By Graham "GSM" Matthews
"If you can't get behind this, you will be left behind."
Those words were famously tweeted by CM Punk, a well-documented advocate for change in WWE, immediately following 2011's WWE TLC pay-per-view event. It was an up-and-down year for WWE (and personally one of my favorites), and say what you will about it, but it certainly felt like there was a sense of change in the air at that time. It may not have lasted long, but look at all the fresh faces that rose to prominence that year. And by "fresh faces," I mean stars that were unfamiliar to the main event scene, not necessarily newcomers or NXT upstarts (that was before NXT was what it was today, mind you).
Christian, Mark Henry and R-Truth, who all debuted during the Attitude Era, rejuvenated their careers that year and were featured in pay-per-view main event matches for world championships against the very best the business had to offer. Meanwhile, stars such as Alberto Del Rio and Daniel Bryan won their first world titles in 2011. CM Punk became wrestling's hottest commodity. Even Zack Ryder managed to get himself over. As noted, things reverted back to the stagnant status quo not long after, but for a time, it definitely felt like the WWE landscape had drastically changed, and for the better.
Taken the night of TLC 2011, it was the perfect picture of champions. Everyone holding a title had such an undeniable yet inexplicable chemistry together on paper. Some of those wrestlers had been there longer than others, but collectively, they represented the future. A new era of sorts, and that was before WWE starting saying a "new era" had arrived as they have been in recent weeks.
I didn't feel that same way about a crop of champions in WWE until after WrestleMania 30. At the time, Daniel Bryan was fresh off winning the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, Big E was the Intercontinental Champion, Dean Ambrose was the United States Champion, AJ Lee (and ultimately Paige) was the Divas Champion, and The Usos were WWE Tag Team Champions. In other words, every champion at that time debuted in 2010 or later. Amazing, right? Again, it didn't last long, and while we had something similar after WrestleMania 31 as well, that era of change was also short-lived.
Well, what's different now? Is WWE is calling it the "New Era" actually making a difference? I'd say no, simply because they shoved the "Divas Revolution" down our throats and that was a bust. Is it all of the latest NXT call-ups? We usually get a number of names promoted from the developmental brand to the main roster after WrestleMania, but that hasn't boded well for WWE in the past. Bo Dallas and Adam Rose floundered in 2014, and Neville and The Lucha Dragons did next to nothing for most of 2015. Currently, Apollo Crews is wrestling on WWE Superstars and Main Event.
Is it who is in charge? Stephanie and Shane McMahon are running Raw, which has only been done a dozen times in the last decade and a half. It's an improvement over The Authority, sure, but them taking up television time doesn't help any of the wrestlers get over in a meaningful way. Is it releasing a bunch of enhancement talent that haven't been seen in ages? Those mass firings have happened before, and no new stars received opportunities. So, I'll ask again: what is so different about this "New Era" from past eras?
Calling it a new era will not make it a new era. Rather, WWE must show that they are truly turning the page and changing their ways, and all things considered, I will say they have done a decent job of doing that since WrestleMania 32. Big Cass confronting Chris Jericho last week on Raw was an excellent example of how they can successfully switch up the tired formula of the three hour show. Raw's ratings remain less-than-stellar and not everything is exceptional, but the overall quality of the product has improved immensely this year, and the Payback card exemplified that.
AJ Styles, who arrived in WWE in January, challenged Roman Reigns for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship in the main event. Two tag teams from NXT faced off in the finals of a WWE Tag Team Championship tournament. Dean Ambrose beat Chris Jericho. Sami Zayn vs. Kevin Owens, a rivalry that had roots to NXT, stole the show. Charlotte retained her WWE Women's Championship against Natalya. Even Kalisto maintained his possession of the United States Championship over Ryback on the Kickoff show.
I realize it's only been a month and it might be too soon to tell, but WWE's New Era is off to a strong start. There's plenty more that can be done to usher out the old including toning down the presence of the McMahons on the program and not relying on the same stars to carry the show (i.e. John Cena and Randy Orton when they eventually return). But hope remains. And as wrestling fans, that's all we can really do, is hope. No matter how deplorable the programming can get at times, you have to know there will be a time that it will be better, because it always is. Now is one of those times. Sit back and enjoy as the New Era unfolds.
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