By Jeff Lutz, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@JLutz82)
You remember Ronda Rousey, right? For a time, the toughest woman on the planet. Broke the mold in UFC by becoming its first women’s fighter and the woman UFC President Dana White built the entire division around. An Olympian in Judo. Credentials that rightly suggest she was and is a badass.
Then Rousey joins WWE in early 2018 and she can’t stop … smiling?
The story WWE told, at least until Rousey flashed heel tendencies late in her 15-month run, was that Rousey was fulfilling a lifelong dream by joining the company. Apparently, Vince McMahon directed her to grin during nearly every appearance and show just how grateful she was.
WWE missed an opportunity with Rousey, even though her initial stint was successful by most definitions. But in WWE, the company is always the attraction. Performers are lucky to be sports-entertaining in the world’s most prestigious sports entertainment company, and the wrestlers always need the company more than WWE needs the wrestlers – Brock Lesnar excepted.
Rousey wasn’t the first to be portrayed that way, and she certainly won’t be the last. It’s a trend that’s run rampant for years and has marred WWE and its storytelling particularly over the last several months. One has to look no further than Kofi Kingston and the follow-up to his WWE Championship loss to Lesnar on Fox’s first episode of Smackdown last month.
Actually, there has been no follow-up. Kingston organically became WWE’s most popular star during the build to WrestleMania by getting fans to invest more in the person than the character. Kingston’s WrestleMania championship win over Daniel Bryan was celebrated across cultures, races, and age groups, and WWE seemed to have the makings of a crossover star, or at least a cornerstone act for the next year of television.
WWE never invested in Kingston the way fans did, though. He had a couple nondescript, unmemorable title programs and was never the centerpiece of Smackdown. He lost to Lesnar in seconds and reverted back to the happy-go-lucky character that fans felt good about rooting for but didn’t actually put any faith in. Like Rousey before him, Kingston’s character acts as if he’s lucky to have a spot in the company. Other than a couple subliminal moments, Kingston’s mood hasn’t been changed by a humiliating defeat.
Survivor Series is built around stars from three entities that are more excited about defending their brand’s honor than about breaking through on a personal level. Red (for Raw), blue (Smackdown) and black (NXT) t-shirts have transformed enemies to friends and forced loyalty upon some wrestlers who have been on those shows only for a few weeks, all in the name of an unbelievable team-first approach.
The “just happy to be here” mindset has crossed over into real life. Seth Rollins has lost popularity in recent months by steadfastly defending the company on Twitter and in interviews, demeaning AEW and alleged friend Jon Moxley in the process. Rollins is missing the point, but it’s difficult to blame him. The current generation of wrestlers has been trained to believe that WWE is the true draw and that wrestlers are virtually interchangeable so as not to become bigger than the company.
A few weeks ago, when WWE talent was stuck in Saudi Arabia, the company sent a press release to inform us that 20 wrestlers were so dedicated to the company that they were doing everything possible to return to New York for the next day’s Smackdown show on Fox. It was as if all the others were content to wait it out.
Anything for the company, right?
There were two more examples of this on this past Monday’s Raw. Humberto Carrillo, who earned his (U.S.) title shot, and Zack Ryder and Curt Hawkins, who didn’t, both expressed gratitude at being put in high-profile positions. Because working for a high spot on the card is apparently less gratifying than having it handed to you.
Can you imagine Steve Austin or The Rock, Shawn Michaels or Ric Flair, The Undertaker or Goldberg, ever expressing gratefulness for appearing in important matches? Of course not. Those people and their characters understood their broad appeal and their value, and they knew the company would be diminished without them. Wrestlers now believe they would be diminished without WWE.
Maybe WWE’s approach is working, after all. Sasha Banks seemed primed to seek out other options when she felt her character was mistreated this spring, but she reportedly signed a contract extension with WWE in September. Others are sure to follow suit when offered big money to stay away from AEW. WWE will rarely release wrestlers who ask, simply to keep them from joining a rival promotion and possibly believing that those wrestlers will learn to love WWE and be happy as long as the company tells them to.