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Next Stop: New Orleans

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David: As I write this, we are less than three weeks away from WrestleMania XXX. As we found out on the March 17 edition of Monday Night Raw, Triple H will face Daniel Bryan, with the winner entering the main event, which now will be a triple threat match. We’ll talk about that concept in depth, I’m sure, but I actually want to rewind a bit. On the March 10 episode of Raw, Daniel Bryan filled the ring with members of the #YesMovement, “hijacked” the show and set up his storyline with Triple H and his potential entry into the WrestleMania main event.

When it happened, I was standing in my living room “Yes”-ing my little heart out, but when I went on Twitter a little later, and the next day, it seemed like some people didn’t like it as much as I had. I saw reactions that ranged from jubilation to “that was so corny.” I’m not sure if I ever saw a full reaction from you… and even if I did, maybe our readers didn’t. What was your reaction to that scene, and if it wasn’t entirely positive, what do you think could have been done differently from a storytelling perspective?

• • •

Scott: The scene itself left something to be desired, though I can’t quite pin it down. For one thing, the crowd (the real Memphis crowd, not the staged occupiers) lacked the unison intensity of the “Yes!” chants that accompanied Bryan’s forceful exit from the Wyatt Family in a steel cage on a mid-January Raw. That was a goosebump moment as it unfolded live. The Memphis bit, though, as it played out seemed more like something that would look great in still images and the inevitable promo video than a “Raw moment” worth replaying for many years to come. (I have similar feelings about the Lawler-Shield-Kane bit from March 17. It was great, but I wanted more; it lacked the buzz of the Shield-Wyatts showdowns from February.)

Maybe what was off-kilter was Triple H’s aggression. He was selling it verbally and facially, but given the ruthless beating he delivered March 17, in retrospect his restraint in Memphis seems uncharacteristic. Could he have dominated an entire ring full of “fans”? Maybe not. But it sure seems like he would have tried.

Or maybe it was timing. The segment might have fit in better with the aesthetic of the March 3 Raw in Chicago. But there is something to be said for drawing out the story progression, especially important on the long road to WrestleMania. Ultimately the ends trump the means. We get Bryan wrestling HHH at WrestleMania for a chance to be in the title match at the end of the night. There have been some real woofers in the long history of triple threat WrestleMania title matches, but I have confidence enough in Bryan’s ability to prefer this than a Bryan-Batista bout, especially since that would have put Bryan’s title win at the Chamber.

The upside to the Bryan-HHH story dragging out is the added layers to the Batista-Orton relationship as well as the interplay between HHH and his former evolution cohorts. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Ric Flair somehow involved in the story between now and New Orleans. Unlike John Cena, the overest underdog ever, they’ve built a compelling story for Bryan with all sorts of odds to overcome and demons to put in his past. And they’ve jerked him around for so long, it’s not inconceivable they’d do it again, which makes the matches themselves worth watching.

One other small upside: Before Triple H made himself eligible to qualify for the title match, I was worried the Bryan-HHH bout would end in somewhat screwy fashion, requiring something like the intervention of Hulk Hogan to right a wrong and send Bryan to the main event. That would have bothered me, and now I’m less worried about that possibility. I do have two other WrestleMania worries — one is Hogan somehow upstaging the battle royal winner (though if Cesaro wins and giant swings Hogan back to Tampa I’ll be delirious); the other is Cena triumphing over Bray Wyatt and taking the steam out of his momentum. Do you share that concern?

• • •

David: Let me ask a rhetorical question first: does it feel odd to you the first match in this feud is going to be at WrestleMania? It does to me. WrestleMania feels to me like a show where feuds should begin or end, not move forward. I know that isn’t always the case, because the 2012 CM Punk/Chris Jericho feud didn’t really start to get going until after their match at WrestleMania XXVIII. But I guess that’s neither here nor there.

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Follow the buzzards.

To answer your question, I do worry about Cena taking the steam out of Wyatt’s momentum. But I’m not necessarily sure Cena triumphing does that. Cena winning is not the worst thing that could happen to this feud, because killing Bray Wyatt’s momentum would be more about how he wins. Based on Wyatt’s March 17 promo, I think they are setting up for a Cena win, because Wyatt said “At WrestleMania, I don’t care if I never leave. I don’t care if I die, as long as the world sees you the way that I do.”

Off the top of my head, I can think of two scenarios where Cena winning would be acceptable to me. The first is if he gets beaten to a pulp by Wyatt (and possibly Harper and Rowan) and getting the disqualification victory. That would lead nicely to a possible steel cage match or something similar at Extreme Rules. The other situation makes for a more interesting story.

My biggest hope is Cena and Wyatt brawl, with Wyatt taking most of the punishment. However, every time Cena hits him with a big move, he gets up… almost like early 90s Undertaker. I would like the story of the match to be that Cena doesn’t know how to beat Wyatt, because everything he normally does isn’t working. I’d like to see Wyatt take three or four Attitude Adjustments, and still get up. Maybe he could even get trapped in the STF and power his way out of it after a time, all while laughing like a maniac and getting under Cena’s skin, until Cena snaps and (in a PG manner) brutalizes Wyatt. The match could end with Cena getting a pinfall victory, but a closeup on Wyatt’s face reveals that he’s still smiling. Cena gets to celebrate at WrestleMania, but on Raw the next night, Wyatt gets to explain he wanted to bring out that violent, brutish side of Cena, so really he won.

I’m not quite sure where they could go from there, but I think it would be a good way to give Wyatt and Cena their WrestleMania moments, and allowing Bray to still be the dangerous cult leader… with his momentum intact.

Going back to the Daniel Bryan storyline, our friend the Black Cat from the Old School Wrestling Podcast asked an interesting question on Twitter recently.

Tweet from Black Cat: Booking Daniel Bryan

As much as I hate to say it, if Bryan wins, I could see a feud with Batista starting immediately. If Bryan were to get the victory over Orton in New Orleans, Batista could come out on Raw and claim he wasn’t beaten and still deserves his title shot. That would conceivably give us a story that could go through Extreme Rules, but unless The Authority is still involved I’d have a hard time seeing that be a two- or three-pay-per-view feud.

What do they do with Bryan after he slays the giant Batista?

• • •

Scott: Not only is it weird for Wyatt and Cena to start off with a WrestleMania match, it’s weird for Wyatt to basically shoot to the top of the card (though not the title picture). To me this program has to continue for a few months or it’s a total waste.

I feel sort of the same way about Daniel Bryan, or more specifically, the authority. Bryan winning the title definitively at WrestleMania feels like the only satisfactory ending to the story they started heading into SummerSlam. But (mixed metaphor alert) anyone who thinks a Bryan win takes all the wind from the Authority’s sails is missing the boat.

If Bryan wins the title at WrestleMania, it’s not as if Triple H and Stephanie McMahon are going to show up on Raw the next night with a conciliatory address. Much like Vince when Austin won the gold (note to self, watch the post WMXIV Raw for proof of this memory), they’re going to be enraged Bryan is the champ and do whatever they can to get the belts back.

Depending on how the main event plays out, that could start with them dumping Orton and sending Batista after Bryan. Or maybe they let Randy and Big Dave sort out their spat and get Lesnar to challenge Bryan at Extreme Rules. (He did say he wants to be champ, after all.) The beauty of having Bryan as champion is when he is put up against insurmountable odds, he can actually make that believable, unlike Cena, who ends all of his feuds by shaking off months of abuse and getting a clean victory.

Bryan’s versatility as an in-ring performer makes me think he can tell great stories with whomever Triple H decides is the best to unseat him in a given month. It could be a cage match with a monster, his technical equal (a heeled up Punk or one-off Jericho?), an old familiar foe (Sheamus), another triple threat, or a cage match or a gauntlet or whatever. The fact Bryan is a physical underdog (when that’s rarely true for Cena) is going to make the stories seem fresh. So long as Bryan is able to maintain his popular heroism (which Punk could not), there’s lots of options on the table.

It would seem the ultimate destination is for Triple H to decide none of the underlings can do it on their own, so it falls on him to take the titles away from Bryan in the ring. How long that can or should be strung out is up for debate. Obviously Bryan will lose the title at some point, but I’m assuming I’ll enjoy the ride.

Does that make sense to you?

• • •

David: It does make sense. It fits with Triple H’s character in general, and it fits in with the way they’ve built him up for the past nine months. The idea of Triple H putting every conceivable obstacle in Bryan’s way, and Bryan overcoming them all, while vanquishing Triple H would be a great story to tell.

Speaking of great stories, the Shield seem to have gone from the verge of breaking up a few weeks ago, to becoming true purveyors of justice… and good guys?. When they came down on the March 17 Raw and defied Kane’s order to attack Jerry Lawler, it seemed to signal a shift in their mission.

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Dumber and Dumbest?

They were no longer going to do the Director of Operations’ bidding, which led to Kane attempting to use Rybaxel and the Real Americans to take out the Hounds of Justice. When the New

Age Outlaws, who now are all grown up and wearing real suits (as opposed to the “Dumb and Dumber”-inspired apparel from a couple of months ago), joined the attack, it told us what we needed about what the Shield would be doing at WrestleMania.

Are you with me that the Shield’s story has been pretty good leading into this match, or are there things you would have done differently?

• • •

Scott: As noted earlier, I thought the actual in-ring segment March 17 lacked some oomph. I enjoyed the most literal face turn in wrestling history as they slowly rotated away from Lawler to stare down Kane, but as far as wordless bits go it wasn’t quite as memorable as those Shield-Wyatts staredowns.

I love how the winter of Shield discontent served to better illustrate their individual personalities while keeping the group together, and how they’ve managed to — like Jake Roberts once upon a time — essentially maintain their character while simply shifting which types of opponents they target. That’s been a key WWE narrative problem in recent years. They develop compelling heel characters who happen to be fantastic wrestlers, then give in to public pressure once the performer starts drawing massive crowd response, except they have no idea what to do with the guy once they’re on “the good side.”

The WrestleMania battle royal is full of such guys — Alberto Del Rio, Dolph Ziggler, Big E, Mark Henry. You can say they don’t know what to do with good guy Miz, either, and it seems a lot of momentum has been lost as it relates to the Rhodes brothers. As we saw in the recent Intercontinental Title qualifying matches, it’s not like guys such as Ziggler and Del Rio have lost the ability to connect with a crowd. In fact, their skill in that regard probably keeps them very valuable on the house show circuit. And sure, not every segment can feature a white-hot star. But hopefully we’re going to see some more ebb and flow in the traditionally flexible spring and early summer.

Speaking of the Shield specifically, the other beef I have with their current situation is their WrestleMania opponents. Unlike with Bryan, whom I trust to deliver a great performance in nearly any match style, I’m less sure the Shield’s showdown with Kane and the Outlaws will allow the Shield to live up to its show-stealing potential. It’s sort of the same reason I’m not wild about the tag title four-way — it’s not the spotlight I’d have chosen for Cesaro.

That said, each match thus far has at least one wrestler whose ring work I almost always enjoy. I seem to be more excited for this WrestleMania than usual, but I suppose it’s hard to fully recapture emotions of anticipation once the event has come and gone. Looking back on the card for WrestleMania XXIX, however, I seem to recall only being really interested in the Team Hell No title defense and the Punk-Undertaker clash, though I was prepared to enjoy Brock and Triple H. I say this year’s show has the most potential of any recent Mania. Do you agree?

• • •

David: When you say “recent” I have to take that as the last four, because I was on a self-imposed wrestling hiatus until 2010, and given those parameters, I do agree with you. WrestleMania XXVI had me excited for the second of the two great Undertaker/Shawn Michaels matches and CM Punk vs. Rey Mysterio during the Straight Edge Society’s run, but little else. The three Manias following had good matches but also had glaring flaws in their build and match selection, not the least of which was three straight WrestleManias where the Rock, of whom I am not a fan, played a major role.

This year, the glaring flaw would have been, in my opinion, Orton vs. Batista in a one-on-one match for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship as the main event. Luckily, we appear to have escaped that fate. Even the worst-case scenario, with Triple H beating Daniel Bryan for a chance at the title, is an improvement. However, I feel pretty confident that by hook or by crook, Daniel Bryan will beat Triple H and be in the main event at WrestleMania. As it stands, of the eight announced matches, I’m excited for three of them and think four of the remaining five will be flawed but entertaining. The fifth match is the 14-Diva, single-fall match that has the potential to be a complete disaster, and seems like a lazy way to shoehorn all the Divas into WrestleMania. However, I read something this morning that gave me pause.

Stephen T. Stone, who writes the Complete Shot Blog posted his WrestleMania predictions on March 27. His predictions consist of what he would like to see happen and what he thinks is likely to happen. For the Divas match he posted the following.

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After I read this, it sparked something in my imagination. A few weeks ago, there was an article on WWE.com about Sara Amato (a.k.a. Sara Del Rey), the first female coach at the WWE Performance Center. The reaction to that article, at least in the corner of the internet where you and I reside, seemed to be overwhelmingly positive. In fact, I went on YouTube and watched four or five of her matches that day.

In the article, Amato says about a run in the WWE, “If the opportunity comes up, I definitely wouldn’t say no.” Well, what if she’s given a run starting at WrestleMania XXX?

I would love to see AJ Lee retain the title in the 14-Diva match only to have Vickie Guerrero come out and declare that AJ hasn’t defeated all the Divas that she invited. She introduces Sara Del Rey, Del Rey hits the ring, lands a few suplexes hits AJ with her signature move, the Royal Butterfly, and gets the win.

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Your next WWE Divas Champion? Probably not…but we can dream, right?Photo courtesy of WWE.com

I know the chances of this happening are slim to none, and I’m probably crazy for publishing the idea, but I have to say it would breathe some life, in my opinion, into the Divas division. Furthermore, I think if Sara Del Rey were to get a surprise run, the WWE could do worse than starting it at WrestleMania, which does draw a pretty wrestling-savvy crowd that might know who she is without a lot of build up or explanation.

Given how unlikely my scenario is, are there any other ways to avoid a 14-person (because I don’t think this is a case of it having anything to do with the competitors) match turning into a complete train wreck?

• • •

Scott: I have to say I disagree with your suggestion the Mania crowd would be savvy enough to recognize Del Rey on sight. I have no doubt she could put on a great show, but I think even Sami Zayn would fail to inspire the Superdome crowd, despite all his success on NXT. WWE crowds are conditioned to react to sameness. That’s why most guys don’t mix up their gear too often. It’s why theme songs, catch phrases and signature and finishing moves are a necessity — the routine helps fans prepare mentally for each stage of a match. You can have surprises at WrestleMania, but only if they revolve around someone a vast majority of the fans already know in some context.

That’s why you’re more likely to see a few “familiar” faces in the Andre the Giant Memorial battle royal than a shocking challenger for AJ. I do appreciate your idea — imagine if Tamina wasn’t in the match, AJ wins, then Vickie offers Tamina the chance to face the champ right then and there. Your excitement for that moment probably hinges on your belief in Tamina as a Divas champion. But for your scenario to play out as intended, it’s going to have to be someone people recognize, such as Kaitlyn.

So to answer your direct question, no, it’s going to be a train wreck of sorts unless there’s a major surprise planned. I’m not out of sorts or anything — I’ve been conditioned to expect the women’s division to be mishandled, especially show at WrestleMania. We walk a fine critical line here — not being excited about the product but being sure to place blame on the presentation and not the performers. The potential exists for great women’s wrestling within the WWE structure, but we’re not going to see it in New Orleans.

What are we going to see? Any predictions for the big night?

• • •

David: So far, the name of Hulk Hogan has only been referenced once, so let’s deal with his presence as the “host” of WrestleMania XXX. The last time WrestleMania had a host was WrestleMania XXVII, when The Rock hosted and involved himself in the finish to the Miz/John Cena title match. That was, of course, a way to set up Cena vs. Rock at WrestleMania XXVIII. Luckily, I don’t think we have to worry about Hogan setting himself up for a match at WrestleMania XXXI. However, I do predict we will see Hogan involve himself with either John Cena (since Bray Wyatt riffed on the similarities between Hogan and Cena a few weeks ago) or Daniel Bryan (since getting involved with the most popular guy on the show seems like a very Hulk Hogan thing to do.) I’m not sure what form his involvement will take, but I’m sure we will see him doing more than just “hosting.”

I’m also going to predict an absence for this year’s WrestleMania. I don’t think we’re going to see an overblown, extravagant entrance for John Cena. I think it will be closer to his typical Raw entrance. The reason for this is twofold. First: he’s not going to be in the last match of the evening. Granted, he wasn’t in the last match at Wrestlemania XXV or XXVI, but still had the Cenation Army and the Air Force Honor Guard, respectively, lead him to the ring. The second reason, however, is I just don’t think an extravagant entrance would ring true with the tone of the match. Outside of some “jokey” moments Bray has handled well, Cena has done some good character work so far in this feud, and I think if he does an over-the-top entrance, it might detract from that.

There haven’t been many celebrities, other than Drew Brees, who is involved with a charity auction, announced for this year’s WrestleMania yet, and as I write this, we are just more than a week away. Outside of Saints players, are there any New Orleans based celebrities you’re thinking might make an appearance? Do you have any other predictions for what we might see April 6?

• • •

Scott: If I were more up on popular music these days, I might be able to predict who would sing “America the Beautiful.” I haven’t the foggiest idea. I’m stunned that for such a milestone event they haven’t dipped back into the old traditions of casting celebrities to handle ring announcing timekeeper duties, etc. One of the many drawbacks to the death of the backstage interview role as part of regular shows is it becomes unwieldy to shoehorn in someone like Mario Lopez to do the job.

Further, celebrities are involved on the weekly show now. Could WWE have waited on Betty White, Aaron Paul and Arnold Schwarzenegger for New Orleans? Probably, but I guess they’re more needed on Raw these days.

I also have a hard time accepting Hogan will be little more than stage decoration, although I’m shocked how little he’s been involved in the program since his return. (Not upset, just surprised he didn’t seek a bigger role for himself.) I’m also kind of stunned there’s been so little talk about the Ultimate Warrior. I didn’t expect him to have a return match or anything, but I feel people need a reminder part of Mania weekend involves giving that nutjob a live microphone at the induction ceremony. On that note, I do expect him on Sunday night to sprint to the ring and run the ropes a few times. Anything else would be a massive disappointment.

We’re going to get a “WrestleMania Moment” from Cesaro for sure (perhaps not a win, but he’ll swing someone, Ryback perhaps?) and at least Roman Reigns if not the entire Shield. There are only 26 participants named for the 30-man battle royal, and there’s a likelihood Christian will have to drop out. I don’t imagine Warrior or Scott Hall, er Razor Ramon, would get in the ring, but could Jake Roberts? A returning star, such as Rob Van Dam? I’d bet good money those last five spots don’t get filled with Camacho or Rowan and Harper.

There are only three title matches, a throwback to days of yore. I guarantee at least one title change on the night. I’d be stunned to see the streak snapped. I actually do think the Andre trophy will survive. I have no idea what surprises might be in store for the following Monday night, but tradition dictates something major.

Rather than ask for specific predictions, let me put it to you this way: What has to happen for WrestleMania XXX to be a success in your eyes?

• • •

David: That’s an interesting question that really boils down to storytelling. As a fan of Daniel Bryan, I really want him to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, and if the final moment of WrestleMania XXX involves Daniel Bryan and the 70,000 fans in attendance chanting “Yes!” I’ll consider the show a success, no matter what happened beforehand. I would also accept, grudgingly, Triple H winning the title but getting attacked by Bryan at the end of the show, with Bryan standing over him leading the “Yes!” chants.

Outside of that, I want to see story development. I want to see multiple feuds created via the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal. I mean, with that many guys involved in one match, it should be a good vehicle for creating storytelling opportunities.

I’d also like to see progression with characters as well. Too often, wrestling seems static. Characters stay the same, even as their situations change, which isn’t natural. This is one of the big problems I have with John Cena. Even though I like him, nothing he goes through ever seems to affect him. I want that to change this year. I want to see psychological effects of this battle with the Wyatt Family. I want to see change going forward.

What are your measures of success for the show?

• • •

Scott: You hit on my biggest touchstones as well. I’m not one to think the Daniel Bryan chase has played out too long, but I do feel WrestleMania is the natural conclusion. There’s a way for him to emerge triumphant Sunday and get thrown into a different direction Monday and for it all to be coherent and compelling.

I also agree we need to see some development from Cena along the way. If here merely vanquishes Bray Wyatt in his first attempt, that will render the buildup useless, cripple Wyatt going forward and rob us of an intriguing Cena narrative. This story should continue for a few months — and not just to keep Cena away from the title picture (in the same way Cena’s Kane and initial Rock program allowed CM Punk to have different challengers).

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And yes, the battle royal must, like the Royal Rumble, must be a plot incubator. Rich Thomas asked on Twitter if any feuds would come forth and then directly asked me for a prediction. My first thought was whoever dumps Big E will be in line for an Intercontinental title program. I could see that match being announced for Raw during the day Monday. I suspect the battle royal will give an indicator of Sheamus’ next opponent as well, unless (as Tom Holzerman predicted over the weekend) he becomes hired muscle for The Authority. Brodus Clay is listed as a participant, and we’ve not seen him in the ring much lately, so I’d guess he’ll stand out from the crowd as well.

There’s not much more to say about WrestleMania except I’m anxious for the actual show. The days between the go home Raw and the opening bell make up one of the longest weeks of the wrestling year in my book.

But there’s time for one last question — a two-parter. What’s your best guess for the main event of WrestleMania XXXI, and what match would you book if left to your own devices?

