As unfortunate as it is the possibility of Daniel Bryan being stripped of or forced to vacate the WWE championship exists. If that happens WWE is going to need to make a decision on who to slap the gold on. So I thought I’d take a look at the likeliest candidates.
We all know who’s at the top of the list, don’t we? It’s John Cena. It’s pretty clear why, but I’ll go through it just in case anyone’s reading this who hasn’t been watching WWE for any portion of the last nine years (you never know, right?). Basically John Cena is the company’s top guy. He sells the most merchandise. He gets the loudest reactions (albeit not necessarily the fondest ones). He does a lot of charity work. He can cut effective promos (though when he’s in the mood he can give us some dreck too). Not many people admit it but he’s actually not a bad wrestler by WWE main event standards. He can be infuriatingly hit-and-miss and I fully understand people who don’t enjoy his matches. But there are and have been worse guys than him.
Cena is the company’s go-to guy. Whenever they’re directionless Cena gets shoved to the top. More relevantly he gets shoved to the top whenever there’s nobody else available. That’s not actually the case now, as evidenced by the names below, but putting the title on Cena would be an easy choice for WWE. He’s credible and putting the title on him won’t upset plans for anyone else. He could quite easily continue feuding with Bray Wyatt and-or move onto something whilst champion.
|You know what you're getting with Cena.
Whether that's good or bad is up to you.
But it’s Cena’s status as the safe option that makes him undesirable. For a significant portion of last year and all of this year so far WWE has been doing everything they can to send its audience the message that things are changing. New stars are being brought in to replace the familiar faces we’ve been seeing every week for years. Making a member of the old guard champion could work as a short term thing. But Cena is too old guard.
Moreso even than Triple H Cena typifies the established order of things in WWE. He personifies a lack of change in a way that nobody else can. Giving him the title would send the message that all that change that’s been hinted at isn’t coming. That wouldn’t necessarily be the case but it’s still something that should be avoided. As obvious a choice for champ as Cena is I think he should be avoided. He is the one man on the roster that the majority of fans don’t want to see with the title for the reason that he’s had it too much.
Sticking with the old guard theme, the three members of Evolution are all potential champs. Let’s go with Triple H first, because he’s the leader. The build-up to WrestleMania saw ‘The Game’ book himself into a situation where he could advance to a world championship match. The possibility of him becoming the boss and the champion has been hinted at and established as something the Triple H character would not have a problem with. While I don’t think it’s something that would be good long term it could be an interesting short term storyline.
‘The King of Kings’ winning the title could be used to turn one or both of his fellow Evolution members babyface. That’s a storyline we’ve seen before (with both Orton and Batista) but it would make a decent enough placeholder storyline. But the real reason a Triple H title reign could work is Roman Reigns. He is very clearly the promotion’s chosen one. He’s the member of The Shield with the most potential to become a massive singles star and an encounter with heel-boss-champ Tripper would, if handled even moderately right, set him up as an enormous star. It’s very hard to imagine an audience not getting behind him should he mount a title challenge against Trips.
Reigns v Helmsley has already been rumoured for SummerSlam. Personally I think it would be a bit soon to stick the big belt on Roman but it’s not impossible. If Bryan ends up being out for a long time WWE may want to take a gamble on trying to create a new hot singles star, and if they did Reigns would be the guy they’d pick. For the record Reigns’s chances of winning a vacated title without going through Triple H (or someone else) seem incredibly low. He’d need someone to conquer on his way to the title. A tournament or sole match for the strap wouldn’t do his victory justice.
Back to Evolution. Randy Orton is probably the likeliest member of the trio to get a WWE title reign. The last year has seen him return to the top of the card and be more significant than he had been for the previous few years combined. Since cashing in his Money in the Bank contract at SummerSlam last year Orton has not been out of the main event. He spent the autumn feuding with Daniel Bryan and the winter giving us the latest instalment of his terrible rivalry with Jonathan Felix Anthony Cena. Then he main evented WrestleMania, reformed Evolution, and slipped into a programme with The Shield, WWE’s second hottest act after Bryan.
It’s clear from that sequence that the writers like ‘The Viper’. And they’re not wrong to. Yes he can be boring in the ring. And, um, on the mic. But he isn’t always. When put opposite someone as physically gifted as him Orton can do wonderful work. If WWE were to make him champion and place him in a singles programme with someone desperate to prove they can be valuable to the company (Bray Wyatt, Dolph Ziggler or any member of The Shield, for example) I think Orton would rise to the occasion. Especially if that desperate someone were encouraged to try to upstage ‘The Apex Predator’ at every opportunity to spur him on. Sadly that’s not the way WWE works.
