Thursday, December 27, 2012

2012 Year in Review/2013 Year in Preview: WWE

The Eternal Struggle
Photo Credit:
Promotion: World Wrestling Entertainment

What Happened in 2012: WWE was basically a dual star system in 2012. The major narrative revolved around John Cena, while CM Punk held serve in his own orbit for the most part not intersecting with the main one for the first half of the year. Unbeknownst to everyone at the time before RAW 1000, that separation was the actual story. As Cena was busy building towards his match at Mania with The Rock, fending off a challenge from Brock Lesnar, and raging against the angsty Giant and his corporate sponsor, Punk was quietly building resentment while wrestling challengers from Dolph Ziggler to Chris Jericho, Mark Henry to Daniel Bryan. The stratification between Cena and the WWE Champion was a cause for great concern among analysts, even myself, but whether intentionally or not, it became the nexus point to which the entire year hinged upon.

While Punk came into the year high on his pipe bomb dropping from 2011, he soon found out that coasting on reputation might endear you to the genpop, but it gets your critical acclaim to evaporate like a glass of water on the daytime side of Mercury. The acerbic, poignant, revolutionary-minded Punk dissipated into the night air as the guy who dropped homophobic references and put up a facade of authority hatred with no reason that the guys he railed against - Cena and The Rock mainly - surfaced through his feud with Ziggler and John Laurinaitis.

From there, Chris Jericho reemerged as a man who promised to bring about the end of the world. He burst on the scene with not a grand proclamation, but with silence, letting the crowd speak for him with their excitement. He tore through to the final two of the Royal Rumble, but was felled by Sheamus, putting into question his assumed purpose of coming back to challenge Punk at Mania. Thankfully, there was more than one way to skin a buffalo. He found a way to feud with Punk through Mania. While the story started out cool enough, it devolved into a morass of Jericho just dumping various liquors on Punk for a month straight. At least the matches were good.

Meanwhile, when Cena wasn't trading misogynist or homophobic barbs with Rock, he was fighting mainly for his identity. Several people attacked him for who he was, not necessarily what he did in the ring. Kane wanted Cena to embrace the hate. Brock Lesnar didn't think Cena was legitimate enough. Neither did John Laurinaitis. Punk's theme song is "Cult of Personality," but that was basically the Cena credo up until RAW 1000.

Of course, there were things happening even below Punk's orbit. Daniel Bryan entered the year as the World Heavyweight Champion, improbably escaping a steel cage match with Mark Henry and Big Show and the Elimination Chamber to make it to Mania. Eighteen seconds after his match against Sheamus started, though, he ate a Brogue Kick and lost his belt. The outcry from the fans in attendance that weekend, both at Mania and RAW, was the launching point Bryan needed to rocket to the top of the card, but it was his relationship with girlfriend AJ Lee that was the real story.

Bryan had spent the time prior to his loss to Sheamus as a borderline abusive boyfriend to Lee. After the loss, which happened after a good luck kiss, Bryan dumped Lee, only to see her run right to the arms of Punk. The love triangle would grow into a quadrilateral, as Kane entered the picture as well. Given the choice among the three, Lee chose Punk to propose to, but he rebuffed her. She was left with no choice but to accept Bryan's marriage proposal, with the ceremony to happen at RAW 1000.

At said RAW 1000, CM Punk "turned heel" by attacking The Rock, although really, would anyone have blamed him? Here's this movie star who shows up when he wants, announcing he was getting a WWE Championship opportunity, and then lobs his typical Rock bullshit at Punk, who at that time had held the fort down as Champion for nine months. Punk was TOTALLY justified. In fact, it was the impetus he needed to get back to somewhat of a critical edge that he had in the pipe bomb days.

