“Twitter friend” Matthew Timmons authors a must-read website for wrestling fans called kafabermetrics (a play on “Sabermetrics”) in which he dutifully tracks statistical information based on the performances of the various WWE superstars. Like a Bill James for the squared-circle set, Timmons also attempts to use this information (plus his own knowledge) to predict the card for WrestleMania each year.
That’s proven to be a more daunting task than usual in 2014.
In fact, he began his most recent prediction article with the following confession: “Can I tell you a secret? I have no idea what the f*** is going on.”
I think a lot of fans are in that same boat.
So, I decided that I would take a crack at divining where the WWE’s creative direction is headed over the next month-and-a-half. In doing so, I will use absolutely no analytical data whatsoever, and instead rely only on my own half-baked notions about narrative integrity and dramatic storytelling.
A couple of wildcards have made this year particularly difficult to predict. First, the introduction of the WWE Network a few days from now is a game-changing move that could affect everything from overall booking philosophy to the number of PPV we see in a given year. While it will take more than a mere month for all of those changes to come to fruition, the timing of the Network’s introduction about five weeks before WrestleMania may have some unforeseeable impact on the biggest show of 2014.
Secondly, the departure of CM Punk so close to WrestleMania caused a reshuffling of plans. Punk undoubtedly would have occupied a spot in one of the top three matches on the card. As it is, his absence creates a minor chain-reaction in which certain guys move into new “spots” by necessity.
That has led to a projected WrestleMania card that is, shall we say . . . underwhelming.
We’ve known the main event months in advance each of the last two years. Not so this time around, where, despite Batista’s Royal Rumble victory, speculation (wishful thinking?) has been running rampant that there would be no way the WWE would put a part-timer in the main event unless his name rhymed with “Lock” — as in, a “lock” to boost buyrate.
But does WWE care as much about buyrate in a world with WWE Network? Do they feel the same need to cram musicians, television personalities, athletes, or movie stars into the proceedings to garner mainstream eyeballs? Or is the WWE Network itself in part a signal that the company is aiming more for dedicated fans who will pay a monthly subscription, and less toward casual fans who buy one PPV per year?
Whatever the reason, whether due to being forced to book on the fly or because it’s part of a change in company strategy, the WM card just doesn’t look as good on paper as it has at the same point in recent years.
The good news is—there’s enough time to save it. But there’s work to do.
First thing’s first, though. We have a PPV this Sunday.
As Timmons has pointed out, Randy Orton has been losing at an unprecedented rate going into Elimination Chamber. To be specific: three clean losses to Daniel Bryan, John Cena, and
Antonio Cesaro in the span of a couple of weeks. That’s a highly unusual track record for a WWE Champion, especially leading up to a potential title defense at WrestleMania.
Naturally, I think that all-but-guarantees Orton wins at Elimination Chamber.
More on that in a moment, but the other big outcomes at EC seem fairly obvious. Big E
Langston retains the Intercontinental Championship. The Wyatt Family beats the Shield, leading to the long-awaited break-up. Batista whips Del Rio to build momentum for Mania.
The Elimination Chamber match main event will be crucial to set up WrestleMania. I think it probably goes something like this: Daniel Bryan is the star of the match (although they’ll also go out of their way to make Cesaro look strong as well), eliminating at least two other competitors. Orton enters last, survives a few close calls, then, after Bryan eliminates the second-to-last of the five challengers, Orton wins on a roll-up, or after an assist from someone acting on the Authority’s behalf (perhaps Kane, perhaps HHH himself).
That leaves us with Orton as the WWE World Heavyweight Champion.
Ah, but what was the point of all of those losses? And what’s the point of having him just barely slip out of the chamber with the title? This again may be wishful thinking, but WWE has the opportunity to do something not only compelling, but also completely consistent with the narrative they’ve been crafting for several months.
How so? The story throughout the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014 has been that, despite being a heel WWE Champion and “The Face of WWE,” Randy Orton has (kayfabe) looked less-than-dominant. Even though the Authority themselves are heels, Orton’s corporate overlords have openly expressed reservations about his status at the top—and that was before he lost those three recent main-event matches on television.
So, Orton wins—again—by the skin of his teeth at Elimination Chamber. Perhaps under dubious circumstances, and/or with someone else (Daniel Bryan) doing much of the work. The next several weeks of RAW only serve to cement the fact that the legitimacy of Orton’s spot in the main event is being questioned. This serves two purposes.
1. It takes the heat off of Batista by making it look like Orton is (kayfabe) the one who doesn’t belong in a title match at WrestleMania.
2. It puts Bryan back in the main event picture.
The Daniel Bryan phenomenon has been building for two years. I’m a fan of dramatic “foreplay,” but there is such a thing as too much. There has to be a payoff. If the WWE waits much longer to pull the trigger on Bryan, his moment may have passed. Fans eventually get fatigued, and hearing “He’s not an A-player” enough times, even if said as part of a storyline, starts to wear them down if Bryan never actually gets his run at the top.
WWE can give the fans what they want, keep a Batista / Orton title match on the card, and have the most-over guy in the company go over on the biggest card of the year.
Here’s what that card would probably look like:
Dean Ambrose (c) vs. Roman Reigns vs. Seth Rollins — U. S. Championship: Timmons has been calling this one for a while. I think it’s a good call, and I say that as someone who doesn’t really like triple-threat matches. Plus, the booking could go in any direction: Break up the Shield and put the title on Reigns because he’s the next big face they want to push, also freeing up Ambrose and Rollins to get their own storylines. Break up the Shield and, in a surprise move, put the strap on Rollins because he “needs” it the most. Or, in a different swerve, have Ambrose retain and keep the Shield together with a replacement for Reigns, like (God help us) Mason Ryan.
