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20 Notes on The 20/20 Experience

The Unwritten WWE Rulebook

Which laws will determine the winners at WrestleMania 29?

On Feb. 25, John Cena and CM Punk squared off in a match that would determine WWE champion the Rock’s WrestleMania opponent. Punk had previously lost the WWE championship to Rocky at The Royal Rumble, while Cena won the night’s namesake match and solidified his spot in the Mania main event. Punk then lost in his rematch at the Elimination Chamber pay-per-view the next month. That should have settled things; despite interference from Vince McMahon (on the Rock’s behalf) and the Shield (on Punk’s), there weren’t sufficient grounds for a rematch, and so, according to the rules of WWE story lines, Punk’s time atop the card seemed to have run out. Rock and Cena would have a rematch of their “Once in a Lifetime”1 bout from last year’s Mania and Punk would shuffle on to something else.

In all sports, there are codified rules and unwritten rules. There are rules that govern contractual stipulations and the legality of moves. But in pro wrestling, those rules are mostly for show. The rules that matter are the ones that govern the codes and customs of wrestling’s longstanding unreality. These laws are formed by both tradition and fan expectation. Case in point: The Law of the Free-Per-View states that in any period in which there are five or more weeks between WWE pay-per-view events, there shall be an episode of Raw that shall serve as an interregnum in which major events are hyped and pay-per-view-caliber matches are given away for free. And so the night after his loss at Elimination Chamber — with a major episode of Raw in the offing — Punk was thrust back into the headline narrative. He challenged Cena to a match for the WrestleMania spot, and Cena accepted. It didn’t take a genius to see where this was headed. When Cena and Punk fought on Feb. 25, a draw felt inevitable. Call it the Law of Threes: If the no. 1 contender is up for grabs in the weeks before a PPV, then the eventual title match will be a multi-party affair with all petitioners involved. The Punk-Cena match was a minor masterpiece. The high point saw Cena use a rare Hurricanrana, while Punk unleashed a (real-life) illegal piledriver.2 Everything seemed to be heading directly toward a three-way match at Mania, but then, surprisingly, Cena won.3 Instead of conforming to fans’ expectations, WWE was treading water — they were teasing a three-way match because they knew what expectations that match would bring. To borrow a notion from legendary promoter Bill Watts, the rules of wrestling are important for fulfilling expectations, but they’re just as important because of the way breaking them affects audiences. Or, you know, maybe WWE was just deferring to the Law of Cena: When in doubt, Cena wins.

WrestleMania 29 will feature the Rock-Cena Super Posedown Part Deux, and Punk has been shunted off to face the Undertaker, which I would describe in detail except there’s not much to explain. There was a four-way match to determine Taker’s opponent (between Punk, Big Show, Randy Orton, and Sheamus), but nobody doubted for a second that Punk would win and take the spot. The Undertaker is riding a 20-match win streak at WrestleMania, and if his legend wasn’t sufficient to earn him the most significant opponent available, the immutability of his win streak demands a high-caliber opponent like Punk who can keep the outcome of the match at least a little doubtful. It’s the Law of Streak Legitimacy: The Undertaker’s WrestleMania opponent shall be the highest-profile wrestler not encumbered by another feud. The past two years, Taker has fought Triple H, and before that it was two years of Shawn Michaels — two guys with whom he had great matches, but whose chief attribute was the expectation that if anybody could beat Taker, it would be a guy with just as big a WWE legend (Michaels) or a guy who is married to the boss’s daughter (Triple H).

For his part, Triple H has recently returned to TV after a several-month hibernation at WWE headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut. He’s back in denim and leather for the Mania run-up, and he has reignited his feud with Brock Lesnar, the NCAA champion turned WWE wrestler turned MMA fighter turned diverticulitis sufferer turned WWE wrestler who was last seen “breaking” Vince McMahon’s hip. Before that, he was “breaking” Triple H’s arm — twice.

