Due to a weekly live TV schedule, professional wrestling is by its nature one of the most elastic and adaptable forms of entertainment in the world. Every single week, Vince McMahon tweaks the format of his WWE programming, and while no other promoters share his reach, anyone who comes close tries to keep it just as fresh and new as the people at the top. Most of the time, the little differences between one episode of Raw to the next are subtle and hardly worth mentioning, but now and again, the industry changes in a truly shocking and unforgettable way.
As 2017 comes to a close, wrestling fans around the world are reflecting on the past year and remembering their favorite matches, moments, and events. In doing so, there’s also a good chance they’ll realize just how different the sports entertainment landscape is today from what it was just 12 short months ago. Especially when it comes to wrestling outside of McMahon’s umbrella, some might even argue the business is more exciting and unpredictable than it’s ever been before.
Granted, not all change is good change, so the mere fact wrestling is different today than it was at this point in 2016 isn’t necessarily cause for celebration. That said, some of the changes are definitely a good thing, and may bode well for further adaptation in the near future, which might finally bring wrestling back to the prominence it had in the Attitude Era. Short of that, maybe WWE fans will at least get to cheer for main event superstars they actually like again. To see why, keep reading for 15 surprising ways pro wrestling has evolved in the past year.
15 The Rise Of Pre-Taped Matches And Video Trickery
With the presumed retirement of The Undertaker at WrestleMania 33, it looked like 2017 could be the year WWE crowned its new face of fear. That the company would choose Bray Wyatt to take the Dead Man’s place make perfect sense, but unfortunately, they way they tried to go about making the transition killed any chance of it actually happening. The problem is that in manufacturing Wyatt’s rise, WWE relied far too heavily on ridiculous camera tricks and pre-taped nonsense rather than actual power and intimidation. Supernatural goofiness was always a low key part of Wyatt and his family’s appeal, yet WWE seriously managed to jump the shark when going all in on the idea. Despite fans largely rejecting Wyatt’s magic moments, specifically his matches with Randy Orton, from a technical standpoint, they did things WWE had never done before. Hopefully, they’ll either get way better at it really soon, or never do it again.
14 New Japan Took Center Stage
It may be a surprise for American sports entertainment fans to learn New Japan Pro Wrestling has been around since 1972. Especially to people who only watch WWE, it probably feels like NJPW has actually only existed for a decade or so at most, starting when Brock Lesnar reigned as IWGP Champion, the only element of the Japanese organization they officially acknowledge. That perception may start to change, though, because while NJPW has indeed operated much longer than fans may notice, in 2017, it’s bigger than ever. The rise of NJPW is related to a few key factors, including a streaming service called NJPW World, a weekly TV show on AXS, and an extremely charismatic American star named Kenny Omega. It also doesn’t hurt that former WWE superstar Chris Jericho voluntarily left the states for a high profile program overseas. Nowadays, there are even some American fans who used to be WWE exclusive who think NJPW are the true world leaders in sports entertainment, and that shift will likely only continue.
13 Ex WWE Stars See Money On The Road
Aside from a few short years when Eric Bischoff had unlimited access to Ted Turner’s bank account, employment with WWE has always been the goal for any wrestler who got into the business for financial reasons. Vince McMahon has more money than anybody else in the business and he has no problem sharing significant chunks of his fortune with wrestlers he deems worthy. However, what some audiences may not realize is that WWE superstars who aren’t in the main event don’t always get compensated for their talents fairly. Recently, some of them have been speaking up about the situation, and in 2017, at least two superstars confirmed they can make more money on the road than they did working for McMahon. Cody Rhodes is achieving greater success than ever before on the indy scene, and Ryback, who left WWE over money reasons, seems to be enjoying his status as The Big Guy in various small ponds. If more wrestlers continue to pad their bank accounts outside of Vince’s control, he might start to have a problem in the near future.
12 Legendary Comebacks Teach Us To Never Say Never Again
No matter how many times Vince McMahon harped on the fact back in the 1990s, some wrestling fans still don’t seem to understand the age old adage that anything can happen in the WWE Universe. It’s not necessarily evolution for this to be proven all over again, yet 2017 was in many respects a year of comebacks taking the center stage, so perhaps it bears repeating. First of all, more than 14 years after his latest reign on top, legendary WCW wrestler Goldberg climbed back to the top of the business as WWE Universal Champion. Then, barely a month later, the Olympic Hero Kurt Angle made his long awaited return after a decade working for the competition. Both Goldberg and Angle were wrestlers most fans thought burned all their bridges and could never make a comeback. The fact they did is further proof Vince McMahon’s feelings on past employees are always evolving, like his company in general.
