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Ask the Mask: On ‘WWE Fastlane,’ ‘NXT,’ and the Road to ‘WrestleMania’

A mailbag with Grantland’s wrestling columnist.

Sunday, while most regular human beings will be watching the Oscars, WWE brings us Fastlane, or, as we hard-core fans call it, the PPV in between the Royal Rumble and WrestleMania. It’s the spot previously occupied by Elimination Chamber, and even though there’s no more giant steel cage, all the confusion about who will headline ’Mania remains. For the first time in years, I’m genuinely uncertain about WWE’s plans for the big show, and since I have questions, I figured everybody else must have questions too. So it’s time for a mailbag! And since we just had a big NXT show last week (and since Fastlane isn’t generating WrestleMania-level excitement), the questions aren’t limited to Sunday’s show. Let’s dive right in.

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Who schedules a PPV the same night as the Oscars?
—René

WWE, that’s who! It’s ironic, considering that Vince McMahon was asked on “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s podcast about WWE’s lack of a true competitor and Vince said that everything on television was WWE’s competition. Taking on the Academy Awards is kinda crazy, especially in a social-media moment when everybody who wants to “stay relevant” will be tweeting Oscar jokes. That said, if WWE can get anything trending during the Oscars, that’s a significant victory. As long as it’s not for Seth Rollins winning Best Picture.

Why does WWE keep making up stupid names for PPV’s when they could just use an established concept like King of the Ring or The Great American Bash?
—Lovell Porter

I’m a proponent of ditching minor PPV names altogether and naming them either numerically or on the fly, like the indies and NXT do. That said, if you’re going to name them on the fly, they should have some relevance to the main event or the overall fight card. I get that we’re in the “fast lane” to WrestleMania  at least I think that’s what I’m supposed to get  but WWE hasn’t driven that point home. And really, even if it did, all that does is remind fans that this PPV is a placeholder between events that people actually care about.

For a while now, the PPV between the Royal Rumble and WrestleMania has seemed unnecessary. How would you fix the 7-8 week period in between these 2 events?
—Sam Stoner

The ideal situation is to eliminate two PPVs and space them out so that there are six to eight free weeks to hype both ’Mania and SummerSlam. Once upon a time, I thought the WWE Network would create the flexibility to execute plans like that. But I was wrong — with subscriptions renewing every month, WWE is more stuck on the monthly PPV schedule than ever. They could still think their way around that — feature NXT shows on the off months before ’Mania and SummerSlam, for example — but I don’t expect that until subscription numbers flatten out. I think the way WWE has handled Fastlane is probably the best possible solution — have a main event that affects ’Mania but doesn’t preempt it. The question is whether the rest of the WrestleMania prequels on the Fastlane card — Cena vs. Rusev Part 1, a Triple H and Sting “confrontation” — will be enough to convince fans to watch.

After Monday’s Raw, WWE has done as well as it possibly could with this card. Daniel Bryan and Roman Reigns brawling to end the show was masterfully played — and a testament to just how powerful it is to see two guys who have genuine beef with each other exchanging punches. Ditto for Cena-Rusev. (Regardless of whatever WWE’s original plan was, it’s time to admit that Reigns-Bryan is the hottest feud right now. There’s no argument about who deserves to be in the main event — fans just want to see these two kick each other’s faces in. Part of me wishes WWE would pull crazy stuff like Reigns winning the Rumble more often, just to capitalize on the inevitable crowd response.)

Do you think WrestleMania will ever be aired on NBC?
—Matt Dot Rich

Now this is the kind of out-of-the-box idea that WWE might be able to pull off, thanks to the WWE Network. It’s an absolutely insane idea that could actually work. By next year, network membership should be pretty stable  the core audience members will largely be permanent subscribers. To reach a broader audience  the kind of people who haven’t watched since Hulkamania’s heyday or the Monday Night Wars  WWE should consider taking over network TV for a night and airing the biggest show of the year for free. It would function as a commercial for the network. Say that anybody who subscribes that night gets six months for $20  the sort of fans who would sign up are the type who have been Hulu Plus members for the past two years even though they’ve never watched a Criterion movie. They’ll never unsubscribe! That’s who WWE really needs. And think of the social media! Just don’t schedule it on the same night as the Oscars or the NCAA championship and this could be gold.

