Flashback to Wrestlemania 27 in Atlanta, Georgia. The main event was a WWE title match between The Miz & John Cena. Now, place yourself four months before WM 27 and envision a scenario where WWE had announced such a match as the Wrestlemania headliner. Fans disgusted, turned off, and in disbelief.
“How could they do this!”
The backlash grows. Internally, WWE panics. Even with the show sold out, there’s internal chaos. There’s self-doubt. Everyone is questioning each other. So, an audible is called.
“What’s our exit strategy? How do we get out of this?
WWE decides to listen to the fans and pull the plug on Miz vs. John Cena being in the main event slot. They come up with a way to have fans vote on whether or not that match should stay in the main event or if Undertaker vs. Triple H in a No Holds Barred match should go in the main event slot.
The fans vote. By a 2-to-1 margin, the fans want to see Undertaker vs. Hunter. The company is praised for listening to the fans. The fans are happy. Undertaker and Hunter are happy. But there’s giant egg on the face of Miz & Cena. Miz’s confidence as champion is shaken. He’s politically boxed into a corner. It’s the biggest show of the year for WWE and the fans don’t think he belongs at the top of the card.
Listen to your fans before you make a mistake & admit your wrong
Now put yourself in the shoes of New Japan Pro-Wrestling management in 2013. They had one of the most successful singles tournaments in the history of pro-wrestling with the G-1 2013 series in August. Super high match quality, big crowds, and a surprise ending. The company uses parity booking to create a scenario for underachieving, injured underdog Tetsuya Naito to have his make-or-break moment in the sun. He’s not getting any younger. He’s on the smallish side, albeit in good shape. He can wrestle, though accused by critics of being a spot guy. He’s got natural babyface charisma that is supposed to appeal with the ladies but rubs some of the fans the wrong way. You decide that the G-1 2013 tournament is going to be his big moment. He makes it to the finals against Hiroshi Tanahashi, the company’s established #1 babyface. The guy’s a total pro, has amazing work ethic, and looks like a Greek God.
And Naito pulls off the upset to win the G-1 2013 tournament. There is shock. Naito poses for pictures the next day at New Japan’s Tokyo office, holding the trophy and smiling at the joyous occasion.
Then comes the fan backlash. They’re pissed. Naito starts getting booed. Suddenly, Naito is actually losing momentum instead of building it five months out from the biggest match of his entire life. The G-1 tournament winner gets an IWGP Heavyweight title shot at the Tokyo Dome on January 4th. It’s his for the taking. The ultimate underdog babyface vs. the narcissistic, rainmaker-rich, uber-talented, handsome, extremely tall & talented heel ace in Kazuchika Okada. Yeah, the guy who TNA couldn’t see in front of their faces as the next Great Muta.
Everything on paper looked perfect. And yet it all fell apart. New Japan tried to do the right thing but they forgot the most important principle when it comes to pro-wrestling matchmaking. Always listen to the fans on who to push in order to make the most money.
With backlash growing against Tetsuya Naito in the main event slot at the Tokyo Dome against Kazuchika Okada, New Japan & TV Asahi panicked. So they held a fan vote and asked the fans if they wanted Naito vs. Okada to remain as the main event match or if they wanted the semi-main event IWGP Intercontinental title match between Shinsuke Nakamura & Hiroshi Tanahashi to be promoted to the main event slot. By a 2-to-1 margin, the fans voted to switch the match order around.
The result of fan voting was a direct indictment on “parity booking” in pro-wrestling. It was a response to a company trying to force who should be at the top in matchmaking. It was an indictment of a matchmaking process in which you can’t push a wrestler abruptly to the top if they viewed as an underdog, underachiever, or a loser. Once a wrestler is viewed by the fans and labeled by a promotion with a stigma, that stigma is hard to erase. It takes time and a consistent effort to change the image and the narrative.
Tetsuya Naito is now boxed in a corner. If he beats Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight champion, the promotion is doubling-down on risk of further fan backlash. Fans will be frustrated and protest. If Naito loses, he’s permanently stuck as a mid-card guy who fans will never view as championship material.
There’s a lesson for promotions like WWE and TNA to learn from this. You can’t yo-yo diet book your young stars into oblivion and then expect the fans to buy the dog food when you decide, on a whim, that they should accept an instant push. You can’t keep jobbing out Dolph Ziggler or book him on Youtube pre-show PPV openers and expect the fans five months later to buy into him as a Wrestlemania headliner. You can’t job Damien Sandow for months & months, then give him the Money in the Bank Briefcase, job him some more, have him lose when cashing in the MITB briefcase against John Cena, and expect the fans to buy into him ever as a serious player. No matter how many great matches Austin Aries has, you can’t push him as a threat to your championship if he’s always losing the big matches. You can’t abruptly take Chris Sabin as an X-Divison undercard guy, make him X-Division champion, suddenly decide that he should become TNA Heavyweight champion for 30 days, and expect the fans to treat him as a superstar when the haphazard process is done.
Matchmaking is an art. A lost art, apparently. And mistakes carry real consequences that can cost promotions serious cash and cripple potentially prolific careers.