Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Preparing for the Worst: Why an Exit Plan Is Needed for Champions

This situation should've been accounted for all along
Photo Credit: WWE.com
Forty-five years ago, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon, making history as the first human beings to set foot on a celestial object that wasn't planet Earth. While the mission was a success, President Richard Nixon had two speeches written in response to two potential outcomes. Why would Nixon have to write words contingent on a tragedy that didn't occur? As morbid as preparing for doom might sound, failure and resultant death of the three astronauts (Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins) was a real option. The space program had already suffered a devastating failure on the ground, claiming the life of Virgil Grissom. If the astronauts were to have met a similar fate in space, a nation transfixed upon their mission would have needed consolation from the highest places. Nixon had to be ready. Of course, the above anecdote might seem a bit dramatic to use as a segue into pro wrestling discussion, but it illustrates the preparedness that people need to undertake. If the worst had happened, and Nixon didn't have a speech ready, then what would the fallout have been? Luckily, the nation never had to experience that worst case scenario.

WWE, however, has already hit its nightmare situation with Daniel Bryan and his reign as WWE World Heavyweight Champion. His neck injury has put him on the injured reserve list for the indefinite future, and the story told in the time between initial diagnosis and formal title stripping last week reeked of institutional disorganization. WWE didn't have a plan in place for if Bryan was hurt, and the writers and management were not too adept at writing one on the fly either. Granted, the uncertainty surrounding his availability made things difficult for them to write, but conversely, when a human being's health is at stake, then it's better to err on the side of caution. The fact that WWE seemed to want to push Bryan back into the ring stank to high heaven of corporate entitlement and showed a lack of concern for the employee's well-being. IF anything, the Authority as proxy for the 1% story had begun to manifest itself in reality.

The uncomfortable truth for WWE though is that the moment it decided to have Daniel Bryan win the WWE World Championship at WrestleMania, Vince McMahon and the rest of his braintrust should have had an exit plan, a date when he would lose it and an opponent to whom he would drop it. Every wrestling company should have this sort of planning down pat the moment they decide to put one of their belts, whether the top title in the company or some kind of secondary achievement. Of course, without the benefit of true insider reporting or hindsight from a reliable narrator, no one can no for sure which companies actually do plan well in advance. However, usually if stories are chaotic onscreen, then a better than good chance exists the turbulent flow of ideas into fruition is caused by bad pre-planning.

Of course, titles aren't the be-all, end-all of a wrestling company anymore. In the post-kayfabe world, the main currency of wrestling promotions is storytelling. However, even though the image of legitimacy no longer needs to be maintained, the Championships are still, by far, the easiest mode of tale-spinning any wrestling company has. For smaller companies, the top strap may be the only thing that warrants a continuous, show-to-show angle. For WWE, the numerous amount of titles could fill up the seven hours of television it produces a week. Yet what Championships have actually been used as a measure of storytelling rather than this bullshit prize that someone gets to use as a phallus-by-proxy? Even the companies with the reputed best titles have had problems that could be attributed to poor foresight.

Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, for example, had a stretch of time between the summer of 2009 and the end of 2010 when its World Championship was in flux. Obviously, it made the decision to strap Bryan Danielson at his last show with the promotion. The decision was based in gratitude for what he had done for both the company itself and the independent scene it still epitomizes today, but still, weren't other means available to show him how much he meant than to vacate the title in essence? Anyway, PWG decided to crown its next Champion in the Battle of Los Angeles tournament, and lo and behold, the decision to win the title, Kenny Omega, was a wrestler who already had a full schedule in Japan working for the DDT promotion. He dropped the belt in his first defense to Davey Richards, another wrestler who was taking regular bookings in Japan at the time. He cancelled on one too many dates for PWG before he was stripped of the belt outright. Finally, stability returned to the Championship when Claudio Castagnoli won the title, but for about a year, the PWG title was hot lava; no one wanted to touch it.

PWG wasn't the only example of a sterling company making poor decisions. Chikara's gameplan with its Grand Championship seemed nebulous at worst and secondary to the other story going on with Titor and the life of the promotion altogether, almost to the point where Icarus winning it at You Only Live Twice didn't seem to have the emotional impact that it would have had coming earlier. Women's Superstars Uncensored ended Jessicka Havok's MAMMOTH Championship reign not with her shoulders to the mat in the middle of the ring, but with a stripping over her bailing on a defense for a TNA one-off event. Ring of Honor's Championship took a hit when they let Austin Aries' second reign with the strap meander into Tyler Black winning it about a year too late, and when he finally had a chance to run with the belt, he went and signed with WWE. Even if those Champions actually had dates and challengers to whom they would have been exchanged, the contingency plans were not there in the first place. In the cases of Omega and Richards, should the writing on the wall have precluded them from winning the title in the first place? In the cases of Eddie Kingston and Havok, was it the lack of a proper plan that led those promoters to keep throwing challengers at them and then not switch the belts because they weren't over enough?

Regardless, at least PWG has righted its ship somewhat in regards to the World Championship. Chikara had the other gargantuan story that still encompasses most of the roster to deflect criticism from its mishandling of the Grand Championship. WSU boasts one of the most boisterous and unique atmospheres in all of wrestling and also doesn't have nearly as much time to fill as WWE does. And ROH is... well, let's forget ROH for a second, okay? So, what does WWE have in its defense? Sure, it does have more time to fill, but it also has a team of writers and agents commensurate to filling said time. It has the staffing available to make sure that none of its Championships are left wanting a good story. Every Champion should have an arc in mind, a length in time for when they should hold said belt, and a general target of who should be the one to take said belt from them. Obviously, every decision can't nor shouldn't be set in stone, but at the same time, how many times have John Cena and Randy Orton feuded for three or more pay-per-views in a row over the WWE, World, or combined Championships? How many times have the secondary titles been ignored or their Champions mired in a heap of non-title losses to prep for blowoff matches that have no heat or no direction? WWE has the least excuse to show this messy a hand, and yet it is the biggest offender of any critically major wrestling company in America of poor planning.

And now, that ill-planning has once again bit the company in the rear. What should the plan have been if Bryan had gotten hurt? I don't know what specifically would have been the best option. Personally, I'd have gone the Interim Champion route and built towards a clash for when he came back. Or maybe Bryan could have been stripped immediately. Whatever the escape plan would have ended up being, however, would have blown this entire last month out of the water in terms of wishy-washy postponements of decisions and more building of Bryan and Brie Bella not as a heroic alternative to the Authority, but as a team that was in a competition to see who'd come off as less likable.

Whether or not anyone saw Bryan getting hurt or not is irrelevant to the conversation. When you're in a business that needs a cohesive story, you have to plan for things that you don't want to happen or that you don't normally think will happen, even if that is as catastrophic in scope as a failed Moon landing.