~On the precipice of Christmas (and with the general feeling of dullness that tends to creep in whenever Monday Night Raw is taped), it appears a better time than most to wax slightly philosophic on the state of affairs in professional wrestling. Monday was newsworthy for several reasons, as WWE made one of their worst-kept secrets official (Batista will be returning to the promotion before the end of January) and TNA cut ties with a big backstage influence in Jeff Jarrett for reasons that are not yet particularly clear but might harken back to the Titanic sinking while the house band played on.
This has been a tumultuous year for wrestling fans. The steroid era is a thing of the past, and even the WWE has started to recognize that there is no "mold" that can produce the prototypical pro wrestler who can land the double scoop of popularity with the mainstream fans and the internet community. Both hands wash the other, naturally, so it's silly to think that neither group's opinion is relevant. That said, the WWE has also shoehorned their talent in a way not seen before, culminating with the establishment of their Performance Center and the groupthink that is naturally involved in such a move. All of the olive branches extended in the rise of both Daniel Bryan and CM Punk before him were snapped to twigs with the less-than-stellar and patently confusing booking that transpired this past summer and beyond.
That said, WWE has made some overt strides to change their thinking as it relates to giving the fans what they need. Ostracized and vocal Hall of Famer/dissident Bret "Hitman" Hart has been regularly featured on their programming, putting to bed one of the major hatchets left to bury in the Vincent Kennedy McMahon era. There may have been no hatchet bigger than the one between Vince and his father's meal ticket, Bruno Sammartino. Bruno might be the name most synonymous with pro wrestling in all of its storied and sundry history, and his disdain for the product and the promoter meant we wouldn't be celebrating him in the company he made a fortune for. But we did. Ditto (partially) with the unhinged Ultimate Warrior, whose political agenda and YouTube videos filled with venom didn't make him Christmas card material at Titan Tower. But there he was, snarling for the camera and marketing his likeness in a video game. Truly only in professional wrestling, folks.
Then there's the story of Hulk Hogan, poised to make another (final?) run in the promotion he is most associated with. All of these stories point to the main idea that WWE is open to doing whatever (with whoever) it takes to get fans talking and make their wallets open. Also in that vein were the amount of part-time deals extended to talent, anathema to the big boys since promoters placed their workers under exclusive lock and key to prevent other promotions from getting their benefit. Brock Lesnar was the most obvious (and impactful) example of this, but you can add Chris Jericho, Rob Van Dam, and the aforementioned Batista to the list. The WWE may be the center of their own universe, but they are acknowledging there may be some intelligent life out there after all.
A big topic for me this first year of writing for TJR has been the times we are witnessing as wrestling fans, as the last of the old guard peters out and a new breed of "sports entertainer" is unleashed. Will it be the beginning of another golden age, the last gasps of a bygone one, or something in between? News that The Undertaker is on board to perform at this year's WrestleMania furthers the idea that we have in front of our eyes the curtain call of the old breed. How long it will continue and when we truly know it's over is anyone's guess, but wrestling has always been a little bit different that way. Something (or someone) has barely ended when it's already being pined for as instant nostalgia. Many of the greatest performers of the Attitude Era have hung up their boots for the final time, and it provides a unique opportunity to celebrate their legacies while keeping a fixed eye on the future of the business.
And what a time it is, speaking of the future. In addition to Daniel Bryan's unbelievable trip from indy hero to dyed-in-the-wool fan favorite, we've witnessed the progression of two of the more interesting wrestling stables in recent memory, The Shield (sporting three quality workers, all of whom are poised to make a run before we call it 2015), as well as the Wyatt Family (who took their celebrated but bizarre shtick from NXT and made it work in the big dance, possibly even more so). We've also seen the escalation of the breakout we were all waiting for in Cody Rhodes, coupled with the amazingly improbable success of brother Dustin in his Goldust guise (who, by the way, has been possibly the best worker in the entire WWE in the last four months...yes, you read that right). All of these developments have secured the potential of the future to wow us in better and bigger ways.
Add to that the bevy of performers who the WWE have yet to utilize correctly, a group that naturally becomes slightly subjective but must include names like Dolph Ziggler, Damien Sandow, Tyson Kidd, Wade Barrett & Antonio Cesaro, and you begin to see the makings of what is truly a highly impressive array of talent completely unlike anything we've seen before. Plenty of stars have to align to make it work, as always, but the ingredients are there. It's up to the chef to create the perfect dish, and therein lies the rub. Still, it's an impressive recipe, and any wrestling fan should be hopeful of their chances.
