Five years is a long time in wrestling. A really long time. Many of today’s brightest Indie stars hadn’t wrestled their first match five years ago. However WWE’s main roster hasn’t changed dramatically in the past five years and is probably at the most static its been in memory. Here are some five years comparisons. Starting with right now.
SURVIVOR SERIES 2014
Miz & Mizdow vs. Goldust & Stardust vs. Los Matadores vs. The Usos
Alicia Fox, Emma, Naomi & Natalya vs. Cameron, Layla, Paige & Summer Rae
Bray Wyatt vs. Dean Ambrose
Adam Rose & The Bunny vs. Heath Slater & Titus O’Neill
Nikki Bella vs. AJ Lee
Dolph Ziggler, Erik Rowan, John Cena, Ryback & The Big Show vs. Kane, Luke Harper, Mark Henry, Rusev & Seth Rollins
A load of those people are still there; Miz, Primo, Epico, Usos, Fox, Naomi, Natalya, Paige, Wyatt, Slater, Titus, Ziggler, Rowan, Cena, Show, Kane, Henry, Harper, Rusev and Rollins. Even the bad wrestlers are still there. Guys like Titus and Rowan with limited upside. There are people still there who’ve basically retired like Show, Kane and Paige just to stop them showing up elsewhere. Some of these acts are mind boggling stale like Miz, Ziggler and even Bray needed a massive character reboot. 21/36 are still with the company after five years. Over 50%.
Those that have left are a real mixed bag. Cody Rhodes went to form his own promotion and since then WWE have been very reluctant to release talent. Dean Ambrose let his contract expire because he was sick of WWE and became a fresh face when joining AEW immediately afterwards. AEW have not exactly hoovered up former WWE employees though and the only other one that’s gone there is Dustin, Cody’s own brother.
Of the rest some were limited in wrestling ambition. Mizdow quit to become an actor before returning recently. Ryback seems to have no interest in wrestling. His last match was over a year ago. AJ Lee retired. Nikki Bella retired. Cameron left wrestling. Summer Rae has only wrestled twice since leaving WWE in 2016. Adam Rose is a non-entity. Emma is one of the few wrestlers who’s left WWE and is just existing on the Indies. As Tenille Dashwood she’s had runs with ROH and Impact but missed nine months with injury in 2018-2019. Despite the options that are out there not everyone wants former WWE talent anymore.
SURVIVOR SERIES 2009
Santino Marella vs. Chavo Guerrero
Miz, Ziggler, Drew McIntyre, Jack Swagger & Sheamus vs. John Morrison, Finlay, Evan Bourne, Shelton Benjamin & Matt Hardy
Batista vs. Rey Mysterio
Christian, Kofi Kingston, Mark Henry, MVP & R-Truth vs. CM Punk, Cody Rhodes, Randy Orton, Ted DiBiase & William Regal
Undertaker vs. Chris Jericho vs. The Big Show
Mickie James, Melina, Kelly Kelly, Gail Kim & Eve Torres vs. Alicia Fox, Beth Phoenix, Jillian, Layla & Michelle McCool
John Cena vs. Shawn Michaels vs. Triple H
Here’s where things get a little staggering as you look at the talent retention over a decade. The idea being to lock everyone in so any start up or potential rival cannot hire the big names. Even Undertaker is still under a WWE deal. Not to mention retirees like Shawn Michaels and Beth Phoenix. Several talents here have left and come back again like Drew, Shelton and Rey. It’s actually astonishing to see how many people WWE have tied down.
Also the sheer length of some people’s WWE careers considering their upside. Santino Marella was under WWE contract from 2006-2014. Nearly a decade! Chavo was there from the WCW purchase in 2001 until 2011. Swagger was in WWE from 2007-2017. Evan Bourne had one of the shorter runs but still worked there from 2008-2013 before leaving to join ROH. Eve Torres was there for six years despite having no apparent ability. Layla was there from 2006-2015.
SURVIVOR SERIES 2004
Spike Dudley vs. Billy Kidman vs. Chavo Guerrero vs. Rey Mysterio
Shelton Benjamin vs. Christian
Eddie Guerrero, John Cena, RVD & Big Show vs. Carlito, Kurt Angle, Luther Reigns & Mark Jindrak
The Undertaker vs. Heidenreich
Trish Stratus vs. Lita
JBL vs. Booker T
Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho, Maven & Randy Orton vs. Batista, Edge, Gene Snitsky & Triple H
WOW. Doesn’t that feel different. This was from the era of WWE post-WCW takeover where they picked up all those WCW guys and meshed them into their existing talent line-up and when that was all played out they called up a bunch of guys from OVW. This card has a mix of all of that. Former WCW guys like Booker, Eddie, Benoit, Kidman, Rey, Jindrak & Chavo in there with former ECW guys like RVD and Spike. New talents bleeding into the roster like Benjamin, Reigns, Heidenreich, Snitsky and Maven.
Where did this approach go wrong? Partially in the talent that came through OVW. They were all these big vanilla guys who wrestled the same and were very limited. Heidenreich was gone by end of 2005. Ditto Luther Reigns. Tough Enough Maven was gone before that. Snitsky lasted until 2008 before leaving. There was a lack of quality control in recruitment and the product suffered because of it.
