“Failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be.”
That is a quote by the great, and possibly greatest ever, basketball coach John Wooden. Failure to change has been a fatal flaw to many a wrestling organization. The AWA’s failure was well-documented to be directly related to Verne Gagne’s refusal to change. The WWE looked like it was headed towards a fatal disaster in the 1990’s before a change to the Attitude Era hit like an adrenaline shot to the heart. Unfortunately, WWE’s 205 Live is beginning to show signs of failure, but like Coach Wooden said, “Failure isn’t fatal” as long as they are willing to change the formula.
“Fists, not flips” is the decree of the amazing tag team, The Revival, but I’m not going to argue whether the cruiserweight style of wrestling is good or bad for the business. It was a big reason WCW was beating WWE in the ratings war for quite a long streak during the Monday NightWars. Therefore, there’s a good argument that fans do enjoy the division, we just need to give it its own identity. That’s what made it so endearing in the 90’s, it was nothing like the wrestling that the fans were used to seeing on TV.
The booking on 205 Live hasn’t been bad, per se, but the division is not really all that different than what we see for six other hours each week. Between three hours of RAW, two hours of SmackDown, and an hour of NXT, it’s easy for fans to get burned out. With reports of viewership on the network down, and fans leaving the arenas after the SmackDown tapings and before 205 Live even begins, it’s obvious that they are either not interested in the product, or just simply oversaturated with the same thing over and over. This article is going to discuss how I would have booked 205 Live from the beginning, but if you stick around to the end, I’ll try to develop a plan to implement these changes to the current product. These major changes won’t be easy to put into effect, but wholesale changes have been made to wrestling shows before. Think back to NXT switching from a reality show, to a legitimate wrestling company.
If I could call up Doc Brown, hop into my DeLorean, and time travel back to the beginning of 205 Live, I still would have definitely started with the Cruiserweight Classic. I’ve said over and over how tournaments are the best way to jump start your show, so, obviously, I’d stick with that formula. From there though, we have to dare to be different. Remember, the cruiserweights were a huge draw for WCW because it was an enigma, and something out of the ordinary. That’s why, to make 205 Live stand out, I’d introduce an entirely different system to determine who’s the top guy within the division.
Once the tournament was finished, I would have used the finishing order to determine a ranking system. The winner being the champion and carrying the belt clearly makes him the top ranked guy. The runner up is second, and the obvious number one contender for the title, then the losers in the semifinals make up number three and four, and so on and so forth. You then book your storylines around these rankings. Each week the wrestler ranked below the other guy would wrestle for the spot. Not every wrestler has to wrestle every week, but you get the point. Let’s rank the cruiserweight division as it is now to give you an idea of how it would look present day. Your top 10 would look something like this:
2. Austin Aries
3. Jack Gallagher
4. TJ Perkins
5. Rich Swann
6. Brian Kendrick
7. Akira Tozawa
8. Noam Dar
9. Mustafa Ali
10. Tony Neese
Let’s do a little fantasy booking around this list, keeping in mind everybody doesn’t have to be booked to wrestle every week. To start things off, you can have Neville interfere with a match between Jack Gallagher and Austin Aries because he’s scared to face Aries. Gallagher gets the number two spot based on the victory, but the following week an upset Aries interferes with the Neville versus Gallagher championship match as revenge. You also get guys outside of the top ten vying for the coveted ten spot. They are basically fighting to get on to the list. When it’s time to bring in somebody new to the company they will show up and ask for a spot. You can make them wrestle fighters outside the top ten to earn a right to fight for number ten or maybe he gets an automatic shot at number 10.
Let’s say you’re bringing in a fairly big name like Kota Ibushi. Kota shows up and asks for a shot at getting on the list. The 205 Live general manager decides that since he has a strong record in Japan he will grant him a match verses Tony Neese for the tenth ranked position. Kota beats Tony fairly easily and calls out Mustafa Ali. Ali, not being one to back down from a challenge, comes to the ring. Kota wins this match and as soon as it’s over, Noam Dar attacks him. Kota looks injured and is helped to the back. Once in the training room, the backstage interviewer tries to find out his condition when the 205 Live GM comes in to check on him. Kota then asks for a match with Noam tonight. The general manager goes against his better judgment but awards the injured Kota the match. It’s now booked as the main event this evening. Kota overcomes the odds and wins this match also. When the rankings come out for the next week, Tony Neese is no longer on the list and Kota is now ranked eighth followed by Noam and Mustafa at nine and ten. Each week you have guys moving up and down and it gives you a ready-made reason to have two guys fight without having to manufacture a reason for them to dislike each other. They have automatic heat between them simply based on their ranking.
