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Posted in: Doctor's Orders
Doctor's Orders: July 3-7, 2017 - WWE Roster Positioning Extinct?, Miz & Ambrose At A Crossroads, & Very Few Are On The Neville Level, BUT...
By The Doc
Jul 7, 2017 - 12:54:17 PM

”The Doc” Chad Matthews has been a featured writer for LOP since 2004. Initially offering detailed recaps and reviews for WWE's top programs, he transitioned to writing columns in 2010. In addition to his discussion-provoking current event pieces, he has written many acclaimed series about WrestleMania, as well as a popular short story chronicle. The Doc has also penned a book, The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment, published in 2013. It has been called “the best wrestling book I have ever read” and holds a worldwide 5-star rating on Amazon, where it peaked at #3 on the wrestling charts.

Is WWE’s Classic Roster Positioning Becoming Extinct?

Miz And Ambrose At A Crossroads

Very Few Are On The Neville Level, BUT…

Is WWE’s Classic Roster Positioning Becoming Extinct?

QUESTION OF THE DAY: Power-rankings style, how would you classify the Top 5-10 stars on Raw right now?

2014 was the first year in the next phase of WWE history. When Seth Rollins destroyed The Shield, he and the former Hounds of Justice proved the primary catalysts for WWE to move out of the John Cena Era as we had known it for the prior decade. Reinforced by Bray Wyatt and the various NXT call-up classes from recent years, Rollins, Dean Ambrose, and Roman Reigns are, week in and week out, among the top stars in the industry today.

The competition stimulated by the former members of The Shield for WWE supremacy, as well as their own internal competition to be the standard-bearer, has been one of the most fascinating stories to watch over that span, which made my column comments earlier this week about Ambrose slipping down the proverbial ladder more difficult to write. The Lunatic Fringe is without question the most durable and versatile superstar of the last half decade and he, by all rights, should never be relegated to a WrestleMania pre-show or appear on the cusp of his relevance being cut in half from its peak, but the fact of the matter is that he was relegated to the Mania 33 kick-off and that his relevance has slipped in 2017. Rollins and Reigns have places at the historical roundtable already and they are all but guaranteed to be involved in the year’s biggest matches on WWE’s grandest stages; Ambrose, meanwhile, is still fighting for his spot.

LOP columnist and radio host, Maverick, took particular issue with the above on social media, renewing a debate that he and I have had frequently over the years. It seems that about twice per year for the past two or three, the discussion of The Shield’s post-break-up alpha male returns to focus and, each time, Ambrose is placed by yours truly in the position of having to catch his former stablemates; then there are counters that he has always been side-by-side with Rollins and Reigns in the historical hierarchy and that the statistical measure used to classify Ambrose beneath them has become out-dated. The concept of roster positioning – as defined by the profile of appearances on special event cards and their corresponding TV cycles, with an established precedent set for the A-shows (Mania, Summerslam, etc.) over the B-shows (non-Big 4) – no longer being as applicable to the modern product, at least in the form that we have known it for three decades, is where I would like to shine today’s spotlight.

Roster positioning extends from the main-event down to the under-card, but for present purposes will just be used to identify how we go about separating top level stars from each other and top level stars from those on the level below them. For instance, Mick Foley was a huge star in the Attitude Era, but he should not be confused with Triple H, who became a headliner and remained a headliner for pretty much the rest of his career; whereas Foley was an occasional main-eventer, good for a World Title program at least once a year, Hunter was the sort that would only rarely leave the main-event. So, there is a clear historical distinction there. We can browse through the generations and identify which wrestlers were the clearly positioned top stars and which were the supporting players.

The idea in question now is whether or not the days of having as definable a hierarchy are over, supplanted by a main-eventer-by-committee approach that removes the line of distinction separating top stars from top-tier supporting players; basically, instead of their being main-eventers who occasionally drift to the mid-card (see HHH, Attitude) and upper-card talents who occasionally main-event (see Foley, Attitude), the highest achievable level for a regular roster member is then an upper-card wrestler who cycles in and out of headlining duty.

