I remember the night of CM Punk’s pipe bomb with crystal clarity. I was sitting on my couch, half-asleep, and then suddenly Punk started worked-shooting and I was literally on the edge of my seat. What had I just seen? Was that as big a deal as I thought it was? It was only when Bill Simmons emailed me five minutes later and said we had to have a piece about it on Grantland the next day that I began to process how special it was. The closing segment of this Monday’s Raw was possibly the best segment — certainly the best non-wrestling segment — WWE has done since the pipe bomb. It’s definitely the first time since then that I didn’t know what to make of what I’d just seen, let alone what was going to happen next.
I rarely do recaps. Hell, sometimes it seems like I rarely even deal in concrete specifics about wrestling. But occasionally something happens that needs to be recounted in detail. For any wrestling fans out there who lost the trail somewhere in the past few months of uninspired, repetitive storytelling and innumerable pay-per-view events, here’s your jumping-back-on point.
When we return from commercial, Triple H and Stephanie McMahon are in the ring with all the former WWE and World champions — including Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart, and Mick Foley,1 who were on hand to give out statuettes for the annual Slammy Awards ceremony. Triple H is hyping the main event for Sunday’s TLC: Tables, Ladders, & Chairs pay-per-view, a champion-versus-champion match between WWE belt-holder Randy Orton and World Heavyweight champ John Cena that had been hastily assembled after the near-universal yawn elicited by the Orton–Big Show main event at Survivor Series. “Hyping,” I should say, is actually a huge understatement. He was mythologizing. Trips seems oddly disinclined to use the word “unification” — spoiler alert? — but he’s not afraid to paint Cena-Orton as something between Ali-Frazier and Deep Impact.
“All of you have etched your place in history,” he tells the former champions, and then says some other stuff that you can’t even hear because the whole crowd erupts into two minutes of “Daniel Bryan! Daniel Bryan!” Bryan stands to the side in the ring and laughs sheepishly. Michaels, Triple H’s old buddy and sometime enforcer, signals for the crowd to pipe down. The fans assent, then immediately launch into Bryan’s catchphrase, which has become the antiestablishment chant du jour: “YES! YES! YES!” Earlier in the night, the “YES!” chant won the Slammy for Best Fan Participation,2 and deservedly so. Nothing has transformed the pro wrestling world more over the past year and a half than that chant. And unlike some other timeless chants — Steve Austin’s “What?” comes to mind — “Yes!” isn’t a gag. It’s a statement of purpose, and it’s catchy as hell.
Triple H stares at the crowd wearily and waits them out. “That’s a lot of family for one building, Daniel,” he snarks. It’s worth noting that we’re in Seattle, and Bryan is from Aberdeen, Washington. But this is more than a hometown crowd — it’s the apogee of every live crowd since Bryan got (story line) screwed out of the title at SummerSlam and (real-life) screwed out of a main-event spot by a wrongheaded WWE. It’s the distillation of every die-hard WWE fan’s angst.
Trips describes Sunday’s big match. It’s “an epic moment in history,” “a game-changing moment in history,” “a quest to become immortal.” Announcer Michael Cole calls it “the most important match in the history of sports entertainment” as Orton and Cena make their way to the ring. Of course, since WWE invented “sports entertainment,” then the biggest match in its history is whatever it says it is. That’s modern WWE in a nutshell — it makes the rules, it writes the history, and its hype is your reality. “This is history in the making,” says color man John Bradshaw Layfield, and we all might as well believe him. To do otherwise is to deny reality.
“Two great champions will compete, but only one champion will leave,” says Triple H, which, if I remember Beyond Thunderdome correctly, is bad news for one of these guys. “For one of you, it’s the last time you will be known as champion,” he continues, which can’t be true, but wow, it sounds cool, and I can’t speak for every fan but suddenly I’m starting to give myself over to the mythologizing.
“What an incredible moment here, ladies and gentlemen,” says Cole. “This is the final time ever in the history of Monday-night Raw that you will see both the World title and the WWE title in the same ring. There will be one champion, there will be one title come Sunday.” This is odd, considering that WWE didn’t seem to be headed in this direction a few weeks ago. When Cena confronted Orton at the end of Survivor Series, it felt like a tacked-on Easter egg, like somebody in Stamford broke the glass and pulled the emergency change-of-direction lever. But it didn’t feel right for a title unification, and not simply because WWE refused to call it a unification. Triple H talked around it with incredible verbal gymnastics, describing a plan to hang both belts above the ring and only vaguely contemplating the match’s ending. It seemed painfully obvious that they were foreshadowing the one ending no fan wanted to see — each man grabbing a different belt as the bell rung — an overcomplicated belt swap with Cena reclaiming his WWE championship and Orton the WHC.
