WWE and AEW's Biggest Busts of 2020 Thus Far
Seven full months in, most would call 2020 as a whole a bust. Most of that goes far beyond the scope of professional wrestling, but WWE and All Elite Wrestling have certainly been a part of that for fans of the promotions.
Whether it was sloppy storytelling or poor planning, the companies have not always risen to the occasion, which is inevitable when they are producing weekly programs.
WWE has attempted to pull in new fans with fresh ideas and characters. Not all of them have worked. While Drew McIntyre has taken the ball and run with it, Liv Morgan could not last in a top role.
NXT has sustained success through the year but sometimes at the expense of 205 Live. Rob Gronkowski added mainstream attention to WWE, but that did not last.
As a fledgling competitor to WWE, AEW has made mistakes in creating stories, often dropping the bad ones quickly. Brandi Rhodes has struggled to find her spot in AEW alongside the entire women's division.
Despite plenty of exciting signings such as Lance Archer and Brian Cage, Jake Hager remains a problem more than a success story for the company.
Exploring the failures of both wrestling brands will only serve to benefit them going forward. Every mistake is a chance to learn, and there is much to glean from these recent busts.
The Transformation of Liv Morgan
On July 16, 2019, Liv Morgan wrestled against Charlotte Flair and lost. She grabbed a microphone afterward and promised that she would come back to WWE as herself. In her journey of rediscovery, Morgan appeared in many vignettes that led to her interruption of the wedding of Lana and Bobby Lashley.
She ended 2019 on the minds of many within the WWE Universe. However, it was all downhill from that point on. After defeating The Ravishing Russian in singles action, she got a few opportunities that went nowhere.
Her supposed rediscovery led to her falling into the same routine as so many others in WWE. She returned to WWE with more opportunities but a less obvious personality. It's difficult to say exactly who Morgan is.
In the best move to keep her on TV, Morgan is teaming up with Ruby Riott again. The two add an interesting wrinkle to an understaffed tag team division. Maybe the new Riott Squad will have more success than the original stable.
Whether this tag team works will determine Morgan's future. She has potential, but she is fighting an uphill battle. She is not a great mic worker and has not received many opportunities to show what she can do in the ring.
All Attempts to Keep 205 Live Relevant
205 Live has struggled for relevance in WWE since it debuted in 2016. The cruiserweight show felt outdated and ignored too often, and WWE was inconsistent with the presentation.
Key Superstars rose above those issues to put on matches no one could ignore. Mustafa Ali, Buddy Murphy and Cedric Alexander elevated the division, but this benefited the performers more than 205 Live. All three received main-roster call-ups.
It has been a bad year for the brand. NXT took control of the cruiserweight division early in 2020. From that point on, all relevant cruiserweight content has been on the black-and-gold brand, not 205 Live.
The tournament to crown an interim champion was fantastic, leading to a renewed focus on Drake Maverick and the rise of Santos Escobar. But none of this played out on the supposed main cruiserweight show.
Most likely have no idea that Ever-Rise, Mansoor, Tehuti Miles and Leon Ruff have been working the cruiserweight division. While it is great to see fresh talent get a chance, there's no spark to 205 Live. The talent involved is too often disrespected or ignored in NXT.
No one has any reason to check in on 205 Live week to week. It has become similar to WWE Main Event, a show most have likely forgotten still airs weekly.
The Direction of the AEW Women's Division
AEW has rarely felt like a developing promotion. The men's and tag team divisions are among the best in the world, and the storytelling can match and even exceed WWE on a weekly basis.
The only area that feels unfocused is the women's division. The direction the company is taking with talent is unclear. This could be due to a limited roster, but it is also driven by a lack of clear booking consistency.
All three women's champions have made impacts. Riho put on great matches with everyone. Nyla Rose developed into a top heel through her reign. Hikaru Shida has been consistently excellent and feels the most ready to run with the title for a while.
However, the stories surrounding the champions have been forgettable. Riho vs. Rose highlighted multiple episodes of Dynamite, but the two had no rivalry—just a collection of matches. Shida vs. Rose shone at Double or Nothing 2020, but it has continued without direct conflict for months.
The top contenders in the women's division have barely been developed. Abadon just debuted, but she is a top contender in spite of losing her second AEW match to Shida. Kris Statlander earned multiple featured spots with a middling win-loss record.
