I've already argued that winning doesn't matter in pro wrestling. A wrestler can gain just as much by losing, or by winning the rematch, or by winning another match down the road, or even by becoming a disco dancing comedy act. No wrestler gets downgraded by matchmakers because of his win-loss record. When front-office suits deem him worthy and fans react favorably to him, wins usually follow.
This is the real significance of wins: They indicate how much faith decision-makers have in a performer. This Sunday, at the Money in the Bank pay-per-view, that faith will be on full display. Whoever wins the two MITB matches — by climbing a ladder in the center of the ring and unlatching a briefcase dangling from the rafters — gets to cash in the briefcase for a shot at one of WWE's two main titles. And they almost always win when they cash it in.1 Too often, it can feel like your favorite wrestler will never be tapped for a moment in the WWE's main event spotlight. Well, Money in the Bank is your one moment of actual assurance. It's the once-a-year peek behind the curtain that reveals what the WWE brain trust really thinks. If your guy wins, his future with the company will be bright.
The current incarnation of Money in the Bank has two big matches, one for the right to challenge for the WWE Championship (currently held by John Cena, who defends Sunday in a separate match against Mark Henry) and one for the right to challenge for the World Heavyweight Championship (currently held by Alberto Del Rio, who defends Sunday against Ziggler). In years past, the matches were treated as roughly equal, even though the Heavyweight Championship — also known as the Smackdown title — has been a second-tier belt for eons. This year, WWE seems to be acknowledging the difference between the two championships by making the Smackdown match the "Rising Stars" challenge, featuring up-and-coming wrestlers (who just so happen to be villains): Cody Rhodes, Damien Sandow, Fandango, Antonio Cesaro, Jack Swagger, Wade Barrett, and U.S. Champ Dean Ambrose. The match for the WWE Championship briefcase is the "All-Star" edition, with a roster of former world champions (who just so happen to be babyfaces, more or less): CM Punk, Sheamus, Randy Orton, Daniel Bryan, Kane, Christian, and Rob Van Dam. The winners of these matches are more or less guaranteed to be significant players in WWE's championship narratives over the next six months or year, and significance is the currency of the pro wrestling world.
If in previous years there were two or three feasible winners, this year, because of the new setup, the winners are harder than ever to predict. So let's go through the contestants and see who has the best chances to prevail. And remember — it's not skill that counts. It's who WWE thinks deserves the push.
The All-Stars Match for a shot at the WWE Championship
CM Punk: Punk has previously won two MITB matches (and cashed in to win the title twice). He needs this win less than the others — he's already a mega-headliner, he can absorb a loss better than anybody this side of Barry Horowitz, he's basically locked into a feud with Brock Lesnar for SummerSlam and likely with manager Paul Heyman beyond that. If we want to be realistic here (a fool's errand when it comes to wrestling), if Punk wanted a title shot he could just demand one in a promo and get it. (The same would have applied to Cena last year, though, and he won.) In short: Punk doesn't need the briefcase to be a long-term main-event player and he won't use it for a short-term story line. Odds: 50-1
Sheamus: I can't think of a top-level wrestler who's had a more unspectacular year than Sheamus. Last year he seemed poised for an eternal run as Smackdown's John Cena Jr., and now he's the forgotten cog in the All-Star roster. He may be a great white in a small pond, but he's a translucent minnow in a match with this much star power. He has all the ability in the world, but WWE's insistence on keeping his character kid-friendly and reliant on lame jokes has rendered Sheamus wholly desirable. Even his cool moves come off like bad puns now, with his jackass smirk always in tow. Anyway, he's been largely overlooked in the run-up to the match — and we know the WWE honchos like him — so he gets points for being a dark-horse candidate. But nothing else. Odds: 40-1
Randy Orton: Orton, on the other hand, is your real-life dark horse. He's had two strikes in the WWE Wellness Policy program, and the third strike means he'll be automatically fired.2 Despite Orton's star power, WWE might not have the confidence to put the belt on him again. If your champ got busted for PEDs — and fired for it — that would be a bad look, especially considering the lengths to which WWE has gone in recent years to improve its image.3 He's been front and center in the buildup to Sunday, but I think that's mostly misdirection — or, you know, WWE getting its money's worth on his $291,666 monthly salary. Odds: 75-1
