One of the best feuds at this Sunday’s Elimination Chamber pay-per-view doesn’t involve John Cena or Randy Orton, or Daniel Bryan or CM Punk, or even Triple H or Brock Lesnar. It doesn’t involve a title belt or a steel cage or the interdiction of Vince McMahon. It doesn’t even involve a wrestler casual fans are likely to recognize. It’s a minor match between two former tag-team partners who are notable mostly because one of them came out of the closet last summer. It’s Titus O’Neil versus Darren Young, the erstwhile Prime Time Players, who came to loggerheads when O’Neil attacked his partner after a loss on the January 31 episode of Smackdown. O’Neil explained that he did it — as has been the wont of so many heel-turning taggers of yore — because Young was holding him back from the success he deserves.
If that sounds old-school to you, well, it is. The card for Elimination Chamber isn’t earth-shattering, but every match is exciting because it evokes memories of wrestling’s glory days. Fine, few fans will buy Elimination Chamber just to see Titus bark. But that’s just one example of this card’s virtues. WWE’s biggest show of the year, WrestleMania, is six weeks away, but this Sunday’s event — which is often a formality on the road to a predetermined Mania card — suddenly looks like the most compelling show, top to bottom, the company has put on in years. And it’s accomplished this without innovating or shocking the viewer or breaking the fourth wall. WWE has made Elimination Chamber great by going back to the basics and committing to some simple wrestling truisms. “We’re more than just a team,” Young said, mouth bloodied and almost in tears, when O’Neil turned on him. “We’re like brothers.” It’s a line we’ve heard a hundred times before, and it always works. It’s like WWE found a moldering 1985 “How to Be a Pro Wrestling Promoter” pamphlet in its props warehouse and figured out what it’s been missing. Let’s revisit a few of these classic wrestling tenets.
1. “I Used to Love You, But I Have to Kill You”
After he was laid out by O’Neil, Young responded by attacking his newly obnoxious old pal backstage. Meanwhile, O’Neil proved his future-star bona fides in a squash match against Zack Ryder and a series of waggish backstage self-interviews. O’Neil and Young are old buddies who hate each other now, and they both have something to prove. Young wants to show that he’s more than an albatross, and O’Neil wants to establish that he’s not the “loser” he’s been as part of the Players for the past two years.
It’s not fancy and it’s certainly not novel, but in the modern WWE, splits like this are too often hurried and cast aside. They’re treated like last-second moves, emergency call-ups aimed at rushing the dominant partner into the main event. WWE’s goal is obviously to elevate O’Neil, the former Florida football letterman,1 but it seems intent (for a change) on not diminishing Young in the process. O’Neil versus Young on Sunday might not even be a particularly good match, and it won’t be the main event. But that’s the point. It’s a lower-midcard match that follows a solid, traditional game plan, with a narrative that has had time to develop on television.2 WWE has done the legwork to make fans care about a match that might otherwise serve as a bathroom break, and it has worked. Fans are excited about O’Neil’s future and they want to see the match. So what if the outcome seems predetermined? The ride has been fun, and even if the payoff doesn’t feel that important, at least it’ll feel worthwhile.
2. The Everlasting Allure of the Donnybrook
And president of the UF student body!
Much of it has happened on Smackdown instead of Raw, but hey, that’s not nothing.
The main event on Sunday is the titular Elimination Chamber match — a special six-man steel cage with four plexiglass pods. Two guys start the match and another is released from a pod every five minutes. The show is being promoted with video packages that promise brutality — faces raked across steel chains, bodies dropped onto slatted steel floors. But even as competitors are being bloodied, one can’t help but feel worse for the wrestlers stuck in the pods — nearly naked and oiled up in a claustrophobic space, forced to stay in character on the off chance they’re caught in the camera crossfire. I keep waiting for one of them to bring a magazine to read while they wait — now that would be a heel move. It’s a good frame for a brawl, even if it often does little to advance the larger WWE narrative. So what if the match is just WrestleMania antipasto? A lot of us like mortadella.
