Its Monday night ratings keep slipping, and the reasons date back to Wrestlemania in New Orleans.
On Monday night, WWE Raw drew the show’s lowest ratings in its 25-year history—2.47 million viewers, down 11 percent from last week. That drop seems crazy just three months after the wrestling brand presented such a strong card at Wrestlemania in New Orleans. Still, you can look at that show and see where choices made set the company on the slide it has been on since. Here are a few examples and potential ways out.
At Wrestlemania, the wrestling world expected him to win the Universal title from Brock Lesnar. The legion of Roman haters didn’t like the idea, but they were resigned to it. Reigns has been groomed to be the face of the WWE for four years now, and New Orleans was to be the site of his coronation. Then, the WWE had Lesnar win to retain the title, and not just win but make Reigns look bad. Lesnar beat him down, only allowing Reigns a minor comeback. The loss was bad enough that Reigns looked like he could never beat Lesnar, which further fueled hostility to him. It was one thing if the WWE was pushing a credible champion down fans’ throats, but an illegitimate champion? People aren’t buying, and the booking of Reigns has been incomprehensible since.
Monday night on Raw, the opening segment featured Reigns in an empty-the-locker-room brawl with Bobby Lashley before they meet at the Extreme Rules pay-per-view on Sunday, and as they threw punches at each other, I couldn’t figure out why. Two faces are about to fight, and the source of their heat still mystifies me. We’re to believe that each thinks he’s the dominant guy in the locker, but that doesn’t seem like enough to get to Monday night’s rage brawl, and in a locker room that includes Braun Strowman, everybody else is number two or lower based on Strowman’s popularity and crazy physical ability.
One way forward has long been to turn Reigns heel. The WWE has teased it on occasions, and he’s been heel-like in this program with Lashley, but the WWE has never followed through. One of the most time-honored way to get a wrestler over is to present him or her as a heel, let him or her get heat by doing extreme things, and those things lead to anti-hero status, then eventually love. The two biggest stars right now on Raw—Seth Rollins and Braun Strowman—have both benefited from heel time en route to being a beloved face.
If they’re not going to turn Reigns, they need to get him off the title hunt and bail on the project for now. After Reigns lost to Lesnar again at the Greatest Royal Rumble, the possibility that he’ll beat Lesnar in a way that fans will accept is gone. His current shtick that he got screwed at that match because his feet actually were the last to touch the ground outside the cage makes him sound like a whiner and no one’s buying, in part because Reigns isn’t convincing as a whiner. It’s time to get him on to something else entirely and maybe in the future when the character’s damage has been repaired, he can try to take the title from someone else.
Everybody thought Lesnar would lose at Wrestlemania because his contract was ending, and the rumor was that he planned to return to UFC for one last run. After he won, Lesnar was signed to a new, short-term contract, one that clearly only locks him in for a limited number of matches. It is rumored that the next match will end that contract, and the fact that he hasn’t wrestled since the Greatest Royal Rumble in late April and isn’t on the card at Extreme Rules fuels that thought.
Because he is largely out of action, so is the Universal title belt. At the moment, Raw has no championship belt for its superstars to pursue, so it has to resort to hokey playground rivalries like Reigns and Lashley’s to give its big guys something to do.
The answer is to get the belt off of Lesnar ASAP. It will be a shame because that will mean no more Paul Heyman, one of the best guys on the mic in the company, but the disappearing belt has left the characters to pursue fabricated, meaningless goals. Bobby Lashley is clearly in the WWE to be a big body in the championship scene, but he has instead been part of a silly program with Sami Zayn and an irrational one with Reigns. Since Lesnar’s absences and appearances haven’t affected Raw’s ratings, there’s no business or storyline reason to leave the belt on him.
Last year, Braun Strowman was the company’s biggest star on the strength of his strength. He lifted limos, wrecked ambulances, shook a TV production truck, and pulled down a lighting rig, all of which was kind of awesome. He defeated the entire Raw tag team division to enter to into Wrestlemania, where he won the tag team belts from Sheamus and Cesaro with a kid he picked out of the audience as his partner.
Unfortunately, all of Strowman’s amazing feats has made him hard to book, as this year has shown. If he can beat eight men, then no individual with the possible exception of Lesnar and a couple of others could logically compete with him. He now poses a problem that the company made for itself: How do you credibly and entertainingly book a guy who can beat everybody at the same time? It’s a problem the WWE made worse by having him win the men’s Money in the Bank match, giving him the ability to get a championship match any time he wants one—usually just after someone is exhausted after winning a hard-fought championship match, if history is a guide. Since any title picture that doesn’t involve Strowman is illegitimate in the first place, giving him the briefcase seemed unnecessary, and having him win the Universal championship makes little sense because there’s no one on the roster who could credibly take the belt from him. Once he wins the belt, it will take an injury or a gimmicky move to get it off of him.
At Extreme Rules, the fall-out of all of that is that he’ll face Kevin Owens in a steel cage match. It’s another rivalry that makes little sense because it’s largely driven by Strowman’s bullying actions and Owens’ fear of him. At least the cage will make sense as a stipulation since it will force Owens to stay in the match and fight—to the extent that any WWE cage can contain anybody.
All of this has cooled some of Strowman’s heat, and more “comedy” rivalries and fan partner stunts will kill him by making him too cuddly. He needs to be more of a monster. How and with whom is a hard question because the WWE has booked itself into a corner with him from which there’s no clear way out.
