A few things were apparent watching Dynamite and SmackDown last Friday (June 4).
One, Roman Reigns’ story is the most compelling tale in professional wrestling. Two, there’s a rawness—pardon the pun—to Dynamite that sets AEW apart from WWE in the best way. And lastly, Raw’s men’s division is anemic when it comes to dope good guys to root for.
Dope is the operative word because while plenty of cats smile for the camera and rock out with the digital crowd, not many of them do anything genuinely worth cheering. Worst of all? They’re duller than a drawer full of butter knives.
Heroes are who they are because they defeat the bad guys. The better the villain, the bigger the hero, the louder we cheer. That’s the way this whole thing works. Raw’s current top male heels are Sheamus, Miz, John Morrison, A.J. Styles, Omos, and possibly WWE Champion Bobby Lashley.
Styles and Omos are running roughshod on Raw’s tag teams, Miz and Morrison are a comedy act, and Lashley has the unmitigated gall to come to the ring with beautiful women by his side. What a jerk. There are high school bullies more nefarious than these guys, even during the age of distance learning.
Their lack of true villainy makes it harder for any face to shine or stand out because the stakes are nonexistent. WWE tells us to cheer for Drew over Bobby because…Drew deserves another shot after Lashley’s consecutive wins over McIntyre. Not to mention those Ws came pretty cleanly without the bad guy doing things bad guys typically do to score a pin.
So McIntyre whined his way into yet another title shot, told Kofi Kingston that family is a setback, and helped The Almighty lose against Kingston. Why am I cheering for this guy again?
SmackDown and Dynamite give clear reasons to root for the good guys. Darby Allin, Jungle Boy, Orange Cassidy, Cesaro, Big E, Eddie Kingston, and Inner Circle, just to name a few, are easy to get behind. Cassidy was this close to winning the AEW World Heavyweight Championship at Double or Nothing. Unfortunately for him, Kenny Omega’s chicanery ruled the day, but Orange now has a righteous cause.
Jungle Boy is a pure soul and an outstanding wrestler with an entrance theme that gets the crowd into a frenzy. People want to see him succeed, even against beloved veterans like Christian Cage.
MJF is one of the best bad guys in the game because of his habitual line stepping. Whether it’s kidnapping Dean Malenko or throwing Chris Jericho off of a cage for chuckles, his actions go beyond “just wrestling.” So when the Inner Circle, fresh off a big win at Double or Nothing, say in their best Braun Strowman voices that they’re not finished with The Pinnacle, yeah, we get it. That the Inner Circle is a babyface group with an edge helps matters as well.
The group isn’t just happy to be here or playing checkers while their opponents play chess; they’re still the same cats who wanted to destroy The Elite a year ago. Their beef with MJF’s boys may be simple, but the Inner Circle’s members remain complex humans. Shockingly, the complex human beings in the crowd can relate.
Raw tends to dumb down its babyfaces. Outside of The New Day and Riddle, explaining who these guys are isn’t exactly straightforward. They’re reduced to catchphrases or cannon fodder while never truly establishing anything besides generic platitudes. Damian Priest stepped into Monday nights back in February, and as of now, his friendship with Bad Bunny and nonsensical moniker are the two things that define him.
Yes, Priest is a product of NXT, where he established his character, but as WWE’s latest cuts remind us, wrestlers have to re-establish themselves once they get to WWE’s version of the big leagues. All these cats can produce bangers each and every Monday night, but fans stop caring when the character work is lax or nonexistent. It’s a microcosm of an issue my boy Sean talked about a couple days ago: WWE’s opening scenes are consistently fantastic. But their second and third acts? Not so much.
Jey Uso, Roman’s right-hand man, is knocking on the door of an enormous babyface turn. Why? Because we want him to beat the ever-loving hell out of his self-centered cousin. As a result of this Reigns family drama, we know more about Jey Uso than we did when he was just a member of one of the greatest tag teams in WWE history.
He’s loyal, conflicted, humorous, and vicious. He puts family ahead of everything, including his own desires. Jey is a selfless dude who fights hard and loves harder, currently torn between his brother and his powerful cousin. The second he kicks the Tribal Chief’s teeth down his throat, fans will lose their minds.
That is how you build character through story and, more importantly, how you create compelling good guys to clap for.
Raw, which shares the same building with SmackDown, somehow missed that memo.