By Will Pruett, ProWrestling.net Senior Staffer (@wilpruett)
The other day I found myself humming “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” and it’s not because of Christmas. It’s just past Wrestle Kingdom, which means it is time for WrestleMania season to begin! I wanted to step back and see where WWE’s main roster is going into their most important show of the year.
Raw has had in interesting path from last WrestleMania season to this one. The Universal Championship has been held by Brock Lesnar in one of the most disappointing year-long title reigns I can remember. Between a lack of originality in Paul Heyman’s promos (aside from a mid-year highlight with Samoa Joe) and a lack of anything compelling in Lesnar’s matches (including a run of disappointing singles efforts with Samoa Joe and Braun Strowman), Lesnar’s title reign has been as far from epic as possible. Now a match featuring Kane on the horizon and I’m hoping for Braun Strowman’s grappling hook to pull the Raw set down on me before I have to watch it.
At the same time, for the last couple months, anything on Raw not featuring Brock Lesnar has been great. Cesaro and Sheamus have broken out as a tag team and are near-main event wrestlers. The Shield reunited and brought all of Raw up a level in doing so. Braun Strowman has been the consistent highlight of WWE all year long. The Miz has proven himself to be one of WWE’s top talents on the mic and more than capable of delivering quality in the ring. Elias and Jason Jordan leap off the screen as unexpected creative victories snatched from the jaws of defeat. Even the recent pairing of Finn Balor with Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson jumps out as Raw making quality moves.
While less can be said about the quality of Raw’s women’s division, the additions of Asuka, Paige, Sonya Deville, and Mandy Rose have been handled well. This division seems ready for the run up to WrestleMania more than Smackdown’s “throw everyone at one segment” creative approach with women over 2017.
Raw is producing quality stories and quality action. It is a rising tide that seems to be sinking Brock Lesnar as his long uneventful title run is mercifully ending.
Where Raw is succeeding in everything but the performance of the top champion, Smackdown is only interesting when WWE Champion AJ Styles is on screen. Anything else happening is failing to grab me, and I sort of hate that.
Shane McMahon is one of my favorite performers, but only in small doses (perhaps in gifs). Daniel Bryan can do almost no wrong in my eyes (except when he is a sexist jerkface on Total Divas/Bellas). Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn are two of the most interesting wrestlers on the planet. The combination of these four bickering awkwardly every week is killing this show.
Below Styles, Owens, Zayn, and McMahon, Smackdown is all about awkward conversations between Randy Orton and Shinsuke Nakamura. Neither man wants to be in these segments, but with weeks of TV to burn before the Royal Rumble, this is where they are.
A year ago, Smackdown was constantly telling the best stories in WWE. They took a Miz and Dolph Ziggler rivalry and made it engaging. They built up Alexa Bliss from a late-round draft pick to a true star. The Smackdown creative direction was always in the solid-to-great range. A year later, Smackdown is uneven and disappointing. Even with stars like The Usos, Aiden English, and Rusev finding new life, there is more bad than good.
The women’s division on Smackdown, lead by Charlotte Flair, can’t tell more than one story despite the addition of three new characters. The main event picture for the better part of 2017 was dominated by a misguided effort to make Jinder Mahal a star. Jinder was not ready and the xenophobic strategy employed by WWE to make up for his lack of ability to inspire any sort of human feeling in fans left a bad taste in my mouth.
Smackdown’s 2017 was the work of a writing team running on fumes. While the occasionally hit their stride, it seemed to be more in-ring effort from the wrestlers than storytelling support that got them there. 2017’s Smackdown scripts should largely be kept in a binder labelled “bad ideas” for future writing teams to cross-reference.
As we head into WrestleMania season and the last hurrah of these rosters (I assume WWE does a Superstar Shakeup eight days after WrestleMania again), I hope both brands find their stride. Smackdown could be helped by a Daniel Bryan return, should he be cleared and is already being helped by the existence of AJ Styles. It’s a show that could round into form nicely for WrestleMania.
Raw has more compelling pieces to work with, but with WrestleMania season coming, that worries me. What will happen to wrestlers like Elias, who will be pushed down the card (possibly off of it entirely) for part time wrestlers who come in for three months out of the year? How will Braun Strowman find himself in a story worthy of his status as the most compelling performer of Raw?
Looking at what WWE has to work with for WrestleMania does have me excited. There are a ton of possibilities on the table for this year’s major show. I find myself counting down the days until the Royal Rumble and doubly excited about getting two of them. Wrestling is a great thing!
What I absolutely positively love in wrestling this week:
Braun Strowman’s Grappling Hook – Look, I know wrestling can be super serious sometimes, and I love that. I also recognize the inherent absurdity of professional wrestling as a performing art and I love when wrestling leans into it. To me, that’s what Braun Strowman’s conveniently place grappling hook was. Add in some truss that should have been secured to some weights or outriggers on the ground and you have a great recipe for disaster. I will never stop loving absurd Braun Strowman stunts and I pray WWE never stops doing them.
WWE’s Mixed Match Challenge Teams – What can I say? I’m a sucker for odd pairings and this tournament looks really fun thus far. Asuka and The Miz teaming up? I’m about it. Braun Strowman and Alexa Bliss? Shut up and take my money! Sami Zayn and Becky Lynch? Could life get any better? Bobby Roode and Charlotte Flair? Holy robes this is going to be fun! Sasha Banks and Finn Balor? Give me that Boss Demon makeup/hair mashup please! Bayley and Elias? Those Bayley buddies are sure as heck ready to wave with Elias! I’m all about the fun this tournament looks like it is going to contain.
If you enjoy reading a little bit of what I love in wrestling, check out my new YouTube series called “What I Love About Professional Wrestling!”
What I absolutely positively love in the world this week:
The Good Place – This show is forking great. If you’re not caught up on The Good Place, I won’t say anything to spoil the show, but I will tell you it’s well written, well acted, and as creative as anything on television right now. The core five characters have created an ensemble I always look forward to spending time with. I marathoned the plot-burning second season this past weekend and loved every moment of it. Watch The Good Place and make sure to let me know when you get to the big twist.
SSMGOTW (Superfluous Shane McMahon Gif of the Week):
Someday I’ll get tired of these, but not today…
We’re Done Here:
Hey, as I depart for this week, I want to share one other WWE thing making my heart leap out of my chest with joy (slight exaggeration). Raw’s 25th Anniversary show is coming up! As someone who cares way to much about how wrestling looks on TV, seeing WWE in the Manhattan Center again is going to be pretty neat. This show should feature some of the right kind of nostalgia (and probably the wrong kind, too, but still…), some fun moments, and be a great celebration of the last quarter century of professional wrestling. Yay for wrestling!!!
Will Pruett writes about wrestling and popular culture at prowrestling.net. Of interest to him are diversity in wrestling and wrestling as a theatrical art form. To see his video series “What I Love About Professional Wrestling” subscribe to his YouTube channel. To contact, check him out on Twitter @wilpruett, leave a comment, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.