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    Monday, December 28, 2020

    The Year That Was: WWE

    Roman Reigns in WWE

    As the worst year in recent memory winds down in the next few days, we've decided to do something different here on Smark Henry: instead of listing down 31 days of wrestling in 2020, we chose to take a quick look back at the promotions that have kept us sane through the pandemic. We present The Year That Was, what we hope to be our new annual year-end series.

    Let us begin The Year That Was by saying that it was never supposed to be like this.

    Nobody had "world-changing pandemic and quarantine" on their 2020 planners when they first got them around this time last year. Wrestling was supposed to go on as normal, and we were supposed to welcome a new decade with a little more hope. For one thing, the United States would be getting a new president. Well, they did, but at what cost? Maybe things would've gotten better around here, but it's more than safe to say that they didn't.

    At this point, saying things are terrible because of COVID-19 is not only beating a dead horse; it's mutilating it with a blunt weapon beyond recognition. For companies and organizations with the option and capability to do so, the focus was getting through it the best way they can. For some, that meant having the good sense to stop, assess the situation, and get the right bearings. For others, it meant adjusting as much as they could.

    For a multi-billion dollar company such as WWE, though, it meant pretending things were normal, and even outright denying the pandemic. In a vacuum, everything WWE did this year would've been easy (and tempting) to deem perfect—an amazing pivot in a time of great need. Unfortunately, the real world is far more complex, as we're about to tackle in this recap of a horrible year.

    WWE mastered pandemic programming

    Let's be honest: if there was anyone who was going to be good at putting on shows during the pandemic, it was going to be the company with the most resources.

    The first six or so months of it were rough, but they made do. Without the Performance Center in Orlando, you likely wouldn't have seen an ounce of new WWE programming until they figured out how to do the ThunderDome. And the ThunderDome itself was a stroke of genius, no matter how much some fans might malign it. It is a structure made specifically for these times, and fans deriding it probably don't understand that the alternatives—having fans in the arena or holding shows in complete silence—are much, much worse. With this investment alone, the WWE reinforces their standing on top of the wrestling world.

    The resourceful pivot doesn't start and end at the ThunderDome, too. As soon as they knew they had to do shows without fans, WWE didn't take long to maximize—and, eventually, overuse—an innovative new format of pro wrestling. Enter the cinematic match, born from Matt Hardy's Deletion series from Impact Wrestling.

    We'd seen it before when Hardy imported a Deletion match into the WWE (and even partially in the past, like Roddy Piper and Goldust's Hollywood Backlot Brawl), but we saw it in full force this year when the company realized they had much more creative freedom in shows without a live audience. They started strong at WrestleMania with the Boneyard Match and the Firefly Fun House Match, which reminded us of how different (and fresh) wrestling could be with a little more wizardry.

    And when these cinematic matches were good, they were really good, to the point that the company decided that they were good enough to do every month for a time. Then they became silly, by which point they stopped overrelying on the format, allowing them to focus on what the wrestlers do best: wrestling.

    WWE's hit-or-largely-miss storytelling stayed the same, but the wrestlers came to work. Pay-per-views, now shortened to three hours again, were full of decent-to-great matches from wrestlers who seemed to just want to work through the hard times. Everything would feel different due to the lack of a real crowd, but there's no denying the amount of work being put in.

    However, the work wrestlers put in wouldn't always guarantee a WWE wrestler the best treatment by the company. Or even the bare minimum.

    WWE also could not avoid controversy this year

    It's common knowledge that WWE and Vince McMahon are not saints of labor—the basic and infamous independent contractor issue will already tell you as much. Despite being a wealthy sports and entertainment company, though, the company still found new lows to sink to.

    The first and most obvious example of this is this year's Black Wednesday, in which a number of wrestlers, on-air personalities, producers, and office employees were fired or furloughed to improve the company's financial standing heading into the COVID-induced quarantine in the US. We've already written and spoken much about how WWE had more than enough resources to support all these employees, and the situation seems much better months after the fact as a lot of those wrestlers found new jobs and promotions, but the fact still remains that the company was heartless for making those cuts.

