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.

 

 

 

 

A Round-table On WrestleMania 32 and It’s Divisive Build

 

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The poster for this year’s WrestleMania at JerryWorld, credit: WWE

A couple of months ago, I wrote an article about Daniel Bryan, his career, and the magical but fleeting zenith of it that was WrestleMania 30. In that article, I mentioned the probability of writing about this year’s ‘Show of Shows’, though at the time, I didn’t have a handle on what to write about. Now, just days before Mania, I’m still struggling to grasp how I feel about the show, and it strikes me that – to differing extents – that is how I’ve felt about the builds to each WrestleMania for the past three years, starting at that show.

For this article, I had initially planned something snappier than the veritable essay I wrote about The Last of Us, but this being about what I warmly refer to as ‘The Real Christmas’, I’ve decided to take a page from Vince McMahon’s dog eared playbook and bring in some big names for a one-shot deal to write about this year’s WrestleMania. Of course that means this is going to be lengthy, but I think the insights of these wonderful, smart, and funny people will provide some insight on to how WrestleMania has come to be of late. Before we get to them though, I’m going to introduce my point of view to measure it against as I get the feeling that this year’s show has had a wider, though not necessarily fervent, range of feelings towards it.

I don’t know if this is a trend I have convinced myself of, but it seems like after WrestleMania 29, the ‘Road to WrestleMania’ became a bumpier and more fluid place. Before that, once the Royal Rumble was done it felt like WrestleMania matches were set in stone. Approaching WrestleMania 30, until the latter stages of the build, it seemed like we were getting Orton-Batista, only for the collective will of fans and probable reactionary nous of WWE brass to enter Daniel Bryan in to an equation which left the main event unclear until after the show was underway. Since then, the Road to WrestleMania has had the air of a negotiation period between fans and WWE bookers with WWE offering fans a main event, fans weighing up their approval of the players involved and voting with their cheers and boos regardless of the presentation before them.

This isn’t right of wrong necessarily, it just feels different, but there certainly are pitfalls of this form of build. The Royal Rumble, unfortunately, has become a referendum on Roman Reigns over and above the great, open-ended spectacle it once was, in which Reigns enters, is booed relentlessly until he is eliminated, and whoever squares up against him is instantly supported. This has led to nothing short of surreal scenes two years running at The Rumble, both associated with Reigns. Last year, the near unimaginable happened when fans drowned Reigns and a bemused looking The Rock of all people in boos after Roman won his WrestleMania shot. Conversely this year, Triple H became a hero to the people, somehow, simply for stopping Reigns from winning. I still enjoy the Rumble, but their Reigns-centricity has been an unfortunate turn for it of late. What’s worse, is i’m not sure how to even fix the trend.

On top of the effect on the Rumble generally, I think this veil of negotiation, whether or not it’s just a mirage cultivated by the WWE, has led to a climate in which WrestleMania can strike gold, as it did in New Orleans, but which I fear could also fail just as spectacularly. This year, my main feeling about WrestleMania is one of confusion. I’m confused about how to feel about Reigns and Triple H, I have no idea what is going on between Shane McMahon and The Undertaker, I’m not exactly sure what The New Day are, and I don’t understand why Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens can’t just slug it out without five others, including Zack Ryder, sharing the ring with them.

I think Reigns has a heap of potential, but it is clear that something isn’t working. His spectrum of responses go generally from mild approval to the tunnel vision hatred of the crowd from the go-home RAW. Meanwhile, the booking alterations to address this seem to be miniscule while Reigns himself still seems on auto-pilot most of the time. Meanwhile, contextually, Trips is still ‘The Authority’ heel, but when he’s intense, committed, and when he’s beating Reigns down, he is beloved. At this stage, it would seem simply tone-deaf to give us the Reigns victorious confetti ending and the program appears to be crying out for some deus ex machina similar to that of Seth Rollins closing last year’s show.

