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The One Big Mistake WWE is Making With Rob Gronkowski

15 min read
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SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every week and provides beneath-the-surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.

Gronk’s SmackDown Debut Fails to Impress

After watching the opening segment of Friday’s SmackDown, one takeaway was abundantly clear: Rob Gronkowski is destined to be the next celebrity to fail in WWE.

Gronkowski created unforgettable moments in the NFL with the Patriots, both with his play and off the field with his personality. But none of that was evident Friday on SmackDown.

Writing off anyone, particularly someone with Gronkowski’s charisma, after only one night is certainly shortsighted. Gronk has a few more chances to show he belongs before the audience makes up its mind on him, though it feels like WWE dropped a lot of money on an enhanced version of Mojo Rawley. And Mojo, despite his talent, has yet to connect with the WWE audience since he was brought up to the main roster in July 2016.

On paper, the signing makes sense. Gronkowski shined in his appearance at WrestleMania 33, coming out of the crowd to shoulder tackle Jinder Mahal.

Gronkowski’s success in pro football lends athletic legitimacy to his WWE presentation, and he has television experience as an NFL analyst for WWE partner Fox. But there are no guarantees in entertainment.

If he sticks around past ’Mania, the true test for Gronkowski will be the reactions he receives from live audiences. Due to the coronavirus, that doesn’t appear likely any time soon. If he struggles as host of WrestleMania, WWE could always take off him off-camera until SummerSlam in Boston, where he will receive a strong ovation.

Another option is the obvious: turn Gronk heel.

There was near-universal praise for Tom Brady for leaving the Pats and signing with the Buccaneers, and it is no secret as to why—people dislike the Patriots. With a passion. If WWE allowed Gronkowski to be arrogant and cocky, he could instantly become one of their top villains.

Portraying Gronkowski as a babyface is similar to the way in which Ronda Rousey was introduced in WWE, which failed to work until she became edgier and more of a heel. Wrestling is its own universe, and making the big star as a babyface is not what the fans want. Gronkowski, like Rousey, is an outsider. So why not embrace that? If Gronk and Mojo were heels, their post-SmackDown interview—joking about the number 69, referencing shoe size, resting their arms on Kayla Braxton’s head, and mispronouncing Jinder Mahal’s name—would have been an immediate success.

Gronkowski would be must-see TV as a villain. Imagine him confronting Roman Reigns? Or taunting Braun Strowman? The caveat is that a heel needs to be able to sell (take punishment from the babyface) but it is likely that his time in the ring is going to be limited. And Mojo would play the role of Gronk’s sidekick to perfection, and it could easily lead to a run with the SmackDown tag titles.

But that solution creates a new set of problems. Most stars do not want to booed, which was certainly an issue with Rousey when she came in expecting to be cheered. And the office wants their big investments to be heroes.

If everyone booed Gronkowski, it would look like there was a major problem, even though it would lead to a much more interesting run. That is a challenging element to the business of professional wrestling. It is not real life, but it is also not acting. It exists as more of a middle ground, making it a truly unique realm. One of the few stars willing to embrace his place in wrestling as a heel was Dennis Rodman, but that was over two decades ago in WCW.

It will take a Hail Mary to the end zone—which even fortunate Patriots fans understand is a long shot—for Gronkowski to succeed as a fan favorite in WWE.

AEW debuts two former WWE stars

All Elite Wrestling delivered another compelling edition of Dynamite last Wednesday, which ended with the debut of “Broken” Matt Hardy.

When was the last time that type of excitement was in the air at the end of a Raw or SmackDown?

AEW is postponing its “Blood & Guts” WarGames-style match until a later date, but Dynamite is still scheduled to on Wednesday and promises a face-to-face meeting between Hardy and Chris Jericho.

For those following his “Free the Delete” YouTube series, it is highly likely we see a heel turn for Hardy in AEW, even though he is being positioned to work against Jericho. Incredibly, given their shared time in the business, this will mark their first program together.

In addition to adding depth to the roster, Hardy brings a “Broken” character unlike any other in the business. His signing is a massive addition for AEW, and granting him carte blanche on his promos only enhances Dynamite.

Last week’s Dynamite also marked the AEW debut of Brodie Lee, better known from his time in WWE as Luke Harper. In a peculiar occurrence, Lee became the first-ever wrestler to appear on AEW and WWE television in the same week, as he was on Dynamite on Wednesday and then, two nights later, was seen on SmackDown when WWE replayed the WrestleMania 30 match pitting Bray Wyatt against John Cena. He even appeared on ESPN on Sunday when the network reaired WrestleMania 30.

