Welcome to the new, hopefully improved edition of Wrestling Worth Watching. Back when Fear of a Ghost Planet started, this post was a way of looking at everything that happened in the world of televised wrestling that was good, from Chris Jericho trolling the crowd to Brodus Clay debuting as a funk-loving tubbo from outer space to a decent match on some indie fed’s YouTube channel. It was an ambitious project, and one that ultimately failed. In 2012, there is just too much wrestling out there to keep track of it all as it happens. So I’ll be forward and honest from the start of this new project: I don’t watch Impact Wrestling, as they don’t make an honest effort to make their shows available beyond airdate, and Ring of Honor doesn’t air where I live, though I’ll try to catch it whenever possible. These posts may seem like they’re dominated by the WWE, but that’s the reality of nearly every wrestling fan’s situation: the promotion who airs the most free wrestling is the one that gets watched the most. If you’d like to chime in with matches from elsewhere that should be noted, hit me up in the comments section.
Monday Night Raw (8/22/12)
Team Rhodes Scholars vs. Rey Mysterio & Sin Cara: For a month now, the WWE has done everything in its power to revitalize its tag team division, waking the dead by calling a time-tested audible in the long-running Daniel Bryan/Kane feud by pairing the two up and giving them the Tag Team Titles, running an angle where a rival team formed as a result of the champions’ dysfunction, then having a month-long tournament featuring several new teams. The only team that’s broken up as a result of not winning the tournament was the one pairing Kofi Kingston and R-Truth, the previous champions. Now there’s a power tag team (Primetime Players), a team of brothers (The Usos), a high-flying tag team (Justin Gabriel and Tyson Kidd) and these two teams, the most popular/hated and established of the bunch. Theirs was the best tag team match of the week, setting up the long-anticipated slight-letdown of a match between the Rhodes Scholars (I think putting “Team” in front of everything has been the worst part of the division’s rebuild. Team is implied!) and Team Hell No (the exception to the rule, as “team” is meant pseudo-ironically, though “Team Friendship” will forever be the better name). The only reason this wasn’t the best match on Raw is because Dolph Ziggler and Daniel Bryan would later take the floor for 15 minutes.
Daniel Bryan vs. Dolph Ziggler: For a long time, the only person the Money in the Bank briefcase turned into a star was Edge, and really all his surprising title victory over John Cena did was solidify his place as a top-tier talent. The second person to benefit from the odd bump the briefcase provides was C.M. Punk, though it took two tries—and an incredibly good feud against Jeff Hardy—to get it right. Everybody else either wasn’t ready, or wasn’t given something beyond that moment of glory, but in Edge and Punk, the briefcase has found purpose: either a crafty, dickish heel cashes it in and proves himself, or a mawkish good guy cashes it in and quickly turns evil. Dolph Ziggler and Daniel Bryan are the next generation of men who’ve somehow taken that gaudy briefcase and turned it into a platform from which better careers are launched, Ziggler by taking Edge’s role, and Bryan by taking to Punk’s. While both remain a title reign away from true greatness, their match Monday on Raw was a gift from the ghost of WWE’s future, a thrilling contest teasing at the possibilities a full-blown rivalry between the two contain. The point of this was to reestablish the dysfunction between Bryan and his tag team partner Kane, and while that mission was accomplished and the work those two have done together has been very good, matches like this mean I can’t wait much longer to see Bryan on his own again, a mean little man with a nasty beard and a worse submission hold.
C.M. Punk vs. Sheamus: Though they didn’t mention it, there was a nice synergy to this contest, the 30 or so men around the ring not only serving as flesh-and-blood metaphor for the inescapability of the Hell In a Cell structure, but as closure to the mini-issue between Punk and Sheamus that started at the Raw in Chicago, when Punk bolted on a slated title vs. title match to eat at The Wiener’s Circle and hang with Paul Heyman. I haven’t seen every Lumberjack Match ever, but I feel pretty confident in claiming this as one of the best. The match is a throwback to a time when a sheer mass of humanity was enough to pique a crowd’s interest, and lately has been relegated to the typical blow-off match between Divas, the lumberjill match, if you will. Anymore, they’re confusing affairs, the lumberjacks rarely doing their job—containing the action in the ring—and instead clubbering on any poor bastard who ends up on the floor. So it was a sigh of relief when C.M. Punk landed on the floor, in a sea of humanity, and was merely tossed back into the ring. And it was surprisingly O.K. when Sheamus was thrown out there and got beat up, because he landed amongst a crowd of heels and wound up brawling back. Barroom brawls are an environment Sheamus thrives in, and lumberjack matches are a situation where crafty bad guys have to be their most cunning. C.M. Punk was just that, Sheamus was in his element, and the result was the most satisfying Raw main event in some time. The stuff with Ryback I covered last week, but having 30 men around the ring, overkill in any other match, was worthwhile just to see them split when the dude’s music hit.
WWE Main Event (8/24/12)
Dolph Ziggler vs. Ryback: There’s really no better opponent for Ryback than Dolph Ziggler, a wrestler who is, in every aspect, the second coming of “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig. If you’ve ever seen Hennig pinball around the ring for a larger, more muscular opponent, then you know what I’m talking about. Ryback’s an act only the most cynical wrestling fan doesn’t like, a monster in the Goldberg fashion who steamrolls through opponents with a variety of ridiculous power moves and stiff-looking strikes. Ziggler flopped around the ring for Ryback’s routine like a mad-man, putting over the legitimate danger presented by the monster while also showing that there’d be no escape for C.M. Punk on Sunday, even without the presence of a gigantic steal cage. The match did its job very well without tanking Ziggler. Credit for that goes to the length of the match—thus far the longest match of Ryback’s run—and to The Miz’s commentary, which pointed out that, against Ryback, everybody is off their game.
