The Postgame: Why Punk’s departure was possibly shrewder than even he knew, or: Why the clock is ticking until we turn on Daniel Bryan

Only professional wrestling’s modern-day revolutionary could be the cause of such seismic activity simply by taking a leave of absence.

Almost three years ago, CM Punk’s pipe bomb promo turned the WWE on its ear, gave us two months of memorable storylines and one of the greatest matches ever (two, depending on how strongly you feel about Punk and John Cena’s Summerslam rematch that some feel was superior in its technical proficiency). It didn’t cause the sea change in the business it promised, probably because it was just a wrestling angle and people expected way too much of it. It did cement Punk as one of the WWE’s made men, however, and his subsequently epic 434-day title reign tangentially facilitated the return of Paul Heyman, the debut of The Shield, and perhaps most importantly, “The Brad Maddox Experience.” 
Prior to walking out of the WWE on January 28, the previous two months of storylines appeared to have us heading for a Punk/Triple H Wrestlemania showdown. This reportedly wasn’t enough to keep Punk around a company he clearly needed a break from (and they, most likely, from him). 

Rumors at this time had Daniel Bryan’s list of one-on-one Wrestlemania opponents staying at one, in the form of a third match in four years with Sheamus. I guess going from not winning a meaningless toy the United States championshp in the pre-show to losing the Intercontinental belt, which for some reason was replaced years ago by the old WCW title belt the World Heavyweight championship in 18 seconds in the opener to going over the guy in the No. 5 match in the card would have been…something of a promotion, if one allows themselves to ignore how far past that perch Bryan has ascended between Wrestlemanias. 
Instead, Punk’s departure opened the door for Bryan’s promotion into a co-main event match with Triple H, and the WWE’s hilarious miscalculation of how fans would respond to Batista’s return was enough to necessitate also adding Bryan- though part of me would find it really funny how mad so many of us will be if a Triple H win keeps it from happening- to the WWE title match. 
The best we can do is take educated guesses as to how things would have shook out if Punk stuck around. One of the two probably still would have needed to be added to the title match, given the fan revolt on Batista’s Rumble win. 
Still, how things have actually played out have me wondering if the clock is already ticking on WWE fans turning on Daniel Bryan. 
It’s what we do. And we’re getting more efficient at it.
It took wrestling fans nearly a decade before they outright revolted on Hulk Hogan. Bret Hart was a top-flight, main event babyface for only five years before we favored foul-mouthed, despicable midcard heel Steve Austin over him, while the same happened to co-top face Shawn Michaels on the same 1996 Survivor Series show against Psycho Sid. We booed The Rock out of the building against Austin, Hogan and Brock Lesnar in his last two years as a full-timer. We started booing John Cena not even a year into his run as the top face, and we never stopped. 
This is, in large part, a function of just how many more hours that WWE is on TV than the WWF was. 434 days of Punk’s reign had his face on television and pay-per-view more than Hogan’s in one-third the time. 
It’s also a function of the WWE co-opting everything cool and counterculture that their fans originate. I guess we can’t blame them; we’re willfully living in their “Universe,” so we’re willfully ceding ownership of our customs and mores to them the moment we use them at their shows. CM Punk’s pipe bomb, Fandango-ing, Boo-tista….and now the “Yes! Movement.”
Daniel Bryan flooding the ring and ringside area with fans to bait Triple H into granting him not only a Wrestlemania match with The Game but a spot in the main event was, unequivocally, a classic Raw segment and possibly a WM30-saving moment. It was the Austin beer truck for the meta generation (and a PG show). 
But two days later, it feels more like an end than a beginning. OK, maybe that’s a bit maudlin, but those who were less than swept up in the euphoria Monday night to point out that it was another example of WWE co-opting the cool were onto something. This almost makes me think we should grudgingly give WWE creative a bit more credit: maybe they had the foresight to know the money was in the chase with Bryan, and they were putting off making him the top guy until they needed him to be. They know the history of fans turning on the top guy. 
This is no reason for Bryan to not be the top babyface and main event Wrestlemania. The cost of never pulling the trigger on him would have been immeasurably worse than the eventual souring of Bryan as the top guy will be, because the chase can’t last forever and the biggest show of the year is the best time for said chase to end for your top babyface.
And worrying what will happen down the road from a Bryan reign reminds me of a classic Mitch Hedberg quote, when asked if red wine gives him a headache: “Yeah, eventually. But the beginning and middle parts are amazing!” It’s a promising year with Bryan as The Man, even if we know roughly how it eventually ends.
But to bring this full circle, our other hero just might be waiting in the wings to fill that role when the fans decide it’s time for Bryan to either turn heel- like everyone but Cena has done after the fans soured on him as top babyface- or be cycled back down the card. This possibility likely had nothing to do with Punk’s decision to quit. But oh, does it make for some juicy possibilities. 
Punk will almost certainly be back. It’s funny, because so many fans wanted his 2011 absence after Money in the Bank to be prolonged to build the hype for his return with the “real” WWE championship. I never fully agreed with that, but maybe I was wrong. Because by leaving for real, even if he has no idea if or when he’s returning, he may have unwittingly sewn the seeds for his own ascension to the rarefied air Bryan’s currently reaching, air that Punk himself never quite reached.
As Daniel Bryan usurped the underdog darling role and took it to an even higher level, Punk got out before we got sick of him. 
He’s left Bryan to take that eventual hit solo, and as a result CM Punk could eventually rule the (WWE) Universe.

