Rarely has there been an episode of Monday Night Raw with more breathless anticipation heading into it than last night's. Everyone had been buzzing about how the fans of Chicago, already known to be among the most vociferous in the country, would respond to the WWE's flagship show continuing to move ahead as if a certain wrestler known as CM Punk did not exist. When news broke several days ago that Punk himself was almost a lock to be in attendance, the mind really started to reel. How would this play out, and how would it potentially impact the main event of the fast-approaching WrestleMania XXX? The possibilities were endless, but all of them looked pretty damn entertaining.
Unfortunately, as just about all of us have found out on this wonderful thing we call the internet, sometimes a rumor is just a rumor. Wishing it so does not make it reality, even in a business where instant gratification and wish fulfillment are standard practices. The WWE played their part to a tee, opening the show with shots of the raucous audience and immediately letting loose with "Cult of Personality." (Smart move, incidentally: I'm sure they've paid quite a bit of coin to gain those rights and need any excuse to pay it off.) As those in attendance and those at home waited for what felt like a half hour, each second that passed brought with it a gnawing pang of disappointment. In the end, it was not Punk who came out to face the music, but his former manager Paul Heyman. What followed was nothing short of genius.
It's always a scary prospect to start off a wrestling show with a promo. Promos are difficult to begin with, as they feature no physical action in front of a group of people who came to see that very thing. Couple in the expectation building to a fever pitch and even the heroic Daniel Bryan might have been a tad out of place. Of all the names on the roster, one of the few who brings with him that element of live microphone danger is Heyman. He's been responsible for some of the best promos in the business (I'll attach a few at the end for old time's sake) and he's got history with just about everybody. He's also one of the best at the very old school idea of stringing the crowd along and dropping the hammer without them seeing it coming. It's easy to get a bunch of people riled up by insulting their sports team or athleticism. It's way more difficult (and therefore far better) to blast them while they are unwittingly applauding along.
Heyman played his part to the hilt, echoing Punk's infamous pipe bombs in both demeanor and content as he broke the fourth wall only to build it right back up again. He broke kayfabe by getting everyone whipped up as to the obvious disappointment of the situation, despite the lengthy feud between the two men that occurred not so long ago. He then not only turned that rage onto the audience, thereby cementing his status as the ultimate heel, but used it to further build (in a fairly logical way, actually) the impending mega match that will be his charge Brock Lesnar taking on the streak of the Undertaker. They even managed to present Lesnar decently on the microphone. High times indeed.
What really impressed me equal to Heyman's performance (which is so dead-on I've come to expect it) was the way in which the WWE handled this. I don't pretend to disagree with what I understand of Punk's motivation to leave the WWE during his contract; I wasn't hustling to see him take on Triple H and absolutely agree that a main event of Randy Orton vs. Batista is not something I'm awaiting with baited breath. That said, Punk left World Wrestling Entertainment in a tough spot indeed. He is hugely over with a large segment of the fanbase, and one of the more active folks on social media during the blitz and onslaught that has accompanied the arrival of the WWE Network. For him to walk out on the company during its important build to its biggest event was a major PR blow to a group of folks always trying to come out on the right side of things.
Since that day, reaction has been mixed. Regardless of which side you might take in this fracas, the smart money is on an eventual return. Things will be sorted out and smoothed over, and Punk will make a triumphant return at a time when creative can freshen things up enough to accommodate it. It won't usher in an era where the WWE doesn't overly rely on part-time players (particularly now, when names of the past are popping up all over screens big and small in support of the 24/7 network), but it will allow for him to have his moment and likely another lengthy run with the title. He's earned that much in his time with the company. Anyone who feels otherwise overlooks the obviousness of mending fences in a time when both Hulk Hogan AND The Ultimate Warrior have returned to the fold...at the same time. Ceremony is not stood on in the world of pro wrestling, that's for sure.
WWE, for their part, have not been shy about utilizing Punk in some of their programming on the aforementioned Network during its first week, be it in matches or interview segments. While that's natural as Punk played a major part in storylines for the last few years, it's been less apparent in the everyday goings-on of the biz, as Punk has been largely absent on the lips of wrestlers and announcers alike. While that's the standard approach for the WWE in times of crisis, it's awfully silly here. Punk's scripted persona is all about defying convention, and the WWE risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy by refusing to comment in order to avoid further unpleasantness. This approach of full speed ahead, is-he-or-isn't-he? discussion is the smart play during the information age. If the crowd's going to hijack your show, hijack them first. Nothing like a pseudo-riot to let promoters try promoting again. Anyone who thinks that crowds are more hostile in this day and age clearly needs to catch up on some territorial wrestling, stat.
Whether WWE planted this story to increase speculation heading into the event is something we'll likely never know. What I am extremely conscious of is that I don't see them addressing this story in any way without feeling like something's soon to give. Heyman's excellent promo was no accident; it was a warning shot of what's to come in a battle where misinformation is abundant and nothing is what it seems. For those concerned that Punk would step in and supplant Daniel Bryan in his proposed match with Triple H, the only true fear there is it diminishes what appears to be an outside chance that DB somehow ends up with the belt after the big dance. Punk would lock in a rooting interest in an otherwise bland battle between two heels (one intentional and one otherwise) in a main event match that's already being treated as second fiddle and rapidly slipping to third without other matches even being announced yet.