First presented a couple of years ago when Cena could no longer be identified as “unquestionably the #1 guy” anymore, this novel concept of re-defining roster positioning has developed support in the form of WWE Network, which took away the ability to as easily distinguish between the A-PPVs and the B-PPVs; though a general pecking order still undoubtedly exists, it’s not as if there are hundreds of thousands of buys separating, say, Royal Rumble and Battleground. Nevertheless, you can still readily see the trends from yesteryear’s PPV Era influencing the way that things work in the Network Era. WrestleMania is far and away still the primary draw for boosting WWE’s business, with Summerslam, the Rumble, and the recently renewed push for the Survivor Series acting as secondary subscriber-boosters. Everything else on the Network is geared toward subscriber-maintenance; the Big 4, Mania especially, brings the people in and the rest is designed to keep them happy upon arrival.

Just as the Network model is still so heavily influenced by past patterns, the roster positioning that has come to define how we view wrestlers from top to bottom, in my opinion, has not changed that much. The way I see it, Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins are unabashedly the top two stars to have debuted since late 2012. Reigns has main-evented three straight WrestleManias; Rollins carried the company for much of 2014 and most of 2015 and just experienced his latest career crescendo at Mania 33. If we just look at the Raw roster, Brock Lesnar is positioned above everyone as a part-timer extraordinaire, but then Rollins and Reigns are next in line with some distance between them and the rest of the pack. Why? Because when it counts most to WWE’s bottom line, they are the two that get pushed into the spotlight, asked to step up to the angles that will sell the biggest shows of the year. They have joined an elite group from the post-Attitude Era that includes only Lesnar, Punk, Cena, HHH, Taker, Edge, Batista, HBK, and Angle – a list comprised of talents who seemingly never got lost in the main-event creative shuffle for more than a month or two.

If we identify the top stars behind Lesnar, Reigns, and Rollins on Raw right now, the likes of Ambrose, Wyatt, Braun Strowman, The Miz, Samoa Joe, and Finn Balor come to mind for sure, with cases to be made for a handful of others. Their resumes tell the tale of their roster positioning. Part of the idea that the Lunatic Fringe is down-trending stems from so many stars who are up-trending. Overall, Ambrose has been given more of opportunities when it mattered most over the past three years than anyone else on Raw sans for the red team’s clear Top 3 and Wyatt. However, Strowman has been the dominant force on Raw in 2017 and, even though he was a blip on the Mania radar, he could be destined for even bigger things; Joe could be as well depending on how his match with Lesnar plays out on Sunday. Unlike his former Shield brethren, Ambrose gets pushed down when others rise up; whereas Rollins and Reigns remain at or near the top, it is conceivable that Ambrose will keep falling, perhaps below Miz, Balor, and others.

The Miz And Dean Ambrose At A Crossroads

Last week, I named The Miz vs. Dean Ambrose from Extreme Rules the June Match of the Month in WWE. It was the best match that Miz had been involved in since last December, when The Awesome One's surprise hit feud of 2016 opposite Dolph Ziggler was wrapping up its third straight Smackdown-only pay-per-view at the four-star level. “Disappointing” might not be the best description for Miz's January through May – he spent WrestleMania Season verbally sparring with John Cena after all – but there was surely some disappointment to be found in a five month stretch featuring relative mediocrity as compared to the prior quality he was offering regularly. It was, therefore, refreshing to see Miz have such an impressive outing against Ambrose last month.

The Lunatic Fringe tends to get lost in the shuffle in all major conversations these days, but let it also be known that Ambrose needed that strong showing at least as bad if not worse than Miz. It has been a strange 2017 for the Asylum's leader coming off his career year in 2016. In spite of his downturn in popularity with the diehard fanbase post-Summerslam '16, I felt he closed the year strongly and that his overall year was impressive enough to vote him #2 behind AJ Styles in my Wrestler of the Year rankings; his saga over the WWE Championship with Styles produced a similar run of four-star quality from September to December as Miz vs. Ziggler, yet he too struggled to recreate that magic after the turn of the calendar and was even left off the WrestleMania main card.

A great match can be rejuvenating, as memories of Ziggler and Miz nearly stealing the show at Backlash '16 and parlaying their success into a Rivalry of the Year candidate may conjure. Though it would be safe to say that Miz and Ambrose have not nearly to the same extent utilized the past five weeks, post-Extreme Rules, to amplify their storyline ahead of Great Balls of Fire like Ziggler and Miz were able to last year leading to No Mercy, there remains something engaging about Miz-Ambrose; they have not yet escaped the shadow of their June Match of the Month, which in this case is a good thing because it is the primary catalyst for the upcoming next match in their series being interesting. Whatever formula boosted their chemistry last month beyond what they showed earlier in the year on Smackdown (when Ambrose beat Miz for the IC Title in January) should by all rights be replicated on Sunday, plus the stacked card spreading Raw's top talent across the show instead of piling so much of it into one match will likely prompt Miz and Ambrose to change their style at GBOF and work at a faster pace.

