Yawn-o-Mania

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  • I like wrestling. I can’t stop. I’ve quit actively watching wrestling many times, for many years, and caught maybe ten minutes of the WWE between 2002 and 2009, but during that time I still regularly checked several different wrestling websites multiple times a day. I’d buy burned DVDs of ’80s NWA shows that were transferred over from decaying old VHS tapes of the original TBS broadcasts. Even if I can rarely tolerate the WWE, I still can’t get over my childhood obsession with this weird fake sport that’s offensive, insulting, exciting, hilarious, occasionally smart, always sordid and often deeper than most people will ever acknowledge. And yet, even though I can’t shake my love for wrestling no matter how hard I try (and I tried hard after Chris Benoit, you guys), I still have no interest in watching this weekend’s WrestleMania.

    For wrestling fans, of course, WrestleMania is like the Oscars and the SuperBowl jammed together. It’s the biggest show of the year, where long-running storylines are ostensibly paid off, and where “legacies are made,” as the announcers remind us a thousand times a week on Raw. And last year’s event, with The Rock returning from Hollywood to wrestle the WWE’s long-running company face John Cena, generally kept its promise.

    MariaIt had almost everything fans look for from a wrestling show: at least one great technical match (courtesy of CM Punk and Chris Jericho), two exciting back-and-forth brawls between historic characters where the outcomes weren’t easily predictable (HHH vs. the Undertaker and The Rock vs. Cena), a spot-heavy trainwreck match (the “Team Johnny” vs. “Team Teddy” twelve-man tag), and, uh, Maria Menounos (???). It was a perfectly respectable WrestleMania, and the dozen or so non-wrestling fans that came to our WrestleMania party seemed to have a good time.

    It’s possible that this weekend’s WrestleMania could also deliver. The line-up looks weak, though, filled with undercard matches that have had almost no build-up and an upper card where the outcomes aren’t really in doubt. There might be unexpected finishes, and some of the matches might be surprisingly good (Chris Jericho vs. Fandango could be a sleeper, from a match quality perspective), but there’s no must-see match this year, and it all points to a larger problem facing the WWE. They don’t care about their young talent, so why should we?

    Imagine if the Redskins hadn’t made Robert Griffin III their starter but instead went out of their way to put him in situations that stall his development. Or if Mike Trout and Bryce Harper were benched, played out of position, and alternately beaned or walked on four straight whenever they got an at-bat. That’s what the WWE has done regularly with their new talent for the last five years or so. Few new wrestlers have been consistently pushed as big deals or serious threats in that time, and only CM Punk has truly broken through to the upper echelon, after numerous false starts.

    The only other notable exceptions are Sheamus, who was pushed too hard at first and then buried for months before the company decided to take him seriously again; Alberto Del Rio, who was rushed into the main event and then stagnated with a series of high-profile losses; and the Shield – the trio’s tag team that only debuted last fall, wrestles almost exclusively on pay-per-views, and has won every match they’ve been involved in – against some of the company’s top stars. (The Shield’s comeuppance at WrestleMania this weekend is almost guaranteed.)

    So many other potential superstars have received half-hearted, stop-and-start pushes that regularly cut them off at the knees. Talented performers like Dolph Ziggler, Kofi Kingston and Cody Rhodes are routinely beaten with little effort by Randy Orton and John Cena, who have both been at the top of the card for almost a decade now. Daniel Bryan has been consistently over no matter what role the company has given him, and yet is still portrayed as the weaker half of a tag team with a past-his-prime Kane.

    antoniocesaro_bioIn the past an all-around top talent like Antonio Cesaro, who is an excellent wrestler, can cut fantastic and believable promos, and, most crucially for the WWE, has a bodybuilder’s physique, would’ve been protected all the way to the main event before losing to Hulk Hogan or Bret Hart or John Cena and then settling comfortably into the upper card for a few years. Today he holds a secondary title that nobody cares about and loses non-title matches on TV two or three nights a week.

    The WWE is incapable or uninterested in creating stars. The common belief is that they felt burned by the surprising departures of Brock Lesnar and Bobby Lashley, who were both pushed heavily out of the gate only to quickly quit due to the company’s brutal touring schedule. The thought is that the WWE brand sells the tickets now, not the stars, and so they’re purposefully keeping anyone from getting too popular with the audience. Of course the fact that they’re willing to drop millions on part-timers like Lesnar and The Rock prove they realize the importance of marketable stars, even if they refuse to make new ones.

    So without enough in-house main eventers, the company’s promoting a “supercard” where four of the six wrestlers in the top three matches are basically guest stars. The Rock will most likely drop the title to John Cena and disappear, perhaps to return only in time for next year’s WrestleMania. The Undertaker will easily preserve his undefeated streak, and it probably won’t even be close.

    With CM Punk’s cartoonishly over-the-top heel routine after Paul Bearer’s real-life death (an act that’s included Paul Heyman impersonating the deceased manager and Punk dumping what are supposedly Bearer’s ashes all over the Undertaker), I wouldn’t be surprised if the Undertaker simply squashes him within a few minutes. And then the Undertaker will probably go away until four weeks before the next WrestleMania.

    Triple H is now a semi-retired corporate executive who, per the stipulations of his match, would have to fully retire if he loses to Brock Lesnar (of course the stipulations in wrestling are as binding as a teenager’s virginity pledge). Lesnar himself has only wrestled two matches since returning to the WWE last year, the second of which ended with him “breaking” Triple H’s arm en route to a submission victory. The standard conclusion to what has been a fairly standard wrestling storyline would be for the babyface Triple H to convincingly win the blow-off match. And anyway, it’s always dumb to bet against the boss’s son-in-law.

    Still, if any of these matches has an unexpected conclusion, it would be this one, with Lesnar beating Triple H once again. Either way, barring a rematch at the next pay-per-view, the odds of either Triple H or Lesnar wrestling again soon are slim.

    The only genuinely interesting part of WrestleMania will be the audience’s reaction to the matches. The hard-to-please New York and New Jersey fans are liable to cheer for the putative heel in each major match-up. The crowd will definitely favor The Rock over John Cena, and as such Cena lightly adopted some heel-ish tendencies on last Monday’s Raw.

    triple-hThey’ve tried to position Triple H as the valiant protector of the WWE brand and the McMahon family, but many fans will reflexively boo anything related to the McMahons, and Lesnar appeals to both young men who are into MMA and older fans who grew up on a more realistic strand of pro wrestling. Despite threatening the boundaries of good taste, CM Punk still received cheers and a loud chant on Raw as he wiped Paul Bearer’s purported ashes across the Undertaker’s face. The crowd could easily upend the face-heel dynamic of each match, creating an atmosphere that could be either awkward or exhilarating.

    That’s not enough to earn my $70, though. I admire the talent and athleticism of most of these six competitors, and I’m an unabashed fan of Punk and Lesnar. I don’t want to pay that much for this particular combination of match-ups, though. In the past wrestling always built to the future. Aging stars put over the next generation, transferring their heat to younger stars and perpetuating the business as they moved on from it.

    This WrestleMania reinforces the status quo, widening the gulf between the company’s exalted part-timers and the everyday workers trudging through the poorly booked mid-card. There is no future for the WWE, and at this point not even a past. It’s just a never-ending now, where the same guys always win and the rest are just warm bodies killing time until the main events.

    ———

    Follow Garrett Martin on Twitter @GRMartin or get a flying elbow to the solar plexus.

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