If a year or two ago I told you that a big-ticket part-timer was about to put over a young star in the main event of WrestleMania, wouldn’t you be ecstatic? If I told you that the WWE would book WrestleMania in such a way to build a young star several months out, so to not be going month to month with no long-term vision, wouldn’t you be thrilled? What, exactly, makes smart marks any different from Vince or Hunter in their obsession with certain types of performers? Could the execution be better? Yeah, absolutely. But if Lesnar does not come back, and you want to maximize the opportunity available with the streak and Lesnar’s current heat, who else would stand to benefit? Rollins arguably doesn’t need it, Bryan, Cena and Orton certainly don’t, and Ziggler/Wyatt/Ambrose are a ways away. The fans are going into business for themselves and it’s ruining the product.
—Rob Nagel

I loved this email, even if I don’t agree with every word of it. The idea that some smart fans fetishize certain types of wrestlers — just like Vince McMahon drools over other types — is spot-on. You can ask WWE to tell long-term stories, or to push certain guys, but none of the speculation and accusations matters as much as putting together good stories. People used to grouse that Dusty Rhodes booked himself into the main event too much, but when he was getting his arm broken by the Horsemen, all fans cared about was Dusty’s well-being.

What hurt Reigns most was the forewarning that he was going to get the push. It’s hard to understand why WWE hasn’t yet learned to seed the Internet with fake rumors, but that’s secondary. I’m not sure how WWE could consistently surprise its smarter fans  Internet rumors aside, the form is full of tropes as old as ancient Greek theater. Russo-era WCW was constantly shocking, but not because it employed intelligent storytelling. The tension between well-thought-out, long-term storytelling and surprises that keep fans guessing  especially with a seasonless, never-ending structure  is difficult no matter who’s in charge, and pro wrestling doesn’t get enough credit for staying somewhat fresh within the impossible confines the medium has built for itself.

When they can pull it off, though, it’s a thing of beauty. Case in point:

On your recent podcast, your prediction about NXT Takeover: Rival couldn’t have been more wrong.  How does that make you feel as a wrestling columnist but also as a fan of wrestling? Do your roles as a journalist and a fan collide at moments like this? As a writer, do you hate when your predictions are this wrong? But as a fan, isn’t it great to get predictions wrong?
—Charlie A, Westland, MI

I wanted to get to this mea culpa early in this mailbag. On my podcast last week, I said there was a 0.1 percent chance that Kevin Owens would beat Sami Zayn for the NXT championship. I believed this because NXT is rarely a space for surprising endings  it’s a canvas for simple, well-told stories. When Owens won, I was so shocked that I got out of my chair and left the room, something I hadn’t done since I ran into the front yard screaming with joy when Strike Force shocked the Hart Foundation on Superstars in 1987. Zayn-Owens was amazing, and it’s a feeling I relish. I’ve never been so happy to be wrong. The big upshot from this, though, is that NXT is now in the business of surprising viewers, which is a huge step in its development into an autonomous product. And that’s not surprising, since Triple H recently said that he plans to take it on the road in the not-too-distant future. Speaking of which …

If NXT begins touring successfully, will we see WWE split into hardcore and casual products? A TRUE brand split?
—John Gallino

They tried this with the Raw-Smackdown split. In the end, it didn’t work because you can’t expect Vince — or any boss — to look at the card for a brand-specific show and not say “Get John Cena on the red-eye now!” Where one person is in charge and every quarter-hour of television ratings gets scrutinized, it’s crazy to think anybody would deliberately put off doing whatever it took to get more eyes on the screen. That, in the end, is my biggest fear with NXT  that the more hype it gets, the less distinct it will become from WWE proper. The less separate it is, the less autonomy NXT will have. There’s no way to incubate talent if they’re under the same spotlight as the rest of WWE.

