HOW SETH ROLLINS & DEAN AMBROSE CAN SAVE WWE
I keep reading a lot about the WWE's low-ratings (specifically how they are low even for this time of year), the pitfalls of 50/50 booking, the misogyny of the Divas-booking, the relentless six-man tag matches, the lack of reliable, present-day "top guys", how today's generation "lacks personality", and why the show-runner is squandering the millennial roster's talent.
And it's tiring. For all involved. Fan and WWE employee alike.
With The Raw Review, the podcast, and the occasional editorial I try my best to subtly steer the WWE in a particular direction. I offer arts criticism as a means of providing access to the fan's state of mind and the fan's desire and, in so doing, I try to offer solutions to the WWE's various problems in as respectful a manner as I know how, and in a way that can't be easily tossed aside as needy, smark nonsense.
But perhaps the time for subtlety is over.
I rarely "backseat book" or "tell" the WWE directly what they should do with their talent or how they should book a match or a story. I don't presume to know how incredibly difficult it is to run Vince McMahon's behemoth of a company; in fact it's a safe bet that if any average pundit or backseat booker was thrust into the Chairmen's seat that WWE would fold in about a month.
That doesn't mean everything is peachy with the current administration, though. WWE will certainly stay afloat, but there is opportunity to thrive. Those opportunities sometimes need to be condensed into very straightforward, easily-comprehended terms. Sometimes it takes a calm, outside perspective to find where great opportunities exist.
So I'm going to offer that outside perspective with the understanding that it may be disregarded by the WWE no matter how cogent or well-intentioned or convincing. That's their prerogative, and I'm sympathetic to the fact that the majority of what they hear and read from the sidelines is useless. But I also know that people in the business read my work and, if nothing else, enjoy some of it. I've learned, over the past fourteen months, that there is always a chance that the right eyes might be scanning these pages, and that it's always better to do something honest and passionate than it is to do nothing at all.
I'm going to offer my backseat book for the upcoming Hell in a Cell pay-per-view and beyond (all the way up to WrestleMania 32), free of charge, in an effort to assist the organization that has provided me so much joy throughout the years. I do this because I care about the health of professional wrestling, the health of professional wrestling's largest distributor, but, above all, the literal health of the professional wrestlers who are currently sacrificing their bodies for no return on their physical investment.
Consider the long-term damage currently being done to bones, vital organs, and minds in the name of "getting over" when "getting over" simply isn't possible given the main-roster's booking. It's time the pain, at the very least, meant something.
Take this purely as an example, WWE, of what would make people genuinely want to tune in to the October 26th episode of Monday Night Raw, and every Raw after that, leading into The Showcase of the Immortals. You can design any narrative that would have the same effect so long as it remains founded on the principles I'm going to espouse.
Let us begin...
At Hell in a Cell, Kane and Seth Rollins go on last.
It is announced that it will be a No Holds Barred Match at Kane's request (The Authority grants this request because he maintains their favor, and they believe it's the perfect final test for their chosen champion, Rollins). Rollins protests, of course, but Triple H convinces him that it will make a victory even easier as he can go to any lengths to retain his title.
At the end of the match, it appears as though Kane has the upper-hand.
Just as Kane lifts Seth into a Tombstone Piledriver, Dean Ambrose appears in the ring and whacks Kane in the back with a steel chair. Dean beats Kane relentlessly with this chair until Kane is rendered unconscious. Seth Rollins comes to, and he is stunned to see that his brother in arms turned bitter rival has come to his aid. They share a smile. Seth rolls Kane up for the pin, and he is victorious. It is a legitimate victory, according to the rules, but, yet again, Seth has won due to shady circumstances.
Dean raises Seth's arm and the two celebrate in the center of the ring.
Seth says, "See...I knew you'd come around" or whatever Seth Rollins would naturally say in this moment (he might want to say nothing...and that would be totally fine...if that's what he felt helped tell the story).
And that's when Dean smashes Seth in the face, knocking him down on the mat. Dean raises the steel chair, high over his head, and bashes Seth's spine. Seth groans, hystical, flopping wildly around the ring after each metallic thwack! and Dean hisses and spits and curses at Seth as he wields the chair.
Dean grabs a mic, crouches over Seth's broken body, and, in his own words, conveys the following message:
"You think I forgot what happened last year? You see, Seth, we've crossed paths since then, but it always left a bitter taste in my mouth that you and I never had a clean finish in last year's main event. You see I almost got what I'd always wanted last year when I had you inside that cell. But Bray Wyatt with his little ghost decided to ruin it all. He interrupted something beautiful, Seth. And I just can't let that go. You see, Seth Rollins, I will never forget what you did to me. You are always in my sights. And your precious, precious championship is still in my sights. You see I've enjoyed watching you slither your way out these matches the past few months. I've enjoyed watching and waiting as you fooled around with statues and demons, because no one is going to take that title away from you but me.
