One of the more interesting developments to come out of the WWE rumor mill of late is the continued insistence that Vince McMahon is due to come back into the swing of things and take off-center stage in the company he pushed to new levels of fame. It's fitting that this conversation would happen right around the corner from WrestleMania XXX, the event conceptualized and brought to fruition by McMahon himself. It serves as both the alpha and the omega of the wrestling business, a shot across the bow for territorial wrestling and a harbinger of the celebrity-filled, overstuffed spotfests that were to follow. It's perhaps even more fitting that this year's event will have among its most anticipated matches a battle between unquestionable crowd favorite Daniel Bryan and McMahon's own son-in-law, Triple H. Trips, of course, is a storyline authority figure while simultaneously also being a backstage authority figure, a bit of hocus pocus that is so ingrained in pro wrestling it's almost inseparable.
This columnist puts Triple H in a category of wrestlers that over the years I've had a hard time defining. I must of course give him full marks for taking a barely there WCW character and turning it into one of the more memorable and indelible characters in the business. From D-Generation X to Evolution and now the Authority, there can be no denying that HHH has found a way to repackage himself to suit the mood of the moment. He's also found a way to forge strong alliances with plenty of power brokers, overcoming obstacles (including running afoul of the McMahon empire in a sendoff for Turner-bound Scott Hall and Kevin Nash) that would have derailed plenty of folks.
That said, his allegiances and his relationship with the boss's daughter have unquestionably allowed him a great deal of unfettered access to storylines, championship reigns, and the "pushes" of those with favored status. Whether one draws any distinction between how he handled his business as a regular performer and how he handles it as Executive Vice President of Talent Relations and Live Events is, naturally, up to you. Whether one also sees the eventual handoff of the company from Vince to Trips and Stephanie is, perhaps, an even more important question. What is likely not in doubt is that whoever receives the task of carrying this immensely successful company into the future has an incredibly difficult job. Wrestling is no longer at its acme, catching pop culture magic and landing viewers without even trying. This brave new world can be a scary one, particularly when tackling issues with a sport that is unable, for better or worse, to shed much of the traps and trimmings that have always accompanied it.
There are always many ways to view any wrestling angle, and much like those Choose Your Own Adventure books from my childhood, all roads seem to lead to an ending that will be unsatisfying to some. The good news is that just like those stories, you have the opportunity to start all over again and relatively quickly. It's essentially in a constant state of reboot. Whether you feel that Triple H and those in his inner circle planned out the Rise of Bryan from the beginning, or whether you take the more cynical view that the big cheese has once again inserted himself into the best thing the company has going on at the moment, you are merely adding to the legacy of the McMahons that has its roots far before Terra Ryzing stopped rising.
Interestingly enough, while the "Mr. McMahon" character and his subsequent, most excellent feud with "Stone Cold" Steve Austin receives notable scrutiny and acclaim for its huge part in ushering in the Attitude Era and changing the face of the business in the WWE, it's really more his very public, very off-script Montreal Screwjob and fallout that cemented the image we have of Vinnie Mac to this day. When Bret Hart found that the only way to express his disdain for the treatment he received was to send some saliva Vince's way, he broke the fundamental fourth wall. Sure, we had already seen former WWE poster boys from Bruno to Billy Graham to Jesse Ventura to Hulk Hogan depart with varying degrees of acrimony, but this was different. This was someone the company and fans had invested an equal amount of time in sending the clear message that no matter what you saw on screen, the truth was something different. And he wasn't about to allow Vince to have this particular script on his terms.
It's fascinating to ponder this topic in the current climate, as a very popular superstar made a drastic and very public decision to leave the company on his own terms and have the fans deal with it in whatever way they see fit. Even now, as WWE ceremoniously trots out "The Hitman" for various events and appearances, I can't help but feel the climate shifted in a way that could never be unshifted. Words were exchanged, apologies were made, hands were extended and shaken. Fundamentally, though, battle lines were drawn over the argument that remain to this day. An intriguing sidebar is that McMahon probably owes Bret quite a bit for the spectacle. How many plot lines since that blowout have revolved around "private" matters being taken public? How many mix internet speculation with reality in so many directions that it becomes nearly impossible to differentiate the two? It's a standard business practice in the industry at this point. Wrestling has always had a fascination with keeping its carnival mysteries at arm's length. On that particular day, it became one hell of a lot more challenging to do so.
We can approach the upcoming Everyman vs. Government battle, then, with something approaching ennui. If it's an excuse to hand Bryan the World Title, then fine. At this point most of us would take just about any rationale possible to make that happen. But part of it is the McMahons' desire for spectacle, and their inherent belief that they ARE the show. They can certainly be forgiven for that idea: In addition to Austin vs. McMahon being a huge moneymaker for the company, McMahon vs. Just About Everyone On The Roster At Some Point or Another has become a rite of passage. And certainly the evil wrestling boss has run the gamut from highly effective to flash in the pan to ugh, from Heyman to Bischoff to Carter. It's almost an expectation of ours at this point. And give wrestling's first family high marks for finding ways to be indiscriminately beloved and reviled. It's not as easy as it sounds, particularly when you know it's coming. So no Oscars for Trips with his over-the-top scene chewing last night, but it's par for the course (and eminently far more watchable than The Chaperone).
