In his official reaction to WWE's Fast Lane pay per view last night, Geno voiced support for WWE's decision to go ahead with the planned main event of Roman Reigns vs. Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania XXXI. I don't disagree in general with his reaction to last night's main event, but I take issue with what I felt was a hasty wholesale acceptance of WWE's decisions and their execution spurred on by the success of the match itself, and the implications of The General's largely unqualified approval.
I should begin by concurring with Geno about the quality of the match. It was pretty great. It told what was probably the perfect story for the circumstances of this feud and the story was expertly told. Reigns put on easily the greatest performance of his young career in my opinion, not only successfully adapting his obviously powerful charisma to the task of storytelling through body language but busting off a litany of previously unseen moves with impressive execution. In particular I was a huge fan of his rolling pumphandle suplexes and the suicide dive-into-belly to belly suplex reversal, both of which he pulled off with aplomb. Even the post-match handshake was fantastically well handled.
Because of the excellence of the match, I understand where Geno was coming from when he wrote:
They [Daniel Bryan's fans] can't be that disappointed.
That was the point too. It was so obviously the point that WWE risked failing to make it due to that fact but how could anyone really argue against the decisions made now?
But beneath the surface of the match's success remains glaring, galling issues, not the least of which is the philosophy behind booking this match in the most general sense, which is why I'm now going to argue with the decisions made.
This match existed because WWE decided, against a fairly clear fan preference, to treat Daniel Bryan like a scrub and hand Roman Reigns the Royal Rumble on a silver platter, relatively speaking. When the fans predictably mutinied, marking the occasion on which Vince McMahon finally declared himself insane in the most classical sense by making the same mistake twice and expecting different results, an angle was concocted to address the legitimate audience complaint that Daniel Bryan wasn't being given a fair shake and Roman Reigns was being forced down our throats. The business goal of this match, with all the pretentious Reality Era blurring of kayfabe and legit fan discontent, was to demonstrate thatactually no, we were wrong; Roman Reigns is superior to Daniel Bryan.
I'd put that in less dramatically condescending terms, but the reason it's so frustrating to me and many other fans, I'm sure, is that we weren't playing along with WWE when we booed, and they decided they could get away with their unpopular decision by turning a shoot into a work, which is fucking nonsense in this context.
As stated, in kayfabe, the match did as much as possible to prove Reigns' worthiness of the Mania title shot, but what is infuriating about the whole situation is that fan discontent was a shoot, it wasn't a cooperative response to a worked heel victory, and if we're looking at why Fast Lane's main event match was such a success in kayfabe, it's because in reality Daniel Bryan is a world class ring general who did more last night to make Roman Reigns look like the stud of studs than any other of WWE's designs have even come close to. Reigns was stellar in this match don't get me wrong, but Bryan put on a flat out star making performance, and the star he made was Roman Reigns.
We can split hairs all day about the extent to which Bryan was responsible for the success of last night's match- and without attestation from the people involved we're obviously spinning our wheels- but I think if you watch the match again and consider the fact that Reigns, talented as he may be, hasn't been able to put on solid matches with anyone less than the best workers in the company and has struggled even with some of them, you'll notice that this was a classic Daniel Bryan match. The psychology, the work, the pacing- this was, as everybody's least favorite play-by-play man would say, "Vintage Bryan."
So I'm working with the assumption that even beyond the masterful execution, body language, facials, and psychology Bryan imbued this contest with, he was also largely responsible for the broad strokes of the storytelling and calling of the match. I think that's a fair assumption and you can disagree, but again, I think history is on my side here.
I'm resigned to the fact that Roman Reigns is in the main event at WrestleMania and Bryan is not, and I am genuinely pulling for Reigns to be a success as the new Chosen One. Like many of you I was firmly on the bandwagon before the early parts of his singles run began exposing so many weaknesses. I think he's got a lot to offer, and his natural athleticism and presence make me think he's got a high ceiling.
More than anything I just don't want another ten years of divided crowds that sap events of those glorious moments that please entire crowds and Cole labeling the man under the spotlight as "the most controversial WWE superstar ever" as an excuse for why half of the audience just won't like this guy we're constantly being told is the greatest human ever.
