David: Well, Scott, I’d say it’s been a while, but I’d have to start referring to myself as Captain Obvious, so we’ll just get started. It’s July, 2016, and as wrestling fans, we’re living with an embarrassment of riches. Lucha Underground is wrapping up the airing of its second season with the three-week Ultima Lucha Dos. NXT is still really good. The Cruiserweight Classic will be starting up soon. If you’re an indie wrestling fan, there’s a lot of great stuff happening out there. Even TNA recently made waves with the ridiculous but also really fun Final Deletion. However, I want to start our discussion with some dialogue about the WWE’s main roster. Specifically, the idea of the upcoming brand split.
Unfortunately, we don’t know a whole lot of specifics about how the brand split will work, or how the shows will be managed. We know Smackdown will go live on Tuesday, July 19, with the return of the draft. Raw and Smackdown each will have their own rosters which will only appear on those shows, and the rumor is each show will have its own monthly “pay-per-view.” I think it’s safe to speculate there will be some NXT talent drafted on July 19, as well as some returning talent who will probably be needed to fill out rosters.
Let’s start with NXT. Of the current crop of NXT Superstars, who do you think will be making the leap from taped shows at Full Sail to weekly live television on Mondays or Tuesdays.
• • •
Scott: If I were in control, I’d rule out anyone currently holding gold in NXT, if only
because I think the brand extension is enough to thrust on fans without also upending the conventions of NXT (the most recent TakeOver theme notwithstanding). Beyond that,
unfortunately most of the names I’d look at are more filler than killer — folks the NXT audience is used to seeing but who aren’t actively involved in a major story that draws eyeballs each week. Folks like Mojo Rawley or Carmella. Not to rag on them as performers, but I’m much more excited for high-impact, Enzo-and-Cass grade debuts and I don’t think the brand split is the right time for those guys.
I do think there’s a lot of room to use the Smackdown separation to finally afford some time to NXT products who really deserve the shine, such as Neville and Tyler Breeze, and I suppose we ought to lump in Apollo Crews here. (I could make a case for Baron Corbin, but I’ll allow an argument he’s getting as fair a shake as could be expected already.)
The real question I have is whether Raw or Smackdown are going to look any different than they do now. Not in terms of set design (though certainly a refreshing is in order), but in terms of show structure, which is quite stale. If you’re in charge, do you make Smackdown essentially the same as Raw except with blue ropes and a different cast, or do you perhaps reinvent one or both shows? Is there a way to tell week-to-week stories WWE should explore?
• • •
David: That’s an interesting question, especially since it comes on the heels of “The Final Deletion.” For a while now, Raw has been pretty formulaic. We pretty much know every episode is going to open with someone in the ring talking until they get interrupted and set up the matches for the evening. After that, the show has a few matches, a few backstage promos and a few recaps of the earlier matches and promos until the main event ends about 11:10 p.m. Eastern.
It’s pretty stale at this point, and I feel like it needs to change. I’m not saying they need to have an 18-minute absurdist mini movie every week, but it would be nice if they could do more than the same old in-ring and backstage promos every week. With an ability to focus on characters who haven’t had a lot to do recently, maybe we could see some vignettes that give us insight into their personalities, or, at the very least, why they’ve chosen wrestling as a profession.
One of the complaints people I read and follow on Twitter seem to have is that the WWE very rarely remembers its own history. I’m not sure if this is a consequence of frequent turnover in the Creative department, a lack of any kind of “Bible” for the show, or having to constantly bend to the whims of the Chairman, but I do know it creates problems. If there isn’t a consistent storytelling history, stories tend to not mean anything. They very rarely reach any kind of conclusion, and very rarely do characters grow and change. That’s definitely one area I’d like to see them improve upon with the brand split.
Unfortunately, one of the other things I’d really like them to change doesn’t seem like it’s in the cards. The “authority figure who needs to be overcome” story has been the main way the WWE has been telling stories for almost 20 years, and I think it’s high time it stopped. However, with the recent search for a Smackdown GM, it appears I will not get my wish. If they’re dead set on going with this story, who do you think is the best pick for Smackdown’s boss?
• • •
Scott: There’s the “best pick” option, which is someone who can execute the office with the gentle finger William Regal brings to NXT, and then there’s the reality: we’re getting one of the McMahon kids, because that’s what the story has been leading to all along and this doesn’t seem like an area where they swerve. With those as my choices, I guess I choose Shane because if there’s any chance the show gets a fresh feel, it’ll be with a fresher face on top.
(I wholly agree with you on the authority figure issue, of course.)
