The 2015 Royal Rumble is over. The WWE, the biggest name in what they call “Sports Entertainment” and the rest of the world calls Professional Wrestling has stock that is selling for less than the cost of a hamburger. Their new initiative, the WWE Network, an online service that provides their pay per views for free along with original content, had it’s cancellation page crash under the weight of fleeing users. #CancelWWENetwork was the #1 trending hastag worldwide last night. And anyone watching their shows recently would think the audience was on the verge of a near riot. What happened?
The simple answer is this: Daniel Bryan happened.
You wouldn’t think to look at Daniel Bryan that he was a professional wrestler. The man is certainly built, but the common image of a “professional wrestler” is a six foot five, three hundred pound mound of muscle. Something like Dave Bautista, who you probably saw as Drax the Destroyer in Guardians of the Galaxy. Daniel Bryan is 5′ 10″. He might be over two hundred and fifty pounds on a good day. He has a beard and hair that makes him look like an extra from a Grateful Dead concert movie. And he is the single most popular wrestler in the world.
|Daniel Bryan after Wrestlemania last year.
The WWE has been facing a crossroads for the last ten years. The man who is supposed to be the face of their company, is universally loved by fans who are around the age of ten and under, and universally loathed by pretty much everybody else. He’s a Herculean presence in the mold of previously popular wrestlers like Hulk Hogan – he always smiles, never says die, always does the right thing, and never seems genuine for a moment of it. There’s a real human being underneath the veneer that John Cena has to put on week in and week out, but he never gets to show it, and that, combined with a decades long streak of “overcoming the odds” against opponents more talented and charismatic than him, has soured the fans to his very presence.
Enter Daniel Bryan. A man who many thought would never make it in the WWE, Bryan was frequently called the best wrestler in the world by his contemporaries. In this instance, we’re not discussing wrestling as if it were “real.” No one’s done that in about twenty years. But in terms of telling the best story in the ring, there are very few men who can come close to the emotion and excitement Bryan draws out. Over the time that he’s been in the big leagues with the WWE, he’s gotten the chance to show it time and time again, and it’s worked.
When John Cena came out last night, the crowd was split in its hatred or love for him. When Daniel Bryan came out, every single person got out of their chairs.
The other thing you need to know is that the world of professional wrestling has been changing a lot in the past two decades. The hulking, slow paced muscle men you remember from your childhood are largely an extinct breed, except in the WWE. All over the world, younger, faster, more daredevil competitors are doing things like, well, like this.
The Royal Rumble is a preview of things to come. Whoever wins it gets to wrestle in the main event at Wrestlemania, which means that whoever wins it is going to be the lead character in storylines to come for months, if not years. Last year, at the 2014 Royal Rumble, the WWE decided that man would not be Daniel Bryan, who had clearly become the main attraction in the eyes of most of the fans, but Dave Bautista from Guardians of the Galaxy.
The fans revolted to the point that they had to scrap those plans weeks after the Rumble, put Daniel Bryan in the main event at Wrestlemania and give him the company’s world title just to shut us up.
Fast forward to this year. Bryan has just come back from a pretty serious injury. He’s set to enter the Rumble, and given how much he’s loved, he’s the odds on favorite to win it. Just behind him are all the talented, interesting competitors the WWE has fostered over the past year and a half, guys like Bray Wyatt, Dean Ambrose, and Dolph Ziggler (I know, they’re goofy names, it’s wrestling.).
And then there’s Roman Reigns. A guy who looks like Jason Momoa, and has impressed many people with how he’s developed over the two or three years he’s been wrestling. (Keep in mind, most of the guys I mentioned above have been wrestling for decades to get to their spots.) A guy who, in a few years and with some decent coaching, might be something special, but a guy who write now struggles to put on a decent match or say a scripted speech. And a guy who someone high up in the WWE decided needed to be the focus of every storyline from now on.
After a year of dealing with the fallout of pushing a talent like Bryan aside in favor of a guy who is simply big, the WWE went and did it again a year later. Roman Reigns won this year’s Royal Rumble. Bryan was eliminated like a nobody, to the crowd’s instant displeasure. (Have you ever heard thousands of people boo a show for half an hour straight? I have, last night.)
And it was more than that. The most talented wrestlers in the company were constantly shoved aside and down the entire match, in favor of giant, slow, plodding, boring wrestlers who either hit their peak twenty years ago or never will hit a peak. The show, like many shows the WWE puts on, seemed like a deliberate middle finger to what the fans have repeatedly, vocally, stated that they wanted.
In any other entertainment industry, this would seem like madness. Companies retool entire television shows when the fans turn on a particular character. Comic book characters live and die on the whim of fans. But only in professional wrestling do the creative executives and writers believe they know better than their audience what their audience wants. It’s maddening and illogical, and it’s going to cost the WWE a lot of money. Again.
There is hope, however, for those of you out there that think this wrestling thing sounds interesting but don’t want to feel insulted. Here are three alternatives you can catch right now.
Remember that crazy Mexican wrestling, Lucha Libre, you’re always hearing so much about? Well, it’s finally come to the US. Airing on Robert Rodriguez’s 90’s-soaked television network, El Rey, Lucha Underground is a combination of professional wrestling and the movie Bloodsport. It’s got high octane action and knows damn well to not take itself seriously. Worth a watch, and easy to catch up on.
is an independent wrestling federation that performs on the upper East Coast, most of the time. They strive to feel like a Saturday Morning Cartoon, complete with crazy characters like a superpowered Ant Colony (above) or a straight up Necromancer named Ultramantis Black. The show flips back and forth from deathly serious to seriously goofy, and it’s a damn fine way to spend some time. The great thing about Chikara is that, unlike most wrestling companies, their shows have “seasons,” with breaks in storylines in between. It’s easy to just buy the DVDs or the internet streams to jump into the current storyline, and usually worth your time.
is a company that’s local to the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area. In their personal arena, they consistently have more of a crowd than some of the wrestling companies with national television deals. Hoodslam accomplishes this with a combination of favorite characters (Scorpion, Sub Zero, Ryu and Ken make regular appearances), a giant wink to the audience, and copious amounts of lubricating substances. The third is actually the least
important to enjoyment of their shows (thank god, this isn’t a Will Ferrell movie), but their embracing of the very important idea that professional wrestling is silly is what makes them so successful. Their shows are fairly stand alone, so grabbing any of the DVDs on their site should do the trick.
So there we have it. I hope I’ve explained to you why your wrestling fan friends are freaking out today, and how you can get a taste of this interesting and wonderful world without sticking your toe in the mire of the WWE. Let us know what you think!
Mike Fatum is the Editor in Chief and Podcast Co-host of the Ace of Geeks. He became a fan of professional wrestling the first time he saw a vampire on the show.
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