Welcome to the RassleBag. Sunday brings us Survivor Series, the least big of the “Big Four” shows on the WWE calendar. Whereas WrestleMania is sui generis and SummerSlam and the Royal Rumble remain the epic tentpoles they were originally envisioned to be, Survivor Series is a remnant of a time when pro wrestling storytelling was about dragging out major feuds as long as possible (and when Thanksgiving seemed like a reasonable time to program a big wrestling show). I charted the history of the Series two years ago, but here’s the short version: It used to be four or five good guys versus four or five bad guys. No longer. These days, you won’t find superstars wasting time in multi-partner tag matches. The title bouts are just like at any other PPV; the only difference is that WWE makes a lackluster effort to keep the tradition going by tossing out a couple teams of mid-carders. All it does is remind us how far the event has fallen. But don’t take my word for it — take it from my readers.
When did Survivor Series cards start resembling Payback? Isn’t this supposed to be one of the big four? Why not push the 4-on-4 elimination style matches as a once a year extravaganza?
Why doesn’t WWE stick with the traditional Survivor Series format? It seems that the old format would be more conducive to extending feuds and keep them from having to create too many new angles.
Why doesn’t WWE bring back War Games?
This is just a taste of the torrent of mail I got from wrestling fans exasperated about the state of Survivor Series. Grantland’s own Bill Simmons is on the record as advocating that it be replaced by Money in the Bank because MITB at least has a big match built into it. I can’t totally disagree, except that I’m a whiny traditionalist who thinks the Survivor Series legacy is worth salvaging. But how? The old format isn’t coming back. Face-heel alignment isn’t as clear-cut as it once was — nor should it be — and the notion of a posse of villains randomly aligning for a match is pretty silly. War Games — the NWA/WCW event where there’s a giant steel cage with two rings inside and two teams brawling it out — is never going to happen in WWE because Vince McMahon (and/or Pat Patterson) didn’t invent it. The match has an old-school/gritty/realistic vibe that would be a welcome addition in today’s WWE, except WWE doesn’t do old-school/gritty/realistic. (Also, the double ring takes away high-priced floor seats.) There’s also this very valid point to consider:
Do you think that we look at the traditional Survivor Series match with rose-tinted glasses? People used to get pinned after clotheslines and the schoolboy/small package was the deadliest of finishers! I wonder how much of our desire to see the traditional match comes from the fact that we were little kids that didn’t think anything of Hercules getting pinned after a body slam.
Wrestling fans should always be skeptical of their own nostalgia, because unless you’re advocating for an episode of Raw being three squash matches in the storage room of the local TV studio, you’re basically imagining things. But back to Survivor Series: WWE might consider borrowing another idea from WCW — the Lethal Lottery — and make random five-man teams square off, except “random” teams in the Reality Era would be so transparently false that it wouldn’t be any better than silly story line teams. Instead, how about the Survivor Series Draft Lottery? The holder of each singles title and his opponent each drafts a five-man squad. The WWE title goes first, then the WHC, then the IC title, then the U.S. title. That way there’s a story line explanation for upper-card guys staying in the top matches and mid-card guys in the mid-card. It opens up several possibilities for high jinks — think Big Show drafting Daniel Bryan even though he’s mad he’s not the captain, or Randy Orton drafting Rollins and Reigns and keeping them away from Dean Ambrose, who, as the U.S. champ, is undraftable. Maybe Del Rio takes a flyer on Brock Lesnar without knowing if he’ll show up. Maybe Show drafts Kane just to mess with the Authority. They can bring the whole roster onstage for the process, and you know WWE loves showing the full roster. The possibilities are endless. Then, for the main event, they could bring back the Grand Finale Lone Survivor match — where all the survivors of the previous matches meet in one big finale — except instead of good guys versus bad guys, it’s every man for himself. And the last man standing gets the coveted no. 30 spot in the Royal Rumble. The WrestleMania season just got two months longer. Done and done.
What are your thoughts on the Authority? At first, I thought they were perfect: Triple H and Stephanie were the talkers for a collection of bland heels. Now I realize that Orton, Kane and the Shield are still dull.
For the uninitiated, the Authority is the new villainous contingent of front-office execs Triple H and Stephanie McMahon; their new director of operations, Kane (who wears a business suit now); the enforcers, the Shield; and WWE champ Randy Orton.