One area where any WWE show could improve is connective tissue. This is a different issue from continuity (a glaring problem for people who follow regularly). Steve Austin has hammered on this topic in recent podcasts. The open of the show should not just set up the main event, the entire episode should be a story within itself. The last time I can remember this being done well was an episode where Daniel Bryan had to wrestle several times (I forget the purpose), and each match built on the other and tied to larger overall storylines. Where WWE struggles is the fact we can go to commercial, come back and see and entirely different cast on stage with no relation to what happened before. The only time we get any groupings is a 10-bell salute to open the show or a holiday food fight.
For as often as WWE uses the term universe, it does a shoddy job of actually crafting that universe outside of NXT. It’s maddeningly impressive that even a hourlong show can still drag out something as awesome as a Finn Balor-Shinsuke Nakamura (can we get to the damn fireworks factory already?), but there’s beauty in the simplicity of which the match came together. It took Nakamura all of 30 seconds to explain why he wanted the match, and anyone who understands the NXT universe immediately bought in. Whereas RAW, which should have an advantage in this regard given its deeper roster and wealth of history from which to draw, is still grasping at straws for — our outright ignoring — the reason its wrestlers are fighting each other.
One idea I long stumped for actually came to fruition with John Cena’s weekly U.S. Championship defenses. They anchored the shows. Even if those matches weren’t the main event (though arguably they often were), it gave fans something reliable to expect and anticipate. This really needs to come back to both Raw and Smackdown — what else could be done to juice up the weekly routine?
• • •
David: The way the show is structured makes it seem like they never have anything planned. As I pointed out earlier, the show is presented in such a way where the main event is usually made in the first segment. <a href=”http://twitter.com/MRBrandonStroud”>Brandon Stroud</a> has pointed out in the past that it makes no sense, because something had to already be scheduled for that time, so what was it? I would like it if they announced main events ahead of time. Maybe they still do the same thing, where a bigger story is set up in the first segment, and the announced main event gets bumped down the card.
Not only does that make the show feel like it was planned, and then something happened
that caused improvisation to be necessary, but it could also set up some interesting storylines for later on. What if one member of the roster is continually announced for the main event, and then keeps getting bumped, Matt Damon style, until they can’t take it anymore? You’re giving a member of the mid-card some kind of impetus to try to elevate themselves. Additionally, you could switch it up occasionally and say the personal issue discussed in the opening segment doesn’t necessarily warrant a change to the main event.
Like you, I thought John Cena’s U.S. Championship Open Challenge series was good for the show. It also was good for the U.S. Championship, because it made it seem like something people wanted to have. I wonder if it would behoove the WWE to turn the U.S. and Intercontinental Championships into something resembling a TV Championship, where the title has to be defended on every episode of whichever show they belong to. Would that help resuscitate the prestige of those titles, in addition to adding some intrigue to the Raw and Smackdown?
• • •
Scott: That’s exactly the sort of thing I’ve been stumping for. The main issue with WWE’s lesser titles over an extended period is there being little contextual understanding of the value of being the champion. There are personal feuds centered around “I’m going to take your title,” but only the top championships are treated equally (mostly) regardless of who wears the gold.
This is symptomatic of the larger issue: Who are these people and why are they here? Fans can give those answers for precious few characters on the show. In micro instances it’s absolutely scuttling a performer’s chance to make an impact (Apollo Crews is Exhibit A). In the macro it calls into question the entire exercise of the show itself. Take Brock Lesnar vs. Randy Orton at SummerSlam. What the hell is the point of that encounter?
When an NXT TakeOver arrives, I generally have a strong rooting interest in each match. The same has been true for some of each recent WWE supercard, but rarely the entire slate. This seems a somewhat easy problem to fix, but maybe WWE is disincentivized from telling stories in a fashion different from the status quo?
That’s the main question I have in the brand split/live Smackdown era: will WWE be able to find a way to give its characters understandable motivations and will the roster division give more stories room to breathe?
• • •
David: Let me start with the second part of that question first. I do think the roster division could give the creative team the opportunity to give more stories room to breathe. The status quo dictates stories from Raw get retold on Smackdown, or stories for Raw get tested on Smackdown. With Smackdown getting its own roster, there should be more stories being told, more superstars involved and, as you said, more room for those stories to breathe.
