Shining a Spotlight 1.30.14: Bryan, the Brand and the Base
Posted by Michael Weyer on 01.30.2014
Are Daniel Bryan fans playing into Vince McMahon's hands with their reaction to him? 411's Michael Weyer takes a look at Bryan's booking, his not being put in the Royal Rumble and more!
In the year since I discontinued my column as a weekly thing, my perspective on wrestling has shifted a bit. Oh, I still watch and care for it even as it drives me crazy (TNA certainly did last year) but I don't feel the same incredible investment I once did. I made my peace a long time ago with the fact that Vince McMahon is going to do whatever he wants and if you care too much about that, it's just going to lead to pain. However, the events of the last few days has gotten me thinking and wanting to get my feelings out so reviving the Spotlight for a brief bit to discuss it.
Watching the reactions online to the Royal Rumble has been utterly fascinating as a sociological study. I haven't seen such sheer hate thrown at WWE since the aftermath of Montreal back in 1997 (and that was before the rise of the ultra-smark in the IWC). I've heard plenty of "I'm done with this company" lines although I've heard those for years from guys who still stick around. But this…does feel different, I admit. There is more venom here, more tiring of how things are being and such, really feels more intense than it usually is. I'm not sure if it's a true breaking point but clearly up there as fans are letting WWE know in droves that it's Bryan they want. And in doing so, they're playing right into WWE's hands.
I won't spend too long on the missteps of the Bryan saga, plenty of guys talking and railing on that. I've seen the various "here's how to book it" plans and such out, many of which are good. Of course, it reminds me of how I've heard from guys who book indies saying fans online have no idea how hard this really is and how so often the plans that look perfect on paper flop in reality. It's hard to say that's true here given the faltering with Bryan, how fans are obviously eager for him as the champ and yet we're getting retreads of old stuff.
HHH does shoulder some blame here. It's obvious Hunter wants to reward his old buddies Orton and Batista by having them do the big feud they were denied back in '06 due to various injuries and other factors. That both men are a bit older now and that the fans aren't exactly eager for it doesn't seem to matter to him. It's classic latter-day WCW of pushing these older guys. I do think they didn't do favors which how obviously they telegraphed Batista's return. I believe had he'd been a total surprise entrant to win the Rumble, the reaction wouldn't be as vicious. Sure, folks ticked but also balanced by the surprise factor of his comeback. But from the moment he came back on RAW, it was pretty obvious to everyone that the plan was for him to win the Rumble and face Orton for the title. That, more than anything, was why the Pittsburgh crowd turned on him with such sheer hate, they knew it was coming and they didn't want it and were letting WWE know it.
But to put the blame totally on HHH isn't quite fair. Make no mistake, Vince McMahon is always the final word in WWE, the one who drives every storyline, who decides who does and doesn't get a shot and such. According to most reports, HHH had to practically beg Vince to end the Bryan/Wyatt story early and even allow his feud with Orton to continue as long as it did. If his own son-in-law had trouble swaying McMahon, how can we expect anyone else to have much luck? Fans online are asking why the locker room doesn't rise up and demand something better. Well, that's because wrestling is an "every man for himself" game and when push comes to shove, guys will put themselves first. It's why a union is never going to happen, for every wrestler willing to go on strike, a dozen will jump to take his spot. It was one thing when there were options like WCW but now, WWE is pretty much it (as there is no way anyone can argue that TNA in their current state represents an option). For all the crap he gets online, Cena really did his best to help give the rub to Bryan with their SummerSlam match and behind the scenes but only so much he can do. The thing there is that Cena may have the mega-clout of a Austin or Rock or HHH but he never uses it. He's a company man, does what he's told and such and not really willing to make waves with his private demands. Personally, a reason I respect him immensely but others might think time he stood up more for Bryan.
I had pretty much put this whole thing to bed when the word broke of CM Punk's exit. Assuming it's not a huge work (and frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if it is, the timing is odd to say the least), this should be a shake-up for management. Now, too much to say it's totally connected with Bryan as Punk has been talking for a while about his frustration with his push and treatment and such. It's not like WWE has totally dropped the ball with him as seen by his long title run. But for one of the major stars of the company, a guy very well-liked and respected backstage to suddenly leave with almost no advance warning has to be a sign of how bad things are going. Not sure how much this will affect Vince as it's not like Punk was a huge favorite of him but he should be able to recognize that if a major guy is willing to just go home rather than continue, then something in your creative drive isn't going very well.
