Corey Graves interviewed Brian James, aka Road Dogg, on this week’s After the Bell podcast.
James has worked as a writer in WWE creative going back to 2012. Last year he stepped away from his duties as head writer of SmackDown, and moved into a creative role with NXT.
First, Dogg talked about a lesson he learned from Vince McMahon when it comes to hearing creative ideas from talent:
“If their idea is better than mine, I will always go with their idea. And that’s actually something I learned from Vince McMahon. He said, ‘Even if their idea is not as good as yours, but it gets you to the same place, let them have their way, because it empowers them.’ Vince has taught me so much about stuff like that.”
I’m going to nitpick this one, because the lesson that Vince taught him about empowering others isn’t quite the same thing as actually being able to effectively discern and acknowledge when the talent’s idea is better than the writer’s. How many stories have we read about wrestlers approaching Vince and having their objections to his bad ideas rejected? It’s great that Vince will give talent their way if he sees the endpoint of both ideas as the same, but how often does that latter part actually happen?
James then offers his thoughts on scripted promos and micromanaging talent in WWE:
“There are some talent nowadays that you can trust to fill in the blanks, and there’s definitely some talent that you cannot trust. So as far as the micromanaging goes, I was guilty of that for sure. People up the ladder from me are too. But it’s because of that. There’s so few that you can just go, ‘Yeah I can let him go, and he’s not gonna say the wrong thing, and he’s not gonna do the wrong thing. It’s actually better if I let him be him, if I let her be her.’”
This idea that “so few” wrestlers in WWE can be trusted to talk without a script is very alarming, and doesn’t speak well to WWE’s ability to evaluate and develop talent.
Promos have always been a crucial skill needed in pro wrestling, and WWE has by far the largest roster of wrestlers in the world. How can it possibly be true with all these wrestlers and resources at WWE’s fingertips, that they somehow find themselves in a situation where they believe very few wrestlers on the roster can actually be trusted without a script? It’s either an indictment on their ability to bring in wrestlers who have this valuable skill, or it’s an indictment on WWE’s ability to identify which wrestlers are capable promos.
He continues by talking about how some fans just can’t grasp the big picture:
“They can’t fathom the intricacies that go into it. We gotta keep the lights on. We’re trying to pay the power bill. It’s big picture stuff. We have a way we shoot TV, and we have a way the promos are cut. And it’s to rise above that ‘wrasslin, that old school...they can’t fathom this guy is a loose cannon. He might say a curse word or something. So we script his promo, and you have to do it word for word now, because we don’t trust you.”
Yes, WWE has a certain way they want to cut promos, that’s for sure. And it’s clear from watching many other promotions, that WWE’s way of cutting promos just isn’t very effective. It’s contributed to their inability to create top stars for a long time now.
It must be quite frustrating as talent to see the lack of trust that WWE creative has in the wrestlers, but at least James is honest about that lack of trust.
And if the wrestlers want more freedom, they should just be more like John Cena:
“A lot more lately, especially with the promos, they’re including talent. John Cena would sit in that writer’s room for eight hours. He would say ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’, and spit out a line. And his promos were gold, right? Because he spent the time. A lot of wrestlers will get their promo and go, ‘Okay cool yeah, I like this.’ Okay well, it’s your character...if you’re a wrestler and you have a ten minute segment where it’s a promo and a match, and you don’t take the time to make sure that’s the best it could possibly be, that ain’t on the writer. That ain’t on Vince McMahon, as much as you’d like to put it there so you can be talent friendly. That’s on the talent.”
When James was lead writer of SmackDown in recent years, Cena was already the longtime top star and legendary main event babyface in WWE. Using Cena’s example here doesn’t help other talent, because he already had that near unlimited freedom that many other wrestlers are just trying to get a crumb of.
I’m certainly not saying that Dogg is wrong when implying that there are wrestlers who don’t care to go above and beyond to make everything as good as possible. But surely there can’t be so many wrestlers who fall into that apathetic bucket that WWE finds itself in this state where “so few” wrestlers can be trusted to cut a promo without a script. WWE finds itself in that position because they are going too far in stifling creativity.
James then moves on to discuss some of his favorite wrestlers in NXT, and he offers this insightful comment about Adam Cole:
“Adam Cole is the most professional, most talented, he just gets every aspect of it. He can cut a promo. He’s one of the guys where you go, ‘I need you to do a minute,’ and that’s all you say to him. And he gives you a minute of hiccupless verbiage that just makes you go, ‘Okay, that was perfect. Thank you.’ Every single time. That’s Adam Cole in a nutshell. He’s also a great worker, he has a great psychology. Man, if he was Karrion Kross’ size, he would be the Universal champion right now. And if he wasn’t, I’d be wondering why...he’s a dream superstar.”
So Adam Cole is a dream superstar who is excellent at every skill a pro wrestler can have, and is presumably one of the very few performers who doesn’t need a script for his promos. But he’s not the Universal champion because he’s not big enough? This is an admission that even when WWE does have a rare talent who is so good that he or she doesn’t need a script to cut a promo, there are still silly roadblocks in the way to put an artificial ceiling on that performer. It sounds ridiculous to me.
This is the kind of comment that makes it sound like Vince McMahon is still living in the 1980’s, where size was more important to a wrestler’s ability to get over in WWF. We are in a world right now where size has never been less important in wrestling, but it doesn’t sound like McMahon wants to live in that world. The WWE is his own personal fantasy land, so when Roman Reigns can’t work WrestleMania 36, I guess that means he puts the Universal title on the biggest person he can find, rather than the most talented person.
Finally, don’t you dare even try to argue that WWE doesn’t have the best wrestling in the world, period:
“We have great wrestling matches. Don’t argue with that. Don’t disagree with that. We have the greatest wrestling matches in the world, bar none.”
I know that Seth Rollins agrees with him. And I can’t criticize Dogg too much for saying this. After all, there is plenty of great wrestling in WWE, and he works for WWE, so he’s going to say stuff like this. But you’ll have to excuse me if I see Baron Corbin working way too many main events in WWE over the last couple years, while other promotions have stars like Will Ospreay, Kazuchika Okada, and Kenny Omega, and I roll my eyes when being told that I can’t disagree with James’ premise about WWE’s unquestionably superior wrestling.
I’m giving James and WWE a hard time here because I think these answers do a good job of illustrating WWE’s inflexible approach that has led to so much creative stagnancy. But his interview with Graves is a good listen and worth checking out. You can do so here to see what else Road Dogg has to say about wrestlers like Matt Riddle, Oney Lorcan, and the upcoming NXT TakeOver: In Your House event.