• • •

David: Booking the big show a year in advance is, obviously, a difficult task. The prospect of returns, either from hiatus or injury, and the signing and development of younger stars means the roster probably won’t look exactly the same next year as it does this year. I mean, in the lead up to WrestleMania XXIX, would it have occurred to you Batista might be in the main event at WrestleMania XXX? I know I wouldn’t have thought of it.

That being said, when you look at the current roster, there are a handful of Superstars who would not cause anyone to blink if they were announced for a main event at WrestleMania: Cena, Orton, Batista, Bryan and the Undertaker.  Additionally, there are a group of guys who are currently below main event standing I think could be elevated in the next year: Cesaro, all three members of the Shield, Bray Wyatt, Big E, Cody Rhodes and maybe Dolph Ziggler. Out of that group, I think Cesaro, Roman Reigns and Bray Wyatt have the highest chances of being in a main event scenario at this time next year.

However, if I’m trying to be as realistic with this prediction as possible, then I have to take into account returns, and as we know the Royal Rumble season is ripe for big, surprising returns. I could certainly envision a scenario where the WWE entices CM Punk to come back with a promise of a main event at WrestleMania XXXI. He comes back at, and wins, the Royal Rumble, and goes against WWE World Heavyweight Champion Daniel Bryan in the main event in Santa Clara, Calif.

On the other hand, if left to my own devices, I’d have Sami Zayn debut on the April 7 edition of Monday Night Raw (he can still work in NXT, until this Corey Graves story is over), winning a hard-fought match against Cesaro. I would then have him hold a spot in the upper mid-card for the next 8-9 months, allowing the audience at large to get behind him, until he wins the Royal Rumble, the same night that Cesaro beats Daniel Bryan for the WWE World Heavyweight title. That would set up Zayn/Cesaro V for WrestleMania XXXI.

Are either of those scenarios you can see happening, or is my fantasy booking just that: fantasy?

• • •

Scott: After I asked this question I started thinking about WrestleMania history. King Kong Bundy was in the main event of WrestleMania 2 despite being in the company a little more than a year. Ted DiBiase was in the main event of WrestleMania IV shortly after his debut. Would anyone a week before WrestleMania VI have guessed Sgt. Slaughter would be defending the WWF championship at WrestleMania VII? As Hogan beat Sarge, was there any inkling the defending champ a year later would be Ric Flair, while Hogan battled Sid Justice and the Warrior was (supposedly) gone forever? And Yokozuna came from nowhere just before Survivor Series 1992 to headline WrestleMania IX.

I know the first decade of WrestleMania events took place in a far different landscape than the second and especially the third, but there’s enough of a track record to say nearly anything is possible as it relates to the WrestleMania XXXI card.

Certainly if Zayn and Cesaro aren’t featured somewhat prominently on that show there will have been some sort of unexpected calamity, such as the concussion issues that robbed Ziggler of any significance from his World Heavyweight Championship reign that started the night after WrestleMania XXIX. I’m intrigued by the Wyatt Family’s story potential, but I’m not expecting any involvement with title belts. Heck, Bray is making his WrestleMania debut against the biggest star in the company — the only way he can move up is by challenging the Undertaker.

The roster is brimming with potential and there’s just not enough spots, even on a four-hour show, to let each rising star have a chance to shine. The only way to improve upon this year’s card is to write current stars out of the plot by next April, and precious few of the upper echelon seem poised to move on from WWE, even as they’re being challenged from below by a bumper crop of up-and-comers.

The good news is that means the next 12 months could be a banner year for the company, especially as the Network grows into maturity. I’m anxious to see how it all plays out — but in the meantime, let’s have a great WrestleMania weekend.

Thanks for reading! Have something to say? Contact us via Twitter, or the comments section below. We really do appreciate any and all feedback we get.

 

 

Dream of the Elimination Chamber

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The biggest thing to happen to wrestling since PPV?

Scott: Once again, it’s been far too long. But here we go.

The WWE Network launches soon — two weeks from the time we started this debate. While there’s plenty to say about what WWEN might mean for the dollars-and-cents side of the business, this seems a good opportunity to explore the possible on-screen implications.

I have a billion questions and I’ve tried to sort them out on my own. Can’t be done. I need your insight. But I’ll start with an assertion: Fans will look back on the launch of the Network as the biggest impetus for a shift in the business model since Raw’s debut. How long, though, do you think it will take for us to see shifts in WWE storytelling methods?

WCW famously prized Monday night ratings over PPV buys, which was clearly evident in the way important events were scheduled. WWE obviously wants people to consider their monthly mega shows as important enough to be a selling point for the Network, but also have positioned WWEN as something attractive even to folks who don’t diligently follow the current product.

It’s not to say Raw will move away from cable and into the ether, but there will be changes in how stories are told, or perhaps shifts in how supershow cards are built. The first six months are crucial, since that’s the minimum subscription length. Will it be OK to leave John Cena off a show like Payback because the PPV buyrates are no longer a driving force? Will there be essential plot points exclusive to the pre-and post-Raw shows?

This early in the game, what’s your read?

• • •

David: As someone who is planning on being an early adopter, I can only hope there is “value added” material on Monday nights. Not only would I like to see additional character and plot development on the pre-and post-Raw shows, but I’d actually like to see the live action that goes on in the ring after the show goes off the air.

It strikes me that the key to the long-term success of the network is to hook the casual fan. For the hardcore fan of today’s product, WWEN pays for itself. The library of PPVs on demand will bring in lapsed fans looking to take a trip down to the corner of Memory Lane and Nostalgia Avenue. The viewer who only spends money on WrestleMania, and only watches a few Raws a year, is a tougher sell, though.

To answer your first question, I think any changes in storytelling will depend on how much business the network does initially. That initial six-month commitment is interesting, because it takes us through the post-WrestleMania season up to SummerSlam. With a lesser focus on buyrates, that time could be fertile ground for creative exploration.

In the past, I’ve read some wrestling critics advocate for the idea of an off-season in professional wrestling. With CM Punk’s sudden departure  being blamed in some circles on burn-out, it got me thinking of the idea in a new light. Could the network allow the WWE to be flexible with wrestlers’ schedules, and give them more time off?

• • •

Scott: Before I answer your last question I’m going to take issue with you on a few points. First, I don’t think the Network is all that tough a sell on the “WrestleMania only” fans. They can pay $60 to their cable company for one show, or pay the same directly to WWE for that show plus nearly limitless content. Who cares if they don’t actually watch the Network all that often? The value is undeniable.

But, is that a “casual” fan? To me, anyone willing to spend $60 on WrestleMania, even if that’s the only show they buy all year, is a bit more invested than the truly casual viewer, the kind of whom became devotees in droves during the mid-90s. During the recent Art of Wrestling podcast with guest Mike Quackenbush, Colt Cabana lamented the idea of the Network closing the loop, in a sense, meaning WWE primarily will be catering to the audience it’s already cultivated to this point. Quack countered with a positive — that maybe wrestlers can be wrestlers again and not just TV stars. But I don’t see Raw going away any time soon, if ever. It’s value to advertisers as live entertainment in an increasingly on-demand culture is impossible to ignore.

As for your question about time off, I’m not sure if I can draw a straight line from the Network to a rotating offseason, if only because I think it’s been happening already. Undertaker’s one match a year thing is the extreme, but Chris Jericho has done a good job with on-again, off-again stuff, and I think Rob Van Dam’s recent run was actually pretty well timed (it ended when he ran out of stuff to do), not to mention the resurgence of Goldust.

The key for WWE is if it can find a way to spread these things out across the year in order to get away from the perception of ringers coming in and hogging the WrestleMania spotlight. I actually think this is a great time for Punk to step away, whether it’s part of the story or not. Does anyone now care (or remember) he didn’t work a full 2013?

• • •

David: First off, you’re right. $60 is probably a bit more than “casual.” The casual fan is probably the guy who flips channels when Monday Night Football isn’t particularly compelling and happens to land on Raw. I guess my thinking is there are people who watch WrestleMania because it’s an event, and spending $60 on an event resonates with them differently than buying a subscription service. I think that’s especially true of people who don’t trust Internet streams, and they may be even more leery if they are aware of the issues WWE had with the WrestleMania online stream last year.

Also, I think there’s a point to be made about the difference between dropping $60 in one go and signing up for an auto-renewing service, which I’m assuming WWEN will be. In my above scenario, I wasn’t just thinking of it as a $60 commitment. I was thinking of it as a $120 commitment, since anyone with a gym membership knows we don’t always cancel things we don’t use, especially if we’re not having to write a physical check to pay the bill.

punk

Does CM Punk’s “sabbatical” make room for other talent to shine?

When it comes to Punk’s absence, I think longer is better for both him and the product. If the backstage reports are true, then he needs the time off to get over being burnt out. I think it also gives other talent the chance to step in and make a difference. I love that Antonio Cesaro is going to be in the Elimination Chamber match and hope it means the start of a big push for him. Is that necessarily a result of CM Punk not being around? Obviously, I don’t have the answer to that, but I certainly think it’s possible.

On the February 10 Raw, John Cena made a point of saying that the next generation of superstars needed to come through him if they wanted to be the “face of the WWE.” It’s easy to write off a statement like that as being part of the character Cena plays on the WWE Raw television program, but I have to wonder if there’s a certain reality to it. Is that why he drives himself so hard and why he forces himself to come back from injuries more quickly than medical science says should be possible? As much as I like John Cena, there are times when I think he’s Norma Desmond. Most people have heard the quote from Sunset Boulevard: “Alright, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close up.” Right before that, Norma, in a dazed state after just having killed Joe Gillis (sorry if I spoiled a movie from 1950 for you) says to the news cameras: “I promise you I’ll never desert you again because after ‘Salome’ we’ll make another picture and another picture. You see, this is my life! It always will be! Nothing else!”

Kindred spirits? Or the biggest reach in the history of this blog?

Kindred spirits? Or the biggest reach in the history of this blog?

Has John Cena gotten to the point where he can’t exist outside the WWE, and will the WWE Network help with this, make it worse or have no discernable effect?

• • •

Scott: No, Cena can’t exist outside WWE, at least not as a professional entertainer. He’s tried to cross over into movies, which didn’t work any better than it does for most wrestlers, and probably also means he’s not a candidate for anything more than guest spots on TV series. There’s no other wrestling promotion where he’d  get paid what he’s worth.

I don’t see the Network having any discernable effect on Cena’s role with the company any time soon. Why? He doesn’t want to change. He seems to like the grind of the schedule (have you ever heard a report of him claiming to be tired or burned out?) and, because this is a scripted art form, he can (and must) always be presented as the same he’s always been. Absent an Austin-like injury that forces him to change his in-ring style, Cena has to be either the top of the mountain or gone altogether.

Yes, there is compelling narrative potential in a Cena who doesn’t know how to deal with his advancing age and fading powers. But there seems to be zero interest in telling that story. For one thing, he has to maintain his Übermensch status in order for there to be any real value in his rare clean defeats. For another, his character lacks the supernatural elements of the Undertaker (which mean he can fade in and out with little narrative exposition) or the vagabond, multimedia dynamism of Chris Jericho or even Punk’s “above all this/smartest guy in the building” vibe or any other element that lets you think either the character or the performer has any interest in being anywhere else.

In this way, Cena and Daniel Bryan are more similar than either character might care to admit. Bryan was right earlier this summer when he essentially labeled himself a pro wrestler who happens to be in the WWE and Cena a WWE star who fits nowhere else. That Bryan can and would go back to the independent barnstorm circuit is secondary, even if only because he’d immediately be the most bankable name. These guys are wrestlers first and foremost. Except Cena has been so big for so long, he can’t be anything but the best.

We’re not going to see Cena as the aging slugger taking a one-year deal with the Phillies just to hang around and pad his stats. But we’re also not going to see him cast as Michael Jordan, hitting one great, final shot and walking away (we’re ignoring post-1998 MJ, by the way, as everyone should), because Cena will be written to be great probably past when he can perform as well as the story demands.

I’m on a roll here, but I don’t want to get too far away from another point you established: Cesaro’s ascension as a result of Punk’s departure. I agree there may not be an exclusive correlation (I think the seeds of Cesaro’s split from Jack Swagger were sown earlier), but it’s certainly seemed to accelerate the situation. I love everything Cesaro does, so I think it’s a fantastic development. That said, I’d sooner have Punk AND Cesaro around and elevated. Much as I love Punk, I can stand to see him walk away if it means more chances for the other guys I support. So the question is where else could the dominoes fall? Who is ready to ascend around WrestleMania season, and does anyone need to leave for this to happen?

• • •

David: The name that jumps to the forefront of my mind is Dolph Ziggler. For a couple of years now, it seemed like he was ready to make the leap. If there had been an absence at the top of the card during his rise, it seems likely he would have been the guy for WWE to elevate. Unfortunately, he’s had some setbacks and regressions, and I’m just not sure if he’s capable of being “The Guy” at this point.

There is another guy who I think is ready to make “the leap,” and I don’t think there needs to be an absence for it to happen. With his performance in the Royal Rumble, and the build to the Shield’s match with the Wyatts, I think it has become obvious Roman Reigns is going to be a breakout star, and it appears it’s going to happen sooner rather than later.

As great as his Royal Rumble performance was, for me, the “moment” that told me exactly who Roman Reigns is in the eyes of the WWE creative team was on the Jan. 31 Smackdown when he stepped into Triple H’s face and told him the Shield wasn’t “asking for his approval” for a match with the Wyatts. I also think this match with the Wyatts at Elimination Chamber could be the next big “moment” for Reigns. Not to tip my hand before we get to any kind of EC discussion, but I have a feeling the finish to that match could have a lot to do with Roman Reigns not being on the same page as his Shield teammates, Rollins and Ambrose.

What will this man be doing come Wrestlemania?

What will this man be doing come Wrestlemania?

Before Punk left the WWE, there was a rumor I read a few places saying he was going to be featured in a match with Triple H at WrestleMania. Since Punk has left, that leaves Triple H open as a dance partner. I may dislike Triple H as a character, but I have to admit a match with him in the SuperDome in New Orleans could have a huge effect on an emerging Superstar’s career. Provided they built a good enough story, how would you feel about a Roman Reigns/Triple H match at WrestleMania XXX?

• • •

Scott: Here’s the thing about WrestleMania, and also the way the Chamber shakes down Sunday: what about Daniel Bryan? I think Bryan defeating Triple H would be a pretty good WrestleMania story, but are fans going to e-riot if Bryan fails to win the title Sunday the way they did when he didn’t appear in the Rumble?

At this juncture, I’d have preferred Wyatts-Shield to wait for WrestleMania. Maybe that’s because I don’t want the Shield to break up. Maybe it’s because I would like the group to have a more memorable WrestleMania moment before it disbands. Maybe it’s because I want the Wyatts to shine on the big stage and I can’t yet see where they go from here. We could have expected a Cena-Wyatts story after the Rumble, but that was ignored probably in light of Punk’s departure. After the go-home Raw, it’s not too hard to see a Cena-Real Americans plot developing (perhaps with the inclusion of the real Real American, Hulk Hogan), but that could all change depending on what happens in the Chamber.

To directly answer you, Reigns-HHH could be fantastic. All the Shield members, as well as guys like Cesaro and Big E Langston, can quickly and easily be put into matches with established veteran stars with an “old guard/new blood” narrative, except without the clunky, late-stage WCW forcing of factions amongst each side.

Cena has been vocal of late, on camera and off, about the rising stars needing to go through him to prove they’re ready to ascend. And while he’s clearly at the top of the mountain, other guys like HHH, the Undertaker, Lesnar and so on can still provide the kind of moment needed to move an up-and-comer into prominence as a new company cornerstone.

After two years where the top of the Mania card was pretty clear from a distance, there’s much more confusion going into a show that, thankfully, kind of sells itself at this point. Are you OK with that?

• • •

David: I am absolutely okay with that. I prefer wrestling to be unpredictable to a point. The problem with WrestleMania XXVIII was they set up the main event between John Cena and The Rock a year early, and then had to try to build a story that led up to it featuring a guy who wasn’t around very often. It was an interesting experiment that, in my eyes, wasn’t a creative success. They didn’t telegraph the WrestleMania XXIX main event quite as far in advance, but it was pretty clear once the Rock announced his intention to challenge for the title at Royal Rumble we probably were going to end up with “Twice in a Lifetime.” The fact we still don’t know what’s going down at WrestleMania XXX, other than Batista headlining, creates a lot of interesting potentiality for the show.

The fact there is no announced match yet provides an interesting look at the WWE’s business. As John Cena pointed out during his appearance on the Steve Austin Show, the WWE has already sold more than 60,000 tickets to WrestleMania without announcing more than a single competitor. This tells me that, despite any negative feelings about booking or creative direction, there are going to be fans who will always want to go to WrestleMania, because of its status as the “Big Event.” I wonder, though, if this is a bit of a double-edged sword.

Could the success of WrestleMania as a brand be to the detriment of creative booking?

• • •

Scott: I certainly think there’s something of a disincentive to taking major creative risks leading into WrestleMania, which is why the spring and early summer have always been more interesting — if not more creatively successful. I’m not at all sure how important it is to use a WrestleMania itself to build fans for the ensuing 12 months, and whether the shift to the Network vs. pay-per-view buys will be signal any shifts in the pace at which stories are told or the choices made about which performers to feature at given points on the calendar. Of course, that’s how we got into all this discussion in the first place, right?

I think it’s simply too early to tell how the next WWE era will differ from what we’ve come to know over the last several years. What I do know is there are now a large handful of stars on the cusp of breaking through to the top of the promotion. And even if guys like Big E Langston and Antonio Cesaro stumble, there remain others such as Damien Sandow and Dolph Ziggler who have been forcibly detoured of late, or the greatness of Cody Rhodes or AJ Lee, who have been upstaged in recent weeks. That’s to say nothing of the potential breakout success stories currently headlining NXT. There are so many great WWE matches every single month it’s almost impossible to envision anything but sustained success even if Cena should slow down and Punk just stays home.

But that’s big picture. Let’s get a little more narrow, specifically this Sunday. Let’s try something new here as we wrap up. We’ll take a look at the card the way A&E critics approach award shows. What do you think will happen, and how does it align with what should happen?

• • •

David: Okay, let’s start with the undercard and work our way up. On Raw, it was announced Titus O’Neil will take on Darren Young in a singles match. The feud between them started after a tag team loss by the Prime Time Players that ended with Titus O’Neil attacking Darren Young, thus dissolving their team. I tend to like stories that evolve from tag team break ups, and while this one hasn’t gotten nearly enough television time on Raw, I’m interested in seeing how these two mesh as opponents. I think Titus O’Neil probably will win the match, as he’s gotten way more television time in the lead up to the match, including his interview with Renee Young on Monday night. I think that’s probably the right move, since they seem to want to build him as a strong bad guy. I think he needs to look strong and get a decisive win, even if it is by nefarious means. That would allow them to carry the feud through and maybe end it at Extreme Rules when Young gets his revenge.

Is there a different way you’d write the story?

• • •

Scott: Well, for starters I wouldn’t have run with this until after WrestleMania. It came out of nowhere and, as you noted, is getting seriously lost in the shuffle, which is a shame because I think both guys are talented. I just don’t see this match on the WrestleMania card at all, unless they’re planning to have it be a subplot of a multi-man match like a Money in the Bank or battle royal. That said, I think O’Neil should and will win because WWE needs more talented lower-card bad guys at the moment. Hopefully that doesn’t mean an end to Darren Young being worthwhile. I’d have preferred to see these guys stick together to help bolster the tag team scene.

Next match up is the Tag Team Title match between the champion New Age Outlaws and the Usos. I think the Usos deserve to be champs at this point, but again this seems like a story that’s lacked build over the last several weeks. The Outlaws and Rhodes brothers seemed to still be feuding until just this week, and while the Usos have proven worthy of a shot, I don’t see a win here having big buzz. It seems likely Road Dogg and Billy Gunn are headed toward a WrestleMania appearance (a natural carrot to get them back in the ring for a few months), and I expect a rematch in New Orleans, or perhaps a multi-team encounter. Your thoughts?

• • •

David: You’re right, the build hasn’t really been there for this contest. I did enjoy the Billy Gunn/Jey Uso match, and even more so, the interplay between Road Dogg and Jimmy Uso on commentary. It was, in my memory, the best recent use of wrestlers on commentary. Like you, I think the Outlaws will and should beat the Usos leading to a WrestleMania rematch, where, hopefully, the Usos will win the titles on the big stage, which would be a huge elevation for them. I almost would like to see a third party help the Outlaws win at Elimination Chamber, paving the way for Rikishi to be at ringside for the Usos at Mania.

The next match, and I’m working my way up from bottom to top on the Wikipedia page for the event, is Big E (nee Langston) vs Jack Swagger. This match, like the first two we’ve discussed is suffering from a short buildup. Swagger won the title shot in a Fatal Four Way match on Smackdown, which aired nine days before the pay-per-view, and doesn’t really have any history with Big E. Unlike the first two matches, I see very little in the way of a long program between these two. I don’t see Swagger winning the title, and with the tension they’ve teased between Zeb and Jack, I wonder if this is going to be the match where we see an ill-advised (in my opinion) Jack Swagger re-alignment, and a possible Real Americans split. The reason I see it as ill-advised is because I think Jack Swagger will always work best as a bad guy with a manager, and I’d rather see Cesaro as a good guy, anyway.

Maybe I’m wrong, though. Do you think we’ll see Jack Swagger as a good guy, and will the WWE Universe accept him as such?

