Metalhead’s Riff: A Look at the First half of 2015 (WWE, NJPW, ROH, TNA, GFW and others)

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Traditionally, end of June and first few weeks of July spawn quite a few Half-Year awards. I decided to take a slightly different approach and simply look at some of the world’s most visible promotions, look back at how 2015 has treated them thus far and look forward at what could be in store for the rest of the year. And like it or not but when you want to talk about the current state of wrestling it’s difficult not to start with:

WWE:

To say that the WWE did not achieve universal acclaim during the first half of this year is an understatement. Starting with the booking blunder that was Royal Rumble, WWE did notstart the year well by completely underestimating the effect of an anti-climatic Daniel Bryan elimination and killing off any chance Reigns had in getting over in the process. Some obvious damage control at FastLane and having everyone they could lay their hands on endorse poor Roman was obviously not enough to rectify that situation. The fact that Reigns WM opponent, WWE Champion Brock Lesnar, only deigned to appear at the RAW just before didn’t really help matters.
This year’s Wrestlemania was a rather strange one. Lauded by some, scorned by others, met with indifference by many it is safe to say that the event suffered from some rather strange booking decision. Triple H’s ego trip went down like a lead balloon, Cena defeated Rusev in a feud that was already starting to drag (and would still continue until Payback), Undertaker made his obligatory appearance and further reduced the impact of last year’s loss by beating Wyatt (and effectively stopping any momentum Bray had at this point). Meanwhile the Main-Event situation was more or less resolved with a rather original Rollins cash-in.Post WM, the era of Rollins was over-shadowed by some unflattering booking and the inevitable Lesnar return, rendering any feud he was in rather pointless. IC champ Daniel Bryan would soon disappear again due to injury and US Champion John Cena would introduce the Cena Open Challenge to us. While said challenge has given us some good matches and moments, it’s difficult to see how it helped Neville for example, in the long run. On the plus side, some efforts were made to elevate new Superstars, the Reigns thing failed miserably but WWE did do a good job with Kevin Owens and at least tried to revive their moribund tag team division. On the negative side, wrestlers like Big Show and Kane still are pushed in a way that is difficult to defend in 2015 and WWE’s obsession in pushing part-timers continues.
Battleground and Summerslam will be big tests for WWE. Will they dare t shake things up and go for the less obvious (for them) solutions? Take Kevin Owens for example. Let’s face it, win or lose it doesn’t make a damn difference for Cena, while Owens could be definitely established as a force to be reckoned with if he vanquishes his nemesis or risks losing most of his momentum if he looses. Just another wannabe who thought he could defeat the SuperBoyScout, you know. In the same way, it will be interesting to see if WWE can resist putting the WWE belt back on Lesnar for a long period of time. They did that last year already and it didn’t really work out that well remember?
Meanwhile one of the biggest problems WWE has remains the crazy amount of TV and PPV hours they produce, giving the product a rushed and, at the same time, stale look. Their succes story of the last few years, NXT, produces one hour of weekly television and 4 2 hours specials a year (give or take a few network specials here and there). Is the slower, more methodical pace of NXT a factor in it’s success? That seems a given, it is, at the very least something WWE should ponder.
Despite the criticism and some doom-sayers, WWE continues to make very big business for a wrestling promotions and will continue to do so, whether we like it or not. Ratings and PPV buys are not as good as say 10 or 5 years ago? Doesn’t matter at this point, money continues to flow in, giving the WWE an excuse to remain undeterred in it’s choices. Some positive signs have been noted in recent weeks, an effort was made to at least present some wrestlers  like Cesaro in a more positive way, but, never forget, Cesaro is still losing, regardless of the way he is presented in. As noted in varied columns on this very site, WWE needs to change and evolve again, and it needs to do it quickly or it risks not taking full advantage of a potentially stellar roster. And that would be a shame.

