The Common Denominator – “Does Anyone Know What’s Going On?” (Daniel Bryan, CM Punk, Ric Flair, Lex Luger, Hulk Hogan, Royal Rumble, Randy Orton, John Cena)

Man, I just don’t know where to start.

I want to say that it has been a very interesting couple of weeks in the world of professional wrestling, but “interesting” isn’t the right word. In fact, I’m a professional journalist, and I can’t even come up with one right word that really describes what’s going on right now.

Fortunately, I don’t have to just use one word, so you know, it’s all good.

Bizarre comes pretty close, but when you’re talking about an industry that features the likes of Undertaker, Goldust, Fandango and the Wyatt Family, you really have to use that word in a certain understood context. Plus, the WWE loves to throw out “Bizarro World” when the crowd isn’t going along with their plans so often, that I can’t in good conscience use it.

Surreal might be a better term, but unfortunately the WWE has gone so far from the direction the paying fans would like them to go so often that it’s not even that unbelievable anymore. Seriously, just off the top of my head, Dolph Ziggler, Zack Ryder, and even Santino Marella are all examples of wrestlers who got themselves over huge with the fans only to get at best ignored and at worst buried. And to what end? What could be so bad about featuring the wrestlers the fans want to see? I can see having a plan and executing it, but how far up their own collective asses do the powers that be in the WWE have to be to throw away money and good will for the sake of…you know what? I don’t even have a word to finish that sentence with. For the sake of – seriously, I got nothing.

And yes, I’m talking about Daniel Bryan. But it’s not just Daniel Bryan. The WWE honestly seems to be actively trying to create a completely disenchanted fan base. Forget Daniel Bryan for a minute, if you can. All over the card, the booking just makes no sense. I’m 40 years old. I’ve been watching wrestling for at least 35 of those years. I understand that there’s a certain logic to how you run a promotion. I don’t want this to sound like some “mark” (for lack of a better term) ranting about how awesome Daniel Bryan is and how Triple H is only scared that he’ll kick Randy Orton’s ass if he ever gets another shot at the title, or whatever. I just really want to be able to understand what is going on in the minds of WWE management and the creative team.

I can only assume some sort of panic button has been pushed. I don’t know who pushed it or why, but there seems to be an overall mindset of “let’s stick to what has worked in the past” in place. That’s the only logical explanation I can come up with for why we are getting not only Randy Orton vs. John Cena for the WWE Title in 2014, but Brock Lesnar vs. The Big Show, Batista winning the Royal Rumble, and even the New Age Outlaws winning the WWE Tag-Team Titles (I can’t in good conscience ignore the fact that one-half of the previous champs was Goldust, but I didn’t really have a problem with that because it made sense storyline wise and he and Cody worked hard to connect with the fans). To take that even another step forward, I’m fully convinced that they sent Rey Mysterio out in the #30 slot because they actually believed that he wouldn’t get booed. Sting could have come out in that slot and gotten booed.

My whole shtick with this column is looking back moments in wrestling history and comparing them to what’s going on in today’s product, good, bad, or indifferent, so let’s look at some of those moments.

Back in the late 1980s, “The Total Package” Lex Luger was about the closest thing to a promoter’s dream outside of Hulk Hogan one could find. In fact, he had a somewhat similar look to Hogan, but he was a decade younger and had a much more dynamic move set. Even though he was a heel in the NWA/WCW, his connection to the fans and his coolness factor were such that he was eventually turned face and immediately became one of the top contenders for Ric Flair’s NWA World Heavyweight Championship. If you’re unfamiliar with the era, think Randy Orton in the days of Evolution.

Anyway, they say the money is in the chase, and Luger and Flair made a lot of money. This was in the days of only a handful of pay-per-views per year, so they headlines house shows across the country. Now, of course, it only makes sense that you eventually have to put the title on Luger. Outside of Sting, he was unquestionably the number one face in the company. And there were at least two or three occasions where you just knew they were going to switch the belt. Now, I know now that it was mostly Flair’s refusal to put Luger over that kept this from happening, even if I don’t know why. But after a while it just became obvious that no matter how popular Luger was, he wasn’t getting the title. And eventually, the fans figured that out. Flair dropped it to Ronnie Garvin, to Ricky Steamboat, to Sting, but not to Luger. Eventually he became just another wrestler, then he was a heel, and WCW missed their chance to have their own Hulk Hogan. And Flair? Well…

Again, Ric Flair was a heel who was just so good at what he did that the fans were just begging for an opportunity to cheer for him. Well, they finally got their chance in 1989 when an attack by Terry Funk following a grueling title match with Steamboat turned Flair into a good guy. Well, he actually didn’t change his routine, he just started getting cheered and booked against the bad guys. Well, fast-forward a few years (and a few heel-face turns) and the 1991 Great American Bash is set to feature Flair vs. Luger for the Big Gold Belt (whatever they were calling it anyway). One could argue if it was already too late for Luger at this point, but it didn’t really matter, since Flair still refused to lay down for Luger, and just took his belt and went to the WWF.

