Is John Cena mortal?
On Sunday, in Chicago, WWE is putting on a pay-per-view show called Payback. Normally, these non-major PPV events aren't much to write home about. This has become increasingly true since the return of stars like Brock Lesnar and the Rock, who tend to show up only for shows like WrestleMania and SummerSlam. Most of the time, we wouldn't even need to ask if Cena is mortal, because of course he isn't. He's the most indestructible force the Fed has seen since the days of Hulkamania. But now he's in a feud with Ryback, the only bruiser on the roster who can match Cena in terms of muscle definition and over-the-top angst. This Monday on Raw, Cena cut one of his patented, (unnecessarily) angry, (off-puttingly) loud promos. When he shows that kind of emotion he typically wins extra hard, so is there any chance that he might lose to Ryback on Sunday? Actually, yes. Cena and Ryback seem pretty well locked into their feud for the foreseeable future, and the only thing better (in WWE-think) than saving a shocking Ryback win for SummerSlam in August would be for Cena to triumphantly regain the title at SummerSlam. So Sunday at Payback or next month at Money in the Bank, Cena's going to lose to Ryback. Might as well be Sunday, since their bout at Payback is a "Three Stages of Hell" match — three rounds, the first a lumberjack match, the second a tables match, and the third an ambulance match. That provides all the opportunity Ryback needs to eke out an underhanded win. It also provides plenty of gimmicks to obscure the relative lack of in-ring magnificence of the two competitors (Ryback in particular) through a circus mirror of novelty violence.
Does CM Punk exist?
Or, more specifically, will Punk be in Allstate Arena on Sunday to have a match against longtime rival Chris Jericho? If that question isn't necessarily on the tip of every wrestling fan's tongue, it's because WWE hasn't been clear in regard to where that story line is headed. It went something like this: Punk walked out on an episode of Raw a week after WrestleMania; Punk's crony Paul Heyman took on a new protégé in Curtis Axel; and, just as Punk seemed to have been shunted aside until a presumable SummerSlam-time return, Jericho appeared on Heyman's interview show and challenged Punk to a match. None of the pieces fit — WWE has been pretty consistent about having Heyman manage only one wrestler at a time,1 and at the moment Heyman is occupied with Axel; Jericho was finishing off a mid-tier feud with Fandango;2 and Punk hasn't appeared on any WWE broadcasts in the buildup to Payback. Punk's almost complete absence in the run-up to a show in his hometown has been more than a little off-putting.3 I had always assumed that after Punk left, he would return as a babyface and feud with Lesnar or whoever Heyman had at his disposal, and if that's what begins on Sunday, let's just hope it doesn't mean Punk refuses to wrestle the match. (Punk never signed the contract to wrestle. Heyman signed in his stead, which seems more than a little ominous.) If Punk doesn't wrestle, the Chicago crowd may well riot, and the home viewers will miss out on probably the best match of the night. "Card subject to change" and all that, sure, but if this is deliberate misdirection on WWE's part, its ploy to turn Punk face might backfire. The sign you used to see in his big matches was "Punk Wins or We Riot." This time it hardly matters if he wins. We just want to see him wrestle.
What is the nature of God?
And by God, of course, I mean Vince McMahon. A potentially interesting concussion story line has morphed into a Very Special Episode in the McMahon family sitcom. Vince and Stephanie don't want Triple H (Stephanie McMahon's real-life husband) to further injure himself after the beating he took at the last PPV, but Triple H really wants to wrestle. On Raw this week, Trips started a match and Vince came out and stopped it. See, a few weeks before, Triple H collapsed during a match, but the "concussion" story line4 has been vague. It's less an educational tool — "Just say no to brain trauma" — than it is an attempt to glom on to the media publicity that concussions have received in recent years. Vince, who subtly breaks down the fourth wall with nearly every appearance (last week: "WWE is family entertainment! It's not a blood sport!"), was acknowledged by Stephanie on Monday as being increasingly old and out of touch. (This is an inside joke for those fans who believe that Vince is actually old and out of touch, which means pretty much all WWE fans.) Maybe this will have no bearing on Sunday, but when Vince is an active character, he's always a threat to swoop down from the heavens and toss a few lightning bolts.
Has Daniel Bryan willed himself into becoming the most popular wrestler in WWE?
Is it possible that Bryan — this undersize technician, once widely considered boring even by his fans, once fired by WWE because he choked a guy with a necktie and because WWE didn't care enough to defend him, who lost at WrestleMania last year in 18 seconds — is suddenly the biggest star in WWE? Judging by crowd reactions in recent weeks (and the hero's welcome he'll likely get from the smarky Chicago crowd on Sunday), he just might be. Bryan may never move merchandise like Cena or have the look to headline WWE movie projects like Randy Orton or the Miz, but his story line over the past month — he's convinced that he was the weak link in his tag team and has gone ballistic trying to change that — has seen him transform himself into a badass underdog. That might be the most desirous of wrestling archetypes, and Bryan is becoming an unlikely megastar. At Payback, he teams not with his usual partner, Kane, but with Orton to try to wrest the tag belts from the Shield. They'll lose, but what will matter is how Bryan loses. If he ends up in a feud with Orton — even if Bryan plays the villain — it could be the first step toward cementing his headliner status.
Can Randy Orton's association with Bryan make him interesting?
