RSS Feed

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

Posted on

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

Posted on

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!

Hell in a Cabana

Posted on

*note: Because of scheduling issues, this week’s post actually contains a few weeks of emails between Scott and David. Enjoy.*

Colt Cabana

Coming to WWE? We’ll see.

David: So, there hasn’t been a lot of movement in the on-screen happenings in the WWE lately, but there seem to be some interesting things going on backstage. Over the weekend, CM Punk did a Q&A at a comic convention in Ohio. Around the 16:25 mark, someone asks Punk about his relationship with Colt Cabana. Punk briefly plugs the Art of Wrestling (which I’m always happy to plug), and talks about hanging out with Colt. He ends the question by saying “Cabana’s a cool guy. Knock on wood. Everyone cross your fingers, we might have some potential good news in the near future.”

I’ve seen some people saying they think this is a hint WWE is looking to sign Colt. But I ask you, as a fellow fan of The Art of Wrestling, do you take it that way? If WWE signs Colt Cabana, is it a good thing?

• • •

Scott: I will first take time to point out Colt Cabana and I are practically peers. His hometown is only a few miles south of mine — in fact, he went to the high school my mom graduated from. Not that we actually knew each other, but we did both attend at least one basketball game and for all I know could have bumped into each other at the mall. I’ve offered to buy him Subway next time he’s in town, and you can see by this paragraph why he probably doesn’t think that’s a great idea.

That aside, your question is great because it can be looked at from so many perspectives. Is it a good thing for the WWE audience? If he’s used right, certainly. Fresh faces are always welcome on my TV screen, especially given how stale the Punk-Cena stuff has become. I assume Cabana is featured prominently in Punk’s new DVD (I am bummed I couldn’t make it to the Portage Theater for the Chicago screening) and no doubt the production team could use that footage to quickly introduce Cabana to the mainstream audience.

But are we talking a one-off (say Brock Lesnar murders Colt as part of my Heyman trap theory) or a legitimate run (Cabana plays Owen Hart’s role in the “What about me?” story)? These are the questions I would presume Colt is considering. At this stage in his career, he doesn’t need one night on Raw. He couldn’t just show up as a surprise Royal Rumble entrant. Everyone who knows him through his podcast and indy shows is already a supporter. Everyone who doesn’t know him (probably the majority of the WWE audience) won’t start caring about him because of one appearance.

However, if he is looking at an extended run, he has to give it serious consideration. It may mean putting Art of Wrestling on the shelf. It may mean an extended hiatus from the independent scene and the chance for another run as NWA Champion. But it also could pave the way to realizing a lifelong dream of being in the ring at WrestleMania. He’s already had more success, financially and otherwise, than the great majority of those who sign up for one class at a wrestling school. But can he honestly say he’s achieved every dream he had for himself?

When I decided to leave the newspaper business full time, one of the reasons was because I realized my one-time dream job — an office at Tribune Tower, writing columns and editorials for the World’s Greatest Newspaper — would come at too great a price for me and my family. So what was I really working toward? Maybe Colt Cabana has adjusted his long-term goals, too. We’re the same age, and though I’m a family man and he’s a globetrotting bachelor, I can guarantee he’s thinking beyond his next tour of Australia.

That’s easy for me to say because my “dream job” was never within my grasp. If a Broadway producer called you tomorrow and offered you a role, I would imagine your wife and children would support your decision. But it would not be an easy choice.

You’ll notice the one phrase I didn’t use — selling out. I don’t think that should begin to enter the conversation. But how do you see it?

• • •

David: If Colt Cabana goes to the WWE, I agree with you he will not be selling out. However, I won’t be so quick to say the phrase “sell out” shouldn’t be considered. Should it be considered by fans, bloggers, etc.? No, of course not. But Colt himself might want to consider the phrase. Right now Colt is in an interesting position. He’s sort of like an underground band that doesn’t get a ton of radio play, but gets name checked in prestigious music magazines by prestigious music writers. If that band keeps getting that kind of press, they may end up on the radio. When that band attains a certain level of success, there are always going to be people out there who will, wrongly, call them sellouts.

If Colt Cabana signs a WWE contract, there are going to be people out there who will call him a sellout, especially if it means the end of the Art of Wrestling as we know it. Those people are wrong for doing so, but they will be out there. Should he make the decision based on the ridiculous opinions of those people? Not in my estimation, but I think he does have to think about how it will affect him to hear that kind of noise, and to get the kind of stupid Twitter comments Punk and others with his level of celebrity have to deal with.

Leaving that particular side of the issue, I want to refer to something you said:         

“It may mean an extended hiatus from the independent scene and the chance for another run as NWA Champion.”

During the introduction to this week’s episode of The Art of Wrestling (which featured a fantastic interview with Justin Roberts), Colt was talking about his Texas death match with Adam Pearce, and how it wasn’t really about the NWA title, which, in his estimation doesn’t mean very much anymore. When he said that, the wheels in my brain started turning. Is he trying to distance himself from the NWA title, because of the recent strife with Championship Wrestling from Hollywood? Or is there something else there, having to do with a possible WWE run?

There were some other interesting things said on that podcast. He did try  to distance himself from Punk’s comments, referring to them as rumors. He then said not to always “hear what you believe.” I’m not one who typically looks for conspiracy theories, but I have to wonder if this was an accidental transposition of words or some sort of careful word play. I don’t know what it would mean, but who knows, right? 

Have you listened to the podcast yet? 

• • •

Scott: I did listen to the podcast, and I’m more inclined to pass off the “hear what you believe” remark as a malaprop, especially given Cabana’s reputation for not always pronouncing everything the right way. That doesn’t mean there’s no substance to this rumor. I have yet to see the CM Punk DVD, but as I referenced earlier, there’s got to be a good deal of footage the creative team could use to re-introduce Cabana if desired.

