It’s been a weird week in WWE, and not in a way that anyone at the promotion would have wanted.
Just 48 hours after their NXT got eaten alive in the Wednesday night ratings battle by the debut of AEW Dynamite, WWE had the Fox network debut of Friday Night SmackDown. This was the first time the promotion had ever launched a weekly series on a major network, and the show was buoyed by, among other things, an appearance by The Rock and a Brock Lesnar main event, which bookended the two hour program. The result, for all that star power, was a perfectly fine but not earth-shattering piece of WWE television, with highlights including The Rock and Becky Lynch’s in-harmony insults of Baron Corbin and Kevin Owens triumphing over Shane McMahon—yes, still—in a ladder match.
This leaves out the weird shit, which was very weird indeed. Weird to the point that the debuts of lineal heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury and former UFC Heavyweight Champion Cain Velasquez, both setting up matches with Braun Strowman and Lesnar, respectively, were not remotely the strangest thing in the ring that night.
First, there was Lesnar’s main event match, in which he won the WWE Championship from Kofi Kingston. The result was expected, but exactly how it happened wasn’t. Lesnar excels in both explosive, competitive, brief clashes with his fellow big dudes or less abbreviated David vs. Goliath matches with smaller, faster wresters. It was expected that this would be the latter: Lesnar does his thing to start, only for Kingston to dodge something and take over before making a mistake that Lesnar capitalizes on for the win.
That’s not what happened. Instead, when the opening bell rang, Kingston immediately charged and jumped at Lesnar, who caught him, hit his F-5 finishing move, and won the title in seconds. Kingston was immediately relegated to the background in the post-match when Velasquez debuted as Rey Mysterio’s new backup and beat down Lesnar.
Fans online were, to use a technical term, pissed. And not in the good, wrestling-y way, either. Those same fans had willed Kingston to a previously unplanned WrestleMania title win, as he became a grassroots favorite as a late substitute for the injured Mustafa Ali in a six-man Elimination Chamber match for the WWE Championship in February. Kingston’s title win was the in-ring and emotional highpoint of this year’s disastrously overlong WrestleMania, even if much of his title reign ended up being squandered for lack of engaging challengers. More significantly, Kingston was the first African-born wrestler to hold the title and the first black wrestler not named The Rock to hold the original, canonical WWE Championship, period. The real emotional investment in his win over Daniel Bryan was something you seldom see in WWE matches; that night, Twitter was filled with celebrations at various WrestleMania parties, the most memorable of which was the viral video of former WWE wrestlers Shad Gaspard and Hassan “MVP” Assad bursting into tears and sharing a long hug after the match. It felt—and in that sense truly was—“real” in a way that most WWE content doesn’t. WWE threw that away in a matter of seconds on Friday.
It wasn’t just that Kingston lost; WWE books Brock Lesnar so he can win. It was that he lost in a way that made him into the biggest chump in the 56-plus year history of the WWE Championship. There have been other seconds-long title changes, but the losers were heels getting their comeuppance or compromised babyfaces that a conniving villain exploited by “cashing in” WWE’s Money In The Bank title shot, which can be used at any time. In the 56-plus years that the WWE Championship existed the promotion has almost always been a “babyface territory,” a promotion built around a virtuous hero dispatching all comers, as opposed to a “heel territory” in which the good guys line up to try to knock off a particularly egregious villain. Last Friday night, the virtuous hero was made to look like a complete buffoon who used the dumbest possible strategy instead of wrestling Lesnar as A.J. Styles, Daniel Bryan, or Finn Balor had.
It was probably time for Kofi to lose, especially since Fox clearly wants Lesnar, but this wasn’t the way to do it. Fans aren’t going to focus their anger on Lesnar, either, which leaves WWE itself to carry the blame for doing something that completely goes against how they’ve always booked their leading men. Which they did to end title reign of their first African-born champion, whose WrestleMania storyline was framed as him overcoming years of having been held down by the institutional racism of Vince McMahon’s company, was shortsighted and cruel and a failure at every imaginable level. And yet more could always go wrong.
When SmackDown ended a few minutes later, more things did. That week’s 205 Live all-cruiserweight division show on WWE Network was cancelled just a few hours before SmackDown started. (That compounded fears that the series proper had been cancelled, especially with the Cruiserweight Title being renamed to be part of the NXT brand, but as of this writing, a new episode had finally been announced for October 11, the day this article was published.) Most fans usually leave before 205 Live starts, but it has been a staple after SmackDown for more than two years and dropping it at the last second without warning was not exactly a goodwill gesture. Even worse, three of the legends who had been advertised as appearing on SmackDown—Sting, Steve Austin, and The Undertaker—were nowhere to be found, with “‘Taker” even stating publicly that he was told he wasn’t needed. If you paid for a ticket specifically to see them, Hulk Hogan and/or Ric Flair—both advertised, both only shown watching from the crowd—or even 205 Live, you were shit out of luck. When the fans were told the show was over despite so much still missing, the Staples Center was reportedly filled not with boos but chants for AEW, the new WWE competitor that had launched its weekly TV show on TNT 48 hours earlier.
