If this period of WWE’s calendar would be compared to, say, the Premier League football season, right now it would be Christmas. The schedule is clogged up, we have a vague idea of how things are shaping up for the business end of the year, but there is still a long way to go to sour all of our preconceived notions.
This Sunday, WWE presents their inaugural ‘Battleground’ pay-per view event (live on Sky Sports, so you don’t have to pay for this one). The show is headlined by the third straight WWE Championship encounter between Randy Orton and Daniel Bryan (if you include their brief SummerSlam, Money in the Bank cash-in match). Though it would appear to the naked eye that Daniel Bryan is being built up as the ‘face of the WWE’ and that this feud would solidify that heading towards WrestleMania 30, you also have to keep in mind that this time last year CM Punk was a dominant champion, yet found himself completely removed from the title picture once WrestleMania rolled around in April. The likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock and Brock Lesnar are being rumoured for big money matches at next year’s WrestleMania 30, along with John Cena and Sheamus due to return from injury, so right now there’s simply no telling if Bryan will serve as a long-term top dog or a mere placeholder in the grand scheme.
Like the Premier League Christmas schedule, if you don’t fully appreciate the on-field action minus any high stakes, you probably won’t enjoy this shape-shifting period in WWE’s schedule. But, for those who do, right about now is the perfect time to take stock and appreciate the little things that are making WWE television worth watching. Pro-wrestling is rarely known for its subtlety and soft strokes – if WWE storylines were written in prose it would be in size 60 font, so every little nuance would be made blindingly obvious to all consuming. Hence little things like this are a breath of fresh air for those who can spot them. Here’s some I’ve been appreciating over the past few weeks, feel free to add your own in the comments:
1. Triple H’s Long-Term Character Development
Triple H is currently playing the role he was born to play as the sneaky, manipulative WWE COO doing whatever he feels is ‘best for business’. Playing on his real life, much-publicised marriage to Vince McMahon’s daughter Stephanie, a wedlock that has led to him being elevated through the family business, he also brings with him over 20 years experience slogging his way up the card as a wrestler and thus lends an air of refreshing credibility to the gimmick. In a modern era that plays upon fans understanding the frustrations felt by wrestlers let down by storylines and their position within the company – dubbed ‘The Reality Era’ by some – Triple H obviously measures his own past struggles and frustrations when speaking to other wrestlers on-camera. And that credibility sells tickets. If people know wrestling isn’t ‘real’, then the best way to sell it to them as such is to play on real emotions that people can understand.
But what has, to me, been most refreshing about his character is how he’s developed since his last, brief stint as on-air COO, which ended in the locker room going on strike and refusing to wrestle, citing safety concerns. We could see this a couple of weeks ago on SmackDown when he admonished Vickie Guerrero for allowing The Shield to beat up on several babyfaces who had taken a stand against Triple H’s new status quo, saying in a backstage segment, “Ten guys ran in to help Daniel Bryan. You know what happens when you do what you did? Ten more guys run in, then ten more guys. Next thing you know, you’ve got a full scale revolt on your hands!” This brief monologue allows us to further understand Triple H’s mindset in making decisions and, somehow, makes him more evil by proposing Vickie convey the illusion of fair competition, despite the fact that the wrestlers are really doomed to hit a glass ceiling designed by the COO himself.
Character development is often seen as a dirty term in pro-wrestling, with past storylines and rivalries conveniently forgotten in favour of whatever WWE need their fans to buy into to sell the next show. So this rare glimpse into the thought process behind a main character is definitely worth appreciating.
2. The difficulty of Summer Rae’s job
Many would, perhaps reasonably, question me bringing up WWE’s Total Divas show on E! in a column discussing hidden depth and meaning to be found on the current product, but it’s certainly added to one aspect of the show that I never would’ve thought about otherwise. As far as jobs go getting paid to perform in front of thousands on people on national TV, one would assume that Summer Rae’s stick of running through a basic ballroom dancing routine with Fandango for 20 seconds each week would be one of the handy ones. However watching Eva Marie’s cringeworthy fail as she auditioned to be Fandango’s ballroom dancing partner on an early episode of the show (in front of WWE’s head honchos) has made me realize that either Summer Rae has some skills to pay the bills, or Eva Marie is just a Barbie doll with a pulse. Both are equally likely.
3. Cesaro going old school
Slowly but surely I’m starting to be sold on Antonio Cesaro. He was always a standout talent on the independent scene as Claudio Castagnoli, however being saddled with a Swiss gimmick in the big leagues never did him any favours, especially once that gimmick was subsided in favour of him being dubbed a ‘Real American…with an accent’. Good in-ring work can only get you so far in WWE, just ask current WWE Championship contender Daniel Bryan, who needed to start convulsing in bouts of “YES!” or “NO!” chants to jump up the card. Great in-ring work, on the other hand, can work wonders for your career. Just ask Daniel Bryan who went from being the comedy ‘Yes/No’ guy to having the best match on each show and becoming a 2-time WWE Champion as a result.
