Thursday, February 20, 2014

Uncertain Certainty: WWE Elimination Chamber Preview, Part 2

The winner is unclear but also crushingly obvious
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If you missed Part 1, click here.

In the most turbulent build towards WrestleMania in recent memory, the Elimination Chamber is less the formality that it was in years past. Instead, the event, billed as the last stop before the biggest event on wrestling's calendar, will provide a stunning, if almost unprecedented, amount of clarity towards assembling that card. As of right now, the only certainty is that Dave Batista will be challenging the WWE World Heavyweight Champion. Ostensibly, that man is going to be Randy Orton, but is the Evolutionary clash really a match that could headline an anniversary WrestleMania? My reaction should come as no surprise to anyone reading this column. The question becomes whether WWE is having second thoughts about that match.

The company can't change the challenger (well, it can, but at this point, I have my doubts it would actually put that stipulation in play), but it can change the Champion. Six men will walk into the Elimination Chamber, all of which have unique cases for and against walking out with the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. I will examine all of them, starting from least likely to most.

Christian - While I am excited to see Captain Charisma in the Chamber, I am perplexed as to his inclusion. Obviously, he's one of the cagiest workers in wrestling history, and the Chamber match will benefit from having him in it. However, the rumor is that WWE will not renew his contract when it runs out, and of the six men in this match, he's the longest reach for an opponent who'd carry interest in a Mania-headlining program. My guess is he's in this match to make everyone else look good, to bump huge for either Sheamus or Antonio Cesaro, or provide the humiliating "eliminated as soon as he gets released from the LEXAN chamber" spot.

Antonio Cesaro - Cesaro is the interesting choice to win the match. If this pay-per-view were happening at any other event than the one immediately preceding Mania on the calendar, I might be able to talk myself into a win for the Swiss Superman. I'm still not entirely convinced they won't strap him either. He would certainly get a better match out of Batista than Orton would at this point. The only person I think who had a better year than Cesaro did in 2013 in the ring was Daniel Bryan. He's also been talked up by Triple H in his "fireside chat" segment with Michael Cole, which could be a red herring, but could also be sneaky foreshadowing. Who better to be the face of WWE than a handsome, statuesque legit strongman with Very European charisma and a super-over move in the Giant Swing?

But if trends from the last few years hold true, major shakeups in the WWE order almost never happen in the months leading towards WrestleMania. Cesaro winning the title and supplanting Orton as WWE's big bad would be a sensible move to make in May or June, which is when WWE tends to disrupt the standard operating procedure, but now? I think Cesaro's place at Mania is the same as it was around the Royal Rumble. He'll be a part of the show more than likely, but he will be somewhere below the main event.

Sheamus - Much like Cesaro in 2013, Sheamus was the WWE's rock and salvation in the ring in 2012. He would most likely also get a far better match out of Big Dave than Orton would at this point. Unlike Cesaro, he also has been to the top of the mountain before. While his main events at pay-per-views have been few and far between compared to John Cena, Orton, or even Bryan at this point, he's clearly got both the faith of the front office and some support within the fanbase as a top guy.

Still, while he's undoubtedly a standing threat to the title, he has no history with Batista and no quarrel with the Authority at this point. While WWE has been known to throw shit against the wall to see if it will stick in the past, it at least seems to want its matches to have some kind of greater purpose within a story. Sheamus vs. Batista feels like a match that could headline Over the Edge, Money in the Bank, or Wrestling Match, but WrestleMania? Not this year. Besides, I'm not entirely convinced that Sheamus isn't turning heel soon to set up some other Mania match, be it against Bryan, The Undertaker, or someone out of leftfield like, I don't know, Mark Henry?

John Cena - As long as Cena lives and breathes, he will be a threat to win any match WWE puts on, whether he's involved in it or not. Even after he dies, WWE will try to shock his corpse back to life or partake in some unholy ritual to create the Cenation Zombie who never gives up, not even in the face of death. For as much as I am tired of seeing Cena victorious at the end of every goddamn show, I admit that a WrestleMania XXVI rematch with Batista would be intriguing.

