The WWE's Biggest Headache
It's hard not to see the irony involved in recent WWE storylines. Arguably one of their biggest of late has been the ongoing feud between Curtis Axel and the storyline COO of the promotion, Triple H. Depending on your point of view, this feud (which to date hasn't actually seen them get through a complete match) has either been the launching point for a repackaging of a talent with a huge upside or an egotistical burial before it even began. The more interesting facet of it for me, though, is the fact that it deals with yet another example of a scripted injury. Triple H has been no stranger to them, as he was "seriously injured" against Brock Lesnar during their recent series of matches as well. The idea behind this is that despite his family's concerns and his head trauma, Trips will persevere and claim vengeance on the poor soul who dared think he could defeat him. Honor on the line and all that.
This plotline has precipitated the all-powerful McMahon family to once more appear weekly on Raw, looking for their usual boost to the ratings that has thus far not materialized. The reveal of Trips as heir to the McMahon fortune to the WWE Universe was a calculated move, and there's no doubt it has paid emotional dividends and allowed the promotion to establish some much-needed realism, but to be honest it's thus far been a mixed bag in terms of results. We were told that Triple H would be moving away from his in-ring career in order to guide the company in the right direction, and that happened for about a month or two. No doubt Vinnie Mac makes for interesting and entertaining television, but his decisions have been questionable on-screen and off, including the infamous limousine explosion. Unless P.T. Barnum has infiltrated WWE's Board of Directors, it would be rather silly to continue in that direction. In addition, Vince has always made for a far better villain. As long as he's appearing on our screens, it should be in that role. When he officially moves on from active regular appearances, that's a different story.
It's evident that Triple H doesn't want to hang it up yet, and that's understandable. While I've never been a huge fan, I find his in-ring work to be pretty good overall and he's had his share of excellent matches. He has a great "big game" style that reminds me of head coaches in other sports who seem to hit another level when it's all on the line. In addition, he's a big name and a marketable commodity in a sport that needs more of that as they try to bring along the next group of superstars. I love Dolph Ziggler, Daniel Bryan, and The Shield (thereby catching you up on recent columns) but they aren't to the point of making or breaking the card to the general public just yet. They need time, and veterans that can still go will allow the company to continue to sell tickets while they get the next generation up and running.
What isn't as understandable is the promotion's desire to present these concussion issues as trumped-up drama, even as many of their biggest stars suffer the very real effects. News broke this week that everybody's favorite walking ringtone, Fandango, will miss Payback as a result of a concussion sustained in a match with Zack Ryder. We also saw champion Ziggler return to Raw fresh off his lengthy absence due to the same injury, which caused its own restructuring of this weekend's PPV. (Zero chance Alberto Del Rio wins that affair, but at least it's not another Alberto/Swagger matchup.) Clearly now more than ever the WWE is dealing with many big names becoming concussed as a result of the physicality they put their bodies through each and every night. They actually have far more of a chance of doing so than in other sports, purely due to the schedule. It definitely has the chance to wreak havoc on the carefully created storylines that may have been mapped out months in advance, but there's simply nothing that can be done in a company where physical and intense confrontation is the order of every day.
It's never been a new thing to feign injury in wrestling, and that certainly won't (and shouldn't) go away. Concussions, however, are becoming a different issue, in large part due to the work of former WWE Superstar (and Hardcore Champ!) Chris Nowinski. Nowinski has a brief career with the WWE before retiring due to post-concussion syndrome. I've always admired what Nowinski did after that, namely looking to use his experience and unfortunate injury to help others, including pro wrestlers. Those efforts and the creation of the Sports Legacy Institute have without a doubt put sports deaths into perspective, as well as helping active athletes to better regulate their symptoms and take action. So much is unknown about the human brain, even now, and work in this area unquestionably will lead to further discoveries.
The WWE, naturally, is not immune, particularly as Nowinski has experience in the ring with them. This came to the forefront when Nowinski and others pushed for Chris Benoit's brain to be examined following the tragedy that occurred June 24, 2007. It's hard to believe that any positive could come from that difficult time, but the brain's response to repeated concussions was brought to the center of attention directly as a result of this high-profile event. While it's very difficult to directly link this evidence to the horrible outcome, this research and study has caused other athletes across professional sports to agree to donate brain tissue to science following their death in order to help that next generation we spoke of earlier.
As fans, we crave the excitement and energy that a physical match can bring. Some of my favorite matches are endurance battles, and many of them featured Benoit. It's a bit of a misconception that chair shots and the like are the cause of all of these issues; while WWE has done the smart and responsible thing by curtailing and minimizing them, any repeated head impact or motions can cause or accelerate some of these symptoms. Think about the number of times Benoit used a flying headbutt from the top during a match and you'll see the point. There can be no shock whatsoever that many of the men and women who participate in a sport like wrestling can and will eventually be forced unwillingly into early retirement as a result of what we've enjoyed watching them do. There's also no doubt that many of the names of the past might have hung it up sooner had concussions not had such a negative stigma. Quite frankly, a headache wasn't a reason to not go to work and get it done. We've learned in such a sad way that it's a very good reason sometimes, and we continue to learn each and every day. It's not in a lab, however, it's with human beings and the experiments are done on a nightly and weekly basis.
With all of the controversial wrestling-related deaths over the years, much has been made on the subject of drug abuse. Many of the people making these statements are not only self-professed detractors of wrestling, they don't even watch it. Generalities abound, and the perception of us as fans are bloodthirsty roughnecks who wouldn't have looked out of place at the Coliseum. As a fan, and someone who was in the horde of eccentric and hilarious personalities that attended ECW shows, I can safely say that it's simply not the case. Just like a hockey fight or a boxing match, we are roused by efforts of human physicality and brawn. It does not mean that we wish ill on the combatants. Someone like Mick Foley has achieved legendary status by doing just that, taking his body and putting it on the line for his career and for the love of the business and its fans. There is no greater sacrifice, and nobody watching in the arena or at home wants it to end badly. But it can and it does.