WWE Hell In A Cell (8/28/12)
The Miz vs. Kofi Kingston: The third match between these two in as many weeks, and, in many ways, the best of the bunch. Hard to believe that their issue began when Larry King’s wife threw a cup of water in The Miz’s face, but I’ve come away from their series as a fan of both men, when before I was ambivalent towards both of them. The opening two minutes or so were great, Miz and Kingston both fighting and failing to apply their finishing maneuvers, the fact that spots from previous matches evolved and became something else was a very nice touch, and the finishing struggle between the two, with Miz keeping the full nelson he uses in the Skull-Crushing Finale on as the two rolled to the ring and got back up to their feet, was tremendously exciting. Lately, Kofi’s Trouble in Paradise kick has been a devastating-looking, come-from-nowhere move akin to Shawn Michael’s Sweet Chin Music. That’s worked a lot better than the old set-up, where Kofi stands in the corner and tries to pump the crowd for it, much like Michaels did for his kick. And while you wouldn’t know it from the anemic crowd, the last three or four minutes of the match, from when Miz started targeting Kofi’s leg with a weird-looking, over-the-shoulder knee-breaker to the finish, was tremendously compelling stuff. Knee braces and leg casts are things the heel usually removes on an injured opponent, but they took things a step further here, with Miz injuring Kofi’s leg mid-match and stripping his boot and knee pad to further exploit the injury. I loved everything about it, even The Miz’s awkward execution of the half-crab.
The Big Show vs. Sheamus: For me, this was the match of the week, but I’m a big fan of Hoss vs. Hoss battles, something they featured plenty during the championship run of Mark Henry, and not enough during Sheamus’s time with the belt. Built up as a showdown between two knockout blows—The Big Show’s Knockout Punch and Sheamus’s Brogue Kick—the story of this contest wound up being much more complex, with Sheamus withstanding a number of Big Show’s past and present finishing moves, including the giant punch, and Big Show kicking out of the Brogue Kick, becoming the first man to do so in the process. The crowd—dead most of the evening—came alive when Sheamus picked up The Big Show and dropped him with a perfect-looking White Noise, and for good reason: however good Sheamus’s matches as champion have been (and however much he’s been built as the best champ in 10 years), they’ve lacked effective spectacle. The only other guy on the roster who has picked a guy like Show up on his shoulders is John Cena, but you expect that from him. This was built as blow vs. blow, a straight brawl, but that maneuver, more than Sheamus’ triumph over Daniel Bryan at WrestleMania, will be the defining moment of his championship reign. The finish, which saw Show sidestep a second Brogue Kick while throwing a K.O. Punch the champion’s way, was the best moment of the week, two semi-trucks playing chicken in the rain, only one driving away without jackknifing. This one wasn’t pretty, but boy was it effective.
C.M. Punk vs. Ryback: The most controversial match of the year, as even anti-Ryback partisans realized the risk of this match: Ryback loses the “wrong way,” and the WWE is out one potential game-changing superstar. Popular wrestling journalist (a three-word oxymoron, if ever there was one) Dave Meltzer says that he read through dozens of bad-to-middling ideas for the finish of this match, and that all of them were better than the one chosen here. Whatever. In 1998, Ryback’s ancestor Bill Goldberg defeated Hulk Hogan in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, ushering in what many felt was a new era in WCW. He was undefeated. He was slightly green. But he was at the apex of his popularity and ready for the championship. At Starrcade that year, he was defeated by Kevin Nash, who was aided by long-time running buddy Scott Hall, who used a taser to put “Da Man” (Bobby Heenan’s spelling, not mine) down for the count. It was an awful finish, an anti-climax that didn’t make a whole lot of sense (Hall and Nash were feuding, Goldberg was on the verge of reaching Hogan-esque levels of global fame), and Goldberg—and WCW—never quite recovered. The finish to the Hell in a Cell match between Punk and Ryback is similar in a way—Ryback was screwed over—but the circumstances are different. It doesn’t matter if the “GOLDBERG” chants that follow Ryback are now affectionate, if the same people who chant that stop to join the rest of the crowd in Ryback’s WWE-mandated “FEED ME MORE” chant, Ryback was not ready for the WWE Championship. To my recollection—hardly a useful tool, but one that probably feeds the WWE machine better than a photographic memory of every Ryback match—the man hadn’t bumped for move one of any opponent he faced before this match, from the jobbers named after presidents to the duet of former champions he faced leading into his main event this week. Here’s what Punk needed in order to win: the most biased official in wrestling history. Brad Maddox, last seen close to a month ago missing C.M. Punk’s foot on the ropes, stopped Ryback while he was marching around the ring with Punk on his shoulders. He low-blowed the man, slipped behind him, and quickly counted to three as soon as Punk pushed him over the ref and made the cover. I don’t want to say that it was brilliant, but it clearly shows that someone in the back learned from the essential mistake of the Nash/Goldberg issue, which was never successfully resolved. This was a FIRST TIME ENCOUNTER. That it happened in one of WWE’s most legendary matches was something of a head-scratcher, a calendar-based necessity, but really, it’s the only place it should have happened. Ryback’s destructive ways aided and got in the way of his goal. The cage provided a place where he could look momentarily weak, but also like the freaking monster he is. It allowed Paul Heyman to be at his panicked best. It meant that Punk and the referee would be unable to escape swiftly into the night. It meant Ryback would get his revenge. And he did so memorably, tossing Maddox into the cage as if he were Bam Bam Bigelow and the poor referee his Spike Dudley before chasing Punk up the cage and delivering Shellshocked 20-feet in the air. The show ended with Ryback nodding his head to his own music, foot planted firmly on Punk’s chest. Those who don’t think Ryback got his due last night, that his star was aborted rather than born, aren’t paying attention. The focus of this match, after all, was Punk establishing his legacy, finally gaining the respect of the WWE Universe. Punk is an asshole. A dick of the highest order. His legacy is that of a great, long-tenured heel champion. He stands in defiance of what the fans want to see. He makes those fans want to see his comeuppance even more. He finds and exploits the loophole and expects you to respect him for it. I’m going to come just short of calling this match brilliant, but it’s another example of why Punk’s run as WWE Champion, of late, has been one of the most effective such runs in memory. You wanted Ryback to win? You’re upset with the finish? That’s exactly how WWE wants you to feel. Tune in tonight on Raw to see that snide jerk get what’s coming to him.
