This piece primarily focuses on the women’s side of developmental, but in many ways can be applied to the male side as well, and WWE’s approach to the developmental process which was brought into focus with the debut of Dana Brooke last night and the age old debate about indy talent vs. in-house, the look, and other concerns when trying to create stars.Developmental:
Until this week, with Becky Lynch having been the last signing from the independent wrestling scene back in 2013, some concern developed among fans that WWE was going to be moving away from signing indy females. Obviously that has dissipated to a degree with the recent signings of Jessie McKay, KC Cassidy, and Jasmin Areebi, three women with varying degrees of independent experience. McKay in particular is the most experienced and successful female wrestler WWE has ever signed, and Cassidy comes in further along in her development than Paige, Emma, Sasha Banks or even arguably Bayley when they entered WWE developmental, so the rumors of the demise of indy signings had been greatly exaggerated.
Even still, there’s often a large degree of hand-wringing about WWE’s penchant for signing people like Alexa Bliss, Carmella, Dana Brooke and other women that are models or any other non-wrestler profession before entering the performance center. Even amongst the Full Sail fanbase, they have been hard on Dana Brooke and Carmella quickly into their developmental tenure (particularly with Brooke as we saw last night). In a recent piece, Brandon Stroud went as far as to indicate that this was the direction for WWE’s women’s division, and the NXT Four are merely an exception to the rule. This is simply not the case. It’s akin to saying that because WWE also has guys like Baron Corbin and Mojo Rawley, that Finn Balor, Hideo Itami, Kevin Owens, Adrian Neville, and Sami Zayn are the exceptions to the rule of what WWE is looking for in its men’s division. What it actually means is that they’re looking for talent with diverse backgrounds to find the best performers, regardless of what they did before coming to WWE.
Anyone familiar with me on the site knows that I love independent women’s wrestling, and am a regular viewer of SHIMMER and SHINE, but even I have begun to feel as though the sentiment toward signing independent females, regardless of their bonafides and fit within WWE had been pushed a bit too far, no more than in the case of Leva "Blue Pants" Bates. I like Bates, she’s fun, she’s likable, but at the same time, she’s 31 years old and has been wrestling for almost 10 years, and is still a low-card wrestler for SHIMMER, years into her tenure there, without any signs of moving up the card. I can totally understand why the sentiment with Bates has been so strong. I shared it myself as of early this year, because at the time it had been a year and a half since WWE had signed anyone from the indies, so any taste of independent wrestling sounded enticing, but now with WWE once again dipping into the independent well, and signing prospects with a lot more upside, there’s no need to desperately hope that they sign literally anyone from the indies any longer. Instead the hope should be for them to sign the right people.
And that’s really the key right there. This isn’t the John "Big Johnny" Lauranitis era any more. Triple H, as well as William Regal and the rest of his scouting network, is actually going out and looking for talent, not flipping the pages of a Hawaiian Tropic catalogue to sign his next crop of women’s wrestlers. The problem isn’t signing raw talent like Bliss and Brooke, the problem is only signing people like that. People like Bliss and Brooke and Carmella are what a good developmental system, which WWE aims to have, is for: Taking coal and turning it into diamonds. That doesn’t mean they’re all going to be diamonds, in fact, statistically most won’t, but the value of finding that one diamond is so massive that you need to look for it.
And beyond that, there isn’t an unlimited supply of Paiges and Becky Lynches and Sasha Bankses to be found on the indies with huge superstar potential for WWE as shown by basically half of SHIMMER’s roster being Joshi at this point. That’s why bringing in the Brookes and the Carmelas and the Blisses of the world makes sense. To my mind, there are a mere handful of unsigned women that are young enough to be around for years and have superstar potential in WWE, and most of those names have tried out or are rumored to be getting tryouts (and honestly, that problem is even starker with the male side, as WWE has been consistently signing the best men for years in a way they're just starting to with the women). Because of that, WWE needs to also start trying to develop in-house substantially more than they have been doing lately."The Look":
And when it comes to people like Bliss and Brooke, the discussion returns to "the look." Focusing on looks is seen in some way as problematic, but the reality is that women having a "WWE look" is important. Is that unfairly sexist? Well, maybe, but look at the man that just challenged for the WWE championship at Mania. Even though he’s come along as a wrestler, it’s pretty clear that the biggest reason he’s being pushed as the new face of the company is because he’s got an 11/10 look. The reality is that the look matters for men just as much as it does for women. People like looking at attractive people on television or in film. That’s why movies stars look like… well, movie stars.
It’s not to say that every woman WWE signs should have a particular look, as sometimes people in wrestling with a lesser look have done well for themselves, such as Daniel Bryan. If someone has a different look or body type, but is awesome at every other aspect of wrestling, WWE should give them a shot, male or female. They don’t tend to go after female Daniel Bryans or CM Punks or Kevin Owens’ who don’t have the typical WWE look, but are awesome regardless and that is an area where WWE has definitely fallen down, without question. What I’m merely saying here is that it is reasonable that it’s a substantial factor to consider in talent evaluations, because the upside for someone with a great look that is also talented is so high. If The Rock didn’t look like The Rock, it’s much less likely that he would have been as successful as he became. And the same is true from the other side with Trish Stratus. It’s not the be all, end all, which is why Trish is a legend and Torrie Wilson and Stacy Keibler have faded from memory, but it raises the ceiling. And, like being seven feet tall, it is something that truly can’t be taught.
The John Lauranitis Era is a perfect showcase of the way focusing on the look can work, and he couldn’t tell his ass from a hole in the wall when it came to signing talent, especially female talent. Even with his incompetence in the job, his tenure still produced one huge hit in the form of Eve Torres, who is beautiful, but also turned out to be excellent as a character and even developed well as a wrestler, sadly right before she left.