NJPW:

Make no mistake about it, NJPW is the second biggest promotion in the world. Some fans in the States might consider NJPW to be part of the independent wrestling scene, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Quite healthy financially, NJPW’s owner, Bushiroad’s Takaki Kidani, has proven himself to be a shrewd businessman, understanding that sometimes risks had to be take, and not hitting the panic button when one of those risks didn’t entirely pay off. The NJPW office has aligned themselves with Kidani’s viewpoints and the once struggling promotions has risen to the top of Japanese wrestling again. One could argue that it is still far from the dizzying heights it achieved int he 80’s an early 90’s, but when once aligns live-gates of  36.000 (Wrestle Kingdom), 7500 (NB), 9500 (Invasion Attack), and 11.400 (Dominion) one can speak of a successful first half of the year (considering most of those were sold-out event). In fact, the only mildly disappointing event was Wrestling Dontaku, with a 5.400 attendance.
When it comes to booking consistency and match quality, NJPW also presents a very strong case. While Jado and Gedo’s slow approach to booking has its critics, the simple fact remains NJPW keeps delivering when it really matters. Two very strong Card of the Year (Wrestle Kingdom and Dominion) and at least half a dozen Match of the Year candidates attest to that. Honestly, is there even one WWE PPV any of you could propose as card of the Year without blushing? I didn’t think so.
Meanwhile, NJPW has succeeded in making AJ  Styles a Mega-star in Japan, confirmed Okada is the future of wrestling, pushed wrestlers like Kota Ibushi and KUSHIDA to the next level, managed to present different challenges to legends-in-the-making Nakamura and Tanahashi and kept the fans of true legends like Jushin Liger and Tenzan happy with NWA title runs while (smartly) resisting the urge to push them back into the main-event scene. As great as they are, their time at the top is over, NJPW has done well in realizing that.
Furthermore, Ricochet’s (aka Prince Puma in Lucha Underground) return has created a buzz around the Junior heavyweight scene and his upcoming match against KUSHIDA (alongside a possible long-term NJPW contract), already has fans salivating.
Their continued cooperation with such promotions as ROH has also been well received, allowing the promotions to loan wrestlers to each-other, keeping things fresh.
NJPW summer extravaganza, the G1 climax, is also highly anticipated. With all of their top stars entering, and a anticipated Nakamura/Okada clash in block B, the G1 climax will shape NJPW’s main event scene for the months to come and create brand new rivalries and match-ups in the coming months.
On the negative side, NJPW tag-teams divisions remain their weak spot. The Junior division is right on the verge of becoming stale, despite the talets of such team as the Young Bucks and ReDragon. The heavyweight division, meanwhile, has received a devastating blow with the ill-advised Bullet Club vs Maria’s ass (I mean The Kingdom) feud. Luckily for NJPW, they still have two tag teams tournament, later this year, to rectify these problems.
Lastly, since the end of last year, NJPW has also launched its own network, New Japan World. Featuring PPV’s, taped house shows and tons of legendary match-ups, their initiative has gathered around 25000 subscribers at the time of writing. While this number might seem un-impressive to American readers, bear in mind NJPW started this from scratch and only now starts using the Network to it’s fullest potential, by making every day of the G1 climax Tournament available on their network. The price of subscriptions is rather competitive too since it’s about the same as WWE’s network (around 10 dollars per month).
NJPW has generally continued on their positive wave. While WWE remains, undoubtedly and unassailable, the biggest promotion in the world, NJPW is  proof that biggest isn’t always synonymous to best.

ROH:

Over the years, ROH has become THE American alternative for hardcore fans (with hardcore fans I mean wrestling fans to the bone). Barely phased by the successive departure of its biggest stars, even WWE’s NXT initiative has not diminished ROH. Still consistently delivering quality PPV, ROH’s collaboration with, mainly, NJPW has also been very successful and should only intensify in the future. Contrary to promotions like TNA, ROH has always understood that growth must not be rushed and has taken small but necessary steps to improve their product. The production values of their shows have markedly improved over the years and the way they handled the Lethal/Briscoe story-line says much about their booking teams understanding about how such things should be booked. When it was announced that ROH would join TNA on Destination America, many were speculating if this meant ROH was on thee verge of overtaking TNA. I submit they’ve already done so. Their PPV’s of the first half of 2015 have been well received, the joint Global War/War of the World shows with NJPW have attracted healthy crowds and their VOD store is filled to the brim with exiting matches and events. Compare that to TNA’s sole PPV of this year only attracting 1.100 fans and receiving very mixed reviews and it might not be an exaggeration to  say that ROH is currently the number two promotion in America.
Add to that the return of Austin Aries, further visits from Japan’s top stars in the coming months, and the fact that higher revenues combined with the prospect of more big money NJPW Pay-offs was enough to keep stars like The Young Bucks from signing that NXT contract (for now), and you will admit that ROH has a bright future in front of them, despite still being considered small-time.