Christian: Normally, I'd handicap Christian's odds as infinitesimal, but he's got a few things going for him. He recently returned from a long injury layoff and he was thrust right into the spotlight of this match. He's close to his victory lap — meaning he's got as much hype as he'll ever have — and if he's going to win the big belt, it's basically now or never. As excited as fans were to see him back on TV, smacking his chest and cracking wise, half of them probably reacted to his inclusion in this match by wondering, "When the hell was he world champion?" In all likelihood, he's here to round out the eight-man bracket,4 but at least he has made the most of his screen time leading up to Sunday. And since wrestlers gauge their success by how relevant they are in WWE's story lines, Christian appears to already have won, even if he loses Sunday's match. Odds: 35-1
Rob Van Dam: Listen, I love/hate Van Dam as much as the next wrestling fanboy, but the high volume (and frequency) of the segments heralding his return from a self-imposed exile, coupled with the hype he generates despite having not yet formally returned to WWE television, has been shocking — especially considering that he left the company six years ago and spent much of that time mailing it in for its competitor, TNA Wrestling. I guess in the post–Monday Night Wars era, when surprise signings are few and far between and stealing talent from the competition is basically nonexistent, you do what you can. I wonder if Van Dam's inclusion is all about maximizing WWE's Philly cred — MITB will take place there, and ECW is still the altar at which Philly wrestling fans worship — but it's probably more than that. The period right after WrestleMania — when it seemed like all the stars were about to be out of action — probably convinced WWE that it needs more passable headliners on the roster. And the outcome of that was the return of Rob Van Dam: Passable Headliner. I'm not sure Sunday will amount to much besides big cheers and a couple of two-story frog splashes, but if WWE wanted to kick-start a legitimate comeback for Van Dam, this would be the place to do it. Odds: 20-1
Daniel Bryan: After the breakup of his tag team with Kane and his subsequent mini-feud with Orton, Bryan has emerged as nominally the biggest star of the road to MITB. I've been surprised to see Bryan receive the opportunity to hold his own in the multiperson promos and round-robin matches that have been building up to Sunday's show, and I was positively shocked to see Monday's Raw end with him posing alone atop the ladder, leading the arena in a "Yes!" chant. If ever there were over-the-top foreshadowing for an ending, that was it — which could well mean he's not going to win. Pro wrestling convention suggests that the last man standing on Raw will lose at the PPV — to make the real ending that much more compelling — but this could be the exception that proves the rule. Raw's ending this week felt like WWE trying to convince themselves of Bryan as MITB winner: Put him up there, listen to the crowd, and decide if that feels like the right ending. For my money, it did. Odds: 10-1
Kane: On Monday, Kane was attacked by the debuting Wyatt Family — Triple-A developmental talents Bray Wyatt5 and his followers Luke Harper and Erick Rowan. (Think of a chicken-fried cult led by Max Cady and directed by Eli Roth.)6 Kane was taken out on a stretcher and has been reported to be too injured to compete on Sunday. This opens up a range of possibilities: Will he be replaced by Wyatt? (Unlikely, awesome as that could be. Wyatt is not an ex-champion and he hasn't earned this spot.) Will another ex-champion step in for Kane? (Who would that even be? Chris Jericho's going to be busy fighting Ryback, and the Miz is taking on Curtis Axel for the Intercontinental belt.) Will they just go with seven competitors? (There's no rule saying they can't.) I'm betting on option three, and Kane versus the Wyatt Family at SummerSlam. Odds: N/A
The Rising Stars Match for a shot at the World Heavyweight Championship
Dean Ambrose: If the Shield freight train seems to have lost steam — they were beaten fair and square by the threesome of the Usos and Christian two weeks back — it's probably just a symptom of how small the WWE roster is. It's nearly impossible to keep undefeated streaks going in any sort of compelling way in the modern era, so don't think that the Shield's losses reflect WWE's waning confidence in the trio of prodigies. As I mentioned earlier, Ambrose's post-MITB plans seem to be headed toward conflict with Christian, and earning the briefcase would knock those plans off the rails, so winning on Sunday seems unlikely. But the WWE brass swoons at every Ambrose tic, and this match — even if it's a bit early in his career — is exactly the sort of vote of confidence he seems in line for. Unlikely as it sounds, he could win the briefcase, drop the U.S. title to Christian, and keep his momentum going toward a title match at next year's WrestleMania. Maybe it's too early for all that, but if anybody could pull it off, this is your guy. Odds: 15-1
Wade Barrett: Barrett actually needs a win. At times he seems to have the total package — size, in-ring ability, mic skills, believable snarl — but for whatever reason he hasn't put it all together for a compelling run. The closest he came was about three years ago, at the beginning of his career, when he led the Nexus against John Cena. There's no reason why he couldn't be plucked from the midcard and made into a passable world-beater — except that WWE could have done that at any point in the past year, and it hasn't. Barrett hasn't received that push as a wrestler, but hey, at least WWE gave him a bit part looming behind Terrence Howard in a WWE studios movie. And that was a high point. Odds: 40-1
