McGuire’s Monday: For the first time in a long time, WWE has a WrestleMania problem on its hands

By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)

Now that this past weekend is gone, we are less than six weeks away from the 38th installment of WrestleMania. God. Even when I only type that word, I can hear Vince McMahon snarl and shout it through my brain. That dude’s living rent-free in so many places.

Love or hate WWE, you’d be a fool to claim that WrestleMania isn’t the standard-bearer for Big Wrestling Events in America. Everyone knows the story by now. Vince took a chance. The chance paid off. Pro wrestling has never been the same, both for better and worse.

That marquee name is synonymous with the sport (or entertainment … or sports entertainment), and has been for so long that you could take the most unlikely person to ever know that pro wrestling exists (A classical music conductor? An Egyptian refugee? Tara Lipinksi?), and even they might be able to guess “WrestleMania” if the trivia question was formed correctly. The brand is transcendent.

And it’s because of that precise transcendence that …

STILL THE GRANDADDY?

WWE has a WrestleMania problem this year.

But why? Is it because of impossible expectations? Is it because of AEW? Is it because the product sucks? Is it because fans have stopped forgiving WWE? Is it because there is an inherent lack of direction and innovation within the wrestling portion of the product? Is it because nobody trusts WWE anymore? Is it because things just aren’t as good as they used to be? Is it a combination of all this?

Actually, in terms of that final question, yes. It probably is a combination of everything because a combination of everything seems like it’s usually the case for most things in life. The truth is never as cut and dry as we’d prefer it to be and when you’re dealing with something as big as WrestleMania, you can’t point to one single thing as the lone criminal in this case.

Yet even with that said, some reasons always shine brighter than others, and as you look at the build to this year’s event, it’s hard not to wonder how or if WWE can turn things around. The reason those questions appear at the top of the skeptic board is because of one inherent reality that is plaguing WWE more in this instance than it ever has before in any other instance. It’s a reality we’ve all grown to accept and one that hasn’t bothered the company as it records record profits year over year. It’s not singular to WWE, but it certainly feels like it is this time around.

That reality?

WHO CARES?

Apathy.

Watching WWE throw as much as it can at the wall, and seeing the mainstream wrestling fan base shrug its shoulders at all of it should be more alarming than it appears to be for the company. Case in point: Let’s look at what we have both confirmed and rumored for the card.

First, what we know for sure. Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns will square off for what I think will be the seventh time to unify WWE’s two biggest titles. Ronda Rousey and Charlotte Flair are set to meet for the Smackdown women’s title while Bianca Belair and Becky Lynch will fight for the Raw women’s title. And the Mysterios will go up against Logan Paul and The Miz. Those are the only matches confirmed as of this writing.

Now, before we move on to the rumored billings, let’s wonder aloud about why those four matchups don’t seem to move the needle. Working backwards, and begin with the celebrity match. Logan Paul might be a heat magnet, but the Mysterios have been ice-cold for months and Dominik especially appears to be spinning his wheels at this point. Can Paul’s heat carry things well enough to draw eyeballs to the match? I doubt it. Flair vs. Rousey, meanwhile, is in a weird spot because I still can’t quite grasp if Charlotte has go-away heat from those who believe she’s hated in the locker room while Rousey’s second foray into pro wrestling isn’t quite going like her first, which is to say the novelty is off and the odd relationship she has with WWE fans overshadows most everything else does.

Lynch vs. Belair has potential to be one of the high spots of the weekend because so many fans have been clamoring so much and so often for Belair to get that title back after losing it in less than 30 seconds at SummerSlam. There will be pressure on this match from a large portion of the fanbase to “get it right,” with Belair, but if we know anything about WWE, we know that when fans expect it to make good on something in their minds … well, that’s a company that loves to go the other way.

Lesnar vs. Reigns then rounds things out, and I can’t quite understand the backlash that match is getting from some around the Worldwide Internet. I also can’t understand why it’s being criticized by some for being a unification match. I feel like we all agree that the brand split is stupid … until WWE does something that indicates the brand split might end, and then we get mad at that? The idea itself isn’t bad; it’s just that WWE’s execution is horrible. Either way, a good chunk of people appear to be done with the Reigns/Lesnar feud, and what should be a massive main event now appears to be in danger of eliciting shoulder shrugs at the end of Night 2.

