Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Road to Wrestlemania: Little More Than Halfway Preview

The NCAA Tournament is really exciting. The NBA trade deadline is super fun. If I knew more of the NFL free agents beyond those that played for the rampaging Los Angeles Jaguars fantasy franchise, then I might get absolutely nothing done in March.
But for me, the most exciting part of this month is the Road to Wrestlemania. A month ago, we previewed the WWE Elimination Chamber PPV, which is the last major stop in the massive build to the biggest event in professional wrestling, Wrestlemania. In its 28th edition this year, pro wrestling's Superbowl features the biggest match-ups with its star attractions, taking place in a gigantic football stadium, with a stage set-up and pyro that would make Metallica feel like assholes (....bigger assholes).
But there's still about a week and a half to develop storylines and elevate excitement for various WM 28 bouts. As we hit nearly the end point here, let's focus on what the best of what's happened, and what still needs to occur to make this Wrestlemania one of the greatest of all time.

Without exchanging a punch, the Undertaker and Shawn Michaels have stolen the show already

Many times, the WWE gets accused of not having enough long-term planning, or even worse, aborting long-term plans midstream. No one can say that about the Undertaker-Triple H feud.
The conflict stems from last year's Wrestlemania, in which the Undertaker squeaked out a near-fluke win over Triple H and extended his undefeated streak to a gaudy 19-0 record. Even in victory, the storyline dictated that the Dead Man won the match by only the slimmest of margins. In having to be carted away from the ring, Triple H has said that he lost the battle, but won the war. Undertaker hasn't been seen on television since then, supposedly nursing injuries suffered at the hands of the now-WWE COO Triple H.
So the stage has set, and the conflict is relatively simple: Undertaker needs to again prove his dominance, as a simple "win" wasn't satisfying enough for one of the greatest of all time. Triple H needs to prove that he can "stop the streak" and defeat a man who's never been pinned at Wrestlemania. They're doing so under the auspices of Hell in a Cell, a gigantic steel cage surrounding the ring that shortens careers, and quite frankly, bumps up PPV-buys.
Even though the set-up has been just as magnificent as this match will undoubtedly be, the thinly-veiled real-life references are what makes this bout so fascinating.
Both men have stated time and time again that this is "the end of an era" for wrestling, and that they're "the last two left". In many ways, they're right. The Undertaker is the longest tenured wrestler on the roster, with Triple H coming in a close second. All their superstar contemporaries - Mick Foley, The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall - have ceased to wrestle in any sort of active competitive manner, either to retirement or pursuit of other avenues. It's been rumored that this could be the Undertaker's last match with the company, as well as Triple H's, whose on-screen role as COO mirros his real life behind the scenes job at WWE. The writers have been fantastic in acknowledging that this match will signify the unofficial end of the attitude era, as well as playing on years-long undercurrents, such as the extinction of the high-impact style of 90s/00s wrestling and the subordinate nature of Triple H to his friend Shawn Michaels. As if the match wasn't high-profile enough, Michaels has been installed as the guest referee. This has all the makings of a classic.
Cody Rhodes making a case to headline Wrestlemania 29
Cody, son of the legendary loveable fatboy Dusty, has been hitting it out of the park in his feud with the Big Show. The rivalry started somewhat organically, as Cody has been playing up Show's inability to win at Wrestlemania, except in tag-team matches, falling to such non-wrestling luminaries as legit sumo wrestler Akebono and boxer (and complete dickbag) Floyd Mayweather. Rhodes has so ably played a disdainful heel character, that even the most jaded of wrestling fans have become annoyed with his antics. He's been bringing the goods in the ring every week, and unlike some of the other matches set-up for Mania, Cody has found a way to elevate and strengthen the feud despite it not being a main event match. He looks like a star, acts like a star and wrestles like a star. His main event spot in next year's show might just be a formality at this point.
Notes on his wrist or not, The Rock has been worth whatever Vince is paying him
Though he's been called out on TV for scribbling prmo notes on his wrist, Dwayne Johnson's work on the microphone has been fantastic these past 4 weeks. I don't care if he's reading off cue cards or they're feeding him lines on a blue tooth headset, the Rock has been worth the bounty that I'm sure Vince is paying him. Last week's "Rock Concert" legitimately made me laugh out loud, which is chasms different than the usual WWE "comedy" fare that aims for the lowest common denominator of humor. The Rock and Cena have had to somehow "raise the stakes" week after week, and it's really only through Johnson's charismatic performances have they been able to entertain the crowd without making any contact with each other.
Chris Jericho's and CM Punk's feud feels like the main event
On a card where the Undertaker and Triple H might be fighting their last matches, and megastar Dwayne Johnson is dueling with WWE-posterboy John Cena, mere mortal wrestlers Chris Jericho and CM Punk have managed to make their championship "undercard" main event feel important.
So far, the issues have been simple and well-defined. Ever since his near-departure from the WWE last summer and subsequent meteoric rise to the top of the main event, Punk has proclaimed himself to be "the best in the world". Playing off a gimmick and catchphrase he originated years prior, a returning Chris Jericho has taken issue with Punk, saying that he, in fact, is "the best in the world at everything he does". Shots have been fired back and forth, but what has embedded this feud so deeply in reality is that Punk has plainly stated that Jericho is jealous, simply because though both men have been given title runs,  Jericho was never quite "the man" like CM Punk is "the man"  right now. Even as a hardcore Chris Jericho marks right here on MAMBINO, the verbal barb rings true, and has added another level to their on-screen issue. 
And yet, the rivalry is taking a turn for the inauthentic
The rivalry might have just taken a turn towards Sillytown. Last Monday on Raw, Jericho led an "expose" on Punk, saying the legitimately straight-edge champion has only become so because his father was an alcoholic. Punk, usually snarky and arrogant, acted hurt and embarrassed, even tweeting that "Don't bring my family into this Chris. Shit just got next level". Jericho went further this past Monday, when he mentioned that Punk's sister was a drug addict. Ironic as it is, inserting these real-life fact into the storyline has only made the contention feel inauthentic.  It's taken a bit off of what should be a relatively simple issue: they both feel like they're the "best in the world", and the winner of the match will prove that.
Sheamus and Daniel Bryan have a World Title Match
Oh, there's another World Title match? I forgot.
That's a bad sign.  Other than Sheamus winning the Rumble and thus earning a title shot at Wrestlemania, there hasn't been any other compelling reason that these two are fighting. Though they've tried to raise a level of animosity between the two over the past few weeks, something just isn't clicking. I understand how hard it is to promote the importance of this particular match with other bouts of much greater magnitude, but there has to be some other compelling issue besides a simple title match. Bryan in particular has been great on TV, playing an arrogant heel champion who belittles his on-screen girlfriend AJ in a manner to make even a fan "in the know" feel awkward. However, Bryan's performance is akin to a 50 point game from Kobe, but a Lakers loss. They're not winning the game right now. Sheamus hasn't been overly dynamic in selling the match, or giving me a reason to care. Give me something guys. You've got three shows left.