That said, WWE still has the reputation of wanting to create its own characters. What’s in it for them to bring the Art of Wrestling guy to the main stage — unless perhaps they think they can co-opt and brand his podcast popularity. (Side note: how does WWE not have even one official podcast, yet there’s 87 YouTube shows? Is it because there’s absolutely no money to be had in podcasting?)

I also think the “Cabana to WWE is a no-brainer” approach is a classic example of people who follow any form entertainment forgetting what it was like to follow along in their early days as a fan. We are not casual fans. We have been following wrestling on and off for almost 30 years now. We talk/tweet it about it regularly with people who by and large share our views. Yet the part of our fan-brain that accepts many people blindly love John Cena is not in concert with the part of the fan-brain that presumes Cabana would be an overnight sensation. In reality, he’d probably be met with a heavy dose of “Who’s this effing guy?”

Again, it’s not that I don’t respect and admire Colt Cabana. Like I said earlier, we were practically neighbors as kids. But he may not be the right guy at the right time, despite all the creative possibilities.

• • •

David: Diverging from the topic of Colt Cabana a bit, we’re gearing up for the Hell in a Cell pay-per-view this weekend, and I wonder what your thoughts are on the Ryback situation. Personally, I’m not a huge fan. I don’t see much in the way of charisma and, frankly, don’t get what all the fuss is about. However, I’m not even sure it matters. As it stands right now, John Cena has announced he has been medically cleared to return to the ring, but doesn’t have a match for the PPV. I’m getting the feeling the scheduled Ryback/Punk encounter may be a moot point.

I know you are on record as believing or hoping CM Punk’s involvement with Paul Heyman is leading to a feud with Brock Lesnar. Could we see seeds of that planted this weekend? What if Lesnar were to appear in Atlanta and incapacitate Ryback, leading to Cena having to step in for the Hell in a Cell match?

What do you think? Will Ryback actually get a shot at the WWE title? Is it his time?

• • •

Hell in a Cell 2012

Can CM Punk keep the WWE title and end Ryback’s undefeated streak?

Scott: Of the many Hell in a Cell suggestions, that’s not one I’ve considered. In his recent Best and Worst of Raw recap, Brandon Stroud suggested Cena’s involvement in the AJ resignation story serves as his departure from the championship picture for the time being, the same way his entanglement with first Miz and R-Truth, then Kane and Zack Ryder, gave him something to do between Hell in a Cell 2011 and WrestleMania XXVIII. Whatever the case, Cena’s endorsement of Ryback before the contract signing, then in-ring stump speech for him this week on Raw, are fine examples of the creative staff admitting there is no real depth to the Cena character.

There were good reasons to not force Ryback to go through Cena to get to Punk. What was unclear, though, is why they couldn’t just let Cena stay at home for a few weeks top nurse his injury. We saw the crowd reactions when Ryback came out at the end of the Punk-Vince McMahon match — none of that was due to Cena’s blessing. So why retcon the story that way? Why not just let it be a matter of McMahon rewarding the guy who saved his butt with a title shot?

On this week’s International Object podcast, Rich and KSP made great points about how the Ryback character is great because he isn’t really a character. There’s zero depth, and the crowd simply reacts as it chooses, or the way it’s led to based entirely on his opponent. When Ryback came out to destroy Punk, the fans went wild because they’d just been booing Punk for three hours. But if Ryback came out in exactly the same manner to destroy someone like Randy Orton, then he’d be the one drawing the jeers.

Getting back to your main question, though, I agree — I’m not seeing the Ryback thing. David Shoemaker made some great points about this little run in his Grantland piece previewing the show, and maybe I’m not getting Ryback because I’m not the kind of fan the writers are trying to cater to. I can accept that. At the very least I’m interested to see if the two are allowed to have a long match and how well Ryback does being on TV for 10 minutes or longer. I loved Rich Thomas’ theory of them destroying the cell, but I think the common prediction of Lesnar’s involvement in some fashion is going to win out.

Of course, there’s more than just one match on this show. What else are you looking forward to seeing Sunday?

• • •

David: There are two main things I’m looking forward to. The first is the tag team title match. I’m loving the Rhodes Scholars, and can’t wait to see what they can do in a match with Daniel Bryan and Kane.

The second isn’t even a match. I can’t wait to see how Dolph Ziggler gets involved with the World Heavyweight Title match. He has vowed to cash in his Money in the Bank briefcase, and I’m hoping Big Show wins the title in a brutal match, only to lose it to Ziggler in a short amount of time. That would be an interesting event, especially since last year’s 45-second loss to Bryan has been mentioned on television recently.

Is there anything specific you’re excited about or hoping to happen?

• • •

Scott: I am surprised Ziggler’s briefcase has kind of faded into the background, and I agree there would be some nice symmetry to having him take the belt from Big Show the same way Show lost it in December. That could set up a great program with Ziggler and Big Show feuding over the belt, though I’m not sure the writers would be fond of pairing those two, especially since it would leave Sheamus arguably without a logical next step.

Along those lines, one of the things I would like to see more of, either at Hell in a Cell or subsequent television, is a bit more of the Big Show-Sheamus interaction we’ve seen recently wherein Big Show speaks what many fans have been saying: Sheamus is an overgrown child who would rather make bad jokes than be serious about being a champion. It’s a weird comparison to make given these remarks are coming from an establishment superstar like Big Show, but to me it evokes what CM Punk said about John Cena in June and July 2011. When the so called “bad guys” speak the truth and try to make the fan favorites accountable for their questionable words or deeds, it gives the fans who consider the depth of the characters something to appreciate.

But looking at the show itself, the card is somewhat disappointing. The match outcomes may not be predictable, but I also don’t especially care if Randy Orton beats Alberto Del Rio. I like to harp on how close together certain pay-per-view events are on the WWE schedule, but it’s been about six weeks since Night of Champions, and the major stories have grown incredibly stale despite plenty of time to add depth. Only the tag team scene has flourished in the interim, but as long as fans have pined for that development, I’m loath to complain. Further, we’ve seen “The Main Event” on Ion become something of appointment television. If nothing else, it’s a reminder WWE can present shows in more than one format, and that knowing the outcome of a match doesn’t mean the presentation of said match will be boring. We all know “MacBeth” is rife with tragedy, but it still packs theaters worldwide so long as the performers are up to snuff.

