To term Daniel Bryan’s reign as undisputed WWE World Heavyweight Champion ‘disappointing’ is to do a disservice to other disappointments in world history. Though we’re barely five weeks into the reign, it’s made Al Capone’s vault look Fort Knox.
[adinserter block=”1″]The fans have been wanting to sink their teeth in Bryan as champion. It doesn’t matter that he’s shorter than most NFL running backs, or has a bandier frame than the bloated-bicep bores that populate WWE. When Bryan’s been placed in tense situations, the crowd has backed him accordingly. From the turn on Bray Wyatt in January, to the Occupy RAW showing, to pulling himself from the stretcher at WrestleMania to make the comeback and capture the title, he’s had the backing of the crowd in spades.
Perhaps that’s why Mick Foley was so moved to criticize his long-time employer for excluding Bryan from this year’s Royal Rumble: he too was Daniel Bryan once. Reportedly, Vince McMahon wasn’t too keen on hiring Foley in 1996, but Jim Ross sold the jefe on what Mick brought to the table. Eventually, Foley was a beloved WWE cornerstone, but no thanks to his non-standard make-up.
Like Bryan, what Foley lacks in superhuman physique is made up for with a palpable connection to the ticket-buying customer. Like Bryan, few believed Foley would ever break the ceiling and become a true main eventer, complete with championship gold, instead living as supporting characters to the primary heroes and villains.
Foley got his due at the end of 1998 with a fondly-remembered title win on a taped Raw, while Bryan, after many false starts, was allowed to shower under a hail of confetti at WrestleMania. There was a sense of achievement for not just for the victors in this play, but the supporters, who were justified in backing the underdog.
Then the parallels fork in opposite directions: because of the frenetic pacing of Foley’s era, the Attitude Era, Mick was involved in something interesting every week for the ensuing few months, through WrestleMania. Bryan, meanwhile, is in a secondary feud with Kane (in spite of what going on last at Extreme Rules indicates to you), where he and his reality-show wife run away from the same Kane that was abused by The Shield to no end (well, Kane DID find his monster mojo again, perhaps under a sofa cushion…).
What makes Bryan special, his fierce attitude in dire situations, contrasted with his genuine humility, are nowhere to be found as he gets bounced around on Raw like Janosz Poha ragdolled by Vigo the Carpathian. The deliberate pacing of today’s Raw, so as to stretch stories out thinner than angel-hair, only bores the fans that want to see Bryan kicking ass with the spitfire heart that they’d seen before WrestleMania. Foley stepped in to criticize this treatment of Bryan as well, warning WWE that such uninspired mythmaking is what killed of Zack Ryder in 2012, as if the company cares about Ryder in any way.
Now it’s revealed that Bryan is in need of rather light neck surgery, which would likely sideline him until early July. For WWE’s part, they’re reportedly leaning toward keeping the gold on him (a la Punk with his knee injury in late 2012), but what good does it really do? Bryan’s going into the operating room a cold champion, second-rated by a tremendous Shield-Evolution turf war, and whatever the hell that thing is that John Cena and Bray Wyatt are doing.
Anything that’s hot is generally rendered sterile by Holding Pattern Theater, the biggest affront to the Attitude Era’s fun, fast-paced nature. A three-hour Raw where nothing happens, where Dolph Ziggler wrestles Fandango for some reason, where Natalya wrestles Nikki Bella over confusing artwork, will kill off any momentum that a hot act like Bryan has. Remember how fast the 2011 Summer of Punk burned out? And that was a two-hour uninspired mess, as opposed to three.
When you’re sick of Bray Wyatt simply because he’s been cutting the same promos for ten straight weeks on John Cena, and the storyline is about as linear as a DUI checkpoint walk, you see a company that’s forgotten how to continue a good thing. You can tell me how they did the right thing by putting the belt on Bryan, and I’ll remind that it wasn’t even the original plan; we had to scream everything short of “ATTICA” for it. The lack of a true follow-up to Bryan’s win seems to make my point.
The lack of story momentum, the weak characters, and the valuing of tenuous footholds of style over havens of substance remind me of 1998 WCW, without the presence of another major wrestling promotion to shove back. WCW in 1998 had Goldberg, Diamond Dallas Page vs. Raven, Chris Jericho being a lovable jerkass, and The Wolfpack as ‘nWo fUn’. Beyond that, the company was such a forgone plane crash that CNN would devote a month of coverage to its whereabouts.
How’s this different from WWE? Today, there’s Shield vs. Evolution, Daniel Bryan when used to his fullest, the Paul Heyman association with Cesaro, and Bray Wyatt when he’s not spinning his creative wheels. Even their greatest hits sometimes come with asterisks. Everything else is hollow, fleeting, not to be relevant in a week, or not to be desired for an encore.
To that end, WWE today is a melding of WCW and WWE in 1998, with Daniel Bryan playing Mick Foley in a minefield of mire. His winning of the WWE Title draws the “yeah, that’ll put butts in the seats”, but not from Tony Schiavone. Watching the shows, it almost feels like one of his own corporate officers is dismissively uttering it.
[adinserter block=”2″]I really feel if WWE was as strong as its boasts claim, Hacksaw Jim Duggan wouldn’t be out there, all but peddling WWE Network like fishnet gams. Then again, it’s just plain that Vince and the ilk spend more time in marketing than in creative these days.
If they recreate the Fingerpoke, it won’t be creative, but hey, maybe they can market it better.
Justin Henry has been an occasional contributor to Camel Clutch Blog since 2009. His other work can be found at WrestleCrap.com and ColdHardFootballFacts.com. He can be found on Twitter, so give him a follow.
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