WWE really seems much like the current Hollywood where studios are terrified of taking risks on something new so keep remaking movies from just a few decades ago. It's not like they can't build new stars as Reigns' Rumble performance shows he can be elevated well. The problem is that WWE falls into the same trap of way too many other promotions before them in pushing guys fans don't want. They want us to think Batista is a great star returning to glory and we want him to win the belt and the fact we don't doesn't seem to enter their minds. The RAW after the Rumble directly addressed that, Bryan right up there talking about how the fans wanted him, not Batista or Orton or anyone else and HHH and Stephanie trying to deny it despite the "YES" chants. One thing to realize is that Bryan is not being buried. Ziggler and Ryder, those are classic examples of guys being buried; Bryan clearly is not, he had four straight PPV main events against Orton for the title, that is not a burial. He's still hot and the Wyatt program just increased that, not took away from it which showcases his star potential and why his current state can be so frustrating to fans.
I'm not falling into this idea that this sudden fan apathy is going to mean no one orders the WWE Network. I've seen plenty of guys saying "as much as I hate the product now, I'm plunking down ten bucks for every PPV ever," if only to remember better days. I dare say much of RAW's audience were guys just wanting to see how the crowd would react and if WWE would try to do some reverse stuff to push Bryan and act "oh, this is what we were planning all along." Whatever else WWE may be like the rest of the year, the build to Wrestlemania is always a prime time for the company and fans are going to tune in to see how they handle this, how they push Bryan or not, if he'll get the shot, if it's still Orton-Batista or someone else. We are going to watch still.
And that is exactly what Vince McMahon wants.
Vince McMahon is not an idiot.
You can say a hell of a lot about him: Greedy, manipulative, short-sighted, infuriatingly stubborn as hell and, by his own admission, a truly rotten bastard. But even his worst enemies have to acknowledge that Vince's smarts and, at times, genius, is the reason he's still standing on top. Personally, I respect the hell out of the guy. He's spent three decades handling some of the biggest prima donna egos on the planet, building a multi-billion dollar empire, all without suffering a complete nervous breakdown, which deserves admiration. I may not like him but I do respect his drive and how he built wrestling to a level of fame no one could have imagined. Vince knows wrestling, he knows how it works, he's shown the ability to adapt if need be. Anyone else would have been crushed by the WCW juggernaut in '96 but Vince was smart to make such ruthless moves as Montreal to wait it out and then change to the Attitude era to get ahead. He knows the business which makes his moves with Bryan baffling.
That Vince can't see the reactions Bryan gets is crazy. The monster pops, the "YES" chants, the reactions online and such, he has to recognize it and see Bryan on top is what fans want. That he can be so stubborn on denying this chance is bizarre. True, Vince has always had a thing for big guys and such and maybe feels Bryan is still an "indy guy" and can't carry a company. Hell, Sam Muchnick, one of the most fair-minded promoters ever, coined the phrase "he's a great worker but he doesn't draw money." Vince looks at merchandise sales and sees Bryan's aren't as big as others and thinks that means fans aren't behind him as much. He'll use the line that's driven us all crazy for years on how a guy isn't a "main eventer" ignoring how he can't prove it unless he's given the chance, a Catch-22 that never makes sense. Fans hate that, they are tired of this double standard where their wishes are ignored so a guy off for four years gets the main event over the guy who's been firing up crowds for months. So right now, because of all that, WWE is being debated on Twitter, blogs and even mainstream press.
And that is why Vince is doing this.
