Friday, 18 January 2013

Analysing the State of the WWE Divas Divison

photo from dwwedivas.blogspot.co.uk


As I'm sure most of you will know by now, I'm one of the small number of wrestling fans who actually value and enjoy womens wrestling, so it should come as little surprise that I'm about to ramble extensively about that very subject. I know I said my 'top 10 matches of 2012' piece would be next, but my top ten currently still has about fifteen matches in, and I have no idea what order I want to put them in, so I'll hold off on that, as this is both more topical and something I have more desire to write about.

In the time since I have returned to watching wrestling regularly (July 2011, when Punk dropped his infamous pipebomb) the WWE Divas division hasn't exactly been a great example of what women can do in a wrestling ring, but since that point there have been a great number of arrivals and departures, and it could be argued that the division has actually got even weaker in the last eighteen months. Despite this, there are plenty of positives for those who care to look for them, and in some ways the divas are in a stronger position than they were at the start of 2012. I shall take a look at how the division has changed in the last year, and attempt to evaluate what impact these changes have had on the divison as a whole, before giving my opinion on where the division stands right now, and where it could be heading in the next couple of years.


Outgoings


In the last year there have been plenty of divas leaving WWE. Some have been relative rookies, whilst others have been established, successful veterans, but the latest lady to leave could be the most damaging of all.

Eve Torres was the Divas champion when news broke of her likely departure, and she had been carrying the division on her back for months, so when it was announced through the dirtsheets that she was going probably to be leaving soon, it came as quite a surprise to me, and presumably to many others. Her recent engagement & projects outside of WWE made it likely that she would leave soon, but it was the immediacy with which she was to depart that made the news such a shock. On this subject, I should say that I think it's a shame that WWE can no longer be bothered to give their divas a good send-off, what with the Bella Twins being fired by Eve herself in a backstage segment, Beth Phoenix being suffering the same fate at the hands of Vickie Guerrero, and Eve's own resignation on some show that I've not really heard of that seems to run alongside RAW on smartphones or something. That's not to mention the likes of Maxine, Kelly Kelly and Kharma, who basically just stopped being there with no announcement at all. These women may not be the main focus of WWE's product, but they all work extremely hard in and out of the ring, with a workload that often seems heavier than that of many of the more established superstars, and as such they deserve to have their efforts acknowledged by WWE to a greater degree.

Anyway, Eve's departure comes at a time when the division is already struggling for depth due to all the other ladies who have been released. With very few established ladies left on the roster (Natalya & Layla are probably the only two who fit the bill, though Alicia Fox could also merit consideration), it is clear that WWE are going to have to put their focus into building an entire new division, and at the minute it seems that they are intent on doing so without utilising any of their most established assets to anywhere near the level they are capable of. This seems like a curious move, considering they now have a champion who is still very inexperienced, and will often need to be guided through matches by a more experienced opponent. At present, both of the aforementioned established ladies are on the same side of the fence as Kaitlyn (I have no idea where Alicia Fox stands, by the way, and I don't think anyone else does), which means that they will either have to have one of them turn heel, or someone less suitable will have to step up to the plate.

This change would've been easier if WWE had managed to keep hold of some of their top heels, but with Beth Phoenix & Kharma both leaving the only logical challenger to Kaitlyn is her former Chickbuster partner AJ Lee, who is currently busy watching Dolph Ziggler lose to John Cena every week. Whilst the departures of Beth & Kharma were damaging on their own, they became huge problems when coupled with the exits of the Bella twins & Maxine, who all could've stepped up and helped provide some opposition to Kaitlyn, even if they were far less talented than Beth or Kharma in the ring.

With six of the divisions top heels having left this year, and most of the remaining divas being bland, happy-go-lucky generic divas, it could be the ideal time to call up some of the better young women in NXT - unfortunately, some of them have left too. Raquel Diaz (real name Shaul Guerrero, daughter of Vickie & Eddie), Skyler Moon & Sofia Cortez (Ivelisse Velez from Tough Enough) could all have been brought up and been interesting heels, but they too are no longer with WWE for one reason or another, leaving us with only two established NXT divas (Audrey Marie & the incredible Paige) that could be called up.

