Monday, March 10, 2014

What Is Money in the Bank? A Response to Grantland

Sandow is the poster child for how unimportant the Money in the Bank pay-per-view is in WWE's grand scheme
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Bill Simmons and David Shoemaker recently collaborated on an article for Grantland about the WWE Network and its impact on the wrestling landscape. The piece has gotten mixed reviews, but a lot of the fire it has come under stemmed from the claim that Money in the Bank has become an event that is on the same or greater magnitude than SummerSlam and the Royal Rumble. Many of the traditionalists have blasted this opinion under the auspices of its buyrate trend. I'm not one to nitpick financial details here, but even I know that the event is, at the very best, at the vanguard of the B-event lot.

I am willing to give the duo the benefit of the doubt as to their intent on the statement. Discussion as to whether Money in the Bank has become the most important part of WWE's culture outside of WrestleMania and the primary star furnace is far more worthwhile, but even then, the claim needs quite a bit of scrutiny in order to pass various smell tests. On the surface, the briefcase seems to be a fine mechanism for elevation, but ever since CM Punk last won the briefcase at the penultimate WrestleMania free-for-all, who has really benefitted from a true, honest-to-God push into the main event? I'm going to examine each winner and see where their careers have gone since winning the briefcase.

Jack Swagger - Swagger won the final Money in the Bank match contested at WrestleMania, cashed his briefcase in in short order, and held the World Heavyweight Championship for a few months before dropping the strap to Rey Mysterio. Swagger's reign as Champion was clipped in short order, as he was not presented on the same level as the guys he who challenged him early in his reign. Randy Orton beat him in a non-title contest and then only failed in his attempt for the belt by shenanigans. The writing seemed on the wall that Swagger wasn't meant to have the full faith of WWE's machine behind him when a separate pay-per-view was announced for the match and that two briefcases, one for each "top" title, would be contested. Swagger wasn't about to be upended for his belt by the World Heavyweight Championship briefcase winner, and his initial crowd reactions were not up to snuff.

Since losing the Big Gold Belt, Swagger was sent back into competing for the secondary titles, was given Vickie Guerrero and the Swagger Soaring Eagle as managers, and finally, he was shelved for several months on an excursion to Mars. He returned with a renewed push under the tutelage of Zeb Colter, replete with a win in the Elimination Chamber and a title shot sewn up for Alberto del Rio's World Heavyweight Championship, but due to his own runnings afoul of the law and lack of connection with the crowds, he was shunted into a tag team with Antonio Cesaro. He currently looks to be the Marty Jannetty to Cesaro's Shawn Michaels. In short, Swagger has become just another guy.

The Miz - Miz seemed to be the biggest success story of the separate event era of the briefcases in terms of elevation. He got plenty of spotlight, scads of mic time, and outside of dropping the United States Championship to Daniel Bryan, he was kept strongly protected up through his cash-in, which came at the height of his crowd heat. He had a hot feud with Jerry Lawler and a program with John Cena at WrestleMania. Hell, he even kept the WWE Championship at Mania, but his match and feud with Cena are not the most remembered portions of that time period. The main reason for that?

The Rock.

Rocky came back to WWE on Valentine's Day 2011 to announce that he was to be the guest host for WrestleMania XXVII, and at that moment, The Miz became an afterthought in his own reign as Champion. He would lose the belt to Cena shortly after, but even then, he and R-Truth rebounded in the autumn to form The Awesome Truth. Their arc started out pretty hot, but it fizzled once Truth violated the Wellness Policy before a Survivor Series match with Rock and Cena. Truth wasn't suspended until after the event, but again, the story between Rock and Cena took center stage and Miz was treated very much as an afterthought. While he was never able to regain his connection with the crowd after this point, I would argue he never got the fair shake from the creative team and Vince McMahon to do so. In short, Miz became just another guy.

Kane - When Kane won the Money in the Bank briefcase, he'd already been pretty much made as much as Kane could be made. Despite a checkered career, he had already been a 14 year veteran at this point. However, if, say, Swagger had gotten the same push after his briefcase and title win that Kane did, he might have had better luck going forward.

Alberto del Rio - del Rio has been given the godfather treatment ever since he stepped foot onto the main roster of WWE. Money in the Bank was another story perk he was given in a series that included a high-profile debut feud with Mysterio and a Royal Rumble win. In a way, he's the antithesis of other briefcase winners in that WWE has built everything around him to succeed, and not a whole lot the company has done for him has worked to the levels where it would be satisfied. He seems to be on his way out the door now, but I don't think that it has much to do with effort from the creative team.

