If there were ever a holiday which the wrestling business ought to use as a time to reflect, it is Thanksgiving. Therefore, I would like to take a moment to express my sincere gratitude to many of the most important stars in the industry.
I’m thankful for C.M. Punk. When Punk debuted in WWE six years ago, I never would have imagined him reigning as world champion for over a full year. Though Punk broke through the glass ceiling to become a main eventer last year, it seems that he really hit his career peak this year as a heel. His championship reign has bought a level of prestige back to the belt that was desperately lacking over the last few years.
I’m thankful for Paul Heyman. After the way he left WWE in the aftermath of the disastrous December to Dismember PPV in 2006, I never thought I’d see him working in WWE again (except as a talking head on video releases). Therefore, I was as shocked as anyone to see him return to television in the role of an advisor to Brock Lesnar. It was an even bigger shock when he began managing Punk. At first I was curious as to how he would enhance Punk’s character. After all, it’s not like Punk ever needed anyone to do the talking for him. However, within a few weeks of their alliance, it was obvious they were onto something big. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but Heyman brings an entirely new element to Punk and their interaction reminds me of the very best wrestler/manager pairings in history. Heyman was always great, but this latest run has really cemented his legacy for me. He is among the best talkers, managers and creative minds the business has ever seen.
I’m thankful for John Cena. This year, I found myself more drawn to him as an overall performer than any other period I can recall. His feuds against Rock, Lesnar and Punk were captivating and produced some of the most memorable matches of the year. His tireless work with the Make-A-Wish Foundation makes him a class act in my view. Cena is already a living legend and we should all appreciate his contributions to the business as such.
I’m thankful for Hiroshi Tanahashi and the entire New Japan Pro Wrestling promotion. A strong argument can be made that NJPW is the best promotion in the world today. Their top star, current IWGP heavyweight champion Tanahashi, is probably the best all around performer in the business. The guy has it all, the look, the charisma, the incredible working ability, and not just athletically, but his ability to understand when to do what is equal to anyone in wrestling. Other key guys such as Yugi Nagata, Hirooki Goto, Minoru Suzuki, Low Ki, Prince Devitt, Shinsuke Nakamura, Tetsuya Naito and Kazuchika Okada are all excellent performers in their own right. Perhaps the biggest strength of the promotion is that everyone has their own distinct character and working style which makes for a consistently great product.
I’m thankful for Dolph Ziggler. This man is so close to touching the brass ring that I can almost taste it. He has been one of WWE’s most outstanding performers for quite some time and never fails to produce anything less than great television. Whether he’s taking bumps like the second coming of Shawn Michaels and Curt Hennig, or cutting cocky promos that remind us of the late Rick Rude, Ziggler is amazing.
I’m thankful for Kurt Angle. I don’t watch TNA regularly, but the one thing I can always expect to see whenever I tune in or read their latest PPV card coverage is that Angle will just about always be in the best match of any show he’s on. Though it’s debatable as to whether he should still be wrestling, there is no way you can deny his greatness. Only the very elite have been able to compete at such a high level past the age of 40. Of those select few, I don’t think any had the extensive list of injuries as Angle. I’m not sure how much longer his body will be able to hold out, but I’m going to enjoy him for as long as he’s here.
I’m thankful for AJ Lee. Over the past year, this little firecracker has become one of most interesting women to ever compete in WWE. While Trish Stratus was the best women’s wrestler in company history and the late Elizabeth Hulette was better known to a generation of fans, neither had anything on AJ when it came to being such a prominent part of the main event scene. She’s been in high profile angles with Daniel Bryan, Punk and Cena, not to mention her stint as general manager of Raw. AJ is a stark contrast to the silicone-induced blondes that have proliferated WWE over the last decade. More important, she has the geek chic charm that makes her seem like the girl next door.