All in all, the already weak divas division has taken a lot of extra damage in the last year, and it is difficult to see how a strong product can be produced with the roster as thin as it currently is. Layla, Tamina, AJ & Natalya make up all the credible opposition for Kaitlyn right now, and those five will struggle to make the division an appealing prospect for long, even if WWE utilises lesser divas like Aksana, Rosa Mendes, Cameron & Naomi (easily the best of the rest) to fill out the roster. As such, the time is right for some new blood in the divas division, so it's just as well WWE have been signing up plenty of talented women recently.


Incoming & Emerging Stars


With so many ladies leaving WWE, it is vital that they are replaced and the roster is filled out again, and, despite all these departures, it seems like 2012 was the year where WWE decided to make an effort to invest in womens wrestling again. Where before the majority of women who signed with WWE were former models, this year has seen a shift towards signing established womens wrestlers from the independent scene, and this can only be a good thing for the long term future of the division. Oddly, however, the biggest signing for the womens division is someone who will (sadly) probably never be seen on the main roster...

Sara Del Rey is regarded as one of the greatest womens wrestlers in the world, if not one of the best women to ever compete, and she has proven herself to be more than capable of mixing it up with the boys too, having competed against the likes of current WWE United States champion Antonio Cesaro in their pre-WWE days. Sara is a magnificent in-ring performer, and a fantastically dedicated athlete known for her incredible work ethic both in and out of the ring. She has earnt the respect of her peers, male and female, the world over and is often cited as one of the biggest inspriations for women working on the independent scene. Whilst she still has plenty to offer in the ring, WWE have signed her up to work as a trainer in their developmental territory, NXT Wrestling, and I can think of nobody better to teach the next generation of divas. I will always hold out hope that we see Sara competing in a WWE ring one day, as to me she is one of the greatest performers in the world, regardless of gender, and her presence would immediately raise the prestige of the divas division immesurably, but even if this never happens it is reassuring to know that sufficient value has been placed on ensuring good womens wrestling for the future that WWE have recruited the best possible trainer to work with their prospective divas, and it is equally pleasing to know that Sara has achieved her dream and been rewarded with a position that befits someone with her passion, dedication and ability.

Now that I'm done babbling about how amazing Sara Del Rey is, I should probably discuss the ladies that have signed up to be trained by her.

In the last year, WWE have recruited several new divas, some from the independent scene - like Mercedes KV (now Sasha Banks) and Davina Rose (Serena Deeb's protege who, as far as I know, is still waiting to be given her new name) - and others from various other areas outside of wrestling - including former fitness model Alisha Ceraso (now going by the name Dani, and I believe I saw doing ring announcing on NXT last week) and former pro kickboxer Anna Bogomazova (known as 'The Russian Bruiser' Anya) - and while many of these ladies are yet to make their televised competitive debuts (indeed, of the four I've mentioned only Sasha Banks has wrestled on NXT), it is likely that some will make their way to the main roster before the end of the year, due to the shortage of women in WWE at present. The biggest star of all the new recruits, however, is one who joined right at the start of 2012.

A young English girl from one of the biggest families in British wrestling, Paige (formerly Britani Knight) made her debut at an NXT live event under her real name (Saraya) on 5th January 2012, and in little more than a year she has already established herself as the alpha female of NXT, racking up numerous wins and amassing a fanbase at least as big as anyone else that has appeared on NXT, if not the biggest of all. Paige represents the new era of womens wrestling in WWE - she is not a diva, she is the anti-diva, a woman who has worked hard and learnt her craft, who has earnt her place in the biggest wrestling company in the world on merit, not on looks (although she has those too, to be fair). Paige is not a diva, Paige is a wrestler, and she is the future, of that there is no doubt.

