If you were to liken the current WWE fan interest to anything in so-called ‘real sports’, it would probably be most similar to the current batch of international football fixtures: sure we’re trying to care about them, but it all seems a bit anti-climactic after the big issues of the past season have now been resolved.
This is nothing new for WWE. Being one of the only facets of either sport or entertainment that doesn’t enjoy any kind of off-season, they usually experience a lull around this period while they introduce and develop new stars, say goodbye to outgoing legends who hang up their boots and re-jig the current stars into the positions they need them in for their peak times of the year.
It feels different this time around, though. Perhaps that is, in part, due to an abnormal amount of hiatuses or injuries involving top guys (their new big name, Fandango – who went viral for all of about a week in a meme that saw him clash with Everton football club at one stage – has just gone out with a concussion, for example). Or perhaps it’s because they’re a bit stuck for ideas.
Proof, if needed, can be found even in the name of their upcoming pay-per view: WWE Payback, which takes place this Sunday on Sky Box Office. Not only is the title a lazy rethinking of a much-beloved old PPV format, Backlash, but it also strangely features a card that’s somewhat devoid of any matches where the primary motivation is a Kill Bill-style need for any kind of, you know, payback. Which even the most casual of fans would assume would be a prerequisite.
The main event sees a rematch between WWE Champion, John Cena and his current foe, Ryback. This follows the duo fighting to a no-contest at last month’s Extreme Rules. The fact that two people who have already fought to a deadlock, with neither gaining any kind of advantage and, thus, the other not having any particular desire for payback isn’t the only thing a bit random about the whole feud; because it’s also scheduled to be settled in a ‘Three Stages of Hell’ match.
Traditionally, ‘Three Stages of Hell’ (or ‘Best 2-out-of-3 Falls’) matches take place under the guise that one wrestler thinks he can beat another in a variety of manners, i.e. “I can pin you, I can make you tap out, but if you somehow do either of the above to me then we’ll settle this in a cage match” etc. The stipulations behind this particular match is that the first fall will be a Lumberjack Match (where the ring is surrounded by a number of WWE wrestlers who didn’t get a match on the show), the second a Tables Match (the winner puts the other man through a table) and the third an Ambulance Match.
Now, I’ve been in a few arguments in my life. However, never have I experienced one where I’ve felt the need to better the other person by beating him while other people watched, putting him through a table then putting him into an ambulance. If anything, I would consider the latter option a bit considerate, given all that’s gone on beforehand. Yet here we are…
The rest of the card includes matches similarly devoid of any Payback-related motivations, such as Chris Jericho vs. CM Punk (the story being that CM Punk has gone missing since WrestleMania, and Jericho is wondering where he’s been – it’s more a case of being nosy than wanting payback); Alberto Del Rio vs. World Heavyweight Champion, Dolph Ziggler (Ziggler has been out with a concussion for several weeks); and The Shield trio taking on random combinations Daniel Bryan, Randy Orton and Kane in two title matches (the story being that the latter threesome have been miscommunicating, and being bested by The Shield as a result, for some time now).
Despite this, the in-ring content should deliver and paper over the cracks, as WWE fills time before presumably pulling the trigger on their now-traditional ‘big summer storyline’ that typically snaps them out of this hazy period in their calendar.
A quick look to the past, though, will reveal that WWE had a much more reliable fallback that managed to avoid such messy, thrown-together scenarios as we’re now witnessing: the always-reliable King of the Ring tournament.
The 16-man tournament began in the mid-80’s, generally used as a way of giving heels (bad guys) a bit of heat with crowds by winning and declaring themselves as kings, i.e. King Harley Race, ‘The Macho King’ Randy Savage etc. By 1993, it became a standalone PPV with the final 8 competing in a one-night tournament that ended with a new king being crowned.
Without doubt, there were some duds among the 18 Kings crowned to date. The likes of Mabel (a surprisingly agile, 500lb wrestler who later competed under the similarly doomed monikers Viscera and Big Daddy V) and Bad Ass Billy Gunn (but what did they expect trying to make a money superstar out of a man whose theme song included the words “I love to pick ‘em, and I’m gonna kick ‘em/Cus I’m an Ass Man”?) weren’t propelled to the stardom that WWE bosses may have hoped for at the time of asking.
But those hiccups are surpassed by the vast number of success stories that come with the King of the Ring legacy.
The only 2-time winner, Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart ranks as one of the all-time greats in the company and would, at times, single-handedly keep WWE competitive during an otherwise rough period in their history.
Stone Cold Steve Austin almost immediately jumped from hard-working journeyman to…I dunno…only the biggest draw in WWE history after he uttered the immortal (and poignant) words, “Austin 3:16 says I just whupped your ass!” following his 1996 win.
Then you’ve got the likes of Triple H, Brock Lesnar, Edge, Kurt Angle…all future WWE Hall of Famers whose singles careers took a big leap once they were crowned.
In recent iterations of the format, WWE have used the tournament as a means of giving established talent something to do while the main event scene was otherwise occupied, and the likes of William Regal, Booker-T (KING BOOOOKAAAAHHH!) and reigning king, Ireland’s own Sheamus, have prospered as a result.
WWE may feel that the format has died, what with the recent evolution of the idea being the Money in the Bank Ladder Match (set to take place next month), where a mid-card talent receives a guaranteed Heavyweight Title match in the near future; in what is almost always a precursor to them winning the belt.
However, when you look at how weak and uninspired this Sunday’s PPV effort is, one can’t help but wistfully look to the past and wonder how the current problems the company are experiencing could’ve been easily ignored if we had a shiny tournament to anticipate and dissect, the same way US sports fans do with permutations for the NBA and NFL play-offs. The formula is tried and tested. Put simply: it just works.
This Sunday, WWE may have lumberjacks. They may have tables and ambulances. They may have comebacks and stable wars and title matches. But it’s June, damnit, and long-time wrestling fans know that June isn’t June if WWE are missing a king.
WWE Payback Quick Picks
WWE Heavyweight Title Three Stages Of Hell Match: John Cena over Ryback
Chris Jericho vs. CM Punk – No Contest
World Heavyweight Title Match: Dolph Ziggler over Alberto Del Rio
Intercontinental Title Triple Threat Match: Curtis Axel over Wade Barrett & The Miz
WWE United States Title Match: Dean Ambrose over Kane
WWE Tag Team Title Match: The Shield (Roman Reigns & Seth Rollins) (c) over Daniel Bryan & Randy Orton
WWE Divas Title Match: AJ Lee over Kaitlyn
Sheamus over Damien Sandow
Rick Nash is the founder of WWE Parties Ireland, throwing parties for wrestling fans where you can watch big WWE PPVs on the big screen! He is also a DJ and terrible sports gambler, so feel free to share some tips with him on Twitter.