The first part is a little tougher. As far as I know, nothing has been said about the creative team changing with the brand split. Therefore, it seems reasonable to assume the way they tell stories probably isn’t going to change that much. I don’t see them giving characters better/more understandable motivations. I don’t think we’re going to get anything deeper than “I’ve wanted to wrestle since I was a kid.” Which is a damn shame. Anyone who watched the Cruiserweight Classic “Bracketology” special knows the WWE doesn’t have to work super hard to get us to feel something for the wrestlers involved in its shows. In that-one hour special, I was hooked, and am going to be rooting for some guys I had no investment in prior to that show. I’m not sure why they don’t seem to be able to make that happen for the main roster, but it hasn’t happened recently.
Let’s use this as an opportunity to segue. As I write this, the Cruiserweight Classic is approximately 36 hours away from airing the first episode. On a scale from “A child’s (not yours) birthday party” to “Christmas when you were seven”, how excited for the CWC are you?
• • •
Scott: Not as much as I should be. On account of moving and some work travel, I got behind on Lucha Underground (and some non-wrestling shows as well). Desperate to keep up on that, I’m barely clinging to my regular NXT schedule. I’ve missed a few Raw episodes entirely since Money In The Bank. So I really only saw the first 15 minutes of the CWC special, but that was enough to give me a feel for exactly what you mentioned about how easy it is for WWE to build investment in performers. It’s a lot like how NBC crafts its Olympic coverage in terms of generating audience interest in a given athlete, except for NBC doesn’t know what’s going to happen when they switch over to live event coverage.
All that said, my excitement for the CWC as an enterprise is quite high. I expect my <a href=”http://twitter.com/starofsavage”>Twitter feed</a> to be abuzz with reactions, and while that will make me frustrated if I’m not able to stay up to speed, it’s like my excitement for when any promotion I don’t regularly follow generates buzz. I really like the rising tide that lifts all the boats, and the CWC is just the type of thing we all hoped WWE would use its Network to develop.
But my scale ranges from “couldn’t pay me to watch” up to “will drop everything to see as close to live as possible.” And the CWC, unfortunately, falls somewhere near “aw dammit, that sounds great but I don’t know what I’ll bump to make room for this.”
• • •
David: I don’t think I could be more excited. When we were in college, I was far more interested in WCW’s Cruiserweight division than anything else happening on the rest of Nitro or Raw. When I heard WWE was going to use the Network for something like this, and that it was using the “cruiserweight” signifier, I was definitely interested. Then, as the specifics started to come out, and names of possible competitors started floating around, I was even more intrigued, because it seemed like such an out-of-the box thing for WWE to do. Once names started getting confirmed, I was dumbfounded. A fair number of the competitors are indie guys I’ve watched and I’ve enjoyed, and to see them get this kind of platform to display their talents is a tremendous gift.
As I sit here on Wednesday morning, with the first episode approximately 12 hours away, I feel like a kid on Christmas Eve. I know I just have to get through work, and a few chores around the house, before I get to enjoy the mixture of high-flying and mat-based grappling action that has come to define the things I love about wrestling.
Since you mentioned it, and we’ve never talked about it in this forum, how are you enjoying Lucha Underground?
• • •
Scott: I absolutely love Lucha Underground, which is why it’s killing me to be so far behind. Twitter has been really good about keeping spoilers to a minimum (that and my parenting-addled brain doesn’t have much room for new information to remember), so when I finally do get to dig in I really appreciate each bit. I pay much closer attention to the actual wrestling than I do for most of the WWE I watch, and the fact nearly all the external drama (the talking that advances the stories) happens apart from the live crowd is genius.
What does it say about the state of wrestling that the best widely broadcast stuff, critically, are shows filmed in advanced, like Lucha Underground and NXT? One distinction is NXT’s weekly TV product has been lagging in entertainment and importance even while its live specials have ascended, but still, take those two and the CWC and does it prove weekly wrestling is an art better served with pre-production instead of live events? What does that say about the future of Smackdown? Does it mean WWE really dropped the ball with that show over the past decade? Or does the week-to-week uncertainty of Raw production undermine the entire main roster?
• • •
David: “Does it prove weekly wrestling is an art better served with pre-production instead of live events?” That’s an interesting question, but not one I’m sure I can answer adequately. As I’ve stated more than once, whether it be here, on <a href=”http://twitter.com/dwkii”>Twitter</a>, or on my <a href=”http://podvocacy.com”>podcast</a> (shameless plug), I feel wrestling has a lot in common with musical theatre, and I think a part of that is the energy from a live crowd that feeds the performances. Obviously, the wrestling portions of both Lucha Underground and NXT are taped in front of live audiences, but as a television viewer, I can definitely sense a different energy between a live show like Raw vs. a show that uses editing and recorded segments to enhance the television version of the story being told in front of the crowd.