The real lesson we should take from NXT  at least in terms of Internet hype  is that despite many fans complaining about Raw by comparing it negatively to NXT and despite the fans accusing WWE of thumbing its nose at its die-hard constituency by doing things like putting Reigns over at the Royal Rumble, it’s actually doing the opposite. WWE is giving us NXT. Raw caters to too many demographics to be a joy for any single faction within the WWE fan base. We smark fans should treasure NXT rather than use it as a bludgeon to attack Raw. Which is not to say one can’t question the disparity between the two products …

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If WWE can put together such great Divas matches down at NXT, why can’t they do the same on the Main Roster?
—Aaron Snyder

It’s crazy, right? Especially considering there are a handful of really talented Divas on the main roster. As Triple H said on Austin’s podcast, WWE has a lot of young female fans, and the Divas are hugely important to keeping that audience tuned in. But in the end, the Divas division weirdly serves more masters than anything else on Raw — they have to appeal to the female fans, they have to be cheesecake for the young-male demo, and they have to endlessly pimp Total Divas. Putting on a good match is the fourth priority. And it’s obviously not enough of a priority to change the way Raw gets booked.

How likely is it that Vince will find a way to screw up Neville and Zayn once they hit the main roster?
—March Hurdle

Sadly, this is a totally legitimate question, though I don’t think it’s fair to blame it all on Vince. As good as NXT has been, the company is still working out the kinks in figuring out what kind of gimmicks will play on Raw as well as they play in Full Sail Arena, and until they do, it’s probably best to let them continue developing. The rumors of Adrian Neville’s “Mighty Mouse” gimmick are proof that there’s still work to be done. Look at the sad shrugs that accompanied the arrivals of Adam Rose and the Ascension — and, not coincidentally, look at how few overblown gimmicks WWE is running in NXT right now. Every character is just a guy who, deep down, wants to be a wrestler. Let’s hope that WWE realizes that simplicity is key when it calls up talent, and it resists teaming Owens and Zayn up and calling them the New New Hart Foundation. Or the New Mounties.

zayn-sami-owens-kevin-wweWWE

How would you book the main roster debut of Sami Zayn?
—Chris Macarthur-Boyd

As Daniel Bryan pointed out when I spoke to him in 2013, it takes all kinds of body and personality types to fill out the WWE roster: “If everybody wrestled like me, it would be boring. If everybody was John Cena’s size and wrestled like him, it would be boring. You need a cast of characters — you need people like the Big Show, CM Punk, John Cena, Daniel Bryan, and the Divas, too. You have to have that mix. It’s like a variety show.” As much as I love the current NXT crop, they have a few too many Daniel Bryan types. The funny thing is that Zayn really shouldn’t be in that boat  he’s about the same height as Triple H, after all  but between his personality and his look, Zayn is going to be booked as a feel-good story until he forces us to see him differently.

How would I book it? I’d have him pull a 1-2-3 Kid–style win over Rusev (or, more likely: Bad News Barrett) and have them do a best-out-of-five series that culminates at a PPV. Zayn loses but looks strong. Long-term booking: After letting Zayn soak up his initial popularity, the Authority demotes him to NXT to prevent another Daniel Bryan–style uprising, and the next night, El Generico debuts. The crowd goes wild, WWE sells a million masks to little kids, and the Bouncing Souls’ “Ole!” song becomes the new YES! chant.

How high is Vince on NXT stars (Balor, Owens, etc.), or should he be?
—Son of Zod

There’s no telling what Vince thinks about the NXT crew and, frankly, there’s no evidence he even knows about them. And that’s fine. But if he were keeping tabs? Finn Balor is his favorite human being behind John Cena. He should be anyway  despite Balor’s relatively small stature, he’s got megastar airbrushed all over him. My guess is that Baron Corbin has Vince’s interest piqued, and Owens still has a lot of convincing to do. That said …

Will WWE have a NXT title match at WrestleMania? Should they?
—Neal Cordova

I have no idea if this has been discussed, but it’s a fantastic idea. Put it on the pre-show  what better way to get people to tune in early? And what better way to set the bar for everything that follows? Everybody else will have to live up to that or the fans will boo the hell out of them, right? And that’s probably why it won’t happen. WWE spends too much time and money making WrestleMania seem epic to risk letting a couple of Ring of Honor guys steal the show. But enough about ’Mania and NXT  we have a PPV coming up this weekend.