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Reigns cashing in Money In The Bank and keeping the title from Reigns turned a good, fun show, in to a great show, credit: WWE

At least contextually, the Reigns-HHH story follows rough logic; the Shane-Taker feud is perhaps the most confusing main event program WrestleMania has ever seen. Shane-O got a great response upon his return because people associate him with some cool moments, and genuinely missed him because he is kinda goofy and hasn’t been seen from in years, but by the end of the night, it was buried under a brow-furrowingly strange match-up with The Undertaker. Against most people, Shane would be a loveable fan favourite (in an alternate universe, Shane vs Triple H would be a logical barnstormer), but against The Undertaker, he is sharing the spotlight with the WrestleMania G.O.A.T. respected by all in a feud that is full of sizzle but bereft of meaning, with more equaling less. Between the high stakes that stink of contrivance, and the splitting of loyalties between the combatants, it is hard to find the hook for this. I like the idea of Shane sticking it to Vince (at least in kayfabe) and changing RAW, which is a weird thing to tease fans with if it isn’t to happen, but especially at WrestleMania, I don’t want to see Taker lose to Shane, especially with the caveat that it would trigger it being his last WrestleMania. I respect Shane and the crazy things he does, but I just wish he was doing it against someone else. To make it worse, Shane has sounded monotone and shaky throughout, his words not matching his actions, while The Undertaker just seems to be moving through it all, a pawn on a bigger board. Of course, part of that is intentional, but the effect that should have of creating intrigue hasn’t come to pass as a result of the strange ingredients surrounding it.

The fact is, WrestleMania 32 will probably be great. Intrigue for WrestleMania 31 wasn’t in a much better state than this year’s until the end of the event and Seth Rollins’ intervention. I won’t go off half-cocked on the idea that WWE may be restling on laurels in the knowledge that people will watch Mania because they are subscribed to the WWE Network or can get access to the Network for free; but I will say that I get the feeling that their successes in the last two years with standout Manias that succeeded almost in spite of their developmental build process has made WWE somewhat complacent about this year’s show. Is a great WrestleMania worth a build process that involves months of mostly bland TV focused on manipulating and alienating fans just so the big event can succeed in response? More importantly, what happens if WWE can’t replicate the magic of this recent formula and WrestleMania 32 isn’t even that good? What do we have left then?

So wrapping up my part of the article, I will go through what I care about on the show, what I want to happen, and what I think will happen before handing over to my friends and comrades. I won’t be reading what they write before me, and will only minimally edit, so similarities in opinion can be read as something of a trend (within a tiny microcosm of course).

What I Care About At WrestleMania 32
I’m currently most looking forward to Ambrose vs Lesnar. Lesnar and Heyman are Lesnar and Heyman. Heyman’s hype is always second to none at this time of year, and Lesnar is easy to hype as he retains the impression at all times that he might tear someone apart. Here, his journey from amused, condescending humouring of Ambrose to someone who he wants to tear apart because he won’t go away has frequently been the most intriguing part of the show and Lesnar has been a great adversary for Ambrose to grow against. For the first time in months, Ambrose was able to show what the ‘Lunatic Fringe’ is beyone a haircut-sounding piece of marketing and stands above all others as someone willing to throw his body in to the meat grinder because he loves it and it’s all he knows. The street fight stipulation helps the match too as it legitimately plays to Ambrose’s character against the prize-fighting Beast, gives Ambrose legitimate hope in the match, and promises a degree of grindhouse insanity.

The second match I particularly care about is the Divas title match. The build has spun it’s wheels a bit for the last few weeks, but the mixture of the history and chemistry the women have in-built from NXT mixed with Charlotte’s coming in to her own as a condescending, fathered-in heel, the clear fun that Becky Lynch is having while clearly passionate, and Sasha showing glimpses of the true ‘Boss’ while interacting with Becky has made this feel like a fulfilling feud that should culminate in an exciting match.

I’m excited about Jericho and Styles, and seeing Zayn and Owens on the big stage, but both aren’t so developed that I am especially looking forward to them as perhaps WrestleMania demands. Saying that, I think if we get the best of Jericho, his match with Styles could be an absolute show-stealer.

Also, the New Day’s entrance and potential fourth partner.

