Wrestling like a coward

Every few years, something happens in pro wrestling that strikes sparks and gets people talking. You’d think for an art form meant to antagonize and shock this would happen more often, but it really only occurs at the intersection of reality and fiction. This is where pro wrestling exists, but it’s really difficult to pull off effectively, so it’s both rare and striking. But the longtime wrestling fan will tell you: when they get it right, there’s nothing else like it.

This time, it was an argument between an approachable good guy, Daniel Bryan, and a narcissistic bad guy, The Miz. They were arguing about wrestling should be. It was a violent four minutes, and I think the bad guy was right.

This argument happened on Talking Smack, which is a talk show that airs on the WWE Network that’s about a show called Smackdown that airs on network television. If you’re the ideal viewer, you watched 2 ad-filled hours of programming, and have now switched over to a streaming channel you paid $9.99 this month for to watch WWE officially recap the show you just watched. It’s a bit like Talking Dead, the talk show that airs after Walking Dead, except it differs in two ways: it’s on a completely different medium, and the performers are still somewhat in character. If this sounds insane to you, welcome to pro wrestling. This is a Tuesday.

One of the hosts of the show is Daniel Bryan, who plays the General Manager on Smackdown. He is also a commentator on the Cruiserweight Classic, a tournament that also airs on the network. He retired earlier this year due to doctor’s orders, because his brain was too damaged. This is both true in real life, and an important part of the narrative.

The present story began a few weeks back, when Daniel Bryan drafted The Miz to Smackdown (Raw and Smackdown have recently become independent spaces again, with unique casts). He stated that by doing so he guaranteed the Intercontinental Championship would be on his show, which is a prize he held dear. It was, as Miz reminds us, the last title Bryan held before retiring. It became very clear very quickly that Bryan had drafted the title itself, and that Miz just happened to be the person holding it. “I respect the title,” Daniel says. “But I don’t respect you.”

“I was more impressed with Apollo Crews,” Bryan says about Miz’s opponent in his last Intercontinental Title defense. Miz parrys with the most logical point he can: “He lost!” To the Miz, he’s a good wrestler because he wins. He’s a good wrestler because he has a title, a grand entrance, and a supportive wife who will cheat on his behalf. To Bryan, Miz isn’t a wrestler. He’s a parody of a wrestler. A phony. He’s “safe.” He pretends. I wanted Miz to blow the whole fiction right there, and proclaim, “this is all fake, Daniel!” He didn’t, but I will: this is a show where people pretend to fight, and we’re talking about an argument between two fake fighters who think each other’s fake wrestling style is bad. This is an argument about how best to pretend.

WWE’s storytelling style usually favors single-scene simplicity. They typically scenes are able to stand on their own, and if they have to reference the past, they should do so with accompanying video footage to either remind the viewer or show it to someone just tuning in. But Bryan and the Miz are talking about something big here. The Miz starts out being upset that other stories are getting more television time than he is. He hates that Bryan spent time introducing other new titles on the show and then ignores his, even though it’s the prestigious and legendary one.

The argument between Bryan and Miz is on the surface an argument about wrestling style. This is interesting enough, because they don’t do stories about this nearly as often as I’d like. Arguments in wrestling about about who is superior always comes down to the persona and never the craft. It’s always “I am superior,” and not “my style is superior.” The craft of pro wrestling is something that doesn’t get talked about enough period. They’re just scratching the surface here. I want to know why Bryan thinks “getting hit” is a smart idea. I want to know why Miz thinks not getting hit is a smarter idea. Keep going. Dig deeper.

Daniel Bryan and The Miz are, as longtime viewers know, permanent nemesis. They are the perfect set to have this kind of fight. Their styles are very different. They carry almost opposite personalities. And yet, they both married female wrestlers. They both won their first WWE Championships with the same angle–a Money in the Bank cash-in. They both have exactly one victory in the main event of Wrestlemania. And they both love wrestling with a palpable passion. It’s this passion that gives both of them justifiable viewpoints. Both perspectives are relatable, and both make sense if you know both characters.

What struck me most about this scene was how it was about so many things happening in WWE, both now and in the past, and how it indirectly references other arguments Miz and Bryan have had before. One that comes to mind is from August 12, 2013, where The Miz hosted an interview between John Cena and Daniel Bryan. During this exchange, Bryan’s main argument was that he was a true wrestler and Cena wasn’t, since Cena wouldn’t wrestle in a place smaller than WWE, but that he would. Fast forward to 2016, and Bryan is retired from wrestling in WWE (and frustrated about it, since he mentioned he would wrestle if only the doctors would clear him), but he’s still working there. He’s a non-wrestling character on the show now, and hasn’t quit to go wrestle in the bingo halls, like he said he would be in 2013.

You can watch the segment about halfway through this episode of Raw. In this scene, Miz is the antagonist, and his goading works on Bryan, leading him to rail on Cena for being a television star and not a wrestler. “I want to slap you, but you are not a wrestler,” Bryan told Cena, the prototype of WWE’s version of what they want a successful performer to be. “And you don’t deserve it.” Bryan may have been speaking to Cena, but he was talking about Miz.