So it makes perfect sense for Vince McMahon to give it another go, whether his motivations are selfish or not. The folks who write the storylines will always want to be in the storylines, because who knows it better? The WWE is running through a major identity crisis right now, and it's from the top to the bottom. The allure of John Cena merchandise is meeting the energy of the Yes Movement, folks from The Wyatts to The Shield are stuck in an odd everything-to-everyone archetype, tag teams are constantly teetering on the brink of breakup, and anyone who's anyone from Hogan to Batista are jumping back aboard. The best way to ground this plethora of excess is to get things back to basics, and in some small way to get real. Who better to usher in that possibility that the man many of us grew up with, the guy who went from goofy announcer to corporate honcho and everything in between? The man who found a way to take even his most embarrassing professional moment and turn it into storyline gold?
Vince vs. Hunter (should that be the way things eventually shake out) makes sense for a whole bunch of reasons. The best one is that it's just believable enough to catch the interest of the casual fan, while serving up enough tantalizing tastes of wrestling reality for seasoned fans. One of the others is that it's not necessary for them to get physical themselves (though they likely will); there's a plethora of directions to travel in, particularly now with some of HHH's running buddies having onscreen presence and former glories like Hogan giving it one more go. It's the battle for the future of the company, and therefore we are all invested in its outcome. It gives us one more chance to potentially bid a fond farewell to the Mr. McMahon character, as eventually we'll have to. That he has always had a better ability to self-promote than for anyone else to promote is his blessing and curse. It should not take away from the enjoyment of seeing that arc reach its satisfying conclusion.
At the end of the day, time will tell if Hunter and/or Stephanie are able to reach Vinnie Mac-levels of heeldom as onscreen authority figures. One can certainly be forgiven for having their doubts. A brilliant way of attempting to achieve it, however, is using Vince himself to deliver a conclusive finality to what has been an ongoing saga. You get the feeling that the handing off of this particular torch is going to have to be done in a very public and over-the-top way. It's sort of how things go in the wrestling business. Small and intimate is not something often desired nor achieved. It's in your face and it's at level eleven. The weekly back-and-forth "Dallas"-esque McMahon vignettes grew quite tiresome before pushing this Bryan vs. Trips feud to the forefront. Now, in this era of rapid adaptation and feedback, the time seems right to get back to the most basic of basics and finish telling at least one story. Make that next Bret Hart moment. Or, should I say, write it.
*I am just about always on board for a battle royal of any type, so the idea of the Andre the Giant Invitational (or whatever we're supposed to call it) appeals to me. It's also a very good way to get plenty of people onto the card that I'd rather see for five minutes than not at all. On the flip side, natch, there will also be many that I'd rather not see, but such is life. I appreciate that it gives The Big Show a chance to be relevant again, even if it's in the flimsiest of pretexts. I don't know that there's been a wrestler of his stature always doing something semi-relevant while staying firmly fixed out of the championship picture. The fact that he's being booked as a favorite should tell you about all you need to know regarding his chances here, but hey, they are trying and I do appreciate it. Show is extremely entertaining and would be a natural choice for roundtables and pre- and post-shows once his in-ring career ends. (Although I guess those "bad investments" are going to take some time to recoup.) But I like the star power announced for the match thus far and think it's got a chance to be more than filler. Early pick, naturally, is Sheamus.
*Speaking of trying to subvert the obvious, I thought Paul Heyman's promo was smartly booked, as is his wont, and delivered the goods last night. While it's a bit of a stretch for anyone to think Brock Lesnar will be the one to end the streak, particularly given his somewhat spotty win/loss track record since his return, the video package made some good points and intelligently focused on the dynamic of Taker's continued physical beatings taking their toll, as well as using the shared opposition of the two combatants as a focal point. It also was, from a purely financial standpoint, a chance to let Heyman do what he does best and attempt to make us all forget that Lesnar wasn't showing up for this week's show. These two wrestlers have a built-in history that in many ways requires little build, and therefore it's a perfectly suited choice. As I predicted at the beginning of 2014, to me the perfect ending of this match is that Taker wins and then retires due to the damage sustained. It's an excellent way to buoy Lesnar's beastial character while maintaining Taker's aura. And who are we holding out hope for at this point? Sting?
*I thought Raw's close was fairly solid, if not predictable to some degree. The handcuffs were a nice touch and added to the physicality of a battle that hasn't really seen the two participants engage that much, barring the odd knee to the head. As for Triple H's pronouncement that he would be in the main event should he win, I'm not too worried about it. I liked the Batista/Orton/Trips promo roundtable (particularly as it gave the fans a chance to actually cheer Big Dave for saying that Orton "sucks" as titleholder), and it raises the stakes a bit for the pro-Bryan crowd. One opportunity left on the table, at least for this viewer, was the absence of Brie Bella until the ambulance ride after the show. Making it personal always ups the intensity, and I like the dynamic of Brie being just as involved at Stephanie. She's not seen until after her husband-to-be is loaded onto the backboard and taken out of the arena? Doesn't make much sense. I cannot claim to be a big Bella booster, but this is the best time of any for her to be more involved in a storyline that might actually change some minds and engage some emotions.
*Finally, my sincere hopes that everyone can access the WWE Network soon. Despite initial technical difficulties (and I reserve the right to change my answer once WM XXX streams), it's been a fairly flawless execution and a heck of a lot of fun. I have particularly been enjoying the old school cards from Madison Square Garden and the Raw flashbacks. It's amazing when you realize how many things you've forgotten while you've been trying to pay attention. And I'm at least a month or two away from searching for Skinner matches.