B/R Roundtable on Roman Reigns, AEW's Roster and the Topics That Dominated 2021

Erik Beaston@@ErikBeastonFeatured ColumnistDecember 29, 2021

B/R Roundtable on Roman Reigns, AEW's Roster and the Topics That Dominated 2021

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    Credit: WWE.com

    To say 2021 provided numerous buzzworthy topics would be a massive understatement.

    There were mass firings and blockbuster signings, unprecedented heel dominance over a single company and some of the best matches of the last decade. There was a refocus on youth, and the future became bright with potential breakout stars seizing the spotlight.

    B/R Wrestling’s Erik Beaston and Chris Mueller sat down for a special roundtable conversation on the best, worst, most controversial and jaw-dropping topics of the year and what they mean for WWE and All Elite Wrestling ahead of the new year.

Does AEW Have Too Much Talent Following Blockbuster Signings in 2021?

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    CHRIS: I don't think there is such a thing as having too much talent, but I do accept that there will come a time when some AEW fans start to wonder why their favorites aren't winning titles. AEW does longer reigns with most belts, so we are going to see fewer people get that spotlight than we would in WWE. It makes each title change feel like a big deal, but it also limits how many people can be considered top stars. 

    ERIK: I agree that the wealth of talent, and the limited spots for them in every title picture, will lead to resentment over fans not seeing their favorites getting title opportunities they feel they deserve. We've already seen fans expressing disappointment over Cole's position on the card. What I find more alarming is the amount of young talent that was brought into AEW under the guise that they would have opportunities to be stars who are now underutilized or trapped on Dark or Dark Elevation, their presence mostly nonexistent. Sonny Kiss, Joey Janela, Kip Sabian, TH2 and even Private Party come to mind. You can't fault Tony Khan for acquiring world-renowned talent by any means, especially when the likes of CM Punk and Bryan Danielson become available, but it does highlight the sheer amount of talent the company has and how much of it isn't utilized.

    CHRIS: The biggest problem AEW has is making Dark and Elevation feel like must-see shows. A lot of people build up long winning streaks on those shows and end up having great matches, but a lot of fans see it as developmental for AEW because that is how Khan has positioned those programs. That is going to lead to some fans not looking at them as essential viewing like they do for Rampage and Dynamite. Eventually, AEW is going to have to make some cuts, not renew certain contracts or find ways to cycle people in and out more often. While having too much talent is a good problem to have from a management perspective, some people will start to look for other opportunities if they don't feel as valued as they were when the company first launched. 

    ERIK: Agreed. Dark and Elevation should be utilized to enhance the idea that the win-loss streaks that Khan himself and the announcers hype as being ever-so-important actually are. Instead, we see John Silver and Alex Reynolds rise through the ranks of the tag division because they beat enhancement stars or see Wheeler Yuta ride a four-match winning streak into Dynamite because he knocked off Janela in a match no one knew or cared about. Utilize that talent more, put more effort into those shows and no one asks "but what about all the talent they're not using." 

    CHRIS: I hate to make this suggestion, but adding a couple more titles over the next year or two might help. If Dark had its own title or AEW added a set of trios belts, it would allow them to highlight a few more people. 

    ERIK: Absolutely. Give the wrestlers something to do, and fans a reason to watch those shows, and you help everyone and everything involved. And simple 20-second highlights on Dynamite would help drive people to YouTube to watch. 

Will Mass Firings Hurt Talent's Desire to Sign with WWE?

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    ERIK: It's almost impossible for it not to. WWE spent years collecting every big-name indie star not under the Bullet Club banner, then tossed them aside as if they were nothing the minute Vince McMahon saw fit. On top of that, the company discarded former world champions it spent the entire year before building as main event talent. In the name of budget cuts. Despite turning well-documented record profits. Shane Strickland is out here tweeting that Hit Row generated $2 million while in NXT, yet they were expendable. Why would a high-profile free agent like MJF consider that company when his contract is up in 2024, especially when he's not going to be allowed to be the guy he has been to this point? 


