The Royal Rumble is in the books and another pay-per-view is on the horizon, but it's not much more than a rest stop on the road to April's WrestleMania. The card is set months in advance, but a hundred little things could disrupt those plans — injuries, mostly, but also unforeseen crowd responses, leaked storylines (which sometimes lead to reversals of course), and the unpredictable whims of WWE owner Vince McMahon. Which is to say, everything's set and yet nothing is set in stone.
That said, we have a good idea of where WWE is heading with the annual mega show, and since that's what every interview, promo, and in-ring feud between now and April will reflect, allow me to be a bit reckless and discuss all the matches that we aren't even sure will happen.
John Cena vs. The Rock
A year ago, The Rock made his triumphant return to WWE and — in response to an interview in which Cena questioned The Rock's allegiance to wrestling — basically called Cena out. Perhaps he felt intoxicated by the crowd's adulation or perhaps he was just bothered by Cena's needling, but The Rock said he was "back home for good" and that he'd "never leave." Since then, he's appeared something like six times in the WWE ring.1 After WrestleMania, where The Rock
refereed intervened in Cena's match against The Miz, Cena and The Rock agreed to settle their beef in the ring and electrify the crowd. This is great, right? Except this was the night after WrestleMania 2011, and WWE scheduled the Cena-Rock match for WrestleMania 2012. In the lengthy interim, the two have traded insults, questioned one another's manhood, and, at Survivor Series, teamed up to dispatch The Miz and R-Truth.
The excitement behind the Cena-Rock feud came from a showdown between two icons from different eras. But a more complicated tension arose between the fans' wholehearted support for The Rock — which was surprising, given the audience's tendency to shun wrestlers who move on to "bigger and better" things — and their throaty, mostly negative jeers for Cena. WWE must have assumed that fans would take sides — McMahon & Co. quickly latched onto a Twilight-inspired "Team Rock vs. Team Cena" dualism2 — but they couldn't have guessed how one-sided the fans' reaction would be. The Rock's popularity and charisma dismantled Cena's mystique. This set the stage for CM Punk's run the following summer, where Cena was consistently the most disliked guy in the ring despite being WWE's good-guy standard-bearer.
Recently, in what seems to be an effort to make Cena seem more badass, WWE has matched him in a feud with Kane, who has made it his mission to beat up Cena and his buddy Zack Ryder to force Cena to embrace his inner hatefulness.3 It's unclear if Cena will be able to pull off a genuinely gritty aesthetic, but at least WWE has finally succeeded in putting him in a conflict where he's the clear fan favorite. The fans, after some hedging early in the storyline, have come down squarely in favor of Cena and against the dark-magic-powered zombie guy with hair extensions. Go figure.
This feud will likely carry Cena through another month, whereupon The Rock will resume making pre-taped videos and their feud will recommence, largely unchanged from where they left it. If their animus feels more earned and deeper this time around, it will be a welcome surprise. But the main concern here is attracting casual viewers, and to them — and by extension, to WWE — I'm not sure depth matters.
CM Punk vs. Chris Jericho
With the exception of Monday night, when Jericho interrupted a CM Punk-Daniel Bryan match and laid out Punk, this rivalry hasn't been addressed on screen at all. Jericho made a triumphant return to Raw a few weeks ago and mocked the audience's enthusiastic welcome for him, slapping hands pseudo-ironically and declining to even talk. The real backstory here took place — this being the Reality Era, of course — on Twitter. Jericho, who was taking a break from wrestling to tour with his band (and write books and host a radio show and do Dancing With the Stars),4 only occasionally tweeted about wrestling, but when he did, it was often to accuse wrestlers like Punk and the Miz of stealing his shtick.
Jericho entered the Royal Rumble — the winner of which would get a shot at the champion of his choosing — and lasted until the end, only to be dispatched by Sheamus (more on him later). Without a direct route to a match with Punk, Jericho forced the issue by attacking him on Monday's Raw. It's safe to assume that we'll see Jericho and Punk flesh out their beef on-screen, and I think it'll grow from this Jericho lament: I was the original high work-rate, loudmouth, indie-darling antihero. I was the original self-proclaimed "best in the world." You waited for me to leave and you tried to steal all that from me. But you did one thing wrong — you sold out. You decided that these fans' cheers were the most important thing, and as I proved, cheers don't matter; cheers are easy to get. What matters is being the best, and despite what your cute little ringer tee says on the back, I'm the best, and I'm going to prove it. Or something.
Abracadabra, best feud ever. Really, this could be epic. I can't think of another rivalry between two wrestlers who were both such compelling talkers and great wrestlers. I mean, even Shawn Michaels-Bret Hart only had one truly legendary talker. The Steve Austin-The Rock feud wasn't a technical masterpiece. Even Ric Flair's old epics with Dusty Rhodes and Terry Funk were part of such a different world that they hardly compute. Flair-Randy Savage in 1992 may be the closest, taken strictly on talent. But, as many such "epic" feuds have proved, great expectations sometimes lead to great disappointment. The next two months will be a tightrope of managing expectations and then living up to them. If any two guys can pull this off, it's Punk and Jericho.5
Daniel Bryan vs. Sheamus
Since Bryan won the World Heavyweight Championship from Big Show, who had just won it from Mark Henry, Bryan has transitioned steadily — artfully, even — from a vanilla underdog hero into one of WWE's most effective and intriguing villains. He's been defending his title against Henry and Show since then, often using (totally legitimate) technicalities to retain the belt, then celebrating loudly after every skin-of-the-teeth win. Now, with Henry sidelined by injury and with Show (according to rumors) soon to be roped into a feud with Shaquille O'Neal,6 Bryan appears to be on a collision course with Sheamus, the brawny Irishman who has endeared himself to the audience by telling corny stories about Ireland and by forearming people's chests until they're left with red welts.