From there, a third PPV title match in a row at Summerslam is possible, but feels at the moment to be unlikely. Smackdown had to make its rivals stretch out their conflicts due to its thinner roster last fall; the current Raw roster has no such issue. Miz and Ambrose will exit each other's orbits with nothing but options in front of them, but they will also be at a crossroads. Since they brought their renewed rivalry to Raw in the Superstar Shake-Up, their place in the hierarchy has been linked. As soon as they split away from each other, they will begin their journeys toward their new roster positions with the red team.

Ambrose is a fascinating case right now. 365 days ago, he was enjoying his first reign as WWE Champion, was a few weeks away from winning the historic Shield Triple Threat, and was becoming the alpha male on Smackdown. The last seven months have displayed the back half of 2016 to be less a main-event confirmation of a superstar who had been on the cusp of more consistent headliner pushes and more of what is presently looking like the highest peak of a career that may be settling into a top-tie, but secondary role – more Rick Rude than Roddy Piper, more Razor Ramon than HBK, more Kane than Undertaker. One thing is for certain: six months ago, it would have been hard to imagine Ambrose missing WrestleMania but, after a near five-hour show dropped his spot for a six-minute, six-woman match, it does not seem at all unlikely that he could miss Summerslam.

How strange is it that, today, Ambrose's best shot to avoid missing both of the year's top PPVs is pulling just a little bit more life out of a feud with The Miz? It highlights the turnaround that Miz has had in the past year, especially dating back to his Talking Smack blitz of Daniel Bryan that suddenly reminded the wrestling world how well he could take command on the stick, leading into his next-level, “Oh look how good Miz became while having disappeared from main-event relevance” trio vs. Ziggler. Presuming a title retention on Sunday, Miz should have his pick of several top flight challengers for Summerslam, chief among them Seth Rollins and Finn Balor, either of whom could give Miz the kind of opponent ready and willing to add more to the in-ring presentation than the IC Champion was able to show at Mania 33. The A-Lister has earned the chance to translate his B-PPV success to the stages of the Big Four. Rollins vs. Miz jumps out as a potentially excellent mid-card match for August's Summer Classic.

All the while, one cannot help but wonder if Miz will be able to again reach the cusp of the main-event scene on Raw as he did on Smackdown before the Shake-Up. Miz assuredly seemed poised to get into the WWE Championship hunt before the rosters were blown up in April. Had the rosters stood pat, Miz would have regained the WWE Title by the end of 2017; such was a popular thought that would have gone over very well with a quite appreciative audience hip to his act, even if they love to hate it. Summerslam, then, could prove the next step in his journey toward the highest position on Raw; or it could be a positive sign of a different form, that he was brought to Raw to be the top guy of the mid-card. Given the career roll he has been on, that certainly would not be the worst thing in the world given the WWE mid-card's inconsistency over the years but, after 15 years of being conditioned to define greatness by WWE/World/Universal Title success and/or headlining exploits, one struggles to shake the feeling that Miz should be on his way back to the very top. Could we collectively settle for Miz continuing to re-establish a higher value of the mid-card's top star or would we be more inclined toward disappointment that he was not given what we felt he deserved?

Raw's upper-echelon depth – as evidenced by an incredibly stacked Great Balls of Fire card – creates the potential for a lot of talking points. How Miz and Ambrose will fit into the grand, red-hued scheme of things beyond July may not be the first thing on everyone's minds right now, but they remain a pair whose near futures (from now to year-end) are very intriguing for both how high they could possibly reach and how low they could possibly fall.

Very Few Are On The Neville Level, BUT…

Through the first half of the WWE calendar, nobody has been more consistent than the current Cruiserweight Champion, Neville. Subjective as the source material may be, the previous statement is about as close to factual as you are going to get in sports entertainment.

