how to measure whether a debuting (in this case re-debuting) talent will be successful. He also has an interesting take on Jinder Mahal.
WWE is reportedly looking to expand their presence in India, and it seems no coincidence that Jinder Mahal is getting a major push seemingly out of nowhere. He was a Mr. Mid-Card forever, and now he’s in the main event. Is this a too-much-too-fast situation for him?
I don’t think so at all. A lot of fans will say the guy wasn’t pushed, they weren’t doing much with him and he was losing a bunch of matches. To me it’s all about, and if Vince McMahon where here he’d agree, if a guy’s in-ring work is strong enough, if he can sell tickets on the microphone and get the proper reaction, has some size, looks believable, it’s “Hey, let’s give this guy a shot.” I don’t have a problem with it at all. … To me, if a guy checks all of those boxes, I have no problem with it. Actually, Jinder Mahal, I’m a fan of his work and his promo style. He’s one of the few that have legitimate heat on the microphone in that company.
But going back to the business aspect of this and WWE trying gain traction in India, we saw this a decade or so ago with The Great Khali. He burst onto the scene and got put immediately in the title picture, and that flopped. You seem much more optimistic about Jinder’s prospects here.
He’s better. He’s a better worker. He’s better on the microphone. He can get a connectivity, whether negative or positive, with the audience. No disrespect to Khali, but I don’t think he’s anywhere physically or verbally that Jinder is. It’s two different animals. I get your drift and the Indian market and all that. But as a performer and athlete, it’s apples and oranges. I’d take Jinder 10 times over to lead as a performer from that country.
Let’s talk about another international talent in Shinsuke Nakamura. Are you surprised that he wasn’t immediately put in the title picture with Randy Orton and instead placed in a feud with Dolph Ziggler?
No, I’m not at all. Vince McMahon might have a slight hesitation because of connectivity. The lack of an ability to speak strong English to draw people. Nakamura is a tremendous talent, loaded with athleticism, charisma and toughness. I’m a big fan of his, but you have to be able to talk people into the building. This is a good starter angle on the main roster for him, because Ziggler is doing the heavy lifting on the microphone.
I’m not surprised that Vince hasn’t put him in the title picture with Randy Orton. Actually, I’m surprised he’s getting this type of push already. I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve it. I’m just saying it’s a little tough sometimes, and this is the way WWE looks at it, if you can’t go out and cut a promo that people are going to gravitate to. That doesn’t mean that someone who doesn’t speak can’t get over. There are different guys with managers as mouthpieces or speak here or there, and it’s pretty obvious that’s what they’re doing with Nakamura. This is a good way for him to start getting pushed.
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WWE’s most hardcore fans listen to your show and read my columns. They subscribe to the WWE Network. But they only represent a relatively small fraction of the WWE Universe. With that being the case, how does WWE get an accurate gauge on whether someone being called up from NXT will be popular with the audience?
I completely agree with you. The WWE Network subscribers is really only a small fraction. When I was still working for WWE, there would be scuttlebutt backstage, even from Vince McMahon. He’d snicker about the hardcore wrestling fans that read columns and dirt sheets. It would be laughed at behind the scenes because the company knew it was only a small percentage of the audience. Now, that’s the same thing with the WWE Network, to your point.
What WWE does a really good job with is listening to the live audience. Nakamura is a perfect example of this. When they go to a non-traditional hotbed town to do a show and people are singing his song as people are walking down, that means a good chunk of people know him. Then they do something else, like a piece of imaging on him. They’ll do a video package or promo going into the next pay-per-view with his music and a soundbite of the audience singing his song. Now the guy with his three kids in San Francisco, who maybe is just a casual fan, hears this and thinks it’s cool. So, he’ll do that with his kids when they go to a house show. That’s what WWE is doing. They’re training the audience.
Is it still a crapshoot no matter who it is being called up? The Ascension was popular in NXT, but I was there when they debuted on the main roster, and you could have heard a pin drop in that arena.
You can’t blame the talent. It’s not their fault. Look at Carmella. She got a very mundane reaction when she debuted on the main roster. I was a big fan of her when she was doing stuff with Enzo and Cass in NXT. Then they got called up, and she’s still down in NXT doing well. So, when she gets called up, she got no reaction, and I remember saying on my show that they needed to turn this girl heel. Trust me, do the right thing with her, and she’s going to get over. And she sure as hell did.
It’s what the company does with the talent. Once you get to that point when you’re on RAW or SmackDown — no matter if you’re coming from NXT, TNA or Ring of Honor — you are physically ready. You’re usually ready from a look perspective and a verbal perspective.
The Ascension checked all of those boxes, but it’s what the company did that hurt them. One, you had them doing a bad ripoff of The Road Warriors, who are arguably one of the greatest tag teams of all time. Some fans will get insulted by that. And then you don’t do the right thing with them when they debuted. But just because you get that “pin drop” quiet reaction when you debut doesn’t mean you can’t be a big star like Carmella is now.
