Doctor's Orders: January 31-February 2, 2017 - WWE Month-in-Review (January 2017), Is It Too Late For Bray Wyatt?, & Rumble Controversial...YEAH BUT...Raw Was Very Eventful
By The Doc
Feb 2, 2017 - 6:50:19 PM
”The Doc” Chad Matthews has been a featured writer for LOP since 2004. Initially offering detailed recaps and reviews for WWE's top programs, he transitioned to writing columns in 2010. In addition to his discussion-provoking current event pieces, he has written many acclaimed series about WrestleMania, as well as a popular short story chronicle. The Doc has also penned a book, The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment, published in 2013. It has been called “the best wrestling book I have ever read” and holds a 5-star rating on Amazon, where it peaked at #3 on the wrestling charts.
WWE Month-in-Review (January 2017)
Bray Wyatt's Time May Have Finally Come, But Is It Already Too Late?
The Road To WrestleMania Controversial As Usual...YEAH BUT...
QUESTION OF THE DAY: Who do you think was the Wrestler of the Month in WWE during January 2017?
The following is a case study of WWE’s product for the month of January 2017.
NXT Takeover: San Antonio Review
Match of the Month: AJ Styles vs. John Cena at Royal Rumble
Though I want to give honorable mentions to the outstanding No-DQ match between Reigns and Owens from the same show and to the main-event at Takeover from the night prior between Nakamura and Roode, Styles vs. Cena deserves the nod as the definitive best of January in WWE and will likely sit at or near the top of the leader-board for much of 2017 if I had to guess. Combining the setting and the crowd response with the engaging pre-match renewal of their rivalry, Cena vs. Styles felt like it was being featured on a WrestleMania card instead of the Rumble's and, when the bell rang, they went at it tooth-and-nail in a manner very reminiscent of their popular 2016 Match of the Year candidate at Summerslam. Some might argue that they bettered their previous effort thanks to the change in Cena's character dynamic; he seemed to wax and wane between his iconically (or annoyingly, depending on your perspective) consistent Golden Boy persona and the more attitude-enriched version that we had seen off and on since the final Smackdown before the New Year.
Featuring every element deemed by yours truly to be necessary to earn the “greatest of” title, it seems like a strong candidate for 2017 Match of the Year.
WWE Royal Rumble 2017 Review
Wrestler of the Month: John Cena
His match with Styles at the Rumble was a microcosm of his performance throughout the month of January. Since his latest comeback six weeks ago, Cena has shown more character development than he had in arguably ten years, creating quite an interesting dichotomy, especially for his promos. Thematically, what he has said has not been overly unique from that which he has stated in the past, especially when taking on wrestlers like AJ, but the tone and the inflection has been noticeably different at times, the key phrase there being "at times." As alluded to in the brief MOTM recap, he has fluctuated back and forth between the Cena we've known and the Cena we'd like to get to know, one week showing up as the arrogant, entitled jerk with the scathing tongue and the next appearing to be the same old glad-handing, unrelatable, unphaseable superhero-type. Though not outright so, his remarks and, most importantly, how he delivered those remarks about Styles on the go-home Smackdown before the Rumble, gave the appearance of Cena as a heel. The week after the Rumble, Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes was back. Put both sides of Cena into the blender and what you had was the most engaging personality in WWE for January 2017.
Of course, he also became the WWE Champion for the 16th time, tying the famous record previously held solo by Ric Flair, and had the Match of the Month with Styles en route to winning it.
There is a lot up in the air with WWE as we move into the month of February. The best case scenario for Seth Rollins is that he might be cleared to wrestle at Mania the week of the show, making it seem unlikely that he will be booked at all. For many, that match was anchoring their interest in this year's "Showcase of the Immortals" amidst what has unfortunately become our yearly reminder that WrestleMania Season is not booked for diehard WWE fans. Hopefully during the course of the next four weeks, a match will emerge for the Mania card that our sect of the audience can fully latch onto, but the apathy permeating through the internet wrestling community is palpable.
