Monday, March 17, 2014

Where's the Boom?

Last week on RAW, The Authority (HHH and Stephanie McMahon) officially announced that Daniel Bryan would face HHH at Wrestlemania 30. (I can't type XXX, it seems wrong.) This was expected for some time, wrapping up one of the longest-running feuds in the company's past eight months or so. But the cherry on top was Bryan demanding- and receiving- the stipulation that if he beat HHH, he would insert himself into the WWE World Heavyweight Championship match between Batista and Randy Orton. The "YES!" Movement now had all the leverage, a movement that started the interesting notion of a potential new boom in wrestling.

Back in the mid-1990's when HHH was just a young buck, the boom period was on the horizon. But it wasn't because of him. It happened to involve him, and he played his part as a dynamic, manipulative bad guy. It happened because it was a perfect storm of events. It wasn't just lighting in a bottle- it was a thunderstorm in a vault. You had HHH, the Undertaker, Mankind, The Rock and most importantly- Stone Cold Steve Austin. Austin was the driving force behind the wrestling renaissance, as his rebellious employee character put up against McMahon's power-hungry boss archetype propelled the Federation into an uncharted territory of success. His ways weren't particularly "goodie two shoes" or selfless. In fact, he was very self-serving and motivated by his own needs and wants. But fans despised McMahon's evil ways so much, Austin was made their wrestling savior. Everything they touched turned into gold.

But the question is not how did they do it- but why? The answer is simple: competition. Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling was in the midst of a historical run atop the ratings thanks  to Hogan's New World Order. Before they ran it into the ground with  incredibly watered-down versions, it was the edgiest thing ever done in professional wrestling. The fact that they dominated the then-WWF left a sour taste in the ultra-competitive McMahon's mouth. He, along with the rest of his company was hungrier than ever to outdo WCW. Even the small Philadelphia-based Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) offered a different style, as WWE would incorporate that to its product and buy the company outright eventually.

Another reason? It was a different era, not only in wrestling- but also in society. Not everything was skewed to please the politically correct crowd. In fact, nothing was. You had women walking around in underwear, storylines which implied violent and sexual acts, and a company playing like it had nothing to lose.There was no immediate backlash via social media like there would be today.

Austin's career would eventually be slowed down, but not due to Austin lacking any charisma, but an unfortunate string of neck injuries from a 1997 Owen Hart piledriver. One of the lasting things he would contribute as an active wrestler was the simple catchphrase of "WHAT?" It didn't just ask a question- it uncut and undermined any wrestler or character Austin was in a segment with. There is no comeback to it. A simple one-word inquiry caught on like wildfire, and the credit goes to fellow Attitude Era wrestler Christian. Or "CLB" (creepy little bastard) as the on-screen Austin liked to call him.T-shirts were churned out, chants were easy to start (while being very hard to stop) and it breathed life back into Austin 3:16. Even as a bad guy following Wrestlemania X-7, Austin's character could do no wrong. His reactions were once again off-the-charts.

Fast forward to 2014. Daniel Bryan's WWE run is at its peak, not only because of his full-tilt wrestling style, but also because of a word. It's not a question, but a declarative statement of optimism: YES! That one word caught on in a hurry, inspired by the UFC's Diego Sanchez. Sanchez would yell the word as he walked to the octagon, and Bryan followed suit. His heel character at the time was overzealous and very cynical, celebrating wins like he had won a gold medal in the Olympics. The word was chanted by the crowd, and inserted into matches win Bryan would begin kicks or punches to an opponent. The energy in buildings that was created by Bryan's abilities was very similar to that of Austin's heydays.

So why isn't WWE set for another boom period?

While impressive, Bryan's recent run at the title won't start one. The most unique thing about this feud between Bryan and the Authority is how long it has gone on. Summerslam saw him win the belt, only to lose it moments later to Randy Orton. There was no way at the time to guarantee a feud culminating at Wrestlemania in New Orleans, yet here we are. After a few start/stop pushes, Bryan is now in position to be the star of the show.

Feuds of that length are rare in today's wrestling scene, just as long-tenured stables are. Hello, Shield. Two of the last three feuds that were memorable and long- while not dragging on- involved Shawn Michaels. One was with Chris Jericho in 2008. Michaels was the star veteran and Jericho was re-invented. It progressed naturally with superb matches and edge-of-your-seat segments, blowing off in a ladder match at 2008's No Mercy. The two's history together only made it that much better.