The Postgame (Pregame? Whatever): Why “Don’t buy a ticket” misses the point

This will be an exercise that isn’t deeply rooted in the scientific method. I suppose I might as well call it scientific considering it’s a subject matter in which “psychology” translates to “pretend your arm hurts,” but much like most wrestlers and their so-called psychology, I probably won’t keep the facade up that well. I majored in journalism, not math. Those well-versed in macroeconomics, microeconomics, consumer sciences, game theory, string theory, the Big Bang theory, alchemy or phrenology might be better suited to handle this subject matter than me.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the divide between what wrestling fans want and what the WWE is willing to give us only seems to be growing. Last week’s mostly failed “Hijack Raw” movement that garnered some attention last Monday afternoon in the leadup to the much-anticipated show in Chicago. It was a cute idea, if mostly unnecessary: they know how we feel. They’re building it into their biggest storyline, after all. 
And it ended up not being much of anything besides a typically top-notch, boisterous Chicago crowd: they deftly handled the CM Punk situation with Paul Heyman’s opening segment, and they mostly avoided a direct hit job on the Authority, Randy Orton and Batista by having them all directly interact with Daniel Bryan- who, in a growing WWE trend of co-opting the insurgence, outright told the fans to, direct quote, “hijack Raw”- in multiple segments. That one didn’t require much mental dexterity on their part, seeing as how it wasn’t a departure from the existing storyline. But they nonetheless avoided the partisan crowd being the story.
What was interesting was the vitriol- the backlash to the backlash, if you will- this attempted insurrection received leading up to that show. Vitriol that, presumably, in large part came from people who agreed with the “Hijack Raw” sentiment. And it mostly boiled down to this:
If you don’t like it, don’t buy a ticket.
As consumer advice, it’s pretty basic stuff. If you don’t like a product, don’t spend your money on it. And there’s plenty to not like about the current WWE product to stop you from spending money you might otherwise have spent.
But that isn’t interesting. What’s interesting is the notion that not showing up and spending your money will enact the change we want to see.
I don’t see it working that way. 
Wrestlemania history shows some outrageous peaks and valleys in the buyrates of the show’s early years, even up to a tripling of the number of viewers from ‘Mania 13 to 14. But in the last 10 years, the numbers have mostly stabilized within a small range; while the study of PPV buyrates is about to change forever with the WWE Network’s arrival, for now it still provides a relevant snapshot of the WWE fanbase. 
The way I see it, three shows in the last 10 years have clearly been sold entirely on the work of the existing, full-time roster without any big returning stars or celebrities: 22, 25 and 26. Those three shows averaged a combined 933,000 purchases and are the only three in the last decade to fall short of one million. Shows featuring mainstream celebrities Hulk Hogan (21), Donald Trump and Stone Cold (23), Floyd Mayweather (24), The Rock (27-29) and Brock Lesnar (29), even in small capacities in some cases, all broke the one million barrier, averaging 1.12 million viewers. 
That extra 180,000 of average viewers in those six shows accounts for, roughly, $50 million. While the huge buyrate for Rock/Cena I makes all the sense in the world given the matchup’s historic intergenerational nature, the idea that anyone would part with 50 to 70 dollars to see Hulk Hogan do basically a Raw segment, Donald Trump and Steve Austin shave Vince McMahon’s head or The Rock host the show seems outrageous on the surface. But I think nine shows is enough sample size to suggest that, yes, that’s kinda-sorta happened. (In reality, these extra viewers likely consist mostly of lapsed fans for whom the big returns or mainstream cache was enough to bring them back to the biggest show of the year of a product they once greatly enjoyed, making the notion of these things drawing money that Punk, Bryan, etc. can’t draw a bit more palatable.)
While Batista isn’t anywhere near the wrestling star or mainstream celebrity as the above names, it’s fair to a)wonder how much Hogan affected that WM21 buyrate, and b)maybe give Batista some credit for the pretty big buyrate that show did, considering he main evented it in the culmination of a hot storyline. This is where we get back to the “this isn’t totally scientific” part: in the last decade, that 933,000 number seems like a pretty good baseline for figuring out what the diehard WWE fanbase is, and how they build upon it.
What it says to me is that no full-time, every day WWE star is really growing the fanbase in the last decade. This is in part by design, of course, but that’s neither here nor there for our purposes today. The WWE has figured out what the baseline is for their existing fanbase, and despite anecdotal evidence or the claims of attention seekers, they know this base is more or less not going anywhere. 
They know that as long as they give us just enough of what we want to see, just close enough to the top, we’re going to stick around no matter how appalled we may be with the main event picture. They’re all but openly telling us that they’re pandering to us, the core base, with half-assed appeasements to our pleas. This is the equivalent of telling a cancer patient that you’re going to make them as comfortable as possible even though the tumor is removable and the disease treatable. 
There might be a breaking point- not a Breaking Point– for the core base, but we’re nowhere near it. If anything, we’re getting farther away. And that’s scary, because the things they’re now giving us in their effort to bring in those extra 180,000 wallets are misguided enough that you’d think cracks in the facade would be showing. I don’t see them. I wish I did. 
If you’re disgruntled with the current product, I absolutely agree that you shouldn’t spend your money on it. Don’t buy the ticket, don’t buy the merchandise. But one last don’t:
Don’t think that’s going to enact the change you want to see. It sucks to know that a product you love doesn’t really care about you, although that’s an overly simplistic view of the situation. Losing their core base will absolutely hurt the WWE. But do you think their solution will be to push the guys the core fanbase wants to see, if the problem is that the core fanbase is dwindling? 
In the long view, this could produce an exciting new batch of stars much like it did from 1996 to 1998. 
As we know, though, their currency is their stock price, their next TV deal. It isn’t as simple as beating Nitro, like it was two decades ago. Are we confident that, if we decide en masse to protest the current main event scene by not giving them our money, they’re going to respond by creating a new batch of Stone Colds, Rocks, Triple Hs and Foleys like they did the last time their backs were truly against the wall? 
They give us as much as they do of Daniel Bryan, CM Punk and the like- you could even include John Cena in this, though one of their solutions to a dwindling base would probably be even more Cena- because there’s a built-in fanbase that’s showing up for it, and won’t leave despite whatever other bullshit they throw at us.
While they’re already handling the fallout from the failings of their presentation of the current batch of bullshit (in the form of a 45-year old grandfather who dresses like a 25-year old date rapist), it seems unlikely that it’s going to affect their long-term planning if it isn’t even going to affect their short-term ideas.
If you don’t like it, don’t buy a ticket.
But if enough fellow diehards do the same, you probably won’t like the fallout any better.  

The Postgame: Randy Orton, sympathetic figure?

Thousands of words have been written in recent months from any corner of the internet about a WWE star whose run on top has been submarined by bad writing, bad booking and a perceived lack of faith from within the company almost entirely based on what we see on-screen.

I’m going to write some more of those words today, but as you probably figured out from the headline, they won’t be about Daniel Bryan.

It’s hard to make a strong case that one should feel bad for Randy Orton. He was born into the business and earmarked for success before he even hit the main roster. He’s never really drawn significant money but has maintained a lofty spot near the top, if not at it, for 10 years now. He was dreadfully boring in the ring in his first turn as a main event heel even if his character was mildly interesting. He was dull as dishwater- albeit very over with most live crowds- as a top babyface from 2010 to 2013 even if his ringwork was generally proficient in this period. Not only that, but if they followed their own drug testing rules to a tee, he’d have been long ago unemployed. (Allegedly, along with many other backstage miscreant behavior he’s been accused of.)

