In the span of just a few years, the WWE's Elimination Chamber pay-per-view has gone from just another gimmicked event to a very important occurrence in the promotion. This is in no small part due to its place on the calendar, bridging the gap from the much-awaited and usually very entertaining Royal Rumble to the biggest to-do in the business, WrestleMania. This year's PPV carries with it perhaps even more gravitas, as it's the last one to be shown before the debut of the Network. With that distinction carries great responsibility, as the events and outcome of the Chamber will conceivably have more than a little to do with the final number of fans that end up taking part in this very grand experiment.
To have all of that in perspective is challenging enough, but coupled with the distressing and yet not entirely unexpected news that CM Punk is seeing greener pastures for the moment than the weekly grind of suffering through the slipshod booking and narcissistic tendencies that appear to make up the WWE's weekly programming, it becomes monumental. The reaction of the fans last night in Omaha is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Pink. Whether the WWE intended to capitalize upon it or not, their decision to allow Punk to become the "pipe bomb" king has forced their hand and given him the dominant position in that struggle. Put simply, the fans will demand Punk back and eventually they will get what they want. For the moment, however, a major chess piece has been taken off the board at a time when it potentially hurts the company significantly.
What WWE's original plans were for WM XXX are unclear, and perhaps never to be known. One match which appeared to be well on its way to creation was Punk taking up the call of smart marks everywhere to battle one of the main targets of their derision, Triple H. With Trips's consistent foil, Daniel Bryan, being otherwise engaged, it would simultaneously satisfy Hunter's need to appear on a grandiose and historically significant card while also allowing the "universe" to see someone with mass fan appeal attempt to kick his beak in. The outcome of that match, in theory, might have had plenty to do with Punk's impending free agent status. Viewed in that prism, Punk's desire to not participate takes on a more obvious connotation. This being pro wrestling, however, to imagine that one is getting the whole story at any point is a foolhardy effort indeed.
So it falls to this month's PPV to carry us to WWE's seminal moment, while concurrently establishing the worthiness of the Network and hopefully allowing Punk to take a temporary backseat in the minds of many disappointed fans. Good luck with that one. The good news for you and I is that due to all of these factors, Elimination Chamber has a chance to be a stupendous pay-per-view, at a time when the company badly needs it. Not bad for a match built around a gimmick that, at the end of the day, is really nothing more than a glorified steel cage.
One positive side effect of Punk's departure is that it actually benefits another gigantic fan favorite in Daniel Bryan. Bryan has already tapped into a vein which Punk found more difficult to crack, namely mixing mainstream kiddies with the internet smarks to form an unholy alliance that would make any promoter have a really wicked good wet dream. Punk's story was compelling because he was tearing down the machine, but at the end of the day was fully comfortable coming off as far smarter than anyone else in the room. Bryan's is equally compelling but much more suited for mass consumption because it's the struggle of the Everyman, being told that they aren't good enough by the powers that be when it's incredibly obvious to everyone that he is. It's the subject of almost every great story and most Disney movies, so it's serious business. Who can't relate?
Bryan is now thrust back into the limelight, once more the standard-bearer of everyone unhappy with the real and imagined machinations of the McMahons. Regardless of what happens at EC, it would appear to be nearly inconceivable that the tale ends with anything other than Bryan's participation in the main event at WM XXX. He certainly doesn't have to be champion to do that. Failing that, should the WWE continue with the rather puzzling maneuver of taking Batista, a workable fan favorite who's far from over due to being in the wrong place at the very wrong time, and pairing him off against Randy Orton, who continues to produce decent ring work while failing to deliver anything approaching a stellar promo, the failsafe can be Bryan metaphorically and physically breaking through the restrictions of the Authority. In theory, anyway.
On the other side of the coin, no heel act is hotter right now than Bray Wyatt, and having his group face off against The Shield should hasten both his rise to the top (well deserved, as nobody is more captivating to watch right now, sans DB) and The Shield's obvious and overdone breakdown. The roster is full of powerhouses, but Roman Reigns has the look and the moves to make the front office happy and needs to be able to get out of his shell in a way that trio will never provide. Putting these six men into a War Games-style affair will not only provide one or two Kodak moments but allow the development of some of the other players in this cast, including the next step for US Champion Dean Ambrose (a series with Rollins would NOT go unappreciated) or Luke Harper (finally getting a chance on the mic and coming across as a musclebound Daniel Day Lewis).
The chamber match itself boils down to what happens between Orton, Bryan, and Cena, but I love how the rest of the combatants shake out. Antonio Cesaro has been thoroughly unappreciated for most of 2013 (though pairing him with Jack Swagger was actually a great thing), and he is the perfect kind of wrestler for a high-intensity endurance match. Christian is a wild card due to his nagging injuries but always finds a way to make gimmick matches better just by showing up. And as for Sheamus, I could vainly hope that his heel turn occurs when he puts Cena's head through a pod, but I'd settle for another brutal bash match that he excels in. Smart booking and some underrated talents have the potential to make this main event far more than some of the overstuffed, ballyhooed who's who's of the past that have been long on talent but short on results.
