< Part #1
In the previous article, we considered the year 2012 and noticed the significance of the year’s three biggest stories. (1) Cena loses to Rock, (2) Brock returns to professional wrestling, (3) CM Punk holds the WWE championship for the entire calendar year. As previously said, 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 the year were good, the whole of it was largely disappointing.With a few small tweaks, however, 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?
CENA DOESN’T SUFFER
Let’s fast-forward to 2013. John Cena enters the Royal Rumble and vows to win. Why? Because he intends to defeat the demon that had haunted him for a year. That’s a good story; everyone loves a tale of redemption. The problem is, Cena spent the better part of 2012 just swimmingly. He won his feuds, defeated his opponents, headlined show after show, sold a ton of merchandise, etc. 2012 was like any other year for John Cena apart from his one blemish: He lost to the Rock, but looking back over the rest of the year, that loss really didn’t affect his career…at all. Because of that, Cena’s desire for redemption was lacking in drama. There was no reason to invest in it in 2012, because—as a hero—Cena had never really suffered in 2012.
Again, fast-forward to 2013. Brock Lesnar stands toe-to-toe against Triple H. It’s his first WrestleMania match since returning and his big rematch against The Game, whom he beat at SummerSlam months earlier. Unfortunately, though its only his third match, a lot of the shine had worn off. He was 1-1 and by the end of the night would be 1-2. All of the goodwill that had followed him from UFC–the MMA fans who knew of his WWE career who came over, the older WWE fans who followed him to UFC and came back–was pedigree’d into nothingness.
Lesnar rematched with Triple (again) a month later and though his Extreme Rules match with Cena drew a staggering number of PPV purchasers, a year later Lesnar offered no significant bump to the buyrate. He had a brilliant feud and match with CM Punk at SummerSlam but that show also fell below buyrate expectations. By the time he faced Undertaker with the “streak” on the line (in a match many were looking forward to from the moment he returned), no one in the world gave Lesnar a chance in the match, and most sat watching it unfold with half-bored expressions on their face. We’re now in Lesnar’s third year since returning and though he is still a captivating character and a phenomenal physical specimen, it’s safe to say the bloom is off the rose (even with his victory over Undertaker) and you can trace the reason why back to being mis-managed throughout 2012.
Once more, jump ahead to 2013 and to The Rock’s triumphant return to championship glory. He won the title after CM Punk’s mercenaries (The Shield) cheated to help him retain, only for Vince McMahon to restart the match. It’s a great way to end a heel’s title run and give the conquering hero a memorable victory. Unfortunately the victory was hollow due to the fact that CM Punk had barely been featured while WWE champion. His storylines were usually secondary to some other story being played out, whether it was John Cena’s latest feud, whatever Brock Lesnar was doing with Triple H, or sometimes both (moving his programs to third place).
The occasion when Rock beat Punk should have been earth-shattering. All of the elements were there: Rock was in his second real program after defeating Cena, CM Punk (flanked by Paul Heyman) was doing Hall of Fame-worthy work as the smarmy heel willing to do anything to keep his belt, and the WWE title was up for grabs after having been in the villain’s possession for over a year. The title match was occurring on arguably the number 2 PPV in the company, in the main event, in the challengers home town. Again, all of the pieces were there, but when the moment came, it felt hollow. You can trace the reason why back to the way his reign was treated throughout 2012.
So with the problems established, let’s ask the question “What could have been done?”
To start with—and this has been discussed in previous articles—John Cena needed to show vulnerability. I know WWE likes to treat its superhero like an unconquerable knight in shining armor, pure in morals and stout of heart. But that kind of hero doesn’t work without drama. Even if you want your hero to remain brave and pure, he still has to get knocked down. Otherwise, why watch his journey? There is no journey! It’s just “good guy is challenged by bad guy, is victorious” over and over and over.
The shot of John Cena sitting dumbfounded on the ramp at WrestleMania 28 was an incredible moment. Contained within it was a flood of possibilities for the hero. And don’t misunderstand, even though Rock v Cena was technically “babyface v babyface,” in the context of the feud Cena was the good guy. Rock was the guy who initiated the feud (calling out Cena upon his return), escalated the feud (costing Cena the match at WrestleMania 27), and solidified the feud (challenging Cena to the match at WrestleMania 28). Cena then went and lost in the culmination of the feud (the main event of WrestleMania 28).
“What happens now?” was on the mind of nearly every fan as WrestleMania signed off. Immediately thereafter a feud with Lesanr was sparked (more on that later): The RAW that featured a pull-apart brawl between Cena and Lesnar had fans cheering for both men (as opposed to the standard split that usually follows Cena). Fans of all ages were totally invested in a John Cena storyline for the first time in ages.
A month later, Cena is wrestling John Laurinaitis, spraying Michael Cole down with BBQ sauce and yucking it up like he’s without a care in the world. The fact that he would later claim that 2012 was the year he lost his groove is laughable and insulting to the fans who tuned in weekly.