Tag team wrestling, once lost in the shuffle, has made a resurgence, and is currently populated by several solid teams that consistently put in a very good effort, from those mentioned previously to the Real Americans, The Usos, and the Prime Time Players. The managerial role has also made a mini-resurrection this year, as Paul Heyman put in one of the most consistently tremendous performances on your television screen week after week. Couple that with (for a good bit of the year) Ricardo Rodriguez and Zeb Coulter and perhaps Mark Twain's demise wasn't the only thing that was greatly exaggerated. While the development of the Divas division wasn't quite what I would have hoped for, the knockout performance of AJ Lee and the late-stage return of Natalya to prominence made it a bit better. While Total Divas will get all of the internal and external press, I'd be hard-pressed to name a female performer more willing to lay it all out there in a career that wasn't even second nature to her than Vickie Guerrero. Someday she will get her due.
It was also the year of the big story, perhaps none bigger in the mainstream press than Darren Young being frank about his sexuality and, perhaps even more importantly to the fan sitting at home, the acceptance and celebration of it by his coworkers. Wrestling locker rooms have long been a place regarded as a glorified frat party, and stories such as these that have played out in the mainstream media for other sports have been fraught with pretty depressing results. Wrestling was on the front lines in a good way for a change, resetting the notion that acceptance is a thing of the past and setting the stage for other trailblazers to be at home with their character and themselves in ways not possible in the territorial era for many reasons, all of them bad. If that story and the way it was told didn't make you proud to be a wrestling fan and put a tear in your tough guy eye, you're a braver soul than me.
The wrestling business and its fans are perhaps the most misunderstood groups in the world. The long-standing fallacy that people don't know what they are watching is a performance continues to this day, and is used as a barb to somehow dismiss the power of the stories being told. Make no mistake, this isn't high society, but it's a morality play that Shakespeare would be completely proud of. The aristocracy didn't necessarily want the groundlings to be present at the play, but the show couldn't have gone on without them. To some extent, it's a recitation of past tales, but in a much larger way, it's a reflection of our times and what's important to us at the time. That a guy like Daniel Bryan could stand shoulder to, well, head, with the giants of Hogan, Andre, and company should serve as notice that wrestling is changing again, whether its bookers want it to or not. Each development in its history has brought cries of protest from the galley, and each and every time wrestling has gone on to survive and thrive. This time will be no different.
As we stand on the edge of something else rather groundbreaking in the sport we all enjoy, namely whatever form a wrestling "channel" will take, it's important to note that competition is what drives any business to be better. Most of my personal laments are grounded not in the idea that creative or the wrestlers themselves don't wish to do a good job, but more in that it's easier for them not to without looking over their shoulder. Eric Bischoff and Ted Turner handing out insane guaranteed contracts to mid-tier also-rans was the natural progression of an initial move that shook the wrestling world, and while it was a really crappy business decision, it made for compelling television indeed. While that level of competition is not on the immediate horizon, my personal hope is that fans continue to invest in outlets outside of the WWE in order to let them know they don't have a monopoly on the product. Had anyone polled the wheelers and dealers on whether a backwater hardcore promotion would produce fans so invested in a different product that they got chants on national television weekly, the response would have been a resounding no chance. That alone should serve as a call to arms for those who love this business to get their voices heard.
Wrestling fans are a different breed. That is something to be appreciated and not taken for granted. I can't think of a group more passionate, and certainly anyone writing for this or any other wrestling website knows that too well. I welcome it. To have the ability to write about something I genuinely adore and engage in a fervent discourse with others who feel the same is a rush you simply can't get (legally) anywhere else. Being a wrestling fan is like being a member of a secret society, albeit one that everyone knows about. It's that moment when you talk to a co-worker, neighbor, or (even better) romantic interest and a passing reference to Papa Shango results in a look of understanding. That bond runs deep, and while our individual opinions and points of view are as varied as the combatants inside the ring, the central theme that unites us is one of solid entertainment and good storytelling. You simply can't beat that.
In this holiday season, we're taught that giving should be equal to receiving, that the gift of charity should hold equal weight to the gifts we receive from those we care for and about. There comes a time for each and every one of us where that starts to be true. It is for that reason that we should remember that whatever frustrations we experience watching wrestling (and anyone reading my columns this year knows I can speak to that well), it's part of an ongoing process of development, a "natural selection" of entertainment if you will. If the end result is great, the journey there becomes less important. I can't confess that I'll be so charitable after the next PPV (or even next Monday night), but for this week I'll keep that positive message and enjoy the ride. These are exciting times, and there's nowhere else I'd rather be.