It’s not the kind of career Daniel Bryan, CM Punk or most other wrestlers would ever have been afforded the opportunity to have, or more accurately have continue past….any number of points, really. And that’s only if we stick to what we know (never drawn money) and leave out what we think we know (the backstage misbehavior) and what we perceive (i.e., any opinion of him as a performer).

Thus, it’s a difficult exercise to even imagine Orton as any sort of sympathy case. In the long view, he’s certainly not one.

But in the here and now, it’s hard to imagine a champion getting any shorter shrift heading into Wrestlemania.

In the beginning, Orton as the flunky avatar for what the Authority wanted to be the ideal WWE champion was a great hook: it was a nifty twist on the old corporate heel champion bit that’s been done so many times. But something strange happened that made the perplexing booking that ensued so much worse: he was terrific in the role. As this piece is more a dissection of everything that’s been wrong with how Orton has been booked in the last seven months, and less an paean to Orton, I’ll direct you to the Masked Man’s excellent Grantland piece from two months ago if such an ode is your thing.

From vacillating between dominant corporate champ and the Authority’s underachieving whipping boy to cleanly jobbing to almost the entire Elimination Chamber lineup leading up to that show, his on-screen portrayal has been uneven at best, and not meritocratic in the least based on his actual work in recent months.

But in the so-called “Reality Era” of WWE that we now not only view but actively participate in, that’s never the whole story, is it?

The tumult surrounding the Wrestlemania build is, of course, well-documented: crowds are becoming more agitated every week that Daniel Bryan is kept out of the main event. CM Punk quit. A very audible fart in church would be received better than Batista’s return and instant placement into Wrestlemania’s main event has been.

Caught in the middle of this, quietly continuing to do the best he can with what he’s been given, is Randy Orton. If you can’t get past his background, maybe this is another example to you of Orton being handed something he doesn’t deserve. And maybe you’re right. But let’s say an audible is called for, say, Batista or even Lesnar as the corporate “face of the WWE” to face underdog Bryan at Wrestlemania, a cool-sounding idea that many floated. The part-time star usurping the spot of the guy who’s been here every week, doing as he’s asked and having good matches pretty much every time out.

Sounds familiar.

Aren’t these the circumstances that made CM Punk quit?

Maybe he should be closer to the midcard than the main event in the first place, but we can’t blame Randy Orton for Daniel Bryan not being in the WWE title match. We can’t blame him for Batista’s return, or how poorly he’s been received since. Nothing in life takes place in a vacuum, though, and Randy Orton has long ago used up whatever goodwill would have engendered a sympathetic reaction to how shoddily he’s been booked since Summerslam.

I guess if there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s that even an asshole with a spot he never earned in the first place can be unfairly jerked around in professional wrestling. Even if it’s all the way to the bank.

The Postgame: On the cusp of “great change?”

Maybe Jim Cornette said it. I’m not sure, but it sounds like something he would say. It may have been a poster here in the comment section, for all I know. I really don’t remember; it’s been years.

Aside from it being poor form to not properly attribute a quote, it doesn’t really matter. It was the most precise, one-to-two sentence description of what John Cena’s eventual place in WWE lore should have been: he’s not The Rock, Stone Cold or Hulk Hogan. But he’s a big enough star to put over the performer who becomes the next iconic, breakthrough sensation. He’s not The Man, but he has enough juice to turn someone else into that. 
In some ways, Cena just might be in that pantheon anyway; he’s never sent business through the stratosphere on his own or become a true household name the way those three did. But he has put a good enough public face on WWE over the years to keep business steadily profitable for 10 years, now, and at least provide the veneer of mainstream stardom. 
With as many entertainment choices as there are today, maybe that’s as big of a star as a professional wrestler is now capable of being. Would Johnny Carson as iconic today, with millions of 18-to-49 viewers preferring the cable snark of Stewart, Colbert and Conan to the network late-night hosts? Probably not.
Insofar as one can tell, the only items on the checklist keeping Cena from being remembered as an all-time great in the real sense, and not just in the kayfabe sense, are his consistently mixed-at-best reactions for nearly his entire run and crowd fatigue. Proven money-maker years after years? Check. Crossover mainstream attention? Check, at least as much as one can be today. Consistently delivers great matches on a big stage? Classics with Shawn Michaels, CM Punk, Rob Van Dam, Daniel Bryan, Brock Lesnar and The Rock (at least the first one, though not even Punk could drag a good match out of The Rock in 2013) make that a big check. Reliability and someone who truly puts a good public face on pro wrestling? Few in history top him in this regard. 
Still, before this can be considered a love letter to Cena- it’s not; I don’t know if he’s ever even been one of my five favorite performers at any given time- his matches have never felt like a bigger deal than when he’s defending the title against an up-and-comer with whom the crowd has firmly planted their flag: Rob Van Dam at One Night Stand. CM Punk at Money in the Bank. Daniel Bryan at Summerslam. Not even his buyrate record-setting match against The Rock felt as monumental as those title tilts were, because in those matches Cena represented the obstacle between the stagnated status quo, and a revolution. 
In an impassioned backstage promo on last night’s Raw, Cena walked the now-commonplace line between fiction and reality, somewhere between subtly and overtly referring to the disgruntled crowds of late in describing the WWE as “on the cusp of great change,” which is obviously a claim that will always be met with great skepticism considering the subject matter. 
He proceeded by calling out the present and future of the WWE to pay attention to the statement he planned on making against Randy Orton in the night’s main event: “That statement goes to the Wyatts, to the Shield, to Antonio Cesaro or Daniel Bryan: if any of you think you have what it takes to carry the future of the WWE? Know that you will have to go through me to get it.” 
This site’s fearless leader would probably respond to that by saying, “I love shoot comments that aren’t supposed to be shoot comments.” But Cena’s still a relatively young, healthy man; he’s only three years older than Austin was when he won his first WWF title. So for those already disgruntled with a product they perceive as stagnant and deaf to their fans, the last line of that promo is a potentially harrowing truth. 
So, with Hollywood not beating his door down the way they did for Dwyane, he’s probably right: anyone who wants to be the “face of the WWE” does have to go through Cena in one manner of speaking or another. 
(Though, with as obnoxiously as they’ve made that phrase a plot point in recent months, I’m not sure I’d want the job, because maybe the fans are going to eventually reject whoever is in that spot. Maybe Bryan’s promo about preferring just to be known as “Daniel Bryan” rather than the “face of the WWE” also had more truth in it than we realized.) 
And maybe that’s how it should be, that if Bryan, Reigns or whoever else wants the job needs to clearly supplant Cena. To be the man, and all that.

