The last few weeks of WWE have been… good? No, really, they have. The four Raw’s since a very bad WrestleMania have been good, quality television. Not perfect, obviously, but much better then the dregs we’ve been watching the past several months. There are a lot of potential reasons for this, but I’m going to take a look at one in particular. And to do so, I’m going to do something I thought I would never do: Take Michael Cole seriously.
Two Raw’s ago, Michael Cole, favorite whipping boy of this blog, said something very interesting. It was a small thing, a minor thing that passed under the radar. After the Women’s tag match, they did a recap of Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows attacking Roman Reigns. During the video clip, Michael Cole said, “And we had learned earlier on tonight, or we were reminded of, the relationship that Gallows, Anderson, and AJ Styles had as friends back in their days in New Japan.”
That one sentence was the most interesting thing to happen on WWE in quite a while.
I’m going to analyze this in reverse, so let’s start at the end. New Japan. The WWE doesn’t acknowledge other wrestling companies. They just don’t. They don’t even like bringing up dead companies unless they can beat every penny out of the dead horse that is ECW. But name-dropping the second largest wrestling company in the world? That’s a new one. If they have to talk about it, they do in secondary terms. A wrestler “dominated Japan.” Or, “He’s a former IWGP champion, Michael, the same title once held by Brock Lesnar and Stan Hansen!” As far as I can tell, this is the first time in this generation that WWE has acknowledged the existence of New Japan in regard to their own active talent talent.
Not only did Cole acknowledge New Japan by name, he acknowledged the storylines of New Japan. By bringing up that they were friends in New Japan, they are recognizing that their wrestlers have a story that spans companies. You can also see that in the build for Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens. WWE had an excellent video package detailing their history, and though they glossed over the specifics, that they would bring it up at all is such a departure from WWE norms. While New Japan stories aren’t exactly canon in the WWE, since the last time NJPW saw AJ Styles, he was being beat up by Gallows and Anderson (among others), it’s still remarkable to hear it being brought up at all.
Then there’s the names. Karl Anderson, Luke Gallows, and AJ Styles. Yes, Gallows was “Doc” in New Japan, but Luke before in WWE, so we’ll let that one slide. Add in Shinsuke Nakamura and Samoa Joe, and even Bobby Roode and Eric Young, and it’s becoming apparent that WWE sees some value in letting people keeping their established names. That’s such a change from even a few years ago, when Kevin Steen became Kevin Owens or Bryan Danielson becomes Daniel Bryan. And those were the fortunate ones. The last guy to keep their name was CM Punk, famously because the higher ups never thought he would be anyone important. Now AJ Styles is debuting in the Royal Rumble and Anderson and Gallows are being put over on Raw.
The most interesting tidbit from that line is before all that though. “And we had learned earlier on tonight,” followed by a brief pause, then Cole corrects himself, “or we were reminded of….” That brief pause is what inspired me to look at this closer. Take all that I said earlier, about New Japan and the stories and characters there. By saying that we were supposed to be reminded of these thing, Michael Cole is implying that we should already know them.. He deliberately corrects himself, saying that we didn’t learn these things, we just needed our memory jogged. This goes beyond acknowledging other companies, and assumes that the viewer is at least passingly familiar with the rest of the wide world of professional wrestling.
And why shouldn’t people be familiar? The New Day feuds with Kenny Omega on Youtube. WWE wrestlers tweet other companies wrestlers all the time. New Japan’s show on AXS is reportedly watched by 200,000 people a week. AJ Styles received a massive pop at the Royal Rumble, and is one of the most popular guys on the roster at the moment. Every time WWE brings in an outsider to NXT, they get a huge reaction. The very casual viewer may not know who these guys are, but they probably don’t know a lot about guys like Darren Young or Fandango either. And with more and more wrestling becoming available online, the uninformed, very casual viewer is becoming a smaller piece of the audience. Even the WWE’s Youtube channel is in on the game, showing matches from PROGRESS wrestling in England.
Now, I might be reading too much into one line in the middle of a three hour broadcast. In fact, I probably am. But it’s also possible there’s a shift coming in WWE television. The last time we saw a potential shift like this was when CM Punk dropped his “pipebomb” and waved to Colt Cabana. That led to some interesting television, but ultimately, the “Reality Era” didn’t have a lot of bite to it. I’m hopeful that this habit of acknowledging other wrestling in the world is not just a fad, not just something to keep us occupied through summer, but instead is an indication of a new way of thinking in the WWE.