I wasn’t expecting to be writing a new post for a while. I was close to writing an article about the incredible documentary ‘Unforgivable Blackness’ related to Cam Newton’s journey to Superbowl 50, but was beat to the punch by a writer at the Washington Post, so with the excitement of the Superbowl and the slow play-through i’m experiencing with The Last of Us, I thought it would be a while until an idea came to me – perhaps waiting until WrestleMania 32 for inspiration. Tonight though, I find myself writing about WrestleMania 30 instead; an event I will always feel privileged to have attended, but now for an extra somber reason, that reason being that the show’s undoubted star and main draw, Daniel Bryan, has announced his retirement.
This article will be a much more personal reflection on my admiration for Daniel Bryan, and the direction of booking and decision-making in the WWE, all crystallized in this event which is one of the most vivid and treasured in my life. I’m like millions of people, young and old, across the world who grew up watching wrestling, and especially WrestleMania, and it seeming like a different world representing the pinnacle of life. I couldn’t even imagine being at a WrestleMania as a kid growing up in Britain – it was something that other people went to, an alien world I could only dream of. Growing up of course, it seemed more and more like an achievable dream and with more years behind me and a job which paid just enough to afford me the opportunity, I started thinking about the dream of attending WrestleMania.
This article will focus a lot on Daniel Bryan, but he is only one half of this story as the real draw for my attending WrestleMania – this WrestleMania – was The Undertaker. Even as an adult fan exposed to the light and dark of the business, The Undertaker still seemed other-worldly to me. He was never my favourite wrestler and I never really liked hearing him speak, but he made my hair stand up on end. All the platitudes about him are true, or at least nearly all. He is a phenom, he is the greatest character of all time, he is WrestleMania. With WrestleMania 30 coming up though, he was clearly slowing up and it seemed to me that he could retire at any time; the window to see the ultimate wrestling spectacle I could imagine – The Undertaker at WrestleMania – was closing. The decision to go cost me the most money I’ve ever spent at once and quite possibly a relationship, but especially now, learning of Daniel Bryan’s untimely retirement, I have absolutely no regrets.
As I look back at this event, it seems to me that it symbolises in it’s two most memorable stories, two approaches to booking and making wrestling shows that can coexist (as they did in New Orleans), but only when there is a sincerity and organic process behind them – an ideal which was already eroding in WWE long before WrestleMania 30, and which feels yet further abandoned just two years later in the build up to WrestleMania 32. Starting with The Undertaker, he is perhaps the perfect realisation of an aspect of wrestling which will never truly go away, and that is the larger-than-life, gigantic characters. ‘Taker is certainly the last of a specific generation of over the top, cartoonish versions of this, but the distinguishing factor of such gigantic figures is still attainable, and indeed is still attained by characters like John Cena, The Rock, and Bray Wyatt. These are characters that, in some form, seem like an ‘other’ being, characters who exist almost outside of the rest of the ‘universe’, yet still affecting everything in it. Unfortunately for WWE, and all promoters, this isn’t something you can simply book a wrestler with – they have to exude it. With Rock and Cena, it’s a ‘star’ power – they’re like superheroes, acting as deux ex machinas above the action, impenetrable and constant. Despite the lack of material he’s given, Bray Wyatt, to his credit, has retained this quality. Though he frequently loses, his ability to command your attention, and his extra bit of venom both in and out of the ring, makes his arrival on any stage noteworthy and potentially chilling. Then you have the Undertaker, a wrestler who barely seems human, even when his own mortality is plainly obvious. A man who has been wrestling for longer than a huge chunk of the audience has been alive, a spirit with powers beyond that of any other, who held a streak unfathomable even in a sideshow where the results are predetermined, and man who’s entrance you could watch dozens of times and still get goosebumps because decades of destruction have trained us to know that when The Undertaker glides to the ring, something significant, and by virtue of the man, historic, is about to take place.The Undertaker is wrestling in it’s purest form: accepting a universe, ignoring the different realities behind the man and the ‘story’, and watching a force fight for something, good or evil.
I had fantasized my entire life about it, and then standing in the Superdome in New Orleans, a house of voodoo, glory, and suffering, I heard the gong, and I fought back the tears. Outside of his matches, it was possible to view Taker a bit more bluntly. I knew he wouldn’t lose, not that I wanted him to, and seeing The Streak itself was the privilege. Of course, the secret to The Streak was the years of genuine history behind it which made it so precious. Away from the match you didn’t believe he would lose it, but every year the character was put in to situations where we believed he could lose; we’d gasp at near falls, hearts racing having been given a taste of the end of The Streak without actually losing it. But then I watched as it ended. I’ve never felt anything quite like it – the exaggerated reaction shots after the three count weren’t anomalies, they were the norm, it was me. I was shocked, even a little angry but stunned in to silence; and then I realised, later, that the only thing that afforded more privilege than seeing The Streak, was seeing The Streak end. That feeling can’t be manufactured. You can’t take two people at random, say they are suddenly important, and expect it to feel important. It was wrestling at it’s purest and it worked because it had the right players involved, and over 20 years of history behind it.