The only women who have shone as characters are Britt Baker and Big Swole. They have a real rivalry growing that has not been able to play out in the ring. This has forced AEW to work creatively to an extent that it hasn't with championship rivalries.
More than anything, AEW must give time and attention to the women's division. As good as much of the show is every week, the women's division is falling into the background too easily.
Rob Gronkowski's Big Move to Sports Entertainment
WWE made a big deal out of the signing of Rob Gronkowski. Arguably the greatest tight end to ever play football, Gronk is a lifelong wrestling fan. He had already appeared at WrestleMania to help his friend Mojo Rawley win the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal in 2017.
His first duty as a WWE Superstar was to host WrestleMania 36. During that show, Gronk dived on to a crowd of wrestlers and won the 24/7 Championship. Reportedly afraid to take that leap, the NFL All-Pro did not leave a great impression on WWE officials.
His victory only emphasized how much steam the 24/7 Championship has lost since its debut in May 2019. The title built to give unused Superstars' opportunities has been used mostly for R-Truth and many celebrities to the point that it was predictable when Gronkowski won the title.
Adding to the madness, Gronk decided to return to the NFL after quarterback Tom Brady signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This put any chances of Gronkowski stepping into the ring to bed for a while.
If he ever wants to return to WWE, he has serious work to do. His promo work was awkward and unnatural. He did not seem entirely comfortable playing a character. He will need to learn how to perform at a high level in the ring. He is not the typical NFL talent WWE stockpiles, but he needs to go through the Performance Center all the same. It is possible that he does not return to wrestling.
Whether he does may also define the career of Rawley, who seems to only get a chance when Gronkowski is around.
Jake Hager's Return to the Ring
No matter how many companies sign Jake Hager, the same expectations are established and let down. The All-American is an incredible athlete with a technical wrestling acumen that rivals that of anyone competing today.
However, he is just not able to piece it all together. He is too bland a character to stand out. His role in the Inner Circle is largely that of the stoic big man. That works on the surface but not for the booking Hager gets every week.
In 2020, he debuted as an in-ring competitor for AEW, defeating Dustin Rhodes in an ugly, overlong fight. He followed up with a divisive No Holds Barred match against AEW world champion Jon Moxley that again went on for too long. He went on to lose to Cody in a contest for the TNT Championship in a fine but unspectacular bout.
No one would accuse the All-American of lacking talent. However, he has been treated like a special attraction on a brand with much better talent available.
Even if the intention is to add more size and physicality to the brand, others are doing so better. Brodie Lee, Lance Archer, Brian Cage, Wardlow and Luchasaurus all bring combinations of size and speed to AEW that Hager cannot match.
While Hager could be valuable to AEW as a well-known name, the spotlight on him is too large when he is around. Others could run with the same opportunity The All-American walked into, and AEW needs to realize that in order to move forward.
WWE's Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic
2020 has been a defining year, not just for wrestling or entertainment but the world as a whole. The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we do everything. Major public sites across the world are shut down. Most nations require citizens to wear masks around any other people.
For sports, the pandemic shut down any opportunity for fans to be in attendance for events. This forced a drastic change in perspective. While AEW quickly realized that talent in the audience could help keep the show's energy high, WWE was slow on the uptake.
In fact, Vince McMahon's company was slow with most necessary practices to keep talent safe and shows exciting. Despite expectations and requirements, WWE rarely tested talent. When a rash of outbreaks threatened to shut down the show, company-wide testing was finally instituted, leading to a much smaller roster for each show.
What began as awkward replays of classic matches turned into a revamped show on which WWE allowed talent to go home but punished those who did. Sami Zayn was stripped of the WWE Intercontinental Championship unceremoniously. Roman Reigns' name was erased from WWE programming for a while.
It has been a mess attempting to find any logic in WWE's response to the pandemic. While it was always going to be difficult to safely perform in the midst of a pandemic, AEW quickly identified the need to test talent regularly and taped shows with a limited talent pool in attendance.
Whatever stopped WWE from taking the necessary steps has led to noticeable consequences. From terrible TV ratings to storylines that seem to change by the month without any clear connections, each week of programming is a trip most would prefer to ignore.
Hopefully WWE has finally learned from the bad decisions of the past as the potential of returning crowds slowly becomes a reality.