The Dolph Ziggler Effect: WWE’s Push/Pull Booking

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It can be agreed upon by the majority of professional wrestling fans that WWE has an army of issues currently. Three hour RAW‘s that feel interchangeable, thin rosters, crowd apathy and regular 20 minute promos are currently all plaguing the former World Wrestling Federation, but one of the bigger problems they currently have, and possibly the biggest, is an overall just lack of star power and enthusiasm towards the show. Now the WWE may wanna blame it on fans who don’t get what they want, and as a result attempt to “hijack” the show, but the point stands that when you run a company, the buck stops at you when it comes to all issues, and on this issue in particular, the buck stops directly at WWE’s feet, and more specifically, Vince McMahon and his booking.

Photo: WWE

Now before I get started I should preface by saying that I do not “hate” Vince McMahon or really any working person on the WWE roster. I sometimes hate the product that comes out of the company, but I understand that a lot of people work very, very hard to put on the show that they put on, but it doesn’t change the fact that there is a serious, serious issue in the fact that other than a handful of guys who only show up when they choose to (Brock Lesnar, Goldberg, John Cena etc.) this company doesn’t currently have any big time stars. At least not any who can carry the company into the next decade when it becomes necessary to. That’s not to take anything away from the roster, considering that the current talent crop is probably the most talented in ring performers that the company has ever had, but none of them have an important, big time feel to them.

Photo: WWE

Nobody comes down with the vibe that “Stone Cold” Steve Austin had, where every time he came out you knew you had to keep your eyes on the screen because he wouldn’t be here unless it was something important (even if it really wasn’t important). No one comes down with the feel that The Rock had(s) where the way he walks and talks and looks makes you both wanna be like him and beat the hell out of him at the same time. Now when guys like Sami Zayn or Seth Rollins or Finn Balor come out, audiences are respectful, but that’s about the extent of it. They aren’t glued to the screen or fixated on the television anymore. In short, nothing really feels like must see TV anymore as pertains to WWE television anymore, which isn’t really newsworthy I know, but it’s something that requires more attention than it gets. Now you may ask yourself “If these wrestlers are so talented, then why does WWE feel so lukewarm and without stars?” Well, there are a lot of answers, but we’ll start with probably the most obvious one.

50/50: Even Steven Booking

This is probably going to be like preaching to the choir so to speak, but if you don’t know what 50/50 booking or “Even Steven” booking is, it’s when wrestler X is booked to beat wrestler Y, but wrestler Y then beats wrestler X immediately after so that it completely reverses the progress you’ve just made, and no one gets over so you’re no better off than the way you started. This may sound quite familiar, as WWE especially loves 50/50 booking. Dolph Ziggler, Bray Wyatt, and Dean Ambrose are just a few of the latest unfortunate souls to have experienced this terrible state of booking purgatory, and currently find themselves in a state of creative limbo as none of them can be totally taken seriously when they’ve come up short so many times.

Photo: WWE

Take a look at Dolph Ziggler, who has probably suffered from this booking the worst out of anybody. After Dolph Ziggler debuted on television in 2009-2010, he was earmarked as essentially a future World Champion, as well as the future of the company, having had all the essential tools that one would need to be a top star. The rock star good look, handsome facial features, great in ring abilities and above average mic skills were all there, but because of a lack of faith from the company, in 2017, Dolph Ziggler is by far the most underwhelming wrestler in the company, and possibly even in the world. Why? Because it’s been about 6 years of push/pull booking for the poor man, and now in 2017, he’s lost so many matches and spent so much time on his back, it’s not even close to believable that this man could beat ANYBODY, let alone someone who currently has a top star feel like Shinsuke Nakamura.

Photo: WWE

Look at his feud with The Miz last year. It was the best feud of 2016, and featured one of the best matches of 2016, as well in the title vs career match at No Mercy where Dolph won what the commentators described as “the most important match of his career.” For one more time it finally felt like maybe Dolph had some momentum and was maybe going somewhere, and what happened? On a SmackDown Live before Survivor Series, one of the biggest PPV’s of the year, they had him drop the title back to The Miz and completely bumped him from the card altogether. Not to argue that The Miz is far better for the IC Title in 2017 than Dolph Ziggler is, because he is, but if that were the case and they weren’t going to do anything with Dolph afterwards anyway, why didn’t they just have him retire at No Mercy? It might be an odd thing to say, but would it really be that cruel? Or would it be a mercy shot to an already dying and suffering career that never could break through the glass ceiling?

