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WWE ‘Payback’ Mailbag

Your questions answered, on everything from Daniel Bryan’s neck surgery to the WWE’s current storytelling doldrums to a wrestling-specific time machine

Hey, guys! WWE has a big show called Payback on Sunday. Why should I care about Payback, you say? I don’t know. I already wrote about Daniel Bryan’s uncertain future (and that was before his neck injury) and the WWE locomotive seems to be stalling ever so slightly these days, so I’ll let the readers decide what I write about. Mailbag time!

I bought tickets for Payback about a month ago and was really excited for it, but the build-up to the event has left me underwhelmed — especially with Daniel Bryan not expected to wrestle. Can you talk me out of buyers’ remorse?
—Saleem, Detroit

There’s no better place to start this mailbag than by talking the entire WWE Universe off the edge of the Hammerstein Ballroom balcony. Listen, I’m normally the Mr. Brightside of smarky WWE fans. I always find something to get excited about. But even I can’t gin up much enthusiasm for Payback. Maybe it’s the lingering dread from Bryan’s neck surgery. Maybe it’s the hangover of the realization that Bryan’s championship run might be doomed already. Maybe it’s that we just saw Evolution vs. the Shield and John Cena vs. Bray Wyatt at Extreme Rules, and although those matchups are great, they’re starting to grow mold. Maybe it’s that, as much as I loved El Torito vs. Hornswoggle earlier this month, Sunday’s Mask-vs.-Hair match featuring the same competitors can’t help but feel like a retread. Plus, I know I’m not the only one who fears that the whole point of this match is that Vince will get a kick out of seeing a little person get his head shaved. (And have they even thought about the logistics of Torito losing his mask? He felt physical pain when Horny yanked his costume tail off! Wouldn’t unmasking him be like peeling the skin off his face?) More than anything, I’m struggling to get hyped for Bad News Barrett–Rob Van Dam and Cesaro-Sheamus and Paige–Alicia Fox, and the last few weeks of Raw have done little to cure my apathy.

But it’s not that bad. Look at the matches I just listed. They’re all potentially great. I know everybody likes to get together with their friends for the big PPVs like WrestleMania and SummerSlam, but to me, these lesser shows are the ideal ones to watch with friends. Get your pals together and toss back a few Steveweisers and just have fun. You won’t even have to shush your buddy’s girlfriend when she starts asking why they’re all in their underwear, because you won’t have to worry about missing anything while explaining things to her. And we should all remember that WWE always bounces back. Every year has dry spells. Who knows? This might be exactly the moment when something great and unexpected happens. I mean, WWE must know that it needs to step up its game. It has to know, right? Right??

I thought WWE upper management was finished with the term pay-per-view. I heard it used several times on Raw Monday night, almost like they were making a point to use it. How does that help/hurt the forward thinking of event viewership?
—David Barton

Let’s deal with this one up front to get our terminology straight. When the WWE Network launched (and DirecTV and Dish Network decided to stop airing WWE PPVs in retaliation), WWE smartly realized that the term “pay-per-view” had lost its currency, since a huge portion of its fans were paying a monthly subscription rate instead of buying PPVs on a case-by-case basis. After trying, mostly in vain, to make “special event” stick as the replacement, WWE management decided to stick with “pay-per-view” for the time being, since its audience was comfortable with it. Probably a smart move, but it would be a lot harder to make fun of WWE’s lack of creative direction if the business side weren’t so transparently floundering.

I know this is heresy, but my dream for the future of WWE PPVs (or special events or whatever) is UFC-style, big-match pimping. WWE 154: Evolution vs. Shield would get me more excited than Payback ever will. (And it would force WWE to keep the title scene in flux.) At least, they could switch up the names for all but the big four or five PPVs like they used to with the In Your House titles, like calling this one Retribution: A WWE Supercard. That would solve the problem of using “pay-per-view” by eliminating it altogether.

And for the record, I’m using “pay-per-view” instead of “special event” throughout this mailbag because, well, my audience is comfortable with it.

How do we get out of this holding pattern and advance these stories in a way that feels fresh.
—Robbie, NYC

The biggest problem is that with six of hours of network TV time every week and 24 hours a day of WWE Network time to fill, WWE still hasn’t figured out how to consistently (1) make any story lines outside of the main events particularly interesting, and (2) make any main event seem more significant than the previous month’s headliner. Too much time is given to (for instance) Cena-Wyatt video packages without giving us any reason to care about them more than we did at WrestleMania. It would help if they gave more time to more second-tier story lines, if they let story lines intersect, and if they let the mid-card performers talk and serve as something more than wallpaper. From a promoter’s standpoint, you run with the story lines that are clicking for as long as you can. And let’s be fair — when they see us yawning at Bray Wyatt and the Shield being in the main event when we spent the past six months salivating over the idea of Bray Wyatt and the Shield being in the main event, you can understand why WWE’s creative staff might feel exasperated.

