On March 23, 2001, WWE bought WCW, its primary competition.1 This happened, as things often do in pro wrestling, both in real life and on-screen. But whereas in real life WCW was bought by Vince McMahon’s company — for a mere $3 million, due to the fact that parent company AOL/Time Warner had decided to stop airing WCW broadcasts and that, presumably, there weren’t many serious offers — on television, McMahon’s takeover was preempted by his son Shane, who appeared live on WCW’s Monday Nitro to inform his dad that he’d been outmaneuvered. This led to a famously underwhelming story line in which Shane’s WCW stable — already diminished because WWE chose not to take on the onerous contracts of stars like Kevin Nash, Ric Flair, and Bill Goldberg — joined forces with a reunited ECW posse, who were under the “ownership” of sister Stephanie McMahon (because of course they were), to challenge Vince and the WWE stalwarts. Except WWE stalwarts like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Kurt Angle started switching sides, and the lines between the factions got blurrier than in The Sneetches.
To be fair, there was no way WWE could have lived up to the expectations of its fans, who had been fantasizing about a WWE-versus-WCW war since at least 1996, when WWF expatriates Scott Hall and Kevin Nash “invaded” WCW — openly insinuating that they had been sent there by McMahon — and formed the New World Order with Hulk Hogan. And of course, many fans had been dreaming of inter-promotional conflict for much longer than that. Prior to the WrestleMania Era in the late 1980s, talent-sharing between regional federations was the norm, and it produced feuds like the acclaimed Dusty Rhodes versus “Superstar” Billy Graham series that sold out Madison Square Garden several times in the 1970s. But since then, the industry model changed and such crossover bouts stopped occurring, as rival companies like WWF and NWA had no desire to work together. For years, those two powerhouses existed in an uneasy equilibrium, and even as the WWF set about conquering the nation and the globe with bigger stars, more money, and more mainstream attention, NWA (which would later become WCW) maintained its position by (1) being on TBS every Saturday night from 6:05 to 8:05,2 and (2) being the old-school, roughneck counterpart to the WWF’s technicolor circus of excess. For years, wrestling fans dreamed of matchups like Hogan-Flair and Sting-Savage3 and argued about the relative merits of the companies. But it wasn’t until the inception of the nWo that reality started bending to the point that anything seemed possible again, and it wasn’t until five years later that McMahon’s acquisition of WCW made it a reality. But even then, it wasn’t the reality that fans had dreamt it would be. It couldn’t be — there’s something about wrestling that demands two opposite poles for either to be appreciated. The WCW Invasion could have been handled better, but its failure was preordained.
This bit of history is not news to wrestling fans, but rehashing it seems necessary at this moment. Because as soon as WWE swallowed its chief competitor and assumed the mantle of wrestling’s lone megapower, the company seemed to fall into an identity crisis. The McMahon family is the on-screen representation of WWE’s brain, and when the family is divided, as it was in 2001, WWE fans are forced to process not just the obvious Oedipal fracas but an odd uncertainty about the stability of that brain. With no competition left, the McMahons had only each other to fight with. As the story line fizzled and WCW was fully subsumed into the mother company, WWE, seemingly hungry to re-create the duality that characterized so much of the company’s history, split Monday Night Raw and their Friday show, Smackdown. The two shows became separate “brands,” with different wrestlers, different announcers, and even, briefly, separate pay-per-view events. The two shows only crossed over at the annual draft lottery, in which wrestlers were “randomly” swapped to boost ratings and freshen story lines.
The separation proved untenable, if only because WWE was (understandably) more interested in ratings than in adherence to logic: Why limit their biggest stars to one show a week? Why hamstring storytelling by segregating your talent pool? It wasn’t long before the borders of the brands became fuzzy, and, as of a few months ago, Raw formally became an everybody-is-invited event.4
And yet, the subliminal desire for duality persists. The second-place federation, TNA Wrestling, briefly aired their show on Monday nights to try to re-create the Monday Night Wars aura, but that never caught on. Instead, something funny happened to WWE: Left with no challengers and no more means of dividing its own product, the company evolved. WWE has reinvented itself on the fly by building a new two-brand system around its biggest stars: The bizarro parallel universes of John Cena and CM Punk.
