Ever since the Money in the Bank pay-per-view in July, there has been one wild card lingering on the periphery of the John Cena-CM Punk feud: Alberto Del Rio. Del Rio possessed the Raw Money in the Bank briefcase, an outsize physical representation of what’s formally a contract clause — it entitled Del Rio to demand a match against the WWE champion at any time and place. Such briefcases have been handed out regularly for years, and the title bouts they lead to tend to follow a similar script. First, the champion ekes out a grueling victory and celebrates limply. Then, the briefcase holder rushes to the ring, dragging a referee behind him, and “cashes in” the briefcase; he beats the champ in his moment of weakness and snatches the title.
Wrestling fans knew this, and the wrestling writers knew we knew it, and so after Del Rio won the briefcase they let us know they knew it. After CM Punk beat John Cena for the title at Money in the Bank, “deposed” WWE chairman Vince McMahon called for Del Rio to win the title back from Punk. Del Rio charged to the ring, but Punk kicked him in the head before a new match could begin and escaped through the crowd. Punk’s theatrics overshadowed the nonmatch with Del Rio, but the fact that WWE inserted Del Rio into the title storyline within hours of his winning the briefcase — and within moments of Punk’s winning the title — signaled that they were willing to toy with the audience’s expectations, and that they were serious about elevating Del Rio to main-event status.
Del Rio’s ascension was tied to a more metaphorical insinuation: For all the recent insistence on reality-based storytelling, the MITB briefcase remains a remnant of the just-passed era in wrestling, a time of catchphrases and overblown gimmicks, when delirious unreality ruled the day. Back then the WWE narrative wasn’t dominated by disputes over wrestlers’ “real-life” ambitions and the company’s direction, but rather the wild-eyed pursuit of championship gold. Whenever Del Rio eventually cashed in the briefcase, presuming he would win the match,1 he would be reinserting unreality into the Punk saga and challenging the Reality Era’s right to exist.
History has shown that it’s a sure thing.
This past Sunday at SummerSlam, Del Rio got his title shot against CM Punk, and for a moment the world as we had just come to know it seemed like it was about to end.
Here’s how quickly the world can change: CM Punk and John Cena faced off in SummerSlam‘s main event. After 25 minutes of hard-fought action, Punk hit Cena with his GTS finisher (for the second time) and pinned him. Special referee (and new WWE chief operating officer) Triple H counted Cena’s shoulders down for the three count, but he overlooked Cena’s foot, which was draped over the bottom rope. According to the “rules,” this should have negated Punk’s pin, but when Cena complained after the match Triple H basically just shrugged and handed Punk the belt. While Punk celebrated in the ring, WWE played its first wild card. Kevin Nash — formerly known in the WWF as Diesel and a real-life buddy of Triple H and a backstage power-player — jumped out of the crowd, entered the ring in street clothes, and attacked Punk, Jackknife Powerbombing him into a gelatinous mess. Meanwhile, Triple H stood by and looked perplexed. Just about everyone in the audience knew what would happen next: Alberto Del Rio scrambled to the ring, kicked Punk in the head before he even had a chance to stand up, and pinned him for the title.
Despite his modern vintage, Del Rio is a throwback in the wrestling world. Playing a wealthy Mexican aristocrat, he’s one part foreign nationalist in the mode of the Iron Sheik, the Quebecers, or Yokozuna, and one part rich, entitled rascal — think “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase or JBL. But as with any good character, Del Rio’s persona is grounded in reality. His father is Mexican wrestling legend Dos Caras, and Del Rio was a star in Mexico (as Dos Caras Jr.) before joining WWE in 2009. He was initially pushed as a hero in WWE’s training circuit, but the role didn’t suit Del Rio. Backstage, wrestling insiders believed his ego — fueled by his privileged upbringing and his Mexican celebrity — was starting to get out of hand. Del Rio reminded them of his uncle, the notoriously self-centered phenom Mil Mascaras, so Del Rio was converted into a dapper, diabolical Don.
That character, needless to say, took off. A big part of Del Rio’s present-day genius is how easily he conveys comically outsized gestures. Over the course of a match, his various facial contortions could be turned into a “How to Draw Expressions” text book. His claims of “destiny” and endless references to himself in the third person are more entertaining and more ridiculous than any monologue by a Latin American cartel boss you’ve seen on film. He’s a fine wrestler and a potentially great character. But he’s not CM Punk, and he’s probably not even capable of squeezing himself into Punk’s reality-based shtick the way Cena did. When SummerSlam ended with Del Rio celebrating his new championship, it felt like he was dancing on the grave of the Reality Era.
It’s doubly significant that the chief question raised by SummerSlam‘s end sequence — on whose behalf was Nash acting? — was a classically old-school one. Mystery man comes in, beats up fan favorite, and eventually reveals allegiance. This is Pro Wrestling 101. The unexpectedness of Nash’s appearance and his real-life connection to Triple H threw enough mystery into the proceedings that it felt fresh, if a tad overwrought. Between the throwback references of Nash’s run-in and the odd juxtaposition of Del Rio’s hyperscripted appearance with Punk and Cena’s fourth-wall-breaking narrative, the fans were stimulated enough to feel sated.