One off-the-wall idea: Let Vince pick the PPV card and then get out of the way of the storytelling that leads to it. Poll the network users about which matches they want and then WWE can bring us there however they see fit. Just treat it slightly more like a real sport in the event lineups and — what am I talking about? There’s nothing we can do. It’s hopeless.

WWE tends to back themselves into creative corners with the titles of their pay-per-views. Hell in a Cell always comes across as forced. Having a Payback event almost two months after WrestleMania seems counter-productive. Which non-major pay-per-views would you keep and which would you replace the other ones with?
—Brian, Springfield, Mo.

I agree, although with Payback they’re not really honor bound to showcase rematches. Hell in a Cell was cooler as a special match that could be whipped out to settle long-running feuds. Payback debuted last year, so WWE hasn’t quite established what kind of matches fans should expect to see in the event. Even though the two top bouts on the card — Evolution versus the Shield and John Cena versus Bray Wyatt — are do-overs from last month, I don’t think Payback’s stated purpose is to serve rematches. (It’s a month later on the calendar than the old PPV Backlash, which often featured WrestleMania rematches — and which, it has to be said, is a way cooler name than Payback — but it’s a different show.)

But go back to my answer to the second question. If it were up to me, I’d keep WrestleMania and SummerSlam and the Royal Rumble, bring back King of the Ring and have that and Survivor Series be exclusively gimmick cards — no matches outside the rubric — and let those two be the short-lead PPVs when they’re cramming the schedule to give the big events longer lead times. Treat them like Saturday Night’s Main Event or the broadcast TV Clash of the Champions cards, and let the gimmick get people excited. Then have the Hell in a Cell match be an occasional feud-ender, and the Elimination Chamber and Money in the Bank can go back to being deus ex machina matches that Triple H can wheel out for a random PPV. The other monthly PPVs should all get In Your House– or UFC-style names as outlined above.

Doesn’t it seem odd that a guy (Daniel Bryan) who had neck surgery two weeks ago is now walking around and doing little more than fist pumping and yelling at the top of his lungs? I’m no doctor but I have to believe this is on the list of things not to do after neck surgery. Are we sure it was real?
—Christopher Korten

Judging by how fans have reacted to the last month of WWE product, if this was a worked shoot, it was maybe the worst one ever. For the record: Yes, Bryan’s surgery was real. But it turned out that it was just nerve damage and not a more serious injury. WWE’s going to give Bryan the time he needs to heal, which is good, because as awesome as it is to remember Bruno Sammartino being rushed back into action with a broken neck for the 1976 Showdown at Shea, that’s not the sort of thing that would be fun to experience in real time amid rumors that one bad bump could land Bryan in a wheelchair. Regardless, if I’m WWE ringside physician Doc Sampson, I’m not super excited about the hand gestures or the ’80s comedy neck brace. But I’m guessing they all know Bryan is OK, or else they wouldn’t let him do it, and we should all be grateful if that’s the case.

What would be a more compelling way to determine the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, Brie vs Stephanie where Bryan Vacates with a Stephanie win, or having the title be determined at MITB?
—Sumeet, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Brie versus Steph a hundred times out of a hundred. Money in the Bank is one of the highlights of my year and I didn’t hesitate for a second.

I can’t be the only one who is disappointed by the way WWE has turned Bray Wyatt into a hokey character. Originally, he was a sadistic Cult Leader. Now it’s all about the dark side of John Cena and a sing-along of Church Songs. How can WWE turn him into a more credible character?
John Kazanovicz

I’m disappointed. I was in New Orleans at Raw the night after WrestleMania, and I was singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” along with everybody else. It was like the crowd erupted into some campfire flash mob beyond the wildest dreams of my middle school youth group leader. It was one of the most amazing moments of my wrestling fandom. And like so many such moments, WWE decided to wear it out as quickly as humanly possible. I’m pretty sure Bray has sung that song literally every time he’s been on TV since that night. The next time you’re wondering why they can’t find time for Damien Sandow to do anything interesting on Raw, the answer will be somewhere between “He’s got the little bitty baby” and “He’s got you and me, brother.” (To Bray’s credit, nobody has carried off two simultaneous theme songs this well since WCW gave Hulk Hogan dueling songs because it didn’t want to purchase the rights to play “Voodoo Child” more than once a show.) Overall, though, I’m giving Bray a pass so long as he’s feuding with Cena, because that’s really not the place for nuance. If he’s still running the same shtick a few months from now, we can worry. And when he’s doing a backstage skit in which his iPhone goes off and that’s his ringtone, well, you’ll know it’s all over.