But no! (Or maybe not!) Triple H gave a rambling interview on the website afterward in which he clarified the unification plans, even if WWE seemed to be test-marketing the idea on the web. The real reason why it felt like this wasn’t a real unification is because one would assume that if they were really going to do it, they would spend more than three weeks hyping it. This is John Cena and Randy Orton, the two WWE-approved faces of the company. Although many fans were sick of them, it would be hard to suggest two more appropriate wrestlers for a unification match to determine the WWE’s ultimate company man. But if that was WWE’s plan, why the rush? Couldn’t it hold off at least until the Royal Rumble and tease everybody into a frenzy?
Of course, the hype could all be misdirection. As we’ve seen in recent months, just because it’s happening on a PPV doesn’t mean there will be finality. No matter how loudly WWE hypes something, it can always find an excuse to drag out the story line for a month or two or all the way to WrestleMania. It should have built to the unification better. It should have given this a few months to develop. Which means this is either a slapdash rewrite that has turned out well — an accidentally awesome redirection — or this is the company’s idea of building up to the unification and the story line will find a way to drag on for ages. If there’s anything we’ve learned of late, it’s that WWE isn’t shy about using non-finishes to prolong the plot.
Back to the show. Randy Orton is ranting about something, but the crowd drowns him out with a “Bo-ring!” chant that feels like a lifetime achievement award for a decade of Orton’s unpersuasive promos. “The most important match in the history of the WWE,” he says. “I am the greatest superstar of this generation or any other!” he screams. “You suck!” responds the crowd. Over Orton’s shoulder, CM Punk channels everybody watching at home as he covers his mouth to muffle a laugh. So far, Punk’s been a bystander in this segment, staring absently at the ceiling like a kid in detention and rolling his eyes broadly when Stephanie refers to Triple H as one of the greatest champions in the history of WWE. It’s hard to fault him for his insouciance — Hart and Foley can just be out there remembering their glory days, but for Punk to be acknowledged as a former champion when, you know, he probably would rather be champion right now can’t be the most fun. To be window dressing for a Cena-Orton bro-off isn’t anybody’s idea of a good day at work.
Cena takes over and does the smartest thing he can to diffuse the crowd: He brings Daniel Bryan out of the mob. He interviews him like a newsman doing a man-on-the-street bit, and Bryan’s answers only rile the crowd further. “My name is Daniel Bryan.” Crowd cheer level: 8. “I’m from Aberdeen, Washington.” Crowd cheer level: 10. “My dad’s a log scaler.” Crowd cheer level: 11.
The point being that his dad wasn’t a WWF mainstay like Orton’s was. The point being that Orton has been given his career on a silver platter, that he has been sheltered by Triple H and Stephanie the whole way along, and that his recent anointing as the corporate-approved champion wasn’t new at all — it was the icing on a career full of unearned opportunities. It’s all perfect because it’s true. It’s the first time in his career Orton has been interesting, and that’s because he’s playing himself — or whatever the fans suspect his true self might be. Over the past month or two, Orton has started to doubt the McMahons’ affection, and he has been deliciously inept at conniving his way back into their hearts — reinforcing the widespread presumption that young Randall is kinda dim. I have to say, this is the best Orton has ever been.
Cena turns his attention to Orton: “You’ve had behavioral problems in the ring. You’ve had behavioral problems outside the ring!” True and true! But even steeped as he is in these fourth-wall-blurring snaps, Cena’s not immune to the mythmaking. “The TLC match this Sunday is the biggest in WWE history.”
Cena finishes with Orton and sets about polishing his own credentials, which he does in the best possible way. He doesn’t list championship reigns or WrestleMania main events. The Seattle crowd doesn’t care about that stuff. That’s story line fodder, not reality. Instead, Cena rattles off the list of meta-fan favorites that he’s given the rub to. “Nobody wanted to give Dolph Ziggler a chance,” he says. “What’d I do? I said, ‘Let’s fight.’ Everybody said it was a bad idea to give CM Punk a championship match when he was gonna leave the WWE. All I saw was the best in the world. Hell, the only legitimate title shot Daniel Bryan ever got was against me — and he won!” The crowd goes wild.
It’s unclear here if Cena is talking about what happened on TV or what happened backstage, but that’s the point. Cena will never have a pipe bomb promo because he’s not that kind of guy and he’s not that interesting. What he can tell the truth about is being a good company man who has his finger on the pulse of the fan base. He’s screaming at Orton, but he’s really auditioning for Triple H’s job. Cena has kept himself relevant in recent years by co-opting the angles that the crowd has tried to force on WWE. (Too bad Zack Ryder couldn’t make it tonight so Cena could talk about the time Ryder was Internet-popular and they were suddenly best friends.) But co-opting is a two-way street. He got the smark rub from wrestlers like Bryan, but he also helped turn them into stars. After all that, though, Cena still regularly got booed — but not tonight … Suddenly, he cut maybe the best promo of his career because he realized the only way he could play the unabashed hero was to be more than just himself. He’s the guy who makes your favorite wrestlers matter.