    CHRIS: Unfortunately, I have seen this coming for years. WWE was hiring way too many people without doing the yearly releases we were all used to for years. While I do think the pandemic had some impact on it, I am thinking it just accelerated the inevitable. WWE had too many people who weren't being pushed, and while I would prefer to see them have jobs, I am excited to see what some of these people do next. My biggest issue with the releases is how many of them seemed completely illogical. Who couldn't find a way to make money with Keith Lee? Who lets Mia Yim sit on the bench for over a year? We were always going to see a purge at some point, but the frequency and volume of releases has been shocking to say the least. 


    ERIK: Do you think the WWE brand name, or the idea that nearly every wrestler grew up watching their shows as a kid, will continue to attract talent, or has the slew of releases fractured that connection?


    CHRIS: That level of brand recognition will always be valuable. WWE is to wrestling what Disney is to entertainment. It might not produce the best content, but it consistently produces stuff people spend money on. That is why it will take AEW years, possibly decades to reach that same level. However, the bigger WWE gets, the easier it will be for it to find itself in trouble just like it was in the '90s. The Titanic was only unsinkable because it hadn't met the iceberg yet. I am not saying AEW is that iceberg, but it could be eventually. I do think WWE has probably finished with the mass releases for the most part, but we have learned nobody is safe over the past year. 


    ERIK: WWE will always have that mass appeal. Like you mentioned, it's Disney. It's Marvel and DC Comics. AEW is Image. It's cool, hip, fresh and unique in a way that fans have spent the last decade asking for. Stories, matches, wins and losses all matter. But, that doesn't stop the artists from being attracted to the big name, bright lights and notoriety that the establishment offers. Wrestlers will continue to flock there if there is even the slightest interest, and suitable payoff, from McMahon and Co.


    CHRIS: At the end of the day, I do want WWE to attract good talent, but I also want WWE to use that talent in the right way. Guys like Bron Breakker might have a bright future, but I wonder what MSK's ceiling is in WWE if a guy like Chad Gable can barely get wins on the main roster. The mass releases will certainly give some talents pause before signing, but I still think a lot of them will take that risk if it means the possibility of fame and fortune. 

The Downfall of NXT: Rash Reaction to Ratings or Necessary Talent Development?

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    CHRIS: NXT broke my heart with the transition to NXT 2.0. I put zero blame for this on the new talents or the majority of the crew. I think everyone is working hard to make the brand feel fresh and new, but it went from being the best show on a weekly basis to being almost unwatchable for me because it feels like we have flashed back to 1994 again. All of the bright colors, stereotypical gimmicks and cringe promos have made it hard to watch. I do not think there is anything wrong with anyone liking what NXT has become, but it is now the show I have the most trouble getting through. 

    ERIK: I'm immediately drawn to anything fresh and new. It's why I gave those early, often awful days of TNA Wrestling a chance back in 2002. New faces are a welcome sight, and the introduction of Toxic Attraction's Gigi Dolin and Jacey Jane, Tony D'Angelo, Carmelo Hayes, Bron Breakker and even Grayson Waller is exciting. With that said, there is a noticeable drop-off in match quality with the younger, less-experienced workers dominating the air time. Tomasso Ciampa, Pete Dunne, Io Shirai and Dakota Kai are absolutely fantastic, but there's only so much they can do while getting this next generation of stars ready. It has become more difficult to watch.

    Do you see the revamp as reactionary to AEW's dominance over the show or a calculated step in talent development? 

    CHRIS: I honestly can't say what the reason for the change is. WWE might have done this even if it was winning the ratings battle every Wednesday and never moved to Tuesday. I think what WWE wants to do is differentiate NXT from AEW. At first, both shows were full of guys who were indie darlings and had somewhat similar styles. WWE wants NXT to be slick like the main roster, and that's totally fine, but it seems to have come at the expense of quality, and that is where the issue lies. I do think there is a handful of stars with bright futures, but it's going to take time for them to catch on when fewer and fewer people are watching NXT these days.

