Fantasy booking, if I may, is the lowest expression of Pro Wrestling fandom. By “fantasy booking” I mean the lengthy and detailed accounts of who would feud with whom, scripts of promos transcribed, breakdown of matches, etc. It’s a long and arduous process that always ends with the imaginary fans loving it and the imaginary booker hitting pay dirt. It’s tired and stereotypical and I’m no fan of it whatsoever.
So let’s get started!
No, actually let’s not. We’re not going to be meticulously re-writing history; that’s not the purpose of this (or any sequel) article. The purpose here is to look back on a year that–looking back–had a lot of potential for rich storylines, compelling programs and revenue generating matches. Instead the year featured wasted storylines, go-nowhere programs, and a loss in revenue for WWE. We’re going to be looking back on a year that, had one or two changes occurred, the entire dynamic of the company might have improved.
We begin with a look back at the year 2012. On paper it was a good year for the WWE. The Rock had returned to a tremendous reception a year earlier, entered into a program with John Cena that lasted the entire year and culminated in a 2012 match at WrestleMania 28. Hot on those heels was Brock Lesnar’s return, the incredible reign of CM Punk as WWE champion (both as a babyface and then as a heel), and the rise of Daniel Bryan from B-champion jobber to one of the most popular acts in the company. On paper it was a good year.
Considering all of the pieces at WWE’s disposal, however, the year must be considered a disappointment.
To expand on the above summary, let’s break down the three major happenings in 2012.
CENA LOSES TO ROCK
Though the year featured the return of the biggest PPV draw in PPV history, and though one man celebrated two consecutive New Years’ as champion for the first time since Hulk Hogan in 1987-1988, the biggest story of the year was unquestionably the match between Cena and Rock. It was the biggest WrestleMania main event since Rock v Austin at WrestleMania X-Seven and possibly the biggest marquee WrestleMania match since Rock v Hogan at WrestleMania X-8. Many of the fans watching were in diapers when those matches occurred, and though John Cena is not on the level of Steve Austin or Hulk Hogan he is certainly–like them–the top draw in the company for his time. It’s no coincidence, either, that the common denominators in all three matches is the most charismatic and successful crossover superstar WWF/E has ever produced: The Rock.
Rock and Cena’s feud may not have been all that special, hampered both by Rock’s routine absence and the PG-level insults the two traded with each other in the run-up to the match. Despite that, the two superstars each had a compelling argument as to why each, not only would win, but had to win. What’s interesting about that is, in Pro Wrestling, the distinction between “will win” and “has to win” is a fuzzy line. In normal sports, fans of a team will say “we will win” and later will say “we have to win.” The former statement makes sense since fans are supposed to be confident to the point of hubris (before the team plays). The latter expression, however, is unnecessary. No competitor worth his salt goes into any form of competition and doesn’t think he “has” to win. It’s understood. Everyone has to win. That there can only be one is why sports produce so much drama.
In Pro Wrestling, that drama is fabricated. It is based not only athletic superiority but on creative needs. However, because fans are in the dark about where the story is going, we try to guess and figure it out. We use terms like “this guy has to win.” Why? Because in our minds we have “this whole fantasy-booked idea about where to take him.” And it only works if he wins.
When Rock and Cena both said they “had” to win (Rock in order to cement his legacy, Cena to cement his position as a guy on par with Rock), the fans had a hard time knowing which way the story would go. For every argument in one column (“Rock’s not losing in his hometown!”) was an equally-strong argument in the other (“Cena isn’t losing to the part-timer!”). When the finish finally came both camps were equally as shocked. Those who predicted a Cena victory were naturally stunned, while those who figured Rock would win were shocked that it actually happened.
Where the story would go from there became the talk of the watercooler as WrestleMania 28 signed off…
…As it turned out, the story took a very sharp turn in an unexpected(ly awesome) direction. Word that Lesnar had signed a deal of some kind with WWE had leaked out by the time the RAW after Mania kicked off. Fans chanted his name off and on all night and by the time the closing segment of the show occurred, the fans were at a fever pitch. By the time the guitar riff peeled to signify Lesnar’s arrival, the arena exploded. 2 minutes later Lesnar had hoisted John Cena up, spun him around like a ragdoll, slammed him to the mat with an F5 and even kicked his stupid green hat out of the ring for good measure. It was a perfect return.
