Saturday, January 19, 2008

WWE lost opportunities of 2007

By Rick Morris

In a previous column here, I explored the phenomenon of WWE transitional periods, when the company has been in an obvious flux between one era and another. Subsequent events have made me think about how many times the company just flat out blew it in 2007 as they are lurching into their newest redefining stage.

Company defenders will be quick to speak of the injury epidemic, with a great many wrestlers going down including HHH, John Cena, Undertaker and Edge. I'll grant that there's nothing that the company could have done to avoid those performers going on the shelf. And also for the purposes of this discussion, I'll leave aside anything having to do with the Benoit tragedy because I want to stick to the crystal-clear issues that the company could have dealt with but did not.

1. Getting the belt off of John Cena before the October PPV. The company was left in a position it hates to be in, having a title change result from something other than events inside the squared circle. Ever since Cena came to RAW in June of '05, he has been fighting an uphill battle to stay popular among key elements of the fanbase because of the watering-down of his once-edgy character and the invulnerability he portrays since he almost ALWAYS wins every title match. As mentioned earlier, there's nothing the company could have done about Cena's injury. But they could have helped his character stay fresher along the way by programming him to drop the belt earlier in the year (sometime after WrestleMania, as I'll admit that as the cornerstone of the company he needed to win there) and get into a chase to regain it. That is clearly where they were going with Randy Orton this autumn, but it would have been much later than it should have happened. As it is now, the large portion of young males in the audience reacts poorly to him because he comes off to them as a horrible amalgam of Ricky Morton (appealing to the kids and teeny-boppers), Bob Backland (with his super-wholesome Middle America persona) and Hulk Hogan (Chain Gang = Hulkamanics 2K8). Notwithstanding the fact that his matches do have incredible heat because of the mixed emotions he stirs in the crowd, the company is not going to be in the position they want to be in of having him pick them up and carry them on their back ala Hogan or Austin unless he gets greater acceptance from the fanbase.

2. Not properly giving Lashley the rub from Donald Trump. What an incredible opportunity the WWE had with Lashley at WrestleMania -- and how they blew it. Has it ever -- ever? -- been established exactly why Lashley and Trump teamed up to stick it to Vince McMahon at WrestleMania 23? We know that Trump was somewhat impressed with this young physical specimen and thought he could get the job done, but that's about it. I'm still waiting to hear Lashley's motivation. How did we not see a series of videos with these men, ala Hogan and Mr. T at the first WrestleMania? Not that we would have seen them training together, that's not the point, but something, anything to establish a bond between them and a tangible sense of what each man could do for the other. How sad that the company put Lashley in this position to get him the benefit of association with Donald Trump and their connection was pretty much forgotten by the next week.

3. Hot-shotting Chris Jericho's return. Internet rumors speak of HHH's dissatisfaction with the perception of Jericho as a savior returning to bail out the company from hard times. If so, given the disproportionate influence he has that we smart marks bemoan so much, that does an awful lot to explain how Jericho went from the eagerly anticipated breath of fresh air (one that many thought erroneously at the time had been dragged out too long in teasing, ala the Fred Thompson presidential launch) to just another wrestler in less than six weeks. Remember, when Jericho made his company debut in August of '99, the one that the WWE tried so hard to replicate, his first promo was against The Rock. Did he face him right away? No, they wouldn't lock up on pay-per-view for a long time. So Jericho's promo against Randy Orton, while absolutely the right thing to do, did NOT mean that he had to be rushed into the main event match the next month. Given that the company is completely in the annual mode of getting the present champion to WrestleMania in a few months, there was no way that he was going to topple Orton in December and he would lose his heat right off the bat in failing, no matter what lame attempts the company would conjure up to "keep him strong." They should have dragged out the title chase to WrestleMania with Orton (and perhaps the "authority figures") throwing obstacles in his way to build to a truly epic main event at the Citrus Bowl. Instead, Orton will end up in a situation that is guaranteed to be much less anticipated than the payoff to a long Jericho return tour.

4. Giving Mr. McMahon a full-size son. I will admit that the payoff to the illegitimate son storyline is working better than I would have thought, with Hornswoggle massively over and Finlay getting the chance I have long been calling for for him to become a tough, popular, fighting face. But the in-ring payoff, where the true money can be made, would have been much greater had the (initially reported) plan of Mr. Kennedy or another wrestler on the main event brink getting that association been adopted. There are rumors that the angle might be changed at some point to reflect the test results being altered and an actual full-sized wrestler being put in that spot. After the Hornswoggle storyline peaks, probably at WrestleMania, I would urge them to do exactly that.

5. Booking CM Punk as a midcarder when he holds the ECW title. We have long seen how internal politics dictate how brands are presented, whether it be the WCW and ECW brands getting buried early on in the 2001 invasion angle or the way that all vestiges of the "old ECW" were long ago blotted out with virtual bleach. But the booking of Punk, one of the most promising wrestlers in the entire company and a future main eventer on a brand the company actually respects, is beyond befuddling. This is not a standard example of a face champion needing to show some vulnerability in order to keep some sympathy heat. Punk has been laid out time and time again by the company superheavyweights, and when he teams up with Kane to face them, he is routinely presented as the least capable man in the ring. Many observers have long called for the company to stop damaging Smackdown by treating it as a distant second banana to the RAW brand. The company's evident "solution" is to let the Smackdown brand bully the ECW brand in terms of public perception so that Smackdown at least looks superior to something. Left unsaid is why anyone at all should care anything about what happens in ECW when the champion and most of its wrestlers are presented as midcarders relative to the "Smackdown superstars."

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