What Do I Want To Happen at WrestleMania 32
I think this Mania will live or die, believe it or not, based on the success of it’s main event. While i’m most baffled by the Shane-Taker feud, I think it is so baffling that it can almost get away with being OK as long as Shane gets in some sports, no one gets hurt, and we move on. On the other hand, while I do like Reigns, I couldn’t help but have a bit of an empty, disappointed reaction to him overcoming the odds, surrounded by confetti. Triple H seems to be in amazing shape, and I trust him implicitly to tear it up, but Reigns needs to do something new – not necessarily because he’s doing something wrong, but because the fans – rightly or wrongly – will reject it out of hand if he doesn’t.

If it was up to me, I would certainly be looking at the double-turn. Triple H’s recent promos about obsession, and striving to be the best is easily translated to a more sports-like heroic figure, fighting for the company and ‘sport’ he loves. I’d like to see Reigns give in to his petulance and not be able to take down Trips legitimately while we see Hunter give everything he has to succeed. I think Reigns has to win in these circumstances, and rob Triple H of the title. If i’m being really greedy, I would love to see this trigger a road to where Triple H becomes an authority figure more like we have at NXT – a respected veteran who genuinely wants what’s best for business, and does it with a nod to respect and fairness. Reigns’ turn can perhaps be linked to whatever the result of the Shane/Taker match is. The embittered loser of the battle between Shane and Vince could take Reigns corner as a heel, proclaiming him as the future of the company and a way to keep an investment in the company following the event. That may be a step too far, but if done well, it could give the event as a whole a cool narrative thread.

What Do I Think Will Happen at WrestleMania 32
The only thing I am particularly confident about at the event are that The New Day will beat The League of Nations given the gulf in interest and popularity between the two teams.
Beyond that, I simply don’t see Shane beating Taker, so ridiculous would that be at WrestleMania.
And for the main event, it just seems like Reigns is nailed on to win as Triple H only makes sense as champion almost as a metaphor. The question is whether Reigns wins as a face or heel, and that i’m not really sure of. WWE have done a good job in recent years of delivering great WrestleManias in spite of their own booking and build, and I do trust them to do that, so I see Reigns winning in a way that is somehow less than pristine.

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Ambrose seems primed to shine on the big stage, win or lose. Credit: WWE

Luke Healey (@pitxapillar)
More will be written about this one day, but the era of wrestling we currently find ourselves in – common wisdom has it that Grantland columnist David Shoemaker coined the term “reality era” in the aftermath of 2011’s Money in the Bank PPV, but looking back it appears Shoemaker initially favoured the phrase “worked shoot era” – is defined no matter what you call it by repeated attempts on the part of management to negotiate hostile crowd responses to the product. If the rebellion against a stale main event scene incited by CM Punk in his now-legendary “pipe bomb” promo that year set the precedent for arena crowds crossing the streams of kayfabe and vocally demanding that the “workrate” guys get a look in on the upper-card spots typically reserved for the “body” guys, it was Daniel Bryan that pushed this phenomenon to its peak in the three years that followed.

Wrestlemania XXX was not the end of the story, however: somehow, despite the clear signalling from WWE that they had taken note of the relative crowd reactions to appearances by Bryan and Batista (who was supposed to be the brightest star on that year’s mega-card) and had adjusted their plans accordingly, we are still witnessing the kind of booking that made the “pipe bomb” and the “yes movement” seem so necessary and so vital in their moment. The decisions that made Roman Reigns’ rise to the top of the company by contrast seem inorganic and ill-advised don’t need to be rehashed here; what is most significant in the build-up to this year’s Wrestlemania is that this time the WWE don’t appear to be prepared to pull out any measures to adjust course in the wake of Reigns’ increasingly calamitous audience reception as the company’s apparent top babyface.

The legacy of the previous two years’ Wrestlemania shows has been decided by thoughtful kayfabe responses to real problems with hostile crowds: in 2014 Bryan was worked into the main event via a choreographed fan “occupation” of Raw and a match of the year candidate with Triple H, and last year Seth Rollins’ deux ex machina run-in with the Money in the Bank briefcase spared WWE from either having to hand Reigns a defeat in his first Wrestlemania main-event or to find out what a smark-filled Levi’s Stadium sounds like when a man the crowd refuses to love gets the win over a competitor that had been for a year been built up as nigh-on indestructible.

