Sunday night, at the end of a mostly exciting Royal Rumble match, the clock announced the arrival of the 30th entrant. The crowd chanted along with the countdown as they’d done 27 other times that night. Anticipation was high. When the clock hit 00:00, the loudspeakers blared the opening bars of P.O.D.’s “Booyaka 619,” and wrestling fans worldwide groaned. It wasn’t that it signaled the arrival of Rey Mysterio — it wasn’t just that, anyway — but rather that it wasn’t Daniel Bryan.
[Editor’s note: CM Punk apparently quit WWE on Monday during Raw. For more on the story, listen to today’s Cheap Heat podcast and check the Triangle tomorrow for more from the Masked Man.]
I probably don’t need to go over this again, after the slow march of the previous six months. Daniel Bryan — undersize, pale, and wizard-bearded, with a goofy grin in place of the standard-issue scowl — has emerged as WWE’s unlikely megastar. Fans have been lauding his ascent all along the way, chanting his name and his famous “Yes!” chant in an intensity and volume proportionately inverse to the attention he seems to be getting from the WWE creative team.
It’s nothing against Rey. OK, it’s something against Rey. He’s a bad-kneed shadow of his former self. He has transitioned from an innovative aerialist and trailblazer for peewee wrestlers in the big leagues to a hackneyed series of crowd-popping special moves that he delivers while wearing an early-’90s TLC outfit. The more mindful fans might have figured out Bryan was getting the kibosh when Erick Rowan entered the match at no. 25, because there were only five more slots, and five of the announced participants — Ryback, Alberto Del Rio, Batista, Big E Langston, and Mysterio — had yet to enter. There was no more room for surprise. But for those of us who weren’t keeping count and for all the fans who’d reserved hope for a twist, Rey was the death knell of our building excitement and “Booyaka” was the funeral dirge for the night. The live crowd in Pittsburgh booed. Loudly.
It’s sad that Mysterio got booed, being that he’s one of Bryan’s WWE forerunners. It was eight years ago that Mysterio was an unlikely WrestleMania victor when he won the World Heavyweight Championship in a three-way match against Kurt Angle and Randy Orton, a huge win for real-life underdogs in the pro wrestling world. With his luchador style and cartoon persona, Rey had long been a favorite of kids and meta-fans alike. Like Chris Jericho and Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit before him, he was presumed to be a nonstarter on the list of potential champions in the size-obsessed WWF. But even in defying those odds, he lent truth to them. He was frequently out with injury, his frame not up to the demands of battling heavyweights, and his one run with the WWE Championship lasted only a few hours, as he lost it to John Cena the same night he won it. It’s clear WWE values Mysterio as a special attraction, a merchandise dealer and ambassador to its Latin American fans, but not as the guy.
Which brings us back to Bryan. Since he beat Cena for the belt at SummerSlam only to have it stolen moments later by Randy Orton, the reasons for his months-long purgatory have been a cause for debate. It’s either because WWE doesn’t see Bryan as a top-tier star — or at least not as the guy to build your company around — or it’s because they do, and they’re just mining his journey to the top for all it’s worth, because, as they say, the hunt is more exciting than the kill. Or, obviously, it could be both — that they’re just stringing the crowd along for an ending they have no intention of fulfilling. It’s also possible that WWE is just blindly groping its way through unfamiliar terrain in the dark.
After Monday night, the evidence points toward the last theory. According to numerous reports, following the debacle in Pittsburgh, Vince McMahon himself scrapped the script for Monday’s Raw and demanded a last-minute rewrite. Now, it should be said that this isn’t unheard of — the script is usually finalized by the WWE writers on Friday or Saturday, but Vince and his team always review and make changes (sometimes wholesale ones) on the day of the show. But this was an extraordinary event because (1) the post-pay-per-view Raw is a formal epilogue (and, increasingly, a second act) to the previous night’s event, and as such it tends to be more planned than normal episodes, and (2) the rewrite was so late. There wasn’t a script in the hours before showtime, when such functional things as music cues and camera angles are usually being fine-tuned for the live broadcast.
