The card for SummerSlam always provides an opportunity for us as wrestling fans to see which storylines and wrestlers are going to be on the front page for the road to WrestleMania (no, it's not too early to think about it) and already set in stone for that upcoming pay-per-view is the main event of WWE Champion John Cena going against Internet darling and all-around excellent Daniel Bryan. While this match can and should be excellent, regardless of the outcome, a bigger factor in play is the continued erosion of the traditional face vs. heel type matches and the transition into face/face and heel/heel pairings. While the old setup will never go completely away, more and more of this type of match has been happening since the Attitude era and never has it been more prevalent in WWE programming than right now. Money in the Bank featured two ladder matches, each of which was stocked with one particular category of wrestler. And fresh off a lengthy PPV feud with the ultimate face in The Rock, Cena will once more headline a PPV against someone a large segment of the fans will be rooting for. How did we get to this tipping point in professional wrestling? What does it mean for the business? And, perhaps more importantly, how will the WWE handle the booking for this incredibly important contest?
Heroes and villains are a common theme in all of professional sports. More times than not, they are based on local or national pride. You'd be hard pressed to find any member of the New York Yankees that would be beloved by a diehard Boston Red Sox fan, and don't bother bringing up any of the New York Rangers greats in my neck of the woods. If not based on geography, perhaps their personality both on and off the field would be the biggest factor. Criminal activity, poor sportsmanship, and failure to be a team player in actions or interviews will land you on the most hated list relatively quickly. Then there are the tougher cases, like Pete Rose. An utter legend whose baseball skill was second to none and undoubtedly worthy of a Hall of Fame spot, he will forever be associated with gambling and tainted by the stench of corruption. No offense to the WWE Hall of Fame, but I don't think that's the one Charlie Hustle was banking on entering when he started his playing career. Even with those serious issues, folks like Rose, Mark McGwire, or Barry Bonds will still have their vocal supporters. People who argue the separation of what occurred on the field from the potentially poor choices made away from it.
How does this impact professional wrestling? None of those previous issues really comes into play in a sport dominated and cloaked in spectacle. Bad behavior on camera is a completely different animal, as it allows for storylines to advance and stars to be made. And, in a twist that many of those aforementioned athletes would love, it only takes a few strokes of the pen to set your most hated villain on a heroic quest for glory. In professional sports, heroes and villains are what you decide them to be. In wrestling, the proof is in the pudding, as well as on your television every week. All the way into the 1990s, this made wrestling a relatively easy sport to prognosticate. With the exception of your rare face vs. face match (Hulk Hogan vs. Ultimate Warrior being the best example), the fan favorites and rulebreakers would wage weekly war and, ultimately, the good guys would win out. The Attitude Era and its front-and-center poster child, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, changed all that. It was no longer necessary (and definitely not cool) to only cheer the wrestlers who would save the damsel in distress and vanquish the villain. The guys you really liked were the ones who did some of that, but more beer drinking, middle fingers, and dropping friends and foes alike without missing a beat.
In this family-friendly PG era for the WWE, many of those fun activities have gone the way of the dodo, but the idea of supporting a wrestler you like regardless of their affiliation or character has remained. WWE is one of the slickest marketing machines around, and kids grow up watching a steady diet of cartoon superheroes like John Cena who put a great face on the business and sell a ton of merchandise. As adult fans, we don't have to like it but we most certainly have to accept it. I think Cena's ring work has improved, personally; it's never going to be my favorite thing on the card but he's reasonably skilled at what he does and knows how to put on a good match. Cena is, frankly, not there for me, and I'm very okay with that. The expectation that the guys who put on the best matches are going to be the ones who carry the championships and go on last is unrealistic at best and downright inane at worst. This, incidentally, is not a new concept: I'd take a bad Cena match over most Hogan matches any day of the week. What we as fans can hope for is that the brain trust behind World Wrestling Entertainment recognize that their fanbase is not comprised only of the kiddie set. Particularly in this digital age, it's become far more important than ever to let us behind the curtain a bit and react to the trends of the moment in a much better way. Despite perilous booking, Daniel Bryan has captured the interest and the emotions of wrestling fans everywhere, and that leads us to right now. This is a critical moment for not only the future of the WWE's makeup, but also the future of wrestling as he know it. Handle it well and you've got the perfect confluence of marketing and talent; handle it poorly and it's back to the drawing board and the same old same old.