But we’ll get back to that. For now, let’s move to …

MCAFEE VS. MCMAHON?

… The rumored matches.

First, there’s Sami Zayn vs. Johnny Knoxville for the Intercontinental Title. Because when you have nothing else, “celebrity!” means “ticket sales!” in WWE’s eyes. It also appears we’re going to get “Stone Cold” Steve Austin vs. Kevin Owens, because Owens won’t stop trolling Texas and it’s not like his finishing move is the Tombstone. I wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger on that soon, though, because time appears to be of the essence. Edge vs. AJ Styles seems like it will most likely happen after Edge’s phenomenal quip on Raw last week. And then you have the latest (and greatest) program of them all …

Pat McAfee vs. Vince McMahon.

Now, I am not, by any means, one of those people who believe Vince McMahon is the devil incarnate. I have a gigantic amount of respect for him and his accomplishments and it’s unfair to pretend like he’s not the single biggest reason pro wrestling is as popular as it is in America today. As for McAfee, I absolutely love his work. That guy has built something amazing in a very short amount of time and his people skills are infectious each time you watch him interview someone. Plus, he was a more-than-welcome addition to the Smackdown commentary table with his enthusiasm and quirkiness.

But I don’t know how prudent it is to throw him into the ring with a guy who’s almost 80 years old. Sure, McAfee proved that he’s a pretty good in-ring worker — but let’s not forget that was when he was working with some of the best wrestlers in the world, most specifically Adam Cole. Coming out of nowhere to impress while dancing with one of the best to do it is far less high a mountain to climb than stepping into the ring with the chairman of the board, who could barely take a Stunner properly when he was in his fifties.

It’s not that I’m against McMahon stepping into the ring if that’s what he wants to do; I’d just rather him do it with someone who is a surefire protector. The only alternative, of course, is that this won’t be anything like a match, and instead, will be more of an angle. If that happens, fine, but … what angle are we shooting here? I have faith in McAfee and I even have faith in McMahon to deliver something entertaining, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out what they could possibly do that would keep our attention and reward us for it.

It’s all to say …

A THIRSTY WWE

This is a WrestleMania that reeks of desperation.

So much so, in fact, that it’s messing up would have been some pretty neat moments. McAfee potentially getting in the ring — and you had to think he’d somehow get back in the ring someday again — would be a lot of fun if it was against someone on Cole’s in-ring level. Austin potentially coming back might have intrigued this fan once upon a time, but at this point, I don’t need to see him bounce around for six minutes before giving someone the double bird and landing yet another Stunner for a win. Johnny Knoxville putting Sami Zayn in his place could be good-natured fun, but if that means the “Jackass” star walks out of WrestleMania with perhaps the most historically respected title in the company … I mean, does anyone else feel a little queasy about that?

At this point, WWE could say they are reincarnating Andre the Giant and giving Hulk Hogan youth elixir to run back their epic main event from WrestleMania 3, and I’d probably still shrug my shoulders and wonder what WWE could do to actually impress the masses these days. And that’s sad. Because WrestleMania is supposed to be the tentpole event of the year in wrestling. Last year was kind of/sort of half-assed because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the year before that, it famously took place at the performance center in front of nobody, so this is the year that the event should be back in full force, right?

Well, it is. I guess? So far? Because if a billion-dollar company builds a billion-dollar two-night event, does that mean it’s worth a billion dollars worth of time, attention, commitment and trust?

Actually, trust is the key component here, and it’s the reason this WrestleMania, even though it’s less than six weeks away, has no juice despite WWE’s best efforts. Think about this. What do we think will happen in the key matches? Conventional wisdom suggests Roman Reigns beats Lesnar and the build toward a match with The Rock in a year begins. OK. What does Roman do for a year, then? He’s already beat everybody. What can we see that we already haven’t seen?