TNA:

When a promotion almost exclusively comes into the news with rumors of financial problems and wrestlers leaving, you know that something is up, despite the attempts at reassurance from Dixie and Co. Truly, 2015 has been an horrific year for TNA thus far. Losing their most talented performers and still incapable of assuming any identity, it seems that the TNA soap-bell has finally burst for good. And when they finally realized that collaboration with other promotions might be to the good after all, they chose a non-entity like GFW. Ok maybe that was the only promotion who actually wanted too, but still. After years of living above their means, TNA needs to start over. Again. Whether it is under the current form, or in a new form (if such a thing is possible), they need to acquire an identity for their brand that fans can relate to. And start recuperating some of the goodwill with the wrestling fans that questionable booking and business decision has driven away. Given that TNA never really achieved that financial stability, due partly to those questionable decisions, it’s already amazing they made it this far. But change is needed, and, no, I don’t believe ECIII is the answer, however well the booking of his rise has been. Speaking of that, I think ECIII being considered as the sole good surprise of TNA in recent time has much to do i with the search for silver linings in a promotion plagued by dark clouds. I would like to be more optimistic about TNA, but I simply don’t see how they can make the last half of 2015 better than the first half under these circumstances.

GFW:

Jeff Jarrett latest brain-child is a strange one. They proudly announce a roster, that is a mix off wrestlers on loan from other promotions, washed-up veterans and a couple of “never-heard from”.
They announce tapings for a TV show that nobody has a clue on how and where it will be available.
A close collaboration with TNa is hinted and rumored, including and Invasion angle, but GWF has no fan-base, no regular roster and no leader to really be presented has a  genuine threat to anyone.
Meanwhile all signs point towards the top star of GFW being… Jeff Jarrett?
All new promotions need some time to prove themselves, of course, but something tells me we’ll know rather quickly if this is a viable option or just another JJ bad dream.

Others:

There are many others of course, and I can’t name them all here, but here is a short overview of some of those less known promotion.

EVOLVE continues to promote generally well received events, featuring an international cast of indie wrestlers. But their lack of visibility is still hurting them. In June, it was announced there were contacts between EVOLVE and the WWE for either a collaboration with WWE’s NXT brand or a complete buy-out. A story to follow for sure.

SHIMMER is still there and a shining example for all on how women’s wrestling should be booked and presented. Many speak of the NXT girls being the future of woman’s wrestling. Well, that may be true, but watch some SHIMMER events and you will see the NXT gals haven’t invented anything.

Still in the world of female wrestling, Stardom has been turning some heads, both in Japan and elsewhere. Featuring a cast of (mostly) beautiful models with more talents in their litttle finger than both Bella’s combined, deliberately pushing their performers towards magazine Photo-shoots and TV appearances in order for the promotion to garner more visibility, and presenting events that featured a mix of respected veterans and up-and-coming young stars, Stardom is making some strides. The first half of 2015 was a rather successful one for them, with the addition of Cheerleader Melissa to their roster, no doubt that success will continue.

AJPW has fallen so far under the radar that people who thought they had disappeared altogether can be excused. Still not recovered from the succesive exoduses in recent year, that promotion is still struggling.

Elsewhere in Japan, Dragon Gate and Big Japan continue to present events that feature a variety of styles and are generally well received. Pro)-wrestling NOAH, meanwhile, was on live support but is breathing a little easier now, thanks to the help of NJPW and the Suzuki-Gun Invasion angle.

Finally, in Mexico, promotions like CMLL and AAA have stabilized in recent years. Not longer only relying on stars from the past, new and fresh faces have emerged and the return of Alberto El Patron and Rey Mysterio Jr have certainly added a sense of excitement to the Lucha world. Speaking of Lucha’s, LUCHA Underground has done a great job in achieving what WWE has attempted for years now, that is, transforming wrestling into a genuine TV Show. Their first season is almost over, with Ultima Lucha as climax. While there are some dark rumors about LU’s future here and there, here is to a second season as exiting and successful as the first one.

I do apologize if I did not speak of your favorite promotion, but I had to  make choices and keep this article from becoming too long. Some will complain that I made short work of LU, so I call my compadre Grainbelt Jones and his excellent weekly column to the rescue for that one. Check it out, you won’t regret it.

This was all from me this week, see you all next week for a full g1 climax preview and have fun!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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