The build to both these events was fraught at best and laughable at worst, but the last two Wrestlemania cards ended up delivering in a big way; it might not just be a case of recency bias when fans repeatedly proclaim these two shows to be among the best in Wrestlemania history. Which begs the question, how do the WWE pull it out the bag this time round, having passed up the opportunity to work Dean Ambrose and Brock Lesnar into the main event, and without the convenient device of a Money in the Bank cash-in? The WWE title match is one of the less promising matches on the card, but we’re not dealing here with something in the nature of The Rock and John Cena’s main events in 2012 and 2013; for all that the New Day’s first appearance on the Wrestlemania main show, the seven-man ladder match, the Ambrose-Lesnar street fight and, most notably, the triple threat match for the soon-to-be re-branded Divas’ Championship seem like the best bets for all-out pro wrestling gold, finding out what becomes of Reigns’ push is still an extremely interesting proposition. Fans, performers and bookers are still finding their way through the corridors that Punk and Bryan, to say nothing of NXT and its indie-inflected alumni, built in the first half of this decade, and this year’s Wrestlemania can’t help but go a long way towards showing us where we’re all at – assuming the company’s top brass are inclined to listen.

Team Total Divas vs Team BAD & Blonde
This match is mainly interesting because of the sudden introduction of two women – Emma and Eva Marie – that have lately been developing their character work effectively down in NXT. I sort of assume that from now on every call-up will have a proper fanfare, but I guess the two of them had already appeared on the main roster in any case. Have they explained yet what Lana’s beef is with Brie Bella?

Kalisto v Ryback
Going off what people have said about their Smackdown match last year I fully expect this to be an entertaining affair but the pre-show slot is hardly a vote of confidence for either man, especially given the pomp and circumstance with which the US title match was introduced last year.

Andre Memorial Battle Royal
It’s quite obvious that this is where Bray gets given something to do. Hopefully he, Rowan and Strowman get embroiled in some faction warfare with the Social Outcasts, leading down the line to Bo Dallas becoming the Wyatt he was born to be.

AJ Styles v Chris Jericho
It’s the sort of thing that would look careless in other circumstances, but I quite like that the build to this match is based off a number of recent in-ring encounters. There’s an effective asymmetry to the idea of a fourth match that spills out of the best-of-three series as a result of personal vendetta. On the other hand, we’ve seen these two pull out all the stops numerous times before, so I can’t see how this match ends up anything other than overshadowed.

Kevin Owens v Sami Zayn v Dolph Ziggler etc. etc.
I’m glad they’re not rushing into the Owens-Zayn blow-off in their respective first Wrestlemania appearances, but there are other aspects of this match which I seriously regret. Neville belongs here, but so does Tyler Breeze, and a match bringing together more former NXT talent (Sin Cara and Zack Ryder don’t count) would have made for a very effective use of this stipulation. Will still be fun, obviously.

New Day v League of Nations
All I want from this is for The New Day to ride out on unicorns, gradually parting to reveal their mystery fourth man, who pulls up in a golden unicorn-drawn chariot…it’s their captain, Seth Rollins.

Charlotte v Sasha v Becky
The news about the WWE’s decision to follow NXT in ditching the “Diva’s” label and bringing back the Women’s Championship is great news, as is the suggestion that this match might get a full twenty minutes. This needs to be the first example of a properly long, emotive, high-stakes NXT-style women’s match on the main roster, and I’m sure it will be. I’d love to see Sasha walk out as champion, but there’ll be plenty of time for that down the line.

Ambrose v Lesnar
Probably the most exciting match on the card. There’s a real sense of narrative purpose and momentum to this one, and the outcome is unpredictable. They’re teasing blood and gore, so I’m hoping for something that comes close to the drama of the “Grave Consequences” or “Cero Miedo” matches from the last season of Lucha Underground. I’m fairly sure this is the match that cements Ambrose as one of the company’s top stars for years to come.

Shane v Taker
You have to look through the recent booking short-cuts and think about this match in terms of its utter strangeness, a strangeness which was more palpable when Shane made his initial return last month. Shane McMahon. Wrestling the Undertaker. Inside Hell in a Cell. What!? This could go all over the place, both literally and figuratively, and is unmissable despite all the narrative mis-steps that have been made in the build.

