If you watched NXT Takeover Wednesday, you likely already know that the major story coming out of that excellent event was the first appearance of one Samoe Joe in a WWE-sanctioned affair. While that moment was epic to those of us that consider ourselves massive wrestling fans in general, a larger story was playing itself out at exactly the same time. That tale concerns the fact that WWE’s feeder promotion, NXT, has almost single-handedly turned the company’s Network into must watch programming. NXT continues to be the place where these singular moments take place, and the irony should not be lost on anyone that it’s a stripped-down environment with less obvious scripting and much less dollars spent that has been providing those moments with much more frequency. What started as an attempt to showcase the “future” stars of the company has morphed into a “who’s next?” type guessing game where the main roster is buttressed by the elevation of talents that have been knocking on the door for quite some time. Unstoppable had plenty of that, not the least of which was Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks putting forth the kind of wrestling clinic that makes #GiveDivasAChance look like #GiveMeABreak. There’s no place for that on Raw or Smackdown? More fool them.
Potentially lost in the appearance of Samoa Joe was the singular work of NXT champion Kevin Owens. This was already a big week for Owens, as he appeared in a segment on Monday’s Raw that spoke volumes in just a few moments. Owens was the latest to answer the call of United States champion John Cena, but he did it in a way that was vastly different from anything seen before. Following some verbal jousting between the two, Owens not only laid out the WWE’s golden boy, but opted against wrestling him in the challenge. That set up the angle to have Owens vs. Cena held off until the upcoming Elimination Chamber event, a brilliant and calculated business decision by World Wrestling Entertainment for a couple of reasons. The first is that the Elimination Chamber will only be airing on the Network rather than traditional PPV outlets, automatically boosting the value of Network subscriptions. The second is that Owens is being used as a main reason to invest the time and money to watch EC. Both have the potential to pay some major dividends in the long run.
Having NXT talent facing off with John Cena appears to be the WWE’s du jour choice anyway of late. Cena’s reign as US champion includes hard-fought victories over NXT standouts (and former champions themselves) Neville and Sami Zayn. While those confrontations served to elevate the NXT folks and hopefully generate some additional interest in the promotion, they continued the trend of handing the next generation of talent to Captain America on a silver platter. Nice try, little guy, but no cigar. Given the on-again, off-again bromance between the WWE’s hierarchy and the oft-injured Daniel Bryan, as well as WWE creative’s decision to turn disdain into smaller wrestlers as a fun storyline, you can be forgiven for writing these things off as little nods to a good portion of the fanbase with little to no substance behind it. While Neville has been booked solidly overall, the company opted against being brave enough to hand him the King of the Ring crown. (I won’t question that decision completely: Barrett’s an excellent talker and KOTR is booked better as a heel role anyway, but going against the grain once in a while wouldn’t kill you.) Zayn’s appearance unfortunately was marred by an injury that will send the extremely popular wrestler to the sidelines as well.
That’s why anyone thinking the current reigning NXT champion answering Cena’s summons had the potential to be another in a long series of underperforming moments can’t be faulted for their reasoning. The WWE has thus far flirted with the concept of doing things differently, only to find the well-trodden path a bit too familiar to deviate from. Throwing fans a bone is something that has to be done from time to time to prevent an uprising, but soon settles back into the rote that we’ve found ourselves confronted with all too often. Simply put, WWE lacks motivation to make their product better (particularly in a pay-per-view setting) because traditional buy rates no longer mean a damn thing to them. Given that they’ve taken the risk of allowing their subscribers to get a month for free and drop anytime, they have already envisioned a future where people pay as they go and only sign up to get the PPV they are interested in. WrestleMania, of course, still has to be a solid sell, as it’s the time when wrestling is most under the microscope, but as for the rest of it.
The Owens appearance was handled differently, though, and that’s a damn good thing in this day and age. Owens had no glowing admiration for WWE’s golden boy, no awe at standing across the ring from John Cena. He was all bravado and ego, expecting Cena to recognize HIM. Beyond that, Owens refused to play second fiddle to Cena’s list of accomplishments, impressive as it may be. Owens asserted that he’d actually been wrestling longer than Cena, and therefore was excused from JC’s wrestling sermons. The idea that these words would be spoken on a Monday Night Raw is as exciting as it is groundbreaking. It reminded me of CM Punk’s presentation that got him massively over, when he turned the wrestling world inside out and exposed the business in a brilliantly executed and performed way that made it look all the more real. Owens felt real too, and did so in an unpackaged, gruff way that was unlike anything seen in WWE in quite a while.