In the Reigns-Bryan feud, is Reigns intentionally cheating to win WWE’s best option? He becomes a massive heel or an over-tweener who mocks the marks, and Bryan can still work himself into the main event of ’Mania, and it actually builds Reigns momentum.  It seems like a logical and elegant solution to the corner WWE appears to have booked itself into.
—Thomas Friedman

First of all, Professor Friedman, I’m honored you took the time to write in. I’m a big fan. I think your suggestion is a possibility, but what intrigues me at the moment is that I can’t predict where this feud is heading. Both Reigns and Bryan are heeling it up  Bryan carrying on about being the better wrestler, Reigns preening for the fans, and each acting as indignantly as possible toward the other. I got a ton of emails asking whether they’re going to turn Reigns heel (or tweener-heel),1 but Bryan might actually be better suited to play a pseudo-villain. He’s been twice as charismatic since he started sassing Reigns, and he could slot in perfectly as the anti-Cena  the guy whom meta fans love and little kids hate. If somebody has to turn, I don’t think Reigns is the surefire candidate.


1.

By the way, we need more shades of gray in discussing heel turns these days. I say we just absorb the Dungeons & Dragons alignment system. Wouldn’t it be better to argue about whether Bryan should turn Chaotic Neutral or Lawful Evil?

More importantly, though, I don’t think either wrestler has to turn heel. Reigns and Bryan are both shooting for the same title, they both have separate claims to the top spot, and they’ve managed to really get under each other’s skin. This is the sort of storytelling that I’m constantly clamoring for — two professional athletes with a genuine rivalry. It sort of tells itself, doesn’t it? The idea that Bryan or Reigns has to start smacking kids in the front row or spitting on old ladies is more ridiculous than Reigns winning the Rumble. And putting them both in the main event at ’Mania is a great idea — if they don’t, they risk estranging the smart fan mob again. If WWE wants to keep the smart fans and the regular fans invested, they should give each faction a hero to root for. And the best way to get Reigns over with the disgruntled smart fans too  one would assume that that’s the ultimate goal  would be for him to have good matches at Fastlane and ’Mania, and Bryan needs to be in the match at ’Mania if those fans are going to give Reigns a fair shake.

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Even if it’s predictable that after Bryan or Reigns pins Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania, the winner will lose his belt almost immediately because Seth Rollins will finally cash in his Money In the Bank briefcase, is that any reason for it not to happen?
—Adam B., Philadelphia

It doesn’t matter how obvious it might seem  a MITB cash-in at the end of ’Mania would be huge, and Rollins is the best person to do it. If Brock does end up leaving WWE to rejoin UFC (this rumor has been around for months, although recent reports suggest he may stay with WWE), we’ll all know it before ’Mania, and if Bryan doesn’t make it into the main event, the only wild card will be Rollins. Even if he’s not in a featured match at WrestleMania, Rollins will probably be the night’s most important player.

