WWE: Making a star vs. rewarding one

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Can WWE really make the same mistake twice? Can they really do this? Are they that capable of not learning their lesson? Yes, this is the company that managed to bungle a buyout and invasion of WCW. This is the company that managed to turn New York against ECW. This is the creative brain trust that thought “18 seconds” was long enough for Bryan vs Sheamus at WrestleMania.

So silly me for even asking the question. Yes, of course they can make the same mistake twice. Only this time they don’t have an easy plan-B the way they did last year. Last year Daniel Bryan never competed in the Rumble. He fought (and lost) early in the night after having his main event run snatched away months prior due to a SummerSlam buyrate that wasn’t all that Vince hoped it would be (though it was better than it should have been, based on 2013 PPV trends). Because his story was so hastily dumped, fans were left feeling strung along and in Bryan the company had an ace up their sleeve they didn’t know how to play until backed into a corner.

As Batista celebrated his 2014 rumble victory to a chorus of boos, the prospect of WrestleMania 30’s main event being a fiasco was all but certain. Thankfully the ace was played and Bryan was seamlessly inserted into the mix. It was such a natural course-correction that, until a recent Newsday interview confirmed it was an audible, many fans believed the entire storyline was mapped out from SummerSlam-WrestleMania. In fact it was akin to Vince McMahon running out of rope, falling from a burning building and landing on a mountain of pillows.

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Daniel Bryan’s rise from mid-card nobody to main event megastar is only the latest example of a superstar managing to take the crap he was given to work with and polish it until it was so shiny Vince couldn’t resist but snatch it up for himself. The modern history of the WWF is filled with success stories—wrestlers who achieved heights of fame and prominence in the industry and who helped bring the business to new heights. WWF’s modern history is also filled with failures—wrestlers who were given multiple opportunities to make an impact and become the standard bearer for Vince’s Titan Empire, only to fail time and again until eventually they fade into obscurity or mediocrity.

Those two camps of wrestlers are the sum total of guys Vince has pushed over the years, but almost without exception it is the former group—those who got over organically despite multiple creative-led obstacles—that made the biggest impacts in the business, while the latter group—those who were pushed to the chagrin of the fans—withered and died on the vine.

Everyone else on the roster has the potential to rise to the point where they are pushed as a main draw, but whether they find success depends on whether or not the end up in the “over” camp or the “pushed” camp. Either you’re drafted by Vince to be the next big thing, ready to be pushed down fans’ throats, or you are ignored and left to wallow in the midcard until your own natural talents force Vince to hop on the gravy train you’ve constructed for yourself. There is no middle ground.

As Roman Reigns celebrated his 2015 rumble victory to a chorus of boos, the prospect of WrestleMania 31’s main event being a fiasco was all but certain. A year ago he was the last man eliminated, tossed out by Batista after the crowd had chanted his name and tried to will him to an improbable victory. Back then, he was just one third of the hottest wrestling trio in ages. He had just broken the single-match record for most Rumble eliminations. He was young and everyone knew he wasn’t ready, but he looked like a star being made before our eyes. His match with the Shield against the Wyatt family stole the show the next month, and soon after he and the Shield were fighting Evolution through the Spring, tearing down the house and leaving fans everywhere to anoint Roman Reigns as a future top guy, if not the future top guy. He looked like a guy organically getting over whose future success was all in front of him.

Then he got drafted by Vince to be the next big thing.

And it all went south from there.

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Since Roman’s singles career began in the summer of 2014, he has been exposed as a very green rookie with a limited moveset and an even more limited ability to work the microphone. Instead of being allowed to grow and develop, through mid-card feuds and good old fashioned time and experience, Roman was thrust into the main event scene, asked to work 20 minute matches and to help carry feuds through long promos on RAW. There is a very short list of wrestlers in history with as little experience as he that managed to thrive under those circumstances. It’s not a surprise that Roman faltered.

And it’s also not a surprise that Vince stubbornly stuck with him. As short as the list is of guys who got over organically and were allowed to blossom into being top stars, it is a very long list of names that Vince took on as pet projects and tried to craft into mainevent superstars when fans weren’t ready. Guys like Bobby Lashley, Great Khali, Vladimir Kozlov, Ahmed Johnson, Adam Bomb and others all have the distinction of being pet projects of Vince McMahon, promised to be molded by him into the next big thing.

What’s fascinating is how, looking back on WWE history (especially post-Hogan), the company’s biggest successes came from the guys the company either never intended to be a top guy and who got over organically (Bryan, Punk), or from guys who only got over when the company got out of the way and stopped trying to push them THEIR way (Austin, Rock).

Whenever they tried to manufacture a star, it didn’t work. The last time they came close to succeeding was with Batista in 2005, but he was soon displaced as the top guy when Cena’s (organically achieved) success could not be denied, or contained on the Smackdown Brand. Soon after WrestleMania 21, the two champions switched brands with Cena taking his place on the A-show.

There are others who got over, either through their own set of skills or simply because the company stayed away long enough for the talent to slowly gain a fanbase.

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Bret Hart won his first WWF Championship in 1992, after Ric Flair declared his intentions to return to WCW. Bret’s win occurred essentially in his backyard, in an un-promoted un-televised match at a Canadian house show. The longstanding rumor is Flair didn’t want to lose on his way out, as that would ruin his prestige as he prepared to reclaim the mountain top in WCW. So Bret’s title reign started out unspectacularly and, likely because Vince never really committed to it, he never was pushed as a Hogan-esque superman. The fans he won over as a scrapping technical wizard in the midcard weren’t turned off by a sudden change in character. He was still the same old Bret, albeit now competing at a higher level.