• • •

Scott: We’re agreeing too much again. I don’t see Swagger succeeding in attempts to get cheers. If he breaks from Colter and Cesaro I see the same thing happening as we predicted for Darren Young — a demolition to serve the needs of building his former partner. Of course, with Cesaro’s classic against Cena Monday as well as his spot in the Chamber Sunday, a feud with Swagger probably is a step back at this point. I’m actually fond of Swagger, and his NXT match with Sami Zayn is a largely overlooked bright spot of 2013. Hopefully there are some interesting stories for him going forward.

At least that match will be more interesting than the next one on the docket — Batista vs. Alberto Del Rio. What precisely is the point of this contest? Batista is in line for a title shot at WrestleMania, after one of the least impressive Royal Rumble wins in history, and the only possible interesting story is for him to lose to Del Rio, which sets up Del Rio as a top challenger should Batista win the belt. But is there any indication that’s a direction they’ll pursue with the Mexican millionaire? Should win (for my own interests)? Del Rio. Will win? Batista. Do you agree?

• • •

David: Well, I agree Batista will win, but I don’t necessarily agree Del Rio should win. Primarily because I don’t have an interest in Del Rio winning. Even though I can see he is a skilled performer, he doesn’t move me or excite me in any way. I don’t feel anything during his matches, which is unfortunate. Of course, I pretty much feel the same way about Batista, except he’s not as skilled technically as Del Rio. But, in terms of the story, it seems pretty clear Batista will win. It wouldn’t make much sense for him to lose and then be in the main event of WrestleMania six weeks later.

As for the point of this contest, there isn’t a good one. I think the point is to give Big Dave something to do while he’s waiting around for his title shot. Like I said… not a good point. It would almost be better if he were a part-timer like Lesnar, because he could have sat at home for the last month instead of having a pointless feud before his real job begins.

That brings us to the first of the two big matches on the card (maybe the biggest): the Wyatt Family vs. the Shield. There are so many storytelling possibilities for this match I don’t quite know where to begin. As I said earlier, I think Roman Reigns is poised to be the breakout star of the Shield, and I think he takes another step toward the deep end of the WWE talent pool this weekend. I am predicting a Wyatt family win in this match, and I think it’s the right move, primarily because I think there are more storytelling possibilities with a Shield loss.

I can envision a scenario where Reigns has the match well in hand, and Dean Ambrose tags himself in and ends up costing the Shield the match. From there, you can either break them up immediately, continue the simmering tension in the group or have their group resolve strengthen by having Triple H explicitly turn his back on them.

I know you’re looking more toward a Daniel Bryan/Triple H match at WrestleMania, so what do you see happening between the top trios in WWE?

• • •

Scott: Well, I should clarify my stance on Bryan. I’m looking for him to have a WrestleMania moment. Retaining the tag titles last year in New York was great, but I am aching for the visual of a triumphant Bryan leading the entire Superdome in a “Yes!” chant, and I’m OK if that’s not for a title victory. After all, it would take some screwy machinations for him to go in as a challenger at this point, unless he gets horned into a Batista-Orton match — which is possible, I guess, if he gets screwed in the Chamber and offered a qualifying match into the Mania main event some time on Raw.

I’d also be OK with a Bryan-Undertaker match, which I suppose could be set up if Undertaker saves Kane from a Bryan assault. Fans aren’t going to cheer for the streak ending unless Undertaker is going against someone with amazing crowd support, and even Cena at this point doesn’t qualify. And yes, yes I have gone down a fantasy booking rabbit hole, thanks for asking.

Reigns-HHH would be a great WrestleMania match. Both the Wyatts and all three Shield members need to have a place on the WrestleMania card, and hopefully not in multi-man matches. The WWE.com staff recently dreamed up some Mania matches, including a 10-man Money in the Bank that included both the Wyatts and Rollins and Ambrose, and putting Bray Wyatt in a match like that seems ridiculous. Harper and Rowan were able tag champs in NXT, but Wyatt’s character would not be enhanced by a singles title pursuit.

wyatts

Follow the Buzzards.

I did love, however, that same article’s suggestion of pairing Reigns and Langston. That’s a match I’d enjoy as much as Sheamus and Cesaro. Yet I’m not ready to let go of the Shield. Would they work well against Authority figures like Kane and the Outlaws? Would people complain if this Chamber match ends inconclusively and we end up with a rematch in New Orleans?

Your prediction of Ambrose causing the Shield loss and further dissension seems like the story they’ve been telling of late. But certainly Reigns turning by attacking Triple H would be far more momentous than him going against Ambrose. I’d love to see Reigns and Brock Lesnar tear each other apart, for that matter.

The main question I have about the Chamber, and this gets into the main event, is where are we going with John Cena? Do we revisit the hint of a Cena-Wyatts program we saw at the Rumble? Does Cena-Cesaro on Raw become Cena and Hogan against the Real Americans? I know we’re talking in circles a bit, but let’s look at the main event Sunday. There’s six guys, and it would seem all of them (with the possible exception of Christian) ought to have a spot on the WrestleMania XXX card. Yet all of them have so many possible stories that could be told well between now and then. What happens Sunday — not just the end of the match, but the storytelling all around it — will be incredibly interesting.

At this juncture, the best I can say is it does not appear Cena winning is the obvious, inevitable outcome (as it was during Money in the Bank 2012 and the 2013 Royal Rumble). That alone is a significant improvement over what we’ve come to expect. I know I didn’t make an actual prediction, but we need to wrap up soon. What are some things you expect to see in Sunday night’s main event?

• • •

David: I agree with your point about Cena winning not being obvious. I agree with it so much my expectation is he will be eliminated prior to the end of the match. If we’re seriously talking about a possible Hogan/Cena vs. Real Americans match at WrestleMania, why not use the Elimination Chamber to further what was started on Raw? Cena pinned Cesaro clean last Monday after a hard-fought match, so it seems plausible Cesaro could be the one to eliminate Cena from the Chamber.

daniel_bryan_bio_20130430

I’m hopeful, though I wouldn’t say I expect it, that we’ll have an understanding of why Christian was put into this match. He has to be going somewhere, right? Well, I guess he actually doesn’t…but I hope there is an outcome for him other than the one I’m afraid we’ll see, which is he’ll be one of the first men to enter and the first one to leave.

Along those same lines, I expect to have a better idea of where Sheamus is headed after this weekend. There have been rumors around the internet WWE was kicking around the idea of re-visiting the Sheamus/Daniel Bryan feud from two years ago. Their match at Extreme Rules in 2012 was fantastic, and they have a certain chemistry in the ring together, but there doesn’t seem to be the makings of a WrestleMania moment in that match. Maybe he and Christian will continue their mini-feud that started when Sheamus hit Christian with the Brogue Kick during their tag team match on the Valentine’s Day Smackdown.

I do sort of expect the Elimination Chamber to come down to Orton and Bryan as the final two competitors. I expect shenanigans involving Kane, and I expect Randy Orton to retain his title of Champion because of said shenanigans. I’m almost expecting something similar to what happened at Elimination Chamber 2010, when Shawn Michaels, who wasn’t an entrant in the match, came up through the grates and delivered the Sweet Chin Music to the Undertaker to cost him the match and his title. Kane could come up through the grates and chokeslam Bryan to hand the victory to Orton.

Now I’m going to go down the fantasy booking rabbit hole. This could lead to Triple H coming out on Monday night, letting us all know he knows Bryan got screwed by the Director of Operations at Elimination Chamber. He tells Daniel Bryan that to make it up to him, he gets a match with Kane as the main event of Monday Night Raw. The match itself features Daniel Bryan beating Kane from pillar to post right from the opening bell. Kane doesn’t get in a lick of offense, with Bryan brutally taking out all of his frustrations of the last six months on Kane. All of the sudden, the lights go out. We hear one chime and the lights come back on with the Undertaker in the ring, delivering a chokeslam to Daniel Bryan to save Kane, and standing over Bryan as Raw fades out… to the activation of the WWE Network.

How great would it be if one of the first things on the WWEN was an interview with Bryan challenging the Undertaker to put his streak on the line at WrestleMania XXX?

• • •

Scott: You know, it leaves me dumbfounded that until this very moment I’d not considered the absolute imperative the Feb. 24 Raw end with something that forces people to care about the aftershow. The scenario you outlined, or something just like it, is almost a certainty. And of course following it backward leads to the almost certain screwiness of the Chamber itself.

I like your thought about Sheamus and Christian — I’m not sure how their match on this week’s Smackdown will leave things going forward, but I would be OK seeing them paired off for the next couple of months, if only to keep Sheamus out of the title picture for a while.

At some point there will need to be a formal consolidation of Orton’s two belts into one and the formal elevation of the Intercontinental Title to establish it as the No. 2 belt. That would enable something like a Sheamus-Cesaro feud over a belt that truly matters in the “new” WWE.

(Side note: As excited as I am for Cesaro’s match this week and prospects in the Chamber, I also know he will be a centerpiece of the live NXT event on Feb. 27 in what will be an amazing match with Sami Zayn. How that encounter relates to Cesaro’s role on the main roster remains to be seen. But if/when Zayn beats Cesaro, doesn’t that enable him to graduate from NXT?)

Hopefully we’ve had a productive discussion here. I am far more excited about this big February show than I have been in years, and I’m also pretty jazzed about the long-term outlook for the WWE roster. I’m anxious to see how the Network changes storytelling and character development (don’t get me started on the backstage NXT show) and, well, I just enjoy talking wrestling with my friends, which is why we do this in the first place.

As always, thanks for reading, and know you can contact us via Twitter, or the comments section below. Your feedback is appreciated.

The Royal Rumble by (Entry) Numbers

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Scott has joined Tom Holzerman’s The Wrestling Blog. Right now he’s writing a series of pieces on the Royal Rumble, and breaking down the statistics surrounding each of the numbers of entry for the Rumble match.

As of this post, three articles have been posted, and they are extremely informative and entertaining.

Check them out, and keep up with them as they come out.

Entry #1: http://wallsofjerichoholic.blogspot.com/2013/12/the-royal-rumble-by-entry-numbers-1.html

Entry #2: http://wallsofjerichoholic.blogspot.com/2013/12/the-royal-rumble-by-entry-numbers-2.html

Entry #3: http://wallsofjerichoholic.blogspot.com/2013/12/the-royal-rumble-by-entry-numbers-3.html

On the Road Again…

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TLC 2013 poster

TLC 2013 – copyright WWE

Scott: David, old friend, it’s been far too long since we’ve conversed in this forum. But now, heading toward the on ramp for the Road to WrestleMania XXX, we need to get back to what we do best. Or at least what we do best when life doesn’t get in the way. Perhaps a wiser man would start somewhere else, but I’m going right for the top: Cena. Orton. TLC match. Both the World Wrestling Entertainment and World Heavyweight Championship on the line. I know there’s been some murkiness about whether this is an actual unification match or something of a ruse, but let’s agree at some point there will only be one top title in the world’s most notable promotion. Is this best for business?

• • •

David: Is a title unification best for business? I’m not sure it is, but I’m probably in the minority. The reason I have doubts is because I’m not sure what problems title unification solves. A lot of people on Twitter complain the World Heavyweight Championship, the Intercontinental Title and US Title mean very little because of the way they’ve been treated. They point to the number as being the problem. While I agree that sometimes the number of titles causes them to get lost in the shuffle, I think there is a much deeper problem.

If you read certain wrestling blogs (or Wrestling Blogs), there are a couple of problems consistently featured in the way the WWE creative teams write their stories. First, it seems as if champions (especially the IC and US Champions) can only win matches during title defenses. They lose non-title matches with an alarming frequency, which causes some people to perceive those wrestlers as “weak.” Outside of the title pictures, there seems to be a 50/50 philosophy, where two wrestlers will wrestle a series of matches where they trade wins back and forth. In my mind, neither of these writing styles creates strong or memorable good guy or bad guy characters.

So, if they reduce the number of titles, does that mean that they’ll get away from these two booking philosophies? I doubt it. It seems like they are ingrained in the company at this point, and I think it would take more than a title unification to change it.

Of course, that whole scenario is about us agreeing there will be one top title in the near future. But that’s not what this blog is about, so let’s dig a little deeper. You specified at the top you think title unification will happen at some point, but not necessarily at TLC. Do you think Dec. 15, 2013, in Houston, Texas, will be a date remembered for the unification of the WWE and World Heavyweight Championships?

• • •

Scott: Based on what I saw on Raw Monday and read online in the days following, my answer would be no — I expect Cena and Orton to each grab the other’s belt simultaneously in order to drag the story out a little more. But then I caught what Triple H said during his regular sit-down with Michael Cole for the WWE website, and he made it clear there will at some point be only one “top” title. I am not entirely sure that means the TLC main event will be a unification match, or that unification will be the result. After all, Daniel Bryan won the WWE Title fairly convincingly in early September, and that lasted all of 21 hours. I certainly think we won’t get past WrestleMania XXX with two main titles. Some folks are insistent it needs to happen in December so the Royal Rumble, Elimination Chamber and WrestleMania stories are cleaner. Others contend unification is such a major event it should only happen on the biggest stage. What say you?

• • •

David: Title unification is a huge step, and I probably would be in the camp that says it should happen at WrestleMania… except it does cause a problem. If we still have two champions on Dec. 16, presumably we still would have two champions at the Royal Rumble. How, then, can we have a unification match at WrestleMania if the Royal Rumble winner is guaranteed a WrestleMania title shot? Fear not, for I have two scenarios, although I’m sure one of them will be distasteful to a lot of people.

A lot of criticism surrounds the Survivor Series, and, to a lesser extent, the Royal Rumble, about them feeling like “just another pay-per-view.” David Shoemaker, in a pre-Survivor Series article on Grantland, spelled out how he would fix the Survivor Series. I have a fairly simple idea of how to fix the Royal Rumble… eliminate the title match. The Rumble is its own thing, and, I’m sure you’ll agree, deserves to be the most important match on the card. Let the champions enter the Rumble, with the idea that they get to pick their own challenger for WrestleMania if they win. Unfortunately, this means Cena or Orton would have to win this year in order to set up a unification match at WrestleMania, which is where some people’s distaste comes in.

There is another alternative that may be a little more palatable to some: the Royal Rumble winner enters the Elimination Chamber, and wins one of the titles. Not only does this lead us to a unification match, but it potentially builds more excitement for the Elimination Chamber than has been there in previous years. I would love to see a scenario where Daniel Bryan wins the Royal Rumble, wins the World Heavyweight Championship at Elimination Chamber, and challenges John Cena for the unified title at Wrestlemania.

How does that strike you?

• • •

Scott: I wouldn’t put anything past them at this point, especially given how much confusion there’s been since SummerSlam. I do agree the Rumble itself needs to be the most prominent thing on the card, and I recall bristling when they added a WWF Title match to the card way back in 1991. But I’m also okay with there being a title match on the show, provided the Rumble goes on last. There was a lot of frustration in January when the CM Punk-Rock match ended the show instead of the Rumble, but I have to wonder if that wasn’t the Rock’s ego/contract getting in the way.

CM Punk and Daniel Bryan

Could these two men re-create the ending of the 1994 Royal Rumble?

I saw one person suggest Orton and Cena can’t settle things while Punk and Byran pull a Hart-Luger 94 and both “win” the Rumble, setting up a winner-take-all four-way match for WrestleMania XXX. While it might be great to have Bryan win his first belt under those monumental odds, it also would evoke far too clearly the WrestleMania 2000 debacle. Black Cat of the Old School Wrestling Podcast makes a compelling argument: the Mania main event needs to be two guys, period.

Here’s the reality of the situation: Cena will be in the title match at WrestleMania, whether there’s one belt by then or not. Orton will be there too, unless someone directly causes him to lose his belt, spinning them off into a viable grudge match (maybe Big Show or HHH or Kane or something). It’s not yet clear if Punk or Bryan will be out of the mix with all that’s going on with the Wyatts and the Shield, but aside from Orton or a returning star, it’s not clear anyone else is ready to share this stage with Cena. So in my book it has to be one of those three on the other side of the ring.

All this talk makes me realize there are real losers in this scenario. My first thought is Cody Rhodes. When Sandow won the Money in the Bank match, and especially during Cody’s termination and Goldust’s return, lots of people envisioned a scenario in which those three would be involved in a long-form story surrounding the World Heavyweight Championship. Now that seems somewhere between unlikely and impossible. It’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, to elevate either the Intercontinental or United States championships to their previous positions. In fact, I’ll say it can’t be done and dare you to prove me wrong.

• • •

David: I specifically waited to answer this question until after I watched the Dec. 2 edition of Monday Night Raw, hoping maybe either of those titles would see some movement. My disposition at the moment is about 50 percent optimistic.

At this point, the US Title seems like a lost cause. It’s not that Dean Ambrose is a bad champion. On the contrary, I’d say he’s a very good champion, or at least he would be. Unfortunately, United States Champion Dean Ambrose has seemed to take a back seat to Shield member Dean Ambrose lately.

However, Raw featured an excellent match between Dolph Ziggler and Damien Sandow for the right to battle with Big E Langston for the Intercontinental Championship at TLC. With Sandow getting the victory and punching his ticket for a date with the powerhouse from the University of Iowa, I’m cautiously excited for what’s happening with the IC title. Power vs brains usually makes for a pretty good story. Do you think these two up and comers might have what it takes to bring some focus back to that title?

• • •

Scott: When I watched that Ziggler-Sandow match, I had the same general thought — establishing top contenders via contested matches is a good way to drum up interest. I don’t know if we’ll ever see a day where there’s a Money in the Bank match for the right to cash in on the Intercontinental champion, for example, but I do think the narrative will be helped going forward with a clear delineation between the top title and the second-tier belt. The reason the IC and US titles have floundered — in addition to the meager stories they’ve told around them — is the clear descent of the World Heavyweight Championship to the spot previously held by the IC belt.

The fact is, some of the greatest matches in history — not just WWF — have been for lesser titles. It would be almost too easy to make a list here, including times where a secondary belt match has stolen the show of a major card. It’s not impossible to get there, but the WWE needs to do more than just erase the WHC to make the IC belt relevant.

As for Langston and Sandow specifically, I’m in sort of a quandary here. I love both performers, and a loss is bad for either one. For Langston, it’s an indication he’s not ready for prime time and the excitement over his title win over Axel would be neutered as much as Ziggler’s cash-in on Alberto Del Rio in April. For Sandow, a loss would be another slip down from the peak he hit when he turned on Cody Rhodes and grabbed the Money in the Bank briefcase. So in some ways this is good storytelling, where I’m really interested to see both the result and how the in-ring performance supports the narrative. In

Dean Ambrose

Has Dean Ambrose’s position in the Shield overshadowed his status as US Champion?

other ways, I want my favorite guys to just beat up dudes I don’t see having potential.

And then there’s Ambrose. If someone showed up on Smackdown this week and scrapped the Sandow match in favor of an Ambrose-Langston unification bout, it would instantly be my favorite match on the TLC card, although as with Sandow, I want Ambrose to continue to succeed.

But you’re right, his role in the Shield has supplanted his role as U.S. Champion. And maybe it’s OK to let that title stay in the shadows for one more show, but as soon as the top belts are unified they’ll need to make a move with the lower belts. I’m still not convinced there’s a good strategy to employ, especially so close to WrestleMania. Do you see a successful road map anywhere?

• • •

David: In my mind, it doesn’t make sense to do anything special with the IC and US titles at the Royal Rumble because they’ll be overshadowed by the Rumble match itself. However, if Triple H and Stephanie announced the night after the Royal Rumble there was going to be an Elimination Chamber match to unify the two middle titles, I think I’d be pretty excited. They could use the period between the Rumble and Elimination Chamber by having a tournament to get into the Elimination Chamber. If done properly, I think there’s a story there that could grab people’s attention and make the unification of those belts meaningful. They could even make that match the main event, and say they’re giving the unified champion that pay-per-view off to prepare for his WrestleMania match with the Royal Rumble winner. This would especially work if Randy Orton, or (God forbid) Triple H is the champion at that point. In just writing it, the idea of a well-rested champion seems like it would be a way of creating a talking point for the WrestleMania main event, and giving an underdog (like Daniel Bryan) a bigger hill to climb. If they were to do that, in one deft stroke, they may have upgraded the midcard title, created a good story for WrestleMania and, if they so choose, made the entire year-long saga of Daniel Bryan worth everything we’ve gone through.

How do you feel about the idea of using the Elimination Chamber as a way to unify the titles?

The Elimination Chamber

Could this structure be used to unify the second tier titles?

• • •

Scott: I think it’s a great idea, which means it probably won’t happen. I don’t mind the Elimination Chamber as a concept, but like the annual Hell in a Cell dilemma in October, having the Chamber forced into February always seems to complicate the Road to WrestleMania. This year is a prime example. Why go through the process of unifying your top titles with your biggest stars in December, then crown one contender to stand above the rest in January… and then in February try to force six guys into one match as supposed equals?

You can’t have a Chamber match without stakes. Less titles means fewer stakes to be had. Heck, even if they didn’t unify the belts having one or both of them contested in the Chamber would elevate the profile. But I can debunk that logic, too: Look back to this year’s Money in the Bank. Everyone agrees the World Heavyweight Championship MITB was the high spot of the show, but it was the opener and having a great match did nothing to change perceptions about which belt was more important.

Maybe ultimately the most important thing for a belt is who has it — not for what the title means to the wrestler, but what the wrestler means to the title. That’s why this unification couldn’t happen until they found a way to get the “lesser” belt back on the bigger star, while having another highly decorated veteran carry the big strap. If we set aside our fan interests, is there any way they’d promote this match with any other performers?