Sheamus won the Royal Rumble and can choose to fight either Bryan or Punk — or, to be precise, whoever walks out of next month's Elimination Chamber PPV as champ. But since Sheamus is a Smackdown guy and because Punk seems occupied with other storylines, the assumption is that Sheamus will go after Bryan. Despite the fact that it's logically an odd choice to challenge for the second-most significant WWE title, such illogic is nothing new, and this could be a good matchup. Sheamus will tower over Bryan, and Bryan has quickly proven to be an all-time great at matches built around size disparity. His talent for making his opponents' power moves look devastating while simultaneously making himself look legitimate is jaw-dropping.
The most interesting angle of the Sheamus-Bryan matchup, however, is their history. The two were scheduled to fight at last year's WrestleMania, but the match was bumped to the pre-show to allot more time for things like video packages and Snooki wrestling.7 Now they can fight again, this time for a title belt. But can Sheamus and Bryan move themselves farther than one spot up the card? This matchup already has the smell of a show-opener, which is no small thing, since the opening match sets the tone for the whole event and hypes the crowd for the rest of the night. Yet viewed against their slot last year, this won't seem like much of a promotion.
The uncertainty here comes from Randy Orton. Orton was shifted to Smackdown last year to be its top star, and while he occupied that role for much of his time, he has recently been sidetracked in second-tier feuds with Cody Rhodes and Wade Barrett. Orton's rivalry with Barrett is ongoing, but it would be a surprise if the rivalry continues until April, if for no other reason than for WWE's vested interest in positioning Orton as one of its poster boys. I won't be surprised if Orton injects himself into the championship narrative, either by interfering with Sheamus and Bryan or by winning the belt outright at Elimination Chamber.
Triple H vs. Undertaker
In 2009 and 2010, The Undertaker put his WrestleMania undefeated streak on the line against Shawn Michaels, eventually retiring the Heartbreak Kid after the second match. Last year, 'Taker fought Triple H, who was determined to do what his longtime buddy Michaels couldn't. The Undertaker won, but the brawl left both men broken,8 and 'Taker disappeared until this past Monday's Raw, when he interrupted Triple H's firing of interim Raw GM John Laurinaitis.9
Triple H claimed a moral victory at last year's WrestleMania because even though he had lost, Triple H ended the Undertaker's career. Now, with 'Taker back, the long-rumored rematch seems on track — although when Undertaker came to the ring on Monday to issue his wordless challenge, Triple H patted him on the shoulder and walked away, as if to say, "That's cute, man, but we all know you're done." And that's what a lot of wrestling fans were probably thinking, too, despite the fact that they can't help but feel like kids again every time Undertaker returns.
Nonetheless, this can probably only lead to a rematch — a bout that could boost 'Taker's WrestleMania record to 20-0 and probably signal his retirement. Then again, if any of these matches has a real wild-card aspect, it's this one. It's hard to imagine 'Taker going out with anyone but Triple H. It might be good for an up-and-coming wrestler's career to challenge Undertaker in a big-time match like this, but it would be unthinkable (in both storyline and real-world terms) for 'Taker to lose to any such wrestler. And that predictability would knock the matchup off the marquee. But it's not unrealistic that a third party — Orton, perhaps? — could be introduced to the storyline to make it a three-way match,10 and there's one dark horse who would fit in seamlessly as Undertaker's opponent: Brock Lesnar.
Lesnar, the former UFC juggernaut who was wrecked by illness and basically dropkicked out the door by Alistair Overeem, has certainly been contacted by WWE. He has a built-in beef with Undertaker, who's a real-life MMA aficionado, based not just on their previous WWE battles but on their November 2010 staredown after Brock's loss to Cain Velasquez.
If nothing else, it would freshen the never-ending tale of Undertaker's looming retirement. And as long as Brock doesn't get on the mic and say he'll never leave us again, only to disappear for six months, I won't have a problem with it.
We're a long way off from WrestleMania, and a lot of real-world happenings might still change the card. And nothing intrigues me more than the fact that real-world details undergird every major match. Cena and The Rock will be about audience reactions: whether Cena will ever win them over, and whether The Rock will finally lose the fans, since WrestleMania may be seen as his final appearance.11 Punk-Jericho is entirely — so far — about off-screen beef, and, knowing those two, it will likely continue to focus on meta issues. Bryan-Sheamus will be about their move up the ladder from last year. And if Orton somehow maneuvers into the title scene, the story will be about how WWE forced him into the storyline. Triple H-Undertaker will be about 'Taker's ability to pull off a great match after a year away from wrestling. It'll be about his age and his impending retirement.
And those are all good reasons to care. Real reasons. Maybe we shouldn't give up on the Reality Era after all.