The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of WrestlingInc or its staff
With summer officially beginning in a couple of weeks, the wrestling world is heating up as well. While viewership for WWE has been declining, that does not mean that the industry is bereft of interesting storylines and developments that will unfold over the next several months. Here are ten of my biggest questions heading into summer.
1. What will happen to the Universal Championship?
Noticeably absent from WWE television in the last month has been Brock Lesnar and the Universal Championship, who has been MIA since he defended the title at the Greatest Royal Rumble in April. Despite being seen as the most important title on the A show, in recent months the title has been hardly addressed at all, almost like WWE does not want to draw attention to the fact that Lesnar hasn't been around in months.
Surely though, the title will return to television either in time for the July PPV or for SummerSlam in August. Whoever Lesnar is supposed to face at those shows will be the biggest feud in WWE over the summer; so who is it going to be? The most likely answer is Roman Reigns, who failed to win the title at WrestleMania and failed once more at the Greatest Royal Rumble. Reigns still isn't getting the reaction WWE wants, and yet another match or two between Lesnar and Reigns isn't going to set the world on fire. Other potential candidates include Seth Rollins, Braun Strowman and perhaps John Cena.
2. What is John Cena's WWE status?
Speaking of Cena; his commitment to WWE over the last year or so has been questionable. Cena has a lot of options in the entertainment world and has logically been investigating those options. He really hasn't done much in WWE since his feud over the WWE Championship with AJ Styles. He had a quick match with The Undertaker at WrestleMania; and had a random match with Triple H at the Greatest Royal Rumble; but hasn't been seen since.
If WWE is still lukewarm on putting the title on Reigns this summer; I think Cena is a very likely opponent for Lesnar at SummerSlam. Cena is still sitting on 16 world title reigns, tied with Ric Flair for the WWE-version of the world title record, and while its nothing new, a match with Lesnar pits WWE's two biggest mainstream stars (with the exception of Ronda Rousey) against each other for one of their biggest shows of the year.
3. Will Shinsuke Nakamura ever capture the WWE Championship?
On the SmackDown side, since winning the Royal Rumble in January, Shinsuke Nakamura has been chasing after the WWE Championship; and like Reigns he has come up short on a couple of occasions. Nakamura has turned heel in the process, a turn that has received mixed reviews. Some fans think he has shown more character as an arrogant heel while others think his constant shortcomings have caused him to lose momentum.
Styles has been a very good champion and there is no reason to rush the title off of him. If he gets by Nakamura at Money in the Bank, several intriguing options are available, including programs with Samoa Joe and Daniel Bryan. Unless Nakamura really stands out (and for whatever reason, he just doesn't right now) I'm not sure his run as champion would be more interesting than Styles vs Joe or Styles vs Bryan.
4. Will Kenny Omega ever become the IWGP World Heavyweight Champion?
Well this question could be answered very shortly, as Omega challenges Kazuchika Okada once more for the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship at Dominion this Saturday. Omega has been chasing the title for nearly two years and despite coming up short on a couple of different occasions, he has only gotten more popular. Okada has been on simply one of the greatest world title runs in the history of professional wrestling, both from a quality and a drawing standpoint; there is a clear reason why he has been the champion for a record number of days.
Omega though, almost needs to be validated as a world champion by this point. Out of NJPW's big four stars (Okada, Omega, Hiroshi Tanahashi and Tetsuya Naito) Omega is the only one who hasn't held the world title. He's proven to be an elite in-ring performer and a big draw for NJPW, as evidenced by the nearly instant sellout of Osaka-jo Hall after he was announced as Okada's challenger. Omega's potential success at Dominion leads to question number five.
5. What will be NJPW's next move in the United States?
Starting in 2017 with two successful shows over the summer, NJPW has been much more aggressive in exploiting the North American market. The company had an instant sell-out for a show in Long Beach, CA earlier this year and also announced their plans to open a training dojo in southern California. This July, they will attempt their most ambitious event yet; running the Cow Palace in San Francisco; an arena with the capacity to draw well over 10,000 fans. Ticket sales have been disappointing so far for the Cow Palace show; perhaps because fans are not willing to travel to another NJPW so soon after the one in Long Beach; and also because no matches have been announced yet.