Before there was a ‘Divas Revolution’, there were things like the ‘Vickie Guerrero Invitational’, a throwaway excuse to get all the divas WrestleMania airtime. It’s was a sorry use of talent, but on this occasion, the sort of conceit that was necessary. I feel sorry for the women involved because the audience was somewhere between dead and angry throughout the match. It provided an opportunity with basically no consequences to consider to reflect on the history witnessed and start to come to terms with it, because following it was the main event, and a magical moment in the career of a magnificent wrestler.
The term ‘wrestler’ feels inseparable from Daniel Bryan. He shares some traits with the big characters mentioned earlier, but above any of that, the main trait he is defined by is his humanity. I don’t think there has ever been a more relatable guy who is so easy to like and root for. He’s not super, he’s not a phenom, he’s like us, but he’s just also the best wrestler. That last bit is crucial to what makes him significant, and what made him significant that night in New Orleans. He wasn’t just a guy the WWE picked to be ‘the best wrestler’, he was the best wrestler, and that formed his whole story there. I’m not sure exactly to what level this was true (WWE did sign him after all), but it was clear that the WWE didn’t see Bryan as a WrestleMania headliner and that, to an extent, they had little interest in pulling the trigger on him because he didn’t fit their historic requirements, the requirements that fit, funnily enough, characters like The Undertaker. As mentioned before, I bought my ticket to ‘Mania to see The Undertaker, but as it approached, I was struggling to be excited about the main event. Batista had been brought back and quite obviously handed the Royal Rumble and a spot in the WrestleMania main event. It was a transparent booking decision and left many fans feeling flat, and many feeling downright angry. The scornful response to Batista’s Rumble win started a trend that has continued ever since, and that I will discuss more later, but it was a direct response to an ever-increasing scrutiny of WWE booking which had been accelerated with CM Punk’s ‘Pipebomb’, was dancing the knife-edge between reality and story, and finally topped over when the most popular guy on the roster was being overlooked by a returning star we were being told to be thankful for.
That reaction at the Rumble was unprecedented though, and again, though I don’t know how resistant WWE were to Bryan being made the face of WrestleMania that year, they were all but forced to alter their plans to avoid a flop with their first WWE Network WrestleMania. In retrospect, as soon as Bryan was handed the stipulation setting a path for him to possibly win the title, it perhaps should have been obvious that WWE would follow through with it. It didn’t feel that way at the time though. To me it seemed like the WWE, both in story and in reality had it in them to give us the Bryan bait and switch to try and placate fans while still getting to the same result. The desire for Bryan to succeed was obvious in the furious ‘Yessing’ throughout the build up to and matches at WrestleMania 30; for the years he had spent in WWE to that point, spinning very ordinary yarn in to gold both as a wrestler and as a personality at the centre of mid-level storylines, he had shown a mainstream audience what made him an ‘indy darling’ and they were ready and hungry for him to achieve that ‘WrestleMania Moment’ to validate it. So we watched the predetermined wrestling take place before us, hoping ‘our guy’ could finally get his moment at the expense of the established norms of Randy and Batista. This too, was wrestling in it’s purest form.
Though this was more obviously tied to backstage booking, it never felt just like a booking decision, it felt like the culmination of a journey, and even if we felt it was WWE finally getting behind Bryan, it was because they were forced to, and not that they were the ones presenting Bryan. Bryan’s mixture of years of toil, natural and overwhelming likability, and his obvious passion for what we were passionate about made this all possible, and while WWE helped frame a perfectly-told culmination of it, it was part of an organic process where Daniel Bryan was the only person who could close that show covered in confetti. Like with the huge, larger-than-life characters, WWE couldn’t just have picked anyone and made them Daniel Bryan, they needed Daniel Bryan to tell an incredible story. That story filled an almost palpable void left by the end of The Streak, and the Yessing after Bryan’s win was one forged from relief as well as joy. Though Bryan and Undertaker are two very different characters, what makes them work is the same as what means they can coexist in the same universe – if you tell a story naturally, letting the performers exude what makes them work, almost whatever you do with them will work, because we’ll trust it, we’ll go with it, and we’ll let the good times roll.