Among the many things I’m confused about at the moment is how we get from December to WrestleMania. Many years that feeling is intrigue, but this year I’m more perplexed than anything. Is the Rumble main event just a Cena-Orton rematch? Will the TLC ending not be as conclusive as promised?

The more important question: is there any chance the writers, free from some of the rules hampering them over the last several years, can tell stories from WrestleMania XXX to XXXI substantially different from what we have today? Or is it going to be another year of mostly great in-ring action with mildly amusing to outright maddening narratives everywhere else in the “universe”?

• • •

David: In the Attitude Era, there was a period of time where Vince Russo got a lot of credit for the things that turned the WWE’s fortunes around. Russo eventually left the WWE and went to WCW, where he had a hard time creating compelling television. It was then believed WWE was a success in part because of Russo, but also because Vince McMahon was there to oversee what Russo was doing and reign him in when he needed to.

I believe the latter probably is mostly true, but I also think there is a third ingredient to the WWE’s success in the late 90s, and that’s competition. I once heard someone say “competition is the mother of innovation”, and I think innovation is what the WWE is really missing. Because of the lack of a strong competitor in the sports entertainment genre, the WWE isn’t really being driven toward innovation in its storylines.

WWE also doesn’t have a way to define its progress. Buyrates and ratings are, I would assume, how the WWE judges the merits of its storylines and matches, but those seem like empty numbers when they’re not being compared to something, or when they’re the apples being compared to oranges. The WWE constantly reminds us when it has the top ratings, or the most social media traffic, but that is useless horn blowing if there’s no one occupying the same space and competing for that traffic.

The emptiness of those numbers causes their effect to be exaggerated in my opinion. As a result, we get stories like the ones that surfaced last month about Vince McMahon being unhappy with the SummerSlam buyrate, and the idea he feels Daniel Bryan is the reason for the disappointment. How can Mr. McMahon truly know who is responsible for the low buyrate, if he can’t possibly know what the buyrate would have been without Daniel Bryan in the main event? Isn’t it possible that a lot of people really like Daniel Bryan, but didn’t like the story WWE was telling with him? Isn’t it possible that a lot of people really like Daniel Bryan but didn’t like the involvement of Triple H? Maybe there’s an argument to be made that casual fans didn’t buy SummerSlam because of Daniel Bryan, but I think the Dec. 9 edition of Raw proved how popular Daniel Bryan can be.

Personally, I think the SummerSlam main event was an artistic success, even if it wasn’t a business success. Of course, being an artist myself, I see the value of artistic success, even if it comes at the detriment of business success. Granted, I don’t have stockholders to answer to, and neither do most of the theatre companies I’ve worked for.

That is a very long-winded way of saying the answer to your question is I think we’ll see more of the same until the WWE changes the way it views success, or a competitor arises to force the WWE to innovate.

Thanks for reading! If you have any insights on our discussion, you can contact us via Twitter, or the comments section below. Your feedback is appreciated.

Harry Potter and the WWE Championship

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Scott: David, my friend, it’s been too long. We both have been busy, but I have the itch to debate wrestling again. I attribute this to many factors, but a leading one of late is WWE.com’s new “SummerSlam in 60 Seconds” feature, in which they distill an entire show into one minute of highlights. On the day of this writing, the showcase event is SummerSlam 1994, my first live WWF show. I could write a few thousand words about just that day, but I’ll spare you the nostalgia.

I remember you once telling me about a WWF house show you attended, I think in St. Louis. Do you have any fond memories of that event?

• • •

kiel

The Kiel Auditorium. Mecca for wrestling in St. Louis, and where David saw his first live show.

David: I have very fond memories of the two St. Louis house shows my father took me to in the late 1980s. The first was in November 1988, and featured a main event of the Ultimate Warrior vs. the Honky Tonk Man for the Intercontinental title. I vaguely remember that match, but I vividly remember my dad buying me an Ultimate Warrior poster and hanging it on my wall when we got home from the show. I also remember seeing the Rockers vs the Conquistadors. I had a been a Rockers fan since they were the Midnight Rockers in the AWA, and finally getting to see them live was great. I also remember there being a couple of “audience participation” spots during that match. At one point, the Conquistadors switched without tagging (which they did often) thanks to their masks, but the ref did something I had never seen before… he asked the crowd whether the masked men had tagged, and when we said no he disallowed the tag and made them break whatever hold they were involved in. The same thing happened later when the Rockers switched without tagging. The ref asked us if they had tagged, and we all said yes. As I look back on it… I guess good guys have pretty much always been jerks in the WWF/E, haven’t they?

The second show was in December 1989, and was supposed to feature Mr. Perfect vs Hulk Hogan. Unfortunately, due to bad weather, the Hulkster didn’t make it to St. Louis. I vividly remember them replacing the main event with a battle royal, which was won by Dusty Rhodes. But even more than that, I remember the promo Mr. Perfect cut before the battle royal where he called Hogan a coward.

I know you’ve seen a few televised events, but have you ever been to an untelevised house show?

• • •

Scott: I wish! I’ve only seen three live shows — SummerSlam 1994, King of the Ring 1996 and the WCW Thunder you and I attended in Cedar Rapids in 1998. I made a new year’s resolution to see a decent live independent show in 2013, but I’m not certain I can make it a reality. There’s good stuff in the Chicago area, but fitting it into the schedule can be complicated.

I’ve long wanted to get more into the “before they were stars” vibe on a lot of levels. I could go to Chicago and watch Second City performers before they get cast on “Saturday Night Live,” just like I could see guys who might one day make it to “Monday Night Raw.” You’re busting your hump in the community theater world these days — does that give you more of an appreciation for something like Daniel Bryan’s main event ascension?

• • •

daniel_bryan_bio_20130430

Your next WWE Champion?

David: I think so. I’ve seen friends of mine elevate themselves from the community theatre level to regional theatre, and I’ve seen people who have worked at the same theatres I’ve worked at move up to Broadway and television, and every time I see them in their new roles, I get excited for them. Did I have any role in their success? Of course not, but it’s thrilling to see someone who was in a similar position elevate themselves to a higher plane in your business. In the same way, watching someone like Daniel Bryan who fought so hard and so long just because he loves wrestling is exciting. Especially since the storyline is born out of that struggle.

So far, I’ve really enjoyed the “Entertainment vs Wrestling” angle they’ve gone with so far, even if John Cena has been pulling his “Let me get serious, Jack!” routine. I especially enjoyed Bryan not allowing Cena to interrupt him on the most recent edition of Raw. They’ve got a good story going, but I’m unfortunately wary about the McMahon family’s role in this match. Do you think we’ll get a clean match, or is there going to be some kind of screwball finish that somewhat tarnishes Daniel Bryan’s first chance at the WWE Championship?

• • •

Scott: First off, I really identify with your feelings about performers climbing the ladder. It’s one of the reasons I still want to see The Miz succeed, because I’ve “known” him since he was just a huge WWF fan trying to break into the entertainment world. I think the continued evolution of the NXT program and the new development center will help fans follow prospects the way we do in professional sports. Of course, the hard-core devotees are always going to be aware of guys long before their first WWE developmental deal, and they’ll be even more invested in the long-term careers and successes. It’s a totally different fan experience from what we had in the 1980s and 1990s, but it’s a welcome evolution.

As for the SummerSlam main event, it’s hard not to see some sort of screwball finish. It’s easy to see a Night of Champions main event featuring Bryan, Cena and Randy Orton (even if the event poster features Kofi Kingston and the Intercontinental belt). I know matches where Triple H is the special referee have a track record of more or less straight finishes, but with Orton’s briefcase involved, plus the Brad Maddox-Vince McMahon dynamic of late, it certainly seems something is afoot.

Let’s put it this way: when has SummerSlam ended with the champion triumphant, ending his story conclusively with no eye toward a future opponent? It’s rare. That’s how WrestleMania ends. And if that’s what we’re building to here with Bryan — similar to the path Steve Austin trod culminating at WrestleMania XIV — I’m OK with that. They can tell a great story. Adding HHH to the mix Sunday kind of prepared me mentally to accept the show will end other than Bryan picking up a clean win over Cena. I had that feeling for a while, but after Monday it just seems more clear.

Is Bryan-Cena the match you’re anticipating most? What else on the card has you jazzed?

• • •

rs_560x415-130813152620-1024.Cena.Bryan.mh.081313

The main event of SummerSlam 2013.

David: You’re right about the way SummerSlam is structured. It’s rarely a culmination, and more of a mid-point in major stories. I’m hopeful that this is the beginning of a longer Daniel Bryan story that does, indeed, feature him in the main event of WrestleMania.

The Bryan-Cena match is the one I’m anticipating most, mainly because I think it’s had the best build, and it’s got one of the two competitors I enjoy watching the most right now, Daniel Bryan. The other competitor is CM Punk, and his match at SummerSlam is secondary in terms of prominence to me, simply because I’m not a fan of Brock Lesnar. I don’t particularly enjoy watching him in the ring or anywhere else for that matter. However, I find it interesting that Punk’s feud isn’t really with Brock Lesnar, it’s with Lesnar’s manager and Punk’s former best friend, Paul Heyman.

The Heyman/Punk dynamic is something you and I have been talking about and hoping for for almost a year. Has the story between these two been as good as you hoped it would be?

• • •

Scott: I wasn’t wowed with the way Heyman set a “trap” for Punk on Raw this week, if only because it wasn’t a very good trap and Heyman should be smarter than that. But I did like how Heyman laid out Punk’s choices between being smart or being a hero. This is a story that goes back nearly a year, as it was the Labor Day Raw in Chicago when Punk first revealed his association with Paul. And again, since it’s SummerSlam, I’m not entirely sure this is the final movement.

w7826_Paul_Heyman_WallPape

I would’ve thought Heyman would set better traps…

I wouldn’t say Lesnar is my favorite performer. But I think we may disagree in terms of his value as it relates to the overall show. He’s just a different performer than everyone else on the roster, which is partly why he’s able to be relevant without being on the show every week. His music and appearance, as well as his in-ring style, give him the overall aura of someone who is simply there to mutilate and destroy (this was explained in great detail on episode 101 of the Old School Wrestling Podcast). It’s like playing through a level of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles video game full of Foot Soldiers (Curtis Axel) and then all of a sudden Krang shows up and stuff gets real.

Earlier this summer Tom Holzerman floated the idea Lesnar may not be Heyman’s end game for Punk, that maybe there’s even a more significant Heyman Guy for punk to conquer. To hybridize our two streams of consciousness, TH floated Austin as the Shredder in this analogy. Could it be anyone else besides Stone Cold? Is that fantasy matchup even worth pursuing at this point? Is there anyone bigger than Brock for Punk to encounter? Does the Brock-Punk thing have to keep going to keep Punk away from the Cena-Bryan-Orton story?

• • •

brock_bio

Did the WWE bring Brock and Punk together too soon?

David: I don’t know if Brock/Punk has to keep going, but Punk does need something relevant to occupy him if he’s not going to be in the title picture. Ideally, in my mind, that would somehow involve Heyman. Part of me almost wonders if maybe they brought in Lesnar too soon. Let’s go back to your TMNT analogy.

If Lesnar is Krang and Austin is Shredder (I promise I’m not about to make any Kevin Nash/Super Shredder jokes here), and Curtis Axel is the Foot Clan, maybe there should’ve been some other Heyman guys in Punk’s way. Ones that would be more of a threat than Axel, but less than Brock: Bebop and Rocksteady, if you will. There are a litany of Paul Heyman guys that could’ve been brought in to this story if things could be worked out: Raven, RVD, Rhyno, Dreamer… etc. In this scenario, I think it would’ve been awesome to see them bring in Colt Cabana on a short-term contract to work as an adversary to Punk.

Then, once Punk had beaten the new Dangerous Alliance, he could’ve faced Brock Lesnar at the Royal Rumble, which would do a good job leading us into a match with Austin at WrestleMania. I’d be interested in seeing that match, if I’m given the right story. But with the way this story has played out so far, I don’t see how they’re going to keep Heyman/Punk going for the next seven or eight months if Austin is indeed Heyman’s next move. I guess the match wouldn’t have to be at WrestleMania, but will Austin come out of retirement for anything less than a WrestleMania Moment™?

• • •

Scott: Great questions. I think to some degree Brock’s contract details are a factor — and I have no idea what those details are. I was surprised to see Heyman aligned with Axel in the first place, but maybe that was just part of the ongoing Punk-Heyman story. Not to overuse the word surprising, but I’m surprised both Lesnar and Heyman are with the company. Brock because I figured he’d have about one year before he got bored (though maybe the money and terms are too good to walk away from) and Heyman because, well, he gets fired everywhere he goes.

I’m not certain there’s a ton of potential in a “Punk goes through the old ECW roster” story long term, so maybe we are better off if this is the end. Maybe Punk beats Brock and assaults Heyman and we don’t hear from either for some time, and I guess Axel is just left alone? That can’t work either. I guess I’m going to be surprised one way or another on Sunday?

I have thought a Punk-Cabana story would be great, maybe along the lines of a Bret-Owen “What about me?” angle. A few problems with that: One, Cabana is nowhere near as established with the larger audience as Owen was in 1993. Two, the people who are greatly familiar with Cabana would very much be inclined to cheer for him getting another chance at the top, which wouldn’t help in this story. Three, can Cabana play a convincing heel on this stage? It’s tough for anyone to live up to Owen’s standards, but what would a heel Colt Cabana look like in 2013 as it relates to the rest of the roster?

A few of those issues could be rectified by bringing in Cabana as a Punk ally before a turn, but I am certain that won’t happen Sunday and not entirely sure it’s something Cabana even wants or needs at this point in his career. Not saying it won’t ever happen (never say never), but I think this is a case where practicality must be considered.

• • •

David: You’re right. My scenario was definitely fantasy booking. However, what is not fantasy is the fact that on the most recent episode of Raw, Dean Ambrose referenced CM Punk. And with Reigns and Rollins not having a match at the pay-per-view, could we see the Shield get involved in bringing their own brand of justice to CM Punk? I don’t know, but we’ll see.

There are other matches on the card, as we all know, but do any of them make you want to lay down your hard earned money? I’m certainly looking forward to the Bray Wyatt-Kane match. Wyatt has been nothing short of a revelation since he and his family made their Raw debut, and may be the best marriage of performer and character in WWE in a long time. His mic work is creepy in the best way possible, but what really sends a shiver down my spine is the kiss before he delivers “Sister Abigail.”

Which of the other undercard matches are you looking forward to?

• • •

Scott: I guess the Shield are Heyman guys in canon, right? It would be logical for them to come back to the Punk story. Are we supposed to be believing Heyman hired the Shield (and also paid off Maddox at one point) to save Punk, only Heyman never told Punk what he was doing?

But I’ll use the Shield to get me back to the rest of the show, because I’m always interested in their matches. While I’m not yet sure how Ambrose will work with RVD or if Mark Henry and Big Show are a good in-ring fit as opponents for Rollins and Reigns, I have confidence in the young guys based on everything I’ve seen from them so far. This is their first SummerSlam, and I expect them to make an impression. In fact, along with Bryan, the Shield’s ascendance from here to WrestleMania is probably my most anticipated long-term development.

I know we’re supposed to disagree a lot here, but obviously I’m on your side as it relates to the Wyatt family. That said, I’m not so much excited for the Wyatt-Kane match for a few reasons. One, the Ring of Fire concept is sure to be overly gimmicky. Two, Kane tends to do more for me in tag team or battle-royal style matches. This match probably puts Kane back on the shelf for a while while moving the Wyatts in a new direction, and I don’t think they need a 15-minute singles match to reach that goal.

The Cody Rhodes-Damien Sandow stuff has mostly been pretty solid, and I’m always glad to have a singles match with nothing more at stake than “these guys don’t like each other and want to prove who is best.” I would not be surprised if this advances to September and a match where Sandow’s briefcase is on the line. Why? The story of Money in the Bank was more about Cody losing (and how) than Sandow winning. Transferring the case to Cody allows him to rise up the ranks without hurting Sandow’s character. Not that I want to deprive Sandow of a title run, but it feels like the best use of him would be as a challenger to Cody’s title than as the one Cody has to chase.

That said, what’s happening with the contenders is to me more interesting than the actual World Heavyweight Championship match. My interest in Del Rio’s future took a significant hit when he turned on Ricardo, though maybe they are heavily invested in a Ricardo redemption story. I’m just not sure if El Local is ready to take that step without some more NXT seasoning. And while I enjoy seeing Christian on my TV, I don’t see him winning the gold. Or should I say, I don’t see a win for him here being as big a moment as he could be based on the way the story has been told thus far.

And then there’s the mixed tag match. It’s full of people I love to see perform, but with all the other, higher profile matches on the card, it seems the writers are seeing this as a throwaway. I’m sure Ziggler will try to steal the show, and Big E. Langston usually makes an impact. But I guess I needed something more along the way to get me invested in what happens going forward. If they didn’t know what they’d do when they broke Dolph away from E and AJ, then what was the harm in keeping them together? We’ll never know to what Degree Ziggler’s concussion altered the trajectory of his story for the summer of 2013, but we have come a long, long way from the joy of his MITB cash-in on Del Rio the night after WrestleMania.

• • •

Dumbledore's Death

I wonder if Daniel Bryan’s beard will eventually be as long as Dumbledore’s?

David: And that’s the rub with wrestling, isn’t it? An injury, a suspension, personal issues, anything that takes a piece from the chess board alters everything. By virtue of its serial nature and the fact it’s told mostly in a live setting, wrestling will always have to worry about planned stories changing. There are even rumors Cena has to have surgery after SummerSlam and that could affect the outcome of his match on Sunday. However, that’s only a rumor at this point, and in the long run, I’m not sure it matters. All I care about is that a compelling story is told in a compelling manner. I don’t care why JK Rowling decided she needed to (eight-year-old spoiler alert) kill off Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. I only care about the effect it had on the story. Whether Daniel Bryan wins the title at SummerSlam or if it takes him until New Orleans, all I know is I will take pleasure that I’ve gotten to see a compelling character scratch and claw his way to the top of his chosen profession.

• • •

Scott: Great points. Though sometimes I wish my favorite wrestling shows came from a single creator the way Rowling created the Harry Potter universe — if only to help with internal logic and continuity.

I don’t know about you, but our chat here definitely has me worked up for SummerSlam. It’s never a guaranteed smash, but with as much emphasis as they’re putting behind the entire event experience this year, I’m hoping to be fairly well entertained.

As always, thanks for reading, and know you can contact us via Twitter, or the comments section below. Your feedback is appreciated.

Wrestling Moves and Wrestling Movement

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Scott: This morning’s Twitter conversation has inspired me. In a discussion about various wrestling moves and how some don’t age well (i.e., what was seen as devastating in 1993 is merely average offense today), I wrote: “Is there a list for people who always thought the stunner was lame? Line forms behind me.”

So, where do you stand on Steve Austin’s signature move?

• • •

David: The Stone Cold Stunner is one of those moves that sort of changes based on who it’s being delivered to and how they sell it. The move itself is okay, although I’m in agreement with Jason Mann that I like the Diamond Cutter more. I think a more apropos question is related to a twitter discussion that also happened today (May 2). Jason asked who did the third best DDT behind Jake Roberts and Arn Anderson. Some of his followers turned the question, and started wondering who took the DDT the best. So I’d like to change your question: Who took the Stone Cold Stunner the best?

• • •

Scott: I guess I’d have to say The Rock? Shane McMahon? I just watched WWE.com’s list of the 15 biggest Stunners, though I think those were more for historical impact than actual move performance. But of that list, I’d have to say Scott Hall at WrestleMania X-8 did as good a job as anyone making the Stunner look great. But still, it’s no Diamond Cutter.

Are there any other moves you can think of that get too much praise? Any that are underrated?

• • •

David: That’s a hard question to answer, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. I’m not sure the words overrated or underrated really work for individual moves. However, the idea did start me on a path of thinking about moves differently, and I now wonder why it took me so long to think of wrestling as the true art form it is. When I started thinking about moves that get praised a lot, one of the first things that came to mind was Ricky Steamboat’s arm drags. All throughout my childhood, his arm drags were lauded. But why? Is an arm drag ever going to finish off an opponent? Probably not. An arm drag is a transitional move. Mostly it’s used to get an opponent off of his feet. Almost everyone who uses an arm drag is able to do that, right? So what made Steamboat’s any better than anyone else’s?

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Best arm drags in the business.

Of course, the answer is Steamboat’s arm drags looked amazing. The way that he hooked the bicep was different from the way most people performed the move at the time, and he gave this utilitarian move a flair (he also gave them to Flair in their great series of matches) it didn’t necessarily have before. The aesthetic and artistic beauty of his arm drags seemed to have more importance than the impact that the move created.

Of course, Steamboat’s arm drags aren’t alone. There are a lot of moves that are aesthetically pleasing. Do any spring to your mind?

• • •

Scott: I’m surely not alone in being a fan of precision on the ring — execution of all sorts of moves by the likes of Bret or Owen Hart, Curt Hennig and so on. But in thinking of specific moves that are just the building blocks of a great performer, I envision things like Randy Savage’s punches, Bam Bam Bigelow’s headbutts or Davey Boy Smith’s delayed suplexes. I think of the way Roddy Piper’s ring style always perfectly matched his manic microphone work, or how Rick Rude’s cockiness came across every second he was on screen.

It probably says something about me that I’m coming up with examples that instantly hit the rewind button to the tune of 15 or 20 years. Surely there are guys currently on the big stage who have a consistency of character — attire, backstage segments, entrance routine, in-ring performance and more — that evoke the all-time greats. Guys like Dolph Ziggler and Daniel Bryan come to mind immediately.