However, an underachieving show in San Francisco shouldn't deter NJPW from expanding further into the American market. If Omega were to win the world title, it would be a progressive move for the Western market. Omega, a Canadian, is a bigger star in the US and Canada than Okada, and could push the promotion further along in the North American market. Omega may not quite be the face NJPW in Japan the way Okada is, but the potential to expand in other parts of the world may be more alluring.
I think NJPW's next move should be to run a few shows on the east coast. So far they have only run shows in California, and while flying everyone over to the east coast is more logistically challenging, it offers a new market that has been historically very passionate about pro wrestling. I think they should look for 4,000-7,000 seat arenas in some combination of Toronto/Boston/New York/Philadelphia/Washington and see how they do.
6. How will fans feel about Ronda Rousey?
The immediate questions about Rousey's potential in WWE were answered at WrestleMania; where the crowd loved her and she had an excellent performance in her debut match. Moving forward though; it's unclear how she will be received. She hasn't had a real impact on TV viewership (although no one in WWE really has) and with her latest feud with Nia Jax over the RAW Women's Championship, it seems like WWE is pushing her to the top very fast.
Rousey is still a rookie in WWE; albeit a very expensive one. She has great tools to be a performer, but she is still learning the art of professional wrestling, and her feud with Jax has been awkward. Part of that is on WWE, who have seemingly flip-flopped on Jax being a heel or a face, and booking Rousey in pointless segments. Eventually, the novelty of Rousey in WWE will wear off, and WWE will have to find a better way to maximize her talents moving forward.
7. Will WWE's viewership perk up?
Despite the recent news about WWE's industry-changing television deal, WWE has seen record low viewership on both RAW and SmackDown. The numbers this past week, with RAW not seeing any competition from the NBA Playoffs, were particularly disappointing. Going into lull after WrestleMania is nothing new to WWE; but the trend in viewership is troublesome and if they are still sinking by the time football season begins, things could get worse. This is part of a larger problem of WWE programming not being very interesting week-to-week, which is too big of an issue to really be tackled here. It will be interesting to see if Lesnar or Cena's return and new feuds that develop over the summer can bring the viewership up.
8. Who will WWE sign next?
Even with a surplus of talent already on the roster, WWE continues to be aggressive in singing new talent. Part of this, such as in the UK, is singing talent to keep them away from other promotions; using their financial might to prevent talent from aiding other companies in cutting into WWE's monopoly. Part of this is also an organizational philosophy; that WWE has the money to sign as many people as they want and even if only a small percentage of these wrestlers turn into stars, it is still worth it. The next Steve Austin is out there somewhere, and you'll never find him unless you sign new talent.
Keith Lee, an athletic 300lb indie star with a lot of charisma, has been rumored to be headed to WWE and will likely be the next face fans see popping up in the crowd at a TakeOver event. Also rumored to at least have been offered a contract is Austrian brute WALTER; although he has denied any offers and has a wider range of career options than Lee. With NJPW being more aggressive in the American market, I'm sure WWE will be interested in their talent and while the biggest names are unlikely to come; undercard talent (Hangman Page, Jay White, Will Ospreay, Marty Scurll, etc.) might be given offers too good to pass up.
9. How will ALL IN impact the industry?
The most intriguing show of the summer takes place in Chicago over Labor Day weekend; as ALL IN, a show being promoted by Cody Rhodes and The Young Bucks. The Indie super-show will be the first non-WWE show to draw over 10,000 fans in nearly two decades (it is possible that the NJPW in San Francisco actually does that first) and shocked the wrestling world when tickets sold out in 30 minutes. If WWE is anxious about NJPW's approaches in North America, they are certainly monitoring a pseudo-promotion that sold 10,000 tickets in under an hour in one their strongest cities.
Since ALL IN has already sold out and will likely generate a ton of additional revenue in merchandise sales; it will surely be replicated. The question then becomes when and where; perhaps they run a bigger arena, maybe in New York City? If they are successful again, will wealthy investors see it as a hot property and be willing to invest serious money in a pro wrestling promotion? Depending on how the weekend in Chicago goes, there may be enormous things on the horizon for the folks behind All IN.
10. Will Flip Gordon get booked for ALL IN?
I hope so.
Must Watch Matches
Kento Miyahara vs Naomichi Marufuji: ****1/4 - AJPW Dynamite Series Tag 7
Will Ospreay vs Flip Gordon: ****1/4 - NJPW Best of the Super Juniors Day 13
Hiromu Takahashi vs Taiji Ishimori: ****1/2 - NJPW Best of the Super Juniors Final