The influx of diverse, international talent to WWE that has accelerated over the past year is in many ways a positive shift for wrestling from a top-down perspective. WWE being the undisputed mainstream leader in professional wrestling while making a Cruiserweight show and upcoming tournaments for women’s and British wrestling jewels in their Network crown gives those divisions arguably more significance and recognition than ever before. Something strange has happened with the Cruiserweights though – following the acclaim of the Crusierweight Classic and the excitement for the impending division on RAW, interest in the division has decreased rapidly. This could be due to lacklustre booking, but there it was perhaps the opening salvo of a more insidious trend from WWE; one of humouring, appropriating, and watering down styles to the detriment of everyone involved.
This entire article should be prefaced with a very clear determination: the introduction of the Cruiserweight Classic, 205 Live, and the Upcoming Women’s and UK tournaments provide a huge upgrade on the previous slew of secondary programming that was available in Superstars and Main Event. These were shows which featured great talent, but due to them just being extra shows full of under-carders, they felt like insignificant drains on time.
These new demographic-based platforms are certainly not the same kind of afterthought. They feature self-contained feuds, challenges, and championships which instantly gives the action more gravitas (whether you enjoy the booking, however, is another matter). The problem is that that this gravitas doesn’t carry over to their main roster appearances. The Cruiserweights are instead brought out as a sideshow act with little opportunity to establish a character to the RAW audience or even to talk to them. They get their own ropes, and their own scripted platitudes from the commentators. This setup, strange as it is, could gain momentum if the action matched the speed and unique style of the Cruiserweight Classic, but instead their appearances on RAW feel like a watered-down version of the CWC style, mixed with the classic WWE style of wrestling, and so, save for a few highspots, the action doesn’t even particularly stand out. Imagine it this way: how damaging would a WWE ‘Lucha Classic’ in which they hired the likes of Pentagon Jr, El Dragon Azteca Jr, Fenix, Drago, and King Cuerno, and then had them all wrestle like Alberto Del Rio? I loved Del Rio at times, but that being popularised as Lucha would be a troubling prospect, and I fear that something similar is happening with the cruiserweights.
As it stands, the Cruiserweights are barely in the same ‘Universe’ as the main roster guys. Kalisto and Neville have gotten involved, but they seem to have to trade in their main roster credentials to do so. There doesn’t seem to be any prospect of Cruiserweights getting involved in another championship picture, and so it’s hard to place where they stand in the universe. With the purple ropes and the arms-length treatment of the Cruiserweights, they are simply portrayed as a less significant sideshow who can’t live up to the hype that was built for them.
What is more concerning in the case of the upcoming UK show as well as the cruiserweights is that, there is some degree of appropriation and softening of the styles involved. I’m a fan of the WWE style generally, but I also value the diverse range of styles around the world, and while even WWE could never, and probably aren’t even trying to, subsume the styles, the influx of talent to them and the incorporation of their style in to the WWE style will affect at least the perception of the different styles among audiences. I think it’s clear, so far, that the Cruiserweights haven’t been replicating some of the feats they had on the indy circuit, and while it remains to be seen with regards to the UK tournament, it will be interesting to see if they will be able to fully showcase the stiff, technical style of the UK when they start making weekly shows. WWE rightly loves to remember this fondly in the likes of William Regal and Fit Finlay, but if the UK division goes the same way as the Cruiserweight is currently going, it will amount to a sad appropriation – and conservatism – of the style.
The reality of WWE stealthily raiding talent from federations around the world is nothing new, but it seems to certainly have accelerated in the last year or two. Of course, WWE are well within their rights to source this talent, and in many ways as mentioned before, it is good for wrestling generally as it broadens WWE’s stylistic output and provides beloved indy wrestlers with well-deserved financial and career opportunities, it does simultaneously deplete the more accessible talent that local indy fans can enjoy, and as in the case of the UK tournament, not always for noble reasons. WWE reportedly only pulled the trigger on that project in response to them being unhappy with the prospect of ITV’s World of Sport reboot being shown on a more visible platform than WWE’s regular programming here in the UK. Of course that still wouldn’t make a dent in the WWE’s profits or success, but they are so predatory that they simply won’t allow it, leading them to the move of signing wrestlers to their upcoming tournament, and even – reportedly – no-compete clauses with televised competitors, regardless of whether they ever appear for WWE.
As a native of Glasgow, I’m lucky enough to have internationally-respected ICW on my doorstep, and while I’m excited for the futures of the likes of ICW alums Nikki Cross and Big Damo, and am excited about the opportunities new talent will get at the indy level to replace them, the sheer aggression of WWE’s recent programming moves are concerning, and it’s because of the apparent shift in motivation. It seems to be less about creating a diverse roster that will appeal to a more international audience, and increasingly about creating content and protecting their business model. I don’t get the feeling that any of the new cruiserweights can really break out beyond their division, and I feel even less confident about the upcoming UK division which seems to have been set up with an arbitrary aggression rather than a plan to make stars. WWE is already achingly overexposed, but the only shows that matter, and are really treated like they matter, are RAW, Smackdown and NXT.
In the case of the upcoming Women’s tournament, I have fewer concerns, actually, with regards to how significant the participants will feel after it’s finished. WWE is signing female talent left, right, and centre, and seems keen to take women’s wrestling more seriously, even if they don’t always succeed. Cynically however, part of the reason the participants in this event may be safer points to the very problem they are addressing: that they are being treated like a niche product in themselves compared to the other niches they are exploring, which are all subsets of male wrestling styles. My one concern is relatively small because it represents a gigantic improvement from the days of the Attitude Era, but again, with WWE having the biggest platform, they will subconsciously redefining what women’s wrestling is to the mainstream audience. Bayley and Sasha in Brooklyn is my personal female wrestling nirvana (one of my wrestling nirvanas regardless of gender, in fact), but while, with some, it’s a controversial proposition, there are some incredible female wrestlers doing incredible work with men – thinking especially of the work of Lucha Underground. The power of that work will not be diminished and inter-gender wrestling will continue to exist around the world, but as women’s wrestling becomes more prominent and significant in WWE, and what they do or don’t becomes more impactful, it could be that those paying attention to it see the women wrestlers as elite, but then see a normalised version of them tagging out of challenges with men. That not only limits their art and the stories they can tell, but in my opinion, provides a mixed message for the young boys and girls who are watching.
I desperately want to be proven wrong in my concerns about the new shows and influx of new talent, but until these new initiatives start to feel like they really constitute part of the significant future if the company, it will continue to produce great matches by great wrestlers that feel like they are limited in the impact they can have due to their presentation. As I have said previously, the impact of this may be small as alternative wrestling seems only to be growing worldwide, but it will certainly be interesting to see whether WWE’s demographically-based broadening of their umbrella has the effect of similar conquerors: water down and incorporate.