Fandango: A real-life concussion and WWE's boneheaded misreading of the post-WrestleMania Fandango phenomenon have dented his popularity in recent weeks. This should come as no surprise. Even though Fandango — The Artist Formerly Known As Johnny Curtis — is talented and immensely over, WWE rarely manages to quit when it's behind, so expect the usual dose of character overkill. (Just let Fandango be Fandango, guys.) He has also insinuated that he might be heading toward a face turn, which I think may be the real contest in this match. Most of the wrestlers vying for the Smackdown briefcase are popular with the smart fans, and while you can have a good guy–versus–good guy match, it's hard to make anybody care about a villain-versus-villain match, unless somebody becomes less villainous along the way. Being that this event is in Philly, and Philly fans will cheer for heels just for kicks, whoever wins is going to get an all-time huge ovation. Somebody is coming out of this match as a good guy, and WWE knows this, and they may choose to use that positive momentum to initiate a face turn. In this match, the winner won't just reflect management's confidence in him, but potentially management's confidence in his potential as a babyface. I don't really think that's Fandango's ideal spot — Rhodes or Barrett or even Ambrose are better options — but I don't doubt that there are voices inside the WWE offices who see things differently. Odds: 20-1
Antonio Cesaro and Jack Swagger: I lump these two together because Cesaro has recently come under the tutelage of Swagger's manager, Zeb Colter, and, despite their recent respective checkered histories in the singles division, they feel like a viable tag team contender in waiting. Frankly, it's a team I'm interested in seeing,7 even if they were put in this position precisely because the WWE higher-ups lack confidence in them as solo stars, and even if the WWE's halfhearted commitment to the tag-team division makes it unlikely that we'll get to see much of them at all. This is all to say that neither of these two will win on Sunday, unless Cesaro's ignominious de-push has been a brilliant longform swerve. I doubt it. Odds: Swagger, 50-1; Cesaro, 55-1
Damien Sandow and Cody Rhodes: When Sandow and Rhodes were thrown together as Team Rhodes Scholars, it felt like a reasonable way to pass some time while these two second-tier guys with loads of potential waited for their turns in the spotlight. Instead, they became victims of their own (combined) success. WWE tried to split them up numerous times, only to reunite the team out of necessity or because WWE lacked other ideas. Each reunion has felt like several steps backward for Sandow and Rhodes, even though as a duo they're constantly entertaining. Sometimes it feels like only in pro wrestling can success beget such failure. Regardless, these two are preordained for a dramatic split — the seeds have been sown over the past few weeks, and Money in the Bank is harvest time. In a vacuum, I might pick Cody to win on Sunday, but I think it's more likely that he and Sandow eliminate one another from contention. Then they can have a mustache-versus-beard match at SummerSlam, where Cody loses but fights the good fight, emerging mustache-free as a newly minted baby-faced babyface. Odds: Sandow, 35-1; Rhodes, 25:1
Let's get this straight: Odds are a funny thing in WWE. Just as wrestling heroes overcome fictitious obstacles to win against all odds, WWE prides itself in defying its audience's expectations. Which means anything can happen, even if the truly shocking moments are few and far between. Money in the Bank is just the sort of night when something shocking may occur. In the two ladder matches, we're likely to see either a winner we never expected, like when Cena won last year, or a winner we never thought could get the win, like when Ziggler won on the same night. Or WWE could just rewrite the script for the sake of surprising us.
One last thing to consider is the timing of the briefcase cash-ins. In the past, the very ownership of the briefcase — carrying it around, threatening to cash it in, battering opponents' heads with it — has been the winner's gimmick. But in wrestling you can never have two guys with the same gimmick.8 One of the winners will probably cash in and claim his title shot right away, like Cena did after winning the briefcase last year; the other winner will tease it out for months. There have been less-than-full-throated rumors about a Bryan-vs.-Cena match at SummerSlam, which would fulfill the former category, and that makes sense considering that none of the Rising Stars competitors are really ready for main event status (and none of the All-Stars need to be running around with a briefcase for six months). Whatever happens, though, the Money in the Bank conceit — with so many moving parts, so much uncertainty — is such that anything could feel like a surprise. We might be shocked that a guy we never thought would get the push got it, stunned that a guy who didn't deserve a push got one, or in disbelief that WWE decided to waste a push on a wrestler who didn't need it.
And no matter what happens, no matter how obvious the win is, the announcers will scream that the winner defied the odds. That's always a safe bet.