Lee was revealed as “The Exalted One,” the long-teased leader of the Dark Order. He delivered a very strong promo—for those who watched him in the 2018 film Mohawk, there is no doubt he can captivate an audience—and even got in a shot at Vince McMahon when telling Christopher Daniels, “You are not the first out-of-touch old man to not believe in me.”

The debut was well executed, and he delivered an outstanding promo. It was a clever move to throw off everyone who thought Matt Hardy would debut in that spot. The idea of putting Lee in charge of a cult—after there was so much promise for Bray Wyatt as the cult leader of the Wyatt Family—brings another exciting element to AEW.

Ring of Honor champion Rush plans on elevating both the promotion and the belt in his second title reign

For a second time, Rush is Ring of Honor World Champion.

He regained the title last month in a triple threat match in St. Charles, Mo., at the “Gateway to Honor” house show against PCO and Mark Haskins. Rush pinned the reigning champ PCO and was scheduled to wrestle Haskins at the Ring of Honor 18th Anniversary show, which did not take place due to concerns over the coronavirus.

Known as “El Toro Blanco,” the 31-year-old Rush is an original member of Los Ingobernables. The faction started in Mexico in CMLL in 2014, but its reach has extended. WWE’s United States champion Andrade is an original member, and his code of “tranquilo” is a signature element of Los Ingobernables. New Japan Pro Wrestling has also been heavily influenced by the faction, as Los Ingobernables de Japon leader Tetsuya Naito was a member of the faction during his time in CMLL in 2015.

Last June, Rush told Sports Illustrated, “I am a man of goals. It hasn’t been an easy road, but thanks to my dad, I am who I am today. That’s my next goal—becoming the top star in America.”

He certainly foreshadowed his future in Ring of Honor.

Rush has won the ROH world title twice since September, with his most recent run beginning on Feb. 29, the same night AEW was holding its Revolution pay-per-view and crowning Jon Moxley its new champ. ROH has canceled all live events through the end of May, but the company will need to do more upon its return to compete against AEW. That effort will be led by their new champion, who is bringing lessons from his first reign into his second.

“I was the first Mexican to win this championship, now I am the first two-time champion,” said Rush, whose answers have been translated from Spanish. “For me, I take a great pride as a Mexican and satisfaction as a fighter because every step I have taken has cost me a lot of sacrifice, tears, blood, sweat, and hard workouts. Now this title is the reward of all that, and this is just the beginning in the history for ‘El Toro Blanco.’”

ROH is now home to Los Ingobernables, which is led by Rush, his younger brother Dragon Lee, who is the reigning ROH Television champ, and Kenny King.

“I hope that Los Ingobernables will be given the opportunity to represent Ring of Honor in NJPW to create new rivalries,” said Rush. “It has been a great decision to sign with Ring of Honor.”

Once ROH resumes its touring and pay-per-view schedule, Rush plans on being the focal part of the programming, and he wants to show the wrestling world that there is no better faction than Los Ingobernables.

“I would like to become the face of ROH and the champion for a long time, and make Los Ingobernables the strongest group in the world,” said Rush. “Kenny King, Dragon Lee, Rush, and one more is coming—you will see him soon. Los Ingobernables will dominate Ring of Honor.”