(Editor’s note: Also check out Luke’s writing archive on tumblr, whatever that is).

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WrestleMania has a lot more to compete with these days, including bona fide dream matches under it’s nose. Credit: WWE

Adam Wilson (@gingerpimernel)
(Disclaimer: I make no pretense of being an impartial journalist. This simply predictions for each match, and what I’m looking forward to most, and who I want to win)

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Wrestlemania. The Grandaddy of Th-REDACTED: Wrestlemania is henceforth the Extremely fit and virile young man of them all looms. Biggest wrestling night of the year, easy. It’s become a thing unto itself, with independent companies from throughout the US around the world, converging on whatever city The Big Yin is running in. Even around the world, such as here in the UK, companies run shows on the night with screenings afterwards. It’s a great time to be a fan. Even if WWE isn’t your cup of hot beverage, there’ll be something on for you.

Truthfully, I feel underhyped. I’m more excited for the shows I’ll attend in person that day (Fierce Females and ICW, in that order), and definitely more so for NXT Takeover, because, y’know, SHINSUKE NAKAMURA. It’s not that I think the matches will be bad, far from it. It’s just the stories leading into it that haven’t gripped me personally (I watch shows to be INTO them, not to sit and go “Ooh, he’s selling that move well!”). Then again, people are daft about the Shane McMahon stuff and I don’t like The Rock, so what do I know anyway? That said, there is stuff in there I’m excited about, and the spectacle itself is always fun. Still no idea how they’ll top last years ‘OMG RUSEV IN A TANK’, but let’s take a look.

(note: I’ve no clue what the running order is, so I’m just going to do them in the order they’re listed on Wikipedia)

US TITLE MATCH: KALISTO VS THE RYBACK
Consensus seems to be this’ll be on the pre-show, and that’s probably fair. Not much of a build other than Ryback going “Here, you’re good and all, but I’m The Big Guy, and Big Belts For Big Guys”. Despite the slagging Ryback gets online, this’ll probably be a fun enough match. Wee flippy guys like Kalisto are usually a good foil for big guys (but for The Big Guy? Who knows?), David ‘n Goliath and all that. Anyhoo, my money’s on Kalisto to win.

THE TOTAL DIVAS VS B.A.D. AND BLONDE
Again, lifting that name off Wikipedia, and I got confused at first because I went “Here, Naomi and Tamina aren’t even remotely blonde”, until I cottoned on that it’s ‘B.A.D.’ as in Team B.A.D., AND Blonde, as in blonde lassies, because I’m a bit slow sometimes. Folk are moaning about Eva Marie making the save, as if WWE want folk to like her, even though her partners treated her arrival like a fart in a lift. Hopefully, like with NXT, they’ve realised no one likes her and play to that. Still shocking she gets a Wrestlemania payday and Bayley doesn’t though. B.A.D. & Blonde to win, probably with Lana pinning Brie Bella.

THE USOS VS THE DUDLEYS
I keep forgetting this one is happening. Which is a shame, because The Usos are fun as hell. Not really much to say about this one, other than I hope The Usos win to continue the ‘old Attitude Era duffers getting battered by the new breed’ thing they seemed to start at Wrestlemania 30.

(now I’m switching to reverse Wikipedia order, because otherwise I’ll finish on New Day v The League of Nations, and that CLEARLY isn’t main eventing)

THE NEW DAY VS THE LEAGUE OF NATIONS
The League of Nations confuse me, but then again, WWE’s historic “Multiculturalism? BOOOOO!” attitude generally does. I really like Barrett, and LOVE Rusev, and want better than this for them, but I cannot bring myself to cheer against The New Day, who’ve consistently been the most entertaining thing on WWE TV for the best part of a year now. That said, League of Nations will probably win, because there’s more of them, which I’m OK with because the titles aren’t on the line, and The New Day need to keep those FOREVER.