In recent years, the Elimination Chamber match has lacked drama because its outcome was seen as a foregone conclusion. With the upcoming Mania card likely to feature the existing champ versus the winner of the Royal Rumble, viewers could predict who would emerge victorious from the chamber. This year, however, everything is in flux. The rumored Mania main event — champ Randy Orton versus Rumble winner Batista — has been met with loud disapproval from the fans, and WWE could still choose to yank it. With the disappearance of CM Punk and the never-ending insurgence of Daniel Bryan, the WrestleMania card is more subject to change than ever, and so everybody in the chamber feels like they have a credible shot. WWE has done everything imaginable to make Cesaro (formerly Antonio Cesaro, Swiss-Italian American nationalist, now a one-named badass in the mold of the Undertaker or the Rock or, ahem, Doink) look like a legit threat, including having him defeat Orton in a great nontitle match and lose valiantly to John Cena in a potential match-of-the-year epic on Monday’s episode of Raw. The announcers gush about his strength and ability constantly, just like they used to do back in 1985 when a new star was being ushered into the main event fold. Daniel Bryan could be inserted into the Mania main event by winning, as could Sheamus if one imagines him taking his rightful place3 as the Authority’s anointed Face of the Company.™ You don’t even have to make up a story line to put the title back on John Cena — that’s perpetually sitting there as option 1a. And even Christian, that poor doormat, has a rational case — he’s been made to look the weakest of the Elimination Chamber contenders, which could be indicative of a surprise win, and he flashed a new mean streak in a losing effort to Daniel Bryan on Monday. Are they great odds? No. But they’re compelling ones.
Since he’s a real-life Triple H pal.
Aside from there being an element of genuine uncertainty in the Elimination Chamber match, it’s also already made for good TV, thanks to the spectacle of six wrestlers working each other in various combinations in the weeks of buildup and a multitude of mini story lines inherent in that. Monday’s Raw ended with a Pier 6 brawl — everybody slugging away at one another in a moment of pure scripted chaos — and one of the few get-up-off-the-sofa-and-cheer moments in recent memory. Elimination Chamber is promising donnybrook endings, an up-and-coming star, a clash-of-the-titans vibe, and an unpredictable outcome. It doesn’t get much better than that.
3. Have Your Top Heel Show Ass
“Showing ass” is wrestling-ese for being willing to look bad to make your competition look better. In the buildup to the Chamber, WWE World Heavyweight champ Randy Orton has looked terrible — and not in the “It’s terrible that he’s on my screen” way. He has been forced to wrestle all his Chamber opponents in one-on-one matches, and he lost to Bryan, Cesaro, Cena, and Sheamus (by disqualification). His whininess has been at an all-time high. Orton remains the clear-cut favorite at Elimination Chamber, but he’ll win only with the help of the Authority. An egocentric heel who talks big and then loses embarrassingly to his upcoming competition, only to be bailed out in the big match by his running buddies? Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
4. Team vs. Team > Man vs. Man
The semi-main event features the Shield taking on the Wyatt Family — two trios who are incredibly popular, considering they’re both members of WWE’s bad-guy contingent. Nevertheless, they occupy opposite ends of the heel spectrum: The Shield is a calculating posse of paramilitary hired guns, wherein each wrestler has a distinct personality; the Wyatts are a cult featuring a charismatic preacher and his two Frankenstein’s monster apostles. Four of the six guys in this match (no offense to the aforementioned Frankensteins) could be headlining WrestleMania for the next decade. There’s something intrinsically riveting about this kind of gang warfare. That’s why the crowd goes nuts every time the two factions go chest to chest. Sure, the WWF’s Gang Warfare era didn’t amount to much, and for every crew that ends up being the Four Horsemen, there’s a half dozen Dudes With Attitudes. But when a posse catches on with fans, and when WWE is lucky enough to have two of them, the payoff can be enormous. That’s how the Von Erichs and the Freebirds became legends, and that’s what makes WarGames a wrestling fan’s wet dream to this day. Put two teams at odds, and suddenly the stakes seem so much higher.
5. The Best Way to Build New Stars Is With Old Ones
Cesaro isn’t the only performer getting spit-shined by proximity to legends. The tag-team titles are currently held by the New Age Outlaws, who had their heyday before most of John Cena’s fans were conceived. On some level, it’s a gimmick — they’re Triple H’s buddies, so the story goes, so they’re getting undeserved opportunities. But venerable as they may be, they can really go, and their carryover stardom from the Attitude Era has brought more wattage to the WWE tag division than it’s seen in ages. That additional spotlight is of particular value to their Elimination Chamber opponents, the Usos, twin brothers from a legendary family tree of Samoan wrestlers who are talented and charismatic and, up till now, completely unable to capitalize on their abilities. Sharing the ring with the Outlaws should bump the Usos’ relevance, something other tag teams haven’t been able to do. I still think one of the twins should shave his head and get fat to give the team some variety, but even without that, they’re on the right track.