There remains one serious obstacle to my ultimate acceptance of Roman Reigns, though: WWE, and Reigns himself, truly, still haven't done jack shit to make me care about this guy.
The primary reason last night's match was so enjoyable, to me at least, was that my perception of it was essentially as a shoot. I'm a mark for Daniel Bryan. I don't just think he's a talented wrestler deserving of reward, I actually like him, and I want to see him succeed because it makes me feel good to see good things come to people whom I like. This extends to my smarkdom, so I also want to see him valued in a manner that I think properly acknowledges his worth.
That right there is the product of successful Reality Era storytelling, and I'd argue the only cases in which WWE has had success with truly "Reality Era storytelling" is in cases in which the results are clearly counter to their desires and plans. This is because I genuinely sympathize with CM Punk's grievances against the WWE as aired in "The Pipebomb," and I genuinely sympathize with Daniel Bryan's plight as a small wrestler trying to reach the top of the mountain in a world run by a guy who values muscles over abilities. I become genuinely invested because I believe they are really up against the things they claim they are.
WWE has been largely unable to make Reality Era storytelling work for them because they don't accurately address our perceptions of them as a company and their (Vince's) desires for the product. Case in point: they are still treating John Cena like an anti-authority rebel. None of us buy this. No one. Not even the youngest, most naive, markiest of Cena marks, because deep down they know Cena is The Man. Deep down they know John Cena lunchboxes are still going to be available for them to purchase, and if they really bought that John Cena was at odds with the Authority, they'd be worried they won't get to see him on TV in the near future.
The reason Dolph Ziggler got so over on the tide of the Survivor Series Authority angle is because we all know that he has struggled within this company despite his consistent greatness and the fact that he's always over. As much as we want him to be the guy who gets to be on those lunchboxes, and gets to be The Man, we find it hard to believe it's a real possibility until we see him survive everything Triple H and his cronies have to throw at him, en route to a massive upset victory. That victory was as enjoyable as it was because I do sometimes worry that Dolph's contract is going to expire and he's going to say ‘fuck it, if I'm not going to be appreciated I'll just go join Bullet Club.' But in November, out of nowhere, it felt like "eureka, they get it!"
And this is why WWE needs to start paying more attention to the way they're perceived, because if they want Roman Reigns to become a true draw, I'm not sure they're going to get away with their usual revisionist history modus operandi in a world without PPV. For the sake of improving the product, they can't treat Reigns the way they treat Cena, they need to acknowledge that we know they want him to be The Man. The network really needs to be the lifeblood of their traditional revenue (discounting sponsors, etc.) now, and that's only going to be the case if the product is inspiring enthusiasm.
And this is the heart of my disagreement with Geno as pertains to last night's main event, and the decisions WWE has made to bring us to this place and moving onward to WrestleMania: the fanbase will never become truly enthusiastic about the product- early Attitude Era, tell your friends they need to watch this shit enthusiastic about the product- if WWE keeps disrespecting their preferences and wishes.
Coming into the Royal Rumble, I would argue that there were three entrants who could have sent the crowd home happy, and WWE said nuh-uh, you're going to get this other guy instead. I firmly believe that if Dolph Ziggler or Dean Ambrose had won that match, especially after the crowd had so vocally expressed their displeasure with the finish they all saw coming, the match would have ended with cheers and the winner would not have been booed for the next month. Neither guy would have gotten the same pop that Bryan would have had he won, but I'm confident fans would have generally approved of Ziggler or Ambrose as the winner of that event.
If he appeared as a returning entrant, I will include Randy Orton as the number 4 most over babyface in company (Cena excluded) and a safe pick business wise for the main event of WrestleMania, though his being an older, established star may have elicited a mixed response amidst the enthusiasm from his return after such a hot exit months ago.
This is the most frustrating aspect of being a WWE fan right now; not necessarily that Roman Reigns is the guy being given the main event spotlight, but that while he wasn't even among the four most generally acceptable choices for that spot, the top three guys may or may not even get a featured spot of any kind on the WrestleMania card.