The next night on Raw, Triple H did all he could to dispel the notion that “reality” had perished. He opened the show by apologizing to Cena for the botched call, then insisted he had nothing to do with Kevin Nash’s interference. Nash appeared later and said that Triple H (or someone with access to his phone, presumably) texted him with a request to lay out whoever won the SummerSlam main event. Punk interrupted and engaged him in a war of words that culminated in Nash smartly reminding Punk that his jump from the WWF to WCW was precisely what changed the industry and allowed characters like Punk to puncture the fourth wall as boldly as he does. Punk’s response was decidedly un-Punk: When he approached the ring to physically confront Nash, it hardly mattered that security guards intercepted him; the very act of choosing to fight was an odd and backward-looking response from such a forward-looking character.
Del Rio’s first title defense against Rey Mysterio, also on Raw, was a really good match, although Mysterio’s unhealthy knees and reliance on greatest-hits moves kept it from being truly memorable. Post-victory, Del Rio continued to viciously attack Mysterio with a grotesquely smarmy smile on his face,2 a classic heel move, until John Cena arrived to save Mysterio. Cena read Del Rio the riot act for his cowardly and unprofessional means of becoming champion at SummerSlam, despite the fact that this is how MITB briefcases are always used. It was a return in form to the Cena of three months ago — or three years ago, for that matter. It was a strangely retro ending to a previously avant-garde program.
Earlier in the night Del Rio hilariously imagined asking himself, “Alberto Del Rio, what do you want to do today?” He answered, “I want to beat up Rey Mysterio!”
Del Rio is a real talent,3 and given the opportunity to improve, he could be a longtime contributor to WWE’s upper tier. But both his act and (perhaps by extension) his storylines until now have been of an outmoded vintage.
In a global marketplace, he’s also a real cash cow. It’s no coincidence that WWE put the strap on him two months before an October tour of Mexico.
Last Monday, Raw closed with Cena, Punk, Triple H, and John Laurinaitis in the ring. Putatively, they were there for a SummerSlam contract signing, but their actual goal seemed to be to eviscerate professional wrestling’s fourth wall. This week, we had Cena and Del Rio in a showdown straight out of 2010 — which, in the post-Punk era, seems like a lifetime ago.
Compare this to the disheartening story of the Miz, a loudmouth heel who is constantly improving in the ring and willing to do just about anything — talk shows, awards shows, MTV after shows — to promote WWE. In style, he’s a direct callback to The Rock and Chris Jericho (in his earliest WWF incarnation), but the Miz’s act, with its signature moves and multitudinous catchphrases, is perhaps too much imitation and not enough insinuation. The Miz is a cartoon version of existing cartoons, and although he has been entertaining over the past year, he seems lost in this new world of worked-shoots. At SummerSlam, he wrestled a show-opening, six-man, tag-team match that was exciting but inconsequential. On Monday’s Raw, he was sent out for a verbal spat with Jared from Subway, ending his promo by roaring the Subway catchphrase and taking a bite out of the sandwich that Jared had for whatever reason brought to his front-row seat. It was an act of not-so-guerrilla marketing that no amount of attempted ironic detachment by the Miz could redeem. The scene was particularly unsettling because the Miz hardly had to alter his character to pull off that bit of retail synchronicity. But that’s the Miz in a microcosm: his iniquity, his impertinence, his cynicism — just as with Cena, his character seems wholly transactional. Yet Punk has shown us in recent months that success in the modern world of pro wrestling — in terms of audience approval, as well as sheer capitalism — isn’t a Pavlovian enterprise. It’s an organic one.
Since Monday night, fans have been asking whether the Punk-Cena storyline — and the Reality Era as a whole — is over. It’s not, but Raw didn’t do much to assuage their fear. The real concern isn’t that WWE would demote Punk and call off the Reality Era; it’s that it might just die on the vine. If “reality” doesn’t extend — organically — to the rest of the roster and to the overall storytelling strategy of the company, then it’s a sideshow, not a revolution. The subtextual storyline over the past two months hasn’t been “What’s going to happen next?” but “What else is going to happen?”
Despite Punk’s success, the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats theory won’t amount to much if WWE’s other wrestlers can’t find their places within the Reality Era. If history is any gauge, the tension between the two narrative styles could turn ugly. Late ’90s WCW — after the nWo changed the playing field — was an ungainly pastiche of retreaded nWo and ECW tropes. Guys like Bryan Adams wrestled under their real names to seem more legit; veterans like Rick Steiner reeled off grating, prepackaged catchphrases — it was about as cool as MC Hammer going gangsta rap or your parents joining Facebook.
It’s entirely possible that we’ve seen only the beginning of what WWE has planned for us. The writers may have already figured out how to bring all the offshoots of the Punk-Cena feud into one larger storyline. That is, after all, reality — everything impacts everything else. Hopefully, this is the case. As entertaining as Del Rio and the Miz have been on the undercard of the Cena-Punk storyline, it’s imperative that they find new ways to engage us. Del Rio can’t just rely on his smarmy countenance. Likewise, the Miz can’t just rely on catchphrases, no matter how willing the audience is to sing along. The fans need more than just call and response. They need what Punk gives them — a human stake in the action.
If Del Rio and the Miz don’t figure it out, it won’t matter how many worked-shoots they film. They can book all the surprise run-ins in the world. It won’t make a difference. If WWE’s other wrestlers can’t keep up with Punk, “reality” won’t be a new era or a movement or even a storyline. It’ll be, well, a catchphrase.
Previously from The Masked Man:
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