Professsional wrestling historically relied on good guys and bad guys. The WWE has de-emphasized that for good and ill.
Monday Night Raw in New Orleans’ Smoothie King Center last week made it clear that the WWE is not in the wrestling business. There was a lot of wrestling in the three-hour show, but it was also really talky, with a segment that introduced children battling cancer as part of the WWE’s Connor’s Cure initiative. Legends Triple H and Mick Foley cut promos, and after Kevin Owens destroyed Tyler Breeze with an ugly power bomb on the ring apron, he spent time in the ring explaining himself. But promos aside, Raw rarely gave fans the clear, elemental good guy/bad guy struggle that professional wrestling is historically built on. The matches were certainly booked with that structure in mind, and it was certainly essential to Sunday's Hell in a Cell pay-per-view, where Randy Orton and Brock Lesnar showed themselves to be particularly sadistic and monstrous. But because every wrestler in the WWE is treated as a star first—a superstar, in the company’s official designation—they’re rarely received as heels. Not at first, anyway. The way the audience responds says that the WWE’s product is the WWE.
Dolph Ziggler is one of the few true heels in the WWE. He doesn’t veer into the anti-hero lane; he plays a prick. He’s cartoonishly arrogant, and the arrogance is even more grating because it seems slightly undeserved. He has been a mid-card guy for most of the last few years, but now that he’s back in the WWE with the bigger, more powerful Drew McIntire, he has the muscle to back up his mouth. Last year, he went through a dreadful, deadening series of appearances ripping on popular wrestlers that he considered more flash than talent based on their introductions, but when he was introduced twice on Monday night—once for the opening segment and once for his match—the crowd popped for him like it loved him. And the crowd did the same for everybody who came out. Fans would eventually turn on some of them—Elias, when he brought up the Saints’ loss; Alexa Bliss, when she tried to crack Ronda Rousey’s ribs—but the first reaction to everybody was love.
For wrestling purists, smarts, and long-time fans, this is an issue. Heels should get heat and faces should get love. Those clear divisions give matches and feuds emotional power, as illustrated by the feud in NXT between Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa. Their match at NXT: Takeover New Orleans was the highlight of this year’s Wrestlemania weekend because of the strength of the commitment they and the bookers had for their rivalry. That night, all but the most ironic fans lined up behind Gargano, and fans that can easily get caught up in their own MST3K banter were locked into the match.
The next best match was Charlotte Flair’s battle with Asuka at Wrestlemania. It was the rare face vs. face match that seemed to suggest that the face/heel delineation wasn’t crucial, but it came with stakes that gave the match gravity. Could Flair end Asuka’s undefeated streak? It helped that Flair sold a leg injury for much of the match, which made her win all the more dramatic. After that, the best match at Wrestlemania featured Ronda Rousey and Kurt Angle against Stephanie McMahon and Triple H, and it was more in line with the value structure that underlies most WWE matches these days. The name of the game was star power in that match, and everybody watched it at a meta level, seeing the match as both in-ring drama and an exhibition of stars. As important as who won and who lost was how Rousey, Angle, McMahon, and Triple H performed, and that they looked good doing things.
The assumption seems to be that what people want to see is WWE Superstars in action—full stop. In a context where good and bad are diminished quantities, audience response more than boos and cheers becomes the barometer of success or failure. As Elias said last week in an interview, “When I start to talk about the city or the opponent, people can react however they feel in their heart to react.” That explains why, despite a few years of critics wondering why the WWE kept trying to get Roman Reigns over as a face when so many fans booed him. Love or hate Reigns, people make noise when he’s in the ring. The haters, incidentally, were not in New Orleans for Raw, where Reigns was largely cheered when he was announced. Sixty to 70 percent also cheered when he gave Braun Strowman a Samoan Drop through the floor of the stage, but the main thing was people made noise.
Prioritizing the pop shifts the emphasis to the thing the WWE does better than any of its competitors. Its production values are unequaled, so it makes everything look big, powerful, and meaningful. Raw in the Smoothie King Center was a more intimate experience than it appears on television, but the WWE can make everything seem epic and urgent. If nothing else, an experienced TV production team can cover for many of the wrestlers’ flaws. Ronda Rousey’s clotheslines were really weak Monday, but the camera angles made the action appear to be high impact and reinforced the idea that Rousey is “the baddest woman on the planet.”
Prioritizing the pop also means that all the Superstars are at some level beloved, which means that heels can go to children’s hospitals and meet with sick kids, or do autograph signings and get as much love as faces. During this year’s WWE Experience before Wrestlemania, people ran like someone was giving away free twenties to get in line when heel Samoa Joe sat at a table to sign autographs. Prioritizing popularity and notoriety also leaves the door open to Superstars become bigger stars outside of professional wrestling. It’s safe to say that nobody saw John Cena as a potential film star when he debuted in the WWE, nor did people anticipate big things from Rocky Maivia before he became The Rock and eventually Dwayne Johnson.
The choice to make everybody at least a little bit popular is clearly deliberate. The WWE runs NXT, so it could build pure heel/face programs like Gargano/Ciampa if it wanted to. And there’s something to be said for training a crowd to pop for everybody, even if only for the entrance. It does trade the depth of experience for a broadly positive one, but the fans all start connected to the match and often stayed that way. I was pleasantly surprised by how engaged the audience was during Nikki Bella’s match with Ruby Riott since I thought the Bellas were old news. Still, no match was constructed in a way to really suck fans in. The B Team fought valiantly against Ziggler and McIntire, but the results were never in doubt. The B Team’s name signaled that their tenure holding the Raw Tag Team title belts was always going to be transitional, and Ziggler and McIntire were never going to lose their titles just days before Sunday night's Hell in a Cell pay-per-view.
As a fan, the focus on the excitement in the moment can be maddening. Characters can shift from face to heel out of nowhere--see Braun Strowman's recent, inexplicable heel turn, Nia Jax's 360 turn earlier this year, first heel to face Ronda Rousey, then back to face against Alexa Bliss--which often makes feuds seem abitrary.
Thinking about the moment first and almost solely means that details that would give stories heft are omitted, hastily sketched, or announced and discarded depending on their impact. Monday night, Kevin Owens delivered a great promo blaming Bobby Lashley for Owens’ personal misery because Lashley injured his pal Sami Zayn. Owens’ commitment can give even the shakiest ideas emotional heft, and this was close since he hasn’t mentioned Zayn’s injury for months, nor has he gone after Lashley before last week.
Blaming Lashley on Monday got a big audience reaction, but it’s easy to imagine how much more life this storyline could have if it had been built deliberately. And, it’s equally easy to imagine a good, prolonged feud between the smart, crazy Owens and the absurdly powerful Lashley, one where they each have ups and downs depending on stipulations and changes in the storyline. That could turn into something special and carry real emotional weight. But if the WWE stays true to form, it will cross its fingers and hope for the latter while covering its bets and doing what it can to make sure it gets reliable, regular pops now with everybody on the roster.