Dropping the title to Hogan-via-Yokozuna certainly helped solidify Hart’s appeal to fans craving a new direction. By the time the 1994 Royal Rumble came around, though Vince tried to push for Lex Luger to become the next Hogan, the fans were more solidly behind Hart leading to his reclaiming the title and finally getting a proper title run throughout 1994. His rise was organic and natural, driven by his great work-ethic and the time he’d spent in the midcard, winning over fans.

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Steve Austin is a slightly different example. He came to the WWF from WCW with good fanfare and a Vince McMahon approved gimmick. He was even given a great manager to work with (Ted DiBiase) to help get his “Ringmaster” character over. It did not work for a variety of reasons. He had not built up a connection with the fans, his character was not true to his personality and his continued push throughout the midcard came against the backlash of the WWF audience; his every appearance was less and less well-received until he was hated for coming out and eventually ignored (the true death nail to a performer).

It wasn’t until he took his character into his own hands, started to talk on his own and let his own personality shine through that Austin started to get over, first as a heel, then as an anti-hero, before finally exploding as a full-fledged, blue collar crusader against “the man.” By then Vince had elevated him to the top of the mountain and had taken a more direct role in the direction of Austin’s character, but because Austin laid the foundation himself, and was given the time to get over organically, there was little Vince could do to screw it up.

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The Rock is probably the WWF’s greatest success story. Not just in terms of his celebrity status as an A-list movie star, but also in the fact that he managed to achieve any level of success considering how badly he was managed when he first arrived. The refrain “die ____ die” is reserved by the most bitter fans to be hurled against only the most hated performer. And in 1997 “die Rocky die” was in full swing. It didn’t help that the direction of the company was moving toward a grittier, more hard edge style, while Rocky Maivia looked like a throwback to the Golden Age of flamboyant musclemen who might compete on Saturday Night’s Main Event. He was pushed as a babyface without any reason for the fans to cheer him, so, they turned.

Thankfully soon after, a course correction was made. Rock turned heel, and as a bad guy his natural personality and mic skills started to come through. The fans started to naturally respond to him for the first time. They swerved the fans and turned him heel again just as he was getting the love, using the fans own hatred against him as the platform to elevate him to the World Title. It was a perfect heel run, but through it all the fans kept slowly falling in love because Rock was just so charismatic. By the time he formally turned babyface, he launched himself into the stratosphere as the 1B babyface to Austin’s 1A.

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John Cena became the first post-Attitude Era megastar. His rise to the top came after almost being fired and were it not for a stupid Halloween costume at a Smackdown Halloween episode, the wrestling world might have been spared the horrors of John Cena vs John Laurenitis in 2012. Before he became the face of the WWE, Cena was a bland meathead with zero personality. He wore sliver and blue trunks, except for when he’d shake things up and wear the silver and red ones. His signature taunt was…flexing. His catchphrase? Nonexistant. He had a good look but he was unmolded clay. Easily he could have been another in the long line of “creative has nothing for you” casualties.

Then he debuted a Vanilla Ice look, showed off some mad freestyle rap skills and history was made. Soon he was tearing up the smackdown midcard as a throwback heel, who would cleverly verbally eviscerate his opponents as he strutted down the isle. The fans hated him, but then came to admire his unique look and obvious verbal talent. Before long he was getting cheers. His win at WrestleMania 21 and subsequent drafting to Raw represented the peak of his popularity. Unlike with Austin, however, his career after Vince took over the gravy train led to divided popularity and a tenure as face of the company that is marked with questionable booking decisions and bad storylines. Austin was the right guy for the TV-14 attitude era and the company was remade in his rebellious image. To the chagrin of the fans, Cena became—not the next Austin, but the next Hogan, reshaping the company in his TV-PG image. Older fans rebelled and have been divided ever since. Still, it can’t be denied how dead in the water he was before he took over his character and grew into the most important superstar of the modern era. That he did so via a slow rise through the midcard and not through Vince’s meddling is critical.

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Daniel Bryan’s ascent to the top of the WWE landscape (at least in the eyes of the fans) really needs no long history lesson. It was summarized by WWE’s brilliant production team in the lead up to WrestleMania 30. His story was told as one who rose from undercard obscurity, to midcard irrelevance, to uppercard aimlessness until finally the support of his fans could not be ignored and he was given the keys of the kingdom.

Bryan’s success may be the most unlikely of all. His diminutive size, mild mannered personality and indie background made him the kind of wrester Vince typically hated and refused to push as anything more than enhancement talent. Somewhere along the way, however, he managed to find a connection with the crowd. That connection blossomed until it was unavoidable. For two years now, Daniel Bryan has been the one main event level superstar to garner near-universal support from WWE fans. And while Vince hopped on the gravy train in late February (at the eleventh hour as Mania 30 approached) he never had the chance to ride it as Bryan’s injury sidelined him a month after winning the title. Still, it can’t be said that Bryan was a manufactured superstar, and it can’t be denied that he got himself over—slowly but surely—despite the numerous examples of bad creative work by WWE’s crack team of writers.

See page 2 for those that didn’t fair so well despite the help of WWE…

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