Tuesday, January 6, 2015

2014 Year in Review/2015 Year in Preview: WWE

Only the names change...
Photo Credit: WWE.com
What a goddamn year. What a goddamn terrible year.

Promotion: World Wrestling Entertainment

What Happened in 2014: Do I really need to write a long recap of what happened in the last year? This shitbag company is right where it was 365 days ago. Daniel Bryan still has megaheat with the Authority, but he probably won't win the Royal Rumble because some muscled up dude that Vince McMahon has a hard-on for will take it to the vocal chagrin of the crowd. An organically arisen folk hero type has been beaten down by terrible booking and now is feuding with Bray Wyatt, whom main roster creative has no idea how to book. Dolph Ziggler is still in the Intercontinental Championship scene. John Cena is slated to get the title shot at the Royal Rumble. The biggest differences are who holds the WWE World Heavyweight Championship (trade Randy Orton for Brock Lesnar) and The Shield is broken up. Oh yeah, CM Punk left, but that story's been beaten into the goddamn ground anyway.

This year has been an exercise in WWE's corporate hivemind grinding anyone who has a shot to ignite the base and gather in the precious casual fans into a fine paste. Daniel Bryan could have finally broken through, but he got hurt, which is totally WWE's fault and not WWE's fault in the same breath so to speak. Everyone else though has been busted and made into "just another guy" by terrible, recursive booking. WWE broke up The Shield when that stable had so much useful life left, and the process was done in the most ass-backwards way possible. The stable consisted an edgy loner, the best possible Jeff Hardy, and a still-green-around-the-gills big guy who might have been GREAT as the muscle in a bad guy stable. So who broke up the group? Yup, Seth Rollins did.

When it all went to shit
Photo Credit: WWE.com
Sure, he's been as protected as someone not named John Cena could be. But has he been really effective in his role? High spots and prop bumping were his strengths in the ring, and his promo abilities were best used in pithy, forceful statements. So of course WWE puts him in a role where he has to work as a Triple H-style heel and cut overlong promos that meandered too faraway from the path they were supposed to be on. Roman Reigns was a much better candidate to turn heel if breaking up the group was the way to go (and I'm not sure it was), but instead, he was asked to play the post-2008 John Cena role without ever really earning the right to play it. Ever wonder why Sheamus flopped as the 1a babyface? He never had the 2002-04 run that Cena had, nor did he have the proper ascension the way Cena did. Reigns is the same way, and he's not a tenth of the performer Sheamus is right now.

The only guy WWE got remotely right out of that breakup was Dean Ambrose, and it ruined him through terrible, nonsensical twists and turns at the ends of every PPV which he headlined. One could defend the bait and switch at Battleground as furthering an angle, but then every other major twist and turn with Ambrose was left dangling except possibly SummerSlam. He got his head mushed in the cinder blocks only for Bray Wyatt to magically appear and cost him his win against Rollins at Hell in a Cell. Then the Survivor Series match vs. Wyatt turned out to be a commercial for TLC, which ended via exploding fucking television. Ambrose has been made to look like someone with mutant unintelligence, and every single opponent he's had has looked like a fucking buffoon in the process. Meanwhile, his crowd reactions have gotten increasingly muddled with every awful, unnecessary twist in his story.

Oh, and speaking of Wyatt, WWE had a sure thing with him. Just let him stand up in the ring or on the Tron and talk. Even if what he said was garbled nonsense, his cadence and delivery got people's attentions. But WWE fucked him up. The allure in his character is partially powered by zombie hillbilly magic, sure, but the reason why he was such a phenomenon in NXT was because he was able to fundamentally change people, even if the only people he really ensnared were Erick Rowan and Luke Harper. Everyone else who feuded with him came out of it the same way they went into it. No one was affected. No one changed.

The primest candidate for a character refresher via Wyatt was Cena himfuckingself. Even though every thinkpiece has been written about why Cena should turn heel according to official WWE canon (ignoring the fact that Cena is already a heel to everyone who boos him anyway and that alignment dynamics in WWE are irreparably broken), everyone should realize why that reality can't happen just yet. However, Cena still could and probably should have been given some freshening up on his character. A feud with Wyatt could have made him change his demeanor and added somewhat of an edge to his character, made him question his existence or at least his position in the company. But nope, he plowed through Wyatt like an ox on speed tilling a field on a spring day.

