In case you have not heard, the WWE is unveiling a new PPV concept this June called "Payback." If you didn't know that, it's not surprising since I remain unconvinced that even the WWE knows what exactly this event is supposed to be. We do know that Randy Orton is going to be the one featured on the poster for the event, and his revenge appears to be exacted on a mirror. Better rivals might include the writers, who haven't given him much to chew on since the underwhelming feud with Wade Barrett, or the Wellness Program. We also have been given the rather opaque commentary that "scores will be settled," etc. It's also being advertised that all "major" championships will be defended, as if that's cause for jubilation. Shouldn't we as fans expect all major championships to be on the line when we plunk down hard-earned coinage for a major event? I'd say so.
As to scores being settled, well that's the whole point of wrestling, isn't it? As with any story worth its salt, we as fans become invested in certain characters and wrapped up in what will become of them along the way. We take it personally when they are given short shrift, and we celebrate right with them when they overcome the adversity placed before them. The best part of this experience is that it's different for everyone. I'm not sure who that fan of Nathan Jones is, but I encourage their right to be one.
With that in mind, it's obvious that the ebb and flow of the sport will be the encounters with other wrestlers, thus fleshing out that particular backstory and adding to the enjoyment. Almost always the heel will get his (or her) comeuppance, but the when, where and how are to be determined. When the script scribblers do their jobs well, it can be a tremendously enjoyable and surprising ride. When they don't, well, you get a feud based on embracing the hate.
Point is, rivalries have always been strong in wrestling, and they've always been one of the biggest and best reasons to hand WWE fifty bucks on a Sunday to watch some of them come to a boil. Taking that concept and making it the focal point of a PPV is as ridiculous as saying this week's episode of Top Chef is going to be about cooking. In a word, articulately phrased: Duh. The best match on the Wrestlemania card was undoubtedly CM Punk vs. The Undertaker, in no small part due to the story and revenge surrounding it. In addition to an excellent performance by perhaps the best guy on the roster right now in Punk, you have the old reliable Dead Man turning it up a notch and selling facial expressions of hatred like they were going out of style.
That "big-match" feel can only be reached with the additions of passion and emotion, which those two gentleman had in spades. While I agree with fellow TJR scribes that William Moody's passing accentuated that storyline in a unique (and melancholy) way, the decision to use said event to get fans pissed off was not new and highly, highly effective. While the look on my face watching Punk dump the contents of a sandbox onto himself out of the urn was one of supreme enjoyment, I knew that so many in the wrestling community would not be happy at all. And that's the point.
Growing up as a wrestling fan, the first thing I recall when talking about almost any wrestler are the rivalries they were involved in. Name the decade and you can just as easily come up with some feuds that captured our interest and wouldn't let go. We could do a year's worth of articles about them and only scratch the surface. In the Attitude Era, of course, you had everyman Steve Austin going up against corporate honcho Vince McMahon. You'd still have difficulty convincing large segments of wrestling fandom who the better man was, Shawn Michaels or Bret Hart. Ric Flair's feuds in WCW were absolutely legendary, to say nothing of the Four Horsemen. Properly executed, they could last years and years, or go dormant for long periods of time only to rear their ugly head once more, as we've seen several times with the aforementioned Undertaker and Kane.
These feuds touched our emotions and made us feel that these characters genuinely hated each other (which in more than one case is an accurate reflection). They also spawned scores of PPVs where we'd sit down with our snacks to finally see Wrestler X gain hard-fought revenge on Wrestler Y only to be thwarted. Thus naturally leading us in to, you guessed it, the next event. Rivalries are big business, not just in pro wrestling, but sports in general. All of that is well and good, but it's entwined in the fabric of the business from its inception. To somehow segregate it into a yearly event is maddeningly daft. Am I to believe that wrestlers in the locker room put their revenge on hold only to unleash it when June comes? We've already experienced Backlash, Bad Blood, Vengeance, Unforgiven, Judgment Day AND Bragging Rights. How exactly is Payback going to differ from those skeletons? It's understood that current feuds will be the subject matter when any event comes along. Extreme Rules? I might argue about how good the card is, but at the very least I can understand how it's different from other pay-per-view matches.
