Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Why Card Position in WWE Is Important

Owens getting a demotion to the upper midcard could mean bad things for him creatively
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Recent reports from Dave Meltzer's usual sources inside WWE have come back with distressing news, or at the very least rumblings, on why Kevin Owens lost to John Cena at Battleground and was then deprogrammed from the United States Champion in apparent favor of a Champion vs. Champion program with Seth Rollins at SummerSlam. Apparently "forces" within the company don't feel Owens is a main event player, that he's more like Dolph Ziggler, Rusev, or Cesaro and not like Cena, Rollins, or Randy Orton. My personal feelings that only one of those three names really belongs in the main event mix (hint, it ain't Orton or Rollins), but whatever, in a normal, functional, non-corporatized wrestling company, the distinction between main event and upper midcard/gatekeeper would be irrelevant.

While fans count card position and titles as proof of making it, those things are baubles. Don't confuse me for Vince Russo; those baubles can be important if they're made to be important. However, currency in professional wrestling has always been participation in stories, being part of angles, having a reason for fans to want to get behind certain wrestlers. A good wrestling program has stories at every card position. In WWE, however, the only people who get stories are hot debuts who get some kind of cursory "squash everyone for a month or so" thing to establish them or those who have made the main event. The midcard is a wasteland, and it's been one since around the time the Alliance showed up and pratfell its way into the annals of the WrestleCrap Hall of Fame.

The best example of WWE's misuse of its card position below the main event came with the star-crossed career of CM Punk. Whenever he was in or near the main event, he had actual stories with progression and care paid to their writing. His feud with Jeff Hardy over the World Heavyweight Championship was tremendous television. The Summer of Punk II: Punk Harder had actual gravity, even though it ended with a wet fart at SummerSlam. But the time in between those periods was an exercise in futility, a waste of a guy's talents who could and should have been populating the main event. The most notable thing he did during that period was populate the ring with John Cena when the Nexus debuted and laid waste to everything to end its first episode of RAW.

Sure, Punk was able to lead the Straight Edge Society, which in theory was a great idea for a heel stable. But his two big feuds, vs. Rey Mysterio and Big Show, were indicative of how lazy the writers, producers, and Vince McMahon are when it comes to something that isn't worthy of closing the show. The Mysterio feud basically was built around one gripping segment, when Punk sang happy birthday to his son, and for the rest of the time, it was an exercise in the same "even-Steven," 50/50 win-trading bullshit booking that kills any kind of feud progression when it's the only thing a feud can hang its hat on. When Punk finally got his head shaved and moved onto Big Show, the booking patterns moved from bullshit parity onto WWE's other stock template, "babyface humiliates heel at every turn cuz shrug." Any time Punk was able to get some kind of heat on Show, it was evaporated by the next show at the very latest. Punk wasn't "buried" per se, but the feud was basically an exercise in how to waste a supremely talented wrestler's abilities.

By that time, Serena Deeb had gotten fired and Joey Mercury injured himself so badly that he had to retire from active competition. Punk floated in and out of prominence, even getting sucked into the post-TLC '10 Nexus void at one point, until he finally broke out with his infamous pipe bomb promo. By that time, he was ready to be elevated into the main event after spending all that time floating in the aimless sea of the upper midcard, and the amount of effort put into telling his stories improved dramatically, even if at times, those stories weren't of the best quality themselves. He was important though. He had currency, which was more than could be said for him between the time when he was waylaid out of the main event after the infamous Undertaker feud and before the pipe bomb.

The atmosphere wasn't always this toxic in WWE's parlance. Even before the Attitude Era, when Russo brought in the idea that everyone on the roster should matter in some respect, the Intercontinental Title scene was a good place to be situated. Guys like Mr. Perfect, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon, Goldust, Ahmed Johnson, and Jeff Jarrett were treated as people who mattered when they held that title and were situated in a clear stratum below the top of the card. They had stories; they had reasons to be on the show other than wrestling was their job, or in the case of many other New Generation stars, that it was their other job. Booking in WWE was never, ever perfect, mind you. It had a lot of the same problems it has today all through its history, but it doesn't take a blind man to see how importance has dissolved away for anyone who isn't capable of being in the top two or three matches on a given pay-per-view.

The silver lining is that being on that level does not preclude a wrestler from having longer matches, either on free television or pay-per-view. But the nature of how these feuds are thrown together many times brings out the laziness in WWE's booking habits, causing bullshit finishes en masse. It also means unsurety for wrestlers from a month-to-month basis. Sure, Cesaro might be getting all this time to work now, but what will happen once McMahon exerts himself again and Triple H has to step back for political reasons?

The truth is Owens will probably be fine in a macroscopic sense. He'll continue to draw a fat, main roster paycheck, which is something he deserves for busting his ass for over a decade to get where he is now. He'll be featured on RAW and Smackdown, and fans will always support him like they continue to support Cesaro and Ziggler. But the average fan cannot be begrudged his or her feelings of dread on Owens' creative future. He went from wining and dining with kings and queens to eating pork and beans in the back alley in terms of his importance to the narrative, at least seemingly he has.

Those sources could be wrong - they often are (Meltzer himself has said he doesn't report on creative plans as much anymore because they change so often) - but at the same time, the writing on the wall for the first RAW headed into SummerSlam may corroborate those rumblings from Titan Towers. Owens is on the outside of relevance looking in, and a company like WWE only cares about you if you if it thinks you can headline a show.