I know I’m in the minority here, but I like them. Yes, there are ongoing problems with finding the appropriate amount of screen time for them. (Answer: twenty minutes or 3.5 segments — a show opener, one to two backstage commercial bumper bits, and every other week standing around at the end of the show as props for someone else’s action.) This past Monday they got the formula about right, and the action flowed without getting bogged down in familial squabbles. The hilarious Vickie Guerrero and Brad Maddox matches work only if the McMahons order them, Randy Orton finally has a role where he’s allowed to look stupid, and let’s face it: It’s really hard to be a pure heel in today’s wrestling world, and the Authority comes close to pulling it off. The fact that people complain about the Authority is an unsubtle backhanded compliment. People used to hate Ric Flair with every fiber of their being; now fans golf clap for guys like Damien Sandow and Bray Wyatt. If nothing else, the Authority get sincere boos, and without Triple H and Steph, a huge swath of fans would be ironically cheering for the Shield and the besuited Kane.
Why is the Big Show ruining wrestling?
—Michael Pasadyn Jr.
We covered this on the last episode of Grantland’s Cheap Heat podcast featuring yours truly and the inimitable Peter Rosenberg, but the answer basically boils down to the fact that giants are a difficult fit in the storytelling and action of weekly episodic wrestling shows. Andre the Giant traveled from territory to territory to keep his act fresh during most of his career, and even when he was a full-time WWF star he was usually used as a special attraction. WWE should follow that mold — lend Big Show to indie shows to let him demolish guys and stick him in the tag-team ranks when he’s in WWE — hell, have him audition partners because he knows his team’s going to win regardless. He could pick Heath Slater and haze him like Richie Incognito, which is a deplorable suggestion but you know Vince would love it. He could bump up to the main event when necessary, but WWE should remain faithful to the Andre road map. When Big Show got fired (most recently), how did they not go for a do-over of the Machines angle? Why not stick him in a yearlong feud with Hornswoggle (of whom Show is literally afraid, because he has a fear of dwarfs), who can play a mini Heenan character and look for opponents to topple Show? The opportunities are there. The main event versus Orton is not one such opportunity.
Is minus-5,000 too low of odds for parlaying “Cena and Orton retain”?
As little as I know about gambling, I’d say that’s about right. On Sunday, Orton defends the WWE Championship against the Big Show and Cena defends his World Heavyweight Championship against Alberto Del Rio; in both cases the challengers seem so hopeless they might as well be eggplant-shaped, masked jobbers from Georgia Championship Wrestling in 1981.
But allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment. Here’s how Cena doesn’t retain: Damien Sandow (who cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase against a wounded Cena a few weeks back and still lost, and who, maybe incidentally, isn’t on this card) interferes, demolishes Cena’s arm, and Del Rio wins, setting up a three-way feud for the World Heavyweight Championship. (This also works with Cena retaining, or, separately, with Cena and Sandow moving off into a side feud while Del Rio finds a new challenger, but that wouldn’t do anything to help the state of the WHC.)
Here’s how Orton doesn’t retain: Triple H helps Big Show win and then claims him as the new face of the WWE, whether Show likes it or not. Or maybe Show was in on it all along, because mere mortals cannot comprehend the morality of giants. Or maybe Mark Henry returns as the new Authority-approved conqueror and kills everybody and Triple H declares him champion by Klingon ring rules. I talked myself into that idea two words into the last sentence.
What is your excitement level for John Cena versus Alberto Del Rio? On a scale of 1-10, I am a Negative 2. There is no storyline and no one can honestly believe that Del Rio is going to beat Cena for the Heavyweight Championship, right?
This is the most insane thing about the John Cena character. The only people naive enough to think he’s going to lose this match are 5-year-old boys, and 5-year-old boys think Cena is a superhero who can never lose. Here’s the rubric for Cena matches: Giant monsters like Kane and Umaga and whoever else the announcers scream about can’t beat Cena; the only time Cena is actually in jeopardy is against somebody cooler than him. It’s not about power, it’s about who matters more. Is Del Rio more vital than Cena? That’s the most rhetorical question I will probably ever bring myself to write.
I’m at about a 2.5 on the Honk-O-Meter for this match, and most of that is because I’m hoping that WWE knows how obvious this whole thing is and will find a way to make it interesting just to spite jerks like me who lambaste them on the Internet.
Let me get this straight: Daniel Bryan beat Cena clean for the WWE title, was screwed out of it moments later by HHH and Randy Orton, then won it back from Orton but was stripped of the title by HHH based on some alleged referee scandal that was never fully explained. He was then eventually screwed out of the title again this time by HBK, and now suddenly he’s out of title picture and gets no rematch. I mean, I’m all for suspending reality for the sake of entertainment, but how am I to believe Daniel Bryan just accepts all the screwjobs?