    ERIK: And I think that is the biggest issue: Who exactly are we building these stars for when the audience has shrunk drastically? Does it matter if Bron Breakker is a star of the future when only the absolute diehard of diehards are watching the show? 

    CHRIS: If NXT moves back to Peacock/WWE Network, I feel like it will give WWE more control again, and that might help improve the situation. But again, this could all be by design and WWE management might think everything is going great with 2.0. I don't see how that's possible, but we also live in a bubble in the IWC and don't always see things the way the suits do. From a business standpoint, I can't see the benefit of the changes, but I am also willing to give it time to build up. If we look back at the origins of NXT, it took a long time for it to become a beloved brand, too. 

    ERIK: And it took a long time for those originals to break out. Let's not forget, Becky Lynch was doing Irish jigs before she became the biggest women's star since Chyna. 

Which Stars Will Break Out in 2022?

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    ERIK: I'll actually stick with NXT and go with Waller. WWE has strapped a rocket ship to his back and is pushing him HARD. The guy was in at least three segments Tuesday night and will continue to see his profile on the brand rise entering 2022. As long as he stays out of trouble, doesn't tweet his way into the doghouse, he will have every opportunity to be a significant player for WWE by the time next year wraps up. He's got charisma and a look. The in-ring work will come in time, especially if WWE is going to book him against AJ freaking Styles and potentially Johnny Gargano, should the former NXT champion re-sign with the company.

    CHRIS: For the men, I have to pick Dante Martin. He went from being a tag team guy to one of the most over young stars in all of AEW over the past few months. His matches have been improving and the huge spots he has produced have left a lasting impression on fans. When Darius eventually returns, I see a run with the tag titles in their future for sure. 

    ERIK: On the women's side of things, I'm going to go with Xia Li. Her debut was special, the video packages that preceded her were extraordinary and there appears to be a concentrated effort to push her from the get-go. That she's on a brand that is in need of depth beyond Charlotte Flair and Sasha Banks helps. As is typically the case, it will come down to how quickly WWE Creative gets bored before it turns its attention elsewhere. 

    CHRIS: It was a tossup for me, but I have to go with Bianca Belair. She really broke through in 2021 with her WrestleMania main event against Sasha Banks. While her title run ended in heartbreak, she has continued to shine. Did you see how the crowd reacted when she picked up Doudrop for the KOD? This woman is over, and there is no stopping her from being the next big thing. 

What Was Your Pick for Match of the Year in 2021?

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    CHRIS: This is a tough one because there were a lot of great matches this year, but due to the lasting impression it left on me, I think I have to go with Bryan Danielson vs. Adam Page. Their hourlong draw was a prime example of what this business aspires to be. We saw two guys at the peak of their careers leave everything in the ring, and to think that it happened on free TV instead of a pay-per-view is absolutely wild. 

    ERIK: It was an interesting year in that the argument can be made that free TV wrestling surpassed PPV wrestling. WrestleMania did have the great Belair-Banks match and The Young Bucks and Lucha Bros tore the house down at All Out. I totally see the argument for Danielson vs. Page because it was an instant classic; a million stars on the Meltzer meter and rightfully so. But the match that earned that award for me was Danielson's war with Kenny Omega at Grand Slam. The atmosphere, a red-hot crowd and the largest venue AEW has run to date helped enhance the dream match. Everything that happened from bell to bell in the 30-minute classic hit perfectly, and to think those guys accomplished it without descending into the wild reversals and countless near-falls that are involved in every other match these days is even more impressive. A great match and further proof of Danielson's near perfection in 2021.

    CHRIS: The fact that Danielson is having such an incredible post-WWE run is something every fan should be enjoying. If people could put the tribalism aside with WWE and AEW, they might enjoy themselves more often. 

