WrestleMania 33: Looking Up at the Lights, and Going Out on Your Back

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The Undertaker salutes the end of the greatest career pro wrestling will probably ever see. Credit: WWE

As someone who attaches emotion and meaning to everything I enjoy, WrestleMania is a very intense week for me, from the floods of tears during the Hall of Fame, to the Christmas-like anticipation for the event, to the awe I have watching it that will never go away. WrestleMania’s come and go, and whether they are good or bad, they are always significant – the platitudes about it being the ‘showcase of the immortals’ and ‘WrestleMania moments’ are, incredibly, not really exaggerated. I enjoyed WrestleMania 33 which I found to be consistently enjoyable, even if it lacked a real show-stealer match. The moment I can’t shift from my head (the reason we’re here) came at the very end, when Undertaker, after struggling to his feet following a loss to Roman Reigns, started to leave his gear in the ring. If there’s one thing Taker has always excelled at, it’s exuding meaning and emotion (despite often being near emotionless outwardly), and after he removes his hat for the final time, he takes this huge breath, a sigh not quite of relief, but of rest. The ride is finally over, and he can rest. I immediately burst in to tears.

I am going to write the qualifier I have seen several people write. The Undertaker wasn’t ‘my guy’, and yet there is something about him that seems to engender total respect and reverence. He’s not the best talker, but he is the best character; he’s not the best wrestler, but he does have some of the best matches ever. He understands wrestling and performance better than anyone, and takes it seriously, and everyone respects him for it. He might not be your favourite, but whenever you hear a gong, or see him toe to toe with someone, you know, almost by definition, that something significant is happening. He’s the best of pro-wrestling, and represents 20+ years of some of the most vivid, memorable years of it.

Perhaps that is why he is loved so. He has been a legitimising backbone of this crazy travelling roadshow we love and has dedicated himself to it longer, frankly, than his body would allow. He helped build WrestleMania and created many of it’s most special moments. His passing of the torch and leaving the ring no longer a warrior may well be a crucial moment in wrestling’s future, and it was sure one of the most moving in wrestling’s history.

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Undertaker, leaving his iconic hat and coat in the ring, symbolising the end of his storied career. Credit: WWE

Though I am more than happy to wax eulogistic about Undertaker’s career though, that beautiful end is only around half of the reason i’m writing this. Undertaker was the main reason I decided it was ‘now or never’ for attending WrestleMania 30 – I decided that I had to see him on his greatest stage before I lost the chance, I had to see that entrance. And I did. For that event though, I chose to wear a Bray Wyatt shirt. Bray has been a real darling of mine ever since I started watching him on NXT, and there are certainly similarities to Undertaker in him, mainly in his dedication to a character which bends the rules other characters play by, occasionally traipsing in to the supernatural. Wyatt, in fact, is a far better talker than Taker ever was, and with his commitment to every part of his character, I had never been so excited about the future of a wrestler and my related enjoyment of them.

The difference between him and Taker is, and remains, that it’s never really gone anywhere. At WrestleMania, I had the honour of seeing ‘The Streak’ broken, and the joy of seeing ‘Yes-tleMania’, but under that, I had the disappointment of seeing Wyatt fall to Cena when a victory could have really set him along the course of a phenom himself. The next year, Wyatt lost to Undertaker fairly handily to help Taker recover from the loss of the Streak, and then last year, Wyatt made the best of being booked alongside The Rock, but would never be able to overcome Rocky being important and easily murking him and his family. Wyatt has never won at WrestleMania, or really won a significant match on a big stage. His strength of character and performance though has seen him recover of late to the point where John Cena insisted on putting him over clean for the WWE Championship. A significant achievement for sure, but it lacks the historical significance that the real top guys have propping them up. The significance, say, of defeating The Undertaker in his final match.

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The Rock, delivering the People’s Elbow to Bray Wyatt at WrestleMania 32 after quickly dispatching the rest of the ‘Family’. Credit: WWE

Writing this isn’t intended to throw shade at anyone other than the decision makers who booked Wyatt to lose this year, not even Orton, who probably could have spoken up to lose as Cena had earlier.

Part of the respect that the Undertaker commands without demanding it, is that he will always do what’s best for the business, and rule #1 in that regard is that, when you go out, you ‘go out on your back’, giving someone else the chance to profit from it, and by extension, the business. Roman Reigns has become something almost other to wrestling. For his part, Reigns has grown quietly but enormously as a performer, especially in recent months, and he was a big part of making Taker’s final match powerful and entertaining. He clearly hasn’t been handled quite right though, to the point where, regardless of his performances, he will be booed. Fans treat him like the most boring or lazy denominator almost regardless of what he does. Usually, the honour of ‘retiring’ The Undertaker would be the biggest lay-up of all time to stardom for a persons career, but whether that happens for Roman, remains to be seen. The hope is that either he will somehow inherit Taker’s inherent respect value (after all, this was a metaphorical transferring of ‘the yard’ to Reigns), or he can build a white hot heel run from his actions.

With Wyatt though, there is a feeling of complacency on management’s part in a way that may be due to his success at portraying the character. Losing in itself has never really seemed to damage Wyatt – he can always ‘turn it on’ and be mesmerising. But after years of constant losing on big stages, it’s hard not to see diminishing returns from him, regardless of his exceptional efforts. He recovered miraculously from it when he was reduced to comic jobber to The Rock, but this slip up when he had returned to his most powerful may be even more damaging.

