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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

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What do WWE cuts mean and where will wrestlers land

By B.J. Bethel

A week after WWE announced several mainstream sports executives joining its board, the company announced on Wednesday it was releasing wrestlers Aleister Black, Ruby Riott, Brawn Strowman, Lana, Santana Garrett and Buddy Murphy.

The cuts were a bit scattered, but with the amount of releases the company has made, it isn’t a major surprise, even though there seemed to be little planning in some of the cuts. Black was involved in a match with Intercontinental Champion Big E on Monday Night Raw earlier this week. Strowman was pushed as a future main eventer for months and considered a project under the direction of Vince McMahon, before he lost some of his initial buzz from the beginning of his singles run. He had a seven-figure contract, which put him in the company’s budget-cutting crosshairs.

Two years ago, WWE was in purchase mode, offering five-year deals and major extension money to everyone on the roster in an effort to kill burgeoning All-Elite Wrestling in the cradle. The company had major success cornering much of the women’s independent talent in the US and locked up many big names from Ring of Honor. But priorities have changed.

Even though the company had its best year in fiscal history in 2020, and just signed a $1 billion deal with Peacock for streaming rights to the WWE Network, the company has been slashing its budget since last spring. The company’s labor costs are relatively low to begin with, but that hasn’t kept them from releasing talent over the last several months.

With WWE’s effort to put AEW out of business a failure, the company is trimming the hedges and repainting the shutters for potential suitors in a sale. Two sources have told me WWE would have considered a sale in the last several years, but couldn’t get the magic number it wanted, something close to the $6 billion Ultimate Fighting Championship received in its sale in 2016.

When WWE signed its latest billions in TV deals with Viacom and FOX in 2018, the company was at its highest value point in history. It’s since declined in ratings steadily over the last three years, especially over the last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it hasn’t hurt the company bottom line. Cutting house shows during the pandemic actually saved the company money, according to reports from the Wrestling Observer Newsletter last year.

But the current streaming wars, along with the major Peacock deal, may be a signal to WWE owner Vince McMahon that it’s now or never to get that major payoff. Steaming platforms are buying up content at record rates, with winners and losers already emerging. What’s expect to follow is consolidation and buyouts of the weaker platforms. If WWE wants to make a sale, this may be its best chance before the number of potential suitors plummet as some streamers die off or get swallowed by the winners.

What WWE cuts mean for released talent

If there’s ever proof that having experience on the indies is important, you’ll see it over the next year as released WWE talent tries to make its way into the greater wrestling world. For workers who came straight into the business via the Performance Center in Orlando, things will be tougher than those who were already established in other companies. For one, those fan bases do vary. Another, while WWE is the biggest company in the world, the WWE “main event” style doesn’t translate well to other promotions, and you can’t take those WWE copyright names and gimmicks with you, so while you are in a much better position than someone starting out, you’re going to have to reinvent yourself for a different crowd.

Ruby Riott/Heidi Lovelace – Riott wrestled as Heidi Lovelace while training in Ohio Valley Wrestling and through time at Shimmer, Chikara and SHINE. She’s got a solid indie background and was a star in WWE, even helming her own stable. WWE did well cornering the market on women’s talent in 2019 and Lovelace should be in high demand from the other American companies.

Braun Strowman – Strowman made a name in strongman competitions before he was signed by WWE in 2013. He’s a total product of the WWE system. Also hurting him, his comments about indie talent hurting during lockdowns in Spring 2020 showed little awareness of how the independent system worked. He later apologized, but he may not have to. Strowman’s knees took a beating while competing in Strongman and training in WWE, and he also had a seven-figure contract, which Dave Meltzer reported was the catalyst for his release. He has money in the bank if he wants to move on with his life. If he wants to continue his wrestling career, hes’ going to have to learn the independent system, but he has a better head start than most WWE-born talent in that he was a recognizable main eventer.

Santana Garrett – Garrett was in WWE since 2019, after competing on and off in NXT as enhancement talent and in the Mae Young Classic Tournament. She worked most of the major women’s promotions like Stardom, SHINE, WOW and a five-year indie run with Coastal Championship Wrestling out of Florida. She was also in and out of TNA/Impact for several years and was Number One contender for the Knockout’s Title. Garrett wasn’t in WWE/NXT long enough to make a marquee name but she’s a second-generation wrestler, with an impressive line of work and will get a lot of looks.

Lana/CJ Lang – To put Lang’s release in context, I’ll quote a tweet her husband, AEW’s Miro, made today: “You can’t soar with the eagles if you’re hanging with the turkeys.” No more dumb storylines trying to book their own divorce, I couldn’t be happier for Lang and Miro.

Aleister Black/Tommy End – End won’t be out of work long. He came into NXT as the leader of the SANITY stable, which was one of the major players on the brand. His run on the main roster – like many other NXT talent – wasn’t as successful. End spent 14 years in UK’s prolific independent wrestling scene, helping build it to its peak while wrestling for ICW, WXW, Progress and Revolution Pro. WWE took notice and signed him in 2017. End’s style and experience will have him in demand overseas and in the US.

Buddy Murphy/Matt Silva – While End was a major player in UK’s burgeoning scene, Silva was a pioneering wrestler in the Australian wrestling scene, which has drawn wrestlers from all over the world. Silva worked six years for MCW and PCW in his home country, before signing with WWE in 2013. He worked in NXT through 2018 until he joined the company’s Cruiserweight Tournament and 205 Live brand. He wrestled much of WWE’s top ring talent in its Cruiserweight division before partnering with Seth Rollins as a sidekick in 2020 and 2021 and won the Raw tag titles. Given Silva’s experience, name in Australia, solid work in WWE, he will be a hot commodity and especially for New Japan, who could use more Asian sphere gaijins on its roster.

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