WWE feels like it is speedrunning toward a now-or-never moment.
The company sits in all sorts of disarray exiting its second-biggest event of the year, SummerSlam, at least compared to the unstoppable momentum of All Elite Wrestling.
In no particular order, the Raw main event scene is a mess, Daniel Bryan is potentially gone, the company continues to deal with the backlash of cutting droves of talent, Brock Lesnar is back to occupy the other main event scene and the long-awaited Becky Lynch return came at the expense of fan favorite Bianca Belair.
And that's just a few of the highlights. Compare it to AEW, where CM Punk just made a historic return, the company's gobbling up and properly using names like Malakai Black, legends like Sting and Arn Anderson get proper usage and the focus is on developing younger talents like Darby Allin and long-form storytelling, not quick, manufactured "moments."
In short, WWE needs to figure out what it wants to be as it exits this era. Whether this is still the PG era or something briefer like the pandemic era, it doesn't seem like WWE can afford to let this be the "moments" era—especially when the fast-gaining competition is doing the inverse and succeeding.
Look at Lynch's 25-second burial of Belair. WWE went for a moment. If there were any interest in long-form storytelling, it would be a pretty dramatic departure from how the company usually handles things. Maybe WWE wanted sympathy for Belair, but fans are more likely to pity her because they have seen this play out before, and it's probably not good news for her career.
If anything, Belair looked like a chump compared to the way cooler Lynch. The Royal Rumble and WrestleMania main event winner falling for a sucker punch and getting pinned after one move just isn't good storytelling. And if the idea is to get Lynch booed by fans, the promotion has tried and failed to do that in the past. Why is one of the most over stars of the past decade supposed to be booed by fans after returning from her pregnancy-related absence? Fans are supposed to boo the new mother? It's not going to happen.
And that's the point: Either way, Becky will be fine. Belair, not so much. The worst part is that debacle overshadowed another hot-potato title swap involving Charlotte Flair, whose same old character needed another title win because why? And Lesnar's big return was another moment, but he's had plenty of past encounters with Roman Reigns, and now guys like Finn Balor are left swinging in midcard purgatory again.
The Lynch and Lesnar returns felt like quick, knee-jerk reactions to Punk's reemergence too. Maybe they weren't, but Lynch winning in 25 seconds and Lesnar showing up unshaven and in jeans and boots just to do a staredown sure felt rushed.
Meanwhile, AEW's continued ability to major in the minors when it comes to things hardcore fans care about explains its continued rise. It's not just that Punk's back—it's that his first promo in seven years put over Britt Baker in the first sentence and his first feud is with Allin. His first appearance on AEW's flagship program, Dynamite, featured Orange Cassidy in the opener and Black against Brock Anderson.
The legends point deserves a closer look too. In that main event, Arn got some superb legend usage by wisely blocking a knockout kick from Black, some subtle, brilliant storytelling. It speaks to his ability to scout the opposition, and it's something fans will remember next time he's ringside. Sting's usage has been nothing short of superb too. Compare that to, say, Goldberg's weird father-son storyline as he gets yet another unquestioned title shot as WWE preps for its next show in Saudi Arabia and, yes, the differences are glaring.
None of this is to say WWE can't recover. On paper, the company can do its best work with its back against the wall. It still has the most talented roster of all time and the gigantic platforms needed to make it all work. But the issue has never been talent—it has been creativity and storytelling.
And the early signs aren't good. Punk's return wasn't hard to predict. There was no reason the Lynch and Lesnar moments had to feel so rushed. And despite all of this being obvious, WWE has done nothing but bleed talent. Besides Black, Bryan could be gone, there were massive cuts on the NXT side and even Braun Strowman and Bray Wyatt are out.
Right now, WWE isn't the cool, edgy product with great storytelling that it was during the Monday Night War. It's coasting on lucrative television deals and big social media numbers, which seems to have made it double down on searching for moments instead of stories. And over the long run, it will backfire, especially with Fox missing out on somebody like Punk and USA Network probably not too thrilled about the dire state of Raw as a B-show.
The answer is better storytelling and leaning into what fans want. Lynch is one of the best in the world—she can salvage this, especially if she works with Belair. Fans will forgive if the effort is there. Ditto for the Lesnar-Reigns-Paul Heyman trio. Properly balance out the rosters and build up new main eventers, and the route to a bounce-back isn't hard to see.
Make no mistake, WWE firmly remains No. 1 right now for a variety of reasons. But the issues that continue to show up more and more prominently are corrosive. If they keep going unaddressed, the problems will only multiply. And it needs to be wholesale. Finally caving and going with a heel Reigns, for example, gets counteracted pretty quickly by some of the aforementioned hiccups.
What direction WWE decides to take the company in over the next year and well into 2022 will determine much for the industry as a whole. But one thing's for sure: If competition excels where fans want WWE to improve, forcing both companies to be much better, it's the fans who win.