Pro wrestling never begins or ends. There’s no offseason, no training camp, no opening day, and there certainly isn’t free agency. But without a traditional sports calendar, the WWE does have a Super Bowl: WrestleMania. It’s the granddaddy of them all, as they used to say — the moment to which the entire wrestling year builds. And so, with that as our only guidepost to the wrestling calendar, now is the time — six months after Mania and six months before it — to acknowledge the best of the past six months of WWE product. So, without further ado: the WWE Midseason Awards!
MVP: Daniel Bryan
A brief preamble: Everything is graded on a curve. Pay-per-view matches are bigger deals than Raw matches, which are bigger deals than house shows in Topeka. A headliner has a better shot at MVP than a curtain-jerker does, no matter how much the curtain-jerker raised the bar for all those around him. As much as I would love to pore over spreadsheets of kayfabermetrics to determine who’s the statistical MVP of the WWE, at the end of the day it’s all entertainment, and everything is subjective. I can’t imagine, though, that anyone would take much exception to Bryan receiving the award. He’s Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout all in one.
Nobody has been as central to WWE storytelling over the past six months as Bryan, and nobody’s star has risen as far as his has over that period. He came from an incredibly fun tag team with Kane that could have been a career high point for just about any wrestler, let alone a performer with a look as unconventional as Bryan’s. Since then, he has risen to the main-event scene by the force of his personality (which many people doubted he even had), the consistent amazingness of his matches (with moves many people doubted WWE would even let him do), and the power of a simple catchphrase (which probably has every other superstar fuming that they didn’t think of it first). If his run has suffered recently, it’s due to the quirks of the schedule, the general doldrums of this non-WrestleMania season, and the absence of interaction with guys like CM Punk (distracted by his beef with Paul Heyman) and John Cena (out with an injury) that could further solidify Bryan as a top guy.
It’s indisputable, however, that Bryan’s rise has been the best part of WWE television over the past six months, and it continues to entertain. He’s the most technically proficient wrestler the WWE main-event scene has seen possibly since Bret Hart, and he connects with the crowd (the whole crowd — sorry, Mr. Cena) in a near-euphoric way we haven’t seen consistently since The Rock in his prime. He’s got a long way to go to be either of those guys, but he’s got the tools, and he’s on his way. There are other heroes involved in the main-event story line — the Big Show and Cody Rhodes — and the heelish Triple H and Randy Orton take up a lot of oxygen there too. But the story line doesn’t work without Bryan. It doesn’t exist without Bryan’s unlikely rise to the top. He’s intrinsic to the story line that the entire upper card is following, and for that, he’s our MVP.
Least Valuable Player: Alberto Del Rio
I’m on the record about my love for Del Rio. I’ve spent hours defending him while other wrestling fans rolled their eyes. He does all the little things in the ring — the hand gestures, the facial expressions — that so many talented guys can’t wrap their minds around. He understands his role in matches and executes it as well as just about anybody (and in promos, too, though his shaky English holds him back at times). But maybe he’s too good at those things. For all his strong points, Del Rio has failed to connect with fans.
Maybe that’s something Del Rio will never be able to do, but so far, it mostly falls on WWE and the way they’ve booked him. He’s playing a cartoon character, a millionaire Mexican oligarch who has no feasible reason to be a professional fighter. While watching the Velasquez–Dos Santos UFC fight last weekend, I couldn’t help but sadly think about how a modern-day Mexican gladiator could be successfully booked. Instead, they billed him as the villain in a ’60s James Bond movie. And his rivalries have predominantly been with heroes far less compelling than Sean Connery.
Perhaps even more significant than Del Rio’s character flaws is that he has been saddled with the World Heavyweight Championship, WWE’s second-tier top title (and if that description made you wince in confusion, that’s exactly my point). There’s little splendor in the big gold belt anymore, and it’s inane — in story line terms — that a glory hog like Del Rio would be content with it while Cena or Bryan or Orton holds the indisputably more eminent WWE title, regardless of whether the WHC looks awesome and the WWE belt looks like a gigantic class ring. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that the false equivalency of these two championships makes the entire WWE product slightly ridiculous. It’s an unnecessary crutch, used to inject meaning into feuds that might otherwise have to stand on the strength of storytelling. There are so many ways to get a villain over in pro wrestling. Del Rio has found precisely one of them, and that was beating up his longtime ring announcer, Ricardo Rodriguez — and they’ve even found a way to make that angle wearisome.