Everything about his match at WrestleMania 33 seemed geared to be his moment, to showcase him in a way that suited only him. The most memorable part of the match was the recurring projections of imagery of death, disease, and pestilence on to the ring. Regardless of what people say in retrospect, coloured as it is by the match result, at the time, fans were losing their minds over this, including me. It was different, and though simple, was shocking due to both the fact it had never been done before, and the nature of the imagery. Initially, Orton and everyone else involved sold these projections. That is until Orton hit a trademark unexpected RKO for the win to become a 13 time champion. Wyatt falls short again.

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Though later mocked by some, the various visuals of decay projected by Wyatt on to Orton and the ring were shocking, and unlike anything ever seen before in WWE history. Credit: WWE

Again, with no disrespect to Randy Orton, why does he need a 13th championship here, at a time when Wyatt could have taken a big step towards lasting significance? The disgusting projections even provided him with a ‘get out’ for the loss. What do we get from this? Orton doesn’t need a win basically ever these days and can have whatever feud management want down the line. It has been suggested to me that this was the natural ending of the story – a point I understand, but it is also important to realise that sometimes (not often) the bad guy wins, and it could have lit a fire under Orton too. Meanwhile, Wyatt seems almost goofy for trying his antics in a loss. Even if he wins his rematch, it’s on a much smaller stage. If Wyatt wins this match as it was produced, he gets a big showcase win, a championship retention, and a memorable WrestleMania moment; what happened instead was people viewed him as a loser and started mocking the projections too. Once again, he was forgotten, looking up at the brightest lights there are, with management neglecting the gift he is. What happens to him in the weeks following this year’s WrestleMania and at next year’s Mania will be very telling about how damaging this was. I hope i’m wrong.

Most losses aren’t significant gestures to the future as Undertaker’s was, and it is there that him putting Reigns over in his final match will hopefully benefit him. There is a chance though, that it will just further complicate Reign’s relationship with the fans and be wasted. Further, Reigns is already treated like a top guy, and clearly will be going forward. It’s just a shame that another veteran in Randy Orton couldn’t put over Bray in a similar spot, and so the difference between Undertaker and Wyatt remains – one is an outlaw that went out on his back, and the other is a pretender that has been left on his back for three WrestleMania’s in a row. I can’t help but wish the stars had aligned a little differently, and the best Bray Wyatt had faced Underataker this year. Not only would their characters have gelled well once again, but Taker’s final sacrifice would have had the definite result of making Bray Wyatt, overnight, one of the most significant superstars in the world.

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After the fans were gone and the ring was being taken down, Undertaker’s hat and coat remained untouched in a startling and moving show of respect. Credit: @samirkh75387729 on Twitter

Thank you Undertaker.

 

 

 

 

Monsters in Pro-wrestling: Cult Success and B-movie Awkwardness

Bray Wyatt after scalping the Monster Kane last year, credit: http://www.wrestlingrumors.net/update-bray-wyatts-injury-status/13010/

Bray Wyatt after scalping the Monster Kane last year, credit: http://www.wrestlingrumors.net/update-bray-wyatts-injury-status/13010/

2014’s Extreme Rules PPV and the RAW following it have suffered a great deal of criticism in relation to two separate monstrous characters: Bray Wyatt and Kane. In Wyatt’s case, the criticism wasn’t directed at the almost universally lauded Wyatt specifically, but the booking of his cage match with John Cena which saw Wyatt win, but only after a great deal of help from his two regular followers, Harper and Rowan, and an extra follower, a child singing Bray’s ‘Whole World’ refrain with a demonic voice. In Kane’s case, there has been criticism of his presentation being hokey during his feud with new(ish) WWE World Heavyweight Champion, Daniel Bryan; indeed I have heard two separate comparisons between Kane on RAW and the popcorn horror film, ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’. It may seem crazy to describe Wyatt as a ‘realistic’ character here, but that’s precisely what i’m going to do in comparison to Kane while hoping to rebuff criticism of Wyatt and his Extreme Rules match.

Bray Wyatt defeated John Cena at Extreme Rules. That alone is a fantastic boost for Wyatt as a character and potential ‘main eventer’, but for many it was tainted by the fact that Cena was clearly the stronger fighter in the match, only losing because his attempts were repeatedly scuppered by Wyatt followers. The problem with that is that it relies on a ‘textbook’ approach to wrestling where ‘looking strong’ is all that matters for key wrestlers, and where all wrestlers have the same background, skills, and motivations as each other. Bray Wyatt is scary, and his over the top performance of offense is very unique and fitting of his maniacal character; so I certainly don’t believe Wyatt is being depicted as someone who can’t beat anyone, but Bray Wyatt is a wrestler who – and I think this is deliberate – has a degree of physical vulnerability, but gets a lot of his power from how he presents himself. In short, he is the perfect depiction of a cult leader: an ordinary man who gains power through charisma and brainwashing. Bray Wyatt has been one of my favourite wrestlers and characters since his start on NXT, and he is becoming the most realistically-drawn character in WWE today, and perhaps the problem is that realism isn’t always the first concern in pro-wrestling matches.

