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obvious

This blog has been dormant!

David: Well, Scott, I’d say it’s been a while, but I’d have to start referring to myself as Captain Obvious, so we’ll just get started. It’s July, 2016, and as wrestling fans, we’re living with an embarrassment of riches. Lucha Underground is wrapping up the airing of its second season with the three-week Ultima Lucha Dos. NXT is still really good. The Cruiserweight Classic will be starting up soon. If you’re an indie wrestling fan, there’s a lot of great stuff happening out there. Even TNA recently made waves with the ridiculous but also really fun Final Deletion. However, I want to start our discussion with some dialogue about the WWE’s main roster. Specifically, the idea of the upcoming brand split.

Unfortunately, we don’t know a whole lot of specifics about how the brand split will work, or how the shows will be managed. We know Smackdown will go live on Tuesday, July 19, with the return of the draft. Raw and Smackdown each will have their own rosters which will only appear on those shows, and the rumor is each show will have its own monthly “pay-per-view.” I think it’s safe to speculate there will be some NXT talent drafted on July 19, as well as some returning talent who will probably be needed to fill out rosters.

Let’s start with NXT. Of the current crop of NXT Superstars, who do you think will be making the leap from taped shows at Full Sail to weekly live television on Mondays or Tuesdays.

• • •

Scott: If I were in control, I’d rule out anyone currently holding gold in NXT, if only

 

because I think the brand extension is enough to thrust on fans without also upending the conventions of NXT (the most recent TakeOver theme notwithstanding). Beyond that,

Samoa Joe

Not a candidate for the draft?

unfortunately most of the names I’d look at are more filler than killer — folks the NXT audience is used to seeing but who aren’t actively involved in a major story that draws eyeballs each week. Folks like Mojo Rawley or Carmella. Not to rag on them as performers, but I’m much more excited for high-impact, Enzo-and-Cass grade debuts and I don’t think the brand split is the right time for those guys.

 

 

 

I do think there’s a lot of room to use the Smackdown separation to finally afford some time to NXT products who really deserve the shine, such as Neville and Tyler Breeze, and I suppose we ought to lump in Apollo Crews here. (I could make a case for Baron Corbin, but I’ll allow an argument he’s getting as fair a shake as could be expected already.)

The real question I have is whether Raw or Smackdown are going to look any different than they do now. Not in terms of set design (though certainly a refreshing is in order), but in terms of show structure, which is quite stale. If you’re in charge, do you make Smackdown essentially the same as Raw except with blue ropes and a different cast, or do you perhaps reinvent one or both shows? Is there a way to tell week-to-week stories WWE should explore?

• • •

David: That’s an interesting question, especially since it comes on the heels of “The Final Deletion.” For a while now, Raw has been pretty formulaic. We pretty much know every episode is going to open with someone in the ring talking until they get interrupted and set up the matches for the evening. After that, the show has a few matches, a few backstage promos and a few recaps of the earlier matches and promos until the main event ends about 11:10 p.m. Eastern.

 

hologramhardy

TNA did something original?

It’s pretty stale at this point, and I feel like it needs to change. I’m not saying they need to have an 18-minute absurdist mini movie every week, but it would be nice if they could do more than the same old in-ring and backstage promos every week. With an ability to focus on characters who haven’t had a lot to do recently, maybe we could see some vignettes that give us insight into their personalities, or, at the very least, why they’ve chosen wrestling as a profession.

 

One of the complaints people I read and follow on Twitter seem to have is that the WWE very rarely remembers its own history. I’m not sure if this is a consequence of frequent turnover in the Creative department, a lack of any kind of “Bible” for the show, or having to constantly bend to the whims of the Chairman, but I do know it creates problems. If there isn’t a consistent storytelling history, stories tend to not mean anything. They very rarely reach any kind of conclusion, and very rarely do characters grow and change. That’s definitely one area I’d like to see them improve upon with the brand split.

Unfortunately, one of the other things I’d really like them to change doesn’t seem like it’s in the cards. The “authority figure who needs to be overcome” story has been the main way the WWE has been telling stories for almost 20 years, and I think it’s high time it stopped. However, with the recent search for a Smackdown GM, it appears I will not get my wish. If they’re dead set on going with this story, who do you think is the best pick for Smackdown’s boss?

• • •

Scott: There’s the “best pick” option, which is someone who can execute the office with the gentle finger William Regal brings to NXT, and then there’s the reality: we’re getting one of the McMahon kids, because that’s what the story has been leading to all along and this doesn’t seem like an area where they swerve. With those as my choices, I guess I choose Shane because if there’s any chance the show gets a fresh feel, it’ll be with a fresher face on top.

(I wholly agree with you on the authority figure issue, of course.)

One area where any WWE show could improve is connective tissue. This is a different issue from continuity (a glaring problem for people who follow regularly). Steve Austin has hammered on this topic in recent podcasts. The open of the show should not just set up the main event, the entire episode should be a story within itself. The last time I can remember this being done well was an episode where Daniel Bryan had to wrestle several times (I forget the purpose), and each match built on the other and tied to larger overall storylines. Where WWE struggles is the fact we can go to commercial, come back and see and entirely different cast on stage with no relation to what happened before. The only time we get any groupings is a 10-bell salute to open the show or a holiday food fight.

For as often as WWE uses the term universe, it does a shoddy job of actually crafting that universe outside of NXT. It’s maddeningly impressive that even a hourlong show can still drag out something as awesome as a Finn Balor-Shinsuke Nakamura (can we get to the damn fireworks factory already?), but there’s beauty in the simplicity of which the match came together. It took Nakamura all of 30 seconds to explain why he wanted the match, and anyone who understands the NXT universe immediately bought in. Whereas RAW, which should have an advantage in this regard given its deeper roster and wealth of history from which to draw, is still grasping at straws for — our outright ignoring — the reason its wrestlers are fighting each other.

One idea I long stumped for actually came to fruition with John Cena’s weekly U.S. Championship defenses. They anchored the shows. Even if those matches weren’t the main event (though arguably they often were), it gave fans something reliable to expect and anticipate. This really needs to come back to both Raw and Smackdown — what else could be done to juice up the weekly routine?

• • •

David: The way the show is structured makes it seem like they never have anything planned. As I pointed out earlier, the show is presented in such a way where the main event is usually made in the first segment. <a href=”http://twitter.com/MRBrandonStroud”>Brandon Stroud</a> has pointed out in the past that it makes no sense, because something had to already be scheduled for that time, so what was it? I would like it if they announced main events ahead of time. Maybe they still do the same thing, where a bigger story is set up in the first segment, and the announced main event gets bumped down the card.

Not only does that make the show feel like it was planned, and then something happened

mattdamon

Sweet Revenge!

that caused improvisation to be necessary, but it could also set up some interesting storylines for later on. What if one member of the roster is continually announced for the main event, and then keeps getting bumped, Matt Damon style, until they can’t take it anymore? You’re giving a member of the mid-card some kind of impetus to try to elevate themselves. Additionally, you could switch it up occasionally and say the personal issue discussed in the opening segment doesn’t necessarily warrant a change to the main event.

 

 

Like you, I thought John Cena’s U.S. Championship Open Challenge series was good for the show. It also was good for the U.S. Championship, because it made it seem like something people wanted to have. I wonder if it would behoove the WWE to turn the U.S. and Intercontinental Championships into something resembling a TV Championship, where the title has to be defended on every episode of whichever show they belong to. Would that help resuscitate the prestige of those titles, in addition to adding some intrigue to the Raw and Smackdown?

• • •

Scott: That’s exactly the sort of thing I’ve been stumping for. The main issue with WWE’s lesser titles over an extended period is there being little contextual understanding of the value of being the champion. There are personal feuds centered around “I’m going to take your title,” but only the top championships are treated equally (mostly) regardless of who wears the gold.

This is symptomatic of the larger issue: Who are these people and why are they here? Fans can give those answers for precious few characters on the show. In micro instances it’s absolutely scuttling a performer’s chance to make an impact (Apollo Crews is Exhibit A). In the macro it calls into question the entire exercise of the show itself. Take Brock Lesnar vs. Randy Orton at SummerSlam. What the hell is the point of that encounter?

When an NXT TakeOver arrives, I generally have a strong rooting interest in each match. The same has been true for some of each recent WWE supercard, but rarely the entire slate. This seems a somewhat easy problem to fix, but maybe WWE is disincentivized from telling stories in a fashion different from the status quo?

That’s the main question I have in the brand split/live Smackdown era: will WWE be able to find a way to give its characters understandable motivations and will the roster division give more stories room to breathe?

• • •

David: Let me start with the second part of that question first. I do think the roster division could give the creative team the opportunity to give more stories room to breathe. The status quo dictates stories from Raw get retold on Smackdown, or stories for Raw get tested on Smackdown. With Smackdown getting its own roster, there should be more stories being told, more superstars involved and, as you said, more room for those stories to breathe.