Cesaro is stepping into that upper echelon with his in-ring efforts now, with fans finally starting to take notice of how he uses his three minutes a week on Raw to maximum effect. His old school shoutouts to days gone by, starting with a bearhug and more recently embracing a prolonged giant swing (below), have been getting him deserved plaudits. In a business where you do anything to standout, Cesaro has the wrestling chops to compete with anyone, and now appears to be clicking into the crucial ‘Miscellaneous’ section that will win him fans, admirers in his peer group and a major push in the next 12 months, all going to plan.
Good wrestling commentators are worth their weight in gold when it comes to selling a televised product. Live wrestling will always work because fans like to boo the bad guy and cheer the good guy, but that often doesn’t translate to television where we tend to put things under a further microscope in the safety of our own home, with Twitter at our fingertips. For a start, one simple question needs to be answered for people to invest: why are these two people fighting each other and why should I care? The likes of Gorilla Monsoon and Gordon Solie were genii back in the day, coming up with simple, plausible explanations like ‘winners paycheques’ that allowed fans to buy into even the most mundane and trivial of bouts. To that end, John ‘Bradshaw’ Layfield is a godsend at ringside, making the mundane matter by often being the only one looking to dot the i’s and cross the t’s in WWE storylines.
Last week’s SmackDown was a prime example, as he fobbed off people’s sympathy for The Miz, who challenged Randy Orton in a rematch from Raw where Orton beat The Miz mercilessly in front of his family. JBL’s ringside partner, Michael Cole, berated COO Triple H for allowing such a travesty to happen. “Triple H is giving Miz opportunities,” JBL argued. “It’s not his fault if Miz doesn’t take them.” A fair point.
Such credible selling of the storyline opens up the floor to debate and discussion in what otherwise would’ve been a formulaic (and cliché in 2013) storyline. It allows Cole to really examine why he feels the whole charade is wrong and gives fans a voice in rooting for Miz (or possibly Orton). Michael Hayes is famed for arguing that, no matter how wrong his actions, a heel can only truly draw money when he truly believes in what he’s doing, and JBL understands this by justifying heels’ decisions on their behalf at ringside. It gives that little bit of bite that makes the action not only logical, but meaningful.
5. CM Punk Acknowledging WWE’s Trademark ‘-isms’
I think the test of time is showing us that CM Punk’s now-legendary shoot promo on Raw in summer 2011 has proved more evolutionary than revolutionary. He claimed, then, that he would be an architect for change and give a voice to the voiceless and, while WWE television hasn’t done a 180-degree U-turn in quality, his idea of change has proved substantial nonetheless. You can thank CM Punk for allowing us to discuss backstage storylines and vibes that fans knew about, but were never acknowledged - as we examined above with Triple H’s current stick for example. He hasn’t revolutionized pro-wrestling as we know it, but he has made it okay to mention the elephant in the room at times, and that’s not a bad thing by any means. As fans, we’re okay with wrestling being surreal – and even a bit dumb – at times, as long as we’re not being patronised by it. So a top level character acknowledging these idiosyncrasies on-screen is a welcome relief.
Further evidence of this could be seen on the most recent episode of Raw, as Punk openly mocked how it was inevitable and predictable that he would be attacked and beaten down upon returning to his hometown for Raw a few weeks ago (one of the oldest tricks in the book in building sympathy for a babyface). He also joked about Brad Maddox didn’t seem to have been given any theme music as he interrupted Punk’s promo. And, though it wasn’t Punk himself saying it, you can thank him for a later light note when Renee Young quizzed Paul Heyman about how she’d seen Curtis Axel and Ryback hiding out backstage. Gee, I wonder if they were planning to attack Punk?
In reality, that’s all the change we really wanted. It’s never going to be possible to make wrestling ‘real’ again, nor even regularly sell storylines as believable ‘shoots’, but we’re still watching anyway. As long as WWE acknowledge their own version of reality and let us in on the joke, we’re fine with that.
6. There’s No Me In Shield
I spent a lot of my own wrestling career involved in tag-teams, seeing it as a place I could carve a niche and excel in while everyone else around me fought for the main event slots (of which there are only ever two). And you come to learn over time that, in wrestling specialist matches like tag, triple-threats etc, that’s what ultimately keeps wrestling unique. People say that pro-wrestling fans eventually graduate to MMA, and there is some truth to that. Why watch two guys put on a choreographed fight when you can just watch two guys beat the crap into each other legitimately, the logic goes. Well MMA or any other ‘legitimate’ sport will likely never have an answer for specialist attractions that only wrestling can provide. As much as I might love them to, I can’t ever see a UFC Royal Rumble becoming a reality.
