One of the most striking things about last Saturday’s All In pay-per-view, the independent wrestling event that sold out over 11,000 seats in suburban Chicago, was where the show differed from WWE. When it came to the in-ring wrestling style and the creative influence of Cody Rhodes and The Young Bucks, the wrestlers who financed the show, these differences were obvious. But, in a broader sense, the fact that the show was built to deliver exactly what the fans in attendance wanted might have been the biggest contrast with pro wrestling’s behemoth. Cody won his dad’s old belt in the emotional high point of the show, Kenny Omega and Penta El 0M had a dream match that exceeded expectations, the main event with the Bucks and Rey Mysterio was an incredible athletic exhibition, and Joey Ryan returned from the dead flanked by penis druids after being revived by his own tumescence. I probably don’t need to tell you “don’t ask” on the last one.
But, penis druids aside, how does all that differ from WWE? It’s wilder and looser, but most notably WWE’s attempts at storytelling just don’t scratch that very obvious fan itch as much as they used to. All In went all out to give fans what they want. WWE, lately, has done exactly the opposite.
At SummerSlam a few weeks back, and then just over a week later on Monday Night Raw, WWE took two of the more organically popular wrestlers in the company, Becky Lynch and Braun Strowman, and suddenly switched them heel. In Lynch’s case, the turn came after she had just dropped the fall in a three-way match with Charlotte Flair and Carmella, with Flair winning the SmackDown women’s title in the process. Charlotte, Lynch’s friend, had hesitated to attack her the whole match; when an opening to win the bout appeared, though, Charlotte exploited it at Becky’s expense. Moments later, Lynch cheap shotted Flair and beat the hell out of her, leaving her in tears. Just eight days later, on Monday Night Raw, Strowman, who had pledged at SummerSlam not to jump anyone from behind, lured Universal Champion Roman Reigns into a trap and then triple teamed him with Dolph Ziggler and Drew McIntyre. Both heel turns came relatively out of nowhere, without much buildup
In fairness to WWE, Strowman’s sudden turn seems to be working well enough so far, at least judging be crowd reactions, quite probably because he is now relying on henchmen instead of dealing with Reigns himself. But that abrupt about-face on one of the promotion’s truest stars and fan favorites also renders the last year or so of narrative pointless. Fans started to latch onto Strowman in part because they rejected Reigns, who Braun would attack in increasingly comical and convoluted fashion. From there, Strowman lost some of his edge—most notably selecting a child (actually referee John Cone’s son) as his tag team partner at WrestleMania this year—while still keeping enough of it to be recognizable as the guy who fans fell in love with. Roman Reigns needed opponents, sure, but Strowman’s flip seemed like an attempt to cool off a guy who was arguably more beloved than Reigns because Reigns was finally coronated as the new champion.
Lynch’s popularity on the women’s side of the promotion resembled that of Daniel Bryan on the men’s. Her authenticity and personality, how plainly nice she is, shines through her television character. Depending on how you feel about Asuka, Lynch is either the most or second-most polished performer on the women’s roster, and that surely helped, too. Like Bryan, Lynch parlayed all that into becoming a great traditional pro wrestling babyface character and fans latched on hard. Her turn was completely justifiable in pro wrestling terms, and the crowd at Barclays Center exploded in cheers for it. This continued at subsequent events, with fans also roundly booing Flair, as well. The most obvious read was that the crowd had decided that Charlotte was the fake friend and that Becky was justified in snapping and beating her down. For once, though, instead of doubling down, WWE creative quickly pivoted. As illustrated in their split screen interview on Tuesday’s SmackDown Live, the Flair/Lynch feud is now being played as a very gray storyline, and not in the usual bad WWE way where characters zig and zag with little reason.
Charlotte seems like someone who lost her best friend and doesn’t get why Becky didn’t just ask her for a title shot in a sporting way; Becky takes offense to this, objecting to being treated like a charity case. Charlotte, while starting the interview calm and firm, soon loses her cool and becomes more sarcastic and condescending. While the fans are strongly with Becky, the binary has at least been reframed so that both wrestlers can be seen as having legitimate points. By WWE standards, it’s all surprisingly mature and nuanced, even if it didn’t start that way.
None of this just started a few weeks ago, though, both in terms of the wrestlers involved and, more broadly, in terms of how WWE storytelling works.
Reigns has been the subject of a long backlash from a vocal segment of fans that saw him as rushed to stardom and overly protected by the promotion, and an anti-charismatic black hole as a wrestler. There’s some truth in there, but it’s much more complicated than that. When Reigns was switched to being a main event singles wrestler after primarily being a tag team performer with The Shield group, he was not quite ready for that spot. Reigns really had been universally popular in his previous role, including among the fans who now boo him, but that went out the window when he was shunted into the 2015 WrestleMania main event. It likely didn’t help that he was increasingly viewed as too much of a management favorite.
