The pro wrestling world is accustomed to triumphant returns. Be it the return of an itinerant National Wrestling Alliance champion to your locality in the days before cable television, the return of Hulk Hogan from a film-shoot holiday during his WWF heyday, or, in the past year, the returns to WWE of stars like The Rock and Brock Lesnar — there’s almost no easier way to excite fans than with the combined newness and nostalgia of a comeback.
Such returns can provide a useful lens for examining the reality of the pro wrestling enterprise. During the Territorial Era, the return of the champ was treated in the most real terms — it was accepted that he had obligations elsewhere to defend his title, and he would pass through your region once or twice a year. When lesser wrestlers traveled between territories, on the other hand, their absences were often explained via narrative gimmicks like “loser leaves town” bouts or fake injuries. Then, when they returned months later — eager to improve on their old form — audiences would receive them with great fanfare (or ire; the two are interchangeable here). The absences of Hogan were similarly glossed over with story line mechanics. He was once famously mauled by the 470-pound Earthquake, pancaked into the carpet on The Brother Love Show to excuse his absence while he filmed Suburban Commando.1 The same bogus excuses are still in use today, but thanks to wrestling websites and their fairly comprehensive coverage of WWE injury reports, the highest-profile returns nowadays tend to come from legitimate injuries.
Of course, even though the fans possess inside info, that doesn’t stop wrestling companies from fudging the stories. The base consideration is often real — a wrestler is actually injured — but the details can be rewritten. For dramatic effect, a pulled muscle can become a compound fracture and an injury that occurred in training can turn into the handiwork of an archrival. (WWE has become particularly adept over the years at finding match footage that can be used to explain such injuries.) It’s how pro wrestling walks the line with its fans, especially in the Reality Era — once WWE acknowledges reality, it can repurpose it however it likes.
Midway through Monday’s episode of Raw, WWE pushed this theory to its limits. The returning star was none other than Jerry “The King” Lawler, who suffered a heart attack on the air in September. His recovery has been nothing short of amazing, aided in no small part by the fact that he was on the job when he was stricken; had Lawler been in his hotel room, he may well have died. Monday’s show opened by hyping his return, and before Lawler came out, they aired a video package recounting the unsettling events of September 10 in graphic detail with a video package that felt, well, exactly like a WWE video package. It employed the same shifty black-and-white footage, deft editing, and ever-present Piano Music of Heartrending Tragedy — all tricks that would normally be used in a video package of CM Punk nefariously attacking John Cena. It didn’t quite turn a real-life near-tragedy into offensive schlock — wrestling, after all, is at its best when it offends our sensibilities. But the Lawler segment certainly bordered on being gallingly misleading. When Lawler’s heart attack happened, some fans assumed that it was a “work” — that it was part of the show and that WWE was putting one over on us. As ridiculous as that assumption was, Monday’s video package felt like WWE was doing everything it could to convince the conspiracy theorists that they were right.2
That feeling was only reinforced when CM Punk interrupted Lawler’s heartfelt speech Monday night. Just when Lawler was telling fans that he loved each and every one of them, Punk came to the ring and made fun of his plight. Since Punk’s heel turn a few months ago, he has summoned every move in the villain playbook to ensure that even the meta-fans won’t cheer for him. He has beefed with non-threatening luminaries like Lawler, ex-wrestler Mick Foley, diminutive erstwhile Raw GM AJ Lee, and aging WWE chairman Vince McMahon, all while aligning himself with noxious manager Paul Heyman. When Punk harassed Lawler on Monday night, he was co-opting Lawler’s heart attack — the most real thing that’s happened on WWE television in years — not just into the canon of his diabolical bona fides, but also into pro wrestling’s fabric of unreality. In the modern WWE, conspiracy is reality, the simplest feel-good moment is a just another way to spin the audience, and truth revisited is a sports entertainment parallax view.
A return from the disabled list doesn’t necessarily warrant a homecoming parade, especially if the injured wrestler never went away. Such is the case with John Cena, who came up lame last month just as his mega-feud with Punk was set to culminate at Hell in a Cell. Cena has long been WWE’s standard-bearer, not just for his high profile but also for his constancy — his never-ending charity work, his avoidance of suspension, his willingness to work through injury (and film shoots). The idea of Cena missing a major pay-per-view event seemed unthinkable, but a rushed surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow kept him on the sidelines. Abandoned by his dance partner, Punk was a villain adrift. He kept his angle with Cena alive, meanwhile feuding with lesser lights — non-wrestlers like Foley, McMahon, and AJ, and, eventually, Ryback, the grotesque dynamo who tickles the Mr. Universe lobe of every wrestling fan’s brain. But even though Cena was temporarily hobbled, he didn’t disappear.
While Punk feuded with everyone and no one at the same time, while he explored every iteration of heel behavior, Cena hung around to make sure nobody forgot about him. His on-screen injury updates were confusing, to say the least. Cena’s condition was kept hazy to tease fans into thinking a return was always imminent. When Cena said he wasn’t medically cleared, he emphasized that he wouldn’t back down. Then, right before Hell in a Cell, he claimed the doctors finally cleared him but said he had decided not to wrestle. The week before that pay-per-view, Vince McMahon3 came to the ring to decide whether Punk would face Cena or Ryback in the main event. He seemed primed to pick Cena outright or to make it a triple-threat match, but Cena interrupted and, after a lengthy monologue, implored Vince to pick Ryback. He led the crowd in chanting Ryback’s catchphrase — “FEED ME MORE” — despite the fact that the crowd has rarely exhibited any need for assistance in that task. For Cena, however, it was an important gesture. He legitimized the Hell in a Cell main event by granting it his imprimatur. More important, he kept himself relevant.
