Sunday, April 10, 2011

Rasslin' Ramblings: WrestleMania XXVII Wrap-Up

WrestleMania XXVII is in the books. My picks fared atrociously with only three of my predictions coming to pass (thank you Cody Rhodes, Undertaker and, well, Snooki). And already WWE has churned furiously forward, not only more or less changing the name of the company (a press release went out mid-week noting they’re no longer World Wrestling Entertainment, now just WWE, an acronym standing for nothing, as they want to de-emphasize “wrestling” and focus more on expanding into general entertainment) but also setting the main event of WrestleMania XXVIII—the event one year away!—as John Cena vs The Rock.

Before we completely move on, however, I do have some thoughts on the big show and what it meant in the larger sense. I went into far more detail with the gang over at the PoP!-Cast Wrestling podcast earlier this week—a fine two hour-plus listen if you’ve got some down time and like to hear guys attempting to make themselves laugh while perhaps providing some insight in the process—but want to repeat or expand on some salient points here…

The thing that jumped out most to me about WrestleMania XXVII in looking up and down the results of the card and what went down—and for full disclosure, I’ve only gotten to watch the final three matches thus far—was that it really seemed to send the message that WWE gave doing something new the old college try in 2010, it didn’t work, and this was them admitting defeat.

2010 was, of course, the year that WWE took more risks than they had in nearly a decade as far as pushing new—and at time untested—stars in an attempt to jumpstart a legitimate youth movement and hopefully find the successors to John Cena, Randy Orton, Edge, etc.

Sheamus was a two-time WWE Champion by mid-year and a main event fixture against the A-list players, not to mention seemingly being groomed for a lengthy feud with Triple H at some point. The NXT season one—and some season two—rookies, led by Wade Barrett, dominated Raw for the latter half of the year as the Nexus, and also made it collectively to the main event of SummerSlam. Daniel Bryan came back from a brief release to win the U.S. title and a prominent babyface role on Raw. Alberto Del Rio made an immediate impact on SmackDown, putting Rey Mysterio and Christian out of action. Younger veterans like Jack Swagger, John Morrison and Dolph Ziggler were all pushed near or two the top of the card with The Miz leading the charge by taking the WWE championship from Randy Orton.

Now let’s take a look at how the “WWE Youth Movement” fared at WrestleMania XXVII:

Alberto Del Rio, seemingly a foregone conclusion to go over Edge and win the World title, lost in the opening match. Wade Barrett and his former Nexus cronies in Corre went down to Big Show’s ad hoc team in under two minutes. Sheamus and Daniel Bryan, set to face off for the U.S. title—Sheamus having been edged ceremoniously out of any program with Triple H—got bumped from the card and their dark match morphed into a battle royal won by The Great Khali. I’d argue Morrison and Ziggler actually did just fine as the male portion of a six person mixed tag match involving Snooki given the amount of mainstream exposure both got residually as a result, but neither guy actually tagged in. Swagger also got something of a push as Michael Cole’s trainer for his match against Jerry Lawler and is probably more over as a heel than he has ever been right now, but then read that sentence back.

Only The Miz escaped relatively unscathed, receiving an amazing video package and then managing to upset Cena and retain the WWE title, albeit via interference by The Rock and having to take a People’s Elbow to end the show. Also worth noting on a smaller scale is that Cody Rhodes went over Rey Mysterio in probably the sleeper match of the evening.

The guys who came out of WrestleMania XXVII looking the best? Edge, Randy Orton, Big Show, The Undertaker and The Rock—the usual suspects as well as a guy who hasn’t been a WWE fixture in seven years and, while a tremendous attraction, will likely make sporadic appearances at best over the next year.

Before you get out the pitchforks though, let me say my piece: I don’t necessarily disagree with WWE’s reasoning here.

Do I disagree with certain choices? Certainly. Most glaringly, I think Alberto Del Rio is ready to be World champion, particularly on SmackDown where the pressure is significantly less glaring than on Raw. To a lesser extent, I understand the frustration many are feeling about Rock closing the show and laying out Miz in addition to his main rival, Cena. And yes, in a perfect world Sheamus and Bryan would have made the card, but ultimately, WrestleMania stands out as a show in large part on spectacle, so if you needed to cut something to give time to show some celebrities or the Hall of Fame inductees, yeah, I think that was the logical one to end up on the chopping block. Corre getting decimated? I don’t love it, because I personally like those guys, but I can see why it happened.

At the end of the day, by all reports, 2010 was not the most financially lucrative in terms of pay-per-view buy rates for WWE. Obviously there are likely dozens of factors that contributed to this and I’d be a fool to assume I have any great insight, but I also don’t think it’s completely absurd for the powers that be to come to the conclusion that placing guys like Wade Barrett, Jack Swagger and Sheamus in top draw spots maybe they weren’t ready for and the average fan didn’t embrace hurt their bottom line.

There were times during 2010 when as excited as I got that something new and different was happening, the lack of storyline logic got to me. There’s no better example of this than Nexus. The novelty of seven rookies being in the main event of SummerSlam was neat, but it bugged me that they were up against a team of WWE all-stars and former World champions whose only real disadvantage was “their egos will clash.” It never felt to me like Nexus had a chance because their numbers advantage was negated and they didn’t seem to give themselves an edge. As the fall went on and Wade Barrett was going over guys like Chris Jericho cleanly or Justin Gabriel and Heath Slater were outwitting Randy Orton and Edge en route to disqualification or countout victories, part of me just wasn’t buying it. I have to imagine I wasn’t the only person who felt this way, particularly among the more casual fans.

