By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
And that weapon, it turns out, doesn’t even belong to anyone in a ring. Instead, it belongs to the booker, the person making the decisions about how cards are laid out, who wins, who loses, and how it all goes down. It’s a person who can make or break careers all the while pretty much defining the word “arbitrary” on a daily basis.
As it turns out, this past week in wrestling turned a spotlight onto the booker (or as Brian Pillman once shouted at Kevin Sullivan, the “booker man”) in various ways. How so?
LET HIM IN
Let’s start with the weekend’s biggest news and that’s the firing of Bray Wyatt from WWE. Strangely, on a Saturday, without any other cuts in play, the company let go of the guy who created “The Fiend” and once stood at the head of wrestling’s most interesting cult family. WWE said it was budget cuts, but budget cuts usually don’t come in the form of one single wrestler randomly being let go on the first day of August, which also happened to be on a weekend. Either way, I digress.
Wyatt’s case was a curious one — so much so that seeing the outpouring of support on Twitter from wrestling media personalities mildly surprised me if only for how many wrestling writers seemed to have soured on The Fiend character during the last half of its run. The gimmick became eye-rolling to some, but considering the response to Wyatt’s release, the consensus seems to be that everyone knew there could be something underneath whatever we, as fans, got. Wyatt and The Fiend always felt like they were one or two tiny tweaks away from lighting the world on fire (pun intended).
Perhaps the biggest part of the problem, it would appear, was the booking. It never felt like the decision-makers knew what to do with The Fiend character. The concept was intriguing, and the horror movie aesthetic was always going to appeal to a certain subset of the pro wrestling fan base, but when it came to figuring out what to do with him, it never felt like there was much forethought put in to how the character would be handled, moving past whatever event was being produced at the time.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
Some might point to The Fiend’s loss to Goldberg in Saudi Arabia as the moment The Fiend died, but I’d back up further and argue that his Hell In A Cell match with Seth Rollins was the moment the nose began diving downward for the character. To this day, I can’t quite understand why whoever was booking that match didn’t want to see Seth take a clean loss and rather, for the first time in history, found a way to institute a disqualification in a match designed to not have disqualifications at any cost. And sure, you can tell me all you want that the official ruling was that it came out as a referee stoppage; it’s all in the same family.
There was no referee stoppage when The Fiend was set on fire by Randy Orton at TLC in 2020. Yet another hit to the character’s credibility came when WWE used The Fiend as its guinea pig for making matches without fans in attendance. The character allowed those at WWE to explore their deepest, worst impulses when creating a professional wrestling program and as a result, Wyatt suffered — not just with his fan base, but also within the company’s internal machinations. “It couldn’t be our fault this isn’t getting over the way it should, Bray,” I can just imagine hearing some 24 year old wannabe movie writer say backstage. “You just need to buy into it more.”
And yet it sure seemed like Bray did. The stories of him spending his own money to go the extra mile for the The Fiend masks have become famous at this point, and unlike a lot of his peers, it sure did feel like Wyatt kept kayfabe in mind when it came to social media, as he rarely posted anything pertaining to things outside his character. By all accounts, it felt like nobody could be more “in” on The Fiend than the man behind it.
But he fell victim to shoddy booking and bad timing. Take a second and think about the notion that a pandemic never happened. Live crowds were still in arenas for the last year and a half and cinematic matches were barely an afterthought (unless you were Jeremy Borash, of course). What do we think would have happened with The Fiend? What would have happened with “Firefly Funhouse” Bray Wyatt? Would those characters have been subject to a writing team focusing on making mini movies? Or would someone have figured out how to properly book the character in a pro wrestling setting?
We’ll never know and it feels like a waste of an opportunity, considering the imagination of Wyatt and the budget with which WWE can work, even if the company insists it needs to keep cutting costs.
But, speaking of a waste of an opportunity …
… What the hell is going on with “Hangman” Adam Page?
Because of the Bray Wyatt news — as well as some other AEW news we’ll get to in a second — it kind of feels like this is going to get swept under the rug, but can someone please explain to me the booking logic behind having Page take the loss on last week’s “Dynamite” and now be out of the world title picture in AEW? I get telling long-form stories, but haven’t we all learned from past wrestling lore that it’s possible to actually miss the right time to pull the trigger on someone’s title win?
Ironically, the first case that comes to mind is in the form of Braun Stroman, Wyatt’s stablemate who broke away from the Wyatt family to embark on a dominating singles run, complete with a legendary mauling of Brock Lesnar, which doesn’t often happen. But when it came down to it, WWE got cold feet on completing the monster-like rise and refused to give him the title until it became too late and his first title reign came because the company needed a last-minute replacement for Roman Reigns in front of no fans.
Strowman never truly recovered from that missed opportunity, and now I’m in fear that Hangman Page could suffer the same fate. If reports are true, and Page won’t even be present at All Out in Chicago next month, while Christian Cage is likely to step up to be Kenny Omega’s challenger … yikes. I mean, really. Yikes.
