By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
It’s a dangerous game, investing too much in a new year. Sure, it’s a great time to re-evaluate your life and maybe make a plan or two to change some things, but in reality, it’s just the turn of a calendar marking a benchmark in the made-up device called time, which withers away with every misperception we surmise on a daily basis.
Wait. This isn’t existentialtalk.net; this is ProWrestling.net? Oh. My bad.
Anyway, a new year always means new goals, new hopes, new achievements, and with that also comes a bevy of people who write for websites attempting to talk into existence everything they hope to see happen in the next 12 months. It’s kind of fun, really. All you have to do is say, “I think Kota Ibushi should become the IWGP Heavyweight Champion and IWGP Intercontinental Champion in 2021,” and within three days, boom – your wish has come true.
That said, I thought I’d break down five things (or more) I’m hoping to see in the pro wrestling world throughout the coming year. Because with 361 days left, we’ve gotta believe something good is coming around the corner after the dumpster fire that was 2020, don’t we? Oh, we don’t? We’re still doomed to repeat the misgivings of our past as long as we don’t learn from it? Damn. All right, then.
Well. Either way, here’s to the one thing we as humans will forever have ingrained in us, for both better and worse: hope. And if nothing else, here’s hoping we see a few cracks of sunshine creep through the clouds as the year in front of us unfolds.
But enough of that. Let’s have a look.
You’ve undoubtedly heard by now that Kazuchika Okada spoke with Sports Illustrated recently, and it was as though he had read my list before it even published. While talking to SI’s Justin Barrasso, he floated this piece of fun out there for us to consider as we eagerly anticipate the world to revert back to a time when masks were reserved for only one night a year.
“When the world calms down,” Okada said, “I would like to give back with other wrestling companies to all wrestling fans in the world who still support us even in this current situation. New Japan, WWE, AEW, CMLL, AAA all together. Sounds pretty cool, don’t you think?”
It does, and it also plays into my first hope for 2021. While I’m still not sold on the AEW/Impact relationship (that has weirdly lost some steam over the last few weeks), I was thinking there might only be one way to ensure that the venture is ultimately deemed a success. That one way?
Include everyone else, too.
Or, well, everyone except WWE, because we all know that’s not happening. But if we’re stuck with Kenny Omega and Don Callis showing up on Impact TV for the time being – and, to be fair, we’re also supposed to feign shock when we eventually see Impact talent on AEW TV sooner than later – why not also send a note out to MLW? ROH? And (gasp!) NJPW? It’s not like AEW doesn’t flirt with some of those wrestlers anyway. I mean, shoot. Brian Pillman Jr. won the OVW Championship, showed up on AEW Dark a few times and … whoops, looks like we’re going to have to find a new OVW Champ because Pillman Jr. ain’t coming back.
I guess that’s why the Impact/AEW relationship doesn’t feel as important as it should (or, for that matter, wants to): If we keep hearing from all the EVPs in AEW that its doors are “open for business” and it’s “bridges are down, welcoming anyone who wants to work together” … well, then do it, damn it. It’s not like you just say something like that and expect a flood of phone calls from smaller companies begging to be a part of what you have going on. Be proactive. Start negotiating. Work something out.
The result could be fascinating, and not just because of all the dream matches that come into play. That’s because if you have a Super Bowl of wrestling, it’s perhaps the only thing that could potentially give WrestleMania a run for its money as the most important wrestling event of the year. Don’t over-do it. Don’t just make one mega-company. Take a page out of the NWA book and have a traveling champion (like Kenny Omega now), who pops up at other promotions’ events, maybe even defends the title a time or two, and build to some type of showdown that features the top two wrestlers in the world not working for WWE, whomever that may be at the time.
It’s wishful thinking, I know. But in order to make the Impact relationship feel like a bigger deal than it currently does, it needs to be the first on a series of steps that develops over the next year and includes more than just The Good Brothers. Fingers crossed.
THE WOMEN DESERVE BETTER
Here’s a tiny secret that feels like it’s lost in the shuffle of WWE these days: The company’s women’s division actually has more than four wrestlers in it. And psssst: It also has more than four good wrestlers in it.
Whether or not you’ve been paying attention, over the last six months, a lot of women wrestlers who many pundits thought had no place wrestling in big deal matches might just be ready to step into the big deal spotlight. Carmella is the most obvious example, as her mild character repackaging also came with serious in-ring improvement, and her work with Sasha Banks at TLC was the culmination of just how far she’s come. With her tag-match win on Friday’s Smackdown, it’s also good to see that she might not yet be done with The Boss, either.