Is one inherently better than the other? I don’t think so, I think they each have their advantages and disadvantages. I don’t think the problems we’ve seen with Raw or Smackdown have anything to do with the live vs. tape difference. I think it boils down to WWE’s creative vision, or lack thereof, with the main roster. Making Smackdown a live show won’t change that, but the brand split could.
So, since we’ve circled back around to this topic, how would you like to see the rosters shake out when the draft happens on July 19?
• • •
Scott: I’m going to answer your direct question, but first I’m going to unpack both my point and your reaction. WWE has conditioned its crowds, intentionally or otherwise, to react not based on whether an event is live or taped for future airing, but whether stakes are known. When the outcome of a given match is in now way in doubt, the wrestlers have to work much, much harder to get reactions for anything beyond their entrance animations (which, of course, are so completely structured as to be indistinguishable from the video game).
That is to say, when you have no reason to believe the championship being defended on RAW is actually going to change hands, you’re not going to buy the false finishes. I mentioned earlier how NXT weekly TV had fallen off, and that’s because we stopped getting matches of consequence — full on squashes featuring characters in which we’d become invested and literal nobodies. Talking segments were worthwhile because they set up Takeover matches. Lucha Underground works so well because anything can happen on any show any week. The fact you can get online and read what’s about to happen is irrelevant because it’s so easy to wait a week and trust that in that hour you’ve anticipated, something fun will take place to change the narrative.
Smackdown struggled because nothing happened there that needed to be experienced live. On the rare chance there was a major development, WWE broke the news itself Tuesday night. Anything less, but still useful for understanding the next pay-per-view, would be either replayed or fully restaged the following Monday. (Shows like Main Event or actual camera-free live events are different — no one expects to see a title change, and they don’t even get the full TV entrance. The fun there is in the wrestling itself and the chance to see the wrestlers actually be different than what we see on TV. This diversion is worthy of its own full discussion, so I’ll get back to your main point.)
How I’d really like to see the rosters shake out is for Smackdown to simply be full of people who aren’t used properly on Raw. A lot of people have done mock drafts for the two rosters and they start by taking obvious WrestleMania headliners. “Oh, you took Roman Reigns No. 1? I got Sasha Banks.” I’m not naive enough to think WWE has anything else in mind, but I’d draft from the bottom up, looking at guys on the main roster who could — without a complete reboot — most benefit from a fresh start. For the sake of argument, we have to allow this could happen on either show. It’s become pretty clear through our discussion that neither show is going to be so materially different that it’s useful to suggest things like “Smackdown each week has a five-minute Apollo Crews vignette that explains his secret history as an orphaned street urchin who learned to fend for himself by taking on all comers in underground fighting rings,” but I think we should each pick five overlooked individuals from the active roster and consider their story potential from this point forward through the Royal Rumble (since I expect WrestleMania to be a mixed-brand supercard).
In case I’m being overly vague, I’ll go first and take Becky Lynch. We’re going to put her on whatever show doesn’t have Charlotte. She can keep the steampunk gear, the hair, the whole works. But instead of being a directionless good person, she’s going to be positioned against a team of villains who use the numbers game to oppress the Lass Kicker. We’re going to preface each match with a few of those clips featured during her NXT days that explain her road to the WWE, and she’ll lose more than win — but there will be victories enough along the way to prove she’s making progress.
I guess my best historical analogue here is the lengthy, if unofficial, feud Big Boss Man had against the Heenan family. The guy took a terrible beating and all he really wanted to do was win one for truth, justice and the American Way. He never got the Intercontinental Title off Mr. Perfect, but he picked off henchmen here and there, and that raised his profile enough to be a worthy partner whenever Hulk Hogan came calling. I’m not sure who Lynch beats at the Rumble to sort of complete the arc and point toward Orlando, but I fully believe she has the charisma to be a leading hero on Smackdown.
That puts the ball in your court. Pick an underused wrestler and find a way to make them a star over the next six months.
• • •
David: This is an interesting exercise. Let’s go with Baron Corbin. He’s got size and a great look, and I’ve really come around on him since his start at NXT. His main roster run started out hot, getting the win in the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal at WrestleMania, and going into a feud with Dolph Ziggler. Unfortunately, that feud fizzled to an end in the way a lot of WWE feuds do, with too many matches between the same two guys and 50/50 booking that doesn’t build anyone.
