Lutz's Blog: WWE can only hope its boring WrestleMania season can be salvaged by Network
By Jeffrey Lutz
The WWE network is becoming a bigger deal than it needs to be.
Instead of increasing the inevitable excitement attached to launching a 24-hour over-the-top network by producing quality television that holds the interest of fans, WWE is instead putting all of its eggs in the network basket, where it will find some unhatched on Feb. 24.
I'm going to purchase WWE Network because I've been following the company and the business for the last 24 years and I want to relive the early years of my fandom and, of course, experience the Attitude Era once again. But WWE is making it far too easy for fans to wish for the past because its present has become dull, for various reasons, when it should be at its most riveting. I would rather purchase WWE Network because the company as a whole is at a peak, rather than to avoid current storylines and pine for the 1990s.
WrestleMania season was supposed to begin about a month ago, but with the WWE Network scheduled to launch in a little more than a week and with plans for the biggest show of the year still uncertain, Vince McMahon and company have ordered and established a holding pattern that has produced a few memorable television moments since the Royal Rumble but mostly created a three-hour viewing experience of Raw that is difficult not to dread.
WWE seems more out of touch than ever, an idea reflected when Raw announcers Michael Cole, Jerry Lawler and JBL poked fun at fans for chanting for C.M. Punk when the broadcasters believed they were off the air. C.M. Punk may not have been viewed as a truly foundational piece of the WrestleMania card, the WWE title picture, or the company's major storylines in general, but the way the show has fallen apart without him suggests his supposed grievances were fair, accurate and somewhat clairvoyant.
Punk's absence threw such a wrench into WrestleMania plans that WWE is reorganizing the show even more frequently than before he departed. With Punk gone, the pieces don't fit and someone who deserves a marquee match will be left out. WWE hasn't yet figured out what to do about that, so its using its creative chips on Elimination Chamber hype, even though the importance of that event will be mostly lost by the following night, when the WWE Network goes live and when Hulk Hogan and the Undertaker will reportedly return.
Punk was apparently angry over the direction of a company that opted to make Batista a centerpiece star after four years away from the business and no indication, to that point, that Batista would be accepted by fans after a lengthy absence. Arriving in skinny jeans and aviator sunglasses was no way for Batista to make a positive impression, as it reminded fans of the end of his previous WWE run as a heel and completely contradicted everything that made him popular nine years ago.
The Rock can pull of the Hollywood look because he has been cool and arrogant since he broke away from the ill-fated Rocky Maivia character. Batista can't pull that off because, even though he's starring in an upcoming big-budget Avengers film, WWE's audience doesn't associate him with Hollywood. Batista organically became a hugely popular babyface in the months leading up to WrestleMania 21 by relating to the audience as someone who balked at playing second fiddle to Triple H while Evolution was beginning to break up. Returning without a real character and in the getup of his heel persona was never going to endear Batista to fans who want to like him.
Randy Orton's plight has been equally confounding. WWE's goal with Orton has seemingly been to devalue him and his newly christened WWE World Heavyweight Championship as much as possible, perhaps to hand the title over to Daniel Bryan at some point and give Bryan a major real-life obstacle to overcome. Orton is losing consistently on television, as WWE tries, it seems, to send the message that he won't be champion the day of the WWE Network launch.
I can't tell if WWE created a "damned if they do, damned if they don't" situation with Bryan or if I'm just picky and naturally disgruntled, but giving Bryan the championship at Elimination Chamber is wholly unsatisfying. As frustrating as it was to see Bryan lose a chance to compete for the title at WrestleMania by failing to enter the Royal Rumble, at least that frustration was a reason to watch. Bryan is now in the thick of the title chase but it still feels as if something is missing -- not from Bryan, but from WWE, which has created an environment of distrust between itself and its audience. The natural reaction to anything WWE does now is disapproval because that is the backdrop the company has forged.
The best thing on WWE television currently is a feud between two heel factions that doesn't appear to have a direction aside from serving as part of a slow (in WWE standards) build to break up The Shield and launch Roman Reigns' singles career. But this seems to be another holding pattern, because The Shield and The Wyatt Family are unlikely to produce business together at WrestleMania.
Elsewhere, the WWE Tag Team Champions are a nostalgia act now thrown together with The Usos in a feud that will force Jimmy and Jey Uso, on the cusp of stardom but not quite there yet, to adapt from a fast-paced, up-tempo in-ring style to a slower one to accommodate Billy Gunn and Road Dogg. Just like the Rhodes brothers lost momentum by working with the Outlaws, the same thing is likely to happen to the Usos, who may not be able to afford that setback at this stage in their careers.
The lull in WWE programming probably won't last much longer. The Network launch on Feb. 24 and the real hype for WrestleMania, assuming WWE has its creative plans organized by then, will eliminate the lethargy of the last two months. It's even probably fair to give WWE a pass for its humdrum efforts lately, since so much energy has been dedicated to making the network a success. But the combination of a product fans are hesitant to trust and an uncommonly uneventful road to WrestleMania so far have turned the network into a supplement of WWE's glory into an attempt to reclaim the glory that has been temporarily lost.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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