Monday 20 October 2014

The Part Time Squad

WWE’s reliance on the stars of the past has been well documented over the last several years. The Rock’s return at WrestleMania XXVII and matches at XXVIII and XXIX drew scorn from some. Triple H and Undertaker taking an annual ‘Mania spot has also failed to go down well with everyone. And guys like Chris Jericho, Batista and Hulk Hogan have also returned in one form or another, to a variety of reactions.

There could be said to be broadly two views on this. The first would be that the returning stars help to attract viewers who wouldn’t otherwise be interested and that their participation helps give the events that extra special feeling they’re meant to have. The second would be that the returnees take away spots from the roster members who work a full schedule and deserve to participate at a show of WrestleMania’s significance.

My view lies somewhere in the middle of the two. The returning stars are necessary for shows like WrestleMania to be distinguishable from the rest of the PPV pack. I don’t think WWE could expect to fill more than one stadium for a ‘Mania using only their current roster, and they’d only manage one because tickets are sold so far in advance. But at the same time I don’t think the list of returning names would need to be as long as it generally gets if WWE did a better job of making guys like Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, Cesaro and Dolph Ziggler seem like they’re genuinely big stars. Part of WrestleMania absolutely should be about celebrating the past and integrating older stars, but it should also be about building for the future.

Something that could be done differently is how the returning names are used. Right now they tend to interact exclusively with one another. Jericho v Fandango and Triple H v Daniel Bryan aside all the names listed above have been involved with other stars from past eras at the last few WrestleManias. An argument could be made for CM Punk being raised up with his matches against The Undertaker and The Rock, but Punk was already pretty close to that level anyway. And, y’know, he lost both matches. By the time he left he was definitely on that level.

I’d be far more interested in a Triple H versus Dean Ambrose match than I would in a Triple H versus The Rock match. The former is a match that could easily take place at WM31, WWE having ample time to prepare it. The latter is a match the men themselves talked about on the SmackDown fifteenth anniversary show and while I don’t think it’s especially likely to happen it’s not an impossibility. That it was brought up on company programming indicates that WWE were interested in seeing how people reacted to talk of the bout.

For whatever reason WWE doesn’t seem interested in pitting the veteran performers against the younger batch of stars. Perhaps they feel the youngsters are beneath the vets. That will cause a problem in years to come if true because sooner or later it will bleed through into the televised product and the current roster could be viewed as second rate in terms of star power.

More likely, given the matchups we’ve had over the last few years, they feel the Dream Match™ route is the best one to take. Their idea of what constitutes such a match can at some times be questionable (Cena versus Rock headlining two ‘Manias in a row f’r’instance) but it’s a solid enough approach. With all of this in mind I thought I’d run through the various part-timers WWE does and could make use of and look at the possible opponents, both part- and full-time, they could be pitted against at the next few ‘Manias.

We’ll start with Mr Hulk Hogan. He’s a pretty big star, right? Well, yes and no. He was undoubtedly wrestling’s biggest star in the 1980s and for much of the 90s, but his status has been somewhat diminished by the likes of Rock, Austin and Cena. His stint in TNA didn’t help him either. That gave anyone who saw it the impression that he’s washed up. He obviously was washed up but that TNA really emphasised it. It wore off what mystique he was still clinging to and he’s only started getting it back since he started the sporadic appearances for WWE.

He says he's got one more leg drop left in him, brothers!
‘The Hulkster’ has dropped a number of unsubtle hints about wanting to wrestle a retirement match for WWE. I suspect there are a number of motives for this. One would be the hefty payday. Another would be the chance to get himself into the spotlight one more time, something he has adored throughout his career. Third would be the opportunity to go out on top. I mean, Hogan clearly hasn’t been on top of wrestling since 19-take-your-pick, but having a retirement match on the upper half, possibly even in the main event, of a ‘Mania card would do a lot to sate his legendary ego.