The first part is a little tougher. As far as I know, nothing has been said about the creative team changing with the brand split. Therefore, it seems reasonable to assume the way they tell stories probably isn’t going to change that much. I don’t see them giving characters better/more understandable motivations. I don’t think we’re going to get anything deeper than “I’ve wanted to wrestle since I was a kid.” Which is a damn shame. Anyone who watched the Cruiserweight Classic “Bracketology” special knows the WWE doesn’t have to work super hard to get us to feel something for the wrestlers involved in its shows. In that-one hour special, I was hooked, and am going to be rooting for some guys I had no investment in prior to that show. I’m not sure why they don’t seem to be able to make that happen for the main roster, but it hasn’t happened recently.

Let’s use this as an opportunity to segue. As I write this, the Cruiserweight Classic is approximately 36 hours away from airing the first episode. On a scale from “A child’s (not yours) birthday party” to “Christmas when you were seven”, how excited for the CWC are you?

• • •

Scott: Not as much as I should be. On account of moving and some work travel, I got behind on Lucha Underground (and some non-wrestling shows as well). Desperate to keep up on that, I’m barely clinging to my regular NXT schedule. I’ve missed a few Raw episodes entirely since Money In The Bank. So I really only saw the first 15 minutes of the CWC special, but that was enough to give me a feel for exactly what you mentioned about how easy it is for WWE to build investment in performers. It’s a lot like how NBC crafts its Olympic coverage in terms of generating audience interest in a given athlete, except for NBC doesn’t know what’s going to happen when they switch over to live event coverage.

All that said, my excitement for the CWC as an enterprise is quite high. I expect my <a href=”http://twitter.com/starofsavage”>Twitter feed</a> to be abuzz with reactions, and while that will make me frustrated if I’m not able to stay up to speed, it’s like my excitement for when any promotion I don’t regularly follow generates buzz. I really like the rising tide that lifts all the boats, and the CWC is just the type of thing we all hoped WWE would use its Network to develop.

But my scale ranges from “couldn’t pay me to watch” up to “will drop everything to see as close to live as possible.” And the CWC, unfortunately, falls somewhere near “aw dammit, that sounds great but I don’t know what I’ll bump to make room for this.”

You?

• • •

 

WWE-Cruiserweight-Classic

I honestly never thought I’d see Drew Gulak compete on WWE television.

David: I don’t think I could be more excited. When we were in college, I was far more interested in WCW’s Cruiserweight division than anything else happening on the rest of Nitro or Raw. When I heard WWE was going to use the Network for something like this, and that it was using the “cruiserweight” signifier, I was definitely interested. Then, as the specifics started to come out, and names of possible competitors started floating around, I was even more intrigued, because it seemed like such an out-of-the box thing for WWE to do. Once names started getting confirmed, I was dumbfounded. A fair number of the competitors are indie guys I’ve watched and I’ve enjoyed, and to see them get this kind of platform to display their talents is a tremendous gift.

 

As I sit here on Wednesday morning, with the first episode approximately 12 hours away, I feel like a kid on Christmas Eve. I know I just have to get through work, and a few chores around the house, before I get to enjoy the mixture of high-flying and mat-based grappling action that has come to define the things I love about wrestling.

Since you mentioned it, and we’ve never talked about it in this forum, how are you enjoying Lucha Underground?

• • •

Scott: I absolutely love Lucha Underground, which is why it’s killing me to be so far behind. Twitter has been really good about keeping spoilers to a minimum (that and my parenting-addled brain doesn’t have much room for new information to remember), so when I finally do get to dig in I really appreciate each bit. I pay much closer attention to the actual wrestling than I do for most of the WWE I watch, and the fact nearly all the external drama (the talking that advances the stories) happens apart from the live crowd is genius.

What does it say about the state of wrestling that the best widely broadcast stuff, critically, are shows filmed in advanced, like Lucha Underground and NXT? One distinction is NXT’s weekly TV product has been lagging in entertainment and importance even while its live specials have ascended, but still, take those two and the CWC and does it prove weekly wrestling is an art better served with pre-production instead of live events? What does that say about the future of Smackdown? Does it mean WWE really dropped the ball with that show over the past decade? Or does the week-to-week uncertainty of Raw production undermine the entire main roster?

• • •

David: “Does it prove weekly wrestling is an art better served with pre-production instead of live events?” That’s an interesting question, but not one I’m sure I can answer adequately. As I’ve stated more than once, whether it be here, on <a href=”http://twitter.com/dwkii”>Twitter</a&gt;, or on my <a href=”http://podvocacy.com”>podcast</a> (shameless plug), I feel wrestling has a lot in common with musical theatre, and I think a part of that is the energy from a live crowd that feeds the performances. Obviously, the wrestling portions of both Lucha Underground and NXT are taped in front of live audiences, but as a television viewer, I can definitely sense a different energy between a live show like Raw vs. a show that uses editing and recorded segments to enhance the television version of the story being told in front of the crowd.

Is one inherently better than the other? I don’t think so, I think they each have their advantages and disadvantages. I don’t think the problems we’ve seen with Raw or Smackdown have anything to do with the live vs. tape difference. I think it boils down to WWE’s creative vision, or lack thereof, with the main roster. Making Smackdown a live show won’t change that, but the brand split could.

So, since we’ve circled back around to this topic, how would you like to see the rosters shake out when the draft happens on July 19?

• • •

Scott: I’m going to answer your direct question, but first I’m going to unpack both my point and your reaction. WWE has conditioned its crowds, intentionally or otherwise, to react not based on whether an event is live or taped for future airing, but whether stakes are known. When the outcome of a given match is in now way in doubt, the wrestlers have to work much, much harder to get reactions for anything beyond their entrance animations (which, of course, are so completely structured as to be indistinguishable from the video game).

That is to say, when you have no reason to believe the championship being defended on RAW is actually going to change hands, you’re not going to buy the false finishes. I mentioned earlier how NXT weekly TV had fallen off, and that’s because we stopped getting matches of consequence — full on squashes featuring characters in which we’d become invested and literal nobodies. Talking segments were worthwhile because they set up Takeover matches. Lucha Underground works so well because anything can happen on any show any week. The fact you can get online and read what’s about to happen is irrelevant because it’s so easy to wait a week and trust that in that hour you’ve anticipated, something fun will take place to change the narrative.

Smackdown struggled because nothing happened there that needed to be experienced live. On the rare chance there was a major development, WWE broke the news itself Tuesday night. Anything less, but still useful for understanding the next pay-per-view, would be either replayed or fully restaged the following Monday. (Shows like Main Event or actual camera-free live events are different — no one expects to see a title change, and they don’t even get the full TV entrance. The fun there is in the wrestling itself and the chance to see the wrestlers actually be different than what we see on TV. This diversion is worthy of its own full discussion, so I’ll get back to your main point.)

How I’d really like to see the rosters shake out is for Smackdown to simply be full of people who aren’t used properly on Raw. A lot of people have done mock drafts for the two rosters and they start by taking obvious WrestleMania headliners. “Oh, you took Roman Reigns No. 1? I got Sasha Banks.” I’m not naive enough to think WWE has anything else in mind, but I’d draft from the bottom up, looking at guys on the main roster who could — without a complete reboot — most benefit from a fresh start. For the sake of argument, we have to allow this could happen on either show. It’s become pretty clear through our discussion that neither show is going to be so materially different that it’s useful to suggest things like “Smackdown each week has a five-minute Apollo Crews vignette that explains his secret history as an orphaned street urchin who learned to fend for himself by taking on all comers in underground fighting rings,” but I think we should each pick five overlooked individuals from the active roster and consider their story potential from this point forward through the Royal Rumble (since I expect WrestleMania to be a mixed-brand supercard).

In case I’m being overly vague, I’ll go first and take Becky Lynch. We’re going to put her on whatever show doesn’t have Charlotte. She can keep the steampunk gear, the hair, the whole works. But instead of being a directionless good person, she’s going to be positioned against a team of villains who use the numbers game to oppress the Lass Kicker. We’re going to preface each match with a few of those clips featured during her NXT days that explain her road to the WWE, and she’ll lose more than win — but there will be victories enough along the way to prove she’s making progress.

I guess my best historical analogue here is the lengthy, if unofficial, feud Big Boss Man had against the Heenan family. The guy took a terrible beating and all he really wanted to do was win one for truth, justice and the American Way. He never got the Intercontinental Title off Mr. Perfect, but he picked off henchmen here and there, and that raised his profile enough to be a worthy partner whenever Hulk Hogan came calling. I’m not sure who Lynch beats at the Rumble to sort of complete the arc and point toward Orlando, but I fully believe she has the charisma to be a leading hero on Smackdown.

