The most stunning part is that I was stunned at all.
We have been down this road so many times before. I knew it was coming. So why were my hopes up? Will I ever learn?
Being a wrestling fan over the age of 15 in the 21st Century is akin to being an addict. You try to step away. You tell yourself you’re all grown up and you have better things to do with your life. But then you’re like Pacino in Godfather 3, watching the 2014 Royal Rumble on your laptop because maybe tonight’s the night.
Maybe tonight’s the night they get it right. It’s when Vince McMahon finally listens to the fans. It’s when the company eschews the old standard and goes with the next big thing.
They didn’t. Daniel Bryan never even entered the Royal Rumble match. The glory in our heads never played out on our screens.
The ballad of Daniel Bryan has been told many times. Last summer, Bryan took the wrestling world by storm. Thanks to the bloated, three-hour format of Raw, there is a lot of airtime for the WWE to kill every Monday night. In Bryan, they struck gold.
For the summer of 2013, every Monday night featured Bryan going out there and delivering a four-star classic that warmed the hearts of wrestling fans. Hell, it even made me watch WWE again.
As with CM Punk two summers’ prior, it felt like the WWE was finally going to go against the grain and give the fans – the smarks, as the WWE office likes to derisively call the fans who know too much – what they want.
As with CM Punk two summers’ prior, that didn’t happen. Within months of being the hottest thing in wrestling, Punk was feuding with an ancient Kevin Nash.
When Bryan got his big moment at SummerSlam, it lasted for all of 60 seconds before Triple H turned on him and Randy Orton became champion. For the rest of 2013, the WWE proved how much it hates the fans but repeatedly not giving them what they want – Daniel Bryan as champion.
The coup de grace came late in 2013 when Daniel Bryan – still the company’s most over performer – joined with the evil Wyatt Family.
Imagine, if you will, Hulk Hogan in 1988 bypassing a match with Andre the Giant and shaking Bobby Heenan’s hand? In a pre-Internet era, the entire world would have melted down to nothing.
To be fair, it was pretty obvious that whatever angle the WWE had planned for Bryan and the Wyatt Family, it was going to end with Bryan emerging from their clutches and fighting the family’s leader, Bray. The problem was, well, no one wanted to suffer through the angle to get there.
See, despite the WWE booking Bryan to look weak – Triple H infamously dubbing him a B+ player – the crowd didn’t care. If anything, it made their resolve greater. Daniel Bryan was their guy and they were going to keep cheering for him.
Daniel Bryan is the 21st Century superstar – even if no one in Stamford, Connecticut will admit it – because he appeals to the two groups of fans watching pro wrestling in 2014. The kids who still believe love that Bryan is overcoming the odds – beating men twice his size. The adults who have long stopped believing love that Bryan is overcoming the odds—getting over on men twice his size.
In short, Bryan resonates because he is the wrestler we would be if we wrestled. Bryan works his ass off no matter what. He took a throwaway partnership with Kane into one of the most unlikely – and most over – tag teams in recent memories. He makes everything work. He delivers 100 percent effort in the ring. He fights the WWE “machine” in the most crowd-pleasing way possible – he works harder than everyone else.
Of course, Bryan needed help. And he found it in the strangest, most random place possible – East Lansing, Michigan.
The Michigan State football team, fresh off of an epic, program-defining Rose Bowl win, celebrated that victory during an ESPN-televised, top 10 basketball matchup versus Ohio State. As millions watched at home, the football team led the arena in Daniel Bryan’s “YES!” chant at halftime.
The timing could not have been worse for the WWE.
They were about to announce the launch of their long-awaited WWE Network. They crave mainstream attention, practically begging for it with a stream of B-list celebrities. Who can forget Snooki or Maria Menounos “wrestling” at past WrestleMania events?
Yet, this time, the WWE could do nothing. Daniel Bryan had been “brainwashed” by the Wyatt Family. Kayfabe might be dead but you can’t piss on its grave. As SportsCenter played the clip, as Twitter blew up, as sports websites posted the clip, the WWE had to sit back and watch a mainstream moment pass by unattended.
The Wyatt Family angle was dropped. Daniel Bryan got his comeuppance on an episode of Raw that, again, set the social media world on fire. As in the summer of 2013, people I follow who never discuss wrestling – the closeted fans like me – couldn’t contain themselves. They had to let people know about the awesome.
So the rumors flew fast and furious last week that the WWE was going to change plans again. Even though Batista returned after four years away, that Vince McMahon and company couldn’t ignore the chants any longer. Bryan would enter the Royal Rumble match. He would win. All would be forgiven.
During the Randy Orton/John Cena match prior to the Rumble, the crowd in Pittsburgh let everyone know where they stood. They chanted for Daniel Bryan. They chanted, “This is awful!” and “You both suck!”
When the Royal Rumble match started, the crowd was hot because they felt like it was going to be special. Every superstar has their big Rumble-winning moment, from Hogan to Shawn Michaels to Austin, the Rock and John Cena.
By the time the match reached the 20th entrant, two-thirds of the way home, the first Daniel Bryan chant start. The crowd was getting restless. Where was he?
By the time Batista entered, the crowd was actively agitated. If Daniel Bryan wasn’t #30 and the last man in, they were going to be ticked off.
By the time Rey Mysterio entered at #30, the crowd was done. They booed Mysterio. They booed Sheamus. They booed Batista.
As if to provide one final kick to the groin, the crowd unexpectedly got behind Roman Reigns – another up and comer in the vein of Punk and Bryan who has gotten over by putting on great matches and working hard – and he was summarily tossed by Batista.
Batista, the conquering hero and supposed new #1 star of the WWE, was booed out of the building during his post-match celebration.
Why was I stunned? Why did I tune in? What did I expect?
The problem is that wrestling fans always say they’re going to stop watching, but they never do. There’s nothing else to watch because the WWE is a monopoly. You watch what Vince McMahon tells you to watch or you watch nothing at all.
Well, there is finally an opportunity for WWE fans to fight back. That precious WWE Network launches in a month, aimed specifically at the fans who booed Batista Sunday night – the allure of every single wrestling pay-per-view from WWE, WCW and ECW, past, present and future, on-demand for your viewing for the low, low price of $9.99 per month.
The fans that the WWE actively pissed off Sunday night? They will determine whether the Network is a success or not.
It’s time for wrestling fans to send a message – don’t buy the Network. Vince McMahon doesn’t know he’s being stupid because they’re still selling out arenas and getting 4+ million to watch Raw every week, if we hate ourselves for doing so.
Vince McMahon will only learn when his wallet suffers.
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