Last but not least, I’m thankful for Chris Jericho. I’m not sure about the current status of his contract negotiations with WWE, but one thing I do know is that I was very glad to see him return after a year plus hiatus. Jericho’s career is an example I wish more veterans would take after. Having long since accomplished everything he set out to do in a successful 20 year career, he came back with the singular intent to help elevate young talent. He was in one of the better endings ever to a Royal Rumble against Sheamus and then went on to face Punk in two stellar PPV matches. His opener against Ziggler at Summerslam was the best match of the show and in true fashion he lost to him the following night on Raw. In fact, he lost just about every major match he was in. The business will always need people like Jericho. The 6x world champion, 2x winner of the Lou Thesz/Ric Flair Wrestler of the Year award and 2008 Superstar of the Year will always put the needs of the business ahead of his ego. For that reason alone, he will always be one of my favorites.
I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. Have a happy Turkey Day!
I know it’s late for a midyear report, but I don’t care. I’m doing it anyway! The following are my thoughts on a few things that have stood out to me so far this year in WWE.
Breakout Star of the Year- Tie between Daniel Bryan and AJ Lee
It’s only fitting that the top two performers in WWE are two people whose careers have been linked together for the better part of the year. It’s also fitting because both represent what the top brass in WWE has traditionally shied away from in terms of appearance.
Bryan is far from the being the most physically imposing specimen, but when he gets inside the ring and on the microphone, he brings level of intensity and psychology that few possess. His yes chants have become the most recognizable one word catchphrase in all of wrestling, even being mentioned in other promotions. He’s been in the some of the year’s best matches and angles and even stood toe-to-toe (and verbally held his own) with the Rock on last week’s 1,000th episode of Raw. It looks like the current direction is for him to engage in some kind of confrontation with Charlie Sheen at Summerslam. Though, I’d rather see Bryan compete for the WWE Championship, I have no doubt he will make his program with Sheen as entertaining as possible. In 2012, it seemed like WWE finally realized what many in the business had known for years: Bryan is great at everything he does.
AJ, without question, is one of the most important women in the history of WWE. Only three others come to mind that could compare with her. Elizabeth was the first major valet in WWE and was involved in storylines with the big stars of her day. The popularity of Sable changed the way WWE would market their women to the masses, while Trish Stratus became the best in-ring performer they ever had.
But AJ has done something that none of them ever did and that was to become a fixture of the main event scene. For the last several months, AJ has been all over WWE television. She started out the year as the bashful sidekick of Bryan before she became a star in her own right. She played major roles in WWE Championship matches at the No Way Out and Money in the Bank PPVs. One could argue that the buildup to those matches was more focused on her than the actual participants. There were weeks on Raw when she was featured in more segments than John Cena. That just doesn’t happen to anyone.
There have been so many memorable AJ moments that it would take me an entire post to write about. If I had to narrow it down to two, they would be the time she pushed C.M. Punk off the top rope into a table and last week’s wedding segment with Bryan where it was revealed by Vince McMahon that she would be taking over as the new general manger. Regardless of what she does next, I’m sure she will make it as entertaining as possible.
Most Boring Performer- Tensai
This guy just sucks the energy out of me, and fans in every arena, each time he steps into the ring. He joins a select list of guys who I actually ignore every time they’re on the television screen. Once I hear his theme music, I know it’s time for me to get up and grab a snack. If he doesn’t do something soon to improve upon his character or ringwork then WWE should really consider firing him.
Most Underutilized Performer- Wow. The vast majority of the roster fits into this category. If I had to choose one then I would say Drew McIntyre. The man has a perfect look and the ability to back it up. It’s as simple as that.
Best Moment- Tie between Rock beating John Cena at Wrestlemania and Dolph Ziggler winning the Smackdown Money in the Bank ladder match.
In my 20 years as a fan of this great business, there are only a handful of moments that gave me the feeling of sheer elation of Rock beating Cena. I watched the show in a sports bar and the place went absolutely nuts when the referee counted to three. Words could not adequately describe the atmosphere that night. For many older fans, it was as if his win was vindication that the Attitude Era was better than the current Cena-dominated era of WWE.
