So I did indeed watch WrestleMania, which mostly sucked. Some people are touting Undertaker/HHH and Cena/Rock as being good matches, but I thought both were lousy – the first was a couple of old limping guys trying to make Jim Ross’ dramatic announcing meaningful, and the second was just sloppy wrestling. Jericho/CM Punk was not bad, but also not a show-saving match (it had a slow start and a stupid bit about Jericho trying for the intentional DQ). Honestly, in retrospect the highlight of the show may end up being Daniel Bryan losing to Sheamus in 18 seconds, not because that was a good thing (it wasn’t), but because the fans reacted so extremely negatively to not getting to see Daniel Bryan actually wrestle that the WWE may be forced to recognize that he is actually very over (as opposed to acting embarrassed that they have hired and pushed him).
But WrestleMania mostly blew for two reasons.
1.) The WWE is either unable or unwilling to work at grooming new stars. WrestleMania’s two most important matches were A) between two guys who are inches away from retirement and B) featured someone who hasn’t wrestled regularly since 2003. Their big returns on the following RAW were Matt “Albert/Lord Tensai” Bloom (last seen in the WWE in 2004) and Brock Lesnar (ditto). I loved 2000-2004 WWE as much as anybody (indeed, I think it was probably the company’s creative and performance peak), but this is a well that has diminishing returns to say the least.
It used to be more straightforward: you had your A-level stars, your B-level stars, your C-level stars and your jobbers. When you wanted to “promote” a B-level star to A-level, it was simple: they beat an A-level star fairly and presto, they were in the club. Back in 2001, Chris Benoit and Chris Jericho were both mired in the midcard until they beat HHH and Steve Austin in a hot match. (Beating heels when heel tactics backfire on the heels is “fair.” Don’t look at me, I didn’t make the rules of wrestling storytelling.) This method works. Kurt Angle beats the Rock, Eddie Guerrero beats Brock Lesnar – presto, instantly credible World champions.
But nowadays, there are problems with this approach. Firstly, there aren’t many A-level stars (right now it’s probably CM Punk, John Cena, Chris Jericho, the Undertaker, HHH and Brock Lesnar now that he’s back – and Daniel Bryan is probably on the cusp) and the company is extremely careful to protect them. Secondly, there aren’t really a whole lot of well-defined B-level stars any more (right now I’d say the only real candidates are Kane, Mark Henry, the Miz, and Dolph Ziggler).1 Everybody else just sort of floats around in this morass of boredom and nobody really cares about them – call it the Kofi Kingston Zone. They’re just sort of there. Maybe they have a gimmick, but nobody cares about the gimmick. Heath Slater is the One Man Rock Band, but who gives a damn about that when Heath Slater matters less to the stories than Barry Horowitz ever did?
2.) The WWE has gradually stopped writing long-term plotlines. Partly this is because the WWE’s writers got tired of having to change their stories on the fly when a wrestler got injured, but that doesn’t really change the fact that going into WrestleMania, there was not one match that had a storyline that effectively went back more than a month. Rock/Cena doesn’t count, because that wasn’t an ongoing year of buildup to that match: Cena was doing other things (like feuding with Vince and/or CM Punk) for most of the year, and then Rock shows up for this one tag match, and then Cena fights Kane for two months just because, and… okay, Rock time now!
Or another example: another match on the card was Kane versus Randy Orton. Why were these two fighting? “Because.” That is literally the only reason – three weeks before WrestleMania Kane decided he hated Randy Orton. This is stupid. Never mind that there was a golden opportunity for the WWE to conclude or at least develop a longer storyline by having Kane fight Zack Ryder – you know, the guy Kane repeatedly brutalized during that feud with Cena I just mentioned. Plus, if they let Ryder go over Kane (and they should, because Kane is 44 and doesn’t have much gas left in him), they would elevate Ryder.
Really, long-term wrestling plotlines aren’t hard to write. You’ve got your classics (“escalating match stakes until things get insane,” “baddie runs away/cheats for seventeen thousand matches until good guy finally beats him,” et cetera), you can switch guys in and out, it’s not that hard. But the WWE has lost the knack for it.
- The Big Show is sort of a special case because he is a giant, and giants play by slightly different rules because they can be instantly credible A-level stars whenever the company decides to have everybody suddenly realize “wait, this guy is seven feet tall.” Unless they are terrible like the Great Khali is. [↩]