Unfortunately WWE learned from this lesson and deliberately built up new talent they felt would work consistently over a long period of time. Hence the stale nature of the current product. I don’t crave the days of Heidenreich but he was clearly the product of a certain time and you can place the shows he’s on because of that. Whereas a John Cena/Randy Orton type, which WWE constantly looked for because of their success; body guys with good cardio, is in built into WWE from this point onward.
SURVIVOR SERIES 1999
D-Lo Brown, Godfather & The Headbangers vs Acolytes & Dudley Boyz
Kurt Angle vs. Shawn Stasiak
Gangrel, Mark Henry, Steve Blackman & Val Venis vs. Bulldog & Mean Street Posse
Debra, Mae Young, Moolah & Tori vs. Ivory, Jacqueline, Luna & Terri
Kane vs. X-Pac
Big Show vs. Mideon, Prince Albert, Big Bossman & Viscera
Chyna vs. Chris Jericho
Hollys & Too Cool vs. Hardyz, Edge & Christian
New Age Outlaws vs. Mankind & Al Snow
Big Show vs. The Rock vs. Triple H
Now one final jump back to the Attitude Era and how different is this card. Keeping in mind my original suggestion was that WWE has changed very little over the past decade and a lot of the same talent are in the company look at the difference between 1999 and 2009. It’s huge. There are only four wrestlers on both cards; Jericho, Matt Hardy, Kane and Triple H. People just didn’t last as long. WWE weren’t looking to lock down the Headbangers to a ten year deal. Or Shawn Stasiak. Or Al Snow. If Snow was around in 2009 in his prime he’d probably still be in WWE now. At the time Snow was considered to be fairly tenured having joined WWE in 1995 and having risen through the ranks during a stint on loan with ECW in 1997-98. He left WWE in 2004 having not completed a decade. Flash forward and everyone gets ten years.
There used to be a ‘cut day’ when WWE would release a bunch of talents. When was the last time that happened? Here are some current talents they have on the books;
- Aiden English. Signed in 2012. Worked NXT with his tag team partner, got bumped up to the main roster. Tag partner quit. English is still there. Mostly doing commentary. Under contract for 8 years, would never have lasted that long when the cash flow was tighter.
- Alexander Wolfe. Signed in 2015. Several aborted pushes in NXT before being sent to NXT UK to be placed with his old wXw buddies in Imperium. Would not have lasted five years under the old system.
- Angelo Dawkins. Signed in 2012. Prior to Street Profits had been knocking around in NXT and doing nothing. Career has suffered from stunted development.
- Bo Dallas. Signed in 2008! Was in Florida for years before being called up to the main roster and treated as a joke. Somehow still employed after 11 years.
- Curt Hawkins. A bizarre case where Hawkins was under WWE contract from 2007 but got released, as he should have been, in 2014 only to get recruited again in 2016. Presumably because he wrestled a handful of matches for TNA.
- Heath Slater is still there. Signed for WWE in 2007. This guy has been on their books for over a decade now. Imagine that happening in the 80s or 90s.
It doesn’t stop with their current in-ring talent either. If you look at the various road agents, trainers, commentators and people under legends contracts they have pretty much anyone who’s been a major part of WWE in the past 20 years sewn up.
WWE recruits at the moment like there’s no tomorrow but that is accompanied with a retention policy that almost boggles the mind. They refuse to let people go. When people like Luke Harper, Sin Cara and the Revival want to leave they’re told to stay put and see out their contracts. ACH managed to escape by playing the race card. Otherwise he’d be there under contract for however long his contract lasted.
The guy that got this conversation going in my head was Dolph Ziggler. The last time he signed a new deal I was practically begging him to leave and actually do something with his career. I got excited at the prospect of Ziggler, a WWE lifer, appearing in New Japan and just doing something different. But he signed on again and has been under WWE contract since 2004. The walking epitome of a stale talent in a stale environment. All because WWE cannot let people go anymore.
Finally a comparison with some names of the past, just to show how ridiculous this situation is. Steve Austin wrestled for WWE from 1996-2003. 8 years in total, although he continued as an onscreen personality after his retirement. His in-ring run, in total, was 15 years. Ziggler has already been under WWE contract for longer than Austin’s entire career.
Hulk Hogan’s WWE career started in 1979 but after a few initial appearances as a heel he left and wrestled for New Japan and AWA and came back stronger in 1984 for his main run. It’d be like Ziggler leaving while he was in developmental, gaining experience, and coming back five years later. Hogan’s main WWE run was ten years. Two thirds the current run Ziggler is on. Randy Savage wrestled for WWE for ten years. 1985-1994. Ultimate Warrior’s WWE run was six years.
Hell, even Andre the Giant, who wrestled for WWE between 1973-1991 also worked elsewhere to keep the gimmick fresh. Even at the peak of Andre’s popularity he wrestled for WWE, NWA, AWA and New Japan. I could go on and cover literally everybody. It used to be a rarity when someone stayed put for the bulk of their career but now people don’t want to risk leaving WWE because it makes them wealthy and WWE themselves, where they used to play the bad guy and have an occasional clear out, are now worried that anyone who leaves will become a benefit for someone else. Whether it’s NJPW or AEW or ROH or anyone else. To sum up;
Modern WWE has a retention problem and it’s not going away. If wrestlers have value WWE will keep them. Like a comic book collector. Vince has people ‘like new’ sealed away for future reading but also has this arrested development and cannot move on from his favourite toys. The problem with having this mass of cash available is that WWE could literally sign everyone but until they make fundamental changes to their product at the top end it’ll continue to be stale and ratings will continue to fall.