That puts the ball in your court. Pick an underused wrestler and find a way to make them a star over the next six months.

• • •

David: This is an interesting exercise. Let’s go with Baron Corbin. He’s got size and a great look, and I’ve really come around on him since his start at NXT. His main roster run started out hot, getting the win in the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal at WrestleMania, and going into a feud with Dolph Ziggler. Unfortunately, that feud fizzled to an end in the way a lot of WWE feuds do, with too many matches between the same two guys and 50/50 booking that doesn’t build anyone.

 

baron-corbin-2

Future US Champion?

I would draft Corbin onto the same show as Rusev, as I currently think Corbin’s got the potential to be a strong US Champion. At Battleground, I would have Corbin interrupt the US Title match between Rusev and Ryder. Corbin attacks Rusev, giving Ryder the win but costing him the title. I would move Rusev out of the program with Ryder, and into another US Title program, while Ryder challenges Corbin out of anger. Ryder puts up a good fight, but loses repeatedly to Corbin. I’d probably have them fight three times with the third match being at SummerSlam (it seems like that’s going to be a mixed brand card), or whatever their major card would be in August.

 

After that, I’d have Corbin win a couple of one-off matches until September’s major event, where he’s not booked. Corbin interrupts Rusev’s US title match again, and makes a statement with a pretty solid beatdown. Rusev spends the next month, including the October event, trying to stay away from Corbin even to the point of not acknowledging him, even though Corbin uses every opportunity to involve himself with Rusev and Lana. Rusev finally has enough, and accepts a US Championship match against Corbin in November. Corbin wins the title in a dominant, and slightly sadistic (for PG) fashion. Rusev continues to fight, and ends up getting sympathy, becoming a good guy for the first time in his career.

Rusev gets his rematch against Corbin in December, but comes up just short, and afterward moves into a different program. Now the US Champion, Corbin spends January talking about how he’s going to dominate the Royal Rumble, and actually comes pretty close to winning. I’m not sure who eliminates him, but I would have it be someone other than the eventual winner so we have a feud to start after the Rumble.

You’re up. Who ya got for your second pick?

• • •

Scott: Give me Alberto Del Rio. I’m entirely torn on whether I simply want him to return to the character that I loved to hate — a Million Dollar Man for the 21st century — or if I think now is the time to pull the trigger on him as the hero railing against the WWE establishment that’s tried to keep him down. Since we’re almost certainly going to end up with authority figure storylines on either show, I think I’m going to go with the latter, especially if there’s a second “world” title to be had. (I remain convinced no non-Shield member should hold the big gold until at least April).

So put Del Rio on whichever show doesn’t have Reigns, Rollins and Ambrose. Have him start on week one introduced by the show runner as their golden boy, only to turn on Shane/Stephanie with a speech that talks about how the McMahons never really wanted him to succeed. Oh sure, he was champion, but that was only because they needed make their company look good for a Mexican tour, and as soon as they could they stacked the deck so he’d lose. They made him have sidekicks so he’d look weak and took away his job when they knew they couldn’t hold him back in the ring any longer. And even when they brought him back, they only did so to humiliate him with that stupid Mex-America story and to help John Cena score points.

Where does he go from there? I’d actually have him go so far as to threaten to quit, to say he needs to take a week and think about his future with the company, if he even wants to work for a McMahon. Then the next week, he returns in a main event run-in to save whichever good guy is being demolished at the hands of McMahon henchmen. I’m cutting a few corners between July and January, but needless to say he has to jump through several difficult hoops to earn his spot in the Royal Rumble. We’re not going for a Daniel Bryan “B-plus player” story, nor is this a “Vince hates Austin but has to keep him from jumping to WCW” authority story. It’s more about an aging veteran proving he can still go, that the audience hasn’t seen his best and he’ll vow to succeed despite any obstacle.

You’re up.

• • •

David: That’s a good story, and I could see it increasing my interest in Del Rio.

For my next pick, I’m going with the “Man That Gravity Forgot”, Neville. He’s been out for a while with an injury, but he made his return at this week’s Smackdown taping. So far, in his WWE main roster career, I feel like he’s been missing a signature victory, preferably over someone larger than him. Unfortunately, “big” isn’t the only important signifier. If it were, you could throw him in with Big Show or Kane, and call him the new giant killer.

Importance also is important as a character trait to build Neville. In the early portion of his WWE tenure, Rey Mysterio was built up through his 2002 feud with Kurt Angle. He didn’t even need to win that feud to seem important, he just had to put up a good fight against one of the best in the world.

It seems likely that Finn Balor’s NXT career is coming to an end, and he could very likely be drafted to either Raw or Smackdown next week. I would love to see a re-kindling of his feud with Neville, especially if it somehow includes The Club. I have to imagine that Finn’s ascension to the main roster will be made to seem important, so if Neville were to be involved in Balor’s first main roster feud, Neville could be elevated at the same time. I would expect him to be in the Royal Rumble, and have a decent showing without winning, or even being there toward the end.

• • •

Scott: Neville had an up-and-down 2015 for sure, and I can only imagine what he might have done at his first WrestleMania but for an untimely injury. I don’t think he gets that marquee spot at SummerSlam if someone isn’t targeting him for future greatness, but he definitely needs to rebuild. Great pick.

I’m tempted to cheat a bit here and take four guys, because I really want a Vaudevillains-Breezango tag team feud that can be plenty silly outside the ring but deadly serious inside. I’d also settle for legitimate singles runs for both Fandango and the criminally underused Tyler Breeze, whose biggest flaw seems to be being considered a lesser Dolph Ziggler in an environment where actual Dolph Ziggler can’t put it all together.

Instead, though, I think I’m going to bookend my earlier Becky Lynch idea and take Paige to slate her as the big bad of the women’s division. She’s clearly established her credentials such that she doesn’t need to hold a title to be seen as the top of her particular heap, and it’s very easy to draw distinctions between her and Lynch and for Paige’s charisma be the flame that draws moths like an Alicia Fox or Tamina.

I’m still not sure what the long game is for Sasha Banks and Charlotte, but I would love to see either a 15-woman mini Rumble in January or at least an undercard that gives us both a women’s title match and a blowoff to the Paige-Lynch story I’ve concocted, maybe even in a cage match or something that both speaks to the “now I’ll finally get my hands on you” story and also takes the division seriously instead of falling back on some goofy lumberjill stipulation.

In conducting this exercise, I’ve been mentally reaching back to WWF and NWA undercards of the late 1980s. There weren’t a lot of belts to go around (especially in the WWF), but there were plenty of beefs between wrestlers, occasional alignment shifts and (most importantly) scarcity of important interactions. One thing I hope WWE does more of is allow stories to progress without using TV matches to set up monthly special matches. Splitting the brands actually makes that more difficult, but it can and should be done.

I’ve gotten away from the matter at hand. Who’s your next pick?

• • •

David: I’m going to make our first call up. Tye Dillinger has been criminally under-utilized in NXT. He’s primarily been there to make other guys look good, and hasn’t gotten to do much for himself. Even so, the NXT live crowd seems to love him, and he’s really well regarded in the corners of the internet where I spend my time.

Either show would be a fine fit for the Perfect 10, as my idea for him doesn’t really rely on specific opponents. On his first night on the main roster, I would have him debut with the full “Perfect 10” gimmick. He comes in and gets a dominant win over a mid-carder, someone whom he could have a really good match with. Kalisto is the name that’s sticking in my head, as I feel like they had pretty good chemistry against each other when the Lucha Dragons were in NXT and Dillinger was teaming with Jason Jordan.

Dillinger gets that first big win, but goes on a bit of a losing streak through the rest of the summer, until he has lost 10 matches in a row. I want them to be competitive matches, but I still want Dillinger losing. When that 10th loss happens, I want the announce team to be all over him for his “Perfect Ten” record, even going so far as to ignore the first match, which he won. Throughout those 10 weeks, there’s a shift in Dillinger’s attitude. He becomes even more aggressive than he has already been, and actually stops doing the “Perfect Ten” gimmick, although commentary would still mention it. The week after the 10th loss, Dillinger gets a fluke win over another low/mid card competitor. The next week is more of an even match, which he wins. After the win, Dillinger holds up two fingers. This keeps going until he’s won 9 matches in a row, with some of the early victories coming through nefarious means. In match 10, Dillinger is dominated by a high mid-card or main event opponent, maybe someone at Sami Zayn’s or Cesaro’s level. He gets dominated for most of the match, but ends up making a remarkable comeback, and actually makes a conscious choice to not cheat, and wins his 10th match in a row. After 21 weeks, we’re into December. “The Perfect Ten” Tye Dillinger is back, and gets an Intercontinental or US Title shot on the weekly television show, sometime within that month.