And of course, the reality as to why Cena can't "turn heel" right now is because Cena is the only good guy who gets protected in a fashion that befits sustained crowd reactions. Even when Brock Lesnar murder-death-killed him at SummerSlam, Cena came right back the next month at Night of Champions and needed a Rollins failed Money in the Bank cash-in to fail at regaining the title. Nothing ever changes with Cena. He's more static than anything in the world, and he reinforces that view every time he tells someone that they have to go through him to claim the brass ring that Vince McMahon says no one on the roster wants to grab. Maybe the wrestlers don't lack desire to grab that ring; maybe Cena's just not letting them get to it. Or more accurately, maybe McMahon and his creative team don't let anyone but Cena grab said rings.

His treatment's been a travesty
Photo Credit: WWE.com
Seriously, Cesaro going from hottest thing since a set of twin babies to running joke was creative's fault (and Paul Heyman's too).

Brock Lesnar's severe mishandling is the fault of both creative and McMahon's skinflint spending on dates.

Ambrose becoming just another dude was creative's fault.

Reigns' lack of development was creative's fault.

Ryback's hot return fizzling out within a month was creative's fault.

Dolph Ziggler is getting super huge babyface reactions IN SPITE of creative.

Kofi Kingston, Big E, Sheamus, Damien Sandow, the Rhodes Bros., the entire Divas division, everyone who has missed the mark in 2014 in WWE can successfully blame creative in some way. This isn't excuse-mongering. The performances stare viewers right in the face. The things the wrestlers can control often reach some baseline of quality. The decisions that are out of their control often are the ones that baffle and disappoint. But hey, totally make a meme out of your revolutionary idea instead of running it well. Ugh, fuck this company.

One of the few bright spots this year
Photo Credit: WWE.com
2014 MVP: For everything that has gone totally wrong in WWE in 2014, one thing that has come almost too perfectly together has been the ascent of Rusev and Lana. The act has come together to bring about an anomaly in main roster WWE; they are a midcard tandem that has taken its albeit simple role and thrived with it. Every feud Rusev engages in has heat, and he's become a steady hand in the ring. Hopefully, WWE doesn't just feed him to John Cena going forward, because he could be a cornerstone for years to come.

What's Going to Happen in 2015: For as bad as 2014 was, could 2015 have a kernel of hope to reclaiming the glory of 2013? Daniel Bryan has been cleared to reenter the ring, while Dolph Ziggler seems to be stabilizing the Intercontinental Championship. However, creative may be preparing to pull the rug out from everyone by going through with the plan to have Roman Reigns win the Royal Rumble and be the guy who sends Brock Lesnar back to UFC. On one hand, Reigns gets decent reactions from the crowd, and he seems to be learning fast enough that he could be a decent option to be the guy at Mania. On the other, what story would be better for him, ousting Lesnar or finishing what Seth Rollins started when he broke The Shield up? Then again, is it a lock that Lesnar makes it to Mania as Champion and not Rollins?

No matter what any dirtsheet or Reddit user with "backstage ties" says, Mania plans usually aren't set in stone until the day of the Rumble. WWE switches directions so many times in a given month that for all anyone knows, Lesnar could be dropping the belt to Mark Henry at Mania as a payback for all the times the former murked the latter early last year. If I had to trust my gut, however, especially after the year WWE had last year, I would grit my teeth and project Reigns as the guy beating Lesnar at Mania.

Who will send Brock back to UFC?
Photo Credit: WWE.com
The interesting question if that happened is when would Rollins cash in, because Rollins cashing in on Reigns is the story to tell. For the deed to happen right after Reigns' match at Mania sounds like the most tantalizing option, but ever since WrestleMania 2000 and X-7, when Triple H walked out as WWE Champion and Steve Austin turned heel to join Mr. McMahon respectively, WWE has seemingly soured on anything but a happy ending for the biggest show of the year. The best money would go on Rollins waiting no longer than the RAW right after Mania to become Champion. That show seems to be when all the shocking things happen.

Five Wrestlers to Watch in 2015: Finn Bálor - Of all the current wrestlers in NXT, the former Prince Devitt might have the most upside. His wrestling abilities are not in question, and he has the most potential to break out with his body painting and devilish good looks. As long as Vince McMahon doesn't get the urge to put him with Sheamus as his little buddy, expect big things from Bálor in 2015 once he makes it to the main roster.