The Rock and Cena: Really, why are you fighting?
I'm confused too, John
As great as the Rock has been on the microphone, the issues between the two have been somewhat ill-defined. I've gotten that they don't like each other, and that Cena doesn't like how the Rock bolted the WWE for Hollywood-stardom. I've gotten that the Rock doesn't like how inauthentic Cena is, and that he is constantly jammed down the throats of an audience that so vociferously rejects him. I've gotten that Cena feels like he needs to win this match, because losing it means "so much more than simply losing one match". But those three sentences were a better crystallization of their issues than what they've done the past few weeks on WWE TV. The issues between the two seem to be all over the place, touching on all these various issues, but not truly hammering any one home moreso than the other. They both seem to have reasons for not liking each other, but spouting them off piecemeal without any real emphasis just makes them feel diluted. More importantly, if they have so many reasons for not liking each other, why hasn't there even been the slightest threat of in-person physicality leading up to the match? If they dislike each other to core, why would they be so reluctant to trade blows before Mania? Shouldn't their hatred just boil over?
They need to distill more clearly why they're fighting and hammer that point home. They need to explain the reasons why fighting at Wrestlemania is such a big deal and the historical significance of this "passing of the torch" type of match.  They should play up how the Rock fought Hulk Hogan 10 years ago at Wrestlemania 18, in the same type of match that really and clearly explained why icons from two different generations fighting in the biggest PPV of the year was unreal. This match is bigger than the business itself.  John Cena is the new Rock, as Hulk Hogan was before him. Yes, they've called this the "biggest match in history", but give us some context guys. I know why this match is huge, but you need to show that to me. You've got a couple weeks gents. Do it right.
I love this time of year.