The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of Wrestling Inc or its staff
A hallmark of many well-booked wrestling promotions over the years has been an informal system of classification that pegs each wrestler at a certain level. Through capable booking, names are established at a certain position on the card, mostly feuding and working with each other.
From time to time, you can shift wrestlers from one tier to another, usually elevating a younger talent to a higher tier and moving an older talent into a lower tier, which keeps things fresh. There are fewer things more exciting in wrestling than watching a talented, younger wrestler get a push and establish themselves at a higher level in the pyramid.
A good example of this is the 1980s WWF; at the top you had the biggest stars; Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Roddy Piper, Paul Orndorff, etc. Then you have the upper mid-card talent; Randy Savage, Ricky Steamboat, King Kong Bundy, Jake Roberts; followed by your pure mid card guys like Adrian Adonis, Hillbilly Jim, Hercules Hernandez, and then you have your tag teams and then at the bottom, the job guys.
Every once in a while, someone in that upper-midcard got elevated (Randy Savage first, and then Ultimate Warrior and Bret Hart years later) and became big stars at the top of the pyramid. For decades, this has been a successful method for creating main event draws that moved the wrestling business forward.
Today, WWE lacks that kind of established hierarchy. Outside of a tiny number of names who are consistently protected and pushed, WWE’s roster is filled out by a chaotic mishmash of names and talent that have almost no definite role within the company. The lines between upper-midcard and jobber have been blurred. A talent could get a big win one week and then lose in two minutes the following week.
Very little creative direction is given to talent outside of the main event picture; the two main storylines are either getting thrown into a tag team that is then almost immediately teased to be on the verge of breaking up, or two groups of wrestlers have an endless series of matches against each other, being repeated week after week without a clear winner.
This has created a situation in WWE where it becomes difficult to properly elevate new names that come across as credible challengers to the few established main event stars. In Drew McIntyre and Roman Reigns, WWE has booked two very strong world champions who will anchor most PPV events. That is a good thing; but because of WWE’s inability to remain consistent in how it books wrestlers outside of the main event scene, there is a lack of credible challengers who WWE can rely on to step up and work meaningful programs with those two top names.
In a well-booked promotion; they would look at the roster and peg a few names that they plan on having the world champions defend against; and then spend months making sure that those names are protected and booked strong so that when the time comes for them to get that title shot, they feel like very credible challengers that fans believe could actually win the title.
WWE really does not do that; the most they normally do is pluck out a name from the chaotic mid-card and have them win a gauntlet match or some other dramatic #1 contender’s match to try and give them some momentum before they challenge for a title. That is a very short-term strategy; it doesn’t require any long-term vision to take a random name, give them a win on an episode of SmackDown or RAW and then boom, they are the top contender. WWE has not displayed the capacity in recent years to execute a long-term strategy that would work to elevate intriguing potential names into credible challengers for the few remaining established stars.
Lost in the shuffle
Following the career path of Kevin Owens is a good example of the kind of damage WWE has done with their inconsistent handling of potential top stars. When Owens first debuted, he was almost instantly one of the biggest stars of the company; feuding with John Cena and winning the Universal Championship. However, after he was squashed by Bill Goldberg and lost the title, his career has suffered from severe WWE mid-carditis. He was not given many substantial feuds over the years, he turned from heel to babyface a few times; he worked in a tag team that split up, etc. All of that stuff helped cement Owens’ status as a guy who WWE didn’t see as a true main event player; despite the original momentum he had from his initial run on the main roster.
That brings us to Owens having now been the number one contender for Roman Reigns’ world title for two consecutive PPV events. Before Owens became the number one contender, what was he doing? He was losing to The Fiend on SmackDown, and losing to Randy Orton in 16 seconds on RAW. Owens was not protected and he was not coming off a big angle that gave him a lot of momentum, he was just a guy that WWE happened to choose because they really didn’t have anyone ready to feud with Reigns.
While Owens has been very good in his role as a nemesis to Reigns; it does not feel like Owens has a legitimate chance to beat Reigns for the Universal Championship. WWE has spent years telling fans that Owens is a mid-card wrestler, and that Reigns is at a much higher level. They did not do a good job making sure Owens had a lot of momentum before he first started feuding with Reigns, so fans have no reason to really buy that Owens could beat an established top star like Reigns and win the title.
Owens is not alone in experiencing this kind of pattern; almost every star in WWE has followed a similar path. They wallow in the directionless mid-card and are occasionally asked to headline a PPV despite being given very little momentum to work with. The longer somebody is in that position, the more it establishes their lack of credentials when it comes to being a top star.
When people are asked about who WWE should give a big push to in an attempt to make a big new star, people often point to names from NXT. The reason they do that is not because there isn’t anybody on the main roster that has the talent to be a big star; because that is far from the truth, but rather because stars in NXT have not been tainted by years and years of inconsistent booking that has steadily decreased their potential.
I think that Kevin Owens is more talented than say, Karrion Kross, but I’d be much more convinced that Karrion Kross could beat Roman Reigns for the title at the Royal Rumble. That is a problem; because there is no reason I should have more confidence in somebody who has never been on the main roster than in someone who has been around for years.
Women in similar position
WWE’s Women’s Division suffers from this same problem. WWE has done well to establish a solid tier of top female performers, including Asuka, Charlotte, Bayely, Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch. The problem is that when those women are not feuding with one another, they have no credible opponents to work with. Carmella came back and out of the blue she is suddenly the number one contender for Banks’ title. There is pretty much no difference as far as card hierarchy between Natalya, Peyton Royce, Nia Jax and Dana Brooke. Promising talent that get called up from NXT either get thrown into the “random tag team that teases breaking up” (Shayna Baszler) or given no real direction at all (Bianca Belair).
Unless WWE can get their booking figured out, this is going to continue to be a major problem when it comes to putting together entertaining feuds at the main event level that draw interest in their television shows and PPVs. WWE has been forced to become more reliant on stars who got over in previous generations (Goldberg, Brock Lesnar, Randy Orton) to serve as “credible” challengers to their few truly established names like Reigns and McIntyre.
WWE needs to have a long-term vision that they can execute to create new stars; and they need to get more consistency in the mid-card so they can establish a real hierarchy within the company that will create a suitable infrastructure to elevate stars to the top of the pyramid. If they don’t do that, they will be left with no real draws as top names as the few remaining draws age out of full-time roles.