Obviously, with this story, I’m taking a risk that the crowd will stop caring about him, but I’d like to think the commentators would do a good enough job of making people realize the losing streak is a story, and a good reason to care about him. Maybe I do need Dillinger to be on Smackdown so Mauro Ranallo can get the story over…

Who’s your next pick?

• • •

 

otunga

More sweater vests and bow ties in wrestling, please.

Scott: Give me Mr. Jennifer Hudson, David Otunga. As probably is evident from my first several volleys in this exchange, one area I feel WWE is lacking is stables of villains that give good guys who aren’t in title hunts causes to pursue. And Otunga is a perfect fit for the modern-day heir to Bobby Heenan’s “weasel” persona — the insistent, persistent talker, as comfortable backstage as he is slapping the mat at ringside or in the commentary booth, telling the kids at home why their heroes are all flawed and using everything in his power to keep from having to back up his words with action.

 

 

Not to say Otunga should simply play Brain 2.0 (he’s in way too good of shape, for one thing), but when used well, Lana and Paul Heyman, and in much smaller samples Paul Ellering and Bob Backlund, have shown perhaps the time is right for a manager’s renaissance. WWE narratives are in desperate need of characters with clear motivations, and Otunga assembling a stable of guys to help him make over his brand in his image would give the writing staff a shot in the arm.

This is fun. In the immortal words of Goldberg, who’s next?

• • •

David: Luke Harper. As most people who have read us before know, I am a big Chikara fan. As such, there are a handful of WWE guys in whom I have a special interest, due to their past association with Chikara. Cesaro, Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens all are doing relatively well, and don’t really need the sort of career rehabilitation we’re talking about here. However, Luke Harper, known in another life as The Big Rig Brodie Lee, has been out with an injury, and the Wyatts have pretty much moved on without him.

I’m sure the plan right now is to integrate Harper into the Wyatt family story when he comes back, but I think the guy is a potential world champion, and I would like to see him strike out on his own. I assume the easiest way to do that would be to have him challenge Bray to see who is the Alpha of the Wyatts, and having him go from there. I honestly could see a properly built solo version of Luke Harper winning the Royal Rumble and competing at WrestleMania 33 for the World Championship.

Who’s your final pick?

• • •

Scott: Damn, son. I love me some Luke Harper, and if we’re not going to get cult hero Bray Wyatt, we might as well get Harper breaking free from the family in an epic arc that propels him to the upper tier. This is kind of where I am with Big E Langston at the moment. That guy should definitely be the face of the company at some point, but I don’t know if I’m ready for New Day to dissolve just yet.

For my last pick… can I draft JBL to be fired into the sun? Or maybe Jerry Lawler to meet the same fate? I do think the commentary teams need a shakeup, and I’d be down for Smackdown standing apart by making backstage pre-match interviews (a la the original “Saturday Night’s Main Event”) a staple, but I probably ought to aim a little higher here.

To that end, I want Kalisto. I know some folks out there straight up hate flippy guys, and maybe you could argue your Neville plan is good enough to suit the brand of fans who enjoy that particular genre. But much like what was mentioned earlier about Crews, I think Kalisto is ripe for a new kind of storytelling, one where we gradually (and dramatically) learn about his mask and luchador history.

It’s easy to just take a small dude and tell the in-ring story of “has to hang with big guys,” but I feel Kalisto can be so much more if given the chance to actually express his reasons for being a pro wrestler, why he chose to pursue WWE success and what it means for him to honor his heritage. I certainly don’t want him to fully echo the Rey Mysterio Rumble performance, but if Kalisto isn’t prominently featured in next year’s multi-man WrestleMania opener, something terrible will have happened.

You have one more idea in there?

• • •

David: We’ve mentioned his name a couple of times in this piece, but I feel like something needs to be done with Apollo Crews. The guy has a great look, is an athletic freak and, if you’ve seen any of his YouTube videos with Ricochet and Akira Tozawa, you know he has charisma. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been given a chance to show that in NXT or on the main roster.

apolloIt almost feels like in order to get him anywhere, we need to start from scratch, and he probably could get the Ryback treatment. Crews has the size to handle two undersized local indie wrestlers at once, the way Ryback did, but I’m not sure that’s the best use of his skills.

If I were running WWE, I’d bring in a few of the early exit guys from the Cruiserweight Classic (maybe one of the guys who lost on the show the previous week) to challenge him, and allow him to display his athleticism along with his power. We’d get talking points about how Crews is a hulking, built, monster of a man, who moves like a Cruiserweight, and can hang, athletically, with guys 40-60 pounds lighter than him.

• • •

Scott: Allow me to do two things here. One, pretend this is a verbal conversation I can interrupt at any time. And two, butt in with my idea for Crews. I think he shouldn’t be drafted to either show. Let’s go the distance with this one: keep showing him in the green room and being overlooked, pick after pick, like Aaron Rodgers. The talking heads keep mentioning the things you just did — his great look, freakish ability, natural charisma — and openly wondering why no one is selecting him. The idea is to both build sympathy with the audience while putting a chip on Crews’ shoulder and giving him a chance to use this slight as the motivation his character so desperately needs.

If I were in control, we’d go completely out of the box with Crews, and find a way to relegate him out of the WWE main roster entirely, perhaps utilizing WWE’s burgeoning partnerships with independent promotions to make it appear as if Crews has to literally go back to square one and rebuild his career. That’s probably too far out of the box to work, and I honestly don’t think bouncing him back to NXT would work given the culture developed with that crowd and the still murky relationship between developmental and the main roster. But I’m intrigued with the possibility of a guy who has something to prove. No authority figure hates him, no one is going out of their way to say he’ll never make it. They’ve just overlooked him while they focused on other things, and it falls on the wrestler to get noticed.

There should be ample opportunities for him to get involved — being included in a battle royal, offering to be on a Survivor Series team, trying to get a spot in any upcoming title tournament and so on — and I’m OK with “free agents” appearing on both shows before they sign exclusively with one brand. That’s much different from abandoning newly established convention and using the top guys on both shows just to draw ratings figures.

Does this plan make sense? Do you think Crews is the right choice to be cast in such a role? How would you tweak it to fit the loose rules of modern WWE storytelling?

• • •

David: Actually, I really like that idea. And, while I don’t think sending him back to Evolve would work within the WWE’s structure, I do think they could potentially make sojourns back to NXT work, although, it would be difficult. One factor is that all of NXT between the draft and the next Takeover has already been taped. However, what if Crews shows up on the Raw after the draft begging to talk to Stephanie. He gets shut down by some member of production in a short backstage vignette, and the same thing happens the next night on Smackdown, when Crews tries to talk to Shane. The next week, Crews tries again: the picture of persistence. This time he doesn’t get in, but maybe he’s able to set up an “appointment” with the general managers of each show for the Raw after SummerSlam. Crews meets with both GMs, and they concur he needs to go back to developmental to prove he’s got what it takes.

Crews shows up at the next set of NXT tapings, and he starts rebuilding himself. I’d have Crews wrestle a couple of squash matches on those tapings where he absolutely mauls someone, maybe a Rob Ryzin or Angelo Dawkins type. After the tapings, Crews could show up at Raw and Smackdown with the tape and show it to the GMs to see if it’s what they’re looking for. Maybe this happens a few times over the fall and winter, against progressively more difficult opponents, until they decide he’s earned a shot at the Royal Rumble. Maybe both GMs even give him goals he needs to meet in the Rumble in order for them to consider giving him a contract. By this time, Crews has built up such an attitude, and that chip on his shoulder you were talking about has gotten so large, that early on in the Rumble, he eliminates five or six guys, emptying the ring. After that, Crews grabs a microphone, and does the CM Punk thing from the 2010 Rumble, where he cuts a promo between eliminations of each new entrant. The promo is about how frustrated Crews has been for the last few months, and how neither the GMs nor the McMahons have given him a fair shot, and now he has to jump through hoops to get signed to these shows that don’t even really want him. Crews gets to 11 eliminations, just less than Roman Reigns’ record, and Crews decides he’s not interested in jumping through hoops and eliminates himself, just as the next entrant is getting in the ring. The domination Crews showed could lead to a “bidding war” between Raw and Smackdown for his services.

What do you think?

• • •

 

Scott: I definitely like your idea of keeping so many degrees of separation between Crews and the McMahons, because it would help the story be about Crews and his struggles and not yet another management oppression plot. I have very specific (and occasionally odd) thoughts about Royal Rumble construction, but I do think when WWE moves people to the main roster the night after WrestleMania, it does so assuming they’ll be relevant enough to generate interest in the ensuing Rumble, and if Crews doesn’t have an impact come January, that definitely seems like a failure on someone’s part.

