Pro wrestling is not fake. It is very, very real.
Yes, the fights are planned, the combatants are dance partners, and the drama is scripted, but the emotions it elicits are as genuinely felt as any other.
When pro wrestling makes you feel, it can take you off your feet and make you cheer even if you're the only one in the room. When it wants, it can gut-punch you and make you shake your head either in anger or in sadness. Often there's a dash of reality to those highs and lows. Something to remind us that, though these are characters in a performance art, they are also in the unique position of doing their "job" in front of a live audience, and their success depends on our response.
When we see a guy we root for succeed, it exhilarates us. Not just because our favorite character is winning the scripted battle, but because the guy playing him is getting the recognition he deserves.
When we see a guy we love have to retire, it crushes us. Not just because our favorite character is being written off the program, but because the guy we grew up with isn't going to be there anymore.
And then sometimes reality hits and it has nothing to do with the program or the script. Sometimes life happens to pro wrestling. Sometimes death happens too.
Last week was perhaps the most emotionally-draining in WWE history. The highs were stratospheric. The lows were crippling. Up and down things went and now that it's over, maybe we can turn the page and put it behind us. Before we do, let's take a look back at what made this one of the most famous, and infamous weeks in pro wrestling.
HIGH: THE BEGINNING OF THE BRYAN ERA
I will have more to say about this in the final installment of our WrestleMania main event countdown, but to summarize: There has not been a WrestleMania that was more one man's than WrestleMania 30 was Daniel Bryan's. Yes there were other (big) matches on the card and moments were had that had nothing to do with the little superstar that could. But this was his night.
WrestleMania X also had Bret Hart doing double duty, but he lost his opening match in order to set up his SummerSlam title bout with Owen. Daniel Bryan owned the night. He book-ended the show with a clean win over Triple H to get into the title match and a clean win over Batista to win the title. For those who have followed his journey from the beginning and for those who came on board in the run-up to WrestleMania, that moment when the confetti rained over his head and he sat in the middle of the ring weeping...that's a moment never to be forgotten.
The sea of "YES" chants filling the arena as the show faded out made the moment feel like the dawning of a new era for the first time since Stone Cold Steve Austin pinned Shawn Michaels. John Cena had been the man, but his WrestleMania win came in the undercard after a quickly-forgotten match with JBL. By the time he submitted Triple H at WrestleMania 22 he was already a made man. Instead of one huge WrestleMania win, he had a succession of really big wins between April-November. The win against Triple H just solidified his status. His victory over Michaels the following year locked him in as the top-billed face of the company for the foreseeable future. But he never had that WrestleMania victory to kick it off. Not like Austin had. He didn't need it, obviously, but still he didn't have it.
Daniel Bryan had his WrestleMania moment. The guy who was tagging with Kane a year prior, getting embarrassed before that, and snubbed from the card the year before that, now stood in the middle of the Superdome as everyone chanted his name. Time will tell, but watching the closing moments of WrestleMania 30 sure felt like Bryan had just been made. It felt like the dawning of a new era. It's exhilarating.
LOW: THE END OF THE STREAK
I must have re-watched the 3-count 50 times already. I try to look at a different thing every time. Unfortunately, the camera angle wasn't the best. There's no good shot of Undertaker and the ref is obscured. The whole shot is messy, sloppy. Like the match itself. The camera angle just didn't feel like the shot you want when you want to capture one of the most shocking finishes in pro wrestling's history. I made the comment right after it happened that it was comparable to Bruno Sammartino's first title loss. If you've never seen it, watch it here. The man had been champion for seven years. When he lost, people didn't know what to think.
I read somewhere recently, I think it was David Shoemaker who said, "pro wrestling fans don't like to be shocked. We like to predict." We want to guess what the finish will be. Guess the next move. Guess the next twist in the story. We like to fantasy book. And when things go as we hoped we love it and we react accordingly, but in the end, we called it. It's hard to be surprised when you predicted it. On the other hand when we predict and predict and they go a different direction, we cry foul. "That's not how it should have been done!" we cry. Really what we mean is "That's not how I fantasy booked it!" We have it all figured out and they went and did their own thing.