That picked up steam several weeks before the 2015 Royal Rumble, the match with the WrestleMania main event title shot on the line, largely because of CM Punk. In his first post-WWE interview, the recently retired Punk recalled producers constantly approached him with the message that “you gotta make Roman look really strong.” While the point of the anecdote was not about denigrating Reigns—Punk mostly seemed to find it contradictory given that he was beating The Shield in a three on one match—it soon became a mantra for the anti-Reigns fans. It became enough of a meme quickly enough that at least one YouTuber interviewed fans about it during that 2015 WrestleMania weekend. Reigns felt the need to take a shot at Punk for starting it, calling him “skinny fat” (Triple H’s old insult for Punk) a few weeks before that WrestleMania.
(It probably didn’t help Reigns’ cool factor that, a few months before said WrestleMania, Reigns cut a demonstrably terrible promo, reportedly scripted by Vince McMahon, that included lines like “You are a sniveling little suck-up sellout fool of suffering succotash, son” and “he’s got donkey dung for brains.”)
That Reigns soon became a legitimately fantastic in-ring wrestler who constantly has great main event matches was immaterial; that he was clearly a good talker when not given bad scripts didn’t help, either. He was branded a force-fed management favorite and the brand stuck; the idea took hold among many fans that, given how lustily he was being booed for little reason, Reigns might as well turn heel to fix it.
That solution would be a much better fit for Flair, who was an excellent performer as a heel and is a deeply terrible at playing babyface, both in terms of optics—her towering height makes her look menacing compared to her opponents, which isn’t really her fault—and her actual performances. By all accounts, Ashley Fliehr is a lovely person, but it doesn’t translate into the Charlotte Flair persona nearly as cleanly as it does with Rebecca Quin bleeding into the character of Becky Lynch. Flair’s just plain awkward as a hero, something oddly like the opposite of her poise and constant improvement as a heel. Once the current storyline is over, WWE would best off aligning Lynch and Flair according to their strengths. It might not be that easy, though, as Flair is clearly protected in the way that many fans act like Reigns is—Reigns loses often, but Flair rarely does and ended Asuka’s two and a half year undefeated streak.
This could be a case of Vince McMahon getting old and out of touch, but history says that it’s just Vince McMahon being Vince McMahon: someone who is just not that good at booking virtuous good guys even though he’s always run a company centered around a top good guy. Bret Hart was anointed as The Guy after a slow simmer of popularity as a low-key John Wayne type and was able to largely avoid looking like a fake, an asshole, a management favorite, or a weirdo. But most of the other franchise-level WWE stars weren’t so lucky.
Even when Vince McMahon Sr. was running the company, one of WWE’s most common tropes was match finishes where the heels would get screwed; this lasted well into the current Vince’s tenure. The heel would be about to win when the time limit, which was never announced before the match or counted down during it, would suddenly expire. That or the babyface would win thanks to an oblivious referee who missed that the heel’s foot was on the ropes during the pinfall, necessitating a break.
Once the company went national, the trend continued. When Paul Orndorff turned on Hulk Hogan, which was the first time anyone turned on Hogan in WWE, it was because Hogan was not returning his phone calls. When Randy Savage turned on him, it was because Hogan had increasingly been making eyes at Miss Elizabeth (it sure looked that way) and then abandoned him during a tag team match where Savage got thrown into her, injuring both of them. The Ultimate Warrior, while a popular attraction, bombed as the top star in part because he wasn’t remotely relatable. Later attempts to fix that problem just got weird. I mean really weird, like forcibly dressing Brother Love in drag for no apparent reason and bringing out a little girl who dubbed herself “Amanda Ultimate Warrior” so she could do cartwheels and handstands in a display of “ultimate love.”
It hasn’t always been quite that psychedelic, but WWE’s scripted turns at the top of the card have often been notable failures, primarily because the promotion just doesn’t know when to quit. Diesel had become organically popular as a ruggedly cool heel, then won the WWF Championship after a rushed turn that saw him quickly morph into a smiling corporate automaton. He became the worst-drawing champion in company history as a result. Shawn Michaels, the company’s first lead babyface to be booked as a heartthrob type, went way too far in that direction, eventually doing stripper routines after matches while announcers fawned over him. Outside of WWE, the shortcut to getting male fans to support female fans’ favorites is to have the heroes overcome brutish heels in wild, bloody brawls that made them seem both rugged and ruggedly handsome. With Vince McMahon on an anti-blood kick at the time, though, that wasn’t happening. As a result, Michaels was rejected by the company’s New York home base fans after several months as champion. And John Cena...well, there’s too much to list, here, but having him use the word “poopy” in theoretically “edgy” graffiti kind of sums it up.
In other words, newer WWE fans might as well get used to being frustrated by the promotion botching its babyface/heel dynamics. It will be a constant as long as Vince McMahon as steering the ship.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.