On January 25th, WWE held its 28th annual Royal Rumble. On the heels of possibly the greatest triple threat WWE Championship match in history, Roman Reigns outlasted 29 other Superstars to win the Royal Rumble match and secure his spot in the main event of WrestleMania XXXI. His vague relative, wrestling and Hollywood icon Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson came out to raise Reigns’ hand in victory, truly passing the torch. This is what the fans wanted.
Only, you couldn’t tell that that’s what the fans wanted over the sound of 17,000 people booing the hell out of the babyface victor. Welcome to the new WWE, where you don’t actually know what you want, dammit.
See, what the fans actually wanted was Daniel Bryan—humble everyman, gifted technical wrestler and a man built from the ground up by his fans over his decade long wrestling career. What we got, however, was in stark contrast to this. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: musclebound, statuesque failed football player gets the proverbial rocket strapped to his ass after a couple years in developmental, regardless of mic charisma or in-ring acumen. He’s got the look and not a hell of a lot else, but in Vince McMahon’s WWE, that’s all one needs to succeed.
“How come they don’t want me, man?”
And stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Royal Rumble, after a strong undercard, devolved into a sea of boos and disappointment after it became glaringly evident that Daniel Bryan wasn’t going to be winning it, or even significantly factor into its ending. After last year’s total catastrophe, they somehow managed to top it: at least last year, Bryan was never even announced for the Rumble match. This year, he was forgettably knocked out of the ring and barely mentioned again (by the commentary team, anyway; the fans certainly chanted his name a number of times long after he had been eliminated).
We as wrestling fans go into watching WWE all but knowing we’ll be disappointed. We’ve been fed the “those sure are a lot of odds, surely John Cena can’t overcome them all this time?” storyline every pay-per-view for the past decade. We’ve sat through B-list celebrities wholly unfamiliar with the product as guest hosts and anonymous General Managers that never bore any fruit. We’ve had our symbol of change walk out on the company, frustrated by its incompetence and refusal to change with the times.
And yet, after every bad pay-per-view, the general sentiment is “that was horrible. See you all tomorrow.” Through all the disappointment, through all the misuse of legitimate fan favorites and all the stale storylines, we continue to watch, support, and otherwise pour money into the machine we resent so much.
Is there any other company on this planet that has this sort of inverse relationship with its most ardent fans? The last thing you’ll hear an Apple fanboy say is “yeah, the new iPhone’s probably gonna be a sack of shit, but I’ll buy it anyway.” Fans of certain clothing brands don’t pick up a shirt in the store and say, “god this is embarrassingly ugly. I’ll take three.” No other company can afford to make the types of decisions WWE does. “Fans, we hear you loud and clear. We know what you want. But fuck you, we’re doing what we decided based on absolutely nothing a year ago.”
It’s leaking radiator fluid, rides horribly and seems to actually be insulting my intelligence as I drive. I’LL TAKE IT!
WWE manages to get away with it simply because they are the only major wrestling promotion in the country, and there is always going to be three to five million people obsessed enough with wrestling to watch their product no matter how insulting it is.
I should know, I’m one of them.
But the bigger question in all of this is why? Why does WWE insist on making it more difficult for themselves by going against the wishes of their own fan base? Last year’s WrestleMania turned out to be the greatest in recent memory, with an all-time feel good moment capping off an amazing storyline. But that was only after the fans all but forced WWE’s hand into putting Daniel Bryan in the main event. Had WWE not done a complete 180 with their plans, the main event of WrestleMania XXX would have been Randy Orton vs. Batista, and it would have been booed out of the building.
And if they don’t change course this time around, the main event of WrestleMania XXXI is going to be a still-green Roman Reigns vs. a probably-leaving Brock Lesnar. It’s almost like they want an amalgam of what happened at WrestleMania XX between Goldberg and Lesnar and what almost happened last year. I guess the answer is, as crazy as it may sound, they don’t get it. Reports came in after the Royal Rumble Sunday that Vince McMahon was actually surprised by the negative reaction Roman Reigns got.
I’m with you, guy with the ‘this is stupid’ sign.
So is it simply that Vince McMahon is pushing 70 years old and has been so involved in the wrestling business for his entire life that his finger is miles away from the pulse of pop culture in 2015? Or is it some kind of strange resentment for their most loyal fans? There has always been a very surreal mutual hatred between company and fan. There is constantly the lingering feeling that McMahon laments the fact that fans are so ‘smart’ to the product, and does anything he can to cut them down to size by swerving or otherwise depriving them of what they think they want, almost to prove to himself and to the hardcore fans (who as I said earlier, will be watching pretty much no matter what) that we’ll take what he gives us and like it.
In my opinion, it’s a combination of the two: an inability to relate to the times, and a simultaneous refusal to acknowledge that fact. As an aside, watching the WWE Network’s Monday Night War series about how WWE defeated WCW to become the lone dominant wrestling promotion is an exercise in frustration, as nearly every point made regarding WCW’s failures can easily apply to WWE’s product today, no matter how exaggerated the points against WCW may be. In other words, they aren’t learning from their own revisionist history. The only difference is, no one has the money or desire to come for the throne this time around.
But we still support it with our time and our wallets, week in and week out, like a victim in an abusive relationship that is now entirely loveless, but we keep going through the motions in some vain hope that they’ll change. Sure, hate-watching bad TV is certainly a thing, but this goes beyond that. We base our weeks around Monday Night Raw. We read the spoilers for SmackDown and keep up to date with every rumor, no matter how insignificant or outlandishly false.
We do all of this in support of a company we openly decry, and one that disappoints us near daily. Is it some bizarre instance of Stockholm Syndrome? We’ve all been subject to Vince McMahon’s brand of sports entertainment for so long we just come to accept it? In a sense I suppose, but the main thing that keeps us coming back is the potential, no matter how many times they squander it.
Professional wrestling should not be a difficult thing to write. The story archetypes are simple: David vs. Goliath. Unstoppable Force vs. Immovable Object. Betryal. Respect. Love. Hate. Base all of your wrestling storylines on one of these simple concepts and you can have a compelling product with the right roster.
And that might be the most frustrating aspect of it all lately: WWE’s roster is one of the most stacked in history. Imagine a sensibly-booked product with the cast we have now: Brock Lesnar. Daniel Bryan. Dolph Ziggler. Seth Rollins. Dean Ambrose. Cesaro. Bad News Barrett. Bray Wyatt. And yes, even Roman Reigns. With the right booking and buildup, any and every one of those guys could and should be megastars.
Despite all of it, though, there is an undeniable allure to WWE. I’m a fan of indie wrestling, but there’s always the nagging voice in the back of a lot of wrestling fans’ minds saying, “imagine this match at WrestleMania.” If there’s one thing WWE nails, it’s the pomp, the grandeur, the spectacle…the illusion that everything is important. And there’s always the lingering thought that with a few simple tweaks, WWE could have Attitude Era-levels of mainstream acceptance again.
But for now, 2015 may as well be 1995. We’ve got our Shawn Michaels, our Bret Harts. But you’re getting the year of Diesel, dammit, and you’re gonna like it.