And then there's that rare third scenario, the one where we didn't even bother to make a prediction. Or if we did, we made it so casually we didn't even bother to sit on the edge of our seats and cheer like sheep when our prediction comes true. On a rare, rare occasion, they will genuinely shock us. They will do something we did not see coming. And when that happens, we don't know what to do. But we usually, instantly, react in one way or another.
Undertaker losing was like Bruno losing. No one saw it coming (granted, back in '71 most people watching thought it was legit...right?). When it happened we didn't know what to do. We didn't know what to think. But you can't fight your natural instincts. Your gut is going to have an instant opinion.
Mine felt like someone had died. You know that empty feeling you have as you come back from a funeral? Right below the ribs? That's how I felt as I watched Heyman slide into the ring to celebrate...then the 21-1 flashed...then Brock was announced the winner...then the music played. It felt like an eternity between each beat. I still don't know how to process it. I probably won't be able to until I see Undertaker again and honestly that might not be until next year at the earliest.
It was a gut-punch.
HIGH: THE BEST RAW....EVER?
...but the show must go on.
I think Vince and co. have finally figured out what to do with these "Raw-after" shows. I remember when these shows were hit-and-miss. Sometimes you'd get a hot match or a big story development (remember the Austin vs. Rock cage match the night after WrestleMania 17?). Sometimes you got a bunch of tag matches and stupid segments because everyone was too hungover from the WrestleMania celebration party.
Then they had the Ric Flair goodbye Raw the night after WrestleMania 24. The night after WrestleMania 25 saw Randy Orton take on Vince McMahon and featured the return of Batista (from injury, naturally). The night after WrestleMania 26 was Shawn Michaels' big goodbye. Cena and Rock set their one year feud in motion the night after WrestleMania 27. All those shows had memorable moments but it wasn't until the night after WrestleMania 28 that "the Raw after WrestleMania" became a thing. The crowd was hot, the matches were good, YES YES YES was everywhere, The Rock vowed to return and win the gold, and BROCK LESNAR F-5'd Cena and kicked his stupid green hat out of the ring.
Without that show, the Raw after WrestleMania 29 might have been looked at more favorably. Instead it lived in the shadow of the year prior. WWE tried to just redo the magic and it didn't quite work. Instead of Lesnar attacking Cena it was Ryback turning on Cena. Shocking? A little, but not exactly "crap your pants wow" like the previous year was. Raw-after-Mania had become a tradition, the crowd challenged themselves to be the best crowd of the year, the matches had to have a little extra pep and there had to be some surprises and some swerves. The show after WrestleMania 29 hit all the right notes but they were all a little flat compared to the night after WrestleMania 28. There's only so many ways you can do "Brock Lesnar returns after 8 years, beats up Superman" before you run out of ideas.
Thankfully the Raw after WrestleMania 30 didn't try to redo that magic night. It did its own thing. Instead of a lot of good building to one big great moment, we had a bunch of little great moments peppered throughout. For the first time in ages the top feud featured the top belt and (as of right now) the top babyface holding it. The heel was universally hated, the face universally loved. Remember those days? They're back. And that was just the opening segment.
Paige (finally) debuted. RVD returned. Ultimate Warrior returned (little did we know...). Bo Dallas and Adam Rose were teased. It was the most perfectly paced episode of Raw I can remember. No Undertaker meant no need to dwell on the sadness of the night before. Instead we got the best promo of all time from Paul Heyman, who walked out of the first hour a heel and walked back out the third hour a babyface. I don't know if Cesaro as a heel will work or if that is even the plan, but it was a mark out moment.
As was the Evolution/Kane vs. Bryan/Shield standoff. There wasn't any one earth shattering thing that happened, just about a dozen slightly smaller things, but that's a formula to keep from now on.