Bryan opened the show, but little seemed to have changed. Well, to be clear, Triple H and Stephanie — the reigning power couple in WWE — were first out of the curtain, strolling to the ring in a cutesy embrace and smirking defiantly at the audience. “Awwww,” Trips said in an ironic baby voice, responding to the Daniel Bryan chants, “did somebody not get what they wanted?” Bryan came out, led the crowd in another eardrum-shattering sing-along, and made his case for being in next month’s six-man Elimination Chamber match for Randy Orton’s WWE Championship. He got attacked by the Shield for his efforts.
It really shouldn’t be said that fans didn’t get what they wanted. The Rumble was largely a success. From my vantage point — a Manhattan bar crammed wall-to-wall with 250 fans — the show seemed like a huge hit until Rey appeared. Bryan’s match early in the night against Bray Wyatt was spectacular; Brock Lesnar brutalizing the Big Show with a chair was mercifully short and, well, brutal; the tag-team championship match between the Rhodes Brothers and the New Age Outlaws was perfectly good fun. Even the Cena-Orton championship match was better than expected and it had a strong ending. In the rowdy bar, we couldn’t hear the Pittsburgh crowd booing loudly (and cruelly) throughout the match. The Rumble itself was really well done — CM Punk and Seth Rollins, both impressive performers, started the match and carried much of it, lasting nearly 50 minutes apiece. The debut of Alexander Rusev from the developmental squad was well done, and the surprise appearance of El Torito — the bull-costumed little-person mascot of the tag team Los Matadores — as an entrant was exuberant. Kofi Kingston’s annual feat of shocking dexterity was all its legend could have predicted; after being tossed from the ring and dumped on to the ringside railing by Rusev, he somehow jumped 15 feet back into the ring. Just watch it.
Even the brief appearances of towering forces like Kane, Diesel, and the Great Khali were handled deftly — even metaphorically: They’re throwbacks to the era of stiff-legged giants, now inept in a world of more dynamic mortals. Roman Reigns was the star of the match, clearly, breaking the record for eliminations and generally looking like the future champion he surely is.
But even the exuberant bar crowd hung our heads when we realized Bryan wasn’t coming out. It wasn’t misplaced hope. Planning Bryan’s match so early in the card, coupled with the way WWE went out of its way not to discuss his status for the Rumble match, made his inclusion seem possible. Perhaps even likely. It’s beyond me why they wouldn’t send him in just to appease the crowd, even if he got dumped out or waylaid on the way to the ring. His noninclusion could have been turned into the story line; instead, his absence hung over the proceedings. You’d think WWE would have foreseen this. That WWE would be surprised by the crowd’s disappointment, after fans have spent the past several months rallying behind Bryan, is mind-boggling.
The match ended in similarly mind-boggling fashion, with Reigns facing off against the newly returned Batista, the latter emerging as a victorious hero despite being booed mercilessly by the crowd for his ring rust, his skinny jeans, his Botox, his nose ring, and for being forced down our throats. The moral victor of the night was Reigns, whom fans preferred to Batista even though he’s nominally a villain. Why not have Bryan run in at no. 29 and have Reigns eliminate him? Reigns could have used some boos, all things considered.
So, who’s getting the boos in all this? That’s the important question. Crowd passion is counterbalanced by discontent, and if it isn’t channeled, discontent can be dangerous. I continue to believe the cries of Daniel Bryan being “buried” are overblown, but as fun as his feud with Wyatt has been, that story hasn’t been a sufficient outlet for the crowd’s angst. They love Wyatt too much, for one thing. WWE has kept Bryan as far away from Randy Orton as possible as the unified champ focuses on Cena and, presumably, Batista next. So the heat falls on Triple H, the onscreen kingpin and backstage power broker.
In theory, this could work. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s feud with owner Vince McMahon lasted years and defined an era. But Vince was ritually humiliated at Austin’s hands, and Triple H doesn’t seem as inclined to “show ass” as his father-in-law. (Triple H was rumored on Sunday to be heading toward a WrestleMania match with CM Punk, forestalling him from the big-stage payoff his treatment of Bryan seems to warrant, but with word of Punk’s departure, that’s obviously in flux.)