To apply this to Wyatt’s cage match with Cena, it was a great example of how a cultish can use his ‘powers’ to overcome a stronger opponent. Wyatt as a wrestler could beat lots of wrestlers on his own; he isn’t some helpless jobber, but remember, he was facing the most unbeatable wrestler in at least ten years in John Cena, and that was something Wyatt could never achieve on his own. Thankfully, that is perfect for him. The key here is that Wyatt is not special in any tangiable way – he is not a ‘demon’ or impervious to pain, but he has the incredible ability to make people believe he is, and gain followers through his somewhat-sensical but warped view of the world and it’s heroes. It is this power that allows him to engender help from a pair of scary country-hosses who are mentally incapable of rejecting Wyatt’s ‘truth’, to scare ‘normal’ people like John Cena and make him question himself, and ultimately makes him capable of beating anyone, half with his physical skills, and topped up by dominating the mind of his opponent. I don’t mean he uses ‘mind control’, I mean he psychologically dominates them with his charismatic, earnest, melodic delivery; it puts whoever he is facing at a disadvantage, and even more so when the ring is surrounded by ‘followers’ who will do anything for him, so brainwashed are they.

Cena confronted by a brainwashed Wyatt-follower, credit: http://www.wwelivetv.com/extreme-rules

Cena confronted by a brainwashed Wyatt-follower, credit: http://www.wwelivetv.com/extreme-rules

Even when looked at as a fraud, this idea of Wyatt seems crazy, but then again, it is a lot easier to suspend that disbelief as soon as you type “Jim Jones” or “David Koresh” in to Wikipedia. That is what makes Wyatt so great, and so genuinely scary because, though rare, this sort of devotion, and abuse of that devotion is possible, with Wyatt playing up to it so convincingly that people genuinely worry for him as a human being away from the ring. While the match with Cena at Extreme Rules was probably a little overbooked, and maybe taken a little too far with the sheer amount of interference and the Wyatt’s ending up in the cage etc, I think the general idea at play was perfect. Man-on-man, Cena would always beat a non-cultist Wyatt every time, because Cena would beat most other wrestlers every time, or nearly every time. But for a cultist Bray, he would use the interference of his dedicated followers, and his psychological abuse of Cena through a genuinely scary brainwashed child to help him beat ‘The Franchise’ at all costs; and then use that victory to reaffirm his power. This is a perfect way to present such a different, unique talent, and I hope it continues like this for a long, long time.

One area I agree with a lot of criticism recently is to do with how Kane has been presented. It wasn’t so much his match with Daniel Bryan at Extreme Rules that bothered me, but the follow-up the next night on RAW. Where Wyatt is all talk, so to speak, Kane is, in kayfabe, a genuine fire-throwing monster. Now don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed the supernatural logic behind the Brothers of Destruction in the past – silly as it really is, both Kane and Undertaker have in the past been great at playing supernatural beings/monsters within a wrestling context and within some defined internal logic; the problem here was the presentation. While I feel the supernatural characters I was just discussing have maybe reached a shelf-life (for now at least), I would be ok with it if it was within the same wrestling context and logic they have always lived within, but in Kane’s case on RAW, they moved outside of that. As I mentioned, I have heard more than one flippant comparison to ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ in relation to this presentation, and it’s not inaccurate either. Kane has had these powers for most of his careers, but it has all taken part in the context of a wrestling ring/arena and has had a lot of power by being shot in the same way as the rest of the show (backstage segments, pyro from the ring/stage as if he controls it, etc), but this past Monday, it became this movie-like presentation, with reverse angles and a universe outside of the arena. Wrestling always requires some suspension of disbelief (blood feuds being solved with formal wrestling matches, only ever doing anything on Mondays in agreed upon arenas, etc), but we accept that as long as everything makes sense in context as the rest of the show. The Kane segments ripped that apart because while Bryan and Brie Bella showed up to the arena because that’s just what happens, they immediately wanted to get out of there, and their escape was suddenly filmed like a milktoast horror movie. From the ‘car troubles’ to the in-car reverse angles of the action, it felt different, a splice of pro-wrestling and horror movie, and it became almost nauseatingly awkward as a result.

A mystery camera films Brie and Daniel as the prepare to flee the arena. Credit: http://uk.ign.com/articles/2014/05/06/wrestling-wrap-up-demon-kane-stalks-bryan-and-brie

A mystery camera films Brie and Daniel as the prepare to flee the arena. Credit: http://uk.ign.com/articles/2014/05/06/wrestling-wrap-up-demon-kane-stalks-bryan-and-brie

While I find Wade Keller of the pro-wrestling torch a frequent indulger in pessimism and narrow-mindedness, he made a very good point about it on this week’s pro-wrestling torch – this would have worked so much better if it would have been in a pro-wrestling context, for instance, Renee Young interviews Bryan and Brie backstage when Kane appears to menace them with Bryan and Brie reacting in whatever way you want them too and have a backstage fight/chase. Just by doing that, it fits in to the wrestling context and logic; instead we got a not terribly threatening ‘monster’ falling off a car before it cuts to him sat lying perfectly flat on the floor and sitting up like Michael Myers or something. None of it rang true, and therefore, none of it rang scary. No doubt Bryan will show up again next week, and so will Brie, and they’ll both be terrified again.