The (online) week in wrestling

  • Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson gave an outstanding breakdown of his WrestleMania 18 classic against Hulk Hogan. I could have listened to this for an hour.
  • On the subject of some of the greatest matches to ever take place at WrestleMania, WWE just posted the entire WrestleMania 24 match between Ric Flair and Shawn Michaels. 
  • There was a lot to like about this past Monday’s Raw, starting with the presentation: WWE moved the hard cam (similar to the way AEW filmed last week’s Dynamite) and showed the stage in the background instead of empty seats, as well as zoomed in on performers during their entrances and promos. And it didn’t hurt that the show opened with a fantastic promo by Paul Heyman.
  • It was subtle, but Chris Jericho’s decree that no fans be allowed at any future AEW show was a very nice touch last Wednesday. A hockey fan and son of former NHL player Ted Irvine, Jericho retweeted this footage of hockey legend Bobby Orr going at it with Irvine in the 1973 playoffs. 
  • Jericho also was direct in his response toward a fan who expressed disappointment over AEW postponing its “Blood & Guts” WarGames-style match. 
  • Best-case scenario, this match runs for at least 20 minutes. 
  • Triple H, who is scheduled to be on this week’s edition of NXT, poked fun at boxer Deontay Wilder on social media after his own WrestleMania 30 entrance aired this past Sunday on ESPN. Triple H, of course, is close with Wilder rival Tyson Fury, and Wilder opined after his recent loss to Fury that he was hampered by wearing such an extravagant costume to the ring. 
  • This past week’s edition of NXT did not deliver any matches and it was subsequently squashed in the ratings against AEW, but the Rhea Ripley video helps build to her WrestleMania match with Charlotte Flair. 
  • Not all of Bayley’s opponents in her multi-foe WrestleMania match make sense, but she did a great job selling that miscarriage of justice on social media following last Friday’s SmackDown
  • Daniel Bryan was, per usual, outstanding this past week on SmackDown, breathing new life into Drew Gulak’s WWE career–and setting up the potential for an outstanding WrestleMania match against intercontinental champion Sami Zayn.
  • And, in true form, here is Bryan advocating for Chad Gable to join their crew. 
  • I’m not sure “The Librarian” is the gimmick Peter Avalon dreamed about portraying in pro wrestling, but he has done a solid job adding a unique villain to the card for AEW. 
  • After hinting at it last week, Erick Stevens is back for one more run in pro wrestling after deciding that he did not want his career to end due to coronavirus cancellations.
  • Congratulations to Chris Dickinson, who was the winner of GCW’s two-night Acid Cup tournament.
  • Matt Hardy’s new contract with AEW allows him the opportunity to work New Japan shows in Japan. 
  • From the archives: “Macho Man” Randy Savage cuts a promo on the day of WrestleMania X, where he was set to face Crush in what would end up being his final WrestleMania. But it was particularly interesting to hear him talk about his desire to become a three-time world champion and challenge whomever had the belt—either Yokozuna, Lex Luger or Bret Hart—following the show. 

Something to Wrestle With Bruce Prichard tackles WrestleMania XI

A new episode of Something to Wrestle With Bruce Prichard is set for this Friday, with Prichard and cohost Conrad Thompson discussing WrestleMania XI.

Thompson shared that Prichard’s responsibilities with WWE will prevent the show from posting at its normal noon ET hour, but it is still slated for a Friday delivery.

“Things in America and around the world are challenging, and it’s been busy in WWE with still putting on three shows and planning for the biggest pay-per-view of the year,” Thompson said. “As a result, Bruce will not be available to record this week’s episode until Friday. But we’ll still have the story of WrestleMania XI on Friday.”

This has the potential to be a very captivating listen, as the show has always provided an inside look at the perspective of Vince McMahon. And while not the most famous WrestleMania of all-time, the 11th edition of the “Showcase of Immortals” still stands out for a number of reasons.

The show’s undercard featured Bret Hart, the Undertaker and Shawn Michaels, though all with underwhelming performances.

“This is the first time WrestleMania feels defeated,” said Thompson. “The placement of the show is in Connecticut. There is nothing wrong from that, but we’re not too far removed from a dome show at WrestleMania VIII, something different outside at WrestleMania IX and Madison Square Garden at WrestleMania X. And WWE is limping along and trying to find its talent. Vince is still trying to find his next hit. In the open of WrestleMania XI, they run through a montage of every prior WrestleMania, but were very careful to never show Hulk Hogan, the Macho Man or Ric Flair. The idea you’re running down WrestleManias, in order, and not show Hulk Hogan, that’s Vince trying to reach.”

Bob Backlund never said “I quit” in his defeat to Bret Hart, despite being in a match that was supposed to end only by saying those words. Roddy Piper was the guest referee for the match, marking the second straight year he acted in that role at WrestleMania for a Bret Hart match.

“Vince has decided Bret is not ‘The Guy,’” said Thompson. “I know that’s going to upset a lot of our listeners. To me, it’s never more apparent when Bret is in the middle of the card against Bob Backlund. When was Hulk in the middle of a card? WrestleMania IV, when he was leaving to go make a movie? And Hulk still posed at the end of the show. Hulk closed WrestleMania VIII without the title, and fast forward to WrestleMania IX—it looks like he’s in the middle of the card, but there he is at the end. Vince is looking for the next Hulk Hogan. Right or wrong, he decided it wasn’t Bret Hart.”

The Undertaker defeated King Kong Bundy, but his ongoing feud with the Million Dollar Corporation continued as Kama stole his urn from Paul Bearer and that program would last until a casket case laid it to rest at SummerSlam. Razor Ramon beat Jeff Jarrett in an Intercontinental title match by disqualification, so the title did not change hands, and Diesel successfully defended the world title against Michaels, which was a match with Pamela Anderson and Jenny McCarthy sitting ringside.

