Before you ask, no this column is not about a soap opera. Considering that the WWE plucks quite a few writers from that particular genre, though, perhaps it should be. On the heels of what I personally found to be a ho-hum Payback (minus the Punk/Y2J match, no surprise there), we were treated to an entertaining but rather bizarre episode of Raw yesterday evening. For those keeping score, and apologizing in advance if I left anyone out, let's give it a shot: CM Punk has officially ditched Paul Heyman therefore cementing his long-awaited face turn and lining Punk up to what should be a terrific feud with Brock Lesnar. Daniel Bryan appears to be teetering between heel and face territory, and that plotline was furthered with a match between himself and Randy Orton on Raw (also going through his own seemingly endless gestation period of heelage). Alberto Del Rio, who mere weeks ago was getting tons of love in the endless Jack Swagger matches, turned heel by utilizing Dolph Ziggler's concussion issues to cost him both the match and the belt. In doing so, he appears to have taken loveable ring announcer Ricardo Rodriguez with him, enabling him to once again interfere in matches.
As for Ziggler, he is for now still aligned with heels AJ Lee and Big E Langston, although his reception during his brief appearance on last night's program indicates it won't be that way for long. In the final coup de gras in Swerveville, Mark Henry did some of his best work ever pretending to retire as a face before going back into brilliant heel mode with his tearful turned terrible assault on champ John Cena. All of that and I haven't even mentioned Ryback, who was MIA (at least on the live show) after losing once again on a PPV to Cena and further ruining his ridiculous heel turn. (Who didn't see that coming? Check the archives, Robin!) If you're having difficulty processing all of that, you're not alone. There were huge sections of the crowd having major difficulties volleying between boos and cheers for large potions of the evening. While that always happens during a John Cena promo, it was particularly pervasive yesterday. While wrestlers changing allegiances is certainly not new, and in some of the cases mentioned above potentially quite effective, one has to wonder what has brought on this remarkable amount of adjustment in such a short time. The obvious theory? Poor planning.
The best example of this in my view is Del Rio, who does a heck of a job in the ring but never should have been made a face in the first place. Del Rio's gimmick coming into the WWE really worked for me, as he was presented as a Ted DiBiase silver spoon type who looks down on everyone that doesn't have his success. It also led to a stellar feud between himself and Rey Mysterio that was a pleasure to watch. Having the right opponent when making your entrance to the WWE has quite a bit to do with success rate, and that was certainly the case here. Going against one of the most popular guys in the history of the business (who doesn't like Rey Rey?) was a smart move given their history and their personalities. It also allowed Del Rio to establish himself as a villain. Mysterio's, and to a lesser extent, Sin Cara's, unfortunate tendency to get injured apparently pressured the WWE to turn Alberto face. It might not have worked at all had it not been for Rodriguez, who is extremely entertaining and humorous and a trained wrestler. The big cars and JBL-esque towel around the neck started to wither away in favor of streamers and shtick.
The problem, as usual, is with the interviews. Del Rio is certainly not bad on the microphone, but he has an unfortunate tendency to present everything in exactly the same way. This means that whether barking at fans or trying to ingratiate himself with them, Alberto is not really able to convey it verbally. Last night's Payback match was clearly present to reverse the roles of Del Rio and Ziggler; a fact that was furthered when Del Rio came out sporting the old towel neck and spouting off about how fans chanted "USA" during his matches. I might have missed it, but most of the crowds I saw and heard sounded like pins dropping when Del Rio wrestled Jack Swagger. Unlikely that they supported heel Swags regardless of his heritage or binge drinking. This felt forced, and caused the pendulum to swing the way of Ziggler, who may have to drop the HEEL Twitter hashtag. Where they take his storyline from here is equally inscrutable: creating the villainous power couple storyline with him and AJ Lee just seemed to be getting underway, and will need to be abandoned. Should we count down the moments until Big E gets the drop on him?
