After finally toppling Triple H with a decisive Yes-Lock earlier in the evening, Daniel Bryan enters WrestleMania XXX’s main event – a triple threat match for the WWE title in which his spot was awarded to him for his victory. He overcomes the powers of Randy Orton and Batista, bookending a heroic effort with a knee right to Batista’s face that would land him that elusive three-count. The crowd of 70,000 nearly blows the roof off the Superdome as Daniel Bryan grabs the belt and triumphantly raises it into the air, leading the crowd in deafening “YES!” chants as pyro blazes through the air. The screen goes to black.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know WrestleMania is still 28 days away and the tools for the above scenario aren’t even set in stone. But that sure as hell made a lot of sense when you read it, right?
Sadly, the last eight months – or really, the last decade, it seems – have proven that such drastic concepts like making sense don’t quite factor into WWE’s decision making. I’m sure you’ve heard Triple H say “what’s best for business” at least once lately, and yet they seem to refuse to apply that philosophy to their own programming.
Funnily enough, 2014 began with quite a bit of promise for WWE. Despite the ill-fated Daniel Bryan/Bray Wyatt storyline, the WWE won over angry smarks (“smart marks,” or people who know wrestling is scripted but enjoy it nevertheless) everywhere with the announcement of the WWE Network. The fans rejoiced, proclaiming “They finally did something right!”
Sure, it was their Plan B for the network, but what a plan it was. The entire WWE, WCW, and ECW pay-per-view libraries, hours of original content, and every future pay-per-view for a measly ten bucks a month?! It was almost a love letter to the fans.
Their winning streak of good decisions continued just a few days later when they finally pulled the plug on “Daniel Wyatt.” In fact, that Raw ended just like our WrestleMania dream scenario: Daniel Bryan conducting a chorus of “YES!” chants so loud I’m 95% certain they caused the concussion that would sideline him for a couple of weeks afterwards.
But, as the WWE has been wont to do (over the last few years especially), they followed that big leap forward with an even bigger step back. Batista was the latest guy to come back after a long hiatus and be immediately rewarded with a main event slot over the guys who had earned it, all because he’s in a pseudo-leading role in an upcoming movie. Of course, this by itself wasn’t that bad. Batista has proven in his run that he can have good, even great matches when given the right opponents, and his arrogant, egomaniacal heel character from the last six months of his first tenure, affectionately labeled “Kanye Batista,” was one of the more memorable runs in recent memory.
Our excitement quickly tumbled back to earth when we saw that it wasn’t the Batista we remembered who showed up the week before the Royal Rumble, but rather Pitbull’s overgrown twin brother, sprinting to the ring in his skinny jeans and sucking air from the first ten rows. And on top of that, he shook the hands of Triple H and Stephanie McMahon (who were apparently in the “face” portion of their heel/face/heel/face/heel/face/heel/face/heel/face run since SummerSlam), and cut an awkward, stuttering promo for all of ten seconds.
The Royal Rumble came and went. Well, that’s at least what the WWE would prefer for us to think. Despite the aforementioned storyline involving Daniel Bryan and Bray Wyatt drawing the ire of the fans, they tore the house down in one of the best Pay-Per-View openers ever. It was a match so good that Bryan’s loss wasn’t met with pitchforks for once, and it absolutely made Bray Wyatt, elevating him from goofy cult leader to a serious main event player. The Pittsburgh crowd was incredibly receptive, serenading both wrestlers with “This Is Awesome!” chants, and cheering for the Wyatts.
That, of course, would be the last positive response from that crowd.
It turns out Pittsburgh is more of a smark town than the WWE thought, and to the surprise of everyone not in the WWE writers’ room, they wanted nothing to do with John Cena vs. Randy Orton: 38547493920283403023 Times In a Lifetime™. The “most anticipated rematch in history” was met with jeers the likes of which we hadn’t seen since Goldberg and Brock Lesnar stunk the joint up at WrestleMania XX amid news of their impending departures. It was a truly embarrassing situation for the WWE – Cena and Orton are supposed to be the biggest stars of the current era, “A+ players” who they want us to believe are on the same level as the Hogans, Savages, Austins, and Rocks of the world. But here they were, having their match relentlessly booed and derided with demeaning chants. The match was okay, I guess – I don’t really remember much of it thanks to the overwhelming crowd snatching my attention – but as a social experiment it was truly fascinating.