How big of an impact is John Cena’s reactions to Bray Wyatt having on their feud? The feud originally set up like it was going to involve Wyatt being able to get inside Cena’s head and making him question what he’s supposed to stand for. Cena has responded with mostly the same “Love me or hate me, I’m John Cena and I never back down,” responses that he has been saying for the better part of a decade. Despite Wyatt being portrayed as a mastermind, Cena has appeared unfazed, making Bray look like just another bad guy. What can be done to prevent Wyatt from becoming just another guy?
Jesse Collings, Boston

This is exactly what I mean about the Cena feud not being the place for subtlety. I wish that weren’t the case, because no character is in more desperate need of shades of gray than the Doctor of Thuganomics. I’ve said it before, but what makes Cena great (to fans like you and me, anyway) is that he makes the guys we like matter. We need him. And give Cena his due  he’s been operating at a high level for a few years now. But no matter what he goes through, his character just magically resets every week. It’s uncanny. There are good reasons why the long-dreamed-of Cena heel turn will never happen, but this is probably the biggest one: Even if Cena gets a black T-shirt and dyed-black stubble, he’s still going to come out every Monday night and be the exact same character.

How far do you see Bo Dallas going with this (admittedly incredible) gimmick?
Bruce Clark

For those who don’t know, Bo Dallas debuted last year as a plucky underdog good guy, and literally every wrestling fan looked at him and wanted to punch his face so goddamn hard. So WWE took him back to Triple-A and tweaked his character to make him a douchebag heel who thinks he’s a plucky underdog good guy, complete with clichéd inspirational catchphrases. He’s so insufferable that I can’t look away, and his promo videos, with stock footage of eagles and mountaintops and soldiers being heroic, are so ridiculous that I just want to say “Bravo” and die like Bert Cooper. Of all the NXT gimmicks WWE has brought up in the past year, this one has the best chance of success. I think he’s a safe bet for the Intercontinental title at some point in the not-too-distant future, and he could be plugged into the main-event picture without much trouble. Or he could grow a beard and join his real-life brother Bray Wyatt and we can pretend we never had this conversation.

Do you think the NXT crowd/development area is actually hurting younger wrestlers coming up? Does the NXT audience hinder wrestlers such as Adam Rose, Emma, and Bo Dallas? Or should more blame be put on WWE creative for not making the transition easier?
Mike Germano

I love NXT. In months like this one, it ranks above Raw as my favorite WWE show. And Thursday’s NXT: Takeover is roughly 8 million times more interesting to me than Payback. But it’s true that many of the characters who have been called up to WWE haven’t translated. There’s a lot at play here: Broad gimmicks play better with small crowds (or, more precisely, crowds that are looking for instant gratification rather than the never-ending story lines of Raw); the NXT producers and the crowd are interested in old-school characters and story lines that would never fly on Raw (especially not in the Reality Era). It’s no accident that the Shield  the high-water mark for transitioning to the big time  were completely repackaged before they debuted.

I think the biggest problem for NXT talents making the leap to WWE is that a lot of what makes us care about wrestlers is their permanence. Almost nobody works immediately, and even the ones who do click get skeptical responses because fans aren’t sure if they’ll last. (The Shield came with such obvious high regard from upper management that they’re the exception that proves the rule.) Paige could be slap-boxing on Total Divas next year, Adam Rose is probably wishing he’d swapped gimmicks with the guy in the balloon suit, Rusev is praying for a Republican president to reignite the Cold War. Even Cesaro is a Vince temper tantrum away from being back in the indies. It’s reassuring that Sami Zayn and Adrian Neville have more regular-guy, real-athlete characters, and maybe they’ll register more strongly with the average fan. Hopefully they’ll stick around long enough for us to care.

After hearing “We Want Ziggler” chants during the Shield-Evolution brawl on Raw, I wondered if Dolph will ever get another serious push?
Ben, St. Paul, Minn.

I got versions of this question from several readers. The Case of the Missing Ziggler could fill up all 120 pages of a Hardy Boys mystery. I think we can all agree that if he were four inches taller, he’d be an entrenched headliner and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Dolph won the World Heavyweight Championship last year but then got concussed and his push fizzled to the point that he’s going in the Z File, not named for Dolph but for Tom Zenk, who I legitimately thought was the next big thing at some point in 1990. Anyway, the reasons given for Ziggler’s lack of push are various: vague character concerns, his inclination to run his mouth on Twitter, his concussion, the way he goes all out for every match despite being told not to. If I had to bet, I’d say that in some hour of WWE’s greatest need, Ziggler will get another push and he’ll run with it. We’ll be watching his Hall of Fame induction video package in 15 years and laughing about how we once wondered if he’d make it. But 12-year-old me would have said the same thing about Tom Zenk.