I won't let that happen. I'm the man, and I've always been the man, Seth. I'm the one who you betrayed and I'm the one who you can't escape. I'm done waiting. I am the ghost of The Shield and the time has finally come, once and for all, for my satisfaction. I want you to know, I want The Authority to know, I want the WWE Universe to know, I want the Network subscribers to know, I want commentary to know, I want every man and woman behind the curtain to know that I'm taking my shot and no one is taking it back this time. I'm coming for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. I'm coming for the soul of Seth Rollins, and hell and everyone who still believes in The Shield is coming with me!"
Ignore any and all of your booking for the past 12 months. Ignore that you've booked Dean Ambrose into obscurity of late and that you might respond to this idea by thinking he's not really over right now. Ignore that pessimism in favor of making a good choice with a proven talent who has a passionate, established fanbase clamoring for his rightful ascent. Capitalize on a deeply emotional history that your fans have not forgotten. Capitalize on the fact that people are downtrodden and need a hero now more than ever, especially someone who speaks their language.
Return to the feud these two were having in 2014 before it was broken, a feud that never saw its rightful conclusion.
Elevate this feud to a place of prominence, imbue it with Seth & Dean's 2014 history (not their most recent feud that ended in limp fashion at Money in the Bank), and effectively reboot your entire flagship series around this deeply personal rivalry.
Build the roster around this single feud, with three other tangential rivalries founded on simple, realistic sports goals (a Women's Championship rivalry, a tag-team Championship rivalry, and then a midcard champion rivalry that sets the IC & US titles on a collision course at Mania).
On the RAW after Hell in a Cell, do not have an opening 15 minute promo and do not have any six-man tag matches at any point in the night (these two specific creative choices have become a destructive, running joke amongst your fans and you should not be giving them more fodder; start proving smarks wrong).
Instead, open with a replay of the previous night's events, and then segue into an upbeat undercard match - perhaps a New Day segment that establishes their next rivals. Make people wait to learn more about Seth and Dean.
Then, when it comes time to learn more, Renee Young attempts to track down Seth Rollins in the backstage area all night. But Seth refuses to speak with her. He knocks cameras out of his way, throws a fit, threatens a producer, insists that he is to be left alone for the entire evening.
He even refuses to see The Authority.
When Renee checks in with Steph and Triple H to see what they think about all of this, they're surprisingly enamored with Dean Ambrose' display of tenacity at Hell in a Cell. They like his fire and they see the potential for a great main event draw at the next pay-per-view because they are aware of the viewer's emotional investment in these two performers.
They are no longer heel Authority figures. They have, definitively and for the rest of time, evolved into bookers who run an athletic organization. They make matches. Their goal is to make the best match so as to make the most money. That's it. They have no moral stake in these events and they feel no need to assert their will over anyone or torture anyone or insert themselves into anything beyond making decisions related to the card. They just book matches. They just run the company.
Later in the evening, Renee Young manages to track down Dean Ambrose. He's lurking in the back, exercising and punching bags. She asks him why he did what he did at Hell in a Cell. She wants to know his current state of mind and what he plans to do later in the night.
He pauses, glares down at her, sweat dripping down his face and chest, and then he offers no answer. He just keeps punching the bags.
In the main event, Seth Rollins cuts a promo explaining that he's going to hold a one-night only open challenge for his WWE World Heavyweight Championship. He explains that no other title will overshadow his, not even John Cena's US Championship. He explains that he is the greatest champion of all time, and that he fears no one and that no one will ever take the title from him.
In his promo, Seth does not directly acknowledge the existence of Dean Ambrose nor what Dean did the previous night at Hell in a Cell.
And that is when Roman Reigns answers Seth’s open challenge.
Roman, fresh off his victory at Hell in a Cell, still gunning for the title-shot he was denied months ago, pushes through the crowd, climbs into the ring, and stares Seth down. Roman does not say a word. He just looks Seth in the eye, and Seth nods, takes his shirt off, and the bell rings. The two go at it in a proper main event match, free to tell whatever story they want to tell on this night.
Seth Rollins defeats Roman Reigns.
He rakes his eyes or kicks him in the balls, but he scores a definitive three-count heel victory.
Dean appears from behind the curtain, slow-clapping. There is a mic stuffed in his jeans.
Seth, fuming, holds his championship over his head, standing on a turnbuckle.
Dean grabs his mic and says in his own words:
“You don’t have to try so hard to prove your point to me, Seth. I always knew you could be a great competitor, even a great Champion. That's why it's been so hard the past few months...you've shown me, and everyone else that you never really believed in yourself.”
Seth, fed up, charges Dean and the two brawl throughout the arena. Security and referees storm the ring and try to rip them apart, and RAW fades to black with Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose screaming and cursing and ranting and raving.
In the subsequent weeks, instead of filler six-person tag matches on RAW, show your audience vignettes that detail the history of The Shield and the history of the Seth Rollins/Dean Ambrose rivalry. Remind viewers of what they once loved and why they were once so excited about the future of your main roster product. Perhaps replay The Shield's best matches, in their entirety, for the first hour of Monday Night Raw several weeks in a row. Do not remain beholden to the idea that your television audience needs to see everything your live audience sees. Be cognizant of how different those viewing experiences are and appeal to both in different ways, making it easier on the television viewer to absorb RAW's lengthy running-time.
