What in God's name did I just watch?
Let's summarize what just happened: Royal Rumble 2014 was, strictly from an in-ring work standpoint, easily the best WWE pay-per-view event in months, obliterating all of 2013's post-SummerSlam shows. That doesn't really matter, because WWE presented a PPV where the entire crowd in Pittsburgh turned on the creative direction of the company.
The crowd was OK with the New Age Outlaws beating Goldust and Cody Rhodes to win the WWE Tag Team Championship, I guess because they haven't teamed in WWE in 14 years and thus aren't seen as stale. The title change was a bad omen, though.
Daniel Bryan vs. Bray Wyatt was a corker of a PPV opener; a fantastic match. Bryan lost, but the crowd didn't turn on the show because the match was so good—and ostensibly because they thought Bryan being in the opener (and losing in a company where parity booking is the norm) meant he was going to enter and possibly win the Royal Rumble match. Brock Lesnar vs. Big Show was an incredibly entertaining match/angle hybrid where Brock looked like a monster.
And then Randy Orton vs. John Cena happened.
The crowd turned on the match with "boring" chants 30 seconds in for the first spot, a headlock takeover by Orton. In spite of Orton and Cena actually wrestling a very good WWE main event style match, they had no hope of winning over the crowd, who was chanting for Daniel Bryan throughout. They did not care for Randy Orton and John Cena one iota and chanted everything from "Randy Savage" to "this is awful" and "end this match." When the Wyatt Family interfered, costing Cena the match, they got one of the biggest pops of the night for getting the match over with.
Then it was time for the Royal Rumble match. It was a very good Rumble match with a bunch of fun moments like Alexander Rusev's main roster debut, Sheamus' surprise return (still no Christian), two crazy feats from Kofi Kingston, El Torito entering the match, JBL sort of making his in-ring return and more. As the match went on, though, the mood of the fans in attendance changed. They were clearly worried that Daniel Bryan wasn't in the match.
Let's get something important out of the way: Daniel Bryan was never advertised as being in the Rumble match, but there were only 20 names advertised for the match, so it was not out of the question to think he could appear. Still, it's worth noting that on Raw last Monday, it was specifically pointed out that Bryan and Bray Wyatt weren't in the Rumble match and thus, it made sense for them to have a singles match on the show.
Anyway, the Pittsburgh fans started to boo every new entrant once the Rumble started to inch towards the mid-20s. They got really uncomfortable when Batista showed up as No. 28. When Rey Mysterio came in as No. 30, the crowd completely turned on him, the show in general and WWE as a company. Everyone was booed except for CM Punk and Roman Reigns. Kane pulled Punk out, and the crowd booed more. They got behind Reigns...and then Batista won. The production crew clearly tried (and failed) to sweeten the audio. The crowd even booed the celebratory pyro.
I'll let my friend Mike sum up the reaction of most of the fanbase: "Arguably the single most embarrassing night in terms of a show in the history of WWE. Everyone backstage involved with putting it together should hang themselves because anyone with half a brain saw this coming."
A more famous Michael tweeted this:
Does @WWE actually hate their own audience? I've never been so disgusted with a PPV.— Mick Foley (@realmickfoley) January 27, 2014
I wouldn't go that far, but it's certainly representative of the reaction to what happened. If WWE didn't expect this, I have no idea what they're thinking. Yeah, I know that, as Wrestling Observer editor Dave Meltzer noted last week (F4WOnline.com subscribers-only link), Bryan isn't moving merchandise nearly at the level of the reactions he's getting from crowds, but that's apropos of nothing. Bryan, by and large, has terrible beard- and goat-themed merchandise right now. When his primary piece of merchandise was the maroon "YES!" shirt, arenas were blanketed in them.
When someone gets the passionate reactions Bryan is getting, you find a way to parlay that into money. It's not his fault his shirts are awful. And when the fans are so passionate about someone that they turn on everything else the company is presenting? You damn well have to change course.
If WWE doesn't call an audible, the creative direction of the company is hopeless. Absolutely hopeless. This isn't SummerSlam, where a great show ending in Bryan getting screwed was at least the beginning of a long-term storyline that made sense. Well, even if WWE wants us to think it is:
Sorry guys, the machine wanted me nowhere near the Royal Rumble match. But I thank everyone for their support. YOU are the #YESMovement— Daniel Bryan (@WWEDanielBryan) January 27, 2014
They try to keep US down and away from the top spots, but they can’t ignore the reactions forever. Keep voicing your opinions. #YESMovement— Daniel Bryan (@WWEDanielBryan) January 27, 2014
Will WWE do the smart thing and call an audible to change WrestleMania plans so Daniel Bryan gets a bigger role?
They need to call an audible. WWE fans do what they see on TV; there's no way the crowd reactions won't get worse and worse over the next few months. If Randy Orton vs. Batista (whose cardio made The Rock last year look like Ric Flair in his prime) headlines WrestleMania, 70,000 of the most hard-core wrestling fans in the world will turn on it with "YES!" chants and who knows what else. And that's the key to all this: If WWE is going to change their plans, ruining their shows over this pivotal period during the lead-up to the WWE Network launch and WrestleMania is the only realistic way to make it happen.
I'm really worried that it won't, though, and the fans will get angry enough that we'll see some really ugly scenes in the next few months. This is not good heat. I absolutely don't want anyone to do anything dumb or dangerous like throw trash at the ring (Seriously: Don't do that or anything like that. Ever.), but I'm worried it's going to happen. The sentiment from people who already bought tickets could build into something very ugly in the next few months. Could you imagine being a fan who spent thousands of dollars on tickets and travel packages right now? Hell, if you are one of those people, let us know how you feel in the comments.
David Bixenspan has been Bleacher Report's WWE Team Leader and a contracted columnist since 2011. His article about WWE's 1984 expansion from regional powerhouse to national juggernaut is featured in the newly released issue #102 of Fighting Spirit Magazine, available worldwide online and in print in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @davidbix and check out his wrestling podcasts at LLTPod.com.