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Just Art – The Highs and Lows of Another Year in the Ring with WWE: The Hot Topics
By Samuel 'Plan
Dec 30, 2016 - 5:53:23 PM

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Just Art – The Highs and Lows of Another Year in the Ring with WWE: The Hot Topics

From the Author

It will forever take a very special effort for WWE to topple 1999 as king of terrible product, but I’ll be damned if 2016 didn’t have a good crack at it. Comfortably, to my mind, WWE’s worst year since 2012, the last 12 months in WWE have been fully in line with the bizarre events of the wider world. From last minute, panic-stricken Brand Extensions to one of, if not the single messiest WrestleMania Season of all time, with retirements, falls from grace and unexpected ascensions in between, it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster for us.

While admittedly I have a sour taste in my mouth coming off 2016, and am hoping like hell 2017 will refresh that, it must be said that not everything has been a disaster. Match quality, for one, has reached an all time high, with OTY honours across my five categories being tough to settle on. The Divas Revolution turned into an all new women’s status quo; the Brand Extension wasn’t quite the immediate disaster I had predicted; and the advent of the CWC has crafted brighter promise than ever before for, us WWE Loyalists; most notably, of course, those of us in the UK.

I don’t have space to cover every big talking point of a very busy year here today, but I will cover some of what I consider to be the most important discussion points of the past when it comes to the immediate future. As ever, my name is Samuel ‘Plan and today I’m here to ask a few questions.

’Plan Asks…

…is just me, or does anyone else think AJ Styles has turned out to be a Phenomenal cat among pigeons?

Recently over on Facebook, LOP resident Chad “The Doc” Matthews asked why Dean Ambrose has, in the eyes of some, suffered an undeserved downslide at the back end of this year. I don’t necessarily agree he has, but there is something to be said that the lustrous appeal of many talents – notably the previously untainted popularity of Shield alumni Ambrose and Rollins – has worn off in the wake of something even more unexpected: AJ Styles.

He was my pick for MVP of 2016 in the last edition of Just Art for good reason, and I won’t go over old ground. What I will cover here, though, is how it seems to be he is the only thing WWE fans are able to talk about right now. I have long been a champion of a competitive locker room, especially in WWE, and it seems Styles has been bred very much of a competitive mindset. His quest for success has been blood-thirsty, and a number of stars have found their own image dented in the process, with Ambrose chief among them.

The interesting question to ponder, though, is just how healthy a dynamic this is. WWE is always at its worst, functionally speaking, when backing one horse, and word on the Net is that Vinny Mac is a big fan of P1. Has 2016 seen a shift towards a star of an outgoing age, away from stars of that still incoming? After all, Styles wrestles high risk, and never has this issue been a more pertinent topic than in the year Daniel Bryan was forced into retirement before his time. Neither, truthfully, is Styles a particularly young star. What he is, though, is new to WWE audiences, and extremely talented. I just hope his success (much deserved, I hasten to add) doesn’t come at an unseen, longer term expense we may currently be blind to in our exhilaration at the unexpected.

…is just me, or was 2016’s Worst Ever-contending WrestleMania Season an indicator of what was to come?

Complete with pre-show, WrestleMania this year was almost as long as a full working day here in the UK. That’s insane, and entirely unreasonable. Indeed, WrestleMania 32 took excess literally, with an excessive crowd in an excessive stadium subjected to excessive run-times and excessive production values. The result was the kind of stodgy unpleasantness usually reserved for post-Christmas culinary gorging. It is not an experience I wish to relive, even if there is great danger we may have to.

What made this worse, of course, was the lead in; a mess the likes of which I haven’t seen in a long time. Somehow WWE managed to heavily push Roman Reigns after messing up his temporary growth in popularity for an unprecedented fourth time over, typically when most didn’t want to see it, all while not really pushing him and pushing Dean Ambrose instead…who they were never really pushing; only to then switch all the cards around at the last moment and do nothing short of push Ambrose off a cliff, with Lesnar along for the ride and Wyatt left reeling in the wake of The Rock setting his own name on fire. All the while, the latest McMahon saga hit new levels of derivative, dragging even Undertaker down into the mud, and the undercard managed to be both bloated with jobbers and mainly non-existent all at the same time. I mean, God above, it was all terrible.