It bears mention that Del Rio himself had a run this year as a hero, but that role didn’t take either. The most exciting moments of his career — if fan response is any indication — have been the moments when he switched from bad to good and back again. That’s not just because shocking turns get a reaction, it’s because every turn is a new opportunity for him to succeed, and that’s what the fans want. The jury’s still out on whether that’ll ever happen.
Rookie of the Half-Year: Bray Wyatt
This was a tough call — the past six months have seen the debuts of other intriguing talents, like Curtis Axel (like Wyatt, he’s not a pure rookie, but, due to repackaging, he’s a rookie according to Grantland’s Awards Rules Committee) and, of course, the glorious El Torito, who is hamstrung by his brief run to date.
No other rookie has hit the scene with the intrigue and charisma of Bray Wyatt, who seems to have sprung whole cloth out of a Barry Hannah nightmare and who has introduced Southern Gothic to squared circle consciousness. So far, he has been sequestered off in his own ghoulish feuds, and thus hasn’t interacted with much of the roster, and if he hasn’t been the force that some hoped he would be based on his run in NXT, he’s still been very good, warbling and leering with stunning aptitude for such a youngster. With shocking mobility for his size, his unsettlingly offbeat promos, and the unfathomably creepy upside-down spider walk he recently worked into his repertoire, Wyatt has made an impression in a relatively short span of time. If nothing else, he’s different, which is something WWE needs badly.
Biggest Surprise: Randy Orton
Prior to his ascendance to the top of the card after SummerSlam, Orton seemed like a safe bet to underwhelm for the remainder of his career, even if that career lasted another 20 years. The rap on him was repeated so often it was like the chorus of a hit song: He has all the tools, he has the look and pedigree, and if he just gets his head together he could be the biggest star ever. Halfway through the summer of 2013, it was the chorus of a song that had been so overplayed you never wanted to hear it again. But then came his surprise win at Money in the Bank, and then his dastardly cash-in at SummerSlam and subsequent role as Triple H’s new Face of the WWE. Suddenly, Orton had found his calling — his dullness and entitlement enhanced his villainy, and his underachieving was the screw on which his tenuous relationship with the McMahon clan turned. He was relevant again, and sometimes that’s all fans need.
Biggest Disappointment: Antonio Cesaro
Following on the heels of Punk and Bryan, Cesaro was supposed to be the newest Ring of Honor indie wrestling star to make waves in the big time. Plus, unlike his predecessors, Cesaro (né Claudio Castagnoli) had the size that WWE liked in its stars. But after a strong push in the early going, Cesaro was bumped down the ladder so far that a tea-party caucus tag team with Jack Swagger actually seemed like a promotion. In recent weeks he has been highlighting shows with feats of strength, airplane-spinning gigantic opponents in such impressive ways that the announcers can only giggle in response. In WWE think, this will probably lead to him turning face and feuding with Swagger — and then the company will probably knock him back down the ladder in a month’s time. Like Del Rio, Cesaro has struggled to find a character that resonates. (And unlike Del Rio, Cesaro doesn’t have the categorical backing of the guys in charge.) As a foreign national, his gimmick was too silly and broad; even if it was entertaining, it wasn’t real enough to position him for future success. For some wrestlers, this sort of broad-stroke characterization works; R-Truth and the Great Khali can continue to be who they are for the rest of time, because that’s the best way to use those guys. But with a guy like Cesaro, who has the potential to be so much more, the broad strokes are a burden.
Most Likely to Achieve: Cody Rhodes
If there’s been one bright spot of the past few months aside from the ongoing prevalence of Daniel Bryan, it has been Cody Rhodes. He parlayed a face turn (by virtue of being double-crossed by his old tag-team partner, Damien Sandow) into an antiestablishment beef with the McMahons, who fired him and brought his family — brother Dustin “Goldust” Rhodes and father Dusty Rhodes — into the story line to embarrass the whole family. But the Rhodeses have defied the odds and have beaten the Shield twice in what may have been the most compelling matches in recent memory. This is likely headed toward a Cody-Goldust match at WrestleMania, which has been rumored for a couple years, and which will be great, but what’s really at stake is how high that match gets on the card. Two years ago it would have been buried in the first hour. At the rate the Rhodes drama is going now, it could be a semi-main event. And the big winner will be Cody, who, both in his mustachioed alignment with Sandow and in his recent family reunion, has solidified his future-star status.