In the last year we have also seen several talented young women who were already with WWE before 2012 emerging as future stars of the divas division. The most notable of these is obviously AJ Lee, who has been involved in major storylines for more than a year now, and has blossomed into the biggest star the divas division has had for years. She may not be exceptional in the ring, but she is better than average, has a style that helps her stand out, and, most importantly, people are invested in her. She will almost certainly be Divas champion by the end of WrestleMania, and she will hopefully be able to help bring some interest back to a division which has long been considered the 'bathroom break' part of any WWE show.

Similarly, her former Chickbuster partner & fellow NXT 3 star Kaitlyn has emerged as the top babyface in the division. She won her first ever Divas championship on RAW's 20th anniversary show and I think it is no less than she deserves for the improvements she has made since her time on the third season of NXT. Back then she was brand new to the business, having her first ever match on the show, and though she wasn't up to much in the ring, she always had a natural charisma that made people want to vote for her, and she ended up winning the season. She has worked hard to improve her in-ring abilities, and although she still has a long way to go, she is much improved where she was a couple of years ago. For me, watching her on NXT Redemption was a treat, and it became clear then that she was destined to have a big impact in WWE, but even then I couldn't have predicted how quickly she would continue to climb the ranks, and now I can't help but feel her career has some significant parallels with that of Trish Stratus. Kaitlyn may not quite achieve that level of success, but to my mind she is the closest thing WWE have ever found to another Trish, and I'm confident that she will continue to get better and better as she grows into her new role as the face of the divas division.


Where Is The Divas Division Going?


So, now we come to the most important question in all of this - is the divas division fading further into irrelevance, or is it preparing to burst back into life? To be honest, I think you can all guess which way I'm going to go on this one...

Yes, with the likes of Beth Phoenix, Kharma & Eve all gone, the divas division is missing many of its 'big' names, and we are instead left with a few experienced stars with genuine in-ring ability, and a lot of young girls who are still learning the business. However, this can also be seen as an opportunity to reshape the division, and move away from the 'diva' style that has held the women of WWE back. With the changes that appear to have been made down in NXT, I believe this is the way things are going. There's plenty of talented women on the WWE payroll now, and they have demonstrated a willingness to invest more in female wrestlers than in previous years, so it seems unlikely to me that (a) WWE would let all that time and effort go to waste; and (b) the women who have been signed will not work harder than they ever have to make themselves as successful as possible. When those two factors are put together, I can only see things getting better from here on.

I've said it plenty of times in various places across the interent, but, from what I can see, the divas are currently in a transitional period (as is WWE in general), and this year will simply be one where changes are made, and the new ways of doing things are established, in order to allow the product to start dramatically improving from 2014 onwards.

In the rest of this year I expect to see:

1. A Kaitlyn/AJ Lee feud that carries us through to WrestleMania, and possibly beyond.

2. The introduction of new talent to the division - most likely Paige, Emma, Sasha Banks & Audrey Marie - possibly also Davina Rose, under her WWE name.

3. An effort being made to bring underutilised divas back to relevance - chiefly Natalya, but also Alicia Fox, Tamina & arguably even Layla.

4. Short, 'diva' style matches being slowly phased out, and being replaced by longer, more competitive matches (by longer, I only mean 7-8mins, at least at first). Later in the year I would hope to see at least one PPV match going around 10mins in length.

5. More time being allocated to the divas for promos & storylines where they are the primary focus, rather than being used alongside, or in support of, male superstars.

Should all of these five steps be realised, I am confident that from 2014 onwards we will finally be able to see interesting, competitive womens wrestling back on WWE programming, and to my mind that day cannot come soon enough.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Here's What You Could've Won

Okay, so it's been a while since I actually wrote something here - I blame that on working about triple my contracted hours over the last few months - but now christmas and the new year have gone, I should have a bit more time to get back to writing fairly frequently, which is nice.
To make amends for my long absence, my first article back is going to be a brief mashup of some of the main articles I've started in the last few months, but had to abort due to them taking too long and becoming less relevant/needing huge amounts of rewriting to bring back up to date. First off, we've got my thoughts on the CM Punk DVD 'Best in the World', and then we've got my analysis of The Shield.

Both articles were probably going to be among the longest ones I've written, but because of that they took way more time than I had spare, and I ended up deleting them both after a couple of weeks. Instead, I give to you shortened versions of both articles, starting with my take on CM Punk's documentary.

