Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 Year in Review/2014 Year in Preview: WWE

The Passion of The Bryan
Photo Credit: WWE.com
Promotion: World Wrestling Entertainment (and NXT too!)

What Happened in 2013: WrestleMania is technically WWE's new year, so the first quarter of the year was a continuation of the theme from last year, while everything that followed built towards a different end, a different and strange new world. John Cena's crappy year which really wasn't so crappy after all, began to hit an upswing when he won the Royal Rumble, putting himself on a collision course with the Champion at Mania. While CM Punk began the year as Champion, Cena's destiny was to face someone different at Mania. The Rock cashed in on his title opportunity at the Rumble, ending Punk's 434-day run with the WWE Championship.

Punk would turn his attentions to the Undertaker for Mania. Using the real life death of Paul Bearer as a heat source, Punk antagonized Taker in an attempt to put him off his game and end The Streak. His attempt failed, and Undertaker won. Cena finally rectified his bad year by taking the WWE Championship from The Rock.

The night after WrestleMania in Newark provided one of the most surreal atmospheres in RAW history, but it kicked the main narrative for the year off with a bang. Undertaker came to the ring to hold court, but The Shield came out to usurp his yard and stake the claim for the Hounds of Justice. Taker looked like he would be beaten back into his coffin until next Mania, but his brother and his tag partner came out to save the day. With that action of salvation, Daniel Bryan and Kane engaged in a battle with The Shield that would continue to rage for months.

After a trios match in England, Taker went back into hibernation, leaving Team Hell No to scramble for various partners in their neverending battle with the Hounds of Justice. Their oddest choice, strangest bedfellow by far, was Randy Orton, a man who had a sketchy past playing nice with others. They had varying degrees of success, but the tension within the group ripped not only Orton and Hell No apart, but also Bryan and Kane themselves. All three were sent into the Money in the Bank ladder match for a shot at Cena's WWE Championship.

A dream partnership dissolving
Photo Credit: WWE.com
Another participant in said match, Punk, also had a speech to give the night after Mania. He was tired and needed to take some time off, much to the chagrin of his manager, Paul Heyman. Heyman filled the time by getting himself another one of his "guys," the rebranded Michael McGillicutty, now named Curtis Axel. However, Axel's ineptitude was clear from the start, and Heyman needed Punk to come back sooner than he would have liked. Chris Jericho forced Heyman's hand by challenging Punk to a match at Payback in Chicago. Punk returned and won, but his demeanor had changed. He was less bitter and seemed to be a lot less open to Heyman's machinations.

The WWE Championship Match Money in the Bank Ladder Match saw many things happen. Sheamus fell through a ladder and tore his rotator cuff. Christian actually competed for a shot for the WWE Championship, but most notably, Punk had a clear shot at winning the briefcase. He was halfway up the ladder when Heyman sabotaged him, pushed him off the ladder, and opened the door for Orton to grab the case and the banked shot at Cena.

Cena wasn't going to wait for Orton to take his shot, and the next night, he hand-selected a different opponent for SummerSlam - Daniel Bryan. Vince McMahon reappeared on WWE television to voice his obvious displeasure with not only Bryan as the challenger, but Cena as Champion. Triple H, who had been back as an on-screen COO since losing to Brock Lesnar at Extreme Rules, told his father-in-law not to worry, that no matter what happened, it would be "Best for business." At the time, I thought he meant that both Cena and Bryan were worthy of the belt.

A turning point for the year
Photo Credit: WWE.com
But as Bryan let fly a busaiku knee to Cena's face and pinned him cleanly to become WWE Champion, Trips' nefarious intentions came to light. Orton came down with his briefcase to cash in, and before Bryan could bow up, he was getting kicked in the gut and pedigreed by the COO. Orton won the WWE Championship without even hitting an offensive move other than a lateral press.

Meanwhile, Punk was steamed at Heyman, but rather than throwing Axel at him, he summoned the Beast Incarnate. Brock Lesnar came back out of his hive to destroy Punk, but he had a hell of a time doing so at their SummerSlam match. Lesnar threw everything at Punk, but Punk kept kicking out until one final Double Tech attack from Heyman and Lesnar put Punk down. Punk would spend the rest of the autumn exacting revenge on Heyman, and frankly, it was disappointing.

