I originally wanted to do a list that strayed from the tired “top 10 moments of the year” concept, instead focusing on top 10 things that WWE accomplished this year, but when I was piecing together the list I realized…WWE didn’t accomplish a whole hell of a lot this year. 2011 was a good year, no doubt, and if things keep rolling down the optimistic path I like to think they’re rolling down, 2011 will be remembered as the spark; the catalyst of a new era in professional wrestling. Young talent really stepped up their game this year at a time where they were desperately needed. Looking back, I liken 2011 to 1997.
Remember how tumultuous 1997 was in the World Wrestling Federation? We were just getting over some of the darkest times in the history of WWE—between the years 1993 and 1996, the WWF was in a period of complete disarray. They had lost megastars Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall (and by the end of 1997, they were losing Bret Hart as well); basically a “who’s who” of pro wrestling in the early 90s. To say 1997 was a pivotal and “make-or-break” year for the World Wrestling Federation is an understatement—they basically had to start from square one. They were busy building up homegrown stars, throwing virtually everyone against the wall and hoping something stuck. And in the wake of WCW embarrassing WWF in the ratings with their new “push the envelope” philosophy with the nWo, the WWF had to find some attitude. 1997 was the year that this happened, birthing the superstars for the next ten years: Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, and D-Generation X were all either hatched or given a massive push in 1997.
And you know what? It stuck.
Fast forward to 2011.
WWE has been in a huge ratings and mass-market awareness downturn. Fans are getting sick of the family-friendly, PG initiative started in 2008 (not just because of the lack of blood and boobs, mind you, but because of the milquetoast, uninspired product it promotes). They’re tired of having John Cena shoved down their throats any time they want to watch some wrestling. They’re losing viewers just like in 1997, but this time they’re not losing them to WCW, they’re losing them to themselves. Just like 1997, WWE has fairly recently lost many stars: The Rock retired from in-ring action in the early 2000s; Austin can’t wrestle with his bad neck and instead opts for part-time appearances; Edge was forced to retire with the same injury; Shawn Michaels called it quits in 2010; and Triple H is far more involved on the corporate side of things these days. They have Cena and Orton, but for perhaps the first time ever the top faces of the company are the most reviled wrestlers on the roster. Everyone outside of five-year-olds and women mercilessly boo John Cena; hell, they even sell “Cena Sucks” shirts now. Can you imagine “Hogan sucks” shirts in 1992, or “Austin sucks” shirts in 1999? It shows what a strange time WWE is in, and how in lieu of the actual competition that they bought out in 2001, they’re really competing against themselves. Regardless of reason, some fresh air needs to be breathed into the WWE product, and fast.
That’s where these moments come in. Like I said, 2011 won’t be a landmark year, but it does lay the groundwork for great things to come. A slew of superstars have really stepped up their game this year, and if given the ball correctly, I think 2012 will benefit greatly from the events of 2011. So without further adieu, here are the 10 most important moments of 2011 in WWE.
10. May 1: Kharma debuts
Shortly after WrestleMania XVII, we started seeing cryptic vignettes of a woman (who was not shown) tearing the head off of Barbie dolls and cackling maniacally. Internet fans who love to ruin everything about the product they love already knew that it had to be WWE teasing the debut of Awesome Kong (later to be named “Kharma), the monster-truck proportioned “diva” who really made an impact (terrible, terrible pun most definitely intended) on TNA. When she finally debuted, interrupting the conclusion of the breakup of LayCool (RIP LayCool. You were flawless.), it was the most captivating thing that had happened in a while. And for something that important to come out of the Divas Division, you know they did her debut right.
Sadly, a few weeks later, Kharma announced her real-life pregnancy and they had no choice but to prematurely kill off the angle. And now we’re “treated” to Beth Phoenix doing her best Kharma impression as the couldn’t-be-less-intimidating “Divas of Doom”.
Can you imagine baby-makin’ with Kharma? To quote Booker T, “awwwww my GOODNESS!”