There’s only one man I think Hogan could or should come back to face. That’s John Cena. The reason is pretty obvious. It would be the biggest current star against one of the biggest stars of the past. They would not have an especially good match but it would be a spectacle, and there’s always a room for spectacle at WrestleMania. Cena’s capable (though he wouldn’t necessarily be willing) of bouncing around to make Hogan look good. Hogan could probably take an AA. It’s the only feasible match should a Hogan comeback occur.

Next is the man who Hogan made his initial ‘Mania comeback against back at X8, The Rock. I’ve already mentioned the tease WWE made of a Rock versus Triple H ‘Mania outing. It would be interesting from a historical point of view because they never wrestled in a singles match at the event, despite having a feud that lasted years and took them both from the mid-card to the main event. While doing the match now would allow them to tick off an accomplishment it wouldn’t live up to their past standards. Between 1998 and 2000 the pair had a number of memorable matches on TV and pay-per-view. They’re older now, and ‘The Great One’ is extra cautious of doing anything that could inflict an injury for fear of losing work in Hollywood, and they wouldn’t be able to match their previous high standards. It’s a match best left in the past.

Rock versus Brock Lesnar has a certain appeal to it: the Hollywood A-lister facing the former UFC champion. It’s the sort of thing WrestleMania has always been built around: mainstream, outside-wrestling appeal. But it’s unlikely to happen with Lesnar’s status as champ as it would need to be for the title and I don’t think either would be back before SummerSlam. Rock’s health and safety gimmick would probably make this match a no, too.

Rock versus Rusev is a potential match after their surprise interaction on the October 6 RAW. I think it could be a very good match. Rusev’s selling and psychology are good and constantly improving and he’s got a convincing, and over, set of moves. It would make sense to promote this match and there’s a reason for it happening. But I don’t think WWE will do it. The most I think we can expect is a second meeting on TV which ends with Rusev looking strong. That would help him, but not as much as a WrestleMania victory in an official match would.

Other than ‘The Bulgarian Brute’ no characters from the main roster jump out as a particularly good match for Rock. I think Cesaro would be a particularly nice fit match-wise, but not enough time has been invested in his character to make it seem a realistic possibility. Meanwhile I think there’s a natural story to be told between Rock and Roman Reigns, not least because they’re cousins, but the in-ring action would let them down. Reigns is not yet experienced enough as a singles wrestler to make this bout work. But if Rock’s still around for WrestleMania 33 in 2017 it might be a good idea.

Going back to Brock Lesnar there are a surprising number of options. Roman Reigns is top of the list as beating Lesnar for the WWE championship at ‘Mania 31 would be a nice crowning-of-the-heir-apparent moment. But even though it would make sense it’s not been announced as a thing yet. ‘The Beast’ could just as easily find himself working a rematch with The Undertaker or having his first main roster dalliance with Randy Orton. Had a better job been done of splitting Paul Heyman and Cesaro then there’d be a compelling, natural story to be told for Cesaro versus Lesnar. It could still be done, but the time for making it mean as much as it could has slipped through WWE’s fingers.

Since the loss of his Streak I’ve found myself less interested in the concept of further Undertaker appearances. It’s not because the Lesnar bout was bad (although it was), it’s because the main appeal of ‘The Dead Man’ for me had become seeing him increase The Streak’s length. It added an urgency to his bouts that just can’t be there now. I’d convinced myself that he’d go for another year or two, announce his final match before it took place, and have Cena as his opponent. Cena, more than Lesnar, would have been able to convince people before the match that he was going to end The Streak. Because he’s Cena. My logic was that if WWE were going to end The Streak for anyone it would be Cena.

But that all fell apart when Lesnar pinned ‘Big Evil’ at WrestleMania XXX. ‘The Phenom’ will still be able to have good matches (if his body permits it) but they just won’t be as suspenseful. He could have his rematch with Lesnar and win, but ultimately it wouldn’t matter. The blemish on his record would still be there.

A lot of people seem to want Sting v Undertaker. I’ve said before that I would have no interest in seeing that match. Sting as a performer does nothing for me and any analogies between his role in WCW and ‘Taker’s in WWE are lost on me. One went off the rails because he felt betrayed during an invasion of cool heels, the other’s a zombie biker who digs MMA. The most that can be said in favour of them being a particularly good pairing is that they are both synonymous with their respective promotions. But WCW closed down in 2001. At this point Sting v Undertaker would be as much TNA v WWE as WCW v WWE.