11 The NWA Found A New Owner, Tripped Looking For New Footing
Having existed for several decades prior to Vince McMahon, Sr. and Toots Mondt creating what would become WWE, the oldest wrestling company in America is still the NWA. Of course, the brand isn’t quite what it used to be, having taken a massive nosedive in the mid ‘90. The NWA has largely faded out of relevance since splitting with TNA in 2007, but that may change sometime soon due to the fact it recently received a new owner with some pretty significant financial resources. Lead singer of Smashing Pumpkins and thus a multimillionaire Billy Corgan agreed to purchase the company in May, and the decision was made final in October. Truth be told, almost nothing has changed for the NWA since Corgan took over, but it’s still very early into his reign as the new boss. There has been a little bit of posturing, with NWA Champion Tim Storm showing up on various independent promotions against the top indy stars in the country, and it’s easy to imagine more in the near future. Whether or not Corgan actually knows what he’s doing, though, remains a bit of a mystery.
10 TNA…No, GFW…No, Impact…Oh, What’s In A Name?
Since Jeff and Jerry Jarrett threw their hats into the mainstream pro wrestling business by founding NWA: TNA back in 2002, the company has been one of the most mismanaged and mocked in the industry. While TNA isn’t entirely without its merits, almost every year sees it make at least one or two outrageously embarrassing mistakes, if not way, way more. 2017 may have been one of the worst ever for TNA, as it was the year the company couldn’t even decide on its own goddamn name. Up until March, they were still Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, a name they had been using in some form since the Jarretts founded it. In March, they decided to rebrand as Impact Wrestling, for all of three months, at which point they switched it up to Global Force Wrestling. Er, scratch that, because another three months later, they were back to Impact. Is this truly evolution, or just shuffling the deck on the Titanic? Quite frankly, it’s probably just the latter, or worse, straight up devolution. Still a noteworthy change, though.
9 The Hardyz Ruled Indy Tag Team Wrestling
Such is the ever changing nature of pro wrestling that early in 2017, something huge was happening on the independent scene, only for it to become almost entirely irrelevant due to bigger news in WWE. Both stories center entirely around The Hardy Boyz, who are yet another set of legends in the midst of an incredible and unexpected WWE comeback. Just before they made their return, things might have even been better for Matt and Jeff on the independent scene—at one point, they held seven separate Tag Team Championship. Of course, the real story isn’t just the Hardyz involvement, but rather the fact this was a sign virtually all indy promotions in the world were happy to work together and promote one another in a very visible way. Each time the Hardyz showed up and won a new belt, fans of the last promotion they worked for learned of a new one they could also check out, bringing new audiences all around the independent world.
8 Wrestlers Finally Started To Be Stars
In contrast to the constant fighting and violence that appears on its programming, WWE has long supported and championed what they call the Be A Star campaign against bullying. However, in a classic case of do as I say and not as I do, the company also heavily fostered a backstage atmosphere of intimidation, pranking, and hostility, most of which centered around the actions of former WWE Champion John Bradshaw Layfield. Some of the men JBL bullied include Mark Henry, Edge, the Hardy Boyz, and more recently, Mauro Ranallo. It was that last name that sparked the outrage, when Ranallo claimed he was taking a leave of absence from WWE and most people assumed JBL’s behavior was the reason. While the specifics weren’t quite so clear, either way, the WWE Universe responded en masse with chants of “Fire Bradshaw,” clearly stating the opinion these sort of backstage antics are not okay. Granted, WWE didn’t react in the slightest, but we bet the audience will force them to if anyone ever complains about bullying again.
7 WWE Arrived In India
For all their talk about being world leaders in sports entertainment, World Wrestling Entertainment rarely holds shows outside of its base country, the good old U S of A. Sure, they tour around the world constantly, spending a week in the UK every couple months and maybe a day or two in Germany per year, but huge portions of the world are without any chance of seeing WWE live. In fairness, Vince McMahon isn’t happy about this, and is doing whatever it takes to make WWE a truly global presence. In 2017, the focus of his expansion was the country of India. This was the first year native Indians could access the WWE Network, and to promote the historic launch, wrestlers like Triple H and The New Day have gone on publicity tours meeting fans and signing autographs. It was all a build to the first ever WWE show in India, featuring a main event between Triple H and Jinder Mahal. While India is merely one country, it’s population of over 1 billion could definitely have an impact on Vince McMahon’s wallet in the near future, and thus the entire wrestling business.
