Guest Column: 20 ways to improve pro wrestling


Photo: WWE.com

Submitted By Steve Helwagen of 247Sports.com

If anybody here follows college basketball, you know they sought rules changes this year to improve the game. It looks like they will change their shot clock from 35 to 30 seconds to hopefully boost the tempo of the game. As I follow wrestling and understand how much it has changed in the last 30 years, I continue to hear learned columnists and commentators complain how this angle or this match or this interview or this gimmick just falls flat.

It’s unfortunate that the first decade of TNA was largely a lost decade. Now that they seem intent on producing what most would believe is a quality product, they are on a low-power cable outlet and nobody really seems to still care. That’s sad because this has been some of Kurt Angle’s best work, even if it may be his swan song.

ROH is as hot as it’s ever been. They have locked up their young stars and are building from within. Sinclair may be a frugal owner but I’d say they are just being prudent given the many millions of dollars TNA’s owners have lost. 

WWE is in a state of transition, going from pay-per-views to the WWE Network format for its big shows. This transition is a marathon, not a sprint. When you factor in that WWE had to give the cable/dish companies a sizable percentage of its PPV revenue, this was a daring move to cut the cord.

My feeling is we will come back in four or five years and will find that the WWE Network has provided the company with a steady stream of huge revenue. As for the quality of the WWE product, yes, there isn’t as much heat as we all saw watching the product growing up. It seems like they take two steps forward and then three steps back.

It’s interesting to me that the cable/dish companies haven’t gone to ROH and/or TNA and offered monthly slots at discount prices to get them up and running as PPV vehicles. At any rate, they can’t change the shot clock in pro wrestling. But there are a lot of things that can be done to jump start the industry with WWE taking a leading role in doing that.

Here are 20 of my outside-the-box thoughts on ways the WWE and wrestling can be improved:

1 — Staleness Of Talent: John Cena, Randy Orton Jr., The Big Show and Kane have all been at or near the top of the cards in WWE for the last decade or even beyond in some cases. Jim Cornette on a recent podcast said something that struck me hard: “We can’t miss you if you never leave.”

Yes, the territories are dead and gone and they’re never coming back. In the 1970s and early 1980s, guys were largely transient. They could spend eight months to a year in the Carolinas, then do the same at WWF, spend time in Georgia, go to the AWA and down to Florida or the Mid-South.

That allowed the great personalities to get around to all of the major circuits and maximize their earning power. Once their time in one spot was done, they would start appearing in TV squashes in other territories before arriving to go fulltime at the house shows. But Cena, for instance, has only left WWE due to injuries a handful times in the last 10 years. It’s no wonder that fans boo his very appearance on the TitanTron.

This is probably my biggest suggestion … but here goes: The WWE needs to reach out to TNA, ROH, New Japan, All Japan and whoever else makes sense to work with.

They need to schedule and send their stars to work for those promotions. Cena doesn’t need to go to TNA and do televised jobs, by any mean. But I think it would freshen his character and allow guys like James Storm, Bobby Roode, Ethan Carter III and others to move up to WWE for a cup of coffee now and then. Then you bring back Cena as a surprise for the Royal Rumble or to save a fellow face during a key beatdown.

A perfect example is Bray Wyatt. He outlived his usefulness in WWE the moment he lost to The Undertaker (if not months before when he was losing to Cena on every PPV). Send him away for a year and bring him back when the time is right as a killer again.

Just conjure the possibilities if they re-opened the trading of talent with other promotions. One big issue would be pay. WWE can’t pay all of these guys top dollar just to have them on retainer. That’s an issue that would have to be worked through so everybody can flourish and survive. (Again: Think outside the box.)

2 — WWE Must Invest In Other Promotions: One reason why WWE would or should be inclined to work with other promotions is they should all be in some sort of business together. WWE could become a minority partner with those groups. They could provide revenue streams for TNA and ROH though use of their archives on WWE Network and merchandising on WWE.com.

WWE benefits because TNA and ROH are encouraged to build stars for the WWE to use and then move on after eight months or a year. The same applies for Japan. Do you think Cena or Daniel Bryan (if healthy) would be a great draw against the top Japanese stars?