During Sunday night’s Over the Limit pay-per-view event, there were two main events. One pitted Cena in a heavily scripted comedy match against the company’s contemptible general manager, John Laurinaitis. The other featured Punk against underdog a-hole Daniel Bryan in a serious contest of indie-style technical wrestling. WWE’s two different realms were on full, bold-faced display.
The latter match (which, it should be said, is something of a wet dream for wrestling’s Internet intelligentsia) went first. The most poignant moment — for me anyway — was when Bryan locked Punk in a move called a surfboard. Bryan stood on the backs of a prone Punk’s knees, pinned his toes back behind his calves, and then yanked his arms back, thus pulling every limb painfully from the torso. Then, to cinch it in further, Bryan rolled onto his back, turning Punk belly-up, so that he appeared to be floating in a midair state of torment. It’s complicated. It might be the most Poindexter-y move in wrestling. It doesn’t have the drama of a devastating powerbomb or a moonsault off the top rope. It’s intricate, unusual, and it looks a bit like something 6-year-old boys might do to each other for fun. It’s probably the last thing you want to be caught watching if your girlfriend walks into the living room. Yes, it hurts in real life, but it’s not as obvious as a punch in the face, and for a surfboard to generate any sense of danger on TV, it needs to be sold with overheated narration from the announcers and facial contortions by the victim. The move also has mostly been ignored in modern American pro wrestling, which means casual fans aren’t very familiar with it. Little wonder: It was an innovation of a Mexican wrestler from the 1940s and ’50s named Rito Romero. (They called the hold “The Romero Special” in Texas. Back on Romero’s home turf, it was “La Tapatia.”)5 Romero is known primarily for wrestling with Verne Gagne and Lou Thesz, two old-timers probably known better to the casual wrestling fan as Jim Ross catchphrases than as actual people.
Bryan’s regular finishing move, the “Yes Lock,” recently renamed from the “LaBell Lock,” was borrowed from and named after Gene LeBell, a judo champion turned obscure 1960s pro wrestler turned actor and stuntman. Bryan, needless to say, is a throwback. He’s a student of the craft who touts his encyclopedic knowledge of wrestling holds. When Bryan was asked to choose his top “underrated” wrestler for a recent WWE.com feature, it was no surprise that he chose Billy Robinson — a guy almost nobody in America ever saw wrestle.
When we last encountered Bryan, he was at the center of a small-scale fan revolt wherein the live audience at Raw the day after WrestleMania chanted “Yes! Yes! Yes!” — Bryan’s catchphrase — throughout the show to protest his 15-second defeat at the previous night’s big event. The fans worried that if Bryan was shunted out of the Heavyweight Championship picture, then the WWE powers that be might forget about him. Those fears were unfounded. Bryan won a mini-tournament to pick the new challenger for Punk’s WWE Championship6 and ignited a feud that many die-hard fans never thought they’d see.
Even more surprising is that Punk and Bryan were allowed to wrestle an incredibly technical match at Over the Limit. It was a clinic of old-school ring psychology with minimal high jinks. More surprising still: The crowd was totally into it.
Which is all to point out that when Bryan locked Punk in that surfboard — deviously grinning as he locked up Punk’s ankles, headily sticking his fingers in Punk’s mouth to make him give up his hands so the move could be clinched — the crowd ate it up. And why shouldn’t they? We live in a time when Gotye can have the no. 1 pop single and where the biggest action movie of the summer stars Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson. Everything is indie now. Why should pro wrestling be any different?
Nobody epitomizes this more than Punk, and I’m only partly saying this because of his crusty facial hair and chest tattoo. Despite Punk’s charisma and talent, he’s physically so far from the WWE archetype that his success story over the past year has seemed almost surreal. And in his new rivalry with Bryan,7 the ascent of indie wrestling into WWE’s mainstream seems complete.