But the references aren’t just years back, but also 20 minutes back, on this episode of Talking Smack. The Miz antagonized Bryan about quitting, and going to wrestling with his “bingo hall buddies,” and we know what he’s talking about not because we know that Bryan was an independent wrestler forever but because this episode began with Bryan talking about hitting up a small indie show a few days prior. Bryan mentioned Evolve, the indie wrestling troupe, by name. When WWE goes out on a rail and talks about other wrestling companies (Hey CM Punk, How ya doin?) it’s a nod to the hardcore wrestling fan who already knows about this stuff. But this right here? It’s in the text. They foreshadowed this moment 60 seconds into the show.

Finally, I’d be leaving out a huge chunk of subtext if I didn’t tie in something else that happened this week in wrestling. Finn Balor made his major PPV debut at Summerslam and won a brand new championship, but had to relinquish it on Raw the next night, as he had injured his shoulder during the match and would require surgery and months of rehab. Balor is the kind of wrestler Bryan is talking about when he says “WWE has transformed.”

When Miz says “the reason I wrestle the way I wrestle is because I can do it day in and day out…I have never been injured.” His style may be softer, but it is undoubtebdly safer. He’s yelling at Bryan, whose career was cut short due to too many injuries, but Balor’s injury was fresh in our collective minds as well. If Balor wrestled like Miz, it might be less exciting, but he might still be a champion. He might still be appearing on the show. If Bryan had listened to Miz in 2010 (when Miz, as Bryan’s “pro trainer” in nXt, told him he needed to be more like the Miz to succeed in the big leagues), maybe he would have never ascended to the top, but his career might not be over. And if that’s true, that’s true both in the narrative and in real life. Maybe wrestling like a coward is the right way to go.

Daniel Bryan is winning the 2014 Royal Rumble Elimination Chamber

Given the evidence, general momentum, and recent plot developments, I have to give my official prediction as Daniel Bryan. If he doesn’t win, I’ll be the first person to say I’m wrong. But he’s going to, just like he won did not participate in the Royal Rumble.

There are three candidates to win the 2014 Royal Rumble Elimination Chamber: Bryan, CM Punk Randy Orton, and Batista Antonio Cesaro. There are going to be 27 other people in the ring at some point but nobody else has been showcased as even dark-horse winners. Here’s a quick look at the trajectories of the three candidates.

CM Punk Randy Orton

After a lengthy rehabilitation from conniving villain into a shrugging hero, Punk Orton has finally exercised his middling foes and has been made to look very strong. He defeated the Shield Christian single-handedly on PPV. He isn’t an underdog. He’s a star. His 434-day 102-day run with the WWE Championship in 2011–2013 isn’t disputed as being anything but a very impressive accomplishment handjob. On paper, he’s the favourite, because he’s pretty much done everything in his career except win a Royal Rumble Elimination Chamber match.

On top of those things, he has had great matches with the potential champions: Orton Batista, Cena, and Lesnar, and none of these pairings have ever headlined Wrestlemania.

But there are a few reasons to think he won’t win. Considering he held is holding the title for as long as he did is, perhaps they need to give other people their turn. That’s one argument. He could be better utilized in matches not involving Randy Orton Cena, since they already wrestled at Wrestlemania in 201108. That’s another. But my strongest argument against CM Punk Randy Orton is that he simply doesn’t seem to want to win the Royal Rumble Elimination Chamber. He didn’t even sign up: Kane HHH did it for him. He hasn’t once proclaimed any interest, nor has he once challenged properly defended the title since losing winning it.

CM Punk Randy Orton would be better suited at Wrestlemania fighting just about anyone but the WWE Champion, and since there’s only one big gold belt now, that list is lengthy. Take your pick: Cena, Lesnar, Orton Batista, HHH, Batista Antonio Cesaro. Any of these pairings would be fun. In holding the title as long as he did, Punk Orton may have escalated himself to the top shelf of the WWE, where he doesn’t need a title to get to a main event. It’s ironic, because his entire reign was defined by his inability to do so.

Batista Antonio Cesaro

It’s damn near a Royal Rumble Elimination Chamber tradition to give the win to a returning (or debuting) superstar. The 1992, 93, 2001, 02, 03, 08, 10, and 11 Rumble winners were all just back from injury or brand new characters. And considering Batista Antonio Cesaro’s return was spoiled, it’s possible that this was in fact the original plan. But we all know how plans have a habit of changing.

I think people are far more curious than excited about Batista Antonio Cesaro. We kind of want to see what character he’s going to play. Good guy or bad? Animal, or douche bag? It’s wholly possible that he goes on to dominate and win the match, and perform with Orton or Lesnar at Wrestlemania (and no doubt, Lesnar vs Batisa Cesaro would be a big deal story). But though I guarantee there will be times when it seems he’s a lock to win, he won’t.

