It’s hard to not notice just how much the WWE has changed since 2010. Where once the product was a misplaced menagerie of much maligned talent that desperately pleaded for the limelight of more mainstream entertainment, the house that McMahon built has steered the ship mostly back on course.
Right now is one of the best times to be a professional wrestling fan. For the first time in 15 years, healthy competition — whether it’s manufactured in the form of WWE developmental NXT or parallel companies such as New Japan — has harbored a new atmosphere in the squared circle that is seeing a swapping of the guard.
Much of that is due to changing hearts and minds within WWE Creative. Talent has become more focused on match quality and storytelling through physicality; talent who I never thought would be given a chance to prosper have risen above the stereotypes and expectations of the industry.
Most of all, and for the first time since the Attitude Era, WWE seems comfortable in its own skin.
If someone were to tell me two years ago that Samoa Joe, Prince Devitt, KENTA, El Generico, and other indie darlings would be making waves and drawing genuine reactions from crowds, I would have been doubtful. If I were to receive a magical future email extolling the creation and support of a real women’s division with different and meaningful levels of competition, I would raise a skeptical eyebrow.
If a carrier pigeon were to drop me a missive in regards to former CHIKARA and CZW talent becoming main focal points of the WWE product, I may show weariness. Most of all, if someone were to punch me in the face and yell “Surprise! John Cena is the best professional wrestler and worker in 2015!” and disappear as quickly as they materialized, I would believe I had just been hoodwinked.
And, punched in the face, obviously.
Don’t believe me? This past episode of RAW is a great example of just how much the product is attempting to change things for the better on a week by week basis. Last night was the first “go home” show before a PPV in awhile that really felt like it was trying to generate excitement for what is usually a boring, annual event.
Few of the segments fell short, and in a few exceptional cases, exceeded expectations. Professional wrestling is pretty dumb, but when it’s good it is amazing and transformative.
The NXT women’s division takeover has been a long time coming and was everything I desired and more. For weeks, Paige has been getting the Earl Grey kicked out of her by the Bellas and their new henchwoman. I looked at my wife last night as we were watching and told her that I couldn’t take another week of the wink and nod, in regards to help being on the way.
Then, Becky Lynch stormed the ring. That wonderful feeling that overtakes a wrestling fan occurred. My suspension of disbelief was gone and I was captured in this amazing moment as performers I respect and admire hit the ring and made the most of a glorious opportunity. More to the point, Charlotte, Becky, and the always amazing Sasha Banks all look like they belonged.
Look no further than Sasha coming out and hitting the ramp like she already owned the place, before dropping her entrance gear and putting on a fight face that had me enthralled.
Some fans have shown disgust at the use of Stephanie McMahon in the segment, but fail to see that she is the necessary storytelling delivery device, nothing more. I agree that Stephanie should have left screen after the brawl and that the use of the Total Divas theme was gross. I argue that Stephanie possesses the correct storytelling authority to give fans not in the know about NXT an idea of why these three women are important. With a few words, Stephanie was able to convey to many fans why they should care about these new competitors.
That’s a hell of a rub, even from the youngest McMahon.
For the third week in a row, the John Cena Open Challenge segment captured my attention and intrigue. Cesaro continues to be the most consistent performer on the WWE roster, working with a returning and refocused Rusev and the ever incredible Kevin Owens.
Rusev has found his footing in a post-Lana world and is all the better for it. The triple threat match from RAW for the honor of facing Cena afterwards continued a succession of multiple episodes of RAW with fantastic in-ring action. Kevin Owens continues to play the best heel in the company while Rusev displayed excellent ring psychology and selling ability in his short bout with John.
Both of these major segments show a trend towards moving forward. Think about each segment from last night: Only a few segments didn’t include an NXT call up, and very few failed to at least progress the story or entertain.
I realize that it is very easy to be negative towards a product that, at times, feels like it is stuck in a holding pattern. The last few years have been a very odd and transitional period for WWE, with growing pains bound to occur. However, I am choosing to take the path of the optimist and give in to the sheer giddiness that NXT and WWE have created in me through the last few years.
The past’s time is up, and WWE’s future is growing ever closer to being now.
Will Harrison is a reporter covering the games industry for the print publication The Toledo Blade in Toledo, Ohio. When he isn’t being upset over Satoru Iwata’s death, he thinks about professional wrestling.
Contract Will on Twitter @DoubleUHarrison or via email at email@example.com.