I’ll never be caught up on wrestling again. That’s just the way it is, and I’m ok with that. It’s not a bad way to watch, actually. When there’s so many things you want to see, it’s nice not to feel the pressure to try to keep up. There’s just too much out there anymore for that to be reasonable if you still want to have some sort of life.
Right now I’m watching things from last September. that means that I’m a few weeks in to the WWE ThunderDome era. So far, I like it…mostly. The upgraded presentation helps, but there’s only so much it can do. The piped in crowd noise (which I usually hate with a passion) and the arena feel make things seem more like a usual WWE show. It lets them cover over some of the flaws in the product that were especially evident during the Performance Centre days. Those distractions are invaluable when your show doesn’t rely on the wrestling as much as it does everything surrounding the wrestling. With a few exceptions, nobody in WWE ever figured out or was ever allowed to figure out how to wrestle in front of no fans in a silent building, and it made for an awkward presentation that never really worked.
The problem they still have, of course, is that no matter what bells and whistles you add, you still have to present a good product, and that’s not happening. We’re still stuck with the same nonsensical storytelling and awful WWE speak that we’ve been getting for years now, and nothing on the horizon is going to change that, not even crowds coming back which they’re about to in the world everyone else lives in.
But there is another problem, and I think it’s the answer to the question I asked in the title. WWE is the only company in the whole damn wrestling business that hasn’t ever made it out of the pandemic denial phase. If they acknowledged COVID at all, they don’t call it COVID or Coronavirus or the pandemic, they say that whatever is happening is due to “prevailing circumstances.” Short of running in empty buildings or spending money on a new set, they’re still pretending like all of this is business as usual and the shows (even the ones that aren’t that bad) have suffered for it.
While WWE sticks its head in the sand and then orders everyone to keep shoveling, literally every other promotion I’ve watched has been figuring out how to adapt to reality. Some have had more success than others, but what they all have in common is that they’ve changed their presentations in order to play even more to whatever their strengths are.
AEW hasn’t changed much, but they did figure out almost right away that if you test everyone regularly, you can put people outside the ring and have them make a lot of noise without having to worry quite so much about outbreaks. It worked for the gym shows they did in Georgia, and then they were fortunate enough to have access to the outdoor amphitheater in Jacksonville once WWE called in whatever favours they called in with the government and got wrestling considered an essential business in Florida.
Impact mixed their usual solid wrestling and storytelling with even more of their wacky outside the ring mini movie stuff. WRESTLE HOUSE, The North taking on all of the “best” tag teams in Canada while they were stuck there, Cody Deaner’s “Kwaranteen” isolation videos. They all helped to keep people on TV and in our minds. And I’m sure they were extra handy when the company suddenly had to recut a bunch of shows when at least five people including the world champion and a top contender all left or got fired at the same time.
I haven’t seen much of New Japan proper, but what I have seen is still quite enjoyable. Hearing whatever crowd is allowed in constantly clap but never cheer is odd, but it works.
New Japan Strong is quickly becoming one of my favourite things of the week. It’s only an hour long, which is a major selling point in this day and age. But it’s also very simple. You take a mix of New Japan regulars who are in America, some other American independent guys and a few of the standouts from the NJPW Los Angeles Dojo, come up with some matches and some easy stories and then let the wrestling do the rest. There are moments when you miss the fans (some of the super quick, high flying matches lose something without the reactions), but for the most part it doesn’t really matter.
And then there’s Ring of Honor. I just watched the first episode of their restart, which consisted of the first two matches in the Pure Title tournament. I think I’m in love. That show was so awesome…and so different. It’s the closest thing I’ve seen to wrestling being presented as a real sport in North America since probably the 1980s. And it’s not rocket science. They explain the pure wrestling rules, they tell you what the match is, they do a very good three or so minute profile of each guy, and then the match happens. And even when you’re pretty sure you know who’s going to win, you aren’t totally sure because everyone is so convincing in their interviews and their work. You just know there will be a winner and a loser, no bullshit. You almost don’t notice the lack of fans, even though it’s pointed out now and then that they aren’t there. You’re just watching a competition between people who are very good at this, and there’s a prize at the end. What else do you need?
All of the different things that the companies I’ve mentioned and many I haven’t are doing to keep themselves going have really exposed just how irrelevant and behind the times WWE has become. Not even NXT is immune. It’s better since it’s more wrestling heavy, but it hasn’t been quite the same since it moved to national television. And at the end of the day it’s still a WWE presentation, even if different people are making a bunch of the decisions. WWE has a certain way of doing things, and that’s not an advantage. They would do well to remember that despite what they say, they don’t live in their own universe. You’re out here with the rest of us, guys. We’re all having to be flexible. You’re no different.