A few weeks ago, I originally published this article within hours of the recent updates starting. Through an error, there wound up being three versions, only one of which actually had the body text, while the other two were blank. Then we lost the only one that did have the text. As I was never sure if it actually got read, I decided to revise the piece, add some more content and re-upload it. I'm also writing a follow-up to this story for next week, so it'll be handy having this online for reference and getting your input to consider for next Friday's article. You guys will also see me on Tuesday for my News Update.
The brass ring. We’ve all heard the expression before. It’s supposed to be that one accomplishment, that one defining moment when a wrestler becomes a Superstar, when that wrestler goes from the mid-card to the main event, when fans are able to lean back in their chairs and confidently say, “That’s a guy the company’s gotten behind. That’s a guy I’m gonna watch soar all the way to the top. And what a story it’ll be.”
That doesn’t happen anymore.
At least, not in a way that’s meaningful.
CM Punk said it best in 2011 with his legendary pipe bomb promo that kicked off the Summer of Punk.
“I’ve grabbed so many of Vincent K. McMahon’s imaginary brass rings that it’s finally dawned on me that they’re just that. They’re completely imaginary.”
At the time, I didn’t understand the full meaning of those words. I knew up to that point he’d been a three-time World Heavyweight Champion, a two-time Money in the Bank winner, a tag team champion, an Intercontinental Champion and an ECW Champion, and that the fact all those accomplishments brought him no consistent success must have been frustrating for him.
But it was much more than that. Punk was disillusioned. As a wrestler, as a fan, as a guy who thought he understood wrestling, all his expectations for what led to success in this business had been subverted. When I try to put myself in his boots, I imagine all the hope he must have felt each time he was told by some guy in the back, “Punk, tonight you’re gonna win Money in the Bank” or “Punk, we’re gonna have you cash in on Edge.” Combine that with all the critical praise for his wrestling and talking ability, he must have believed that he held all the right cards. He must have thought things were going to go his way.
And then they didn’t. Not until 2011 when he got the chance to “air his grievances.” That’s when the revelation came. That’s when CM Punk set the tone for the next should-be Superstars who’d come after him. Those brass rings, those moments when wrestlers become Superstars, those moments when fans can have confidence in a wrestler and the WWE?
“They’re completely imaginary.”
When Dolph Ziggler won Money in the Bank, I was excited. The audience in Phoenix was excited. And when he cashed in his contract on a beaten-down Alberto Del Rio the night after WrestleMania 29, the reaction was thunderous. It was probably the biggest pop of his life, and as a heel no less. Here was a guy who was getting massive pops. Here was a guy who literally threw himself into his work. The fans knew it and appreciated that he’d take such risks for our entertainment. And what did he get for his hard work?
Nothing. He dropped the title back to Del Rio because of a concussion. Understandable. But when I thought there’d by a follow-up story, a chance for vindication, there was nothing. Ziggler fell back into the mid-card. All the build-up, all the organic build-up, all the genuine adoration from millions of fans -- for nothing.
In that promo you’ll see a disillusioned Dolph Ziggler. Even though it’s up on WWE.com, even though WWE might be using this to set up a “disgruntled former main eventers” tag team, I have no doubt those words came from the heart. For years, Ziggler has been saying that he strives to be the best. He said it even when he had yet to do anything to draw anyone’s interest. By June 2013, he had won Money in the Bank, he had won the title, he had all the fans, he had all the support -- and then it was gone.
Why? Because the WWE didn’t like how he was conducting himself in interviews. Maybe that was wrong of him. But in a company where Randy Orton can blow up at people backstage, when Batista can win his return match and then show his appreciation to the fans by flipping them off and mocking their favorite Superstar, how could they punish Dolph Ziggler for showing a bit of resentment for how he’d been booked?
Daniel Bryan. This man is my favorite wrestler. I dedicated an entire article to liking him. He’s the guy the fans just won’t let the WWE pass up on. When he was fired, fans chanted his name for months until his return; when he lost at WrestleMania 28 in 18 seconds, “YES!” became an industry-crossing trend; and when he didn’t win the Royal Rumble, Mick Foley broke his daughter’s TV set.
Daniel Bryan has grabbed a lot of those brass rings too: United States Champion, WWE Tag Team Champion, Money in the Bank, World Heavyweight Champion, two-time WWE Champion. Then that time of year came around, when 30 men trickled into the ring for a match that lets fans dream of a wrestler having that one defining moment, that moment that transcends time and place to become immortalized in wrestling canon – and then Batista won.