We’ve done a pretty good job considering the futures of those who might be overlooked. Do you have any big picture thoughts on the established stars? Would you break up the Shield? Does Cena still get to headline a show? Does it matter if part-timers like The Undertaker or Brock Lesnar get drafted? Or should we just spare the fevered speculation and assume WWE will answer these questions succinctly during Tuesday’s Smackdown?

• • •

David: I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what I want them to do with Sami Zayn and

Sami-Zayn-vs.-Kevin-Owens-4

What to do with these rivals?

Kevin Owens. The two of them will always have a compelling rivalry, but between NXT and the main roster, they’ve been feuding since December 2014. Granted, Sami was hurt for a big chunk of that time… but still. Maybe Owens and Zayn should be drafted onto separate shows. They can still snipe at each other, in absentia, and maybe have the GMs agree to let them have one final match at SummerSlam. Then, after that, they can go their separate ways until maybe one of the shows makes a trade to put them back together further down the line.

I also would break up The Shield for the time being for a lot of the same reasons as Zayn and Owens. Reigns, Ambrose, and Rollins have been tied together in the WWE for almost 4 years, as friends and as enemies. I think, after the triple threat match at Battleground, it’s time to separate them, and start telling some different stories with them.

As for the rest of the questions you asked, I do think more will be made clear on Tuesday night when the draft happens.

Thanks everyone for reading our long awaited return. Who knows when we’ll be back with another discussion?

The NXT Factor

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The Current NXT Logo

Welcome to NXT

Scott: Let’s skip the (overdue) pleasantries and get down to business. You and I both regularly watch NXT. I jumped back in on May 22, 2013 — the debut appearance of Sami Zayn. I’d like to say I’d been aware of some of the personalities before then, but I’ll admit the Raw debuts of guys like Big E Langston and The Shield caught me off guard.

But now it’s been 14 months of watching the show every week, and in that time the WWE Network launched, making possible the two NXT supershows. I didn’t catch every NXT appearance of current Raw stars like the Wyatt Family, Bo Dallas or Paige, but I experienced enough to be invested in them as performers before they hit the main stage.

Some of the major players of the Sami Zayn era seem to be nearing the end of their NXT runs in preparation for a spotlight career. A flurry of confirmed signings of top international talent make it seem as if NXT will soon be shifting into a new focus, because as big as some of the new names are, it’s hard to imagine WWE just inserting them into prime time storylines with no conditioning of a portion of the audience.

So now seems like the perfect time to take a look at the NXT roster, to break down who we think can succeed in the big picture, and who might be best to consider selling office supplies. Part of the discussion is space on the main roster (for example, it would seem Antonio Cesaro is ready for maximum exposure, but apparently the storytellers can’t let his star shine at the expense of Roman Reigns), part of it is how the developmental act translates to the road show.

 

So where should we start?

• • •

David: Well, I hope to one day buy a Swingline stapler from Corey Graves, but that’s neither here nor there. Let’s start at the very top rung of the ladder that is NXT, which is fitting, since a ladder match is how Adrian Neville won the NXT Title in the first place. He spent the first portion of his time in NXT as a tag team wrestler, including two stints as NXT Tag Team Champion (with Oliver Grey and Corey Graves), but since that time has had a fantastic singles run, with matches against Zayn, Cesaro, Dallas and Tyson Kidd.

He seems poised to step up to Raw and Smackdown, which is, in my opinion, fantastic news. Between injuries and wrestlers who have recently been released, it seems like the ranks of the high flyers on the main roster have been diminished, while the ranks of wrestlers who provide a good contrast to those high flyers have been expanding. Neville has already had great matches with Cesaro, Bray Wyatt and Luke Harper, and I could see him working well with main roster stalwarts like Sheamus, Roman Reigns and, if he got the chance, John Cena.

The only obvious problem I see for Neville going forward is his verbal communication skills. He’s definitely improved during his time in WWE, but he’s still not great. As it is, I see him as a lock for a run with the Intercontinental or US Championships, but not sure how much further he can go.

• • •

Scott: It’s far too early to say if a run with the NXT Title is an accurate predictor of eventual main roster success, but certainly someone sees big things for Neville or he wouldn’t have stood victorious as the curtain dropped on NXT’s first two supershows. I certainly enjoy Neville on NXT, but it’s easy to see how he lacks the charisma of some of his colleagues. He has no discernible character (guy who jumps high?), and while I’m not pining for him to be repackaged into some sort of goofy gimmick, I’m predicting he’s a flop if he shows up on Raw as more or less himself.

Perhaps he needs to follow the NXT path and come in as part of a tag team. It wouldn’t be hard to find a better performer than Graves to team with, turn on and lose to Neville. One of the things WWE still needs to sort out is the hierarchy of its shows. Right now NXT is more important than Smackdown, since anything relevant from Smackdown is replayed (or flat out restaged) on Raw. No one advances their career based on Smackdown performances. (The same can be said of Superstars and Main Event).

Adrian Neville

Can the NXT champion make the jump to Raw?

Ideally someone like Neville could move up from NXT to one of the B, C or D shows and make a mark there. But the structure isn’t in place for that right now. You either make waves on Raw (even if they’re Bo Dalls-sized waves and not Shield/Wyatt tsunamis) or the at-large fanbase loses interest.

The guys you site as good Neville opponents are indeed worthy ring partners, but they’re also all huge fan favorites, and Neville doesn’t seem to have heel instincts. Maybe Neville’s ascension could do for cruiserweights what we hope Paige (and eventually others) could do for the women’s ranks. I’d have higher hopes for him as one of the guiding lights of something new — as Raw is in need of fresh ideas.

Speaking of the women, let’s go to NXT’s other top singles star, reining NXT Women’s Champion Charlotte. I think the smart move is to keep her in training for a while to polish the rough edges a bit more, but there’s certainly a temptation to bring up someone who, at her best, shames most of the current Raw females and also has the undeniable Flair legacy. Not to be morose, but the clock is ticking on the Nature Boy’s relevance. What’s your call on Charlotte — too soon or strike while the iron is hot?

• • •

David: When you say she shames most of the Raw Divas, I have to agree wholeheartedly. She is a better in-ring performer, and has shown at least flashes of talent in backstage vignettes, although she has been paired, mostly, with Sasha Banks, who, while a talented wrestler, could make Keanu Reeves look like Tom Hanks in comparison. To answer your direct question, they should strike while the iron is hot. I think she’s ready to move up, and the connection to her famous father could be a good way to get her established on the main roster. Although, it also could be to her detriment. One of my worries with Charlotte is that when she gets to Raw, the creative team there, which is entirely different from the team at NXT, will see her as nothing but Ric Flair’s tall, blonde daughter… which doesn’t bode well for her in the long term.

Another issue with Charlotte is I’m not sure where she should be positioned on the card. We currently seem to have two sets of Divas. There are the ones who are on Total Divas, and the ones who are in the title picture. They’ve crossed paths recently, but really only to cement the Naomi/Cameron break-up/feud. While she hasn’t appeared on Total Divas, she does have a connection to both Nattie (having defeated her for the NXT Women’s Championship) and Summer Rae (members of the now defunct BFFs), which make her a natural choice for that group. However, I would argue her in ring skills warrant her being in the title picture with AJ Lee and Paige, but as I’ve said, I’m not sure the Raw creative team can look beyond the obvious.

Since we’ve started out with the champions, it seems only natural to discuss the current NXT Tag Team Champions: The Ascension. I’ve seen rumors that Viktor and Konnor are going to be called up sooner rather than later to feud with the Usos for the WWE Tag Team Championships. Have you heard these rumors, and how do you feel about the idea of NXT champions coming to Raw to immediately challenge for titles on the main roster? Does it say more about The Ascension, or more about the tag team situation on the main roster?

• • •

Scott: The Ascension puzzle me in a way. Not them specifically but tag teams in general. On one hand, they’re as good a bet as anyone to contend for the Usos’ belts — the prime alternative seems to be thrown-together teams like Rybaxel, since the Matadors apparently existed only for comedy and since the Rhodes brothers are in an endless vignette loop. On the other hand, there’s always buzz about trying to build a tag division from the bottom up, and removing the Ascension from NXT leaves a giant void. None of the other NXT teams have been presented as serious competitors, and if they follow the Paige script and use the Ascension’s departure as a way to create an eight-team tournament, well, are there really eight teams? Are there even four?

The good news for Konnor and Viktor is, unlike Charlotte, they can be repackaged. Not saying they need to be specifically, but Charlotte is always going to be Ric Flair’s daughter, for better or for worse. They can’t give her another character, there’s already too much invested in her family name (for what it’s worth, they’ve spent the capital well so far, but there’s always reason to doubt the Raw writers). But the Ascension guys could easily take on new forms, either as a standalone or as part of a stable.

I’m really hoping to see WWE get serious about tag teams as a thing, and not just a rock tumbler hoping to spit out singles stars. That’s what I enjoy about Harper and Rowan, as well as the Usos and to an extent the Rhodes boys — they’re in it to be the best team as if that’s its own important thing, which it certainly can and should be.

