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Barrett Syndrome: WWE’s Fatal Disease by Mike Holland

When word surfaced early this week that Wade Barrett had reportedly given his notice to World Wrestling Entertainment and expressed a desire to not re-up with the promotion when his current contract expires later this year, it got people talking to the point where Barrett took to Twitter to neither deny nor confirm the rumors at this time. That, of course, tends to indicate the latter. Should the chatter prove accurate, it would mean a great deal even on the surface to the WWE: Barrett, of course, rose to fame when he won the inaugural season of NXT, back before that was cool. It has even more meaning outside of that simple context, though. It is the latest and most distressing indication that the biggest and most well-known wrestling company in the world still hasn’t learned how to manage some of its best talent. Barrett’s job satisfaction is more important than one might think. In fact, it’s a potential harbinger of something the company needs to sort out and quickly if they’re to have any hope filling the void left by the retirement of Daniel Bryan and the gathering age of some of their other main eventer standouts.

Barrett’s actually been with WWE since before the NXT portion of the story took hold, as he competed for feeder promotions OVW and FCW as early as 2006. That seasoning and work on his character paid dividends when he won the competition in 2010, and what struck me most during that period was his skill on the microphone and comfort in front of the camera. Barrett’s NXT victory guaranteed a fast track to the main roster, and he was formally introduced just days later in what has come to be known as one of the most unique and captivating moments in WWE history. Barrett led a group of NXT rookies (later dubbed the Nexus) down to ringside and laid waste to everyone and everything in and around it. It was not only unlike anything the promotion had done before, it was a brilliant way to make the actual contest standings irrelevant and get a bunch of fresh faces over in the briefest of windows. And while it placed Wade at the forefront literally and figuratively, looking back it may have been the first in a series of small mistakes for his future specifically. While being “leader” of this renegade group was a prominent spot for sure, their discontent with the trappings of traditional wrestling and inclusion of lesser lights like Michael Tarver made his individual spotlight dim just a bit. All of that said, it was a hell of a way to get the ball rolling. That momentum wouldn’t last nearly long enough.

Barrett’s assault on champion John Cena and the ensuing back-and-forth that followed would carry the Nexus leader through the summer and fall of that year, with Barrett chasing the belt and ultimately falling short but being booked decently throughout. (We’ll forgive the lame “You’re either Nexus or against us!” catchphrase, as I’ve written more than a few bad headlines for articles. This one’s a humdinger, though.) Things began to lose steam when the WWE incorporated the odd catch of having Cena join up with Barrett’s group (against his will) courtesy of Wade’s victory over him at Hell in a Cell. I won’t even bother getting into the twisted logic that occurred following that bad decision, but it existed mostly to prevent actually having to give Barrett any type of run with the big belt. While one can argue that Barrett wasn’t ready, it’s not like it had to be an extended title reign. The idea should have been to get the idea of the NXT winner being a big deal over even more than the talent himself, but all the right turns of Cena in and out of the group and odd stipulations added up to wrestling’s equivalent of the Mousetrap boardgame. It’s fun the first time, but by the third you’re headed back to Monopoly. Or Hungry, Hungry Hippos. Your call. Barrett would finish out what started as a most promising year being removed from the Nexus by its new leader (and one of the talents the group attacked in the first place), CM Punk.

Rather than taking advantage of his newfound freedom, WWE creative immediately lumped Barrett back into a group situation with an even worse name, this time the Corre. While that group was unquestionably Nexus Lite, it did allow Barrett his first taste of actual gold in March when he defeated Kofi Kingston for the Intercontinental Championship. (New big baddie being contented with secondary title after flashes of the big dance? Might seem familiar to a guy like Kevin Owens, if you’re keeping track.) The Corre would be expunged from the record by May, when member Ezekiel Jackson defeated Barrett for said belt and the former leader was unable to reclaim it. It would take until October to dismiss this aborted attempt and refocus on Barrett as a true singles competitor. Barrett would term this renaissance the “Barrett Barrage,” and it was an effective string that saw him battle both Bryan and Randy Orton all the way up until injury struck in early 2012. While Barrett was booked strongly, the company demonstrated their lack of faith in the big man by making him ultimately the loser in both scenarios.

It would be summer of 2012 before Barrett was able to return, and his new look resulted in a winning streak against many of the company’s lesser lights while major success continued to elude him. Barrett did capture the I-C Title for the second time heading into the new year, but momentum was stalled when the WWE made the decision to sacrifice him to the debuting Bo Dallas at 2013’s Royal Rumble. That decision was also a minor but silly one, as it never led to much of anything short of some backstage vignettes and a match in NXT. To compound matters, Barrett suffered the 50/50 booking stigma as champion that has dogged much of the company’s rising stars, going back and forth with his belt to the Miz before ultimately dropping it to Curtis Axel. Barrett’s low point of a very low year likely came in late summer when he was shaved by frequent rival Bryan in the unsuccessful attempt to deliver a corporate makeover for Mr. McMahon. Visa issues removed Barrett from television yet again, but at least offered him a respite from the creative grind and a chance to rebrand himself via The JBL and Cole Show. This would give rise to the Bad News Barrett character, a humorous and entertaining tweak on Barrett’s badass persona that at long last allowed him to harken back to the verbal skills he had demonstrated during the NXT sessions.