I would draft Corbin onto the same show as Rusev, as I currently think Corbin’s got the potential to be a strong US Champion. At Battleground, I would have Corbin interrupt the US Title match between Rusev and Ryder. Corbin attacks Rusev, giving Ryder the win but costing him the title. I would move Rusev out of the program with Ryder, and into another US Title program, while Ryder challenges Corbin out of anger. Ryder puts up a good fight, but loses repeatedly to Corbin. I’d probably have them fight three times with the third match being at SummerSlam (it seems like that’s going to be a mixed brand card), or whatever their major card would be in August.
After that, I’d have Corbin win a couple of one-off matches until September’s major event, where he’s not booked. Corbin interrupts Rusev’s US title match again, and makes a statement with a pretty solid beatdown. Rusev spends the next month, including the October event, trying to stay away from Corbin even to the point of not acknowledging him, even though Corbin uses every opportunity to involve himself with Rusev and Lana. Rusev finally has enough, and accepts a US Championship match against Corbin in November. Corbin wins the title in a dominant, and slightly sadistic (for PG) fashion. Rusev continues to fight, and ends up getting sympathy, becoming a good guy for the first time in his career.
Rusev gets his rematch against Corbin in December, but comes up just short, and afterward moves into a different program. Now the US Champion, Corbin spends January talking about how he’s going to dominate the Royal Rumble, and actually comes pretty close to winning. I’m not sure who eliminates him, but I would have it be someone other than the eventual winner so we have a feud to start after the Rumble.
You’re up. Who ya got for your second pick?
• • •
Scott: Give me Alberto Del Rio. I’m entirely torn on whether I simply want him to return to the character that I loved to hate — a Million Dollar Man for the 21st century — or if I think now is the time to pull the trigger on him as the hero railing against the WWE establishment that’s tried to keep him down. Since we’re almost certainly going to end up with authority figure storylines on either show, I think I’m going to go with the latter, especially if there’s a second “world” title to be had. (I remain convinced no non-Shield member should hold the big gold until at least April).
So put Del Rio on whichever show doesn’t have Reigns, Rollins and Ambrose. Have him start on week one introduced by the show runner as their golden boy, only to turn on Shane/Stephanie with a speech that talks about how the McMahons never really wanted him to succeed. Oh sure, he was champion, but that was only because they needed make their company look good for a Mexican tour, and as soon as they could they stacked the deck so he’d lose. They made him have sidekicks so he’d look weak and took away his job when they knew they couldn’t hold him back in the ring any longer. And even when they brought him back, they only did so to humiliate him with that stupid Mex-America story and to help John Cena score points.
Where does he go from there? I’d actually have him go so far as to threaten to quit, to say he needs to take a week and think about his future with the company, if he even wants to work for a McMahon. Then the next week, he returns in a main event run-in to save whichever good guy is being demolished at the hands of McMahon henchmen. I’m cutting a few corners between July and January, but needless to say he has to jump through several difficult hoops to earn his spot in the Royal Rumble. We’re not going for a Daniel Bryan “B-plus player” story, nor is this a “Vince hates Austin but has to keep him from jumping to WCW” authority story. It’s more about an aging veteran proving he can still go, that the audience hasn’t seen his best and he’ll vow to succeed despite any obstacle.
• • •
David: That’s a good story, and I could see it increasing my interest in Del Rio.
For my next pick, I’m going with the “Man That Gravity Forgot”, Neville. He’s been out for a while with an injury, but he made his return at this week’s Smackdown taping. So far, in his WWE main roster career, I feel like he’s been missing a signature victory, preferably over someone larger than him. Unfortunately, “big” isn’t the only important signifier. If it were, you could throw him in with Big Show or Kane, and call him the new giant killer.
Importance also is important as a character trait to build Neville. In the early portion of his WWE tenure, Rey Mysterio was built up through his 2002 feud with Kurt Angle. He didn’t even need to win that feud to seem important, he just had to put up a good fight against one of the best in the world.
It seems likely that Finn Balor’s NXT career is coming to an end, and he could very likely be drafted to either Raw or Smackdown next week. I would love to see a re-kindling of his feud with Neville, especially if it somehow includes The Club. I have to imagine that Finn’s ascension to the main roster will be made to seem important, so if Neville were to be involved in Balor’s first main roster feud, Neville could be elevated at the same time. I would expect him to be in the Royal Rumble, and have a decent showing without winning, or even being there toward the end.
• • •
Scott: Neville had an up-and-down 2015 for sure, and I can only imagine what he might have done at his first WrestleMania but for an untimely injury. I don’t think he gets that marquee spot at SummerSlam if someone isn’t targeting him for future greatness, but he definitely needs to rebuild. Great pick.
