By Will Pruett, ProWrestling.net Senior Staffer (@wilpruett)
WWE’s Star-Making Machine is no longer broken
A common refrain from me in the last five-ish years has been lamenting the death of WWE’s star-making abilities. It seemed like they once had a machine in place to create stars from nobodies, but as we watched first part of this decade unfold, it no longer worked. The Rock came in and saved the day. CM Punk found a way to make himself before bailing in frustration. WWE wasn’t making stars anymore.
Then Roman Reigns happened. Amidst some hype around The Shield, WWE chose Roman Reigns as the breakout performer they intended to love. It did not go well. He was booed by almost every crowd. He was maligned. Despite having great matches, fans became convinced he was among the worst wrestlers in WWE. When these people were asked why, it seemed like WWE’s star-making machine had actually backfired.
Was trying to make someone a star was preventing stardom?
WWE, over the past six months, has shown me that their star making machine is fully up and running again. The dark days of 2013 are behind us.
First, let’s look at Roman Reigns again. Reigns had the biggest hill to climb of any wrestler I’ll be mentioning in this piece. He was WWE’s “chosen one” during a time being chosen meant being torn apart. While he is immensely talented and charismatic, WWE continued to see both hardcore and casual fans decide to hate him. What happened?
Roman Reigns found his voice. After seeming either too confident or not confident enough depending on the week and the opponent, Roman dropped into himself. He figured out how he, as a character, can connect organically. He finally became the voice of frustrated fans instead of the cause of them.
But hey, some people will never like Roman Reigns. Some fans are too obsessed with Phil Brooks saying “Make Roman look strong” on a podcast once.
You know who I expected everyone to universally hate a couple years back? Braun Strowman. He debuted as an afterthought in Bray Wyatt’s stable. He was giant, so the common refrain was Vince McMahon loving him. He seemed out of place fairly often. He just didn’t click.
Braun Strowman became the major organic homegrown star WWE probably never expected. And he is entirely their creation. Braun doesn’t have the indie or foreign wrestling credibility many other top stars come in with. Braun Strowman doesn’t have the massive crowd pleasing arsenal of flips we, as fans, delight in. Strowman never seems like an underdog. He’s just big, impressive, and fun.
With Braun, WWE tapped into something organic again, then turned it up to 100. He does stunts that could be absurd and eye-roll worthy. He filled an ambulance. He pulled down a conveniently placed section of box truss. He broke a piano on top of a man. Braun Strowman hardly makes sense when you see all of that in writing, and yet fans are chanting “Get These Hands” every time he appears.
Ask 2014 Roman Reigns how fans would eventually greet Braun Strowman and he’d probably expect the same boo birds to be out. WWE flipped the narrative and managed to make a truly great crossover star in Braun.
When I think of pessimism for WWE booking, I think of NXT call ups being ruined. We’ve seen wrestlers like Adam Rose flame out after seeming massively popular in NXT. We’ve seen stories mis-handled like Bayley’s main roster debut and ascension to the Raw Women’s Championship. We’ve seen a lot of mistakes made. WWE proved they can get it right with Asuka.
Asuka is still unbeaten. Asuka is still a dominant force. Asuka is riding a wave of momentum and WWE didn’t just create it, they are actively promoting it. Again, she is a wrestler the promotion is making look strong. She is the chosen one at this moment. Asuka is more “Roman Reigns” than Roman Reigns ever was, but Asuka continues to bask in popularity. WWE has put the right pieces in place to make sure Asuka is who they want her to be.
Finally, WWE has signed a mainstream star to debut in a major match at WrestleMania. Ronda Rousey, as popular as she was a couple years ago in UFC, is problematic to push. Add in that Ronda takes WWE in unfamiliar territory where their biggest star is a woman and they’re a classically sexist wasteland, and WWE could have been in trouble with Ronda.
Ronda is not as charismatic on the mic as one would hope for. Ronda seems a little too happy to be there. Ronda’s performances have not been home runs. With this said, Ronda is still cheered. Ronda is chanted for by crowds. Ronda is insanely over. How?
WWE found a way to fire up their star-making machine and give Ronda her ready-made antagonist. As great as Ronda can be, Stephanie McMahon deserves all the credit in the world for making her even better. Stephanie has done a great job, with Triple H and Kurt Angle as background players, in making Ronda look strong. At WrestleMania, WWE gets their reward. Ronda will be adored in her first ever match and their new mainstream star will look great.
I no longer doubt WWE’s star-making machine. I’m confident in it. Is all of wrestling creative perfect? No way. WWE still makes mistakes. “Road Dogg” is still writing that garbage fire called Smackdown. But WWE has found ways to make, enhance, and elevate stars using methods I thought fans were sure to rebel against. It’s encouraging to see WWE wrestling in this state.
Random WrestleMania Predictions
- John Cena and Undertaker will not have a match, but will have a challenge. Undertaker will challenge Cena to a career vs. career match at WrestleMania 35 in New York-ish next year.
- Roman Reigns will win and be cheered a lot.
- Daniel Bryan is going to look great, but Shane will get beat. A Bryan vs. Owens and Zayn feud will continue and it will be great.
- Jeff Jarrett will be named the new Smackdown GM when Bryan steps down. It’ll be weird.
- Asuka wins the best women’s match in WWE history against Charlotte.
- Nia Jax and Alexa Bliss will be really fun.
- Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles will tear the house down. It will be better than their Tokyo Dome match, which is saying something.
- Wrestling is the coolest thing ever and will still be after this weekend.
SSMGOTW (Superfluous Shane McMahon Gif of the Week):
We’re Done Here:
What more is there to say? We’ve got a couple really intense days of wrestling coming at us and I’m pretty excited for it. Let’s all listen to this sweet WrestleMania jam and get pumped!
Also, be on the lookout for my WrestleMania live blog on Sunday!
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.
The Pro Wrestling Boom Podcast with Jason Powell features ODB discussing the fire that destroyed her food truck, the fundraising drive to help her buy a new truck, her appearance on the latest Impact Wrestling television show, Triple H telling her to go to TNA, and much more...