But she’s not the only one in WWE who has shown marked improvement as we’ve seen so many of these wrestlers grow before our eyes. Liv Morgan has stepped up her game a bit since she went away, came back to one of the most polarizing stories in WWE, and then reunited with Ruby Riott, only to show that she can hold her own with her old Riott Squad cohort. Dana Brooke, who almost always brings to mind the gone-but-never-forgotten “Breaking Ground” series on the WWE Network, is putting in the best work of her career, even if it’s only in short-minute matches. And you don’t need me to tell you that Bianca Belair is a star, so long as WWE doesn’t find a way to mess that up (which, as always, is entirely possible).
The larger point here, though, is that 2020 exposed how short-term thinking has significantly hurt the WWE women’s division. When you push all your chips into the center of the table on Asuka, Ronda Rousey, Charlotte Flair, Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks and Bayley, you have a good chance of winning the bet, yes, but you also risk alienating other talents that continuously put in the work to get better and become a star on their own. That was highlighted when Ronda took a break to start a family, Charlotte needed surgery that kept her out for half the year, and Becky became a mom. That left three stars and two brands, and that’s not a great equation.
In the wake of that, we’ve seen Lana get thrown into a months-long story that was almost entirely abandoned the minute Charlotte said she wanted back in. We’ve seen Shayna Baszler, the most badass wrestler in the company not named Brock Lesnar (assuming he comes back someday, of course) work her way down the card as a half-assed comedy act with frenemy Nia Jax. We’ve seen Alexa Bliss douse herself in gasoline when she’s not playing on a swing set in the middle of a wrestling ring. We’ve seen Ember Moon return to NXT to … not really win that much. And we’ve seen Kairi Sane say to hell with this, and go home.
In 2021, it’d be great to see the old mingle with the new. Becky will presumably be back, and Charlotte has already made her presence known by teaming with Asuka to win the women’s tag belts. Why not give Liv and Ruby, the only true tag-team in the division, a shot at carrying them? How about breaking Shayna away from Nia for a program with Asuka? That sounds like a strong candidate for feud of the year, does it not? Keep Sasha with Carmella while Bayley and Bianca establish a significant women’s feud that doesn’t involve a title for once.
There are ways to make this happen, WWE, and you’ve got the best women’s roster in the world. Do something with it. Oh, and quit finding ways to make Rhea Ripley irrelevant. Her WrestleMania match with Charlotte single-handedly proved that if you can find a way to mix the old with the new, great things can happen.
Perhaps the most predictable wish for professional wrestling in 2021 is, of course, a return to having fans in the building. It won’t be soon, if it happens at all this year, but my goodness, wouldn’t it be nice to just get out and do something rather than anxiously wander through a grocery store for a half-hour because every other aisle, you run into another person without a mask?
And when I’m talking about getting back in the building I mean, getting back in the building. I was at AEW’s “Full Fear” in November and wrote about it for this very site, and while I can tell you it was fun and nice and a grand, old time, I can also tell you that it definitely was not a full crowd chanting as the high spots commenced, and it definitely was not something that I could do 100 percent comfortably. Talking to other people there, I gather I was not the only one with those reservations as well (even if AEW did the best job they could do to ensure our safety).
So, yes. It’s a starved hope, much like seeing live music again or not having to budget for gallons of hand sanitizer, but it’s a hope nonetheless. The energy of a full live crowd just can’t be replaced, no matter how hard you try or how much money you have to spend. Did Lana going through a table every week make her endearing to WWE fans? I haven’t a clue. Would Drew McIntyre’s title win at WrestleMania have been more memorable if a crowd was there, cheering him on? My best guess is yes. Sting’s return was cool, but just imagine that happening in a packed arena with genuinely surprised, ecstatic fans going crazy.
Those are just a tiny sample of all the things that leave me thirsty for fans to get back in the building. I know it’s out of our control, yes, and never would I want that to happen unless it could go down with the promise of safety in tow. But still … jeez. We could all use a night out at the wrestling matches, don’t you think?
Dating back to the days when wrestling matches took place in caves as the wheel was only then being invented, one single trope has always been true: Every fan can get behind a long, substantial, world-beating streak. Goldberg captured the imagination of millions when he learned three holds, threw punches into the air and went 5,729-and-0. Before someone decided it’d be best to have her wear green face-paint, Asuka ran through all of NXT and left with her undefeated streak intact, making her must-see TV each time she danced to the ring. Shoot, even Jon Moxley’s run as champ in AEW felt larger than it was because of his time defending it successfully as much as he did in 2020.