I am curious on your thoughts about the Intercontinental title. Does Kofi Kingston retain? If so, why? If not, why not?

David: It’s an interesting question, specifically because I think that Kofi divides the fans. If you read Brandon Stroud’s “Best and Worst of Raw” column every week, he has given numerous reasons why he think Kofi Kingston is not a very good professional wrestler. The analytical fans, which is the group Mr. Stroud courts with his writing, see him as sloppy, and not very believable.

However, I think the casual fans, who don’t put a microscope on the WWE’s product, probably don’t se Kofi the same way. They see him do flashy moves, and while the more analytical fans deride those moves and the “Boom Drop” for not makong sense psychologically, and not being performed very well, the casual fan gets a visceral thrill that probably defies the analysis.

In figuring who is going to win the match, it would seem to make sense to try to figure out which group the WWE cares more about. Signs point to Kofi retaining, in my estimation. Additionally, I feel like they’ve built him up in such a way over the past few weeks (with mic time, and the big title win on Main Event, which has indeed become appointment television) that his win seems to be a no-brainer. Of course, when it comes to the WWE, is anything really a no-brainer? I guess we’ll find out at Hell in a Cell.

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

Changes coming — or more of the same?

Posted on

Scott: Breaking news, my good man. John Cena just had surgery to remove bone spurs from his elbow and will be recovering for four to six weeks. When is the Hell in a Cell pay-per-view, you ask? Five and a half weeks. So how will this be handled — a brand new story for CM Punk, or will they try to buy time and still get Cena involved in the next big main event?

• • •

David: I just saw the same story, and I’m not sure what it means. The first thing I wondered is, “Why now?” It didn’t appear anything out of the ordinary happened on Raw Sept. 17 to cause injury to his elbow. However, if they were using “John Cena’s having surgery” for storyline purposes only, why not make it his ankle, since he stated on Twitter and during Raw that he messed it up during the Night of the Champions match against CM Punk?

As for where Punk goes from here, I’m not sure. I feel like the ending of NoC and following Raw’s main event gave us clues they’re going to tell a story revolving around referees and CM Punk’s relationship with them. Maybe they don’t need Cena for that story, and they can use it as a distraction if he’s not going to be around.

• • •

Scott: After the first report of six weeks, there was a window when everyone was saying Cena would only be on the shelf for two to three weeks, leaving him plenty of time to get ready for Hell in a Cell. Then we went back to the original window. But no matter the duration, logically he has to be the challenger — the only other people in the WWE Title picture for several months since WrestleMania have been Chris Jericho, Daniel Bryan and The Big Show, the former two being otherwise occupied and the latter being off the grid since SummerSlam until this week’s Raw. Unless someone like Mark Henry is ready to come back, I think all bets are on Cena.

The bigger issue is WWE’s seeming inability to tell the story they want to tell with Punk. Some of the issue is a long-term challenge of fans cheering guys the writers would like to see booed. But it also stems from WWE’s established history of being a place where good guys reign. If Punk were a Yokozuna-grade monster, they could just feed him heroes every week. But even in his matches against Cena he’s the plucky underdog, and a certain part of the audience will always gravitate in that direction.

• • •

David: I think the writers realize that, and I think that’s why Paul Heyman has entered the CM Punk picture. I’m not the first person to note this, but it seemed very clear to me that during the Triple H/Brock Lesnar rivalry this summer, Heyman was, so to speak, the straw that stirred the drink. Lesnar is not somebody I want to hear talk, and the WWE, with Heyman’s help, did a great job of making sure we didn’t have to hear him.

Now, does Punk need a “voice of the voice of the voiceless”? Of course not. CM Punk doesn’t need a mouthpiece, as he’s brilliant at speaking for himself. However, with the original pipe bomb in Las Vegas last year, Punk changed the way the crowd thought of him. While some people may complain about Punk’s character and its lack of development over the last year, we still think of him differently than we did when he was running the Straight Edge Society or the New Nexus. I’m trying to imagine the CM Punk of the past year doing what he did during the 2010 Royal Rumble, when he stood alone in the middle of the ring, proclaiming that being straight edge made him better than everyone else. It gained him a lot of heat then, but it doesn’t ring true with this version of CM Punk. It’s a gimmick he doesn’t need. He certainly could do it, and I’m sure he would get some boos out of it, but he might get an awful lot of indifference, which is the worst possible outcome for a wrestler.

So, instead of returning to the Straight Edge Superstar persona, and engendering that indifference from the crowd, he has joined Heyman and flipped the script, in a manner of speaking. In letting Heyman speak for him, Punk has decided to show his indifference for the WWE Universe. The brilliance of this move is it allows actions to speak, as they usually do, louder than words. When he jumped off the apron during his impromptu tag team match with Dolph Ziggler, Randy Orton and Jerry Lawler and started talking to Heyman about Montreal’s lack of fine dining, I thought it was a brilliant move. Give the crowd the opposite of what they want, and, even in this day of “smart” fans, you’ll get boos.

Look at Daniel Bryan. The crowd was strongly behind him earlier this year, and made the “Yes! Yes! Yes!” chant a huge part of the show. In order to get boos, he started literally shouting the opposite. If the crowd chants “Yes!”, he screams “No!” So, if the crowd likes to watch Punk wrestle, the best thing he can do in this role is to not wrestle. It’s a great tactic, and makes it that much better when he does invest himself in a match like he did at Night of Champions.

Speaking of Daniel Bryan, are you enjoying the pairing of our new WWE Tag Team Champions: Team Friendship Hell No?

• • •

Scott: I’m excited for anyone to be so thrilled about being a champion. If we’re going to have titles, the wrestlers who hold them need to be proud of being on top. Kane and Bryan, Antonio Cesaro and Punk all routinely remind the wrestling world how important it is for them to be champions. Miz tries this to some extent. Of the current champions, Sheamus probably is the least successful in this regard, though that’s nowhere near the top of the list of things I don’t like about Sheamus.