Daniel Bryan - All things considered, Daniel Bryan's time with the briefcase could have been a whole lot worse. Between Money in the Bank and the end of autumn, Bryan had lain dormant in WWE's plans at best and was actively booked poorly at worst. I understand the logic of keeping his profile low; the Hall of Pain was in full swing, and the focus of the Big Gold Belt HAD to be on Henry, not Bryan, until the time was right for him to be inserted into the story. When he was injected into the proceedings, he responded by having phenomenal matches with Henry, cashing in on Big Show at a big moment, and getting a big villainous run that involved screen time, a romantic interest, and interactions with a lot of heavy hitters within the narrative. However, if his story were to end at WrestleMania, with the infamous 18 second loss to Sheamus, Bryan's run with the briefcase and the title that followed it might have been a net negative.

Of course, he's the biggest thing since Hulkamania in WWE right now, but I doubt many people would argue that it's a direct result of the briefcase and the build with it. Rather, Bryan may be the most successful grassroots story in WWE history, where the crowd DEMANDED his elevation so loudly that WWE couldn't ignore its pleas any longer. One could argue Bryan doesn't get to that point without the briefcase, however, and I may be swayed to agree with that notion. However, his Money win and subsequent title reign were well-booked, which is more than WWE can say for most winners who weren't already established.

John Cena - Haha, right. Next.

Dolph Ziggler - Ziggler won the briefcase to great fanfare, and his cash-in the night after WrestleMania was one of the most special moments of 2013. The way he was booked between those two points was problematic at the very least. When Swagger concussed him with an errant kick shortly after his title win, his booking made many feel like he was the one being punished. After his SummerSlam match with Big E Langston ,for which the big hype segment was oddly more a homage to the Venice Beach outdoor gym than anyone involved in the contest, he was mostly forgotten about. Ziggler would be the poster child for how the briefcase means absolutely nothing without correct booking if Sandow wasn't going through his swoon right now. Ziggler is the spitting definition of "just another guy," despite the fact that live crowds cheer for him when they're not cheering for Bryan or Punk.

Randy Orton - Orton is somewhere between Cena and del Rio. In fact, I would describe del Rio as a poor man's Orton, in that the Viper has received the benefit of every tool and booking mechanism that has allowed him to succeed. That being said, his Money in the Bank briefcase win set up the current story, and the payoff doesn't so much seem to be Orton vs. Batista, but Bryan vs. Triple H. Despite Orton being the proxy for Triple H to win that match and then the title, he's turned in some of the best character work of his career after the briefcase.

Damien Sandow - Sandow grabbed the briefcase off the ladder hook and was immediately treated like a joke. His cash-in was a failure, which wouldn't have been so bad if he wasn't absolutely throttled in booking afterwards. Creative just forgot about him, which is worse than even the treatment Ziggler has gotten. If Sandow gets a renewed push in the future, it will be disconnected from his briefcase win emphatically. It will have to be, because to be associated with that kind of character failing would be dooming him from the start.
Money in the Bank may have had checkered results for its winners since it has split off into its own pay-per-view event, thus putting a damper on Shoemaker's and Simmons' arguments that it has attained some kind of ethereal status of importance among the WWE's annual lineup. However, I don't think the event itself is some kind of failure. The briefcase can still be used as an elevation tool if the win is followed up by strong booking. Swagger, Ziggler, and Sandow were failures not because they don't have "it."

All of them, even the charismatically challenged Swagger, have proven to be good hands at the very least when they had some kind of story going for them, when they were presented as players of worth within the narrative. Bryan and Miz both attained deserved main event status with great stories, feuds, and character building, and anytime they dipped, the booking behind them lacked. Cena, Orton, and Kane all enjoyed great booking and thus were successes off their briefcase wins, whether they won the titles or not in their cash-in matches.

Regardless of whose fault the lack of luster for the event is, however, the claim that Money in the Bank is anything more than a setup for SummerSlam at this point is wishful thinking at best. The matches are exciting, and the show has had at least one signature moment that was actually independent of anything involving either ladder match, but right now, WWE has a lot of work to do in order to make the prestige of the event match the grandiose claims laid at its door, whether financially or more importantly, artistically.