Some of the biggest problems experienced fans have with characters like Triple H or John Cena are the countless holes between what they say and how they act. The best recent example is Cena talking about how the year after he lost to the Rock at WrestleMania was the worst of his career, ignoring his wins at Money in the Bank and Royal Rumble, not to mention continued dominance of the roster week in and week out.

We come to wrestling expecting and intending to suspend disbelief, But we’d also like this fictional universe to have its own sort of rules or logical consistency that make the whole thing easier to follow and accept. I get a sense that smaller promotions, and I’m referencing Chikara primarily, but surely there are others, do a much better job of establishing the parameters in which they will tell stories and then sticking to the ground rules. You’re much more a follower of the non-WWE world than myself. Do you have any insight in that regard?

• • •

David: I do think that, to a certain extent, smaller promotions do have an easier time maintaining logical consistency and continuity in their product. A lot of independent promotions (especially Chikara) cater to a niche audience who are glad to come to that promotion because of what they bring to the table. Chikara deals quite a bit with a very surreal side of wrestling, what with ants, wrestling ice cream cones, horror figures like my oldest son’s favorites, Frightmare and Hallowicked, and so on. Ring of Honor has spent most of its life concentrating on the “sport” aspects of professional wrestling, and succeeding for the most part. CZW assumed the “hardcore” mantle that was left open when ECW folded in the early part of this century. What these groups all have in common (besides some level of shared talent) is they operate on a smaller national basis than the WWE. Because of their size, they’ve been able to gain fans of their specific product, as opposed to the general professional wrestling fan. In my mind that makes the connection deeper and more profound.

Since you are primarily a fan of WWE, do you think you have a deep connection with today’s product? I know you have a deep connection to the product we grew up with, but has that stuck with you through today?

• • •

Scott: That’s a great question. Clearly wrestling was far more popular during our college years, which more or less coincided with the peak of the Attitude Era/Monday Night Wars, than it is today. But it’s fans like you and me, who were there long before the late-90s explosion, that are by and large still around today. That’s because all of the eras speak in some way to what we crave in our entertainment diet. Sure, the language may have evolved over time, but we’re fed nonetheless. How’s that for a mixed metaphor?

When I fell away from being a regular fan in the mid 2000s, it had more to do with my life schedule at the time than the actual product. Essentially, I couldn’t find the time to watch Raw, let alone Smackdown, and there were so many pay-per-view shows I just couldn’t keep up. That this coincided with the brand split made it all the more confusing. When I lived on my own for a few months in early 2007, I all of a sudden had the chance to commit to Raw on a regular basis. I spent a few hours looking up information online to fill me in on what I’d missed. I still consider summer 2002 to spring 2007 to be a pretty substantial void in my fan memory.

In this way, wrestling is very much like a soap opera. I actually committed to watching a soap opera once. It debuted during one of the summers I was home from college, so I figured I could get in on the ground floor. It was pretty easy to fit into my schedule at college as well. When I tried to keep up when regular viewing became a challenge, the same thing happened that I’d experienced with wrestling. There was enough familiarity to help ease me back in, but I still felt like someone who’d suffered some sort of traumatic brain injury when certain scenes didn’t register because that part of my memory was void.

All of which to say is sometimes I realize I’m watching a wrestling show out of sheer obligation to the fact I’ve been a fan since the mid 1980s. The May 13 Raw is a great example. I knew it would be a soft show, I plowed through it in an hour on the DVR while folding laundry and in retrospect I should have gotten caught up on “Parks & Recreation.” But I wanted to be part of the conversation, to read my regular recaps Tuesday and to be involved in Twitter when we all “watched” Extreme Rules. But if the Bulls actually had a chance to beat the Heat, I almost certainly would have given that priority.

All that said, there are times each year when I know why I’m still in on wrestling. When WWE is firing on all cylinders in a given story, I want to hear what the characters say, I want to see them mix it up in the ring and I spend far too much time thinking about who could or should win based on a variety of factors. Some shows have six or seven stories on this level. Some, like Extreme Rules, might not have any.

But there is something about the mix of scripted entertainment (so you know there will be drama, as opposed to say a “straight” sporting event that can completely fail to deliver if it’s a blowout) and the unpredictability of the live performance blended with impressive feats of athleticism that remain captivating after all these years.

Do I sit through a lot of absolute crap in order for those payoffs? Absolutely. But I’m a Cubs fan, so I’m rather used to waiting around for something good to happen.

• • •

David: You’re right. Based on our history with wrestling it would appear there are fundamental aspects of the genre that appeal to us. And I think you’ve hit on it pretty closely. I’ve long said I prefer wrestling to MMA because I know I’m going to get a certain quantity of entertainment for the money I’m paying… even if I’m not always sure of the quality.

What I am sure of is every time I turn on any wrestling event, there is the possibility of seeing something that will excite me, and might make me say “I’ve never seen that before.” That happened this past weekend at the end of the Chikara “Aniversario: No Compromise” iPPV. I know you don’t watch Chikara, but I also know you run in similar online circles as I do, so I’m sure you’ve picked up the gist of what happened, and if you (or our readers) don’t know what happened, basically, the main event ended in a no contest when Condor Security stormed out and ended things, which included tearing apart the stage.

The closest thing I can compare it to in mainstream wrestling was when the Nexus formed, and destroyed the ring and ringside area at the end of Raw in the summer of 2010. Even with that, though, there was no denying it was part of the story. Because of rumors and other things, there is just enough possibility that Chikara is done for good that people aren’t really sure what to think. I’m still pretty sure it’s part of the story, but again, the line is blurry enough I can’t be 100 percent positive.

The fact the line is blurred at all is pretty fascinating to me.

• • •

Scott: In the days after the Chikara show I got into a Twitter discussion about the nature of what is and isn’t “real” in wrestling. It started with Wrestlespective’s Jason Mann tweeting: “Wondering if something is real or not is about 50,232nd on the list of reasons I’m interested in wrestling.”  and I have to say I totally agree. I want to assume everything is part of the show.

Of course, that is not the same as saying I want everything to be predictable. Nor is it the same as, which Jason noted later, using reality to make a story more believable. Bringing in those real-world aspects of doubt and confusion, as with what’s happening with Chikara right now or the “will he or won’t he” questions surrounding CM Punk’s contract status in the weeks surrounding Money in the Bank 2011, is sometimes needed in order to keep fans guessing.

I think where the distinction comes into play for me is, at least in the Punk story, the company put the facts on the table and made them part of the story. Punk announced the date his contract expired, proclaimed he would win the title anyway and would leave as champion. For all I care, that could have been totally false. I don’t need a dirt sheet or website giving me the details of a contract to enjoy the show. In fact, when you do know these things — such as reports Chris Jericho would be going off the road following SummerSlam 2012, it takes an awful lot of wind from the sails of a retirement or “loser leaves town” match.

Some of the ideas in this conversation are why I don’t have much interest in following wrestlers on Twitter. I’m just more interested in the characters they play than the people they are, unless we have some sort of connection that goes beyond what happens in the ring. But I am totally on board with your description of wrestling as offering the promise of something exciting.

You and I both enjoy conventional sports, and we also have a background in theater (though yours is far deeper). I’d argue it’s hard to beat the drama of a live, high-stakes sporting event, but am compelled to note the disappointment when that drama is not delivered. The Cubs getting swept out of the playoffs in 2007 and 2008 was akin to Daniel Bryan losing in 18 seconds at WrestleMania. Months of buildup for absolutely no satisfaction past the introductions. But Bryan’s loss was notable because of its rarity. Stuff like what the Cubs did happens in baseball all the time.

Now, the St. Louis Cardinals’ run to the World Series in 2011 had about as much drama as anyone could bear — but that itself was notable in comparison to the team’s rather bland victory over the Tigers in 2006. If Bud Selig could script the Fall Classic every year, you’d never see pitchers making that many errors.

With theater, we go expecting drama (and laughter, perhaps music, dance and so on). We know absolutely everything is part of the act. Great performers make audiences suspend disbelief. The absolute best can take well-worn source material and still make it seem fresh. But aside from sets, costumes or the whims of a director, if you’ve seen “Death of a Salesman” a few times, you’re more or less appreciating how well one cast delivers versus those from the past.

Again, I’m not telling you anything you (or, likely, anyone reading this) don’t already know. Wrestling is a perfect mix. The story should be a secret to the audience. The feats of athleticism are fantastic, almost superhuman. Scripted or not, a spectacle is guaranteed. To me the art form takes the best of many other forms of entertainment, blurs the lines between them, and delivers a unique experience, and that goes far beyond the WWE product.

Have I made any sense? Does your acting career give you any additional insight?

• • •

David: One of the great things about any form of performing art is the possibility of catharsis. To use your example: in Death of a Salesman Willy Loman’s funeral acts as a method for the characters on stage, and the audience, to release the emotions that have built up throughout the story. The same thing happens in wrestling… whether the good guy wins or loses. The end of the match allows us to cheer or boo, depending both on the story being told, and on our own personal preferences.

However, there is something to be said for a lack of catharsis in art… or at least delayed catharsis. It’s something very tricky to pull off in certain dramatic arts. Most plays are one-evening events that take about three hours. When that three hours are over, the story had better be complete. Long-form television series and films with multiple parts have a unique opportunity, however. When everything went down at Aniversario: Never Compromise on June 2, I likened it to ending of The Empire Strikes Back. Han Solo is trapped in carbonite and on his way to become a wall decoration for Jabba the Hutt. Princess Leia has realized her love for a man she might never see again. Luke Skywalker has lost his hand, and gained the knowledge that the most hated man in the galaxy is his father. That’s a bummer no matter who’s keeping score.

The catharsis comes in the ending of Return of the Jedi, when the Emperor is defeated, Anakin Skywalker is redeemed and Han and Leia declare their love for each other. Part of why Chikara fans were legitimately upset at the end of the show is because with there being no ending to the title match, they were denied that catharsis. Presumably, if and when they come back, the fans will finally have that moment to cry or cheer over.

As I look at the lineup for the upcoming WWE pay-per-view Payback, I wonder where that emotional release is going to come from. As I pointed out catharsis in wrestling typically comes from the ending of each match… but I think a lot of fans want something more. As Tom Holzerman wrote recently on The Wrestling Blog, Kane is probably the best good guy the company has right now. That gives a lot of emotional weight to anything that happens within his storyline with Daniel Bryan. Will this Sunday see them break up for good, or will they reconcile?

Another potential emotional moment is in the Divas Championship match between Kaitlyn and AJ. AJ has spent the last month and a half playing mind games with Kaitlyn, which all came to a head on the most recent episode of Raw. Will Kaitlyn get her revenge, or will AJ’s plan to get inside Kaitlyn’s head work? I don’t know how that one will end, but it’s nice to see the Divas title get an actual storyline.

Being a Chicagoland resident, what do you think the emotions are going to be like on Sunday night when CM Punk makes his return to the WWE in his hometown? Also, is there any catharsis to be had in the John Cena/Ryback match?

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Punk makes his return at WWE Payback this Sunday on PPV, live from Chicago, IL.

• • •

Scott: Your question brings to mind the old K. Sawyer Paul standby of not predicting match outcomes, but whether stories would continue past a given show. That’s another quirk with wrestling as compared to other art forms.

As you said, in the theater you expect the story to end when the curtain falls. With television each show sort of communicates its approach: sitcoms and procedurals tend to be dominated by stories that wrap up with each episode, though characters have continuity and slow growth year over year. More conventional dramas tend to bring you along for a lengthy ride, drawing some bits out over several episodes, some from season premiere to season finale, and a precious few the entire run of the show — but they also generally have subplots that begin and end within the hour. Of course, few shows actually get to establish their own timetable as it relates to how long the network wants it on the air.

But with wrestling, the characters have to be in constant motion, especially so in the era of weekly TV. Nothing ends without a new beginning — with the WWE, this means a competitor who stands triumphant in Sunday might be brutally beaten by a new foe Monday (or Friday) night. This is nothing new, of course. The Flair-Steamboat trilogy ended only moments before Terry Funk attacked Flair to set up a new story.

The issue with wrestling (and I suppose specifically WWE) is fans don’t really know which is the long-form story and which is the time killer. It’s also clear the writing team doesn’t always know. On many shows, we can guess (say, the Intercontinental title will change hands but we know the WWE Title feud is only beginning). Looking at Payback, however it’s not especially clear. And getting back to what we talked about earlier, reality (or “what we know”) is part of the issue.

For example, was Fandango originally supposed to win the Intercontinental belt Sunday? Does that mean whoever does win is just a placeholder until he returns? Was Curtis Axel put in that match solely to convince fans the Punk return isn’t a Heyman swerve? Surely Axel can’t win the belt because it wouldn’t help his ongoing involvement in the McMahon family saga. But neither can he lose and risk what’s been built (or at least what they tried to build)  over the last few weeks. But what good is a Miz-Wade Barrett story without the belt? It’s barely any good with the belt.

We should expect Cena to win, not just because he’s Cena, but because he excels in these dumb gimmick matches. Punk is returning (if we don’t see Punk before his ring entrance, the crowd will be electric, especially if he dons a Blackhawks jersey), but is he coming back to challenge Cena for the belt? That seems an odd choice as well. We already know Mark Henry is coming back the next night on Raw, perhaps he will resume his issues with Ryback, thus removing him from the top of the card. But maybe Henry and Sheamus have unfinished business. Which is more unlikely to continue: Sheamus in the preshow or Ryback in the main event?

WWE Superstar Daniel Bryan

What does the future hold for Daniel Bryan?
Photo copyright: WWE

I could book out a year’s worth of Daniel Bryan story (short version: challenges Kane, demands Kane give him his evil best, even when Bryan wins he still feels insignificant and must challenge the Undertaker at WrestleMania), and I also am hoping Kaitlyn retains Sunday so her story with AJ continues to progress. The Ziggler-Del Rio story has been stilted on account of Ziggler’s concussion, and now Swagger has disappeared. But that’s the thing, I don’t really know.

Will there be any catharsis Sunday? If there is, it won’t last. As soon as Raw opens Monday, we’ll be able to focus on Money in the Bank, which is quickly taking its place among the biggest shows of the year. Will there be two briefcases again this year? Is the Wyatt family coming sooner rather than later? Will Henry or Punk get into either top title picture? Is Jericho done (again) after Payback?

I admit, I am more interested in the fallout than the actual Sunday show. But I wasn’t much interested in Extreme Rules at all, so I consider this an upgrade. Sorry I rambled so long here, we should wrap up before Sunday actually arrives. Any closing thoughts?

• • •

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Did I really just compare wrestling and Sweeney Todd? Yes, I did.

David: I keep thinking about the idea of catharsis in a dramatic context, and the idea of delayed catharsis. It’s not only important for the audience to be able to achieve that emotional release, but it’s also important for the characters. However, that delayed emotional release can lend itself to character movement. In the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, there is a moment at the end of the first act where the main character is about to use his razor to take revenge on the man who wronged him 15 years before the start of the play. That moment is interrupted, and it drives Sweeney to the point of madness.

The way you talked about Daniel Bryan’s current story made me think of that as an analogy. Bryan is convinced of his insignificance, and he has gotten to the point where he will stop at nothing to prove he is not a weak link. There are rumors Money in the Bank will feature a John Cena vs. Daniel Bryan match. If that is the case, I think we’ll see Bryan complaining about Cena saving him from getting beaten up by the Shield and further descend into this madness. Whether that ends with him trying to end “The Streak” next April in New Orleans is yet to be seen… but I certainly wouldn’t mind it.

As always, thanks for reading, and know you can contact us via Twitter, or the comments section below. Your feedback is appreciated.

Off-Ramp On the Road to Wrestemania

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Scott: David, my friend, it’s been too long. The last time we chatted it was before the Royal Rumble, and now we’re nearly at the end of the Road to WrestleMania. For me it’s one of the most nostalgic times of the year as we’re able to look back on 28 classic events, many of which serve as benchmarks for where we were not just as wrestling fans, but also as life markers. That may seem a bit strong, but don’t tell me you can’t tell me everything about your life the day the Ultimate Warrior challenged Hulk Hogan at SkyDome in Toronto.

That said, some WrestleMania moments are, in a word, overrated. I asked around to get a feel for what some folks might put on their list of ’Mania memories that aren’t quite worthy of the love they get from fans. Jason Mann of Wrestlespective suggested the Bret Hart-Shawn Michaels Iron Man Match from WrestleMania XII belongs on this list. Tom Holzerman of The Wrestling Blog chose another HBK moment — the night he ended Ric Flair’s career. So now I turn the question to you: What WrestleMania moments are more sizzle than steak?

• • •

David: I’m probably going to anger some people with my answer, but here goes. Rock vs Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania X8. I’ve never been a big Rock fan, even during his late ’90s heyday, and I grew weary of any version of Hulk Hogan around 1999. It’s not that it’s a bad match, it just feels like there is still a lot of hype surrounding this match, and it doesn’t live up to it for me. In fact, I think it’s the third best match on the show, behind Jericho/HHH and the Ric Flair/Undertaker no disqualification match.

I want to know what your most overrated WrestleMania match is, but I also want to ask you this: can a match’s rating change based on the career arc of the participants? Can a wrestler hang around so long (Hogan being the obvious example) that his current performance affects how you look at his past matches?

• • •

Rock vs Hogan

Overrated, Underrated, or Properly Rated? David and Scott disagree.

Scott: Blasphemer! We’ll get to your other questions after I defend Rock-Hogan. Although, in a way, I’m going to answer your last question in my defense. Because the reason I will continue to stick up for Rock-Hogan as a straight-up classic is I’m able to tap in to how I felt at the time. It’s the same for Hogan-Warrior. Do they hold up technically? Heck no. And if you’re trying to be objective and rank which was a better actual match, I’ve got no qualms with preferring the other two matches you mentioned. But in the context of the sport at the time (in this case spring 2002), that Rock-Hogan encounter brought a kind of buzz that far exceeded Rock-Cena in 2012. Since the Rock factored in both, I think credit for the difference goes to Hogan’s mass appeal compared to Cena.

This is the one WrestleMania I saw in a public setting. It was the viewing room at a bar/club in Cedar Rapids. We paid $10 to get in, watch the show and drink all night. My good buddy and I brought my girl roommate to be our driver. She cared very little, if at all, for wrestling in any regard, but believe me when I tell you every last person in that room got insanely caught up in the outcome of that match. The live crowd held up its end of the bargain, and watching it again proves my point.

Now, Hogan tried to recapture that emotion in other “dream matches” with guys like Shawn Michaels and even Vince McMahon at the next WrestleMania, or up-and-comers like Brock Lesnar and Randy Orton, and he never quite reached the same mountaintop. But I’m able to remove those matches from the equation when evaluating Rock-Hogan in its own context.

Your question did spark another thought. Jason Mann and Joe Drilling (co-host of the What A Maneuver! podcast) had a recent Twitter discussion about the Randy Savage-Ultimate Warrior career match at WrestleMania VII, which to me is absolutely one of the best WrestleMania moments ever. Joe maintained there was no need for Savage to drop so many elbows, that it weakened the storytelling at the end of the match and hurt Savage going forward. Jason countered by saying the story was told perfectly because it was a career match — quite a rarity for the WWF at the time — and Savage was portrayed as pulling out all stops in the name of defending his very way of life.

But it led to an interesting question — did Savage’s reinstatement in November undercut the story told in March? Personally, I don’t think that’s the case on account of how well the reinstatement story was told. But I do see where someone could argue the ongoing narrative, in this case, can tint hindsight. But again, at the time the match happened, with everything that was on the line, it’s hard to argue with the impression the performers made that day.

Now, if you want to talk moments that don’t hold up, my list starts with the three-way TLC tag team title match at WrestleMania 2000. I may have been excited at the time, but it does little for me now. I think it’s worth watching to understand what wrestling was at the time, but to me it just rings hollow. I can’t quite understand why it continues to be held high in so many fans’ memories.

• • •

David: I think it is held high because of what it represents. We all know there is a lot of nostalgia for the “Attitude Era”, and I think in terms of actual in-ring action, that ladder match (which wasn’t technically a TLC match since that format didn’t come into being until SummerSlam) is a touchstone. It’s sort of representative of WWE’s version of hardcore wrestling at that time, as opposed to the ECW version.

A match I enjoyed in the moment, but doesn’t hold up for me, is Shawn Michaels vs. Kurt Angle at WrestleMania 21. I’m not sure Kurt Angle fully grasped wrestling psychology by this point in his career (I’m sure there are people who would say he still hasn’t). That match suffers greatly from Angle’s insistence on slowing down the match at inopportune times. It’s not that I mind slow, methodical matches in general, but in this match there are periods of time where the tempo is picking up, and there’s a flow. Kurt Angle stubbornly insists on breaking that flow. There’s also an element of storytelling that is problematic in this match. HBK starts the match with a flurry of mat wrestling, essentially trying to prove he can compete with Angle in that arena. After a little bit, it devolves into a brawl on the outside, with Angle slamming HBK’s back into the ring post. Shawn spends most of the match favoring his back, and moving very gingerly because of it. However, about 13 minutes into the match, Michaels dumps Angle back out onto the outside, and hits him with a high cross body to the outside. Jim Ross sells Michaels’ knee catching Angle in the face. Angle gets back up within 30 seconds, and never seems to show any effects from that move again. I’ve never thought selling others’ offense was one of Kurt Angle’s strong suits. In fact, I think he was guilty of being Superman before people started referring to Super Cena. I think this match suffers more than most because of it.