6. Let Managers Do the Talking
WWE has tried over and again to find a conceit that works for Cesaro. They’ve inexplicably added and subtracted berets, knee pads, multilingualism, and yodeling to and from his ensemble, and nothing worked. Cesaro finally found his voice by allowing someone else — Zeb Colter, the tea party rabble-rouser — speak for him. Despite Cesaro’s foreignness,4 Colter recruited him to team with all-American Jack Swagger and, just as Colter had already done with Swagger, made Cesaro relevant with unhinged rants about the poison of illegal immigration while instructing his protégé to artfully maim people. It wasn’t exactly Bobby Heenan–level god-making, but it was entertaining, and it left the wrestlers to wrestle. Away from the spotlight, Cesaro fine-tuned his ring performance, adding moves like the Giant Swing, which may be the most universally beloved finisher since the Stone Cold Stunner.
Cesaro is a Swiss of Italian heritage, in character and in real life (his real name, which he used on the indies, is Claudio Castagnoli) and his WWE persona has been portrayed in as foreign a manner as possible for a white wrestler.
While Cesaro is in the main event, Swagger is getting a courtesy appearance against Intercontinental champ Big E. The entirety of said feud consists of affronts lofted at E by Zeb Coulter.5 Managers like Heenan used to have a big role in pro wrestling, especially in the early days of the WWF, but not so much anymore. Most of the complaints lodged about WWE’s star-making machine can be distilled to the front office’s perceived overemphasis on breeding the next Rock. If somebody doesn’t have the Superman physique or the gift of gab, the WWE brass gets uninterested in a hurry. In the ’80s, managers made marble-mouthed monoliths into mythological beasts. Even if that model is less effective than it used to be, managers are still valuable. A character like Colter can do the talking while his ward finds his own voice.
7. Never Mind, Just Let Everybody Talk
I don’t particularly mind the unnaming of Cesaro and Big E, who used to have the last name “Langston,” except that it makes them much more repetitive to write about.
Perhaps due to an increasing desire to streamline the product around megastars, WWE has functionally eliminated the art of cutting a promo from all but the uppermost echelon of its programming. Shows often start and end with a main-eventer or two talking tough in the ring, but the rest of the story lines are left to work themselves out in the ring, goosed along halfheartedly by announcers who are mostly preoccupied with pimping the latest WWE Studios film. In the buildup to Elimination Chamber, however, it seems everybody has found a voice. Bray Wyatt sprang onto the scene a fully ripe evangelist, a breathtaking speaker with all the pathos of Jake Roberts in his prime. And set against him, the Shield has evolved from pretaped pithy threats (and even pithier grunts) to fully considered paragraphs. Road Dogg of the New Age Outlaws and Jimmy Uso sat in on ringside commentary while their partners squared off and brought a real-life intensity to their contest. Monday’s episode of Raw started with all the Elimination Chamber contestants comparing their credentials — a familiar presentation that feels tired in a one-on-one beef but which is a fun game of one-upmanship in a bigger group. As mentioned, O’Neil has gotten more mic time to advance his curtain-jerking feud than anyone else I can remember.
Wrestling fans recall the days of the Jim Crockett—territory NWA with veneration even though that promotion featured more talking than wrestling. Ric Flair could come to the announcers’ desk and rant about all the good guys in the locker room — all the worthy opponents he’d be facing in whatever town over the next month — and then he’d underscore it by beating up a jobber. The win in the ring didn’t matter as much as the spittle-laced hatred Flair had for his future opponents. During the Monday-Night Wars, squash matches were junked in an effort to boost ratings, but sadly, the expository promos largely went along with them. If promos are back for good, that’s a good thing.
7. Hide Your Weaknesses
After winning the Royal Rumble, Batista — semi-triumphant returnee from a half-assed career flexing in Hollywood — is set to main-event Mania. Except nobody really wants to see him do that. As it has done repeatedly over the course of Batista’s career, WWE mistook him for the Rock, while the rest of us mistook him for a Jersey Shore retread in a midlife crisis. But despite his place in the biggest match of the year — not to mention his match Sunday against Alberto Del Rio — I’m not entirely convinced he’s still employed by WWE. His total airtime Monday amounted to turning up in a backstage segment and calling Randy Orton an ass. Sure, with the title shot in the back pocket of his Ed Hardy jeans, there’s no place for him in the Chamber, but it’s shocking how far he’s fallen since his return a month ago. And just like the 1985 monster heel du jour no-selling moves, that’s a good thing. Until WWE figures out how to make fans excited about Batista, the company is better off keeping him on the sideline.6
I will say this for Big Dave, though: The trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy looks magnificent.
Or until next week, anyway, when WWE will launch into full-on WrestleMania mode. Who knows if the build to Elimination Chamber means they’re learning lessons by keeping things simple, or if on Monday they’ll toss the 1985 guidebook back into the vault and revert to shoving Orton and Batista down our throats? I mean, come on, it’s not 2005 anymore.