LOP is planning to air on its podcast network later this month a mid-year awards show and, on that program, Neville will likely be a popularly mentioned candidate for 2017 WWE Wrestler of the Half-Year. For someone so worthy of such praise, there have been far too few column inches and far too few on-air minutes dedicated to the Englishman who reinvented himself at 2016’s end en route to becoming the backbone of both 205 Live and Raw’s mid-card scene on pay-per-view this year. He has checked every box necessary for maximizing his WWE worth, from altering his look to appear the menacing antagonist to developing defining catchphrases that help him stand out among his peers to modifying his in-ring style to reduce the pop-worthy offense that initially made him famous in order to better suit his newfound darker image. It has been the kind of effort that has fulfilled the promise he showed in leading the charge on NXT during the brand’s initial ascent to something greater than developmental.

However, even while routinely showcasing that very few superstars in WWE right now are on “The Neville Level,” his contributions are being muted by his association with the cruiserweight division. 205 Live, though arguably the best piece of programming produced on a weekly basis by WWE, has reportedly failed to gain much traction with the Network subscribers and the status of the division on Monday Night Raw continues vacillate between underutilized and poorly (albeit uniquely) presented, in spite of Neville’s excellent run as the pinnacle wrestler of the cruiser ranks. Almost assuredly, if he was the “King of the United States” or the “King of the World,” as he might be if he were holding the US or Intercontinental Championships instead of the Cruiserweight Title, the conversation about Neville’s work this year would be much louder.

It calls into question, does the above, what Neville can do to push the Cruiserweights further and what will have to happen for Neville’s ability to be recognized among the elite of the business moving forward, certainly by the general audience but especially by Vince McMahon and Co.

Given WWE’s overall history with cruiserweights and the nine month sample size of how the division has been treated since its debut on Raw last September, it would be safe to surmise that the current spot that it occupies may be the highest it ever reaches in the WWE hierarchy. Neville has averaged 14-minutes per PPV title defense, so he has been able to build an incredibly impressive resume this year against a variety of opponents. He is not getting short-changed on time, therefore at least somewhat validating WWE’s treatment as being sort of a baseline, “should it never get any better than it is right now, it is actually much better today than it arguably ever was in the past.” That said, if Neville can manage to get a Summerslam title defense (presuming he retains against Tozawa on Sunday) of comparable length to his 2017 PPV average on the main card rather than the pre-show, it would be a small but consequential step to advancing the reputation of the division.

Say what you will about pre-shows, particularly for the ones at the biggest events of the year, but there is a reason why replays do not include the kick-off line-up; WrestleMania 33 will forever be recognized on the Network and on DVD/Blu-Ray as having begun with “America the Beautiful,” not the outstanding bout from 90 minutes earlier between Neville and Austin Aries. For he who gravity once forgot to have an 11-15 minute, one-on-one match immortalized forever on this year’s Summerslam would be an historical achievement for himself and the division. Rey Mysterio was the original division’s peak superstar and his lone singles Cruiserweight Title match at one of the Big 2 was a sub-six-minute bout at WrestleMania XIX; and, truthfully, the high watermark for cruiserweight wrestling at either Summerslam or Mania is probably X-Pac and Tajiri’s 7-and-a-half minute encounter all the way back at the 2001 Summer Classic.

It might be a subtle change, a match the caliber of Neville’s other 2017 PPV performances against the likes of Aries, Rich Swann, or Jack Gallagher boosting the profile of a Top 2 event, but it would also be unprecedented. Adding fuel to that fire, it would be that much more prestigious if WWE brought in a talent from NXT like Johnny Gargano to challenge Neville or, even better, someone like Kota Ibushi or Zack Sabre, Jr., whose exploits in last summer’s Cruiserweight Classic were among the most impressive of the entire tournament. NXT has a history of spicing up its cards with one-offs that strike a chord with the most ardent section of the fanbase – Mickie James in Toronto last November and Jushin Liger for the original Brooklyn Takeover; WWE could certainly do the same if so inclined. If anyone nodding their head in agreement about the points made thus far says that they would not chomp at the bit to see Ibushi vs. Neville at Summerslam, then I’ll have to call you a liar, Mean Gene.

Neville can be something more for WWE; that much has been made clear by his incredible year to date. He has proven that he has the ability to carry a fledgling brand to greater heights than it had ever achieved before twice now. It remains to be seen how (and if) he will transition out of the Cruiserweight division but, as a former NXT Champion who reigned for 287 days, one would think him capable of advancing his career to the next level. The bottom line is that “The Neville Level” should not be limited by weight class when it is above 95% of the rest of the roster both in the ring and in regards to his ability to play a captivating character.

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