Bright spots – mainly in the guise of the odd match here and there – did offset the all-time awfulness of the season for sure, but sadly it proved to be a sign of things to come. 2016, creatively, has had its priorities in a mix up all year long. Early, we were promised a tag revival, but that went nowhere. The successful Divas Revolution was followed up with melodramatic ham between Charlotte and Natalya that even our own Al Laiman would be jealous of. The Cruiserweight division was given the hottest, most robust introduction you could hope for before devolving into a revolving wheel of directionless pointlessness. New titles have been created, meaning little to nothing; divisions have been over-stretched; and hopes have been pinned on a solution that has only presented fresh problems: the Brand Extension.

All in all, WrestleMania Season this year was not an exception; it seems, instead, it was the beginning of a new rule.

…is just me, or was Daniel Bryan, in the end, the poster-boy of his Era?

Again, I do not wish to cover old ground as I wrote extensively on this issue earlier in the year after Bryan first announced his retirement. Needless to say, I believe he was truly the poster-boy of his Era (being Reality) in the end. He was at the heart of the fiercest controversies within an Era that cut its teeth on controversies. He was the biggest beneficiary of the power of social media in an Era that saw social media use become integral. He was the most beloved of IWC heroes in an Era that saw the IWC take centre stage among the wrestling fan base. He was a successful small man whose career narrative watched differently to the typical sustained push and, as a result, his popularity, unlike so many of his contemporaries, even now, never waned. Daniel Bryan epitomised and was utterly central to the Reality Era; even on the night it peaked, at WrestleMania XXX, Bryan’s story was front and centre.

Moreover, we are seeing the impact of his success upon the product of a newly burgeoning Era even now, with the introduction and embrace of cruiserweight talents across the globe; more liberal attitudes from WWE shown towards those migrating from the Indy circuit; a continued emphasis on internet favourites; and smaller athletes than ever before often paying visits to the company’s top tier; such as – yep, him again – AJ Styles, the current WWE World Champion.

Bryan’s career in WWE was certainly unconventional. But so too was the Reality Era he came to define. So interlinked were they together, that Bryan’s retirement provided a strong key indicator that a new Era was, at that stage, on the very near horizon.

…is just me, or has the second Brand Extension thus far had something of an unsure start?

Anybody who follows my work here, on social media or on LOP Radio will know that I was, to put it mildly, cynical about the prospect of a second Brand Extension. I have never bought into the pervasive opinion the Reality Era carried itself along with a product that stunk. For my money, 2013 – 2015 was a very strong time for the company creatively, and I am positive history will prove me right in that regard, eventually.

Why do I believe this? Put simply, and extricating the details about which I could write at length, I believe this because Reality worked feverishly at unpicking the vile habits WWE had gotten itself into courtesy of the First Brand Extension; such as an over-abundance of championships, a dilution of storyline emotion, under-qualified talents occupying over-privileged roster positions, an arthritic and unreliable system of pushing talent and, of course, a complete inability to write engaging mid card storylines. The prospect of a second Extension, therefore, at a time when we were only just beginning to shake off these bad habits of the first, filled me with dread.

Happily, I can say, though its start has been shaky and inconsistent on both sides of the split, and negative effects have been, and remain being felt, the formative stages of the second Extension have proven more positive than I had anticipated. SDL has enjoyed unblemished popularity; MNR’s main event cadre of talent in the first three months was delightfully fluid; new talents have been given unprecedented chances to shine, and none of them under-qualified for their newly minted spots; and the return of Brand exclusive pay-per-view has thrown up benefits I had not expected – like shorter run times and more proactive long-form storytelling. It hasn’t all been great, and certainly I don’t think problems from earlier months have been resolved in any way, shape or form, but it hasn’t (yet) been the unmitigated disaster I had prophesied.

…is just me, or has WWE successfully, if silently, addressed the years-long Big Four decay this year?

