At the end of Raw on Monday night, the Big Show returned from a brief spell on the unemployment line and fulfilled the wishes of WWE fans everywhere when he finally punched COO Triple H in the jaw. For a couple months, Triple H has been insisting — in his most devilish baritone — that he's making decisions based on what's "best for business," which has defined itself as giving preferential treatment to the insufferable Randy Orton and innumerable beatdowns to fan favorite Daniel Bryan. So Trips had been asking for it for some time.
Big Show had been fired not three hours before by Triple H's wife and co-executive, Stephanie McMahon, for general insubordination that culminated — though, of course, she couldn't say it outright — Sunday night at the Battleground pay-per-view. Show was sent to interfere in the main event by TKO'ing the upstart Bryan, and, after he did that, he took it upon himself to sock Orton — Bryan's McMahon-approved opponent — for good measure. The match ended in a no-decision, Bryan's incipient championship reign was again delayed, and the WWE title — held in abeyance1 since the similarly sketchy ending of last month's PPV — was once again without a waist to call home.
When Show was fired to start the show on Monday, it was supposed to be Steph flexing her managerial muscles to bury the evidence of her own malfeasance in robbing Bryan of the belt, a minor Jack Ruby–shooting–Oswald moment for the conspiracy theorists out there. But no conspiracy theorizing is necessary in the onscreen world of pro wrestling. It's always an underhanded plot, one moment of subterfuge after the other. The fans are only left to figure out how and when the gunman on the grassy knoll is going to reveal himself, and when the CIA honcho who ordered the hit is going to get powerbombed through the announcers' table in an act of revenge. There are still plenty of desserts to be justly delivered, but Stage 1 of the McMahon family comeuppance happened in rather short order, when Big Show tromped back out to the very ring in which he'd been fired and paintbrushed the COO with his WMD.2
Even though his return was never in doubt, it came as something of a surprise in that his absence lasted a matter of hours instead of weeks. But the night had a much more shocking surprise return. It came a few matches earlier, when World Heavyweight Champion Alberto Del Rio was informed that his opponent at next month's Hell in a Cell PPV3 would be none other than John Cena. That's the same Cena who shrank from the scene after he lost to Bryan at SummerSlam, suffering from a triceps injury that would purportedly keep him out of action for up to six months. But John Cena is not your average human being, and his recovery times over the years have been discarded time and again as they've been supplanted by his superhuman recuperative abilities. The man has Adrian Peterson's knees, Ray Lewis's arms, and Kobe Bryant's blood.
But this time seemed bizarre even by Cena standards. Everyone logically assumed they'd save his return for a big, triumphant moment; even returning at January's Royal Rumble would have been miraculous based on the initial prognostication, and that would have made a lot more sense in the Cena mythos we've become accustomed to. What's more, Cena wasn't even there to make the challenge — the task was given to Smackdown general manager Vickie Guerrero, who made the announcement with such screeching glee that, coupled with Cena's notable absence, it made it seem like the match was a figment of some drunk exec's imagination.
Judging by the exclamation points that the announcing team employed thereafter, however, the match was indeed real. There's one conspicuous footnote, though: Both on Monday and at Battleground on Sunday, Del Rio used a steel chair to further weaponize his cross-armbreaker; if Del Rio deals Cena a pre-match injury to his rehabbing arm in the coming weeks, and the HiaC match is brief (or nonexistent), we'll know they rushed the erstwhile Superman back into action. What seems indisputable, if for no other reason than Cena's bizarre absence during what should have been his shocking return, is that this was a last-minute decision. Cena was abruptly called in off the disabled list either because he got a sterling checkup or because WWE looked at the ratings and PPV buy rates since he checked into the OR and decided it needed him back, convalescence be damned. Here's where conspiracy theorizing rightfully thrives in pro wrestling: in the backstage element, in the front-office deliberation, in — as the more conspiratorial among us would claim — the sandbagging of the current crop of young stars with the omnipresence of such oxygen-sucking vacuums as Triple H, Big Show, and, yes, the popular Mr. Cena.
The other day I talked to Bradley Safalow, founder of PAA Research, a firm that studies stocks for money managers and wealthy investors, the sorts of people who wouldn't know a suplex from a soufflé. For years PAA has been following WWE stock and writing reports on its potential performance. It just released a new report on WWE, and its projections are bullish. Sure, there are question marks — untenable expectation-boosting by WWE management in past cycles, past mismanagement of subsidiaries like the XFL, and, most recently, the sale by one Stephanie McMahon of a huge chunk of her stock in a move so mistimed it raised enough questions to create an "overhang" in the perception of the company. ("Very perplexing to say the least," said Safalow.) Its perceived tone deafness to investors doesn't help a product that already seems outside the mainstream and lacks the sexiness of, say, an established Hollywood outfit or a legitimate sports enterprise.