Elimination Chamber may offer some form of hope in Cena losing the WWE Championship to avoid a WrestleMania main-event involving him and Randy Orton. Bray Wyatt is the popular pick to dethrone the 16-time champ to keep the Mania main-event "in the Family," but perhaps shenanigans will reign supreme and bring about a triple threat for the title in April, maybe keeping Cena in the spotlight or putting AJ Styles back in it. If the title plans indeed do not involve Styles, then expect his budding conflict with Shane McMahon, rumored to culminate on the grand stage, to escalate as well. Baron Corbin would be an ideal candidate for Cena’s Mania opponent, in my opinion; he is in the EC with Cena and he is the type of on-the-cusp talent that Cena worked with at his last two Manias before missing last year’s. Nothing else on Smackdown is going to feel all that relevant in relation to WrestleMania, being as stacked as it may be with part-timers.
Over on Raw, obvious by the last few weeks to be the place to expect the big moments and surprises on this year’s Road to Mania, we will hopefully get a stimulating reason for Roman Reigns to fight Undertaker and the kind of emotional outbursts from Double R that go beyond his lackluster babyface tendencies. That feud has a lot of potential that many fans may not be willing to admit until it is actualized. I cannot begin to know how the Triple H scenario might play out, but obviously he will not be left off the Mania card, even if they have to bring in X-Pac to face him.
My sincere hope is that Goldberg is either not booked for the Fast Lane event or, if he is booked for the rumored Universal Title match with Kevin Owens, that Brock Lesnar screws him out of the championship to set-up their Mania showdown. The creative for Lesnar-Goldberg has been tremendous at times, but the thought of that match being for the Universal Title in 2017 makes me somewhat nauseous. I’d prefer a scenario that allowed Braun Strowman and Roman Reigns into a triple threat with Owens for Fast Lane and perhaps the interference of Undertaker leading to KO retaining and taking the strap to Mania, throwing us little people in the IWC a bone for having to endure the total combined age of 8,000 years old for the top six matches.
Please forgive my lack of enthusiasm. WrestleMania Season has yet again triggered a rather downtrodden side of my wrestling fandom. Hopefully, it’ll all turn out OK.
The post-Royal Rumble edition of Smackdown last night was not especially noteworthy. It was about what one might expect from a show whose staff was tasked with setting up a PPV on WWE Network in just 12 days. Unlike Monday Night Raw, Smackdown Live did not give off a WrestleMania-aura and, frankly, it might struggle to produce that special, momentous feeling at all over the next two months because, being honest, the blue brand is not built on the big things – the Heyman to Goldberg challenges during which Brock Lesnar points to the hanging WrestleMania sign or the long-awaited Triple H promo flanked by the Samoa Joe debut – Smackdown is the program that makes the little things count, gives the unlikely star the spotlight, and tells more thorough, drawn-out stories.
It seems strange to write about Bray Wyatt as an unlikely star in the spotlight given what he accomplished in his first two years in WWE – and, just in case you forgot, his resume includes WrestleMania programs with John Cena and Undertaker plus wins over Cena, Chris Jericho, Kane, Daniel Bryan, and Roman Reigns – but that is indeed what he has become. Smackdown's most intriguing moment was seeing The Eater of Worlds re-poised to assume the brightest spotlight that Tuesday nights in WWE have to offer. Wyatt is not terribly unfamiliar with a more prominent position, of course, but he has never been in serious contention for the WWE Championship, now held for the 16th time by Cena; present time marks the first occasion in Wyatt's career where it appears that his ascension to the zenith of the industry could be imminent.
