Lutz's Blog: WrestleMania - Where youth movements go to die
By Jeffrey Lutz
When John Cena and Batista each won his first World Championship at WrestleMania 21, their accomplishments appeared to signal the continuation of a trend, not the end of it.
To that point, WrestleMania had been used to highlight the most popular stars in WWE but also to showcase, introduce or launch into stardom the company's most promising younger stars. Cena and Batista followed a lineage that saw first-time champions crowned at WrestleManias 4, 6, 9, 12, 14 and 20. Several others entered WrestleMania during their first stints as champion.
Rey Mysterio won his first World Championship at WrestleMania 22, but by then he was already plenty established and his title reign was almost completely owed to the death, months earlier, of his close friend, Eddie Guerrero. That win was hardly showcased, though -- it happened on the undercard and was ultimately overshadowed by the Cena-Triple H main event.
Since then, and especially in the last three years, WWE has made almost no effort to make or cement new stars at WrestleMania. The dramatic shift in philosophy has produced mixed results - last year's WrestleMania, main-evented by veterans Cena and The Rock, drew an astronomical buy rate, but WWE weekly television ratings have steadily declined over the last few years.
The lack of a commitment by WWE to follow through on its perceived promises of a youth movement has contributed to shrinking the audience. Mysterio was the last performer to win his first World Championship at WrestleMania, and that disturbing pattern will probably continue this year as the best option for a relatively new wrestler to win a title, Dolph Ziggler, already has a brief championship reign on record.
There are plenty of statistics just as alarming to pinpoint the WWE's disinterest in elevating new stars at the year's biggest event. At WrestleMania 27 two years ago, the Miz became the first, and still the only, wrestler who debuted in WWE after 2002 to wrestle the last match at WrestleMania. C.M. Punk might break that trend this year, but the only current full-timers who debuted after the Attitude Era and have main-evented WrestleMania are Randy Orton and, of course, Cena.
In the last three years, WWE has gone away from putting young stars in important WrestleMania matches at all. No non-former World Champion participated in a one-on-one non-title match at WrestleMania 26, and in the last two years only Cody Rhodes (and Michael Cole) has met that criteria. Rhodes' matches against Rey Mysterio and The Big Show were hardly highlighted, though, and they did little to cast him in a brighter light than he had been in previously.
The facts indicate a conscious decision by WWE to move away from what WrestleMania meant in the past and to make it a shrine to stars of the past -- or the present, but certainly not the future. It's hard to begrudge WWE that choice because there will probably never be a bigger star in the company than The Rock and Cena is a proven and trusted commodity. They obviously bring more fans to the product, but with more eyes watching should come heightened importance on less-established performers so those fans stay when the part-timers depart.
WWE has four hours to use at WrestleMania and often doesn't make the most of it. Fans don't flock from far-away countries to see backstage skits with the usual suspects like Ron Simmons, Sgt. Slaughter and Jim Duggan or to see anonymous rappers such as UGK perform. They come to watch wrestling, and they probably trust that each match will be given sufficient time for storytelling, especially when they feature wrestlers with superior workrates.
With the presence of The Shield, Ryback, Damien Sandow, Antonio Cesaro, Big E. Langston and Brad Maddox, WWE shouldn't be able to avoid a showcase of its youth at this year's WrestleMania. But that seems to be the path WWE is headed -- we haven't heard much from The Shield lately and Ryback's involvement in the final hour of Raw on Monday was largely forgotten by the end of the show.
If that's how WWE chooses to do business, the buy rate will probably back them up this year. Eventually, the choice to push younger wrestlers aside in favor of late 1990s dream matches will cost WWE and the company will no longer have past stars upon whom to rely.
Jeff Lutz has written for the Wichita Eagle newspaper in Kansas for over a decade and debuted with Prowrestling.net on November 4, 2012. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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