ANDRE THE GIANT MEMORIAL BATTLE ROYAL
So who’s all in this? From what I’ve seen/remember, The Social Outcasts, Kane, Big Show, Darren Young, The Ascension… and I can’t remember anyone else offhand. According to this handy and informative Wikipedia article, Tyler Breeze, Mark Henry, Jack Swagger, Fandango, Damien Sandow, Goldust, & R-Truth have also been announced. I know they’re building the whole Kane/Big Show “we’re huge so your efforts to hurl us out are FRUITLESS” thing, but let’s face it, they’ve lost nearly every Over The Top style match they’ve ever been in. My pick here is Curtis Axel of the Social Outcasts, because it’d be an amazing tribute to his dad, after the lovely one he did on Raw the other night.

AJ STYLES VS CHRIS JERICHO AGAIN
I find it a bit weird this is on without a stipulation, given the amount of times it’s happened already. 2/3 falls maybe? It’ll be good, don’t get me wrong, but it’s been done to death. Also, while I’m at it, their bit on Raw was weird. AJ Styles coming out like “I’m not going away and I’m going to chant obnoxiously til I get what I want” is the logic of a four year old throwing a tantrum, and should not be encouraged. Meanwhile, Jericho initially refuses the challenge, which’d mean no Wrestlemania match, because he doesn’t believe they should, so he’s actually a man getting booed for putting his principles ahead of monetary gain. Weird. Anyway, this’ll be good and AJ Styles will win.

INTERCONTINENTAL TITLE MULTIMAN MATCH
Again, thrown together and weird, but it’ll be heaps of fun. I didn’t like that Sami Zayn’s first pinfall over Kevin Owens was not only in a throwaway match on Raw, but didn’t actually get mentioned. To be honest, I can’t decide between Sami and Owens here. I can’t see any of the other guys winning it, but I’d prefer a Zayn title win over Big Kev to be one on one, so I’ll go with Owens for the victory. Also, non Shane O Mac mad bump of the night will probably go to Ziggler.

DIVAS TITLE MATCH: CHARLOTTE VS BECKY LYNCH VS SASHA BANKS
Of all the matches, this is probably the one I’m most looking forward to. I really want Becky to win this (even though my head says Sasha will), but most of all I just don’t want Charlotte to win, and nothing makes  a match more exciting than caring about the outcome. Anyway, between here and NXT, they’ve all shown they have great chemistry together, and in my opinion Sasha and Becky are two of the best wrestlers on the roster, regardless of gender, so this should be fantastic.

SHANE MCMAHON VS THE UNDERTAKER
I realise I’m overwhelmingly in the minority here, but I don’t really care about this one. As I said in the previous match, nothing draws you into a match more than caring who wins, and honestly here, I don’t. I’ve always felt a bit ’emperors new clothes’ when it comes to Shane. He’s done breathtaking dives and that, but as is so often said in wrestling, you should care about the person taking the dive, not the dive itself. The idea of Undertaker having a competitive match with him is baffling to me. That said, if Shane wins, and it puts an end to the era of the heel GM/authority figure on Raw, I’m all for it. Even more so if the prediction I saw that this is how they’ll debut Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows is actually correct. So aye. Shane to win here, probably, unless he doesn’t.

BROCK LESNAR VS DEAN AMBROSE
This is the other match I’m really looking forward to. Brock Lesnar, by virtue of being Brock Lesnar makes near enough any opponent he has an automatic underdog, and Ambrose is built for that. Taking every hit the most powerful man in wrestling can give, before laughing, thumbing his nose at Paul Heyman, and sticking his tongue out and waggling his fingers on the end of his nose at Lesnar, before being suplexed into Row Z or something. And not Row Z at the AT&T Stadium, but wherever they’re hosting Raw. And not the post-WM Raw, but one in like, three weeks. That said, Ambrose is my pick to win, so they can finally make him The Man, when he topples his BFF Roman Reigns, right? Right?

Let me dream, FFS.