Still, it feels like his career full of insanely loud, very mixed crowd reactions has still been a missed opportunity to create an entirely new wave of bona fide superstars. It feels like he was uniquely positioned to be able to really, truly be a starmaker. It feels like the special moments in which he stared at the lights as crowds lost their collective minds for RVD, Punk, Bryan should have had more come from them than they did. 

Or maybe I was right about this being as big as a wrestling star can be today, and just pulling them somewhat near his level is the best he can do. 

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.

The PG PostGame: Hell in a Cell 2013 (VIDEO!)

Okay, folks, the ground rules: I did not see the show.  I am commenting on the booking only based upon the WWE’s website report of what they consider important.  I will still award MVP and give a Final Rating.

And unlike the text last time, this time you get a YouTube vid!  Thrill at the annoying buzz of feedback because I don’t understand audio controls yet!  Enjoy my Jake Roberts mustache and awful growth of mini-beard (hey, I don’t shave on weekends)!  Listen to my TV newscaster voice!  See the towel hanging on the door to my bedroom!  YOU GET IT ALL!  C’mon — who else would serve up an opportunity to snark on a silver platter like this?

PG PostGame: Battleground 2013

So I’m going to give this a try.  I don’t know if it’s a good thing yet that I’m doing just because of the unique circumstances, but heck, it’ll at least be a thread for discussing results and stuff.

In this post, you are going to see me discuss the booking of the PPV.  As a special note, I have not seen this show.  I have a ball hockey team that plays in a Sunday league, and in fact I just got home recently.  (We won 4-0, I was in net and had a 15-save shutout.  Not that you care.)  But I can discuss the ideas put forward as if this were Vince McMahon’s fantasy booking made real.  So, with the help of Wikipedia and WWE’s dot-com, allow me to break down the show.

0] Dolph Ziggler pinned Damien Sandow.  Ziggler may be on the verge of getting re-pushed.  It’s been hard not to notice that the crowd gets behind him, even chanting for him over Daniel Bryan in the 11-on-3 on Raw.  The idea of a fierce Sandow disposing of his kneepad and revolving his offense around knee strikes backfired on him.  It makes me wonder if Sandow is going to be taking time off so that, when he feels the need to strike on Del Rio (or whomever beats him), he will be fresher and therefore rebuildable.  As it stands, this was the pre-show match, and its use as a dark match to get the crowd warm was a smart idea.  Dolph has the momentum right now anyway.

1] World Heavyweight Champion Alberto Del Rio submitted Rob Van Dam.  We all basically knew this was coming, didn’t we?  This was basically a chance for RVD to go all-out in a no-DQ match with ladders and chairs, and since upstate New York was one of ECW’s bigger former haunts, they accepted it greatly.  There was some scuttlebutt on rumor sites that Ricardo Rodriguez was going to reconcile with Del Rio, but given their interaction tonight, that seems highly unlikely.  Rodriguez probably moves on to finding a new amigo or two (perhaps Mysterio and Mistico?), while Del Rio has dispatched of RVD in the most decisive way.  The Cross Armbreaker with a Pillman Twist was a good use of the hardcore stips as well as a way to remind us of Del Rio’s MMA background and submission style.

2] We The People defeated Santino Marella and Great Khali when Antonio Cesaro pinned Khali.  All you need to know about this match is that Cesaro swung Khali, a 350-pound awkwardly built giant of a man, for double-digit revolutions (the dotcom claims 11).  There’s talk — again, these are rumor sites, so take it for what it’s worth — that Cesaro could break away and be turned face, and it’s almost exclusively due to the Swing.  Right now, Khali and Marella are a comedy act, and Swagger fumbled his last great chance and therefore is basically a midcarder for life.  If anyone’s coming out of this on top, it would have to be Cesaro.

3] WWE Intercontinental Champion Curtis Axel pinned R-Truth.  I knew this was happening, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.  With all the focus on Ryback as Paul Heyman’s #1 Guy, it’s pretty clear the ship has sailed on Axel’s future.  Last month was the best opportunity to make something of him, but Punk easily dispatched him instead and basically slammed him hard into the midcard.  Now, throw in that R-Truth is part of the Revolution, and at the very least a title change isn’t out of the question, is it?  As for the match, Truth had a good amount of the offense, but right now, does the title even mean anything?  (And no, I doubt putting it on Truth would be too much of a step up, but at this point it could easily transition to someone the fans even care a little about.  Axel is unable to get heat even with Paul Heyman by his side, while Truth at least can keep the crowd involved in the match with his “What’s Up” call.)

4] WWE Divas’ Champion AJ Lee pinned Brie Bella.  Perhaps the most interesting part of this is that the result was hardly as decisive as it could have been.  Yes, AJ dominated most of the match, but the booking leaves the question unanswered — especially since Tamina and Nikki’s fight on the outside provided a critical distraction.  What worries me more about this than anything else is that AJ has gone through Natalya, has beaten Naomi, and now will likely beat Brie twice when they rematch at Hell in a Cell.  The question here is: are they really setting up either JoJo or Eva Marie as the one to topple the champion?  Or, will one of the more wrestling-oriented Divas get a second chance?  As it stands, it’s clear someone in the back is very high on AJ, who has been allowed to mock everyone she wants on commentary with only the “you’re jealous” comeback, which carries very little weight.

5] In a non-title match, The Rhodes Brothers defeated WWE Tag Team Champions The Shield when Cody pinned Seth Rollins.  I’ve said in previous Raw recaps that the Daniel Bryan vs Randy Orton storyline works best, not as an Austin/McMahon rehash, but as a Dusty/Flair rehash.  Tonight, you got to see why.  The booking of this feud has been very old school: the faces lose what they have, one by one, get humiliated by the heels verbally, but when the chips are down and it’s their last stand, they find an extra gear and become invincible.  Teasing an early countout probably wasn’t the smartest of moves, but they ran with it.  Multiple heat segments also helped, as it’s clear WWE knew this was a money feud even in the midcard.  All the facepaint having been sweated off of Dustin’s face added to the feeling of a team putting forth a superhuman effort.  And if the dotcom is to be believed, the crowd was amped all match and came unglued when the brothers won.  Also, a wonderful touch in having the locker room congratulate the Rhodes family on getting their jobs back.  The real question is this: you’ve anointed the Usos the #1 contenders, and they’ve got the long build to the gold going on Raw, but the Rhodes brothers are hotter than ever.  Do you switch it off, and if so, would that hurt the Usos as potential future champions?

