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.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.