The concept of “overrated” is somewhat negative. Let’s get a little more positive. What are some underrated matches to appear on “The Grandest Stage of Them All”?

• • •

Scott: The beauty of having nearly 30 WrestleMania events to revisit, and the wide variety of people who tend to comment on such things, is it’s possible for one person to underrate something while another person overrates the same thing. For example, Razor over at Kick-Out!! Wrestling is running down his top 29 WrestleMania matches of all time. Coming in at 26th on his list is Ric Flair and Randy Savage from WrestleMania VIII. To me, that’s a top-10 classic. And probably putting it in a top 29 list is considered high praise given how many matches to choose from overall. But I can guarantee that even though he’s not posted the rest of his list, I’ll have no problem arguing which of his selections should be moved down to make way for the Savage-Flair encounter.

That said, I think you’re asking a specific question — what sticks out that otherwise wouldn’t? What perhaps is forgotten under the crush of nearly three decades of supercards, especially considering roughly half those shows have been put on with the extreme purpose of being the card of the year, something you couldn’t always say back in the earlier years.

I don’t think the Bret Hart-Roddy Piper InterContinental title match at WrestleMania VIII gets its due historically, but it’s a perfect example of a well-told story feeding a well-executed in-ring performance. The actual match is not only enhanced by the build but provides a satisfying conclusion while properly advancing characters. It simply hits every note.

While I’ve not watched it in quite some time, I have a fond recollection of the Rockers and Twin Towers on the early part of the WrestleMania V card with a great tag team match. Excellent tag team wrestling is entirely different from singles wrestling, and the physical contrast between the two teams worked well in this encounter. Plus, bonus points for it being Michael’s debut at the “Showcase of the Immortals.”

As I go over the dozens of other matches and cards, every time I think of something, I quickly recall another person arguing earlier the same point. Maybe we’ve all overanalyzed past WrestleManias to death… but that’s just crazy talk. We’re wrestling fans, and it’s very, very hard to be a wrestling fan without strong feelings about at least one WrestleMania.

As a guy who grew up loving the NWA, does it bother you that Starrcade never quite reached the heights of WrestleMania? Even in the years when I was following WCW pretty closely, Starrcade never seemed to stand out as much from the rest of the year to the degree WrestleMania rose above all other shows. But maybe that’s the real crazy talk. What say you?

• • •

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Never quite the equal of Wrestlemania…

David: I can’t really say it really ever bothered me. WrestleMania was sort of destined to be the bigger event, because Vince McMahon’s vision and execution were, for the most part, beyond Jim Crockett’s and then Ted Turner’s. By the time 1996 and 1997 rolled around, WrestleMania was already a household name, and even though WCW was beating WWF in the Monday night ratings war, that name recognition of WrestleMania was probably never going to change.

The scope of Crockett’s vision and execution also plays into the fact that Starrcade seemed closer in scale to a typical pay-per-view than WrestleMania. Ever since the beginning, Vince and company have constantly looked for the biggest and most historic stadiums and arenas to stage their annual event. Starrcade was almost always in arenas Crockett and WCW would have appeared in on a regular basis anyway. The Greensboro Coliseum, home of the first Starrcade, also was a normal stop on the Mid-Atlantic house show circuit, unlike the Pontiac Silverdome or Trump Plaza. Those places are destinations. People are willing to travel great distances to be a part of something special, which WrestleMania undoubtedly is. Even though it was their biggest show, Starrcade never turned into a “destination” pay-per-view.

Time of year might also play into this as well. WrestleMania is uniquely situated on the calendar, during the beginning of spring. That means in a lot of markets they can use an outdoor arena and still have the fans be comfortable. In November and December, there aren’t a lot of places WCW could’ve taken their road show and had people comfortably sit outside to watch their biggest stars.

Of course, you could argue whether or not that’s necessarily a good thing. Are you a fan of wrestling being taken outdoors?

• • •

Scott: As we’ve discussed before, I will happily defend the concept of staging WrestleMania IX (if not the execution of the show itself), though it was not the first major outdoor WWF production. Major open-air stadiums in New York, Toronto and Milwaukee hosted WWF supercards well before 1993, not to mention the grand success of SummerSlam 1992 at Wembley Stadium in London.

But by and large, the open-air tradition has been reserved in recent years for WrestleMania alone, and I have to say I’ve come around to very much supporting this move. If you’re going to convince everyone that one show a year is different — worthy of an extra hour, worthy of an extra $10 on pay-per-view, worthy of months of buildup and everything that goes with it — then you darn well better deliver, and putting WrestleMania in America’s largest arenas helps set the stage for success.

There are drawbacks. Last year’s “palm trees” that supported all the above-the-ring lights, fireworks, sound and cage with a lid caused notable obstruction problems for people who paid obscene amounts to attend the show. When a crowd is too big, or too removed from the action, the cheers and boos may be lost to acoustics, hampering the way the show is presented on TV. And we’ve yet to see if staging an outdoor WrestleMania in coastal New Jersey in early April is a good idea.

I’d love to see WrestleMania come back to Chicago for a fourth time, but the AllState Arena (née Rosemont Horizon) isn’t going to be viable unless the company bottom line heads back in the tank. And Soldier Field, with one of the smallest seating capacities in the NFL, isn’t worth the outdoor risk posed by being literally next to Lake Michigan. Outdoor isn’t the only rule — the Georgia Dome did a passable job and I have high hopes for the Superdome in 2014. But when you want to pack in 60,000 or 70,000 people, you almost have to be somewhere without a roof.

Do we agree on this one?

• • •

David: Yes, we agree. From a television presentation perspective, I thought Sun Life Stadium was an almost perfect place to stage WrestleMania. On the WrestleMania XXVIII episode of Wrestlespective, K. Sawyer Paul noted that when they would pan the crowd, it just seemed to go on and on forever. That endless expanse of people brings an epic feel to WrestleMania that is made almost necessary by its history and the things you mentioned like extra time, cost and hype. And since it’s unlikely I will ever be able to go to WrestleMania, the television presentation is more my concern.

Tom Holzerman recently floated an idea I want to get your take on:

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In my opinion, he’s right. It would suck to be there live, but for a company that prides itself on “moments,” that’s one the WWE could show forever. Where do you stand on a rain-soaked WWE champion?

• • •

Scott: I’m torn. WWE does indeed pride itself on moments — especially WrestleMania moments — but they almost always are intricately planned. I’m thinking a serious rainstorm, while visually enthralling, would be exactly the kind of unexpected wrinkle that could send the production crew scrambling. Of course, the company has a huge investment in this one show (a recent International Object podcast does a good job of breaking down the actual economics) and it would be pretty silly to think there aren’t a boatload of contingency plans.

Of course, with wrestling being a unique art form, we’re never quite sure what’s planned, what’s spur of the moment and when impending doom is all part of the spectacle. That’s why asking you for predictions about this year’s show is fraught with peril — sometimes the only thing to expect is the unexpected. That said, what do you expect?

• • •

David: You’re right. Predictions for this show are fraught with peril. Even the match order is up in the air. I think there are a few things we’re likely to see, though. First, I think we’re nearing the end for Team Hell No. I predict they will lose to Dolph Ziggler and Big E. Langston, which will precipitate a return to full-time singles action for both Daniel Bryan and Kane. However, if this match occurs after the World Heavyweight Championship match, there is the possibility Ziggler has cashed in and is already the champion. If so, he may be disinterested in the tag team titles, causing a dissolution of his arrangement with Big E.

I think Ryback is likely to win his match with Mark Henry, but only because WWE seems to want to shove Ryback down our throats at every opportunity. I’m not invested in this match because I haven’t been thrilled with the build for this feud. Although, I have to say I did enjoy Ryback throwing Santino at Mark Henry on Raw. That gave me a chuckle.

One of the matches I’m really looking forward to is Fandango vs. Chris Jericho. I think it’s unlikely Fandango would be built up the way he has been only to lose his debut match at WrestleMania. I’m more interested in seeing if the former Johnny Curtis can shut up the segment of the crowd who are intent on screaming “You can’t wrestle” at him just because he hasn’t wrestled. I was a fan of his work on NXT, and I have to give him solid marks for really committing to the character.

CM Punk would probably tell you there’s no need to commit to a character if you’re being yourself. But in his feud with the Undertaker, he has transcended from a typical wrestling “heel” to a true villain. I’m looking forward to that match the most, and while I don’t think Punk will win, there’s enough room in my mind to say… maybe the streak is in jeopardy.

Of course, the headline match is The Rock vs John Cena. I predict John Cena will emerge victorious but the drama for me is to see if this match goes on last or not. I think it probably will, but I’m not positive.

Thoughts on these matches or the others on the big card?

• • •

Scott: It seems this might be the year the World Heavyweight Championship match doesn’t open the show, but they’ve already moved the Intercontinental title match to the preshow. I really think you have to let Del Rio and Swagger go on after the tag title match just to build speculation for a Ziggler cash-in. But up until the go home Raw I was prepared to say they’ve really backed off the focus on this feud. I guess maybe the spotlight shone a bit brighter on this story during those weeks Rock was off camera. And with Glenn Beck not taking the bait, well, at least we’ve got some tension with an injured Rodriguez and the escalating violence of late. This could be the most brutal match on the card — but it won’t, because Brock Lesnar is also wrestling.

I’m not quite sure what to make of the Lesnar-HHH match. In the same vein, I’m unsure about The Shield in the six-man tag. I can predict a winner, but what’s more interesting to me is what happens as it relates to the story? If Lesnar wins, so what? We get an HHH farewell the night next on Raw, sure, but what does Brock do? Does he challenge the champ? Does he stare down the Undertaker and set the scene for WrestleMania XXX? I expect the Shield to win because a loss wouldn’t make any sense in context of their ongoing story, but are they going to get “a leader”? Do they need one? Can they win the match and that be secondary to Orton and Sheamus initiating a feud? The Shield, at some point, needs a stated purpose. There aren’t any six-man tag belts to be won these days.

The mixed-tag isn’t worth discussing from an ongoing plot standpoint. I agree with you Fandango winning seems to make the most sense, but is that it for Jericho? He’s in far too good of shape to have this be his last WrestleMania moment, but they certainly don’t need him for the rest of April, do they?

In your mind, whose absence from the card is most disappointing? I think the obvious answer is Antonio Cesaro (sorry for the ask and answer), so is there anyone else you think deserves a spot based on the last several months?

• • •

David: Honestly, Antonio Cesaro is the only guy who really comes to mind, especially in terms of disappointment. I will point out that this is the first WrestleMania since 23 Kofi Kingston hasn’t been a part of, but it’s hard to call that a disappointment based on what Kofi’s done over the past few months.

There is something that makes me scratch my head, though. The mixed tag team match neither one of us talked about when discussing the card features two female “tag teams.” One that just came back to the WWE after an extended hiatus, and one that, as far as I can recall, has had one match… last week on Raw. Yet, the WWE Divas title, and by extension, the WWE Divas Champion, Kaitlyn, will not appear (as of Friday morning) at WrestleMania. While not unprecedented, for fans of women who wrestle, this is just one more slap in the face by the largest wrestling company on the planet.

• • •

Scott: I’ll admit I needed the Internet to figure this out, but if my research is correct, the Divas championship has never been on the line at WrestleMania. The last title match involving women was WrestleMania 23 when Melina retained her WWE Women’s Title against Jillian in a “lumberjill” match. Of course, the top women have usually been on the card in one way or another every year, and not having Kaitlyn scheduled (especially in favor of two wrestlers who just returned and two who have scarcely been presented as wrestlers) is a huge disappointment to her fans.

As many have noted, there’s a very natural Kaitlyn-AJ Lee story to be told, one that could easily center around the title, but it’s either something they’re not yet interested in pursuing or perhaps are saving for a show that’s a little less cluttered. AJ is pretty heavily wrapped up in the Team Hell No story, not to mention her own relationship with Ziggler and Langston, so it’s easy to see why they’re leaving her alone there. Any other Kaitlyn match would seem thrown together, but hey — when has that stopped them before?

One last question before we go. You’re predicted a Cena victory. I’m not so sure, but that’s more me being hopeful he loses (because he’s a more interesting character in defeat) than actually predicting what makes the most sense. But let’s say Cena wins. There’s six weeks between WrestleMania and Extreme Rules. Any ideas what the road map looks like with a victorious Cena and a defeated and (presumably) departed Rock?

• • •

David: Not a clue. That’s actually one of the more intriguing things about this WrestleMania to me. Some of the matches on the card leave me baffled as to where the players go next. If the Rock wins, then there is obviously a story there about Cena potentially getting another shot with the third time likely being the charm. If Cena wins the title, and Dwayne Johnson goes back to Hollywood, then what? Feuds with the Shield, Punk (more on him in a minute) or Ryback are possibilities, but what is the transition? I’m intrigued to see what the WWE creative team comes up with.

The Undertaker will likely not be on Raw on Monday. The bigger question is, will CM Punk be on Raw on Monday? I’ve read numerous rumors that Punk will be given some time off after WrestleMania to heal up from some of his injuries. If not, his transition from his feud with Undertaker also will be interesting. He could go into a program with Cena, provided Cena wins the title, or could a loss to The Undertaker cause seeds of dissention to be sown between Punk and Heyman leading to a potential feud with Brock Lesnar? After all, Triple H probably will go back to the boardroom after WrestleMania no matter the outcome of his match with Lesnar, and Lesnar probably will need something to do, unless he goes back to taking time off.

The road to WrestleMania usually is a time of fun and building stories in the WWE, and while the period after WrestleMania is considered a dead season, I think this year’s road away from WrestleMania has the potential to be pretty interesting.

Enjoy WrestleMania everyone! Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you next time.

Contact us via Twitter, or the comments section below. Your feedback is appreciated.

The First Step on the Road to Wrestlemania

Posted on
Royal Rumble 2013 poster; Copyright WWE

He’s promised to win the championship. Will he?

Scott: All right, it’s officially Royal Rumble season. The entrants are starting to accumulate, the stakes are becoming clear. With a Punk-Rock title match and a newly minted World Heavyweight Champion, this is shaping up to be a great show generating some serious excitement for the road to WrestleMania.

Last time we talked a bit about the growing strength of the roster and also raised some speculation about who we might like to return in the Rumble. But getting away from this year’s Rumble itself, I want to bask for a few moments in Royal Rumble history — one of my absolute favorite things to do as a wrestling fan. I’ve been re-watching old Rumbles (and just recorded a Wrestlespective podcast on the 1990 match) and furiously noting new statistical anomalies I may have missed.

Let’s start with the big picture. What are some of your most significant Rumble memories? I’m thinking of the main event itself, but there have been some significant undercard moments as well. Obviously Ric Flair winning the WWF Title at the 1992 Rumble is probably the signature moment for the show — much like Hogan slamming Andre at WrestleMania III was the first and perhaps still most iconic Mania moment — but the Rumble has produced so much more than that one virtuoso performance.

 

• • •


David: You’re right. Flair in 1992 is my go-to moment when I think of the Royal Rumble, and plenty of people have talked ad nauseum about that event, so we don’t need to re-hash it in this space. Beyond that, there are two parts of Rumble lore that stand out.

The first is 1995, with Shawn Michaels and Davey Boy Smith being the first two entrants, and both of them surviving to the end, with Michaels winning the Royal Rumble. When Flair lasted almost an hour after being the third man in the ring in 1992, it was an amazing moment, and one that, prior to the 1995 Rumble, I didn’t think I would ever see anyone come even close to. At the time, the idea of the first two men being the last two left would’ve been unthinkable, but as they like to say, anything can happen in the WWF/E.

The second moment is remarkable, because it doesn’t have anything to do with the winner of the Royal Rumble. The 2010 Royal Rumble was the first pay-per-view I watched after a long break from wrestling. When I came back in January 2010, I watched Smackdown more than Raw, and that was because of the performance of one man, CM Punk. I had been a fan of his indie work, which I had seen some of before I stopped watching wrestling in 2006. I had also seen one or two of his matches in the re-booted ECW, but hadn’t kept up with his work in WWE. The Straight Edge Society felt so different from anything I had seen in wrestling before that, and his work as a villain was top notch. When he came out No. 3 in the 2010 Rumble, I was excited to see what he was going to do. I was not disappointed. He quickly dispatched Evan Bourne and Dolph Ziggler, the first two men in the ring, and then started sermonizing. He eliminated JTG as soon as he got in the ring, and continued his soliloquy, until the Great Khali came out and interrupted. I don’t think the whole thing lasted more than five minutes, but it’s one of my favorite memories, and turned me into the CM Punk fan I still am today.

Since you’re the guru of the Royal Rumble, I’m sure you’ve got some interesting things to throw at me. Let’s have it.

 

• • •


Scott: For starters, you’re right about the 95 Rumble being unprecedented with the first two guys being the last men standing. That twist certainly was a unique approach, and it was combined with the first false finish in Rumble history. But it also was a very different Rumble because the contestants entered every 60 seconds instead of in two-minute intervals. Add that to the makeup of the roster at the time (if names like Duke Droese, the Blu Brothers, Mantaur, Well Dunn and Aldo Montoya ring a bell, it’s probably not for positive reasons) and this is by far my least favorite Rumble match. It’s also a pretty weak undercard — though the start of the Bam Bam Bigelow/Lawrence Taylor story is notable — and probably is among the worst Rumble shows ever.

In the earlier years of the Rumble, the one that stands out most to me is the 1994 finish with Bret Hart and Lex Luger being eliminated simultaneously. My favorite part of the way that story is told is not just that the actual eliminations and slow-motion replay were timed perfectly (much more cleanly than the similar finish with Batista and John Cena in 2005), but how everyone involved completely conveys the supposed chaos of the moment. The attitude is such a finish is entirely inconceivable (though there had been simultaneous eliminations in early Rumbles) and no one has any clue how to handle the scenario. Heck, the show even ended in confusion, which is an early indicator of the trend of using the pay-per-view to generate buzz for the next night’s live TV show.

I noted earlier my growing list of Rumble statistics. So far I’ve only been able to dig deep into the first five Rumbles (1988-1992), but here’s two notable items, both dealing with tag teams. In those first five Rumbles, tag team partners entered sequentially only three times — and each happened in 1989. Ax and Smash of Demolition memorably started that match. The Brain Busters entered at 16 (Arn Anderson) and 17 (Tully Blanchard) while the Twin Towers joined at 22 (Big Boss Man) and 23 (Akeem). The other note is that, through 1992, only Hulk Hogan was responsible for eliminating both members of a tag team in the same match. He dumped Anderson and Blanchard in 89 and Smash and Crush in 1991.

Trivia question: Any idea who (again, through only ‘92) has the mark for shortest time in a Rumble while logging at least one elimination?

 

• • •


David: My guess would be Earthquake in the 1990 Rumble. I remember him getting ganged up on pretty quickly, but I’m sure he took a couple of people out on the way.

 

• • •


Scott: Nope. It was Hercules in 1992. He was in for just 56 seconds but still had time to toss the Barbarian. You are correct that Earthquake had a short stay in 1990 — just 2:31. But that was enough time to eliminate Ax and Dusty Rhodes. In fact, that’s good enough for second place on this list, right in front of Hercules again. In 1990 he lasted 3:02, during which he eliminated — yet again — the Barbarian. One more trivia question: In the first five Rumbles, one man eliminated the same opponent three different years. Can you name both men?

• • •


David: I’ll admit that I have no idea, but I’m sure you do.

 

• • •


Scott: Naturally! Hulk Hogan eliminated the Warlord in 1989, 1991 and 1992. And in 1990 Andre the Giant dumped Warlord, so while he’s not been successful, at least Warlord rubbed shoulders with legends.

My next question is a little less quantifiable, but it’s clear to people who watch these matches obsessively that, at some point, the Rumble became all about narrative. There have been moments of narrative throughout (well, maybe not so much in 1988), including the Hogan-Savage and Hogan-Warrior face-offs in 1989 and 1990, respectively, and also how the 1990 and 1991 Rumbles came down to Hogan and one of his arch foes of the moment (Mr. Perfect and Earthquake, respectively). But there was always plenty of non-narrative action, the kind of seemingly random scrapping you’d see in any battle royal. So before we look at the first Rumble that was almost entirely intentional storytelling (2005, for the record), what are some highlights for you of the ways smaller stories were told inside the confines of a match back when those things appeared to be more organic?

 

• • •


David: Not sure if this is quite what you were looking for, but I enjoyed the way that they used the Rumble to build one of the best feuds of the Attitude Era, Bret Hart vs Stone Cold Steve Austin. I like the idea of the referees being so distracted that they don’t notice Austin hitting the floor, and him just jumping right back in.  It’s a pretty good storytelling mechanism, especially when it doesn’t get used to death.

Speaking of which, do you have a favorite “thrown over the rope, but not eliminated” moment?

• • •


Scott: That’s a great question, especially since I’ve been power watching so many Rumbles of late. When Rey Mysterio won in 2006 the entire story of the evening was pretty much his near-eliminations, and in very recent years it’s been the highlight reel gymnastics of guys like John Morrison and Kofi Kingston, such that we’ve come to expect at least one such moment in each Rumble. My hazy memory tells me Shawn Michaels skinned the cat in a Rumble so many times it was surprising when he was eliminated conventionally.

One of my underrated favorite near misses, and something I mentioned during a guest spot on the Wrestlespective podcast, is in the 1990 Rumble when Dusty Rhodes climbed up on the second turnbuckle to deliver 10 punches to an opponent. He got so worked up he nearly toppled over the top and had to be saved in order to preserve the intended story of his elimination of Randy Savage.