So, not only did WCW have a guy set to become their World Champion that had already, in storyline terms, prove he didn’t have what it took to beat Flair, they didn’t even have Flair for him to beat. Instead, we got Luger vs. Barry Windham and a heel turn from Luger in a terribly executed attempt to make him the next Flair. And, like this year’s Survivor Series, the fans took a collective dump on the card, chanting “We want Flair!” and cascading “Whoooooos!” all night long when the one guy they wanted to see was denied to them. Luger’s title run was snakebit from the beginning, and it was a long two years for WCW fans before Flair returned to become “The Man” once again.
So, the WWE gets to write the history, what with being the winners of the Monday Night Wars and all, but anyone who doesn’t give WCW credit for kick-starting the mid-90s wrestling boom is just kidding themselves. And yes, the NWO is the primary reason for that. And yes, I give credit where credit is due to Eric Bischoff and company for the slow build to Sting vs. Hogan at Starrcade 1997. But that’s where the train jumped the tracks. The fans were rabid to see Sting finally vanquish the evil “Hollywood” Hogan and the NWO once and for all. In fact, if the match had been bell-Stinger Splash-Scorpion Death Drop-three count-bell, I don’t think there would have been an upset fan in the building. Instead we got Hogan’s bullshit politics and a Sting win with all the piss taken out of it. Ultimately the win meant nothing, and Sting dropped the belt a few convoluted pay-per-views later. That was the first major blunder for WCW on its way out of business.

Now for whatever faults could be found with Starrcade 1997, it was Starrcade 1998 and the next night’s Nitro that put the nail in the coffin for WCW. Yes, the payoff with Sting hadn’t really turned out, but WCW managed to strike gold again with Bill Goldberg. They did virtually everything right with Goldberg in the beginning, and he was red hot when they decided to put the WCW Title on him. Only, they wasted millions of dollars in pay-per-view dollars by putting it on Nitro for free. But they at least listened to those “Goldberg!” chants and gave the fans what they wanted…

Until Kevin Nash’s ego took over. Nash, of course, booked himself against Goldberg in the Main Event for Starrcade 1998. Now, I actually don’t have a problem with this, because Nash was always over with the crowd and he made a visually striking and logical opponent for Goldberg. Again, the fans would likely have been pleased as punch if the entire match consisted of bell-Spear-Jackhammer-three count-bell. But instead we got Bam Bam Bigelow, WCW Security, and finally Scott Hall with a tazer, and just like that, the one thing that might have staved off the WWF’s momentum was gone. Of course, the next night, the fans were promised a rematch, and instead we got the infamous “Finger-poke of Doom” and the return of Hulk Hogan. I’m pretty sure that’s the last time WCW mattered.

Now, the WWF has traditionally had a better track record when it comes to listening to the fans and delivering what they want. Otherwise, we would never have had “Stone Cold” Steve Austin become the most popular wrestler of all time (yes, I’m including Hogan in that equation). But let’s not overlook the early 1990s when we got Hogan, Hogan and more Hogan when the fans had clearly grown tired of saying their prayers, taking their vitamins and believing in themselves. But Vince finally figured that out in the early 90s and went with Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels and the other “New Generation” guys.

I’m not saying that every wrestler who was popular but didn’t get a chance to main event got screwed or even slighted. There are so many circumstances that come into play and behind the scenes things that we don’t know about that it would be ridiculous to try and point them all out or make claims that “(whatever promoter) should have pushed (whatever wrestler), but he didn’t listen to the fans and look what happened.!” But this whole situation with Daniel Bryan makes me think of one particular situation more than any other.

And I know I’ve written about this before, but in 1983, when Verne Gagne had Hulk Hogan in the AWA, Hogan was primed for superstardom. But Verne and Hogan could not come together on an agreement that would satisfy both of their pocketbooks and their egos, and Hogan walked. I’ve seen clips where Hogan “won” the AWA World Title, only to have it returned to Nick Bockwinkle time and time again on one technicality or another. The fans so badly wanted to have Hogan as their champion, but by the end of the year, he was plying his trade in the WWF. The AWA never really recovered.

One of the best things going on right now not related to the WWE is the rumor of a new promotion, led by Jeff Jarrett and backed by country music star Toby Keith, possibly starting up in the near future. Tie that in with the woes TNA is having and it looks like there could be some real shake-ups in the world of professional wrestling pretty soon. With the potential for a new option for both fans and wrestlers, where does that put the WWE? Can they afford to let people walk? Would they let someone like Daniel Bryan get away out of stubbornness or apathy?

The rumors are swirling around CM Punk now. Punk has apparently “left the WWE indefinitely” is how I saw it phrased. With only a few months on his contract, have we seen the last of Punk in the WWE? Right in the middle of Wrestlemania season? Would he entertain a return to TNA or sign on with this new promotion? Is any of this even real? Would Bryan join him? Could they be the Hall and Nash of this generation?

The truth is, we don’t really know. And even what we do know could change over the next several weeks and months. I don’t know Daniel Bryan’s contract status. I don’t know if there is a plan for him or not. I don’t know how serious this Jarrett-Keith thing really is. I just know that as a wrestling fan, I’m feeling pretty insulted right now. I feel like I’m being told (to channel my inner Rock) that “It doesn’t matter what you want!” A buddy and I were talking about actually going to Wrestlemania 30 this year. I live just a few hours from New Orleans (near Memphis), it’s the 30th anniversary, and it’s probably never going to be closer to my home, so it’s kind of a now-or-never kind of deal. But I just don’t feel like giving Vince McMahon any more of my money right now. And I have yet to see any “rumored” card that makes me think I’m going to change my mind. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t wait to get the WWE Network. I would have signed up the night it was announced if I could have. But now, and I know this is hyperbole, I feel like I’m in a relationship with a girl that doesn’t really like me but likes it when I pay her attention.

This is supposed to be the most exciting time of the year to be a wrestling fan, but right now I’m just kind of pissed off. I know a lot of other wrestling fans are too. It’s easy to say, “Jesus, it’s just wrestling!” But it’s something that I have invested time, energy and money into for most of my like, and I enjoy it. Well, right now I’m finding very little to enjoy. And I’m pretty easy to please.

Anyway, thanks for reading!

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