Most Likely to Underachieve: The Miz
Wrestling has an ignoble tradition of transitional champions, but no one in recent memory has been a transitional superstar in the way that the Miz has. His ascent to the championship scene a couple years back was the death knell of the PG Era, for lack of a better term — that screwball period when fans were thoroughly unconvinced by the high jinks of one-dimensional Attitude Era wannabes like “Thuganomics“-period John Cena. If you have to give Mike Mizanin one thing, it’s that he set the table for CM Punk to shove wrestling to a much better place. Since then, the Miz hasn’t been able to find a foothold in the Reality Era — rather unsurprising for a guy who learned everything he knows from the boring parts of the Attitude Era. Despite all this, Miz has been constantly present on WWE television, his every appearance met with a loud groan and his greatest moment probably happening when he got massacred by Randy Orton while the Mizanin family watched in horror from the front row. Well, his mom was plenty horrified, but his dad (whose fashion sense is precisely as dated as the Miz’s wrestling persona) seemed to not care at all, which is pretty much where everybody else is with the Miz these days.
Best Moment: The Ending of SummerSlam
Worst Moment: The Ending of Battleground
If the past six months have been defined by the ascent of Daniel Bryan, then no two moments better capture the ecstasy and agony of that journey than the endings of these two pay-per-views. I was at SummerSlam, and I don’t know if I’ve ever felt a crowd react like they did to Bryan’s win that night — and I’ve seen a shocking Hulk Hogan return at Madison Square Garden. Although I appreciate the constrictions under which the WWE creative team is presently toiling, sweating the overabundance of PPV events like a juggler with one too many bowling pins in the air, no moment signified the misery of the schedule — and the potential hopelessness of the Bryan movement — like the end of Battleground. The Big Show climbed through the ropes, knocked out Bryan and his opponent Orton in succession, and was left standing in the ring as the broadcast ended. I was perplexed by the story line, and not in an “I have to tune in tomorrow to see what happens!” sort of way. The newly minted wrestling-fanatic son of my boss, Bill Simmons, went to bed thinking Big Show had won the title. So for WWE’s two main demographics — adoring kids and meta-fans — that was a failure. As an ending of Raw it might have worked; as the ending of a supposedly major event it was a joke. Not only was it a moment of WCW-level indecision, but it subjugated everything good about the main-event story line into a sub-story about Big Show making bad real-estate investments. There are good and bad ways to further a story line, and then there’s an enormous fat guy coming into the ring, punching everybody, and crying.
Feud of the Half-Year: CM Punk–Paul Heyman
As much as I loved Paul Heyman as Punk’s mouthpiece and spirit guide to the dark side, I never would have thought that their split would entertain me for longer than a month or two. Instead, they’ve dragged it out for four months, and with the exception of a fully entertaining match against Curtis Axel at Night of Champions, every moment has seemed as momentous as anything else on the show. It’s as if Punk and Heyman got together and said, “Remember when Jerry Lawler feuded with Jimmy Hart? Or when Andre feuded with the Heenan Family? You know, when feuds could last a year or more? Do you think we could actually pull something like that off today? Do you think we could trick Vince into letting us try?” Their rivalry has been a revelation (I promised myself I’d use that word only once in this column), if for no reason other than that it reminds us what a serious blood feud between a hero and a weaselly manager looks like. All the most believable hatreds of wrestling’s days of yore were months or years in the making, and this has recaptured that. And in the Reality Era, where despite their disagreements wrestlers are consistently tempted to acknowledge their opponents’ skill, Punk has no reason to respect a guy like Heyman when he has been wronged by him. Sometimes a little boundless hatred goes a long way.
Match of the Half-Year: Sami Zayn vs. Antonio Cesaro, NXT, 8-21-13
There are many matches that I loved and could defend here — and going by my bigger-is-better guidelines, I’m tempted to go with several great PPV matches over the past six months: Punk-Jericho at Payback, the Del Rio–Ziggler double turn at Payback, Triple H–Lesnar at Extreme Rules, Lesnar-Punk at SummerSlam, even the Rhodes clan vs. the Shield at Battleground. There were a handful of memorable Raw matches, probably none I enjoyed so much as the Daniel Bryan gauntlet match against Swagger, Cesaro, and Ryback, and, a couple weeks back, Cody Rhodes and Goldust winning the tag title from the Shield.
