As fans detached from the whirring machine of the industry, it’s easy to look at wrestling promotions as giant train sets. Bookers have their pieces at hand and are free to construct them as they please, piecing together storylines as well as their creativity will allow.
This simplistic view often makes us think we could do better, and I’m as guilty as anyone in that regard. The online wrestling sphere is swamped with fantasy booking, from simple match suggestions to in-depth think pieces. A lot of it sucks, and again, I’m no stranger to that.
Upon helping to run a wrestling promotion I was given the mother of all reality checks. It quickly became apparent that anything might get in the way of short and long-term booking plans. Injury, illness, scheduling conflicts, delayed flights, flat tires - everything can go wrong, and will regularly do so. Our hard working crew introduced me to the term ‘card subject to change’ as I had never viewed it before - less a disclaimer, more a gallows-humour backstage motto.
These types of obstacles are unavoidable. Logistical frustration in wrestling is a constant, and the entire business has experienced this to an unforeseen degree over the past year.
But as things slowly return to normal, the red portion of WWE’s product grows only more baffling. Raw’s current booking situation is so strange, not only because many of its obstacles now seem entirely avoidable, but because WWE seems intent on actually creating them itself.
Shayna Baszler made her pro wrestling debut in September 2015. Less than two years later she signed a WWE contract, and less than one year after that, she became NXT Women’s Champion. Although understandably greener in the ring than early foes Kairi Sane and Ember Moon, she improved in real time as her two reigns unfolded. By the time Baszler dropped the belt to Rhea Ripley, she had unquestionably become one of the standout members of a ludicrously strong roster.
It was a staggeringly quick rise, one for which she doesn’t get nearly enough praise compared to fellow fast learners Kurt Angle and Ronda Rousey.
Shayna was a star. And then she moved to the main roster.
Those unavoidable show-running hindrances I mentioned, they haven’t really applied to Baszler. She appears to be something of a booker’s dream. She rarely gets injured and seems a well-liked roster member behind the scenes. Almost all of her main roster run has come in the challenging lockdown era, and she’s been a dual-brand workhorse for the company in that time. Unlike some peers, she also does what is asked of her by creative without kicking up a public fuss - although on recent evidence, she’d be completely forgiven for doing so.
That’s because Shayna is the most recent victim of Raw’s infuriating modern trend: making its own obstacles. These mistakes aren’t simply failed experiments, like turning a young Randy Orton face or pushing Roman Reigns too hard.
They’re not even really ‘mistakes’, are they? They’re deliberate and terrible decisions.
On the most recent Raw, weeks of supernatural torment at the hands of Alexa Bliss culminated when Baszler stomped on Lilly, the creepy doll. She was then chased from the arena by pyro, saw Lilly’s reflection in a backstage mirror and booted it off the wall to close the show.
For context and clarity, Shayna has a 13-year MMA background, and is one of the most dominant champions in NXT history. She is arguably the worst choice for this angle in the entire WWE women’s division.
Baszler’s new position as Bliss’ terrified playmate says a couple of things about Vince McMahon. One: he’s really bad at picking victims for his spooky wrestlers. After all, twice in recent years he’s booked long Bray Wyatt feuds with Orton, an unflappable snake-man who demonstrates fear by furrowing his brow and somehow becoming even more handsome. It’s not the most natural dynamic; neither is Baszler vs. Bliss.
Two: Vince has no idea what he wants from NXT, and doesn’t realise the danger in his flippant treatment of it.
NXT stars aren’t just met with limited opportunities on the main roster - they’re warped and bent into unnatural shapes. The once-feared Viking Raiders are now turkey leg-eating buffoons; Riddle is the stoner caricature we all feared he would be. Before they left, the Revival were going to become court jesters. Remember that?
Recently, the most egregiously mistreated of this crop has been Aleister Black - a man who has refused to blame WWE for his release, while detailing the many creative ideas he desperately pitched on deaf ears over the past few years. Even if you aren’t partial to his way of thinking, you have to admit that most of it was better than ‘man who sits in a room’, or more recently, ‘evil preacher who sits in a room, appears once, and disappears forever.’
Moving on from Black - who will surely be fine, by virtue of being extremely talented - who’s next? It’s hard to look at this weekend’s TakeOver card without fearing for a few of the names, especially those in the men’s main event. The likes of Adam Cole and Johnny Gargano have perhaps exhausted their options in NXT, and one can’t imagine McMahon treating them with the same creativity and freedom as Triple H.
Much has been made of WWE’s urgent need to create stars for the future, yet Vince constantly mistreats those that emerge from his star-making brand. A handful of missteps could be chalked up to bad luck, but having your resident MMA badass cower from a puppet? Releasing your captivating satanic kickboxer in the middle of a character refresh? Once again, these are foolish, avoidable obstacles created by the promotion itself.
Time will tell how Shayna fares in her new feud. Hopefully she’ll emerge unscathed from the other side, and can at least be given something to get her teeth into next.
The idea is sometimes floated that if a wrestler is talented enough, they’re immune to poor creative, and their credibility will be restored in short order. Talk on that front may die down after what’s happened to Black and so many others; let’s hope the Queen of Spades will have better luck.