“I want Bruce to discuss why Kevin Nash was Vince’s choice to be the next Hulk,” said Thompson. “Was it due to his size? This babyface version of Diesel was miscast. Is this when the ‘How much attention is he going to get walking through the airport?’ standard was born? And even though they’re best friends, there is an example of Shawn being Shawn. According to Kevin Nash, the story is that Shawn tried to blow up Diesel as soon as the match starts. And Shawn is running full speed as soon as the bell rings.”

The only title change that occurred was when Owen Hart got his first taste of WWE gold by winning the tag team titles with Yokozuna, who was his mystery tag partner against the Smoking Gunns.

“I really want to talk about the promo from The Smoking Gunns,” said Thompson. “Who produced that? They’ve been in the company for a couple years at this point, but you’d never know it. It’s one of the worst promos in the history of WrestleMania.”

Jim Ross and Gorilla Monsoon were both in different roles, with JR conducting interviews as wrestlers exited the ring, while Monsoon did interviews backstage for Coliseum Home Video. Jerry “The King” Lawler also made his WWE return to join Vince McMahon for commentary. Lawler had been off WWE television since the prior November due to rape charges that were ultimately dropped.

“Why in the world is Jim Ross, the greatest play-by-play guy in the world, in the ‘Mean’ Gene Okerlund role? Was JR too southern for Vince? Why did he prefer Jerry Lawler? It’s a very interesting time in the World Wrestling Federation, and there is no confidence in the card, the broadcast, or the venue. It’s why I like talking about the WWF in 1995 with Bruce. It’s a dark era. What did Vince think was the solution? And how often did he change his mind?”

Celebrities were part of the show. In addition to Anderson and McCarthy, Home Improvement star Jonathan Taylor Thomas was guest timekeeper for the world title match, and NYPD Blue star Nicholas Turturro conducted many backstage interviews. An odd wrinkle about the show is the inclusion of Major League Baseball umpire Larry Young as the referee for the Undertaker–King Kong Bundy match. Young worked as an American League umpire, but MLB and the Major League Umpires Association were in the midst of a lockout that lasted half of the ’95 season.

“Vince is looking for whatever kind of extra publicity he can get,” said Thompson. “It feels like Vince is starved for attention, and that’s why the ring is surrounded by photographers. There was a reliance on celebrities. He wanted that mainstream rub from the non-traditional wrestling media, whether it fit or not.”

WrestleMania XI will forever be known for NFL Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor defeating Bam Bam Bigelow in the main event.

Taylor and Bigelow built a convincing program that began three months prior at the Royal Rumble, when Bigelow reached over the guardrail to push Taylor. Bigelow had the entire Million Dollar Corporation in his corner, while LT was backed by active NFL standouts Reggie White, Ken Norton Jr., Chris Spielman, Rickey Jackson and Carl Banks and the recently retired Steve McMichael. Salt-N-Pepa did a live performance of Taylor’s entrance music, which was a modified version of their “Whatta Man” hit.

“Why was Bam Bam in the main event?” asked Thompson. “Wouldn’t it have been smarter to have Shawn, or even Bret, in that spot? Business is on the decline, and Vince is trying whatever he can to make this event feel bigger, especially without some of the star power from the past. Shawn would have been a bouncing ball for LT, and it would have been a real WrestleMania main event. Shawn is a lifer with the company at this point. Was he even more bratty than usual that he wasn’t in the main event?”

“Mongo” McMichael went on to become a color commentator for Nitro in WCW, and he later joined the Four Horsemen and even wrestled Reggie White at the 1997 Slamboree pay-per-view. Thompson will explore with Prichard why McMahon never signed McMichael with WWE.

“Mongo shows up later that year for WCW,” said Thompson. “I’ll ask why Vince wasn’t interested, but it’s likely because if he couldn’t get the results he wanted with Lawrence Taylor, then he wasn’t going to get those results with Mongo.”

There were small details on the show that stood out, namely Yokozuna’s realistically needing to tag Owen Hart into the match after his Bonzai Drop because of a few shots from Bart Gunn—which led to Owen’s tremendous victory pin fall and ensuing celebration. Another memorable part of the show was Ted DiBiase’s venting his frustration to Bigelow in the runway following his loss to Taylor, which led to a face turn for Bigelow with seemingly no real destination in mind for his character.

“After the show, it feels like we start all over again,” said Thompson. “Maybe that was the idea. It feels like there’s no real plan. You always hear how Vince, Bruce, and Pat Patterson sit by the pool and book WrestleMania to WrestleMania, then work backwards to get there. I have a hard time believing that this was the plan all along, and that’s what we’ll examine.”

Tweet of the Week

The hashtag is perfect.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.

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