The other involved HBK's quest to defeat the Undertaker in 2009 and 2010. He wanted the challenge, and the two had been squaring off since the mid-1990's, even in the very first "Hell-In-A-Cell" match. The history was there, the motivations were there and the stage was as big as it gets in wrestling, ending in Michaels' last match at Wrestlemania 26 in Arizona. 

The final piece to that triumvirate of feuds was CM Punk and John Cena in 2011. Punk had come off his role as Nexus leader, and was fed up and tired of his current role as second fiddle to the main event stars. He spoke his mind, then entered into a personal feud with Cena. He represented change, and something new and fresh. While Cena represented the dynasty. The two would battle in the summer of 2011, during which Punk would win the WWE title and run off into the night. The feud wouldn't have the satisfying ending it should have, but it reached deeper to connect with the fanbase than any in recent memory. Now in 2014, Punk is still not happy- for different reasons, and has fled indefinitely.

But if wrestling were to ever take off again, these kind of personal feuds would need to be more prevalent, and not just once a year. The mid-card (less featured) stars would have to develop programs with more depth as well. Divas- yes, divas- would need real reasons to fight each other and not just because one has a belt or another called them a really mean name. Grow personalities, intertwine them, give them motivations- and watch the results.

If there is any hope of this happening in future years, it's in WWE's developmental program located in Florida- NXT. Once thought of as a new gimmick hour-long show in 2010, it has evolved into a feeder/minor league of sorts for the company. Young stars are groomed there, and ones who have name-recognition on the independent scene are taught the WWE style, too. They might have a following on the indy circuit, but it has to translate to massive crowds giving them a reaction as well.

Antonio Cesaro (formerly Claudio Castognoli), Seth Rollins (Tyler Black) and Dean Ambrose (John Moxley) are perfect examples of the new program developing indy talent well. Big E Langston and Roman Reigns are original NXT products who have benefited very well. Even the divas show promise, as Emma, Page and Summer Rae all wrestle lengthy contests while giving fans a reason to care- something not done on RAW or Smackdown for the females.

There's another elephant in the room to this boom argument: TNA. Yes, that is an actual name of a wrestling company. Total Nonstop Action. There is not one world in that phrase that lets the reader know it has anything to do with wrestling, which is only the first of many problems for them. The other would be that an almost twelve-year old company sounds the terms for a female's body. It only is hurt by the fact the company struggled to turn a dollar and increase ratings, and has no idea how to break into the mainstream. Which is only more problematic not just for them, but WWE and wrestling in general.

Just like wrestlers needs a crowd to feed off of, WWE needs that competition to motivate them as well. Vince does not even ackowledge TNA on television, and why would he? They aren't even a blip on his radar. There is no war between the two like WWF and WCW had. Stars aren't being poached back and forth. The only time the two cross paths in headlines is when they say "Former WWE Star Signs With TNA". Give them the belt for a month or two, then cast them aside until the next ex-WWE'er arrives. Or when all else fails, put the belt on Sting. Even if WWE were to buy the fledgling and very distant second fiddle, not much would change. The fact that there is no third wheel (as there was with ECW in the '90's) only makes WWE that much more of a monopoly.

Wrestlemania 30 is slated to see Bryan wrestle at least once, and likely even twice in the main event- thanks to the absence of CM Punk. His "YES!" Movement hasn't just sold merchandise and appeased the internet wrestling community. It's also caused WWE to pull a rare audible while injecting new life into a title picture that formerly looked more bleak than ever. Batista's return did not turn out at all like the suits had hoped, and Randy Orton as champion is....well it's Randy Orton as champion. The fans will be looking for that feel-good moment, and Batista/Orton wouldn't have produced one. It would have been more like Goldberg/Lesnar in 2004 at Wrestlemania XX.

While the WWE Universe may be looking at a memorable moment in New Orleans thanks to Daniel Bryan, just don't look for an instant boom. There is no boom on the immediate horizon, but there is hope if WWE can give fans a reason to care. Not just about the main events, but the rest of the cards as well. 

Like it? Love it? Hate it? Let me know @SeanNeutron.

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