Past Due: Reviving Survivor Series
As many wrestling fans undoubtedly know, the upcoming Survivor Series pay-per-view is the second longest-running concept in WWE's history, trailing only WrestleMania. The history of this event is well documented, from its roots in the early expansion of the globalization of the WWE to the much-maligned "abandonment" of the idea much later. Along the way, the "Thanksgiving Tradition" has seen a number of buzzworthy events, including both the first casket and elimination chamber matches, as well as of course the "Montreal Screwjob." More importantly, it's not like anything else that happens during the WWE calendar year. While the final Survivor Series 2013 card is not yet known, the two confirmed title matches (Orton/Show and Cena/Del Rio) have not generated much in the way of buzz. One way to do it? Return to the roots.
It's a valid argument that PPVs in general need to have championships defended. Fans putting down their hard-earned cash do so at least partially with a desire to see a champion fall. One of the best things about the Survivor Series historically, however, is that it's less about the championships than the story. In a business where who holds the honorific and how long they do so is entirely in the eye (and script) of the beholder, it's simply not necessary to spend all one's time reinforcing the need to defend the title. As wrestling fans, we like story first and foremost, and Survivor Series enables you to spin that story freshly while still keeping the elements of competition we know and love.
Consider the first-ever Series card, way back in 1987. With only four matches on the program (and all of them contested under the elimination rules), it was important to center the matches around the big feuds of the era. No surprise, then, that both the opening and closing matches featured big feuds from that time period (Randy Savage vs. The Honky Tonk Man and Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant). This early card also featured a match containing just about every women's wrestler on the roster, and an enormous 10-team tag team elimination match with such legends as the Hart Foundation, the British Bulldogs, and Demolition. Not bad for a debut.
The important thing to note (particularly in early iterations) was that it wasn't even necessary for major gold to be defended in order for the Survivor Series to be successfully executed. Momentum could be gained or lost through the story told inside the individual 5-man units, as well as the overarching competition between the teams against each other. While this isn't feasible currently (mainly due to the proliferation of championships inside the current WWE), having some of those belts take a temporary backseat to the establishment and fleshing out of bigger plotlines to come makes total sense. Think about it like the Royal Rumble win or Money In The Bank, where the match itself and the deployment and usage of the competitors therein can have just as much to do with what follows as the actual winner does.
Triple H is reportedly very keen on reviving the historically dormant tag team division, and that's most definitely a good thing. Tag team wrestling has often been considered the land of the also-ran, the place where "nearly there" talent can be stashed, older wrestlers can be drawn out during the twilight of their career, and where guys with significant gaps in their ability can be paired with folks who can improve upon (or brilliantly disguise) it. While that hasn't totally evaporated, there's no question that the current amount of teams (and prospective teams) on WWE's top-heavy roster could benefit from the exposure that a team-centric event like Survivor Series can bring. Tag teams are a central focus of SS matches, because it's a great way to fill out a group of five and enables you to keep current tag feuds fresh with a bit of a different dynamic. Planning on breaking out a tag teamer for singles dominance? Look no further. Want to cement the bond between the partners by having them survive against difficult odds? Got you covered.
Another underrated aspect of traditional Survivor matches is the roles that managers play. Looking back through history, every big name in the cornerman (or woman) market has at one time or another been pacing back and forth under the hot lights cheering on their respective charges during November's event. There is no doubt that one of the most entertaining parts of this era was watching a bunch of monsters packed into an interview space with each of their mouthpieces arguing with each other over who would be dominant. That type of entertainment is largely missing from today's product, where managers have mostly devolved into glorified valet material or generic blueprinted copy and rarely have a chance to interact with each other. This wrestling fan is smiling with delight from just the thought of Paul Heyman's guys pairing up with Zeb Colter's Real Americans, for example.
Because traditional Survivor Series matches take more time, the opportunity for these managers to engage the fans and each other increases. They can also be brought out more than once (depending on stable size), which allows for more creativity to take place. And, of course, when all else fails you can place them in the match also. Historically, placing a manager in a competitive role results in a downtick on the actual match in which they participate. In a Series match, though, there's no harm in using one spot for plot-driven maneuvers such as this; there's plenty of real estate available for the combatants you want to see do battle while still maintaining the delightful prospect of the heel manager getting his comeuppance.
There's also the question of how you fit the expansive talent of the roster into a PPV. There's simply nothing more frustrating as a fan than knowing one of your favorites has been left off the card yet again in favor of the same mix-and-match, Mad Libs booking of WWE creative. The Royal Rumble addresses this quite well, as 30 spaces allows for some talent that would not normally participate getting some prime time exposure, but Survivor Series has even more options available. Think about the potential of a team composed of NXT wrestlers going either against each other, or established stars? Plenty of pro sports leagues have already seen the benefit of using All-Star type affairs as a vehicle to drive interest in the future by bringing the next generation of athletes to the national stage. Once again, by combining those names many may not have heard of against those everyone surely has, you manage to tell new stories in a short amount of time without worrying about the buy rates suffering. Stars can be made quite easily in that kind of environment.
