3-Count: The Game and How He’ll Play It

The 3-Count is a regular feature in which your distinguished digit of an author muses on a trio of related items around the world of pro-wrestling. Questions following a big event, examples of a landmark style or move – it could be anything! But there’ll be three and, hopefully, there’ll be intrigue!

In the week leading up to WWE’s SummerSlam pay-per-view, a momentous moment occurred behind the scenes, a sea change some fans have clamored for for decades. In the midst of an unfolding scandal surrounding possible misuse of company funds, and after weeks of appearing on TV for strange rah-rah promos, Vince McMahon announced his retirement. He didn’t say much, and the company’s more detailed public statement did not add much more. This led many to wonder if much would change in a practical sense or if Vince would still be judging the content, monitoring in Gorilla position, and making final calls.

In the days after, it was ultimately announced that his son-in-law, known better to the world as erstwhile superstar and former NXT 1.0 guiding hand Triple H, would be in charge of both Talent Relations and Creative. Speculation has run rampant ever since as to what this would mean, how the product would change, and whether WWE would start to look and feel different. Will it be more like NXT? Or even – *gasp* – more like AEW, who Trips’ old show went toe-to-toe with and now features many of the stars he used work with. With one solid, more wrestling-focused RAW in the rear view mirror, there still hasn’t been enough time to get any concrete read. In the fandom, though, hope remains high that some of the more grating aspects of Vince’s chosen product may be tweaked or abandoned. Leaving aside some bigger picture changes (like stopping the taking of Saudi regime money) and thinking strictly about the on-screen content, here are:

3 Changes I Hope To See From A New WWE Vision

Death Of The Coin Flip
Think of the biggest moments in WWE’s biggest events – Shawn Michaels’s achieving his boyhood dream, Daniel Bryan’s main event triumph over the Authority, even Steve Austin’s shocking heel turn to take back the world title. Now imagine if they were undone the very next week, the very next night, or otherwise made irrelevant by having the same combatants face off five more times with the big sea change not making any go-forward difference in the overall card. This approach (“50/50 booking”) has perversely become one of the hallmarks of most WWE feuds in recent years. Rather than risking that they pull the trigger on a push for the wrong person, leadership has instead had combatants continue to face off again and again and trade wins until it’s clear that both are on equal footing. Rather than breed a feeling of “Any given Sunday…” as I’m sure they were shooting for, this left the entire roster muddled.

Credit: WWE

When WWE had Sheamus and Cesaro devote themselves to a pre-set Best-Of-Seven series in 2016, it felt like a novel throwback to the days when characters would run down the same feuds with each other anew in different territories. Around the the exact same time, Charlotte and Sasha Banks traded the then-brand new Women’s Championship seven times in a year, neither establishing much over the other or having the time to make hay with someone else in between. They even followed the identical pattern of Sasha going over on RAW before losing again at the next scheduled PPV. As much as I enjoy both women’s incredible talent and work, my interest went down and flatlined over time. More recently, AJ Styles couldn’t get away from Kevin Owens OR THEN Shinsuke Nakamura, both feuds dragging out for months without any clear message to fans. Even the bad guy winning would have established them as a major deal to be taken seriously on SmackDown. Instead, Styles was reduced from WWE Champion to a guy who needed muscle to do his dirty work in the mid-card.

Blowoff matches, a tried and true calling card of wrestling storytelling, doesn’t seem to exist any further. Hell In A Cell, Extreme Rules, and most any other escalating stipulations that would indicate a once-and-for-all grudge match are obligated to happen annually and so they mean less. This has made it so that the end of stories has to be told organically, directly by the writing, which seems to have lost any interest in reaching a peak and moving on. Wrestling does not have to be this hard. Give feuds a purpose, let them build for a time, even if involving more than one match, but let them blow off and end. 50/50 equals 100% chance of boredom over time.

Big Damn Heroes
One of the best babyface promos in recent memory came from a man who made his name on NXT, he just had to go to AEW to do it. FTR, and Dax Harwood in particular, had an incredible organic face turn and now ride a wave of momentum they carry into each match and appearance. That is a great setup, but also means they have to live up to that expectation. They do this by sharing passion and drive on the microphone, excelling in the ring, and winning. They then acknowledge the opponents they’ve just beaten to keep the contender’s profile high and live up to the honor of being a hero champ. This is a simple concept that’s fueled everyone from Bruno Sammartino to Bret Hart to CM Punk.