Safalow's confidence in WWE is convincing, though — its television contract with NBCUniversal, which was negotiated from a very weak position after SpikeTV dumped WWE, is up for renewal, and chairman Vince McMahon is so confident about the new contract that he told Safalow he'd let him put him in a headlock if it wasn't at least twice the size of the last one. Safalow projects WWE could conceivably triple or quadruple its distribution fees and still be below market compared to other sports. "The TV rights fees are recurring and predictable," he told me, "and relative to other forms of sports entertainment, WWE's current deals are so far below market it's incredible." The company has far more leverage with NBCUniversal now than it did last time McMahon negotiated the rights. "USA is not the no. 1 cable network without Raw, period. And if they lose Raw, they lose that status, and it would have huge implications for their advertising yield across their entire programming." The potential revenues from whatever the WWE Network turns out to be could be significant as well, though the parameters of this plan are vague. The ideas getting tossed around now are a pay channel somewhere between the NFL Network and NFL Sunday Ticket, where subscribers would get new content (Legends' House!), archival wrestling content, and some number of the PPV events for free. I'm torn on this — obviously I would pay, say, $120 a year for a channel that gave me a weekly Mid-South Wrestling show and the eight lesser PPVs as part of the deal, and there are millions of people like me out there. But I'm not sure it helps the overall WWE profile.
The interesting part for me, though, was his uncertain projection for what he calls "WWE Creative." John Cena is working from a corporate earnings standpoint, but the best thing WWE could do from an onscreen standpoint to boost its stock price is to create more John Cenas. Which is not to say that it needs to put more guys in jorts, but that it needs more bankable, legitimate megastars. "If you had a star on the roster who became as popular as Cena, maybe a different kind of character, what would that mean for their ratings?" asks Safalow. "Would they add a few hundred thousand more viewers?" It's a good question.
It's safe to say that WWE is aware of this, and that its current model, for all its flaws, is a groping attempt to identify and maximize any potential Cena prototypes. CM Punk has definitely reached something approaching that level, but it's fair to wonder whether he has maxed out his potential, at least in terms of attracting product sales, ratings, and PPV buys. (And it's worthwhile to wonder whether his current Paul Heyman–obsessed wilderness is a means of sidelining him while WWE tries out some other guys in his spot.) Everybody else in the main-event scene is either a work in progress — Del Rio, Dolph Ziggler, Ryback — or a part-time special attraction — the Rock, Brock Lesnar, even Chris Jericho. (The Big Show has somehow inhabited the crossover spot in that Venn diagram for much of his career.)
The only guy to truly elevate himself of late is Daniel Bryan. Clearly WWE is trying to give Bryan every chance to capture the attention of a broader wrestling audience — his championship dreams might be continually deferred, but he's (metaphorically, and frequently literally) side by side with Cena on Total Divas, and even after Big Show laid out Triple H on Monday, it was Bryan celebrating over the COO's prone carcass as the broadcast ended.
One can't help but wonder, despite Bryan's ascension to the tip-top of the card, how much of a chance he's really getting. The business side of pro wrestling isn't limited to guys like Safalow — ratings, PPV buy rates, and investor calls have been covered by wrestling websites for years. WWE never needed a Darren Rovell to underscore the correlation between athlete and product, because in the pro wrestling world there's no separation between the two. It was signaled the moment the first kid bit into a WWF ice cream bar and institutionalized when the millionth Hulk Hogan foam finger was sold — wrestlers are commodities. There's a reason (besides self-respect) you don't see people walking around in WWE-branded jackets4 — WWE may be the institution, but our allegiance is to the stars, which is why guys like Safalow care about star-making and why WWE is so desperate to find them, even if it means an over-reliance on the mining of their history with occasional appearances by the Rock and Lesnar and Shawn Michaels and on and on ad nauseam.
Even in the seemingly forgiving context of wrestling fan sites, a superstar's success is constantly related to the ratings that episodes of Raw and PPV events get when they're on top of the card. Even among the smarkiest of smark fans who inherently distrust chiseled cyphers like Cena and Orton, Cena is paid some modicum of respect in part because of his consistent ratings, whereas Orton is easily dismissible because his previous championship reigns have barely garnered halfhearted shrugs from Nielsen households.