When the WWE made the lamentable decision to "rebrand" the Survivor Series back in 2010, response was overwhelmingly negative. This was a tradition many of us grew up with, this was an original thought by the WWE braintrust, and above all this was a fun event. Very few wanted to see it replaced with another generic, hazy-themed one word event that was full of fury and signified nothing. It took the WWE only a few months to correct that mistake. Unfortunately, they have not used that public outcry to get back to what made the Survivor Series great and use it to their advantage. Regardless of the intent, there's very few ways to do a better job of getting talent over. Take the current John Cena and compare it to the Hulk Hogan of the '80s and you have the basic idea.
Part of what's made the Royal Rumble's development over the years so singular is tying it into real stakes. The winner getting a definite championship shot increases our interest and makes the story that much more compelling. There's no reason a similar thing can't be done under Series rules. Putting significant stipulation into the main event is completely manageable. Having Royal Rumble entry numbers on the line could achieve the same result. While you don't want to overwhelm a gimmick PPV with even more gimmicks, I'm pretty confident it would make the matches themselves more interesting while preserving the need to have the matches themselves.
Most importantly, though, is preserving the history of this business. What do you know of in the world that has a history as colorful, as entertaining, and as fun as professional wrestling? The WWE has amassed an incredible amount of footage about the history of wrestling, and getting back to its roots is really important to connect the fans of yesteryear to the current crop. Part of the carny environment is protecting one's secrets. The cat has been out of the proverbial bag in pro wrestling for quite a while now, and thus there's far less need to be concerned about how fans will interpret the information that is provided. Creating lifelong supporters of the product should be every promoter's first and foremost concern. Taking an event as entrenched in the development of what we know now as World Wrestling Entertainment and furthering it into the current climate while maintaining some of its traditional trappings just makes sense for everyone involved.
Previously in this space, I've implored the WWE to get King of the Ring up and running again. It's not the actual crowning and coronation I'm craving (that was odd to begin with once the territories dried up, truth to tell), but rather the difference of it, the unbridled uniqueness of it all. The chance to tell a story in only the way pro wrestling can. I feel even stronger about using the storied history and one-of-a-kind strictures of the Survivor Series to do the same. The attack plan is right in front of you. It's been there all along. So why the need to deviate from it? Why the continued push to get history into the broom closet? There's never been a better time for the WWE to embrace the past and get a whole new generation of fans hooked on this event.
* The England Monday Night Raws have always been a bit of an up-and-down affair, mainly due to the time delay and the disappearance of elements of the roster. The crowd always does a tremendous job, and last night's show was no exception. It says something when you can feel like you're there (or wish you were) due to the fans in attendance and their reactions. Those good points overshadowed the bizarre "three-headed-monster" plotline of Brad Maddox, Kane, and Vickie Guerrero competing for who's really running Raw. The answer appears to be all of them, and it further makes the point of why a weekly "GM" position is not necessary. Too many cooks spoil the broth, and too many heel GMs ruin the show. And can anyone explain Kane being the director of operations to me? I have no issue with Kane as a performer, but he's delivering his lines in the same way he did the Team Hell No segments. Tough to be intimidating when fans don't know whether to laugh or gasp.
* Paul Heyman's reappearance on Raw was very overdue, and it hasn't even been that long. You have to give the devious one credit for being one of the best talents on the roster since his (largely unheralded) return to the WWE. Has there ever been a moment when a giant storyline hasn't surrounded him? Has there been anyone else who could singlehandedly work the crowd on the microphone in the way he can? It's like a master's course in Heel 101. Somehow he's managed to find a way to keep his neverending feud with CM Punk fresh through his equally limitless desire to take abuse in the ring. We can't look away because we all want to know what's next: the very definition of must-see TV. I've said this before, more than once, but enjoy this ride while it lasts: we simply won't see his kind again.
* I'm starting to develop a soft spot for the WWE merchandise-shilling segments on Raw every week. I thoroughly enjoyed R. Truth's not too long ago, and even the invisible Zack Ryder made me partially smile last evening with his QVC-like segment. I admit that it is a bit like rubbernecking at an accident to watch a guy who can't buy five seconds on the show selling John Cena merchandise (just in case you didn't know his new shirt was available, it's not like it's EVER mentioned), but it reinforces the idea that wrestlers make pretty excellent pitchmen. Let's hold our breath and wait for the sure-to-come JTG segment. Or Great Khali. Okay, changed my mind.
* The possibilities of The Wyatt Family squaring off against The Shield are intriguing, indeed. If Monday's Raw was a test run on whether The Shield could potentially work as faces in an upcoming program, I'd say the results are that they could, indeed. The charisma in the ring was overwhelming, and in a variety of ways. It actually overshadowed the "ending" of the match, where the Usos and the Rhodes boys came out to assist CM Punk and Daniel Bryan. The staredown between Roman Reigns and Bray Wyatt was without a doubt the moment of the night in my view. It was just the right amount of physical, and left you with questions going into this week. That's what a good ending should do. More, please.