For WWE, each year's WrestleMania has to be the biggest WrestleMania ever.
This is not the Super Bowl, where ratings can dip based on the matchup and the NFL merely shrugs its shoulders. At WrestleMania, the WWE picks the matchups, and regardless of how it's booked, the card will be billed as the biggest card WWE has ever put together.
In 2016, this is factually untrue. Sunday's WrestleMania 32 card, expected to fill AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, is not the biggest WrestleMania ever. WWE is in a transitional period with its current roster, and much of that roster is injured. But WWE still has to make WrestleMania an event, and to make it an event the promotion has to find stars to fill the card. WWE can do what it has done so often in the past few years -- fill up space with holdovers from the last heyday, the Attitude Era. Or it can build stars from scratch.
The WWE is, at its base, a star-making machine. In the 1980s, it took regional standouts and turned them into MTV and Saturday morning cartoon icons. In the 1990s, it took the castoffs of the Monday Night Wars and on their backs sold millions of T-shirts. In 2013, WWE opened its Performance Center to start building a new era of stars from scratch. The results of these in-house Frankenstein experiments have been mixed -- but if WWE is going to construct a bright future for the company, now is the time for its developmental system to show its worth.
As we look at Sunday's card, WWE's star-making machine will be locked into an abdominal stretch. How do you build the biggest card of all time when half of your roster is injured, and half of your fan base is still stuck in the 1990s?
Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose
The traditional way to build a new star is to put him in the ring with an established icon. In two of the top three matches at WrestleMania 32, that's the case: The World Heavyweight Championship match between Triple H and challenger Roman Reigns, and the No Holds Barred Street Fight between Brock Lesnar and Dean Ambrose. Reigns and Ambrose have been on the main roster since late 2012, and in WWE years that feels like an eon. But (along with their one-time partner, Seth Rollins, who's on the injured list) they're still part of WWE's new guard.
Even though they debuted on the same night, Reigns feels like he has been around even longer, largely because he's a part of the never-ending stream of milquetoast babyface stars being foisted upon fans regardless of their reaction -- a continuum that runs from Hulk Hogan to Lex Luger to Rocky Maivia to John Cena. In his match Sunday, Reigns will finally get his chance to grab the title from the diabolical WWE management, who have conspired against him on screen but toiled ceaselessly in his favor backstage. In many ways, Reigns' long build from 18 months ago to now has been a master class in good-guy booking, and a case study on how the old magic doesn't have the same potency in the Internet era. WWE has pulled out every trick in the book to make fans care about Reigns' climb to the top, but with a few notable exceptions, the crowds are apathetic. If he wins on Sunday, Reigns' star has been built -- though it remains to be seen whether it has been built out of bricks or hay.
Ambrose's WWE tenure is the sideshow mirror version of Reigns'. "The Lunatic Fringe" was, in some ways, the forgotten member of The Shield post-breakup, but he wasn't its Marty Jannetty. While Rollins spent the past year holding down the fort as the company's smarmy champion and Reigns spent it on a monotonous march toward face-of-the-company status, Ambrose treated the midcard as his playground, feuding memorably with villains like Bray Wyatt and Kevin Owens, and served as the pinch-hitter any time Rollins needed a foe or Reigns needed a partner. In every opportunity he has been given, Ambrose has shined and drawn the kind of Attitude Era response from the crowd that Reigns can so far only aspire to.
Last month, WWE gave Ambrose a shot at Triple H's title at an event called Roadblock, so-named because it was little more than a bump on the Road to WrestleMania. And though Ambrose's loss was preordained, he made the most of the moment. Expect him to do the same against Lesnar on Sunday. It's a match he has no business winning, but the right kind of loss will put him on the path toward superstardom. That is, if WWE ever fully gives him the chance. It has been rumored that WWE doesn't see Ambrose as a top guy, and there's some staid logic to that. But one only has to hear the way the crowd responds to him to know that he's on the cusp. In this sense, his rise is the inverse of Reigns' -- it has been purely organic. Fans love a real-life underdog, and if Ambrose isn't in the title match, all the better for him to seem like one.
Speaking of underdogs, no one in the business fits that bill better than Kalisto, the diminutive high-flyer. After two failed attempts to get the WWE pre-packaged luchador Sin Cara to click with fans -- one time with injury-prone Mexican standout Místico, and once with his replacement (and one-time evil doppelgänger), the former Hunico -- WWE gave up and sent him back down to developmental. There they paired him up with Kalisto, and the two seemed primed for a decade of mid-card tagteam irrelevance.
But then the unthinkable happened -- Kalisto started getting the kind of Rey Mysterio 2.0 response that WWE had slotted Sin Cara for. It makes sense -- Mysterio was always an audience surrogate for the pre-teen set, and Kalisto is as child-sized as legitimate pro wrestlers come. If there's a ceiling (no pun intended) to Kalisto's rise, it'll be the same things that have made him pop -- his size and his mask -- that hold him back. On Sunday, he's going up against Ryback, and the feud between them is based on Ryback being the prototypical (read: muscly) star, and resenting Kalisto for getting more shine than him. If Kalisto overcomes the real-life odds and entrenches himself in the WWE second tier, overcoming the fake odds on Sunday will be a good start.
Charlotte, Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch
Of the three women facing off for the Divas Championship on Sunday, none were on the roster at last year's big dance. They all came on board during last year's Divas Revolution, in which the middling status quo of the past decade-plus was supplanted in one fell swoop by the generation of serious athletes coming up through WWE developmental. Executive (and on-screen villainous wife of Triple H) Stephanie McMahon referenced Serena Williams, Ronda Rousey and the United States' women's soccer team in promoting the sea change; there's talk that they're finally retiring the glittery Divas Championship belt with a more serious-looking model and a change to the division's name to go along with it. If that's a sign of approval to the revolutionaries in the title match Sunday, they deserve it.
