Last summer, WWE put on their most electric, acclaimed pay-per-view in a generation with Money in the Bank 2011, a triumphant sea-change in the landscape of the business, culminating in a near-perfect feud between outspoken upstart CM Punk and dynastic automaton champion John Cena ending with the underdog triumphing in a masterpiece of a match in front of his enthusiastic hometown audience. Money in the Bank 2012 was never going to live up to that standard regardless of what was on the card, but even with the slightest bit of imagination, they certainly could have surpassed the dull thud of resounding, unyielding sighs that greeted the results.
At WrestleMania in early April, the World Heavyweight and Intercontinental Titles changed hands, and both of WWE’s always-win golden boys John Cena and Randy Orton lost; it was refreshing, even if their opponents were long-in-the-tooth veterans of a bygone era (the Rock & Kane respectively). Since then, WWE has been in something of a holding pattern when it comes to their PPV events: the same guys winning using the exact same finishes every time, but one that has been excused thanks to the quality of the in-ring product. For instance, Sheamus has retained his World Heavyweight Title at all four subsequent PPVs, all with the exact same finishing sequence (a set-up signature move followed by a Brogue Kick), but the first three were the potential Match of the Year with Daniel Bryan at Extreme Rules, a charmingly chaotic fatal-four way at Over the Limit and a gleeful exercise with Bump God Dolph Ziggler at No Way Out in front of a peaked, divided crowd. He was ready to face glorious aristocratic heel Alberto Del Rio at Money in the Bank.
The WWE Champion, CM Punk, has retained repeatedly since November, and after two excellent matches with dastardly legend Chris Jericho at WrestleMania and Extreme Rules, he’s had an intriguing run with his perfect foil, the equally slight-stature, high-charisma ring technician Daniel Bryan, as well as a mutual female acquaintance of theirs named AJ, who rose to main event prominence by enacting a type of anarchic melodrama that was unique to the annals of the WWE, and refreshing in its complexity, especially for WWE’s problematic struggles writing female characters. Punk beat Bryan twice at Over the Limit and No Way Out in matches with deliberately ambiguous finishes, designed to leave you happy but wanting a more satisfying conclusion. After their previous match also involved a third (well, fourth) party in cartoonish monster Kane (whose presence in a romance storyline left a peculiar charge), Money in the Bank seemed like the perfect opportunity to provide a decisive conclusion to Punk-Bryan (namely, allow Bryan to win the belt in their third meeting), closing the loop and pushing the characters in new directions.
The guy taking all of the PPV main events during Punk’s undervalued run was John Cena, who occupies a sort of bygone-era alternate universe where Designated Good always triumphs over Designated Evil through perseverence and fighting spirit, even if those situations so rarely reflect the actual reality of the experiences. Like a Golden Era sitcom, Cena’s matches all seem to end in the exact same fashion, and none of the emotional, physical or psychological baggage of his feuds tend to carry over to even the following day. Cena has main-evented seven of the last eight PPVs, without a single one being for the WWE Title, ostensibly the highest prize in the company. Cena is a ten-time WWE Champion, so I understand that his drive for the belt may be a little tempered, but it seems like Whatever Cena’s Doing is deigned automatically the most important thing going on at the time, regardless of its dramatic weight or emotional interest.
Cena lost at WrestleMania and had an absolutely brilliant, brutal match with returning asshole doom-bringer Brock Lesnar at Extreme Rules in April. These two matches and the feud in the interim gave Cena some intriguing humanity, a quality he tends to lack through most feuds as he glumly traverses through the exact same finishing sequence, derisively known in the wrestling community as the Five Moves of Doom. Cena’s character has basically remained unchanged since 2005 or so, which is preposterous in the high-speed, short-span world of professional wrestling (in the same time frame, someone like the Big Show has turned good guy or bad guy approximately 800,000 times). Cena is always just Cena, so to see this shadow of doubt creep in was appealing, and at the end of Extreme Rules Cena gave a speech to the crowd that implied he was taking some time off, a welcome sojourn where our esteem for him could build.
But instead of leaving, Cena returned the very next night and ended up immediately embroiled in a bizarre, blind-side of a feud with bungling bad guy authority figure John Laurinaitis, who is in his late 40s and hasn’t wrestled competitively since the early ’90s. For some reason, Cena once again main-evented a PPV, and his match vs. Laurinaitis at Over the Limit was an abominable comedy exercise with a telegraphed, faux-shock ending (the aforementioned Big Show did an aforementioned change back to bad guy). At No Way Out, Cena and Big Show matched up in another main event, a insultingly stupid steel cage match that had to break every established criteria of Big Show’s heel turn for Cena to once again triumph, once again in the exact same manner. At Money in the Bank, Cena was involved in one of the two titular matches, where a briefcase symbolically representing an immediate shot at the championship (again, nominally the biggest thing in the company) is hanging over the ring and a large number of superstars (anywhere from 4-10) fight over ladders and each other in an attempt to retrieve it. The bedlam inherent in these matches would provide a perfect opportunity to allow Cena to lose (and considering he could get a shot for the WWE Title pretty much any time he wanted, make the match actually mean something in the long run).