For those enamored of Orton, this question must sound idiotic. For those who despise Orton, nothing can make him interesting. But while interacting with Kane and Bryan over the past few weeks — particularly this Monday — Orton has seemed more intriguing than at any point since he had all those great matches with Christian way back in 1953 or whenever that was. Memo to WWE: This is exactly what Orton should be doing. He's your most boring star since Lex Luger. When an Orton story line finds a spark, you better run with it, because wet logs don't catch fire all that often.
Is Dean Ambrose versus Kane a "loser enters politics" match and nobody remembered to mention it?
I hate that I'm not writing three paragraphs on Ambrose, who's been wonderful as the United States champ. (Really, all members of the Shield have successfully transformed from gimmicks into believable in-ring competitors, and that's a compliment to the WWE as much as it is to the wrestlers.) But Ambrose-Kane is a throwaway match to balance out the tag-team bout between Bryan-Orton and the Shield, and Ambrose is going to win. And, OK, this was a gimmick question — I don't think Kane's retiring tomorrow or anything, but if Ron Paul is endorsing Kane for a Senate seat and if Reason is covering it, then it could actually happen, right? Could "Big Evil" bring libertarianism to the masses? I'm going with yes. The only other question is whether WWE will make it into a story line before Kane enters politics.5
Does anybody remember this Dolph Ziggler person?
Good: WWE is taking concussions seriously. Bad: Ziggler was on travel restriction from an apparently massive concussion he suffered at the hands of Jack Swagger more than a month ago, and he was off television for so long that he started to seem like a figment of AJ's imagination, which, you know, would at least show some continuity. During this period of inactivity, he has existed almost entirely through Twitter, which puts him just a notch above the thousands of crazy fan-fickers with fake Dolph Ziggler accounts. Worse: Alberto Del Rio, Ziggler's challenger for the World Heavyweight Championship on Sunday, reignited their feud after Ziggler's absence by sneak-attacking him and gruesomely ramming his head into the ring apron, which might work against that whole "taking concussions seriously" thing. Worse yet: Nobody remembers this feud is going on, and it'll probably be forgotten again by Monday.
Did AJ and Kaitlyn just make women's wrestling relevant in the WWE?
OK, no. But on Monday, when WWE Divas champ Kaitlyn's secret admirer was revealed to be Big E. Langston — buddy of Ziggler and AJ — only to have Langston's overtures exposed as a soul-crushing prank by Kaitlyn's former BFF AJ, every WWE fan's heart skipped a beat. Not because AJ was so good in the scene (although she was), but because they realized they might actually care about a female wrestling story line for the first time since the Fabulous Moolah screwjobbed Wendi Richter.6 Or at least since Trish Stratus graced us with her presence.
How much can Curtis Axel win by losing?
So Paul Heyman debuted his new ward, Axel, several weeks back. Axel is Joe Hennig, the real-life son of Curt "Mr. Perfect" Hennig, and he was previously known in WWE as Michael McGillicutty. (I'm ashamed that I know how to spell "McGillicutty" without Googling.) Axel is a good wrestler, and the late Mr. Perfect is so beloved that his son is probably guaranteed a free pass to superstardom.7 But Axel is bland-looking and unimpressive on the microphone — about where his dad was at his age, incidentally. He had the misfortune of arriving during the second wave of a glut of legacy admissions to the wrestling business, and many of these other WWE princes were pushed ahead before they were ready for the spotlight. All this is to say that Axel's pairing with Heyman is exactly what the young wrestler needed. In the weeks since his debut, he has won matches against Triple H (referee stoppage — concussion-like symptoms), Sin Cara (clean victory), John Cena (count-out due to Rybackery), John Cena (ditto), Chris Jericho (roll-up during distracting entrance music miscue), and Triple H again (referee stoppage — company chairman insistence). After Fandango dropped out of the three-way Intercontinental Championship match against champ Wade Barrett and the Miz, Axel took Fandango's spot, and he may well win. Axel is the star of this threesome — at least on Sunday. His character is almost Heyman's managerial malfeasance personified — a win on a technicality is still a win! — but the Miz is done promoting The Marine 3 and (sadly) WWE doesn't seem to care much about Wade Barrett's success, so things are looking up for Axel. Eventually, however, the guy is going to need a couple of real wins.
Is putting Sheamus on the preshow a boost for the preshow or a demotion for Sheamus?
It's the former. WWE wants an upper-midcard match to get people watching the online preshow, and let me say clearly that I have enjoyed this little feud more than anything Sheamus has done in ages. I hope this is proof to WWE that you don't need a belt in every match for fans to be entertained — sometimes, in the sport/spectacle of fighting, mutual dislike is enough. But if nobody tunes in to see Sheamus — or, at least, no more bodies than tuned in to see the likes of the Miz and Antonio Cesaro in recent months — that doesn't speak well of his star power.
Is this the first time you've done one of these Q&As and actually addressed every match on the card?
So wait, is Payback going to be a good PPV?
Actually, for a non-major show, it looks great. Of course, that assessment mostly depends on Punk's participation, but WWE has given us more reason than usual to care about Sunday's event. More specifically, they've given us reasons (some bigger than others) to care about every match at Payback, which is unusual — and really good. So if Punk wrestles, Cena-Ryback manages to send us home satisfied, and the McMahon Family Matters routine is kept to a minimum, then we just might have something.