What’s New is Old

With the Royal Rumble 2015 now in the books, the big story coming out was exactly what most anticipated it would be going in, that being the decision to run with Roman Reigns as the top guy at the expense of Daniel Bryan, and moreover, the inevitable fan backlash that dominated the second half of the match itself.

As we’ll explore shortly, the decision to go with Roman Reigns isn’t a surprise, and never has been. What’s more interesting in all of this is WWE making the same mistake two years in a row with regards to Daniel Bryan.

As many have discussed, simply holding Bryan’s return off until Mania could have alleviated many of the problems Roman had to deal with last Sunday, but in a rush of judgement, it was decided to throw the most popular wrestler in the company into the match, just to fail.

Which brings us to the theme of this article, which is the old adage that “those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it”. Because this is not just a one or two year story. This type of behaviour has existed within Titan Towers for decades.

As easy as it is just to say “Daniel Bryan is the answer”, the truth is that we don’t really know if he is. There have been signs that the Bryan appeal could go wider than the scope of wrestling, with the chants being used on the MSU basketball court, and Bryan himself having a close connection with the San Francisco Giants as they went on to win the World Series, in a pairing that WWE completely failed to capitalise on. But in terms of moving numbers in other areas, it’s difficult to gauge, and the answer isn’t a surefire “YES!”

Regardless, Bryan is the clear choice of the current WWE crowd, and while the issue of WWE Vs. “The Audience It Has” rather than “The Audience It Wants” is a discussion point of its own, to me it clarifies the question of who makes a good historical comparison for Daniel Bryan. He is the Bret Hart of this generation.

You know, the guy that the company put the title on more out of necessity than anything, while they were diligently preparing for what they felt was the better option. The guy that, even when other options were forced on the audience (Luger with Bret, Batista with Bryan), the fans made their voices heard and forced the company to play their hand differently. What makes the Bryan/Bret comparison even more salient is the dynamic of 1994, comparing current events to the de-emphasis of Bret, and the rise of Diesel.

Though the fans voted that the Hitman was their guy in 94, Vince had his eyes on his perfect wrestler, the dream guy to build around, “Big Daddy Cool” Diesel. Somebody that ticked all of Vince’s boxes, who had charisma, but at the same time was forced to fit a homogenised babyface template that didn’t bring out the true potential star quality he had. Sound familiar? When the time came, Bret Hart, with all his support and ability, was dropped into the middle of the card to feud with pirates and dentists, while Diesel struggled, quickly becoming the worst drawing WWF Champion in history.

So let’s explore that second comparison. Who knows if Reigns will fail as spectacularly as Diesel – just because the hardcores booed doesn’t mean he won’t appeal to others. But it is worth mentioning that the similarites that both Reigns and Nash inherited when they became the King are also striking.
Both men gained popularity as one part of a package act, where they were protected as badasses, shown in small doses, and surrounded by some of the most talented people in the company to aid them at all times, and hide any weaknesses. When the package disbanded, the mega push began immediately in both cases.

As bad a reputation as Diesel’s reign has (and rightfully so), it wasn’t helped by the fact that there were absolutely no challengers with credibility once he got there, and right now WWE is at an all-time low when it comes to hot full-time heels. Kane and Big Show may as well be Sid and Mabel if they think that’ll be enough to keep Reigns red-hot as numero uno. The one obvious feud both guys had lined-up as champion were with a smaller, more spectacular performer that they used to be aligned with, and will appeal to the Pay-Per-View attending fanbase more than the handpicked champion (Michaels for Diesel, Rollins for Reigns), which will make those first defences a tough sell when it comes to building momentum and the perception of superstardom.

The underlying point is this – in 1994, they made a decision. They benched the great worker, the guy that the existing audience wanted on top and were happy with, that maybe didn’t tick all the superficial boxes, in order to go with a guy based on potential. Diesel was the equivalent of taking a gamble with a first round draft pick, hoping that he’d grow in the role. Ultimately, through poor opposition, a crowd that didn’t fully co-operate, a vision from Vince McMahon was wasn’t in sync with the public, and a business in a state of flux, they went back to the great worker, the favourite.

All those issues exist today with Roman Reigns. It is too early to write the book on Reigns as the face of WWE, and there are too many elements in the equation that have not been determined – Will the launching point be enough? Will the perfect foil come along to make his run as top guy a success? Will the audience embrace him? Will he attract new fans?

But for Daniel Bryan, it doesn’t matter. He is destined to be the go-to guy when all else fails. Maybe they’ll fall back on Cena, maybe not. If they want to make the fans happy as way to stablise things when the WWE’s arrogance blows up in their face, he’ll get the call. And the fans will explode. And he’ll have his run.

Until the next first round draft pick comes along.

Photo: Miguel Discart