I don’t watch any TNA — can you tell me how the wrestlers treat the titles on Thursday night?

• • •

David: K. Sawyer Paul from the International Object podcast has written and spoken quite a bit about the fact TNA seems to be written as a sort of noir version of a wrestling show. The TNA Heavyweight Championship is a pretty big part of that. The interesting thing about that title is it doesn’t seem to be an end. For the last couple of years, each TNA champion has talked about the “power” that comes with being champion, which seems to be why most people seek it.

What’s interesting is the way that “power” manifests itself. In Austin Aries’ case, it seems like he’s become sort of an assistant to General Manager Hulk Hogan. A couple weeks after Aries defeated Bobby Roode at Destination X to become the new champion, I turned on Impact to find him having a meeting in the back with several X Division wrestlers to discuss who was going to get a match with new X Division champion Zema Ion. So, apparently, if you win the title, you get to take a lot of meetings. Not exactly something I’d be clamoring for, but if that’s what you’re looking for, I guess it’s a good reason to want the title.

It does seem to be something people want, though, which is good.

• • •

Scott: Obviously CM Punk has been trying to make the WWE Title, at least since Raw 1000, something that bestows respect upon its holder. He’s even gone so far as to publicly state the World Heavyweight Championship is not on the same level as his own title, though history would show the “top” title in the company can vary depending on who has which belt and what show they’re on most often.

When Punk eventually loses the belt, it will be interesting to see if (and how) he still demands respect on the same level. Miz is still barking about beating Cena at WrestleMania 18 months ago — though to be fair, it was somewhat remarkable at the time.

Your description of the top TNA title is interesting as well. To me the most important thing is for guys to have a reason to want the gold. If winning (title matches or otherwise) is meaningful to the competitors, and the importance is conveyed well as part of the storytelling, it’s that much easier for fans to get invested. After all, we never really did get an explanation of why all these guys are traveling around the country punching each other in their underwear.

• • •

David: Well, why do baseball players travel around the country to hit a ball with a stick while wearing really tight pants?

During my freshman year at the hallowed grounds of Coe College, I took a beginning acting class, as it was required by my major at the time. One of the things we studied within our studies of Stanislavsky’s “Method” was the fact that in every play, each character has a “super-objective.” This is, essentially, each character’s goal, why they do what they do and say what they say. In baseball, one could say that the “play” is equivalent to a full season, and each player’s super-objective for the season is “to win the World Series.”

Wrestling is never ending. There are no seasons. There is no conclusion. I think this causes problems with story-telling, because it’s hard to tell what the super-objective is for wrestlers. Is the super-objective to make enough money to retire? Is it to marry the boss’s daughter and become an executive in “this business*”? Even more difficult is to try to tell what the super-objective is within the wrestling narrative. How do you write for these characters, if you don’t really know what these characters want in the long run?

*Of course, that super-objective only really works once.

• • •

Scott: You ever wonder what would have happened if maybe Trish Stratus wound up married to Shane McMahon? Maybe that’s a diversion for another day.

I was really interested in the Mick Foley segment on the Sept. 24 Raw. I found myself agreeing with a lot of what he had to say about Punk and Heyman, and it fed my suspicion that maybe this is all a big Heyman ruse paving the way for him to bring back Lesnar to destroy Punk. I thought I saw a few seconds of doubt creep into Punk’s face, until order was restored and he decided to keep drinking the Heyman Kool-Aid.

However, I also think Foley’s comments about his own career were incredibly telling. He revealed his super-objective: creating memorable moments. We could spend hours going over Foley’s career, what it meant at the time and how it shaped the business. But these remarks didn’t sit all that well with me in that they completely shattered, more than usual, the conceit of the entire enterprise. If we’re going to pretend this is a fake sport, then let’s have everyone involved be concerned about winning. If we’re going to acknowledge it’s theater, then let’s not have the actors discussing their personal career goals in the middle of a scene.

In the end, as much as I did enjoy a large part of the Foley-Punk interaction, I’m not sure it hit all the right notes. I also don’t think the “bad guy” stuff we saw Punk carry out Monday is up to the level of his abilities, which is more of a writing issue as well as the effect of some of the points we discussed earlier. (Note: I highly recommend this piece by Chris Sims breaking down the issues WWE Creative has with using Punk and Sheamus.)

This is a weird time for the WWE right now. It’s not quite clear if the next mega-stars are on the roster, yet there’s a lot of talented guys putting in great matches. It reminds me a lot of 20 years ago in the wake of SummerSlam 1992. Hogan had been gone for a few months, Ultimate Warrior suddenly left the company (big shocker), Savage dropped the belt to Flair in a nothing match and Flair lost it to Bret Hart at a house show in Saskatoon. The Survivor Series 1992 card bore so little resemblance to the SummerSlam show of just a few months prior, and everything would be upside down again come WrestleMania. Are we headed for another winter of mass chaos?

• • •

David: Well, I can think of three SummerSlam 2012 competitors who are unlikely to be at Survivor Series: Brock Lesnar, HHH and Chris Jericho. Does that mean we’re in for a complete shakeup in the roster between now and then? I’m not so sure of that, but I do think when we get to WrestleMania XXIX the card will be quite different from XXVIII.

I think talent like Antonio Cesaro, Damien Sandow and Brodus Clay, who weren’t featured as wrestlers at this year’s WrestleMania, will be featured next year. I think there’s also a possibility that we could see some NXT talent brought up between now and April, which could add some wrinkles to the roster.

I don’t , however, see the top of the card changing. It seems likely that the main event stars like Cena, Punk, Del Rio and Sheamus will still be in those same relative positions in March and April.