I think World Wrestling Entertainment has made serious inroads, in part being open to Nowinski and SLI and their important work, and I'm glad to see it. Several years ago, a hot-button word like "concussion" would never have made an appearance in a story by WWE on their website. The admission of actual medical issues with its athletes is a hugely important step for the WWE, and one of the areas where the idea of a union such as in other sports is not out of place. The McMahons have attacked drug addiction head-on, funding rehab after rehab for anyone who has spent so much as a cup of coffee in their business, but how about the reasons FOR the addiction? What we know of concussions has shown us that it's not simply waking up with a headache after a match; it's a series of baseline tests that must be administered and passed before doctors can be satisfied that no further damage will be done. Holding wrestlers off of matches and cards is a necessary and important step, but getting to the bottom of this research and preventing the issues is infinitely more so.
This brings me back around to the top of this story. As a wrestling fan, I expect that anything and everything will be made into a storyline and cannon fodder for the WWE. It's one of the things that makes them so successful and entertaining, in that just like current news, it's constantly changing and morphing based on the times. There can and should be limits, though, and the treatment of a concussion as a storyline is outdated and borderline offensive. The WWE makes it a point to let everyone (particularly their young fans) know not to try what they see on TV at home, but there is an even larger point to be made here. As the number one wrestling promotion ever, World Wrestling Entertainment has to make it clear that head injuries are becoming all-too-frequent and devastating. To send the message even in storyline form that anyone would wrestle with a concussion or against doctor's orders is unsafe and bad business, in my view. Wrestling fans are smart enough to understand a work, but there are plenty of other ways to skin this cat. Come up with a different body part, write something new, whatever is needed. The continuation of these storylines while the very real concussion problem grows and persists sends a message of fraudulence and frivolity that is anathema to what the company and its fans stand for. It's insulting to the honor of the athletes who endure this for our enjoyment. It's insulting to us.
As a massive wrestling fan, I don't want to change the wrestling itself one bit. Certain moves must be modified or banned to protect the wrestlers, and we've learned to live with that. If it's a choice between a piledriver or being able to see my favorite wrestler perform again, I think the choice is obvious. It's time we applied that same logic to the concussion issue. We all get that Triple H is extremely stubborn and brave and all that, but let's find a different route. Making a big deal about concussions and minimizing them in the same week (let alone the same show) is not just inconsistent, it's wrong. Monday's Raw seemed to make it clear that the Triple H/Axel storyline might be headed away from that direction and into a different one. If so, let's learn from those lessons and use these mounting injuries as a very good reason to send the right, responsible message. That's my two cents.
* I've used this space to applaud many of the current WWE roster who are excellent on the microphone, and I'm definitely adding AJ Lee to that list. Not only is she far and away the best talker on the women's side of things, she's far better than many of the guys who get way more mic time. Yesterday's Raw, with its who-didn't-see-THAT coming reveal of AJ being behind Kaitlyn's secret admirer, at least gave us the opportunity to get some more crazy AJ on the stick. She's a bit over-the-top of course, but that plays right into her character. I also really appreciated the writing for a change, as I think she doesn't sound like anyone else, a problem that's become way too common. One of the best ways to inject some overdue excitement into this "division" is to get us some more of that. Very underrated talker.
* Wouldn't it be great if the WWE could figure out what to do with midcard heels? It was nice to finally see Antonio Cesaro back this week, and actually winning, but I've all but lost hope that we will ever get a sustained run that he's more than worthy of. As for fellow sufferer Wade Barrett, he's a champion for now but once again feuding with The Miz (yawn) and already being superseded by the Curtis Axel push. Sad to say that the same fate appears to be befalling the awesomely entertaining Damien Sandow, ready to be served up as cannon fodder to Seamus on the pregame show Sunday. Sandow has taken a Genius-esque shtick and turned it into a hilarious repertoire, and he's more than effective in the ring. If we can't get the intellectual savior some wins, how about an opponent that can play off his strengths at least? Jericho would be an obvious choice. Or turn Cody Rhodes face. But no, we'll instead see a Sandow squash and Randy Orton eventually inserted into an already long list of heels the WWE doesn't know what to do with. Get this guy his own show yesterday please.
* How many weeks in a row will Daniel Bryan have the best match on Raw? Needless to say, anyone with knowledge of past history won't be surprised to have seen his match with Seth Rollins stealing the show yesterday. These two are no strangers to each other and had some excellent encounters in ROH circa 2008. We can only hope we'll be treated to a rekindling of that rivalry one-on-one in the WWE, as they bring out the best in each other and have unique and creative move sets. Put those two on any PPV for a half hour and you've got a winner. No matter what our favorite announcer Michael Cole says, I'd check those matches out if you haven't seen them. Monday night was not the first time they met, and it certainly won't be the last. Great, great stuff.
That's all I have for this week. I'm not sure what to expect for Payback (you're all already familiar with my thoughts on that name), and from the looks of the card I'm not seeing much in the way of shakeups. Of course, everything is easily forgiven with the return of CM Punk as well as Ziggler, so it remains to be seen where it will rank. I would definitely do something with Bray Wyatt (doesn't have to be physical involvement in a match) to get people talking. The buzz is definitely there. Until next time, this is Mike Holland saying thanks for reading and have a great week!
Twitter: @coffeyfan77 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org