6] Bray Wyatt pinned Kofi Kingston.  As with others, this was not a difficult result to pick out.  This was, however, Wyatt’s first test as a solo act on Pay-Per-View — assuming you count the Ring of Fire as a dirty win — and he passed in kayfabe.  Able to win without any help from Luke Harper and Eric Rowan establishes him as a threat in the singles division, and Kofi Kingston, despite being in the midcard-for-life mold, is no pushover.  Kingston, in fact, was given a very good amount of offense on Wyatt, as this match was far from a squash.  The post-match beating delivered to Kingston helped establish that the Wyatt disciples are threats on their own, and the heel trio definitely is being sent to big things.

7] CM Punk pinned Ryback.  As with AJ and Brie, the real story here is how the win was far from a decisive one.  Ryback got in more offense than should be expected, and indeed could have won on several occasions.  Heyman’s interference using the house microphone played into the mind games he and Punk have had for a long time.  But perhaps the best bit was the finish: Heyman got too preoccupied with hurting CM Punk, and it was Punk who used the opportunity to cheat right in front of Heyman and win the match.  Certainly, the controversial finish all but guarantees a rematch inside the Cell — hopefully, though, this time Brad Maddox won’t be the referee.

8] The WWE Championship remains vacant as Daniel Bryan and Randy Orton went to a double KO.  Okay, that statement is a little misleading.  The real intrigue here — and the match is just noise compared to the finish — is how the double KO happened: by Big Show.  It’s pretty clear Big Show has been under an infinite amount of stress, and everyone wants him to haul off and attack HHH, but they’re making it less and less likely it’s feasible to happen.  So that leaves Show with this outlet: to take out his frustration on whomever he can.  Now, the first question from Raw is: what does the Authority think of this?  There’s three ways they can go here:  one, they can be furious Big Show ruined the main event and humiliate him further; two, they can make the rematch be inside Hell in a Cell in an attempt to keep Show out of it; or three, they could applaud Big Show and insert him into the Cell match.  Option 2 seems the most likely, although all three are on the table.  Raw brings us to interesting times once again.

So, that’s the breakdown.  I think the booking, overall, was made with the knowledge that Hell in a Cell is coming up in three weeks, which is frustrating.  There’s no definitive closure to Punk/Ryback, Brie/AJ, and especially not Orton/Bryan — it would not surprise me if all three were rematches at Hell in a Cell, and certainly we know the last one will be (barring Show shenanigans).  The kayfabe MVP tonight has to be Cody Rhodes, who got his job back and got the fall that may allow for a future title match.  Whether they get it right away or not is part of the intrigue.

See you tomorrow night for Monday Night Raw in Pittsburgh, where everyone will be drunk from watching playoff baseball.  If any crowd is going to top the New Jersey crowd for sheer insanity, this is it.

The Postgame: 9-16-13

Then They Kayfabed For Me

I recently started reading Maziar Bahari’s prison memoir, “Then They Came For Me.” I’m about halfway through it. And, because of course it did, a main tenet of the story reminded me of a professional wrestling storyline. We’ll get back to this in a moment. 
A common complaint from the so-called “IWC” has been an annoying number of “evil boss” story arcs. It’s a valid complaint, because almost all of them have been either a halfhearted attempt to recreate Austin v. McMahon, or have been too lazy to even try to make the same point. 

Still, back to the book. The author, Bahari, is an Iranian-Canadian journalist/filmmaker who was arrested in 2009 while covering the Iran elections. He was imprisoned for 118 days while his main captor, a man he referred to as “Rosewater” (the name of the movie Jon Stewart directed this summer based on the book) because of his scent, accused him of the outrageous. Among other things, he said Bahari was the leader of a spy syndicate essentially because he wrote for Newsweek. (This is grossly oversimplified.) I’ve not read the whole book so I don’t know what further trumped-up nonsense Bahari faces or what brutality he deals with. 
Regardless, somehow my mind drew a parallel to the current Triple H/Corporation/Daniel Bryan storyline. Triple H is representing Ahmadinejad, and Daniel Bryan is representing Bahari, or better yet a condensed version of every ordinary citizen who protested and resisted tyrannical rule. Much like a reasonable, rational journalist like Bahari represented a threat to the Islamic Republic, Daniel Bryan is also dealing with trumped-up charges because he in some way threatens the beliefs of the paranoid, irrational extremist. Triple H’s extremism, or I suppose extreme fundamentalism, is his belief in what the WWE Championship should represent and more importantly, who should represent it: 
The trumped-up charges Bryan is guilty of in his metaphorical imprisonment: he’s too short. He has a shaggy beard. He doesn’t look like a champion. He’s not what’s best for business. He’s a B-plus trying to take over the A-list. Now, much as Bahari was accused of leading a Western spy cabal via the media, Bryan is framed of conspiring with a referee to throw the WWE title match. 
I guess this is a long-winded way of saying….this type of storyline has never bothered me; it’s repetitive because it’s the type of class war or ideological war that’s fought to one degree or another by billions of people, whether it’s something as mundane as a labor struggle or a totalitarian regime squashing its own people. Regardless of- no, because of- what you think of what Paul Levesque and Bryan Danielson represent in the WWE “universe,” Triple H and Daniel Bryan have been the perfect characters to play their respective roles of the best retelling of this timeless struggle WWE has done since McMahon v. Austin.
The locker room emptying out to show a sign of solidarity behind their leader against the dictatorship was a nice touch tonight. Trolling the smarks and marks alike into straight-up annoyance with the heel dominance is all fine and well, but you have to throw the babyfaces an occasional bone. 

