Friday, July 7, 2017

Okada and WWE's Selfish Brat Syndrome

Bálor is a victim of WWE's "sign everyone, ask questions later" policy
Photo Credit:
Smackdown was notable for several things on camera this week, but off-camera, a certain visiting dignitary in town for business made the biggest splash. Kazuchika Okada, fresh off two critically-acclaimed, sold-out New Japan Pro Wrestling shows in Long Beach, CA, spent time backstage at RAW and Smackdown, visiting old friends and taking in the future competition. Wrestlers visit WWE shows all the time, so it's not really news except on Tuesday's Smackdown, Okada spent the entire show in the Gorilla Position, according to Mega Ran, a rapper who was a part of New Day's entourage during their rap battle with the Usos.

Screen Grab via Henry T. Casey

For those who don't know, Gorilla Position is the area right behind the curtain where Vince McMahon and other producers basically direct the episode of television airing as it happens. It's a pretty damn important place in WWE parlance, and McMahon et al. don't let just anyone hang out there for an entire telecast. If one were to read between the lines, it was McMahon's, or perhaps more accurately, Paul "Triple H" Levesque's latest recruiting pitch for The Rainmaker. WWE hasn't been shy about wanting Okada in the fold, but unlike former peer and current Artist Shinsuke Nakamura, he's not bitten on any WWE offers so far. He's even gone so far as to publicly state his intentions on carrying NJPW on his back to America and beyond. Of course, verbal assurances mean nothing in the grand scheme of a business as built on deception as wrestling is, but I at least believe Okada when he says he's New Japan for life.

While Okada in Gorilla is itself a huge story, the biggest implication won't be that he's on WWE's radar or that the conglomerate even went so far as to lay out the best seat in the house for him for an entire telecast. This Okada recruitment pitch bolsters the argument that WWE is a gluttonous megafauna that at best needs to suck up an inordinate amount of resources to sustain itself like some kind of real life Galactus and at worst and probably most accurately, is that the company is a metaphorical spoiled brat with rich parents that needs to have everything or in this case, every wrestler, or else it'll throw a tantrum.

The company's track record of signing up everyone it can without a clear plot for them is starting to unravel. NXT is currently rich with talent, and the developmental arm is only going to absorb more wrestlers once it can clear hurdles to obtain ex-Ring of Honor talent. But what is it actually doing with these wrestlers? Just take a look at the wrestlers on the roster who didn't work a match on Takeover: Chicago's main show: Kassius Ohno, Drew McIntyre, Andrade Cien Almas, Aleister Black, Oney Lorcan, Killian Dain (working under the assumption that another notable name, No Way Jose, was injured at the time and that Ember Moon's injury was legit and not worked). Under normal circumstances, at least two of those guys might have have had a match on Takeover, but NXT had to make room for a United Kingdom Championship match between Pete Dunne and Tyler Bate. Given how over the match was and how itchy WWE's British trigger finger is, I doubt that title will be left off the Brooklyn III card either.

But hey, at least McIntyre, Almas, and Black have pushes and Dain's stable is at the forefront of the NXT narrative. What about Lorcan and especially Ohno? Both were plucked from the indies during viable runs. Lorcan had arguably not even hit his peak as Biff Busick, the ace of Beyond Wrestling and future main event challenger in EVOLVE. The fact that his highlights in terms of narrative currency and importance so far have been getting a lone win over Almas and then being the human lit fuse to catalyze an assumed Takeover: Brooklyn III match between Ohno and Hideo Itami. Is that what he gave up an extended run on top of the Northeast indies for? Speaking of the former Chris Hero, one could argue that Ohno had run his course as an indie elder statesman and he was overdue for a WWE return. But for WWE to sign him just to put over dudes on the developmental brand when he could and should be a bigger chunk of the focus, maybe even on a main roster brand, feels like having a guy on the payroll just to have him.

But even getting on the main roster isn't necessarily a cure for what might ail an aimless NXT superstar. Roster management on both RAW and Smackdown seems to be even more of a mess than it is on NXT. Look at how many people are on either brand, and then look at how many stars' talents are utilized each week. Vince McMahon and the rest of his staff can't build a robust cast of characters with five hours of run-time each week, and it's not like the only guys straggling are jobbers and low-potential wrestlers. Can anyone tell me what Finn Bálor is supposed to be doing other than slumming it with Elias Sampson, who himself is a victim of the disorganized card structure and lack of a midcard that could nurture a pay-per-view story?