While I can't argue with the reaction Dolph got upon winning the belt, I think there may be some confusion as to why. Many fans in every building appreciate good wrestling, and as has been the case since the Attitude Era, they will support you regardless of anything else if you can get it done in the ring. Applauding the malefactors has always been one of the most fun things about going to a live event. It's okay that some people will cheer for Dolph even though he's supposed to be a heel. Clearly the WWE knows it's okay, since they make a big deal of talking up the amount of heat Cena generates just by showing up and opening his mouth. So why the need to flip this around right now? Rodriguez makes a better face, so any Del Rio heel turn would have had way more spark if it involved Alberto laying out his longtime friend. Same with Dolph, as this odd storyline leaves lots of loose ends that are on the fringe of the big stories going into Money in the Bank. I don't want to risk judging this before it plays out, but it smacks of very poor planning to me. Forcing that square peg into the round hole isn't always the right move.
We see a similar situation with Ryback. Unlike Lesnar, who despite having some very high-profile losses in his forever feud with Triple H remains a huge draw and is one of the few guys on the roster capable of delivering that "Wow!" moment, Ryback's progress has been stalled by the need to shoehorn him into a shortsighted feud with Cena to once again demonstrate his ability to overcome the odds. This silly execution not only stalled any momentum the Ryback character had gained, it was further shown to be foolish as Cena is now once again going up against..Mark Henry. Seems like you could have done the whole Cena vs. Monster thing any number of ways while preserving Ryback's base. Who believes in a monster that never wins? Ryback's weaknesses on the microphone scream for a Goldberg-style less is more approach, and now WWE will have to find a Seamus type to oppose Ryback before he works his way back to the face side of things. All of this could have been avoided had the WWE stayed the course instead of abandoning it at the first sign of trouble.
It shouldn't surprise anyone that these issues are found in the WWE, since the McMahons themselves are having similar presentation issues at the moment. While it's always nice to see Vince and Stephanie back on Raw, has anyone sorted out who we're supposed to be rooting for here? Vince seems to be once again aligning himself with rulebreakers, while Stephanie is putting members of both camps in their place with her power trips. We're meant to support Triple H as he tries to keep control over the chaos, but which of these two people are on his side? Are either of them? Both of them? Do they even know? Last week, the McMahons presented themselves as heelish, castigating the crowd over wanting Triple H to place himself in harm's way. This week that is abandoned in favor of behind-the-scenes finagling with Vickie Guerrero and Brad Maddox. Forgive me if I yawn my way through this. I understand that narcissism remains at the core of this part of the company, but we all have limits. Pick a direction and run with it. All this indecision is making me fear there is no plan.
This wait and see approach is likely a byproduct of the WWE's continued struggle with ratings. While there is never an easy answer to that dilemma, to me the build is what is most important. Part of the issue I had with Payback was in the presentation: we didn't know what it was about until it was almost here and it wasn't distinctive anyway. The late addition of Punk to the card certainly upped the newsworthy factor, but that should have been played up far more. We already seem to be on a better path for the next PPV, as the WWE has informed us Rob Van Dam will be making his return and several of the matches have already been plotted. More of that please. Giving us some solid reasons to tune in each week will help to maintain some ratings even with the challenges from other sports. There's simply no way many fans will skip playoff games to check out a random Raw, but I'd be way more likely to flip if I knew Brock Lesnar was showing up. The WWE consistently fails to capitalize on their own ability to promote. Amazing that a company that pushes their App into your DNA and their movie projects up to your neck has such difficulty putting the focus where it really belongs: on the people in the ring. While I don't pretend that Christian's return would make everyone run to the remote, there's quite a few people I know who would want to see it.
