The last episode of WWE's Monday-night Raw before a pay-per-view is called a "go-home show," a night used to put the finishing touches on feuds that will come to a head at the big event. It's more about hype than story. This past Monday, the "go-home show" before Sunday's Money in the Bank PPV, WWE flipped the script by answering a question that had been confounding serious wrestling fans everywhere: They revealed the identity of the anonymous Raw general manager who ruled the show with a wry iron fist between June 2010 and July 2011.
It had been a year since we'd seen the anonymous GM, and the suspense hadn't exactly been building. It was a pretty silly idea to begin with, a means to draw cheap jeers at announcer Michael Cole, who was obliged to climb atop a pedestal and read the GM's directives, which were sent via e-mail to a ringside laptop. By Monday, the gag had become mostly an in-joke among wrestling fans, an abandoned plotline that was never resolved. But in preface to the 1,000th episode of Raw (which is coming up in a couple weeks), GMs from over the years have been returning to run the show on special one-off nights, and Monday they brought back the much-maligned Anonymous One. Comedy wrestler Santino played the role of Sherlock Holmes (literally — he wore a costume and everything) and eventually uncovered who the GM had been all along.
It was Hornswoggle. Yes, Hornswoggle, the wrestling leprechaun who lives beneath the ring and who only gained the ability to speak last Christmas as a magical gift from Santa Claus.
It was a laughable ending to an all-but-forgotten cliffhanger. Of course, pro wrestling history is full of wrongheaded story lines and abandoned angles. But there's a special place in the wrestling fan's heart for the most outrageously anticlimactic payoffs. In honor of the anonymous GM, let's remember professional wrestling's most ridiculous gimmicks and their endings.
- My favorite example is a story I've told before, the legendary appearance of a giant egg that the WWF introduced during the run-up to 1990's Thanksgiving-time PPV, Survivor Series. The hype was such that fans expected a new top-tier superstar to emerge from the egg; instead, we got The Gobbledy Gooker, a dancing turkey-man who was taken out behind the barn and shot before the crowd could stop groaning.
- Perhaps the most ill-conceived venture in WWE history, the Brawl for All was a sadly ill-fated 1998 tournament of real, tough-man-contest-style fighting uncomfortably wedged into the WWF's fake-fighting universe. It was supposed to be a platform for veteran tough guy , "Dr. Death" Steve Williams, but making the fights more real made it much harder to follow the script. Williams lost to a patsy named Bart Gunn, who eventually won the tournament — and was rewarded with a WrestleMania boxing match against Butterbean, which he lost in quick, painful fashion.
- Who could forget the halcyon days of 1999, when WWE owner Vince McMahon was revealed as the "Greater Power" controlling the Undertaker and his Ministry of Darkness, despite the fact that Vince feuded with the Ministry for much of the preceding year. Lest one should argue that Vince had a change of heart at some point during their conflict, he himself set the record straight after the big reveal, addressing his longtime foil "Stone Cold" Steve Austin: "It's me, Austin! It was me all along, Austin!"
- Later in 1999, Austin was run over by a mystery man in a black sedan. After letting the "Who ran over Austin?" question dangle for months (in real life, Austin was recovering from neck surgery, which was performed by the ever-present Dr. Lloyd Youngblood), and apropos of nothing, Rikishi, the dancing Samoan sumo, admitted to being the driver. Rikishi said he did it for his cousin The Rock and for the betterment of the Samoan people, who had long been oppressed in the wrestling biz, or something.
- WWE wasn't the only promotion to turn in some stinkers. In
19991990, WCW saw the debut of a new villain named The Black Scorpion. The character seemed to be a meta joke created by then-booker Ole Anderson. Time WarnerTurner didn't like the matches Anderson was putting out and kept asking him to do something fresh. He came up with The Black Scorpion, an evil masked villain who had a sketchy history with Sting, WCW's top hero in those days. To that point, mind you, the Scorpion only existed in Anderson's notes. But Turner loved it, so they sent some guy out in a black mask while Anderson did a demonic voice-over. The Scorpion was supposed to be The Angel of Death or Al Perez, depending on whom you believe and what time of day they're talking. But for whatever reason, the original man in the mask decided not to wrestle, so Ric Flair was subbed in at the last minute.
- Sometimes an angle doesn't even have to end for it to end badly. Consider GTV, a 1999 contrivance in which security-camera style backstage footage was played to embarrass characters and otherwise expose various goings-on. It was supposed to be a platform for Goldust, who was returning, but he ended up leaving WWE, and the videos gradually stopped appearing, never to be mentioned again.
- Perhaps the worst of these incidents is so ridiculous, so inane, that I almost didn't include it. From the very beginning, it was so obviously a joke. But even as a gag, it was so terrible that it continues to live on in message-board infamy: In 2000, Olympic weightlifter turned wrestler Mark Henry was saddled with the nickname "Sexual Chocolate," and his story lines revolved around him romancing women like Chyna and, eventually, an octogenarian named Mae Young. Young was a lady wrestler from the days of yore whom WWE kept around to come out every once in a while and get powerbombed. Eventually, as the sequence turned from simply humiliating to something fully psychedelic, Mae Young became pregnant and went into labor with Mark Henry's love child, only to give birth to a rubber, ooze-covered hand.
- I've previously touched on the 2001 WCW Invasion, where one of the greatest potential story lines in recent memory fizzled due to the absence of WCW's major players, WWE's reluctance to make the remaining WCW stars look good, and the decision to highlight the Vince-Shane-Stephanie McMahon family drama over other story lines. The Invasion's ending was not as ridiculous as others have been, but it was telling: As the narrative devolved into an indecisive mess, it became centered on McMahon-family strife. As yet another chapter in the McMahon saga, it was fairly entertaining. But as a long-awaited inter-promotional conflict, it was sorely disappointing.