• • •

Scott: I wouldn’t rule out Lesnar at Survivor Series just yet. We’re still more than seven weeks away from that show, and an awful lot can happen between now and then. I was hoping we’d have seen some advance references to that show, as we did with SummerSlam and even the Royal Rumble already, to help cement its position as one of the biggest shows of the year. Maybe there’s still hope.

I do think we’re in for some changes. Putting so much stock into the tag division these days — and for the purposes of chasing the titles, not just joining guys in order to break them up later — is really freshening up both the roster and the weekly TV, while having the added benefit of elevating the guys left in the singles realm. For example, they could have thrown Ziggler and Orton into a team a la Rhodes and Sandow, but it’s important to keep a class of performers outside that fray for the time being.

I think we’ve put a good cap on this discussion, but I’m excited to see what the next few weeks offer. I’m sure I’ll be unable to avoid Survivor Series nostalgia, and there might be some fun things to debate in the world of The Ryback. Until next time…

• • •

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

Night of, wait, who are the champions?

Posted on

Scott: WWE’s Night of Champions is on the horizon, and that makes me think it’s time for a discussion about the various titles to be contested on the show. It’s not too hard to find folks clamoring for a unification between the WWE Championship and the World Heavyweight Championship, or those who want the U.S. Title dropped altogether. Where do you stand on the current WWE title picture? Too many titles, too few? Defended too often or not enough?

• • •

David: In professional wrestling, what exactly do titles mean? We’ve discussed this before, as have various other wrestling blogs, podcasts and websites. There has, historically, been a need for multiple titles in any wrestling organization. Sometimes they represent tiers of achievement the promotion wants their fans to recognize. Sometimes they differentiate weight classes or styles of wrestling. When the brand extension came into play, it seemed logical that Raw and Smackdown each have its own titles, both a “World” championship and a lower-tier championship. As the importance of the brand extension has decreased, has the WWE’s need for two of each type of championship gone away?

I guess that depends on how you feel about the WWE’s roster, and how they could best use the television time they have. They’ve got a solid roster, with some depth, which on its surface seems to favor two sets of titles. However, there’s one title that is very rarely defended, and has very few solid challengers: the tag team titles. Unfortunately for fans of tag team wrestling, Vince McMahon seems to see tag team wrestling as an old-fashioned, outdated proposition. If someone were to take charge who enjoyed tag team wrestling as an art form (how does Triple H feel about tag teams?) and condensed the title picture down to a “big” title and a “mid-card” title, could we see a healthy tag team division form from the roster that remains?

• • •

Scott: I feel like this is one of those questions that goes beyond what we see on TV. It’s easy for me to think of, say Royal Rumble 1992, which featured three tag-team matches on a four-match undercard — that wasn’t even all the teams on the roster — and bemoan the state of today’s tag team scene. (It’s also pretty easy to argue the NWA/WCW had a far stronger tag team heritage than the WWF, which may be a topic for another day.) But so much is different about the way the WWF product goes together today than 20 years ago there may be plenty of solid business reasons to de-emphasize the tag division.

Likewise, as much as the brand split has devolved on television, it’s still an important part of the touring schedule. When we started this chat, many WWE stars were touring in Australia while stars like Dolph Ziggler and Natalya Neidhart were tweeting pre-show photos from Des Moines. You can bet the home office wouldn’t be running dual tours if the company was bleeding red ink.

All that said, I don’t think it would be all that difficult to restore the tag division. As I’ve noted before, all it would take to regenerate interest in any given title is to carve out a space on Raw (say the first match after the initial 20-minute speechifying) each week for the titles to be defended. They could even let fans vote on the challenger each episode.

The easiest way to encourage fans to care about a given title is to make the person who holds it proud to be the champion. If a fan favorite exhibits such behavior, the crowd will cheer when he retains. If a hated performer crows about his dominance, the crowd will anticipate his comeuppance. After week upon week of a tag champion wrestling in a singles match, or the Intercontinental champion losing a non-title contest, it’s no wonder the title changes generate little buzz. I’m not suggesting every title needs to be defended on every show. But take a look at the Sheamus-Alberto Del Rio feud and tell me, couldn’t they have just as much heat — or lack thereof — without the World Heavyweight Championship being involved?

• • •

David: Absolutely. Their feud has not been about the title at all, but about doing vile things to each other. Just like the Antonio Cesaro/Santino Marella feud wasn’t really been about the US Championship either. Don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely happy about Cesaro’s reign, but if he’s really only being used to put over the importance of Santino’s green sock, then how important is it, really? I’m looking forward to Cesaro moving on to feuds with wrestlers who aren’t saddled with gimmicks the way Santino is. I will say this for Cesaro, though… so far in his reign as US Champion, he has fulfilled your goal of being proud of the title. I don’t think a day goes by when he doesn’t tweet about being United States’ favorite son. It’s so awesome, and as much as I like him, it’s going to feel pretty sweet when someone beats him for the title. Hopefully, that won’t be very soon.

Moving to the Intercontinental Title, why does it seem as if there are few contenders for the Miz’s belt? We haven’t seen Christian since he lost the rematch on the Smackdown after Raw 1000. Since then, I can only remember the Miz defending the title once, at SummerSlam against Rey Mysterio. There are a lot of interesting stories that they could tell with a loudmouth like The Miz holding the belt. He’s one of those guys I could see everyone on the roster disliking, and wanting a shot at, but I don’t really see them building anything for him. Am I missing or forgetting something?

• • •

Scott: No, you’re not missing anything. Christian absolutely disappeared. We’re days away from Night of Champions, and there’s was hardly any building to championship matches, especially in terms of anything original. While the Cena-Punk story feels fresh compared to Sheamus-Del Rio, it’s not like these guys aren’t used to each other by now. I bristle when I read comments indicating the WWE roster is shallow, because I think there’s a lot of upper midcard talent, by which I mean I could quickly list 10 guys who could challenge Miz at the next big show without folks batting an eye (which perhaps is why he’s in a four-way encounter). I just don’t think there’s a lot of thought going into how to best use the available talent, or maybe the problem is there’s too many guys who are too similar to each other.

