By Jeff Lutz, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@JLutz82)
Though seemingly impossible, WWE fans were clearly rooting for the same wrestler to win both the men’s and women’s Royal Rumbles last month. It was a faceless wrestler with limited credentials known as “Somebody Different.”
The actual name didn’t matter as much as a fresh feeling of newness and originality. There were a few names fans didn’t want to win – Brock Lesnar, Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, Charlotte Flair – because they would be too predictable. The wrestlers that fans were rooting for didn’t have names, just a description: Someone who isn’t Lesnar, Reigns, or Flair.
WWE got one wrong, giving the women’s Rumble win to Charlotte Flair; though that is apparently leading to a fresh matchup with NXT champion Rhea Ripley. But WWE did get the other one right, going with Drew McIntyre as the winner of the men’s Rumble. McIntyre is a new face in WWE’s main event scene, no doubt. But his most important attribute is that he’s not Lesnar, Reigns, or Rollins.
If you like Drew McIntyre, a perfectly reasonable position, I challenge you to ask yourself why. If the answer is anything other than, “He’s never had a big-time title match before,” I’d press you for an actual reason. He has a great look, a cool finishing move, a fun accent and a great comeback story that WWE hasn’t really told. But those aren’t reasons to get behind the wrestler more than the fact that he’s a new face at the top of the card.
The good news is that the disconnect between liking a wrestler and enjoying newness isn’t your fault, it’s WWE’s. Since the days and years of John Cena owning the main event, WWE has trained fans to root for any fresh act and not the wrestler himself. McIntyre is only the latest example.
It’s not that McIntyre isn’t great – he is. He deserves his spot at WrestleMania and he deserves to be a fan-favorite champion. The problem is WWE hasn’t given fans any reason to root for McIntyre the person, only to cheer him because his win means Lesnar won’t be champion anymore. WWE has two months before WrestleMania to give McIntyre a discernible personality and an actual reason for fans to like him, but WWE probably won’t do that because it doesn’t have to.
The fans’ overwhelming desire for constant change has given WWE writers and Vince McMahon himself every excuse for lazy, uninspired booking. McIntyre turned babyface because he leaned against some fans for a promo once, I guess, and because WWE knew fans wanted somebody different to face Lesnar at WrestleMania.
WWE neglected to tell the story of McIntyre leaving the company, making himself into an excellent promo and in-ring worker through hard work and determination and returning as a refined, polished star. Instead, the build to WrestleMania will likely see McIntyre cementing his babyface status by saying nice things about the fans, distracting them from the fact that WWE refuses to tell an actual story.
The shelf life of a top good guy in WWE is shorter than ever, either because fans immediately crave someone new or because WWE never actually believes in that star to begin with. Rollins, who brought much of the fan angst toward him on himself, had to turn heel because the audience grew tired of his good-guy persona. It was, again, mostly his fault, but if WWE had actually helped him build support rather than presenting him as “someone finally took the title from Lesnar,” he might have been able to maintain his popularity.
Kofi Kingston fell victim to tepid booking, rarely being presented as a credible champion before losing in seconds to Lesnar. Those decisions make fans reticent to get behind the next star who is built organically. The only WWE exception is Daniel Bryan, for whom WWE stumbled into telling the right story six years ago and who has kept his star status in spite of WWE botching his return in 2018.
AEW doesn’t have the same problem. AEW fans root for wrestlers because they genuinely like them, not because the wrestlers are a break from what’s old. Cody Rhodes has an authentic relationship with fans and many of the company’s other stars have credibility from their days on the independent level. Even the stars that aren’t new, such as former WWE mainstays Chris Jericho and Jon Moxley, aren’t rejected because they’re three-dimensional, multi-faceted characters.
WWE hasn’t relearned that concept. It used to have an abundance of aptitude for it, nurturing its top stars while catering to the fans’ love for them. WWE gets away with laziness because fans are so eager for something different, even though their eagerness is never legitimately rewarded.