Heading into WrestleMania 22 Sunday night in Chicago, there were two popular pieces of conventional wisdom, both of which centered on WWE champion John Cena. They weren’t unanimous – nothing is in the field of pro wrestling opinion and analysis – but you heard them a lot over the past few weeks.
In order of certainty, they were:
1) John Cena was going to drop his title to Triple H in the Raw main event. Here at SLAM! Wrestling, the trend was bucked somewhat with three of the five members of our panel picking Cena to retain, but even then the writers felt it would surprise many.
2) John Cena was going to turn heel. The feeling here was that the WWE would be uncomfortable with the mixed reaction its champ was getting, something touted in this very space a few columns ago.
If last night’s show proved anything, it was that even in this day and age where some solid inside information is floating around amidst the rumor and conjecture in the wrestling media, conventional wisdom isn’t always correct. At best, it’s a collective educated guess. No one outside of Vince McMahon himself can tell you exactly how things are going to turn out ahead of time, and the shows — especially the WWE’s biggest show — can still surprise.
Cena held onto his strap, startling this columnist with a submission win just seconds after I had uttered my feeling that Triple H wouldn’t be booked to tap out. And he certainly didn’t turn heel, unless your definition of a heel is someone who wins without resorting to a foreign object, interference or blatant rule-breaking of any kind. Instead, the WWE chose to take a different tack, having the announcers play up the ambiguous crowd responses both men were getting and framing the battle as one that pitted “old school” versus “new school.” The WWE appears to be content allowing the champ to simply be the champ.
One person who seems to have been pretty in tune with this exact approach is Cena himself. He’s one of the few WWE personalities who posts on his own page on MySpace.com, and he had this to say about his situation three days before his match with Triple H:
“I talk a lot to media, to critics and to people who have self proclaimed knowledge of the business that is WWE. It’s so funny to me sometimes to hear an ‘educated’ reporter or fan tell me what is happening in our business. There seems to be a lot of talk in wrestler university about me ‘turning heel.’ This IS what’s going to happen: the ‘smart’ people will keep plotting, planning and conjuring up scenarios that they feel are right. Don’t get me wrong, every opinion matters, but there is a huge difference between opinion and fact. I will keep being me. So while the so-called ‘experts’ can tell me what I’m doing for the next 6 months, I only worry about today. I am not a ‘babyface’ or a ‘heel.’ I am me.”
Is it naïve to think that the blog entry wasn’t at least partially written as John Cena the character as well as John Cena the performer? Perhaps. But at least for the time being, his take seems to be pretty accurate.
Other assorted thoughts on last night’s big show:
– The WWE title match wasn’t the only one with fans showing split loyalties. On the TV broadcast, it sure sounded like more people were cheering supposed heel challenger Mickie James despite (or possibly because of) her psycho personality. Maybe the concept of someone burnt by unrequited love resonates more strongly than many people would be willing to admit. Or more likely, fans are simply tired of Trish Stratus holding the belt for so long and defending it against the same cast of characters again and again. Whatever the reason, it added a little bit of spice to what’s been a bland women’s wrestling scene in the WWE.
– One person who never has a problem with fan loyalty is last night’s Money in the Bank winner, Rob Van Dam. “When will RVD get a push?” is quite possibly the longest running question I’ve ever fielded during my time on the staff of SLAM! Wrestling. He may finally get it now, and you only have to see what it did for Edge last year to get an idea of how helpful that briefcase can be for Rob’s spot on the card.
– Another surprise, at least to this columnist, came when Detroit’s Ford Field was announced as the site of WrestleMania 23. The WWE has been following a pattern of alternating between both coasts and the middle part of the United States, so to see it head to Michigan a year after taking place in Illinois raised my eyebrow a la The Rock. A spin through the Ford Field website reveals that the facility holds over 65,000 fans for football, and one would guess that it would seat even more for wrestling. Yes, it will be the 20th anniversary of WrestleMania III, but since smaller venues have been the norm for a few years, the WWE must feel that business will be pretty good over the next 12 months to justify such a large site.
– Score one for less clutter at the announce table. Not literally, since the Raw, Smackdown and Spanish announce tables lined up to create a wall that filled one whole side of the ringside area. But behind the microphone, the broadcast benefited from a return to a two-man booth for the Raw matches. Not only that, but J.R. seemed to be recharged from his time away, turning in one of his most entertaining performances in quite a while. The only time Joey Styles — who delivered during his call of the Edge-Mick Foley hardcore match — was missed was when Shawn Michaels dropped the elbow off the extra tall ladder through a table on Vince McMahon. That was as big an “Oh my God” moment as we’ve seen since Styles arrived.
– Love them or hate them – and initial reaction seems to be leaning toward the latter — the WWE deserves some credit for the outrageous ring entrances for Triple H and Cena, and to a slightly lesser extent, Rey Mysterio. If you’re going to bill WrestleMania as a bigger spectacle and more important than every other pay-per-view, you have to pull out all the stops. Last night’s intros definitely fit the bill, though SLAM! Wrestling Raw reporter Dale Plummer raised a valid point when he turned to me and asked if it was a good idea to be idolizing Prohibition-era gangsters. Now the only problem is that there’s no way to avoid making one title match look more important than the other, unless there was an end to the split main event. That sounds like a cue to add one final plea to a cause that’s been championed before in this space: end the brand split.