At the event, Cena didn’t intervene in the Punk-Ryback match, as many suspected he would. Instead, he was shunted off into a preshow tangle with second-tier baddie Dolph Ziggler, who — deep breath — is the boy toy of current Raw “managing supervisor” Vickie Guerrero, who assumed that mantle after forcing AJ Lee to step down as general manager. Guerrero accomplished this by presenting (largely circumstantial, and sometimes obviously forged) evidence of an affair between AJ and Cena, which, you know, might be something if not for Guerrero’s usually unsubtle relationship with Ziggler. So, of course, Cena and Ziggler are going to fight.4
The assumption was that Cena and Ziggler would settle their differences with an undercard match at Survivor Series, which is on Sunday night. The main event was initially set up as a classic Survivor Series five-on-five elimination bout — Team Punk versus a Ryback-anchored Team Foley. This made sense after Hell in a Cell ended with Punk narrowly escaping a loss to Ryback. But then reality intervened in the form of McMahon. Perhaps in response to a slip in the ratings, real Vince McMahon decided Survivor Series needed a different headliner, and so Vince-the-character appeared on the next episode of Raw and changed the main event to a three-way Punk-Ryback-Cena match. Ziggler was plugged into Punk’s spot in the five-on-five match, and narrative continuity was sacrificed in favor of pure spectacle. You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to understand the machinations at work here: Survivor Series is one of WWE’s tentpole pay-per-view events, and it needed a tentpole match.
What’s clear is that Cena is back, despite the fact that he never left. He can pick up his feud with a waiting CM Punk almost as if it were never interrupted. (Ryback’s role in the past few weeks has been significant, although he’s less of a factor in the “Reality” game of pro wrestling. At his base, Ryback is a callback to simpler times. His character and the way fans respond to him are almost incompatible with the Reality Era, except for the way he embodies the wrestling establishment’s fixation on massive, cartoonish Übermensch.) Sunday’s Survivor Series lineup is all the better for it. The title match will be intriguing not just because of the three stars involved, but also because Vince-the-character got involved. This suggests that Real Vince’s rumored frustration with the status quo could lead to an unexpected outcome. Conventional wisdom says that Punk should retain the title because he’s on the verge of a historically long reign and because a triple-threat match is no way to end that streak. But if the WWE brain trust is booking on the fly, anything’s possible.
Likewise, the Survivor Series five-on-five match is loaded with talent and storytelling potential, in no small part resulting from the way its protagonists were thrown together with little regard for narrative continuity. Ziggler is at odds with teammate Alberto Del Rio, who (justifiably) believes that he should be the team captain; with Punk out of the picture, Foley now has little reason to be involved; and The Miz has been swapped from Team Ziggler to Team Foley — and, more directly, into the middle of the brilliant bromance between tag-team champs Daniel Bryan and Kane. Presumably, The Miz’s insertion is meant to restore his good-guy popularity in advance of his 2013 acting debut in the WWE-produced film The Marine: Homefront. For the first time in ages, I can honestly say I have no clue what will happen — in a match that has no central narrative to advance, any outcome would make equal sense.
(It must be said that for all the disjointedness that might have resulted from Vince’s late changes to the Survivor Series lineup, WWE has done a remarkable job of holding the overall story together. In a way, the fragmented and incomplete story lines have made the characters feel more complete. Punk and Foley got into a shouting match on Monday’s Raw to further an angle that now hardly exists. Ziggler has two separate threads to preoccupy him — his beef with Cena and AJ (currently on hold) and his Survivor Series opponents. There’s something refreshing about seeing wrestlers involved in more than one story line at a time, or even in some story lines that fizzle out and go nowhere. It feels, well, real.)
Maybe in this month of constant revision, the most triumphant return is that of Reality to WWE proceedings. After a month-long Ryback-driven detour into old-school wrestling presuppositions, Punk and Cena and Lawler and McMahon are back at the center of things, tap-dancing around what’s real and what’s not. The Reality Era triumphs when the absence of story becomes the story, because the creative process in pro wrestling is more real than the matches it produces. The reality is that story lines compete for ratings, and narrative continuity matters only insomuch as it encourages viewers to stay tuned. The reality is that matches don’t matter — how else could their outcomes be so easily disregarded? The reality is that Vince is the decider. The reality is that Cena is inescapable. The reality is that everything is story, real-life heart attacks included.
This is why reality is so alluring to wrestling fans — because in a world of predictable and predetermined endings, it keeps us on our toes. Unless, of course, they pull the lever for the ejector seat and it all ends with Cena reclaiming the belt and forging a straight path to a rematch with The Rock at next year’s WrestleMania. In that case, we’ll get a different sort of comeback: the Triumphant Return to Normalcy.
So for those still wondering if the Lawler heart attack was a work, here’s your answer: Yes. I mean, it wasn’t, but it definitely is now. Because now everything’s a work. This is how reality operates. It may not always make sense, but it sure is exciting.