Early returns, unsurprisingly, have been mixed to poor. Daniel Bryan has already experienced the worst in WWE booking, perhaps ever, since his arrival. As previously noted in this space, he has braved everything from being coached by The Miz in NXT to incorrectly saying when he was going to cash in his MITB briefcase to losing in the infamous eighteen seconds at WrestleMania 28. In short, a rather ignominious title run that lasted less than four months. Not all of this fault belongs to the promotion, of course; Bryan needed time and seasoning to work on presenting his character in the spotlight of the WWE and get fans unfamiliar with him on board. Anyone who had seen his previous body of work already knew what he was about, but there is an enormous group of wrestling fans who are only watching WWE each and every week, for better or for worse. Since the breakup of Bryan's Hell No team with Kane, however, the booking has been nothing short of impeccable, with Bryan being presented quite accurately as the best wrestler on the roster. Week after week, Bryan is being matched up with opponents that allow him to show exactly why you need to go to YouTube and check out his history, as he lands the match of the evening.
Nowhere was that more evident than yesterday's Raw, where Bryan stole the show by wrestling different opponents for a full hour and then coming back for more in an untelevised dark match. Bryan's match with Antonio Cesaro (a personal favorite) was undeniably amazing, but his matches with Cesaro's partner Jack Swagger and even the much-maligned Ryback were very well done also. I doubt many of us would mind three hour Monday Night Raws if the additional hour was Daniel Bryan wrestling pretty much whoever. Putting the actual matches to the side, however, the booking of said matches was the usual sad-sack slapdash stutter step that I have come to expect from the Soap Opera People. Bryan fought three times because Raw GM Brad Maddox (whose character continues to be atrociously bad in my view) felt that Bryan needed to prove himself to show that he was deserving of the right to challenge for the title. Anyone watching the WWE for the last four months already knows that he is, and he also was far and away the clear choice of the fans when Cena "selected" him, so that makes sense. Ostensibly this is all building up for Vince McMahon to be the ultimate heel once again and play off his perceived dislike for Bryan. Oh the humanity.
One can clearly see the issue here. Bryan is wrestling his butt off week after week, and is managing to convince fans who know nothing of him beyond his start in WWE that he belongs in a main event, only to be handed the title shot graciously by Cena as a result of a popularity poll. The following week, during the contract signing, Cena goes out of his way to defend Bryan from the perceived issues with his size, his personality, and his lack of polish. It's a classic case of cover all your bases. The WWE wants to have their vegan cake and eat it too. They want fans to react to Daniel Bryan, they want fans to appreciate his intense matches on a weekly basis, but they want you to do it their way. That of course means having some trumped-up grand scheme involving a McMahon power struggle as the real motivation behind why any of these decisions are made. The best part of it all is that the writers could ostensibly do none of this and achieve the same result. Cena and Bryan will both have huge fans heading into this match. VKM always gets a good amount of boos when he makes his appearances, and HHH garners a pretty favorable reaction as Chief Operating Officer. Instead of letting the chips fall where they may, the WWE once again tries to write the story for you and pick the ending as well. It's like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books you read as a kid, except all the pages lead to the very same ending.
Face versus face matches are fraught with peril, as you run the risk of alienating some fans and the story is a bit less easy to tell. But never has the environment both in sports and particularly in wrestling been more opportune for this type of match. How many among us, even younger fans, blindly support Cena because he's on a breakfast cereal box? WWE needs to recognize the good job they already did by letting Bryan pursue his comedic side before getting back to business and building himself back into a contender and stay the course, instead of changing it up and forcing this perceived slight down our collective throats. They've already handled this kind of situation poorly (see the booking of Dolph Ziggler) and he is still bearing the brunt of those choices. This match absolutely sells itself with no interference from the bookers. Bryan will be an underdog in the mind of fans everywhere just due to being IN the WWE with the clear knowledge of their preference when it comes to champions. Simply put, they don't look like Daniel Bryan. That makes it so much richer when you give the fans reason to believe he can achieve his objective and defeat the perennial title holder.