Considering that it has been eighteen months since Wyatt was truly relevant at a main-event level, it seems appropriate to ask whether or not his winning the title now would be a case of WWE striking when the iron is lukewarm at best instead of when it is burning hot. AJ Styles and Seth Rollins are arguably the only stars of this budding generation to have actually been given the ball when they were at or near their peak points, so this is nothing new for WWE; Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns, and Kevin Owens are all good and recent examples of Vince McMahon and Co.'s tendency to put the title on stars whose momentum in their respective roles has considerably waned. Wyatt might soon become the hallmark of that inclination; he was a ghost for much of 2016, replaced in his once-presumed WrestleMania 32 feud with Lesnar by The Lunatic Fringe and left off the Summerslam card entirely and he at no point has regained the stature that he maintained between early 2014 and the conclusion of his 2015 storyline with Reigns.
Due to the above, Wyatt being one half of Smackdown's biggest match for WrestleMania, as the reigning WWE Champion no less, seems at odds with his roster positioning for the vast majority of the last year or so. As much as he potentially will exemplify WWE's strange booking philosophy for elevating its top guys to championship level, though, he may also come to represent the upper-end value of Smackdown's celebrated storytelling acumen. Wyatt has been somewhat of a reclamation project, albeit not quite to the extent of a Miz or Dolph Ziggler. He has been plucked from relative obscurity and slowly built back into a force to be reckoned with; when they saw that he was floundering in his early days in the post-split 2.0 era, they had Randy Orton join his faction and become his family member instead of continuing to force an issue that few were particularly interested in and that was benefiting no one. That audible was criticized at first, but ended up catching on to the point that many were hoping that the Orton-infused Wyatts would continue to gain steam before breaking apart.
There is still a lot of television to write before the creative potential of the Orton-Wyatt saga can be maximized, but it does not seem out of the question that Smackdown's team and the principle players involved can figure out how to make it a very successful addition to a WrestleMania card that seems to be inspiring as much or more controversy coming out of the Rumble as it is inspiring excitement.
Wyatt remains one of the most untapped resources in WWE, a wildly charismatic figure who perhaps fans have grown resigned to thinking of as a finite persona whose limits were previously reached. Personally, I remain steadfast in my belief that the Wyatt character's potential is as deep as an ocean and that, once WWE remembers it, the next step for the enigmatic superstar could be among the most psychologically-stimulating story arcs of the year. I wonder, however, if the Wyatt ship has sailed for much of the fanbase, if the damage done to that character by a year-and-a-half of conditioning the audience to think of him as a lesser talent who could not threaten the top stars of the industry today, much less legendary figures from the industry's history, is insurmountable. Does Wyatt have enough equity built up to be widely accepted in his rumored role? And what of the potential backlash of leaving WWE's MVP of 2016, AJ Styles, out of the title picture, making Orton's Rumble win and Wyatt's first title reign come at the expense of The Phenomenal One?
Smackdown's vaunted writing team is going to be tested. Champions or challengers heading into the biggest event of the year have typically been, if not red hot, then at least consistently pushed. Us diehard fans have longer memories and we will be more prone to attach Wyatt's awful first ten months of 2016 to his renaissance of sorts in November and December, when he was one of the two sole survivors in the Raw vs. Smackdown (along with Orton) and encored it by winning the Tag Team Championships (again, with Orton); that information will not be as crucial to the all-important casual fan contingent that is so heavily-targeted at this time of the year, but being left off last year's two biggest shows very well might matter to them. Wyatt certainly is not red hot; on a momentum scale of 1-10 with 1 being the least and 10 being the most, he has probably been sitting at around a 6 since Orton joined the Family. Those in control of his fate will be responsible for trying to ramp up his momentum with more than what could be considered a hot-shotted and somewhat random title win, comparing his recent push to his WrestleMania position. Really strong writing would be necessary to up my interest beyond the stage of “Thank God it's not Orton vs. Cena”; I know that much.
At the end of the day, Bray Wyatt cumulatively throughout his career has a deserving WWE title resume and I would be happy to see him get that kind of spot after being stripped of the Lesnar match and becoming Rock-fodder last year. I called Orton vs. Wyatt last week one of those matches that has “Mania mid-card show-enhancer” written all over it and, though it remains to be seen how it may fare if elevated to the WWE Championship level, elite storytelling in the build-up these next eight weeks would answer most of the questions about it.