Imagine, however, if Cena had taken a few months off after his match with Brock Lesnar. Now you’re dealing with a hero that has to step away from the spotlight in order to get his mojo back. He returns in the runup to SummerSlam and gets a title shot against CM Punk and then…loses! From there you kick him down for a couple non-title feuds (like he recently completed with Bray Wyatt) and let him take a few months to put the bad guys away. By the time he wins the right to enter the Rumble (by finishing off whomever he is feuding with) he’s a fallen hero looking for redemption. Will there be fans sick of seeing Cena main event WrestleMania? Sure, but that’s going to happen anyway. At least with Cena showing some vulnerability in 2012, you give the feud with Rock in 2013 some actual drama and you give the fans a story to get excited about.
Speaking of excitement, all measure of it was sucked out of the room on the RAW after Extreme Rules, when Lesnar gloated about his match with Cena from the night before. Mind you, Lesnar lost that match, but you wouldn’t know it from the way he talked. He spoke about how John Cena would never be the same (he would be) and how he had brought legitimacy back to the WWE (he didn’t). He spoke like a guy who defeated the company’s golden boy, when in reality he had knocked him around and then laid down for him. He was no different than Triple H, Batista, Edge, Big Show, JBL and others who had all roughed up John Cena in the past before being vanquished by him. The mystique of Lesnar going into the match was that he was different. He was a conqueror. He would shift the WWE landscape away from “Cena the unbeatable” to “Lesnar the destroyer.”
Instead he lost.
His feud with Triple H—a money feud that was desired by fans as far back as 2003—felt hollow; the inclusion of Paul Heyman felt like a stopgap to deal with Lesnar’s limited schedule. The match at SummerSlam was—in this writer’s opinion—slow and plodding and lacking any of the energy that the Cena v Lesnar encounter had. In fact, by the end of it, the fans had turned on the match and refused to give Triple H the “hero’s goodbye” that he was going for.
And then they fought again, and again a third time. Half of Lesnar’s matches since returning have been against Triple H and none of them had the spectacle of the Cena match or the psychology of the Punk match. His match with Big Show was barely worthy of mention and of course his now-infamous victory over Undertaker will need a few years before it can be objectively examined. As it is it’s the on-paper most credible guy to beat the streak but did so to much disappointment by the fans. Why? Because by the time Undertaker and Lesnar squared off there wasn’t a soul in the world who gave Lesnar a chance. Why? Because the mystique of Lesnar had been taken away, and it traces back to his foolish loss to Cena at Extreme Rules.
Imagine, however, if only one little thing changes. Imagine if, instead of Cena getting an improbable victory, the ref simply stops the match and calls for Cena to be stretchered out. Would the fans have felt cheated? Certainly, fans want decisive victories, but if a victory over Cena is out of the question, then why not do the next best thing. Lesnar bragged after his loss that he didn’t care about winning or losing, but that’s what losers say when they lose. If he knocks Cena out and stands tall at the end, and then proclaims he didn’t care about getting the pin, then he looks like an unstoppable monster. He then gets his victory over Triple H at SummerSlam and looks a million times stronger heading into WrestleMania 29. Whether he wins or loses there is irrelevant. He’d go into the Undertaker match at WM30 either 6-0 or at worst, 5-1, and would look much more credible when face-to-face with the Phenom.
Here of course is the big enchilada. This is the one that fans will be complaining about years from now as they look back on a squandered 2012. CM Punk forced himself onto the main-event scene in mid-2011 simply by being himself. By showing off his acerbic mic skills and being given spotlight matches against top stars, he proved his naysayers wrong and showed that he belonged at the top of the WWE food chain. His WWE title win at Money in the Bank is one of the best moments of the past decade.
And then they went and ruined it with Alberto Del Rio, Kevin Nash, and a loss to Triple H. By the time he regained his championship at Survivor Series he had lost a little shine but was still the breath of fresh air the main event needed.
Except, as already pointed out, he wasn’t really in the main-event. Apart from a bone thrown his way here and there, he was usually the number two attraction, playing second fiddle to whatever John Cena was doing. Unless John Cena was crossing paths with CM Punk, the champion was usually not the focus of the show. He had great matches with Chris Jericho and Daniel Bryan in the first half of 2012 and played a great heel character in the second half of the year, but rarely was he the man.
Imagine, however, if either of the previous two scenarios took place. If Lesnar takes out Cena and forces him to take a few months off, CM Punk the champ would be left as the sole top-babyface. A feud with John Laurinaitis had been teased for months, but ended up being given to Cena. With him out of the way, Laurinaitis vs. Punk becomes the authority vs. champ storyline, and what a story it would have been. Punk’s sarcastic character would have perfectly meshed with Laurinaitis’ Mr. Stiff. Laurinaitis could have thrown any number of challengers at Punk (Big Show and Daniel Bryan to name two) that would have given the champ plenty to work with and allowed the main event scene the freshness it sorely needed. A SummerSlam main event with John Cena would have been an even stronger #2 match to Triple H v Lesnar (which was going to top the card no matter what), and his feud with Ryback would not bombed as it did if Punk had already been a staple of the main event.
By the time Rock rose to face him, Punk could have been the year+ champ with a string of PPV main-event victories, which would have made the moment of triumph for the people’s champ that much more sweet. It also would have made Punk an even more credible challenger to Undertaker at WrestleMania 29.
It also might have given Vince and co. the confidence to use Punk better in 2013—say as the corporate champ instead of Orton or as the “not Daniel Bryan” challenger instead of Big Show, which might have helped prevent him from bailing on everyone a few months before his contract was up.
But now we’re getting into crazy fantasy booking.
I hate that stuff.