But even though indie wrestling’s moment had arrived, the night wasn’t over. After Punk defeated Bryan (in contested fashion) came a squash match in which a conspicuously muscled fellow named Ryback — imagine Goldberg meets the Ultimate Warrior meets Rob Van Dam’s tights — beat up a cholo-themed character named Camacho. If nothing else, the match bought fans some time to mentally transition between what we had just seen and what was still to come. Because what came next was about as different from the Punk-Bryan match as you can get.
Ever since John Cena’s feud with Punk ended last summer, Cena has been headed down a path of increasing isolation. He feuded with The Miz and R-Truth, and when asked to find a partner, Cena looked outside of WWE’s current roster and found his erstwhile antagonist The Rock. Cena then feuded with a series of opponents: first Kane, a remnant of a bygone era of ridiculous supernatural characters; then The Rock, a returning megastar largely disconnected from everything in WWE that wasn’t John Cena; and finally Brock Lesnar, a returning megastar largely disconnected from everything in WWE that wasn’t … well, you get the point. Cena had functionally abandoned his hunt for Punk’s WWE title, but it hardly seemed relevant — in his universe, titles didn’t matter. Why should they if he continues to headline?
Cena has wrestled in the last match at the last four pay-per-views, and not once has the championship belt been at stake. Everybody likes to say that WrestleMania is the Super Bowl of wrestling. Well, OK — the Punk-Jericho match was like the Super Bowl. Cena-Rock was the Pro Bowl. It’s not that Cena’s matches are a bigger deal than the title matches — they’re just a totally different thing. They’re a separate reality.
Sunday night, Cena fought Laurinaitis in a grudge match so loony that its success was a little shocking. This is success on completely different terms than the dynamic and technical Punk-Bryan match, but it was still success. If the high point of the title match was the surfboard, its parallel in Cena’s match was when he dragged a punch-drunk Laurinaitis into the announcers’ booth, strapped headsets onto himself and Laurinaitis, and comically called the match they had just been having. As he sat outside the ring, ironically commenting on imaginary ringwork, it was a definitive statement, unintentional though it may have been, of the otherworldly plane into which Cena’s character has wandered. His detractors will complain that he’s always in the spotlight, regardless of titles or the relative merits of performers like Punk. But that’s beside the point: Cena’s not strictly on top — he’s somewhere else entirely.
Despite demands from some serious wrestling fans that technical grappling matches like Punk-Bryan deserve more of the spotlight than Cena’s overblown scraps, credibility is in the eye of the beholder.8 One only had to see the trio of Cena fans sitting right behind the ring Sunday night, all wearing matching Cena outfits, to understand Cena’s value to the company.9 Cena’s lengthy reign has seemed interminable at times, but too many of the fans who complain about Cena are willfully forgetting the similarly interminable era of Hulkamania that likely drew them to wrestling in the first place. Hulk Hogan and the WWF made modern wrestling as we know it possible. Like Cena, Hogan existed in a world all his own, fighting off monsters like King Kong Bundy and Earthquake and Andre the Giant, while the lesser grapplers were left to fight for the Intercontinental belt and scraps of television time.
Sure, the industry has grown since those days. But in the current WWE-dominated world, where one company is left to try to be all things to all wrestling fans, it should not be a surprise that WWE is falling back on classic, time-worn archetypes to appeal to a broader crowd. While Cena runs wild in his fiefdom of superheroics, Punk is left to be the in-house NWA to Cena’s WWF.10 One doesn’t have to squint too hard to see the old-school standout feuds like Ric Flair–Ricky Steamboat in the Punk-Bryan rivalry.
It’s all “sports entertainment.” It just depends on which word you want to emphasize. For better or worse, despite the bipolar feel that the Cena-Punk disconnect sometimes produces, WWE’s new identity is split. Fifteen years ago, we had to change the channel to get both sides of the spectrum. Now we just have to wait for the next segment.