At the start of another year, we reflect on what was maybe wrestling’s most hectic year in history, and most of the time, it wasn’t because of the wrestling itself.
From Cody Rhodes leaving AEW, to Vince McMahon’s resignation in the wake of scandal, to the All Out presser, there was always something major going on in the world of wrestling.
Is this the new normal for a business with a legitimate alternative for the first time in decades, or is this an outlier? That remains to be seen, but in the meantime, the world’s three biggest companies all have room for improvement.
If I were in charge, here are the New Year’s Resolutions that I would make.
Don’t be afraid of the big match
Since its inception, AEW has been based on long-term storytelling and protecting its biggest stars. While this approach produces some of the best moments in wrestling when it goes to plan, many factors need to fall into place for the plan to work. AEW’s booking faced more adversity than ever before in 2022. AEW was hit with the injury bug in the summer, which required plans to be shuffled, made most evident by the ever-changing Forbidden Door card.
Another obstacle AEW faced for the first time in 2022 was the unexpected departure of major stars. Although the circumstances were different, Cody Rhodes and CM Punk (for now at least) left AEW with several money matches left on the table. Cody didn’t wrestle Kenny Omega, Hangman Page, Jon Moxley, Bryan Danielson, or Adam Cole. While CM Punk had a successful AEW run with almost no wasted time, one can only wonder what would have happened if he could have faced Danielson, Cole, Omega, Cody, or even have rematches with Hangman and MJF.
While the hesitation to have a top star lose a big match is reasonable, AEW’s booking is strong enough to rehab someone in time for another big program. In the current wrestling climate, you never know what’s coming, and if you try to protect a match for too long, you might lose it. AEW could benefit from getting to its biggest possible matches sooner in the new year.
Remember what got you here
AEW’s turbulent year has been no secret. From the MJF situation at Double or Nothing to the chaos of All Out, AEW has had to be flexible with both their featured wrestler and the structure of their programming. In the later portion of the year, many fans felt that something was off with the AEW product. While the in-ring standard remained high, it was clear AEW was experimenting with the structure between the matches. AEW littered a few weeks of television with more video packages than ever before, accompanied by tongue-in-cheek tweets from Tony Khan telling viewers to expect more. More WWE-style stories were present, such as MJF teasing an impromptu cash-in of the Casino Ladder Match Chip and Saraya painting the women’s division as a dying part of the show that she needed to revive. These changes didn’t attract the mythical “casual fan” as the numbers stayed similar, and many longtime AEW fans didn’t welcome the different approach.
Since a stellar Full Gear, AEW television has again found its footing, with many fans eagerly awaiting what Wednesday in January will bring. AEW is always going to be at a disadvantage being the new kid on the block, and even though WWE is in the same industry, the companies are offering different products. 2022 has shown that attempting to bridge the gap doesn’t silence your detractors or excite your supporters.
Build Reigns’s Successor
At the time of this writing, Roman Reigns has held the Universal Championship for over 800 days and has held the WWE championship for nearly 300 days. After half a dozen years of trying, WWE has successfully made Roman into the undisputed top wrestler in WWE, but at what cost? Broken down to its most simple elements, a long title reign has two phases: building up defenses and paying off the reign by elevating the wrestler who dethrones the champion. Step one has gone off without a hitch. Reigns has defeated Bray Wyatt, Kevin Owens, Daniel Bryan, Edge, Rey Mysterio, John Cena, Seth Rollins, and Brock Lesnar in his two-plus years as champion. Reigns feels unbeatable, which is a testament to his strong booking. You may wonder, isn’t that all of WWE’s top guys? Almost. As another WrestleMania looms in the new year, many fans wonder what’s next for Roman Reigns. Who else is left for him to beat, and possibly more importantly, who will beat him?
Currently, there appear to be three options: Sami Zayn, The Rock, and Cody Rhodes. The natural option from watching SmackDown is fellow Bloodline member Sami Zayn, but would WWE fans buy Sami Zayn as a credible person to defeat Reigns after Reigns has already beaten him in 15 seconds? WWE’s preferred option is likely The Rock, who comes with his own set of problems. Firstly, WWE hasn’t been able to get The Rock for a real match (sorry, Erick Rowan) in a decade. Even if The Rock can fit WrestleMania into his schedule, is he making the same effort to be at Extreme Rules if he were to beat Reigns? The Rock is one of the biggest stars ever as is, what would be gained from ending this reign? Last and perhaps least likely is Cody Rhodes. Rhodes, who has been out of action since June, is undefeated since his return to WWE at Wrestlemania in April, including several victories over Seth Rollins. Will Cody be ready to return by the Royal Rumble?
WWE has many options with the titles. WrestleMania will be a two-night event again in 2023, meaning Reigns could defend the title twice. He could drop both, one, or neither of the titles. Regardless of the road they take, WWE needs to figure out who will end Roman’s reign. You’re one step away if he’s one of the three mentioned previously. If it’s anyone else, start building them up now.
Shake it up
New Japan hasn’t really felt like itself since the pandemic. Though the clap crowds aren’t their fault, they have hurt the shows and fan investment in the product. The in-ring has been solid as always, but for many fans, crowd noise can only make a match better, and New Japan has been missing that for over two years now. Whether it was borders opening, strengthening the AEW relationship, or even an expanded G1 Climax field, fans kept waiting for the thing that would kick NJPW into a higher gear. Granted, the argument could be made that New Japan has been waiting for the government to loosen cheering restrictions, but there are changes that need to be made in the new year.
Firstly, the units need to be freshened up. We got a taste of this in December when Suzuki-gun disbanded. The problem with that is they were one of the newer units. CHAOS was founded in 2009, followed by BULLET CLUB in 2013, and LIJ in 2015. The convenience of units in NJPW is obvious, it allows them to fill out undercards with multi-man tags that don’t require much thought to book; pick a few guys from each unit, and there’s your match. The United Empire has helped inject some new life into the unit scene, but some changes in members of units or maybe even disbanding of units would help New Japan feel fresher.
The more pressing issue for New Japan is shaking up the talent pool. New Japan’s main event scene has been the same wrestlers (for the most part) for half a decade at this point. The past 11 G1 Climax tournaments have only been five winners, with the most recent first-time winner coming in 2016. Now there is a reason New Japan’s top talents are top talents, but more people need to be added to the mix. Will Ospreay has broken through, but his rival Shingo Takagi is already back down to the mid-card after a brief title reign. With Ren Narita’s returns and Shota Umino’s returns, New Japan has the chance to elevate two younger talents in one night on Wrestle Kingdom. Making younger talents isn’t going to happen overnight. Still, New Japan has a great opportunity to get started at the Tokyo Dome and to continue it throughout the year, hopefully culminating with a G1 Climax in the summer with plenty of new faces having good showings.