    The other, more unforgivable act was the fiasco WWE got into with its wrestlers for having additional means to make money and content via third-party platforms—to the point where they've fired one Superstar in Zelina Vega for not following the new rule. In a time when the boys and girls are making less than they've made in the past with no live events, the company clamps down on these side hustles, trying to take a piece of the pie for themselves when they have a lot in reserve. Yes, times are hard, but they're harder for the people busting their bodies for our entertainment and the corporation's bottom line.

    We also can't forget the reckoning of #SpeakingOut. While NXT and NXT UK were hit with allegations more (and this article only covers the main roster) the company also had some alleged violators to deal with on its main shows in Matt Riddle and Lars Sullivan. As of this writing, neither man seem to have been sanctioned for anything. Riddle, currently embroiled in a legal battle with his accuser, claims to have proof of consent; Sullivan, who was revealed to be inappropriately commenting on his online yoga instructor, is off SmackDown TV for unknown reasons. The company's record with these violations doesn't look to be all that good, even when it's made a number of #SpeakingOut-related releases in NXT.

    Lastly, one other anti-employee policy that isn't so obvious is the mere fact that WWE kept pushing through with shows and tapings despite the very real threat of COVID-19 all around. Despite the wrestlers' desire to work, that in itself is a risk to everyone involved in show production just to have real-time programming. This is, after all, the reason why guys like Daniel Bryan, Roman Reigns, and Sami Zayn decided to take time off at various points this year—to protect themselves and their families. While it wouldn't have been the same, the WWE has so many hours of old content available to replay on RAW, SmackDown, and NXT every week had they really wanted to, and people would have understood.

    It's that present danger that makes it difficult to completely consider WWE's adjustment to the pandemic a work of genius. When you remember that everyone is literally risking their life and their health just so we could all be entertained—and so the company could still make money—the fact that WWE is still holding shows feels more desperate than impressive. The only saving grace is that we continue to be entertained.

    WWE found stars by relying on its core roster again

    A huge part of that entertainment factor is because WWE doubled down a bit on building its own stars instead of relying on its biggest names.

    Brock Lesnar was out after the empty-arena WrestleMania 36, allowing Drew McIntyre to anchor RAW for the rest of the year. While it hadn't always been a good championship reign, McIntyre now is a far cry from being remembered as a 3MB member and a failed Chosen One, and the red brand gained a new big name that they can believably keep around the Universal Championship picture.

    But perhaps the biggest star-making transformation undoubtedly goes to Roman Reigns, who left SmackDown the same character he's been for the past six years and returned a Samoan god-dictator, putting in the most unbelievable and undeniable work of his career. Not only did he transform himself (and Paul Heyman), but he brought up his cousin Jey Uso with him—and will likely do the same for Jimmy Uso when he too comes back from injury.

    Cutting down on wrestlers on the roster forced WWE to really evaluate what they've got and make the most with it—plus use the manpower they've got from their so-called developmental territory. This is how we get new additions to the main shows like Keith Lee, Matt Riddle, and even the motley crew that makes up RETRIBUTION, and it's also how existing main roster guys like Big E, Jey Uso, and Alexa Bliss get retooled for bigger purposes.

    That's not to mean that the young core doesn't need help from veteran names anymore. John Cena was still part of COVID-era WrestleMania. And we did get the miraculous in-ring return of one Adam "Edge" Copeland, which promises to be even better once he returns from (another) injury.

    If anything, WWE is in safe hands for the foreseeable future, thanks to the sheer amount of people still on their roster after budget cuts. (Oddly enough, they're still able to hire new Performance Center recruits from the independents and other backgrounds despite needing to do COVID-related cuts. We'll also cover NXT in a separate post tomorrow.)

    Expect the ThunderDome era to continue in 2021

    Despite developments in COVID-19 vaccines happening right now, it's tough to expect everything going back to normal until we're deep in 2021. The pro wrestling industry in the United States, not just WWE, has been ingenious enough to adapt into a setup that can sustain them during the pandemic for as long as they need to. 

    But for as long as everyone is risking the virus for our entertainment (and their catharsis), WWE and the ThunderDome are still the benchmark for how to do pandemic sports right, even if the piped-in crowd noises feel insincere. The only thing left for the WWE to do in order to perfect their COVID programming is to treat their employees with much more respect and intelligence, but for Vince McMahon, that might be asking for too much.

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    Item Reviewed: The Year That Was: WWE Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Romeo Moran
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