Credit: All Elite Wrestling

All those names wore gold within “the Fed,” yet in recent years WWE has struggled minting babyfaces that can carry that torch. This is not for lack of charisma, working ability or connection to the audience. It all comes down to the scripted words and even more predictably scripted outcomes into which those would-be white knights are placed. Good guys have been banished to a world of “aw, shucks” naiveté, downright stupidity and ineffectiveness that hits especially hard at the exact moment they reach the mountaintop. Easily fooled and manipulated by heels, then losing or getting beaten down without any fire to come back and get revenge. Possible top heroes like Dean Ambrose, Big E, Nikki A.S.H, Braun Strowman and more, have been made to seem simple-minded and small once they finally got a shot at the main event. The recipe has been consistent:

  1. Babyface gets a huge title win or (especially) Money In The Bank cash-in over a heel
  2. Babyface then loses non-title/tag matches where they’re pinned consistently over next several weeks
  3. Babyface is tricked by heels and falls for it, contributing to those losses and/or making them look worse in between
  4. Babyface’s momentum inevitably slows, stories pile up that their title run “isn’t landing the way people thought”
  5. Heel conquers the babyface and takes the title after a much shorter run than anticipated

Wash, rinse repeat. Even Bianca Belair, seemingly anointed already with longer reigns and recognized top-notch talent, lets herself get counted out because Becky Lynch was saying mean things. Now it seems like Liv Morgan’s long-awaited run is heading down a similar path. Her getting the best of Ronda Rousey in a scheduled match was booked to be undone in real time, as she not only barely won by desperately rolling up her opponent out of an armbar (with which Rousey had been dominating the match), but she actually tapped out herself before even getting the pin. It’s fair to say her prospects for looking strong after SummerSlam are not great – fans even began booing and mocking her on the very next SmackDown as a direct result of the booking. But we know it doesn’t have to be this way.

Let your good guys be successful because they’re the best wrestlers, and care about being the best through their work and craft. Yes, heels will and should backstab and cheat to overcome them, but then let babyfaces RESPOND dammit! Their bouncing back from adversity and coming at the opponent twice as hard is an essential part of why we end up loving hero or underdog characters. Once you get us invested in a face character, you can’t strip away all reason for continuing to care by making them seem like a lost cause both in terms of their resilience (i.e. they no longer have any) and the ultimate outcome. They need to conquer the obstacles (no matter who ends up with a title) in the end through heart, grit, and ability rather than sheepish luck or shitty sneak attacks. I’d say this writes itself, but then I wouldn’t need to write this column. There are people with naturally great stories on the WWE roster currently, or who were recently released, who could pop back up just as quick as Dakota Kai and fill a need. During his time in the ring, Triple H faced down some of the best and least gullible faces his company has ever seen – names like Austin, Foley, and even his old pal Shawn Michaels. Hopefully he can draw the right inspiration from them as he now starts his time holding the pen.

Teamwork Makes The Dream Work…rate
It’s one of the least kept secrets in all of wrestling that Vince McMahon saw little value in tag team wrestling. Not only are there nearly no consistent teams getting TV time on WWE recently, nearly every one that does show up and gets over is set up to split and launch one member over the other. Enzo and Cass, Heavy Machinery, The IIconics, and The Hurt Business have all been torn up (in the last one’s case more than once) to keep the focus on singles action. This has left fewer spots and opportunities for people to shine in the different lens that tag matches provide. The story, psychology and combination offense in tag team battles are just different, providing variety and giving superstars a chance to excel who otherwise might not get the chance hit the highest of heights on their own.

Credit: WWE

Black and gold-era NXT capitalized on this to produce a plethora of featured tag teams – American Alpha, #DIY, The Revival, Authors Of Pain, various Undisputed Era combos, even The Ascension! If you’re laughing at that last one, brother, you are making my point – they beat people down in NXT. None of these teams lasted long on the main roster, if they made it there at all, before being split up or turned into a joke. But, we’d seen all of them put on compelling and thrilling matches when given the time. The New Day/Usos feud got time on the main roster, and led to amazing moments, but ended up as the only real focal point of the division. Currently, we don’t even have that; the Usos stand largely alone in stature. Their recently overcoming the Street Profits, one of WWE’s more successful teams in recent years, was used to tease the Profits’ impending and (while Vince was in charge) inevitable split-up. This would essentially leave Jimmy and Jey as a one-duo wonder, carrying all the belts and having little reason to defend them against any of the “teams” on the roster.

If HHH can instead do a reset of the division and build it up around The Usos and Profits, who put on one of SummerSlam’s highlights, he could soon have a lineup of strong pairs that give fans a new side of the product. What might it look like? There are pre-existing teams in NXT 2.0 and NXT UK that could then be fleshed out with pairings of underused talent that could use a spotlight (someone like Mustafa Ali) or characters that need a new challenge to stay fresh (someone like Kevin Owens coming off the oddball Ezekiel angle). Not all of them will hit, but we have seen through the success of consistent teams in AEW that enough can and will. It could be an unlikely friendship driving great character work, like the glory days of Team Hell No; or pairing up people without another clear path and finding their talents mesh beyond your wildest dreams, as happened with Cesaro and Tyson Kidd. It’s all about making the investment that the team itself is a worthy end, not a means to get to a pre-planned singles feud. Triple H himself once ended up in an unlikely pairing in the Two-Man Power Trip, and I hope his power now leads the tag team scene back to glory in WWE.