To answer your specific question, I’m not ready to see the Ascension on Raw. I want a legitimate program heading toward the next NXT supershow. Maybe that’s the Vaudevillains, maybe it isn’t. But let’s talk about those guys individually and as a team. Aiden English has been around a lot longer than his partner, Simon Gotch. Both can do funny, and English had a bit of potential being semi-serious. I’ll say right now English’s character is a no-go on Smackdown or Raw, no matter how perfect it has been in the NXT realm. But is the man behind the character able to take on something else and succeed?

• • •

David: As a fan of Chikara, and the wider Chikara-verse, the Vaudevillains are my kind of tag team, but I sometimes have to remind myself not everyone sees wrestling the way I do. That fact leads me to agree with you that the idea of a show tune-singing wrestler probably won’t fly on mainstream WWE television. However, I think he’s a pretty talented wrestler. He’s a taller guy, and, while he’s not in the great shape Lex Luger was in his heyday, he “looks like a wrestler.” He’s got a strong television presence and an interesting voice that I think lends him the possibility of a strong future, if the WWE can find a gimmick that works for its main audience while still suiting his talents… but that’s kinda the catch, isn’t it.

While Gotch hasn’t been around long, I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen from him so far. He’s got a good look, although I wonder if he’ll need a makeover before moving up to the main roster, as his look (the moustache, hair style and singlet) is pretty specific to the old-timey character he’s portraying right now. I suppose they could parlay that look into some kind of “hipster” gimmick on the main roster, but I’m sure Vince would blanche if the creative team tried to get him to understand what a hipster is. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I’ve seen enough from him to know if he’s got what it takes to make it at the highest level in the wrestling business.

What do you think? Can he be a star in the WWE, or should Justin Nottke hold a spot for him on the roster of Olde Wrestling?

• • •

Scott: One thing we probably have to think about is the definition of star. Is Aiden English destined for the WrestleMania main event or a run with the top belt? Highly doubtful. But can he string together three or four years on Raw without falling completely off the map, a la Curt Hawkins or Zack Ryder? No doubt.

The most popular illustration here is Colt Cabana’s outward desire to be the Honky Tonk Man, to have a long enough run of modest television prominence to be able to play the character more or less forever, even if that just means legends appearances and autograph shows well past the working days. The growing success of the NXT show might allow certain performers to market themselves on the touring scene as “former WWE star…” just as well as a forgettable Smackdown stint. How bright is Michael Tarver’s star shining these days?

I don’t know if English is limited to only the comedic circuit, which despite Santino Marella’s retirement and the release of Jinder Mahal and Drew McIntyre, is robust on account of Damien Sandow, Fandango, Adam Rose, the Matadors and so on, but there’s money to be made in that realm. Some performers might rather be in that loop than just the bottom end of the “serious” wrestlers, because it’s awfully difficult to break through into the main event scene, and at least the comedic acts are involved in memorable moments.

This leads to a question about another NXT standout of recent vintage — Tyson Kidd. If you’re in his shoes, would you rather be on Raw and Smackdown in the middle of the card or at the focal point of the leading NXT story?

• • •

David: Tyson Kidd is an interesting case. His wrestling skills have always been solid, but he’s had very little chance in five and a half years to show any kind of character. I think his recent run in NXT has been good for him. While some of the people in the Internet circles we run with make fun of his constant cries of “Fact!”, I feel like he’s shown marked improvement both in terms of actual spoken promos, and showing character in the ring. I think, despite the chants of “Nattie’s Husband,” he’s shown he is a lot more than that, and a high profile feud with Sami Zayn has been much better for him than languishing in the middle of Raw or Smackdown.

Speaking of Sami Zayn, how have we gotten this far into this piece with barely a mention of the guy who, as of right now, is the likely No. 1 on my TWB 100 ballot for 2014? I look forward to seeing Zayn wrestle every time he gets in the ring, but I’m glad they’ve decided to keep him in NXT for now. It’s not that I think he’s incapable of making an impact on Raw, but I’d like to see him get the NXT title, if nothing else than as a reward for having great matches with everyone from Tyler Breeze to Cesaro. There’s also the fact I’m wary of what the main roster’s creative team will do with him. I’ve enjoyed his work so much on NXT I’m worried it won’t be the same when he gets to the main roster, plus I’d like to see him work with the group of guys who are coming into NXT in the near future.

So, am I right to worry about Zayn’s prospects on the USA and SyFy Networks? Or do you think his talent will allow him to do what Daniel Bryan did in overcoming bad storylines to become a major player in the WWE?

• • •

Scott: To me, Zayn is the ultimate “please don’t screw this guy up” in my book. He’s undoubtedly capable of delivering a fantastic match in any scenario. He’s a natural hit with fans of all ages. I generally dislike when people posit “If (insert wrestler) doesn’t main event WrestleMania, then WWE dropped the ball),” but honestly, how can you not feel that way about Sami Zayn?

Sami Zayn

The most polished member of the NXT roster, but does that mean he should be on Raw and Smackdown?

I’ll admit to not being aware of Daniel Bryan’s pre-WWE career at the time he debuted on season one of NXT, but I learned quickly he already had the highest of respect among people whose opinions I respected. I tried to get in on the ground floor with Zayn’s WWE career as well. Part of me wants to not compare the two but it also seems essential given the striking similarities.

I would like to think current management sees in Zayn the possibility to meet or exceed Bryan levels of popularity, and in so doing consciously avoids the missteps that plagued Bryan early on in his WWE run. And say what you will about the company never being sold on Bryan’s prospects, but we’ll always have WrestleMania XXX. That was no accident. Sami Zayn can tell those kind of stories in and out of the ring, and — barring injury — I’ve never been so sure of anything in my wrestling fandom as I am of Zayn’s potential.

Now, how do they actually get him from the simmering at the surface of NXT to the center spotlight on biggest stage of them all? I can think of 87 different ways, none of which will actually happen. I’m anxious to see what he can do as soon as possible, but I don’t want him to get lost amidst all the guys currently getting elevated on the main shows. A double-edged sword.

Here;s the big question I’ve never been able to answer: How much does Zayn have to be reintroduced to the main audience? In my world, everyone who loves Raw should watch NXT, but I know that’s just not the case. Can they just bring him up, say “this guy is awesome” then let him prove it in the ring on his first night? I don’t want to think about ways to mess up his debut, but I’m sure it’s possible. How would you handle it — and when?

• • •

David: That’s a big question, but you asked, so I’ll put on my fantasy booker hat and see what I can come up with. First things first… I would not have him debut at the Royal Rumble. For some reason, the WWE creative team has seen fit over the past couple of years to make big debuts in the Royal Rumble match. I wasn’t a fan of that tactic for either Bo Dallas or Alexander Rusev. I think there are too many guys, and a debuting wrestler gets lost in the shuffle.

But you didn’t ask me how I would not handle his debut, so here’s what I would do if I were on the creative team. First, in September, I would announce 16 NXT Superstars are going to have a shot at a showcase at Survivor Series. The way it would work is there would be eight singles matches throughout October and November. The eight winners would then be in a traditional five-on-five Survivor Series elimination match, with the other two spots being given to main roster wrestlers with NXT ties.

I also would announce on Raw this match is happening, as a way to get the WWE Universe excited about it — and excited about NXT. There would be video packages each week showing what happened on the previous NXT, and how that affects the “First Annual NXT Survivor Series Showcase.” That way, the WWE Universe at large gets to know some of the guys they don’t know, and they get excited about the NXT Universe. This has an added benefit of being a good advertisement for the WWE Network, which is available for $9.99 per month.

Yes, John...we know.

Yes, John…we know.

 

The teams would be the following:

Enzo Amore, Colin Cassady, Xavier Woods, Mojo Rawley and Sami Zayn

vs.

Sylvester Lefort, Marcus Louis, Cesaro, CJ Parker and Bull Dempsey

 

Amore and Cassady fall on one side of the good guy/bad guy line, with the Legionnaires being their counterparts. Parker and Woods have a feud that may not be burning up the NXT Universe, but is worthy of a Survivor Series match. With Rawley and Dempsey, you get tag team partners on opposite sides who don’t really like each other, which would provide an interesting dynamic and storyline potential. Then, of course, you have the ultimate good guy, Sami Zayn, and his ultimate rival to this point, Cesaro.

I would start the match with Parker and Woods in the ring. Woods would get the early advantage, even getting a near fall. This would bring Dempsey in to break up the pin. As he breaks up the pin, Rawley comes in to attack Dempsey, but ends up hitting Woods accidentally, allowing Parker to get the pin.

