John Cena defeated Rusev on Sunday night at WWE's Payback. Despite the fact that Rusev, up to that point built as an unstoppable monster who had captured the United States Championship and seemingly could not be beat by anyone on the roster, put up an amazing fight, Cena won. But who are we to be surprised at this result? It is the common internet wrestling fan's lament that at best John Cena rarely loses, and at worst he never loses. The argument can certainly be made that, as far as wrestling "angles" go, John Cena rarely loses in a manner that makes sense or advances an overall story. With Rusev it has been no different: After losing to Rusev at WWE FastLane by combination of dastardly trickery and cheating by the heel, Cena has beaten the Bulgarian Brute three consecutive times at Wrestlemania, Extreme Rules, and now PayBack. After a certain point, frequently-beat "monster" heels stop becoming monsters and start becoming nuisances. Just ask Bray Wyatt.
But that's not the story that has taken center stage. And that's not the story that is forcing WWE's terrible double standard once again into the spotlight.
These two are the story.
The woman to Rusev's left is Lana, real name Catherine Joy Perry. It is impossible to discuss Rusev without mentioning her, simply because the two have been completely inseparable for the past year or so on WWE television. On paper, the idea simply should not work: If the image above makes you think of Dolph Lundgren and Brigitte Nielsen in Rocky IV, you are not alone. Rusev and Lana were immediately criticized as poorly-done caricatures of a stereotype that was roughly thirty years out of date: jokes have been done to death over the fact that Vince McMahon must just now be catching up on the news of the Cold War and the terror of the Russian Bear. The fact that Rusev and Lana were stuck in a dead-weight feud with Jack Swagger and his manager Zeb Colter, "American Patriots" who often came off as way more assholish than the alleged "bad guys" in Lana and Rusev, didn't help matters.
But then a funny thing happened.
Slowly but surely, we came to a realization: Rusev and Lana might be playing a terribly outdated gimmick that probably has no business in the 21st century…but that didn't change the fact that they were excellent performers.
There is a certain art in acting like you've gotten the shit kicked out of you over the course of what is nominally a worked fake freaking sport. Just look at Dolph Ziggler, for example. Or, more recently, Neville. But I argue that it is exponentially harder for a man the size of Rusev to convincingly sell that he's taken an unbearable beating over the course of a match. Big guys (myself included) don't have it easy when it comes to this sort of thing. Some of us just stop (looking at you, Big Show). Not Rusev. His attention to detail (as well as his impressive move set) and his demeanor started to win over fans. For heels in the 21st century, that's pretty hard to do.
What about Lana?
Lana, my dear friends, is the crux upon which all of this rests, and the reason that so many were seeing red at the conclusion of PayBack's "I Quit" match.
Rusev, for all of his talent and his ability, is not breaking any new ground in his portrayal of a stoic, seemingly-unstoppable force of nature. It isn't terribly hard to buy that he is a tough man in the ring when he's automatically got such a huge height and weight advantage over most of those that he is going up against. But Lana is different. Lana is something that old-school wrestling fans haven't seen in a very long time, and new-school wrestling fans started to adore for what it meant in the long term: a competent manager.
The art of managing, in the WWE, is essentially an extinct art. Outside of Zeb Colter in bursts and Paul Heyman whenever the WWE thinks that they can afford Brock Lesnar for a few months, there have not been many non-wrestler talents in the company who helped sell the ferocity or legitimacy of those that they were supporting. The closest was VIckie Guerrero, who was never taken seriously and who was often the butt of tasteless at best and downright mean at worst jokes about her weight and voice and "relationships" with wrestlers that she managed. And when they were around, they were usually thrown in with the Vickie Guerrero mold: catty bitches who were always on the receiving end of accusations of promiscuity (and then, they were booked in a way that validated those stupid lines).
Lana represented something different. She represented an age-old saying come to life: behind every successful man is a woman. Except, in this case, you aren't sure whether you'd want to mess with the guy in this partnership or the girl. People started talking of the possibility that Lana build stables of her own, and that she be given a chance to truly hang with the most talented promo worker in the company right now (Paul Heyman and it isn't even close). There were people, with good reason, who believed that Lana could bring about a renaissance for the position of talent manager, and even bring about a sort of revolution for the often-maligned women's division of WWE.
Not anymore, I guess.
See, as Lana has grown in popularity, the WWE has come up with the brilliant decision of teasing an inevitable split between Rusev and Lana. While heartbreaking to see such an interesting duo part ways, it's hardly surprising. Ever since Shawn Michaels kicked Marty Jannetty in the face
when Jannetty tried to escape through the glass window to dissolve their partnership, the WWE more often than not will break up a team in order to maximize what should hopefully be a new batch of singles stars. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. And Lana certainly has the charisma to go her own way, especially if the rumors are true that Vince McMahon wants to make Lana the new "face" of the women's division in the WWE.
…Except, in doing so, they're taking away everything that made her special.
Instead of the split focussing on Lana and Rusev's mutually deteriorating relationship, the story we are being sold is that Lana is the victim of a jackass in Rusev. He berates her when things go wrong. He gets mad when she does things that are allegedly in his best interest in the long term but cost him dearly in the short term. If Lana were some helpless waif, that might be acceptable. And yet, right from the start, we were sold that Lana was the one in charge. Rusev was the mad dog, and Lana was the fearless one with her hands on the leash. We're supposed to expect that all to be forgotten? Was this all just a complete and utter illusion, or is it simply terrible booking brought about by the WWE hoping its audience has the attention span of gnats and doesn't remember that?
