It was just over three years ago that CM Punk walked out of the WWE. His reasons were many-fold, but a big one was a feeling of resentment about being kept out of the top echelons of the company. Working hard year after year and getting outrageously over, only to time and again get ignored for the Wrestlemania main event and do the job to part-time guys like The Rock (twice), Brock Lesnar, The Undertaker and Triple H, understandably ate away at the beat-up and exhausted Punk; more so when he would turn up for work on Monday and said part-timers would be back home chilling and counting the dollars.
Here’s the thing though – at least when Punk’s record-breaking 434-day reign as WWE Champion was ended by ‘DWAYNE’, at least he got a 23-minute match out of it. And a 20-minute rematch.
That’s a damn sight longer than, oh say for example, 21 seconds.
Yeah, in lieu of a 50-year-old man coasting into the Wrestlemania 33 main event with the Universal Championship off the back of 108 seconds of singles wrestling (all in PPV main events) and precisely ZERO bumps taken, it’s not like Punk’s grievances are any less relevant. So let’s have a chat.
The Nostalgia Dollar
It’s fairly obvious that the ‘Once In A Lifetime!’ (or not) match between The Rock and John Cena at Wrestlemania 28 was where the part-timer trend began; WM28 holds the record of the most-bought Wrestlemania show of all time, at 1.217m buys. The following year we had the rematch (twice in a lifetime?), this time featuring the Rock going in as champion. In 2014, it was Batista’s turn for a big return, winning the Royal Rumble and soaring straight into the main event; a match that was originally supposed to be a singles match vs Randy Orton, and was only changed to include Daniel Bryan once a) Punk had walked out and b) the fan backlash towards seeing their favourite flying beard get ignored reached deafening levels. In 2015 it was the turn of Brock Lesnar, part-time champ; 2016 saw Triple H win another championship and Royal Rumble to slide into the top of the WM32 card, and now we arrive in 2017 with Goldberg defending the top RAW title and Lesnar back in the main event once more.
Now, you may be fine with all of this – particularly if you were a huge fan of someone like the Rock, or Goldberg, or Batista from back in the day. And I have no problem with that. If anything, the wrestling fan community could do with less self-righteous policing on how fans should and shouldn’t enjoy their graps. So if you were cheering like mad seeing Big Bill lift the belt after Fastlane, more power to ya. If it had been Rob Van Dam in that position I probably would’ve been the same.
However, telling other fans that their anger is invalid is just as bad as crapping on fans for liking a certain wrestler (Roman Reigns haters, I’m looking at you), and I believe the criticisms we’ve been hearing are worth paying attention to, as they can easily relate to far bigger issues with the WWE product as a whole.
Champions In Absentia
First off, remember Punk’s words three years ago from that Colt Cabana interview, and place yourself in the boots of someone like Kevin Owens. You’re a pro wrestler, one of the most gruelling career paths on the planet, signed to WWE, the biggest wrestling company on planet Earth. Effectively smashing yourself into canvas and other bodies multiple times a week between TV performances, live shows and PPVs, you do all of this because a) it’s what you love, b) it pays very well and c) you want to progress, achieve your goals, and be the best in the world. Except when it comes time for the biggest show of the year, you are not only completely ignored in favour of some dude who has been chillaxing at home the past decade, but told you’re going to lose to him in under 30 seconds and be made to look like a total idiot for getting squashed by a middle-aged man who blew up after five minutes of wrestling even in his prime. Daniel Bryan hinted at it on an episode of Talking Smack not long ago; all that effort and personal sacrifice (Owens has tweeted before about not seeing his young family for up to two months at a time whilst on the road) counting for nothing in favour of a guy who’s free to turn up, take your title, and go home to relax knowing his Wrestlemania payday is guaranteed has to eat away at you. I doubt Owens was shooting when he called Goldberg a ‘piece of shit’ in his pre-match trash talking, but people believed it anyway – and you can see why. It wouldn’t surprise me one iota if there’s more resentment in the locker rooms than what Punk and Bryan have let on previously.
(Notice how 46-year-old Chris Jericho has attracted none of this backlash; in spite of his age, he’s been in the trenches every week with the rest of the locker room and been damn entertaining for it, and more respect to him for that.)
Who’s Doing The Honours Again?