After a few more minutes, Enzo would be in against one of The Legionnaires, who would take advantage of the ref being distracted at various points to use underhanded tactics. Big Cass spends most of this portion of the match getting hotter and hotter, until the Legionnaires are able to pin Amore with a handful of tights, or having their feet on the ropes. Cassady comes in and starts to take apart Lefort and Louis, but ends up going too far. His anger causes him to use a chair to injure both Lefort and Louis, which ends up getting him disqualified.

Rawley and Zayn take advantage of the Legionnaires’ injuries to finish them off fairly quickly, bringing the odds closer, with the villains having a one-man advantage. With Rawley the legal man, Dempsey enters the match, and the two lock up. After neither man gains an advantage, Rawley turns to Sami Zayn and says, “You’re on your own.” He turns to Dempsey, shakes his hand and then lays down for his tag team partner to pin him, leaving Sami Zayn staring down the barrel of a 3-1 advantage. Zayn gets in and is on fire. He takes it to all three men, getting a pin first on CJ Parker. Dempsey slows him down, but Zayn manages to tough out the pain, eliminating him with a roll up, which just leaves Zayn and Cesaro.

Sami Zayn starts by getting in a flurry of offense, which Cesaro quickly quells. Cesaro then proceeds to take Zayn apart, to the stunned silence of the crowd. After a pop-up uppercut and a Neutralizer, Cesaro gets the win to be the sole survivor.

I waffled a bit about whether or not to have Zayn make the complete comeback, but in the end, he’s far stronger as the guy who’s trying to get even, and with Cesaro as his white whale, we get to continue their feud from earlier this year in a different milieu. However, I wouldn’t have them fight immediately. I’d have them do a slow burn, where Zayn spends a couple of months fighting random wrestlers on Raw, and, for the most part, winning. I don’t think he needs a winning streak, but I would have him drop references to Cesaro in promos, with Cesaro repeatedly saying he has nothing to prove against Zayn.

This would go until the Royal Rumble, which would feature both Cesaro and Zayn late in the match. Zayn would eliminate Cesaro, but not win. This would give Cesaro motivation for wanting to take on Sami, and they could wrestle at Elimination Chamber, and possibly have a blowoff match at Wrestlemania, perhaps for either the US or Intercontinental title.

Obviously, I’m biased, but I think it’s a pretty good start to Sami Zayn’s main roster career, as well as a good story. In addition, I’ve built some potential stories on NXT, the new focal point of the WWE Network, for Mojo Rawley, Bull Dempsey, The Legionnaires and Cassady and Amore.

More than anything, I want Zayn to start off with something courageous that gets the crowd behind him, and keeps them there. Any other thoughts on Sami Zayn and his career trajectory?

• • •

Scott: I’m not going to describe another potential scenario to that degree of specificity, but to me you’ve hit on the key component of the big picture. Zayn most likely should “debut,” as it were, with a courageous performance that breeds a desire for him to get back on equal footing with his superior.  He’s such a fantastic storyteller in the ring his spoken words are almost secondary. He’s perhaps better than anyone at the “show, don’t tell” narrative approach.

Doing this exercise with Zayn and Neville makes me realize the difficulty WWE will have in advancing its good guys to the next level. Tyler Breeze is a much easier solution: Show up, be cocky, win. Rusev was similar: Show up, hoss dudes around, win. For too long it’s seemed the only card the writers had for good guys is to give them some sort of stunning “how did they do that” victory (the pre-NXT prototype is the Santino debut win over Umaga, the modern NXT version is Paige beating AJ Lee), except they never convey the message the NXT stars actually deserve to be on the main stage. If their wins are presented as flukes, then the established heel star gets suitable revenge, where does the NXT graduate go as a character?

There are plenty of examples of wrestlers needing two or three different characters or reboots to finally find something that sticks, enough so that we can’t say the manner in which an NXT star debuts will determine his or her long-term viability. But the growing popularity and availability of NXT makes it more likely a larger percentage of the fanbase will be invested in the NXT version of a performer than ever before (consider how many late 80s WWF fans had no real exposure to Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard before they came in as the Brain Busters).

The more I grow to love and respect an NXT performer’s work, the more I’m worried he or she won’t translate to Raw, or the writers won’t know how to handle them, or moving away from Full Sail will be problematic. Of course I want them to succeed on the big stage — that’s the whole point. I want them all to have a debut moment as thrilling as the Cubs’ Javier Baez hitting a game winning 414-foot home run in the 12th inning. And just like in baseball, I don’t want them to just be great at NXT forever.

This is not to say every working wrestler has to have a good run on Raw to be deemed a success. That’s clearly not the case. However, once you sign that developmental deal and begin to climb the ladder and headline NXT supershows, you build those expectations of WrestleMania moments for yourself.

I do want to get to a quick look at the rest of the NXT roster and see if there’s anyone we think should or shouldn’t move up (now or ever). But first I want to ask if there needs to be a more structured pipeline for promoting NXT stars. They’ve done the Royal Rumble thing once (Bo Dallas won a fanfest tournament). Your Survivor Series idea certainly has merit. I might suggest next year’s Money in the Bank show have a match that’s only NXT stars fighting to get a one-year Raw contract.

We’ve done the Rusev/Wyatts/Bo Dallas/Adam Rose thing, where a series of vignettes lead up to an actual debut. We’ve done the thing where Xavier Woods deal where he just appears on Raw and his story starts from scratch. And then there’s the Paige surprise appearance, where she is her exact character, as well as the surprise Shield debut, where the announcers have to tell us who they are and then it takes a while for their stories to unfold.

So should there be some specific way each year in which an NXT star wins the right to advance, or is it best to leave all the options open for creative collaboration?

• • •

David: I think it’s best to leave all options open. As much as I like the idea of an NXT Money in the Bank match, I’m not sure it’s something that can be relied on as an annual event. The nature of that type of storytelling seems to have a short shelf life, since I can’t think of too many stories they could tell surrounding the expiration of that one-year contract, and I’d rather them not add another gimmick where they’re telling the same stories over and over.

I think calling up talent from NXT has to be an individualized thing, involving finding a way to fit the NXT character into the main roster. This leads me back to the Vaudevillains, whose gimmicks we’ve already agreed probably aren’t suitable for the main roster. I was trying to figure out: what is the purpose of their gimmicks, and gimmicks like theirs? Is the point for the talent to prove that they are capable of getting over no matter what they’re handed by the creative team? Is it a case of the NXT creative team knowing oddball characters get over at Full Sail? Or, is there a disconnect between NXT and the main roster, where they don’t realize these characters probably are not going to fly in the mainstream wrestling space?

• • •

Scott: All right, maybe a one-year Raw contract doesn’t make sense. And I have never been a fan of forcing a match (Hell in a Cell, TLC) just because that particular themed pay-per-view is on the schedule. But I still see the value in some sort of annual showcase where the reward is a shot at the big time. I guess you’d have to temper that with the fact they can bring up pretty much whoever they want whenever they want — the last thing WWE needs is one more arbitrary narrative device that’s negated at the whims of whichever power figure happens to be in control on a given week.

The disconnect you mentioned has to be addressed at some point. Why was Paige forced to surrender her NXT title (on account of her Divas Champion obligations) when past NXT titleholders were allowed to do double duty? And what was the point of filling the Women’s Title tournament with main roster stars like Natalya? Wouldn’t they have to surrender the NXT title for the same basic reasons Paige could no longer keep hers?

That’s just the storyline continuity. There exists the larger issue of what purpose it serves to have a performer go all-in on a character that clearly can’t work on the touring team. We’ve seen quick tweaks (such as Becky Lynch’s recent drastic improvement) and some more gradual evolutions (Rusev is functionally the same but tried and dropped certain aspects of his presentation), and I’m not sure any of that stuff is canonical — the only part of a character or performer’s NXT backstory that matters is whatever the Raw or Smackdown writers decide to preserve.

Certainly guys like the Vaudevillains are getting more attention than NXT wrestlers without stage names or flashy attire. Someone must have something in mind for their future, but it’s hard to say what that might be.

What of the guys who don’t trip our trigger at present? Is there a Raw future for the men behind the likes of Mojo Rawley and Bull Dempsey? I always hate to see anyone released, but there’s only so many spots and I’d rather see my favorite guys and gals get a chance to shine.

• • •

David: As I said earlier, one of the things we, and fans of our ilk, have to come to terms with is we are very rarely going to be the fans WWE caters to. That means we’re not always going to like everything that happens in the WWE. There are plenty of wrestlers on the main roster whose stories and in-ring performance don’t interest me, and even though I don’t want to watch them, I have to remind myself WWE is creating a television product for a mainstream audience, not the little niche I fit into… that’s what Chikara is for.