Daniel Bryan is made now. He's over in a way Ryback never was after all his pushing in 2012. Scott Keith had a great observation after SummerSlam: "Don't freak out about him not being champ, the belt is meaningless. Cena was the title and Bryan beat him clean." That's an excellent point, Bryan went over the company's biggest star and got fans going wild. He has been elevated to the rarified air of HHH or Cena or Rock, a guy who gets fans cheering like crazy and chanting his name when he's nowhere near a match. Vince sees the talk online and Twitter, he hears the reactions and he's smiling. Because it means fans are talking about WWE. That it's negative doesn't matter to Vince, he truly is of the "any publicity is good publicity" mentality and this plays into that. Hell, look at me; after a year of silence, I'm doing a column again because of this massive fan reaction. The talk and the press just works for Vince in his mind, he wants us talking no matter what and dammit, we are so he's happy. It can't be denied that the fanbase if more passionate now than it has been in quite a long time and that passion is something that's a dream to someone like Vince.
A key factor is that for Vince, WWE is the brand now. It's grown more powerful than anyone could conceive, anyone who thinks this is going to lead to a collapse for it is lying to themselves. Vince isn't into the idea of pushing any one major star anymore, he pushes the brand. Cena is a good company guy, automatically affiliated with WWE and thus keeps his pushes. Vince maybe is shaky about trying a push to someone like Rock, Brock or such who'll then leave for Hollywood and leave him in the lurch. It's not as bad now as when WCW was around to try and poach someone but it's obvious Vince wants to keep the WWE brand going. The Network is proof of that, the lavish press conference where Vince offers a dream selection at an ultra-cheap price and the massive adulation for it is proof it works. That may play into his dislike for Bryan on top, making an indy guy who got himself over as champ annoying to a man who's always prided himself on controlling just about everything that goes on in his company. Yet, if his experience has shown anything for Vince it's that stars come and go, no matter how huge they may be but WWE itself will always remain and always be first in Vince's heart. He's seen the massive fan reactions to guys before, often they work (Austin, Rock) and he also remember when he slapped a belt and push on a guy who seemed over only to see the adulation turn (Diesel comes readily to mind). That no doubt is shaping Vince here, that he thinks the company is bigger than Bryan, no matter what the fans say.
He may have no choice now of course, not against this reaction. Vince may not like to recall the past but he should remember that 30 years ago, Verne Gagne ignored the fans' wants on Hulk Hogan which led to him being crushed against Vince's moves. True, it's much different now (I laugh at anyone who says Bryan going to TNA would be a bold move) but still the sheer volume of rage on WWE should be affecting Vince's decisions. And yet, I doubt it will. Because he knows what we all like to deny ourselves: We can't quit wrestling. Oh, we can try but when it's hooked into you, it's hooked. Montreal didn't drive me away, Benoit didn't drive me away, this won't either and I'm sure a lot of others can say the same. If anything, the current situation with Bryan just plays beautifully into storylines. Vince has tried for years to replicate the feeling of Austin vs McMahon, the little guy against the evil owner. Now, finally, he has the perfect ingredients to make it work as the RAW showcases the fans on the side of Bryan against HHH and the real-life aspects just add to the heat that we love to see. The fact that WWE is openly showing the videos of fans cheering Bryan on as he chastises HHH on "best for business" points to how they're working us and yet so many don't even recognize it.
To me, that may be the biggest takeaway of this entire saga. Maybe it's the time I took away from writing this column, back to being a "regular" fan and such, not as massively invested. But reading these reactions and the vitriol people took raging on WWE, I was reminded once more that one of the most brilliant observations of wrestling had to be Raven: "The smart fans who think they know everything are the easiest ones to con." We are all still marks, we all still tune in, whether to rage or cheer, we still watch and let our emotions get the best of us. In short, we are all still the fan going in thinking it's for real and react that way. That's what Vince is playing on, using our feelings and our talk and love of wrestling to keep this going and when he does get Bryan on top (and yes, I do think it'll happen eventually), it'll be all the better and the anger dies down as we get what we want.
So go ahead. Yell, scream, post you hate HHH and Vince and never want to watch WWE again. Chant "YES" and buy Bryan merchandise all you want. Put up what images and videos you can. Just remember that in doing so, you are proving to Vince McMahon that we're all still marks at heart, still able to get passionate about wrestling and still sucked into it. Just watch how things play for Mania and I can bet that'll just increase with more talk and press and Vince smiles as he sees more money in the bank. In short, this entire Daniel Bryan experience has proven us all still marks at heart. And in an odd way, isn't that a bit comforting to know how wrestling can still suck us in like old times?