Several weeks back, the WWE held a tele-conference for it’s shareholders where Vince McMahon expressed disappointment in the 296,000 pay-per-view buyrate for Summerslam compared to the over 350,000 buys the 2012 edition of the show received. This year’s main event had featured John Cena defending the WWE Championship against Daniel Bryan with Triple H as the guest referee. Despite working with a torn tricep, Cena put in a terrific performance which couldn’t have done a better job of putting Bryan over as a legitimate main eventer. Bryan, for his role, showed that he could compete on the big stage with wrestling’s biggest draw of the last decade. The pinfall finally came when Bryan struck Cena with a stiff-looking flying knee strike. It was a wonderfully orchestrated moment of triumph for the Indy Wrestling darling who made it to the business’s big leagues. A capacity crowd at L.A.’s Staples Center all chanting “YES! YES! YES!” in the kind of communal unison reserved for Democratic and Republican presidential nomination conventions. It was a replay of Shawn Michaels’ “boyhood dream” Wrestlemania 12 main event victory over Bret Hart, except Bryan is a genuinely likable and relatable character and thus better positioned to convey the sentimentality of the “boyhood dream coming true”.
But looming disaster struck in the form of a Money in The Bank briefcase-toting Randy Orton. After initially teasing a cash-in, Triple H turned heel against Daniel Bryan by hitting him with a Pedigree. Thus allowing Orton to cash-in and score the immediate pin, making him once again the WWE champ. Bryan had been champ for less than five minutes before he did the (screw)job for a wrestler who has two wellness violation strikes against him and is only one strike away from termination.
The next several weeks on Raw and Smackdown saw the Triple H-led Authority, comprising of Orton as the Golden Poster Boy of the WWE and the Shield as the new faction’s thugs, running roughshod over Bryan and his new allies (Big Show, Cody Rhodes, and Goldust making the Comeback of the Year). All the while, everyone involved has been putting on action-packed matches and excellent promos (check out Michael Cole’s superb 60 Minutes-styled sit down interview videos with Triple H on WWE’s official website featuring Triple h’s best heel work in years). You had the making of a hot angle that showed clearly defined good guys fighting clearly defined bad guys done in a way that was fresh and exciting. Yet the next PPV rematches failed to satisfy. Night of Champions saw Bryan pin Orton but creative used the Dusty Finish and the match was overturned the next night on Raw. Battleground promised an undisputed WWE champion, but when, once again the creative team booked a no-contest finish. Irate PPV fans demanded (and received) refunds. During what was supposed to be the blow-off match at Hell In A Cell Orton got the cheap victory thanks to a heel turn from guest referee (and one-time Daniel Bryan instructor) Shawn Michaels. The news of McMahon’s shareholder teleconference confirmed what many fans feared after Hell In A Cell, the WWE brass did not feel that putting Daniel Bryan in the main event scene was, to steal from the Authority’s catchphrase, “best for business.”
But should the blame be laid at Bryan’s feet? He has consistently been the best wrestler in the company. His sterling ring work is reminiscent of both Dynamite Kid and Chris Benoit. Yet unlike those two, Bryan also excels at the entertainment side of “sports-entertainment.” His appearances on JBL and Michael Cole’s web series and his memorable tag team run with Kane as Team Hell No are great examples of this. Plus, in publicity appearances he exudes a gentle geeky quality that has more in common with Michael Cera and Zach Galifianakis than Hulk Hogan and the Rock. Unlike the similarly excellent and entertaining (yet prickly) CM Punk, Bryan would be well-suited to be the spokesman for WWE. Yet, in the wake of dropping ratings for Raw, John Cena was rushed back to work and Daniel Bryan was put in a tag team with Punk feuding with the Wyatt Family.
No, the blame for the low buyrates should lie with WWE. After all, they are the ones who hot-shotted Bryan into the main event. In the storyline leading up to Summerslam Cena gifts Bryan with a title shot; wrestling’s equivalent of being picked last to join the dodgeball team. Despite the fun and entertaining run as Kane’s tag team partner, Bryan almost always took the pinfall losses that were booked for the team. He was hardly set up to look like a contender. The Summerslam build had Vince voicing his onscreen doubts about Bryan’s marketability (after Summerslam, Triple H and Stephanie McMahon-Levesque condescendingly called Bryan a “B+ player.”) JBL and Jerry Lawler mocked Bryan’s quirky appearance every week by referring to him as “Air Goat” while Randy Orton was graced with fellatiated platitudes, e.g. “If you built a sports entertainer from the ground up, it would look EXACTLY like Randy Orton” says JBL in almost a swoon-like voice.
Is this any way to build a future main eventer? In 1995 did the WWE treat Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Diesel and Razor Ramon that way? No. Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels were both treated like they were the greatest wrestlers of the day and Kevin Nash and Scott Hall were treated like dominant players in the game. These guys were pushed, they were over, and none of them had the rug pulled out from under them in the way that it has been for Bryan (and Punk, to a lesser degree). In fact, while the current WWE likes to tell its audience that the stars from the past were vastly superior to today’s stars, the mid-90’s WWE did the exact opposite. They did not tell you that The Hulkster was better than Big Daddy Cool or that the Heartbreak Kid couldn’t hold a candle to “Macho Man” Randy Savage. In fact, the stars from the 80’s were the ones who were buried. Primal Scream-era John Lennon’s burials of the Beatles had nothing on mid-90’s Vince McMahon when it came to burying the legends from the Hulk Hogan era. Several weeks worth of Billionaire Ted skits were all you needed to know about how Vince felt about Hogan, Savage, and Roddy Piper jumping ship to more lucrative (and less strenuous) work opportunities with World Championship Wrestling. But this is a different time and Vince rules pro wrestling in North America. With the company having to answer to stockholders, and with TNA Wrestling a distant second in audience, WWE feels pressure to rely on past draws like the Rock and Brock Lesnar at the expense of the current roster. Maybe with competition that could actually pose a threat WWE would awaken from its slumber of complacency and dare to experiment like it did in the 80’s when it invented the modern-day pro wrestling show. Or like it did in the late 90’s when it reinvented it’s own invention with Steve Austin, the Rock, Mick Foley, and Degeneration X. Until then, expect more of the same. Expect guys like me to try and find the diamonds in the rough while many smarky fans expressed dismay at why wrestling “isn’t good like it used to be.”
But let’s not feel too sorry for Daniel Bryan, the guy we see on TV every week. Bryan Danielson is surely making a great living doing his childhood dream of being a professional wrestler. He’s main evented major PPV shows, he’s engaged to a star of a hit reality TV show, and he doesn’t seem to have the personal demons and ugliness that plagued the lives of Dynamite Kid and Chris Benoit. Daniel Bryan may have suffered setbacks, but Bryan Danielson is doing just fine thank you very much! The only losers in this character burial are the fans. And that is most definitely not “best for business.”