There have been many advancements in the Rumble over the years, notably giving wrestlers versions of their typical singles match ring entrances, which really amped up the crowd response. This is used to greatest effect when a well-known character is making a return. I’m no John Cena fan, but I still get a huge kick out of his surprise return in 2008. It was a total shock at the time and his theme song mixed with the Madison Square Garden crowd and, especially, the stunned look on Triple H’s face may well be the gold standard of Royal Rumble entrances.

But not everything in Rumble history is magic. When Tatanka returned in 2006 the crowd was more confused than anything. Certain spots, especially eliminations near the end, are so contrived they take away from the overall presentation. Let’s take a few moments and examine some of our least favorite Rumble moments. Do any come to your mind?

 

• • •


David: The moment that lept to mind was from last year’s Royal Rumble. In the middle of Michael Cole’s run as a bad guy announcer, we had Michael Cole as a bad guy “wrestler.” That, of course, manifested itself in multiple matches against Jerry Lawler throughout 2011. Cole would “wrestle” again as the 20th entrant in the Royal Rumble. Seeing Cole in that awful orange singlet was one of the worst moments in the history of the Rumble. Although, it was immediately followed up by him getting clotheslined by a returning Kharma, which was nice.

One of my least favorite behind-the-scenes decisions in the history of the Rumble, was during the 2003 Rumble. One of the hottest feuds of the early 2000s was Chris Jericho vs Shawn Michaels. In the 2003 Royal Rumble, both men started the match, and Jericho used some chicanery to get the jump on Michaels, and threw him out after a two and a half minute beating. Later in the match, Michaels came back down to the ring and returned the favor, attacking Jericho while he was still involved in the Royal Rumble match. Who had the good fortune to eliminate Jericho? Could it have been Triple H? Rey Mysterio? John Cena? Nope. It was Test. In my opinion, it’s one of the lamest eliminations in Rumble history, just because of who Test was.

What are your least favorite Royal Rumble moments?

 

• • •


Scott: Those are great examples. While I enjoyed the surprise of having the announcers enter the match from ringside, I’m not sure Cole needed to get in the ring in order to sell the moment. I would be thrilled if in 2013 we can go a year without Cole (or any announcer with no in-ring pedigree) getting involved in the narrative.

My answer is in a similar vein because it’s the 1999 Rumble won by Vince McMahon. There are so many things I dislike about that story. First, that McMahon was in the Rumble at all. Second, that he spent the bulk of it outside the ring. Third, that we got a false finish with Austin seemingly the winner. Fourth, that Rock was at ringside interrupting the finish.

As something of a Rumble purist, I get really frustrated with outside interference by guys who aren’t even in the match — like when Vince and Shane essentially caused the Shawn Michaels elimination in 2006 — or returns from people who have been eliminated, such as your 2003 HBK example. Then there’s complete screwjobs like McMahon sending the guys in the white coats after Kane in 1999. It’s not so much about preserving the sanctity of the competition as frustration with what I perceive as  lazy storytelling. But given how much of the rest of the 2000s worked on screen, I guess I shouldn’t be too terribly shocked.

From a creative standpoint, I can tolerate things like a freshly eliminated Hogan helping Flair dump Sid in 1992. Andre the Giant skipping the joint after Jake Roberts unleashed Damien in 1989 was similar — the refs should have prevented Roberts from doing what he did, but no one was going to keep Andre from eliminating himself. But stuff like in 2002, when the Undertaker responded to his elimination at the hands of Maven by brutally assaulting him and kicking his carcass throughout the arena, seem to just take too much away from the match itself. At some point, isn’t the novelty of the Rumble enough? Perhaps there’s just too much pressure on the creative team to find a new way to present the match lest fans start to complain of things growing stale.

But now we’re just days away from the 2013 Rumble. As of now, WWE.com lists only nine official entrants — Cena, Sheamus, Orton, Ziggler, Antonio Cesaro, Wade Barrett and all of 3MB. Never mind what I’d love to see (an undercard nontitle match between Cesaro and Barrett with a prime Rumble entry spot on the line), and never mind the reality that not all the guys we saw brawling at the end of Raw this week will actually be in the Rumble. What do you think actually will happen Sunday?

 

• • •


David: Well, as I look at the Rumble match itself, there are only a handful of guys I think can probably win it. I don’t think anyone who’s actively involved in a tag team can win, so that counts out Daniel Bryan, Kane, Darren Young and Titus O’Neil. I think it’s unlikely anyone who’s currently in the picture of the two lower-tier singles titles will win, so goodbye to Antonio Cesaro, The Miz, Wade Barrett and Randy Orton. That pretty much leaves Cena, Ryback, Ziggler or Sheamus, with the possibility that whoever loses the two top title matches could show up in the Rumble and get the win, leading to a rematch at WrestleMania. I’m assuming Ryback will be eliminated in some manner by the Shield, and Sheamus seems to have lost some of the momentum he had last year. My money is the end of the Rumble will come down to Ziggler and Cena, with Vickie, AJ and Big E Langston all getting involved in the finish. My prediction is Ziggler wins the Royal Rumble and fights twice at WrestleMania: once for his Royal Rumble title shot (which he probably will lose), and then once for his Money in the Bank title shot (which he will probably win).

There is another scenario that is intriguing, although extremely unlikely. Since there is a scheduled pre-show match between Antonio Cesaro and The Miz, what would you think of Cesaro losing the US Title to The Miz, but then coming through to win the Royal Rumble, elevating himself to the main event picture?

• • •


Scott: I do love Cesaro, but I don’t see it happening (all predictions wrong or your money back). I would not be surprised to see him get a run with the World Heavyweight Championship between now and WrestleMania XXX, but my sense in watching him the last several months is the creative team seems satsified using him to headline the middle tier.

The big wild card to me is if Ziggler finally gets pushed over the top. It would not be surprising at all to see him go wire to wire and win. We already know how well he portrays a guy pushed to his limit, and I’ve long wanted to see the unique aspect of a guy having both guaranteed title shots. Imagine being in the title match at WrestleMania, then unleashing a horrible chair-based assault and getting disqualified, then cashing in Money in the Bank immediately and winning the title anyway. I have seen some folks, including Chris Sims in his WithLeather piece, suggest the rise of MITB has devalued the Rumble outcome, but I think Ziggler winning both could go miles toward reversing that perception.

To me, what’s really devalued the Rumble win is having two world titles and also the Elimination Chamber in February. If you win the Rumble, you get a title shot at WrestleMania. Meanwhile, 10 other guys get title shots before you do, and they hardly have to do anything to earn the chance.

But I digress. Is Ziggler going to be elevated? I don’t know. They seem to really enjoy having him around as the very bottom of the main event scene — someone for Sheamus and Cena to beat on Raw. But I’m also not convinced they’re done telling the story of Cena and his near misses, which goes back to his loss to the Rock at the last WrestleMania. The Twitterverse perception seems to be a Cena Rumble win is a foregone conclusion, perhaps because people expect/fear Rock-Cena II. Rock and Cena winning at the Rumble is the cleanest way for that to happen.

But we know a few things. One, Cena doesn’t need the Rumble win (or the WWE Title, for that matter) to be given a main event spot at WrestleMania. Two, Rock is advertised for Elimination Chamber. Three, everyone assumed Cena would beat Punk at Raw 1000, and Punk’s continued success seems to be serving the overall narrative quite well.

Here’s what I do think we’ll see Sunday:

1. Serious progression in the Shield narrative, either in terms of revelation of a leader or clarity of their cause or at the least a clear picture of their direction (in terms of opponents) heading into WrestleMania.

2. If Kane and Daniel Bryan are going to be broken up to feud at WrestleMania, it will be established Sunday. If they retain their tag titles and do not feud in the Rumble, I expect them to drop the tag titles at WrestleMania.

2a. Kane will surpass Shawn Michaels for No. 1 on the list of all-time Rumble eliminations.

3. We will see Brock Lesnar, the Undertaker or both. For no reason, I am expecting both men to be on the WrestleMania card. I am also expecting (or is it just blind hope?) there is a plan that does not include Rock-Cena II. I think both guys are big enough to headline their own match, elevating this year’s card over last year’s.

4. Ziggler will last an hour in the Rumble itself. He may not win, and we absolutely will see AJ and Big E Langston involved, but this is too good an opportunity to sell fans on his in-ring skill.

5. I actually have no idea what will happen with Alberto Del Rio, but I am really excited with the recent developments in his character and quite enjoy him as a top champion.

Outside of what we’ve both mentioned, do you have any additional expectations?

 

• • •


 I’m fully expecting 3MB to make fools of themselves, in a very entertaining way…because it’s what they’re good at. Other than that, I’m just expecting a solid show with some moments of greatness. I really enjoyed CM Punk’s interactions with both The Rock and The Shield on the most recent Smackdown, and I’ve felt like they’ve built toward a match that has the possibility of being WWE’s first Match of the Year candidate for 2013. I’m also looking forward to finding out who the 3.5 surprise entrants in the Rumble are.

Did our predictions come true? Did we fail miserably? Does it matter? I guess we’ll find out in a few short hours. Enjoy the Royal Rumble, and, as always, thanks for reading.

Contact us via Twitter, or the comments section below. Your feedback is appreciated.

1st Stop: Royal Rumble

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Scott: First off, welcome back. You didn’t miss too much in the world of wrestling during your absence, but now that we’re on the other side of Survivor Series it’s time to look seriously at the Royal Rumble card, and part of that involves projecting how WrestleMania might shake out, as KSP and I did last time around.

Speaking of the Rumble, I just read the new David Shoemaker piece on Grantland breaking down the newcomers to the WWE over the past several months. One thing that struck me is a sense of renewed anticipation for the Rumble match itself. After a 40-man Rumble in 2011, the number was restored to 30 in 2012, but even that left many people commenting the match revealed the WWE’s main roster to be remarkably thin. I didn’t agree at the time, but I will allow that some of the talent on that show was not being used as effectively as it is today.

So what are your thoughts on the current WWE roster — not just the names, but the roles they fill?

• • •

David: Thanks for welcoming me back, and a special thanks to K. Sawyer Paul for sitting in my chair for our previous installment.

In preparation for this discussion, I went back and looked at the participant list for the two previous Rumbles to see if I could divine any information that might help us. Did you know that, of the 2011 Royal Rumble’s 40 competitors, only 15 of them were in the 2012 Royal Rumble? Of the 55 people who competed in the two Rumbles combined, there are only about 20-25 who are regularly appearing in a wrestling capacity on Raw or Smackdown, and since the WWE Champion (presumably that will still be CM Punk when we get to the Rumble) is wrestling The Rock, that leaves us with a lot of space to fill.

Fortunately, as the aforementioned David Shoemaker Grantland piece pointed out, the WWE has really added some capable hands in the last year or so. I looked at the 2012 Survivor Series card, and found that, including Ambrose, Rollins and Reigns, there were 10 competitors involved who weren’t in either the 2011 or 2012 Royal Rumbles. That gives me great hope for the 2013 Rumble, and the potential to give us a unique storytelling opportunity.

The roster as it stands now is pretty deep, especially as it relates to the mid-card. While I know some (especially What a Maneuver’s Joe Drilling) don’t like the three-hour Raw format, it has allowed the WWE to give more focus to the middle-tier titles and the tag team division. Of the 10 competitors I mentioned previously, one of them (Antonio Cesaro) holds a title, one is in the hunt for the WWE title (Ryback), and four have been heavily involved in the tag team title picture (Damien Sandow, Sin Cara and the Prime Time Players).

The main event picture, on the other hand, hasn’t changed a lot from last year. Part of that, of course, is related to the fact that CM Punk has held the title for just over a year, but, other than Dolph Ziggler and Ryback, we really haven’t had anyone elevated to the main event picture. Granted, we really haven’t seen anyone leave the main event picture either, which makes it hard to elevate someone. Frankly, I’d love to see Antonio Cesaro start putting together a run toward one of the two bigger titles. Do you think he could do the Neutralizer to the Big Show?

• • •

Scott: Great question about Cesaro and Big Show. I imagine the writers have in their back pocket the idea of a (relatively) smaller guy doing something incredible to Big Show — like the double Attitude Adjustment Cena tried on Show and Edge at WrestleMania XXV — but it’s not likely to be Cesaro, at least not as long as he’s such an effective antagonist. I realize I didn’t answer your question directly, but that’s the beauty of talking wrestling.

As I read Shoemaker’s piece I thought not just of the new faces, but of the steady presence of the mid-card talent and how the three-hour Raw (plus Main Event on Ion) is enabling the creative team to tell more stories simultaneously, giving each of them more breathing room and allowing fans to become invested in more characters. Clearly there’s not been unilateral success, but as it relates to the Rumble specifically, there’s some juicy stuff.

For one thing, the buildup to the main Survivor Series elimination match showed they wouldn’t be ignoring, in the story, old grudges. These guys have crossed brands and pursued different titles and sought cheers and boos so frequently, but to me it’s important to remember their conflicts. Punk and Del Rio hated each other about 12 months ago. Punk and Bryan have quite a WWE history, as do Bryan and Miz. Pretty much everyone hates Orton, right? I don’t need to rehash every angle, but it seems when the performers (and especially commentators) acknowledge histories, it adds depth to the proceedings.

What I loved about older Royal Rumbles is how it gave guys chances to go after each other. Sure, this was a time when I watched and hour of SuperStars each week and saw maybe four guys in the ring, so anything that happened on a pay-per-view was special. But the point is when the clock hits zero and the new guy’s music hits, if the fans are thinking “Oh man, Sandow’s coming out — he and Cody Rhodes are going to be unstoppable in there!” that just adds to the intrigue.

That’s why a Royal Rumble is superior to a battle royal — because staggering the entrances allows for careful mapping of interactions and story development. My main problem with the 2012 Rumble is the only relevant story (as I remember it) was who gets the WrestleMania title shot. There’s much better ways to spend an hour.

We also have the chance for some return performances this year to actually be meaningful if guys like Christian and Jack Swagger show up. That has much more potential than a one-off from Tatanka. Any thoughts on who you’d like to see come January?

• • •

David: Probably the biggest return I’m hoping for is Mark Henry. Can you imagine if his music hits around number 15, with 10 guys still in the ring? Somebody’s gonna get their wig split! He could probably eliminate six or seven people right off the bat. Now, that’s a return! That’s one of the underrated things about the Royal Rumble: the ability to make someone look like a complete monster, even if they don’t win the whole thing.

And that’s the great thing about the Rumble most years. You don’t have to be the “winner” in order to be a winner. And you’re right about the squandered storytelling opportunities from the 2012 Royal Rumble: they spent far too much time on the “Surprise! I’m in the Rumble” moments with Booker T, Jerry Lawler and Michael Cole. They didn’t really add anything to the match, and probably wasted time that could’ve been better spent somewhere else. Your Sandow hypothetical is a great example of the kinds of things they can do to liven up the Rumble.

It’s also an example of how the Rumble can be a beneficiary of the renewed focus on tag team wrestling. In the past, some of the great moments of the Royal Rumble have come from tag teams or alliances either helping each other or being forced to fight each other (see Ax and Smash at Royal Rumble 1989). How great would it be to see Kane and Daniel Bryan draw numbers 1 and 2?

• • •

Scott: That’s exactly the sort of thing I was suggesting. And that specific scenario would be supremely awesome. What if Mysterio and Sin Cara are left alone at some point? What if Darren Young is getting handled by a couple of good guys and Titus O’Neil’s music hits? The point is the fans will react to these moments because there has been a concerted effort to tell stories involving the middle-tier characters over several months.

And it’s not just tag teams. Kofi and Miz and Ziggler could tell a great story in the middle of the Rumble. Bryan and Wade Barrett could perhaps allude to their Nexus days (I found it interesting that faction was referenced during The Shield’s first interview on Raw Nov. 26). How many guys have a bone to pick with Brodus Clay? When fans clamor for WWE to stop being so selective in its memory (or revisionist in its history), what they’re really doing is pleading for richer storytelling. Give us a reason to care.

The beauty of this is we don’t have to care about everyone as a possible top title contender, we just have to understand their motivation. For so long it seems the focus has been on making top stars and pushing them to the moon, which I’m sure is rooted in business more than anything else, it’s refreshing to have the sense they’re just giving characters space to breathe and letting the audience decide who the stars will be.

Going back to your Mark Henry suggestion, that’s probably at the top of my wish list, too. I’m also missing Christian as a regular performer, and perhaps now is a good time for Jack Swagger to re-emerge. Who else am I forgetting?

• • •

David: There were two names that immediately sprung to mind when I considered the idea:

  • Evan Bourne: At the top of my list of guys I miss watching. His skill set doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a great Royal Rumble comeback, but I’m rooting for him to come back sometime soon.
  • Ezekiel Jackson: Not really someone I’m all that interested in, but he’s someone who could make an impact by coming in and cleaning house in the middle of the Rumble.

In addition, since the Royal Rumble is the beginning of WrestleMania season, the Undertaker could always appear there (although they usually save him for after the Rumble). Brock Lesnar is another name who could make an impact at the event.

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day, and he asked me if I thought the introduction of The Shield was CM Punk building a stable. I responded it is indeed a possibility. I did proffer another option, though. Is it possible Punk doesn’t have any affiliation with Shield, and it’s Heyman who’s building a stable behind Punk’s back? Could Lesnar come back at the Rumble to take his place as the leader, win the Rumble and go on to face Punk at WrestleMania? I know you’ve been a proponent of Heyman turning on Punk since they started appearing together a few months ago, but am I out on a limb on this one?

• • •

Scott: If you’re out on a limb, I’m out there with you. I have a variety of theories regarding the rise of Ryback and introduction of the Shield as it relates to Punk. It’s not so much fantasy booking as it is trying to understand plot and character development and think about if the writers are thinking about story development on the same level as myself. Of course, usually when I map scenarios I don’t make any contingency plans for injuries or wellness violations, which is something I would hope the writers always keep tucked away.

My primary strategy is to look at the WrestleMania main event and build backwards. Since we’re still in the dark about what that might be (as we usually are; last year was an anomaly) there’s lots of unknowns. But I operate under one basic conclusion: the Rock will be in the main event. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe that was only an essential for him in Miami. But if I’m in his position, I’m not going to be on the show unless I’m the star. But that same theory holds for another guy I expect to be at WrestleMania — Brock Lesnar.

I’ve long thought the entire purpose of getting Lesnar back in the fold was for him to headline the year’s biggest show. And if there’s anything Vince McMahon could do to draw in mainstream buys for his biggest show of the year, it’s pair up the two guys who have done the most outside wrestling of the last two generations. Brock vs. Rock in New York City, live on pay-per-view. You don’t need the title to be on the line for that one to sell.

This is kind of why I expect Punk to retain at the Rumble. Lots of folks are already upset they would just hand Rock the title at that show, are presuming the entire purpose of the Year of Punk has been to elevate Rock — but does Rock need that sort of elevation? What does a win at the Rumble do for him, at least compared to what it would do for Punk? Isn’t a Punk win in this scenario exactly the type of against all odds victory that’s define his title reign? And imagine if he pulls that off and still can’t land the main event of WrestleMania! His claims of getting no respect would amplify tenfold or better.

Getting from there to Brock-Rock, though, is perhaps too far a leap for even WWE creative. So I do really, really like the idea of watching The Shield evolve and eventually turning on Punk behind Lesnar and Heyman. So far Punk has done a great job of portraying skepticism when those guys are in the ring — enough to make you believe he’s not working with them — and I could see that resistance wearing away into confidence they’ll always have his back. Until they don’t.

So I realize I’m mapping out two opposite strategies (which is why it’s not fantasy booking so much as theoretical speculation) and none of them involve John Cena, which is fine by me. Going way back to your Kane-Bryan point, how great would it be for them to be the first and last two men in the ring at the Rumble — but working together for all points in between? I think if Bryan eliminated Kane to punch his ticket to WrestleMania redemption the crowd would completely explode, especially if they hugged it out afterward anyway.

The other possibility (I think we’ve discussed this before) is Punk losing to Rock at the Rumble then entering and Rumble itself and re-claiming the title shot. With less at stake than WrestleMania, I’d be intrigued by the chance for Ziggler to win the Rumble while still holding his Money In The Bank briefcase. If that plays out this year, he could basically demand a World Title shot at Mania while holding his briefcase as an insurance card for the same show. It might not be revolutionary, but it would be fresh.

I’m starting to ramble here, but I’m picturing myself at a room in Stamford with my ideal WrestleMania card on the right sight of a big board and drawing oodles of lines from those matches to the left of the board, weaving through Elimination Chamber, the Royal Rumble and more than a dozen weeks of live TV. I know programming Smackdown in July isn’t always a treat, but it’s all got to be worth it for the chance to be involved in this time of the wrestling year.

• • •

David: I think you’re mostly right about this being a great time of year to be on the WWE creative team. The one thing that would give me pause is having to write the lead up to something like the recent TLC pay-per-view. On one hand, it would be great to write stories that climax with a ladder match, or a violent chairs match, and I think they did a good job leading us in that direction with the feud between Big Show and Sheamus. On the other hand, you’ve got to add stipulations to a match that doesn’t quite have the history of that feud and make it seem like it’s appropriate.

I will give credit where credit is due, though. The brawl at the end of the Dec. 10 Raw, which incorporated the participants of three different matches, certainly seemed to add a dash of something that was needed. Going into that show, there wasn’t a great reason for why The Shield needed to be in a TLC match with Ryback and Team Hell No. Yes, they’ve made all three of those men’s lives miserable, but they haven’t even gotten a chance to engage them in a regular match, so why do we need stipulations? Now I feel like the Shield’s attack on John Cena, which escalated to the brawl that ended Raw, gave us an important feeling of how dangerous these three men are. Psychologically, that meant a lot going into the show.