Judging Payback before it's been assembled might seem like a rash decision, but I can safely say I don't like what I've heard so far. The lack of detail that's come out about it worries me even more. I felt similar trepidation when the decision was made to turn Hell in a Cell into a yearly event, instead of the "last resort" match it's designed to be. Putting more wrestlers into it and doing it more often doesn't make it special, it waters down the product and places people that have no business being in that environment there purely to squeeze them onto the card.
What burning questions will be settled as a result of this filler until SummerFest? (Oops, Summerslam. My apologies, Mr. Masterpiece Theater Jeremy Piven!) We will discover who bungled the pronunciation of a ballroom dancer's name. We will find yet another reason why the Jack Swagger/Alberto Del Rio feud that never ends must continue. And we'll get something completely different, as once again Triple H takes on Brock Lesnar, who appears to have been brought into the WWE for a series of special matches that all must feature a semi-retired grappler whose best recent effort was against a batch of dry ice. There just aren't a lot of rivalries with major life in them right now. Ryback vs. John Cena is the only one I'm seeing in the tea leaves that at least has some fresh content, and I don't hold out hope for a stellar contest there. If the WWE is truly committed to moving in this direction, they need to jazz it up a bit.
The revenge matches themselves don't strike me as groundbreaking, but perhaps working something personal to the feud might help. (And no, not "Passport on a Pole"; although if they use it, I expect residuals!) Put Dolph Ziggler into a ladder match harkening back to how he got his briefcase. Hell No against Rhodes Scholars with the losing team ACTUALLY breaking up and staying solo. You get my point. Actual consequences and storyline advancement would be fantastic, and give any of us a chance to entertain the notion of novelty.
It's been pretty apparent that between the rising costs of everyday life and the advancement in years of the WWE's big names that they are going to have to figure out some different ways of capturing interest. What they have yet to discover, however, is that the best way to do that is to give us something different. Even if the Shield does strike you as nWo-like, at least it's fresh right now and giving us a chance to see some new faces whose stories have yet to be written in the big league. I'll take that, warts and all, over a rehash of the same feuds with The Big Show since they don't have anyone else for him to go up against. It's asking a lot for fans who are getting a ton of free content every week to pony up for a bunch of matches that don't differ very much from what they've already seen. It's similar to a movie preview where they tell you exactly what's going to happen: Thanks, but I'll wait for Netflix.
The building of suspense and the wrinkles and twists of the plot are what sells it, and makes you go to something you've already paid good money for again and again. This, unfortunately, has been replaced by an immediate gratification mindset where anything that takes off (no matter how minor) becomes an overdone focal point. Jumping the shark has in itself jumped the shark. This whole half-baked concept should be interrupted by 3-Minute Warning. Have I said that already?
* Could not agree more with the thoughts of my editor, Mr. John Canton, concerning the loss by new champ Dolph Ziggler on last week's Raw. Having your champion lose the very next week not only devalues the champion and the championship he carries, it's just stupid. I am amazed that a company that finds new ways to do the same exact thing week after week picks the worst possible time and scenario to shake things up. Part of what makes Dolph great is that he's willing to sell it completely, from his over-the-top heel persona to his opponent's moves in the ring. That kind of dedication earns you plenty of wrestling fans online, but doesn't seem to do much for you in the front office. That's unfortunate, because to me there's no greater talent. Just because a champion CAN lose doesn't mean he should. Don't present John Cena as invincible and then make your other champion look like a loser.
* I'm not much for predictions, but on a personal level I am looking for big things from Wade Barrett. I have noticed his interviews getting grittier of late, and I thought the way he dealt with his miniature movie role was hilarious. I can legitimately buy Barrett as a tough guy, and I've always thought his in-ring work was better than average. As usually seems to be the case, the WWE has struggled to find something for him to do at times. This has caused the Barrett Barrage to be about as ominous as a Taylor Swift song. I am a sucker for the wrestler who operates on the wrong side of the law and I love that I can't find anything in Wade to make me think he could ever be a face. That alone is a reason to wish him success. Let's get him a main-event level push already, no?
* Last but not least, I'd be remiss to say that the events experienced in Boston this past week have been really tough to observe. It's easy to take that payback philosophy and apply it to the real world as well. I'd much rather focus on the amazing stories that always come out when terrible things happen, and the everyday people who step up to the plate to do something for their fellow citizens (and humans). I'd like to think that even at very dark times, the brightest of lights come out and shine. They serve as reminders that no matter what, doing something selfless carries with it its own reward. And we're all the better as a people because of it.