Show Seth and Dean's pasts together at FCW (the precursor to WWE NXT - thus offering cross-promotional opportunities). Show archival footage of the two coming up through the indies. Sit both down with Michael Cole in a three part mini-documentary series that provides a personal glimpse into their minds and into their personal lives as they prepare for the championship match.
While this becomes the through-line of each episode of RAW, the rest of the show presents strong midcard and undercard matches where each competitor is striving to get a shot at their division's championship. Pre-match and post-match interviews offer brief glimpses into the hearts and souls of these athletes, and we learn that everyone is striving to realize a deeply personal dream; to one day become a champion in the WWE. This foundation that grounds the entire roster will help inform the significance of the Dean/Seth feud for the title. In learning that everyone wants to be where those two are, Seth and Dean become mythic, their role as top guys more clearly defined.
This then leads into the next pay-per-view, currently billed as Survivor Series (though that could be adjusted) where Dean Ambrose defeats Seth Rollins in the main event for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
On the subsequent RAW, Seth Rollins, so utterly disgusted with how Dean Ambrose has become the champion and how the WWE Universe has embraced Dean, and how The Authority encouraged Dean, forsakes Triple H and Stephanie McMahon.
Rollins cannot accept that making the choice he did to betray The Shield inevitably didn't pay off. He cannot reconcile the fiction he'd been sold with the reality he now faces - the brother he'd betrayed in an effort to advance his career has now stripped him of the one thing that made that vile choice worthwhile.
And so Seth retreats from the WWE and goes into a self-imposed exile.
Over the course of the next month, while Dean Ambrose takes on the new number one contender for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, we occasionally check in on Seth Rollins via min-documentary interviews.
We learn about his daily life away from wrestling, and we learn a little bit more about why he turned on Roman and Dean in the first place. He tells us what he was promised in return for that decision, alluding to behind-closed-doors meetings with Triple H.
He tells us how he was initially conflicted, but how he knew it was, long-term, for the best. He thought making that choice would help him elevate not just himself, but the entire WWE.
We see that he's constantly training.
We hear him talk about Crossfit and why Crossfit and a healthy lifestyle matters so much to him.
We learn about his love of professional wrestling, why he got into the business, and what he had always dreamed of achieving.
We learn that he has matured during this sabbatical.
When he looks back on the things he did during his reign as Champion, he is ashamed. He's had the time to reconsider everything he did. He realizes that he compromised his integrity and what he originally believed to fulfill someone else's idea of success. He is unsure of when he will return to the WWE, but he knows that when he does, he's going to make things right. He's not going to try to earn anyone's trust. He doesn't believe he can. He's just going to do things his way from now on.
The right way.
These glimpses are brief, but they are carefully crafted and peppered throughout the months leading into The Royal Rumble.
And that is when Seth Rollins returns, at number 29, in the 2016 Royal Rumble.
He will receive a hero's welcome.
Then, at number 30, enters Roman Reigns.
While Seth's been away and while Dean's been righteously defending his title, Roman has been burning his bridge with Dean by casually saying things like "I'm proud of you. I'll let you have this one. I'll get the belt soon enough". He's showing signs of cracking under the weight of the constant hate he receives from the WWE fans. And his nonchalance about his role in the company, the assumption that he'll inevitably be the champion, wears thin on everyone around him.
In another controversial Rumble finish, Roman Reigns manages to knock Seth Rollins out of the ring and win. It is a purposefully underhanded victory, though. Not clean. Contrived, vindictive, vicious, and despicable.
And so, for the second year in a row, Roman Reigns has won The Royal Rumble. And he won it entering at the most favored spot, and in the cheapest way imaginable.
He embraces the inevitable chorus of boos this time.
And so Roman Reigns is now a top heel.
Seth Rollins is a top babyface.
Dean Ambrose is the WWE World Heavyweight Champion of the millennial generation.
And at WrestleMania 32, in Dallas Texas, at the AT&T stadium, in the main event, in a triple threat match for the most valuable prize in all of professional wrestling, all three former members of The Shield will fight for the right to be named champion.
Doing something like this (again, not necessarily in this exact way, but, at the very least, something along these lines) will spark immediate interest in your product. Your core fanbase will be excited and satisfied by this long-form narrative.
Ratings will never be what they once were during The Attitude Era. The culture has evolved.
Ratings are a dead currency.
Enthusiasm and discourse is the currency of 2015.
Your money is in passionate fans who talk about your product in positive terms on social media and with their real-world friends. Those are the people who will recommend others watch your show. If you put this kind of effort into building your current roster, especially those stars who you have already put a great deal of time and effort into, you will see a steady return on investment.
People will be happy to tune in to your show. They'll anticipate watching relatable narratives unfold every single week.
The conversations around your product will be founded on joy and excitement, not hatred and disdain.
Don’t allow us to go on talking about your ratings and your booking.
Get us talking about your characters and your stories and your championship matches.
You can do that by celebrating your talent, and by telling good stories.
Make us believers again.