That doesn’t mean that Orton’s out of the running to have the belt thrust on him. It just means that should he be the new champ he won’t strive to bring the same level of quality Bryan does to his work. He will, as ever, do just enough to get by.
Then there’s Batista. The biggest obstacle in the way of ‘The Animal’ regaining the WWE championship is his commitment to movies. He’s got a significant part in the Guardians of the Galaxy film that comes out in August. He’ll be required to do the media rounds for that, making it tough to rely on him to appear on RAW every Monday. Plus he’s probably due some time off soon to film something new or chillax or whatever it Batistas do when they’re not being douchebags in a wrestling ring.
|He's not crying, he just has something in his eye.
If none of this were the case I think Batista would make a fantastic champion. He has become a magnet for red hot heat since he returned. At this point there is no more effective heel in the company. You just need to look at the way Evolution promos are structured for proof. Tripper explains all the storyline stuff and throws in a handful of things designed to get boos. Orton simply elaborates on what the leader says, otherwise concentrating on looking pretty. Batista’s sole contributions are incredibly short and designed to do nothing but get boos. He isn’t tasked with advancing plots or providing meaningful content or explaining anything. He’s simply there to be Dave Bautista. The man you love to hate.
The thing about Batista is that he gets this. He knows his role (as I believe the saying goes) is simply to be loathed. He plays to it. That’s why he dresses the way he does and squawks like a petulant child during promos: he’s trolling the fans. His matches aren’t great, but that’s simply another part of the Batista act. He’s an undeserving main event talent pushed at the expense of the deserving. That’s his gimmick, and it’s so over that he would make a magical heel champion.
After those guys you get into murkier waters. Bray Wyatt springs to mind. The most obvious thing that makes him eligible for consideration is his character work. There hasn’t been a newcomer as good as him in WWE since The Shield trio. He had a shaky start when he debuted last year (almost exclusively because he was pitted against logic-vacuum Kane) but he hit his stride in his feud with Daniel Bryan and hasn’t put a foot wrong since.
The more questionable aspects of Wyatt’s act are his matches and his promos. And those are some pretty large aspects to be questioned. I think he’s a great promo but it’s tough to imagine that style being married to the top prize in the company. But that’s not beyond solving. He’s good enough to give a great bit of mic work, he’d just need to alter his style to be a little more coherent, which he’s capable of doing.. His matches are what let him down the most. He’s had several good outings but most of them have come opposite highly regarded talent. I’m thinking specifically of his match with Daniel Bryan at Royal Rumble and the six man encounter versus The Shield at Elimination Chamber. He pulled his weight in both but I haven’t seen him have a standout match with anyone you wouldn’t expect yet (partly because he’s not been given much of a chance, but still).
Which is a problem if you want to be WWE champion in an era where wrestling fans actually want to see a main event that’s either really good or that contains a wrestler they can boo for not being really good. Wyatt is currently in the position of having proven he’s good enough to not need carrying but not having shown that he can carry. This would mean that if he were champion he would have to work exclusively (in his meaningful matches) against established stars. He’d probably have cracking matches with Orton and Triple H, while Cena and Batista get so many boos that match quality isn’t an issue.
The argument I think many would have against Wyatt would be that it’s too soon to make him champion. It’s true that fans have a tendency to turn on guys who are thrust into top positions too early but I think Wyatt could pull it off. His character work has been so strong that I think fans would actually rally behind him if his journey to the championship were presented just right and he were cast in a Bryan-esque role of undesirable champ upon winning. Wyatt versus Triple H would be the obvious match to build towards there, and as backup plans go that’s not a bad one to go with. One of the boons of the Wyatt character is that he seems exempt from heel-face dynamics. He’s cheered against Cena and booed against The Shield, sometimes on the same show. He’s fresh not just in terms of being a new name but in terms of his approach to working and how he presents himself.
A title reign for ‘The Eater of Worlds’ could backfire spectacularly. That would be a catastrophe for WWE, who have spent the best part of a year building him up as a man of significance. But a title reign for him could also go so, so right. He could be presented not just as a charismatic firebrand but also as an unstoppable rookie. Is it worth the gamble? No. I think WWE should wait for the right time to put the championship on Wyatt. But if they did choose to have him become champ in the next few months I wouldn’t immediately say it was the biggest mistake ever. I’d watch with interest and hope he succeeded. Because he really, really could in that situation.