Furthermore, there is an equally-troubling manner in how they're handling Lana. It is becoming clear that Lana is about to turn babyface, and become the good woman who throws off the abusive asshole that has made her life miserable. Look, I suppose I can see Lana as a babyface. Catherine Joy Perry is a stunning woman, and that smile could power New York City for at least a week. And her dedication to keeping in character is only going to continue, no matter the role that she plays. And someone with that dedication to the business is someone who must be given a fair shake of things.
The fact that they pulled the trigger on her leaving, and are now doing things like pairing her with known ladies' men like Dolph Ziggler, only makes that a certainty.
And you know something? That fucking sucks.
Because now the jokes that people like John Cena made about her being a skank, etc. will be written into her character, and as a result they won't just be baseless sexist remarks.
Because now the interesting and unique elements about her character will be sanded away to fit the mold.
Because now the machine will churn out another sexist and stupid character, while the fans sit in terror over the next super-talented woman to be called up from NXT.
And that isn't going to change anytime soon.
People keep pointing to the fact that Triple H and Stephanie McMahon are about to take the helm of the company after Vince McMahon is no longer in charge as a sign of things to be thankful for. They point to the success that Triple H has had with NXT, and they point to the fact that, for a man that is as legendary a control freak as Vince McMahon, he is really giving his son-in-law an awful lot of leeway in booking the developmental league of his company. The fact that there are some amazing women in NXT, from the aloof Charlotte to the
Ratchet Boss Sasha Banks to the Human Hug Machine in Bayley to the…Irish Arm-Breaker Becky Lynch…this has to be a sign of Triple H's enlightened opinion of women wrestling.
I would argue that that is true only up to a point.
I would argue instead that Triple H is only doing what he thinks is best for business, and he is a politician first and foremost and forevermore. He knows that it is good business to develop good wrestling talent in NXT, and he knows that they need to be capable of just about anything when it comes to getting called up. I think that, as far as "women's rights" (to be so bold) as far as wrestling goes, he is decidedly neutral. If he thinks he can make stars, he'll put effort into it. If he thinks there's no point, then it is dead on the vine. Just like his father-in-law.
Besides, he's not the most glaring problem when it comes to women wrestlers in the WWE. It's his wife.
Say what you will about Vince McMahon…because there is plenty. But there is one thing that you absolutely cannot deny: when the moment calls for it, Vince McMahon will make an ass out of himself for the amusement of the public, and to make his foe across from him in the ring look excellent.
This is a guy who got the unholy hell beaten out of him by Stone Cold Steve Austin at St. Valentine's Massacre 1999, and then when he was being stretchered out Stone Cold threw him into the ring and started beating him up some more because the bell had never rung and thus the match hadn't even started yet. This is the guy who carried the amusing "Is Hulk Hogan Mr. America?" angle, and then let himself get bloodier than your standard Game of Thrones episode during his and Hogan's street fight at Wrestlemania XIX. This is the guy that went through a (Rube Goldberg-esque in its complexity) level of humiliation against Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania 22. This is the guy who is unafraid to look terrible and not always get over the person he's working with, because at the end of the day…he's Vince fucking McMahon.
His daughter is trying to have it both ways. One gets the feeling, watching Stephanie McMahon interacting with the roster (especially the women), that the heir to the WWE throne has a crippling need to save face as much as possible. Even when she is in a situation where she is about to come out the loser, there is the sense that she is holding back. And more often than not, one gets the feeling that she will never let another woman on the roster truly and completely get the best of her. She's Stephanie fucking McMahon, and unlike her father who uses that revelation as a reassurance that he is going to be alright in the end no matter what crap he's about to go through, she uses that fact as a buttress to protect her from character self-harm (and from truly putting over the woman across from her.)
Who won the match between Brie Bella and Stephanie McMahon at SummerSlam 2014…and then proceeded to avoid any sort of punishment whatsoever? It's confusing and lazy as hell how they're currently booked, but if the Bellas are faces now, shouldn't they decide to go after the woman that who was one of the key figures that manipulated the two of them into splitting up in the first place? Triple H was willing to sell a dropkick from Brie Bella; why can't Stephanie let the Bellas get some sort of revenge on her? If Stephanie McMahon can still go in the ring as she proved at SummerSlam 2014, why not let one of the women on the roster get revenge on her the way an angry face would go after her father?
But what about Vickie Guerrero? Didn't she get to humiliate Stephanie McMahon? Yeah…except that she got humiliated first, which sort of renders it all moot.
Seriously, the more one thinks about it…the more one realizes that the only woman that has unequivocally, unconditionally, and undisputedly gotten the best of Stephanie McMahon…doesn't even work for the company.
And even then, that's less a matter of kayfabe awesomeness, and more the fact that one does not tell Ronda fucking Rousey that she is going to make someone else look good in the ring. Especially someone like Stephanie McMahon. Ronda Rousey is the sort of person where if she has five dollars and you have five dollars, she has more money than you because she's snapped your arm and taken your five. It's not storytelling; it's reality. And while in the moment you are celebrating and cheering and hoping that Ronda taps her out at SummerSlam or Wrestlemania…in the long term, you realize that it's endemic of a larger problem. Why doesn't someone on the roster get that opportunity? Why not Paige? Or Tamina? Or Naomi? Or one of the NXT call-ups?
And Lana gets lost in the shuffle, a once-interesting idea and character who now stands on the precipice of ridiculousness. She started out as something we've never seen before. And now Vince McMahon apparently wants us to believe that, all along, she was just another version of Miss Elizabeth, all along.
And that's both an insult to the character that CJ Perry spent ages honing and developing, and an insult to the character that Miss Elizabeth was.
And in the heart of it all, the anger stems from a thought that makes you stop, pause, and worry for the future of both Rusev and especially Lana.
We wanted to watch Rusev and especially Lana become characters that would last and tell new and exciting stories in the ring and out of it.
We don't want them to get turned into another Marc Mero and Sable.
And so it goes.