However, a giant, lamb-mask wearing elephant lingers in the room. WWE has been known to start angles and drop them if something better comes along, but a John Cena/Wyatt Family feud not only makes sense from what happened at the Royal Rumble, it presents the most interesting possible match for Cena at WrestleMania outside a title match with Bryan that would take a lot of finagling to get to.

Daniel Bryan - Now come the most likely candidates to walk out of the Chamber with the title in tow. Bryan as Champion is the best-case scenario because it would resolve months of open-ended storytelling of the heroic Bryan finally destroying those who wronged him at SummerSlam and gaining a well-earned resolution to one story before moving onto a different chapter. Bryan winning would also shift Batista's narrative around to a satisfying direction.

Big Dave as a babyface has been effective once in his career, when he chased Triple H for the World Heavyweight Championship into WrestleMania XXI. Any time else in his career, he's felt like a pandering jerk whose character dynamics boiled down to him doing his best LOLcat impersonation, asking "I can haz title shot?" over and over and over again. However, as a bad guy, Batista has been compelling to say the least, most recently as the douchebag foil to Cena's whitebread modern spin on the Hulk Hogan archetype.

As the conquering hero good guy right now, Batista is falling flat from both a creative and a live-arena-populist standpoint. Everything WWE is doing right now with him seems like a flailing attempt to get the fans to like him, and I'm not sure it's working. Batista turning heel and joining a Triple H who has been eager to recruit him into the fold against the diminutive People's Champion would be both a fresh story for both guys and a logical continuation of the Daniel Bryan vs. Authority feud.

But what if Bryan's endgame isn't the WWE Championship, but the machine itself? His sojourn against the Wyatts was not a departure from his greater battle against the McMahon-Helmsley regime. Bray Wyatt saw a conflict within Bryan, co-opted it for himself as an evangelical message, and tried to weaponize the most potent force within the company for his own usage. However, his plan backfired and only put Bryan's sights onto the greatest target of them all, the boss himself.

As the People's Champion, Bryan does not need shiny baubles, even if those baubles are what the fans at-large want to see in his possession. Especially now that CM Punk is sitting in his Chicago apartment, apparently not scheduled to wrestle at the biggest event of the year, Bryan vs. Triple H makes the most sense out of any match for the former except a final reckoning against Orton at Mania. Again though, with Batista in the mix, a lot of finagling would be necessary in order to get the stars to align in Bryan's favor within the Chamber.

Randy Orton - Finally, the man who will walk into the Chamber with the belts over his shoulders remains the favorite to walk out as Champion as well. No matter how many times I try to talk myself out of Orton vs. Batista as the title match at WrestleMania, I can't see any other option. Unless a situation arises like it did at Elimination Chamber 2010, when Batista cashed in an ersatz Money in the Bank briefcase minted from Mr. McMahon's whims, and Brock Lesnar ends up as WWE World Heavyweight Champion, no other opponent for Batista makes as much telegraphed sense as the Viper.

For as good as Orton has been over the last year – don't kid yourself, either, Orton has been tremendous in the ring – I'm not sure he can have the match with Batista that WWE seems to want out of him. The Catch-22 is that the match that makes the most sense from a storyline perspective also looks to be the worst possible one put forward. But this crushing sense of expectation weighs on my mind, and I get the dread that WWE is going to continue this weak adversarial dynamic between the Authority and Orton that they inexplicably started around Survivor Series and have pretty much rutted into the ground so that the wheels won't move without some kind of external force yanking them out.

Maybe I'll be wrong, and WWE will actually progress forward with this story in a way that will maddeningly discard the last four months of non-build. Maybe Batista will shake off his ring rust and actually put his working boots on. Maybe monkeys will fly out of my orifices and do my housework. However, for as up in the air as the Elimination Chamber match itself seems to be, the most obvious choice has been the same choice since Batista's return was leaked back in December. For as chaotic and unstable as the WrestleMania card has been foreseen, I almost feel like the most boring outcome possible is a foregone conclusion. I hope I'm wrong though.