On a recent episode of Raw, WWE executives Triple H and Stephanie McMahon were confronted by the Big Show, an employee whose life they have relished making a living hell.
Weeks of tension were about to explode, and when Triple H removed his suit coat—the international symbol for “things just got real”—the crowd popped huge just for the tease of a fight between the COO and the World's Largest Athlete.
The only problem with the scenario is that the matchup WWE wants fans to get excited about is between Big Show and the current WWE Champion, Randy Orton, who will do battle at Survivor Series, only weeks away.
The Desolation of Daniel Bryan, Part 1
The byzantine road to this match has been littered with corpses, notably the devaluation of the WWE Championship and the push of Daniel Bryan.
It is the latter that has been the most frustrating. Superstars do not arrive from whole cloth; they develop before the fans' eyes, and the momentum Bryan was building toward breakout success came organically from the connection the fans developed with the performer.
The movement began to spread to the point where it seemed undeniable that WWE would honor Bryan with the WWE Championship, the golden spike that established Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, the Rock, John Cena and CM Punk, moving each from fan favorite to the industry's top guy.
Instead, week after week brought swerve after swerve, and the false finishes cost WWE a great deal of goodwill with the fans. There was a time any promoter would have killed to catch the kind of lightning-in-a-bottle with which Bryan was electrifying the crowds. Instead of exploiting that emotional connection, WWE systematically dismantled everything there was to root for.
If a hard-luck hero can scrape his way into the title picture and win the championship, only to be stripped of it by authority figures and crooked officials, the prize loses all value, and our protagonist looks like a dupe for chasing it.
Part of what made the well-remembered Austin-McMahon rivalry work was because the WWE Championship meant something. It was not presented as a paper title; a competitor earned it, and not even the company chairman could contest that fact, no matter how much it may have displeased him.
Years later, the WWE Championship was the centerpiece of the “Summer of Punk,” because, again, not even the central authority figure could prevent a competitor from winning the belt and then walking out of the company with it.
Vince Russo, the former television head writer for WWE, WCW and TNA, caught heat when he explained in a 2012 interview with Inside the Ropes (h/t WrestlingInc.com) that championship belts are props on wrestling programs.
As a device to incite a match, Russo has a valid point. Yet, there is a reason props such as Marilyn Monroe's dress from the Seven Year Itch and Dorothy's ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz fetch high prices on auction blocks and are displayed at the Smithsonian; our culture has attributed value to them, both monetary and emotional. Somewhere along the way, those props became part of our collective story.
The same is true of the WWE Championship and the World Heavyweight Championship. The legacies of both titles, one representing the now, one representing the sport's rich history (Abraham Lincoln once held a version), have accrued cultural value among wrestling fans, and those fans who went on to wrestle. Yes, they're props. But they're our props, and for our wrestling culture, they do matter every bit as much as the Stanley Cup, et al.
Vince McMahon chafed over the rebel Austin and the insubordinate Punk taking possession of the symbol of his WWE, over the enemy capturing his flag. At Night of Champions, Daniel Bryan won his championship match, but when the title was stripped away, the WWE Championship no longer represented the symbol of prestige in the company; an invisible power structure did, leaving an entire roster with nothing to fight for.
In those past storylines, McMahon was sitting in rarefied air, but the WWE Championship was the top of the mountain. The mistake of the Authority storyline is that the McMahon-Helmsley Faction sit atop the mountain, and everything else is beneath them.
On multiple occasions, the Raw Superstars were emasculated, made to stand on the stage in fear of retaliating against the Authority, lest they lose their jobs. Why would Brodus Clay dance to the ring under this threat? Why would fans find anything to cheer for in supposed heroes overcome by cowardice?
Worse, weeks later when Superstars such as the Usos did break ranks, they were only punished by having to wrestle in matches—subverting the very image of ultimate power the Authority had built up at these wrestlers' expense!
Any storyline that damages the reputation of the roster is a gamble, and to not be consistent in the telling is a losing one.
The Desolation of Daniel Bryan, Part 2
I had the good fortune to attend that Money in the Bank pay-per-view where Punk left with the gold. Another highlight of the evening was Daniel Bryan's victory in the MITB match.
It was an unexpected moment, because at the time, winning the briefcase meant WWE was willing to invest in that wrestler as champion. While I cannot speak for the rest of the Allstate Arena, I did not envision WWE having faith in the former American Dragon, who is a far cry from the Hulking archetype the promotion repeatedly falls back on.
Bryan's naked emotion that evening on top of that ladder was as real as it gets. Any snob who claims professional wrestling cannot deliver the same emotional highs of other sporting events... I wish they could have been there that night.
The Aberdeen native would later cash in his MITB contract, win the World Heavyweight Championship and spontaneously jump on the railing, point his arms in the air and proclaim, “Yes!” That uncensored moment burned in fans' imaginations, and they employed it on Raw to express their displeasure at Bryan's unceremonious 18-second WrestleMania loss the evening prior. Bryan and WWE capitalized on the gesture, which has since become Bryan's signature.
How unfortunate, then, to see Big Show appropriate it on recent episodes of Raw, where Bryan is no longer even a factor in the WWE Championship storyline. It is the disrespectful same as another competitor not in a program with John Cena performing Cena's “You can't see me” gesture. This was something that came from the performer and the fans connecting. This was Bryan's thing, and now he does not even exclusively own it.