In WWE, the episode of Monday Night Raw before a pay-per-view is colloquially referred to as the “go home show,” the company’s last opportunity to embellish the storylines going into the weekend’s big matches. For me, that description has never worked for any episode of Raw besides the one before WrestleMania, which is, of course, the show, the one that events like this Sunday’s Hell in a Cell serve as a pyrokinetic PowerPoint presentation for, building up a year-long resume for the evening’s stars before the Monday after WrestleMania, where everything resets in order to build up to next year’s show. Regardless, this is the internet, and once nerds like me catch glimpse of phrases like “go home show,” every episode of Raw is evaluated not in terms of entertainment or plot, but in terms of how well it sells the upcoming pay per view.
On that level, tonight’s episode of Monday Night Raw was a puzzling mishmash of bizarre elements, the WWE’s signature brands of comedy and mock seriousness colliding with the otherworldly realness of “Best in the World” C.M. Punk and angry, glowering giant The Big Show. As a sales pitch, Raw is perhaps shackled by the fact that Hell in a Cell offers as its main attractions three first-time encounters in an environment that calls for the end of long-standing beef, but in the business of live, active entertainment, you deal with the cards you’re dealt, and the WWE had been given fan indifference in the face of another Sheamus/Alberto Del Rio encounter, and an injury to John Cena just as his feud with C.M. Punk began hurtling towards finality. The lead-in to Hell in a Cell and the pay per view itself have felt like a shuffling of the cosmic deck. Substituting for John Cena is Ryback. The Big Show has been called in as an audible for Alberto Del Rio. A tournament led to the establishment of a tag team division so that one new tag team could battle another over the tag team championships. This Sunday promises a few return bouts—Kofi Kingston vs. The Miz, Alberto Del Rio vs. Randy Orton, Eve vs. either Kaitlyn or Layla, and perhaps Antonio Caesaro vs. Justin Gabriel—but despite how good those match-ups have proven to be (Kingston/Miz and Caesaro/Gabriel have been pleasant surprises, as has Eve’s run as queen jerk of the WWE Divas), they’re afterthoughts to the ongoing championship reigns of Sheamus, Punk, and Team Hell No.
Stacked up against a presidential debate, Monday Night Football, and Game 7 of the NLCS, the approach taken to building these confrontations, with the exception of Punk/Ryback, played like the WWE’s oft-belittled writing staff throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks to the pre-match hype video. The prime example of this ethic is the story between Team Hell No and the Rhodes Scholars, a feud that’s been simmering since before Cody Rhodes and Damien Sandow won the tag team tournament, way back when WWE let the fans christen Daniel Bryan and Kane “Team Hell No,” as opposed to the meme-worthy “Team Friendship. On the good end of this feud, Daniel Bryan and Kane both had and lost matches due to one dynamic of their partnership or the other: Bryan’s insecurity and Kane’s goofing around in the case of the excellent Bryan/Dolph Ziggler contest, and the Rhodes Scholars vulture-like mentality during Kane’s umpteenth encounter with The Big Show. Less impressive was WWE’s spin on The Newlywed Game, which promised a game of wits between the two tag teams and, instead, served as a platform for WWE afterthought Matt Striker to wish harm upon Team Hell No before getting chucked across the stage by The Big Show. The WWE has oddly succeeded with bits of anti-comedy like this before—as proof, look up their version of The Price is Right—but The Newly Tag Game, awkward name and all, was executed like something thought up on the fly and scratched during the commercial break. Luckily Rhodes Scholars closed out the tag team tournament with a strong match against Rey Mysterio and Sin Cara, so there’s still plenty off intrigue.
This schizophrenic approach has also permeated the issue between The Big Show and Sheamus, but to better effect. Sheamus is an interesting fellow, a big, tough, amiable champion who has grown leaps and bounds in the ring but whose reliance upon broad-stroke comedy has ranged from awkward (Irish stereotypes) to uncomfortable (Mexican and Jewish stereotypes). Against The Big Show, Sheamus has employed a simpleton’s logic: Daniel Bryan beat the big man 45 seconds into his reign as World Heavyweight Champion, Sheamus beat Daniel Bryan in 18 seconds at WrestleMania, therefore the outcome is clear. He’s joked around with Show, grappled with the futility of his Brogue Kick finishing maneuver against a man much taller than any of Sheamus’s prior opponents, and generally goofed around as The Big Show glowers, punches things, and reminds Sheamus that he’d best be serious if he stands a prayer of retaining his title. Tonight, in a clip that’ll just kill me if it sees any further airtime, Sheamus shilled his new Brawlin’ Buddy toy, which was quickly punched across the state line by The Big Show. Luckily, Show’s involvement in Sheamus’ lumberjack match against C.M. Punk did the job of building towards this Sunday’s championship bout.
Speaking of the lumberjack match (and I’ll probably speak more about it this weekend, as the “Wrestling Worth Watching” feature returns to cover individual matches from the week in a way that’s not appropriate in a regular review), it was billed as the largest such match in history, boasting some three dozen men surrounding the ring. I didn’t count them, but that sea of humanity was there for one reason: to part like the Red Sea before an incoming Ryback. It was an impressive image, the WWE Universe vacating one side of the ring to make way for the challenger to C.M. Punk’s title, and Punk’s attempt to get away from Ryback, only to be fed back to the ring by a cadre of good guys for one of Ryback’s impressive power moves, begs the question of what will happen when the two face each other in the cell, which is exactly the question the WWE wants you to ask.
What they don’t want you asking, hence the reshuffling of the deck, is why, exactly, John Cena gave up an opportunity to face Punk mere weeks after insisting, sling and all, that Hell In A Cell was the only way for C.M. Punk to validate his lengthy WWE Championship reign. While serving as Ryback’s cheerleader, Cena wound up being interrupted by Punk, who (in typical heel fashion) claimed it was evidence that Cena had come around to Punk’s overall superiority. Not so, said Cena. He just wasn’t medically cleared. It was incredibly confusing—Cena advocating one moment for the change Ryback represents, then claiming he only did it because he wasn’t cleared—made more confusing when Cena flexed his mighty arm, touting that he’d been cleared and was ready for a fight right-the-hell-now. Naturally, the match didn’t happen (Paul Heyman to Punk: “You don’t fight for free!”), and Cena was quickly called elsewhere, his presence for Hell In A Cell’s main event no longer required.