3 — Guest Appearances: You bring in some of the TNA and ROH guys for random shots on Raw in quasi-squash matches to get them over to the larger audience. Occasionally, you book crossover matches, maybe even double world title matches at some point.

These guest appearances would help keep the TV shows fresh. You can also shoot angles to lead to those visiting stars to appear on the next PPV, etc. You also send WWE guys to those other shows for one-offs and to do interviews promoting WWE big events. Who wouldn’t want to see, say, Neville vs. A.J. Styles or Jay Briscoe on ROH? Or Chris Jericho vs. Bobby Roode on TNA?

4 — Put Arena Shows on WWE Network: I know what I hear when this comes up: If you put the house show at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., online, who in their right mind would risk their life by going down there to see the live show? (Believe me, I covered the NCAA Tournament in Newark … if they ever put it there again somebody should be fired. Nice arena, terrible and dangerous downtown.)

OK, WWE is partnered with the MLB Network on its web site. I am a Cincinnati Reds fan. Sitting here 100 miles away from Cincinnati, I can’t access any Reds games on MLB.com. I am blacked out due to my zip code or location of my internet connection, I presume.

If their partner can black out live baseball games to local audiences and syphon people toward the live TV coverage on the regional sports networks, they can certainly help WWE black out, say, the New York metropolitan area for a house show in Newark. (Good luck getting in and out unharmed.)

I would call it the Arena Series on WWE Network. You don’t have to worry about extra TV lights and big production values. Do it like the old days at MSG with a two- or three-camera shoot. Keep it simple. Have one announcer.

You archive all of these shows for viewing on the web site maybe after a month or two. By taping them, you can bring some of the neat highlights to the TV shows. Heck, you can do title changes on house shows again.

I think fans sitting at home on a Friday or Saturday night in, say, Cleveland, would love to see the local house show from San Diego or Phoenix if given the chance. This is hours of more live programming without any major expense. (Again, keep the production as simple as possible … that helps give it that “arena feel” like the old days.)

Hey, if nobody tunes in and it isn’t worth it, you can always quietly stop doing it. Just gives Network viewers more value each week.

5 — Develop Some Raw/Smackdown Synergy: How many times did Miz and Mizdow seemingly break up on Raw only to be back tagging on Smackdown in the same week? Please, for the love of God, once Smackdown is back on USA somebody needs to be in charge of storyline control.

6 — Bring Back Squash Matches: Once or twice a show, it’s OK to have a guy you are trying to rebuild or get over or somebody new to the territory or visiting come out, make a personal appearance with a 90-second squash and cut a quick promo. These matches differentiate the special matches you build the show around.

7 — Put The Big Matches On at 9 and 10 p.m.: This is an obvious one to deter a viewer to switch to another station at the top of the hour. They do this from time to time already.

8 — Bring Back Time Limits and Draws: This is a no-brainer. Put a clock in the corner of the screen and build the excitement. It also gives you many more match endings.

Most TV matches between lower level guys or squashes would be 10-minute time limit. They hit that 10-minute Broadway and you bring them back next week with a 15- or 20-minute time limit. You also have time limits of 30-, 45- and 60-minutes as needed. I’d say 30 minutes would stretch the bounds of what you’d want to show on TV. Once or twice a year, book an hourlong Iron Man Match. Those were fairly dramatic in their day.

At house shows, you send guys out to do a good 20-minute Broadway on every show. Solves one match finish (not that a lot of thought goes into arena finishes right now).

9 — Do Away With Distraction Finishes: The NFL has had instant replay for 20 years. Why can’t the WWE use replay after a commercial break to reverse a distraction finish or re-start a match?  Again, this gives you many more creative ways to end a match.

10 — Bring Back Bob Backlund Booking: I was a big fan of the monthly MSG shows on USA Network. They usually put 8 or 9 MSG shows a year and 1 or 2 Capital Centre shows per year on USA.