I’m tempted to cheat a bit here and take four guys, because I really want a Vaudevillains-Breezango tag team feud that can be plenty silly outside the ring but deadly serious inside. I’d also settle for legitimate singles runs for both Fandango and the criminally underused Tyler Breeze, whose biggest flaw seems to be being considered a lesser Dolph Ziggler in an environment where actual Dolph Ziggler can’t put it all together.
Instead, though, I think I’m going to bookend my earlier Becky Lynch idea and take Paige to slate her as the big bad of the women’s division. She’s clearly established her credentials such that she doesn’t need to hold a title to be seen as the top of her particular heap, and it’s very easy to draw distinctions between her and Lynch and for Paige’s charisma be the flame that draws moths like an Alicia Fox or Tamina.
I’m still not sure what the long game is for Sasha Banks and Charlotte, but I would love to see either a 15-woman mini Rumble in January or at least an undercard that gives us both a women’s title match and a blowoff to the Paige-Lynch story I’ve concocted, maybe even in a cage match or something that both speaks to the “now I’ll finally get my hands on you” story and also takes the division seriously instead of falling back on some goofy lumberjill stipulation.
In conducting this exercise, I’ve been mentally reaching back to WWF and NWA undercards of the late 1980s. There weren’t a lot of belts to go around (especially in the WWF), but there were plenty of beefs between wrestlers, occasional alignment shifts and (most importantly) scarcity of important interactions. One thing I hope WWE does more of is allow stories to progress without using TV matches to set up monthly special matches. Splitting the brands actually makes that more difficult, but it can and should be done.
I’ve gotten away from the matter at hand. Who’s your next pick?
• • •
David: I’m going to make our first call up. Tye Dillinger has been criminally under-utilized in NXT. He’s primarily been there to make other guys look good, and hasn’t gotten to do much for himself. Even so, the NXT live crowd seems to love him, and he’s really well regarded in the corners of the internet where I spend my time.
Either show would be a fine fit for the Perfect 10, as my idea for him doesn’t really rely on specific opponents. On his first night on the main roster, I would have him debut with the full “Perfect 10” gimmick. He comes in and gets a dominant win over a mid-carder, someone whom he could have a really good match with. Kalisto is the name that’s sticking in my head, as I feel like they had pretty good chemistry against each other when the Lucha Dragons were in NXT and Dillinger was teaming with Jason Jordan.
Dillinger gets that first big win, but goes on a bit of a losing streak through the rest of the summer, until he has lost 10 matches in a row. I want them to be competitive matches, but I still want Dillinger losing. When that 10th loss happens, I want the announce team to be all over him for his “Perfect Ten” record, even going so far as to ignore the first match, which he won. Throughout those 10 weeks, there’s a shift in Dillinger’s attitude. He becomes even more aggressive than he has already been, and actually stops doing the “Perfect Ten” gimmick, although commentary would still mention it. The week after the 10th loss, Dillinger gets a fluke win over another low/mid card competitor. The next week is more of an even match, which he wins. After the win, Dillinger holds up two fingers. This keeps going until he’s won 9 matches in a row, with some of the early victories coming through nefarious means. In match 10, Dillinger is dominated by a high mid-card or main event opponent, maybe someone at Sami Zayn’s or Cesaro’s level. He gets dominated for most of the match, but ends up making a remarkable comeback, and actually makes a conscious choice to not cheat, and wins his 10th match in a row. After 21 weeks, we’re into December. “The Perfect Ten” Tye Dillinger is back, and gets an Intercontinental or US Title shot on the weekly television show, sometime within that month.
Obviously, with this story, I’m taking a risk that the crowd will stop caring about him, but I’d like to think the commentators would do a good enough job of making people realize the losing streak is a story, and a good reason to care about him. Maybe I do need Dillinger to be on Smackdown so Mauro Ranallo can get the story over…
Who’s your next pick?
• • •
Scott: Give me Mr. Jennifer Hudson, David Otunga. As probably is evident from my first several volleys in this exchange, one area I feel WWE is lacking is stables of villains that give good guys who aren’t in title hunts causes to pursue. And Otunga is a perfect fit for the modern-day heir to Bobby Heenan’s “weasel” persona — the insistent, persistent talker, as comfortable backstage as he is slapping the mat at ringside or in the commentary booth, telling the kids at home why their heroes are all flawed and using everything in his power to keep from having to back up his words with action.