Great News: You’re given a time machine. Bad News: Instead of doing anything meaningful, you’re only allowed to bring wrestlers from before the Attitude Era into the current age of WWE. But there’s one caveat: You cannot bring back former WWE Champions. Which wrestlers from previous eras would thrive in today’s WWE? My pick would be Jake the Snake. Today he could have been a great hybrid of CM Punk and the Wyatt Family.
Josh, Dallas

I think Jake is one of the greatest pro wrestlers of all time, but a lot of the substance abuse that made him great in promos wouldn’t get past the WWE wellness policy tests these days. That said, if he’d gone through the Performance Center and learned what a bench press was, he could’ve been a top-three all-time talent, so I’m with you there. But let’s define what we’re talking about.

I’m assuming I have to limit this to WWF guys, otherwise the answer is easy: I’m going back to 1986 and grabbing Magnum TA. He’d be chilling by the pool with a frozen drink and two ’80s babes with tall hair and really unflattering high-side bikini bottoms and I’d land the DeLorean and yell, “You have to come with me, Terry  it’s for your own good!”

But even limiting the choices to just WWF talent, there are too many worthy wrestlers. I’ll eliminate guys who were primarily tag-teamers (sorry, Dynamite Kid); short-termers who spent the bulk of their careers in NWA (sorry, Dusty Rhodes); and long-term main event heels, since Hulk Hogan kept a bunch of legit headliners from ever holding the strap (sorry, Roddy Piper and Ted DiBiase). I’m even going to stipulate that their gimmicks carry over, so guys like Rick Martel and Jacques Rougeau are out due to their sheer ridiculousness, even though they were great talents.

So here are my rough top five, in no particular order: Junkyard Dog, Mr. Perfect, Rick Rude, Bam Bam Bigelow, and Jake “The Snake” Roberts. I would pay good money to see any of them against any of the top guys in WWE now. If I had to pick just one, I’d go with Perfect, because he was a five-tool wrestler if ever there was one. If he had been born in 1980, he would have already been a five-time champ and would have had roughly 15 face/heel turns. And Raw would be must-see TV just to watch the awkward interactions between him and his adult son, Curtis Axel.

Are Kane’s legacy and historical significance greater than the Undertaker’s?
Dillon Taylor

Too soon! Too soon! The Undertaker’s WrestleMania streak is still warm and you’re already coming with this kind of sacrilege. Listen, I love Kane, but this is like asking if A.C. Green’s NBA career is more significant than Magic Johnson’s. Kane may have been of greater significance for a longer period of time than maybe anybody ever, but even if he wrestled another 20 years at this level he wouldn’t touch the overall impact Undertaker has had. If Kane became our first libertarian president in 2016 and led the United States to eight years of unprecedented economic prosperity and brought lasting peace to the world, he still wouldn’t crack Undertaker’s overall impact.

In an empty arena, with no help from cronies, how would you power rank the WWE’s top 10 right now? Meaning, who would go over against the guy below him with no fluky finishes? Daniel Bryan’s injured so I’d say, 1. Cena 2. Lesnar 3. Wyatt 4. Roman Reigns 5. Batista… I spend too much time wondering about things like this.
Ajené Simmons

I’m going to resist the urge to make a TNA joke about empty arenas here. I’m NOT going to resist the urge to provide a hyperlink to the Jerry Lawler–Terry Funk empty-arena match, because it is awesome. Also, here’s the Rock versus Mankind empty-arena match because can you believe the WWF was hot enough to counterprogram against the Super Bowl halftime show in 1999? But back to the point  assuming you’re talking about kayfabe wrestling ability and win-loss records, it’s tempting to put Brock first. But Lesnar has a mediocre win-loss record since his comeback, while Cena’s is pretty incredible. I’m tossing Wyatt and Batista in favor of Orton and Cesaro, but otherwise I think you’re on target. I love this idea because it reminds me of picking up wrestling magazines in the late ’80s and seeing them rank all the wrestlers in the U.S. with a total straight face. Is that even possible anymore? Can we gather up all the people who still think wrestling’s real and have them rank every WWE character? I really need to see that list. If you know somebody, email me. I’m doing this.

Wouldn’t now be a great time for Punk to return? Bryan says fine I’ll surrender but I get to name my successor … and cue “Cult of Personality”!
Gabe Huddleston

On one hand, Sunday’s Payback show is in Chicago, so of course it’s logical to wonder about Punk’s return. On the other hand, Bryan’s win at WrestleMania marked the first time since Punk’s departure that fans didn’t feel the need to chant Punk’s name at every turn. And now Bryan is hurt and everything’s feeling monotonous and of course here we go again with the Punk chants and the wild speculation.

But, I mean, yeah, that would be the best thing ever.

Filed Under: professional wrestling, WWE, WWE Payback, Daniel Bryan, The Shield, Kane, Undertaker, WWE Raw

David Shoemaker , also known as “The Masked Man,” is the author of the The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Pro Wrestling.

Archive @ AKATheMaskedMan