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Harry Potter and the WWE Championship

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

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

• • •


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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

• • •


Your next WWE Champion?

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

• • •

The main event of SummerSlam 2013.

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

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

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

• • •

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


I would’ve thought Heyman would set better traps…

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

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

• • •


Did the WWE bring Brock and Punk together too soon?

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

Dumbledore's Death

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

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

• • •

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

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

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


Wrestling Moves and Wrestling Movement

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

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

• • •

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

• • •

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

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

• • •

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


Best arm drags in the business.

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

WWE Superstar Daniel Bryan

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

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

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

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

• • •


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

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

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

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

Off-Ramp On the Road to Wrestemania

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

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

• • •

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

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

• • •

Rock vs Hogan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •


Never quite the equal of Wrestlemania…

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

Do we agree on this one?

• • •

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

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


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

• • •

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

The First Step on the Road to Wrestlemania

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Royal Rumble 2013 poster; Copyright WWE

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

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

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

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


• • •

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

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

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

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


• • •

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

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

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

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


• • •

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


• • •

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

• • •

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


• • •

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

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


• • •

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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


• • •

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

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

What are your least favorite Royal Rumble moments?


• • •

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

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

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

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

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


• • •

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


• • •

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

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

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

1st Stop: Royal Rumble

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

Terrible, yet interesting

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

Hell in a Cabana

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

Colt Cabana

Coming to WWE? We’ll see.

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you listened to the podcast yet? 

• • •

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

• • •

Hell in a Cell 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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