'CM Punk: Best In The World' DVD Review (10/10)


I seem to remember, when I tweeted that I was going to do a review of this, not long after it came out, that I said it would probably be awesome. I was correct - I found it interesting, entertaining and very comprehensive, covering everything from his backyard days (and the origin of the CM Punk name, if you watched the extras) to ROH, OVW and all the way up to his emergence as a real top guy in WWE, in the wake of 'that' promo. You even get an insight into Punk's early years, and the events that made him the person he is today. I won't start recapping everything that comes up, but suffice it to say that, whatever aspect of Punk's career you're interested in learning about, you'll find it's covered in the DVD.

As someone who knew a little bit, but not a lot, about most parts of his career, I found it interesting to learn more about his journey to the WWE - it's easy to follow, and you get plenty of extra insight from the people that know him best. The two DVD's of matches add a great deal of depth, although they only cover his journey from OVW onwards, presumably because of licencing issues. Still, with eleven matches over two discs, including his ECW title match against John Morrison, the Money In The Bank ladder match from WrestleMania 24 and his match against John Cena from Money In The Bank 2011, there's still plenty of great wrestling to enjoy.

Overall, I think it's a brilliant documentary, and I can see it inspiring legions of wrestling fans to try and follow in his footsteps. Not only that, I'm sure it will inspire just as many people (if not more) on a personal level, as CM Punk is proof that 'fitting in' is not everything, and that you don't have to sacrifice your identity and beliefs to fulfil your potential. Punk proves that, with passion, dedication and the strength of conviction to keep going when everyone tells you something is impossible, you can achieve anything you want to, and I think that's the real reason why CM Punk is indeed the best in the world.


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Analysing The Shield


The second major article I started, but didn't finish, was an anlysis of The Shield. I started this a couple of weeks after their debut, so now, having seen them deliver some more promos, and even compete in a sanctioned match, this one could actually benefit from being canned the first time round.

My initial plan was to analyse their actions to date, and suggest a few different directions they could be headed in, before taking a look at each member of the group in turn, and evaluating their individual performance and potential career path. Now, however, I'm just going to briefly give my thoughts on what's happened with The Shield, both on a group and individual level. I might drop a line or two in about where I think the trio will each end up if you're lucky (I probably will), but here it goes...

The Shield


It's been just over two months since we first saw a group of rebels dressed in black rush the ring and cost Ryback the WWE Championship at Survivor Series, and in that time the group known as The Shield have made a big impact on the WWE universe, brawling with pretty much all of the top stars in the company - from Ryback to Randy Orton, and from Team Hell No to Sheamus - and coming out strong in almost every encounter. Their attacks on Ryback in particular are encouraging, as WWE had (and still are) been pushing him as their next big main event star, so for them to be shown as superior to a man who had recently been tearing through solid workers two at a time indicates that they will be starting out pretty high up the pecking order. Their promo work has been good so far too, finding a good balance between all three members of the group, whilst not overexposing anyone, and they have managed to create interest in the group without giving much away regarding their motives. The fact that we know more about the group, but don't really know anything about the questions we most want answered, is proof that The Shield are marketing themselves in a way that ensures both short and long term interest from the fans.

Early signs are good for The Shield, then, but not perfect. When they attacked last week on RAW, they found themselves outdone by Randy Orton, Sheamus & Ryback, suggesting that WWE's top stars may be coming together to ensure the group doesn't have things their own way anymore. This is only one battle, but it will be interesting to see whether this trend continues, as that will be a key part of whether The Shield are a success or a failure. If WWE move too soon on having them defeated they will probably be looked upon as another Nexus. If each of the three men are allowed the time to show they can compete alongside the best WWE has to offer in a fair(ish) fight, it will help each of the three men maintain some momentum when the time comes for The Shield to disband. Their match against Ryback & Team Hell No at TLC was a very good start on this path, and probably the best match on the card, so hopefully WWE will continue to allow them to establish themselves as legitimately talented competitors, not just a predatory group who can only compete when they have the numbers advantage.