But a lot of people want to see it. There’s obviously something I’m missing. That people seem keen on it makes me think that Undertaker versus ‘The Stinger’ is the most sensible match for both men at ‘Mania 31. Personally I’d be more interested in either man in a singles match against Bray Wyatt. He’s a better fit for the characters of both veterans. But I doubt that will come to pass.

I suspect a lot of people would argue that Sting v Triple H would be a good match. It’s true that both are top tier performers, but something about their respective styles makes me think they wouldn’t gel well together. Neither strikes me as a significant enough name to make the match work. There’s no obvious story to tell between the pair either.

‘The Game’ is best off working against guys getting established. He’s a respected (within WWE TV Land at least) performer, a former multi-time world champion, and the on-screen boss. His status is why guys would want a match with him and his job allows him to be easily written into necessary stories. The Daniel Bryan story worked well. More along those lines would be fine. Dean Ambrose, Bray Wyatt and Cesaro would be my top choices for matches against Trips. In time there’s a very obvious Seth Rollins match waiting to be presented too.

One guy I’m not especially interested in seeing Tripper wrestle is Batista. Since leaving over the summer he’s mentioned in interviews that he’d be interested in returning for a retirement match against ‘The King of Kings’ at a WrestleMania. Which says a fair bit about how ‘The Animal’ sees his status within WWE history. In fairness Triple H v Batista would make sense as a retirement match, given their history as friends and opponents. It would be a neat ending to Big Dave’s career. It just doesn’t feel like a modern day ‘Mania match, partly because they faced off at a ‘Mania before and partly because I don’t think Batista quite deserves that level of send-off. To me it feels more like a SummerSlam idea.

I think Batista would be of more value facing an Ambrose or a Cesaro at future WrestleManias. But such matches are probably beneath his ego, even if he were to win them. A bout with Lesnar would likely satisfy him, with or without the title on the line, but the trouble there is the same as with The Rock: Batsy has to keep himself as healthy as possible for Hollywood duties and Lesnar is not conducive to that. It would be a fresh pairing though of established headliners though, and that counts for a lot with me.

A man it would be easy to overlook here is Goldberg. No, he’s never been on the best of terms with WWE. No, they don’t seem to regard him as any form of exceptional draw (and in fairness there’s little evidence that they should). But if Sting is going to get mentioned Goldberg should too. At his peak Goldberg was just as big a star for WCW as Sting.

Were The Streak still intact a decent story could have been built around ‘Taker pitting it against Goldberg’s mostly perfect win-loss record. WWE could have ignored ‘berg’s handful of jobs or acknowledged them and emphasised the screwiness of most of them, either approach would have done the job. A year and a half ago Goldberg would have been a good choice of opponent for Ryback. ‘The Big Guy’ was getting compared to Goldberg every week and it would have given him a boost to face and beat the former WCW champ. It may seem a peculiar thing to say now, given Ryback’s lower-card status, but had WWE handled him better during his rushed rivalry with CM Punk and into WrestleMania XXIX they could have made a headliner out of him.

Those are wasted opportunities. There’s no obvious scenario for Goldberg at a WrestleMania now. But he’s a big enough name to attract a few eyes, especially if he was given the Hall of Fame and retirement match package (not that WWE would deem him worthy of that). The Ryback match could still just about work, just not as well as it could have previously. Beyond that matches with Brock Lesnar, Cesaro or a more embedded Roman Reigns could work nicely.

One more year for Angle. But it probably won't be in WWE.
Goldberg is also one of the many names that could work as an opponent for Kurt Angle. WWE’s fledging roster split stopped it happening during Goldberg’s previous run, which was a pity as the pair seem like a natural fit: the powerhouse and the technician. The trouble is that Angle would likely be taken as the face and Goldberg the heel, and both do their best work in the opposite roles. The more significant trouble with doing this match nowadays is that Angle is falling to pieces and Goldberg isn’t exactly known for his safety.