TRIPLE H VS ROMAN REIGNS
I’m really trying not to be negative here, but I’m struggling to think of a Wrestlemania main event I’ve cared less about that didn’t contain The Miz or The Rock (nothing against you lads if you’re reading, but *blows massive raspberry*). Again, I’m sure it’ll be a good, physical match, I just don’t care about the outcome. I don’t hate Roman the way a lot do, but nothing about him as a solo act makes me want to get behind him. For me, watching him post-Shield is like watching Chris Cornell slum it in Audioslave after Soundgarden. And as much as I love what he’s done with NXT, I’ve still not forgiven Triple H for 2003. Roman’s obviously going to win, so hopefully if/when he feuds with Ambrose afterwards, I’ll be emotionally invested instead of watching it, knowing it’s good, but not being able to get into it. Though my dream ending for this is for Joe Hendry to make a surprise debut and beat them both. This is doubtful though, as he’s on at ICW just hours before, and thus Joe won’t be able to make it as he’s billing himself as the Local Hero again. Maybe if he still called himself the Global Hero, we’d be in with a shout.

I don’t want to end this on a down note, so I’ll note that I had similar feelings before Wrestlemania 30, and that was bloody terrific, so hopefully I’m wrong again. And as I said, there’s something for everyone this weekend, so I’ll have a splendid Wrestlemania weekend anyway. I hope you do too.

IMPARTIAL JOURNALIST VIEW OF THE REAL MAIN EVENT
Shinsuke Nakamura is going to knee Sami Zayn to pieces. This is because according to my very real journalist sources, Shinsuke Nakamura is the King of Strong Style, whereas Sami Zayn is not.

(Sami, I love you, I love you lots, but you are not the King of Strong Style. Shinsuke Nakamura is)

So there it is. If you want to win Big Cash Money, there are betting websites you can visit where you can put every penny you have on these results. I strongly recommend you do if you want to be filthy stinking rich. Put the HOUSE on them. My name is Adam Wilson. Follow me on Twitter @GingerPimpernel if you so wish. I like wrestling and if you’re reading this, chances are you do too. So let’s talk wrestling and have a laugh.

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Multi-man ladder matches have become a WrestleMania staple, but does the hidden blockbuster story therein expose WWE’s wasteful approach to the show? Credit: WWE (and Snickers, I suppose)

Jacob Kerray (Not on Twitter, but everywhere else. Look him up)
I’ve heard more and more people who haven’t previously voiced any interest mention Mania this month. It makes me think Vince’s grand plan is working. For him not for wrestling fans. I think their attention is still centred on The Rock more than it is any of their current roster, especially judging by their most ubiquitous hype video. Vince doesn’t need to impress us, he has us hooked. We are junkies.

The quality of wrestling since I came back to watching it regularly around 2011 – coincidentally when Rock returned – has in my opinion exponentially increased and the athleticism and stronger style has made for some amazing matches. I can’t, however, think of one storyline they have told properly in terms of planned build and culmination. This isnt to say there hasn’t been good storylines but the good ones have happened by accident when the fans or talent have hijacked the show. I was watching the build to Starrcade with Sting vs Hogan recently, and Sting said with no irony, that ‘It’s best to keep me mouth shut’. The build was all based on either guys reputation and the fans desire to see babyface vs heel. The storyline worked so well and was so simple it made the panto style match seem good.

Can you imagine what Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, AJ Styles, and in fact any of WWE’s current talent – given the consistent level of quality they have – would do with a well considered simply plotted out storyline? With every opportunity they have been given to tell a simple good storyline that doesn’t expose either party they have missed and over exposed someone. Top to bottom of the card I have a problem with every part, highlighted mainly by Kalisto vs Ryback. To give those two a singles match but make the Intercontinental title match with a built-in storyline a 6 man spot fest is indicative of where they are, confused and panicky.

The only hope I see is that it will come out the same as last year. Low expectations leave room to be surprised. If there is not a major storyline shift after this Mania the. I will really feel like a junky sucking at Vince’s dry tits.

 

WrestleMania 30: Daniel Bryan and Letting the Good Times Roll

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Bryan celebrating his iconic moment, and a moment that will stay with me forever. Credit: Bleacher Report

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.

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The reason I was at WrestleMania 30, The Undertaker makes his chilling entrance. Credit: sparxentertainment.com

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.

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The Rock is stunned by the hateful reaction Roman Reigns got after his 2015 Royal Rumble win. Credit: justyouraveragefan.sportsblog.com

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.

 

 

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.