Do you think Reigns wearing the bulletproof vest will go away at some point? Seems like body armor is a heel move.
—Grady Savoie

I’ve thought way too much about this. First of all, the body armor IS a heel move — think Cowboy Bob Orton or D’Lo Brown’s catcher’s chest protector — but only if a wrestler uses it. Reigns’s riot gear hasn’t been described by the announcers as exerting any kind of positive advantage — and if they don’t mention it, it doesn’t exist. The bigger question is why McMahon, who by every account has a fetish for big, musclebound guys, would cover up the physique of his biggest star in the making. I made a joke a few months back that between the former members of the Shield and the Wyatt Family and even John Cena, this is the most cosplay-friendly era in pro wrestling history. I’m starting to think there may be something to that. At this rate, Kevin Owens might be the most marketable star in WWE in a year. Speaking of whom:

Do you watch Pro Wrestling Guerrilla or Ring of Honor? Favorite wrestler from either? Did you follow the Steen-Generico feud there?
—Kenny Cather

I loved the Steen-Generico feud, which I covered briefly here. I was at their last match before Generico left for WWE. It was truly a thing of art, the kind of stuff that all WWE storytelling should aspire to. That WWE has so eagerly embraced the Steen-Generico/Owens-Zayn feud in NXT is an amazing turn of events.

As for wrestlers who are still in the indies, I’m a longtime Kyle O’Reilly proponent  I called him “my irrational pick for Guy Who Will Become An Unlikely Superstar” in a footnote two years ago, way before he was within sniffing distance of the PWG title. Just like I once said Vince would look at Seth Rollins and see a corporate-friendly CM Punk, I think O’Reilly could be the corporate-friendly Daniel Bryan. Not that I think Bryan will be handing over his spot anytime soon  just that I could see WWE looking at O’Reilly that way. Uhaa Nation, whom WWE just signed, is ridiculously talented. I think Mike Bennett is a better wrestler than people want to admit, and he could do well in WWE. Johnny Gargano and Adam Cole are both absolute gold, but I worry that they’re both small, even by WWE’s shrinking standards. The Briscoes could be the greatest WWE tag team in a decade, but it seems unlikely that WWE will go into business with two guys with a track record of vile homophobic behavior. (And WWE is probably right to deny them that opportunity, no matter how good they may be in the ring.) Kazuchika Okada is the most surefire superstar not already on the WWE roster, but who knows if he has any desire to come to the United States (and if WWE believes it needs a Japanese star besides Hideo Itami).

Why is WWE seemingly not giving the fans Sting-Undertaker at ’Mania this year? Seems like a no-brainer.
—Callum Webster

Because Undertaker versus Sting in 2015 would  generously  have a workrate somewhere between here:

And here:

Post breakup, where do you see Stardust and Goldust going?
—Chris

I think Goldust is going backstage and Stardust will get a midcard push, which will culminate in him turning babyface and then peeling off the tights and face paint to reveal that his hair is bleached and he’s wearing yellow polka-dot tights. Or something like that.

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Will Sheamus do anything at Fastlane and, more importantly, will anyone care?
Brian Falasca

Good question. Sheamus is the quintessential guy who makes people groan when he’s on TV, but for some reason fans always look forward to his return. That’s because we know a version of Sheamus could be amazing, but WWE has been content to make him John Cena’s redheaded stepson. They should turn Sheamus heel and commit to it, because heel Sheamus will get cheered — but that doesn’t mean he should turn back to babyface. He’s like Randy Orton that way  there’s a fan-friendly tweener role he could play , but he needs to earn it by being a top villain for a while. But let me just say this: If Sheamus turns up in the main event at Fastlane to screw over Bryan and start a WrestleMania feud between them  never mind, I’m sorry for even mentioning it.

What will they do with Randy Orton and would you like to see him versus Bray Wyatt at WrestleMania?
—Matthew

Speaking of Orton: He’s been back working house shows for several weeks now, but WWE hasn’t pulled the trigger on a full return from injury. It’s good that they’re showing restraint, but it’s so uncharacteristic that we’re left to wonder if WWE is doing it on purpose. My guess is that they’re holding him out as a fail-safe  he would have made sense as the Plan B for Sting’s spot if WWE hadn’t come to terms with Sting, and Orton could feasibly drop into a Wyatt feud if Taker doesn’t come out of a cryogenic freeze. In the end, Orton will probably face Rollins at ’Mania. It’s a feud that will take almost zero setup after the way Orton exited, but let’s hope WWE gives us something, or Orton’s return pop will dwindle to nothing by ’Mania. If they really want to get Orton some cheers, WWE should have Sheamus tease a run-in to attack Bryan at Fastlane, and once the crowd sees what’s happening, have Orton stop him. And if they need a Dude Ex Machina to send both Bryan and Reigns to the ’Mania title match, Orton RKOing both of them just to mess with Triple H wouldn’t be the worst route.

