Sunday, 2 February 2014

WWE: Does “Big Guy = Big Draw” Still Apply? By Adam Ferguson

It’s been a dismaying week for wrestling fans. Particularly if, like me, you’re of the WWE persuasion. On Sunday night, although geographically separated - some in the arena, some in a pub, some in bed - we all (and that’s probably not an overstatement) were left extremely annoyed, intensely angered, a tad unsurprised, but mostly utterly perplexed at the non-inclusion of Daniel Bryan in the Royal Rumble match. Given he’d lost to Bray Wyatt earlier in the night, and that he’s the most ‘over’ professional wrestler on the planet at the moment, the authority’s (the real one, although pot/kettle black etc) decision not have the bearded warrior enter at number thirty was an abysmal one. In fact realistically speaking, forget about simply being entered into the match, Bryan should’ve won the whole thing.

Then the coffin was hammered with a sharp nail on Wednesday when reports emerged that shockingly signalled CM Punk’s apparent decision to walk out on the company. Effectively, to “take his ball and go home”. To leave the WWE. Anything is possible in the wrestling stratosphere, and while there’s still a minute chance that Punk’s departure is all a part of a grandiose storyline, there’s a very unsavoury and realistic feel to the current dire situation. When Punk left and placed his newly won WWE title amongst his refrigerated goods back in the summer of 2011, everybody knew that the scene was more or less a cemented plot advancement. However, this present predicament has come absolutely out of nowhere and given Punk’s past misgivings towards bigger stars (at least, of the WWE mindset) coming in before Wrestlemania and taking a spot - looking at you Dwayne - we shouldn’t be shocked if Batista’s immediate propelling to the Wrestlemania main event has irked the Best in the World a touch. In actuality there have been a mountain of other reported reasons behind his leaving, but until the entire unfortunate situation is made clear it’s probably best not to base our thoughts on speculation.

Two wonderful professional wrestlers seemingly held back in a torrid week. Two hugely popular stars. But also two quote-unquote ‘smaller guys’. Which begs the question: as the tarmac on the proverbial road to Wrestlemania hardens, does the WWE really have any ingrained faith in the wrestler, in the more-normal-looking-than-Hulk-Hogan athlete? Or, will the company continue to push their own muscle-men and chisel-bodied stars?

To get things going, lets undertake a lesson in recent WWE history:

Wrestlemania 28 & 29 - The past two showcasing of immortals have indeed showcased immortals. That is, if immortals are guys who’ve seen the spotlight for well over a decade. Twenty-Eight was headlined by the ‘Once in a Lifetime’ bout between The Rock (that’s the guy who headlined a Wrestlemania before the millennium) and John Cena (that’s the guy who has headlined every Wrestlemania since 2005, which we’ll get to later). The co-main event saw Triple H, The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels put on an immensely dramatic show inside Hell in a Cell. Though, I should point out that one of the three guys is retired and the other two only wrestle once or twice a year. Oh, and the Cell itself has been irrelevant for at least six or seven years - a poignant and symbolic indication of the times, perhaps. CM Punk and Chris Jericho were squashed in between these behemoth bouts, with the WWE title pretence hanging over their knowing heads.

A year later and Twenty-Nine and the MetLife Stadium held The Rock versus John Cena. Twice in a Lifetime then. Also Triple H versus Brock Lesnar. Brock who? Oh, he left back in 2004 and returns every so often boasting his reportedly high-paying contract. To their credit, WWE gave The Streak to CM Punk. Although apparently it was Taker who asked for the match. The pair stole the show, of course.

It’s also worthwhile noting that Daniel Bryan lost in 18 seconds to Sheamus - a big dude who also happens to be a WWE dude - at Twenty-Eight, before tagging with Kane - a big dude who also happens to be a WWE dude - at Twenty-Nine.

I should make it clear that seeing guys like Brock Lesnar and The Undertaker appear and wrestle is a without doubt a privilege. Specifically, Lesnar is a monster and an unpredictable presence who often delivers. Undertaker defines professional wresting - the histrionics and character-based nature, the skill and perseverance, but also the dedication through years of aches and pains. Guys such as these two absolutely should be paraded at Wrestlemania. It’d be a waste and disservice not to have them on the biggest show of the year.