Speaking of which, why is out new HERO BABYFACE WWE WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION running away from a threat!? If you buy the somewhat patronising angle that he’s ‘protecting his wife’, then he should have told Brie to get out of there while he deals with Kane. Instead, Bryan looked as scared of Kane as Brie despite beating him the night before. What are we to think of Bryan now? The tenacious undersized peoples champion we’ve loved for years is running away from an obstacle! He’s coming across as cowardly and a bit stupid thanks to this, and I think we should all heed Mick Foley’s twitter warning that this is starting to seem like the Zack Ryder angle which turned him from Internet and US Champion, to well, essentially nothing important. Bryan is much much better than Ryder, will wrestle better matches with Kane, and will move on successfully, but I just worry this will effect his longevity as a top hero, and I hope the Yessing never ends, despite this nonsense.

Royal Rumble 2014: Will We Ever Get Our Yes-gasm?

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Batista pointing at the WrestleMania sign, the traditional celebration of Royal Rumble winners. I’d have had a picture of Daniel Bryan, but he wasn’t in the match. Credit: wwe.com

Last night saw the 2014 edition of WWE’s staple PPV attraction, the Royal Rumble, and I, like many of you, watched along with excited interest as the Royal Rumble match routinely makes giddy children out of the most hardened and cynical wrestling fan. The enthusiasm was even-more apparent in Pittsburgh where it seemed clear that unacknowledged People’s Champion, Daniel Bryan, was on his way to a career-defining moment. That was until the mood changed; in the space of about 5-10 minutes in the mid-late twenties of entrants to the match the atmosphere soured more palpably against ‘the product’ than I may have ever seen before in wrestling, as it became clear that Bryan wouldn’t be in the Rumble, wouldn’t have his moment, and neither would we, the fans.

I, and seemingly most of my fellow fans who I respect greatly, couldn’t have been more disappointed as we saw a returning Batista sucking air, celebrating his Royal Rumble victory and his guaranteed title match at WrestleMania. That being said, and because it will get lost in the rest of what I have to say, I feel it is important to paint some context and some other points that could be lost in the instant revisionism surrounding the event. For instance, I think it is important to note that WWE never advertised Bryan for the Rumble, and though we took cues from his first match to deduct that he would take part, there could be a case for saying part of our contempt was based on us fantasy-booking. That is not to exonerate WWE though, because I would add that this wasn’t just fantasy booking – something felt like it was building, and WWE helped facilitate that. Otherwise, there were high-notes, like the fact that Roman Reigns deservedly continues to be treated like a future WWE Champion, Kane’s 13-year record for eliminations in a match and looking more and more like a ‘star’. It wasn’t perfect, and I think it got lost in the Bryan-fog somewhat (initially, waiting for Bryan’s entrance, and then furiously realizing he wasn’t coming), robbing it of some impact, but the fact that the raucous Pittsburgh crowd chose to latch on to him as their vehicle for protest against Batista rather than, say, a returning Sheamus, bodes very well for his babyface future. Secondly, and most importantly for the rest of the article, it must not be forgotten that the opening match of Bryan vs Bray Wyatt was absolutely incredible, and instant classic – and by that I don’t even men a match you realize is a classic once the decision has been announced, I mean the sort of halcyon classic where you realize just how great it is as it’s happening. Both men gave the best of their respective selves to that match: Bryan, the self-sacrificing house of fire was delivering moves like he was genuinely trying to destroy Wyatt for good, leaving Bray bloodied and battered; and Bray posting his greatest in-ring performance of his young career, being Bray Wyatt down to every inch of his skin, somehow making his motions even more explosive and creepy, putting an extra eccentric power behind every move and settling any arguments about whether he can live up to his literally awesome gimmick. To have all that, and then to have it finish as shockingly as it did, with a hellacious Sister Abigail on to a guard-rail followed by a bullet point second Sister Abigail in the ring for the three just worked perfectly. Twitter’s foremost corgi-obsessed wrestling authority, Thomas Holzermann (@tholzermann) called it the best non-Rumble match the PPV has ever produced, and while there are a lot of matches I love from Rumbles past, including most memorably, Cactus Jack vs Triple H from 2000, this match is certainly right up there and possibly even surpassed it.

Tellingly, he also tweeted, as soon as Wyatt’s hand was raised, that Daniel Bryan was confirmed to win the Rumble; it was a view shared by me, and seemingly a lot of everyone else watching judging by the reactions of those watching both live and on twitter. Here is what seemed to e hiding in plain sight: having lost a match at the very start of the card, Bryan, who had taken a lot of abuse to his head in the aftermath of suffering a concussion, would reappear in the Rumble to power through it all and fulfill his destiny by winning the Rumble and guaranteeing himself the WrestleMania moment he deserves and that has been denied him ever since his abrupt loss to Sheamus at WrestleMania 28 which catalyzed a protest wave of ‘Yessing’. It seemed like he was on a course, indeed, similar to Bret Hart in 1994 where he overcame a leg injury inflicted by his brother Owen in the opening match to go on and co-win the Rumble to end the night. As predictable as it seemed, it was the exact model that seemed to fit Bryan and his story perfectly, and so the one everyone started to imagine and desire the fulfillment of. Bryan losing clean as a sheet was ok, because it was part of this larger narrative, and while the negative connotations of a loss for Bryan would be forgotten in the glow of Bryan pointing at the firework-ridden WrestleMania sign, for Bray Wyatt, he would have a huge victory to hang his fedora on and grow, much like Owen was able to after beating Bret in 1994. It is truly perfect booking in that it flatters and raises everyone involved, at least when it is seen through.