Cena would suddenly take the side of the guy he had bashed around Mania for being the part-time wrestler who big-timed everyone, saying that Punk hadn't earned respect, despite beating everyone who was put in front of him. Cena had only beaten him three times since Money in the Bank, and one of which was by disqualification. Meanwhile, Cena spent most of the year ahead of Punk on the card position, mainly because it was given to him. The louder Punk shouted about it, the more Cena put his fingers in his ear and sang "LA LA LA DON'T CARE LA LA LA NO MOMENT!"

It got so bad that Cena stepped aside to let Ryback, the monstrous behemoth of a man formerly known as Skip Sheffield, a man who had feasted on jobbers, low-carders, and hilariously named indie guys, to lay into Punk. Cena's spiteful, entitled nature had grown so bloated he didn't even care if he was the one who'd dethrone Punk. Thanks to rogue referee Brad Maddox at Hell in a Cell and the protectors against injustice, The Shield, at Survivor Series, Punk escaped the hungry wrath of The Ryback. A knee injury let him off the hook for TLC, and now Punk will have survived an entire calendar year (and then some) as Champion.

As for Bryan's wedding, it was a rouse the whole time. Lee set him up to be heartbroken like she was by Bryan, and was named General Manager. She forced Bryan to enter anger management counseling, where he forged a reluctant bond with Kane. The bond grew from resentment to real friendship, forged by the Tag Team Championships, being targeted by the same Shield that assaulted Ryback, and a tender moment of hugging it out in the ring on RAW.

Photo Credit:
The 2012 MVP: Is it anyone else but Daniel Bryan? NO! NO! NO! In the ring, he brought it like we all knew he could have, but it was as a character where he shone brightest. He was involved in stories that kept the program watchable even as the Cena, Sheamus, and watered-down-Punk stuff were at their worst. Segments that would have been death for other wrestlers - the anger management stuff to be specific - were gold because of the way he fully immersed himself into the role he was playing. A lot of credit does go to Kane for the way their tag team has played out as a whirlpool of strife, pathos, and fraternal love, but you'd be shitting yourself if you didn't give Bryan a ton of credit there too.

What's Going to Happen in 2013: On the immediate horizon is the Royal Rumble. In addition to the titular battle royale, which may expand to 40 wrestlers again this year, the main course will be Punk's showdown with The Rock, set in stone since RAW 1000. How the match plays out will probably be the last major piece of the puzzle as to what Mania is going to look like. If Rock wins, then a title showdown with Cena at Mania looks inevitable. If Punk wins, do they even go down the Rock/Cena road again? Is a rematch at Mania between Punk and a Rock who will have won the Rumble be in the cards?

If the telegraphing from Triple H's "farewell" (lol) promo after SummerSlam (you know, the one he had to redo on RAW because the SummerSlam crowd chanted for him to go away?) is correct, then expect a rematch between him and Brock Lesnar for Mania as well. If Cena/Rock and Lesnar/HHH are then the known Mania matches, that might put Punk against Undertaker. Or maybe it'll be Ryback. Or Daniel Bryan. I have no idea. The cards for Mania really aren't clear right now, which is refreshing for a change.

In more short-term vision, The Shield's endgame is partially known. They're for correcting injustice, but it's unclear why. Are they rogue agents? Are they working for someone like Punk, Paul Heyman independently of Punk, or even Brock Lesnar? I get the feeling that answer is coming sooner than even the Rumble.

Five Wrestlers to Watch in 2013: Cody Rhodes - They've been taking an even slower pace with Rhodes than they have been with Dolph Ziggler, but this tempering has built a richly-layered supervillain who could be a big bad nemesis for any of the hero archetypes WWE has in its arsenal, be it as high-profile as The Rock, crafty as Daniel Bryan, or brawny as Ryback. It feels like his turn is this year. Expect him to capture one of the Money in the Bank briefcases in July and get a run sooner rather than later.

Bray Wyatt - The former Husky Harris has drawn RAVE reviews for his new character down in NXT. WWE has been a lot less shy bringing up their developmental talents. Damien Sandow, Antonio Cesaro, Brad Maddox, The Shield, and now Big E. Langston are all big parts of WWE TV. Even if it's not until right after Mania, Wyatt is going to make it to the main roster, and when he does, he'll be huge.