The fan malaise would only crescendo from there. Expectations for the Royal Rumble match were high. Most people believed that Daniel Bryan would be a surprise entrant because, despite the poor reception of the WWE title match – they had to have finally smartened up and gone all-in on the Bryan push, right? Sadly, the crowd was treated to a Rumble match that petered out about two-thirds of the way through, and grew increasingly restless as the magic #30 spot drew near. Chants for Daniel Bryan continued to rumble (no pun intended, I think) as the feeling of dread among attendees and viewers alike grew with each passing entrant.
Batista was met with a smattering of boos, and it grew even worse when Rey Mysterio drew the most heat of the night simply for not being Daniel Bryan when he was revealed as the 30th entrant. The black cloud of contempt was large enough to completely overshadow a convincing Diesel Push for Roman Reigns. We watched as Batista stiffly moved around the ring and gasped for air, feeling hopeless once it became clear that he was going to win. Pittsburgh started rooting for Reigns just because they didn’t want to see Batista get what should have been Daniel Bryan’s shot handed to him.
So of course, when Batista unceremoniously tossed Reigns over the top rope, he got a reception that would’ve made Cena/Orton look like the Rock/Austin match that WWE thinks it is. Batista at least deserved credit for catching on to the negativity and heeling up his celebration by telling the crowd to “Deal with it” and showing flashes of what people were hoping to see to begin with. But that was lost in the bigger picture – this was the direction of the company that the WWE has been trying to shove down the viewers’ throats for years. The booking has made their message clear: guys like Daniel Bryan are B+ players, too small to get over with fans, and that the real money was in a muscle-bound “movie star” like Batista. And yet here it was, being openly rejected not only by those uppity smarks whom are often disregarded, but the 15,000 fans in the audience. It was a PR disaster that spread to social media, as well as legitimate news outlets.
Of course, I’d be remiss to not mention CM Punk walking out the very next day. It was yet another blow to their relationship to the fans, as it was no secret that Punk wasn’t exactly the happiest guy in the locker room, and him quitting in dissatisfaction with his role seemed pretty indicative of how grossly out-of-touch the WWE brass are. “C-M-PUNK!” chants have spread like wildfire through the subsequent shows, almost like a statement of agreement with Punk’s reasons, whatever they were, for quitting.
And that has ultimately been the key to this whole issue – the fans. The WWE likes to fancy itself as an entertainment company, because God knows that will make people magically separate them from “Professional Wrestling.” The ultimate goal of an entertainment company is to satisfy its fans and maximize its profits while doing so. So what does it say about their standing with the fans when Raw is being hijacked from week-to-week, even outside of the so-called “smark territories?” The fans are so bored with what the WWE wants us to like that they’re coming up with silly chants just to entertain themselves.
Mick Foley asked after the Royal Rumble if the WWE hates its own audience. And at times, it certainly seems that way. Anybody with functioning eyes and ears can tell that Daniel Bryan is currently the most over wrestler in the company. Week in and week out, he gets an outpouring of adulation that we haven’t seen so unanimously in quite some time. To be fair, I’m no businessman – but even I can recognize that this iron is hot enough to make my fingers blister, and it would be unbelievably shortsighted to not strike it. And yet it’s been nearly seven months since Summerslam, and the closest Daniel Bryan’s has come to being rewarded for his hard work is an anticlimactic title victory that was rescinded within 24 hours because somebody actually thought that the real money was in Big Show challenging Randy Orton (spoiler: it wasn’t).
I doubt that Vince McMahon, Triple H, or anybody else in the WWE front office actively hates the fanbase. After all, where would they be without them? Why would they even bother putting out wrestling in the first place (besides it being the only venture they’ve ever been successful at)? However, it is very possible that plain ol’ ego and stubbornness has given them an attitude that they know what we want more than we do. Vince McMahon is still stuck in the 80s mentality that only muscular superheroes draw money, and Triple H has never met a hot angle that he didn’t want to stick his prominent nose in. Even after they once again seemed to finally “get it” with the rather ominous conclusion to the Elimination Chamber pay-per-view, it still seems like they’re missing the ultimate point by thinking that a match with Triple H at WrestleMania is what the fans are actually clamoring for.
As for me, I ultimately want to watch a product that I can actually enjoy. At the same time, the observer in me is absolutely fascinated by the scenario of the WWE actually having the balls to have Randy Orton and Batista main event WrestleMania XXX in what should be quite the rowdy crowd. It has the potential to be the biggest train-wreck in the history of the company, and severely damage their standing with the fans. But it’s also a nightmare scenario, and for us to get our dream scenario, the WWE will have to remove its head from its ass and see for it for itself.