Wrestling is why Dolph Ziggler is one of WWE's more enduringly popular figures. It has to be, even if he recently proclaimed, "Wrestling is the least important thing about the wrestling business." Ziggler is handsome, in a wrung-out Vero Beach bartender sort of way, and his promo work teeters around competence. His gimmick, insofar as he has one, can best be synopsized as "outfits pilfered from a garage sale in the 1980s." No one knows what's going on with his hair, which was once bleached straight through and fairly well coiffed but now resembles ramen noodles that have had a rough week. And his nom de guerre is Dolph Ziggler.
This is all to say that Ziggler doesn't have a lot going for him, and the only way for a wrestler to transcend that is to kill in the ring, which is something Ziggler does better than nearly everyone else on the roster. At 34, he's still springy, which informs his performances as well as his opponents', for whom he sells every offensive maneuver as if he's been flattened by a sonic boom. Ziggler does this on every show, unrelentingly and with great force; as a model and an actor he's not that much, but as a wrestler he is volcanic. Even when he's cast as the bad guy, people love it too much to play along. He is not the person whom you'd expect to diminish the importance of his craft by saying something like "Wrestling is the least important thing about the wrestling business." But because Ziggler is the wrestler that he is, his statement carries uncommon weight.
It helps that he's right, and that every wrestling fan knows he's right—not that anyone, Ziggler presumably included, likes it very much. WWE's signature grandiosity—wrestling is Sports Entertainment, male wrestlers are Superstars and female wrestlers are Divas, wrestling fans are the WWE Universe—comes off more and more as coded language to obscure the fact that WWE is still, at its core, a wrestling promotion.
No other major professional sports conglomerate has such an ambivalent relationship with its core product. None would try to get away with delivering so little of it to its customers.
"I'm living proof that the WWE Universe wants to see wrestling. They want to see in-ring action."
That was the Swiss strongman Cesaro, in an interview with WWE.com. Over his three years in WWE, he has been tasked with playing a yodeler, for fairly obvious reasons, and also a mouth-breathing Tea Party sympathizer, for less discernible ones. Cesaro is presently bobbing along in the murky pond of the midcard, treading water until creative tosses him a semi-buoyant life preserver. They do not appear to be in any rush, because the promotion has never appeared to care all that much about Cesaro.
And yet audiences do. They reliably pop for his entrances and they go bananas for the Cesaro Swing, a revived maneuver from wrestling's olden days that amounts to twirling a man by the ankles until he gets dizzy. They viral-engineered the Cesaro Section, his own personal cheer squad.
Fans do this because he is the best worker WWE has, and the closest a professional wrestler gets to being devoid of limitation. He can grapple with the savviest technicians and uppercut opponents unto decapitation and corkscrew through the air. He can body slam 400-pounders and spin seven-footers with ease. He can do this:
So it's not braggadocio when Cesaro points out that he can and does "produce the most exciting matches with pretty much any person on the roster"; it's practicality. It's the very best athlete at the most prestigious and lucrative company in his sport trying to prove his worth by defending the art form. LeBron James does not have to do this, but then LeBron does not work for Vince McMahon, and so LeBron will not be banished to the pre-show of a major event (as Cesaro was) for arbitrary reasons, or see his championship ring stolen in 18 seconds, as Daniel Bryan was ordered to lose his title belt at WrestleMania three years ago. Also, LeBron has health insurance. Anyway, Cesaro's interview is no longer on WWE's website.
There is a reason why many wrestling fans prefer NXT, WWE's sanctioned developmental league, to the main roster product, and it's the obvious one: NXT's wrestling is simply better, in terms of the quality and the quantity of action, than WWE's. The same is true in many of the various backwater promotions in which so many of the company's headliners toiled for years. Sports Entertainment, as WWE defines it, requires as much, because wrestling is not the only thing it's selling.
WWE is still the big leagues. "My dream opponent would be whoever is WWE World Heavyweight Champion at WrestleMania," Cesaro said recently. "That has to be your dream opponent or else you are doing something wrong." But WWE is not just a wrestling promotion, and it doesn't work like the others do.
Advancing plot points and segmenting TV time take precedence over in-ring chemistry or budgeting time for a fully realized match. Watering down the action is, at least in the WWE's mind, often what's best for business. And so Cesaro, for example, might get a mere dozen or so opportunities per year to replicate the spectacles he once did on a weekly basis in Ring of Honor and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla.
That's not how things work at New Japan, for instance, the overseas institution where the headliners are almost exclusively the best wrestlers and whose product has lately been red hot compared to WWE's steadily dwindling ratings. But New Japan doesn't make money like WWE does. It is, effectively, in a different business.
The best wrestler involved in this year's WrestleMania main event was present for roughly three minutes of it. Nevertheless, Seth Rollins lived Cesaro's dream, winning the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at the biggest show of the year. He held the title until two weeks ago, when he was forced to vacate it after blowing out his knee.
It's a devastating blow, compounded by so many institutions—Bryan, John Cena, Randy Orton, Brock Lesnar—on hiatus or on the shelf. The silver lining is that it makes for a tremendous storytelling opportunity, possibly the best since Bryan won the title last year at WrestleMania in Rocky-esque fashion. There's legitimate reason to hope that WWE could once again marry its most prestigious honor to a premier in-ring talent.
Or there would be, if everyone weren't already sure that they know what will happen. It's more or less universally expected that WWE will put the belt on Roman Reigns, whom Rollins pinned to win the title. Reigns is large without being formidable, athletic yet rarely eye-popping. He's solid, mostly—a physical presence without much charisma. Much of the WWE Universe™ pretty much hates him, mostly because they perceive his inevitability and are not pleased about it. After Reigns won the Royal Rumble, fans even booed the Rock—Reigns' cousin, as it happens—when he tried to coronate the Least Likable Face in Wrestling. The next two months, as WWE tried everything they could to get people to like him, were uncomfortable, and loudly so. There were concessions, like Rollins' WrestleMania victory, but the Roman Empire has finally arrived. It was always coming. That is why people wailed—because they saw it coming, and because it was all they could do.
That's the rub with WWE's brand of Sports Entertainment: it entertains in a very specific and not especially flexible way. It forces its best wrestlers to either talk in circles about what they do or shout into a void. It fills football stadiums with an audience that knows it is far more likely to get their money's worth at a stuffy American Legion Hall. It showcases Reigns putting Cesaro on his back, and main-events the same show with one wrestler grotesquely trotting out the drug overdose of another wrestler's dead brother for storyline yuks.
None of this is a problem for WWE. It remains enormously profitable in spite of its faults, because that's how monopolies work. WWE doesn't change because it does not have to change; its gargantuan market share is what it is, and that's not changing, either. I'll probably tune in Sunday, and I will not be alone. When the clock strikes 11 that night and the courtesies flash on the bottom of the screen and Roman Reigns stands tall, I won't be entirely mad that I did. I'll just wish that I saw more wrestling.