In terms of how they have been positioned so far, it's clear that WWE wants to put the group alongside its best talent, but the fact that most of their appearances have been ambush attacks suggests they are being held back from main event status slightly, which is probably a good thing at such an early stage of their careers. As long as the group are shown to be able to compete with the cream of the crop, it won't really hurt them to come out on the wrong end of a few narrow losses here and there. For me, any good storyline needs to find the right balance between both sides, and, assuming WWE manage to get that bit right, the trio should be lined up nicely for a role in the upper-midcard once their story has been played out.

Roman Reigns


Having seen Roman Reigns during his time in WWE's developmental system, both as Roman Reigns and in his earlier stint as Leakee in FCW, I was quite surprised to see him as one of the three members of The Shield, as he never really stood out to be as a great talent. He's big and athletic, sure, but he always seemed like a midcard powerhouse to me. That could be down to the fact that he was a face in FCW, as he seeemed a bit more impressive as the cocky thoroughbred Roman Reigns down on NXT. Still, though, he didn't stand out, but his performances on the main roster have been good, and I've been won over a bit. He still doesn't have much charisma, but that's not such an issue when he's supposed to be portaying a surly, enforcer type character, and he's shown off his power in much more impressive fashion, as well as adding a bit more intensity.

In terms of in-ring ability, I'd still put him as the weakest of the three, but in terms of in-ring performance, I wouldn't have a problem putting him top of the list so far, with his power being a key part of the success of The Shield to date. His powerbomb has been a potent exclamation mark on any ambush, but it's his spear that has impressed me most - his background in American football, where he played defensive tackle, comes through when he hits this move, as it looks more devastating than any other example of the move I can think of. At the moment I'd put it right up there with Edge or Goldberg's versions.

Reigns has already shown that he can make an immediate impact at the higher end of the card through size and strength alone - much like Ryback, actually - but he'll need to demonstrate his ability to perform well in matches that aren't basically just brawls before he can be taken seriously as a genuine threat to the top talent in WWE. His average mic skills may also hold him back somewhat, so it seems sensible to me that, once The Shield disbands, Reigns gets a chance around the Intercontinental or United States title scenes, allowing him some time to prove he can be successful on his own before giving him a good title run to help cement him as one to watch, much like the way WWE have handled Antonio Cesaro since his arrival on the main roster.

In time, I'm sure Reigns will become a main event star, and a multiple time world champion, and he has the presence, power and prototypical look to be a contender for midcard titles right now, but he still has a lot of work to do before he reaches that main event level, so a place in the upper-midcard title scene seems reasonable to me.

Seth Rollins


In a way, Seth Rollins' inclusion in The Shield was just as baffling to me as Roman Reigns'. Not because I didn't think he was good enough to be on the main roster, because he certainly is, but because I couldn't understand why they decided to debut him as a heel. Now I'll admit that I've not seen his work as part of The Age of the Fall in Ring of Honor, but from watching him in FCW & NXT he seemed like the type of guy who was more suited to the good side of the fence than the bad. His high tempo, high risk style doesn't scream 'evil', and he has the charisma & mic skills to do well as a face, without ever suggesting he could have a similar impact as a heel. To be honest, from what I've seen so far I think I'm right - to me, Rollins has been the most disappointing of the three so far.

As the first ever NXT champion, Seth Rollins was an extremely popular and likeable wrestler with a strong following and an exciting in-ring style. By switching sides, however, a lot of his best qualities have to be hidden somewhat, and so far Rollins' role has basically been to brawl a bit, deliver a few dodgy lines in every promo and get chucked off a ladder through some tables. We've literally seen only one or two high risk moves from him, and, whilst his look translates well to his new role as a heel, his personality doesn't, as he seemed far more natural and convincing as the fan favourite who slam-danced his way to the ring at Full Sail every Wednesday.

As you may have guessed, I'm not really putting a huge amount of the blame on Rollins himself, as it seems to me like he's been hindered a bit by the way WWE have decided to use him. Even so, given the time to compete in a few proper matches his talent will shine through and he'll get better and better. Similarly, his promo work will improve with time, allowing him to be able to expand his range and possibly put him in better shape for a good run as a heel later in his career.