I think it’s safe to say writing a continuous wrestling show is difficult even under the best circumstances. But when you’re hamstrung with gimmick pay-per-views, it’s not surprising the creative element behind the WWE doesn’t always work as well as fans would like. I, for one, am an advocate of getting rid of most of the gimmick pay-per-views (not counting The Royal Rumble, which serves well as the beginning of WrestleMania season). How do you feel about gimmick PPVs as a whole?

• • •

Scott: Sometimes it’s not just the gimmicks but the scheduling, too. Many factors are involved when the company establishes its pay-per-view schedule each year, and “narrative flow” is nowhere near the top of the list. But you hit on the biggest problem with the gimmick shows — being forced to add stipulations to a match that can’t be justified by the story. For example, February’s World Heavyweight Championship match at Elimination Chamber forced the introduction of guys into the title picture who had no business being there, especially Santino and Great Khali. But even Cody Rhodes was in that match as Intercontinental Champion while Jack Swagger defended the U.S. Title in a (spontaneous) singles match. He was worthy of a spot in the chamber, but it also made little sense with regard to his title story.

That said, everything we mentioned about the blossoming roster might make the 2013 Elimination Chamber a totally logical event. Imagine a Chamber match with Punk, Cena, Ryback, Ambrose, Reigns and Rollins. All the guys in the U.S./IC title picture have me interested in seeing those titles unified in the Chamber. That would be way more interesting to me than a forced tables match to set up tag team title contenders.

But the card was what it was, and the show is in the books. As always, it will be interesting to see how the fallout gets handled on Raw and Smackdown, and I expect the buildup to the Rumble to be significantly stronger than a year ago. Hopefully there’s some clear narrative on how guys gets spots in the Rumble, especially since there are so many viable contenders.

I’m sure we’ll have lots to talk about coming up during the busiest time of the year for WWE. Until next time…

As always, thanks for reading — please feel free to contact us via Twitter or the comments section. Your feedback is appreciated!

Terrible, yet interesting

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STH: Well, with my regular partner busy on a family vacation recently, we thought it would be a good time to bring in our first guest contributor. Anyone familiar with the Fair to Flair family of writers and podcast journalists is already well-versed in the unique perspective of K Sawyer Paul, founder and co-host of the International Object podcast, creator of the International Object website and a recently engaged proud Canadian. And that’s just the stuff I can think of off the top of my head.

I recently shared with KSP the analysis of WrestleMania IX I wrote for volume 1 of the Atomic Elbow fanzine. If you haven’t had a chance to read that piece yet, order it now and it will be mailed to your home in a few days. But the short version is this: the show might not rate well in the pantheon of great WrestleMania cards, but it still carries some important historical significance. KSP has read the piece and I’m interested now to hear his thoughts on that show and others that might fall under the same criteria.

• • •

KSP: WrestleMania IX is an historically important show, but it is mostly a poor show. Your article — which people should buy the issue to read — tries to defend it, but even you must admit that if you count up your points, I think you found the show to be more disappointing than your summary may suggest. I agree with your points about the show being heavy on interesting risks, both aesthetically and in regards to matchups. But I don’t think any of the risks really paid off. I believe the event failed on three levels: setup, execution and overall narrative.

To go into them briefly, I think the on-paper card was weak. It was the first WrestleMania where most of the pairings were fresh and — while exciting, from a certain point of view — this led to the quality being significantly worse than previous events. Every single good wrestler on the show — Shawn Michaels, Mr. Perfect, the Steiner Brothers, Bret Hart, etc., — was unfortunately paired with an equally terrible dance partner. Even going in, it felt like a very odd shuffling of the cards.

In terms of execution, with the exception of the meaningless Steiners/Headshrinkers tag, not one match ended cleanly. There’s just no way around that. I’m not even an “all the matches have to be clean” kind of guy, but WMIX is overkill. It’s an exercise in schmaltz finishes. We start off with a count-out, followed (after the tag) by several bouts of DQs and/or bad guys successfully cheating. WMIX is home to the only DQ victory on The Undertaker’s streak, which was a pretty big blemish in the beginning. Finally, the event is capped off with not only flagrant in-front-of-the-ref cheating, but also a random role switch and the most subtle heel turn in history. We’ll surely get into that later.

Finally, overall narrative. What message did wrestling fans get with this show? Villains won almost every match. The actual wrestling (literally none of it any good) came last in the order of importance, behind the cheesy set pieces and entrances, international objects and surprises. What are we supposed to take away, here? “Don’t worry, no matter what happens, Hulk Hogan will always close out WrestleMania”? I never figured it out.

I’d like to hear your comments on these, and then we can go into how this show — while terrible — is an incredibly interesting study.

• • •

STH: Well you’re not wrong, let’s start there. As I wrote for the Elbow, the match results are unsatisfying — especially if you are the kind of fan who demands any sort of consistency in the way the rules and referees are supposed to work. I maintain there is some decent work by great performers, and certainly this event still is easier to watch than some of the WCW pay-per-view events near that company’s demise, but I will concede the most important and lasting aspects of the show can perhaps be captured in still photos and video montages — unless you’re dying to know the answer to the question of how a major show with so much talent can still come off poorly.

If I had more free time, I would perhaps dive into wrestling history to see if I could determine the best-received show with the least amount of talent in contrast to WrestleMania IX, which may be the finest example of under-utilizing a roster, from top to bottom, in the history of the art form.

As much as I sometimes dislike the instant reaction to wrestling shows, especially the ones with the most hype leading in, I do wish we had some sort of time machine to go back and get fans’ real-time reactions to the proceedings in 1993. Given the benefit of hindsight, it is incredibly frustrating to see such bold moves away from Hulk Hogan after WrestleMania VIII essentially negated in a few hours in Las Vegas. I’m not sure how far that set back the company creatively, but I can’t imagine anyone on the creative team at the time is satisfied with the end result.

• • •

KSP: You’re absolutely right. If you compare WrestleMania IX to almost any other PPV in the period of 1993-1995, it doesn’t stack up that poorly. It is tremendously worse than any of the major PPVs from 1992 from either WWE or WCW, but I’ll grant you 93-95 was a poor period in general and we shouldn’t rule IX out simply because it’s a WrestleMania. And since its flaws are so obvious, it’s definitely more interesting to argue which points are compelling and worthy of a closer read.

Specifically, I’d like to suggest all the villain-dominated activity on the show is WWE trying to paint WrestleMania as a new thing, in step with its new direction. WWE launched Raw a few months before this WrestleMania, and the format allowed it to create a threaded weekly narrative in a way they simply hadn’t before. While

WWE was always linear, the national and international fanbase rarely got the same story beats at the same time. Some states or countries had to wait for different periods to hear about major events, which meant they had to move slower. With Raw, WWE had a single spot to put story advancements, which meant they could now be free to experiment. WrestleMania IX is a result of this experimentation. It’s a major show by any stretch — even by today’s standards, it stands out like a peacock — but it was also an episodic show. I’d argue WrestleManias I-VIII weren’t meant to be treated as episodes so much as climax points. IX doesn’t assume that on the viewer. It assumes you watched Raw going in, and that you’ll watch Raw going out. It was less important to deliver major good-guy moments because they’d want you to tune in next week. It’s a method both companies would go on to abuse in the following years.

I think the location also did a major disservice to the show’s production. For one, only 16,000 people were in attendance, and those 16,000 were in Las Vegas, a town known for comp tickets if there ever was one. Shows like this attract casual fans, which means they might not be on the same page as the fanbase WWE thought they had with Raw. The live fan in Vegas was going to be familiar with WWE in general and Hulk Hogan specifically, but perhaps only familiar with the overall cast. This is why you get the USA chant in the main event between Hart and Yokozuna. This is why we got the result at the end of the night.

WWE wrote this show overall to appeal to the weekly WWE viewer, but they also tried to make the live crowd happy. There’s a clear tension between the two goals here.

• • •

STH: WrestleManias IV and V were famously staged at the Trump Plaza casino complex in Atlantic City, N.J. While the capacity was just north of 18,000, not a significant difference from Caesar’s Palace, the atmosphere of both of those shows was much more in line from what we expected of major wrestling show of the era. WrestleMania IX very much has the air of a thing a bunch of drunk folks stumbled into because they were outside in Vegas at the time.

Your point about the dawn of Raw as it relates to this show is spectacular. Even by 1994 the creative team had developed a better idea of what people want from the year’s climactic show as it relates to the weekly TV product. WrestleMania X ends with distinct finality. Sure, there is some excellent foreshadowing (some paid off, as in Bret-Owen, and some ignored, as in Perfect-Luger), but it’s doesn’t present the same sense of unrest.

Look at three of the next four pay-per-views. King of the Ring ends not with Bret Hart triumphant as the tournament winner, but incapacitated after an attack from Jerry Lawler. SummerSlam ends with a victorious Lex Luger celebrating with his good guy buddies, but the elephant in the room is his countout victory and failure to win the title. WWF used a locker room confrontation between Luger and Ludvig Borga to set up a Survivor Series match, but if memory serves that was aired on Raw (and Superstars, etc.), leading to the confusion about if the weekly TV serves the PPV or vice versa. And don’t get me started on Survivor Series 1993 ending with a Lex Luger/Santa Claus celebration. But with the Royal Rumble, we’re back at it: the show goes dark as confusion reigns about who gets what and don’t you think you should tune in to Raw tomorrow night to see what happens?

It could well be argued we’re still not sure whether a given major show is going to end with clarity or confusion, though I do think at least with WrestleMania they’ve resolved to deliver an iconic closing scene and leave the unrest for the next night’s Raw. But I doubt very much we’ll be getting any such certainty with something like the upcoming Survivor Series, That’s just not how they do things.

The difference, though, is we’ve come to expect that by now — especially those of us who have been following this drama for 20 or 30 years. But in 1993, we expected closure. And we expected our hero to win in the end, though most of us were prepared for that to be the Hitman, not the Hulkster. Turns out Hulk wasn’t really our hero any more — if he ever was in the first place.

• • •

KSP: Rich and I discussed a theory I’ve had about 1993’s WWF narrative on the 58th episode of our show. I won’t go into too much detail, but the basic theory is Hogan’s good guy character in the 80s was divided into two parts. The flag-waving American part was given to Lex Luger, who did a terrible job with it. The other part — the far more interesting part, in my opinion — was given to Jerry Lawler. That’s the part of Hogan that contains his ego. Again, this is Hogan’s character, not the guy playing him. Hogan’s ego was never small. It’s what got him into trouble with Savage in 1988. It’s what got him defeated by the Ultimate Warrior in 1990. And it’s what made him main event WrestleMania VIII in the least consequential match of his career. This is the part of his character we saw in earnest when Hogan came out to help Bret Hart at WrestleMania. Instead of helping his supposed friend to the back, he accepted Mr. Fuji’s idiotic challenge, cheated and won the WWF Championship.

In the moment, I’m sure a lot of people in the crowd were very happy with this surprise turn of events. A crowd enthusiastic for Americana that basically sat on their hands during the main event; they suddenly came very much alive when Hogan won. It sure made everyone go home happy. Personally, it was the moment that broke me out of my innocent childhood enjoyment of wrestling, and placed me somewhere else. I have no doubt if you asked every wrestling fan you knew, there is a moment they still find a little uncomfortable, that shook them out of the fiction. As a Calgarian, Bret Hart was my guy, and there was nobody more elated in 1992 to watch him rise to the top of the show. WrestleMania IX made no sense to me then, and only barely does today.

It’s the first moment I saw Bret Hart for what he really was: human. He was vulnerable; someone who actually could be defeated on any given day. He had weaknesses, and those were very closely tied to traditional wrestling tropes (this would be a defining trope throughout his career). Hart losing actually didn’t make me lose any faith in him. Instead, his loss reflected poorly on the other people involved. It’s the first moment that also showed Yokozuna’s weakness. Yes, he looked immeasurably strong, but also too cocky. It therefore made narrative sense that a focused and rested Yokozuna steamrolled over Hogan at King of the Ring. Finally, it was the first moment where I really saw Hogan for what he was: a spotlight-grabbing, past-his-prime politician, who would do anything to make sure he stayed on top. Hulk Hogan would leave for WCW and, in 1996, turn heel for real, but he might as well have done it at WrestleMania IX.

• • •

STH: I’m struggling to come up with my moment that shook me from the fiction, though I’m sure it exists if I jog my memory. It might have been the first time I clearly recognized a performer in his second character unexplained in the on-screen story, such as when I figured out Smash of Demolition was the Repo Man. That probably says a lot about me as a wrestling fan.

Once thing I do remember about this time in my life as a fan is how frustrating it was to not have access to Monday Night Raw. We didn’t have cable, so pay-per-views were always out of the question, but once the narrative shifted to things developing weekly each Monday it drove me batty to wait until Saturday to see the developments on one of the syndicated shows. I was a loyal subscriber to WWF Magazine at the time, but that’s not exactly the pinnacle of timely journalism.

I do recall the theory you and Rich hashed out on IO58, and I was pretty impressed with the discussion at the time. Propping up Luger as the next Hogan never seemed a good fit — in fact, everything surrounding the Lex Express movement may well have been my “shaken from the fiction” moment — and your podcast helps illustrate why, because Luger only adopted one dimension. Hogan’s not the mostly richly written character in wrestling history by any stretch, but by comparison Luger makes Hogan look like he was crafted by Dostoyevsky.

We’ve talked an awful lot about 1993 WWF, but let’s broaden the horizon a little bit. What are some other shows or eras you consider important canonically if not especially entertaining to watch? Likewise, perhaps you can offer an example or two of something that’s just plain bad with little to no redeeming value for most fans.

• • •

KSP: Oh man, that list is large. WrestleMania 13 is a must watch for historical purposes but generally a bore, save for Austin vs. Bret. I could say the same for Starrcade 97, Bash at the Beach 1996, and WrestleMania IV. All of these shows are on the core curriculum of wrestling history, but none are very fun to watch. Jason’s going to hate that I threw WM IV in there, but it’s just such a slog of bad pairings. There’s certainly more, but those would be my top four. The list of fun shows that carry no historical significance are much, much longer.

As for just-plain-bad wrestling shows, you don’t have to travel very far. Almost every major show WWE put on between 2005 and 2008 is lackluster. When they changed the nature of their PPV setup in 2009 to include more gimmick-based shows, it actually began to help them create more satisfying shows. Dropping the number from 16 to 12 (over the course of a few years) certainly helped as well. But for a while there, every show seemed to blend in together. The HHH-Orton-Cena thing went on for what felt like 11 years. What’s more, none of these shows seem to matter in the long run. To go back further — and this maybe a controversial statement — I don’t think any of the major PPVs from any company in 1999 were any good. All the good wrestlers in WCW were either burned out or leaving, and all the good wrestlers in WWE were stuck with poor opponents.

• • •

STH: I’m torn on WrestleMania IV myself. I loved Randy Savage as a kid, and especially everything involving the Mega-Powers from inception to implosion. But really, you can get all you need of the Macho Man stuff from that show in less than an hour. The entire event does a fantastic job of building up that one character, especially with two of his opponents getting a bye the round before facing him, but under no circumstances would a purely casual fan be interested in sitting through all four of those hours.

I just did a quick skim through the WWF pay-per-view cards of 1999. Apparently No Mercy rated pretty well with fans, in large part due to a tag team ladder match between Jeff and Matt Hardy and Edge and Christian. I’m reasonably sure I didn’t watch the show live, and I’m not entirely certain I’ve seen any of the matches at any time since — an admission not accompanied by regret. I watched hundreds of hours of Raw and Nitro (and Smackdown and Thunder) in those days, wore my nWo T-shirts proudly and tried to get The Rock elected student body president at my college. But the actual wrestling memories, by and large, are a complete blur. The only concrete things I can recall at the moment are The Big Show debuting at St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and the iconic “Classy” Freddie Blassie segment to open WrestleMania XV.

Perhaps I remember events form the Hogan era more clearly because I watched them dozens of time on VHS. With live events coming fast and furious in the late 1990s, there was scarcely time to rewatch anything, which had the unintended effect of making everything seem less important. Even now I think I can process and recall what happens on Raw differently from other fans simply because I don’t regularly watch Smackdown or The Main Event or anything TNA produces. Not that those other shows aren’t good (in fact, I’m quite convinced The Main Event is the best wrestling show in TV these days), I just don’t have the time.

We’ve had a pretty good chat so far, and there is a major WWE show looming. Are we going to get your regular predictions about which stories will end or continue Sunday night?

• • •

KSP: I missed Hell in a Cell, because it was pretty clear from their trajectory that no stories were going to wind up until at least the Royal Rumble. In many ways, it’s destroyed the premise for my prediction column. For some reason, I just don’t see Ziggler cashing in until after the new year. I don’t see Punk dropping the title or exiting the main event scene for quite some time. They can spin their wheels and pretend things matter, but until the bell rings at the Rumble, nobody has any idea what their plan is. This is great in one respect. Punk is involved in what I like to call the new slow burn: stories with incredibly lengthy runs that don’t actually involve much in terms of an angle, but built to an incredibly-hyped single match. They began this in earnest with Rock vs. Cena in 2011-12. Their next one was with Brock and HHH, and now we have this, a one-sided buildup to a main event with real consequences. Survivor Series and TLC will surely be fun events, but they’re candy. They’ll be forgotten the second they kick into WrestleMania season.

What’s far more fun to predict is what WrestleMania season will look like. I’ve mentioned on the blog that I think anyone expecting Cena vs. Rock II or Rock vs. Punk as the main event of WrestleMania are most likely going to be disappointed. It’s just not WWE’s style to do rematches at WrestleMania anymore. They like very much for the match to be fresh, desired and as one-of-a-kind as possible. Their memory has extended in the last few years. Wrestlers seem to remember more than they used to. They don’t turn on their friends quite as much. And “Once in a lifetime” is treated with at least some measure of reverence. Of course, the obvious argument against that is HHH vs. Undertaker, which happened three times at WrestleMania, and two of them were back to back. To that, I’d say that matches that don’t occur in the main event spot don’t get the same special treatment. There’s only been one match that main-evented two WrestleManias: The Rock vs. Steve Austin. They got away with it then because Rock and Austin had both grown so much in those two years. But don’t Rock and Cena stand in exactly the same space they did last year? Neither of them have altered their characters whatsoever. It would be boring to do it again.

It also seems unlikely that Punk and Rock dance at the Rumble and then again three months later. First off, there’s absolutely no historical context to support this is something they might do. No Royal Rumble title match has ever been repeated at a subsequent WrestleMania. It’s just not done. If I had to place chips on a color, I don’t think Punk, Rock, or Cena will be entangled at all come WrestleMania time. They’ll be fighting other guys. But I have no idea which one has the title. I’d still very, very much like the show to be headlined with Bryan vs. Rock. I don’t have a clue how they’d get there, but that’s my little hope.

Of course, they could split the difference and have Rock vs. Cena vs. Punk headline WrestleMania. I’m not sure why that isn’t the leading rumor.

• • •

STH: I agree with you on many levels. On the most recent episode of The Wrestling Podcast, Tom Holzerman and Eric Gargiulo of the Camel Clutch Blog did some of their own looking ahead to the WrestleMania card, and though they didn’t discuss it directly, my takeaway was wondering what a Cena-Bryan program would look like. Bryan-Rock would be great as well (Bryan and most people would tend to be pretty entertaining), and while they did interact a bit on Raw 1000 (giving Bryan reason to hold a grudge), there doesn’t seem to be many clear lines toward getting them into the ring at the same time in April. Not like a little thing such has logic has impeded WWE creative before, but we’ll see.

I’m totally with you in having little appetite for Rock-Cena 2. I enjoyed the match this year, but there’s absolutely no storyline potential, unless they fight over which one Vince McMahon loves more — and that won’t make for compelling television. A Punk-Rock-Cena three-way would be a twist, but still just a mashup of the WrestleMania and Royal Rumble main events (provided Punk-Rock happens at the Rumble). And perhaps I am a traditionalist to a fault, but I am a firm believer in the title matches at the biggest card of the year being one-on-one showdowns. Sometimes story can absolutely dictate the need for a gimmick match or a three-way or four-corners tilt, but those exceptions are, to me, incredibly rare.

Brock Lesnar is the wild card in all of this, because I’m absolutely certain he’ll be on the company’s biggest stage. If Undertaker is healthy you’d assume he’ll want another match, though I would not rule out a formal retirement sometime between now and then. My gut says Triple H will weasel his way back into the spotlight, though maybe there’s a chance he’s actually going to stay away for now. I’m not sure if SummerSlam was his ideal final chapter, but it did have an air of finality.

I could keep going down the card, but everything underscores your larger point: whatever we get Sunday, and the next night on Raw and so on, is all building to something larger. Slowly, to be sure, but of little independent consequence. Fans can very likely skip Sunday’s show and not be too worried about regret when an earth-shattering surprise goes down in Indianapolis. Of course, WWE does seem to love branding itself as a place where anything can happen, and maybe they’re aware of the general buzz right now and have plans to mix it up. Or, more cynically, they’re relying on fans expecting the unexpected, knowing they don’t always have to deliver a surprise to keep anticipation robust.

• • •

That’s it for our special edition with K Sawyer Paul. Thanks for reading and enjoy Survivor Series! As always, thanks for reading — please feel free to contact us via Twitter or the comments section. Your feedback is appreciated!

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