Here’s where it gets really good. Cena and Orton shake hands to seal the deal, and Orton sucker punches Cena (although “sucker punch” is maybe not the best word in a situation where somebody gets punched 98 percent of the time), and the two start brawling, and then all the ex-champions try to break them up. They’re pulled apart and then all hell breaks loose. Orton shoves Punk and Punk starts whaling on Orton. Triple H yanks Punk off Orton and screams at Orton for ruining his handshake ceremony, and then Punk gets back up and punches Triple H, which is both wonderful and weird because these guys have been noticeably separated by an invisible force field ever since Trips turned heel at SummerSlam (and Punk was sidelined in a handicap match against all three members of the Shield at TLC), but it makes total sense because they don’t like each other and should probably punch each other from time to time. Shawn Michaels comes to his pal’s defense by superkicking Punk, and then Bryan responds by doing his running knee thing on Michaels, exacting revenge for Michaels costing him the title at Hell in a Cell.3 This is like an orgy of continuity. Then Orton goes for an RKO on Bryan — who, for his part, isn’t feuding with either of these guys at the moment; he’s in a handicap match of his own at TLC against the Wyatt Family. Bryan blocks the RKO and shoves Orton into innocent bystander Stephanie McMahon, who goes down hard. Triple H runs over to check on his wife, and when Orton stumbles over, showing remorse, Triple H hits him with a Pedigree and leaves him lying. The crowd goes wild, but they’re not strictly cheering Triple H — they’re loving the chaos.
In the old days, the WWF’s Tuesday Night Titans used to have a motto that went “Where anything can happen and it usually does.”4 In the WWF’s modern heyday, the Attitude Era, anything really could happen — wrestlers were hopping back and forth between the WWF and WCW in a real-time arms race, boundaries were being pushed further by the minute in a mad dash for ratings, and the fourth wall was a weekly casualty. That same rule- and expectation-breaking creativity is what made Punk’s pipe bomb so compelling. On Monday’s Raw, WWE found an ending that was as compelling as the pipe bomb, but it was actually within the context of a pro wrestling angle. This wasn’t reality for reality’s sake. This was utter chaos, which is how actual reality works.
As Randy Orton recovers from the Pedigree, he looks up to see Triple H and a wobbly Stephanie (and their right-hand man, Kane, who’s there as part of the night’s parade of champions) staring down at him with contempt. Next to them, shaking his head in disappointment, is none other than John Cena. The crowd is chanting loudly now: “Daniel Bryan!” but Bryan’s long gone. Mah gawd, that’s foreshadowing’s music! I’ve long argued that Cena will probably never turn heel, that he functions as a heel now more than he would if he actually had a New World Order moment. But Cena playing the authority-approved face of the WWE, whether he wants the mantle or not? That’s interesting. Orton clawing to maintain his role as the entitled cipher with a fragile ego? That’s not bad. Punk and Bryan’s reinsertion into the story line feels as desperate as the unification [sic] angle, but with even better results. When wrestling has more than two dimensions, when continuity matters and life in the ring is as chaotic as the real world — well, that’s what wrestling should be. They can scream “biggest match ever!” as many times as they want, but what matters is the content. On Monday, the content lived up to the hype.
“History awaits!” says JBL as the broadcast fades to black, and for the first time in forever, it’s hard to disagree with him.
After the cameras went off, the crowd was treated to a bonus match between Cena and Orton — a brief affair that let them see Cena knock Orton around and teased them for Sunday. The real treat came next, though. Booker T, one of the former champs in the ring, did his famous Spinaroonie and goaded members of the assembled cast to try it themselves. Stephanie McMahon gave it a shot, and then so did Punk, who was called back from the locker room in his underwear for the occasion.5 He did a half-assed Spinaroonie, and then hugged Stephanie, much to the delight of the crowd. It was the funniest kind of chaos. The audience roared.
One of the greatest things about pro wrestling is how the crowd shapes the product. From the moment the Gold Dust Trio took wrestling up off the mat and started scripting it, they invited fans into the process. From that point forward a hero was a hero only if he was getting cheers from the crowd, while a villain was a villain only if he got booed. As Triple H said when I interviewed him, WWE has a focus group every night, and the crowd tells the company what it’s doing right. Seattle’s “12th Man” is such a big deal in the NFL because so few crowds can affect the game. In wrestling, the crowd doesn’t just affect the action — it’s an equal partner in the process.
I guess to call wrestling’s crowd the 12th Man is a little silly — really, there’s the babyface and the heel and the audience. We’re the Third Man. And apologies in advance for the digression, but I can’t see those words and not think of that great Orson Welles ad lib from the 1949 movie. “In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace — and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” The lesson is that beauty comes from chaos.
At Texas A&M, the putative originator of football’s 12th Man concept,6 there’s a saying: “When the team scores, everybody scores.” I think that’s an apt motto for pro wrestling. Fans don’t cheer or boo or chant just because they can. They do it because, like the 12th Man, they want to change the outcome. On Monday, the WWE crowd clearly felt like they had scored.