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On the Road Again…

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TLC 2013 poster

TLC 2013 – copyright WWE

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

• • •

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

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

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

How does that strike you?

• • •

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

CM Punk and Daniel Bryan

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

Dean Ambrose

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

The Elimination Chamber

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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