That “elsewhere” happened to be the ongoing saga of A.J. Lee, the WWE Diva who went from nerd-baiting background occupier to the most popular woman in WWE not named Kelly Kelly to oddly-written authority figure through a dizzying array of personal relationships, uncalled for attacks, and strange business decisions. This week, before her home town (never a good place for a wrestler to be, C.M. Punk excluded), she unceremoniously resigned from the post of Raw General Manager amid rumor that she’d been fraternizing with the boys in the back, namely one John Cena. A.J.’s resignation was one of the more odd, strangely affecting segments in recent WWE history, a curious mix of A.J.’s real history and the bizarre turns her storyline had taken. With her thanking the fans and hugging Vince McMahon (nobody hugs Vince McMahon!), it was a moment simultaneously real and unreal, something that could either go nowhere or herald A.J.’s long-awaited reentry in the Diva’s division.
Instead, she’s now caught up in an alleged affair with John Cena, who has made a habit of appropriating elements of other wrestler’s storylines. After WrestleMania, it was Cena who went against C.M. Punk’s sworn enemy Johnny Ace. It’s Cena who’s taken to the occasional “YES!” or “FEED ME MORE!” chant. And now it’s Cena with A.J., a woman who once carried the promise of being the WWE’s first autonomous female character who now finds herself loosely tied to the affections of another of the WWE’s titans of masculinity. Cena’s constant refrain—he and A.J. had nothing more than a “business dinner”—was as inauthentic as the thought of his being romantically entangled with any of the WWE Divas, and heaps an unnecessary amount of drama onto the role of General Manager, a position that’s best when the character occupying it is conniving and sly, or otherwise invincible. Sure, there are other elements to the story, and Cena needs something to do until his elbow is fully recovered, but none of those elements are clicking, and this isn’t it.
I mentioned it in the post, but the feature “Wrestling Worth Watching” will be returning this week, sometime after the conclusion of Hell In A Cell. There’s a vast difference between the narrative structure of a television show and the merit of an individual wrestling match. Of note here, for the interested: Rhodes Scholars vs. Sin Cara and Rey Mysterio, Dolph Ziggler vs. Daniel Bryan, and the C.M. Punk vs. Sheamus lumberjack match.
Daniel Bryan, on Kane: “You love rainbows!”
Bryan’s reaction to winning The Newly Tag Game was great, a return to his bombastic celebrations as World Heavyweight Champion, but the crowd just wasn’t buying the segment.
At times, last night’s episode of WWE Raw felt like it was being piped in from several alternate universes, which, I suspect, is just the nature of the “family reunion” style of show the company is fond of putting on when it meets and eclipses certain milestones. If, like me, you have an oddly (sadly) precise memory for the goings-on of World Wrestling Entertainment, things like the Degeneration X reunion—which saw Triple H and Shawn Michaels join forces with X-Pac and the New Age Outlaws for fifteen minutes of passable, PG jokes about how old the quintet has become—are head-scratching affairs due to giant, gaping holes in continuity. Yes, the Triple H/Shawn Michaels configuration of the group wore the same t-shirts as the Triple H/X-Pac/New Age Outlaws iteration, but Michaels had considerable beef with those dudes once he was ousted from the group, and said beef was never satisfactorily resolved. Read more
Despite what I said about my experience as a wrestling announcer, I find myself in a familiar position on WrestleMania night: Shivering with anticipation for the evening’s proceedings, preparing myself for an intense letdown. It’s a strange thing, the wrestling fan’s relationship with Wrestlemania, and while many fans now might be happy with the show because it’s given Ring of Honor and Dragon Gate USA a chance to get their names out there, while they may claim to be in it for the Hall of Fame, the FCW talent performing during Wrestlemania week, the Highspots.com reception, or the weird excuse to take a week off of work, the fact remains that this is Wrestlemania, and that wrestling fans have come to expect a lot from what the WWE bills the Showcase of the Immortals. No matter how good or bad the build, no matter how good or bad the card, no matter how good or bad the actual show, we care because we’ve been primed to care for so many years, because the old adage that “Anything can happen in the World Wrestling Federation Entertainment” is, on one night, actually true. If wrestling is my religion, than this is my Christmas.
This has been a weird road to Wrestlemania for me. As of June 3, I’ll be training to become a wrestler myself, and, as such, have been watching Raw and SmackDown! less as a form of free entertainment than as a means to watch an incredibly well-produced training video. Yes, I’ve been paying attention to the stories, and yes, my heart skips a beat whenever Daniel Bryan pulls out a cheap win or Chris Jericho ekes out a small package victory over CM Punk, but my interest in learning how to wrestle, coupled with a course schedule that makes it impossible to catch a whole show, means that I’ve been following the events by proxy, that I’ve had to read recaps of Raw and SmackDown! and formulate for myself the whys and wherefores of certain feuds. Is it possible to catch up on Raw and SmackDown! later? Sure. But beyond maybe a Punk/Jericho or Daniel Bryan segment here and there, I haven’t missed a whole lot, and the point of Raw is its live nature—there’s more energy when you’re watching stuff happen as it unfolds. So, if I get anything wrong, that’s my feeble excuse. Please believe it. I only just learned that Randy Orton and Kane are having a match at Wrestlemania because Kane shook his hand once, months ago. I just thought Kane was a magnet for RKOs.
