You'd think that the first weather-related cancellation of an episode of Monday Night Raw in the show's 1000-plus episode history would be bad news for the WWE. But the many inches of snow aimed at Hartford, Connecticut, the location of tonight's now-scuttled Raw taping, are a sprinkle of luck that will spare WWE the heat of some pretty pissed off fans.
If I was going, I sure would have been angry, and I'd have let them know it.
My problem—and the problem of thousands of WWE fans—is that the biggest pro wrestling company in the world has, for quite some time, weirdly promoted its product in a way that appears to be spiteful to many of its fans.
Of course, our real problem is that we stick around and take it.
Welcome to one of the strangest fan experiences in popular entertainment: being a masochistic fan of WWE.
Sunday night's Royal Rumble was the ostensible kick-off of pro wrestling's high season, one that culminates in WWE's Super-Bowl-scale Wrestlemania in spring. It was also the second straight Royal Rumble that ended in a blizzard of boos from an arena crowd fuming when the winner was a storyline good guy who just about all of them rejected.
And they didn't just boo the guy who won. They didn't just boo almost the entire final half of the match he was in.
There was this chant from some 17,000 fans in Philadelphia...
If you can't make that out, they're yelling: "we want refunds."
Here's that same crowd a few seconds earlier chanting "bullshit."
Note what's happening here. There are three guys in the ring. They are the final three guys in the eponymous Royal Rumble match, a 30-man battle-royale in which you're eliminated when you are thrown over the top rope. The winner of the match gets to challenge for the world heavyweight championship at Wrestlemania, so think of the Rumble as a weird variation of an NFL conference finals. The two bald guys in the clip are storyline bad guys, the Big Show and Kane, both employees for the corporate Authority. The man with the long black hair is Roman Reigns, relative of all-time-great The Rock and an emerging bad-ass babyface (wrestling parlance for "good guy"; bad guys are "heels").
The chant here is "bullshit", and The Big Show tries to play it off as if it comports with the storyline. But then Reigns gets some offense in and it's clear as day what the crowd actually thinks is "bullshit" about all of this.
The crowd didn't want Reigns to win. No offense. He seems like a nice guy and all.
It's just that they wanted this guy to win:
Or this guy:
Or this guy:
Those are the actual three most popular good-guy wrestlers in WWE (John Cena notwithstanding, and Cena is booed by half the audience anyway).
Hell, by the end of the night, once fans realized that the heel Rusev hadn't been eliminated, they cheered for him. Bear in mind that Rusev regularly denigrates America, praises Vladimir Putin and pledges to the Russian flag, big-time bad guy moves in the jingoistic world of WWE.
Reigns took him out.
Then he posed with The Rock. And fans booed some more.
They hated it. Viewers like me watching at home hated it. Twitter blew up with anger over the ending. The hashtag #cancelWWENetwork, a reference to the $10-a-month WWE streaming service that lets you watch special events like the Rumble and that is the foundation of the WWE's current business model, has been trending worldwide for nearly a day.
Fans were furious, and it doesn't seem like we were supposed to be.
Maybe this sounds weird to you. Maybe I sound like a super-fan lost in the soap opera of pro wrestling. Maybe, as my good friend Tommy Craggs says, I need to accept that it's all a work (wrestling lingo for "fake") and, along with thousands of other disgruntled fans, just get over it.
Except there's a part of wrestling that's real, a part that makes it play by somewhat different rules than Game of Thrones, where George R.R. Martin kills your favorites but you keep reading or watching anyway. With Martin's work, you assume he has a plan, you know you can't change it and you accept that you're either along for the ride or not. Modern pro wrestling isn't like that.
The most real part of wrestling these days is that it's interactive, that it's a crude ongoing drama performed in front of live crowds and that those crowds' reactions are largely expected to determine the future of that drama. Wrestling crowds, and, by extension, wrestling viewers, who are encouraged by WWE themselves to Tweet and Instagram and make their voice heard, assume they have input and that their input matters.
So if a wrestler is particularly good at being a good guy or a bad guy, the crowd will react, and the tacit understanding of the audience is that that reaction will be rewarded. You'll see more of the heroes you love to cheer, more of the the villains you love to boo and less of the people that bore you. If you deviate from what they're giving you and react differently than they expect? Maybe you start cheering a bad guy? If enough people do that, the WWE will likely turn him into a good guy. If you start booing a good guy, as people used to boo The Rock when he first came upon the scene as the goofy Rocky Maivia, he'll likely be turned into a bad guy before getting cut from the company.
That brings us back to Daniel Bryan, a crowd favorite who the WWE seems perpetually reluctant to promote.
Here's Daniel Bryan in the middle of the Royal Rumble. Infuriatingly, you'll hear the announcers talk about how loved Bryan is by the fans. And then you'll see him thrown from the ring, and you'll hear the crowd turn. This was halfway through the Rumble, a match that goes on for about an hour overall. The fans remain enraged for much of the rest of the show.
Watching that, you might think, hey, a guy the crowd likes got eliminated. They booed. That's how it works. Good guys can't win all the time.
But here's the crowd chanting for Bryan a few minutes later.
Trust me, they kept cheering for him.
Oh, and here's a clip from an episode of Monday Night Raw in December of 2013, during a segment that was supposed to be about WWE management's most poster-friendly wrestlers, John Cena and Randy Orton, preparing to unify two world championship belts. The segment is briefly derailed as Aberdeen-hailing Bryan is cheered by a partisan Seattle crowd:
And—this one's going to sound familiar—here's the end of the 2014 Royal Rumble, in which WWE management's pick to win the match, returning ostensible babyface Batista, is showered with boos while fans chant for Daniel Bryan, who wasn't even in the match:
One more... here's a clip from between those last two. It's January 2014. Following the debacle in Seattle, WWE management tries to turn Bryan into a bad guy for a few weeks, presumably to stop people from derailing shows by cheering for him. When it doesn't work—or maybe this was the plan all along—they let him go back to his good guy persona. The crowd loses their minds:
A couple of weeks later, Bryan is scripted to lose the opening one-on-one match on the 2014 Royal Rumble card. Several minutes later, the 30-man Rumble match starts. The crowd keeps expecting Bryan to enter the match (the match starts with two guys, but a new entrant comes in every 90 seconds). He never does. The crowd boos heavily and craps over Batista's win.
Within a few of weeks, Batista is flipped heel and Bryan is scripted into contention against Batista and then-champ Randy Orton at Wrestlemania 30. Bryan wins. The fans go home happy.
These days, pro wrestlers aren't so precious about keeping things kayfabe (translation: in character), so, when they're giving interviews, they'll often explain what's really going on in their company. Bryan, WWE veteran Chris Jericho and others have all maintained that Bryan was originally scripted for a much lower non-championship match for Wrestlemania 30. That's despite the support fans gave him in Seattle and in the episode where they abandoned his brief turn to the dark side. By all accounts, he was never supposed to be in the top match of the biggest show of the year. He only got there because fans pushed for him to be in that position (and because the top wrestler CM Punk abruptly quit the company following the 2014 Rumble, forcing a change to the plans for the Wrestlemania card.)
Bryan's problem isn't the fans, and in a way it's not really most of the WWE. They employ him, after all, and they like him enough to put him in nearly every episode of their weekly Raw and Smackdown shows. He regularly wrestles matches near the top of major WWE cards. But it's pretty clear to long-term WWE watchers that the on-camera justification for Bryan's limited opportunities—that he's too small, too "goat-faced", too much of a "B+ player"—appears to be what holds him back for real as well.
Bryan stands under six feet tall. Maybe he's 200 pounds, probably not. Batista, the guy who WWE picked to win the 2014 Royal Rumble before fans revolted, was literally Drax the Destroyer in last Summer's Guardians of the Galaxy movie. That was him in the movie. He's a behemoth. This year's WWE favorite for the Rumble, Roman Reigns? Another giant.
That's the thing with WWE as long as Vince McMahon has been running it. McMahon loves giants and has always pushed the bigger guys to the top of his promotion over the littler ones, Hulk Hogan or Lex Luger over Bret Hart, Diesel or Mabel over Shawn Michaels, and so on. Hart and Michaels are all-time greats and considered to be far better in-ring wrestlers than their slower, larger counteparts. When did they get their chance to shine? When Hogan and Diesel jumped to rival promotions, when WWE got in trouble for the steroid-boosted physiques of some of its biggest stars.
It's clear that Bryan isn't what Vince McMahon looks for in a WWE star. Bryan doesn't look like an action figure or super-hero, doesn't have the John Cena or Randy Orton look. He's a scruffy-bearded Pacific Northwest former vegan. He also happens to be, by many fans' accounts, the best wrestler in the world, if you look at wrestling in terms of mastering the mix of choreography and improvisation that makes for a believable, fun to watch pretend fight, which is what wrestling matches are.