It will come as no surprise, then, when I suggest that the best thing for Rollins to do once The Shield breaks up is to turn face. He's just a lot easier to like than he is to hate. Having given him a platform to showcase his in-ring skills during The Shield's run, it would be wise to allow him some time to establish his face persona, and let him compete in a couple of midcard feuds with reputable verterans like Christian or R-Truth, that would allow him to look good and pick up some momentum. At this point, a few months down the line from the demise of The Shield, I would put him up against his former ally, the aforementioned Roman Reigns, in a feud for whichever midcard title he ended up winning. The feud would be fairly easy to write, and the contrast between strength and agility would make for an interesting matchup. In the end, have Rollins prevail and allow him a lengthy run as champion before slowly bringing him up to the main event over the next year or two.

As far as I'm concerned, Seth Rollins is good enough to work his way up to main event status, particularly since the likes of CM Punk & Daniel Bryan have shown that smaller guys can be every bit as successful as the 6' 5" 250lb-plus guys that have dominated the industry for years. If things go well for him, I can see him being a future world champion, however there is still a niggling doubt in the back of my mind that says that he will be held because of his size and lack of exceptional mic skills, and that, if worst comes to worst, his career could end up more like Justin Gabriel's than Daniel Bryan's. Fingers croseed it's the former, not the latter, that ends up being the reality.

Dean Ambrose


Last, but by no means least, Dean Ambrose. To cut to the chase, I think he's fucking brilliant. His work in FCW was outstanding, as he put on some great matches with the likes of Seth Rollins, and even CM Punk on one occasion, before engaging in one of the best feuds in recent memory with William Regal. Despite only featuring two matches, separated by eight months, the two managed to keep interest in their story up for the entire time just through the quality of their promos, and the occasional confrontation. Regal did a great job teasing the audience on commentary, while Dean Ambrose cut some incredible promos to really establish himself as the biggest star in FCW. Anyway, now I've gone off on a tangent reminiscing about that feud, I'll get back to the present and his work with The Shield.

Unsurprisingly, Ambrose has been the man taking charge of the talking for The Shield, delivering most of the lines in each promo and establishing himself, both through his words and his actions, as the leader of a group of equals. In every video, his unstable, 'loose cannon' type character shines through, and he speaks with intensity and conviction, drawing you in and making you want to listen to what he says. He's one of the best in the business when it comes to cutting a promo, and even though his work so far has been good, we're yet to see the best from him on the main roster.

In the ring, Ambrose has taken a back seat, with his role being much the same as Rollins' - jump people from behind, wail on them in psychotic fashion, oversell a couple of times, and lift people up so they can get powerbombed. Because of this, it's difficult to tell where Ambrose is going to be in the WWE power rankings, as we have yet to see whether he is able to hold his own without his stablemates by his side.

Assuming Ambrose is made to look like he can come close to competing with the biggest stars in the company, I would have him engage in some upper-midcard feuds once The Shield is no more - perhaps against the likes of Kofi Kingston, Daniel Bryan or The Miz - before competing in, and winning, the Money In The Bank ladder match to set him up for a run at the WWE title and a slow progression into a legitimate main event star.

With his skillset, I can't see how Dean Ambrose won't end up being a huge star, and a multiple time world champion. He may not be the biggest guy, but like CM Punk he has the aura of a star, and it's just a matter of time before we see Dean Ambrose with the WWE title around his waist.

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So, there you have it. Two slightly trimmed down articles for the price of one. Hopefully I'll be able to start putting articles up more freqently again now, speaking of which, I'm hoping to have another article up by the end of the week, in which I run down my top ten matches of 2012. I've not got the exact list nailed down yet, but I can tell you now that it will include matches from WWE, TNA, PROGRESS Wrestling and maybe a few others, depending on whether I can find out when the matches happened/the shows were released.

Anyway, stay tuned for that, thanks for reading and it's nice to be back.