Great Monday night.
LOW: THE DEATH OF ULTIMATE WARRIOR
Horrible Tuesday night.
Life sometimes happens this way. An outcast legend comes back after almost two decades away, he receives a hero's welcome and promises that we'll be seeing more of him in the future. Then he dies.d
Just like that. Life happens. It's shocking and we try to rationalize it or justify it or make it "mean something" but it's just the way it goes. No one is guaranteed any more time in life than the time they have to expel their most recent breath. I make no bones about it: I'm a devout Christian. I've heard sermons about death since I was a child. I've preached some myself. I can cope with death. I've had loved ones and family members die. I've had former enemies die. You can prepare yourself or be shocked by a sudden loss. Whatever the way it happens, it happens.
We all gotta go sometime; at least Ultimate Warrior went out a hero. He went out a legend. He went out having his career validated in front of 75,000 adoring fans. That's a heck of a way to go.
But it still hurts.
No sudden appearance on an Old School Raw. No random backstage skit at a WrestleMania. No talking head segments on a WWE Countdown. And maybe that's fitting. His matches were defined by their suddenness. CRASH the music hits, WHOA look at him run, BOOM he slammed him, BANG he pins him 1-2-3. In and out in two minutes flat. His career was defined by its suddenness. Hogan has been a fixture somewhere (AWA, WWF, WCW, WWE, TNA, WWE) his entire career. If you looked for him you could find him cutting a promo. Warrior was in and out in a flash. Then he'd be back, then suddenly he'd be gone again in a flash. Then he's back again, then suddenly gone just as quick. Then he went quiet for a long time until he was back.
Then suddenly was gone for good.
Tribute will be paid to Ultimate Warrior on Monday.
HIGH: THE FUTURE IS NOW
It does no good to dwell on the past. Human nature is for us to pause and reflect whenever something catastrophic happens. In the world of pro wrestling there were a couple catastrophic occurrences, both in kayfabe and in reality. A legendary streak was booked to end and a legendary figure was taken by death. But as we turn the page to another week we look forward to the future. The future is bright.
And the future is now.
Someone commented that we kicked off a new era on Sunday. It certainly felt that way. Like all "eras" in WWE history, there is never any set-date when you can mark the beginning and ending. "Eras" are just labels we put on things to categorize and compartmentalize stretches of time in history. Some might say we started a new era when the programming went to PG, but really, other than the bloody matches and the Playboy centerfolds, what really changed? It was the John Cena show before and after. It has always felt like the John Cena show/era, even when CM Punk was holding the title for a year+ or when Triple H and Orton were main eventing WrestleMania 25. He's been the captain of the ship.
It doesn't feel like that anymore, does it?
Look at the staredown that ended Raw. Daniel Bryan and The Shield were in the ring while Triple H, Orton and Batista backed up the ramp. New vs Old. Sure the vets will get the upper hand a time or two, but does anyone doubt which "team" will be victorious when it counts? And then there's Byran himself, a champ that everyone (not just a demographic) wants to cheer for. There's Paige ready to drag the Divas division into relevance kicking and
screaming shrieking. There's The Shield and The Wyatts' on-again, off-again feud which feels like this generation's D-Generation X vs. Nation of Domination. Cesaro is getting a mega push.
I guess CM Punk was wrong. Change can happen while he sits on his couch in Chicago.
Stock analysts are predicting doom for Vince McMahon and co. They say he needs to sell. They probably wrote him off in 2004 too. Here we are a decade or so removed from the beginning of the post-Attitude era and it finally feels like we're at the cusp of another boom.
If you're fan, it's a great time to be one. If you're not, it's a great time to get started (right now on the WWE Network).
It's been a roller-coaster week, and we still have the Ultimate Warrior tribute show tomorrow, but as a wrestling fan, moving forward there's a lot to be happy about.
Sound off, Cagesiders. Are you as excited as I am -- all things considered --about the immediate future of the product? Share your thoughts on this up and down week in the comments below...