For the love of everything that is good and holy, I sincerely hope I’m being worked. Surely, the results of last night’s Royal Rumble pay-per-view were intentionally infuriating, designed to incense the WWE fanbase even more before they finally get what they want: Daniel Bryan. Surely, after the lukewarm reaction he received at last week’s episode of “Raw,” Vince McMahon and company don’t still think the audience wants to see Batista in the main event of Wrestlemania. And surely, they can’t be capable of legitimately ignoring the rabid cheering for Bryan, the way chants for and created by the company’s hottest superstar pop up throughout entire events, not just matches in which he’s involved.
Sadly, I really don’t know.
There was a lot of anger in the second half of 2013, as the WWE gave Bryan a shot at the title at Summerslam, had him defeat John Cena cleanly, and then immediately drop the belt to Randy Orton via his Money in the Bank cash-in. After that, a string of screwy finishes, strange booking, and at the end of the year, another entry into the done-to-death Orton/John Cena series of matches[ref]But this time to unify the titles! That makes it seem new, right?[/ref] completely took the wind out of the sails of the WWE faithful. In the main event scene, at least. There are bright spots lower down the card right now, I’m not denying that, but we have a pretty big fish to fry at the moment.
Sunday night in Pittsburgh, Pa., we had the chance to turn it all around. The crowd was marvelous, a mixture of smarks[ref]Slang for “smart marks,” the snarky, usually Internet-born fans that keep up with backstage happenings but still get wrapped up in the storylines and scripted results. Essentially, pro wrestling’s version of meta[/ref] and casual fans, all of whom were rabid and very vocal. Compared to crowds like the painfully silent one in Baltimore at the beginning of the year’s “Old School Raw” episode, it was a godsend. Unfortunately for WWE execs, the crowd knew what they wanted, and they did not get it. The show’s opening bout between Bryan and Bray Wyatt was a phenomenal, physical affair. It was afforded well over 20 minutes and was quite possibly the first great match from the young Wyatt. Bryan is capable of carrying pretty much anyone to a great match, but the two superstars put on a fantastic bout that showed just how great they both are, and set an insanely high bar for the rest of the show. And the crowd knew it.
A fight between Brock Lesnar and The Big Show was kept mercifully short on actual wrestling but was ratcheted up to 10 in terms of storyline, as Lesnar absolutely destroyed Show following his victory, battering the big man with no less than 30 chair shots. The days of chair shots to the head are over, but when you see so many of them, even hits to the torso and legs seem brutal.
Then, things took a turn. Billed as the “biggest rematch in WWE history,” the millionth version of John Cena vs. Randy Orton was anything but big. Both guys are talented, and I do believe they both legitimately love the business. But the feud’s been done to death. Furthermore, the pace of the match didn’t pick up until the end. The crowd, however, had decided before it even began that they didn’t care and that it would suck. When a “we want divas” chant breaks out in the middle of a world title match, something has gone wrong. To their credit, the match wasn’t bad, and the rapidfire occurrence of false finishes[ref]The exchange of wrestler hits finisher, covers opponent, very close two count, crowd oohs and aahs, other wrestler hits finisher, covers opponent, another close two count, crowd oohs and aahs, repeat.[/ref] and both men using the other’s move-set proves that they knew they needed to try and create something to keep the crowd invested. Unfortunately, they just weren’t having it. When the Wyatt family came out at the end of the match, the deafening roar of cheers was partly because of Bray’s performance earlier in the show, but more so because something different was happening. They beat down Cena and it looks like the rumored Bray vs. Cena Wrestlemania match is going to happen.
Cue tragedy. The Royal Rumble match is one of the best showdowns of the year, an annual celebration of the glorious chaos of professional wrestling, where a ton of dudes fake fight each other meaningless belts and scripted rivalries. Two wrestlers start in the ring, a new one enters every 90 seconds until 30 have been introduced, and you battle it out until one man’s left standing. The only way to be eliminated is to be thrown over the top rope with both feet hitting the floor. It creates cool spots, such as Kofi Kingston being thrown over the rope, but caught by the debuting Alexander Rusev, who throws him onto the barricade, meaning his feet still haven’t touched the floor. He balances himself on the barricade, and tiptoes to the end, where he then jumps back to the apron, keeping himself in the match. It allows for surprise entrants, like Kevin Nash, who has obviously been going hard on the Just For Men gel, and JBL, who got up from his post at the announce table for a deliciously short stint in the ring, being tossed out as quickly as he entered.