Wade Barrett is a helluva talker and solid in the ring, but I don’t think he was ready to be working main event matches with Randy Orton and John Cena only a few months after getting called up to the main WWE roster. I do think Sheamus proved he was ready and Alberto Del Rio could do the same, but unfortunately I think at some point not long before WrestleMania the young guys—with the thankful exception of Miz—got lumped together as having fairly or unfairly dropped the ball in 2010, and thus the decision was made to make the biggest show of the year about the proven commodities as well as banking on nostalgia with The Rock, Stone Cold and even Undertaker and Triple H.

I don’t blame WWE for getting gun shy and going back to the well of familiarity after a mediocre 2010. I’ll get frustrated if they fully revert to making Cena, Orton, et al. the only spotlight players as we forge further into 2011, but I don’t think that will be the case. Miz is still firmly entrenched as WWE Champion and a bigger deal than ever after WrestleMania. Alberto Del Rio didn’t win the World title last week, but it does seem only a matter of time. Wade Barrett’s push has been slowed, but he’s Intercontinental champion and has more breathing room to develop naturally. John Morrison and Dolph Ziggler should be in the main event mix sooner rather than later, as should Cody Rhodes. WWE also seems pretty committed to making Sin Cara a star, which I’m excited about. The guys who really seem to have suffered from the collective squelching of the youth movement are Sheamus and Daniel Bryan, but hopefully talent ultimately wins out there.

So yes, WrestleMania XXVII was in many ways a somewhat sad commentary on the seeming failure—at least in WWE’s eyes—of their young stars in 2010, but hopefully this will merely redouble their efforts to trying harder—but perhaps with a slightly more tempered approach—in 2011.

The other overriding thought I had coming out of WrestleMania XXVII was simply how much WrestleMania’s role has changed in terms of being the “season finale” for WWE (and before that WWF). When you go back to the first dozen or more incarnations, WrestleMania was where all the major feuds and angles for the year wrapped up and the following night on Raw or weekend on Superstars, you got set to learn where the promotion was headed for the next several months to a year and who the fresh crop of challengers and main event guys were as SummerSlam and beyond beckoned.

You look at stuff like the explosion of the Megapowers, Shawn Michaels’ pursuit of his first World title or Stone Cold Steve Austin doing the same and those storylines always culminated at WrestleMania. Sure you could argue that as far back as 1987 the Hulk Hogan vs Andre the Giant feud stretched past WrestleMania III, but at the least that night in the Silver Dome was a major turning point and it would be nearly a year before you saw them in the same ring again. Even the Megapowers issue continued past WrestleMania V on into SummerSlam and beyond, but again, only after diverging in a big way where Hogan vs Randy Savage was hardly even the focal point anymore.

Things changed once pay-per-views became a monthly staple, and most significantly around WrestleMania XV, where while Stone Cold got the WWF title back from The Rock there, they still squared off again almost immediately the next month at Backlash. Every subsequent year since and spreading beyond just the main event, the April pay-per-view has morphed into more or less a replay of WrestleMania, with return matches practically across the board.

Still, perhaps never has a WrestleMania felt more like a road bump than the destination than this year.

Michael Cole vs Jerry Lawler is the perfect litmus test. Cole’s transformation from irritating but mild-mannered commentator into one of the best heels on the WWE roster has been built perfectly from just around last year’s WrestleMania through to this one. Over the past few months, he has screwed Jerry Lawler at every turn, from costing him the chance to be WWE Champion to setting him up to be physically assaulted to even verbally desecrating the memory of his parents. All professional wrestling logic—if that’s not too much of an oxymoron—called for Lawler to get his revenge and Cole to get his comeuppance as “The King” should have decimated his rival and scored a feel good win in his very first WrestleMania match.

That didn’t happen.

Instead, while Lawler seemed to get the win initially, the anonymous Raw General Manager reversed the decision and Cole got the last laugh. The heel ultimately went over and the feud therefore must continue. WrestleMania didn’t settle anything, and given that it’s highly unlikely they will drag this out another year, if Lawler does ultimately get the duke, it will be on a low profile show.

You can also look at the World title match, where rather than getting the major rub of winning his first championships on the grandest stage of them all, Alberto Del Rio not only lost cleanly but also had his prized Rolls Royce destroyed by Edge and Christian, ensuring that feud will also continue and ADR’s big win will be achieved on a lesser stage, thus feeling less special.

The main event was of course the ultimate example of how WrestleMania has lost its luster in terms of being the final chapter of the year that was, as Rock attacking Cena turned out not only to be a glorified advertisement to watch Raw the next night, but to stay tuned for the next true installment in 12 months.

If there’s an upside, it does seem like in booking the WrestleMania XVIII main event so far in advance—and I’m sure Vince McMahon’s fingers will be more or less welded crossed for some time to come—even at the expense of this year’s main event, WWE appears to be committing to making that show truly special and a true culmination rather than just a stop along the way. As with the youth movement, the optimist in me hopes that a misstep will represent a lesson learned.

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