While Wrestlemania may be a sucker’s game, prone to over-analysis and disappointment, I am ready to play. So ready, in fact, that I’ve gone back through history to note that the event, as it (and I) have aged, has dropped its formerly charming taglines in favor of declarative statements that are both too descriptive and too hyperbolic. Wrestlemania III’s tagline, for example, was “Bigger! Badder! Better!” which was unequivocally true. The event was the best Wrestlemania to that point (and remained the best for awhile), set an indoor attendance record, and acted as a prototype for pretty much every Wrestlemania in the future. This Wrestlemania, for those of you who somehow don’t know that The Rock is facing John Cena in the main event, has been tagged as “Once in a Lifetime,” which may or may not be true. Wrestlemania 27, which was hosted by The Rock, was “The Biggest Wrestlemania Ever,” which it wasn’t. Wrestlemania 25 was “The 25th Anniversary of Wrestlemania” despite only being the 24th. These, my friends, do not compare to taglines like “What the World Has Come To” (WM II), “The MegaPowers Explode!” (WM V), “The Ultimate Challenge” (WM VI) “Heat!” (WM 13) or “Where it All Begins…Again” (WM XX), vague baubles of information that somehow served as a theme for the evening, as opposed to a bit of copy the show could never live up to.
If I were coming up with the tagline to this year’s show, I would have taken a hint from the WrestleManias whose themes came from specific matches, like “The Macho/Flair Affair” from XIII, only my tagline, somehow, covers every match on the card. This year’s Mania should be branded “The Cult of Insecurity,” as every match, from the pre-show tag team title bout to the main event between Cena and the Rock, has been about just that: Insecurity. This isn’t necessarily a factor in the show’s storylines (though in some instances, it very much is), but it’s there, haunting the show. Why else have the past four weeks featured mostly talk between the participants in the shows four main events? Why else would the only bit of physical interaction between John Cena and The Rock be their mutual show of strength on poor Mark Henry? Not that I don’t understand why the WWE would wait for a single punch to be thrown between the two of them until we’ve paid for it—this match, after all, has been built-up for over a year, and any kind of physical contact between the two could spoil their eventual confrontation—but there’s been no way to alleviate the awkward tension growing between the two, and, as demonstrated by this tastefully scored music video documenting the Steve Austin vs. The Rock feud leading into Wrestlemania X7, a bit of violence never hurt nobody’s buy rate:
All of the important stuff is there: How evenly matched the two are, how much each wants/needs to win, and, unsaid, how important the match is to the company. As for disrespect, both Austin and the Rock use each other’s respective finishing moves on one another, which is, all good wrestling fans know, taboo. The lead-in to Cena/Rock, by comparison, has been somewhat of a letdown for three reasons, two of which I’ll explain now: First, when the Rock was announced for WrestleMania 27 and when he said he was never leaving what he considered to be his home, I think we had a somewhat unreasonable expectation of The Rock that he’d give up the rather lucrative business of making movies that gross hundreds of millions of dollars in favor of having matches against Jack Swagger on SmackDown! The second reason, which has a lot to do with our utopian understanding of The Rock’s promise to never leave, is that we expected him to verbally emasculate John Cena on a weekly basis, so upsetting our stalwart Fruity Pebble that he’d be forced to get mean, lest the former Dr. of Thuganomics fall on his sword.
I don’t think any of us were ready for the realization that The Rock may have peaked around Wrestlemania 27, the nexus of his best Cena-related material, that Cena would actually stand his own against The Rock, that, in many instances, The Rock would actually look weak compared to Cena. Yes, it was a great moment when the Rock told Cena on Raw this past Monday that beating him meant that the Rock would own Wrestlemania victories over Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, and Cena—three of the biggest draws of all time—but there’ve been so many missteps on the path to that statement that, at times, it’s seemed like The Rock wasn’t aware that he had a match. It’s gotten to the point where there are some audible “Rocky sucks” chants, and while the reaction to John Cena at last night’s Hall of Fame ceremony could be looked at as an omen of what the fans want, it’s really more of what Cena’s been receiving since 2007 in a venue designed to attract the company’s “knowledgeable” fanbase, the exact group that’s declared Cena persona non grata. The Rock continues to get an amazing reaction every time he comes out, but the way he does his thing and the way the crowd responds feels more like a sitcom or a well-rehearsed (in some cases poorly rehearsed) stand-up routine. His endless mea culpas to the fans, his pauses to smile and flex his inhuman musculature, his endless Twitter references—all of them lead me to believe that Dwayne Johnson is not comfortable in The Rock’s skin, and it’s exactly that kind of insecurity which has permeated the whole card, previews and predictions of which follow…
WWE Tag Team Championships: Primo and Epico (champions) vs. The Usos vs. Tyson Kidd and Justin Gabriel
In year’s past, the “pre-show” match would be taped as an exclusive addition to the WrestleMania DVD. This year, however, the match will be streamed live on YouTube and WWE.com, in the company’s effort to increase its visibility in the realm of social media. This is good for pretty much everybody involved, as The Usos and Primo and Epico are both great tag teams (though they are somewhat generic), Justin Gabriel is pretty good, and Tyson Kidd might be the most underrated wrestler in the world, capable of putting on a good match with anybody, on any given night. Given time (the match is slated to start at 6:30, a whole 30 minutes before the show properly gets underway), this could be a show-stealing bout, but it will also be emblematic of the WWE’s lack of faith in its tag team division, which was supposed to be headlined by the team of Kofi Kingston and Evan Bourne. Were Evan Bourne not suspended and injured, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this match on the main card. Instead, it features a team that formed on Thursday.
Granted, Kidd and Gabriel deserve the spotlight, but I don’t know if it says much about the titles that a duo who’ve yet to compete together already have a shot at the straps. Pragmatically, both men have reigns as Tag Team Champions under their belts, so I guess that gives them enough credibility, but they’ve got a few other tag teams who could have gone in this slot. If they gave more time to those tag teams to establish themselves as something more than a pair of similarly dressed men, perhaps there’d be no problems in the WWE Tag Team division. As it stands, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if this devolved into a battle royal, much like last year’s Sheamus vs. Daniel Bryan tilt for the United States Championship.
WINNERS: The Usos.
