Thanksgiving is upon us so in between legs of turkey and scoops of yams, it’s time to reflect on all the things we’re thankful for. As WWE fans we are…let’s be real, a complaining bunch. Nevertheless there are some things that I think are worth tipping our cap to and saying thanks for. Here are five I’m thinking of…
Has it been a flawless transition to this new era in WWE? No. There are a lot of things to complain about, in fact, but that wouldn’t really be in keeping with the holiday. Let’s focus on the positives. The brand-split has afforded greater opportunities for superstars who might otherwise have been lost in the shuffle or even not used at all. Would we have seen the rise of Slater & Rhyno without the brand-split? It’s likely we wouldn’t have seen Rhyno at all. The wondrous joy of Breezango would probably not have happened either. Both guys were this close from termination before they found a second chance to shine as the backstage maestros of the current era.
Also SmackDown finally has a purpose again, after years being “lesser Raw.” And, at least so far, the blue brand is holding on to its money-makers, unlike the regular raids that depleted the roster during the first brand-split era. Going live and being on USA have likewise been boosts to the show. For the first time it feels close to being on equal footing with the flagship show.
Finally having multiple brands means multiple PPV events, which means more opportunities for big matches, title matches, commercial free matches, etc. Since it’s been the case for the past dozen years that the PPVs are the only consistently can’t-miss WWE thing to watch anyway, the brand-split has been a big reason why there’s more “must see WWE TV” lately than we’ve had in years.
You may have your own specific wrestler you’re thankful for this year, but I bet if we took a poll, the top choice among WWE superstars would be the Phenomenal One. His still-young WWE career has not gone the way most would have guessed…and that’s a good thing. Most thought Styles would debut with fair hype and, after an initial push, slip down to the upper-midcard, similar to the position of, say, Finn Balor. His WrestleMania 32 loss to Chris Jericho feels like a lifetime ago. Since then he’s main-evented two-thirds of every PPV he’s appeared on, won multiple championships—including two WWE titles—and oh yeah he beat (up) John Cena on more than one occasion. He’s closing in on his two-year anniversary and already his WWE career has been, pardon the pun, phenomenal.
But take away all the achievements and championships; those are kayfabe accolades for a scripted-sport. At the end of the day a wrestler has to do one thing and it’s not win titles. WWE is a glorified TV show. It’s a traveling circus, live-event spectacle, but ultimately it’s a TV show and the one thing you need your TV characters to do is entertain.
I’m thankful for AJ Styles because in the ring he is, easily, the most entertaining guy on the WWE roster. He’s not the funniest backstage. He’s not the slickest on the mic. But when the bell rings, whether it’s a ten minute SmackDown match or a half-hour PPV contest, when it’s time to throw hands nobody does it better than AJ Styles.
It should go without saying, but I already said it anyway: War Games is either the greatest match-concept ever conceived, or it’s tied with the Royal Rumble. Those two matches are really apples and oranges though. The Rumble is great—when done right—for wall-to-wall entertainment, with a nice ebb and flow of casual watching/laughing and edge of your seat excitement. The Rumble, though, is all about the beginning of something. It’s a long match to decide who will start a journey to WrestleMania. War Games is all about endings. It’s the blow off. It’s two teams full of people over here who hate the people over there and who have so much hatred it can’t be contained in a single ring.
There’s hardly a moment to exhale when you’re watching a (good) War Games match. It builds and builds, from one on one, to handicap, to tag match, to handicap tag, to all out team vs team melee insanity. When done right it’s like the most radical real life Super Smash Bros match ever.
After far too long out of the spotlight, WWE is finally bringing the match that never should have gone away back to the spotlight. And even though I could complain that it’s not quite the War Games of old, with three smaller teams instead of two big ones, and it’s only on NXT instead of featuring main-roster superstars, it’s still going to be War Games, and so it’s still going to be awesome. For that I am very thankful.
Count me among those who were late-arrivers on the Corey Graves hype train. I remember watching him as a wrestler in NXT and going out of my way to hate him. He was like a less-talented wannabe CM Punk. I think that’s a bit unfair of me, but it was based only on seeing him a few times before his concussion. When he was forced to retire and shifted to the booth I didn’t expect it to last long. At yet, he not only proved capable of doing the work, he slowly grew into one of the best in the company.
Right now I think he is the best.
The best proof of his talent is in how he’s thrived without the opportunity to rely on so many of the tropes that made him so beloved in the first place. There’s no Tom Phillips to abuse on Monday Night Raw’s broadcasts. There’s no Eva Marie to slather over (in what has to be the best wink and nod troll to the fanbase by a commentator in recent memory). There’s no Percy Watson to make fun of. Basically all the bullets he used to fire with such precision have been taken away from him and yet, instead of struggling, he’s developed into a more well-rounded commentator as a result. It’s blasphemy to compare anyone to Heenan but if anyone has embodied The Brain’s gift for hilarious heeling and evil-justifying, it’s Corey Graves. For years Raw’s commentary has been worthy of the mute-button. Graves alone keeps the sound turned up.
The WWE Network
You can complain about the lack of original content. You can complain about paying as much for it as you do Netflix despite a much more limited variety of content. You can complain about the business soundness of giving it away free over and over every month, or even the fact that you pay 10 a month, every month, while the WWE can’t seem to give it away fast enough to everyone else. You can complain about the long-term prospects of it, considering how it has yet to match the revenue brought in during the PPV days. There’s a lot to complain about regarding the WWE Network and for the most part you’d have fair points to make.
Nevertheless, as someone who grew up paying $30 a month for a PPV, only to see that number rise to $40 and then to $50 and then finally to $60, paying only $10 a month for one and sometimes two PPV events (not to mention the occasionally-airing documentaries) is pretty thank-worthy. It’s especially commendable since, while the old PPV prices used to climb higher and higher, the actual on-screen product seemed to equally-and-oppositely diminish. Right now I’d say, for the first time in seventeen years, I’m finally paying less than I should for what the WWE offers.
(but don’t tell them that)
As I said, there’s a lot to be thankful for this year. That’s my list, Cagesiders, but let us know what you’re thankful for (wrestling-wise) this year in the comments below.
As always, I’m Matthew Martin and I’m thankful…for all of you.