Ladies and gentlemen, your Survivor Series backstory in one paragraph. It’s like binge-watching Breaking Bad and in the last episode Ted Beneke takes over the North American meth trade and Walt and Saul start a cupcake shop by the college campus. I really have nothing to add to this.
What are we calling the Punk-Bryan team anyway?
—David S., Brooklyn
OK, that was from me, because this conversation has already happened on Twitter and it’s worth rehashing here. There have been a lot of good suggestions — “Yes’t in the World,” “Team G-T-Yes,” “the Indie Powers,” and several others based on the old “Mega Powers” moniker that Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage used. I decided to follow that act with “the Meta Powers.” Punk and Bryan are the two biggest stars of the Reality Era, the first formally self-aware period in wrestling history. The people around them are characters, but Bryan and Punk are largely themselves. I’ll have more on this next week, but if you have any doubts, then consider my backup moniker: “Besties in the World.” Even that’s better than “the Best and the Beard,” which is all that WWE bothered to come up with. Especially since calling Bryan “the Beard” when he and Punk are feuding with the hirsute Wyatt Family is sort of inane. Names aside, this is your match-of-the-night candidate. If you want to go to sleep after this one, I won’t blame you.
How long can the Punk and Bryan thing ride? I saw on your Reddit AMA that you predict a Punk vs. Bryan match at ‘Mania but right now they lack the natural chemistry that made the Punk/Heyman feud work for four months. Can they make it work on in-ring talent alone?
—Sam, Fairfax, Virginia
Look, there are a million different possibilities for WrestleMania, especially considering the WWE WrestleMania 30 plan book had Brock-Rock written in ink a year ago and now it just has a bunch of question marks and stick figures of Hulk Hogan and Vince McMahon jousting in go-karts. Anything can happen between now and April, but it should be stated that despite the lack of planning, WWE will definitely have ‘Mania plans shored up by the Rumble, which is coming sooner than you think. Punk and Bryan would only have to fight off the Wyatts, lose embarrassingly to the Shield, and then get mad when they eliminate each other from the Rumble. Or maybe Punk gets mad when Bryan starts hocking a “Best in the World Since 2008” shirt. Or maybe all of Punk’s ex-girlfriends have an intervention with the girls on Total Divas about the perils of dating your coworkers and Brie dumps Bryan and Bryan blames Punk. Regardless, it’s easy, and it makes their recent partnership make slightly more storytelling sense than the Internet maxim of “Vince hates indie wrestlers again.”
Honest question. Do fans care more about the Divas or Ryback?
Honestly, I have no idea, but WWE obviously cares more about the Divas, and at the end of the day we take our cues from McMahon & Co. How awesome would it be if Ryback was in the Divas Survivor Series match, though? If he was like, “I hate bullies and those Bellas are bullying everybody on that E! show,” and he just Shellshocked the whole Total Divas team? If that happened I’d care about all of them a whole lot more.
After watching the latest episode of Total Divas, my girlfriends and I think John Cena is a douche. He’s supposed to be a man’s man, but he’s scared to talk to his girlfriend about their relationship. I’m surprised he didn’t call the sheriff department to serve Nikki with the co-habitation agreement. How can WWE think John Cena treating his girlfriend like a houseguest is a good idea?
So you’re told that John Cena is a hero but every fiber of your being rejects that notion? Welcome to the club! You’re basically like every wrestling fan over the age of 11. But seriously, look up some YouTube clips that show how Vince has treated his wife and every other woman onscreen over the years. Then consider that Cena’s actions fall somewhere on the spectrum of pro wrestling chauvinism and his behavior on Total Divas doesn’t look quite as bad as some of the other stuff out there. It’s irredeemable, sure, but it’s on the low end of irredeemable for WWE.
Also consider that reality shows are fake. That may not explain why Cena and WWE think that portraying him as a “douche” on a show that’s meant to attract female fans is a good thing. Also, Nikki Bella is the absolute worst. No matter how far down the ladder WWE decides to push Daniel Bryan in the future, there will always be one show where he’s the champ and Cena’s jobbing out, and that’s Total Divas.
By the way, Sunday’s card features a ladies’ seven-on-seven Survivor Series match pitting the Divas who are on Total Divas vs. the Divas who are not. (I’d write their names but my editor would just delete them, as well he should.) Even though there are nominal faces and heels mixed on each side, WWE decided to split the Divas along this line. The lesson here is that the Total Divas troupe are heroes as far as the WWE front office is concerned, and the opposing team might as well be called “AJ Lee and the Pips.” Let this be a lesson to all WWE personnel approached to appear in any future reality shows. Do it or prepare to face ignominy.
Now for a few questions that look back at Survivor Series history.