Maria Menounos and Kelly Kelly vs. Eve Torres and Beth Phoenix
I love women’s wrestling, so it kind of pains me to know that Beth Phoenix will likely be pinned by the host of Extra, this despite months of WWE programming making it clear that no current WWE Diva can get the job done. Menounos, for what it’s worth, looked pretty good in her one wrestling match, and standing around talking about Hollywood gossip in front of a host of slack-jawed troglodytes has probably prepared her well for the stress of competing before a crowd that will likely top one million paying viewers. Despite that, I will not be able to get over the lack of Natalya in a non-farting capacity, nor the rumors that this was supposed to be Beth Phoenix vs. Kharma, who made a rather triumphant return at this year’s Royal Rumble.
I remain of the opinion that the WWE Diva’s division is three or four pieces away from being great, perhaps better than at any time in the company’s history. Until their recent effort to mine the independent scene hits the mother-lode of experienced, tremendously talented female competitors though, this is exactly the sort of Wrestlemania match the division will spawn. It’s too bad, though, as Eve has made noticeable strides in her ring-work of late and, now that she’s a heel, will probably drop the booty popping from her repertoire. Maybe Menounos’ broken rib will result in her being replaced by Kharma and the match won’t be an awkward celebrity showcase like Snookimania last year, but when it comes to the WWE Divas division I’ll always be living in the future, dreaming of the stuff they could be doing, trying to ignore what they actually promote.
WINNERS: Kelly Kelly and Maria Menounos.
Randy Orton vs. Kane
Like I said earlier, I thought this match was happening because Kane was a magnet for RKOs. As it turns out, Kane once shook Orton’s hand and, now that he’s back and preaching to us the value of embracing hate, he intends to make up for that embarrassment by beating Orton. See? This Wrestlemania really is all about insecurity! As for Orton, he looks pretty listless out there, telling Kane that he already embraces hate, hitting him with RKOs every time the two are within ten feet of each other, but this is generally how Randy Orton’s feuds go. I continue to find it amazing that people cheer for a guy who tells them “My name is Randy Orton, and I will literally murder this man because I am not a good person,” before kicking his opponent in the head during this, the era of concussions, but hey, the fans make the wrestler, and who am I to argue with legions of folks in Orton’s knockoff Affliction gear?
WINNER: Randy Orton.
Team Johnny (David Otunga, Mark Henry, Dolph Ziggler, Jack Swagger, The Miz, and Drew McIntyre) vs. Team Teddy (Santino, Kofi Kingston, R-Truth, Zack Ryder, The Great Khali, and Booker T)
If you would have told me a year ago that I’d be a fan of David Otunga in any capacity…man…I don’t know what I’d do. As a member of The Nexus and CM Punk & the New Nexus All-Stars, Otunga was too plain, too green, too inconsequential for my taste. I felt kind of bad for the guy when Jerry Lawler started dogging on him and Michael McGuillicutty for being the most boring champions in company history, but he kind of had a point, and Otunga wasn’t exactly doing anything to disprove Lawler’s claims. But then CM Punk’s career took off, leaving the New Nexus All-Stars with nowhere to go, and Otunga started bragging about his law degree. He started dressing like a ripped Pee Wee Herman. He started sipping from a travel coffee mug. He was the charismatic moon orbiting Johnny Ace, the unlikely star of the CM Punk/Triple H/Vince McMahon/Kevin Nash/Alberto Del Rio/John Cena/Rey Mysterio/The Miz craziness that followed Money in the Bank, Ace being the uncharismatic, unheralded former star (in Japan!) who smart fans (and more than a few company insiders) credit with ruining the WWE’s developmental system. Both have been a ton of fun to watch, and it’d be a shame to see either go.
This match, though…I’m torn on it. On one hand, I really dislike the whole Money in the Bank thing (not the idea of a guy having a title match good for whenever, but the match itself), and am glad that it will no longer be sullying Wrestlemania with its plethora of unneeded, dangerous spots. Just the same, we have a match featuring a team of four former WWE or World Heavyweight champions going against a team of comedy mid-carders and a semi-retired wrestler who currently calls SmackDown! Not that Long’s team isn’t talented, but Ace’s at least features a bunch of guys who’ve been bumping against the glass ceiling for a few years; Long’s continue starting and stopping just short of it.
If we want to talk insecurity, this bout features Zack Ryder, Kofi Kingston, Jack Swagger, R-Truth, Drew McIntyre, Mark Henry, and Dolph Ziggler, all guys who were marked for main event success sometime in the past two years. Mark Henry’s transformation from Sexual Chocolate to world-beater has been dramatic, but the poor guy got injured during his World Heavyweight Title reign and has been getting crushed by Cena and The Rock and Sheamus and Big Show and whoever needs to look impressive any given week. Ryder’s a self-made man, becoming popular due to a series of YouTube videos about how the WWE didn’t want to use him, which morphed into a series of videos about how the WWE didn’t use him despite how popular he was, which morphed into a series of videos about how great life is when the WWE uses you on a weekly basis. His role in the John Cena/Kane Rise Above Hate feud pretty much killed whatever Ryder had going for him among the set that made him popular, but he is still well-liked and has a freaking garden gnome, so the sky’s the limit for him. The rest of the teams feature dudes who’ve been given opportunities to cement themselves at the top of the card, but, for whatever reason, the ball continues to be taken away from them. Booker T’s inclusion is curious, but I suppose worthwhile. I suspect the line-up for this match was weakened by a plethora of injuries and future endeavorings—Long’s team would look better with John Morrison, Rey Mysterio, and Sin Cara (assuming Cara, at this point, got used to a WWE ring), and Ace’s, while stacked, could have used Christian and Alberto Del Rio.
I hope Johnny Ace’s team wins, though it’s hard to see how a team with feel-good faces Kingston, Santino, and Ryder could possibly lose. From a storyline standpoint, Ace has been bullied around by Long, who has just recently sown the fruits of being unfair to the roster’s heels. Long’s comeuppance would be a valuable lesson to the people who watch wrestling for its message of anti-bullying. Also, while Long has had a good, insanely long run as the GM of SmackDown, tag team matches aren’t really the company’s bag anymore, and with The Undertaker on such a one match a year deal, there aren’t many more matches ol’ peanut-head knows how to book.
WINNER: Team Johnny.