My point is that wrestling needs a good streak again. One that’s acknowledged, one that’s hyped, one that’s not putting someone through a table every week. Back from injury, the best candidate in my eyes is Karrion Kross, who never lost his NXT title and is most likely poised for another run with it sooner than later. Give him the belt by February and don’t take it off him until 2022. Make him seem impossible to beat, and play into the monster character that he has perfected. Along with Scarlett, those two could rule the brand for as long as they wish, so let them do it.
Now, to be fair, WWE hasn’t done a bad job at keeping champions strong (with the exception perhaps being that time when McIntyre lost his belt for a few weeks; what the hell was that?). Bayley – the best heel on Smackdown not named Roman Reigns – was the longest Smackdown Women’s Champion ever and it doesn’t look like they plan to move away from Reigns as their champ any time soon. AEW accomplished the same with Moxley, and all signs point to Omega holding on to that belt for a bit.
But what about the secondary titles, the ones that nobody seems to care about because they aren’t booked to matter? Why not keep the IC title on Big E for the majority of the year, without losing the standard non-title matches that WWE loves to do with its champions every other week? It would continue to help Big E build his credibility as a singles act and the belt itself would receive a nice rub. In AEW, why don’t we give Darby Allin a strong, long run as TNT champ? Or in NJPW, put the IWGP U.S. Title on Kenta, and have him continue his winning streak, cheating his way through 2021, by hook or by crook?
Streaks are fun, yes, but maybe more importantly, they also give a sports feel to everything that goes down. Matches matter more. Wrestlers matter more. Titles matter more. Pro wrestling needs an adrenaline boost; why not start by creating a dominant star who holds a prestigious belt for a significant amount of time?
Finally, there are the things that some of us remember, some of us forget, some of us don’t care about, and some of us pray for each day. Or, well, in other words, the small things.
First, feel free to cast my vote alongside Jason Powell for NJPW to move into the 21st century and get a NJPW World app on Roku. I mean, come on, guys. It can’t be that hard. While you’re at it, how about figuring out a way to incorporate Jon Moxley more than twice a year? I understand the travel restrictions and all the hurdles that seemingly come along with everything these days. But, you have a star on your hands. A taped promo from the desert every now and then wouldn’t hurt.
As for AEW, can we please get that video game you keep talking about in our hands sometime this year? Not that I’m anything remotely near a video game person, but I did make the mistake of trying out the most recent WWE 2K game (in 2019) and I’ll never get those minutes of my life back, so I need something to force that awful taste out of my mouth and I’m counting on you, AEW, to do that. Also, how about some love for Jungle Boy? It seems like we go through these cycles where everybody says he’s going to be a star, and then we see him on Dark for three weeks.
Speaking of Dark, maybe trim the show from eight hours to three? All kidding aside, some of these cards have been woefully stacked – so much so that it’s hard to get up for the show. Yes, the wrestlers are young, and yes, everyone needs ring time, but remember: Your founder owns an amphitheater with a wrestling ring in the mosh pit. You can stage matches anytime you want without having to put all of them on YouTube. Oh, and please do right by Sting. That WWE run wasn’t fun for anybody.
Now, with that said, I know what you’re thinking. How much can I whine about the WWE product? The answer, as is the case with a lot of people these days, is a lot. But I’m not going to travel that road. Instead, my hopes and dreams for 2021 in WWE revolve around the network and one very forgotten production that dates all the way back to the 24/7 days …
“Legends Of Wrestling.”
Remember that? The show where a bunch of old guys sat around, talking about the good old days, relaying stories, smoking cigars and making fun of each other? It was a fixture on the 24/7 channel forever ago, and it’s pretty much the only reason I invested in the WWE Network in the first place (the episodes are stored on there currently). What this world doesn’t need is yet another four-hour podcast breaking down the Starrcade ’89 card; instead, it yearns for a 25-minute roundtable discussion between Ric Flair, The Undertaker, Bret Hart and Michael Hayes about how great of a heel Jake Roberts was.
Oh, and is there any way we might be able to get more superstar-related months? I understand that by the time November ended, we had all had our fill of The Undertaker, but lost in all that was a series of pretty neat documentaries featuring him sitting down with Kane, appearing on Stone Cold’s show and, of course, the excellent “Last Ride” series that was great but could have been even better (did we ever figure out what was going on between ‘Taker and McCool a few years ago?). Let’s get more of that, instead of these half-assed supposed “documentaries” that never reveal anything substantial about anybody.
And while we’re at it … OK, OK. Wait. I know I said I wouldn’t talk about the product, but I think I do have one minor suggestion.
Re-imagine Raw and quit wasting my Monday nights.
Hey. Let a boy dream.