How the rest of the card shakes out remains to be seen. It would certainly be appreciated to see Intercontinental Champion Big E Langston getting something to do, whether that ends up being against an obvious choice like Ryback or a more out-of-the-box pick like newly minted singles performer Titus O'Neil. As to current Tag champs the New Age Outlaws, one can hope they'd have dropped the straps by then, but you could pick a worse scenario than having them drop it here to whoever the push gods favor. Certainly Rey Mysterio and any number of partners could allow for an excellent match with just about anyone on the roster, even at this stage, should they need a direction to head in.
It behooves the WWE to make this a showcase, not just for the select few who are already booked into some type of WrestleMania scenario, but also to some underutilized talents on the current roster who stand a chance of making a significant impact in 2014. Focusing some energy on this event will get some cynical fellows like me far more likely to hand over the amount of money that would pay for four times the wrestling the very next day. That's how they need to look at it, anyway, and based on early returns, it would appear that they are. That's good news for us as viewers and even better news for us as fans. Sometimes what an organization requires is the proper motivation. I won't say that this meandering way of getting Daniel Bryan to the title couldn't possibly have been the plan from the beginning, but there can't be any doubt in hearing crowd responses week after week that this is indeed where we're headed.
So, in short, the Chamber has a chance to break the unfortunate trend of WWE PPVs of late and exceed expectation. While there is plenty to be upset about regarding the current product and most certainly the absence of Punk on the roster, there should still be a healthy amount of cautious enthusiasm for this time of year as a wrestling fan. Making the Chamber a bona fide stop on the road to WM will take more than one potentially solid card, to be sure, but it's very doable and if performed correctly could go a long way into shaping up the following event's card in some excellent ways. Who knows? Should you decide to take the gamble and purchase February's PPV, you might be purchasing the best event of the year. The fact that we're even having that conversation in February is more than a few steps in the right direction.
*In some ways, it's a story so odd and tragic that it could only be told in pro wrestling. News broke last week that a grand jury in Pennsylvania would be reopening the now 31-year-old case of the death of Nancy Argentino, former girlfriend of Hall of Famer and frequent WWE guest star "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka. For those unfamiliar with the details of the case, Argentino was rushed from her Allentown motel room (which she shared with Snuka) with fluid gushing from her nose and mouth and difficulty breathing. She would pass away several hours later. Despite the autopsy report labeling the death a homicide and Snuka himself being tagged as a "person of interest," nothing more would come of criminal charges. Argentino's family did win a wrongful death suit against Superfly, but were never paid due to his claims of having no money. Inconsistent statements to police and new details about signs of domestic violence from the autopsy have reignited this sad affair. This is by no means an open-and-shut case either way: conflicting accounts of the events in question are available for your perusal in both Irvin Muchnick's Justice Denied and Snuka's own autobiography, Superfly. Regardless of what may or may not come from this, closure would be helpful for all parties. Take a gander and draw your own conclusions.
*Even with the claims that Triple H has been looking to get tag team wrestling back on the map in the WWE, 2014 is not exactly off to an auspicious beginning. The Prime Time Players are already history, with the decision being made to push Titus O'Neil as the new Ezekiel Jackson. (Or is it the old one? I can never keep it straight.) Perhaps also doomed for the exit are the Real Americans, as Cesaro's place in the Elimination Chamber has further teased friction with Swagger. The Shield appear headed for splitsville literally any minute now, and will the Rhodes Brothers be far behind? While Monday's Raw didn't move anything further along besides another loss, the Rumble pre-show and the following night's Raw reignited discussion that their brother vs. brother match might be back on. I'll spare you the Brodus Clay/Tensai affair, but you see where I'm going with this. It will be interesting to see where the division heads from here. The Usos have yet to receive a sustained push, and comedy tandems like 3MB and Truth/Woods don't seem credible. Perhaps a further injection of NXT talent might be on the horizon?
*Starting last night's Raw off with a promo was a pretty poor decision. While there was universal (and expected) non-acknowledgement of the very loud and clear CM Punk chants, picking them up at the start of the show was a guarantee thanks to having a verbal segment. This episode would have benefited from getting right to the action, rather than having fans endure speeches from Orton and Stephanie McMahon (all of which we've heard before), which presaged potential discord but delivered none at all. Due to their decision to have the villains speak, WWE made the absence of Punk all the more obvious. I certainly think a well-timed and well-executed interview segment can get the crowd hot and whet your appetite, but if it's just more the same we're all better off getting some more wrestling packed into the show. As long as there continues to not be enough time on a 3-hour tour to use talented hands like Damien Sandow, we could do without it.
*Lastly, it may have nothing to do with wrestling but I'm saddened over the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman was a truly unique talent who brought credibility and chops to any role he took in his career, and has to have appeared in at least one of just about everybody's favorite movies. To hear of his passing, particularly under the circumstances currently out there, and to read of his battles with addiction serve as melancholy reminders of the often all-too-brief time we have with entertainers we enjoy. It also causes me to wonder where the many talking heads consistently belittling and tearing down pro wrestling's struggles with substance abuse are when another Hollywood hopeful or stalwart falls victim to the same demons. Anyone who has ever known someone dealing with issues such as those knows the horrific toll it takes not only on the person but the ones who love them. It's never too late to get help or encourage someone else to do so. Not enough of these stories have happy endings. He will be missed.