March 14, 2004, was a day wrestling geeks will remember forever. It was WrestleMania XX at Madison Square Garden. Eddie Guerrero beat Kurt Angle to retain the WWE Championship1 and, in the last match of the night, Chris Benoit2 defeated Shawn Michaels and Triple H to win the World Heavyweight Championship. After Benoit's win, his real-life buddy Guerrero came out to the ring and the two champs celebrated together while confetti dropped from the rafters.
It was a momentous night not only because Guerrero and Benoit were the good-guy underdogs, but because they were favorites of the wrestling egghead commentariat. These fans — the Internet intelligentsia — understand the backstage workings that average fans don't get. They treasure the qualities that mainstream wrestling's decision-makers frequently overlook: charisma over size, in-ring work rate over physique. And, of course, they all consider themselves smarter than Vince McMahon and the brain trust in charge of WWE. Sometimes, they have a point.
Guerrero and Benoit were Internet darlings. They traveled through Japan and Mexico to hone their craft. They toiled in ECW to showcase their "real" wrestling styles as opposed to the hard-core brawls that ECW was known for. Back in those days, while the golden-tanned beefcakes of the WWF and WCW were broadcast to every cable TV household in America, Benoit and Guerrero were known only to the lucky few who stayed up late to watch ECW or to the guys who traded videocassettes of independent and foreign promotions. To name-check either of them was a sort of secret handshake for wrestling-fan purity, a gnostic cult growing in the shadow of the WWF's cartoonish product.
In hindsight, their fame was sort of a Pyrrhic victory. Benoit and Guerrero became legendary for precisely the same reason they hadn't yet become superstars: They didn't fit the mold. They were as highly skilled as they were undersized compared to most WWF wrestlers of the '90s (or most other decades, for that matter).3 They were great conveyors of emotion during their matches but, particularly in the case of Benoit, they weren't compelling actors in prematch promos. Neither had a face that could grace the cover of Tiger Beat.
Both aspired to a kind of greatness particular to diminutive grapplers — Benoit idolized The Dynamite Kid of British Bulldogs fame, and Guerrero grew up in a family of accomplished luchadores. But more than pedigree or ambition, what seemed to make Benoit and Guerrero great was the fact that they weren't given an easy path to stardom. They were both hired by WCW when, during the Monday Night Wars, WCW expanded their flagship show to three hours and needed talent to fill the time. Guerrero and Benoit were poached by the WWF after they overachieved in WCW. Even then, their ascent to the top of the card was never assured, and the paths they took there were anything but linear. Despite the fanfare that accompanied their signings, the WWF didn't seem eager to bet the bank on either of them.
This, then, is the core of the "smart" wrestling fan's adoration for Benoit, Guerrero, and their ilk: In an unreal world of fake rivalries, fake villains, and fake odds to be overcome, Benoit and Guerrero were real-life heroes who deserved success but were held back by the most dastardly foe imaginable: the establishment, guardians of the pro-wrestling status quo. When both men were pushed to the top in early 2004, they were beloved by the average fan because they were scripted to be underdog heroes, overcoming great odds to achieve their lifelong dreams. But at the same time, they were even more beloved by the smart fans because this was so unlikely. Benoit and Guerrero were never supposed to be scripted as the big winners in the first place.
That night in New York was at the forefront of the minds of many wrestling fans this past Sunday when the Tables, Ladders, and Chairs pay-per-view ended with CM Punk retaining the WWE Championship (in a great match against The Miz and Alberto Del Rio) just after Daniel Bryan pilfered the World Heavyweight Championship from the Big Show.4 To top it off, Zack Ryder opened the show by beating Dolph Ziggler for the U.S. Championship.
All three champions are Internet darlings. Bryan5 is probably most like a modern Benoit or Guerrero. He has wrestled all over the world, he achieved great success in the American indie scene, and he was widely regarded as the best wrestler in the world before he got the call-up from WWE — this despite being 5-foot-8 and under 200 pounds. When he was signed, smart fans were quick to praise WWE for seeing potential in so unlikely a specimen; they also bitterly predicted that Bryan would be misused by WWE for years to come. When Bryan was pitched as a legitimate mid-tier competitor (even though announcer Michael Cole endlessly derides him as a "nerd"), fans who assumed he would lose every match still couldn't rest easy. When he won the Money in the Bank briefcase and said he'd cash it in at WrestleMania, many fans interpreted it as a tease before the huge letdown to come. It felt like the more WWE projected Bryan as a legitimate wrestler, the more "smart" fans disbelieved it. They know the script, and Bryan isn't part of it.
