Last month, a prospective WrestleMania card made its way onto the Internet. On one hand, it looked like a card that Vince McMahon — or the Internet’s imagined maniacal version of him — might approve of. On the other hand, some aspects beggared belief: John Cena vs. Bray Wyatt? Daniel Bryan vs. Sheamus again? Even the parts that seemed plausible drew dismissive laughter: Brock Lesnar vs. the Undertaker felt like half-assed fantasy booking, and “Randy Orton vs. Batista in the main event” seemed like the punch line to a crack about WWE wrongheadedness.
But it was not. As the weeks have passed and the story has played out, the rumored card turned out to be correct. Cena will indeed be facing Wyatt, Orton will defend the WWE World Heavyweight Championship against Batista, and the Undertaker and Lesnar will have their clash of the part-time titans. Despite the crowd’s vociferous support of CM Punk in the aftermath of his surprise departure, and of Daniel Bryan, the rumored card turned out to be mostly accurate. In fact, the only significant alteration to that card seems to have been made because of some combination of those two factors — Punk is gone from WWE, and Bryan will be stepping into Punk’s slot against Triple H.
The stubbornness of that card, with all its perceived flaws, is embodied in the Orton-Batista match, a fight between two humdrum musclemen who are black holes of charisma and whose feud is a black hole of story-line momentum. If Daniel Bryan’s ongoing underdog narrative is bolstered by the real-life narrative — that Bryan never stood a chance of becoming WWE’s top dog — then Orton and Batista are feuding for the opposite reason: Regardless of what the script says, they’re in the main event because Vince McMahon said so, and the symbolic outcome hardly matters. WWE’s unwillingness to adjust the card after it became clear that Orton-Batista was a disaster waiting to happen has been so predictable that it feels even more maddening. When Batista won the Royal Rumble, securing his Mania spot, the crowd booed more lustily than they had at any of the night’s villains, and Batista was supposed to be the good guy.
Yet it has been Bryan–Triple H — the one match that doesn’t appear to have been part of the original WrestleMania XXX blueprint — that has drawn the biggest reaction from fans. On Monday’s Raw, Bryan challenged Triple H. Backstage, when Bryan first suggested the bout, Triple H demurred, so Bryan issued a formal challenge in the ring after dispatching the WWE front-office minion Kane.1 Commentator Jerry “The King” Lawler, remarking on Triple H’s seeming uninterest in Bryan’s WrestleMania positioning, said what wrestling fans have been saying for a long time: “If Bryan is the most popular superstar in this company, how can his being just somewhere on the card at WrestleMania be best for business?” Those last three words have been Triple H’s catchphrase for months, the epitome of his cagey refusal to let Bryan achieve greatness.
The irony here was thick: Lawler, in his role as purveyor of mediocre one-liners, is almost as loathed by die-hard fans as Bryan is loved, so hearing the King take up Bryan’s cause made the notion seem bizarrely distasteful. Moreover, Lawler’s spiel was a clear sign that Bryan’s insurrection was being coopted by the WWE mainstream. Just as WWE absorbed Punk’s counterculture attitude, it’s taking the “Yes Movement” — its term, not Bryan’s — and putting the phrase on T-shirts and stickers and repeating it so much that it’s starting to sound as repulsive as “best for business.” Turning your hero’s cause into corporate shilling is a heel move.
There’s something poignant about WWE acknowledging Bryan’s real-life ascent by putting him in a major match against Triple H, who is, in real life, a big part of what I mean when I type “WWE.” In the eyes of Triple H and the WWE brain trust, Bryan being in this match is a signal that he has already won. But many fans hate the very notion that a match against Triple H is some glorious honor for Bryan. In his full-time wrestling career, Triple H was (sometimes unjustly) decried for “burying” his opponents — for using his backstage clout to win feuds that should have ended the opposite way. But regardless of what you think about those rumors, the more compelling argument here is that Triple H is part of the power structure fans believe has been overly reluctant to acknowledge Bryan’s star status, that Triple H doesn’t deserve Bryan because WWE has mishandled him so.
People are entitled to their opinions, but I think this is insane. Bryan’s battle has always been with Triple H, not Randy Orton. Sure, the title is the ultimate goal, but Bryan’s real existential nemesis is the status quo, embodied ever so sneeringly by Triple H. By teasing that story line out over the past half-year, WWE’s decision-makers have boxed themselves into a corner: They’ve strung out the Bryan story arc so long that many fans won’t be satisfied with anything short of a title win. They want their reward, which is to see Bryan get full-fledged star treatment. But the bigger problem with the Triple H match is, quite plainly, some fans’ blind hatred of Trips. Hating Hunter has become a meme — it’s a tenet of the Internet wrestling community. It’s why things like this exist. People despise Triple H — or they ironically join in on such jokes, which amounts to the same thing.
WWE, of course, knows this. It’s why Triple H has been such a compelling heel since SummerSlam — WWE has embraced the meme. It’s constantly teasing us with Bryan being held back from the title. The most pessimistic fans may theorize that WWE held a board meeting and decided that Bryan will never be WWE champ, although it seems just as likely that WWE may be holding out for some point in the future to crown Bryan. Last month I compared Bryan to Dusty Rhodes, but if WWE was just replaying the Dusty–Four Horsemen feud, fans would be complaining that it’s boring. If WWE has done one thing right, it’s that it has worked Bryan’s supporters into a frenzy. It might not lead anywhere, but it’s not dull. The match in New Orleans might not be for the title, but it’ll be the “glass ceiling match” that Bryan’s past year has been building toward.