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Bryan’s not winning AND we’re not going to the lake, are we? This is legitimately how Bryan not winning felt to me. Credit: Uproxx.com

Unfortunately, as numbers 27-30 entered the Rumble match, and I started deducting the number of people I knew were yet to enter, plus Bryan, from the remaining spots, and the numbers stopped adding up, that dream dissolved in front of me, and everyone else begging for a Bryan win. I’ve genuinely never heard anything quite like it – I’ve heard jokey chants, sarcastic chants, ‘end this match’ chants, but never blanket, frustrated boos at the product. Sheamus, who returned to a deservedly big pop, and REY MYSTERIO who, while being kinda milquetoast at times, is universally beloved, both got booed – there were even boos during the 619! It was truly surreal. Everyone had bought in to the first half of the narrative – Bryan being beaten and injured, and while waiting for the culmination of that and a Bryan win, instead saw Batista, who was returning after years of absence, out of shape and blown up, coming in to sight as the increasingly clear winner. It was enthusiasm for Bryan mixed with sheer disappointment at being given more of the same, and essentially told, as Batista said, to ‘deal with it’.

There are already a lot of angles being taken with this; all are very valid, and most represent great dissatisfaction. The first response is just anger and disbelief that while we witness a genuine phenomenon of organic, white hot support for Bryan that we want to ride in to the future of wrestling, the ‘powers that be’ both in kayfabe and in real life are continuing to support a status quo of prototype stars like Orton, Cena (and Batista, for that matter) that is starting to outlive it’s use, at least as the only answer to the question ‘what is a top star like?’ and denying what is plainly the truth – that while those stars will always have a place, the fans want something, and someone, new. The infinitely likeable, charismatic, and talented Bryan represents this new desire of the fans just like Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, and Stone Cold Steve Austin have in the past, and yet the top brass seem to be not just ignoring this, but arrogantly asserting their righteousness by frustrating their own fans – the ‘Universe’ who they claim to serve above all else – with enforced reassertions of their former chosen stars – Cena, Orton, Rock, HHH, and now Batista. This is nothing new; the ‘Summer of Punk’ was the first outbreak of this fan-led protest as we saw Punk speak the minds of the fans, frustrated at the old status quo in what was, in retrospect, absurdly supposed to be a heel-like offering, but turned in to a rallying point for fans who wanted to see the passion, skill, and different style of Punk and his like prevail. Of course, Punk was only allowed so much slack by WWE before being given a placating 434 day Championship reign ended by who else but The Rock exactly a year ago today. Punk represented a lot of what Bryan represents now, and though they are not exactly the same (Punk is less likeable than Bryan, but more edgy; and slightly below Bryan’s in-ring standard, but above him in terms of mic work), they have both become the representations of the genuine fan support, as well as, conversely, fan frustration.

What is worse is that this isn’t simply a choice between one path that works against another, it’s a choice between what is hot and sustainable being passed over for a status quo which achieves short-term ratings and the odd buyrate, and could also cripple the future of the business. What happens when there are no more workable Cena’s, Orton’s Batista’s etc and only wrestlers we have been conditioned to see as secondary and less important? It is a dogmatic choice which flies in the face of not only profit, but sense, and the desire of their fans, all to protect the out-moded beliefs of the family which happen to hold the destiny of wrestling in their hands. They know people will keep watching because they are the only real game in town for most viewers (and indy fans who love wrestling and not just the WWE will keep watching because it represents something important to wrestling, and, it must be said, often features great wrestling). The fact that this is all so seemingly obvious and that we are being refused it is incredibly frustrating; all WWE need to do is pull the trigger on this, on Bryan, and watch a new and exciting era begin, but every time it seems like they might, something happens to make it seem that they just wont, and its so frustrating. I came up with the term ‘Yes-gasm’ as a jokey way to explain what its like to witness an audience connect so strongly with Bryan and the Yesses, but I think there may be something unconsciously accurate about it. It may seem crazy to compare what I’m about to speak about to an orgasm (it probably is), but there is definitely something to it. While there have been many instances of mass Yessing, they have mostly been in protest form, going back to the initial incarnation at WrestleMania 28. Since then we have been waiting for Bryan to finally make it as Champion, but we have always been frustrated by the booking of Bryan, and we have been waiting nearly two years for that relief, that release of being able to Yes enthusiastically in celebration without just waiting for the interruption that will frustrate us. Perhaps WWE are just teasing us to make the eventual Yes-gasm even more powerful (because that is indeed how it works, ladies and gentlemen). It gives WWE a lot of credit, and that is the angle i’ll discuss next.