Secondly, in an industry built on veterans giving young talent the rub and older guys putting over the current roster on their way out, this is a pretty ass-backwards way of doing things. Didn’t we used to mock TNA and WCW for putting over former WWE legends at the expense of their own rosters? Absolutely, and rightly so. Stone Cold Steve Austin didn’t become the massive superstar that he did by jobbing out to Hulk Hogan and watching him face Randy Savage in the Wrestlemania 14 main event. Dream matches correctly done are excellent – The Rock vs The Hulkster at Wrestlemania X8 proved that – but making them the focal point consistently year after year at the expense of actually making new stars at the Show of Shows will eventually come back to bite WWE once enough legends stop answering the phone. Ironically, two of the last five WM main events have featured a younger full-time talent in Roman Reigns, and both were geared towards crowning him as the current generation’s top star for years to come – but the botching of Reigns’ superstar push is another subject for another day. Had that push worked, maybe we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly; if you know exactly how the story is going to end every wrestling year, with your favourites shoved into mid-card obscurity with lame storyline pay-offs come Wrestlemania, what’s the point slogging through three hours of RAW every Monday night if it’s not going to come to anything?
The Superstar Chicken-And-Egg Scenario
The overriding emotion I see amongst many WWE fans, especially when discussing RAW the past few years, has been apathy. I myself haven’t been a regular watcher, keeping tabs via Youtube clips and podcast reviews, with only the post-Draft show getting a full watch from me – probably out of being a total Finn Balor mark. Since said Draft last year though, SmackDown has been far more engaging week-to-week, and it’s notable how the blue brands’ top matches are devoid of part-time talent. Funny that, it’s almost like they’re letting a long-term storyline like Bray Wyatt vs Randy Orton culminate on the biggest stage of all, and in the process rewarding Wyatt for years of hard work, rather than awkwardly shoving Bray out the way at Elimination Chamber to make way for Kurt Angle or something.
However, imagine a hypothetical scenario where Angle DOES return, and goes up against, say, AJ Styles. Sounds awesome, right? We’re okay with that, for the most part? I thought so. So does this mean we’re guilty of double standards? Possibly. The more accurate explanation is this; it gives someone fans are passionate about in Styles a big match at Mania, doesn’t detract from other main-event storylines, AND the nostalgia pop of a Hall of Famer wrestling on the Grandest Stage Of Them All (TM) again. We’re all happy with that. That, like Rock/Hogan years previously, is a dream match done right. This has also been generally the formula for Undertaker’s big Wrestlemania match down the years.
That’s entirely not what’s happening on RAW. The bromance between Owens and Jericho was about the only reason many fans tuned in week to week – it damn sure wasn’t for the Emmalina vignettes – and whilst a payoff of sorts will still happen at Mania, it’s now happening in the vast, icy shadow of Big Bullet Bill and Big Roidy Brock – the rematch from WM20 I don’t recall anyone screaming for. Thanks for tuning in every week fans, but turns out your investment in the characters you see on-screen every Monday night was ultimately moot because we kinda don’t care about them as much as you do.
Now, I know exactly what you’re countering with right now – that Oldy and Roidy is the money match, and there’s no-one else on the current roster who could draw like them. Fair, and as I said earlier, it’s obvious the figures generated by Rock/Cena I raised some serious eyebrows in Titan Towers. But what does it say about your current roster that, year after year, the road to Wrestlemania starts and the same panic sets in to thumb the Attitude Era/Monday Night Wars phonebook because you don’t trust any of your full-time guys to draw money? What were you doing the rest of the year? Twiddling your thumbs? Shoving random guys together in main event feuds that came to mean nothing? Treating the Tag, Women and Cruiserweight divisions as sideshows? Saddling potential current-era superstars like Owens, Seth Rollins, Sami Zayn, Rusev, Cesaro, Sasha Banks, Bayley, Charlotte, Braun Strowman, and yes, Reigns, with dreadful sub-Tommy Wiseau promo scripts and inexplicable booking decisions that kill all momentum? All of the above?
In that context, no wonder fans resent Roman Reigns. No wonder the Cruiserweights and Divas Revolution both stumbled so badly in their early months – and at least down the road, the company gave the women main events on both RAW and PPV. No wonder people care far more about Smackdown and NXT, two brands with an ounce of consistent entertainment and long-term vision.
And no wonder then that early January is becoming the month every year where the nostalgia hype train is fired up to once again bulldoze towards the Wrestlemania main event, barely caring about what wrestlers, shows and storylines get trampled along the way.
Yes, WWE might never be as exciting as the Monday Night Wars ever again. But we’re never going to find out for sure if Vince and co remain permanently in thrall of it.