The other key cog that happened at the Biggest Party of the Summer was the debut of the Wyatt Family, the band of redneck cultists who had taken NXT by storm. Their first victim would be Bryan's erstwhile tag partner Kane. Bray Wyatt defeated him in an inferno match, and then dragged him away, not to be seen for a month or so.

Speaking of Bryan, his year would get a lot worse. His chase of Orton's WWE Championship would be obstructed by the Champ's new backing, the Authority. Triple H and Stephanie McMahon exerted their will, and doing their bidding would be Bryan's old nemeses, The Shield. Even more humiliating, when Kane finally reemerged from his Wyatt-induced absence, he capitulated his mask and offered his services to the grouped, named The Authority. Bryan had a title victory snatched from him by a referee's fast count, which put the title in abeyance. His second chance to claim the then vacant title was foiled by a rampaging Big Show. The third and final match coming at Hell in a Cell, where Bryan's dreams were dashed once and for all by a protective Shawn Michaels, who superkicked Bryan, allowing Orton to win back the title.

A new evil emerges
Photo Credit: WWE.com
All the while, Cena, who left WWE for a few months after SummerSlam to get an ungodly growth on his elbow operated. He was expected to be gone until the Royal Rumble, but he came back at Hell in a Cell, where he won the World Heavyweight Championship from Alberto del Rio. After a controversial victory over a cashing-in Damien Sandow, Cena set his sights on Orton and unifying the titles. They would clash in a TLC match, one which Orton won.

Bryan's desire to chase the title ended when the Wyatt Family attacked him and Punk the night after Hell in a Cell. After a tag match at Survivor Series, Punk split from Bryan unceremoniously when Roman Reigns speared him out of his tights. Wyatt kept the heat on Bryan, beckoning him to join the Family. After two months of psychological and physical torture, Bryan caved, reluctantly joining the Family to the chagrin of the fans.

And Punk's row with the Shield started to reveal cracks in the facade of the group that pretty much owned the year. He beat them down two wrestlers in a handicap match at TLC, and his constant prodding of the group verbally has shown some major cracks in their facade.

Meanwhile, in the parallel universe of NXT, the year mainly revolved around the rise of two wrestlers. Bo Dallas began the year as a plucky, happy-go-lucky babyface who got a cup of coffee against Wade Barrett on the main roster. Fans rejected him, so he reveled in that hatred, becoming cheesy and delusional. His counterpart, Sami Zayn, debuted in NXT the most impactful way possible - by challenging Antonio Cesaro. The two had a stellar feud, and although Zayn lost out in the end, he turned enough heads to put him directly in line for Dallas' NXT Championship. Dallas obviously has been dodging him, knowing the threat he posed.

Photo Credit: WWE.com
2013 MVP: I spoiled this with the Wrestler of the Year Bloggie, but WWE's MVP has been actually not been one person, but three. Reigns. Rollins. Ambrose. Believe in The Shield. They were great as supporting characters and mercenaries for Paul Heyman early in the year, fantastic as the hunters of Taker and his friends in the middle, and pitch-perfect as The Authority's paramilitary police force. Their breakup, though still closer to the beginning than the end, has defied most WWE breakups in its quality as well.

What's Going to Happen in 2014: WrestleMania is around the corner, but for the first time in years, barely anything seems to be telegraphed. Batista's coming back, but will he win the Rumble and take on Orton at Mania? Will Lesnar win the title like he promised on RAW and set up a HOSS FIGHT for the ages? Or is Lesnar/Henry the endgame for Mania?

The end that makes the most sense is Bryan unraveling The Authority by winning the Rumble and using the Wyatt Family to break the machine. Will that happen? Well, one would have to question whether WWE starts stories with the intention of finishing them, or whether they just have matches in mind and have their writers flesh stuff out in the interim. I've heard Bryan vs. Michaels floated around, which wouldn't be the worst Mania match, but it would certainly be disappointing given his narrative since SummerSlam.

