Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Referendum on Daniel Bryan Is Centered around the Wrong Person

LOL, people think this guy's a genius? Get a grip.
Photo Credit:
So, fans and wrestling writers have decided to have a referendum on Daniel Bryan thanks to his non-appearance in the Royal Rumble and subsequent "damage control" on RAW. I've seen charts myopically citing average segment gains not being as high as John Cena or The Rock as reason without doing any of the hard contextual research needed to make that jibe as "evidence." I've seen pieces written calling Bryan's omission in the Rumble disgraceful and others that sanely point out that he was never advertised for the match in the first place. People have debated whether this whole thing was a work, or whether Creative and Vince McMahon had to "furiously rewrite" RAW to account for their "new" star. I've even seen people say unironically that Bryan's lack of merchandise sales on the levels of Cena or CM Punk as concrete proof that he's "not a draw," ignoring things like aesthetic quality, availability, or the fact that Bryan's shit is selling at a healthy clip and just because he's not moving product on the same level as the FRANCHISE OF THE COMPANY FOR THE LAST DECADE that it means anything substantive.

While some points that have been made are salient and make sense, the debate on the whole annoys me because you people (YOU PEOPLE) are having a referendum on the wrong person. This conversation should be centered around Vince McMahon, and any attempt to shovel it onto Bryan as anything more than a player, however popular he may be, is lazy at best and a failure of the fourth estate in its prime directive at worst.

McMahon has been called a genius on more than one occasion. To place that label at his altar is laughable at best, but for all his foibles, I will not ever deny that his running of WWE from territory to monopolistic worldwide market leader has been impressive at least. He didn't have to be a genius to be successful. I would say the Vince McMahon of yesteryear, however, was a maverick. In some respects he still is. The Network is a bold move, and succeeding with distribution models have always been his strong suit.

However, as a creative director, to call him a genius is to set the bar low. He deserves credit for taking risks on wrestlers and pushing the envelope on guys who may not have been seen as viable by other companies. Randy Savage seemed like he was too enigmatic to catch on. Steve Austin didn't seem to have the traditional charisma. Rocky Maivia was destined to be yet another one of those "blue chippers" with whom McMahon had no idea to impart character. Even McMahon deserves a little credit being bold with Hulk Hogan. Even though the Hulkster had pretty much made himself a national star in the AWA, McMahon could have gone with Verne Gagne's conventional wisdom and kept holding him back for a payoff that may have never come.

Essentially, the same bold spirit that McMahon showed in the non-ring side of the business worked for him in the ring because he went forward with putting unproven but crowd-supported wrestlers in positions to carry his company. Somewhere between 2005, when he greenlit Batista and Cena to headline WrestleMania XXI in separate matches for the two top titles, and today, he lost that fearlessness and has reverted into a cowardly shell of a man afraid to take a risk on someone who is not in his comfort zone.

This apparent loss of his fastball has led him to an utterly recursive pattern of relying on past names to sell pay-per-views. Sure, Rock has been a boon for them financially if you pin the record Mania revenues on his back, and no matter how Brock Lesnar has done at the box office, I've enjoyed seeing him whenever he's been in the ring. But both are nostalgia plays, and the ultimate "let's get everyone who was a big star before 2008 back in the main event" play was Batista winning the Royal Rumble after nearly four years away from the company.

The Vince McMahon of 1985 would never have gone on the track he's on now because he was about pushing forward and blazing a new trail. He knew nostalgia was only good for getting former fans to come back for a cup of coffee and then leave when the new wrestlers they wanted to promote came on because they "weren't as good as the guys from back in the day." Not everyone remains open-minded for their whole lives as wrestling fans, so the cycle has to continue in order to draw new fans in.

The dream matches and nostalgia have places, but not at the expense of new stars. Was any reason valid enough NOT to have CM Punk vs. John Cena headline WrestleMania XXIX? Point to ratings all you want, but nothing comes around slower on a major star than the gates and the total non-live viewership. First, the promoter needs to find a guy who energizes the base. Then he needs to give that base an opportunity to buy good merchandise to support that wrestler. Then the wrestler needs to be given ample time to prove himself in the ring and in stories. That process, even now in the hyper-compressed billions of hours of television each week world where wrestling operates today, can take years.

Whether or not Bryan has already made it is a dishonest question. Whether he will make it is a fair one and one that may not be answered for another year at least. But what I do know is that Bryan is not the one who should take the blame for any of this right now. He's energized the base, and his merchandise is selling hot despite the fact that half of it looks like crimson and brown vomit. He can't control the chances he gets from management, and to say he should be shelved because he's not outputting at the clip of Cena, a guy who has gotten ten fucking years of that faith behind him, is a failure of what the media should actually be doing, and that's prodding at every reason why Bryan might not be getting that shot.

As I see it, that reason is McMahon. He's the one who keeps conservatively recoiling at the thought of going with an unproven wrestler to headline his main shows. If anyone needs to have a boiling hot referendum surrounding him right now, it should be the Chairman. If not, then you guys are just doing exactly what he wants you to do, blaming the talent for his own sins whether those wrestlers and personalities deserve it or not.