- The McMahon family high jinks don't stop there. On June 11, 2007, as Vince was leaving the arena (in an odd, Robert Altman–style long take), he climbed into his limo, and it exploded, presumably "killing" him. To be completely fair, that story line didn't really end, so its payoff never had a chance to fail; it was called off when, in real life, Chris Benoit killed his wife and son and committed suicide. McMahon needed to return from the fictional dead to serve as WWE's public face during the aftermath, but it wasn't just the functional necessity of ending the story line that came into play, it was the poor taste inherent in the fact that WWE was trying to build hype by convincing the world that Vince McMahon was dead.1
- A few months later, Vince was served with a paternity suit alleging that he had an illegitimate son. Ken Kennedy was rumored to be the lucky bastard, but that plan was shelved when Kennedy was suspended due to a Wellness Policy violation.2 Left with no heir apparent, WWE replaced Kennedy with — you guessed it — Hornswoggle. One imagines some member of the WWE creative team sighing and hitting Ctrl+V. The suit was eventually outed as a scam, and Hornswoggle was found to be the son of Irish wrestler Finlay, which didn't make anything better, but at least it swept the story line under the rug.3
- For those who felt unfulfilled by the abrupt end to the exploding-car story line, WWE basically replayed the gimmick in June 2008. This time, Vince was giving away $1 million to his viewers when the stage started collapsing around him, and eventually he was squashed by a falling sign. He didn't die this time, however; he only had amnesia. I think. I could be totally wrong about this. I think this angle gave me amnesia, too.
- And just last year, Kevin Nash received a mysterious text message instructing him to attack CM Punk after his match against John Cena at SummerSlam. Instead of having Nash admit that he made up the text message bit, it was eventually revealed that Nash had, uh, texted himself.
To be perfectly fair to WWE, they do seem aware of this ridiculousness, and they seem to take some joy in inflicting it upon their fans. Wrestling fans — myself included — love these historical outliers in an ironic way. As far as Monday's Hornswoggle reveal goes, the writers were pretty much playing it for laughs. Michael Cole, who in the past would notoriously read the "e-mails" off a sheet of paper atop his laptop keyboard, was doing it more ostentatiously than ever, and Hornswoggle's inclusion seemed like an almost deliberate reference to the McMahon's-son arc. It was a playful nod to the painful lack of continuity in the GM story line, a simultaneous wink and middle finger to the hardcore fans.
In most of these flops, though, the uniting factor has been uncertainty. When a story evolves and the original ending gets scrapped — or if there is no ending to begin with — there are basically three backup plans: (1) Substitute in something lesser and accept the wrath of the fans, (2) play it for comedy, or (3) insert Vince McMahon.4 The big problem is that fans' expectations in these situations often grow beyond the writers' ability to deliver a satisfying ending. Almost no wrestler would have been a big-enough surprise to warrant the type of buildup that preceded the Black Scorpion and Gobbledy Gooker reveals. Wrestling is very good at un-hyped "holy shit" moments: When a wrestler appears unannounced, or a conventional match takes a surprising turn. But it's often terrible at the slow build. Maybe the lesson is that wrestling just isn't built for that kind of storytelling.
The lesson for fans, though, is simple: If a character is offscreen, masked, or otherwise obscured, don't get your hopes up.
At least we can look forward to Money in the Bank this Sunday. The eponymous briefcase matches in the event offer exactly the kind of storytelling that wrestling executes well: Some number of guys5 fight it out until one of them climbs a ladder and grabs a briefcase suspended above the ring. That man wins, and he gets a title shot at any point of his choosing over the next year. Almost always, that means he waits until the champ is beaten down after a big match, and then he runs to the ring and beats him. Edge, the first winner, pinned John Cena after he'd won a grueling Elimination Chamber match in 2006. Two years later, CM Punk beat Edge after a match with Batista, and in 2009 he pulled the same stunt against Jeff Hardy, who had just beaten Edge. Jack Swagger, Jane, and The Miz felled Chris Jericho, Randy Orton, and Rey Mysterio, respectively, in the same fashion. Just last year, Daniel Bryan beat The Big Show after he had won the title against Mark Henry.
Outside of winning the Royal Rumble, there's no better onscreen projection of WWE choosing a path and christening a wrestler for future success. Whoever wins on Sunday night will be champion someday — it's more or less a given.6 This year's event has two MITB matches: One featuring all former champs — John Cena, Big Show, Kane, and Chris Jericho — and one featuring mid-carders and up-and-comers: Christian, Cody Rhodes, Dolph Ziggler, Sin Cara, Tyson Kidd, Santino Marella, Tensai, and Damien Sandow. Both setups are intriguing — the former because it will influence top-level feuds for the foreseeable future, and the latter because it will anoint an heir apparent.
The two former MITB winners who have ensconced themselves atop the WWE hierarchy of late are CM Punk and Daniel Bryan. Those two will face off in the main event7 with their mutual ex AJ as a special referee. This story line has been incredibly compelling so far, at least up through last week, when AJ threatened to throw herself through a table — a sort of mock-suicide — and instead tossed both of her erstwhile love interests through it. In Monday night's opening sequence, AJ incongruously proposed marriage to Punk, then she was proposed to by Bryan, and the whole thing threatened to devolve into something that would find a comfortable home on the above list. They have plenty of space to salvage this, of course, but that's the thing about expectations — once something gets good, sometimes the only way out is disappointment.
Don't get me wrong: I have high hopes for Sunday. But if one of the Money in the Bank matches ends with Vince McMahon holding the briefcase, or if AJ ends up making out with Hornswoggle — or if The Big Show gives birth to a plastic hand — you'll know what happened.