They Fed Them More

Two entities debuted to much hype and immediate rocket strapped to them in 2012: the one-man wrecking ball Ryback and the three-man wrecking crew, The Shield. A months-long undefeated streak accompanied both. Incidentally, The Shield caused the end of Ryback’s winning streak. 
The latest development for both comes high on the card, with Ryback debuting as the newest Heyman guy last night and The Shield back in the upper-card spotlight with their association with Triple H and their bouts with Daniel Bryan. 
Yet, it only feels like The Shield is moving in the right direction, even as they took another clean pin tonight; for one thing, the clean pin was to the top guy in the company at the moment, Daniel Bryan. For another, they got over enough from the very beginning that there was always more substance to their gimmick than simply not doing a job or two.
Further, after Ambrose and Rollins received chances to show their singles chops with the big boys, tonight felt like an audition of sorts for Reigns and he held his own in a one-on-one match with Daniel Bryan. He did more than look like a megastar for once: he performed like one. The men in black are back on track. (I won’t blame you if you stop reading here.)
Meanwhile, it already feels like another repackaging of Ryback isn’t working. I haven’t necessarily found him to be lacking in these roles, necessarily, and it’s a fair argument if he’s been the undeserved recipient of someone’s itchy trigger finger: he got neutered by Punk and The Shield when he was starting to get really over as a babyface. He jobbed repeatedly to Cena even as he was starting to hit his stride as the arrogant, Batista-in-2010 type of musclebound heel (though not nearly as awesome as Batista). Now he’s Punk’s next monster Heyman Guy to kill time with until it’s time for him to get his Lesnar retribution just as the school bully gimmick was starting to work.
It may be arguable that going to feuding with Punk is a promotion, and that’s probably the case. But it’s the third time they’ve called an audible on Ryback in less than a year when an iteration of his gimmick was beginning to find its way. If they have any hope for him has a top-level player- and if there’s any good reason for them to have hope- here’s hoping they give it time with him for once, or cycle him to the bottom and see if he can reinvent himself to get over own his own starting over.

Hot Shots, Part Trois

It’s often said, and usually correctly, that hot-shotting the title in quick succession multiple times devalues the belt. However, in some instances it portrays multiple people as being worth holders at each other’s throats over it. This is the third major time I can think of- and I’m sure there’s plenty of other good examples- in which I’ve found this to be the case, after 1998 and 2011. 
1998, of course, found Austin being screwed out of the title by McMahon with the aide of Undertaker and Kane, both of whom of course wanted the title for themselves while working for, and then against, and…then for McMahon again, I think (Vince Russo was booking; don’t even pretend that you remember it exactly)? . Meanwhile, Mick Foley found himself on the screwed list while The Rock is hand-picked as the Corporate Champion, and those two battled into 1999 in a series of increasingly brutal bouts with Rocky, only to see Stone Cold claw his way back to the top. Three all-time greats traded the title nearly double-digit times from September to Wrestlemania, and it was one of the high points in the title’s history.
2011’s Summer of Punk may have gone off the rails, and the separation of the new title after Punk being gone with the original for barely a week may have been convoluted. But it, too, led to a series of events that saw Punk screwed out of the title, an incensed Cena coming after it, winning it, getting screwed out of it, before ultimately putting it back in the hands of Punk. Call this one a happy accident: sometimes bizarre, sometimes downright putrid booking luckily ended up launching CM Punk’s epic 434-day reign. 
Now we have Daniel Bryan beating Cena clean to take the torch, only to have it essentially stolen from him twice. Having Randy Orton be presented as the McMahon errand boy is fine, because as I’ve said before this story isn’t about Randy Orton; someone warmed-over as a main event is perfect for the role because it’s about Daniel Bryan overcoming that to reclaim the title he deserves. Triple H cares so much about “his” title that he’ll make sure it’s in the hands of someone who meets his ideals. Daniel Bryan doesn’t care what’s thrown in front of him to get it back no matter how many times it’s snatched out of his hands or how many times he’s beaten down. 
It’s not always an all-time great throwing 15 straight months of amazing at us to elevate the title. Sometimes it’s a bunch of powerful forces at each other’s throats to gain possession of it, and it being tugged in every direction until someone finally claims it for good.

Odds and Ends

I have no other big-picture thoughts tonight, so let’s empty out the notebook really quick:
-RVD and Ricardo was a cute pairing for a one-time go-round against Del Rio. I’ve quickly tired of it.
-Cleveland has The Miz, St. Louis has Randy Orton, Miami has The Rock and Chicago has CM Punk. These all kind of make sense, for one reason or another.
-Dusty Rhodes looks like Paul Bearer. By that I mean, what Paul Bearer looks like *now*.
-Call it the “Social scoreboard,” if you will. But the Twitter scroll doesn’t bother me. You watch a game on ESPN, and other scores and news from the sports world is scrolling the whole damn time. Same with the news, for that matter. In the WWE “universe,” (I’ll always put that in quotes to maintain an ironic detachment from that branding I probably don’t deserve to take) nothing counts for more than social relevancy and mainstream attention. So, yeah, those are their “scores.” Yes, the whole thing is contrived and fake and silly….and the Twitter stuff is weird, too. 
See you next week on The Postgame. 

The Postgame: 9-9-13

YES! ….and No.

“Here’s the thing they don’t understand: there is satisfaction in the struggle,” Daniel Bryan said in the opening segment, hosted by a SyFy show-promoting Edge. “Because I know no matter how many times Randy Orton attacks me from behind, no matter how many times The Shield triple powerbombs me, no matter how many knockout punches I eat from giants, and no matter how many times Triple H tries to hold me down, I will beat Randy Orton, I will regain the title, and I will be the WWE champion! YES!”

It was another excellent promo in a summer full of them from Bryan, and elegance of the “satisfaction in the struggle” line in particular crystallized not only his motivation, but why it’s OK that this isn’t quite like Austin v. McMahon:

Because Daniel Bryan isn’t Stone Cold. And Triple H isn’t Vince McMahon. Austin and Vince were cartoon characters. Yes, Austin was portrayed as the “everyman,” and Vince was playing off his real-life owner status. But Austin wasn’t an everyman. He was John McClane or Jack Bauer with a Texas twang. And while Vince was playing the role of himself, it was obviously a highly caricatured version of it. As I’ve said before, Bryan and Triple H are playing believable versions of themselves that exist on that thin line that separates real from “real.”

So it worked for Bryan to get beaten down on seven straight shows. Look at your own reaction, you jaded, snarky smark! You were getting legitimately upset that they were ending every show with Bryan getting screwed over and beaten down. When was the last time they’ve been able to establish this level of heel heat with no ironic, detached cheering from the meta section of the fanbase? It’s nuclear. Bryan is, at worst, equally as over as Punk. And you could easily argue it’s much bigger than that, that these are the biggest, purely visceral face reactions since Austin and Rock’s heyday.

But…is a long-term, slow burn to an epic Bryan/HHH match at Wrestlemania XXX going to make for must-see, monthly PPVs? On the show where they did more to establish Orton as a viably dominant heel champion than at any other point in the last month- as opposed to merely Triple H’s avatar- it happened to be the show in which Bryan needed to get a modicum of momentum back. Frankly, it would have been interesting to see Bryan never get the upper hand, and still get screwed at Night of Champions.

