On the 19th of January 2015 the WWE Network finally became available to UK audiences. And I for one am glad I didn’t bite. The monthly PPV, this month’s being the prestigious Royal Rumble, was practically aired for free the next night on Sky Sports due to Monday Night Raw’s cancellation because of a blizzard.
Also, I don’t understand why it was up to this programme, a show with no audience to announce both Rusev vs. Cena and Sting vs. Triple H. Both of these are pivotal matchups on the Road To WrestleMania, Sting vs Triple H especially. That match needed to be made by Sting hollering from the rafters or made by a Triple H going mental in the middle of a WWE ring, ripping his suit off and showing the world why he has one of biggest-selling workout DVD’s in North America. These matches should have been announced to thunderous applause.
The PPV itself, was a showcase for some of the best and worst of WWE booking. We got to see one of the best title matches of the last twelve months, but we also had a clunky and lethargic rumble.
It’s easy to see where the Rumble went wrong. Everything was against WWE in Philadelphia, including Philadelphia itself. Philadelphia, thanks to it being the hometown of Extreme Championship Wrestling, hosts one of the savviest, and most vocal, wrestling communities on earth. These fans know all about booking, the independent scene, workmanship and they recognise a good athlete when they see one. So it’s only natural that they love Daniel Bryan, who is an indie darling, superb athlete and one of the hardest workers in the biz. It’s also natural that they hated his booking. They were not pleased when he went out of The Royal Rumble so early.
Now, it’s easy to dismiss this as a simple case of fan entitlement, and that WWE should not listen to a bunch of spoilsports who think that the program should cater entirely to their tastes. It goes deeper than that. His time in the rumble was short, both his entrance and his exit were far too early. He made something of an impact, but ultimately, it wasn’t the kind of contribution a star of his status should be making. It’s the latest in a long line of insults that betrays WWE’s resentment at having to book Daniel Bryan as a star.
His first reign as WWE World Heavyweight Champion came to an end three years previously at WrestleMania XXVIII, eighteen seconds after bell rang. Yes, that’s right, one of the biggest rising stars in WWE was taken out in a quarter of a minute, after just one move, because they like the guy with the big muscles better. The next year, his match against Randy Orton, a match in which he was scheduled for his biggest victory ever, ended in a loss after he was hurt. This has barely ever happened for any other competitor.
The mantra of professional wrestling is, The Show Must Go On. Wrestlers are expected to work through all but the most life-threatening injuries to the finish of the match. Stone Cold Steve Austin wrestled after his spine was compressed to finish his match with Owen Hart. Triple H wrestled with a torn quadricep to finish his match, after which he didn’t wrestle again for eight months. But when it came to Bryan, they stopped his match straight away. No finishing the match for him. No victory. No looking like a superman in the face of tremendous physical pain, the kind of spotlight his seniors were allowed to make their glory with.
Lastly, at the Royal Rumble last year, the year’s most anticipated match, he wasn’t even booked to appear. Despite being WWE’s most popular Superstar at the time. The fans made their feelings known then and forced WWE’s hand. They did it again this past Sunday. The narrative the fans clearly had in their head, involved Bryan putting his treatment behind him and cementing his legacy in WWE with his first Royal Rumble win. WWE had other ideas.
Now, I personally have every confidence that his disappointing Rumble performance will be part of a storyline where he builds himself up from rock bottom to once again come out on top, but to do it in this manner was foolish. It shows WWE booking hasn’t learned from past mistakes. They should have known from last year’s event that their PPVs, especially the big ones, are always attended by the most hardcore fans, not the casuals who frequently attend Raw and Smackdown. They should have known that the crowd would kill the event like they did last year. Boos and “Bullshit” chants rained down upon even the most over stars. But the boos were not the fault of the crowd, it was the short-sighted and stubborn booking of WWE creative.
Having Reigns win the event is an all too predictable move. It rewards the statuesque powerhouse over the superior athlete, something WWE have had mixed results in before (click here to read more about the history of this kind of decision making). Not only that, it makes watching the Rumble almost superfluous. It was almost obvious that WWE were going in this direction. He’s been favoured for a while now, to the fans’ dismay. Ever since he left the sanctity of The Shield, his limited move set and inability to lead a match has been exposed. The fans don’t let something like that slide, especially in the hand-picked champs. There’s been a movement against the guy on social media for months now, making him the new face of the five-moves-of-doom-hashtag. The Rumble reaction is something the social media moderators should have seen coming a mile away.
The timing of Daniel’s return from injury didn’t help either. If they had held him back to return closer to WrestleMania they could have softened the blow, but having him come back to appear in a show that is already a huge part of his infamy and then booking him to lose was just asking for a backlash. It reminds me of when WWE tried to have Austin play the heel against McMahon’s face (yeah that was a thing once). The audience identified with Stone Cold being held down by a hard-ass boss. Now anyone who has gone unrecognised for a job well done, is identifying with Bryan, and in America in 2015, that’s an awful lot of people.
This could have been avoided if the Rumble was a better match, but it wasn’t. It was slow, boring, had barely anything memorable in it, and made almost no use of some of their best talents. Watching the traditional sizzle reel that tells the story of the Rumble in stats, you see guys like Triple H and HBK throwing guys out of the ring with the kind of force that befits a rumble elimination. The eliminations in this Rumble looked weak.
Wrestlers enter the ring and are ejected in minutes, with little resistance to counter the sub-par power of the moves ejecting them. This match is supposed to be for a chance to be in the biggest match of the year, for the world’s most prestigious title. The wrestlers should have been clinging on for dear life, but nobody truly looked like they cared when they were flung over the top rope. The whole match had the cloud of pessimism hanging over it.
And while I love it when Bray Wyatt gets to look like a monster, having him eliminate all the early members while spending minutes of the match alone, doing nothing but antagonising a restless crowd, did nothing to energise a featureless main event. His elimination of Bryan killed the crowd. If nothing else, this Rumble made me appreciate how much influence an audience have over the energy of a match, something I’ve been sceptical of in the past.
Damage control was in full force the next day at Titan Towers. I always find it hilarious when WWE try to control a non-kayfabe audience reaction with a kayfabe answer. Having Reigns talk about how he can’t be hand-picked champion when the The Authority is in power is not the most elegant solution to the problem.
It wasn’t all bad though. Paul Heyman rescued the booking team yet again with a superb shoot interview on how good Lesnar is and how Reigns can only disappoint. It gave the rivalry a context in the history of WWE. It certainly made me more interested in their clash. But it will all be for nothing if Roman can’t prove to the fans that he can pull off more variety in his matches and make them more compelling. Making him a man who can carry, and not be carried by others, is the only way to get him onside with the influential hardcore fan base.
After trying to get away with ignoring their most hardcore fans for the second year in a row, WWE needs to take a good hard look at itself and if it is ok with letting the fans run amok over all of their carefully planned events. Of if there is a way they can compromise to get the product that they want and the fans want to see.