Darren Young - Young has returned from his knee injury and he looks great. WWE dropped the ball pushing him in the wake of him coming out of the closet. While I wouldn't expect him to continue on as a gay character, he can still be a symbolic wrestler for the gay community to latch onto. Plus, he's damn good at what he does between the ropes. If  the Intercontinental and US Title scenes continue to be rehabbed at the current rate, Young could very well be a great fit into one of them, especially as an opponent for Rusev down the line.

Wyatt seems bulletproof
Photo Credit: WWE.com
Bray Wyatt - WWE still has no idea what to do with Wyatt, but in spite of its bungling of the Eater of Worlds, he remains popular with the fans at large. He's already tangled with Daniel Bryan, John Cena, and now Dean Ambrose. Wyatt may not hold the WWE Championship ever in his career, but he seems to possess a larger-than-life personality that transcends even the shittiest booking. Look for him to be a big deal in the coming year, and not just for his promos either.

Luke Harper - Harper could have the most upward mobility of anyone who hasn't already flirted with the main event on the roster. He's relatively unscathed by bad booking, and he's got both size, working ability, and a wide-eyed charisma that can take a big dude like him places. WWE is a company starved for big time heels right now, and Harper could be the guy who breaks through and is able to carry a huge program into WrestleMania XXXII next year with the right breaks.

Cody Rhodes - His partnership with his brother seems to be on the downswing, but after the probable WrestleMania match, where will he go? My guess is he will use that momentum into Money in the Bank and be one of the odds-on favorites to take the briefcase. Rhodes has been fermenting for a long time, and while the Stardust run has been super fun, he's ready for his big transformation into a main event wrestler.

What I Want to See in 2015: 1. Do something about the fucking three-hour slog that is RAW - When the three-hour experiment launched, RAW wasn't as tedious because the show had long matches that chewed up chunks of time and made the telecast feel shorter than it was. I don't know where that zeitgeist went in 2014, but by the time the fall rolled around, RAW viewership was more a chore than a leisure activity. No weekly serialized televised wrestling program needs to be three hours, but dollar signs will keep the show at this length for the foreseeable future. So what can WWE do going forward to mitigate the length? Not rerunning the same shows every week is a good start. The roster is huge; it should be utilized as such. Diversify the runtimes, write better shows, and if all else fails, have a title match. If RAW is gonna be three hours until it gets cancelled, then it shouldn't be a slog every week.

If this match headlines a PPV again this year, feel free to scream
Photo Credit: WWE.com
2. Experiment with special events/pay-per-views on The Network - I don't know when WWE's format of booking the same goddamn pay-per-view/special event card in a row for three-to-four months on end took full hold, but in 2015, the company has no goddamn excuse to run the same lineups all the time. Basically, every special event, WrestleMania inclusive, has a $9.99 pricetag thanks to the commitment-free nature of The Network. WWE can afford with fresh matchups or different concepts for shows. Spamming John Cena vs. Seth Rollins is not going to help anyone in 2015. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting different results. What can WWE lose by giving Cesaro a one-month title program or headlining a show with a torneo cibernetico? My guess is not much more than if it gave its fans another three month long Cena/Randy Orton program, that's what.

3. More promos from people other than the usual suspects - Guys get over when they're allowed prolonged platforms for the fans to get to know them. Wrestling in matches is one way of making that connection, but longer in-ring promos can have just as much an impact, if not greater depending on the wrestler. Seth Rollins, John Cena, Triple H, and Paul Heyman get a lion's share of the mic time on a week-to-week basis, so it's not a wonder that those people are among the most over, even if in Rollins' case, that promo work has been borderline dreadful most weeks. The last RAW of 2014 featured guys who didn't normally get chances to speak to the crowd to shoot the breeze. While Cesaro's content was part of a self-defeating ZOMG REALITY ERA plot given to him by out-of-touch assholes backstage, he showed blatantly that he has "it" while speaking. More importantly, Ryback was given a chance to shed light on his motivations and to deliver exposition on a character that until now has just been murking fools, and he knocked it out of the park. Sure, they wouldn't have gotten the chance to get that mic time if WWE hadn't foolishly double-booked a house show and a RAW taping on the same night, but at the same time, it showed what RAW has been missing for a long, long time. WWE would be best served to let guys who aren't already established as firmament characters get time on the stick, and maybe more than just the usual suspects would be over.