Now it seems highly telegraphed that Bryan, with his momentum back heading into the big show, will again get screwed. (With nowhere else to put this, let’s make the perfunctory but necessary note that Bryan/Ambrose was, as you’d expect, very good, probably somewhere in the ***1/4-ish range; however, something was clearly and rightfully left on the table for when they inevitably have a one-on-one PPV match, much like the Punk/Bryan TV affairs of 2012.) And, if this is going to be as slow of a burn, as long of a con, as it looks like…shouldn’t he?

It makes for a terrific long-term storyline if it ends with the heels getting their comeuppance. (Though we’re all aware that for whatever reason- and the reason doesn’t matter, because you’re going to choose whatever reason fits the narrative you want for the polarizing figure that is Paul Levesque- that the heel getting his comeuppance isn’t a guarantee in a Triple H storyline).

But it’s unclear, despite Bryan’s brilliance and Orton turning in the best work of his career, if it’s going to make for must-see pay per view on a monthly basis.

From Killer to Kitsch

The Punk/Heyman/Axel storyline….I’m enjoying watching it, I guess is the best I can say? What started out as a vicious blood feud that Axel’s involvement as Heyman’s heavy was deemed as tolerable has devolved into kitschy, campy silliness. 
It seems like it’s a necessary development, because Axel has been exposed as woefully unready for this level. One almost wishes this was the time that Punk could have taken off, instead of earlier in the year, savaged by Brock Lesnar’s brutal Summerslam beating in their all-time classic. In the meantime, maybe they could have taken actual steps to get Axel ready on a personal performance level- and establish him more on a storyline level- to do this part of the story at a time closer to Lesnar’s return to build to a Wrestlemania rematch.
As it stands, it seems like there’s too much time and not enough important things that can happen in this story between now and Lesnar’s return. While it’s rare to have this much long-term focus in what are normally lean fall months, I’m fearful they’ll get restless without enough compelling television to bridge the long gaps between now and what could be an epic Wrestlemania buildup in both of their top storylines. 

Is Depth Overrated? 

Sorry, it isn’t college basketball season yet. That’s when I make the argument against the importance of depth. (Which isn’t to say you can’t run a team off the floor with the right kind of depth, but few teams recruit enough really good players to do that. And I digress, fully aware how few of you probably give a shit about college basketball.) In professional wrestling? Yeah, it kind of is. 
Having a huge storyline establishing a guy who hits the trifecta of being massively over with everyone/IWC darling/elite worker as your tippy-top guy is terrific. Using big (no pun intended) players like Big Show and midding players like the Rhodes brothers to supplement it is smart. Having a storyline with your other top babyface that exists in its own world separate from the other goings-on is also shrewd, giving us something else that matters in an exhausting three-hour show. (I know I’m reviewing it, but sorry, the fast-forward button is still getting used. Those who do the tedious labor of detailing every last segment are doing saintly work, but that’ll never be me. It’s three fucking hours. I’m not pretending every segment deserves our time, or our thoughts.) 
But while it’s given Show, Rhodes and The Shield a purpose and an important spot on the card, it’s leaving players like Dolph Ziggler, Bray Wyatt, Ryback, Alberto Del Rio and Rob Van Dam toiling in garbage minutes. Regardless of what your opinion may be on any of these peformers individually, there is no doubt that they’ve seen diminished roles in recent weeks as the focus has been on a huge, star-making storyline. We aren’t getting an opportunity to find out if Bray Wyatt can work. And it’s early; he has time. But that was a lot of buildup to simply let them kind of exist, and grow into their own in time. Dolph Ziggler was almost as on fire as a new, main event babyface as Daniel Bryan a few months ago, and now he’s jobbing nearly clean to Wyatt in nothing matches. 
Meanwhile, I almost forgot Del Rio and RVD were having a title match on Sunday. We spent their buildup seeing ADR beat R-Truth for what seems like the 85th time (in reality, I don’t even remember if they’ve wrestled each other at all; what’s important is it SEEMS like we’ve pointlessly seen it that many times) and RVD’s momentum-building into NoC consist of being fodder for the furthering of Ryback’s bully character. Is there no one RVD couldn’t have gotten a win over going into the PPV? Is there no one expendable for Ryback to have shoved around? Couldn’t we have gotten a heated, pull-apart brawl between Del Rio and Van Dam to even pretend like they want us to care about that match? Listen, whoever’s buying this show is doing so for Orton/Bryan and maybe to see if Punk tears Heyman apart, but at least pretend there’s something else you want us to part with our money over. 

You’ve Still Got It

Now, THAT’S building some heel heat. Hats off to Goldust for putting his working boots on to the tune of a legitimately great TV match with Randy Orton. It accomplished multiple goals: it put the focus back on Randy Orton as a killer heel- even subtly alluding to his Legend Killer past without anyone saying a word about it- heading into the PPV, it built even more heat for the new Corporation, it gave us our requisite good, long match to kill a chunk of these interminable three hours, and it also built heat for a fascinating sub-story with Cody Rhodes. Even if it’s left too many guys with too little of import to do, if the McMahons and HHH take a personal involvement in a story you know it’s going to get their full attention.
There are plenty of semi-legends who are still spry enough to fill the roles that Edge and Goldust filled this week: give us someone for Randy Orton to destroy, someone for Triple H to step on verbally who doesn’t need to worry about getting heat back. This is where we could have used a Kevin Nash fall cameo. This is where Mick Foley’s supposed real life heat with Levesque could play out on the meta level. This- as Edge referred to- is a spot for Chris Jericho’s next comeback to have some meaning. 
So we head into a traditionally lifeless September show with one more major storyline worth caring about than we usually have this time of year, but little certainty that it will manifest itself in a show anyone actually needs to see. 
See you next week on the Postgame.

The Postgame Analysis: Monday Night Raw, 8-26-13

What’s My Motivation Here?

I don’t remember who it was that told him this. Probably Terry Funk. I don’t even remember which of his books it was in. Probably his first. But I distinctly remember a point made by Mick Foley that’s stuck out with me more than anything else I’ve ever learned about the psychology of professional wrestling (and we’re obviously paraphrasing here): it doesn’t matter if the heel is right. It doesn’t matter if his motivation makes sense. It just matters that THEY think it makes sense.
That seemed to be a running theme tonight: establishing motivation, albeit to greatly different extents.