Imagine if the guy hiring these model types was actually good at their job, like Triple H and Co are? Not only would McKay have been signed back when she was 20 or 21 and already putting out great matches in SHIMMER, but there would also probably have been a higher success rate on the model and dancer types that got signed, due to more competent people like Regal screening them. That’s what the Triple H as head of talent acquisitions era should provide. Developmental will weed out those that are looks without talent behind those looks, but will also be able to find the next Trish Stratus or Eve Torres that solely signing women with independent backgrounds would have missed. I’m certainly not saying Dana Brooke should be held to that level of esteem, but merely that you can’t find the Trishes or Eves of the world if you don’t look for them.Training:
Another reason that signing people with a great look has value is that training staff for the women at developmental is very strong. In addition to Del Rey at the top, women coming out of developmental have sworn by the work of Norman Smiley, Robbie Brookside and Billy Gunn. With that type of training staff, they are better able to find and cultivate the diamonds in the rough from the crop of model and dancer types that they sign. The look is something that is a heck of a lot harder to train someone to have. Alexa Bliss isn’t great yet, but there are areas where you can see clear and noticeable development already, and obviously Charlotte’s development was explosive.
The in-ring wrestling is one of the most trainable elements for a prospect. It’s probably not going to turn someone incredibly green into Daniel Bryan, but for the most part, you don’t need to be at that level in the ring to be a superstar, and most of the biggest stars of all time weren’t at that level, aside from Flair and Austin, and in both their cases, that was far from the primary factor for why they were megastars. Even Daniel Bryan himself largely became a monster because of his storyline with AJ, or his tag team with Kane, or the feud with The Shield, or his feud with Triple H more than his ability to know 1,004 holds. Dana Brooke certainly needs to be a hell of a lot better than she showed last night, but she doesn't need to be Daniel Bryan, and really it seems like the biggest success story from NXT might end up being Enzo and Cass, who certainly aren't the best workers in the world.Characterization:
While most of this piece could be applied to both male and female, this one is really a more female centric concern. This is really the biggest area where WWE is falling down when it comes to the women more than anything else, and fixing this would probably eliminate many of the qualms about the type of people they sign, even with keeping an emphasis on signing people with the right look. Females in WWE are pigeonholed into very few character beats to play in the modern era. You pretty much only have the option to be a high school mean girl, to be crazy, or to be overly sexualized. Those are not the most flexible roles for women to have the opportunity to pursue, and that’s a shame. NXT is much better about this than the main roster, but they’re still not perfect. The work is getting to be exactly where it should be, with the Four Way at Takeover not being quite as good as Brock v. Seth v. Cena or Lesnar v. Reigns, but still an excellent, legitimate four star plus match without any nonsensical "divas curve," but the characters could still use more depth on the whole. But even here, signing people like the Brooke’s and Bliss’s of the world doesn’t prevent WWE from giving depth to female characters.
In my humble opinion, Ring of Honor’s Maria Kanellis is the best female character anywhere in professional wrestling. A woman full of charm, cunning, depth, nuance, and yes, even sexuality. Maria’s character is a devious Lady Macbeth like power broker that initially fancied herself "a gold digger, but after the right kind of gold… championship gold" and attached herself to "The Prodigy" Mike Bennett, the guy with a great look and all the potential in the world… but unfortunately for her, the reality is that Mike Bennett is a bit of a dork, and none of that potential was realized. So she was forced by her husband’s incompetence to use her mind and her feminine wiles to take control of his career and push him to a level beyond what his talent was capable of, by forging alliances to help him get ahead and keeping Bennett’s opponents distracted. She is the unquestioned Queen of her Kingdom, the stable in Ring of Honor featuring arguably its biggest star, and they treat her with the kind of reverence that status should warrant. Instead of having Jerry Lawler talking about the puppies, Steve Corino and Kevin Kelly sell her character’s brilliance and deviousness, and treat her as an important figure in the company, as she is.
Now, the reason I go into such depth about Maria is not only because I love her character, but because people reading this might find the name Maria Kanellis somewhat familiar. Wasn’t that the ditzy backstage interviewer in WWE that was a model they signed during the Diva Search and they couldn’t do anything interesting with ever? Yes, in fact it was. But what the indies allowed her to do, as they allow many male wrestlers to do before they come to WWE is to find a character to play that works for them. Was some of that development her own personal growth as a person since she left? Certainly, but the fact is that she’s become a better promo than 90% of WWE’s roster, male or female, since going to Ring of Honor reflects that there had to be SOMETHING there, but WWE didn’t see fit to find it. WWE would be well-served to help the women its developmental system find their own characters, rather than arbitrarily tossing them into one of three boxes, and maybe they can find the Maria amongst a sea of models.
Don't take this piece as a defense of Dana Brooke herself, because that's not how it's meant. I certainly wasn't incredibly impressed with her performance last night either. What I am defending is the idea of Dana Brooke. The type of person that Dana Brooke signifies, a raw prospect that developmental is designed to chisel into a masterpiece. Dana Brooke almost certainly won't be that masterpiece... but someone will, and we need to have enough patience with people in developmental to allow WWE to find her (or him), because I imagine Trish Stratus would have received the exact same reception Dana Brooke did last night if she debuted in 2015.
Put simply, WWE should be looking for talent, whether male or female, anywhere talent can be found. Whether they’re former athletes, models, or independent wrestlers, WWE needs to just find people with potential and attempt to develop them into stars, which can be done no matter where you came from. Sometimes it’s someone that has been in a wrestling ring since they were a fetus, like Paige, and sometimes it’s someone that was a fitness model with no wrestling experience, like Trish Stratus, and neither is an inherently wrong path even if the latter is probably going to take a bit more time.