But, most importantly, it starts the “road to Wrestlemania.” The winner of the Royal Rumble is given a title shot at the WWE’s biggest show of the year, Wrestlemania, where for one night, the event goes four hours and takes place in a 60,000+ seat stadium.[ref]This year it’s the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.[/ref] So, if you’re trying to sell that many tickets and get folks amped up, it’d probably make sense to have your most popular guy, if not win the thing, at least show up and get close, right? Someone should have told Vince McMahon that, because Daniel Bryan didn’t even appear in the match. The crowd was hot all night, appreciating the match and cheering for performances like that of Roman Reigns, who looked dominant and broke the record for most eliminations in the Rumble match. But, as the entrants wound down and we discovered that #30 was Rey Mysterio, and not Daniel Bryan, the roof came off. Boos rained down, a dull roar stayed as Batista, who returned last week to the sound of nobody caring, tossed Reigns over the top to win. Not only is he just handed a title shot after being back in the company for a week, his conditioning was non-existent, as the dude was blown up after barely cruising around the ring for 15 minutes. Couple that with a tattoo that resembles the Godsmack logo circling his bellybutton, and an awful new piece that covers his entire back, and the dude is a straight Ed Hardy rough draft, not meant for the title.
Immediately following the event, Bryan sent out a tweet lamenting his absence in the Rumble, saying the machine didn’t want him in the main event, and that “they” try to keep us down, but they can’t forever. It’s fitting for his character and his storyline, but it also plays extremely well into what we’ve known about Vince McMahon and the WWE for a long time: Vince loves big guys, the physical specimens, not the smaller guys like Bryan. Mick Foley also discussed the event, where earlier he had said he’d put a brick through his TV if Bryan didn’t win the Rumble. He claims he’s still going to follow through on that, but he also wrote a Facebook post expressing his complete disappointment with the results. Even Foley’s son, Dewey, wrote a now-deleted Facebook post, calling out Triple H and saying that it was Foley that even gave Trips a shot at being a main event player.
All very intense comments, seemingly full of vitriol and hatred, from folks who are directly tied to and employed by the company. Which makes it all the more beautiful if this is a work. If the WWE is simply using the tools of the so-called “reality era” to extend a storyline outside of the normal channels of its television shows, to get current employees and legends to cry out against the “authority” and the booking of shows, it’s brilliant. The problem is that this also calls for us to attribute a degree of subtlety and forward-thinking that we rarely see from the powers that be.
But, if it’s not a work, if this is the executives seriously choosing to ignore Bryan’s outstanding popularity, then we’ve got a problem. If Batista turns heel tonight and goes back to the douchey bro he played in his last run, that’ll help a little bit. But still, he’s going to Wrestlemania, in all likelihood to face Randy Orton for the title in a match that nobody gives two shits about. I hope they don’t put it last on the card, because that’s a surefire way to get the crowd, which will probably have a big contingent of smarks as well, turned against you, at what’s supposed to be your biggest show of the year.
Way back in August of last year, I praised the WWE for the swerve they booked at Summerslam, when Daniel Bryan won the title and then was screwed out of it. It looked like we were setting up for a magical underdog run, with the end result of Bryan finally capturing the gold in one of the greatest moments in WWE history. Instead, he’s been all but written out of the main event scene. There’s always a chance he’ll come back around, and I do believe he’ll eventually get the gold, but right now, the company is set on doing what they’ve done too many times when it comes to the main event, bringing in older stars they think can draw instead of taking a risk on the young guys working day in and day out and getting a wonderful crowd reaction for it.
To make matters worse, as the crowd relentlessly booed him while he celebrated his win last night, Batista was kind enough to flip off a few fans in the entryway, and then do Bryan’s “Yes!” arm movements with the middle fingers raised. This, in the WWE’s PG era, should be a cardinal sin that gets you punished. Instead, it’s what the Wrestlemania headliner is allowed to do.