Photo: WWE

Bray Wyatt is just the latest example with his feud vs Randy Orton. He won the title at Elimination Chamber in February, dropped it to Orton at WrestleMania, then got his win back at Payback in a non title match. A completely transparent transitional champion. And now he’s moving on to a feud with Finn Balor, and guess what? He’s not winning that feud either. Bray Wyatt has lost almost every major feud he’s had going back to John Cena in early 2014, and to find a major feud that he won you would have to go all the way back to late 2014 against Dean Ambrose, who ironically enough was suffering from the same 50/50 booking at the time himself. While we’re on the subject of Mr. Ambrose, he’s no different from Bray or Dolph, which was proved by his tepid World Championship run late last year. Before WrestleMania 32, the idea of Dean Ambrose as World Champion – or even being in contention for the title – made most wrestling fans salivate at the mouth to think about, then fast forward a couple of months when he gets it far past when he should have, it was too little too late, and the crowd treated his reign with complete apathy, making it a forgettable footnote in his career, as he just became the guy AJ Styles beat. Timing is a tricky thing in the world of professional wrestling.

Why WWE Knows Better, but Does it Anyway

Right, so after all that you maybe asking “Why would the WWE book everyone like that?” Well, the answer is both simple, and not simple. WWE likes to say all the time that “wins and losses don’t matter.” There’s no real easy way to put it, but this is a load of hornswoggle that is only believed by the guys who either have nice backstage roles, backstage pull or are regularly winning their matches (two things that aren’t always mutually exclusive, one might add).

Of course wins and losses matter.

Watch UFC, or boxing, or literally any sport or game or competition. You play to win. That’s not to say you ALWAYS win, or that you should always be upset when you don’t, but if you don’t want to win then you’re probably doing something wrong. We all know professional wrestling is predetermined, but if we’re gonna to use the excuse of “it’s fake so it doesn’t matter” then what is even the point of watching? Breaking Bad didn’t randomly kill off Jesse Eisenberg just to bring him back the next episode and kill the guy who killed him. Why? Because that would be stupid and wouldn’t make any sense in the continuity of the plot, and needless to say would have pissed a lot of viewers off. And you can be assured if by some chance they DID do that, they wouldn’t beat their viewers over the head with the fact that it’s a fake TV show in an attempt to defend their own stupidity, because that also would be stupid and would drive viewers off. When someone watches a TV show, real or “fake”, scripted or unscripted, they are looking to immerse themselves into the show and suspend their disbelief, so constantly pushing the fact that it’s fake down their throats is quite obviously a bad idea, to which you might say “apparently not obvious to WWE” which is where they’ve got you fooled.

Photo: WWE

WWE knows fully well the effects that 50/50 booking have. They have to. As delusional as they are, it’s quite literally not possible for them NOT to understand how it works, because they’re doing it on purpose. Look at Braun Strowman and how he’s portrayed – more importantly how he’s actually perceived by the crowd on RAW. Braun Strowman feels like a star. When he shows up, people know that someone might get hurt, because when Braun Strowman is on TV, important things happen. I’m not saying that Braun Strowman is on the same level as a Stone Cold or a Rock or a Brock Lesnar, but much like all of those guys, when Braun Strowman shows up people know that something is about to go down because Braun Strowman doesn’t show up to just play around, Braun Strowman shows up to do important things.

Photo: WWE

Roman Reigns is much in same vein. Both men are heavily, heavily protected by not being pinned or submitted often (ever in the case of submission) and therefore both men, whether you like them or hate them, feel like something special, and when they show up and have matches against one another, it feels special. If both men were having the matches they’re having together right now a year ago, or a year and a half ago, they would have been some of the worst matches of the year through no fault of the guys in the ring, but through fault of booking and crowd response and context. Pro wrestling is all about context. A big move isn’t a big move unless you portray the guys doing the moves as big stars, and as a result a good match isn’t a good match unless the guys competing are stars. Look at how mad the entire internet was over John Cena’s constant stranglehold over the main event scene a couple of years ago. Do you really think the internet would have hated Cena as much if he were losing just as much as he was winning? Do you think they even would have cared, or furthermore that ANYONE would have cared? He would have been just another guy like everyone else on the roster, but because he won so often and beat so many internet favorites, he felt different from everyone else, like a STAR.

Photo: WWE

In reality, WWE knows fully well what they’re doing and are doing it on purpose. In the age where there’s about 7 hours of content to fill every week, booking people 50/50 is WWE’s way of separating “the guys” from “the stars.” Is it bad for the long term health of the product? Yes, but as long as they keep making the money they’re making, they aren’t going to change their ways. They don’t want change a business model that doesn’t work, which is understandable, but you can’t help but ask yourself this. If they’re willing to risk viewership with making everyone feel like less of a star, why not just take the risk in booking everyone better so they all can feel like stars? But alas, in the world of WWE, you always seem to find yourself with more questions than answers.

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