On the other hand, Ziggler’s win was a moment fans desperately craved. Ziggler has been great for such a long time, but after losing so many key matches to Sheamus, I was worried he would end up losing MITB too. Much to my surprise (anytime something good happens in wrestling today, I consider it a surprise), Ziggler won a tremendous match and will likely win the world title down the road. His win was the just an outward symbol of what everyone knew he was capable of. I have no doubt he will be a major player in the WWE for years to come.
Top Five Matches of the Midyear
Rock vs. John Cena, Wrestlemania 28- It was a clash of two of the biggest stars in wrestling history in Rock’s hometown. The yearlong build to this match paid off, as it had the atmosphere of a big time sporting event. Rock winning was the cherry on top, but make no mistake about it, both guys worked hard to make it into a memorable encounter.
John Cena vs. Brock Lesnar, Extreme Rules- This was a match unlike any I’ve seen. It was more of a real fight than a regular match and Lesnar dominated Cena in a manner no one ever has. Cena took an insane amount of punishment (being willingly busted open at the beginning and taking numerous stiff blows) to make Lesnar appear like a monster. It worked because there was a level of suspension of disbelief that seldom occurs in wrestling. Despite the outcome, it was still one of the best matches presented anywhere this year.
Sheamus vs. Daniel Bryan, 2/3 falls, Extreme Rules- This was the type of match they were robbed of having at Wrestlemania. It was the first time Bryan was really allowed to showcase his talents in a main-event level capacity on PPV and the match told a tremendous story. Sheamus deserved equal credit for holding up his end as well.
Undertaker vs. HHH, Hell in the Cell, Wrestlemania 28- This match was far superior to their encounter from last year. The beauty of any Undertaker match at Mania (particularly the past six) is that everyone knows, deep down, he will always come out on top, but the real fun comes in getting to the conclusion. This was a story-driven match as you had Shawn Michaels as the guest referee. You had two best friends, one whose career ended as a result of Undertaker, teaming up to bring an end to the streak. It was a brutal confrontation with more chair shots than any match I could recall in years. The picturesque ending of all three men embracing on the stage was a classic moment for three standard bearers of the company. When it was over, Undertaker extended his legendary streak to 20-0 and most important, he and HHH brought some much needed prestige back to the Hell in the Cell concept.
C.M. Punk vs. Daniel Bryan, Over the Limit- Who would’ve imagined these two former Ring of Honor standouts would ever compete for the WWE Championship on PPV. Even though it didn’t go on last, this match was considered by wrestling purists as the real main event that evening. They went nearly 30 minutes in one of the more technical matches I’ve seen in quite some time. A fantastic match.
There are plenty of other categories I could write about, but I think this is a good place to stop. I will do a comprehensive year-end review of multiple categories in early January. Hope you enjoy and feel free to share your thoughts.
Writer’s Update: It just occurred to me that I forgot to mention the return of Brock Lesnar as one of the big moments of this year. The ovation he received from the Miami crowd the night after Wrestlemania was one of the loudest pops of the last decade in wrestling. It was comparable to Hulk Hogan, Rock or Steve Austin during their peak of popularity.
Who is the top star in World Wrestling Entertainment?
One may be led to believe it is C.M. Punk, the current world champion, or John Cena, the man who has carried the company on his back for nearly a decade. Based on the last several weeks’ worth of television, it would appear the biggest star in the male-dominated world of WWE is a 100 pound. woman.
AJ Lee, real name April Jeannette, has become a fixture in the main event scene. Her rise to superstardom isn’t so much because of her wrestling ability, but because her character is one of the most unique in wrestling today.
