For nearly a decade, one of the biggest real-life feuds in wrestling was between World Wrestling Entertainment and its fans.
It was a fascinating culmination of an evolution of pro wrestling. On one side you had the fans, who would choose their favorites and whom they wanted to be the champions. And on the other side you had Vince McMahon and his minions, who, while wanting to satisfy the fans, believed they knew what the fans should want and what made the most sense in the economic big picture.
Each got their victories, but only in the short term.
The fans, at least for television shoots, for years hated Roman Reigns as the top babyface star. Until the past year, McMahon wouldn’t relent. But he finally did, and, as a heel, Reigns has become accepted by the fans as the biggest star in the company.
Other times, such as with championship reigns of Daniel Bryan and Kofi Kingston, McMahon did relent and give the fans the win they wanted and not what he had originally planned, but in the long run he never believed, no matter how the fans reacted, that those two were cut out to carry the company as the real top stars.
But the COVID-19 era taught everyone a major lesson. Pro wrestling as a form of entertainment is empty without a live audience. And the people who wanted to attend live missed the fact that they couldn’t.
Hopefully the era of wrestling with no fans in attendance is over. Every major company is now running shows with fans again. And because WrestleMania took place in April, with COVID-19 restrictions on capacity in place, before a lot of people felt comfortable traveling, WWE has attempted to turn SummerSlam into the biggest event of the year.
Sunday night’s Money in the Bank at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, the first pay-per-view show with fans, was all about setting the table for SummerSlam, on Aug. 21 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. The decision to gamble on doing a stadium show in a city that has never been a WWE stronghold turned out fine. More than 40,000 tickets are out for the show, double the number for each night of the usually much higher-profile WrestleMania. And this is with no matches announced, and really only a few matches known to insiders.
It had been known for more than a month that the planned main event would be John Cena, the company’s top star for most of the past 15-plus years, returning from his acting career to face Reigns. And if there was any doubt, that was answered when, after Reigns beat Edge, Cena’s music played and you saw a 44-year-old man dressed like a 2003 rapper as he walked back into the world he ruled before an audience overjoyed to see him.
Cena confronted Reigns in the center of the ring, just as the show went off the air. It was the perfect ending. You get enough to know where it’s going, but in theory it was just a tease to get you to watch the television and see how they get to SummerSlam.
Edge, a legend from the past who returned after nine years from a neck injury that was thought to be career-ending, was on the verge of winning the universal championship from Reigns. Then he was attacked once and distracted a second time by a jealous Seth Rollins, mad that Edge had gotten the title match he wanted. With Rollins costing Edge the championship, it was an easy and obvious setup for them having a singles match, which had also been talked about on the inside for weeks.
Bobby Lashley, the WWE champion, was being groomed for an outsider on the big show. Lashley’s top Raw rival was Drew McIntyre, who lost a match at the Hell in a Cell pay-per-view last month with the stipulation that he could never challenge as long as Lashley was champion.
Kingston was Lashley’s opponent, and he lost in one of the most one-sided pay-per-view WWE title matches in history. It told two clear stories.
The first is that the company wanted Lashley to look as strong as possible, to the point that Kingston was not there to have a good match with him but to be a human sacrifice. The other story is that no matter how much the public likes Kingston and wants him on top, as he was the second-most popular wrestler on the show behind Edge, those in charge see him differently. He’s very much a star, but it’s not at the main-event level and has never been given a shot to be a true long-term headliner.
Bill Goldberg, the 54-year-old WCW man of the year in 1998, looks to be returning as the opponent for Lashley. With nobody on the Raw roster pushed at Lashley’s level, there were really only a few choices: Bray “The Fiend” Wyatt, who has been on a sabbatical since WrestleMania; Goldberg; or Brock Lesnar, who is no longer under contract with WWE, but who is always available for the right high price tag.
But politically there are people who think the big money with Lesnar would be with Reigns. There is the story line aspect of Paul Heyman's being the person in Reigns’s corner in his heel role, and Heyman's having a career resurrection over the past decade for being the mouthpiece for every Lesnar interview. Lesnar's coming in to lose to Lashley, one could argue, would hurt the direction of the believed-to-be-much-bigger Reigns-vs.-Lesnar angle.
There was another match built up strongly on the show, although not necessarily for SummerSlam. McIntyre had the men’s Money in the Bank match all but won when the trio of Indian descent took him out of the match.
Jinder Mahal (actually from Western Canada) was a former tag-team partner of McIntyre when both were languishing on the bottom of shows many years back. Since then, McIntyre has been fired, remade his name and is one of the company’s biggest stars. Mahal was promoted as a top champion a few years back, when the company became obsessed with the idea that, due to its huge population and affinity for pro wrestling on television, India was the new pot of gold at the end of the wrestling rainbow. But a few months later, they went away from that experiment.
Mahal now has a new entourage, both of whom are from India. There is a nearly seven-foot-tall former Bollywood actor called Shanky, and a shorter bulkier man called Veer. In another life, Veer was Rinku Singh, the subject of the Disney movie Million Dollar Arm, inspired by his winning a pitching contest in his native country even though he had never played baseball. This led to him becoming the first Indian native to play U.S. minor league baseball, but he never got out of Class A.
Because of the newness of crowds returning, we seem to be in a honeymoon period.
WWE had probably the hottest and most enthusiastic fans it has had in years at the first two shows in its return full-time touring—sellout events Friday night in Houston and the pay-per-view in Fort Worth. Rival AEW similarly had an on-fire sellout event Wednesday for its television show in Cedar Park, Texas.
The return of crowds also led to a noticeable boost in television numbers. Smackdown looks to have increased by about 15% on Friday over what it had been doing in the special-effects-laden Thunderdome, with virtual fans on video screens. AEW had fans back for months for shows at its Jacksonville home base. But it didn't tour until July 7. And it did one of its best numbers in history on Wednesday. That was even more noteworthy since it came on the same night as the NBA Finals. Even with that competition, for the first time, AEW Dynamite beat the episode of WWE Raw in the same week in the male 18–49 demographic. With Raw back to having live fans, it may not happen again so quickly.
There were only a few truly negative reactions by fans on Sunday. In the women’s Money in the Bank match, when Alexa Bliss tried to hypnotize Zelina Vega, the crowd clearly did not like that direction. But it was one spot that ended quickly.
During a Rhea Ripley Raw women’s title match with Charlotte Flair, the crowd loudly chanted for Becky Lynch, the most popular woman in the company. Lynch has been out for more than a year, as she gave birth in December to a baby girl. But enough of the crowd knows Lynch is on her way back since she’s been training at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando. And there’s nothing wrong with that, since she is coming back.
What weren't there were the chants for CM Punk. Punk was one of the most popular wrestlers in the company who quit after issues with McMahon and other members of management. Because he was so vocal against the company, when fans were unhappy they would chant his name to express displeasure at certain story lines, interviews and directions.
Now that things are back to how they used to be, the big question is whether the time away taught WWE the lessons that wrestling doesn’t work as well without live fans and that fans are so valuable in the presentation. Or is this just a short honeymoon before the frustrations on both sides of wrestling's real-life power struggle return?
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