Oh, what could have been…
9. January 21: Cody Rhodes Legitimately Breaks Nose, Saves Career
Looking back at The Legacy in 2009-2010, who would have thought that out of members Cody Rhodes and Ted DiBiase that Cody would be the one with the extremely bright future, and DiBiase would be fighting to stay relevant? After Legacy, DiBiase was given his dad’s gimmick (can never go wrong there), and one of the hottest women I’ve ever seen in my life in Maryse.
Honestly, how the hell do you screw that up?
Regardless, Cody looked to be the odd man out between the already popular Randy Orton, for whom Legacy was merely a launching pad, and DiBiase, who seems poised for greatness. Cody did have the whole “Dashing” gimmick which was good in a funny, modern-day Rick Martel kinda way, but he was never going to be World Champion with that.
And then Rey Mysterio broke his nose. Legitimately.
As a consequence of that, Cody quickly changed from a self-absorbed, obsessed-with-appearances narcissist to a psychologically damaged mess who wore a protective mask and constantly hid his “grotesque” appearance with his hands whenever he could (yes, he looked exactly the same. That was the gimmick. He was so deranged that he thought his face had been mutilated, when in fact, it wasn’t). He spoke in a slow, deliberate drawl instead of the generic chipper arrogant tone he employed when he was “dashing”. He took an incident that could have been a complete disaster and a gimmick that would for most people be too campy to work with and turned it into the most meaningful span of his entire career. He went from the brink of being “future endeavored” to the top heel on SmackDown. And it was a pleasure to watch.
8. December 18: Daniel Bryan Cashes in
Excuse the horrible quality and yelping commentary. It happened less than a week ago.
No one could really believe their eyes when Daniel Bryan won SmackDown’s Money in the Bank contract in July. Sure, D-Bry is talented—one of the most talented guys on the roster, in fact. But after being buried and miring in obscurity for the past year, “future World Champion” didn’t seem to be on his list of accolades. But he did it, and then we, the jaded wrestling fanbase, decided, “well, he’s gonna be the first person to unsuccessfully cash in his briefcase.” There have been Money in the Bank winners who didn’t seem to fit the bill of “on the cusp of main event” before (hello, Jack Swagger), but Bryan had been relegated to nothing but Jobber to the Stars for the past six months, and the so-called perfect storm of Vince’s disapproval seemed to have Daniel Bryan directly in the eye of it: He’s a man who built his fame entirely without WWE behind him, he’s an Internet darling, he’s not a muscle-bound, steroid-popping monster, and he’s not great on the mic. Amazing wrestling skill be damned, if you possess even one of those traits, you may see yourself become future endeavored, and Bryan possesses them all! Where did Vince’s sudden change of heart come from?
I don’t think anybody really knows the answer to that question, and who knows how long his reign is going to last, but if RAW this past week was any indication, it could actually be a sign of things to come. CM Punk, Daniel Bryan and Zack Ryder all in the ring, all with gold on their shoulders was an exciting glimpse into the future. Could we see Punk and Bryan leave WrestleMania XVIII with both world titles? It would be a classic moment. Sort of like Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit at WrestleMania XX, but with less prescription drugs and premeditated murder.
7. April 3: The Miz Retains at WrestleMania
Sure, the match wasn’t a 5-star classic, or even a 3-star match, really. It won’t go down as one of the greatest main events in WrestleMania history; it probably wasn’t even the best match of April, 2011. The Rock made a promise to make an impact in the main event, so while the action wasn’t bad, everybody was just waiting to see what The Rock would do. Even when Cena and The Miz got counted out to end the match in a draw, not one person watching thought that was going to be how it ended; everyone was just waiting for The Rock’s music to hit. Then he came down and exercised the power that he seemingly bestowed upon himself to restart the match with no disqualifications to ensure there would be a winner. Then seconds later, he Rock Bottoms Cena, giving Miz the win. Miz was a groggy mess after legitimately suffering a concussion, which probably ended up cutting the match shorter than it was supposed to be. In any event, the match was a mess.
BUT, it makes the list because of the outcome. The Miz beat John Cena at WrestleMania. Let me say it again. The Miz pinned John Cena in the main event of WrestleMania! Think of some of the names who have walked away from WrestleMania with the WWE Championship in tow. Hogan. Warrior. Savage. Flair. Michaels. Bret Hart. Triple H. Stone Cold. The Rock. …The Miz?!