WWE Intercontinental Championship: Cody Rhodes (champion) vs. The Big Show
The focus of this feud has been The Big Show’s absolutely horrible Wrestlemania track record, with Cody Rhodes hoping that the World’s Largest Athlete is insecure (ha-ha!) enough about his failings there that he’ll be vulnerable to further embarrassment. I’ve actually enjoyed one of The Big Show’s Wrestlemania matches (against Floyd Mayweather), but Rhodes has a point and has been persistent with it, airing videos of The Big Show embarrassing himself, beating the guy up with giant, cherry-red boxing gloves, using his name as a euphemism for deification. If ever a man deserved to get beat in a wrestling match, it’s Rhodes, who has been the consummate doucheheel for the past two months. I can’t bring myself to be in Big Show’s corner though, as his response has been to continue smiling and laughing with the fans, yukking it up while Rhodes has his way with Show’s credibility. I wouldn’t be surprised if this match ends up being Big Show’s “Wrestlemania moment,” but Rhodes, who stole the show last year with Rey Mysterio, has been looking for an in-roads to the main event picture for pretty close to a year. My guess (and hope) is that this is his moment, and that this won’t be something The Big Show needs to be embarrassed about.
WINNER: Cody Rhodes.
World Heavyweight Championship: Sheamus vs. Daniel Bryan (champion)
At last year’s Wrestlemania, despite a physical build-up and a few good to very good matches between the two, the scheduled United States championship match was relegated to the pre-show. It then morphed mid-match into a battle royale that was won by The Great Khali. As if embarrassed by that turn of events, neither man has mentioned their prior history, instead going into Wrestlemania as unlikely Royal Rumble winner and unlikely champion, respectively, two parts of the match least likely to have not been made a triple threat title match featuring Randy Orton. I’m glad for it, though, as Daniel Bryan is my homeboy and Sheamus has constantly been a surprise since his somewhat lame WWE Championship run against John Cena, despite not coming up with an interesting good guy persona. This seems like a terrible waste, as Sheamus could have been the great defender here, sticking up for Daniel Bryan’s bullied girlfriend. After all, Sheamus often says that he was picked on for being short and fat—why not rescue poor AJ, who is being emotionally held hostage by the World Heavyweight Champion?
This feud, perhaps more than any other, has been noticeable due to its lack of physical confrontation between the combatants. The most meaningful interaction the two have had was Sheamus declaring his intent to face Byran at Wrestlemania. Since then, Sheamus has been kept in a holding pattern of short matches and lame jokes about Ireland. Daniel Bryan has, in turn, solidified himself as the WWE’s best heel, a modern, vegan Macho Man who uses his cunning, his wits, and his woman to offset the fact that he’s not as imposing as the vast majority of his opponents. His title reign has been a joy to behold, and his build going into this show has involved several awesome matches against CM Punk, but this feud hasn’t been much to write home about beyond Bryan’s continued dickery and AJ’s doe-eyed infatuation with her man:
I have a sinking feeling that Bryan’s reign atop SmackDown! is at an end, as Sheamus has been on a massive roll since his summer feud against Mark Henry came to an end. It makes sense, though, as a Guerrero/Benoit style post-match embrace with fellow ROH alum/Best in the World CM Punk just isn’t going to happen. Maybe, when Sheamus has the title, he can finally point out how Bryan hasn’t exactly been a star to poor little AJ.
WWE Championship: CM Punk (champion) vs. Chris Jericho
Insecurity: The Storyline! For the most part, this has been a great angle. Chris Jericho came back after those ominous end of the world promos, trolled the crowd, came up short at the Royal Rumble, and got to challenge CM Punk anyway. His motive was obvious to anybody paying attention to the work he did before his brief hiatus: As the guy who called himself “the best in the world at what he does,” it makes sense that he’d be pissed at a guy calling himself the best in the world.
Honestly, that’s all the feud needed. I would have purchased any pay per view with a Jericho/Punk tilt on it, and the Best in the World vs. Best in the World angle is one that looked to be building quite nicely through Jericho’s physical one-upmanship and his sneaky win over Punk in an excellent tag team match on Raw:
Put Punk, despite those setbacks, appeared unflappable, as evidenced by this face-to-face confrontation between the two:
Cockiness is reasonable from a guy who ousted Vince McMahon from his position of power, but wrestlers can’t be nonchalant forever. If Jericho’s failings at the Rumble and the fact that he’d been away from wrestling for a year made him feel insecure, he was, in bringing up Punk’s family and their demons, looking to bring M Punk down to a similar level of uncertainty. Jericho is tremendous at lending his feuds a touch of the personal—see his feud against Shawn Michaels—and Punk’s reaction to Jericho’s claim that Punk’s father was an alcoholic—near wordlessness (save him yelling “bullshit!” from the WWE’s biggest loudmouth—was a good appropriation of Punk’s Ring of Honor feud against Raven.
That particular part of the program (your sister’s a junkie, your mom’s a slut!) has gotten a little old, but the match still has that Best in the World vs. Best in the World hook, still features two of my absolute favorite wrestlers, and now features a CM Punk who is fighting for something more than pride or championships, which is something he hasn’t been able to say since his triumph at Money in the Bank. Formerly the voice of the voiceless, Punk is now the only man capable of defending his family’s honor. He’s good at playing out his emotions in the ring, as is Jericho. This *should* be match of the night. I’m afraid that anything less than match of the year will be a letdown.
WINNER: CM Punk
Hell in a Cell Match; Shawn Michaels, Special Referee: The Undertaker vs. Triple H
It’s hard for me to take Triple H and Undertaker telling each other that they’re the last of their breed (wrestlers of the Attitude era, in case you haven’t caught on), when The Big Show, Kane, and Mark Henry are all wrestling on the same card and when The Rock has appeared on more WWE programming in the past year than The Undertaker in the year between this match and Undertaker vs. Triple H II. I wasn’t much for last year’s bout (and their match at X7 hasn’t aged particularly well), but the WWE keeps saying that it was an all-time classic and there are a ton of people who agree, or who are at least willing to pretend. The only way to top a match where the two guys hucked atomic bombs at one another for twenty minutes is, of course, to put the two under Hell in a Cell and add Shawn Michaels to the mix as special guest referee. I have to say, though, that it’s somewhat disappointing that Mick Foley wasn’t involved somehow, perhaps to give an in-depth interview on the subject of facing these men in such environs.