The top three matches at WrestleMania, in case you need help with the math, feature four part-time wrestlers. In theory, I don’t object to this — it’s great for hype and great for the ever-nostalgic wrestling fans who love seeing these living legends. But in practice, the appearances from the Rock, Lesnar, Undertaker, and Triple H make Mania feel like it exists on a separate plane from the rest of the year’s action. It’s like the Heat beating the Thunder in the NBA Finals and then having to face the original Dream Team for the “real” championship. (Which sounds awesome. How has Simmons not already suggested this?) Except unlike basketball players, wrestlers don’t get old; they just get leathery. Nobody lowballs Undertaker’s chances on account of his age, nor is the Rock’s skill dimmed on account of his years away from the ring (and the awkward incompatibility of his Michelin Man muscles). Call it the Law of Popularity: In-ring ability equals hype times salary.

That law doesn’t necessarily spell out victory, however. With the Rock and Lesnar hanging around on vague, minimal-appearance contracts, Triple H always looming in the corner office, and Cena and Punk ensconced on a level above all of their cohorts, these guys will probably be running a round robin of superstar squabbles at big PPV shows for the next several years. Furthermore, in pro wrestling, some laws trump all else, and the outcomes of many big matches, no matter how evenhanded the pre-match hype, are so obvious that the matches barely need to happen. But they do, of course, which brings us to the First Law of Pro Wrestling: Good eventually triumphs over evil (unless outside forces intervene, or the time limit expires, or a judicial authority determines good didn’t actually win, or evil is just too popular to depose at some particular moment). In certain companies in certain eras — like Sammartino’s WWWF run or Hulk Hogan’s era of WWF dominance — good wins on a quarterly or monthly basis. In others — like Ric Flair in the NWA — evil is so entrenched that the story becomes the ongoing quest for comeuppance. Even with Flair, the First Law applied. Good would eventually triumph, even if it was in moral victories that didn’t end with the title changing hands — because if not, then why even watch?

The second law of wresting is Reciprocity: In a series of two matches between equally significant wrestlers, whoever loses the first match will win the second match. (Variation: Moral victory substitutes for actual victory.) According to these laws, Triple H is going to beat Lesnar.4 Lesnar beat Trips last year at SummerSlam, and he has rung up such a record of wrongdoing with his various maimings of Triple H, McMahon, Shawn Michaels, and Cena — and, this past Monday, of the New Age Outlaws — that his defeat now seems inevitable.

(Two other lesser laws cancel each other out here. The Law of Persistent Smark Complaint, which states: Triple H, because of his backstage influence, always wins in the end, despite what’s best for the company; and the Law of Best Business, which states: Old-timers in general, and Triple H in particular, will lose to a star with greater future moneymaking potential, even if fans would presumably prefer said old-timers to win on the night in question. Of course, the latter may be subsumed by the Law of Dusty Rhodes, which states: Wrestlers with creative control are always blinded by their egos and may not choose to do what’s best for the company.)

So can Lesnar win? I think the odds are low, although it’s possible that WWE has specific plans for him — like immediately facing Cena for the title — that would necessitate an unconventional win. But that seems unlikely. Lesnar’s schedule is such that WWE will probably save his rematch with Cena for another megacard. Moreover, WrestleMania is the perfect stage for a feel-good Triple H victory — especially in the eyes of the WWE deciders, whom Triple H has come to unsubtly represent. According to the Rules, Triple H only loses next month if there are specific plans for him to beat Lesnar in the future, and with two guys as occasionally present as they are — and the story line hinging on leftover animosity from their last match — it seems unlikely that WWE would push Lesnar’s comeuppance off for another year. Logic dictates that Triple H wins.

Similarly, the Law of Reciprocity dictates that Cena is going to beat the Rock because the Rock beat him last year. Of course, there are other laws at play here. For example, the Law of Unstoppable Celebrity: In pro wrestling pay-per-views — especially WrestleMania — celebrity competitors don’t lose matches.5 Also, the Law of Laying Down on Your Way Out: A wrestler always loses his last big match before leaving a federation.

