This week Monday Night Raw viewing figures were down for the second consecutive week since Extreme Rules. The average viewing audience was down by 183,000 from the previous week which had been down 282,000 on the week prior. The numbers were the lowest for a regular episode of Raw for more than two years. There have been comparisons made online between current day WWE and 1999 WCW, but are things really that bad?
There are certainly some similarities between the two. WCW in 1999 had an obsession with bringing in celebrities such as rock band Kiss and Master P. Former NBA star Dennis Rodman even got a spot in the second to last match of the "Road Wild" PPV, not in a tag but one on one against Hall Of Famer Randy Savage. This week Richard Gray revealed here that even more absurdly Justin Bieber came close to headlining SummerSlam last year. Unless there is a genuine reason for celebrity involvement and it adds something special it just stinks of laziness and getting a short term viewer hit, rather than putting effort into building a long term strategy to establish new viewers so I'm glad it didn't happen.
There are also similarities in that there are regularly booking decisions that leave you scratching your head. WCW took things to a new level by having babyfaces acting like heels in their home town and would use ridiculous stipulations such as the infamous "Piñata on a Pole" match in desperate attempts to gain viewers. The problem with WWE is different in that they will build a storyline over a number of weeks and then just drop it without explanation or just give up trying with it and let it fizzle out. The Bella twins were at war which was forgotten overnight, Dean Ambrose admitted before his final match with Bray Wyatt he had forgotten why they were even feuding, the Goldust and Stardust family feud ended without a conclusion and Miz vs Mizdow went out with a whimper rather than a bang. In WWE there just seems to be a lack of any long term thinking and direction rather than what was happening in WCW in 1999, which can only be described as wrestling insanity.
WCW was worth watching only for the hard working mid-carders and it has certainly been the hard-working mid-carders that have been stealing the show in a lot of WWE programming and PPV events. Where the two differ though and why I believe WWE will come good is that past-it superstars of the past are not being relied on and taking up all the main spots. In the first four WCW PPV events of 1999 Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair, a feud that was a draw....in 1994, headlined three of them. Compare with the first four PPV events WWE have had this year and we have had Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns promoted to the main event picture already and Dean Ambrose to come in to the next one. And since Royal Rumble the modern day equivalent of Hulk Hogan, John Cena, has been relegated to the upper mid-card. This is a period of transition for WWE and there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful and optimistic about the future.
Despite the viewing figures, this week’s Raw was one of the best I have seen in a long time (although not the best Raw moment of the year so far which for me still belongs to Brock Lesnar taking on The Authority single handedly in January). The usual Authority filled first half an hour was hijacked by The New Day which I was surprised and pleased about. Regardless of how you feel about them it was a breath of fresh air to see the Tag Team champions being involved with main event singles stars and actually winning the match. I felt this was a real step forward as not too long ago every week it seemed the Intercontinental and Tag Team champions were losing every week on TV and having the belts was a curse. We also saw the newly crowned King "Bad News" Barrett get the pin and I think he is someone who has the charisma to be a huge star given some momentum and further opportunities to shine. Even Kane has been in great form lately and has reinvented himself again.
Some have criticised Dean Ambrose being moved into the main event picture so suddenly as a knee-jerk reaction, a quick fix exactly like something WCW would do in '99. Whether it is or not, it is at least “a reaction” to what was clearly the misuse of a top performer. Yes it absolutely would have been better to have had a well thought out story built over weeks or months and lets not forget his win at Extreme Rules came after a massive PPV losing streak going back three quarters of a year. But at least someone has realised that he is deserving of better and lets hope that now they give him the platform to become an A-list player going forwards. If he was to win the title at Payback, it would be a little rushed but I think it would be a genuine feel good moment for fans just like when Mick Foley won it as Mankind.
The performances of Neville have been breathtaking and I was pleased to see him pick up his first PPV win and get to the final of KOTR. I think he has been handled well, not crushing everyone in his wake but a healthy mixture of wins and losses while pushing him slightly further up. His fellow NXT graduate Sami Zayn has also now got an incredible début match under his belt and the two could be megastars given the right story-lines, feuds and their characters allowed the time to grow. What is even more exciting is that Finn Balor who hasn't yet made the jump could be an even bigger star. The NXT conveyor belt keeps bringing more and more exciting talent into WWE and I hope it isn't too long before we see Neville and Zayn wearing WWE gold.
Roman Reigns has continued to work hard in difficult circumstances and surprised most people by putting on an entertaining match with long term adversary The Big Show at Extreme Rules. I think he should maybe have been given another month or two before being back in a PPV title match but if he keeps battling and not quite getting there it may help to win over the last few still bitter about his Royal Rumble win and "undeserved push". He has also become massively more likeable since WWE have backed off with the ridiculously scripted promos and allowed some of his natural character to come through.
Add to this more new signings on the way, potentially Samoa Joe, the return of Brock Lesnar to hand out vacations to suplex city, the inevitable change in direction for Lana and talent such as Bray Wyatt waiting to break through that mid-card ceiling, and I think that things will gradually improve. Many still criticise the use of part-time wrestlers and I was more sceptical than anyone going into WrestleMania, but it worked. As long as the young stars are given the top spots and big name veterans such as Triple H, Sting and The Undertaker are used sparingly and kept as supporting cast members I don't see an issue.
WWE programming has never been flawless. Even in the "Attitude Era" for every incredible Steve Austin or Rock moment there was The Godfather offering one of his "hos" to his opponent to forfeit the match or Val Venis having his todger "chopped off". Now is a time of transition and I think it is going to be an exciting time to be a WWE fan over the next year with so much talent in the roster.