Monday 1 December 2014

Swamp Thing

When the Wyatt Family first appeared in WWE in May 2013 it was clear who the big singles success of the group would be. It would be the man the faction was named for and the man who had been positioned as its star in the introductory vignettes. It would be Bray Wyatt.

Luke Harper and Erick Rowan seemed destined to become a solid part of WWE’s on-again, off-again tag team division. It was Wyatt who, after rebounding from a shambolic debut feud with Kane, wrestled Daniel Bryan in a singles match at Royal Rumble and John Cena at WrestleMania. Rowan and Harper may have been at his side during the excellent six man tag match opposite The Shield at Elimination Chamber but while ‘The Hounds of Justice’ were shown to be equals amongst themselves it was very clear that ‘The Eater of Worlds’ was the star and leader of his team.

Later in the year it would be Wyatt who challenged for the vacant WWE championship in a ladder match at Money in the Bank. Harper and Rowan wrestled in the opening match against Jimmy and Jey Uso, which they lost. They were in the same spot with the same team a month later at Battleground and lost again. They didn’t get to wrestle at SummerSlam at all and by the time Night of Champions rolled around they, along with Bray, had disappeared from television.

Lovely upside-down Sheamus face there.
Now here we are a couple of months later and Luke Harper is the new Intercontinental champion and Erick Rowan is heading towards a pay-per-view match with Big Show (a spot which historically signals that WWE has interest in someone). Two months ago I would have said Rowan had done nothing to distinguish himself as someone who merited a singles spot and that Harper would benefit from staying as part of a team before getting split off for a singles career.

But the split has worked better than could have been reasonably expected. The crowd reacted to Harper’s IC title win over Dolph Ziggler, to the pair’s showdown during the Survivor Series main event, and to the Rowan and Show confrontation and Harper’s match against Dean Ambrose on RAW. In fact both men have been accepted so smoothly that it seems strange WWE has opted not to go with Rowan versus Harper at TLC.

This said the situation is still jarring. WWE didn’t actually do much to get either man ready for their new roles, and both still look as though they’re associated with Wyatt. In a matter of weeks Rowan went from a big, creepy dude with an unhealthy interest in Renee Young and cuddly toys to a stand-up dude willing to help out happy chappy John Cena and confront big bad bully Big Show.

But, like I say, the Survivor Series crowd seemed pretty taken with him. I think at least part of the reason for that could be that he performed some impressive moves that hadn’t really been emphasised before (his choke bomb and spinning heel kick, most notably). If he can work out when to employ those and similar moves during his matches I think there’s a good chance he’ll keep the audience’s interest.

Meanwhile nothing much had been done to make Luke Harper look like a contender to the most prestigious active title in the company. At the end of the November 10 RAW he smacked Ziggler around and the following week he beat him after interference from Jamie Noble, Joey Mercury and Seth Rollins. That was it. A decent enough return for sure, and a nice way to give the character some edge, but not the best way to show that he’s a potential (and future) champion.

Luke Harper has eyes.
It made him look like someone who jumped a babyface, got rewarded for it, and then won a title more through shenanigans than on his own merit. That sort of booking can work. It’s done wonders for Rollins, for example. But it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that should be done with a guy like Harper. He should be a bruiser who muscles people around, not a guy who gets his first WWE title via shady tactics.

It’s not really done much for the title itself. Previous champ Dolph Ziggler had had the gold on and off since SummerSlam. In those three months he’d treated the title like it meant something to him and defended it in some top notch matches. There may not have been quite as much variety during his reigns as there could have been but things were at least going in the right direction. On ‘The Show Off’ the title felt like it meant something.

Being on Harper doesn’t negate all of that but it does undo some of it. Ziggler is a far more prominent WWE personality and him having the title gave it a rub. That it wasn’t Seth Rollins who showed an interest in beating him for it tells us that the title is beneath him, and it shouldn’t be. A character like Rollins should want the IC title because he’s all about bragging rights and being the future. As much as I like Harper him winning the Intercontinental gold set the title’s progress back. The right change was from Ziggler to Rollins.

But on the whole I think WWE has handled the Wyatt Family split well. I still think it was premature and the three had more to offer as a faction than as separate entities, but at least they’ve been made relevant. In fact, so far it’s been Bray Wyatt who’s struggled the most, thanks to the limp material he and new rival Dean Ambrose have been given to work with. I still think he’ll be the biggest success of the three long term, but in a way it’s nice to see Rowan and Harper finding their footing before him. It speaks to their ability to survive and gain support within the often self-contradictory WWE system.

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