Sheamus is probably slightly likelier than Wyatt to be in with a chance, but not by as much as you’d think. That he was recently lumbered with the United States strap indicates that WWE did not have immediate plans to use him as a contender for the world title. Or do anything particularly noteworthy at all. A heel turn’s been hinted at, but the fact that he has a mid-card title makes it look as though his task is going to be breathing life into the lower ranks.
I think that’s a good role for ‘Great White’. I don’t rate him in any way, although I realise I’m in the minority there. Nevertheless I think I’m right on him in this situation. Shaymo returning to the top spot after years of floating around in the middle of the card just doesn’t seem likely. It would, in its way, be more shocking than a new name like Reigns or Wyatt getting the gold. A first title reign always has an element of shock to it whilst guys winning their second or third (or whatever) world title should be seen as established. Sheamus would need building back up before getting his third WWE title.
Of course, there’s nothing to stop WWE doing that rebuilding. He talks and wrestles well enough to suit the tastes of most. He looks the part. He’s been around long enough to be accepted as a top guy. In fact it’s been so long since he was a regular in the main event that his bouts with the established names like Orton and Cena would feel pretty fresh. That wouldn’t hurt. Neither would the potential of having him complete his heel turn by shockingly joining Evolution and-or The Authority upon winning the title.
It’s not something I want to see though.
WWE could surprise us and recall Brock Lesnar to active duty. Up until the announcement of Bryan’s injury the consensus seemed to be that ‘the Beast’ would be challenging for the championship at SummerSlam. I was one of the people that thought that match would happen and I was leaning towards (admittedly based on nothing substantial because the match hadn’t been announced) a Lesnar victory. It would give the title’s credibility a boost and create an interesting scenario to take WWE through into 2015.
Putting the title on Lesnar now would have the same benefits, although it would require a rejigging of the company’s long term plans. I can’t see a Lesnar title reign being eked out from June or July into January or beyond. But it would give WWE’s summer season a boost and keep the title on someone credible until someone new could be prepped to defeat him.
No, a title win for ‘The Pain’ isn’t likely. But there are reasons to go with him that I think WWE would consider. An important thing to note is that it wouldn’t rule out a Bryan v Lesnar match for the future. It could simply be held off until WrestleMania. Or perhaps Bryan would be ready for SummerSlam and Lesnar could be presented as the new roadblock for him to get through. The best way to keep an underdog champion popular is to have him beating impressive challengers. And they don’t come much more impressive than Brock.
|Cesaro would have the nicest ring jacket of any WWE champion ever.
Finally (well, sort of finally) there’s the other Heyman client, Cesaro. Like Wyatt and Reigns the risk would be that it’s too early. As with Reigns I’d be inclined to agree. ‘The King of Swing’ would benefit from working as an upper mid-card guy for the rest of the year before getting a significant win over a major name at WrestleMania XXXI and exploding into the main event in the following months. He’s good enough now. It’s just too easy to envisage fans turning on him or WWE bungling it by not properly planning out multiple feuds for him.
I can’t end this without mentioning the name I’m sure many people reading will want to see: CM Punk. It’s not hard to imagine the argument in favour of this. It probably goes something along the lines of “WWE’s in trouble having lost the only legit new main event act they’ve made in years to injury, and the only man the fans will accept as his replacement is Punk.” Well, yeah, a Punk comeback would satisfy many of the people who are ardent Bryan supporters. The two have a lot of crossover in terms of appeal thanks to their similar routes into the company. But I really can’t see Punk being the next WWE champ should a vacation occur.
As I write this CM Punk and WWE are still at odds. The last time Punk was at a WWE event he entered a room with Triple H and Vince McMahon to discuss his general displeasure. That he walked out tells us that whatever he was displeased about (the proposed plans for him at WrestleMania, the return of Batista, the fact that he was running out of Divas to date, the general lack of ice cream bars) was not something Vince and Triple H were willing or able to change. That he’s not returned (or even made a public statement saying he’d be open to talks as a way of letting WWE know to get in touch) tells us whatever he was displeased about hasn’t been rectified yet.
Punk’s contract expires in July and I will be amazed if he returns to WWE before then. Which puts him out of the running for the champion’s spot should the title end up vacant.
If the worst happened and WWE did need to take the title off Bryan I think they’d end up putting it on Cena. Bryan was suffering from a lack of challengers (or rather from not being pitted against obvious challengers Triple H, Batista and Randy Orton) but his immense popularity helped to combat that. Cena and Orton are the most realistic choices in the current environment to take the belt in Bryan’s absence. And of the two of them it’s Cena who WWE historically goes to when they’re in trouble.