The news couldn’t have been worse for WWE last week when the company learned of Braun Strowman’s injury. He was amidst a push to the moon, he was undeniably one of the top two regularly appearing stars on the RAW brand, and he was the guy successfully keeping Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns away from each other. Vince McMahon invested so much time in building him as the unstoppable monster among men, and it paid dividends. I wrote three weeks ago about Strowman and called him the biggest success WWE has found in years. No one saw this coming, and everyone involved deserves a tremendous amount of credit.
But, what happens when the “it” guy of the moment goes down? He’s on the shelf for the next month, or possibly longer, and that reality stops the promotion’s immediate main event plans dead in their tracks. For most companies, it’s time to move to Plan B, whatever that might be. However, for WWE, are we sure there IS a Plan B?
The fact that an answer to that question is in any doubt is a major indictment on those with the power to patch holes and make stars.
The problem for WWE is their lack of quality control outside of the main event. When you look past John Cena and Roman Reigns (and now Strowman), you’ve often already looked over the two things Vince cares about first, second, third, fourth, and fifth. The absence of a credible, adequately structured midcard is an enormous concern, and it makes an injury much more of an issue than it might be otherwise.
Think about the NFL. When Tom Brady goes down, the Patriots strugg...nope, that’s a bad example. When Aaron Rodgers is out with injury, the Green Bay Packers are royally screwed. It’s the same for virtually any other team in the league. When the Oakland Raiders lost Derek Carr, that team was instantly finished. It’s the same in the NBA if LeBron James or Russell Westbrook are forced off the court.
There’s a big difference between these examples and the WWE, however, and it’s that the outcomes are predetermined. Plus, there are far more guys that play each position. If Matt Ryan is out, there are two other quarterbacks that can step in to play in Atlanta, and perhaps a position player that threw some balls in college. In the NBA, you can’t replace LeBron James. But, in professional wrestling, it’s about making stars. Yes, they can enhance themselves and can become “Stone Cold,” but if a promotion commits, most average performers can rise to the occasion as an understudy. Talentless individuals do exist within the industry, but if you’ve made it to WWE, in very few cases do you not deserve it.
With that as the background, take a moment to consider the men that could attempt to wear Strowman’s shoes, or carry that part of the card in his stead. Samoa Joe wasn’t in a match at WrestleMania, and didn’t even appear on that show. After a solid start, creative has dropped the ball with him. Finn Balor is working to get back what he had before his own injury last August, although he’s definitely a candidate. Seth Rollins has been the victim of piss poor babyface writing and is nowhere near the star he could be at this point. Dean Ambrose often comes across uninspired, and the comedy act wore thin long ago. The Miz is a stop and start project, and even if the matches won’t set the world on fire, he and Miz are a main event act. They aren’t positioned that way, though, and he’s instead mired in a retread of a SmackDown angle from last fall.
And then there’s the biggest failing: Bray Wyatt.
This guy was the WWE Champion in February, and I’ve never cared less about him than I do as I write this piece. It wasn’t just the House of Horrors and it wasn’t just projected images of bugs and worms in a wrestling ring, but those two mistakes amplified the situation. I’m all out on Bray. I wanted a Cape Fear cult leader, a bayou David Koresh, a Cajun Jim Jones, and instead got the same hokey Undertaker movie garbage at which I rolled my eyes in the mid-90s. The stuff that sucked then at least fit the cartoonishness of that time period, but it plays far worse 25 years later. The Undertaker got a pass because he was The Undertaker. Bray Wyatt hasn’t built up Hall of Fame level equity. It isn’t his fault, but his employer continually refuses to read the room. In this case, the “room” is the audience.
When someone like Strowman has to take time off, there should be multiple names able to fill the void, but because WWE doesn’t treat the vast majority of its roster with care, a relatively simple task becomes unmanageable. The vitriol over the Jinder Mahal push doesn’t generally come from people who hate the man behind the character or the man behind the gimmick. I’ve never met him, but he might be an awesome guy, and he clearly has the look. The anger and confusion came because he was plucked out of thin air after we, as an audience, had been conditioned for months (years dating back to his previous stint with WWE) to see this guy as a total jobber.
Whose fault is that?
Hint: It isn’t on the entertainer.
WWE now habitually cures and preserves its bench like a “Break in Case of Emergency” fire extinguisher, but not one that’s ever replaced or tested. These guys get their reps on house shows, but when they’re on TV, the segments and matches are short, and many times the segments are cut on the edited Hulu versions. It would be tough to live in limbo. Purgatory isn’t a desirable place for a domicile. Uncertainty breeds stress and anxiety. The wait directly before an injection or the drive to the doctor’s office is almost always worse than the needle itself.
Players that run onto the court to spell James Harden and the rest of the Houston Rockets starters have practiced hard, played in many games, and understand their role. Eric Gordon and Lou Williams can come in and get you 20, because it’s up to them. They have to get the ball in their hands, and offensive sets and screens have to free them up with enough space to get a good look at the basket, but they can have immediate impact based on their skill set.
Replacing Strowman requires asking someone to do something they may be capable of, but haven’t ever been given a chance to show. More promo time can be disastrous for some, advantageous to others. Those who haven’t spoken much will find the challenge much more difficult. It depends on the performer, but the overall point is WWE is not designed to withstand a hurricane. The levees are not strong enough to take on much water, because they aren’t routinely upgraded or vigorously maintained.
The quantity and quality of talent inside WWE is such that there should never be an occasion where the company has to scramble because of any one injury. The stories, the pushes, the builds, all creativity resides in the hands of the writers, and of course in the overall grasp of Vince McMahon. The way to fix this is to begin giving a damn about more than two or three guys in the production meeting. Make the Tag Team Championship important, make sure both the United States and Intercontinental Titles actually matter, and don’t use the Cruiserweights as a sideshow.
It shouldn’t be a let down when a show main events with a secondary title match or a contendership bout. More often than not, that’s been the result over the past several years. If WWE makes everything matter, or puts a regular, not spotty and inconsistent, but a regular spotlight on ten guys instead of two, all of a sudden they have the opportunity to overcome what’s unforeseen.
Look, there’s only one Braun Strowman, but planning, forethought, or simple TLC (not Tables, Ladders, and Chairs) is enough to keep Chicken Little out of the equation. The sky isn’t falling. He’s not going to be out for six months, and when he comes back, it’s going to be a huge deal and may even pop a television rating. Even in a cyclical business respective to mass interest, there should be a better way to mitigate an absence or a glitch in the machine.
And there is. It’s called decorating more eggs in the basket from the beginning, and then placing those eggs in various baskets. That way, when one breaks, there are others equipped to handle the job. If I asked any of you who you would put in the Strowman slot, there would be several different names, but if I followed up by saying, “Imagine if that guy had been winning matches for a while and lived his WWE life on the cusp of the main event,” everyone would agree with the sentiment.
WWE’s midcard is a swamp... but it should at the very least be a waterproofed, secure wooden bridge above that muck. Bundle them together, but make sure those guys aren’t drenched in mediocrity or covered in garbage. It might bear a new megastar, but at worst, there’s far less of Everest to scale when you really need those people most.
Like right now.