But I’m going to go off-script and give the coveted Match of the Half-Year nod to a contest that happened in front of a couple hundred people in Orlando, one that wasn’t even televised in the United States (unless you’re one of those kids who consider Hulu to be actual television). It featured Sami Zayn, the little Canuck who got famous in the indie wrestling world as an ironic luchador named El Generico, and Antonio Cesaro, the largely disappointing WWE superstar who came from those same independent environs.
Cesaro was taking a break from his time on the main roster to slum it in NXT — except it’s hard to say you’re slumming it when you’re having matches there that are better than just about anything on Raw. The uppity Zayn ran afoul of Cesaro, and a brief feud ensued, culminating in this best-two-out-of-three-falls match that started with Zayn diving from the ring onto Cesaro, who was on the arena floor, and it only got better from there. If you haven’t watched it, do yourself a favor:
It’s a minor match in almost every way. It’s not on a PPV, the performers aren’t megastars, and it isn’t even very long — barely 15 minutes. But every minute is vital, and every move contributes to the story they’re telling. And aside from the undeniable talent and chemistry of these performers, the story is probably the strongest part of the match — these guys had wrestled a few times before and they had a score to settle, but you didn’t need to know that — everything you needed to know was clear from what was happening in the ring. It’s the platonic ideal of a wrestling match. If you want to show a lapsed wrestling fan what a good match can be, show them this. If you want to give a despondent current fan hope for WWE’s future, show them this.
One of the coolest things about the match is to compare it to the bout Zayn and Cesaro had six years ago in their previous lives as Generico and Castagnoli in ROH. You can actually see them repeating moves and sequences from their previous battle (Zayn’s amazing diving, through-the-ropes tornado DDT is at 1:35), but it’s not just a case of them swiping highlights for reuse in front of a different crowd. Pro wrestling is an adaptive form, and every match that happens is on some level a reference to what has come before. When Zayn and Cesaro went at it in NXT, they weren’t ripping themselves off; it was an allegory of how far they’d come since 2007. Seeing mirrored images from the first match is a wink, an allusion, and a point of comparison. When these guys repeat those sequences at WrestleMania one day, the reverberations will be all the more powerful.
The Other Awards, in Brief
Sixth Man of the Half-Year: Big E Langston
Coach of the Half-Year: Zeb Colter
Defensive Player of the Half-Year: Dolph Ziggler
Most Improved: Damien Sandow
Diva of the Half-Year: AJ Lee
Tag Team of the Half-Year: The Shield (All three of them. Freebird Rules meet the criteria of Grantland awards-giving)
Comeback of the Half-Year: Brock Lesnar (but Goldust made a strong late push)
Whether we’ll see anything particularly moving Sunday at Hell in a Cell is an open question. It’s difficult to balance expectations between the historical excitement that the Cell has housed and the fact that this is the third PPV in six weeks. Despite the trappings, most of it feels rather familiar, with slight additions to liven things up. The Rhodes brothers will continue their feud with the Shield — now in a triple-threat match that also includes the Usos. AJ is still beefing with Brie Bella, which, thanks to sister Nikki’s return from injury, may feature the return of Twin Magic. Curtis Axel vs. Big E Langston is new, but it’ll only feel that way if Langston wins. Alberto Del Rio vs. John Cena isn’t a straight repeat of last month — Cena was out with a triceps injury — but it’s ground we’ve covered many times before. And Punk vs. Ryback and Heyman in the cell is basically an amalgam of Punk’s last two PPV matches with the addition of the steel cage to give the bout an extra air of finality.
In the main event, any sort of finality is unlikely, despite the cage. It’s Bryan vs. Orton, Round 3, with special guest referee Shawn Michaels. Michaels was roped into the match by virtue of his real-life role as Triple H’s buddy and Bryan’s first wrestling teacher. He brings both an air of gravitas and unpredictability — Shawn’s never been shy about superkicking his way to whatever ending he deems appropriate. Judging from his relative do-goodery over the past couple weeks, he seems primed for a heel turn at the expense of his former pupil, but I feel like that’s unlikely. A heel turn by Michaels makes his guest appearance into a story line, and Shawn would likely have to stick around for weeks afterward to play out the yarn. By all accounts, Shawn is happily retired. He doesn’t feed off the pro wrestling spotlight like his pal Hunter does. He has already earned his fair share of awards.