When Brock retires, who do you believe becomes the next Paul Heyman guy? Who needs a heel push?
—Curtis Lewis

  1. Roman Reigns. Have Heyman switch allegiances at ’Mania. Done and done.
  1. I know this is about as likely as Heyman becoming head writer again (read: not at all), but I’d love to see him start a Dangerous Alliance 2.0 faction. How’s this: Cesaro and Kidd, Titus O’Neil or Luke Harper as the heater, and Dolph Ziggler in the Rick Rude role. Ziggler doesn’t need a mouthpiece any more than Rude did, but he needs to be taken seriously.

Wait, isn’t this supposed to be a Fastlane mailbag?
—Danny, my bartender, right now

For the record, this is the kind of thing I talk about with bartenders. And although I specifically said that this was not a Fastlane-only mailbag, there are several good matches on this card. We’ve talked about Bryan-Reigns. Cena-Rusev should be a fun brawl, though it will inevitably set the stage for a WrestleMania rematch. The Usos will take on the insurgent tag team of Cesaro and Tyson Kidd, and as beaten down as I am by the Usos’ reign, I will never not want to watch a Brass Ring Club match.

I’m excited for Bad News Barrett vs. Dean Ambrose the way I’m excited for a Mavericks-Hornets NBA game — I’ve got space in my heart for both sides, even if the buildup has been nonexistent and the stakes feel borderline meaningless. By the way, there’s a rumor that McMahon wants to shift Ambrose to a “cool, Vegas gambler” character, which sounds all kinds of ridiculous, though it probably beats his current incarnation as a prop comic. And if the rumors are true that Vince is always 20 years behind the pop culture curve, a few months of Ambrose saying things like “Baby, that was money!” would at least be good for a laugh.

And Paige is taking on Nikki Bella for the Divas title. Can we all take a moment to embrace how WWE managed to throw together a women’s feud with little buildup and I’m still excited to see it? Less than a year ago, Paige had a PPV match against Tamina Snuka! The Bellas playing pranks on Paige may sound lame on paper, but attacking her with spray tan was borderline brilliant  just a perfect throwback to the toiletry-fueled feuds of yore like Rick Martel blinding Jake Roberts with cologne or the Freebirds blinding Junkyard Dog with hair cream. And the Bellas can keep stealing Paige’s ring gear if she ends up being a badass wrestler while dressing like this. (Please ignore that she was basically wearing her ring gear under the Rainbow Bright getup.)

And now, in homage to the Cheap Heat podcast, a Kayfabe Question of the Week:

With heels getting away with cheating, why hasn’t WWE or any other federation implemented replay or hired an additional referee to watch the action from outside the ring?
—Jordan

Did the NBA add referees in the ’90s, when Pat Riley’s Knicks were fouling every player every time down the court? Did the NFL add more refs to check the balls during games after Deflategate? Will MMA ever use instant replay to double-check for intentional nut shots or eye pokes? No. The system’s the system. And despite what the talking heads would have you think, cheating is good for any sport. Without controversy, there’s nothing to talk about. In wrestling in particular, cheating is encouraged. Why else would there be a five-count for breaking a hold? Why else would there be lax responses to eye rakes or closed fists? In a world where the authority figure is always involved in feuding with the onscreen hero, why on earth would they outlaw rule-breaking? Everyone knows Daniel Bryan and John Cena will almost never break the rules. Why change the way the business is run?

Occasionally, WWE can be genuinely burned by unexpected cheating or when a third party intervenes and suddenly management’s plan for ’Mania is thrown into disarray. But even that’s a good thing if it keeps people guessing. Even in kayfabe, unpredictability is best for business.