The WWE is not nearly as barbaric as it was when the Micker was getting hurled from gigantic structures, and I highly doubt anything nearly as crazy will happen here. The addition of Shawn Michaels (who was also involved in a more limited capacity last year) is what adds the match’s truly interesting wrinkly, as Triple H only took this match after Undertaker insinuated that Shawn was the better of the two. On the other side of insecurity, check the Undertaker’s hair when he makes his grand return: It’s glued to the brim of his hat.
This was such a good illusion that the next week, in a video package, they had The Undertaker shave his hair off. Since then, he’s been wearing a hood that he won’t take off under any circumstances. When that hood finally comes down tonight, it’d better look like Quato is sticking out from the back of Undi’s head. What’s a little baldness to the Lord of Darkness?
The match itself will be interesting. It could be great or could be terrible (but overrated); there is no middle ground. With any luck, Michaels’ inclusion will make it a little like Bret Hart vs. The Undertaker, from Summerslam 1997. There, Michaels, who had a deep hatred of the anti-American Hart, accidentally hit Undertaker with a chair, giving Hart the Michaels-counted pinfall. Not only did this lead to the Montreal Screwjob a few months later, but it served as the starting point for the Michaels/Taker feud that introduced us to Kane, led to the formation of D-Generation X, and, oh yeah, resulted in the first ever Hell in a Cell match, between Michaels and Undertaker.
Beyond that, hopefully the match will be reminiscent of the pair’s better Hell in a Cell history—more Undertaker/Brock Lesnar than Undertaker/Kane, more Triple H/Chris Jericho than DX/McMahons. The cell may force the match to be more restrained than either 27′s endless, structureless brawl or X7′s arena-roaming slapstick, which is for the best. All of that being said, I’m really hoping that Michaels comes out of retirement in the aftermath of this match and puts Taker’s streak to bed next year. Guess how disappointed I’ll be on Monday!
WINNER: The Undertaker.
John Cena vs. The Rock
More than any other match on the card, The Rock and John Cena’s “once in a lifetime” encounter has been touched by insecurity. Surprisingly, the man who has seemed most uncomfortable throughout this whole affair has been The Rock, who has, at times, looked downright flustered in his quest to stick as many objects as humanly possible up John Cena’s ass. If there’s something the true build to this match has exposed, it’s that The Rock simply doesn’t fit with the WWE anymore, no matter how much the fans want him to. He’s certainly too big to be booed en masse, but, as I mentioned 4,000 words ago, there’ve been audible “Rocky sucks” chants from the same “adults” who so hate John Cena that they once rabidly cheered for a heel Great Khali.
Before Raw on Monday, the Rock never made it clear that he really knew he was in a match with John Cena, let alone that he wanted to win the thing. He’s vacillated back and forth between being Dwayne Johnson and The Rock, finally (and disappointingly) settling on Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, an odd hybrid of the two—somewhat humble man with one sentence, cocky man-of-a-thousand-catchphrases the next. You can tell he’s humble because he talks about his love of the WWE and no longer speaks in the third person. Cena has made it clear for a year now that he needs to beat The Rock, that his position as the face of the WWE means nothing if he can’t beat a dude who skipped town to star in The Tooth Fairy. He’s also made it clear that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is neither the man he requested, nor the guy the WWE Universe deserves to see. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, to be blunt, kinda sucks.
Looking back on the past few months, it’s really hard to dispute any of Cena’s claims. Yup, Dwayne Johnson is sometimes, momentarily in The Rock mode, saying funny things about or to John Cena, but it seems like he peaked before Wrestlemania 27, a whole year ago, when he dropped Fruity Pebbles on the world and made it clear that he didn’t like or respect the new face of the company:
Since Wrestlemania 27, however, which was mostly derailed by The Rock’s presence (the very thing that was supposed to save the show, ironically), the list of things that The Rock has done makes Cena look, on paper, to be invincible. In a world ruled by logic, the fans would be chanting “Die Rocky Die” and buying more Cena merchandise than ever given The Rock’s need to write notes on his wrist, the creative bankruptcy of a phrase like “kung pao bitch,” awkward Photoshop promos that make it seem like The Rock doesn’t know where the hell he is or what he’s doing, and his abject failure…at karaoke.
Sure, there’s been a lot of tension between Rock and Cena, but most of it has been in a “will or won’t the Rock show up” sort of way, which has been mostly uninteresting. I don’t care which millionaire loves the WWE more, who works harder, or who matters more to the legacy of the company. To go back to the Austin/Rock video way back at the beginning of this article and a point that I’ve already made: Those things were a part of what made the greatest feud in WWE history so great. They were also mostly unsaid between the two men. They were simply competitors with beef who fought and sweat and bled to prove the other man inferior. They wanted to beat each other; everything else was implied. That is simple, effective storytelling.
I can’t claim to know a damn thing about the innermost workings of the WWE, so it’s possible that this has all been an elaborate ruse and the Rock has been going half-speed on purpose, wasting whole Raws on his birthday and exuding insecurity by thanking the crowd for being there and bragging about fucking Cena’s mom not because he feels out of place, but more because he’s…acting. The story that’s emerged from this, even if it’s an intricate, nuanced fiction, is one that’s convoluted, one that makes me hope that this match is, indeed, a once in a lifetime affair. I love The Rock and I like John Cena (though, in The Rock’s eyes, that makes me a sad virgin) and I have little doubt that the two will have a match worth remembering and worth talking about for a long time, but I can’t believe that any storyline involving The Rock would make me wish that he’d just get tired and leave already, nor could I think of any angle involving him that, before tonight, would make me think that bringing him back was a creative mistake from the start.
WINNER: John Cena.
And now, for the cheesiest, best Wrestlemania theme songs of all time.
That’s right, ladies and gentlemen: Stars ga-la, stars galore, that’s what Wrestlemania has in-store.