Triple H has always styled himself after Ric Flair, and perhaps not coincidentally, the best comparison for Bryan is Dusty Rhodes, who battled endlessly against the evil empire of Flair and the Four Horsemen. Wrestling fans remember the feud fondly, but it’s worth noting there wasn’t much in the way of payoff for Rhodes’s fans. Chase and kill and all that. He beat Ric Flair at an untelevised show in June 1981 and held on to the strap for three months, then had a series of “Dusty Finish” almost-but-not-quite-victories. He beat Flair again for the belt during the Great American Bash tour in July 1986 and lost it two weeks later — a functional non-reign in Territorial Era terms. And yet, what we remember so fondly — or most viscerally — about that feud was the Horsemen breaking Dusty’s leg in Atlanta, or them jumping him in the parking lot and taking a baseball bat to his arm.
For Rhodes to endure that sort of dishonor and not enjoy a lengthy championship reign at the end would today be considered humiliating by a portion of the modern fan base. (You can imagine modern message boards complaining that Dusty is being buried, even though Dusty was booking the show.) In the modern era, “He’s getting buried” is too often interchangeable with “I’m outraged,” which was exactly the response Dusty and Flair were hoping to elicit back in the day. And whether or not WWE sees Bryan as a champion, and no matter how wrongheaded their approach has sometimes been, they appear to be attempting a Dusty-style run with Bryan.
You could forgive WWE for thinking it has found the formula to Bryan’s success. Bryan’s ascent to his status as meta-fan darling began at WrestleMania 28, when he was defeated in 18 seconds by Sheamus. Fans nearly revolted over what they considered WWE’s ignoble treatment of Bryan. And, if last week’s rumors are true, that treatment will continue as Bryan wrestles that same Irishman at WrestleMania 30 this year. Wait, you’re saying, didn’t you predict Bryan would face the Undertaker at ’Mania? I did, but perhaps my excitement was misplaced. The recent rumors that Taker will fight Lesnar at ’Mania are true, insomuch as they’re legitimately the plan at this point. (Punk’s departure certainly throws everything into disarray. Card is subject to change, as they say.) Presumably, the plan is for Sheamus, fresh off his return and basking in cheers from the crowd, to boot Bryan’s head in the Elimination Chamber and set them back opposite one another. A longish match in the middle of the show will be a promotion from two years ago, but not much of one.
WWE may have myriad reasons for not including Bryan at the top of the card. There’s evidence that his effect on TV ratings is insignificant and his live-show numbers are equally unimpressive. (For nontelevised events, fans split into two troupes, with Cena supporters in one and Bryan and Punk devotees in the other, and the Cena group does better ticket sales.) But I suspect WWE’s traditional measures of popularity aren’t as solid as they once were, and these measures probably fail to grasp the power of an Internet darling like Bryan. This seems especially true in the upcoming era of the WWE Network. Fans no longer flip the channel to Raw when it gets exciting — they watch it the next day if the show generates online buzz. They seek out YouTube videos like this. Why WWE would choose to take Bryan from one of the most amazing moments in recent Raw memory to a midcard match against Sheamus at ’Mania is mind-boggling. On Monday night, Stephanie accused Bryan of having a “myopic” point of view. You can read all the irony that you want into her statement.
So, highbrow wrestling fans, I apologize if this is all a little unsettling. I apologize for raising your hopes. Consider this my meta culpa. Maybe they’ll keep rewriting like they did on Monday afternoon and edit Bryan into the main event. Maybe they’ll give him the belt a month or two later, and the kill will be all the sweeter for the chase. And it’s not like there aren’t other things to love while we wait: Roman Reigns, Rusev, and Torito spring to mind. But the feeling is hard to shake, the same feeling I had on Sunday when Rey came out: I should have known it was Rey and there was only one entrant left. I should have known better.
After Bryan’s 18-second loss at WrestleMania 28, and after the past six months as the “Yes!” chants have gotten louder and louder despite his continued “burial,” it’s almost too easy to say that Bryan wins by losing. But it’s undeniable he was the star of the Rumble even as he was icing his knees backstage. If he ends up facing Sheamus again at WrestleMania 30, it’ll be a letdown. But will it be a step backward? Even if he ends up in the ring with Triple H, there’s no guarantee it’ll end the way we want. The meta-fan’s greatest fear is that WWE is right: The only way for Daniel Bryan to lose is for him to win.