Pro wrestling, at its root, is a carny business. But even in the regional era, many promoters considered no-shows and false advertising to be the sort of cardinal sins that would lose the trust they’d worked to build up with fans. WWE not only committed that sin, but did so immediately after already putting heat on themselves for the Kingston-Lesnar booking.
Not delivering either the advertised legends or an explanation for their absence isn’t what anyone would call advisable. But it’s particularly mind-boggling in the context of WWE currently fending off a new competitor that had just delivered an improbable strong Nielsen rating. The sense that WWE was flailing continued two nights later at the Hell in a Cell event on pay-per-view and WWE Network. The show started strong with a brilliant Becky Lynch-Sasha Banks match in the titular cell and a wild tag team match in which Roman Reigns and Daniel Bryan downed Erick Rowan and Luke Harper. The card slowed notably from there, but was far from bad until the main event.
In that bout, the other cell match on the card, Seth Rollins defended the WWE Universal Championship against The Fiend, the repackaged and shockingly effective scary horror movie clown version of Bray Wyatt. This match should not have happened just two months after The Fiend’s in-ring debut, and much less with stipulations requiring a definitive winner. Either Wyatt was going to win or something very stupid was going to happen. If you haven’t been keeping up with WWE and guessed the latter, congratulations!
The match was held under creepy red lights instead of the normal house lights, for reasons that were never adequately explained, and was both dull and, for fans in attendance, difficult to see; the “cell” itself is also red as of last year. The match ended up dealing in horror movie tropes, with Rollins unable to put down The Fiend, who would rise from the dead with bursts of offense and eventually pulled a comically oversized mallet from under the ring to use as a weapon. Rollins would keep hitting his signature moves and using assorted weapons, and The Fiend refused to die because he’s a slasher movie villain. You get it.
The end finally came when Rollins piled objects on his foe, grabbed a sledgehammer from under the ring, and, over referee Rod Zapata’s protests of “This isn’t you, Seth,” swung it at the debris on Wyatt’s head. As soon as the blow landed, Zapata called for the bell, with the match ending via ... well, they never actually said how on the broadcast. WWE.com described it as “a match stoppage,” which is not a formal term that previously existed anywhere; Zapata, for his part defended the decision on WWE’s new web show later in the week.
The crowd, which was already worried that The Fiend was about to be beaten prematurely, erupted in chants like “RESTART THE MATCH!” and “AEW!” The latter chant was more than just empty protest in this case—AEW brass has pledged to avoid non-finishes, and everything on their six cards to date has had a clear ending. In a wrestling war, both companies are going to excel if they stick to doing what they do best instead of trying to beat the other company at its own game, which is to say that even in an ideal WWE, bullshit is to be expected as part of a larger story. But this was completely unnecessary bullshit that came at the worst time for the promotion—just over 48 hours after a night of false advertising and that devastatingly demoralizing Brock Lesnar squash win over Kofi Kingston. It was, in short, bullshit that failed on its own terms while succeeding mostly at highlighting one of AEW’s biggest clear strengths.
So what the fuck are these guys doing? At a time when WWE is at risk of losing viewers to a new competitor, this sort of unwise and unsatisfying risk-taking should not even be considered, but WWE went ahead and did it anyway. And why? Seemingly for no reason other than that WWE, with those hundreds of millions of dollars in TV rights fees already in the bank, is no longer subject to the whims of its fans. Read one way, all this sloppiness can be seen as a gamble that the loyal base audience will watch anything, and hopefully also forget to cancel their WWE Network subscriptions.
And for what? WWE scored some real-world prize fighters, officially announced just before we pressed “publish” as being for their next Saudi propaganda spectacular, which is scheduled for Halloween. One of those fighters has even avoided spreading anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, equating homosexuality with pedophilia (and abortion) as signs of the end times, compared being transgender to engaging in bestiality for some reason, and pledging to murder his hypothetical sister for being sexually promiscuous, and the other is Tyson Fury. When WWE handed Fury, the prizefighter who did do all those things, a live mic on Monday’s Raw—an action they built the promotion of the episode around—lead announcer Vic Joseph ominously hyped up that “sometimes, he becomes unhinged.” That suggests just how seriously they took all that, doesn’t it? “Becoming unhinged” doesn’t exactly suggest Fury’s more amusing vocalizations, like his bad singing on the house microphone after fights. On Friday, ESPN’s Marc Raimondi reported that Velasquez would be retiring from UFC and joining WWE on a multi-year deal.
At least WWE Network is still good, and released yet another holy grail of an unaired pilot taping this week. This time, it was a show earmarked for use when Turner Broadcasting’s WCW struck a deal with Telemundo. As has been recounted in this space before, the weekly “Hidden Gems” are all that’s good and pure about WWE, an uncharacteristic love letter from the promotion to its most obsessed longtime fans. Yes, the Network is only now recovering from hosting change and a badly managed makeover that had the effect of wrecking the functionality on everything from the payment system to watching live streams on Chromecast to numerous videos disappearing, but ... fucking hell, now I’m just getting annoyed again. A certain amount of mess comes with the territory for WWE, but the promotion is going to need to tighten things up a lot if they’re going to flip a trend line that is currently diving hard in the wrong direction.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. He writes the Babyface v. Heel subscription blog/newsletter and co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com/everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.