Sports

WWE cuts loose some big-named wrestlers, but where will they go?

WWE fans were shocked to see Braun Strowman among the wrestlers released by the company this week.
Image: Getty Images

News of WWE releases have become regular happenings, and yet some of the most anticipated in some ways. That’s because these days, fans can dream of where their favorite, underused, and now free, performers could go to fulfill their promise and have all the creative freedom they lacked with WWE. It’s not just AEW, though that’s always the big one, but NJPW or Impact or elsewhere. These are all accessible to fans now, so a favorite wrestler being released by WWE doesn’t mean he or she will disappear from view anymore.

Those wheels are spinning furiously today, as WWE announced not just another round of releases, but a round that includes some of the biggest names to be jettisoned from the company in quite a while. It says something that Buddy Murphy, a fantastic wrestler who made the Cruiserweight division relevant on television for the only time, is hardly the headline.

The biggest name, and biggest dude, is Braun Strowman. Given everyone’s familiarity with Vince McMahon’s love and affection for BIG GUYS, it comes as a huge shock. Strowman, in fact, was just in a Universal championship match at the company’s last PPV. To go from that to out of a job in the span of a couple of weeks is dizzying.

While Strowman had been in creative limbo for a while, and had the misfortune of getting the punishment of being in the Shane McMahon match at Wrestlemania, it feels like yet another opportunity lost. In 2018, Braun was one of the most over wrestlers in the whole company. He won the ‘Money In The Bank’ match, and crowds had latched on to his “Get These Hands!” catchphrase. He demonstrated a devilish sense of humor as well as a more athletic style in the ring when called upon. He had a series of great matches with Roman Reigns, and at SummerSlam was poised to cash in that MITB briefcase to become champion. I was in Brooklyn that night, and when Strowman announced he was going to cash in after the Reigns-Lesnar main event, the crowd was pulsating at the thought of champion Braun.

But Strowman’s timing couldn’t have been much worse, as he rose to the top of the roster at the same time Vince was psychotically desperate to get Reigns over Brock Lesnar, once and for all. That finally happened at that very SummerSlam, and Vince was simply not going to flatten that moment with the cash-in that Strowman had earned. Braun was essentially nerfed that night, and then instantly turned heel for reasons no one understood or bothered to explain, his briefcase was essentially ignored, and he never recovered. It was yet another instance of WWE not pulling the trigger on something that was so obvious and oddly altering a wrestler’s career for good.

The problem for someone like Braun, at least these days, is that there just aren’t a lot of truly big guys he can run programs with. Reigns was one, but he was untouchable. Lesnar was another, but he is only around for 12 minutes per year. Strowman got into a triple threat with Drew McIntyre and Bobby Lashley last month, and that’s just about it.

Which makes his next destination curious. AEW doesn’t have guys anywhere near his size at all, and the ones who are even close, are more acrobatic than he could ever hope to be. They haven’t shown an appetite for simple giants. It’s not automatic.

Which shouldn’t, hopefully, be the case for Aleister Black, now back to being Tommy End. Black was yet another criminally wasted talent on the WWE roster. He was one of the most popular NXT champions of all time, though injuries kept him from achieving all that he could have. Still, his matches with Velveteen Dream (yeah, that guy), Adam Cole, and Johnny Gargano are some of the best the black-and-gold brand has ever had. His character should be plug-and-play, and seemingly was as he was getting a push on Smackdown just two weeks ago. AEW snapping him up seems like a no-brainer, but these things aren’t always linear.

Same goes for Ruby Riott, who will now go back to being Heidi Lovelace. Another immensely talented wrestler and a darling on the indie scene, she didn’t even get a huge run on NXT before being called up to the main roster, where she was lost in the company’s half-hearted attempts to create and run a women’s tag division. It was truly symbolic that, on the Mania card, Riott and Liv Morgan were clearly head and shoulders better in the ring than anyone else, but had to job out to legacy obelisks Natalya and Tamina. AEW badly needs more in their women’s division, and Lovelace could run dynamite feuds with just about everyone now. But again, not always that simple.

It’s frustrating for fans that these wildly talented wrestlers barely come up for air when the company has a three-hour show on Mondays that they’ve had a hard time raising above the entertainment level of “war crime.” Monday Night Raw routinely runs the same matches over and over until your eyes roll into the back of your head, and any or all of these people could have used the time that is currently just the ooze that sticks to your sink when the drain backs up to create more followable characters for fans.

It can’t be a question of money, because WWE has been reporting record profits for a while now (though some of that is not having to produce live shows for over a year, but profits are profits). And it’s hard to believe that all three of these wrestlers, and Buddy Murphy and Lana, all requested to be let go simultaneously. WWE claims it doesn’t care about AEW, and who goes there, which doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny when the news of them negotiating with NJPW has been in the water the past week. So what’s going on here?

WWE hasn’t had a problem hoarding talent before, but what if it’s not actually WWE who might be in control soon? Whispers that the company could be sold to NBC have been in the background for a bit, and cutting costs and “waste” even amongst record profits does smell like something a company might do before going on the block. Certainly dumping their own network and putting everything on Peacock now caused a lot of people to start adding 2 and 2. It’s hard to believe that McMahon would ever sell the company until he’s a brain in a jar, and maybe not even then, but today’s developments still seem…off.

It could also just be a restructuring under new president Nick Kahn. But Kahn himself comes from the agent world, and he negotiated WWE’s deals with Fox and Raw, which has led some to wonder if he wasn’t brought in-house to run the ultimate deal, the selling of WWE as a whole.

For fans though, the hope is that we can get Tommy End-Hangman Page and Heidi Lovelace-Thunder Rosa matches just as soon as possible, whatever the seismic shifts in the industry might, or might not, be.

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