AJ burst onto the scene in 2010 as a contestant on the third season of WWE’s pseudo-reality show NXT. That season was based around a group of women vying for the opportunity to become a WWE Diva (the official term used for females on the roster). The native of Union City, NJ, emerged as a fan favorite with her spunky girl next door persona. She eventually made it as one of the three finalists before being eliminated. In an ironic twist of fate Naomi and Kaitlyn, the two women she lost the competition to, have seen their careers literally and figuratively go nowhere.
Despite the loss, it wasn’t long after until AJ debuted on Smackdown. For those unfamiliar with the women’s division of WWE, let’s just say that they are low on rungs of priority within the company. Most of their matches are less than three minutes and their primary purpose is to serve as eye candy rather than actual athletes. AJ’s fate was sure to be no different than that of the other dozen or so women in the division until she became involved in a storyline last year with then world champion Daniel Bryan.
Bryan, who up until that point had played the role of a traditional good guy, was in the midst of a major character transformation. He became the smug and cocky guy who always bragged about never losing his title. AJ played the role of the girl who was so smitten by him that she overlooked what everyone else saw as the obvious–Bryan was using her. Their chemistry together was amazing and it was one of the reasons, aside from his natural talent, as to why his three-month championship reign was such a success. After his reign ended they did the breakup angle which eventually led to the current AJ, Punk and Bryan love triangle which has dominated WWE television this summer.
Last month’s triple threat PPV match involving Kane, Punk and Bryan was heavily centered on AJ’s involvement and she will be the guest referee for the Punk vs. Bryan championship match at this month’s Money in the Bank PPV. AJ was also the only woman featured in the USA Network commercial promoting the 1000th episode of Monday Night Raw. If you were a first-time viewer tuning in than you would be led to believe that she is the only woman in the company who matters.
It was reported in this week’s issue of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter that the company plans to continue making her a focal point of the main storylines.
What is it about AJ that sets her apart from virtually any woman that has competed in WWE?
With all due respect to popular performers like Sable and Trish Stratus, neither of them was ever consistently featured in programs with the top talent of their respective eras like AJ has.
I believe the attainability factor is the big thing that sets her apart. WWE has been traditionally been the land of silicone-induced blondes with little to no personality. In that sense, AJ is a breath of fresh air in a stagnant environment. She wears punk rock attire, skips to the ring and is a self-described comic book geek.
How many of us guys actually encounter (unless you live in an entertainment capital like LA or Miami) women who look like they’ve walked off the pages of a Maxim centerfold? I don’t think many of us see women like that walking around the neighborhood grocery store. AJ’s look alone makes her come across as the girl you could meet anywhere in town and have a conversation with.
Her uncanny acting ability is among the best of anyone, male or female, in wrestling today.
She plays the most convincing role I’ve seen of a manipulative attention-craving psycho. She can be flipping out at a person one moment and acting like a sweet schoolgirl the next. It’s quite remarkable.
Some fans have complained about her overexposure. They think her involvement overshadows the matches of the wrestlers who the company should be focusing on. And there may be a valid argument in support of that. However, in 2012, I will take entertainment in wrestling any way I can get it. And for right now there is no one more entertaining than her.
The following are some notes I took from last night’s edition of WWE Friday Night Smackdown:
- The show opened with a very hot segment involving Mark Henry, Big Show and Daniel Bryan. Henry was on crutches complaining about the injury he suffered in his match with Show at last Sunday’s Survivor Series. This brought out Show who eventually laid out Henry with a knockout punch. While he was laid out, Bryan ran down to cash in his Money in the Bank briefcase. He pinned Henry to apparently become the new champion and the crowd went nuts. Of course it was just a tease. Smackdown GM Teddy Long came down and reversed the decision due to Henry being unable to compete. He then gave Bryan back his briefcase and put him into a fatal four-way main event for the #1 contender shot at Henry on a special holiday edition of Smackdown, that will air this Tuesday.