The really obvious Angle match would be opposite Rusev. He’s a foreign heel who talks about his superiority to America whilst wearing a gold medal. It seems tailor made for Angle. The current leading hypothesis is that Rusev is destined for a ‘Mania showdown with Cena. That would work and work well, but the ultra-patriotic Angle would be just as good a fit, if not a better one.

At this point I should probably pause and acknowledge the fact that it doesn’t look like Angle will ever return to WWE for a match. He’s said he’ll wrestle one more year part-time and then retire. WWE are said to be sceptical about Angle’s ability to pass their health and endurance tests, and they’re almost certainly right to be. Angle was originally let go by WWE in 2006 because of health concerns and he’s visibly smaller now than he was then. As much as it would be great to see him return for one final run and matches against Rollins, Ambrose, Cesaro, Ziggler and Rusev (and basically everyone else on the roster) it doesn’t look as though it will happen. I suspect we won’t be seeing Angle back in WWE until he’s called it quits on his in-ring offerings and is ready to accept a (much deserved) spot in the company’s Hall of Fame.

The same isn’t necessarily true for Angle’s fellow TNA alums Bully Ray and Devon. The former Dudley Boyz have apparently cut ties with TNA and agreed to some sort of deal which will see them wrestle at New Japan’s Wrestle Kingdom 9. It seems safe to assume Team 3D were added because the pay-per-view will be broadcast on PPV in the US (via Jeff Jarrett’s increasingly shady Global Force Wrestling “promotion”) and Bully and Devon are considered big enough names to help attract an audience.

While they’re far from being the biggest names in wrestling ever they are a known quantity. They have the Attitude Era rub that could attract lapsed fans and a very long list of accomplishments for longer term fans. I don’t personally feel that they are but I could understand an argument being made for them being the best tag team ever.

All of which could be used to argue in favour of bringing them into WWE on a part-time basis. Or it could if WWE had a healthier doubles division. I’m sure that the Dudleys versus Goldust and Stardust or the Usos would be good, but neither of the current WWE teams has the status of the Dudleys. To make the most of rehiring the Dudleys WWE would need a team (preferably several) with some history and status to pit them against. They’d need that Dream Match™ scenario, allowing the Dudleys to give the rub to a younger team. The only duo WWE has right now that look like they have the potential to become a significant team is The Ascension, and they’re still in developmental.

If WWE wanted to they could hire Bully and Devon as agents and use them as an occasional treat for house shows crowds. If they spent the time between WrestleManias 31 and 32 creating an interesting and worthwhile doubles division with The Ascension as the undisputed stars then a Dudleys match in 2016 could mean something. But we all know this isn’t something WWE will bother with.

Finally we come to the man whom I think would prove the most lucrative name on this list were he to return to the ring: ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin. He seems fine with his retirement, having publically exhibited no burning desire to have one final match. It’s completely understandable. He went out in an extremely satisfying match in the semi-main event spot of a WrestleMania, losing to one of his greatest rivals, and friends, at a WrestleMania. He faced everyone there was to face during his time and became a massive star doing so. It’s hard to imagine him having any regrets about his career accomplishments or his last match in particular. While he’s always been careful to avoid committing to anything he has said that he’d come back for the right opponent and the right scenario. But I think another match with Austin is unlikely.

But that’s not to say there aren’t options for him. Because there are. There are tonnes. Austin against Ambrose, Rollins, Ziggler, or Cesaro. He has spoken highly of all of them in interviews and on his podcast, which indicates that he’d work a competitive match with them. Austin v Bryan could be a very good match too, although there you’d have the thorny issue of Bryan having to play the heel. Any of the four guys above could be switched to the antagonist role for an outing against Austin, but for several years now a defining attribute of Bryan’s character has been that he’s the chosen one of fans. He’s the man we want to see on top and the man we want to cheer for.