Some moves are necessary. Plotting Punk against Heyman works for the same reason that pairing him with Heyman worked. Paul is a heat magnet. Punk's story and underdog status plays better as a face (although he did tremendous work as a heel) and at this point in time, allowing the fans to feel good about cheering for someone who breaks the mold is smart. While we're on the subject, there's at least four wrestlers who describe themselves in some form or another as the best in the business, and half of them are faces. That alone doesn't make you heel-worthy. We need more to go on than just recycling the same ideas. It's one of the reasons that the company's best angle right now in The Shield works. Making that move allows for different, exciting stories to develop. It's not being done just for its own sake. There also is no need to present every "in-between" character as one or the other. How many times did Stone Cold open a few beers with an unsuspecting face and then nail them with the Stunner? Nobody held it against him. It was the risk you paid for trusting a snake. It made logical sense. When you're over enough, nobody even pays attention. Smoke and mirrors rule the day.
Flipping the script is necessary in this business. I adore the angles like Mark Henry's, where there's just enough realism to draw you in and make you wonder if something's on the level. When Henry handed the belt back to Cena, I wished a silent prayer that he would clock him with it. I was disappointed when it didn't happen and Henry's farewell speech continued. That emotion turned to surprise and appreciation when Henry did what I hoped moments later. That process is different for everyone, but even the most jaded among us have to approve and admire when the business gets it right. We believe in the Wizard of Oz at that point (not Nash), and we shake our heads in disbelief that we got fooled, if even for a moment. Even in this age of social media and spoilers, sometimes we get snookered and it feels damn good. The genuine appreciation that the fans on Raw exhibited (EXCELLENT crowd, by the way) celebrating the much-maligned Henry should be doubled when he truly does retire, in part because of how amazingly believable he was on that night. Well played, sir. Well played indeed.
All of that said, we've all seen the movies that attempt to be the next Usual Suspects and run all over themselves with seventy-five plot twists before settling into a cocoon of lameness. The WWE runs the risk of that very thing with all this turning and flip-flopping. Sometimes you need to let things run their course for a while before abandoning ship. It's okay if not everyone you present to be cheered is cheered. You don't have to abandon your plans because a vocal minority expresses how they feel. It's more fun when you can be the vocal minority anyway. I can't imagine anyone that isn't standing up applauding Damien Sandow, but there you have it. If everyone in the building felt the same way, it loses its luster. Turning the WWE Universe is a necessary evil once in a while; it keeps things fresh and keeps us on our toes. Too much of it, however, has the opposite effect, and longterm poses the very real risk of losing itself in its own attempt at genius.
* At the risk of stealing my colleague Brandon Lasher's thunder, I too am excited at the return of RVD. The fact that it's happening here in Philly is what is known as icing on the cake. Mr. Monday Night is a truly unique combatant in a sport that doesn't have as much of them as they seem to, and is one of many people responsible for me becoming such an enormous fan of ECW. The word on the street is he's working a short-term, reduced schedule deal, and I could care less. This is truly a guy where the spectacle and the showmanship is more important than a title at this stage in the game. Not sure what the initial game plan is with him (although obviously Van Dam in a ladder match rocks) but one would think there has to be a confrontation between himself and Heyman. Looking forward to that big time. Welcome back, Mr. Van Dam!
* I've been loath to criticize anything about The Shield or their booking, but I'm not a fan of the constant nWo-style endings to their matches of late. There's enough parallels between those two stables without resorting to this. The Kane/Ambrose feud is doing nothing for me, so it's time to move on from that. There's no shortage of opponents for Ambrose at this point. As for Rollins & Reigns, I'm warming to them as a team but more singles Rollins would be just fine as well. It's always been a favorite angle of mine where one of the two guys goes for solo gold while also holding the tag belts. Having the other members constantly interfere and suddenly be okay with losing scads of matches via DQ is lazy booking in my mind. Let's hope it's a bump in the road for them. Still one of the best reasons to tune in weekly, of course.
That is all I have for this week. I'd like to thank you for reading and remind you that birthday gifts (particularly framed glossies of Uncle Elmer) can still be shipped in time for tomorrow! I'll see you again in this space next week. Until then, this is Mike Holland wishing you a great week and working on my Zeb Colter 'stache!
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