Look at me, I debuted at Madison Square Garden, and it was a massive, massive pop that people are still talking about. And they did nothing with me. So, it doesn’t matter how you debut sometimes.
Lana got to be super popular when she was performing in small doses with Rusev as his mouthpiece. But now WWE is splitting them, and she’s going to be an in-ring performer. Is she running the risk of losing a lot of that popularity?
Absolutely. I really do think so. She looks great, that’s obvious, and her promo stuff with or without Rusev is awesome. I have seen her do physicality a little bit on TV, and from what I saw she looked a little bit green. So, I don’t know. She could be the greatest thing in the world for all I know. But just that little bit I saw has me thinking they’re running a risk here.
The other thing is that they split them because all we’ve known of them is as a couple. They’re married, it’s documented and the whole thing. Now they’re split, and she’s doing this cabaret thing on the stage. And I’m a little bit confused. The music is horrible. The whole thing is a little bit funky and disjointed to me. I’m [a fan of] of Lana, but I’m not really excited about her re-debut. It’s just too close that she was just on TV. So how is she debuting? It’s weird.
True or false? There is always a lull after WrestleMania. Maybe it’s because there’s this sensational build to that show and then you hit a climax and you have nowhere to go but down, like it’s a roller coaster. I don’t want to say WWE is in a rut but it seems flat compared to what it was a month and a half ago.
You’re right. It’s true. But you have to give them a break. There’s a gigantic hype machine building for weeks and weeks leading up to WrestleMania, and then, all of the sudden, we’re back to just RAW now. There’s no time for a reset. That’s the issue creatively because there’s no offseason. Financially, that’s good for the talent, and I’m not saying there should be an offseason. But creatively for the writers and audience, sometimes absence makes the heart grow fonder. It’s always there, and it’s cool, and it’s great, and I respect it, but it’s tough when you can’t creatively recharge your batteries.
Going into Mania, I think they made a mistake by putting the title on Brock Lesnar. I was saying Finn Balor needs to get involved, or they should have kept it on Kevin Owens and not put it on Goldberg. So, they got themselves in a little bit of a jam. I love Brock, he’s a friend of mine, but now he’s not coming back until July. You have a Universal Champion the day after WrestleMania, and [they] said they want Roman Reigns. And then that changed. Roman goes in this big angle with Braun Strowman. It’s a little confusing. They obviously didn’t have all of their oars in the water after WrestleMania, or something happened, and they changed direction for some reason. No one knows.
Strowman has been one of the few guys since WrestleMania that is still generating a large response from the audience. Now he’s reportedly out for up to eight weeks with an injury. How detrimental is it to WWE at this time of year? Does it hurt now more than say it would in November around Survivor Series? Is this just a little more tender time for them?
It’s not a tender time for them. They’re used to having problems with talent getting injured. They’ve done well with Seth Rollins. He’s been hit with the injury bug and so has Finn Balor. They’ve been pushed — start, stop, start, stop — and WWE has done a pretty good job with them. A guy like Braun Strowman is an attraction. Even though he’s working fulltime, guys like him or Goldberg or Brock Lesnar are attractions. They’re not going to give you five-star matches every night. These guys are not wrestling machines in there. They are attractions, great attractions. It’s not a big problem. They’d have a bigger problem, God forbid, if someone like Bray Wyatt gets injured. Or now Seth Rollins again, or let’s say Jinder Mahal, because they’re putting the rocket on him. Someone like Braun, I feel bad for him, but it’s not as bad creatively for them. They can shuffle the deck a little bit.
NEWS & NOTES:
This has been a momentous week for Ring of Honor as its parent company, Sinclair Broadcasting, has agreed to purchase Tribune Media for $3.9 billion. The acquisition adds 42 stations in 33 markets to the Sinclair fleet of greater than 170. Most importantly for ROH, Sinclair is greatly increasing its presence in major media markets and acquiring the popular WGN America cable network.
A national cable clearance and additional local affiliates would be helpful for ROH, but there are no firm plans in place yet the wrestling promotion. ROH COO Joe Koff tells me that any talk of adding affiliates at this point is purely speculative. That said, the company is “tremendously” optimistic about what the future holds. Historically, ROH has been placed in markets where Sinclair has purchased stations.
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Also boding well for ROH is the fact that WGN is aggressively cutting production costs and reducing overhead. Adding the weekly wrestling show would cost the station nothing since the company is already absorbing production costs. But again, everything is purely speculative at this point.
It is possible that ROH will actually lose some affiliates because of the deal because Sinclair will be forced to sell some stations to comply with FCC regulations. However, there is a possibility those stations are in markets where Sinclair and Tribune have an overlapping presence. So, perhaps the sale will have no impact on current affiliates. In short, everything is up in the air now, and we aren’t likely to have answers until the deal officially closes later this year.
For now, ROH remains focused squarely on its tour with New Japan Pro Wrestling talents and Friday’s “War of Worlds” pay-per-view.
Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.