Tag Team Turmoil for the WWE Tag Team Titles: The WWE has a viable tag division again, despite occasionally forgetting that fact. This will be the obligatory “let’s get a bunch of guys a WrestleMania payday” match, except it will actually include guys we like to see. Expect the Real Americans, the Usos (who will probably have the belts by then), the New Age Outlaws, and the Rhodes Brothers to be involved. Timmons has said for a while that the Rhodes Brothers will break up and wrestle each other at ‘Mania, but, again, I worry about “microwaving” so many angles (see below).
Brock Lesnar vs. The Undertaker: Not gonna lie, this one makes me nervous. Brock’s offense is no joke. Subjecting a part-timer pushing 50 to it is risky. It’s a shame WWE couldn’t get a deal finalized with Sting soon enough to do a two-month slow-burn between him and the Undertaker. As it is, Lesnar, who declared himself the #1 contender to the WWE title, hasn’t been seen in weeks and has nothing else to do at the moment. I’m still holding out some hope that they’ll switch this around somehow and spare the Undertaker from the beating he’ll get (albeit in a winning effort).
John Cena vs. Bray Wyatt: They’ve already had Wyatt beat Bryan cleanly, and I’m guessing he’ll look like a million bucks vs. The Shield on Sunday. They laid some groundwork for this previously, but they’ll still need to lay some more to convince people that Wyatt belongs in a match against the guy who main-evented with the Rock the last two years.
Other matches: There will be some kind of Divas match. Big E will defend the IC title—Timmons like Rusev to be in this spot, but I think the way to go would be to put a past WWE champion like Sheamus in the mix in order to elevate the IC title where it needs to be now that there’s only one big title. Big Show and Rey Mysterio will need something to do if they aren’t in the tag team title match somehow. I would like to think that Ziggler, The Miz, Sandow, Del Rio, and Barrett will be involved, but they may be destined for a pre-show battle royale, if anything.
That leads me to the heart of the show: What to do about the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
As I mentioned, we could have a weak-looking Orton, a Batista fans aren’t ready to embrace, a wronged Daniel Bryan, and an Authority with questionable motives.
The Solution: Have Bryan finally get fed up. No more smiling or joking. He still interacts with the crowd, but he does so earnestly. His point—he cannot possibly get a fair shake in this company. He was clearly the star of the EC, but the Authority made sure he didn’t win.
Over the next few weeks, he continues to disrupt the Authority’s plans on a given night. When they threaten him with termination, he explains that he no longer cares about his job, because what’s the use if he’ll never be given a chance, anyway? He’s an anarchist now, if not a nihilist.
Finally, 13 or 6 days before WrestleMania, HHH partially relents, but says that Batista earned his spot. He also says that Orton is the champion, so he has to be in the match in addition to the scheduled main event. So, he says that Bryan will get a separate title match, with one important caveat: In order to be fair to Orton, Bryan will have to wrestle an additional match as well. That match will be against his former tag-team partner, Kane (or, they could make it against HHH himself, which would be an even bigger blow-off for something that’s been building for a year).
In short, this is a WrestleMania-X-like scenario, where Bret Hart had to wrestle Owen (and lost, as it turned out), Luger got the first shot at Yokozuna, then Bret wrestled Yoko to close the show.
Here, Bryan would open the show against Kane (or, if it’s HHH, it would happen about halfway through the show). Orton and Batista would get their scheduled title match a little later. After a couple of more matches as palate-cleansers, Bryan would close the show by beating Orton for the title once and for all.
No red briefcase. No referee betrayal. No deus ex machina from the Authority.
This ties up a number of loose ends, including Bryan’s longstanding issue with the Authority and his beef with Orton that dates back to last August. More importantly, it (finally) gets Bryan where he needs to be. It also helps in another crucial respect: With only one world title, that leaves a hole in the card. Having two big title matches, plus an extra Bryan match, fills that hole—and then some.
Will all of that happen? I sure hope so. After all, Bryan does have a new t-shirt out.
But they could also just decide that Batista needs to be the WWE Champion until Guardians of the Galaxy has been out for a few weeks.
I like Bryan a lot, and I am A fan, but I also don’t claim to be THE biggest fan of his. However, I do think he’s an excellent, entertaining wrestler who absolutely deserves to be WWE Champion at this point.
And what I am the biggest fan of is narrative integrity. An ultimate Bryan victory would be the most logical, satisfying conclusion that WrestleMania could have.
 The only logical fly in the ointment is that this would be very unfair to Batista (kayfabe-wise), which is why a neat wrinkle would be Batista somehow losing to Del Rio at EC. I don’t think that will happen, of course, but it does seem odd that the guy who won the Rumble cleanly would have to wrestle twice at WrestleMania.
 One alternate version of this would have HHH striking a deal with Heyman and Lesnar that got them back in the title picture, with the goal being to have Brock take Bryan out once and for all. Lesnar “injures” Bryan, but Bryan somehow wins, setting up Bryan winning the title against all odds. While this sounds good to the mark in me (and spares Undertaker from possible quadriplegia), Bryan beating Lesnar and Orton on the same night stretches even the broad concept of “plausibility” we have in pro wrestling.