The Backlund (and Bruno Sammartino before him) Formula was simple. The heel of the month/No. 1 contender would come into MSG usually early in his WWE run. The first match would usually be a schmozz of some sort with a time limit draw, double DQ, single DQ, count-out or excessive blood finish. They might bring it back the second month and have another schmozz or decide that Backlund would finish the heel  off in two months. The third month was usually the blow-off, typically in a Texas Death Match or once a year in a steel cage match.

He had some series with great heels like Pat Patterson, Jimmy Snuka and Superstar Graham that went four matches before the blow-off because they were doing turnaway business for all the lead-up matches. Some guys like Ivan Koloff, the Iron Sheik, Don Muraco and Greg Valentine were all cycled through twice – but their appearances were usually no sooner than two years apart. That made the “rematches” almost seem fresh (and for many newbies in the audience they were!)

You schedule the schmozzes and blow-offs carefully. On a PPV or special event, there should only be one schmozz. If it’s in the title match, you can’t really have one otherwise than maybe a time limit draw. Let’s say Dean Ambrose is the champion. In two years, he can cycle through the likes of Abyss, Roman Reigns, Bobby Roode, Jay Briscoe, Go Shiozaki, Rusev, Ryback, Wyatt, Oron, Shinsuke Nakamura, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Bram, EC3, Bobby Lashley and on and on and on.

The legend is that Vince McMahon met with Superstar Graham in 1976 and already knew he wanted him to beat Bruno in April 1977 and lose to Backlund in February 1978. Along the way he had MSG defenses against Bruno, Dusty Rhodes and Mil Mascaras. Just think about the business they did with that. The losers move on to one of the other circuits for six months or a year and then they come back.

11 — Embrace Your History: WWE has thousands of hours of televised matches in its archives. Why can’t they do a WWE Network minute on Raw and Smackdown and show some of that great stuff maybe on anniversary dates. (Like on this day in 1980, Michael Hayes blinded Junkyard Dog at Atlanta’s Omni. It led to this match where JYD and Ted DiBiase got their revenge … You can see video like this and much more on the WWE Network.)

12 — Institute An Onscreen Crawl: ESPN has a constant crawl across the bottom with scores and news headlines. Why can’t WWE and its partners do the same to promote live events and PPV/special events? You can scroll contender rankings for each belt, what’s coming up in this show, the house show schedule for the next month with ticket info and wrestling news from both inside and outside the WWE.

13 — Keep NXT Coming: They are starting to see some real returns from NXT. Just keep that machine humming and watch the new stars come out. Just please protect them better than Neville’s run to start his WWE TV career.

14 — Keep The Extra Titles Important: They are making strides with the U.S. and IC titles. There are so many great tag teams out there now that those belts should also be meaningful. Do a Light Heavyweight and a TV belt too if you want for my angles, opportunities.

15 — Treat It Like A Real Sport: Call it wrestling, pro wrestling, sports entertainment … but above all else try and treat the competitions as sporting events.

16 — Keep Raw Fresh: To do 3 fresh hours every week and over 150 hours a year on Raw, plus 2 hours a week and 100 hours a year on Smackdown, they will need to find a way to keep the shows fresh. This involves quality control, rotating the available talent and keeping track of matches and angles so things aren’t repeated too often.

17 — More Renee Young: Whatever the other side of competent is, that’s Renee Young. She’s better than the women ESPN uses on its live events in many cases.

18 — Book Upsets: It’s OK for the favorite to lose. It happens in UFC all the time. For wrestling to be as realistic as it can be, the underdog has to win clean every now and then. I’m not saying Zayn or Neville needed to beat Cena first month in. No reason why Rusev has not taken a clean win in their program, however. No reason at all.

19 — Make It Fun: Not goofy like the music video crap they did with heels and faces singing together in 1985. But make most of the show fun … and when it needs to be serious make it serious.

20 — Personality Interviews: The show when they were snowed in was a great change of pace. I would suggest that for a go-home Smackdown every once in a while. You don’t always need a live arena show. Take those two hours and run some match clips, some feature packages, some historical features on the event coming up that weekend and interviews with the big stars for that weekend’s shows.

Steve Helwagen is an award-winning writer for 247Sports.com, where he is the Big Ten senior writer. He also covers Ohio State athletics for Bucknuts.com.