The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of WrestlingInc or its staff.
As Kevin Owens stalled outside the ring before his match against Bill Goldberg at Fastlane on Sunday, a moment of gloom passed over me. Here was a guy that has been wrestling since he was 16 years old; someone that toiled away, bleeding and risking his body for little money for well over a decade on the independents. A guy that specialized in taking big moves despite weighing well over 260lbs, a guy who helped talented wrestlers like Sami Zayn and John Cena have some of the best matches of their careers, a guy that had worked hard to finally become a world champion and just turned on his friend, culminating a long build-up for what was/is sure to be a highly entertaining feud.
Yet, despite those accomplishments; all of that hardcore and critical acclaim met nothing because Bill Goldberg had come back. Goldberg, a man in his 50s who admittedly did not love professional wrestling and who hadn't wrestled in over a decade until November. A man who did not take a single bump since his return until a confrontation with Brock Lesnar the following night. A man who after WrestleMania is a good bet to never wrestle again. A man who could never dream of having a match as good as Owens or be apart of a storyline as intricate of Owens. A guy who won't be working any house shows and only appear on a handful of RAWs leading up to WrestleMania. Despite those strikes in his corner, WWE had full confidence in taking the title off of Owens and putting it onto Goldberg for its most important stretch of the year.
Goldberg got the title for only one reason: WWE believes that they can draw the most with Goldberg headlining WrestleMania as the Universal Championship. Part of that is circumstantial, WWE has Goldberg headlining WrestleMania against Brock Lesnar and their goal every year is to have the biggest match possible, and the one way to make that match bigger is to have the championship on the line.
The sacrifice they are making is that they had to have Goldberg beat Owens, and not just beat, but completely slaughter Owens in 22 seconds with the long-time champion not even putting up a fight. This once again has WWE proving what a lot of fans (and many more former fans) already believe; that today's top stars cannot hold a candle to the stars of the past. Four of the past five years the champion heading into WrestleMania has been a star of the past (The Rock, Brock Lesnar, Triple H and Goldberg). WrestleMania of course is the event where the most people are watching WWE, and what are they seeing? Regular, hard-working guys in their prime playing second fiddle to stars that are past their prime. This is what happened all the time in WCW.
Another key hiccup is that Bill Goldberg will not be on any house shows (Lesnar will only be on a few, even after he presumably wins the title) so you are taking the draw of a championship match off of the road. This has all been done because WWE believes Goldberg is a big enough draw to justify both crapping on the younger guys and not having the champion appear on house shows. Is that justified? We won't ever really know. The idea that Goldberg is a big drawing card comes from when he first returned to WWE back in the fall and that show saw a big spike in viewership during a time when they were really struggling. Since then I think it is safe to say the allure has worn off a bit. After winning the championship at Fastlane, RAW the following night with Goldberg confronting Lesnar only increased by four percent from the previous week (which did also have Goldberg on it) a marginal improvement considering they put the title on the guy. Ratings overall are still significantly down from previous years during this time period.
I suppose the tantalizing aspect is that Goldberg will be a big draw for WrestleMania, but again that seems hard to figure out. Even before Goldberg was announced as a contender for the Universal Championship, a majority of the tickets for WrestleMania had been sold. The brand of WrestleMania itself is so strong that fans will buy tickets and book flights before a single match is even announced. The thing that could be sold is WWE Network subscriptions; if more people subscribe to the network for this years' WrestleMania with Goldberg on it than last year's show that did not have Goldberg on it, then it can be reasonably believed that Goldberg can be attributed with raising interest in WrestleMania. Even that isn't really a good indicator either, because nobody can properly quantify that Goldberg specifically being the Universal Champion increased those numbers, or if just having Goldberg in a key match sold the show.
The simple fact is that we will never know if it was worth putting the title on Goldberg. I tend to doubt it though, unless there is a massive increase in full-time subscriptions following WrestleMania I don't think burying a full-time star like Owens for a guy that is not part of the long-term future of the company to marginally improve the interest of a match at WrestleMania is justifiable.