Having said that, from the GAA clubs that I wrestled in to the Madison Square Garden’s that WWE guys perform to, there’s a problem with modern tag-team wrestling: most of its competitors aren’t embracing the style fully as they still have one eye on that main event. When doing homework for ideas to bring to my matches, I used to consult 80’s tag-teams like the Midnight Express, Brainbusters, Rock ‘n’ Roll Express etc to see how the art was truly done. These guys worked like a team, they all thought with one brain, and viewing that tandem in full swing was almost night-and-day when comparing it to one-on-one traditional wrestling matches. It was the same sport, but it was a different game altogether, and different rules applied.
The Shield are a true throwback to these great teams and watching them at work is a joy to behold. Their moves and styles compliment each other and the sum of each part is all utilized in a grand masterplan, that sees them as a near-unstoppable force when combined.
Take the finish to their recent six-man tag-team match on SmackDown against Kofi Kingston, Dolph Ziggler and Rob Van Dam as an example: as the babyfaces mounted their comebacks, Roman Reigns (having been hurt by an RVD moonsault to the outside) used himself as a distraction for a baseball slide from Kingston, who followed it up with a springboard karate chop to Dean Ambrose. As Kofi looked to finish Ambrose with a boom drop, Reigns again took a bullet for his teammate, providing a momentary distraction and taking a boom drop, allowing Ambrose to roll Kingston up. Kingston, however, countered that into a rollup of his own, only for Seth Rollins to interject (while Reigns distracted the referee) stomping Kofi’s face and allowing Ambrose to get the pin. No matter how plucky the babyface was, it was The Shield’s teamwork and synchronicity that made them unbeatable.
7. Paul Heyman
There’s no way you can have an article about little things in the WWE right now without mentioning the undoubted master of the art (today, that is; Eddie Guerrero is the GOAT in my eyes when it comes to ‘little things’). In his recent feud with CM Punk, though, Heyman has upped the ante on how delivers his little nuggets of genius, understanding that these nuggets are exactly what keeps the audience in-tune with the oft-generic heel manager angle he is asked to push at any given time.
Several weeks ago on Raw, ahead of his scheduled handicap match (with Curtis Axel, against Punk) at Night of Champions, Heyman made a last desperate ploy to avoid what he felt was an inevitable beatdown at the hands of his former protégé. Declaring himself a non-believer in conventional medical measures, he employed the consult of his own personal doctor, a Dr Kirschinbaum, who declared him unfit to meet Punk’s wrath the following Sunday due to a knee injury. Of course this ended up being rubbished as WWE used their own trainer to verify he was medically able, the segment ending with Heyman sprinting fult pelt away from a chasing Punk, but that’s not what matters here. It was the fact that Heyman employed the old wrestling trick of giving a character (Kirschinbaum) a hateful name in order to make him more despicable. As soon as the audience heard his doctor’s name uttered in Heyman’s inimitable, sleazy drawl, they groaned. I, and anyone else who saw what he was doing, laughed.
More recently, though, he has utilized homoeroticism-masquerading-as-bromance to draw fans’ ire. This was a trick often deployed during his run as Punk’s manager, as the two would often declare their love for each other during in-ring promos. However he’s turned the volume up to 11 since the split. Channeling the emotion of a betrayed lover, Heyman successfully trolled the audience upon teaming with his new knight in shining armour, Ryback, on more than one occasion kissing him on the cheek in appreciation. This escalated last Monday as Heyman invited his new squeeze to the ring and spoke of how he wished to show the world how this relationship meant so much more than a typical manager/client union – even sitting his children down for an uncomfortable explanation – before getting down on bended knee and proposing…that Ryback become a ‘Paul Heyman Guy’.
In doing all of this, Heyman has in essence become a WWE-equivalent of Sasha Baron Cohen, using fans’ pre-existing anti-Semitic and homophobic prejudices as bait in a near-satirical mirrored look at what really pisses them off. When you consider that his job is merely to get people to hate him in order to sell pay-per views, to examine the scope of what he achieves in doing so on top of this is to see what depth and ingenuity Heyman brings to a theoretically straightforward character. And the fact that this is nothing out of the norm for him, in fact it’s exactly what we’ve come to expect at this stage, shows how lucky we are to have him to make the mundane matter.
WWE Battleground Quick Picks
DANIEL BRYAN over RANDY ORTON to win the vacant WWE Championship
Hardcore Match: World Champion, ALBERTO DEL RIO over ROB VAN DAM
CM PUNK over RYBACK
CODY RHODES & GOLDUST over SETH ROLLINS & ROMAN REIGNS
US Champion, DEAN AMBROSE over BIG SHOW*
BRAY WYATT over Intercontinental Champion, KOFI KINGSTON
Divas Champion, AJ LEE over BRIE BELLA
Pre-Show: DAMIEN SANDOW over DOLPH ZIGGLER
*Match unannounced at time of writing, may not happen.