I hate to totally shift gears, but here’s a thought I had recently while listening to an old Jason Mann Wrestlespective podcast with his guest Black Cat of the Old School Wrestling Podcast. One of the thrills of the Monday Night Wars was the element of surprise. You watched four or five hours of live (or somewhat live) wrestling on one night with the idea that anything could happen. The unpredictability — and the fact that the surprises usually paid off with great TV — fueled the era as much as the attitude.

I get the sense the WWE producers still think surprises sell. And to a large degree, they’re right. But the kind of surprise is important. Why are we left in the dark so often about the matches for each week’s Raw? Are the fans really on the edge of their seat wondering if this is the week we get to see Cody Rhodes and Tensai in a tag match with Sin Cara and Rey Mysterio?

Perhaps knowing about that match wouldn’t make a huge difference, though it would give the guys involved something to tweet and Tout about. Or maybe they could tell us on Smackdown what the match is and let us vote all weekend for a stipulation. The bigger point is this: none of your three-hour live show is sprinkled with a few moments of unpredictability (think the backstage segments on Raw 1000), fans will feel like they can’t miss a minute. But if your entire show seems to be written on the fly, people will watch Monday Night Football and catch up on Raw via YouTube.

• • •

David: As someone who does typically watch Raw the day after it airs, I can attest to that fact. For the most part, I don’t feel it’s a necessity to watch the show live. I do miss out on tweeting about it, but the show itself is pretty much the same… until something like the ending of the Labor Day Raw happens. When I watched the Labor Day Raw Tuesday morning, and Paul Heyman stuck his head out the car window, revealing himself as CM Punk’s “getaway driver,” I thought it was awesome. I also started kicking myself for not having watched it live. For the WWE right now, that was a capital-M “Moment,” and it would’ve been great to be a part of the Twitter-verse during it. I’m going to try to make sure not to miss something like that again.

I think what it boils down to is this: in this age of time-shifting and YouTube, the WWE needs to do a better job of making me worry about spoilers. If I find out who is wrestling whom on Raw before I watch it, that’s not a spoiler. That’s an advertisement of the card. But if I find out Paul Heyman and CM Punk are aligning themselves… wow! If I had found out about that before I watched the show, I would’ve been bummed. Those moments need to be sprinkled throughout the show, not just placed neatly at the end.

Speaking of the ending of Raw, it’s probably a little early for predictions, but where does this CM Punk/Paul Heyman story go? Is this just a payoff for Punk’s proclamation that he’s a “Heyman guy” in last year’s pipe bomb promo? Does Lesnar feature in this story?

• • •

Scott: The reason this moment worked so well is because it prompts all fans to ask the question you just asked me: what happens next? Would we tune in next Monday to see the show open with Punk and Heyman sauntering to the ring and delivering face-melting speeches? Would there be an entire episode built around questions about their relationship? Will Heyman form a 21st-century Dangerous Alliance? Will Lesnar even be mentioned, or will they continue to sell his “quitting” by ignoring him altogether? Is Punk lining up “insurance” for his defense against Cena? Could we some day see a Lesnar/Punk vs. Cena/Rock tag team encounter headline a pay-per-view?

Perhaps, in a theory I floated briefly on Twitter, what’s really happening is Heyman is setting a trap for Punk. By letting the champ thinks Heyman is in his corner, he can “protect” Punk and, more importantly, his WWE Title, as a setup for Heyman to turn, allowing Lesnar to destroy Punk and become champion. Perhaps then Rock-Lesnar becomes your Royal Rumble main event, although that’s probably a more fitting WrestleMania card topper.

The good news is someone at Titan Towers saw what Heyman did during the Lesnar-HHH feud and realized how much the man brings to the weekly TV show and the company in general. Hopefully we can let HHH and his short hair fade into the background for a while without losing the chance to see Heyman, if not Lesnar, continue to be a main event player.

Of course the cynic might say aligning Punk with Heyman was the last-ditch effort to cement his heel turn for as many fans as possible — especially in his beloved hometown. But those of us who love good drama are thrilled either way. Punk has become infinitely more interesting since Raw 1000, and this new development only adds to the intrigue.

• • •

David: Your idea of Heyman just being there to get Punk some boos is an interesting one. While I don’t think Punk clotheslining the Rock on Raw 1000 was necessarily what made him a bad guy, it has seemed pretty clear over the past two or three weeks the WWE wants us to think of him as a bad guy. Obviously that hasn’t really been happening… especially in Chicago.

This brings up something I’ve been pondering for a while now. Most forms of entertainment require some suspension of disbelief, but even more so, suspension of reality. If I’m watching a movie like “The Avengers,” and while I’m watching it, I spend a lot of time thinking about how great the performances are, or how great the effects are, are they really that great? If the movie isn’t causing me to suspend that reality and immerse myself in the action, how good can it really be, right?

Do wrestling fans suspend reality enough? Has the social media era caused us to analyze wrestling too much as it happens? Are “smart” fans breaking wrestling by not really caring about who are the good guys and bad guys?

• • •

Scott: That’s a great question, and I know several folks have tried to find a definitive answer (I am thinking specifically of a mid-July discussion on the International Object podcast). The problems with wrestling, as it relates to other entertainment, are twofold.

First, fans become heavily invested in seeing their favorite performers succeed in “the business” and not just in the ring. So even when someone you love loses brilliantly, you want to find a way to salute the performance. The problem is exacerbated for fans who follow wrestlers’ careers as they progress from smaller promotions to the main stage. This is, in large part, why CM Punk is so popular in Chicago. It’s not just that he’s a native son, it’s that he built his career in front of many of those same fans. They’re not just cheering CM Punk, they’re cheering the idea of CM Punk as a mainstream success.