News broke not too long ago that WWE was moving toward making the Big Four all four hours long. I’m more a fan of shorter pay-per-view than longer, but I must say that I do feel this has had a positive affect on the sense of status the Big Four, conceptually, should carry to justify their continued special treatment. With more titles and a roster split too, it will at least afford room for both Brands to breathe on big occasions, decreasing the likelihood of a return to the poor pay-per-view form that marred the latter years of the first Extension. That’s a good thing.

While not every one of the Big Four this year has been a rousing success – with ‘Mania in particular being a memory I’d sooner not relive – it is, I think, safe to say that both the Rumble and Series hit fresh form that we can but hope continues in the coming year; with the latter glimpsing future potential as a specifically inter-brand heavy spectacular.

I remain wary of there being a Takeover at every Big Four weekend, especially considering that WWE’s formula for promotion to the main roster has now become so transparent it can unduly effect our perception of likely outcomes to some of these Takeover’s biggest bouts, but WWE’s subtle shift in how it presents and produces these Big Four shows has, even if only silently, helped begin returning the Big Four to a pedestal many believe – though admittedly some won’t – they deserve.

Maybe it’s time for WWE to even look at re-introducing a Big Fifth, to further split the year into seasonal storylines; in the kind of role King of the Ring once held, as a “Rumble to Summerslam” if you will. Certainly, this year Money in the Bank took what felt like the final step to transform itself into just that, thanks to a stacked card that felt equal to a ‘Mania, ‘Slam, Rumble or Series for sure.

…is just me, or could Goldberg be the key to revitalising Brock Lesnar’s future in the company?

Goldberg’s defeat of Lesnar at year’s end was one hell of a controversy among fans. I, for one, loved it. Now is not the time to get into the ins and outs of it though. What I will say is that it meant, for the first time since WrestleMania 31 – which is far too long a time considering Lesnar’s centricity to the product whenever he’s involved – I was excited to see what Brock Lesnar would do the next time he was on television.

I think it’s fairly accepted that, heading into Lesnar’s final appearance of this year, opinion was widely felt the Beast Incarnate needed a change. His status quo had solidified into outright sterility. His matches watched the same, his character was proving a dead end for those matched opposite him (see: Dean Ambrose) and the feud with Orton reached an unprecedented level of laziness on WWE’s part, who saw fit to not even bother writing so much as a hint of a story for it.

Then, out of nowhere, the Goldberg intrigue did everything fans had been asking for. There remains, even now, a hangover of outrage that Lesnar ended the vaunted Streak, but that’s a total non-issue to me. The point for me is simple: Lesnar’s status quo has been shook up, his character provided something to finally react to and, by extension, develop once more; and the Beast’s future role in the company has been refreshed, courtesy of his comfort zone being deconstructed.

So like I said, for the first time in too long a time, Lesnar has a future that should rightfully be considered intriguing, if not outright exciting; and that can only be a good thing for WWE and its wider cast of characters.

2016 was a very busy year, and there are plenty of discussion points I haven’t had time to hit today. These have been, for me, some of the most interesting though, and certainly those that, I believe, will play most heavily on WWE’s 2017. But do tell me how you feel about any or all of these subjects; do you agree with my positions or disagree? And what other hot topics do you feel will come to prove important as we move into a new year, and hopefully a fresh start in the world’s leading pro wrestling promotion?

Leave a comment below, drop me an email at samuel.plan101@gmail.com, follow me on Twitter by clicking the button at either end of this column or find me on Facebook by clicking the link at either end of this column to join in on the debate!

Next time, I’ll be taking a look back at the shortlist of contenders, and picking a winner from them, for my very first of five MOTY categories: Network Match of the Year. Consisting of any singles male or female match to take place on Network-exclusive broadcasting, that shortlist of contenders is, in no particular order, Samoa Joe vs. Finn Bálor for the NXT Championship at NXT Takeover: Dallas; Triple H vs. Dean Ambrose for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at Roadblock; and Kota Ibushi vs. TJ Perkins in the Semi-Final of the Cruiserweight Classic.

Until then, thank you for reading!

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