Anyone who has followed me on the Twittah (shout out to Chris Jericho) for any length of time knows how I feel about Mojo Rawley. I almost always tweet my displeasure about him being on my screen, and that’s probably not going to stop. I don’t enjoy anything he does. I find his energy level and “I Don’t Get Hyped, I Stay Hyped” catch phrase to be annoying instead of charismatic. I think his offense looks ugly, and from my perspective as a fan, his matches rarely seem to have any kind of flow to them. He is usually just moving from one move to another, as if he’s following a recipe. That said, I know there are people who like Mojo Rawley, and God bless them. I think he’s got an okay look, and he might be able to make a living in the WWE. I’m not sure whether this particular gimmick is the one that will get him to Raw, but I think he can be a solid mid-carder, whether I like it or not.

Bull Dempsey, for me, is a different story. I don’t like Mojo Rawley because I’ve never seen anything to like. I don’t like Dempsey because I’m almost offended by the way they chose to debut him, and the gimmick that they chose to give him. For those who aren’t aware, Dempsey debuted on the June 26 episode of NXT, and referred to himself as “The Last of a Dying Breed.” There are a few people who took exception to this moniker, including Brandon Stroud, who had this to say in his “Best and Worst of NXT” column for that show:

When I heard him say “The Last of a Dying Breed,” the first thing I thought was pretty much the same as Mr. Stroud: “Screw this guy.” I love NXT, and think it’s the closest thing we’re ever going to have to a mainstream version of an indie promotion, but that doesn’t mean I need it, or even want it, to emulate or parody even the best parts of the indies. I want it to be its own thing, and I want it to be good at that. The Vaudevillains are a great tag team, and they may be a reference to things happening on the indie scene right now (hi again, Olde Wrestling), but they aren’t a direct rip-off, which makes them acceptable in my book.

Eddie Kingston - The War King

The War King is not amused…

But the biggest problem with the Bull Dempsey gimmick is the guy they gave it to. I don’t know Smith James, the performer behind Bull Dempsey, and I’m sure he is a fine person, but he’s not Eddie Kingston. I can’t foresee a time in the future where I would ever confuse him with Eddie Kingston. I’m not sure how much of Eddie Kingston you’ve seen, but he’s a regular in the two indie promotions I watch the most: Chikara and AIW. Kingston doesn’t have the prototypical wrestler’s body, but he is extremely intimidating. He’s tough. He’s mean. He’s surly. I wouldn’t cross him. In fact, if I was walking down the street and saw Eddie Kingston, my first instinct would be to tell him how much I enjoy his work. However, that would be overridden by my central nervous system, which would be telling me to cross the street so as not to make him mad in any way.

Bull Dempsey is not any of that. He’s the loudmouth at the bowling alley who thinks he’s the best because his team won their league. He’s the guy at the arcade who constantly brags about his high score on Pac-Man that got erased because the machine got unplugged. He’s a big talker without much to back it up or make you care. I’m not sure what the future holds for Bull Dempsey, but I have a hard time believing this character will make much of an impact on Superstars, much less Raw.

Of course, those aren’t the only two NXT wrestlers I’m not all that interested in, there are also guys like Angelo Dawkins and CJ Parker. Who else do you see having a hard time transitioning out of the world of “developmental”?

• • •

Scott: As far as the people getting semi-regular screen time, I agree with you on Dawkins and Parker. I won’t be shocked if either gets walking papers before they appear on television. I’m not sure what the deal is with Corey Graves these days, nor do I care. Nothing personal, but he rarely adds anything when he’s on screen. Marcus Louis and Sylvester Lefort don’t engender visions of grandeur, but it’s not impossible to see them getting a main roster run because “not Americans” is textbook storytelling.

As usual, heading into the next supershow we’ll start to get a clearly defined idea of who management sees as having long-term potential. As we noted, it’s good to see a guy like Tyson Kidd developing his character and performance in the NXT main event scene as opposed to being forgotten on a C show. As for Zayn, it’s fair to ask how many times he can hog NXT’s brightest spotlight before he gets a real shot at the big time.

When Bo Dallas graduated, it was clear he had nothing left to prove at NXT. It also was clear he wasn’t going to the top to get into a title picture or main event program. And that’s OK. His brother was destined for greatness, and despite some fits and starts, the team is showing a tremendous amount of dedication to the Wyatt Family’s place of prominence on the main roster. (No small amount of credit goes to Harper and Rowan. I have loved their contributions even as Wyatt’s stagnated.)

Tyler Breeze’s showing against Neville this week is another brick in a sturdy wall he’s constructed showing he deserves to be more than just a Raw caricature of his NXT character. So should I want him to stay at NXT until a logical spot opens for him in the Raw narrative? It’s the same question I have about Zayn — I fully believe he could headline WrestleMania. Does the company have the same faith? Is there a logical launching pad?

One of the things I’ve tried to do while watching Raw each week is see if the company (and fans) can handle multiple leading stories and rising performers. Obviously Roman Reigns is ascendant these days, but his SummerSlam showdown with Orton is not as important as Brock-Cena or even the Brie-Steph match. I could almost argue they’ve soft-sold Rollins and Ambrose a bit, but I also firmly believe you don’t need to feature each story every week unless you’re going to actually advance the plot. We know why these guys are fighting and it’s OK to fan the flames with a highlight package.

We’ve covered a lot of good ground here, but we need to reach some sort of conclusion. Let’s frame it as such: in the Network era of NXT, there will have been at least three “supershows,” and possibly a fourth, before WrestleMania XXXI. I suggest at least one man and woman from at least one of those supershows needs to have a prominent role at the Granddaddy of them All in the Bay Area next spring, or else all this NXT devotion becomes more a sideshow than anything else.

At this point, it seems Paige is a lock to be in that mix, though there are other women who could carry the same weight. For the men, there are obvious candidates, but who’s your pick? Who gets the nod and what is their role on the biggest stage in wrestling?

• • •

David: The Ascension jump right off the page. They’ve had a long run as NXT Tag Team Champions, but this tag team tournament seems pretty much designed to get the belts off of them in an effort to elevate them to the main roster. I have to assume that as soon as they get to Raw, they will be thrust into the WWE Tag Team Championship picture. If they don’t get an immediate title reign, it seems like they’ll get there pretty quickly, which could mean they enter WrestleMania as either champions or contenders. I’m sure that will be a welcome relief for Konnor, who has been in the developmental system off and on since 2005, and I think there’s a good chance he and Viktor will get a WrestleMania moment (note the lowercase m) in Santa Clara. 

Konor and Viktor of The Ascension

Can these men darken the doorways of Levi’s Stadium?

Outside of The Ascension, I’m not sure what to think. There are always so many x-factors to consider: injuries, the fickleness of the WWE Universe, bad booking. As a fan, I think Sami Zayn and Adrian Neville are currently ready to make an impact on the main roster, and should have ample opportunity to earn themselves a look at The Showcase of the Immortals. But I also think Kevin Steen, whose signing was officially announced this week, could go straight from the indies to Raw with nary a problem. The question is: how does the biggest boss of them all in WWE, Vince McMahon see it?

Mick Foley, in a recent interview with Stone Cold Steve Austin, pointed out the talent that goes the furthest are the ones who have the ability to turn Vince McMahon into a fan of theirs. There are a lot of fans who think they know what Vince looks for, but Mick Foley hardly fits that common perception, so there’s got to be something deeper than just a body builder’s physique. Getting Vince’s attention… that’s the biggest x-factor of them all.

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

The 2013 TWB 100

Posted on

David: Every year, Tom Holzerman, proprietor of The Wrestling Blog, invites fellow wrestling bloggers, tweeters and anyone else with an opinion on wrestling to vote for the TWB 100, a ranking of the top 100 wrestlers for the previous year. Last year, Scott was a contributor, and this year I decided to join in. 

The countdown started yesterday (April 22) with the numbers 100-75. 

You can read that at this link: TWB 100 – Numbers 100-75

You can also take a look at who didn’t make the top 100, and meet the rest of the voters here.

Next Stop: New Orleans

Posted on

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

The-Wyatt-Family-newer

Follow the buzzards.

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

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

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

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

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

Tweet from Black Cat: Booking Daniel Bryan

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does that make sense to you?

• • •

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

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

NewAgeOutlawsSlammy

Dumber and Dumbest?

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

What are your measures of success for the show?

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Dream of the Elimination Chamber

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The biggest thing to happen to wrestling since PPV?

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

What will this man be doing come Wrestlemania?

What will this man be doing come Wrestlemania?

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

• • •

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

wyatts

Follow the Buzzards.

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

daniel_bryan_bio_20130430

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Royal Rumble by (Entry) Numbers

Posted on

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Road Again…

Posted on
TLC 2013 poster

TLC 2013 – copyright WWE

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

• • •

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

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

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

How does that strike you?

• • •

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

CM Punk and Daniel Bryan

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

Dean Ambrose

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

The Elimination Chamber

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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