- This segment was tremendous and everyone played their roles to perfection. It reminded me a lot of a similar angle between HHH/Chris Jericho from 2000. In that match, Jericho apparently won the belt and the crowd exploded, only for the decision to later be reversed. That match was a key moment in Jericho’s career because it showed that the fans were actually ready to see him on top. I felt this segment did the same for Bryan.
- On a side note, I was thinking to myself why in the heck is WWE having a holiday edition of Smackdown on 11/29. Shouldn’t they wait to have it in a few more weeks so that it will be closer to Christmas??? On the bright side, Foley will be hosting the show, so it should be very entertaining.
- There was a womens tag match involving Natayla/Beth Pheonix vs. AJ Lee/Kaitlyn, which lasted all of maybe one minute. I don’t see the need in having matches that short. For some reason, I’m really into AJ and hope that she develops in to a better character in the upcoming year. She’s not too bad in the ring and she has this great underdog quality about her, especially when she faces monsters like Beth and Natayla. Plus she’s naturally pretty without the artificial look (blonde hair and huge implants) that 90% of the women in WWE seem to have.
- I know it’s a broken record, but Michael Cole’s commentary was more unbearable than usual. It was as if he went in with the mentality of talking about nothing but the Booker T/Cody Rhodes incident from Raw for the entire telecast. There were actually points throughout the evening where Josh Mathews had to remind Cole do actually call the matches. Besides, that is what the WWE pays Cole to do!
- Zack Ryder and Sheamus squared off against Dolph Ziggler and Jack Swagger in an excellent tag team match. Watching this match really made it clear that Ziggler is the most underrated wrestler in the entire business. The man can talk, has the look, and can have a great match with anyone. If any one wrestler in WWE channels the spirit of Shawn Michaels and Ric Flair, then it’s him. Any aspiring wrestler, or fan, who wants to see ring psychology at its finest should definitely go out of their way to find this match on YouTube. You will not be disappointed.
- Also, this match once again illustrated that Ryder is the third most popular guy in the company behind Punk and John Cena. The crowd treats him like a genuine superstar and he was even put over by the Rock at Survivor Series last week. Throughout the entire evening at Survivor Series, the crowd vociferously chanted “We Want Ryder!” I’m not trying to make early comparisons, but I’m definitely sensing a 1996 Steve Austin and 1998 Rock vibe from Ryder. Those were the years when those guys really started to break out from the pack to become all-time legends. I’m not saying Ryder will be the next Austin or Rock, or even the next Cena, but he has a connection with the fans that very few guys in this era have. And management would be foolish not to take him all the way to the top.
- The main event was another fantastic match. It was Daniel Bryan vs. Randy Orton vs. Cody Rhodes vs. Wade Barrett in a fatal four-way to determine the #1 contender. It was nonstop action with some pretty good spots. Orton, Cody and Bryan are great in the ring and Barrett is improving each week (and is a solid performer in his own right). The ending came when Bryan made Cody submit to his LeBelle Lock submission. So he will face Henry this Tuesday in a steel cage match for the world title.
- The ending of the match was very unique. Bryan was celebrating the victory while Cody stalked him from behind. Orton delivered an RKO to him before he could attack Bryan. Instead, of the company booking Orton to overshadow Bryan, he instead gave Bryan a smile, left the ring, and let him bask in the limelight. I felt this was a strong match that told many stories. Apparently, they are continuing the Orton-Barrett storyline and may incorporate Cody into it and make it into a three-way program. Second, this was my first time ever seeing Orton and Bryan in a match together. Hopefully, this is a sign of what’s to come next year. An Orton-Bryan feud would produce some wild matches! Most important, the match culminated in a show-long focus on Bryan. From the opening segment all the way to the main event, he was presented as a legitimate threat to Henry’s world title. The fans have always been behind Bryan. Now it appears that the company is too. Overall, this was another strong show that once again proved why Smackdown is the best wrestling show on cable television today.