The savior of WWE's women?
Photo Credit: WWE.com
Basically, WWE has several moving parts and chess pieces to place for Mania. Whether they be regulars like Cena, Orton, Bryan, Punk, Big E Langston, the Rhodes Brothers, and a returning Sheamus, or part-timers like Lesnar, Batista, Undertaker, and possibly Hulk Hogan (?!?!?!?!), WWE has a lot of dominoes to set up. I don't think we'll get a sense on how they'll be knocked down until the Royal Rumble.

Five Wrestlers to Watch in 2014: Emma - WWE hasn't had a natural female babyface like Emma since Miss Elizabeth, and she didn't even wrestle. I know expecting WWE to do right by their women is a tall tale, but if anyone could turn heads at Titan Towers and demand respect for the Divas, it would be Emma, especially in a money feud against AJ Lee. She'll get the call sooner rather than later, and her Emma Dance will take the crowds by storm.

Big E Langston - Langston right now is the best-booked Intercontinental Champion in a long time, and his stock is only going to get hotter. He's not only got the body type that the McMahons seem to like, but he's a really good wrestler and charismatic as heck. When he's able to be fully unleashed as a character, I think he'll be one of the biggest deals in the company. They'll certainly give him the chance.

Seth Rollins - Ambrose is the best talker in the group, and Reigns has the biggest breakout potential, but Rollins could end up becoming the biggest deal out of them all. Not only is he willing to take the big bump, but he's got a flair for the moment as well. Much like Jeff Hardy before him, Rollins could roll in sympathy and carry a crowd even without saying a word.

Only the beginning for Big E.
Photo Credit: WWE.com
Damien Sandow - I'll admit that I was wrong about Sandow's loss against Cena not affecting him that much, but that was less to do with his own talent than it was WWE not doing a damn thing with him to follow it up. He's not been involved in stories, but he's continually been on television in the last two months in visible matches. He was in a mini-feud to decide contendership to the Intercontinental Championship, battled Mark Henry to see which Santa would reign supreme, and he even threatened to quit last night. He might not get a renewed push until after Mania, but the fact that they're keeping him in the audience's eye means they haven't given up on him yet.

Solomon Crowe - The former Sami Callihan has finally been given a gimmick. While hacker shtick might seem lame, Crowe is a consummate enough performer to own that gimmick. He'll have great matches, no doubt, and as the crop of NXT wrestlers in that main event get called up to the roster, he'll be a fast riser to replace them.

Three Things I Want to See Happen in 2014: 1. Give me the WWE Network - This network has been rumored for awhile and announced for a year. They may not get a cable channel, but at this point in technology, they would be jumping on a dying medium. With streaming options as advanced as they have gotten, WWE has no excuse not to launch this thing, ESPECIALLY if it means getting rid of the restrictive price point for individual pay-per-views.

2. Promote whoever's booking NXT's women division to the main roster - Watch an average episode of RAW, then one of NXT. The most jarring difference, above the time, cast, and announcing (more on that later), is the treatment of women. Summer Rae, for example, is a fully-formed, outstanding heel character in NXT. On RAW, she's called "Mrs. Fandango," the only time getting to show any personality through scowling and emoting as the aforementioned wrestler's valet. Again, WWE's audience is 35% women at least, and no gender barrier exists to being able to love wrestling. The bookers in NXT get this. So why shouldn't they get a chance to show how to treat women like real people on a main stage.

3. Overhaul the announcing - The announcing sucks. It has been bad for awhile, but the three-man booth with JBL has been the epitome of awful. Layfield hasn't added a single positive thing to the broadcast in months. Jerry Lawler has also been a drain on the show. NXT's announcing gets high marks, but I feel like they could use improvement as well. If WWE is going to insist on having commentary for every show, they need to do it right. The play-by-play announcer has to be able to get stories over effectively. The main color commentator has to add insight, whether it be through quips, voicing of the heel POV, or even breaking the action in the ring down like a sportscaster. The current model, mostly in WWE (NXT is good, admittedly, just it could be better), is broken.