Charlotte, the daughter of living legend Ric Flair, is a physical freak and a natural performer; Becky Lynch is the kind of compelling underdog that the women's ranks have rarely been robust enough to countenance; and Sasha Banks is the closest thing WWE has to a wrestler with Dwayne Johnson-level crossover appeal. Since their debut, WWE has artfully feathered these three into the existing ranks by putting them alongside (and opposite) established stars like Nikki Bella and Paige (herself an immensely talented NXT call-up) and now, by letting them all go after the same goal, it seems less like the women's division has been recast, and more like Darwinism has won out almost overnight. Now this is how you make stars. If WWE has the guts to put their female champs on par with their men - -the way UFC has -- they'll reap the benefits.
Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn
If the Divas Revolution has changed the way WWE does business in the women's division, nothing has changed WWE on the men's side more than the importing of established indie wrestling stars and -- more importantly -- the acknowledgement of what they did before they elbow-dropped their way into the Performance Center. Nobody embodies this new effort more than Owens and Zayn, two long-time independent standouts who, because of their lack of chiseled muscles, no one ever thought they'd see in WWE.
Since he signed with the company 18 months ago, Owens has been built more methodically -- and successfully -- than any wrestler in recent memory. He went from new guy to NXT champ to feuding with John Cena to Intercontinental champion -- the title he's defending in a 7-man match on Sunday. It must be said that his rise has as much to do with Owens' natural charisma as it does with WWE's writing staff, but give WWE credit for putting him in a position to succeed.
More than that, give WWE credit for seeing that his feud with Zayn, which developed over a span of years in indie federations like Ring Of Honor and continued into NXT, is worth investing in on the WWE stage. Die-hard fans love the callback to their shared history, and the diminishing number of oblivious fans just love to see people who hate each other throw fists. In the indies, Owens and Zayn feuded their way up the ladder from curtain jerking to main eventing. If WWE plays its card right, this story can take both men all the way to the top. (And don't even get me started on the superstar potential of Zayn's indie alter ego, El Generico.)
If anything, Sunday's multi-man match is an indication that WWE knows what they have. This feud has the chance to elevate both Owens and Zayn, just like it did on the indies and just like it did on NXT. They're not giving this away too soon. A big part of building stars is the building. If you hotshot a wrestler to the top too soon, it won't seem real. And in a world as fake as pro wrestling, reality is at a premium.
Styles is another star who made his name outside WWE, but on a slightly bigger platform than Owens or Zayn. Styles was a headliner in TNA Wrestling, a second-tier promotion with cable distribution, and in Japan. He was successful enough that WWE didn't send him to NXT for training, or even change his name to a WWE-copyrighted moniker, which they did for every wrestler who has earned a reputation elsewhere in the modern era. The only exception, famously, is CM Punk, who was allowed to keep his name because nobody thought he would make it big.
If that was the case with Styles, WWE misjudged again -- he's one of the most popular wrestlers in the company after only two months. They've built him the right way, by putting him opposite Chris Jericho (another Attitude Era holdover) and letting him feed off of Jericho's innate charisma. After a run of cruiserweights who didn't quite click -- like Evan Borne, and the recently injured Neville -- Styles is a signifier that WWE will never be as successful as it wants to be when it acts as a world unto itself. Even when you're building new stars, experience goes a long way.
The New Day
If we're talking about up-and-coming stars with experience, it's impossible to overlook The New Day. The hilarious trio -- made up of Kofi Kingston, Big E, and Xavier Woods -- has nearly 22 combined years on the main roster (most of it Kingston's), but they teamed up in late 2014, and really only sniffed the top of the card once WWE figured out that their gratuitous good guy shtick was a heel routine waiting to happen. They knew what they were doing all along, it just took WWE management some time to catch up. It's no accident -- the three New Dayers are among the most self-aware performers on the roster, and when they're left up to their own devices, they're the most watchable thing WWE has to offer.
On Sunday they're facing off against The League of Nations, a foursome of brawny foreigners who are finding a New Day-esque comedic rhythm of their own. And maybe that's the upside here: let the New Day flourish, and apply the lesson to others. Not every up-and-coming star on the roster has the ability to be The New Day. But they could all gain from following The New Day model - - two parts experience, two parts self-expression, and one part close-your-eyes-and-jump.
It remains to be seen how well The New Day do now that they've returned to the heroic side of the scale, and Kofi might not be particularly fresh-faced, but looking at the three of them, in the ring or on the mic, it's easy to think you're watching the future of wrestling.
So how do you build WrestleMania with a roster half-depleted by injury? First, you call in as many members of the old guard as you can to bring on an air of legitimacy. There's no shame in Triple H going into WrestleMania as champion, or Shane McMahon, The Undertaker and Chris Jericho holding down prestige spots. Second, you bring in existing talent from other companies, and let their reputations lend gravity to your show. And third, you build a new generation of stars and give them room to develop.
Some, like The New Day, will thrive given the opportunity. Some, like Reigns, will struggle under the pressure. It's a fallacy to say that Reigns is failing in his role. In a lot of ways he's doing all that he can. It's WWE that seems too often to misunderstand what the role of a pro wrestler is. It's not a character in an action movie following a script. It's a performer performing. The key is giving them room to develop and excel. There's evidence that WWE sees this. And even if they don't, in the injury ravaged world of WWE in 2016, there's a lot of room for happy accidents.
Despite the WWE's insistence that WrestleMania 32 is the biggest event ever, it's really just a placeholder. But if WWE can relish in the "happy accidents" like The New Day, Kevin Owens and Sasha Banks, it might be on the cusp of something bigger.