Ryder, as much as he's lumped in with Bryan and Punk, is an entirely different animal. Ryder has been in WWE since 2006, first in a tag team with Curt Hawkins, then as the flamboyant, Jersey Shore-inspired Long Islander we know today. He made himself a home in the secondary realms of Smackdown, ECW (the WWE version), and Raw, before he was shunted aside into the netherworld of WWE Superstars.6 But Ryder took matters into his own hands, launching a wildly popular YouTube series and proclaiming himself the WWE's Internet Champion. The fans he earned eventually helped force him into television prominence. Once on TV, he was endorsed by John Cena, and, after Ryder began feuding with Ziggler, a mid-card match could rarely run to completion without the crowd chanting "We want Ryder!" Of course, that chant is semi-ironic; it's a critique of the WWE power structure as much as an endorsement of Ryder.
Punk, of course, is an outsider thrust into the unlikely role of messiah. He cemented his own ascendance in the past six months by demanding a spot at the top of the card and, once given it, proving that the implausible hero can succeed in a WWE that has always overvalued big muscles and outsize gimmickry. His feud with John Cena underscored the disparity between the former prototype7 and the new model that Punk represents. In a few short weeks, Punk made dissent to WWE's business as usual into a popular trend. The crowd went wild for Punk; "Cena sucks!" chants, which had been infiltrating WWE crowds for some time, suddenly became the norm — a measure of approval for Punk's new movement. Like the "We want Ryder!" chants, "Cena sucks!" isn't particularly literal so much as it is a rejection of the status quo.
Perhaps the most poignant aspect of Sunday's Tables, Ladders, and Chairs was the absence of John Cena. Even though Cena wasn't literally in the scene, however, his presence was felt. Cena had tried to interject himself into Sunday's title match, but he gave up his shot to give Ryder the fight with Ziggler. Even so, any savvy wrestling fan would have expected Cena to somehow butt into the championship match. But Sunday night came and went and Punk defeated two top-level baddies and Cena was nowhere to be found. It was the night of the underdog, not only because three unlikely stars won, but also because WWE's reigning comic book ▄bermensch had gone AWOL.
It's probably just coincidence, but last week, WWE started selling T-shirts that say — wait for it — CENA SUCKS. According to Cena, WWE had been interested in marketing them for some time now, and he finally agreed. The timing, however, suggests a broader movement toward reality — not the capital-R Reality of Punk's "Reality Era," but the real thing. It's an acknowledgement that there is a world bigger than the one WWE has constructed. WWE can't make something true simply by insisting upon it; they can't make Cena beloved by all any more than they can make it rain, or make a successful motion picture.
By keeping Cena off-screen during Sunday's PPV, WWE gave their rising underdogs a chance to shine. And lest it seem an anomaly, Monday's episode of Raw opened with Punk introducing himself, Ryder, and Bryan in the center of the ring. The sight of three celebrating champions was familiar, but these specific champions imbued the scene with freshness. When they entered the ring for their main event with Ziggler, Del Rio, and Miz, they came through the crowd. The show was in Philadelphia, and it was an obvious nod to ECW, but this was one nostalgic gesture from Punk that was so metaphorically loaded that it felt progressive instead of backward-looking. The meaning was simple: We are the counterculture; we are the new reality.
The biggest difference between 2004 and the present day is that the smart set of wrestling fans has outgrown the traditional mob of credulous marks (insomuch as those folks ever really existed). Thanks to the Internet and the shift toward "reality" that ECW pioneered in the 1990s, there is no more dividing line between the guileless fan who roots for scripted heroes and the know-it-all who roots for wrestling outsiders like Benoit, Guerrero, and Punk.
As a reader named Matt Malone wrote to me a couple of weeks ago: "At this point, 'smarter fans' are so in tune with what's going on backstage that we know that the real adversity in professional wrestling comes from superstars overcoming what's going on backstage, not beating the other guy in the ring. If Zack Ryder wins the U.S. Championship it won't be a triumph over Dolph Ziggler, it will be a triumph over the backstage powers that held him down for years." Their successes are no longer measures of what they've overcome, storyline-wise, but what they've overcome in reality. That WWE is now acknowledging this is reassuring and necessary, because what's really at stake is the nature of our viewing relationship with wrestling.
WWE accomplished something powerful on Monday. Raw ended with Punk, Ryder, and Bryan — three atypical heroes — standing tall in the ring, belts held high. Without resorting to a worked shoot to shoehorn the real world into its product, WWE took real-life adversity and allowed it to play out within the context of wrestling's bizarre unreality. This isn't "Reality" — it's pro wrestling as postmodern art. And it's exactly what we need.
Here's a little postmodern irony: Those CENA SUCKS shirts I mentioned before? Despite the fact that Punk cemented the audience's anti-Cena sentiment, Cena is the one who'll be collecting the royalties from their sales. Talk about commodifying dissent. And really, that's fine. If the rich are going to get richer, at least the poor are getting camera time.
Previously from The Masked Man:
Tables, Ladders, and Chairs preview: How WWE co-opted CM Punk
Survivor Series Recap: 'CE-NA SUCKS!'
Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels: One of WWE's Greatest Rivalries
The Worked Tweet Era
WWE and Organized Labor
A Brief History of Hell (In a Cell)
WWE Conspiracy Theories
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