The Royal Rumble, WWE's second-biggest pay-per-view event, took place Sunday night. It begins the road to Wrestlemania, WWE's biggest pay-per-view, which will take place here in New Orleans on April 6.
The storytelling in most TV shows is shaped by the arc of a season, with debuts and finales. Most sports have openers, playoffs and (most importantly for the participants) off-seasons. WWE has none of those things; its wrestlers work year-round. The year in wrestling is largely defined by the lead-up to and fall-out from Wrestlemania, pro wrestling's showcase event.
We thousands of fans who've already bought tickets to Wrestlemania don't know exactly who or which match-ups we'll see there - we buy in simply as fans of the brand. Countless twists and turns lie along the road to Wrestlemania. When April 6 comes, who will be the champion, and who will be the challenger? Who will face the legendary Undertaker, a special-attraction wrestler who's never lost at Wrestlemania and returns each year to defend his winning streak?
The Rumble provided us one piece of the puzzle: the recently-returned Batista will be headlining Wrestlemania. This was determined by the pay-per-view's namesake Royal Rumble match, in which thirty wrestlers enter the ring at ninety-second intervals and try to throw the others out over the top rope. The last man in the ring goes to Wrestlemania as the challenger for the WWE World Heavyweight title, and Batista, a towering, humanoid mass of sinew nicknamed "The Animal," was the man.
I watched the Rumble PPV with three guys named Mike in their shared shotgun, the House of Mike. Three out of three Mikes agreed that the big news coming out of the Royal Rumble wasn't Batista winning the Rumble, nor Randy Orton retaining the title belt against John Cena in a one-on-one match. The story of the night was the live crowd in Pittsburgh demanding, at first enthusiastically and then angrily, to see Daniel Bryan.
Daniel Bryan, a bookish, 5'10" vegan with a fluffy beard and hair in his eyes, doesn't match most of the stereotypes of a pro wrestler, but he is pro wrestling's breakout star, evoking crowd reactions of a power and unanimity unseen since the heyday of Stone Cold Steve Austin, the boss-beating icon of blue-collar defiance who defined WWE's Attitude Era twenty years back. Daniel Bryan was in the opening contest on the Royal Rumble pay-per-view card, wrestling a superb one-on-one match to settle his grudge against Bray Wyatt, a portly, unhinged bayou cult-leader whose demonic antics- eye-rolling, grimacing, hanging upside-down off the ropes while grimacing- are thrillingly weird. It was the match of the night, as any match involving Daniel Bryan usually is. Bryan lost, but the crowd didn't mind; they chanted his name and his signature cheer: Yes! Yes! Yes!. What was unusual was that they continued to cheer for Daniel Bryan during the matches that followed.
Because WWE has defined pro wrestling for decades, most WWE crowds accept what's presented to them; it's all they've ever known. There are those who enjoy chanting "Cena sucks!" at WWE's top guy, John Cena, but they buy tickets at the same prices Cena's fans do, and some even wear official "Cena Sucks" T-shirts that WWE manufactures and sells. The behavior of the live crowd in Pittsburgh- their loud rejection of both Randy Orton and John Cena in the title match, and their booing of the Royal Rumble match when it became clear Daniel Bryan would not be an entrant - was like nothing I've seen before.
The crowd did show enthusiasm for anti-establishment stalwart C.M. Punk, who was present for most of the Rumble match, and got excited for up-and-coming heartthrob Roman Reigns, who eliminated the most Rumble participants ever, pushing twelve men over the top rope before Batista chucked him out, but mostly the live crowd wanted Daniel Bryan, and they booed and chanted insults at everyone else. The pay-per-view ended with Batista, ostensibly triumphant, being showered with jeers that nearly drowned out his music.
