A Year in Wrestling: 2015

Daniel Bryan hoisting the championship belt as confetti rains down on him. Photo Courtesy: Megan Elice Meadows
Daniel Bryan hoisting the championship belt as confetti rains down on him.
Photo Courtesy: Megan Elice Meadows

By Connor Risenhoover

It’s a new year, yes it is! January is the time that people get reflective.

The time where they evaluate the year that has been and look to make changes and bring themselves more happiness in the upcoming one.

2015 was a wild year in the world of professional wrestling. Companies like New Japan Pro Wrestling took steps to grab a larger, English speaking audience, startups like Lucha Underground surprised many, and the WWE’s developmental brand, NXT, was able to capture a section of the wrestling fan base that had felt alienated by the company’s flagship wrestling show Monday Night Raw.

It’s time to look and evaluate what to keep and what to change about wrestling for 2016.

Keep
Lucha: WWE is the king of professional wrestling and has been since the late 90’s. It is a massive, publicly-traded company that holds a quasi-monopoly on the wrestling industry. A company that runs shows in massive stadiums and arenas while its “competitors” run in small venues or gymnasiums. It is the big fish in the pond. Too large to be taken down. This past year, however, competition began to grow. Lucha Underground is a wrestling show that hit its stride in 2015 after debuting on the El Rey Network. The show uses stars from both America and Mexico with a blend of high flying wrestling, hardcore, and beautiful technical wrestling. Instead of trying to reproduce the WWE, which many competitors have tried and failed, Lucha attempted to do something different. Shot like a television show instead of a sport, the wrestling and competent writing produced a product which is completely different from the WWE. Lucha Underground will continue on El Rey this year.

NXT: What was originally a place for new WWE talent to practice in front of a live audience and television camera’s came into its own this year. This WWE product managed to gain back many fans who felt dissatisfied with the current product on the main roster. They managed to do this by going back to the roots of professional wrestling. Story lines were realistic, written in a way that anyone of any age could understand who was good and who was bad. Matches were short and to the point on the regular weekly show and were elongated into memorable matches on the quarterly Takeover show which was a “pay-per-view” for the NXT talent only on WWE’s streaming service. Most importantly, matches mean things on NXT. The talent doesn’t go out just to have matches. There are real/scripted stakes that make the stories work and the matches seem intense. Many times the Takeover special NXT puts on is better than the WWE’s monthly pay-per-view. By creating this brand, they have gathered more fans and put on internal pressure to perform for their main roster. Finally, it is a collection of some of the best independent talent and homegrown wrestlers. Guys like Sami Zayn (El Generico), Apollo Crews (Uhaa Nation), and Hideo Itami (KENTA) who are indie darlings are just as popular as a homegrown team of Enzo and Big Cass. NXT has been a home run this year. Don’t mess it up WWE.

Throw Out
Three Hours: Monday Night Raw hit historic lows last year. Weak story lines and injuries combined with three hours of programming to fill in one night has really hurt the Raw brand. There are only one or two matches that even feel like they matter on this long show and that will not get people to watch. By adding an extra hour a few years ago, the WWE taxed their creative team and have put too much time to fill on television. As a result too much of any given Raw feels redundant. So much so, that Hulu does an abbreviated Raw with nonessential parts cut out to get it down to nearly and hour and forty-five minutes. If those writing for WWE don’t care about parts of the show, why should the fans? This year they didn’t and ratings dropped to historic lows. Shorten the time on Monday night so that viewers get a bang for their buck. Allow the writers time to come up with good stuff in two hours so they don’t have to pad the show for an extra hour on a weekly basis. If what is going on feels compelling, fans will come back, but for that to be the case there need to be less stress for creative output on writers and the less they put out will be more impactful.

Injuries: This has been the worst year for injuries in wrestling. Top stars have dropped like flies. Wrestlers like Randy Orton, Cesaro, Daniel Bryan, Hideo Itami, Sami Zayn, Tyson Kidd, Shinsuke Nakamura, and Seth Rollins were seriously injured this year. Some fought through them but others were sidelined for months and others will be out for half of this year too. Several necks were broken in New Japan and rotator cuffs were torn in WWE. Whether the reason is over-work, over-use, or improper training, wrestling need to figure this out. Wrestling is dependent on athleticism and personality to draw money and to be successful. So if your top guys are out and your company cannot make new stars very well, (looking at you WWE) then injuries puts them in a dangerous position. Injuries are part of the business of athletics and will always happen. This was a terrible year for injuries and if the upcoming year has half of the injuries of last year, it will be successful on the injury front.

Keep/Toss
Women’s Wrestling: This was the year of women’s wrestling in America. The best match of the year was arguably Bayley v. Sasha Banks. Women were given a more prominent role on WWE with very mixed results. On NXT, there was never any mention that this was a change in the way women are traditionally seen in wrestling. Rather than being a sideshow attraction or an ability to see some skin, there was a focus on the ability and athleticism of the girls competing. There were great matches put on by women who love to wrestle. They were not objects to be ogled, but competitors to be admired. They were real people, albeit with their personalities turned up to 11, who had hopes, dreams, and thoughts that men, women, or children could identify with. They were likable and had reasons to cheer or boo them. Each female wrestler was different and unique. In NXT, women like Charlotte, Sasha, Becky, and Bayley were shining examples of ways to handle female wrestlers. Let them be wrestlers who happen to be female. Keep that. On the main roster those same women, with the exception of Bayley, who remained in NXT, were transformed into one dimensional characters who didn’t get along simply because “women hate each other right.” The same wrestlers who brought the house down at many shows were simply part of a mass of women who were the same. They have been unable to return to what made them special and are now part of the crowd. At the same time, fans were beaten over the head with how this was a “Divas Revolution.” (Women in WWE are referred to as Divas for some reason.) IT was a way to market the women without actually doing anything with them. Simply talk about how they are getting screen time and the Divas are now completely getting behind serious women wrestlers. Wrong. There are more Diva’s wrestling on WWE now, but it has still failed to recapture the women’s wrestling in NXT. Throw that out and get back to what made those women great. Get behind them and make them characters instead of a massive blob of women who are the same.

2015 was a big year for wrestling. Full of highs and lows, both in and out of the ring. NXT and its property were a very bright spot in the darkness that can sometimes be WWE. Lucha Underground will get a second season and continue to be a very good alternative for those bored with typical wrestling. There is New Japan and its streaming service for those interested in the incredible Japanese product. Not to mention the multiple indies like Pro Wrestling Gorilla, Ring of Honor, Evolve, and Chikara Pro. It was overall a very good year for fans of wrestling. Hopefully, 2016, doesn’t disappoint.