Ronda Rousey and Nia Jax
UFC star Ronda Rousey gave Wrestlemania one of its high points as she easily exceeded expectations when she tag-teamed with Kurt Angle against Stephanie McMahon and Triple H. She looked like a star in the making, though that was in part because she was in the ring with workers who could set her up to shine. After that match, Nia Jax finally defeated mean girl Alexa Bliss to become the Raw Women’s Champion. The match itself wasn’t special, but Jax earned a supportive pop as her win paid off the months of body shaming by Bliss.
The problems that emerged in both cases were what to do next. What happens when the very big, very powerful woman holds the belt? How does Jax maintain the face status that she earned by being victimized? What does Jax the face look like? In the case of Rousey, the performance at Wrestlemania combined with fans’ interest and the hefty salary she’s paid created an urgency to accelerate her storyline. Rousey would have done well to start a feud with a long-time women’s division wrestler who is a good worker and resentful of Rousey getting the push that other women didn’t. That would give her a chance to develop her promo chops and her in-ring confidence before she found herself in the title picture. Instead, she faced Nia Jax at Money in the Bank.
That feud was catastrophic for Jax as she suddenly, inexplicably, turned heel and bullied Rousey for being the new girl. The match itself was fine with Rousey selling like crazy, and it ended with a reset of sorts as Alexa Bliss cashed in the Money in the Bank briefcase she won earlier in the night and defeated the battered Jax before Rousey could. When it was over, the belt was back where it was before Wrestlemania and Jax went back to being the poor dear victimized and abused by Bliss as if the month or so before it never happened.
At this point, Rousey and Jax need out of the title belt picture. Rousey needs to spend this year building her mic skills in less consequential circumstances, and Jax needs to feud with the Riott Squad, whose ability to two-on-one Jax can keep her in the underdog position. It would also do more for the Riott Squad than their current gimmick of painting backstage graffiti.
The Tag Team Division
When Strowman and the boy beat Cesaro and Sheamus at Wrestlemania, they made a joke of the tag team division, and the WWE has made little effort to rejuvenate it. Current champions Matt Hardy and Bray Wyatt—The Deleter of Worlds—are engaged in a program with The B Team, whose gimmick is that they’re jobbers, but they’re not very bright jobbers and don’t realize that the joke’s on them. Cesaro and Sheamus can’t get television time anymore, and I’m not sure there are any meaningful alternatives backstage. Heath Slater and Rhyno are a step sideways.
It’s a shame that the WWE has let this part of the Raw roster wither as it has. Famously, Vince McMahon doesn’t think people really like tag team wrestling, but good tag team matches have the kinetic energy of cruiserweight matches with the drama of big boys fighting it out. Those matches are are a great change of pace from the pounding style of Strowman, Reigns, Lashley, Lesnar, Baron Corbin (I can’t call him “Constable”—a title that’s too meaningless to embrace) and Elias.
This problem needs multiple solutions because there simply isn’t enough talent in division to get one good program together, much less a year of matches involving teams that might be title-worthy. An NXT call-up would help, as would the reformation of American Alpha when Jason Jordan returns from his injury. His heel turn storyline ship has sailed, and Chad Gable is a worthy talent in need of a gig. I’d also like to see Finn Balor find a tag team partner. Right now, he’s on the periphery of storylines but not crucial to any of them, and it was a sign of value Monday night when he was sent out with the job squad to try to keep Reigns and Lashley apart. A good tag team run could build his value until changes in the singles division create a space for him to return to it.
One non-Raw Wrestlemania result of note was Charlotte Flair’s defeat of Asuka. Their match told the best story of Wrestlemania, and while many complain that ending Asuka’s streak so that she could feud with Carmella and James Ellsworth was a waste, the bigger waste is what has happened to Flair since. She beat one of the best, then lost her Smackdown Women’s title after Carmella cashed in her Money in the Bank briefcase. That helped build heat for Carmella, but the speed with which Flair was returned to the middle of the pack was depressing, made worse by the fact that none of her opponents are capable of having great matches with her yet. The Iconics are great on the mic, but Flair looks like a run of the mill wrestler against them and Carmella. Bottom line: She’s not doing anything of note or looking like a wrestler of note, and that’s really sad.
One non-Wrestlemania Raw problem is Sasha Banks and Bayley, the only feud in WWE history that can’t get to a ring. Every other minor backstage squabble ends up on a pay-per-view right now, but instead of putting two women with a history of good matches dating back to NXT in a ring to battle it out, the WWE has sentenced the two to spend two weeks of TV time in uninteresting, unfunny therapy sessions. Like the Reigns/Lashley feud, it has never been clear why they started spatting in the first place, and the frittering away of such talent so pointlessly is really hurting the product.
The bottom line right now is that too many superstars are involved in unmotivated or barely motivated battles with minimal stakes. The show often feels more like a 12-year-old throwing his toys around in his room than a show trying to get viewers emotionally invested in a series of conflicts. A lot could be learned from another match that took place in New Orleans during Wrestlemania weekend: Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Ciampa at NXT Takeover: New Orleans. Gargano and Ciampa had already spent a year developing the drama, the roles, the motivations, and the stakes. The story they told in the Smoothie King Center was so well done that even most wise guy fans who live to be oppositional couldn’t help but get behind Gargano and boo Ciampa. Every Gargano/Ciampa match so far has been riveting and emotional, but not because they are more talented than performers on the main roster. They’re very good, but many on Raw could carry a long program if they were given a chance.
The WWE is not likely to go to that kind of protracted storytelling, but it can take a tip and pay attention to a single, simple question that it seems to have lost sight of in the last quarter: Why are these people fighting?