Sheamus, CM Punk and John Cena have been the top dogs of the company for the past three and a half months, and Money in the Bank, befitting the shake-it-up cache earned by last year’s event, could be a perfect time to do something new. Instead, Sheamus once again retained with the exact same set of moves, Punk once again beat Bryan in unsatisfying fashion, and Cena once again defeated all the “odds” in the main event (yes, guys trying to get a chance at the championship was deemed more important the guys actually fighting for the championship) and won the ladder match, fishing yet another PPV smilin’ and joshin’ to the screen as the cameras went to black. Cena had what should have been deeply affecting rivalries all year, but seemingly THE MOMENT those matches are over, he immediately moves on. Punk’s nearly year-long WWE Title run is cool, but Punk’s at his most effective when he’s an underdog. Having him be the unyielding top man just makes his impudence seem smarmy.
The other major match was the up-and-comers Money in the Bank ladder match, which featured a couple promising guys that could genuinely use this kind of push (delicious intellectual heel Damien Sandow, high-flying Tyson Kidd, brutal pounder Tensai), as well as a flippy Lucha guy (Sin Cara), two guys who ALREADY HAVE CHAMPIONSHIPS (the Intercontinental Champon Christian and the United States Champion Santino Marella, and a guy who I love (the aforementioned Dolph Ziggler) who didn’t need to win because he had already attained championship status. Of course, this being the PPV of perfunctory disappointment, the one time I didn’t want Ziggler to win, he wins, proving once again that WWE doesn’t seem to understand how to build or push people in a way that makes room for everyone in the company.
Many things need to evolve in pro wrestling, but the hierarchy of achievement is not one of them: The WWE & World Titles are supposed to be end-points to strive for, the top of the mountain. The Intercontinental and United States titles are supposed to be major steps for guys who aren’t quite main-event but deserve acclaim as they make their way through the company. But WWE has fallen into a disturbing misdistribution of wealth in 2012. They’ve basically eliminated their middle class, their midcard, by designating seemingly everyone either Heavyweight Championship Status or “loser to get squashed in 90 seconds by one of a cavalcade of boring dominators”. There needs to be somewhere between “top-tier” and “about to be fired”. Guys should be wanting to win the smaller belts, and it’s easy to make work: have people react like the belts are important and the crowd will believe they’re important. It worked in April: there was a flurry of activity, and suddenly we’re back to no one ever competing for them and the active champions always trying to win the bigger one.
That’s the real shame of all this. The fixes to these problems are so simple. Wrestling is not complicated. Wrestling storytelling has always operated on primal urges. This is fundamental, big-top entertainment, involving a bunch of unstable, testosterone-laden people who fight for a living. There is a place for nuance but sometimes it’s easy to just have a guy say “I want what you have” or “I want to beat you up because you did something mean to me”. Let charismatic people talk, let talented wrestlers wrestle. Sometimes let the greats lose, and sometimes let the losers win. The Haves always beating the Have-Nots, in the exact same way every time, breeds apathy, and when you get unmemorable matches with unremarkable storylines and uninspiring, samey conclusions, people are going to get tired of it. Yeah, people went to see formula western films for a long time, but eventually they wanted to watch The Ox-Bow Incident, and The Searchers, and A Fistful of Dollars.
Depth, motivation, fresh perspectives, these are things WWE has seemingly declined us every month in favor of the same old shit, and if the matches also happen to be stale, people grow impatient. I feel they may be drawing things out to their next major PPV (SummerSlam on August 19th), but that doesn’t mean we can’t also be entertained and have suprises and intrigue SOMEWHERE on the card month to month. The closest thing WWE has to a rival, Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, is still relatively small-time, but they’ve been doing a lot of interesting things in recent months that have gotten positive attention, and their weekly television show Impact is a nice respite from the inertia of contemporary WWE storytelling. WWE could fix their issues in a SNAP, but in their baffling neglect, they may be giving rise to an upstart. I don’t know if you just need a challenge, or fresh meat, or if CM Punk was right when he said things would only get better when chairman Vince McMahon is dead, but please, guys, you can be so wonderful so easily. All you need to do is be.