You know what really bugs me though? I, like a majority of the people reading this, am a fan of professional wrestling. We are watching to watch people do a good job, whether that is performing well in a match, cutting a good promo or telling a dramatic story. When someone performs well in their role it makes the show much more enjoyable to watch. We love to speculate about the potential of a performer and if one day they can become a world champion. Despite what some would say to the contrary, I honestly believe this is the mindset of a majority of wrestling fans. Even if you are not scoping the internet for wrestling news every day; even the most casual fans still enjoy a good show—that is why they are watching.
However, with Goldberg winning the world title I feel like all that watching and inquiring about wrestling kind of doesn't matter. I feel stupid for being a wrestling fan; when you watch a guy like Owens develop over the years and bust his ass as world champion—only to be immediately shellacked and replaced by Goldberg, because someone or somebody thinks that it is worth killing Owens to make Goldberg the champion. Why even watch WWE throughout the year if WrestleMania is just going to be full of guys that are only going to be wrestling for a few weeks a year? It is bizarre that WrestleMania has almost nothing to do with the rest of the year. The Super Bowl is the biggest event in football, but it has everything to do with the NFL season. Same for the World Series in baseball, or Champions League in soccer. The Oscar's are the biggest night of the year for the film industry, and it is a culmination of a long-build throughout the year.
Whether you like Owens or not, I think it is fair to say that he is undisputedly a very talented performer. Some people may not think so and they are entitled in their opinions, but a strong majority agree that he is very talented. Cagematch.net allows users to rate wrestlers on a 0-10 basis and Owens has a rating of 9.27 out of 705 votes. WWE would not have promoted Owens to the position he was in if they didn't think he had elite talent. I don't think you can realistically deny that Owens is not a superior performer, either on the mic, as a character or in the ring.
I say the following about Bill Goldberg with the disclaimer that it is by no means a personal attack against him. Goldberg seems like a great guy that wanted to come back to wrestle because his son never got to see him work. Anyone can relate to that feeling; and to his credit through strong booking, a great look and athleticism he has a great aura about him, even at his advanced age.
But Bill Goldberg is the worst performer to ever be world champion in WWE. For anyone that values the art of wrestling it is inexcusable that he has the world title right now. The Great Khali is always brought up when people think of people that should have never been world champion; and that is valid. However, even Khali was at most house shows and even though he was hardly mobile, he still took bumps in most of his matches and didn't just squash guys in seconds. Goldberg in 2017 doesn't check off any of those boxes. This guy has the number one prize in wrestling and he can't even take a couple bumps! As poor workers as guys like Hulk Hogan or The Ultimate Warrior were, they blow Goldberg out of the water when it comes to competence inside the ring. Part of the reason Goldberg has been a part of only squash matches is to keep his aura alive, but another part of it is that he has been incapable of having anything but a squash match. At WrestleMania he will probably take a couple bumps, but that is only because it is likely to be his last match ever.
Some obnoxious people will point out that actual wrestling skill has never mattered, only what makes sense business wise does. While fundamentally true, I would hesitate to label Goldberg's world title reign as something that makes sense for business, specifically because he doesn't need the title to draw, squashed younger guys on the roster who will have a much larger long-term Impact on the company and the appeal he brings to WrestleMania as champion is probably minimally significant.
Even if it is the right business move; I say f--k that. In what other industry besides the stock market do you root not for entertainment and enjoyment but for a company to make money? No football fan is going to be excited that their team went 2-14 but their owner made a bunch of money. The Michael Bay Transformer movies suck; but they make a lot of money. That doesn't stop people from panning them—nobody cares if the movie makes money if it is destroying a beloved brand. It seems like some fans, or more specifically trolls, take a weird delight in pointing out to other fans that the wrestlers they like suck at drawing while the wrestler they don't like is a big draw. In WWE the brand draws much more than any specific wrestler, so that argument doesn't even make any sense. Goldberg being "best for business" might be an explanation for why he has the title, but it doesn't make it any less frustrating.
Kevin Owens vs Goldberg:
Kevin Owens vs Goldberg:No Rating, addressed above.
Roman Reigns vs Braun Strowman: **1/2
A lot of people were upset that Strowman lost clean here, and I get that. If I were booking I wouldn't have him lose clean in a low-profile match on a B PPV, but I don't think it was the worst move WWE made that night. I'm not sure what Strowman's ceiling was as a top draw; would he be capable of having the world title? I'm not sure—as soon as his push began his destiny was always to lose to a top babyface. That top babyface being Roman Reigns upset some people, and that is to be expected. The match was fine, although I think it has been overrated by some pundits. It was a lot of smoke-and-mirrors which is to be expected considering the length they needed to go and who the workers in the match were. It had a really bad spot where Strowman gave Reigns a big powerslam through the announce table and then picked Reigns up and throw him into the ring. As soon as Strowman got into the ring Reigns popped up and speared him; no selling the table spot which asks the question: Why even do the table spot in the first place?
Bayley vs Charlotte: **1/2
Another puzzling decision of the night was to have Bayley defeat Charlotte after interference from Sasha Banks. The first problem is that Bayley has to come off as being an honest, aw shucks kind of babyface, but she wasn't booked like that at all. Instead she won because her friend came out and helped her, while the heel played by the rules and left Dana Brooke in the back. I always feel like they should be delicate with Bayley's character because while it worked in NXT, it was handled with care and her character very slowly progressed; they seem to have ignored that on the main roster. The other factor is that they unceremoniously ended Charlotte's PPV win streak. Everyone assumed this would happen at WrestleMania but much like Strowman's loss, it came almost randomly on a B PPV. The strange this was an entirely WWE manufactured storyline; the fans didn't really care about Charlotte's sreak until WWE started pushing it and boy did they push it; mentioning it nearly every time she was on screen. What did that build up to? Bayley getting help to beat Charlotte at Fastlane.
Samoa Joe vs Sami Zayn: ***
I was hoping this would be a really great match because the rest of the card looked pretty weak as far as in-ring action. WWE had a conundrum though; they needed for Joe to go over and look strong in doing so. He couldn't have that dramatic of a match because he needed to look dominant. As much potential as this match had to be great, WWE made the right decision and put Joe over in semi-dominating fashion. It was good for what it was.
Enzo and Cass vs Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson: **1/4
A mediocre match that was boosted by the crowd being pretty hot for it. Very formulaic in that Enzo and Cass started out hot but then loss momentum as Anderson and Gallows beat the s--t out of Enzo for a while; Cass got the hot tag and started cleaning house, but Anderson and Gallows ultimately cheated to get back in control and steal the victory. Not much more to say.
Jack Gallagher vs Neville: ***3/4
Really fun match that the crowd got into because the performers got time and delivered inside the ring. I thought this was a really important match for Gallagher; his character has gained momentum thanks to his whimsy and natural charisma, but I believe he needed to have a serious, physical match to make him look more legitimate. His technical ability and his fun offense helped carry the match and he came across as someone that was tough as he was odd. Neville is just a super talent, he's such a good athlete that his strikes look amazing and of course he can fly around the ring as good as anybody.
Nia Jax vs Sasha Banks:**
This was better than their previous match at the Royal Rumble, and I liked the spot where Banks climbed around on Jax and tried a bunch of different submissions with her feet off the ground. Pinning Jax is an interesting choice; she isn't on the same level as Charlotte, Banks and Bayley, so her claim to being in the title picture was that she was this dominant force that nobody could really beat. Having Banks beat her with a wrestling move kind of humanizes her a bit, which isn't the best decision for her character long-term. Banks does need to make a case for her to be in the WrestleMania Women's Championship match, so she did need the victory over Jax so it isn't a total waste.
Rusev vs Big Show: *
Ugh, this match didn't have any redeeming qualities. People were upset by Strowman losing to Reigns but look at what they have done to poor Rusev! That guy is so talented and he can't catch a break; losing to Big Show in a nothing match is a pretty bad sign for his upward mobility. I have no idea why they put Big Show over, especially since the match with Shaquille O'Neal at WrestleMania has fallen through.
Cesaro vs Jinder Mahal: *1/2
Technically there was nothing wrong with the match, but the crowd didn't care about an unannounced match for Jinder Mahal, even if they like Cesaro. Now Mahal meeting a USADA tester, the would be a PPV worthy event.
Must Watch Matches:
Timothy Thatcher vs Zack Sabre Jr.: ****1/4 – EVOLVE 79
Hiromu Takahashi vs Ryusuke Taguchi: **** -- NJPW 45th Anniversary Show
Kazuchika Okada vs Tiger Mask W (Kota Ibushi): ****3/4 NJPW 45th Anniversary Show