I doubt it's much of a coincidence that the WWE is heavily invested in the success of the new Divas show on E! and plan to tie the Bellas and their off-camera relationship with the two opponents into this match as well. That sort of cross-merchandising is tailor-made for the WWE, and it's natural to want to capitalize on that. What makes it slightly more interesting is that this will be the first time off-camera relationships are presented in this format, and whether you plan to watch or not (I'll stick with Longmire and Crossing Lines, thanks) it does present some unique possibilities for the future. We can only hope that that sideline is a bit of a red herring, and that this match focuses on the very real issue of the WWE's prototype champion in Cena going up against many wrestling fans' prototype champion in Bryan. Overdoing it with the other stuff or a heel turn is foolish. Based on the output of the last several months, there is very little chance that this encounter doesn't turn out to be a classic. Unfortunately, once again it looks like that will be in spite of the WWE's booking rather than because of it.
* Since I can't seem to go a week without referencing the ridiculous general manager storylines, you may not be shocked to learn that I am utterly perplexed by the decision to have Vickie Guerrero run Smackdown. The GM angle can occasionally be played for cheap heel heat, but overall my feeling is you should allow someone the fans enjoy and miss to be in the role. It gives them a chance to stay relevant in the wrestling world while letting the matches do the talking. Perfect examples would be Mick Foley, Ric Flair, and of course Booker T. I'm not sure what the future holds for the legendary Booker T vs. Teddy Long feud, but I hate it already. Teddy should have a job with the WWE, as he's contributed plenty to wrestling over the years, but his on-camera persona is bland and boring. As for Booker, unless the plan is to put him back on the commentary desk, it makes no sense to have him back in the fold to just hang around backstage. Vickie has done an excellent job as a heel but it's been the same routine for way too long. Enough already.
* You have to admire the hilarious way that the WWE handles their advance booking at times. As has been pointed out many times by pretty much everyone at TJR, it would make sense to get people to tune into your shows by letting them know what they are going to see. WWE's aversion to this is cryptic and silly, as they will send a text out to subscribers an hour or two before Raw to get people pumped. If I know my favorite wrestler is going to be in a match with a capable opponent, chances are good that I'm going to tune in. When they do advertise in advance, such as last week's announcements that the Big Show would be making his return to Raw, they don't actually have the Big Show return to Raw. I haven't seen a bigger buildup over nothing since Geraldo Rivera was hanging out in Al Capone's vaults. How do you expect your fans to get excited about something when you're not even excited about it? On a positive note, it was the best match I've seen Big Show in in years.
* Count me as among the concerned as to what's going on with The Shield. After spending pretty much all of this last year being built up as an unbeatable combination, they have been in a surprising holding pattern since winning their championships. I thought all three members did very well at MITB, but Rollins & Reigns not even being on the main card says as much about them as it does the state of tag team wrestling in the WWE right now. As for Ambrose, he continues to show flashes of being a big star for the company, as some of his spots in a match utterly filled with them were phenomenal. They are now embroiled in a silly feud with Mark Henry (yeah, the same one who just did that tremendously heelish retirement swerve..oops) and the Usos that will fill their dance card until the end of summer. They also have gone from feared to not so much, as they now flee the ring when the numbers are even. There's only so long any group can thrive at the top, but it's early days yet for this bunch. Get Ambrose extricated from this mess and let him compete against a solid group of faces that includes Christian and RVD. As for Rollins and Reigns, the Usos are fine with me but they need some competition long term if the team is going to stay together. Time for some fresh pairings. Justin Gabriel is available, last I checked.
* Lisa Marie Varon (WWE's Victoria, TNA's Tara) was recently released and it's rumored that she may be on her way back to World Wrestling Entertainment. If that's true, and I hope it is, she'd make a welcome addition. Victoria was one of the few Divas who had a fleshed-out character, and she managed to pull off heel and face personas very well. She's also quite skilled in the ring, and in a division loaded with young talent, having some mature performers who know how to sell it in the ring is vital. Regardless of what she adds in the ring (and I feel that would be plenty), she'd be a great choice to have working with these young women and getting them ready for prime time. This is another division that needs an overhaul and adding a veteran piece or two goes a long, long way. Let's just hope it works out better than it did with Gail Kim.
That's all I have for this week. I'd like to thank you for reading and taking time out from breaking royal baby news to get my take. As always, feel free to leave me comments below or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also reach me on Twitter at the wee hours @coffeyfan77. Until next time, this is Mike Holland saying have a great week, RIP to the late, great Dennis Farina, and see you next time.