As to Bryan, WWE is banking that the fan base who's been strung along in his quest to land the championship that has so deftly avoided his grasp will be somewhat mollified by him taking his frustrations out on Trips. That's a way better storyline than Punk/HHH anyway, so it works in the short term, even if the story isn't what most would prefer. Plenty can (and will) change between now and then, but the faces are in place to allow this to work if in fact Punk returns at some point over the next couple of weeks. The fact that he's being openly discussed takes some of the secrecy out of the whole affair, and that to me is a very good move. It's way less fun to cheer something that you know someone else doesn't want to hear when everyone is already talking about it anyway. Plus, it makes the guy you're talking about have quite the ego trip. Not an accidental side effect.
WWE did deliver some big moments to the crowd in Chicago, likely as much to appease the purported hostile takeover than anything else. Brock Lesnar destroyed poor Mark Henry for the umpteenth time, the tag belts changed hands (finally!), The Shield and The Wyatts had a Pier 6 that was in my view their best so far, and Christian showed he's still got plenty of game left in his lengthy match with Sheamus. The crowd had their say, particularly in a mixed tag match featuring Santino/Emma and Fandango/Summer Rae, but the earth remained on its axis. The direct approach and the respect shown to the fans who came to pay their respects in absentia to their hometown hero worked out perfectly. It was a rare smart move on a path that's chock full of missteps, and it brings with it hope that the WWE may have finally realized that sometimes the best way to deal with an issue is to put it front and center and let the chips fall where they may.
There can be no question that the WWE is a better and more exciting place with CM Punk in it. There is equally no question that everyone employed by the company has to understand that whether it's playing second fiddle at times to John Cena or being subject to the whims of a family that is rarely if ever told no, part of the package deal of a starring role in the WWE is getting used to disappointment. In some ways, Punk's departure has oddly cemented his point: that he is prominent enough in the minds of a significant portion of the audience to be featured in the main event. Monday's Raw, however, showed that sometimes even the specter is strong enough to carry the day. The ghosts of the recent past will still haunt the current product. Perhaps the only way to exorcise the demons is to acknowledge them. At least until they're back in the fold.
*If the plan is to have The Wyatts and The Shield feud into WrestleMania, that works for me quite nicely. Their six-man tag match was the highlight of the night for me, particularly the ending, which featured the interesting plot wrinkle of Seth Rollins coming into his own as a character by walking away from his cohorts, while also allowing for a series of power-driven highspots (most notably coming from Roman Reigns and Erick Rowan) that worked in an excellent way. I am both impressed and amazed by how these very different stables have meshed so well together in this impromptu feud, and every person in the arena is into the match when they mix it up. Should the WWE settle for having The Shield face each other and the Wyatts engage with John Cena, it's understandable, but I consider it an opportunity missed. These six men have the ability to steal the show all by themselves, and they have demonstrated it several times over the past couple of weeks.
*The burgeoning feud between Cesaro and Jack Swagger (for those wondering who's going to win, I'd go with the gentleman now only referred to by one name) will hopefully usher in a time when one of the most underrated guys on the WWE's roster finally gets his due. Cesaro has been responsible for some of the best matches of 2013, especially impressive when you consider how much of that annum he spent getting his shoulders pinned to a variety of mats around the globe. Despite the fact that the reformation of the Kings of Wrestling never materialized, Cesaro mined gold in the feeder NXT program while simultaneously establishing himself as a presence on the main roster. He was solidly booked in the Elimination Chamber, another testament to the next chapter of his career, and now seems poised to divest himself of Senor Swagger to individual accolades. And, hey, it allows for some excellent emoting by the thoroughly entertaining Zeb Colter.
*Speaking of managers, Paul Bearer's nomination to the hallowed Hall of Fame is as much of a no-brainer as it is a testament to the forgotten art of accompanying talent to the ring. The former Percy Pringle made a career out of bringing brawny worthies to their matches while being just enough of the spectacle as to not take away from the spectacle itself, something that this era of reality shows and Twitter feeds has rendered almost extinct. The Undertaker's amazing run is worthy of extremely high praise, but a large segment of that praise has to be given to his longtime manager, and he'd be the first (and has been the first) to say it. There is frankly no way that one could watch the entrance of those two men and not think they were watching something equally disturbing and special. Pringle's checkered past also allowed Taker to fully embrace his face role, something seemingly unheard of when he lurched onto the scene as a major heel in the WWF. Always willing to humble himself for an angle or the betterment of others, Paul Bearer remains one of the quintessential characters in wrestling for so many of us, and in multiple decades nonetheless. I am really looking forward to seeing him enshrined. Let's hope that the days of great managers in wrestling haven't completely passed us by. We'd be the worse for it.
*As promised, a couple of excellent Heyman diatribes in honor of Monday's opening segment: