- >With Roman Reigns cleanly pinning Daniel Bryan in what was a hell of a main event on Fast Lane, it’s very clear that Vince McMahon is still planning on the scenario he’s probably had for probably one year, with Reigns beating Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania.
- >Fan reaction at the Royal Rumble, and since the Royal Rumble, largely indicated that scenario was backfiring. Forgetting about Bryan, and forgetting about skill level or being ready or even talking ability, Reigns is nowhere near as over and doesn’t feel like he has anywhere near the momentum of the babyface who is going to chase and win the title on the biggest show of the year.
- >What’s notable is that 21 years ago, a younger Vince McMahon was in the same position, choosing between his own hand-picked next star of the company, tall bodybuilder Lex Luger, or one of the best in-ring performers of that time, Bret Hart. Historically, Luger was far closer to what McMahon liked his champions to look like. But Hart was more popular among the fans. Faced with the crowd reaction in the laboratory setting of a big show, the fans liked Hart more than Luger when they squared off. The WrestleMania original plan, Luger beating Yokozuna to win the title, was changed to Hart. Luger’s momentum was lost, and a little over two years later, working as part of a mid-card tag team he walked out on the company. Hart became the company’s biggest star, before he was gone more than three years later.
- >This time, McMahon went with the original plan. It was acknowledged that Reigns wasn’t over like he should have been. So they went to work. They brought in his cousin, Dwayne Johnson, to make his Royal Rumble win even bigger. But the miscalculation of putting Bryan in the Rumble made the whole scenario backfire, and even the endorsement of Johnson didn’t matter.
- >The next idea was to change the original plan for Fast Lane and put Reigns vs. Bryan. There were a lot of ways to go, but the key is that they’d probably have a great match. In the final scripting, it was Reigns winning clean, and Bryan, the next day, out there with the idea he’s the representative of his fan base, telling them to cheer Reigns onto victory because he was the better man and we were all wrong and he deserves our respect. Not only that, they were put together in a tag team the next day and Reigns ever so graciously allowed Bryan to get the win, even though he did the work to set up the pin.
- >After the Rumble, there was a vocal protest. Did it mean anything business-wise? Well, WWE did change some plans, but in the end went right back to the original one. If a lot of people would have canceled the WWE Network, there would have been no choice but to react. Instead, far more people signed up in the two days after the show than canceled. It was a lot of noise and little action.
- >At Fast Lane, they were doing the same thing, just more directly. They actually put the two of them head-to-head, and the company clearly picked its favorite above the crowd favorite. This time, there was nowhere near the same reaction. People yelling about canceling and not doing so wasn’t going to work. And it was over. The audience couldn’t control the direction.
- >Really, I’d rather somebody wrote a book from start-to-finish rather than readers who have no real understanding of book writing trying to force changes so the little sidekick who is supposed to be a bit player gets the girl and not the handsome lead who the whole book was built around.
- >I learned long ago that a good promoter listens to the fans, and a great promoter completely manipulates the fans. But the idea is that both make the fans want not what they tell the promoter they want, but what the promoter wants in the first place, because he has a better grasp than they do about business.
- >This goes back to Paul Boesch in the 1980s. Boesch every week had his lab experiment, for most of his promoting career, 52 weeks, every Friday, he would have a show at the Sam Houston Coliseum. It takes a lot of ideas and creativity to run 52 times a year in the same building. You’re going to have some hits and some misses, and the idea is to either fool yourself with excuses on the misses, or learn from them. He told me that in the end, all the excuses are just that. If a show doesn’t draw, it’s his fault, for presenting a main event that fans didn’t want to buy tickets to see. Vince McMahon would tell the same stories, except he would use Bobo Brazil, as his conduit, with the story of the bad house, and the wrestlers, and promoters would talk about the weather or the economy or whatever competition was in town, and Bobo would calmly say that the problem is that not enough people wanted to see the main event.
- >Wrestling is a totally different business today. Vince McMahon still tells the Bobo Brazil story. And he doesn’t buy fake excuses. When a show does bad, that means the creative missed. He doesn’t want to hear about county fairs, movie opens, welfare checks and the day of the month, warm weather or cold weather. History has shown that NFL football, NBA playoffs and maybe the World Series or a hot Yankees-Red Sox game can hurt ratings.
- >But one of Boesch’s stories was about listening to the fans. In those days, a large percentage of the audience that attended the show, would buy the souvenir program. So in the 1960s, what better way is there to do direct marketing to your customer base but to put in the program a question, asking fans what match do you want to see. His job was selling tickets to those same customers. Instead of guessing what they want, just ask them directly. So he did it, and booked the match.
- >He never told me the names, but did say the fans wanted a match between the two most popular wrestlers in Texas at the time. It was a match they’d never see because the promoters always did babyface vs. heel. So maybe they were wrong. He booked the match. The gate sucked. And the lesson was learned. If you deliver exactly what the fans ask for, you probably won’t do very well. It’s better to create a scenario, and convince them to buy what you think most of them will pay to see.
- >Over the years, Vince McMahon has handpicked a number of champions with the idea they’d be the face of the company. Hulk Hogan was a big success. Ultimate Warrior seemed like he had all the momentum in the world, but as soon as he got the title, it didn’t work. With hindsight we can point to the excuses, Hogan’s manipulation after the match, no viable contenders set up, or simply bad timing with the idea that any face who followed Hogan would probably fail by comparison. He went back to Hogan, although it was clear McMahon had already made the choice that with Hogan approaching 40, he had to make a new Hogan.
- >I don’t think McMahon at that point saw Bret Hart as more than a bridge, a temporary thing until the next big thing came along. The next pick was Lex Luger. That was blown based on timing. They creating a scenario where he had to win at a certain time, they waited too long, and the momentum was lost. And given his history elsewhere, he probably wouldn’t have been a success if they pulled the trigger at the right time. He was too much like Hogan, and Hogan was still in people’s minds.
- >The next pick was Kevin Nash. He was the biggest of all, talked well and was good looking. But business was terrible during that period and Nash was clearly not the answer as the focal point. Nash wasn’t at the level of Hart or Shawn Michaels, the other two top stars, inside the ring. That was a clear factor at the time, even though there were plenty of people better than most of McMahon’s other champions when they held the title. Warrior was outright terrible unless he had a great heel to carry him. Hogan had a patterned relatively short match that worked, more because Hogan had incredible charisma, which Nash didn’t have even though he was bigger than Hogan and had better hair.
- >Then Shawn Michaels, also not a success. Then Bret Hart, but McMahon got buyers remorse on his contract. Then came Steve Austin, who carried the company during its most successful period in history. Dwayne Johnson came up during the Austin era and carried things when Austin was injured. The Golden Period ended due to two factors. They made the huge mistake of turning Austin heel, and Johnson showed so much charisma in wrestling that Hollywood called, and he had far more acting range than Hogan and he was wrestling less-and-less.
- >That led to the modern era. The company fell greatly with HHH as its top star, but he became a family member. But the company remained profitable because this was the first period in history when they were truly the monopoly promotion. The first hand-picked successor was to be Brock Lesnar. Lesnar was the best athlete and toughest guy ever put into that position. But he wasn’t strong on promos. He was put together with Paul Heyman in a pairing that worked, but the two were broken up and Lesnar was turned face far too early, then turned back. The company also suffered from Johnson appearing less and less frequently and Austin retiring.
- >Eventually the decision was made that Lesnar wasn’t the guy, and he quit the promotion shortly thereafter. Randy Orton came next. He had a long string as a main eventer, a very good wrestler with the right look. Orton had a five year run where he statistically did well above usual business when he was on top, but he did not have the charisma to be a real mover as the top guy. He still was always kept strong because he had the right look and skill set. Actually Dave Bautista surpassed Orton in the fans’ eyes, and as a business mover. Bautista was a huge success with his face turn in 2005. He was a big guy with a great physique and good look, and reasonably good in the ring, far from the best, but certainly when in with the best could be in a quality main event. While his feud with HHH was probably the most successful of the current era, he was quickly surpassed in popularity and momentum by John Cena.
- >Here’s the thing. In every single case, even with Luger and Nash, they had momentum and the fan base treated them like they were a major star on the rise before the big moment came, or in the case with Luger, never came. There was never the totally lukewarm reaction to a full-year title build that lost momentum months before. Many failed when put in the spotlight, but none came in with no momentum.
- >In almost every case historically, even the most stubborn promoter in this scenario would chalk it up to not always being right.
- >Why is this different? One year ago, McMahon made a move that nobody expected. He had Lesnar beat The Undertaker. Nothing in the company, not the title, somebody’s trademark hair or someone’s position had the value of the decades long streak. It was the institution. It would lead to the most shocking moment in modern wrestling history and it could only be done once. There may never be another moment at that level.
- >The idea from the start was that moment would be used to create the new top star of the company. Lesnar would beat Undertaker, demolish Bryan, and be the unstoppable heel force, and Reigns would succeed where even Cena couldn’t. It made all the sense in the world a year ago. Reigns was young, looked great, and The Shield were the hottest new act in years. Reigns had been presented as the killer and the tough one in the group. The idea was to use The Shield to get him over, and it worked better than expected. He was an instant headliner being put out on his own. But whether it was timing, the injury, Bryan, or people wanting more substance from the top guy, it didn’t work.
- >Why McMahon was so married to the idea may have been that by beating Undertaker, and having a guy who brought the fan base into a different dimension of stronger reality like Lesnar, it created a unique time to make the new face, figuring it was time make Cena the babyface legend and not the guy in the championship picture, essentially what Bruno was to Bob Backlund and what he wanted Hogan to be to Warrior and later Bret Hart but it never worked out.
- >Abandoning Reigns would have historically made the Undertaker loss almost for naught and there was no way to recreate that storyline. Even though Bryan was the hottest act at the time, at no point did he ever consider Bryan as the guy. He was too physically small and not good looking enough. And that was the problem. He got hung up on the factors and not the end result.
- >Even though Bryan’s chant made it appear he was more over than he was, and he wasn’t a business mover on the level of Cena, he was significantly ahead of Reigns with far less help in presentation. But even with that, the argument is Reigns was younger, and with his look, had more long-term potential. Based on traditional qualities, he did. But the appreciation of wrestling ability as a quality may be higher than ever now, and perhaps the most important modern qualities are wrestling, talking and connecting, and Bryan was far superior in all of them.
- >What could have been different? We’ll never know. He was the guy picked by the fans, but the company never saw it. Everyone knows the debate to death.
- >What McMahon forgot is that every category, whether it’s wrestling ability, talking ability, likeability, looks, size, physique, height, perceived toughness, athletic ability and gimmick all go into how fans will react to different wrestlers. But they are all just categories.
- >There have been good looking guys who couldn’t draw women. Why? I don’t know or care, but they didn’t. There have been some guys who weren’t good looking who could. There were guys who looked physically like Greek Gods who did draw, and others who didn’t. Some short guys caught on. Some tall guys did. What is the best predictor of being over? The ability to get over. What is the best predictor of being able to draw on top? Being put on top with no shackles on your hands and wrists and ticket sales increase.
- >Bryan didn’t fit into the traditional categories of what draws. Small great wrestlers historically were guys who worked the second match. Except there was also Ray Stevens. Guys who looked like slobs usually made the business look bad to outsiders, and would be a disaster if put on top. Except there was Dusty Rhodes. Short acrobatic guys with minimal wrestling ability and zero psychology can’t draw a dime. Except Argentina Rocca carried Madison Square Garden’s business on his back for eight years. At an NWA meeting in the 70s, Terry Funk spoke about how the keys to the business were promos and if you couldn’t talk well, you weren’t going to be able to draw. Ed Farhat then spoke and said that there isn’t a person in this room who has drawn more money than I have (and there wasn’t), and I’ve never said a word on an interview.
- >But almost nobody has ever caught on at his level while being pushed at the level he was being pushed at. I don’t know if there is any promoter at any period of time who would have seen his reactions and not at least put him in a top spot as an experiment. Bill Watts once, during the heyday of the Rock & Roll Express, had his doubts about putting Ricky Morton in a Superdome main event with Ric Flair, but it appeared Morton was over like crazy. When he booked the match and gave it a full push, and it drew about 10,000 fans, considered a lukewarm house, better than some, less than Flair did with others, his conclusion was that fans bought Morton in a tag team situation with anyone, but not as a single going after the world title. But if it had drawn, he wouldn’t have come to that conclusion that he was too small to draw on top challenging for the big belt.
- >Don’t get me wrong. Many promoters would see Bryan’s weaknesses and think it wouldn’t work. Some would probably like him a lot and give it the benefit of the doubt if it was close. Others would look at it differently. But everyone would try. And they did try last year with Bryan, but in his coming back from an injury, every other top promoter would have pushed his comeback a lot harder and the former babyface champion who was super popular and successful a year earlier, and never lost, was not getting his legs cut off before he got a shot at the title. If it didn’t work, sure, but it would at least be given that shot.
- >But then again, what other company, besides the dying version of WCW, would have one of its stars as a key participant in the World Series parade, and never even mention it on their television show?
- >We’ll never know what Bryan’s true top potential was, and what the staying power of his popularity would have been. He’s going to have a good career. But he’ll never be the guy who carries the company. Unlike virtually everyone historically of his level of popularity, it won’t be because they tried and it failed. It will be because it was decided that the category predictors were more important than the overall result. And thus, he couldn’t be the guy, even though he was far more popular, could wrestle better and talk better and connected better than guys stronger who fared better on the list of category predictors.
- >But the key is, and the only constant in every era, is that all of those sub-categories and adding them up and getting a score is meaningless. There were great talkers who couldn’t draw on top. There were great ring technicians that couldn’t draw on top. There were models who couldn’t draw on top. There were small guys who couldn’t and there were great big guys with pretty faces who couldn’t. There were legitimate badasses that couldn’t.
- >In the end, the only thing that matters is charisma, and charisma is about crowd connection during the time and place. That’s it. Not necessarily noise. A prelim guy with a cool gimmick or the right story can get a gigantic pop. It’s the connection where you are somebody people see as being special, and can make them buy tickets, or garner more interest in your matches than all the other guys.
- >Bryan was the closest guy to having that one year ago, at least among the non-Cena members of the roster. He was the closest guy now, at least until Sunday, even with never being treated like it. In his case, the connection was people just liked him a lot, liked to chant with him, and it was just the right thing at the right time. Even star athletes liked having connections to him. In the end, he was never able to overcome the physical negatives to the audience of one. And I can’t think of one example historically of someone the public embraced to that level who got treated in creative at that level. Orton never had anything close to this, never sold merchandise at his level, and he was given a decade plus of protection at a level Bryan could never dream, and championship reign after championship reign. He got his WrestleMania win and had his moment and thus, it was time for someone else. Imagine if that mentality had been used for Cena or Orton a decade ago. Take Cena out of the mix and book him like a joke who almost always failed and the company would be in far worse shape than it is now. And you could easily, if you wanted, point to all kinds of flaws with Cena, but he could be on the Muscle & Fitness cover and was a great brand ambassador to the outside world, a role nobody else would have been as good at. But Bryan had that quality of likeability and seeming genuine that can’t be taught. But because of the inability to get past the physical package, something the audience had gotten past and not considered a negative years ago, his strengths, including the ability to have a match at the level that only the best historically could hit on a consistent basis, regardless of his dance partner, was squandered.
- >It was clear on Raw that his fan base was finally beaten after a long fight. He’s Chris Benoit after Randy Orton beat him, the guy everyone likes and respects, that everyone will want to work programs with, and whose job will be to put over the next generation of MVPs, Drew McIntyre’s, Alberto Del Rio’s and Roman Reigns, except preferably with a happy ending.
- >As for Reigns, what we know is that the endorsements tricks with Dwayne Johnson and Bryan won’t save the experiment. We learned that every time Johnson tried to put over Cena verbally and people turned on him. But at least with Cena, his segments drew the highest numbers most of the time, his merchandise blew away the field, they’d raise tickets prices for his shows and he’d still constantly outsell everyone else. The mixed reactions were great evidence for people who understood little about business, since Cena, while not Austin, Hogan or Sammartino, still laid golden eggs better than all but a few wrestlers in company history.
- >The difference with Cena is people passionately loved and hated him. Reigns is more than people just don’t care all that much either way about him. Yeah, they really hated him as the anti-Bryan. But now that he’s not that, they don’t like him all that much, and they don’t hate him all that much. He’s a cold guy going against a heel that people want to like in Lesnar. In his favor, if Lesnar is leaving, fans still may get behind him as the guy trying to save their kingdom from the traitor who sold out. If Lesnar is staying, Levi’s Stadium may provide a very disappointing backdrop as compared to New Orleans on coronation night.
- >But the economics are so different now that it really doesn’t matter all that much what moves are made. No idea or new personality from the new era of mid-carders promotion is drawing people from out of the usual group of viewers in.
- >But the biggest story on Fast Lane was the end of the Bryan story as the guy the fans willed to be the top guy and face of the company. It was a fight for a long time fans thought they could win, and they clearly lost, and more importantly, based on post-Fast Lane, they weren’t even that mad anymore. It was just acceptance.
- >Don’t get me wrong. He is going to be a star within the television show for maybe as long as his body holds up, and at minimum for several more years. He’s a great wrestler and he’ll be counted on to be part of big matches. He’ll get over the heels they are promoting to whomever their real headliner is. He’ll have great technical matches when called on to face talented wrestlers. He’ll give good promos. People will like him. They’ll still chant “Yes” all the time, not with the fervor they once did, but it’ll always be the new “Hiyo.” When he’s 50, he can still be used for easy heat for a new heel, he can come out, get his nostalgia chant, and lose just like Jim Duggan did. Well, except probably a whole lot more effectively.
a guest Feb 26th, 2015 251 Never
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