I don't know whether or not Bryan vs. Ziggler is still on the table, but if that isn't the case, Dolph almost certainly drops into the Battle Royal (the same goes for Ambrose and his feud with Bad News Barrett). This guy was easily the most over babyface on the roster little more than a month ago (again, Cena aside). If Bryan hadn't returned until after Mania, it's easy to imagine he'd still be the most over babyface on the roster right now. And he'd be in the "everybody in the ring so you can get a check!" match.
To the point Geno made in his reaction about why we should be excited that WWE is at least trying to make a new star in Reigns, I would argue (in a somewhat adjacent matter) that these efforts should be constant, on every level of the card, and that unless Rusev is going over Cena at WrestleMania, Dolph Ziggler would clearly have been a better candidate to end his streak at the Showcase of the Immortals.
What Cena did for Rusev last night was excellent, and he deserves praise for it, but as Bray Wyatt can attest, the man should be kept as far away from rising stars as possible on the biggest stage, and it would be better for all involved if Rusev lost to another rising star like himself while Cena did battle in a match with somebody who can afford to take a loss at his hands.
Daniel Bryan needs to be handsomely rewarded for what he did for WWE and Roman Reigns last night. If Reigns survives the next five weeks with a minimum of boos, which I suspect may end up being the case, it can't be understated how much Bryan has done to legitimize Roman Reigns, and Vince McMahon should be grateful to the point of being willing to give him whatever he wants for a WrestleMania match outside of the title shot. If it is going to be a match against Dolph Ziggler, as it was rumored that was Bryan's own preference, then anything less than 20 minutes for them to work any kind of match they please would be a tremendous disservice to both men, who deserve so much more than to be thrown into a fan-service matchup with no more motivation than "this oughta be a great match, enjoy, smarks."
If it's going to be a match with Sheamus then we all need to pool our thoughts and come up with a new way to protest, because we can't just boo Sheamus and make them thing he's got nuclear heat. I'd suggest pelting the announce team with limes, too many limes, at every event, but we can talk about this later.
Personally, I'd have Rollins cash in between now and Mania, and pit Reigns vs. Rollins in the main event, with Bryan and Brock on the undercard. There's a certain extent to which this booking hinges on the recent news that Brock loves his current deal with WWE and might re-up after all, given that it is best for a star of Brock's caliber to put Reigns over, but this gets back to my primary issue with Reigns: I don't actually care to see him beat Brock. I'm going to have a difficult time cheering for Reigns against Lesnar, and that's not because I remain skeptical of Roman, it's because Brock is fucking awesome, and I love watching him wrestle, and he just put on one hell of a monster babyface performance at Royal Rumble, and I feel privileged to have watched that shit, and if he's leaving I'ma be wicked sad about it.
That's some serious rambling enthusiasm for Reigns to overcome in terms of winning me over, and based on Brock's general crowd reactions I'd guess many others. I think Roman might be better suited to face Brock after getting the rub of taking the title from the single most hated heel in the company, Rollins, and building a better rapport with the crowd before finally slaying Brock at SummerSlam or even WrestleMania 32.
And really, whatever Brock wants, it's probably worth it, even if it's a million dollars a match. Seriously, Vince has 1200 of those all by himself, what's 8 or so over 2 years?
Anyway the beauty of this booking is not only that you've got two matchups that are likely to be stellar in Reigns/Rollins and Bryan/Lesnar, while their remains a chance that Reigns/Lesnar is a clusterfuck without a real ring general, but also that Bryan doesn't even have to go over Brock to please the fanbase, leaving Brock even more impressive and reviled a monster for Reigns to slaughter later on. Bryan has amassed as much goodwill as he has in part because we genuinely sympathize with him- when he loses, we don't feel he let us down, we want to help him back up because we know he's got in in him to make it happen if given another crack. With the possible exception of another friendly bearded indie legend, he's the best loser in the game, and when it comes to a showdown with Brock Lesnar, all I want is to watch these two wrestle.