The second component is wrestling exists explicitly in the moment, live and in color. In your movie example, the studios want your money. They want everyone’s money, sure. But all they really need to do is get you in the theater. They don’t care if you laugh or cry or suspend your disbelief. The actors won’t hear or see your reaction. That’s different in live theater, an area you have lots of expertise. But with theater we only have to suspend our disbelief between the curtains — once the cast comes out for bows, we can heartily cheer the person who portrayed the villain, presuming they gave a worthy performance. (The TV/movie equivalent may be reacting to the actors as they make the rounds to Letterman, Kimmel, etc.)

With wrestling, there are no bows. We’ve been conditioned to believe everything is part of the show. The Attitude Era delivered scores of characters who were simply amplified versions of themselves instead of contrived bits (Steve Austin is a real redneck, I don’t believe Brutus Beefcake attended any accredited barber college). Now that we can follow wrestlers on Twitter, it makes it even harder to determine where the character ends and the real person begins. I bristle when I see tweets from Jericho or Cena just a few hours after a show that let me know they’re back in “real life” mode. I think I prefer to be worked 24/7. Or at least I prefer to support guys like Punk and Ziggler, who carry their ring personality everywhere to some extent.

The other problem with wrestling is that, unlike most other forms of entertainment, it utilizes the fourth wall as part of the show on a regular basis, yet never openly (canonically) admitting everything is a show. Sometimes we’re not entirely sure what we’re watching, and the promoters seem to like it that way. So what might be broken, to some extent, is not our ability to suspend disbelief or reality, rather it’s the show’s refusal to simply be a show.

When I went to my first live event, SummerSlam 1994, I was a newly minted 15-year-old, and I knew everything was an act. But since the entirety of it was presented as real, I allowed myself to get caught up in the show, rather than worry about what might or might not be a truer shade of reel. I didn’t care if Bret and Owen Hart went backstage after their iconic cage match and talked about how great a show they put on. I came for the scripted drama, and I was not disappointed.

• • •

David: Unfortunately, the scripted drama isn’t the only type of drama you get in wrestling. We were reminded of that this past Monday night when Jerry “The King” Lawler had a heart attack during the live television broadcast. I’m sure I speak for you when I say we’re glad everything seems to be okay, and we hope he recovers quickly and fully.

Enjoy Night of Champions this weekend, and let us know via email or Twitter if there’s any specific topic you’d like to see us talk about.

• • •

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

A Flair for the Dramatic

Posted on

Scott: So I was listening to the Old School Wrestling Podcast episode on WrestleMania IV today (and yes, that episode is 17 months old) when the guys started discussing how Hulk Hogan’s involvement in the WWF Title tournament, and more so sharing the spotlight with Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth as the credits rolled, somehow takes away from Savage’s title wins and serves to tell the audience that although he’s the champ, he’s not the Hulkster.

Clearly there is a connection to a current WWE story — CM Punk being the champ but John Cena still being portrayed as more important. But I still want to stay in 1988. For starters, Savage’s tournament win, and the entire story of the evening, might just be my favorite thing in wrestling ever. At the time, I looked at it as Hogan endorsing Savage — not quite a torch passing, but solidifying Savage in the fan’s eyes as a good person, a worthy champion. I also agree with Jason Mann of Wrestlespective, who said on Twitter that “Savage’s title win was one time in which Hogan was totally justified in breaking the rules.”

Further, much like at WrestleMania VI, where Hogan lost the title then went to film a movie (after an Earthquake attack, but still…), it’s not like he lost the belt then kept right on being the main event star. Of course, in those days there were about five full months between pay-per-view shows each spring and summer, so it was the perfect time for Hulkster to not be the champ. But I digress.

What I’d really like to do is look at the concept of title victories. As we well know, how you win a title is much more important than the simple act of winning. Daniel Bryan had a decent run as World Heavyweight Champion by escaping against Big Show and Mark Henry, or both at once, but he obtained the title by cashing in a Money in the Bank briefcase. If he ever wins a belt like that at the end of a pay-per-view show, it will be much more significant to his fans.

I happen to think Savage’s win is not cheapened by Hogan’s help because he still had to win three other matches earlier in the night. Plus, Hogan couldn’t get by the scheming of Ted DiBiase, Andre the Giant and Virgil alone, so how could Savage? But I know others disagree. I asked on Twitter about the best title wins in terms of making a star. Martin Dixon  suggested the Chris Benoit victory over Triple H and Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XX as  a prime example, and Luke Starr chimed in, noting the story started when Benoit entered the Royal Rumble at No. 1 and last eliminated Big Show to win the shot. Hard to argue with that one.

Woo! Ric Flair wins the WWF Title at the 1992 Royal Rumble.

Obviously the way Ric Flair captured the vacant WWF title in the 1992 Royal Rumble is classic, with a lot of credit going to Bobby Heenan for the way he sold the story as a color commentator. I usually don’t start these things with 500-word rants, but I feel pretty strongly about this one. Now it’s your turn. Give me an example of a great title win that really “made” a given performer. I’d love to hear what tops your list.

• • •

David: As a huge Sting fan, his early matches with Flair were what came to mind first. Specifically, his match with Flair at the 1990 Great American Bash. I know you’re not overly familiar with that time period in WCW/NWA, but that match was the climax of the Sting vs. the Horsemen feud that lasted about 14 months. Most people remember that story line for the cross promotion with Robocop, or the story’s conclusion, which was the infamous Black Scorpion angle. But that match, with Flair putting Sting over and making him look really good in the process was one of the high points of wrestling in 1990 for me… even compared to Warrior/Hogan at WrestleMania VI. That match pretty much set the stage for Sting to achieve the success he achieved.

For what it’s worth, I agree with you and Jason about the WrestleMania IV situation. Hogan’s presence in the final match wasn’t, to me, about cheapening Savage’s victory. It was about Hogan doing something somewhat selfless (for once) and helping even the odds for the Macho Man.