If the verdict is still out on Daniel Bryan, it can't be ignored that wrestlers won't get unlimited opportunities to prove themselves, and on one of Bryan's moments to shine — at this past Sunday's Battleground — WWE managed to put together the weakest PPV card since Tuesday in Texas. Sunday night gave the lie to the constant "Best show ever!" bombast of the WWE announcing team and video package department. The show was filled with, well, filler, aside from the semi-main event between CM Punk and Ryback and a beautiful match between the Rhodes clan — Cody and Dustin, a.k.a. Goldust, with papa Dusty in their corner — and the Shield, which would have been morale-boosting padding on any other month. It was a procession of matches that would have been bathroom breaks on an average episode of Raw: the culmination of a milquetoast feud between Del Rio and Rob Van Dam, a Divas match between AJ Lee and Brie Bella, Curtis Axel defending the Intercontinental title against the most unconvincing challenger possible in R-Truth, Jack Swagger and Antonio Cesaro vs. Santino and the [Redacted] Khali,5 Bray Wyatt in a functional squash match against Kofi Kingston. The only match beyond the top three that had any chance of being decent was relegated to the YouTube pre-show — Damien Sandow versus Dolph Ziggler.
If Bryan is going to be measured by the performance of this show — and he unquestionably will — it'll go down as a big black mark on his burgeoning legacy, even though he had a great match against Orton, and even though he engaged the crowd like nobody else on the card. The pro-Bryan argument is that he was the best part of a thoroughly mediocre event, the mediocrity of which he couldn't control. The stoic corporate counterargument will be that Bryan will never be as hot as he is right now, and even that couldn't carry this show to last year's middling numbers.6
If it was meant to be ironic that Stephanie and Triple H had to leave the show early, as was explained onscreen, it was a poorly timed joke for the fans who were out $50. If anything, the weak lineup showed the downside of WWE being in the thrall of so many prevailing corporate influences: It needed a semi-compelling match on YouTube on a night that was short on them, it needed to put on a PPV to line the pockets of the cable companies even though there was no need — and no good plan — for one, and it had given away too many matches on the innumerable hours of television NBCUniversal has begged of it to make any of these second-rate acts feel worthwhile. Moreover, it showed that WWE's current star-making system isn't working.
It makes sense, then, that WWE would rush Cena back from his rehab, even if it's to the detriment of Bryan and his upstart cohort. Two years ago, when Punk's antiestablishmentarian walkabout was cut short to get him into the main event at SummerSlam, that was defensible — it was WWE's second biggest show, and it was the feud of the year. Goosing ratings by bringing back Cena ahead of schedule, though, is nothing but a stopgap. Broadening the feud between the McMahon "Authority" and Bryan to encompass Big Show and Cody Rhodes is a good thing, but if they sideline Bryan in favor of one of those two — despite my affection for Cody — it will be reactionary short-sightedness. The company needs Bryan to succeed — or, at least, it needs the possibility for him to succeed.
Despite the amazing responses Bryan gets from the crowds — WWE's nightly focus group, as Triple H called it in our interview with him — one imagines the front office wondering whether their new hero, indie wrestling god that he is, isn't a little bit too insidery a choice for the top spot. Here is the crux of the WWE star-building problem, especially in the face of hungry investors. WWE needs transcendent stars, but too many of its moves seem to promote a sort of self-marginalizing insularity. The movie division spent years cranking out direct-to-video B movies that could appeal only to wrestling fans, just like the WWE Network will appeal to hard-core fans but not so much to channel surfers. The hope, though, according to Safalow, is that new, content-hungry media platforms like Netflix and Hulu will happily embrace WWE Network content, just like they're doing now with WWE DVDs and TV shows, respectively, but on a larger scale. "Those entities are going to be incredibly interested in this content, and they can get better deals through them than they can with traditional cable networks," he says. It would make a certain sense — seeing as how wrestling was there at the advent of national television networks like DuMont and again at the start of national cable channels like USA and TBS — if WWE found itself at the cutting edge of content once again.
Such additions to the bottom line would have investors rejoicing. But the high points in WWF/WWE history, which have not coincidentally coincided with its financial acmes, are the moments when transcendent superstars emerged and engaged the pop culture at large — Hogan in the mid-'80s and Austin and the Rock a decade later. One John Cena isn't enough to remake the company, and sporadic appearances by Lesnar and the Rock won't magically boost the shows they're not on. WWE needs somebody like Daniel Bryan to succeed — not in winning the championship, and not in making the hard-core fans happy, but in becoming culturally relevant on a broader scale. The larger question is whether, in this world of limitless content, that kind of celebrity is more accessible than ever — or simply impossible.
WWE just needs another transcendent star or two in a world full of stars. Sometimes what's best for business is easier said than done.