The next week the two men opened Raw with a pull apart brawl that left Cena with blood in his mouth and Lesnar with blood on his knuckles. Again, perfection.
The next week RAW was in London and Lesnar didn’t make the trip. He did, however cut a taped-interview where he mentioned Cena pissing his pants at the thought of facing him. Again, perfection.
The final showdown before Lesnar’s return match featured the traditional contract signing that turned into pandemonium and it’s at this point many people commented that the nature of the Lesnar v Cena feud had played out in reverse. The more traditional opening would have been to book the match, have Lesnar cut a promo, have a pull apart brawl and conclude before the match with Lesnar standing tall. Instead they did the opposite. Perhaps that’s why the feud felt so unusual and unexpected.
The feud with Lesnar was everything Cena’s feud with Rock was not. It was shorter and therefore more intensely paced. The segments packed more of a punch because the two men got physical while Rock and Cena traded schoolyard taunts. Also the finish seemed certain. Most everyone assumed Lesnar would either win or there would be some kind of a non-finish to set up a rematch (keep in mind, the details of Lesnar’s contract and how it would be carried out were not widely known yet).
Instead, after one of the most brutal matches in WWE history, Cena emerged victorious, feigned a stretcher job and instead cut a bizarre post match promo, stating essentially “I might be taking time off now, maybe not though, see ya!”
Lesnar moved on from Cena to almost instantly, which felt like a betrayal of the story they had been telling and of the way Lesnar had been portrayed since returning. Not that it mattered, since Lesnar then left until SummerSlam and Cena went on to a feud with John Laurinaitis, Big Show, and Lord Tensai before finding his way back into the title picture against CM Punk…
PUNK GOES COVER TO COVER
…speaking of the WWE title: CM Punk won the championship from Alberto Del Rio at Survivor Series 2011. He dropped the title to The Rock at the 2013 Royal Rumble. In between those two dates spanned 434 consecutive days of championship reigning, wherein the Straight Edge Superstar feuded with Chris Jericho, Daniel Bryan, John Cena, Ryback and his eventual conqueror, The Rock.
And yet, despite the list of names on that resume–names which included current top draws and up-incoming superstars–Punk rarely main-evented a single PPV. In fact, for the entirety of his once-in-a-generation reign, he only main-evented two PPVs in matches that didn’t feature John Cena or The Rock. His big win at Survivor Series was trumped by Cena teaming with The Rock. The next month he main-evented in a triple threat match on a show that Cena missed entirely. He opened the February PPV, was runner-up at WrestleMania, had the number 2 feud at Extreme Rules and played second fiddle to Cena v John Laurinaitis/Big Show at Over the Limit and No Way Out. His Money in the Bank title match (a year after he finally broke into the main event scene) was in the middle of the card.
After that, realizing he would never outshine John Cena as top babyface, he turned heel and spent the rest of his reign as the top heel. He still missed main-eventing SummerSlam but got his chance to carry Night of Champions (against John Cena, in a match that ended in a draw). He main-evented Hell in a Cell against Ryback (the other non-Cena main-event, and once again a show that Cena was not on at all). Worked with Cena and Ryback at the top of Survivor Series, missed TLC due to injury and then dropped the belt to Rock at the Royal Rumble.
434 days as champion is remarkable. Yet only a handful of those days featured him as the top attraction. CM Punk rose to main-event status (despite rarely actually main-eventing) at a time when WWE was desperate for new blood. At the same time, Punk would not be allowed to rise to the very top because that spot was predestined for Cena v Rock. It was a frustrating year for both he and his very loyal fans. Despite that, Punk carried the belt every day of the calendar year, and did so with a heel turn in the middle; a feat that–to this writer’s knowledge–no one has replicated. It’s just a shame that almost the entirety of it was lost in the haze of the slow set up for a rematch between Rock and Cena.
Again, on paper you have three incredible stories playing out in 2012. The pieces were there for it to be a momentous year. And while parts of it were good, the whole of it was largely disappointing. However, with a few small tweaks things could have turned out so much better. All you have to do is summarize what went wrong in 2012 and then just “not do that.” Simple right? So what went wrong?