First, the booking has been teasing Omega and Page for months — a perfect build for a blow-off to that feud’s second chapter at arguably the company’s most popular pay-per-view. Second, with a single month left, you can’t convince me that you could build any type of program between Omega and Cage in merely four weeks that could pack the same punch as Omega and Page would and has. Third, don’t get me wrong. I’m all about Christian Cage getting a title run at some point and I’m glad he’s back in the ring, but who are we kidding here? He’s been a mid-card player from the minute he entered AEW. And now, we are just going to vault him into a world title match with barely a month to work a program?
It makes me reflect on how Tony Khan gushed over how Christian was one of his favorite childhood wrestlers. Wrecking what was a surefire build in the name of one of your favorite wrestlers can’t be as simple as that, can it? If so, it’d be awfully McMahon-ian of him, especially when it comes to running the book. What it also makes me wonder is …
BEST IN THE WORLD
… Does CM Punk play into this at all, or are we just going to get Punk vs. Darby Allin at All Out and call it a day?
I ask because all of this feels oddly underwhelming to me. Let’s reset. AEW signs CM Punk. The word gets out. On three weeks’ notice, the company announces it’s coming to the United Center, which is in the same market as its upcoming pay-per-view, which is slated for only a couple weeks from the United Center date. Presumably, the hastily booked event at the United Center is to debut CM Punk in the biggest arena in town and draw crazy numbers.
The idea works. AEW sells out the United Center. Punk confronts Darby Allin, who half-assed called him out on last week’s Dynamite. We have a two-week build for CM Punk’s first in-ring appearance in years. Meanwhile, Kenny Omega, who had been working one of the hottest programs in wrestling, abandons that program and is paired with Christian Cage, who we can go weeks at a time without seeing on TV and recently started hanging around with Jurassic Express.
Now, none of that is set in stone, and that’s important to note. In fact, while those appear to be the rumors, they could also be red herrings and at the end of the day, be rendered meaningless. But here’s my thing: Even if these notions are only half-accurate and even if only bits and pieces will come to fruition … man, it seems like a letdown to me.
I’ll be at All Out. We’re still a month away and I’ve already primed myself for the roof to blow off the place when Hangman Page finally exorcises all his demons, beats Kenny Omega, and becomes the world champion. I’ve even accepted that Punk’s debut won’t be saved for the event. But hot-shotting a debut on a handful of weeks notice, and launching that wrestler into somewhat of a meaningless program all the while watering down your heavyweight title picture seems like lazy booking at best, thoughtless booking at worst.
Then again, maybe I will be proven wrong. Shoot. I hope I’m proven wrong. But if this plays out the way some people say and/or think it will, I might just make $4,000 off the ticket I have and stay home to watch All Out at home.
And then there’s Adam Cole. The end of the weekend brought reports that his contract is up after SummerSlam weekend and … well … boom, goes the dynamite, I guess. Does that mean he won’t re-sign with the company? No. But it sure does inspire an opportunity to look at the way he’s been booked in NXT lately. And to me, that comes down to two words: Spinning wheels.
Is it me, or does it feel like his feud with Kyle O’Reilly has drifted into, “We don’t know what else to do with these guys” territory? If, in fact, Cole loses to O’Reilly SummerSlam weekend, are we to believe that’s because he’s heading out the door? If so, you couldn’t blame him. Outside of cutting a hell of a promo on Karrion Kross a few weeks ago, Cole hasn’t sniffed a title in what feels like forever. They broke up his faction. There isn’t much left for him to do in NXT, and if Vince McMahon wanted him on the main roster, he could have had him a few years ago when he dominated Survivor Series.
But McMahon didn’t. The ultimate booker of them all passed up on one of the most exciting performers in all of WWE.
Which brings us back to the beginning. There’s no denying that McMahon and Khan are great wrestling minds. But, just like any other great mind in any other walk of life, they are prone to mistakes as well. McMahon and the booking team in WWE missed on Bray Wyatt. I don’t know who’s to blame, I don’t know what happened backstage, I don’t know why things went down the way they did. What I do know, however, is that there is room for Wyatt to be a major star in the professional wrestling world. It’s hard to imagine him anywhere other than WWE, but perhaps somewhere else could nurture his mind and get more out of it than WWE could.
Conversely, pulling the plug on a can’t-miss main event between Hangman Page and Kenny Omega at All Out is a failure in timing. It’s hard to believe that if this really is stopping cold in its tracks, we, as fans, will be ready to pick it back up in six months for reasons that go beyond logical comprehension. More so, replacing it with a matchup that has little to no heat makes the wound hurt even more.
And so it goes. Being a booker for a wrestling company can’t be easy, if for no other reason than the responsibility you hold must feel absolutely enormous at times. Then again, if you don’t have much regard for that responsibility, you might not have as much regard for the talent around you. And maybe that explains how WWE failed Bray Wyatt and, to some degree, Adam Cole. Maybe that explains why Tony Khan appears to be more concerned with cashing in on his big signing than developing memorable moments that don’t feel crammed into a three-week can.
Or maybe I’m just too critical and we have to wait and see what happens next before casting judgment. And if that’s so, in the case of Bray Wyatt, at least, I hope someone, somewhere, finally and truly let’s him in.