This moment makes it because it shows the faith they really have in The Miz to carry the brand once Cena-mania dies down a bit. To me, that’s pretty damned significant.
6. April 18: R-Truth Realizes It’s All a Conspiracy
Prior to his heel turn, R-Truth was probably my least favorite wrestler on the roster. His incessant rapping, his generic cheap-pop hometown mentions (which he even sometimes got wrong!) and borderline racist jivin’ and dancin’ ways were just too much to bear. Then he somehow earned a WWE Championship match. Then he got duped into putting that opportunity on the line against John Morrison, in a segment that would have made Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cringe. Then he lost the match, giving the opportunity to John Morrison. Realizing how stupid he is, he freaked out and attacked John Morrison, explaining with dead eyes and no emotion, “You did this, John”. Then, then, THEN, he did the most dastardly thing anyone could ever do. The devious act that solidified him as a force to be reckoned with: He grabbed a cigarette from the crowd, and he…he SMOKED IT!
What better heel for a PG product than a nefarious distributor of second-hand smoke? Sadly, the “Smoking Man” gimmick didn’t last past the initial turn, but we did get the violent and shocking water bottle to the head as a signature weapon, as well as a slew of absolutely ridiculous catchphrases from R-Truth, who went from “worst wrestler on the roster” to “most entertaining and hilarious wrestler maybe ever”. DON’T YOU WHAT ME!
5. February 17: The Debut of Z! True Long Island Story
Back in February, a fledgling, miring-in-mediocrity wrestler by the name of Zack Ryder started a silly little YouTube show, featuring himself playing with action figures and making puns about his lack of backing from the WWE brass (i.e. struggling to climb a fence, exclaiming, “I’m trying to get over!”). In his own words, he started the show with the intention to either get noticed, or get fired. It took upwards of 40 weeks, but he finally got noticed, and as of this writing is finally the WWE United States Champion. Z! True Long Island Story has had some great moments over the past 48 weeks, from Zack’s dad’s obsession with John Morrison and Melina, to Zack’s roller coaster relationship with Princess Leia, to Ziggler’s “Ask the Heel” segment that actually sparked a television feud on RAW, to countless others. A lot of times, I look forward to the next episode of Z!TLIS more than I do RAW or SmackDown.
4. April 3: Triple H and Undertaker Have a Match of the Year Candidate Despite Not Wrestling For Almost a Year Before
This match brought some much-needed star power to a WrestleMania showcasing a lot of young talent, and it definitely did not disappoint. Everything about the match was, in a word, epic. I’ve talked about Aitch’s entrance before, calling it one of the most badass entrances I’ve ever seen. Undertaker’s “Last Outlaw”, Johnny Cash-fueled entrance is not to be missed either. Say what you want about WWE; they are some of the most amazing producers of live events in the world. Two of the most celebrated wrestlers ever, and two of the last remaining relics from the Attitude Era went at it in technically their second match at WrestleMania, although it wasn’t really built up as such, and they pulled out all the stops, including just saying “fuck it” to the fairly strict rule of no chair shots to the head and just beating the hell out of each other, complete with—you guessed it—chair shots to the head.
Add in some Shawn Michaels a few weeks before ‘Mania to shake up the storyline and make you think “Wow, HHH might actually end ‘Taker’s 18-0 WrestleMania undefeated streak” and you have a match for the ages. In the end, Trips’ efforts fell short just like the 18 attempts before it, but we saw something we very rarely, if ever, see out of the Undertaker’s character: weakness. It was Triple H who walked out of that match by his own volition, and Undertaker who was carried out on a stretcher.
3. February 14: If Ya Smell……..
Say what you want about The Rock, but if you were a fan of the WWF in the late 90s, there’s no way you can watch the video above without feeling even a hint of wonderful nostalgia. For once, WWE did an amazing job covering up who the “Guest Host” for WrestleMania was going to be; guesses ranged from Bob Barker to Justin Beiber! So when you go in with expectations that low and you hear the classic “IF YA SMELL….”, it’s hard not to get goosebumps. The Rock came out and cut a promo like only The Rock can, and immediately called out John Cena, which was the catalyst for the year+ long storyline we now have, culminating in one of the biggest main events in WrestleMania history at next year’s event: The Rock vs. John Cena, one on one. Sure, his promise that he was “never going away again” was a bit ambitious (unless you consider one pre-recorded segment showing up on RAW “via satellite” being back full time), but dedicated or not, The Rock is one of the most gifted talkers in wrestling’s history, and one of the most charismatic people on the planet, period. This return showed us how sorely WWE was missing the jabroni beating, pie eating, trail blazing, eyebrow raising Rock.