But maybe just not all at once. And not at the expense of ‘smaller guys’, simply because they are smaller guys.

I’ll keep the revision short from now on. Here are some more Wrestlemania main events.

Wrestlemania 27 - John Cena & The Rock, featuring The Miz; The Undertaker vs. Triple H.

Wrestlemania 26 - The Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels; John Cena vs. Batista

Wrestlemania 25 - Triple H vs. Randy Orton; The Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels

Wrestlemania 24 - The Undertaker vs. Edge; John Cena vs. Triple H vs. Randy Orton

Wrestlemania 23 - John Cena vs. Shawn Michaels; Batista vs. The Undertaker

Wrestlemania 22 - John Cena vs. Triple H; Shawn Michaels vs. Vince McMahon

Wrestlemania 21 - Triple H vs. Batista; JBL vs. John Cena

Essentially, a variation of Triple H, The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, Batista and John Cena has headlined the past nine Wrestlemania’s. And undoubtedly they’ve made WWE an ocean-load of money and put on some outstanding matches in the process.

But 2005 was the last time WWE propelled new, thriving talent to the top on the biggest stage. Both John Cena and Batista were given the spotlight at Wrestlemania 21 as they defeated mainstays Triple H and JBL and won the World Heavyweight and WWE titles respectively. Since then, the pair have gone on to consistently dominate the pinnacle of the company, with enormous success too. Cena is a dynamism, an emotion-generator if there ever was one and, most importantly, a guy who for the last nine years has worked his ass off to be number one. Batista, although never quite on the same popularity level as Cena, has spent the majority of his WWE career headlining shows and competing in World title matches. He’s even edging closer to a Hollywood breakout. And Randy Orton, who wrestled an excellent match with The Undertaker at Wrestlemania 21, has also gone on to dominate the main event.

So what does this tell us? Well, two glaring things. Firstly, that pushing new, hot talent at Wrestlemania can and often is a springboard for a successful future. And secondly, that the same guys who nine years ago were in a situation similar to that of CM Punk and Daniel Bryan (and Dolph Ziggler etc), the same guys who were once were heralded as the future of professional wrestling, have now become a stagnant present. And it’s not even that as individual contributors these guys are stale, it’s that they are as a collective main event body. Of course the likes of John Cena, Randy Orton, Batista and further back The Rock and Triple H are hugely valuable players in today’s game. They draw in the masses. Often, they provide professional wrestling - the cult phenomenon that we as fans always moan never gets the light of day or adequate respect in ‘real life’, in the mainstream - with a platform to showcase itself to the rest of the world.

But it can’t begin and end with the same faces. Daniel Bryan and CM Punk, along with guys like Cody Rhodes, Dolph Ziggler and Antonio Cesaro, are all ‘smaller guys’ who should have bigger futures. Unfortunately the future of professional wrestling, at least peering through WWE spectacles, is looking exceedingly mirror-esque at present.

We need another reset. A reboot, similar to that of 2005 (and 1997). Not a complete overhaul, but some fresh ideas and youthful heartbeats. There are a couple of these around, a few shining lights. Daniel Bryan is one - proving he is rewarded for his hard-work, having spent a lifetime of professional struggle that’ll eclipse any reward ten-fold. Roman Reigns is larger guy, but also a newer guy, someone the fans want to see given the ball to run with (as evident on Sunday night).

I guess I should wrap up by coming full circle. The original question then, has this “big guy = big draw” notion that once reigned supreme in wrestling and WWE, gone?

No. Not entirely anyway.

It has certainly diminished to an extent, otherwise guys like Daniel Bryan and CM Punk would probably have never been anywhere near the top of WWE, purely because that’s not what ‘the boss’ would’ve wanted. Yet there’s still an existing and, provoked by this past week, a very real anxiety amongst many of us wrestling fans - hardcore, smarks, IWC, WWE Universe or whatever, we all love and appreciate the art at the end of the day - that the usual suspects will continue to rule the roost.

Maybe not, maybe we’ll see Daniel Bryan main event Wrestlemania after all, and so he should. The same way that guys such as The Undertaker and Brock Lesnar should be high on the card - just not exclusively on the card.

Wait, what? Who? Hulk Hogan and… St- Sting? Sting and Hogan for Wrestlemania 30?

Never mind.

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