By Chuck Carroll
As we gather around our dinner tables on Thursday, we should take stock in what we are truly grateful for. For wrestling fans, that has to be the WWE. Yes, there is a great deal of room for improvement. In fact, the promotion is kind of like a Thanksgiving dinner, in that you want so desperately to get along with everyone at the table but inevitably someone does something stupid and infuriates you. It’s just the way it is and how it’s always been. But even though we could spend an entire day discussing the flaws of WWE, this is Thanksgiving. It is a time to give thanks for the positive things in life and in the ring.
One such positive is the beginning of the end for John Cena. The one-time “Doctor of Thuganomics” took what would have been in many cases another failed cartoon character gimmick and turned it into an empire. That Marky Mark protégé is now in line to become a leading man in Hollywood. Much like the character he voices in his latest movie, Ferdinand, he is headed for greener pastures. But before fully riding off into the sunset, he is taking the time to pass the torch and build a prosperous future for the company that made him a millionaire many times over. If you still buy into the knock that he buries other talent to keep himself at the top of the heap, you are sadly mistaken at this point. His triumphant return at Survivor Series was forgettable. Not largely forgettable. Not somewhat forgettable. Totally forgettable. And that is because the torch has been passed. That flame is now being carried by another breakout star who shares a love-hate relationship with the WWE Universe.
Love him or hate him, Roman Reigns is someone we should all be thankful for. Actually, we should truly be grateful that he has returned to form. The once-polarizing former world champion has recaptured the entirety of wrestling fans. Reigns was always popular, but to jeer instead of cheer was the more prevalent choice. The young superstar has already managed to do something that Cena was never able to: win back the crowd. The reunion of The Shield has eliminated the chorus of boos that greeted him every time he stepped through the curtain. The future is bright for this one. It will be interesting to see whether all of the love continues if WWE proceeds with reported plans for WrestleMania. Multiple outlets have stated that the plan is for him to face Brock Lesnar for the Universal Title. Can he make it as a solo act without drawing the ire of fans? Like the turkey in the oven, that is something to keep an eye on.
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We should also say thanks for the strength of the women’s division. This has been the year of the goddess. Alexa Bliss continues to be a breath of fresh air. She is the quintessential heel and plays the part to a T. She plays it so well that it’s impossible not to like her. Meanwhile, on SmackDown, Charlotte Flair continues to be a torchbearer. As an aside, there is honestly nothing that any wrestling fan should be more grateful for than the health of her father, Ric Flair, who managed to escape death despite long odds.
WWE’s investment in its crop of women’s talent will not slow anytime soon with fresh faces arriving. We saw the debuts of Mandy Rose and Sonya Deville on RAW Monday night. Less than 24 hours later, Sarah Logan, Ruby Riot, and Liv Morgan made their first appearances on SmackDown. In both cases, the NXT stars were made to look like a wrecking crew. It is now up to them to keep pushing the women’s revolution forward. The buck cannot stop with these five.
As we continue looking at this feast of wrestling, the next course is competition. Specifically, Ring of Honor, which has cemented itself as the country’s No. 2 promotion. Without it, WWE wouldn’t have of many of its largest stars. Daniel Bryan, Kevin Owens, Seth Rollins, CM Punk, and scores of others have all wrestled under the code of honor. And in the most recent wave of signings, WWE landed the man who arguably was the face of ROH. Adam Cole has already captivated the NXT audience, and it is only a matter of time before we hear his name followed by “bay bay” on the main roster. He will hold a major title on either Raw or SmackDown within the next 18 months. Mark my word.
Lastly, we have AJ Styles. It took him nearly 20 years to get here, and we should all be grateful that the journey took as long as it did. He could have easily come to WWE years ago, but he would have been caught in the bury-then-push-then-bury-then-push-then-bury-again cycle that plagues many WWE talents. In that case he never would have become phenomenal. Instead, he took his time, weighed his options, and carved his own path to the top. It is his experience on the international stage that made him perhaps the greatest in-ring performer we have seen in more than a generation. Had it not been for New Japan Pro Wrestling and Bullet Club, he may not have ever become phenomenal. And his skill set extends beyond his own abilities. Styles has the rare ability to draw the best out of his opponents. His match against Brock Lesnar at Survivor Series is a prime example. When was the last time you saw the Beast Incarnate wrestle that complete of a match? The answer may be never.
For all of the criticism that WWE faces — much of it deserved — the good outweighs the bad by miles. You can point to eroding television audiences and live crowds, but that is part of a larger trend connected to changing media-consumption habits. So let us not knock WWE on this holiday. Let us be thankful. You must already be, or you wouldn’t be reading this article.
Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.