Do you know what show I loved when I was younger? DragonBall. What a great concept for a show. Each episode, each chapter, and each battle an anticipatory set up for the next larger and more impossible battle to come. In its first iteration with young Goku, the only knowledge we had as an audience was that some characters were strong and others were stronger. Sometimes being more strong won you the battle, and sometimes it took something more.
The DragonBall series was predictable, which was part of the fun. Goku and company are having a good time until some villain shows up, wrecks the place, then Goku has to dig deep, often deeper than he ever dug before, and scrape by just in time. Leaving us all satisfied while the cast cracked wise at having survived another one. It was nice consistent comfort food with lots of tasty side bits.
Then came DragonBall Z. Turning Goku into a grown-assed man, the series took a more serious (and pointier) turn. At first, it was all the same business we were used to. Goku and company having a good time until a mysterious villain shows up. Only this villain (Raditz, for posterity), completely changes the dynamic in favor of a direction that plagued it for the rest of its existence.
Visible, tangible, calculable numbers affixed to each and every character placing firm benchmarks in the ground for us, the audience, to gawk at. Whereas before, we were left to guess how strong a character was, or if Krillin really ever could take Goku on a good day, power levels removed all doubt. All wonder. All mystery. Each character was now neatly shelved into tiers, and Goku now no longer was able to become the victor through sheer force of will, cunning or teamwork. No, he simply had to do a thing that made his number higher than the villain. And thus began the power level arms race with each new villain comically surpassing what we previously thought was “high” in order to insert some measure of drama into the formula. Over 9000? Kid stuff. Why, Frieza was well into the millions. And so on, and so on.
But what does this have to do with wrestling? Well, first of all, Everything Is Wrestling.
Second of all, we, as fans of anything remotely adversarial in nature, love these types of questions. We wonder if Lebron could take Jordan. We argue if Dickerson could get by Polamalu. We dream about Ryan striking out A-Rod. We fight over whether Ali could handle Tyson. Or, yes, if Kid Goku is stronger than Kid Gohan. The fun part lies in not being able to actually quantify these dream match ups, but in guessing and screaming your position until you’ve stopped talking to each other for a little while; unable to believe you’re friends with someone who honestly believes anybody’s spinebuster is better than Arn’s (if you know someone like this, please refrain from communicating with them until they watch Flair vs Taker at WMX8 on repeat).
So when Kevin Owens made his debut on Raw as the reigning, defending, NXT champion and challenged John Cena, my stomach sunk quite a bit. Since 2013, NXT has served as a pocket version of DragonBall to the main roster’s DragonBall Z. The shows, while existing in the same universe, were demonstratively different in size, attitude, and often quality (depending on what you’re looking for, of course). One of the real joys for many fans is the question, “What if?” What if this guy/girl gets bumped up to the main roster? How will he/she fare? Where will he/she land and how will the company use them?
Adrian Neville did not face off with John until he was separate and apart from the NXT roster. Sami Zayn got to face John in his hometown, so that entire match was essentially a dream sequence. Kevin Owens walked out to no special affair and laid down the challenge. And because of that, a direct line can now be drawn from the main roster to NXT. The wonder has dissipated if not disappeared. The questions are much fewer, and we can now simply look at the power rankings to guess if anyone in NXT could, or should, beat Owens. This is largely because we know good and well nobody in NXT can or should beat John Cena in the way Owens did, nor should they now beat Owens.
This type of loss of innocence has happened in the past. Recall, if you will, the Invasion. Dozens of dream match possibilities between WCW and WWE all the sudden at our fingertips. Arguably, it ended up lackluster because of poor booking, but I posit that we just weren’t prepared to deal with the fantasy becoming reality. I posit further that it becoming reality was part of its downfall.
These questions and guesses and arguments are far better served in the ether for us to pluck and examine as a conversation permits. I think it’s harmful to have the guy that Beat John Cena, Clean (CLEAN) be the guy atop NXT. No reasonable normal outcome should ever end in Kevin Owens losing the belt given what we know about the NXT roster if measured against the WWE roster.
The WWE for a handful of years now has seen fit to maintain what it perceives to be a list of the top 25 current superstars in the company. It doesn’t really serve any purpose other than to re-state what is usually very obvious. The top five guys are the top five guys, and maybe it gets interesting around 20-25 to see who’s making moves. Realistically though, it is less barometer and more self-fulfilling prophecy. Which, I understand, is an odd idiom to utilize about a scripted television program. Kevin Owens being on that list at #3 within his first few months is a line drawn in ink. No take backs. Which means that we, as the audience, are stuck in DragonBall Z land where we can line up talent in an order they’ve presented and anything that takes place outside of the confines of that list is going to seem ridiculous.
However, I will say that the inclusion of Samoa Joe does add a healthy bit of blur to that equation. Joe is an unquantified force. His power level has not been read yet, but we know that he has certain Indy Powers (not unlike Owens’, but currently more raw) which would (could?) allow him to thrive against the guy that Beat John Cena Clean (CLEAN!).
Having Owens in the top 25, and at #3, is not catastrophic for his career, hopefully. But it does, at least, make the game of wondering if Scott Dawson could beat Heath Slater a little less fun.