Obviously, WWE realizes the value of Daniel Bryan as a main eventer, but they missed the chance over the summer and into the fall to make him “the” main eventer the fans were clamoring to see established. With John Cena needing time off to heal his arm post-Summer Slam, it would have been the perfect opportunity to cement Bryan on top, plus it would have set the stage for the pair's anticipated championship rematch, but none of that happened.
It is baffling to me that an entertainment content provider so focused on what is trending worldwide would stunt natural momentum and genuine fan emotion in favor of a clunky, complicated legal drama that puts non-wrestlers at the fore and relegates the WWE Champion to being little more than their familiar.
Footnote: TV Conflict
The conceit of a police procedural is that the conflict will be resolved with an arrest. In a legal drama, the conflict comes to a head in a courtroom standoff. The conceit of a wrestling program is that all the conflict must lead to resolution in the ring.
Daniel Bryan's quest to reclaim his championship was ultimately ended with a Shawn Michaels superkick, because the special referee was friends with evil authority figure Triple H. Shawn Michaels is also retired.
To those of us who follow wrestling news and are aware Michaels is content to stay retired, the swerve was never going to have a satisfying payoff; for one, the match was another in a line of disputed finishes, and secondly, HBK goes home, and Bryan is left on TV, duped again.
For those fans who do not follow the trades, Bryan was screwed out of his championship opportunity by a retired wrestler, and he will not be able to get the proper receipt. Clamping a submission hold on Raw is a precursor to a match, not a satisfying conclusion for a man fans believe has lost everything.
I'm sure there is not a wrestling fan out there who would not wish to see Michaels come out of retirement to face his former pupil, but events on Raw have already plowed on beyond it, with Bryan left holding the bag. To introduce conflict only to abandon it is just bad storytelling.
The Eyes Have It
Some major issues with the Authority-Big Show drama are the facts that there was so much backstory to explain, and that so much happened off camera.
Explaining events that happened offstage was a staple of ancient Greek dramas, and even as late as Elizabethan times, audiences were still going out for the evening to hear a play. It was not until the advent of motion pictures (literally, pictures that move) in the late 1800s that people started to go see entertainments.
The Authority-Big Show story has played out like a mystery that failed to reveal all the clues. Audiences were simply informed that Big Show had lost his finances and was into the McMahon-Helmsleys for a pound of flesh. Forced to do their bidding, Big Show was embarrassed, berated and abused for weeks, before he finally snapped.
Consider the emotional resonance this story would have struck were the audience to have seen Big Show at his lowest point, and with no other option than to ask his frenemies Triple H and Stephanie McMahon for help. In this economy, I'm sure many audience members could have related to Big Show losing his house. Paul Wight is a great actor and would have had the crowd in the palm of his giant hand as he relayed his tale of woe to the McMahon-Helmsleys.
It would also have given the evil duo the chance to add layers to their characters, some part of them empathizing with Show's plight before, over the course of weeks, growing more sadistic in their demands and finally outright enjoying turning the screws on the big man.
Whatever the course of events, the fact remains that the central figures in this drama were Show and the Authority, and the money is in that match, not in a tacked-on feud with Randy Orton, who has also been berated and demeaned by the Authority. Orton and Show have more in common in this storyline than they do reasons to fight.
Again, like Daniel Bryan and Shawn Michaels, WWE set up a conflict between Big Show and the Authority, but is not resolving it in a satisfactory manner. If the plan was for a Big Show-Triple H confrontation at the Royal Rumble or WrestleMania, I am at a loss as to why Show would achieve his goal of a new contract so many months before those events.
It was explained to the audience that if the Authority screws Show again, he will sue. That is where the winding conflict between the two parties was resolved, in some off-screen courtroom, not in a wrestling ring.
But, wait, can't Daniel Bryan then sue? They defamed his character, repeatedly robbed him of a championship he rightfully earned; can't his conflict also be resolved in the off-screen courtroom, since it will reach no satisfaction between the ropes?
Sometimes, Simple is Best
Daniel Bryan has been firmly entrenched in the WWE main event scene since he won his MITB contract on that clear Chicago night, yet I cannot help but think WWE let a moment pass them by this year. If ever there was a time to pull the trigger and establish a Superstar as “the” Superstar, that was the time.
Rather than seize the moment, WWE opted to pursue a complicated, inconsistent legal drama where conflicts were not resolved in the ring, fans were repeatedly burned by swerves, much of the drama was played off-screen and the reputation of the roster was sacrificed for non-wrestling authority figures.
With a clear storyline, complete ownership of his “yes” gimmick and continued in-ring excellence, I am confident Daniel Bryan can regain the momentum that was lost for him over the past few months, and earn his spot as “the” guy.
Still, I cannot imagine Vince McMahon looking at the insane crowd response Hulk Hogan was garnering in the AWA in 1983 and saying, “When I sign this guy, I'm not going to build on his incredible popularity. I'm going to make him a cog who never wins the big one, all in service of a storyline that puts over the front office. That will sell out MSG!”
Times change, I guess.