2. June 27: The Shoot Heard ‘Round the World
If you follow wrestling, read Sports Illustrated, watch ESPN or were generally alive during the summer, you are cognizant of CM Punk and his “shoot heard ’round the world”. He sat down at the top of the ramp in a Stone Cold Steve Austin shirt and just let it all out. For those of you not familiar with the backstory, Punk’s contract was legitimately expiring in a few weeks, and he had at the time chosen not to renew it, citing misuse of his character as well as a few other disputes. WWE really, really wanted to keep him, so Vince let him go out there and basically say what he wanted to say. I mean, why not, right? If it flops, he’s gone in a few weeks anyway. If it gets over, you’ve just struck gold.
Watch that promo and tell me which one happened.
Punk set the tone for the summer with the shootiest shoot in the history of shoots, which in turn set the tone for the so-called “Reality Era” we’re apparently in because of this one promo. Punk tears down the fourth wall, mocks WWE for its distancing itself from the word “wrestling”, teases returning to Ring of Honor or New Japan Pro Wrestling (a shocking moment in itself. These days, even acknowledging direct competition to WWE exists is seemingly a huge no-no), brought up figures with rocky relationships with WWE at best in Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman, called Triple H a “doofus” and his wife Stephanie McMahon an “idiot”, and said the WWE will be better off when Vince McMahon is dead. All fairly benign comments until you realize that’s really how Punk feels. No one knows for sure how much McMahon approved beforehand; popular lore suggests that Punk was just told to go out there and say whatever he wanted, and Vince would cut the mic off when it got to be too much in his eyes. And seemingly, that’s what happened.
The “shoot” promo got WWE something it rarely gets these days: mainstream attention. ESPN covered it. Major news outlets covered it. For the first time since probably 1999, WWE did something “cool”; something to talk about at the watercooler the next day. This truly was Punk’s “3:16 moment”, and it changed everything.
The whole thing was just a set up to the best moment of the year though…
1. July 17: CM Punk leaves WWE…With the WWE Title
The date: July 17th, 2011. The event: WWE Money in the Bank. As I said above, CM Punk’s contract was legitimately expiring, as fate would have it, the day after the pay-per-view where he was competing for the WWE Championship in his hometown of Chicago. Some of the best moments in wrestling can’t be scripted; it has to be a perfect storm of conditions, and this night was one of those perfect storms. First, I’ll show you Punk’s entrance. Now, keep in mind he is in his hometown…but still. This reaction is one of the most insane I’ve ever heard.
…And, by contrast, let’s hear how the Chicago crowd greeted then-WWE Champion John Cena, historically one of the most polarizing figures in WWE to begin with:
No signature salute. No wave to the camera. No shit-eating grin. Cena knows he’s the most hated man in Chicago that night. It only got worse as the match went on, too: from the deafening “you can’t wrestle!” chants, to his shirt being thrown back at him multiple times, it was almost impossible for Cena to find his stride. And of course, as with any major storyline, Vince McMahon got involved, attempting to once again recreate the controversy of the 1997 “Montreal Screwjob” (a well he’s gone to one too many times at this point), but Super Cena didn’t want to lose that way. For his valiant efforts, he gets a GTS right to the face:
And even McMahon demanding that Alberto del Rio cash in his newly-won Money in the Bank briefcase wasn’t enough. Punk had won the title, and kicked off one of the more interesting storylines in recent memory (even if they did eventually drop the ball with it).
Hands down, nothing in 2011 or even of the past handful of years could compare to this moment. There were many memorable moments and lasting images this year; many I simply couldn’t fit into the list, and I’m sure some I forgot about entirely, but if WWE in 2011 could be summed up in one picture, it would have to be this: