As WWE rumbles into the new year, they are faced with a common problem that has plagued wrestling companies for generations: predictably. The months leading up to WrestleMania are often the most entertaining months on the WWE calendar; yet as WWE begins to set sail for WrestleMania 34, the product feels stale and lacking appeal for fans to tune into RAW every Monday night.
The issue is based around what will surely be the most important match at WrestleMania; the presumed world title clash between Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns. Following WrestleMania 33, the rumor was that the plan for next years show was to be Lesnar vs Reigns for the Universal Championship. Eight months later; that rumor has all but been confirmed. Lesnar has been booked as a dominant champion while Reigns, outside of a shot at SummerSlam in a Fatal Four Way match, has been curiously absent from the world title picture.
Predictability is not necessarily a bad thing in wrestling. A lot of the time, a booking move is predictable because it makes complete logical sense and is clearly the right move to increase business. Steve Austin defeating Shawn Michaels for the WWF Championship at WrestleMania 14 was predictable because it was obviously the right move for the WWF from a financial point of view and that historically wrestling companies are supposed to move the world title onto the hottest guy. Conversely, unpredictability is not always a good thing. For instance, putting the WWE Championship on Jinder Mahal was an unpredictable move, but only because it would be such an obviously stupid decision that no sane person would ever think of doing it. Surprise for the sole sake of surprise is never a good thing in wrestling; unless you are Vince Russo.
A predictable outcome works when the outcome is clearly what the fans want to happen, or if business dictates it. The primary issue with Lesnar vs Reigns (and a presumed Reigns victory) is that isn't clear if fans really want to see that happen, or if it will significantly increase WWE's business. Fans have been very vocal in their dislike of Reigns as the proposed future face of the company; at very best a coronation of Reigns at the end of WrestleMania would only appease half of the audience; perhaps significantly less. From a business perspective Reigns, and WWE's full time active roster as a whole, have not shown the ability to individually move TV ratings or merchandise the way some of the veteran part time stars such as Lesnar or John Cena have. The argument that Reigns defeating Lesnar at WrestleMania is obviously the correct move isn't a very strong one; so an incredibly predictable build and performance at WrestleMania is not driving the excitement fans have become accustomed to having around this time of year.
Between rumors that have been reported by various inside sources, and the confirmation of those rumors by recent booking decisions, WWE has essentially deposited a giant spoiler for their biggest match of the year. Roman Reigns will be defeating Brock Lesnar in the main event of WrestleMania. That leaves the next few months devoid of a significant aspect of drama that is typically a staple of the months leading up to WrestleMania. The Royal Rumble becomes less significant since one of the world title matches for WrestleMania has already been de facto announced. Reigns is going to earn a title shot somehow, just as Lesnar is going to defeat his opponent at the Royal Rumble to retain the championship. If you are only tuning into WWE each week to try and find out or predict who will be headlining WrestleMania; you might as well not tune in until April.
An argument could be made that the end result does not really matter; that the story is told leading up to final resolution. Everyone knew Luke Skywalker was going to best Darth Vader and the Emperor in the end, the drama was all in how he was going to do that. With Reigns vs Lesnar though, any close observer of the product already has an idea of how the match is going to play out. Since last WrestleMania, Lesnar's finisher, the F5, has been protected. He defeated all of his challengers, Samoa Joe, Braun Strowman and AJ Styles after a single F5. The goal is to have the F5 over as a move that nobody kicks out of, so that when Reigns kicks out of it, the audience will be stunned. Of course the purpose of a dramatic near-fall is that the audience doesn't know if the wrestler is going to kick out or not, so by booking in such an obvious direction that fans can see the spot coming literally months in advance to the actual match, any drama they hope to gather from that kick-out will surely be minimized
The solution for WWE is to change the booking for WrestleMania. Two years ago WWE was in the exact same position; they had Reigns and Lesnar in the main event of WrestleMania in what felt like would surely be a victory for Reigns. Instead, WWE added Seth Rollins to the mix midway through the match by having him cash in his Money in the Bank contract, and had him actually pin Reigns and win the match. As opposed to the monotony of a Reigns victory, this was a welcome surprise for fans and the match was positively received by everyone. WWE could do something similar, but I suggest they make their intentions clearer well before the midway point of the main event. The issue with the match isn't that it is going to be bad; in a vacuum Lesnar vs Reigns should be quite good, it is that the fans already know the match is going to take place so far in advance, and a lot of the drama surrounding what the main event of WrestleMania is going to be has been taken away from fans. If WWE really wanted to shake things up, they could make the match a Triple Threat by having Lesnar lose the title, or by having a RAW wrestler win the Royal Rumble and only have Reigns become involved in the match later, such as around March.
At the end of the day; WWE has been pushing Reigns for so long as THE top guy and the heir apparent to Cena, without ever fully committing to actually doing that. The Shield split up over three years ago, which really began his big singles push. Even before that, WWE was committed to making Reigns the face of the company, yet WWE will roll into 2018 without ever having done that. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about WWE and Reigns is that for all the talk and promotion of Reigns as the face of the company, when push has come to shove, WWE has gotten cold feet. At WrestleMania 31, WWE backed off having Reigns pin Lesnar and gave the title to Rollins. After Reigns had won the world title on two occasions in 2015, (runs with the title that were so brief you probably don't remember they even happened) he regained the title over Triple H in the main event of WrestleMania 32 in what was supposed to be this huge climatic victory for him. Yet the title was shifted off of Reigns a little more than two months later and he hasn't held it since. I think part of the reason fans are so annoyed with the Reigns push is that it has been talked about him taking over the company for years, yet nothing has ever really happened.
When WWE tabbed Cena as the new face of the company after he had spent two years as a midcarder, he was given a major push and within a year was the WWE Champion and was given a lengthy reign that lasted more than eight months, and was basically the WWE Champion from April 2005 to October 2007. They didn't f--k around with making him the top guy in the company. Reigns' push feels endless because it has never led to anything that significant, it always seems like WWE is waiting for the right time to finally go all-in, or WWE goes all-in but Vince changes his mind and Reigns takes a backseat as they plan a new strategy; which always seems to be to push Reigns as the face of the company in the exact same way as before. The short of this is that Reigns is not the correct person for WWE to push as the next Cena and the new uber-babyface of the company, but I have been saying that for years as have many other fans and critics. For longtime fans, they will have to live with the banality of WWE's latest attempt to make Reigns the top guy once more, a tactic that has sucked most of the fun out of WrestleMania season.