I will remember 2013 as the year that I started writing for TJR, naturally, but from a wrestling fan standpoint it seemed to be a year of repetition. While some stars were created, too many of the bigger storylines that played out in the WWE seemed an exercise in the status quo. No example of that mindset was more glaring than the failure of the company to capitalize on the momentum created during the meteoric rise of Daniel Bryan. What started as simply an experiment featuring the darling of the internet intelligentsia became a full-fledged movement, one ready to seize both the zeitgeist and the popular consensus during the period in which John Cena would be sidelined with an injury.
How often when one looks back through wrestling history will they find a time where the majority of the fans wanted exactly the same thing, exactly the same representative to wear title gold? Generally, it's either the scorned champion with the superhero complex who delights the kiddies and sells the merch, while not selling anything else, contrasted by the underdog Everyman who can wrestle the hell out of anyone on the roster but doesn't have the look the company craves. With the bombardment of ads promoting the imminent return of Batista and the explosive return of Brock Lesnar to your television screen, it may have become patently obvious that the Daniel Bryan story has come and gone.
That said, perhaps 2014 can be an era of renewal for the WWE. That could certainly be the case if they can monopolize on a couple of very successful things implemented (or furthered) on last night's very excellent episode of Monday Night Raw. If you generally tune out during the holiday shows, it can be understood. There's certainly a plethora of other sports out there for your consumption (go Eagles, natch) and the WWE has been following a rather blasé blueprint on their flagship show of late. It would also be a mistake, though, because the New Year's edition was surprisingly solid and featured one of the more complex and seminal moments of the year during its dying moments. Far more unexpected (thanks, spoilers) and far more impactful than even Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman's return to the WWE was the apparent heel turn of Bryan joining up with current foes The Wyatt Family at the end of the show.
One of the things that made this Raw different was that it managed to tell an effective story. Anyone who is a fan of the movies can relate to when a feature film captures that perfect moment in between predictability and too many twists and turns. Good vs. evil might be relative, but it's a fairly simple story to tell. In the morality play that is professional wrestling, you've got to gild the lily on a regular basis, and you've got to gild enough flowers that the whole greenhouse doesn't look exactly the same when you're done. In a best-case scenario, the story plays out like the movie The Usual Suspects: Even once you've watched it and you know what the twist is, it doesn't take away one iota from your enjoyment of going back and watching it again. The twist is integral to the story, naturally, but just one facet of the overall composition.
The comparison to pro wrestling is evident. When you dust off your favorite Blu-Ray, or pull up a classic match on YouTube (Friday News Update has been known to do that on occasion, cheap plug!) it's interesting to note that the context of said match is rarely presented. Occasionally on the pay-per-view itself you'll get the whole well-polished package treatment, but once the feud is over and done with, context becomes a relative thing. How you got there is less important than the fact that you did get there, in other words, barring the wrestling historians and completists who record that sort of thing, bless their hearts. But, on some very rare occasions, the twist IS the story. The thing that you didn't see coming is not automatically disqualified from being great just because you didn't see it coming. In fact, that's exactly part of why it very well may be great.
In wrestling, and certainly in the WWE, a rush to judgment is expected. I won't be the writer to tell you that it's unfair to them, as I've taken electronic pen to parchment several times over 2013 to decry and lambast angles that weren't handled properly. In addition, thinking back to classically failed angles with tons of potential like the Invasion and the Nexus makes one a bit gun-shy over the prospect of this group getting things right. One doesn't want to be the Charlie Brown to Vince McMahon's Lucy, rushing in headlong to seize on the excitement of a new day only to find oneself woozy and staring up at the sky in anger and confusion when the football gets pulled out again. But the story of Daniel Bryan and Bray Wyatt and the potential tale that it may continue to tell is different in that there are no easy answers. There's not enough of that kind of forward writing in WWE, and it should be celebrated.
For starters, Daniel Bryan feuding with The Wyatts (or aligning, or whatever form this angle continues to take shape in) is a good thing for both parties. Bray Wyatt is absolutely electric right now, and he's telling his story in a way that nobody else on the roster is quite frankly capable of. I'm not one to overstate how good a job a particular performer is doing, but if you can watch this man do anything (including sitting in a rocking chair!) and not be both transfixed and freaked out you're a stronger person than me. One small drawback of Bryan has been his personality really coming through, and facing off against someone dripping with it is a big positive. You would not be seeing that with Randy Orton, as we all know. The fact that a secondary benefit to this feud has been Bryan's ability to mix it up with Harper and Rowan, thus making both guys better faster, shouldn't be lost on us either.
In the end, the story played out in the classic way. We're so desensitized to Daniel Bryan getting so close to the brass ring only to have it moved that we almost expect it at this point. Last night was to be the night that he finally got his hands on the leader of the pack. Sure, he'd be wrestling the other guys first, but naturally Bryan would win. What kind of swerve would be thrown to prevent him from facing Bray, though? Would it be an excuse to keep Daniel out of the Royal Rumble to face the crazy cult leader one on one? The answer, though, turned out to be rather unexpected, particularly in this predictable era of WWE programming: Bryan, our hero, admitted that Bray was right. He told the world and the viewing audience that it didn't matter what any of us did, he would never get ahead in the machine without their assistance. And the fans, who by and large have stood right by Bryan and applauded him even as he was facing off against Cena himself, had no idea what the hell to do. That's compelling television.