Now that we’ve established 205 Live as something different, therefore making it something people won’t feel as “just another wrestling show on TV,” we can work on the live audience. Every name on our top ten list, other than Neville, is what the wrestling community would refer to as an Indy star, or at least not a main show wrestler. Most of these guys were not far from wrestling in bingo halls before being called up to the Cruiserweight Classic and then 205 Live. If I was hired to run this program, I would completely embrace that. Putting 205 Live on after SmackDown makes fans feel like they are hanging around for the opening act to play after the headliner. That’s really the dumbest thing I think they’ve done with this show, and with fans pouring out of the arena before 205 Live starts, it’s obvious that others agree with me. As for the TV viewers, the few that are watching the program aren’t watching it live anyway. They are watching it on the network at a later time when it’s more convenient than 10pm on a Tuesday. So, let’s stop doing it after SmackDown! ECW built a huge following by having all of their programs in that little ballroom and it made it feel like an outlaw promotion, like we were let into the secret Fight Club. THAT’S what 205 Live should do. Have the program on Saturday nights in small venues, or if you want to save cost, have them in one select venue each week. NXT is using that formula now with Full Sail Arena. For God’s sake don’t have 205 at the same place. It needs its own identity. If I had it my way, I’d find an even smaller venue than Full Sail. It should look, and feel different. It should feel “outlaw.” It should all-around make you want to see it because it’s absolutely not like anything else in the WWE Universe.
Obviously, this would have been best served from the beginning, but we don’t have that luxury. We have to implement the changes within the confines of the flow of the show. Its8pm on a Saturday night when the first show of the new era starts with a vignette. Promptly at 8 the first thing you see is static and then the 205 Live logo pops on the screen. This plays for a few seconds before static and then the screen reads “no signal.” After a few seconds of this, the picture returns with us looking at a podium bearing the 205 Live logo. Ten to fifteen seconds pass and then Eric Bischoff steps up to the mic. Eric flashes his billionaire smile and then turns serious. He begins to speak, “Over the past several weeks I have been in talks with Vince McMahon and the board at WWE to work out a deal where I purchase a major stake inside the company. The deal that we agreed upon is a joint venture where this show, 205 Live, will still be seen right here on the WWE network for $9.95 a month, but I will now be the principal owner. From now on, all decisions affecting the product you the fans see on your TVs, and live inside the arenas, will be made by me. I once brought cruiserweights to prime time television with WCW’s Monday Night Nitro, and with them as a large part of the success we went on to be the top-rated wrestling program in the world for several months. I’m here to take this fledgling program and turn it into the most watched program on the WWE Network. You will see several changes over the next few weeks beginning with a round-robin style tournament to determine the new 205 Live contender rankings. Without further ado, we go live to the Javits Convention Center in Hell’s Kitchen New York.”
Once in the arena, you see an empty ring and then Rey Mysterio’s music plays and Rey, dressed in a suit and tie, makes his way to the ring. Rey introduces himself as the new General Manger of 205 Live and goes on to describe what will happen, “Over the next several weeks a round-robin style tournament will take place. After the end of the tournament featuring all of the contracted superstars of 205 Live, except for the champion Neville, we will rank each competitor based on his win-loss record. If there is a tie for any top ten spot, those two competitors will fight with the winner of that match being awarded that spot on the ranking list. Neville will obviously be awarded the number one ranking and the others shall fall into place from two through ten behind him. The fighter who wins the number two ranking will receive an automatic title shot at 205 Awaking in 5 weeks. The first match will be, Austin Aries versus TJ Perkins” We could continue to book this from here, but I think you understand the premise of how it will work.
It’s been well-documented that 205 Live has struggled since its inception. Failure is not fatal though, as long as we are willing to change what we are doing to try to become successful. I think taking the show to smaller venues, having a bi-monthly “PPV” in a larger arena, bringing in on air personalities to add to the feuds, and using the ranking system to create something that is unlike any other mainstream wrestling program is the way to turn it around. People like getting something unique. They like feeling like they are part of something different.
The fans actually like it when it feels like a legitimate sporting event, but what do I know?