Bryan did his best to forestall the fans’ negative reaction to a Triple H match by asking if they wanted to see him and the COO fight at Mania and then leading them in a “Yes!” chant. The fans, after all, can’t resist the “Yes!” chant, and he tricked them into answering the question and cosigning the match. At the end of the day, it’s a good move, because as much as they may gripe about Triple H in chat rooms — because of that, really — he’s the best villain in wrestling today, and WWE knows fans will be at a fever pitch cheering for Bryan to win, because on some level they don’t believe it’s possible.
So what is WWE thinking with the main event?2 WWE must know that both Orton and Batista are best as heels. Orton has found his stride over the past six months playing the embodiment of all that fans hate about the modern WWE. Batista’s most beloved run was his last one before he left the company, as an egocentric villain who embraced the sunglasses and Eurotrash outfits that made him such a laughable person in real life. WWE knows Batista’s current run as a hero is foundering; they had him allude to it on Monday, and the plans for Friday’s Smackdown call for “the Animal to be unleashed” in an address to the fans. Presumably, this is when Batista will express his dissatisfaction with their boos. Whatever happens, Friday’s development should be the most intriguing thing Batista has done since returning. We probably won’t see something as dramatic as a full-fledged heel turn for Batista (insomuch as that’s even possible), but by letting him speak, WWE is signaling that it’s aware of the problem with Batista’s uninspired comeback.
One other thing: Monday night, Batista came to the ring in a spotlight — like he did before he left WWE — for the first time since his return. Sometimes the company knows what it’s doing. It must know that if the championship match stands as is, it could be the biggest train wreck in modern wrestling history. So WWE could be thinking:
Option 1: If WWE goes ahead with it, all the hard-core fans will be glued to their sets during WrestleMania XXX to see how loudly the crowd boos the match. It’ll be a train wreck and we’ll all be watching through our fingers to see the gore. Are we far enough into the postmodern wrestling era that hate-watching can be a thing? It’s hard to imagine WWE pushing Orton-Batista through like this, especially with the carnage it would wreak on the wrestlers’ careers, but I’m compelled by the thought.
Option 2: It sets up a stipulation whereby Bryan can win his way into the title match by beating Triple H. In some ways, this makes a lot of sense — Bryan vanquishes the status quo and moves right on to the main event. But as amazing as that would be, it’s silly to treat a match as big as Bryan–Triple H as a stepping-stone. If that stipulation is made, everybody knows Bryan will beat Triple H. Hunter’s supposed narcissism aside, he’s too big a star to be a fait accompli on the biggest show of the year. And if Bryan makes it to the main event, you have to assume he’s winning. As wonderfully redemptive as that would be for fans, there’s nothing worse than a telegraphed ending. There’s a way WWE can do this right: Batista stays nominally heroic and then turns on Bryan in the main event, winning the title and becoming the new face of the WWE with Triple H’s help. But that’s a tough tightrope to walk. If the crowd has spent too much time on Bourbon Street before the show, that ending could start a riot.
Option 3: CM Punk returns at the end of Raw next week in Chicago and inserts himself in the title match. I have absolutely zero intel on this, but ask yourself this: When was the last time any public figure managed to stay quiet on Twitter or elsewhere for this long? I’m not saying his departure was a work — it wasn’t — but his continued silence is deafening. Seeing Punk sitting ringside at the UFC PPV last weekend, his eyes shadowed by his hoodie, he seemed more like a background clue in True Detective than a random sighting. But don’t get your hopes up for a Punk return — not that they were up in the first place, or why else would I be writing this article? Just ask yourself this: How much money would Punk be worth to WWE in that match, and how much money would he need to say yes?
The answer to the former question should be clear from the “CM Punk!” chants that have boomed through arenas since his departure. If there have been three signposts of crowd reaction over the past month, they have been “Yes!” “CM Punk!” and “Boooo!” whenever Batista’s in the ring. WWE is aware of this, and is certainly planning next Monday’s Raw in Chicago betting on a full-scale crowd revolt. But will those plans affect the final WrestleMania product? That’s the question. The crowd on Monday in Green Bay did a disservice to the cause, to be sure — they chanted random non sequiturs over good matches and generally became the worst version of any wrestling crowd ever, inserting irony into matches where it wasn’t deserved, chanting just to hear their own voices.
That has been the problem with the rise in crowd participation over the last decade. WWE knows it has a live test market every night it puts on a show. But John Cena’s “Cena sucks!” refrain proves chants should not always be taken literally — they can be general statements of dissatisfaction, or just something fun to scream. And even when “Cena sucks!” really means Cena sucks, that’s not always a bad thing, and not necessarily a reason to change direction. Singing along to the Fandango entrance music may be a paean to an earlier era of simpler gimmicks, or it might be an arena-wide circle jerk. It’s hard to blame WWE if it’s still trying to process the relevance of the “Yes Movement.” But the T-shirts show that the company knows how potent Bryan’s support is now – there’s no way to deny that.
“I don’t know how Triple H can ignore the WWE universe,” said announcer Michael Cole on Monday, underscoring the counterculture mainstreaming. “Everywhere we go, the Yes Movement is dominating. You can’t keep it down.” It felt snide to be acknowledging Bryan fans in such a corporate way, especially when Bryan’s fan base hates Cole even more than it despises Lawler. Those fans hate the announcers who are talking Bryan up, they hate the guy he’s facing at WrestleMania — it’s almost as if WWE is antagonizing us on purpose. Fans complain they’re being mistreated, but what if we’re just getting what we deserve?
Not to pull a swerve double-turn finish on you here, but what if we — the “smart” fans — are the heels? We’re the ones flaunting our ironic intelligence and hogging the spotlight. We’re the ones booing John Cena when he’s supposed to get cheers. We’re the ones illegally streaming pay-per-views instead of buying them. We’re the ones raising our noses at the company that’s brought us so much joy.
And in the main event at WrestleMania, the heels normally lose.