Losing is part of a wrestler’s job description, of course, but losing at the end of a run is a matter of honor. There’s a case to be made that the Law of Unstoppable Celebrity could override the Law of Reciprocity, but not coupled with the Law of Laying Down on Your Way Out. The Rock was initially scheduled to appear at WWE’s post-Mania pay-per-view, but he was later yanked from local ads before being inserted back in this week. Regardless, it’s hard to imagine WWE wasting Cena-Rock III at an off-month PPV, and it’s even harder to imagine him defeating Cena and continuing as a champion in self-imposed exile between now and whenever his movie schedule allows him to return. Cena has to win to legitimize his two years of freestyle paeans to the Rock’s legend, but also because he represents the victory of the current product over the past (even if today’s WWE has lower ratings than it did during Rock’s heyday). Logic dictates that Cena will win because he’s the WWE, and the WWE always wins in the end.

Which brings us to Undertaker-Punk, which is governed by the Rule of the Streak: The Undertaker doesn’t lose at WrestleMania. Ever. Although meta-fans have clamored for the streak to end to a deserving up-and-comer who can coast off the accolade — Dolph Ziggler or Wade Barrett or, in years past, Punk himself — those pleas fall on deaf ears. WWE won’t let anybody end the Streak unless it’s sure about Undertaker’s conqueror, and WWE’s never going to be sure about anybody who is small-time enough to substantially gain from the win. Take CM Punk. His two losses to the Rock and his lengthy title reign cement his permanence. Punk will be Punk whether or not he loses to Taker, and, in the tradition of many top-tier villains before him, a loss complained loudly about is as good as a win.

The only possible hole in this argument is the Law of Best Business, if the Undertaker has decided to retire. As the preeminent locker-room leader of the last two decades, he will likely be happy to lose on his way out just to prove that he cared more about the industry than about his legend.6 To my mind, even the Undertaker’s legendary streak isn’t as invulnerable as it was last year. Even if he loses, Taker still has a 20-0 stretch on his résumé. (Even if Punk boasts that he made Taker 20-1, the collector’s edition DVDs will still say “20-0.”) But although I think Punk could win, almost nobody else thinks so, so I’ll defer to groupthink. Logic dictates that Taker wins because Taker always wins.

Will the good guy win all three main-event matches?7 WWE has long abided by two countervailing rules: the Rule of Sending ‘Em Home Happy (At a big show, there must be a feel-good moment at the end) and the Law of Balanced Victories (In no pay-per-view shall either heroes or villains win uniformly across the card).

You can turn it over in your head a thousand times, and it sure looks like Cena, Undertaker, and Triple H are destined to come out on top. But, to borrow a phrase from the Miz, Really? Even in a scripted world, how can you have an event for which everybody knows the ending in advance? Here’s one way to crack the code: If the world heavyweight championship match between Alberto Del Rio and Jack Swagger — which feels like a show-opener at this point — gets bumped to the prime-time section of the card, my guess is that it’ll be there because WWE wants to give Swagger (or Dolph Ziggler, cashing in the Money in the Bank briefcase) a surprise win and get a heel victory during the main-event portion of the night. If not, bet on one of the main-event bouts breaking the all-heroic, all-obvious monotony. Even if that happens — even if we get a surprise finish — it’ll be done precisely because they’ve made it seem so impossible for that to happen. It’ll be a bombshell we all know is coming.

In the end, it won’t really matter who wins and loses, because at WrestleMania, the real victor is always WWE. Every year it crams the masses into anther NFL stadium and sets another attendance record; every year it turns the Mania host city into a kayfabe Epcot Center, a wrestling fantasy land of autograph signings and indie shows and overcaffeinated boys in BarbershopWindow.com T-shirts. But as always, the WWE will remind us who’s running the show.

At the end of the night, if Undertaker, Cena, and Triple H are left standing, it won’t just be because the rules dictated it — it’ll be the three scions of WWE set redundantly atop the heap. It’s a reminder from the ghosts of WWE past, present, and corporate that the laws we live by are written and executed by WWE.

Filed Under: College Sports, Sports, The U, Wwe

Shoemaker

The Masked Man is David Shoemaker, author of the new book The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Pro Wrestling.

Archive @ AKATheMaskedMan