The Sunday of Royal Rumble is traditionally one of the best days of the wrestling season. It kicks off Wrestlemania season in that storylines and feuds begin to take shape and the card for the biggest show in the squared circle takes form. It hypes up fans and gives us something to look forward to for the next few months.
Unfortunately, this year’s Royal Rumble provided anything but that.
If you watched the pay-per-view Sunday, you know exactly what I’m talking about. As fans, we all anticipated Daniel Bryan to make a surprise entrance at Number 30. We expected the Internet hero and bearded sensation to run out, sending the crowd into a frenzy as ‘Yes!’ chants as he battled the other superstars for a title shot at Wrestlemania. But as the final clock counted down and adrenaline began spreading throughout our blood, it was the unfortunate Rey Mysterio who entered the ring much to the underwhelmed crowd’s dismay. Frustration transitioned into a shower of boos throughout the arena, as the vicious Pittsburgh crowd cried out the WWE hierarchy: Where was Daniel Bryan? Why can’t you give us what we want? Even Roman Reigns, a member of the much-despised heel faction “Shield” and eventual runner-up in the Rumble, garnered cheers from the crowd as he faced off against the eventual winner, Batista. As for Batista? His Rumble victory probably didn’t go how he envisioned as “The Animal” got the brunt of the Pittsburgh hostility. But how could this happen? He had just returned to the WWE after a four-year hiatus and was cheered just days before. Despite the crowd reaction, some could argue the Rumble was a success as it did what any event should: It left the people wanting more.
Which brings us to Wednesday. As the WWE management was in full-blown crisis management mode due to the Daniel Bryan absence, CM Punk reportedly walked out on the company due to frustration with older superstars coming back for brief stints around Wrestlemania season and outshining everyday roster talent. In other words, losing Punk is like having the Seahawks bringing back Shaun Alexander this Sunday and Marshawn Lynch saying “Meh, fuck this, I’m not playing in the Super Bowl.” Punk is legitimately one of the biggest draws in the WWE and a fan-favorite and while there is an outside chance that this is a work by the creative team at the WWE, it’s a huge loss for the WWE and its fans. Arguably the biggest star in the past six months was not included in one of the most prestigious events of the year, another superstar walked out just mere months before Wrestlemania, and the fans are visibly furious.
What exactly is happening here?
Let’s flash back about 10 years. The Attitude Era was coming to a close and Vince McMahon and the WWE were ushering in the new chapter in their history. Stars like The Rock wanted to dip their toes into other ventures such as Hollywood, leaving the WWE to push newer raw talent. Hindering the transition even more was the emphasis on PG-content, as the blood and violence in the old content had become overwhelming for television. This left the WWE in a bit of a conundrum: How could they keep the older generation interested without chair shots and death-defying stunts the crowd was used to as unpolished wrestlers tried to fill the boots of departed, adored superstars?
The answer was simple: Bring back fan-favorites for brief stints and have them fill out the seemingly bare Wrestlemania card. The WWE tried this when they brought in Hulk Hogan and booked him in a match vs. the Rock. The result was a resounding success as fans of all ages showered their love for both competitors. Naturally, what was a one-time Band-Aid solution eventually became tradition. It allowed guys like The Rock, Stone Cold, and Batista to explore other opportunities in their life and fill out a watered down cast of superstars during the most important time of year. For years, this solution worked, as one could argue that there hasn’t been a larger than life superstar in the past decade aside from perhaps John Cena.
That all changed this year.
As the WWE has done in past years, it decided to bring back major stars of the past to juice up the talent and excite the crowd. But what the WWE didn’t realize is that the WWE fans are as excited as ever about the multitude of rising talent already in place for the first time in years.
With programs like NXT, the talent development side of the company has seen a rapid rise like it has never seen before. Unlike years past where a dearth of talent forced guys like The Miz and Ryback into star roles way before they were ready, superstars like Bray Wyatt and Roman Reigns legitimately seem ready for stardom. Wyatt not only has the best gimmick in the WWE currently, but also has become one of if not the best guy cutting promos on the mic. As for Roman Reigns? Well if Reigns slamming the mat like a madman and cocking his wrist as his prey Batista lay helpless in the ring didn’t give you chills, this television programming just isn’t for you. But as much as fans want more and more of these guys, it’s clear they just aren’t quite ready to takeover and headline a Wrestlemania, especially the all-important 30th edition of the pay-per-view. Reigns isn’t exactly The Rock on the mic, and Wyatt has fully proved himself as a competitor in the ring, though he did a damn good job of it in his match with Daniel Bryan this past Sunday.
Speaking of Bryan, this brings us to the next part of the issue: It seems as if the WWE doesn’t exactly know what to do with him. Up until this past week, management thought they had a radical ‘Internet’ superstar that only appealed to an older generation that was sick of seeing revenue-generating guys that the kids love like John Cena and Randy Orton over and over again. What they didn’t realize is that they had the the next Stone Cold Steve Austin on their hands. We should give management credit, as it’s rumoured that there are major rewrites going on by the creative team that will give Bryan a bigger role. But having Bryan pushed down by Triple H and Stephanie McMahon-Helmsley time and time again as a storyline has clearly taken its toll on the larger audience.
With a rise of new talent and the biggest superstar of the past six months having the generally subdued new age crowd in a frenzy, the older guys coming in just before ‘Mania season weren’t exactly welcomed with open nostalgic arms. To compound the problem even more, Batista (and to a certain extent Brock Lesnar) didn’t exactly look like seasoned veterans in the ring coming out of the block. Batista in particular was sloppy in his Rumble win, and the crowd noticed fairly quickly and turned on him. And if the fan frustration with the arrival of the older generation wasn’t apparent to management, CM Punk’s departure should be a wakeup call to the WWE.
The WWE is at a crossroads. It’s safe to say at this point that management mishandled the Daniel Bryan phenomenon. Still, even a very intelligent guy like Vince McMahon couldn’t predict how big of a star Daniel Bryan would become, so it’s hard to blame them completely. But beyond that, the newer talent just isn’t ready for big stage, especially a stage as grand and historically significant as Wrestlemania 30. And to top it off, the older superstars they brought in have been underwhelming and a slap to the face to the dedicated fans. So where do we go from here? Sure Bryan might get a bigger title push, but for now we’re stuck with guys like Batista, who I do think will improve in the ring and is legitimately good on the mic. Unfortunately, we’re going to have to deal with it. And while it’s easy to blame Triple H and management, I really want to emphasize that this is a revolution that nobody saw coming. If anything, blame history, and blame the WWE using a Wrestlemania buildup model that has worked as a crutch to support a weaker roster for the past 10 years. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel, as beyond Wrestlemania 30 we have a lot to look out for. As mentioned, Reigns, Bray Wyatt, and even guys like Big E. Langston and Antonio Cesaro are all poised to breakout. And if that can happen, we may move into a WWE renaissance that we haven’t had since the Attitude Era.