In some cases, it’s OK if the heel has a pretty good point, because…they’re a fucking heel. I don’t care if you have a good point, I still want to see your head get kicked off your goddamn shoulders. Yes, Triple H makes a valid point: Daniel Bryan did insult him personally. And Bryan did insult his wife. A lot. And his father-in-law. But while the fist shot fired- Triple H stealing the title from Bryan- might be “just business” to Triple H, but it’s extremely personal to Daniel Bryan. And it should be. That’s why the heel is still an asshole, even though he makes a technically valid point: he started it. 
Triple H, in one quick line, also reminded us of The Shield’s motivation: in setting up the handicap match between Bryan and The Shield, Hunter told Bryan, “I’m gonna give you the gift of justice.” Let’s not forget that The Shield’s ethos has always been twisted. All that matters if that THEY think it makes sense, remember? Who’s to say their idea of justice doesn’t align with who Triple H wants to be champion? Besides, they’ve had their personal issues with Bryan many times already. This is working for me. They strayed from having a motivation for too long. This has refocused them, as well as reinvigorated their push.
Meanwhile, we didn’t really learn anything new about the motivations for CM Punk and Paul Heyman in their blood feud. But it was still somehow furthered: Heyman’s screams at a shackled Punk as he savaged him with the kendo stick bordered on the homoerotic (no, I don’t mean that as a bad thing; given their backstories a part of Heyman feeling like a jilted lover makes some sense): “I loved you!” “I murdered myself for you!” In another instance of the heel having a valid point, Heyman did everything for Punk, only to be put on the sideline. Punk gives no fucks, he just wants as much of Heyman’s blood as he can get. 
And that’s why we love him.

Avatar 3

In a weird twist, nominally the top three storylines right now all (nominally, I say, because there’s really a top two and then everything else, but the third one is for the World Heavyweight title, so that’s…something) feature the wrestler on one side acting as an avatar for whom the feud is really with.
Orton as HHH’s avatar makes a lot of sense: Orton fits the profile of what a WWE champion is supposed to look like, both in storyline and in that weird amalgam of backstage realities and our (often very wrong) perceptions of them. I’m sure many are thinking this is yet another way for Hunter to get himself over and on top, and really, do yourself a favor and lose that thought. Triple H is perfect in this role because he represents the face of the corporate structure that Daniel Bryan’s star-making fight is truly against. Orton is perfect in this role because he’s just vapid enough to represent the in-ring realization of that corporate imagery. 
Curtis Axel is an odd, shoe-horned fit into the Punk/Heyman feud. Lesnar worked perfectly in that role because despite his one-time desire to star in “Raw: The Brock Lesnar Show,” his ego has nothing to do with having the spotlight on him, in and of itself. As long the spotlight is on him slaughtering someone, he doesn’t care if it’s on Heyman’s behalf. But in the understatement of the summer, Curtis Axel is not Brock Lesnar. He’s just kind of…..there. Axel is, however, improving if nothing else than by virtue of spending so much time around CM Punk. 
The most nonsensical of these, however, is Rob Van Dam as the wrestling representation of Ricardo in his feud against Alberto Del Rio. As I said last week, I like it. It’s goofy, it makes no sense, and sometimes that’s fine. It’s just interesting in how it gives us yet another example at the same time of a high-profile wrestler (though Axel is a stretch to be considered as such) merely representing a non-wrestling person of interest.

Reality TV, Meet “Reality Era”

So, is AJ on the long list of divas that Punk has banged? If so, has any research been done on whether or not the ability to cut scathing, grievance-airing promos an STD? Because AJ basically just cut the Diva division version of the “pipe bomb” promo. In a show in which the main storyline features the real-life corporate power structure keeping the little indy darling from being the top guy, somehow the storyline most borrowing from reality/”reality” this week was AJ hijacking the weekly Total Divas commercial/segment to tell them, and all of us, what we already know: what a load of shit this is. 
Too bad the Bellas completely ruined it by acting like obnoxious cunts through the entire thing (yes….”acting”….sure). Seriously, one of you- no, I don’t care enough to remember which one- is dating John Cena, who was the in-ring target of the “pipe bomb” promo. He sold it like a champ. By doing the same, the Bellas could have taken a brainless reality show that’s shockingly getting respectable ratings could have actually led to something. But they no-sold it because they’re awful, and it’s dead on arrival.

Back to Basics

Last but not least, this week’s Raw featured a return to what’s been one of the bright spots of the three-hour Raw: multiple good, long matches, now paired with a handful of shorter matches that were pointless in and of themselves, but at least are giving midcarders some direction even if it’s silly. By my count, we got about 45 minutes of aired wrestling tonight, a marked departure from last week’s episode that was very light on in-ring action. 
Cody Rhodes and Miz v. Damien Sandow and Fandango was a pointless, nothing match that at least continued Fandango’s now-correct direction as a vapid, Zoolander-meets-Dancing with the Stars direction. Same with Titus O’Neil v. Swagger: they’re continuing to give us a reason to cheer the PTPers and thus allow them to capitalize on the mainstream attention surrounding Darren Young (what little there may still be after those first few days) without being obnoxiously obvious about it, by giving us a reason to cheer them. 
Though the trend of giving away World Heavyweight title PPV matches on free TV in the preceding weeks is obnoxious, it’s not like anyone’s buying the show to see that title defended, anyway. I’m torn between hating the horribly overused “distraction leads to heel getting rolled up” finish and liking that RVD and Del Rio gave us a solid match without really giving the match away seeing as how it lacked a conclusive finish.
As discussed earlier, Axel is improving just by virtue of proximity to Punk. Their match was a little dry, but it was about 8 aired minutes of solid, with a clean finish before the appropriate post-match screwiness. 
We also saw two pairings that rarely, if ever don’t produce. Randy Orton and Christian is pretty much an automatic three stars, and this was no exception. I’m not much of a match rater, but I’d put the 13 minutes we saw of roughly 16 minutes at about ***1/2. The face/heel roles reversing did nothing to negatively affect their excellent in-ring chemistry.

 Orton has improved as a worker; I enjoyed the way he worked his babyface moveset into his heel style in a way that downplayed his weaknesses. He’s always been technically and athletically proficient, but concerns about his boring in-ring heel work can wait another week after a good match with Christian in which, yes, he slowed down from his fast-paced, fired-up babyface style but didn’t keep going to the headlocks after the first couple minutes. 

Finally, I’m not crazy about three straight episodes (Smackdown included) ending with Orton getting the upper hand on Bryan with an RKO, but the preceding Bryan/Rollins…well, essentially singles affair before the immediate beatdown by itself warranted a near 4-star rating, highlighted by a fucking absurd top-rope release German suplex. 
See you next week for the Postgame Analysis.