Not to say Otunga should simply play Brain 2.0 (he’s in way too good of shape, for one thing), but when used well, Lana and Paul Heyman, and in much smaller samples Paul Ellering and Bob Backlund, have shown perhaps the time is right for a manager’s renaissance. WWE narratives are in desperate need of characters with clear motivations, and Otunga assembling a stable of guys to help him make over his brand in his image would give the writing staff a shot in the arm.
This is fun. In the immortal words of Goldberg, who’s next?
• • •
David: Luke Harper. As most people who have read us before know, I am a big Chikara fan. As such, there are a handful of WWE guys in whom I have a special interest, due to their past association with Chikara. Cesaro, Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens all are doing relatively well, and don’t really need the sort of career rehabilitation we’re talking about here. However, Luke Harper, known in another life as The Big Rig Brodie Lee, has been out with an injury, and the Wyatts have pretty much moved on without him.
I’m sure the plan right now is to integrate Harper into the Wyatt family story when he comes back, but I think the guy is a potential world champion, and I would like to see him strike out on his own. I assume the easiest way to do that would be to have him challenge Bray to see who is the Alpha of the Wyatts, and having him go from there. I honestly could see a properly built solo version of Luke Harper winning the Royal Rumble and competing at WrestleMania 33 for the World Championship.
Who’s your final pick?
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Scott: Damn, son. I love me some Luke Harper, and if we’re not going to get cult hero Bray Wyatt, we might as well get Harper breaking free from the family in an epic arc that propels him to the upper tier. This is kind of where I am with Big E Langston at the moment. That guy should definitely be the face of the company at some point, but I don’t know if I’m ready for New Day to dissolve just yet.
For my last pick… can I draft JBL to be fired into the sun? Or maybe Jerry Lawler to meet the same fate? I do think the commentary teams need a shakeup, and I’d be down for Smackdown standing apart by making backstage pre-match interviews (a la the original “Saturday Night’s Main Event”) a staple, but I probably ought to aim a little higher here.
To that end, I want Kalisto. I know some folks out there straight up hate flippy guys, and maybe you could argue your Neville plan is good enough to suit the brand of fans who enjoy that particular genre. But much like what was mentioned earlier about Crews, I think Kalisto is ripe for a new kind of storytelling, one where we gradually (and dramatically) learn about his mask and luchador history.
It’s easy to just take a small dude and tell the in-ring story of “has to hang with big guys,” but I feel Kalisto can be so much more if given the chance to actually express his reasons for being a pro wrestler, why he chose to pursue WWE success and what it means for him to honor his heritage. I certainly don’t want him to fully echo the Rey Mysterio Rumble performance, but if Kalisto isn’t prominently featured in next year’s multi-man WrestleMania opener, something terrible will have happened.
You have one more idea in there?
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David: We’ve mentioned his name a couple of times in this piece, but I feel like something needs to be done with Apollo Crews. The guy has a great look, is an athletic freak and, if you’ve seen any of his YouTube videos with Ricochet and Akira Tozawa, you know he has charisma. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been given a chance to show that in NXT or on the main roster.
It almost feels like in order to get him anywhere, we need to start from scratch, and he probably could get the Ryback treatment. Crews has the size to handle two undersized local indie wrestlers at once, the way Ryback did, but I’m not sure that’s the best use of his skills.
If I were running WWE, I’d bring in a few of the early exit guys from the Cruiserweight Classic (maybe one of the guys who lost on the show the previous week) to challenge him, and allow him to display his athleticism along with his power. We’d get talking points about how Crews is a hulking, built, monster of a man, who moves like a Cruiserweight, and can hang, athletically, with guys 40-60 pounds lighter than him.
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Scott: Allow me to do two things here. One, pretend this is a verbal conversation I can interrupt at any time. And two, butt in with my idea for Crews. I think he shouldn’t be drafted to either show. Let’s go the distance with this one: keep showing him in the green room and being overlooked, pick after pick, like Aaron Rodgers. The talking heads keep mentioning the things you just did — his great look, freakish ability, natural charisma — and openly wondering why no one is selecting him. The idea is to both build sympathy with the audience while putting a chip on Crews’ shoulder and giving him a chance to use this slight as the motivation his character so desperately needs.
If I were in control, we’d go completely out of the box with Crews, and find a way to relegate him out of the WWE main roster entirely, perhaps utilizing WWE’s burgeoning partnerships with independent promotions to make it appear as if Crews has to literally go back to square one and rebuild his career. That’s probably too far out of the box to work, and I honestly don’t think bouncing him back to NXT would work given the culture developed with that crowd and the still murky relationship between developmental and the main roster. But I’m intrigued with the possibility of a guy who has something to prove. No authority figure hates him, no one is going out of their way to say he’ll never make it. They’ve just overlooked him while they focused on other things, and it falls on the wrestler to get noticed.
