A Very Special “The Postgame.” (Alternate working title: Did They Break Us For Good?)

Writing about Raw on a weekly basis became tiresome within a couple of months because after a few weeks of awesomeness of Daniel Bryan fighting the machine, it stopped being interesting enough to give me an angle from which to approach it. (That, and I prefer to drink with my friends while watching wrestling. It’s not only more fun, but ensures I’ll fall asleep at a decent time when I have to work the next day. But that’s another story.) 

Having the sportswriting background that I do, one of the first things you’re taught is that there’s no cheering in the press box. I try to apply that ethos to whatever I write, unless you count my silly-ass Facebook rantings. It isn’t that I think it’s wrong to show favoritism in writing about professional wrestling; I don’t even think it’s inherently wrong in some forms of sports journalism, with pundits like Bill Simmons proving impartiality to be unnecessary. I just think it makes for more interesting writing. 

The plights of the character of Daniel Bryan, and moreso of Bryan Danielson the performer, have made even intimating any form of impartiality a difficult task in recent months.

This isn’t the first time a crowd has responded in a manner far different from how they’re “asked” to respond. While it has become the norm in the last 15 years and has possibly reached critical mass with the story arc of Daniel Bryan over the last eight months, it’s nothing new for a crowd to be very vocal about hating who they’re supposed to love, loving who they’re supposed to hate, treating a supposed midcarder like the biggest thing in the world and outright rejecting what they present to us as the supposed biggest thing in the world.

You can push whoever you want, however you want, to whatever extent you want. But you can’t think for an audience that’s always been much smarter than promoters and condescending non-wrestling fans alike have supposed. No matter who you push or who you say is the good guy, we like who we like.

Last night’s Royal Rumble certainly seems like it’s going to prove to be a tipping point, I just don’t know of what. Maybe it will prove to be the latest example of the WWE relenting to an overwhelming demand for something, and they give in and give us Daniel Bryan, Top Guy. (They have listened before, every now and then.) Maybe this was the plan all along, and this will prove to show just how hard they can troll us in what’s necessary to get us to emotionally invest in someone this fervently in this era. 

Or maybe it will be the moment for many of us that our cognitive dissonance breaks for good, and we fully accept that they truly do not care what we want. I call it cognitive dissonance because deep down, I think most of us know that who we want pushed isn’t the WWE’s priority, yet we still bring ourselves to care so much.

For whatever it’s worth, I don’t think they’re blind to what we’re asking for. It isn’t like Daniel Bryan is being buried. Zack Ryder was buried. This is not a burial. Daniel Bryan was in four straight pay-per-view main events and even in the worst-case scenario of the WWE proceeding as if Pittsburgh’s crowd didn’t do what they did, will still be in a high-profile Wrestlemania match.

I don’t even know if Vince McMahon, Triple H or anyone else with a say-so necessarily disagrees with us regarding Bryan. All we hear is that Vince loves the guy, after all, and I don’t see why he wouldn’t.

Even accounting for the possibility of a reversal of course tonight, it’s clear that building up a new star to Rock or Austin-like levels is not in their interest. And maybe it shouldn’t be. As much as Bryan has galvanized an existing fanbase, has he expanded it? (Counterpoint: much like Punk in 2011, was he really given that chance?)

To the WWE, the story arc of Daniel Bryan has been a rousing success simply because they elevated him to that rarified air of made men who can be plugged into anything from a program with a part-time star like HHH, Brock or Undertaker to a midcard feud with Bray Wyatt. Making him THE guy was never a consideration, nor is changing course to do so even if the fans ask for it.

Because while wrestlers leave, the brand doesn’t. Ironically, it seems as if the early-mid 2000’s, when Foley, Austin and Rock all left basically for good within a two-year window, and Brock Lesnar came and went within two years himself, was their own tipping point. This is ironic because it gave us a stale product lorded over by Triple H, who now is part of the shot-calling process.

Or maybe it’s not ironic, and in fact directly informs why they’ve been so seemingly loathe to push someone to the point where they eventually don’t need the WWE, which has happened with just about every huge star they ever created/employed.

John Cena came along and became the top guy, and stayed there for two reasons. The first is that he’s remarkably, shockingly reliable. I’ve said before that if Hogan, Rock and Austin are the Ruth, Aaron, Griffey, etc. of pro wrestling, then Cena is Cal Ripken: shockingly durable and reliable, in the lineup every day to do what’s asked of him. (Not a perfect analogy because Cena has had a few serious injuries, but I think it still works.)

The second reason is that, as such a company man, he’s the perfect top guy for a business that has long since decided the brand is the star. Really, it’s surprising it took them this long to figure it out: wrestlers come and go, but your brand needs to keep growing.

That’s why the WWE Network’s launch is bittersweet for so many diehards, and comes at such an ironic time for the WWE itself. The Network gives old-school fans like us everything we’ve ever wanted: basically the entire history of wrestling at our fingertips, as well as every live pay-per-view, for a shockingly low cost. It’s the best mainstream publicity they’ve garnered for themselves in…honestly, maybe ever?

But at the same time, Daniel Bryan has become a cultural flashpoint to the extent that, as pointed out on this blog earlier in the day, some so-called mainstream media has even commented today on how little the WWE is listening to their audience. 

I think that perfectly sums up where we find ourselves as wrestling fans, and where the WWE finds itself as a product: they expand their brand even further by pushing not any wrestler, but themselves. And at the same time, they almost intentionally seem to be not pushing the one performer we want more than anything. 
At the same time they’ve given us everything we want, they refuse to give us the one thing we REALLY want. 
Maybe that cognitive dissonance isn’t going anywhere, after all.