Here, watch some Daniel Bryan matches. I think you'll get it. The guy is fun to watch:
Being the best wrestler in the world just doesn't get you to the top of the WWE. Or at least it doesn't convince McMahon to put you there. So Bryan spent much of 2013 getting pushed toward the top of the card, but was regularly scripted to fall just short, to maybe win the championship but then lose it—once just minutes later; another time they let him hold the title for a full day.
By the time Bryan was getting cheered in Seattle, he was well out of the title picture. The WWE had moved on. But fans stubbornly chanted for their beloved, scruffy underdog and WWE eventually relented, turning the fan support for Bryan into a storyline about the "Yes Movement" against the on-screen WWE nefarious, corporate Authority. Bryan won the championship at Wrestlemania. Soon afterward, he got married, his father died and then he got injured—all for real. He was gone for nine months. When he came back? Instant crowd favorite again.
While Bryan was gone, another relatively undersized crowd favorite, Dolph Ziggler, also got his run near the top of the card, getting close but never quite getting to be "the man." That's him way up top with his face mushed into the mat near the end of the 2015 Royal Rumble. Dean Ambrose is the guy on his back. He doesn't look like a super-hero either. The crowd loves him, too. Ziggler and Ambrose, like Bryan, got dumped out of the ring at the Royal Rumble this year as it became more and more clear that Reigns was the guy scripted to win.
Roman Reigns? Now that guy looks like a super-hero. That guy looks like a Vince McMahon pet project. That guy has been getting booed by more and more of the "smart" fans who know what's up, who know that Reigns is still very young, very green in the ring and not much better on the mic.
Here's Reigns entering the 2015 Royal Rumble match. Bryan's already been eliminated. Bear in mind as you watch this that Reigns is expected to be the good guy, the crowd favorite, the hero going into Wrestlemania to try to dethrone the seemingly invincible uber-villain Brock Lesnar. Yes, Reigns is supposed to be getting—I don't know—Seattle-style chants? Listen:
The crowd doesn't want Roman Reigns. They don't want Reigns vs. Lesnar. They know what McMahon doesn't seem to realize. Reigns isn't their hero yet.
That's why WWE fans are pissed. They're angry because WWE programming isn't just a weird sort of modern morality play but a sort of meritocracy play where the crowd's role is to appreciate the top talents and the company promoting the show is theoretically supposed to place those talents in top positions, not unceremoniously dump them out of their ring in order to promote a rookie who isn't ready.
Great promoters don't always give the paying audience what they want, but they also don't repeatedly promote shows that get their hand-picked stars booed out of the arena. They can keep on promoting, of course, if those fans keep showing up. And those fans who keep showing up? Well, surely they—we—would still like to believe that maybe if we boo loud enough they'll listen and they'll change the Wrestlemania script again.
Or, as my pal Tommy might theorize, maybe this is the storyline all along. Maybe Bryan, Ziggler and Ambrose getting shafted is part of a master plan. Maybe Reigns getting booed while The Rock stands at his side—my god, they booed The Rock!—was the plan all along. If that's true, that's a pretty questionable plan. Piss off your audience, then profit?
Let's let a smart Redditor have the last word:
Sadly, they're right. See you at the next show. Unless it snows, of course.
UPDATE - 10:25AM, Jan 27: While Raw was snowed out last night, WWE did broadcast an episode of their show from their Stamford, CT headquarters. The show consisted of replays from the Royal Rumble as well as some fresh interviews. Notably, they've responded to criticism about the Rumble by presenting interviews with Reigns and Bryan that blur the lines between script and reality. In the storylines, Reigns is an outsider who is opposing the WWE's corporate authority. The talk in the video with him below, however, is about him being helped along by management. That kind of crossover between the real life and fiction is part of what grabs those of us who are hopelessly hooked on this stuff.
Here's Bryan simultaneously staying in character and talking about how a storyline involving himself against Lesnar would be better for Wrestlemania.
And, finally, here's Paul Heyman, storyline bad guy manager to heel champion Brock Lesnar, but in real life one of the most effective wrestling promoters of all time. He knows how to sell a match. By the end of this segment, he makes a Lesnar-Reigns match seem compelling.
The face-off is great, and WWE might be able to pull off a good storyline here. But if you've seen a Reigns match—and the guy will wind up having had fewer major one-on-one matches that just about any Wrestlemania main eventer this side of Lawrence Taylor—it's still clear that this match is unlikely to be a classic.
WWE's next TV show will be Thursday's Smackdown. That series is usually taped but will air live due to complications from the snowstorm. It'll be interesting, as always, to see how the live crowd reacts to all of this.