As clean (though slightly contrived) as that end would be, unfortunately, it leads to a second and more negative point about how WWE continue to make booking decisions in the main. While WrestleMania 30 became an instant classic because of WWE’s acceptance of Bryan’s earned place at the top, it resulted in them becoming even more obsessed with booking to manipulate the audience. It may be that this is just what they’ve always done, including with Bryan, and that they are as smart as their success suggests, but in the two Rumbles following WrestleMania 30, it seems like WWE have failed quite badly in creating similar organic journeys, and at the centre of it all is the beleaguered new face of WWE, Roman Reigns. There is nothing new about what i’m about to say so I won’t dwell on it, but Roman Reigns is nearly everything you could want from a megastar, right down to his blood, but he lacks one thing, the validating journey to the top.
In The Shield he became incredibly popular, partly due to how cool The Shield was, but also on merit as an athletic powerhouse punctuating their beat-downs. It was a good first step on his way to stardom, but then when The Shield broke up, he was simply plugged in, without much delay, as a top star. Perhaps in the past this could have worked, but in this era where booking is scrutinised, Reigns has become stuck somewhere between the two types of star earlier described – a near unstoppable superhero (right down to the Superman Punch), and a trod upon everyman. The problem is that while he has the look, size, and athleticism to be larger-than-life, he lacks the charisma and personality to command respect and attention against other interesting characters, and he certainly lacks the organic journey to validate him as an anti-authority firebrand. Most infamously, at the 2015 Royal Rumble, he was booked like a superhero but couldn’t pull it off, and with that as the case, it came across as an almost cold business decision by WWE, just as it had with Batista the year before and he received just as much ire, even with the support of The Rock. In retrospect, the appearance of The Rock probably made things worse as not only did Roman compare unfavourably to a successful (among the most successful) superhero archetypes, but it also smacked of him getting validation through nepotism – something which goes against the organic hero archetype. It seemed like Roman was on a straight path the WWE Championship, and as the audience reacted with ire similar to that suffered by Batista, it transpired that Seth Rollins left WrestleMania 31 as WWE Champion instead. Whether that was the plan all along, or whether it was a second amended WrestleMania main event in a row, it highlighted the Royal Rumble as a booking decision rather than a special part of the Road to WrestleMania. Eventhough it has always, of course, been a booking decision, it has never felt so palpably so until these latest years.
Even this year at the 2016 Royal Rumble, the spectre of Reigns and how to book him overtook the whole thing. The booing started as soon as Reigns entered, and the fans became truly invested when he was eliminated. Though Triple H has gained a lot of good will with great recent matches and his nurturing of NXT, it is still hard to believe fans accepting a Triple H win and WWE Championship reign in 2016 in any other context than it was him instead of Reigns. Perhaps the only way for WWE to avoid this in future years is to exclude Reigns from the Rumble match and have him in regular matches instead for a couple of years to disassociate him from it’s recent history of frustrating booking.
The problem is wider though. Even if WWE are masterminding these booking controversies to get their stars over, it isn’t a sustainable model, and in what I fear is the more likely scenario, they’re trying to replicate previous successes without the right people or organic journeys. It’s not that Roman can’t be a star or tell stories, but he needs to tell his story, not Steve Austin’s of Daniel Bryan’s or whatever vague roguery he is going for here. I don’t know what that is, but I do know he’s an incredible and marketable athlete and with some significant, organic storylines behind him in which he can develop a layer or two, he could be what WWE so desperately are begging him to be too early – a superstar. In the mean time, they are spoilt for choice with people who could be stars if they let them embrace their creative side and what makes them worse. Let Bray Wyatt talk dark and specifically about what he’s doing and go wild with it, for instance, let Sasha Banks talk about being The Boss, let Kevin Owens loose away from just his (great) in-ring rants, and perhaps most obviously, let Cody Rhodes do whatever he wants, either as Stardust or as Cody. Rhodes is a sad example of WWE smothering talent with their narrow view of booking. These are examples, but it goes for everyone. Give them something to do, let them express it, and watch the talented ones rise to the top as either a phenom or organic hero.
Just to refocus finally on Bryan, that night was one of the most special nights of my life and he will always have a huge part in my heart for that, as well as for the rest of his career. It’s a shame that it was also really a short stint in the position he deserved before starting on his injury-related spiral to today, but it’s an accomplishment – one of many – that can never be taken from him. He is so popular because of how down to earth, passionate, funny, and quietly confident he is, and it is for that reason that his retirement has led to such upset and tributes. The notorious line in wrestling is that you can make friends, or you can make money, but with Bryan, no one has a single cross word to say about him. That’s a sign of the man he is, and though I harbor fantasies about him staying involved in wrestling in some way, I am glad he’ll be able to choose his destiny rather than run himself further in to the ground, whether it be my dream of him being an entertaining, neutral GM like Mick Foley, or him settling down with Brie and watching as a fan. Whatever he does, he deserves our thanks, and has left an indelible mark on an iconic night in wrestling history.