What’s the best bad Survivor Series team?
For starters, Holzerman is a great wrestling writer whose work you should be reading. As for his question, the best bad team has to be the 1988 squad of “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Ken Patera, Tito Santana, and Scott Casey, who took on Andre the Giant, Rick Rude, Dino Bravo, Mr. Perfect, and Harley Race in a “We Have Scott Casey on Our Team” handicap match. Even the other guys on the babyface team who you remember as being awesome were basically terrible at the time, with the possible exception of Roberts. Duggan was at his WWF peak, but his entire WWF tenure was frankly destroyed by the recent release of the Legends of Mid-South Wrestling DVD and the acknowledgement by WWE that Duggan wasn’t a one-note jingoistic hack. That Duggan team is like if an NBA All-Star Game was about to start and the Eastern Conference trotted out five Milwaukee Bucks starters. There’s no coming back from Scott Casey.
Why did Superstar Billy Graham get replaced by Don Muraco?
Ah, the first Survivor Series. Those simple days when all the steroidal, tanned heroes (and Bam Bam Bigelow) joined forces against the nefarious fatsos and narcissistic A-holes (and their numerous managers). In that first Survivor Series, Hogan’s squad was supposed to include “Superstar” Bill Graham, who was in his forties and whose body had been ravaged by steroid abuse. WWF had actually aired footage of his hip-replacement surgery in the months before the event, which I remember as a Faces of Death–style surgical snuff film. When Graham’s hips and ankles got so bad that he couldn’t wrestle, they pulled him from the team and replaced him with Don Muraco, who turned face for the occasion.
It’s important to note here that this was Superstar’s fourth go-around with (W)WWF, his third tour beginning in 1982 when, for some reason, he ditched his hair bleach and tie-dye getup for a weird judo gimmick. By 1987 he was a well-worn 44 years old. As a kid, I remember wondering why this old man was wrestling at all. Graham was in many ways the prototype of WWF/E stars — immaculate physique, crazy charisma, and indiscernible to passable in-ring skills. His steroidal physique made him popular, but eventually it wrecked his body at that relatively young age. But, boy, was he great in his heyday.
Imagine what the WWE network might have looked like during the Attitude Era. I think Val Venis hosting a late night show dedicated to porn would have been in play. What other creations might we have seen?
Val Venis’s Big Highlight Package would definitely get the green light, as would The DX Home Invasion, which would be the opposite of a home renovation show. Instead of refurbishing your home, they trash the place and spray-paint it with fluorescent green. The big reveal is X-Pac passed out and duct-taped to the couch in your family room. They’d have The “Stone Cold” Steve Austin Show, which would be exactly like his current podcast except he’d douse wrestling legends in cheap beer while they tried to answer his well-researched questions. And there’d have to be a Jackass rip-off called Cactass where Mick Foley throws himself into piles of broken glass and thumbtacks and barbed wire while Jim Ross stands by with a microphone screaming, “God, that prank is uncalled for!” And the late-night hours would feature WWF Classics (the “ass” in “Classics” would be scrawled in edgy handwriting), where they showed legendary matches from the ’70s and ’80s featuring Bruno Sammartino and Pedro Morales with Vince Russo making fart noises over the audio track.
If you could put together a one-time-only traditional Survivor Series match, what would your dream teams look like? You can pick wrestlers from any period in their careers and they can be from any organization. Who would be your captains?
I’m limiting this to guys I watched in my lifetime, and limiting myself to five minutes to come up with the teams, so I have an excuse for leaving out all the people I should have included.
The Smart-Mouthed Heel All-Stars: 1986 Ric Flair (captain), 1984 “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, 1990 Mr. Perfect, 1981 Terry Funk, 1984 “Iceman” King Parsons (sentimental favorite), 1982 Andy Kaufman (manager)
The Super Antiheroes: 1987 “Macho Man” Randy Savage (captain), 2011 CM Punk, 1997 “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, 1996 Shawn Michaels, 1979 Jerry “The King” Lawler. 1996 Scott Hall and Kevin Nash accompany them to the ring and act drunk throughout the match.
Sunday will have one traditional Survivor Series match: Cody Rhodes, Goldust, the Usos, and Rey Mysterio vs. the Shield and the Real Americans. It’ll probably be pretty good, but it won’t be nearly as good as the main event of Monday night’s Raw, which pitted Rhodes, Goldust, the Usos, and Bryan and Punk against the Shield and the Wyatt Family and was one of the most all-around entertaining matches I’ve seen in forever. That’s Survivor Series in a nutshell: As fun as it might be, it’s always less fun than something that came before it.