After the shock and fury comes the attempts to understand and justify what might be happening. We have been subject to the usual ‘wait and see’ responses where people verbalise their hope that this is going somewhere and to wait and see what happens on RAW. As a wrestling lifer, I have taken this position many times in the past only to be disappointed, but maybe for the reasons I have outlined above, I am more unwilling to take that stance this time. Some of the theories I have seen suggested are that Batista is playing a heel, and WWE are deliberately frustrating us, not for their own dogma, but because they understand the fans, what Batista represents, and that the longer they frustrate us, the bigger the pop will be when Bryan finally goes over. In a vacuum, that makes sense, but then we have to ask ourselves why Batista is currently due to face top heel, Randy Orton at WrestleMania. A face vs face man event can work as we have seen with both Hogan-Rock and Rock-Cena, but heel vs heel doesn’t work, at least as a main event because people can’t get as invested in a match where they are at best forced to support someone by circumstance. The answer to that is that either Bryan could win the main event privilege from Batista, or the WWE World Championship from Orton, at Elimination Chamber. Again, that in  vaccum makes sense until you consider what exactly a Bryan victory would be working towards – a moment, perhaps and era-defining moment, and it starts to fall apart. Him winning the title in the Chamber is the easiest to disregard because the moment is greatly diminished by hot-shotting it before WrestleMania and potentially in an environment where fortune plays a role. Now, while Bryan having to overcome another challenge in Batista on his way to WrestleMania is Romantic, they already had an even more satisfying option on the table in having an injured Bryan go on to win the Rumble which is, after all, their second-biggest and most important PPV of the year, and so more powerful than beating one man – even if it is Batista – at Elimination Chamber. This doesn’t mean this, or a three-way between Orton, Bryan, and Batista won’t happen, but if it does, it will be because they have been given no choice by the fans, who will tempted to Yes-protest WrestleMania unless they get what they want. I don’t think any of this will happen though – while the Rumble should be a major wake up call, the signs have been there for a long time. From his WWE Championship win and Authority screwjob right up until now, it has been clear that the fans will only really happily accept Bryan at the spotlight guy, at least at this year’s WrestleMania. Watch this video for instance, which gave so many people ecstatic chills, and watch a man who has an audience in the palm of his hand, watch what is clearly the hottest act in the business:

That was two weeks ago. If the WWE were all willing to change their plans for what was clearly the right booking decision, they would have changed their booking and had the man in that video win the Rumble. That is why I have no faith that we’ll get anything other than Orton vs Batista at WrestleMania. In WWE’s mind, that will further solidify who their ‘A’ stars in their own logic and in the mean time, both Bryan and Punk, as well as others with similar plights will never be in that last match main event, will never be the guy. We will be told that Batista-Orton is one of the biggest matchups in WrestleMania history just as we were told that Orton-Cena was one of the most anticipated rematches ever, and though Cena-Orton was better than the audience treated it, and though Orton-Batista will be fine, the assertion will be just as absurd. As esteemed tweeter and author of The History of Professional Wrestling books, Graham Cawthon (@TheHistoryofWWE) tweeted astutely, WWE believes in their canon so much that they ignore monster reactions for Bryan and Punk, and then present them as secondary to the apathy and rejection of matches like Orton vs Cena, and with a straight face, insist that they are the important attractions.

In this environment then, can we ever get our Yes-gasm? The answer is probably, yes, but never at a WrestleMania. With attitudes the way they are, people like Bryan will never be given that stage even if they deserve it, and even if it may be ‘Best for Business’. He could get the title again, and have a proper reign at, say, Over the Limit, or whatever PPV comes after the Orton-Batista blowoff, but by then, who is to say the momentum will be the same? This is the preverbial boat, and it is being missed. Ultimately though, this wont affect WWE’s business. To sound – justly – negative, while the more ‘casual viewer’ cares for Bryan an awful lot, they are just happy to see him most of the time, and for the there are very few fans who care about wrestlers futures and general righteousness beyond that, to the degree outlined above who would ultimately turn away from wrestling; it’s a cruel mistress at times, but it is a mistress nonetheless. So sound – justly – positive, the emotion we feel for Bryan is valuable, and with our support he will be a very big star, part of the ridiculous wrestling world we love so much, and that so often loves us back in the form of matches like Bryan vs Wyatt. Like RAW tonight where we will tune in to see how WWE will try and get out of this mess, if they try at all; it will always be there, and we will always be watching.

Catapulted to the Glass Ceiling: The Bottle-Neck of New Stars in WWE (+ Some a Preview of Payback 2013)

The Wyatt Family - causing a stir and set to be the newest stars of WWE, photo credit to WWE

The Wyatt Family – causing a stir and set to be the newest stars of WWE, photo credit to WWE

WWE is increasingly finding it in a seasonal cycle. Precisely, a cycle of two seasons: WrestleMania Season, and Transition Season. WreslteMania Season is the period from (roughly) the TLC Pay-per-view until (roughly) the RAW after WrestleMania and is characterised by big-drawing part time stars and WWE’s toppermost talent being booked in dream matches, with only rare and fleeting appearances by full-time lower level talent and ‘divas’ who enjoy much less meaningful spotlight and feature time on WWE TV. This is a sea change from only recent years (up until WrestleMania 26 perhaps) when WrestleMania was traditionally a showcase for every active WWE talent to get a spotlight and a pay-day, even if it was just a spot in the preshow battle royal. WrestleMania 27 saw the return of The Rock to the WWE and the onset of part-time stars returning for WrestleMania builds and matches. During this time it becomes incredibly hard for non-established wrestlers to get any significant TV time to get over as top stars themselves. A recent exception to this has been The Shield who became firmly one of the most exciting, compelling and spotlighted acts on WWE TV in the build-up to WrestleMania 29, and even with that they were still only featured on an undercard match (though still a significant high-point of the show). This has led observers to criticise this new era of WrestleMania build for a short-sightedness regarding their year-round product and the state of their card after WrestleMania when the part-time stars are gone and they are left with spots to fill and only talent they haven’t deemed important enough for major spotlighting for 4 months previously (and so who the audience equally don’t deem important).