Barrett’s buzz caused the company to put him back into the limelight following his April return, as he came out of the gates with several big wins en route to his fourth Intercontinental reign with a victory over Big E at Extreme Rules. Barrett’s launching point would be waylaid once more, however, when an unfortunate shoulder injury and subsequent surgery forced him to be removed from the summer’s Money In the Bank match. That surgery would also of course cause him to vacate the Intercontinental Title. He would get the belt back at the beginning of 2015 when he returned to action, beating Dolph Ziggler in a 2-out-of-3-falls match. That return to form would once again not last long, however, as Dean Ambrose “stole” Barrett’s belt and kicked off a chain reaction of hijinks with various claims to Wade’s title. In addition to being silly and denigrating the secondary title, it also rubbed off plenty of luster, with Barrett losing a fistful of non-title matches to just about everyone under the sun en route to a loaded WrestleMania 31 ladder match won by longtime rival Bryan. Barrett had once again found his footing just to be eclipsed by a member of the group he headed.

Despite dropping the I-C Title again, Barrett had a decent start to 2015, culminating in WWE’s decision to make him King of the Ring with a hard-fought victory over fellow Englishman Neville. While one would thing a crown would be a step in the right direction for the former bearer of Bad News, he intentionally got himself counted out against Neville in their Payback rematch and embarked in a forgettable and ridiculous feud with R-Truth. Barrett would remain stalled in the shallows until SummerSlam, when he was hastily inserted into the Stardust/Stephen Amell “feud” as Stardust’s “Lords of Darkness” tag team partner. That tandem would be history by the end of the evening, when Barrett was turned on by his partner. Barrett took a brief break to film Eliminators for WWE Studios before reappearing on television by October to form a new tag team with Sheamus. Following Survivor Series, Barrett aligned himself with the Authority and was ushered into the new League of Nations stable by Sheamus along with Rusev and Alberto Del Rio. Wade’s trip from group headliner to corporate lackey was complete in just about six years.

All of this serves to indicate why Barrett likely is more than dissatisfied with his position and overall booking by the company he works for. Even his League role has been half-hearted, as he’s invisible more often than not and rarely involved in high-profile matches other than as an extra hand or overseer. The WWE has unilaterally failed to follow through on much of anything about Barrett, and despite his attempts to broaden his horizons or freshen things up, it seems on the surface that they don’t have plans for him. That’s unfortunate to say the least, as Barrett has shown major skill during his runs with the company and has a giant upside and an interesting backstory. It’s also a thumb in the eye to the current makeover Triple H and friends are trying to achieve, as they attempt to convince us all that times have changed and they are suddenly interested in new and different faces occupying their airtime. If they can’t figure out a launching point for their own inaugural NXT winner, what hope have they? While injuries and other setbacks cannot be blamed on the promotion, their inability to follow through on their own plans is ultimately an Achilles’ heel for them. It’s an ongoing conundrum that has impacted many of their bigger names up and down the roster, and it’s an entirely avoidable one. Making mistakes is part of life and experience, naturally, but indecision is unforgivable and crippling, particularly when you’re tasked with keeping people interested.

Titan Tower’s take on this has been what you’d likely think, which is to say blame the talent, keep calm and carry on. Witnessed most largely by Vince McMahon’s admission to Stone Cold Steve Austin on his podcast that plenty of his talent hadn’t grabbed the brass ring, it may have come across as an honest admonition but in reality it’s nothing more than hollow boasting. Any company that will put their most important belt on a largely inactive competitor who is supposed to be running things can be looked at with the utmost skepticism. One certainly can’t accuse Barrett of not doing so, as he developed a large part of his following on his own and did things “the right way.” While the WWE can’t be immune to fan criticism, this regime has made a point of thumbing their nose at the masses in stubborn defiance at times. You can excuse that as good business if you’d like, but having the same credo with your own employees is maddening. The WWE surely doesn’t owe their wrestlers anything more than an opportunity and a platform. Except, of course, for due diligence and persistence. Making a star is not an overnight process. Perhaps when looking at Barrett, WWE decision makers see a mirror instead of a man: a reflection of their own failure to do anything perceptible with a guy they should have been able to make a star.

In that way, this is less about Barrett and his eventual decision than it is about the WWE as a whole. This is the very real risk the company runs as it struggles to find suitable replacements for the factors (both in and out of their control) that have plagued their roster. As they navigate retirements, injuries, movie careers, and aging, they have a necessity to replace the names of yore with bigger (and hopefully in some cases better) talents. In theory, they couldn’t have a better moment to do so. The talent pool has done nothing but grow, even with the WWE’s perceived (and to many degrees real) lack of competition. To do so, however, will require a fundamental sea change in how they operate, something that frankly may not be possible as long as the company is steered by the hand of Vincent McMahon. Its greatest champion may be its greatest enemy. It’s like something out of a wrestling playbook, ironically.

The story of Wade Barrett, no matter how it ends, should serve as a cautionary tale. If it ends in his departure from the company, it’s an out-and-out tragedy. Regardless of how you feel about Barrett or his ring work, any and all wrestling fans should be concerned about where this thing started and how it finished up. The company has nobody but themselves to blame. But will they? I’m afraid I’m the one with some bad news now.

Twitter: @DharmanRockwell

Email: coffeyfan@hotmail.com

 

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