Even less likely than any of those matches is Austin versus CM Punk. It’s a match that WWE teased in a backstage segment on the 27 June 2011 on the episode of RAW that ended with Punk’s celebrated “pipe bomb”. The appeal of the match is obvious: they’re characters that have both a lot in common and some very clear differences. Each elevated their status within the company as outspoken anti-heroes railing against the management system. Each won several WWE championships and became credible headline talents. It’s the specifics where they differ. Austin was the beer-guzzling redneck who would attack anyone over anything. Punk doesn’t touch alcohol and was never booked to be as aggressive a presence as ‘The Rattlesnake’. The promos and interactions the pair could have in the build-up to a WrestleMania match would be sensational. With both men healthy and capable of hitting their signature spots a match would almost certainly be well-received. 

The match that never was.
Then there’s Austin versus Brock Lesnar. The promos there would have a different feel to them because it would be Austin dealing with Paul Heyman. There’s a lot that could be brought up there without even mentioning Lesnar: Heyman managing Austin early on in his career, giving him the opportunity to do a rough cut of the ‘Stone Cold’ character in ECW in 1995, and their time together in the Alliance. Then of course there’d be the history between Lesnar and Austin. The Texan famously walked out on WWE in 2002 after he was told he was to lose to ‘The Next Big Thing’ on an episode of RAW with no build-up. Heyman could spin that as Austin being scared of Lesnar and go on to talk up Lesnar various shoot credentials and WWE accomplishments to add validity to his claim. There are a lot of topics that could be covered to create a very tense, very real atmosphere for the bout.

Would it happen? I don’t think it would. While Austin would probably be more willing to risk injury than Batista and The Rock because he’s not got as many acting commitments or opportunities he does have a more serious medical history than either man (which, were it to happen, could be another topic for Heyman). Austin’s neck and knees would take a pounding in a match with ‘The Beast’ and I don’t think it would be worth the risk to his health.

Austin versus Hogan is another match with a very obvious appeal to it but I don’t think it could ever happen. ‘The Hulkster’ would need an opponent who could carry him, and that wouldn’t necessarily by Austin after twelve-plus years away from the ring. Then, of course, there’d be the question of winning. Can you imagine either man agreeing to lie down for the other? I can’t. And in this day and age anything less than a clear winner would not go down well.

There’s also John Cena. He’s already faced The Rock twice, losing once and winning once. Their matches were not received well and it’s tough to see things being any different in a Cena v Austin match. Rock actually seemed like a better fit for the Cena character as he was always a little more family-friendly than Austin, and Cena’s always about being family friendly. Something about their characters just made the pairing a natural fit, just as Austin and Punk would fit well together.

Were the match to happen Cena would obviously find himself booed. Austin, more than anyone else from the late 90s and early 00s, embodies the spirit of the Attitude Era. He was the man that sparked that movement within the company. It would be tough to see the match outside of the frame of Attitude versus PG and that’s a scenario WWE should want to keep Cena away from at all costs. The match would probably be as good if not better than Cena’s collisions with The Rock but that’s not really saying much.

Were Austin to return for a match there’s one match I’d want to see more than any other. It’s a match that has never happened but was once advertised as a pay-per-view main event: Austin v Triple H v The Rock. A triple threat match between the three biggest stars of the Attitude Era.

The match was originally advertised as the main event of Survivor Series 1999, a lovely bit of deliberate false advertising by the WWF because they knew from the start that it would never take place. Early on in the show Austin was “run over” in a car park to write him out of the match and storylines, allowing him to head off for a neck surgery. He was replaced by Big Show, who left as the new WWF champion.

Even back then I don’t think the match would have been incredible but it would probably have been very good. But it’s a bout that goes beyond concerns over quality. It’s appeal lies in seeing the three biggest stars of a generation together at the same time. And of course in seeing who’d be booked to go over. Had it happened in ’99 with all three men healthy it would have been hard to call. There were reasons for each man to win: Austin had been the company’s leading man for over a year and a half, The Rock was set to step up and become just as big a star, and Triple H was the era’s lead heel who always found a way to escape with the title. If it were to happen now none of that would be a factor. Times have changed and each man has a Hall of Fame career behind him. But it would still be one of the hardest matches to predict a winner for. And I think it would be an incredibly satisfying watch.

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