So after the post-WrestleMania RAW, with the part-time stars gone, WWE enters its Transition Season where they need to fill the vacated spots and – without the pressure of WrestleMania business – start to experiment with new stars and pushing stars to try and make more stars for the top of the card.

This roundabout summary of the WWE calendar is a way to set the scene for the topic of this article – the way fresh talent is pushed in WWE; and more specifically, how the way WWE cycles work is impinging on the potential of debuting new stars. In the past, around the time when – simultaneously – Brodus Clay, Ryback, and Lord Tensai debuted as unbeatable monsters (though of differing character), I had considered writing an article about how all these features basically guaranteed the failure of at least one of these unstoppable ‘big guys’ because they all had similar acts. I didn’t write that article but both Brodus Clay and Lord Tensai did indeed fall in to insignificance, together, as Tons of Funk. This article is about a similar danger. On top of Fandango, who only debuted towards the end of WrestleMania Season, WWE has introduced Curtis Axel and are set to introduce Bray Wyatt and his family in the coming weeks; and though they aren’t all similar acts, they all share the characteristic of being shot to prominent positions instantly upon their debut (Wyatt hasn’t debuted yet, but I think it’s clear that he’s only going somewhere prominent fast).

But because only this transitionary period from after WrestleMania until around Survivor Series is a time when WWE will put significant effort in to making and pushing new stars, these prospects find themselves trying to justify a top spot, and the creative team trying to write them in to top spots simultaneously, and when there simply aren’t enough top spots for them all. I think when you consider the push that Fandango got and the shine he got from being flavour of the month, that took him to a WrestleMania moment and a big victory over Chris Jericho, but when Curtis Axel debuted a few weeks later, he took the flavour of the month shine from Fandango before Fandango had really gotten over as a top star; and within weeks, Fandango seemed like an afterthought from the top of the card, stuck as he was in a triple threat with The Miz and Wade Barrett. Axel has replaced him in this feud, but that is more of a hotshot to make up for Fandango’s injury and is a match Axel will almost certainly win, giving him the title his father was one of the most celebrated champions of, and propel him further. Though Axel’s build has been based on somewhat sullied victories over top stars, he has been positioned among them, and certainly has the ‘new star glow’ that Fandango was enjoying before him. It will be interesting to see then what will happen to Axel and Fandango when Bray Wyatt and his Family debut (maybe even as soon as the next RAW). Wyatt has been the most hotly anticipated debutant in years having set imaginations alight with his genuinely scary, creepy, yet infinitely watchable preacher/cult leader character, and equally fascinating vignette’s introducing him. When he, his two Family members and his rocking chair finally debut on RAW, it isn’t difficult to imagine him being one of the brightest spots on the show, as well as the inheritor of that ‘new star glow’; and like Fandango before him, there is a risk that Axel could lose the rub that being the hot new star provides before he and WWE have capitalised enough to make him a top guy. This isn’t to criticise Fandango or Axel, who still very well may have bright futures ahead of them, it is simply to say that the frequent rate of debuts at this time of year, mixed with the simultaneous pushes of new stars handicaps their chances of success whereas if debuts were spaced out affording each new star the opportunity to grow in that valuable period where they are the freshest act on the show. Imagine if ‘another big thing’ debuted after Brock Lesnar – in retrospect, Lesnar would probably have made it anyway, but it would certainly have taken some shine away from him.

This isn’t the only problem though. As new debutants join the card, they join existing talent supposedly destined for success while much fewer leave or are fired. So while Fandango, Axel, and Wyatt have arrived to an opportunity to make themselves, their spot comes at the cost of another star deserving of a shot at the top. The two foremost examples of this in my mind are both members of Team Rhodes Scholars, Cody Rhodes and Damien Sandow, but also Sin Cara, who had a chance to capture the erstwhile WWE Universe’s interest before being overshadowed by others. Perhaps this is an intentional state of competition, bred to encourage performers to stand out, as Daniel Bryan has recently, above the rest of the roster. Bryan undoubtedly deserves, and will get, a push thanks to the overwhelming, infectious reaction he has been receiving of late, but that kind of reaction is a rare gem, and just because one stands out, doesn’t mean than those that can’t match up aren’t deserving of an opportunity. Considering the current crop of new stars, to my mind, no act will be able to live up to that of Bray Wyatt and the family, and given the fact that all three can’t long be sustained with simultaneous winning streaks, one or both of Axel and Fandango may have to slip in estimation and could slip in to irrelevance like Tensai and Brodus Clay before them. Though this fits the ‘survival of the fittest’ model, both Fandango and Axel have interesting acts that deserve attention, and could be successful if nourished correctly, or ideally, at different times. If they fail, but are lucky, they might be able to keep a spot for further down the line where their talent could shine through and they get another shot (though that’s more unlikely with is a gimmicky act like Fandango’s). This is where Rhodes and Sandow are – incredibly talented but overshadowed by a cycle of new acts coming and being given the spotlight; and while they are occasionally given prominent matches it seems right now that they might have to wait – possibly forever – for their next opportunity where they are given a push and attention.