The aftermath of that comment was equally powerful. Violence was inflicted on Bryan after he laid himself bare, cutting the kind of desperate and emotional promo that he needs to, and the promise was made by Bray that it would "change everything." And he was proven right, nearly immediately. Instead of the same ending, we got Bryan pushing off the assistance of recent foes Rowan and Harper and lurching to the back under the spell of Wyatt in a sort of Stations of the Cross homage that worked incredibly well. There were no irritating announcers acting indignant, no advertisements for mobile apps, and no Tweets to Lebron James. Just a broken, beaten man at the cusp of desperation, turning to the only recourse he feels he has at this juncture. To take everything said or done in this segment at face value is to utterly and completely ignore the history of this odd but amazing business.
Where the story goes from here will ultimately determine the worthiness of this drama, as always, but I for one applaud it. There wasn't nearly enough of this stuff in the year that was 2013, despite some high spots. The tale should be complicated and spellbinding, and what happens in the early or middle chapters won't always foreshadow the ending. I certainly wouldn't expect those in attendance to applaud Daniel Bryan leaving with the Wyatts, but as a fan viewing at home I loved every eerie, uncomfortable minute of it. Do I think it equals Daniel Bryan suiting up as a heel and reporting to work next week? Not likely. We've just scratched the surface of what this feud and storyline has to offer, and for once, for one of those rare moments that doesn't happen enough these days, I want more. Letting complex, complicated characters tell in-depth stories should be the goal always. It's not to say that wrestling can't (and won't) be lighthearted. This is a sport that can never take itself too seriously. But entertainment is now in the title, and nothing is more entertaining than a compelling story.
If you're like me, you'd cheer Bryan either way. He could show up perched next to Bray like an evil Bartles & Jaymes and I'd be just fine with that, thank you. But it's hard to think that that's the final play here. WWE is far too aware of the consistent reactions Bryan is getting and tapping into that and using it to push product has always been one of the biggest achievements of that organization. This will be another cog in the machinery of the Bryan vs. "The Man" storyline, and this storyline WILL culminate in a Daniel Bryan title run. The agony and the suffering are supposed to make the victory sweeter, or so the saying goes. I applaud the WWE for adding a far more layered level to the agony Bryan fans have endured, and caution everyone to look past the surface. Bray said the devil made him do it, but I say the devil is in the details. The details were outstanding last night.
*In addition to that stellar main event segment, several other folks stepped up to the plate last night. I cannot claim to be on the Fandango bandwagon (or to be able to say it more than once, actually) but his match against breakout Intercontinental champion Big E Langston went a long way toward making me forget about his post-Jericho malaise. In Fandango, WWE has a heel that will have difficulty being taken seriously, much like forerunners The Honky Tonk Man or Rick "The Model" Martel. It's quite frankly difficult to posit the merits of a guy who purports to be a trained ballroom dancer. That said, get it done in the ring and all is forgiven, and Fandango has been rather up and down in that area. The former Johnny Curtis has to know that this is his (perhaps only chance) to make it work in the WWE, and he clearly has some skill and an interesting move set. The road from formidable competition to comedic stopgap is a lonely one indeed, but very well traveled. Fandango took some strides backwards to go forward and turned in perhaps the best match he's had yet for my money. Well done.
*I could write an entire column on what it means to have Brock Lesnar back in the WWE, but you already know how it would read. A better plan would be to replay last night's Raw and just listen to the sound of the arena, the moves, and Lesnar himself during his utter annihilation of Mark Henry while putting the roster on notice. Chances are plenty of people will be tuning into a PPV or two just to see who Lesnar mangles, and that's the point. Continuing the theme of redemption, perhaps WWE can put the unfortunate and far-too-long Lesnar/Trips feud solidly in their rearview and get him focused on bigger and better things. Nobody else on the roster or the planet can bring the big-fight buzz that Lesnar can, and it barely matters what his winning percentage is since his return. I will say that Lesnar has at times appeared disinterested, taking a back seat to the best mouthpiece of the decade in Paul Heyman, perhaps confirming his well-documented mercurial personality. Not so last night, as Lesnar not only served up an epic spotfest beatdown, but looked like a pit bull chewing on raw meat while doing it. His course will presumably lead to a showdown with the Undertaker in the ongoing prediction of Taker's last match. Monday convinced me that should those plans indeed come to fruition, it might well be Undertaker's last match either way.
*As John indicated, new year's predictions are upon us and I am in the process of winnowing down my thoughts into a few things for that column. While there's no rule that those prognostications must center on the WWE, I didn't even consider a TNA story, and that's a sad statement. It's become de rigueur to denounce TNA for their consistently poor presentation and business decisions, but they've actually upped their own ante in a negative way with their purported bungling of the re-signing of AJ Styles. This seemed like one issue that even TNA couldn't manage to screw up any further, but AJ's Ring of Honor dates indicate that he might be calling that promotion home, at least for the short term. WWE should be interested in my view, but I'm not shocked that they aren't. In the meantime, TNA's biggest name can't get the pay he deserves from a company that has taken any excuse to waste cash. There's plenty of blame to go around here, but a change is needed and quick. It's fitting that country music stars have been rumored to purchase this promotion because fans are singing the blues.
*I don't know that I totally bought CM Punk goading The Shield into breaking up before our eyes (kinda/sorta), but as long as we get a great match out of it I don't know that I care either way. It's obvious that Roman Reigns will be a breakout star at some point, and given his makeup and penchant for big moves, doing it as a face would make great sense. I'm actually more excited by the possibility of seeing US Champion Dean Ambrose and the uber-talented Seth Rollins face off when the implosion inevitably occurs. Imagine how good a series of matches between those two guys at this level would be like. If that's not motivation to usher in 2014, I don't know what is. Happy holidays, people.