    ERIK: I feel like there is an entire discussion to be had on tribalism in pro wrestling. Who knows, maybe we can broach that subject in the future. Danielson, though, has been a man on a mission to prove he is every bit as good as he has always been. What he has accomplished is truly inspiring. Babyface or heel, in WWE style or wide-open in AEW, he has been stellar.

Is Roman Reigns' Dominance Hurting the Rest of the Roster?

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    ERIK: The answer is emphatically "no." WWE Creative's inability to follow up with stars who have competed against Reigns is hurting the overall quality of the roster. We have seen Kevin Owens, Finn Balor, King Woods and Cesaro all mix it up with The Head of the Table before falling back into the same midcard position they were previously. They were heated up before being cooled down and returned to their spot on the card, rather than the writing team doing anything to maintain that momentum. That's not on Reigns. He busted his ass in those matches to A) deliver great performances and B) make those guys look worthy of sharing the ring with him. If the writing team put effort into the surrounding Superstars, the roster (and product) would be stronger. 

    CHRIS: I agree that it all comes down to booking. Reigns has been great in this role, but WWE management has dropped the ball when it comes to building up anyone who could reasonably unseat him. I would also argue that part of the reason Reigns has been so lauded is that WWE has put him in the ring with so many other strong characters. Finn Balor, Bryan Danielson, The Usos, The New Day and everyone else he has faced since his ascension to becoming The Tribal Chief have helped to keep him elevated. I think WWE is hesitant to push anyone else the same way because it loves to have a definitive face for each brand, but greatness cannot be contained forever. If somebody else in the locker room is ready to take his spot, WWE will give them that push because it's what is best for business.

    ERIK: I agree that the talent he's had those matches with has absolutely helped him achieve the streak he is on. I also think WWE's failure to prepare anyone not named Brock Lesnar or The Rock to dethrone Reigns is the bigger issue than his dominance. Imagine the shape SmackDown would be in if the company got behind Cesaro or Sami Zayn and pushed them hard enough that fans believed they could beat Reigns? What would it mean for Ricochet to go on a roll where he just kept winning and fans believed he could upset The Tribal Chief like Rey Mysterio used to knock off guys bigger than him? It would go a long way in building the rest of the roster's credibility. The issue isn't Reigns' dominance. It's the company's inability to utilize it to the benefit of others. 

    CHRIS: Having somebody like Reigns is almost necessary to tell certain types of stories in pro wrestling, but if he is the Hulk Hogan of his era, he needs someone to be the Randy Savage, someone to be the Ultimate Warrior and someone to be Andre the Giant. WWE has never solely relied on one guy even when it seemed like it was. Right now, we are getting to close to that point. I do think the pushes Bobby Lashley and Big E received this year helped, but when they are on a different show than Reigns, it's hard to look at them as being on his level. I think when Reigns loses the title, he should take some time off so WWE can build up a couple more people into main event talents on SmackDown. 

    ERIK: That's a great point. Hogan had his cast of characters. Hart had Michaels and vice versa. Austin had Rock, Foley, Undertaker and Kane. Cena had Punk. Reigns is on an island. Some will argue Lesnar is that guy for him, but he's not around consistently enough for that to be the case. Reigns moves from feud to feud, winning matches against talent not perceived to be on his level. That doesn't help anyone.

    CHRIS: Lesnar is great, but like you said, he isn't around enough. He is fine for short bursts, but WWE needs more guys on his level. It's hard to make somebody into a huge star because the fans have to accept it. No matter how hard WWE pushes somebody, the crowd determines if they have longevity in that role. Reigns won over the crowd in 2021, and I hope we can see others do the same in 2022. WWE has no shortage of potential world champions on SmackDown. It just needs to figure out how to put the pieces together. 

    ERIK: And have the patience to see it through, as it did with Reigns over the last six years.