This is what I mean by talent being ‘Catapulted to the Glass Ceiling’. WWE has enough faith in these talents to push them hard to the top, but usually not to the point where they win or even compete for top titles straight away, and especially with competition, they are almost doomed to failure to meet their expectations apart from the most notable of exceptions. To make things worse for the current up-and-comers, a bonafide top star in CM Punk is set to return to the WWE this Sunday at Payback, taking a top spot right away and creating even more competition for spots at the top and below as potential top stars are displaced. And so without further ado, some WWE Payback thoughts …

WWE Payback, 16/06/13, from the Allstate Arena, Chicago, IL, photo credit WWE

WWE Payback, 16/06/13, from the Allstate Arena, Chicago, IL, photo credit WWE

This wont be quite in the detail of the PPV previews from what i’ll go ahead and call the ‘RTV Era’ but you will get predictions in match order:

Match 1) World Heavyweight Championship Match: Dolph Ziggler (c) def. Alberto Del Rio
A sleeper match because Dolph has been away and the build has had nothing to do with him – a mistake seen as he could have been a visible presence on TV at least. These two could have a very good match together though to kick the show off hot, but Ziggler is champ to stay for a while.

Match 2) United States Championship Match: Dean Ambrose (c) def. Kane
Difficult o place it so early, but despite Ambrose’s talent and Kane’s veteran abilities, this will probably be the least intriguing match of all. After the strange decision to hand The Shield their first six-man loss ever on Smackdown, and seen as Ambrose has only been champion for a month, I don’t see him dropping the title because that would seriously damage one of the hottest acts on WWE TV.

Match 3) WWE Tag Team Championship Match: Seth Rollins & Roman Reigns (c) def. Daniel Bryan & Randy Orton
I feel we’ll get the ol’ Shield one-two here. Daniel Bryan is now the hottest act in wrestling, and the reaction in Chicago may well even match Punk’s, but saying that, I don’t think that leads to another tag title. I haven’t read any spoilers but an Orton heel turn seems possible – turning on Bryan maybe due to him stealing the show? At the very least they wont be able to stay on the same page against the ‘Hounds of Justice’, who will retain for the same reason Ambrose will.

Match 4) Divas Championship Match: AJ Lee def. Kaitlyn (c)
The Kaitlyn and AJ saga is one that has lasted, organically, for years. That makes it a welcome relief in the Divas division – an actual storyline that isn’t based on one simply calling the other a bitch. It’s telling that i’m eating it up and hoping Kaitlyn kicks the bejesus out of AJ for her treatment, but in my head the better story is AJ beating the emotionally broken Kaitlyn, holding a title alongside Dolph, and then having Kaitlyn, with the crowd right behind her, chase the title.

Match 5) Intercontinental Championship Match: Curtis Axel def. Wade Barrett (c) and he Miz
This was a terrible build made instantly more interesting by the introduction of current ‘hot new act’, Curtis Axel. In short, Axel can’t lose and i’ll be absolutely flabbergasted if he does. This is his first PPV match and that is a crucial spotlight and even if he didn’t take the fall, it would damage his shine. On father’s day, Axel will win the title his late father was one of the greatest champions of.

Match 6) CM Punk def. Chris Jericho
This is the most intriguing match of the night, and only not the main event because a Cena match with that stipulation is almost main event by default. When this match was made, it came without warning out of left field as what otherwise seemed a throwaway segment on Jericho’s Highlight Reel, and for that reason I then didn’t believe for a second that we’d get that match, and i’m still not sure if we’ll get a straight-up match between the two, but the degree to which they’ve advertised the match makes me think Punk will certainly appear and may well wrestle. What actually happens is up in the air though – it really smells like some sort of twist will have to happen. I don’t think Jericho turns because he wont be around to follow up on it soon as he goes on tour, but think Punk turning on Heyman for exploiting his name and turning face is possible, and that doesn’t rule out a match. Now Axel is in a match, I don’t see him replacing Punk, so I don’t know what would happen is Punk shows but doesn’t wrestle, but if Punk wrestles, he probably goes over (with the outside guess that if Punk turns on Heyman before the match, Axel comes out and costs Punk the match).

Match 7) WWE Championship Match: Three Stages of Hell – John Cena (c) def. Ryback
I think Cena retains here as you’d expect him to retain more than once. I think because he is losing on PPV AGAIN he will win the first fall clean somehow, gives him a rub of a clean pinfall against Cena and gives Cena the mountain to climb, but then Cena wins the next two falls to retain. It also gives Ryback a reason to demand another title match next PPV. Though Bryan/Cena is rumoured, it doesn’t quite make sense to me. I don’t see Bryan going heel seen as he is SO over, and though there is a possibility of a Cena-Bryan respect feud it seems a little off to me on face value. I would finally give Ryback the title at the next PPV and have the much smaller but hotter Bryan chase, and eventually win, the title from the monster.