The Pittsburgh audience booed. They chanted for Daniel Bryan. I crossed my arms and pouted. I felt like a disappointed child. And that’s a really apt analogy. I’d indulged in a childlike hope of seeing a hardworking, adored hero reap the fruits of his labor, only to have my hopes dashed.
Keeping sight of the brass rings has been hard these past few years. Sometimes I thought WWE was playing a metagame, disseminating manufactured rumors that played off our expectations as “smart” fans. Whatever I chose to see in their plans, whatever clever method to the madness I imagined, I managed to maintain that childlike delusion that there would be a payoff, that there would come a day when I and all the millions of fans chanting “YES!” would be rid of the anxiety of cheering for an unestablished wrestler, when I could lean back comfortably and know that the guy who had wanted to start training the day after high school graduation would finally get that all-important WWE moment, that moment the WWE wants us to think is important.
During the Royal Rumble, I was disillusioned. Millions of fans were disillusioned. The system that we believed should make a star and the platform to launch him into space had been demolished. The same thing happened at Extreme Rules. The payoff was in sight. I've been to an episode of Raw now, I know what it's like to get caught up in the ebb and flow of the match, to sink into the audience's energy as everyone hails the oncoming fulfillment.
And then, again, disillusionment.
“The only thing that’s real is me, and the fact that day in and day out, for almost six years, I’ve proved to everybody in the world that I am the best on this microphone, in that ring, and even on commentary. Nobody can touch me.”
CM Punk said it best. He knew he’d been doing the right things. He knew the fans were behind him. But those brass rings didn’t get him where he wanted to be. And we as fans -- we who believe that if we cheer our hearts out for a guy, he will eventually have his day -- were disappointed.
The WWE wants us to believe in WrestleMania moments. The WWE wants us to anticipate those moments when the ref’s hand drops for the third time, the audience cheers, and the fans at home pump their fists in the air, a moment we’ll see over and over again in video packages, countdown videos and documentaries. Maybe the Superstar involved will even earn a spot on the signature at the start of the show.
But we’ve had our hopes thwarted, time and time again. I could list more examples than CM Punk, Dolph Ziggler and Daniel Bryan. I could say Zack Ryder, heck, maybe even Ryback when he was still white-hot going into Hell in a Cell 2012. It feels like it’s been a long time since the guys we cheered for have been treated to any sort of consistent success.
CM Punk? The guy who dropped the pipe bomb that exploded into two-and-a-half years of disillusionment? After returning with the WWE Championship, he dropped it to Alberto Del Rio, had a “wet blanket” thrown over his momentum by Triple H, won the title back after a meaningless autumn of hot potato, and went on to have the longest reign of the Modern Era without main eventing most the pay-per-views he defended the title on. At the time, I thought the reign was still enough. When he walked out in January, I listed it as one of the reasons he shouldn’t have been that upset with the company.
But it’s not enough. The Superstars we cheer for should get the consistent success that they deserve, that we deserve. And they’re not going to get the sort of drawing power the WWE wants until they treat them like their top stars, until they keep them from suffering pointless losses, until they put them in the big spots when the most eyeballs are watching their talent, when people who wouldn’t otherwise be watching can size up their product and decide how much time they’ll commit to it over the next year.
Fans have time and time again embraced wrestlers the WWE didn’t want to get behind. But there’s only so much wind a flame can endure before it’s snuffed out. It happened quickly for Zack Ryder, while Dolph Ziggler’s embers only spark once in a blue moon. Daniel Bryan’s fire is enormous. WWE has only fanned the flames so far. But how long until subverted expectations and disillusionment with the system, with the belief that their support makes Superstars, until that flame is snuffed out?
CM Punk has walked out of the company. That may as well be his last pipe bomb. I was a bit angry with him at the time. Really, I’m still on the fence. But I can definitely empathize with him more after writing this article. I don’t know his exact mindset, but I don’t think he was just angry about his place in the company. And I don’t think he left because of a concussion. I think he realized the complaint he made almost three years ago has come true time and time again for him and almost every young star the fans have gotten behind.
Vincent K. McMahon’s brass rings. “They’re completely imaginary.”
Nicholas LeVack is a double major in English creative writing and journalism. His interests include writing, wrestling, video games and occasional outdoorsy things. You can follow him on Twitter, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and take part in his first venture into video game journalism at doublejump.co.