Thursday 7 July 2011

In Absentia

Before I begin it would probably be a good idea to provide links to the two videos I’ll be discussing. Let’s do that now:

You can stop watching that one after Cena’s finished speaking, unless you’re a big fan of Kelly Kelly or Eve Torres. On a side note I’d like to mention that I find it odd that WWE’s Divas seem so laid back with regards to winning and losing titles. Eve was Divas champion a few months ago but has shown zero interest in regaining the belt from Double K. Can you imagine a male champion and former champion acting this way in WWE? No, me neither.

These videos were (obviously) instalments in the continuing saga of CM Punk’s contract negotiations. Vince McMahon claims that Punk has made numerous unreasonable requests during the course of these negotiations. According to Vince, Punk wanted to be on the cover of magazines, programmes and various other pieces of WWE’s overpriced merchandise. Considering Punk mentioned it in his shoot I can imagine there’s an element of truth to that. Punk is one of the promotion’s top stars, and people like Undertaker and Triple H (who are both as good as retired) are both used in promotional campaigns with greater regularity. That lessens the perception of Punk (it makes him look inferior to special attractions ‘Taker and Hunter) and is bad for WWE too: they’re relying on Punk for TV ratings and pay-per-view buys and so should want to make him look as good as possible. Vince saying Punk “doesn’t deserve” the merch treatment was probably said for TV but it could be how the chairman really feels on the matter. Whatever the case Punk isn’t on any of the promotion’s products: make of that what you will.

Where I definitely think Vince was embellishing on the truth to create a more compelling television story (i.e. lying) was in his claim that Punk has requested the use of a private limousine. Twenty years ago that would have been a genuine point of contention for stars, as Hogan was routinely shepherded from one appearance to another in such a vehicle. Even ten years ago Rock received similar treatment during foreign tours when he was provided with a chauffeur driven car as the rest of the roster piled onto a tour bus. But now everyone travels in rental cars. WWE’s two biggest stars (John Cena and Randall Orton) do not have the use of private limos. Nor do stars such as Undertaker and Triple H when they make their rare appearances for the company. While it’s plausible Punk would like a private limo I can’t imagine him bringing it up in contract negotiations as a serious issue because there are no precedents within the current company for such treatment. Basically, if John ‘Money Machine’ Cena doesn’t get a private limo nobody will.

What Vince didn’t mention was the rumour that one of Punk’s requests during the negotiations has been to have Colt Cabana rehired. For those of you who aren’t overly familiar with wrestling outside of WWE you may remember Cabana’s far from impressive run as Scotty Goldman (that was a name that was never going to get over with WWE fans) on SmackDown a few years ago. The fact that Vince didn’t mention this rumour could and probably does mean that it’s not true. But it could also indicate that Vince and his management team have been forced to give it strong consideration and don’t wish to mention it on TV so as to allow themselves some freedom should they end up introducing Cabana. If they acknowledged Punk wants a friend hired then they’d pretty much be tied in to debuting Cabana as a Punk ally in some form, but if they don’t acknowledge it then it means Cabana can be brought in to feud with Punk. I don’t think a Cabana v Punk feud in 2011’s WWE is likely but it’s probably something both men would enjoy.

All the stuff with Cena “goading” Vince by talking about fighting and empire building was tedious, scripted nonsense and therefore pretty uninteresting as far as the bigger angle goes. More enjoyable was Vince’s mention of “some other wrestling organisation”. Not only did Vince use the banned word (wr*stling) but by saying “some other” he actually indirectly admitted WWE is a wrestling company. Maybe he’s received an internal email telling him WWE is entertainment, not wrestling.