• • •

Scott: On the flip side of the equation are the title matches that have almost zero impact for a variety of circumstances. I continue to find it odd that after the incredible Ric Flair-Randy Savage WWF title match at WrestleMania VIII, the title went back to Flair on an episode of Prime Time Wrestling that aired two weeks after the actual match. Even worse, when Bret Hart beat Flair for the title, it happened at a house show in Saskatoon. The other nontelevised modern era title change didn’t make a ton of sense either, with Diesel squashing Bob Backlund a few days after the horrible Survivor Series 1994 towel match with Hart. I’m sure lots of backstage issues were at play leading to these incidents, and I know NWA/WCW had plenty of similar challenges.

By and large, the WWF royally screwed up the brief Ric Flair run on many levels. Do you think Vince McMahon gets a pass on this because Flair still had some signature moments? If so, is that warranted, or do you consider that one of McMahon’s major failures as a promoter?

• • •

David: In my eyes, McMahon’s handling of Flair is a huge failure. He’s one of the greatest performers in the history of the business, and was one of the top drawing performers at that time. I think the Flair situation is one of the many times Vince McMahon’s ego has gotten in the way of making him money. One of the things I’ve read over the years about Vince, from a variety of sources, is that he prefers to make stars rather than use a star who made his name somewhere else. I think we have a clear example of that with Flair. While he couldn’t deny Flair’s star power and drawing potential, his ego wouldn’t allow him to use him as effectively as he could have. I think the same thing is true, albeit on a smaller scale, of the runs the Steiner Brothers and the Brain Busters had in the WWF. It’s also why I think Sting has been reluctant to ever sign a WWE contract.

Are there any other examples of this I’m missing?

• • •

Scott: Dusty Rhodes and Harley Race are great examples of guys whose WWF runs were pretty much the absolute worst stretches of their careers. I think Vader could have been used better in the WWF in the mid 1990s, but WWF was never a place where monster heels experienced sustained success. I’m not interested in analyzing Lex Luger. When you think of the former NWA/WCW top guys who did at least have some WWF glory, you have to wonder how Sid Vicious gets to sit at the same table as Flair. I’m sure it’s Sid’s look more than anything.

I wonder if the WWE superstardom of Mick Foley and Steve Austin, guys with notable non-McMahon pedigrees, wasn’t a sign of Vince finally realizing how much fun it could be to take a WCW mid-carder and unleash star potential. Of course, Eric Bischoff had already taken Kevin Nash and Scott Hall far beyond their WWF prominence, so maybe Vince was just in tit-for-tat mode

Of course, if you go down that road, you have to give Vince credit for looking at Vinnie Vegas and the Diamond Studd and seeing Diesel and Razor Ramon — not to mention “Mean” Mark becoming the Undertaker.

Thinking back to Flair, what’s his biggest missed WWF opportunity? The easy answer is a WrestleMania main event against Hogan. But I’m even more perplexed he didn’t even wrestle at SummerSlam 1992. And, although a lot more cards would have needed to fall the right way, I always have wondered what a Hulk Hogan-Four Horseman feud might have looked like in early 1991.

• • •

David: When Ric Flair gave Vince McMahon his notice he was going back to WCW, it was decided his last match would be against Curt Henning on Monday Night Raw. In January 1993, Raw featured the two men in a loser leaves WWF match, and it is a really good match. Can you imagine how great it would have been if Mr. Perfect had been healthy and become a good guy earlier than he did? If he had been featured in a longer program with Flair, I think they could have had numerous great pay-per-view matches. They had some other good matches later in the 90s when Hennig went to WCW, but neither man was quite at their early 90s level. That’s a missed opportunity if there ever was one.

The very definition of a pro wrestling stable.

I do have to say a Hulk Hogan vs. The Four Horsemen story line would’ve been great. The Hulkster very rarely had to face a group that was as unified as the Horsemen. Yes, he had to face most of Bobby Heenan’s family, but they weren’t really a group as much as a bunch of individuals who had the same manager. He also had to face some tag teams (the Twin Towers and Natural Disasters come to mind), but none of those groups had the acclaim or, again, the cohesion the Horsemen did in the late 80s and early 90s.

As I think about it, solid stables are something the WWE lacked for most of the early “WrestleMania era.” I can’t really think of any unified groups until Degeneration-X came together in the late 90s. Heenan’s family members would have tag team matches every once in a while, but very rarely would you see multiple members together. Could the existence of a more unified stable have made Hulkamania more interesting for a longer period of time?

• • •

Scott: It’s tough to say. With the WWF being a place where the hero almost always stands victorious, you can sort of see why a true stable never had a chance to succeed. Whereas Crockett/NWA/WCW seemed to be more about the Horsemen dominating and fans waiting to see which hero might be the one to finally put a chink in the armor, WWF was (and to a large extent, still is) much more about an iconic superman warding off all challenges.

Though the WWF was a national promotion, most of what happened (at least at the top of the card) in the latter half of the 1980s appears, to me anyway, to have the feel of storytelling you might find in a regional promotion. A monster would slowly rise to prominence — King Kong Bundy, Andre the Giant, Big Boss Man, Zeus, Earthquake, etc. — only to be slain by the conquering hero. Every so often one of the hero’s allies would run afoul of him — Paul Orndorrf, Randy Savage, Andre — and they could run with that for a stretch.

The short answer is as intriguing as Horsemen-Hogan might appear on paper, it would be difficult to execute to its maximum potential. If it happened in WWF, there would have to be a lengthy period of establishing the Horsemen’s dominance in order to build excitement for them being overthrown, and the WWF of that era simply did not let “the bad guys” have that much of a run. If, say, Hogan had jumped to NWA after dropping the belt to the Warrior at WrestleMania VI, I have a hard time imagining the NWA fans being interested in him being the one to finally bring down Flair’s empire.

• • •

David: You’re right. The traditional NWA fan was not likely to have been interested in 1990 Hogan coming in to try and challenge the Horsemen’s dominance. The question is… why not? Is it because he was too cartoonish? Maybe… but was he really any more cartoonish than Sting? I don’t really think so. Why, then, would they get behind Sting, but not Hogan? Maybe there is something to Vince’s attitude about making stars instead of re-using them… in some cases.

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

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 51 other followers