Another wrestling year is nearing completion as 2012 goes the way of Abraham Washington. 2012 gave us Ryback, another Chris Jericho return and 1,000 episodes of Monday Night Raw. 'Tis the season to rank them in order of importance. Stories will be evaluated based on longevity, mainstream coverage and social media influence.
Top 10 of 2012, No. 1: John Cena vs. The Rock; Once in a Lifetime
Never has a yearlong saga of fake fighting and real animosity polarized a wrestling fanbase the way John Cena and The Rock's transcendent feud did.
Pro wrestling feasts on casual fans who are occasionally sucked into its world of escapism—namely, when big names are involved. It's most lucrative when it captivates an audience that may not normally tune in. Dwayne Johnson, John Cena and the WrestleMania brand were each built to do just that.
The three empires would come together and beget WrestleMania 28.
Announced one year in advance, the showdown between John Cena and The Rock brought out the rooting fanatic in everybody.
Even superstars not keen on The Rock's stranglehold on the top of the card had a vested interest. Such was leaked by PWInsider through this anonymous quote:
[Johnson] comes in to use WWE to get back the audience he lost doing Disney movies, which is fine but he's been back over a year and name one person he helped make a bigger star since then? No one. He's here for himself, he keeps to himself, and he keeps someone who's actually touring here all year from making a bigger payday at the bigger shows.
What appeared to be real-life resentment between Cena and The Rock made its way onto WWE programming. With every catch phrase and one-liner, The Rock—a part-time performer with a time-and-a-half paycheck—seemed to be battling an entire WWE locker room living vicariously through John Cena.
The feud took WWE consumers on a ride of good, bad and uncomfortable.
The Rock had clearly lost a step on the microphone. But then again, he was brilliant. John Cena showed no signs of 2011 intimidation of The Rock, going tit-for-tat with The Great One. But his unprofessional behavior painted him as an amateur.
Backstage gossip questioning whether there was legitimate animosity between Cena and Rock was almost as entertaining as their weekly battles of one-upmanship.
Cena's anti-Rock rap on the March 12 RAW (seen below) carried a tone of close-to-home bitterness. So did The Rock's ensuing concert on the same show. The Rock saw Cena's remarks about his artificial pectoral muscles and raised him a personal dig at his soon-to-be dissolved marriage.
This clash of the titans had become so petty, it could be tweeted by Donald Trump.
Some purists were disgusted. Just how low were two professional entertainers really willing to go to own the last ego standing?
PWTorch commentator James Caldwell balked at the night's festivities, saying, "If WWE is selling a playground fight between two fourth-graders on Friday afternoon, then mission accomplished with the opening and closing segments of the show."
Contrary to purism, the bottom line was brewing. Wrestling is at its best when victory is given top billing. That's why The Undertaker's undefeated streak at WrestleMania is a perennial main eventer. But it's even better when authenticity is sensed within rivalries. This adds a dimension of legitimacy to an otherwise worked sport.
Cena and The Rock continued their line-blurring war of words throughout WrestleMania season. Obligatory jungle-gym jabs were followed up with guarantees of victory, thereby reminding the viewing audience why the two were at odds. The palpable tension between them evolved as fans lined up to see whose Hall of Fame trash talking would be preserved.
The result? The most-watched professional wrestling pay-per-view of all time. By gosh, the so-called playground of professional wrestling had become Cirque Du Soleil.
All complaints about The Rock being deserving of a main event spot at WrestleMania ceased as the returns rolled in. It didn't hurt that the match itself delivered a stirring back-and-forth contest that earned four out of five stars from the PWTorch.
Whatever that means.
This was a long-term investment in star power by the WWE. The abundance of mainstream media attention and eventual payoff further confirmed that it was on stage exactly what it was on paper—the biggest wrestling story of 2012.
Top 10 of 2012: 10. One Night in Brazil | 9. Just Say Yes! | 8. Millions of Problems | 7. Orton Suspended | 6. AJ Lee Is a Crazy, Dirty Girl | 5. Brock is Back | 4. The Rise of Ryback | 3. RAW 1000 | 2. 381 Days and Counting... | 1. Once in a Lifetime