6 Foreign Stars Took The Spotlight
In direct relation to the fact WWE expanded eastward towards India, they also made a historic move with the WWE World title by crowning the first ever Indian champion. The downside, of course, is that said champion was Jinder Mahal, a career jobber who had no right being in the main event. Even so, there’s something noble about WWE finally taking a chance on a dark-skinned non-American as the face of their company. Not only was Jinder allowed to represent all things WWE, but also, one of his top rivals was a Japanese man in Shinsuke Nakamura. From the very beginning, WWE has always been an American company through and through, with foreigners treated as big bad monsters strong American heroes need to destroy. That feeling was still slightly present with Jinder, but at least a foreigner got a true chance to look strong. That said, the roles been reversed and Nakamura reigned as champion while Jinder challenged him, fans might have appreciated it a whole lot more.
5 WWE Network Specials Continue To Shine
A couple years into the existence of the WWE Network, it still feels like Vince McMahon and company have only just begun to understand its potential. Sure, they could just put up Raw, SmackDown, and Pay-Per-Views, and 90% of fans would be happy. However, they could also create new and exciting programming like NXT, the Mae Young Classic, or the United Kingdom Championship Tournament, and the fact two of those are from 2017 should be a sign they’re starting to move in that direction. An unfortunate reality is that these specials don’t always get the same numbers as, say, WrestleMania, but they’re nonetheless getting fans talking and interested in new and unique styles of wrestling. These specials are also creating readymade stars, with whoever wins the tournaments in question able to make their official WWE debuts with a great deal of respect from the audience already won. Hopefully, WWE will continue producing similarly unique specials in the future.
4 A New Championship That Does And Doesn’t Matter
It seems to be the opinion of many wrestling fans these days that WWE has far more championship belts available to its superstars than necessary. Both Raw and SmackDown have at least four belts, plus three for NXT, one for 205 Live, and now there’s a 13th special chunk of gold to celebrate anarchy in the UK. Okay, yeah, it kinda looks like the idea might be reaching critical mass, but on the plus side, the new title has been responsible for some pretty special matches. In and of itself, the United Kingdom Championship Tournament produced an incredible amount of great matches, especially the finale round between Tyler Bate and Pete Dunne. Then, less than five months later, the two one-upped themselves with an incredible rematch where Dunne took the title away from Bate. Both of these wrestlers are in their early 20s, and most others in the UK tournament are also quite young, in a sense making the UK Championship a microcosm for evolution in the wrestling industry. The only issue is whether or not WWE will capitalize on it.
3 The Women’s Revolution Continues To Get Televised
When evolution doesn’t come quickly enough, those who demand it band together and forcibly revolt. WWE has been experiencing this for the past few years now with the so-called women’s wrestling revolution, and the ladies of sports entertainment still aren’t happy with their place in the business. The good news is that it just keeps getting better, thanks to the hard work of female wrestlers all over the world. Leading the charge are WWE standouts like Charlotte Flair, Asuka, and Alexa Bliss, who may have been the most improved female wrestler of the year. Every single woman to contribute to the Mae Young Classic also deserves a little credit, as the short lived series was truly historic in how much focus WWE was giving to the female side of the industry. The best part is it will only get better from here, as tournament standouts like Shayna Baszler, Piper Niven, Toni Storm, and obviously winner Kairi Sane, all should have earned themselves full time employment for their performances.
2 The Return Of War Games
From the day WCW went out of business in 2001, fans have been clamoring for WWE to take advantage of their former rival’s greatest ideas suddenly becoming their legal property. On the immediate level, this meant a bunch of WCW wrestlers showing up and invading the company to less than spectacular results. As time went by, though, fans forgot about that initial disappointment and just wished WWE would capitalize on the positives, like the fact they owned the trademark behind WCW’s greatest gimmick match, War Games. Finally, after 16 years of waiting, WWE brought the iconic two ring cage back for an epic battle in NXT. The results were just as good as everyone hoped, with the battle between Sanity, The Undisputed Era, and the team of Roderick Strong and the Authors of Pain more than delivering War Games’s classic level of extreme violence. All that’s left is for the iconic structure to make its way to WWE proper, which may just happen in 2018.
1 Triple H Controls More And More of The Game
Rumor has it Triple H has been gunning for Vince McMahon’s job since back when he was a lowly Connecticut blueblood curtseying to his opponents before their matches. By the time he married Vince’s daughter Stephanie, it was pretty much inevitable The Game would get his wish. For the most part, this means what happened to the WWE power structure throughout 2017 was hardly surprising or unexpected, yet it nonetheless definitely constitutes as evolution. As has been the trend of late, Triple H continued to expand his power in bits and pieces, taking away responsibilities from Vince as the WWE patriarch slowly prepares to fade from the spotlight. Granted, we’re still a far cry from a WWE ruled by Triple H, as McMahon still absolutely has the final word. Even so, Triple H has gotten so high up the corporate ladder that every inch of progress is a metaphorical mile of control. At this rate, Triple H’s inauguration as the new leader of WWE may come sooner than anyone thinks.