WWE has big plans for Batista Antonio Cesaro, but it’s unclear whether those plans involve him holding a championship or just starring in huge grudge matches, like they’ve done with Lesnar. I would suggest Batista Antonio Cesaro’s resigning is a confirmation that they believe they made a great call with Lesnar thus far. I’ve talked previously about this new tier in WWE, meant for the part timer mega-attraction. The roster on that tier has included the Undertaker, Lesnar, and The Rock. It now includes Batista Antonio Cesaro. Of those men, only The Rock held the championship, and he only held it after challenging for it six months in advance. A few weeks ago on Raw, Lesnar made a similar challenge: he would be the next number one contender following John Cena vs Randy Orton at the Rumble.

There’s a pattern here. Big star of yesteryear is reintroduced. He has one or two major attraction matches based on his name alone, and then they paint him into the title picture. That doesn’t mean they’ll never hotshot a title reign on a returning character, but they haven’t shown much interest in doing that.

These are all good reasons to suspect that Batista Antonio Cesaro’s first few months (through the Wrestlemania season) will be filled with personal stories. We likely won’t find out about his Wrestlemania opponent until Elimination Chamber (or the Raw following). But the biggest reason to discredit a Batista Antonio Cesaro victory is that WWE is in the middle of a much larger story. This brings us to…

Daniel Bryan

If they hadn’t already done it half a dozen times, I’d suggest Bryan appears first, second, or third in the Rumble Chamber and goes all the way. But they don’t actually need to do that here. Because modern Rumble’s Chambers are often split into three acts, I wouldn’t even want to see him until the last 10 2 entrants.

The obvious reason that Bryan wouldn’t win is because he already fought Randy Orton on PPV in the last year, and WWE almost never headlines Wrestlemania with a match recently done to death. But if Orton was going to be champion until Wrestlemania, there’s simply no reason to have Brock Lesnar Batista make a challenge. Why put that piece down on the board, if Orton is the man to headline the big show?

HHH is the person who re-introduced Brock Lesnar Batista. He’s currently the end boss of WWE, and the man who has been holding Daniel Bryan down. It hasn’t been Randy Orton. It’s been HHH. And I don’t believe they’ve been sewing the seeds of discontent between Orton and HHH for no reason. It is all building to two WWE Championship switches: first, Cena defeating Orton at the Rumble (in a fair fight) Orton defeating Cena with outside interference, and Brock Lesnar Batista defeating John Cena at Elimination Chamber winning the Royal Rumble (in a grotesquely unfair one).

If Daniel Bryan wins the Royal Rumble Elimination Chamber, the main event of Wrestlemania will be Bryan vs Lesnar Batista. It’s a fresh, star vs star match, and nearly guaranteed to be a blockbuster for all three types of wrestling fan. That’s nice, but that’s not why he’s winning.

Daniel Bryan is winning because the fans made him the only choice they could take. WWE took a chance on Bryan in the summer, and, in the fashion we’ve become accustomed, decided to really test us. Since the moment after he won the WWE Championship at Summerslam, Daniel Bryan has been put in front of us and beaten. He’s been tested. He’s lost. And lost. And lost. He’s lost in ways they’ve never had a character lose before. He’d been given his “last” chance against Randy Orton the night after TLC 2013, and Orton cheated him out of it. He’d given up, and finally caved into the darkness that surrounded him. Or did he? Two weeks before the Royal Rumble Elimination Chamber, he shook off his disguise and pummelled his demons. He sat atop a steel cage while the entire arena stood with him, in unison.

The tests are over. WWE has listened.

Historically, the winner of the Royal Rumble Elimination Chamber has dealt with distracting bullshit leading up to the show. They sometimes like to hide the winner in plain sight. In 1993, Yokozuna was dominant, but he wasn’t beating anyone of real value. In 1997, Austin was embroiled with Bret Hart. In 1998, he was embroiled with McMahon. In 2000, the Rock was tagging with Mick Foley against The New Age Outlaws of all people. About a week before the 2001 Rumble, Austin was still fighting with William Regal. The list goes on. That Bryan was busy with the Wyatt’s was about making it seem like he was a million miles away from winning.

Punk Orton gets to “win” at Wrestlemania if he gets a bigger opponent than he had last year. That’ll be tough, but there is one guy in a suit that owes him.

Batista Antonio Cesaro will win if he gets a spotlight and gets to destroy someone.

But Bryan has been on a path. He’s had the trajectory. He’s been part of the same story they’ve told year over year. An authority has power until the Rumble. Daniel Bryan is winning the Royal Rumble Elimination Chamber because that’s what happens next.

She nodded miserably. “I hated him, she said, “and I wronged him and I still hate him.” She sobbed. “Why is that, Ned?”

He made an impatient gesture with one hand. “Don’t ask me riddles.”

“And you,” she said, “tricked me and made a fool of me and brought this on me and I don’t hate you.”

“More riddles,” he said.

—The Glass Key, Dashiell Hammett