Eve Torres - I hate to break it to everyone, but the revolution in women's wrestling in WWE is not coming from Nattie Neidhart or even Sara del Rey. It's going to have to come from people like Torres. Luckily for them, now that she's been unleashed, she's proven that she can be cromulent in the ring and villainously intriguing as a character. The "Divas" will have to be borne on her back, but I think she can do it. When she does, then the opportunities for Neidhart and her ilk will open up.

Alberto del Rio - False flag temporary heel turn on Christmas aside, del Rio is going to have carry the mantel as WWE's bone thrown to Mexico. With Rey Mysterio reportedly on thin ice (take that for what it's worth given it's from rumor mongering dirt sheets) and the Sin Cara experiment not going to plan, El Patron's hero turn is a bigger deal than it has seemed so far. The big question is whether he can handle it in-character. His gimmick and in-ring game are better suited for being a bad guy. However, he will be given a long leash to succeed, so expect a heavy dose of him fighting big bads, potentially starting with Big Show into the Rumble.

Damien Sandow - Sandow was thrown into the fire and has acquitted himself well. He stood toe to toe with Degeneration X at RAW 1000, has kept his end of the bargain in Rhodes Scholars up, and he even has shown that he can give WWE what it needs as an actual wrestler, his match with Cena on Main Event as the main proof. While his partner has been on the slow burn, I feel like Sandow is going to be on a slightly faster track.

Three Things I Want to See Happen in 2013: 1 - Be a star, for real this time - WWE has taken a lot of heat for their BA Star Alliance affiliation. No, people aren't against anti-bullying campaigns as much as they are against disingenuous ones. Out of one side of their mouth, WWE promotes not bullying people, but out the other, their heroes are the slimiest, grossest pieces of shit this side of the loan shark guild. It would be one thing if WWE was trying to go back to the Attitude Era audience of grunting, slobbering, "man-card" carrying buffoons, but they're still nominally a PG show aimed towards kids. That's how it should be if they want to grow their brand rather than latch onto a transient audience.

So their only answer is really to have good guys who are actually good guys at heart. I'm not saying that John Cena should be a goody-two-shoes. He can be a real character with flaws, but the fact that is right now, he's a spiteful, spoiled, bigoted piece of human refuse. There's a major disconnect there. You show, you don't tell, ESPECIALLY when it comes to such a visual, visceral art like wrestling. Speaking of which...

2 - Reduce week-to-week chaos, stabilize continuity, and tell better stories - The major dirt sheet meme is that Vince McMahon is a schizoid control freak who would rewrite the shows in the middle of segments if he had his druthers. I don't trust these reports as far as I can throw them, but the sometimes choppy quality of your average RAW telecast lends credence to those reports. It would seem presumptuous and arrogant to say McMahon should step aside from the company he built, but really, the show would improve if he decided to hole up in Titan Towers and draw up plans for his own version of the Spruce Goose like a modern day, less crazy version of Howard Hughes. A company as large as revenue-laden as WWE could afford to hire a quality control guy to make sure everything makes sense, right?

3 - Hold off on spring cleaning and maybe let guys have their niche as Main Event/Superstars card fillers - The one thing I hate about any aspect of wrestling journalism - dirt sheet or reputable blog even - is when releases are speculated upon. Even in good economy, actively rooting for job loss seems tacky for me at the very least. WWE has a lot of people who are floundering creatively - Dolly Grip Tensai being the poster boy for this - but right now, WWE has an unprecedented number of broadcasting hours. There's no reason why they should be looking to get rid of Tensai, Yoshi Tatsu, Ted DiBiase or anyone else as long as they have time to fill on Main Event or Superstars. Let these guys be match fillers who put on entertaining, 5-12 minute matches on TV, and only really fire them if they seriously fuck up or want out of the company.