Look at the women’s matches. Let’s say Ronda beats Charlotte for the Smackdown women’s title. Who does Ronda go on to work with on the Smackdown side? Sonya Deville? A returning Lacey Evans? Not sure either outcome piques my interest. Move to the Raw side. We’re all rooting for Bianca to have her moment against Becky Lynch, and if she does … I guess she just feuds with Lynch for the next six months in a series of rematches? Maybe Rhea Ripley turns heel? Let’s say Lynch retains — who’s she got ahead of her? Ripley and … ?

It all shines a big, bright spotlight on …

THINK ABOUT BUILDING

… WWE’s lack of forethought.

Throw together the most eclectic WrestleMania card history has ever seen. Go out and buy as many celebrities as you want to come in and pretend like they’re going to move the needle. This year, at this time, in this era, that trick isn’t going to work anymore. At least not with this fanbase.

Some of the best WrestleManias came in tandem with some of the best WrestleMania moments. Bret vs. Austin. Hogan vs. Rock. Lesnar vs. Taker. These are all-time moments and not one of them were manufactured by desperation booking dependent on wildly deep pocketbooks and questionable imagination. You can’t buy a good WrestleMania — even if WWE seems like it’s going to try its damndest to do just that this year. Hot-shot, stunt booking is the precise reason why WWE is in the hole it’s in. So instead of looking for sustainable fixes, it’s going to try and fake its way through its biggest event of the year.

If anything, I hope this means that the company can finally embrace a wakeup call and begin thinking a little differently come April 4. I would never hope for harm on anyone or any event, but my guess is if WWE doesn’t sell close to the stadium’s capacity on back to back nights in Texas this year, the people at the top will be forced to reevaluate its approach toward running a wrestling company. So, I mean, hey: Maybe it wouldn’t be all that bad if WWE didn’t reach its goals this year?

Because the last thing we’ll need come WrestleMania 39 next year is a hair vs. hair match between Bad Bunny and Damian Priest or some such nonsense.

As for this year, though, I can only hope that the juice for the event somehow ramps up — and it admittedly could after AEW runs its Revolution pay-per-view and somewhat concedes its portion of the spotlight for WWE to use as WrestleMania approaches. But if it doesn’t, and the hype train never seems to start moving down the tracks, only one thing can be concluded as this year’s Grandaddy Of Them All commences. That one thing?

WWE has nobody but itself to blame for any success or any failure. As for which one of those this year’s WrestleMania might be before it’s all said and done … only time — and money — will tell.

SPECIAL EPISODE

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Readers Comments (5)

  1. Rollins and Owens are wrestling in a tag team match, so Austin vs Owens isn’t happening.

  2. How in this article when referencing McMahon vs Pat there is literally no mention of Austin Theory, you know the man that on tv has been studying under Vince for the past 2 months. Come on man are you even paying attention? Not saying Theory wrestling in place of Vince is a given but seriously how is he not even mentioned??????

  3. This fan base? IWC? WWE doesn’t cater to the IWC. The casual fan will watch wrestlemania no matter what, and the card is shaping up to be what wrestlemania has been all about. Celebs, current and past talent. I think the IWC is in this bubble that they think everything has to make sense. And with wwe doing record profits, I think they’ve figured something out.

  4. As much as I could do without the “celebrities”, they are a part of Wrestlemania folklore. Admittedly, in my day, they were actual celebrities. I refer to Cyndi Lauper and Mr. T. as examples. That shows my age.

    What shits me is the likes of Johnny Knoxville possibly going for a title like the Intercontinental Championship disgusts me, and no, it’s not real to me, but the people that have held that title are. And it reminds me of Arquette and Russo winning the WCW Title. It shits on the people who had held the title before.

    Nowadays, WWE is barely entertainment, let alone sports entertainment. It’s been sucked into the belief that any TV is good TV, much like networks showing so called ‘reality TV’. Makes me glad I only read reviews nowadays.

  5. Celebrities are part of WM.

    The IWC neckbeard contingent has no bearing on what WWE, or any successful wrestling company, has ever done or will ever do.

    Ratings for Raw and Smackdown have been steady to slightly increasing for months now.

    Wrestlemania’s only potential problem is that they might have too many of the flippy midget garbage match fans in attendance instead of actual pro wrestling fans who used to be their core audience. Everything else is shaping up to be what Wrestlemania is, was, and should always be.

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