There should be ample opportunities for him to get involved — being included in a battle royal, offering to be on a Survivor Series team, trying to get a spot in any upcoming title tournament and so on — and I’m OK with “free agents” appearing on both shows before they sign exclusively with one brand. That’s much different from abandoning newly established convention and using the top guys on both shows just to draw ratings figures.
Does this plan make sense? Do you think Crews is the right choice to be cast in such a role? How would you tweak it to fit the loose rules of modern WWE storytelling?
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David: Actually, I really like that idea. And, while I don’t think sending him back to Evolve would work within the WWE’s structure, I do think they could potentially make sojourns back to NXT work, although, it would be difficult. One factor is that all of NXT between the draft and the next Takeover has already been taped. However, what if Crews shows up on the Raw after the draft begging to talk to Stephanie. He gets shut down by some member of production in a short backstage vignette, and the same thing happens the next night on Smackdown, when Crews tries to talk to Shane. The next week, Crews tries again: the picture of persistence. This time he doesn’t get in, but maybe he’s able to set up an “appointment” with the general managers of each show for the Raw after SummerSlam. Crews meets with both GMs, and they concur he needs to go back to developmental to prove he’s got what it takes.
Crews shows up at the next set of NXT tapings, and he starts rebuilding himself. I’d have Crews wrestle a couple of squash matches on those tapings where he absolutely mauls someone, maybe a Rob Ryzin or Angelo Dawkins type. After the tapings, Crews could show up at Raw and Smackdown with the tape and show it to the GMs to see if it’s what they’re looking for. Maybe this happens a few times over the fall and winter, against progressively more difficult opponents, until they decide he’s earned a shot at the Royal Rumble. Maybe both GMs even give him goals he needs to meet in the Rumble in order for them to consider giving him a contract. By this time, Crews has built up such an attitude, and that chip on his shoulder you were talking about has gotten so large, that early on in the Rumble, he eliminates five or six guys, emptying the ring. After that, Crews grabs a microphone, and does the CM Punk thing from the 2010 Rumble, where he cuts a promo between eliminations of each new entrant. The promo is about how frustrated Crews has been for the last few months, and how neither the GMs nor the McMahons have given him a fair shot, and now he has to jump through hoops to get signed to these shows that don’t even really want him. Crews gets to 11 eliminations, just less than Roman Reigns’ record, and Crews decides he’s not interested in jumping through hoops and eliminates himself, just as the next entrant is getting in the ring. The domination Crews showed could lead to a “bidding war” between Raw and Smackdown for his services.
What do you think?
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Scott: I definitely like your idea of keeping so many degrees of separation between Crews and the McMahons, because it would help the story be about Crews and his struggles and not yet another management oppression plot. I have very specific (and occasionally odd) thoughts about Royal Rumble construction, but I do think when WWE moves people to the main roster the night after WrestleMania, it does so assuming they’ll be relevant enough to generate interest in the ensuing Rumble, and if Crews doesn’t have an impact come January, that definitely seems like a failure on someone’s part.
We’ve done a pretty good job considering the futures of those who might be overlooked. Do you have any big picture thoughts on the established stars? Would you break up the Shield? Does Cena still get to headline a show? Does it matter if part-timers like The Undertaker or Brock Lesnar get drafted? Or should we just spare the fevered speculation and assume WWE will answer these questions succinctly during Tuesday’s Smackdown?
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David: I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what I want them to do with Sami Zayn and
Kevin Owens. The two of them will always have a compelling rivalry, but between NXT and the main roster, they’ve been feuding since December 2014. Granted, Sami was hurt for a big chunk of that time… but still. Maybe Owens and Zayn should be drafted onto separate shows. They can still snipe at each other, in absentia, and maybe have the GMs agree to let them have one final match at SummerSlam. Then, after that, they can go their separate ways until maybe one of the shows makes a trade to put them back together further down the line.
I also would break up The Shield for the time being for a lot of the same reasons as Zayn and Owens. Reigns, Ambrose, and Rollins have been tied together in the WWE for almost 4 years, as friends and as enemies. I think, after the triple threat match at Battleground, it’s time to separate them, and start telling some different stories with them.
As for the rest of the questions you asked, I do think more will be made clear on Tuesday night when the draft happens.
Thanks everyone for reading our long awaited return. Who knows when we’ll be back with another discussion?