The part of the internet concerned with pro wrestling went nuclear over the Rumble. PWTorch.com, a pro wrestling journalism site I've occasionally written for, recorded its highest visitor numbers in years. There's a standard caricature of the "Internet Wrestling Community" as a cadre of angry slobs who hate everything. I'm a fan, not a hater, but I do have opinions, and I am certainly among those disappointed that Daniel Bryan didn't enter the Royal Rumble.
Because it's now widespread that- sensitive readers, I'm sorry- aspects of pro wrestling outcomes are pre-determined, WWE plays with that awareness, building behind-the-scenes rumors into on-air storylines. This creates meta-narratives that many fans adhere to, in which evil corporate bosses are unfairly keeping down young talent. How much of that is true? When, as happened recently, WWE's real-life Chief Operating Officer comes on television and says Daniel Bryan is too short and funny-looking to be the face of the company, the hall of mirrors becomes dizzying. Whatever the COO might actually think, by insulting Bryan on TV, he's inarguably undercutting him. If that upsets me, because I think it's poor form, am I falling for the ruse?
Heady stuff. Honestly, I just want to see two great wrestlers beat each other up, and there's no-one I'd rather watch than Daniel Bryan. I want him on top, because the wrestlers on top have longer, more frequent matches. I want him to win, because I admire him.
On Monday Night RAW last night, it was announced that Daniel Bryan will be one of six men competing for the title at the upcoming Elimination Chamber pay-per-view. To secure that spot, his team had to win a tag match, but WWE made sure to emphasize at the show's opening that Bryan might get a title shot, to pacify or at least buy time from upset fans. The live crowd at RAW Monday night wasn't as crazy as the previous night's in Pittsburgh's, but they did chant "Daniel Bryan" at both Randy Orton, the current champion, and Batista, who resumed wrestling just last week after a four-year hiatus that included a couple high-profile film roles (Guardians of the Galaxy, Riddick).
Batista isn't clearly either a hero or a bad guy at present; WWE seems to be hedging their bets. If the fan support for Bryan remains ferocious, and Bryan wins the belt in the Elimination Chamber, the mountainous Batista will make a fine Goliath to Bryan's underdog David. If, after Elimination Chamber, the defending champion going into 'Mania is still Orton, who's lately been defined down to a cheating crybaby, Batista will then be the good guy, raw power cutting through a cowardly champion's smokescreen of tricks and excuses.
I'm not very interested in a Orton-Cena match at 'Mania. Both men are exciting wrestlers, but I saw Batista win the title off Orton five years ago, at Extreme Rules here in New Orleans, and I didn't think their chemistry was great. While Orton seems immune to age, Batista is in his forties now, and based on his Rumble performance, may not be in optimal cardiovascular condition. Daniel Bryan gets awesome matches out of everyone he wrestles, whereas Orton, though indubitably one of the greats of his generation, only truly "clicks" with some opponents.
Will WWE give the fans what they want, and allow Daniel Bryan the spot he's earned on top of the card? A few weeks back, Daniel Bryan submitted to and joined Bray Wyatt's creepy cult, a displeasing surprise to those who want Bryan in the title picture. When, inside a steel cage a week ago, he threw off his cult garments and gave cult leader Wyatt an ass-whipping, it was a gratifying but very abrupt reversal. Assuming this odd double-turn of events wasn't the plan all along, I took it as evidence WWE can be nimble: Bryan went in a new direction, the fans didn't like it, and Bryan came back.
But there's a world of difference between merely keeping Bryan a fan favorite and giving him the main-event spot as defending champ in Wrestlemania 30, the pinnacle of pro wrestling and a major anniversary show. In the past, WWE has sometimes accommodated wrestlers whom the crowd loved but management didn't believe in by making the main event a three-man match; we may see that happen again.
The story of the Royal Rumble fan revolt drew coverage from even mainstream outlets like the BBC. WWE loves that kind of attention, but it remains to be seen how and in what ways the company will capitalize on this controversy. What will they do with the luminous, top-tier talent that is Daniel Bryan? That answer lies ahead, further down the road to Wrestlemania.