Owens continued what’s been a highly successful run Wednesday, as he weathered the storm of former friend Sami Zayn’s rage and debilitated him with one thunderous, powerful, and devastating move. Owens was outspoken about his desire to injure Zayn, and continued to lay the hammer on him despite attempts to give him medical attention at ringside. Owens respected nothing and no one in executing his plan, staring down and laying out NXT Commissioner William Regal in an excellent sequence before being chased away by the arriving Joe. Owens played even that tried-and-true swerve masterfully, teasing a regroup and altercation before opting against it. Owens was booked as a heel champion should be, a man whose reign is what’s important to him and who will preserve it at all costs. Zayn’s absence in the coming weeks will be slightly lessened by the immediate groundswell of excitement over Owens v. Joe, and that’s the whole point. Hell of a show.
What remains now is the hardest test of all, and one that the WWE seemingly has the most difficulty with: staying the course. Fans of Owens’s work outside of the WWE will continue to support their man no matter what the outcome of his upcoming match with Cena may be. Ditto fans of his work in NXT, of which there are many. It’s the culture of the organization that needs to be open to change, and that’s what the success or failure of Kevin Owens represents to me. If he’s just another Rusev in sheep’s clothing, what’s the point? If, however, Owens can be leveraged to usher in an era of needed change and growth that the WWE can capitalize on in order to bring new fans into the fold while keeping the existing ones coming back for more, that’s another matter entirely. The best part? Owens doesn’t have to win the United States Title to do it. He doesn’t even have to beat John Cena to do it. He just can’t lose.
The match itself is the most valuable part. Owens needs to be booked strongly, a signifier to fans everywhere that there are those good enough to stand toe-to-toe with the WWE’s best and not be made to look silly. That’s a sea change from the era of taking opposing bookers and putting them in polka dots. WWE has been placed in the unenviable position of being forced to work for the betterment of their rivals, because their actions have caused a dearth of them. Success has bred contentment, and contentment has seen a steady exodus of wrestling fans into other forms of entertainment. Owens looks like you and me, speaks like you and me, and has the swagger of someone who has built up resentment of an institution they never truly felt a part of. That formula made buckets of money for gimmicks like Stone Cold Steve Austin and the New World Order, people who transcended the boos and cheers of the fans until just about everyone was on board. Owens is the Everyman wrestler, a guy who has busted his ass outside of the company and can now have that fact used to his benefit as he advances in the company. It’s the sort of meta headscratching storyline only pro wrestling can provide, and it’s absolutely delicious. Putting Cena on the other end of the scale is equally advantageous. He’s public enemy number one in the minds of many insider wrestling fans, and therefore it strengthens Owens even further. Handled correctly, this could be the start of a very solid and compelling origin story for the next “big baddie” in the WWE.
It may seem counterintuitive, but pro wrestling fans crave reality. Save the retro and cartoons for special event reunion shows. Should you doubt that fact, look no further than the Network itself: it’s most-watched programming outside of PPVs have been podcasts discussing the “true” side of the business with the McMahon Triumvirate. Wrestling has always been a morality tale, but it’s also been a microcosm of the world going on outside of it. Today’s world is filled with uncertainty, and there’s never been more opinions out there on everything accessible so easily. Moving forward with the same old stale presentation is therefore foolhardy. Seth Rollins is an excellent wrestler and has done a credible job as champion, but he’s tarred with the brush of The Authority. While that’s been effective in making him a heel and garnering nuclear heat, it’s also a rehash of stuff we’ve seen fifty times already. What’s needed is a guy who breaks the mold, who stares any form of corporate culture in its face and defies it to trump his own shadow. That’s where Owens comes in. The success or failure of the decision to launch him in such a singular way into the mainstream consciousness has plenty riding it besides his own destiny. It’s critical that the WWE looks at this match as what it should be: an enormous opportunity.
Wrestling has always been a melting pot. None of us should ever expect our opinions to equal the majority, nor that all aspects of entertainment won’t continued to be represented on WWE’s roster. While I might look at Stardust or New Day and sigh, there are those out there whom such things appeal to. Nothing wrong with that. What most of us can agree on is that going outside the box often generates excellent results. WWE can believe in their hearts whatever they like. What they owe to their fans, however, is compelling entertainment worthy of the money and time spent on it. WWE has been reeling since CM Punk departed for greener pastures. So have the fans. It’s time to get beyond that and move into a new era of reality-based entertainment. Sacred cows exist to be made into secular hamburger. Manning the grinder should be Kevin Owens. He deserves it. So do we.