The second promo fell down in two areas. That may not seem like much, but they were big ones. First was the lack of a clear face-heel divide. Cena was clearly meant to play a valiant babyface on a crusade for what he (and in this case the fans too) believes is right while Vince was protecting the interests of his business. The trouble began when Cena received a mixed reaction (which WWE knew he would as they recorded the show directly after last week’s live instalment during which Cena was booed). That confused the issue of who we were meant to agree with. Was it Cena, who was standing up for Punk, the man we want to see reinstated? Or was it Vince, who was acting in a notably un-heelish fashion in a situation which demanded him to be in full on “obnoxious swaggering boss mode”? One final piece of confusion for the mental jigsaw: Cena, a babyface, was standing up for Punk, a heel. The reasoning was made clear enough, but when added to Vince’s tweening tendencies and the audience’s split response to Cena it just made the situation baffling.

Some people may think such a dynamic is groundbreaking (or some other equally limp, thoughtless adjective) but it isn’t: wrestling has worked for decades on the basis of having a good guy and a bad guy, establishing why they dislike each other and then putting them in a match and charging people money to watch. That principle will always be at the core of any good wrestling match, promo or angle, and tinkering with it simply won’t work. The Cena and McMahon interaction demonstrates this perfectly.

Second point: Vince’s revelation that if Cena loses the title to Punk at Money in the Bank he’ll be fired on the spot. Up until that moment we had had a well executed angle in which the line between real life and storyline had been successfully blurred. Refreshingly, the focus had been CM Punk. The moment Vince added that stipulation (okay, it’s not an official stipulation but it may as well be) Cena became the focal point of the storyline again. It was just over six months ago that we saw Cena supposedly fired only to appear every week on RAW regardless, so if he loses at MITB nobody is going to believe that he’s really going anywhere. And if nobody believes a stipulation will be enforced what’s the point in booking it? The most frustrating part is that this angle didn’t need anything added: the question of whether Punk will win and what he’ll do is interesting enough by itself.

Finally, on the subject of Punk leaving with the belt: the threat of that would have greater impact if WWE didn’t have two world championships. So what if Punk leaves with the WWE championship? They still have the World Heavyweight title. And so what if that’s exclusive to SmackDown? Wrestlers appear on both shows with such frequency that it’s natural to assume the World champion would simply begin appearing on RAW too. I appreciate that the WWE title is the one with the more history but over the last few years the title has come to mean less than it once did as it’s been thrown from wrestler to wrestler in meaningless feuds and subpar matches, devaluing it so much that it’s not even as if WWE would be losing an important part of its weekly TV show.

On the whole I felt the promos were pretty good. The aim was to continue the storyline in Punk’s absence and encourage people to tune back in next week and at Money in the Bank. The storyline was kept alive and reintroduced Punk in a logical, believable fashion. While we won’t know for sure until final TV ratings are revealed I would expect that RAW has been either staying level or seeing small increases in its rating each week, so it’s a win for WWE there too. There may have been mistakes but I would say the promos got it right where it really mattered.

How will all of this affect Monday’s RAW? I expect Punk and Cena will come face to face for a promo in the ring, which has the potential to be something very special if both men are allowed to cut loose and say what they truly think of each other or, perhaps more significantly, each others’ TV characters. There may be a match involved but there doesn’t need to be. In fact I think more people will want to see Money in the Bank if Cena and Punk don’t meet in a match on Monday: it will seem fresher that way.

Who’ll walk out of Chicago with the title? I’m still not ready to make a prediction. I’ll save that until next Tuesday. What I will say is that Cena’s claim that their Money in the Bank match could be match of the year is drivel: it may get the most intense reaction to any match in any promotion this year, but the work rate will be far from MOTY worthy. Even within WWE there’s stiff competition from Undertaker v Triple H and the various Christian v Orton matches.

Despite only getting a handful of things right on RAW it has made me, and I’m sure others, keen to see what happens on RAW and at Money in the Bank. Whether the show delivers the memorable moment it seems as though it’s building to won’t be known until nearer the time, but things currently look promising. Of course, it could easily produce something that’s memorable for the wrong reasons. That’s been the self-destructive path WWE’s been on for a while now. Let’s hope they manage to stay off it, at least until after Money in the Bank.

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