It's not that WWE is necessarily bad at building stories. A cursory look at both shows right now sees at least a handful of great angles that have had careful build coming to a head either now or by SummerSlam: Samoa Joe vs. Brock Lesnar, Roman Reigns vs. Braun Strowman, Goldust vs. R-Truth, Alexa Bliss vs. Nia Jax, Building the Titus Brand/Titus Worldwide, Kevin Owens vs. AJ Styles, Breezango vs. the mystery team that keeps fucking with them. Hell, even Becky Lynch vs. James Ellsworth has been a solid running story even if it has absolutely no chance of being blown off. Of course, that's not even counting the bad stories either, because hey, being occupied is being occupied. So it's not like everyone is floating aimlessly. But enough people are just adrift that the continual signing of people without anyone of note being let go is going to increase this bloat, not alleviate it. Bálor could be where either Cody or Kenny Omega is in New Japan right now. Hell, remember when Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows were marquee signings just to become Main Event fodder after their first year with the company? Of course, none of this is even taking into account 205 Live, where the only guy guaranteed to be Doing Something™ at any given moment is Neville. An entire legion of dudes was lifted from the indies to join him, Austin Aries, and Brian Kendrick to fill time on Tuesday night and be the essential avatar of WWE's 50/50 booking.

If being featured isn't a guarantee, then the big reason anyone would sign with WWE is the money. Granted, guys like Nakamura and probably McIntyre and Ohno got paid upon their arrivals, but I can't imagine Lorcan or Moon or even someone like Mustafa Ali is getting the full fiduciary benefit of being a top-line WWE employee. NXT wrestlers, with little exception, might be better off financially on the indies until they get called up to the main roster. Someone like Okada will be fine. WWE would have to throw all the money at him anyway, and New Japan would probably match unless McMahon got crazy and gave him Brock Lesnar money (spoiler, only Brock Lesnar gets Brock Lesnar money). But what would that say for Adam Cole, Ray Rowe, Kyle O'Reilly, various female signees brought on board for the Mae Young Classic, or whatever next indie guy gets signed? They get signed on a handshake and a chance, a chance to make money or be a huge star, but with no guarantee of financial security or that they'll even get a fair shake for usage.

WWE is the biggest wrestling company in the world, so it should follow that it would be a bit more exclusive with who gets to join. However, just because the Monday Night Wars ended with World Championship Wrestling selling off to McMahon doesn't mean McMahon ever left his "war" mindset behind. He's always looking for the next big wrestler to make him money, ignorant to the fact that he has so many people under contract that he doesn't know what to do with them. It's the same principle WCW followed at the height of Nitro. The company famously had Lanny Poffo under contract to, as Friend of the Blog and What A Maneuver! podcast host Joe Drilling puts it, "suck his own dick." WWE signing Gallows and Anderson without knowing what to do with them, making British talent sign restrictive agreements that prohibited them from working certain promotions not friendly with the company, siphoning off top indie talent to stash on 205 Live or NXT with intermittent plans to push them, or even having NXT as a boutique indie brand that acts as a further cudgel against every other slightly major American company are all monopolistic actions.

WWE doesn't need to employ every wrestler on God's green Earth, but it does, much like that kid up the street didn't need to hoard all the best action figures and game systems without letting you play with them. WWE is a spoiled brat, looking to swallow up any and all of the wrestling talent it can get its figurative hands on to stifle competition before it starts. NJPW's American expansion is in its infancy, but McMahon can't take anyone siphoning a dollar from him in the wrestling game, hence courting Okada and also establishing a base in Asia to launch its own Championship there in the same vein as the UK one. I get it, any business owner should want to aggressively expand in a capitalist market that rewards monopolistic behavior. It's a good thing, however, that capitalism's use to me has grown obsolete, but that's neither here nor there. The real point is that the state of pro wrestling right now in terms of its business side is stagnant and hopeless unless you're in WWE and happen to strike lucky to curry the biggest brat's favor that week. Real change is not going to happen until someone can rise up and compete, but with the way McMahon and his company consumes talent just to have talent, that change may not happen for a long goddamn time. Just hope and pray that Okada's intentions on visiting Smackdown were just to see how the other side lives and perhaps a little industrial espionage too. Otherwise, if New Japan loses him, the landscape is gonna be real fuckin' bleak for a long, long time.