With grand events come great expectations and at no time of the year do we, as wrestling fans, have higher expectations than during the Road to WrestleMania. Perhaps that is why, for many of us, the Royal Rumble triggers conjecture the likes of which will not be even half replicated at any other point all year. Someone will be eliminated from the Rumble and the speculation will begin as to what it means for WrestleMania; a wrestler will debut and immediately his role on the grandest stage will be projected. Thanks to the scope of “The Showcase of the Immortals,” WrestleMania has become this magnetic force with immense potential to draw us out of the present moment toward several weeks into the future.
The Royal Rumble has developed a pattern of initiating a swell of apathy that becomes a tidal wave of disgust by mid-March. Granted, WWE has done itself no favors in recent years with lackluster storylines and a stubbornness regarding what they think should work for the audience versus what actually is working for the audience, but we as fans must take accountability for judging WWE, especially during Mania Season, based on what we would rather they do instead of what they are actually doing. Some might say that it is fun to fantasy book the WrestleMania card and I would agree. We have to be careful, though, not to marry ourselves to the ideas that we would like to become realities without giving WWE a chance to sell us on what they have in mind.
I had to remind myself of that last night; I have been as guilty as any fan or analyst during recent WrestleMania cycles of seeing a creative direction that I did not care for and projecting its Mania impact before it had even fully affected that week’s TV program. As will be discussed on “The Doc Says” podcast tomorrow, there is one particular rumor about Mania that I am so totally against that it threatens to throw a wet-blanket on my burning enthusiasm for what I will openly admit is my favorite time of the year. That said, I had to pinch myself last night because, if there is anything that I have learned over the past few years, it is how detrimental it can be to try think two steps ahead of WWE and that it is a far more enjoyable diehard fan experience to let them do what they are going to do and then judge/analyze it than it is to judge/analyze what they might do before they have executed their plan.
Coming out of the January Classic on Sunday, many fans were justifiably down on the Rumble Match itself and the chosen victor. Though I was quite happy with the overall event, I too felt like I was drifting into a pattern of disdain. By the time Monday Night Raw began, I had largely talked myself down, but I was still fighting the urge to get irritated by a few things rumored for WrestleMania. Low and behold, WWE put forth a solid creative effort on Raw that helped to remind me of the virtues of letting things play out. It has arguably been since 2012 that the night after the Rumble really felt like WrestleMania Season; last night’s show proved to be an exception. Despite that there is a PPV the first weekend in March that the Raw brand has to work through en route to Orlando, they seemed to do a good job multi-tasking their focus on both Fast Lane and Mania.
At this point, let it just be implied that Raw is too long and that there is going to be a fair amount of filler but, staying in the moment, the primary problem on Monday nights is generally a lack of compelling reasons to stay in-tune yet, on this particular Monday night, we were offered two compelling reasons not to go to bed early. The opening segment set-up the 10pm ET main-event for the Universal Championship and the 9pm ET segment set the stage for Triple H to finally explain his late August actions against Seth Rollins during the show-closer. The Kevin Owens vs. Braun Strowman match, complete with Roman Reigns getting his payback from the prior night, should go a long way toward setting up the selling point for Fast Lane; the Triple H promo was key in setting up the creative for his match with Rollins at Mania, while Samoa Joe’s surprise-debut could set the stage for Rollins vs. Joe in 4 ½ weeks. Monday Night Raw accomplished a lot, answering some long-standing questions while asking some new ones as well.
Triple H’s promo was outstanding. Being of the opinion that The Architect’s failure to connect strongly as a babyface has had more to do with Raw’s mundane writing and with his being pigeonholed into WWE’s modern doofus babyface role, with all its requisite smiling and corny joke-telling, than it does with The Game’s absence or lack of explanation, could it prove a good thing that Trips waited so long to come back? WWE's creative team has become much more adept at putting together engaging feuds in tighter windows than they are at spacing things out over longer periods of time after all. A lot still needs to go well for this angle to maximize its potential, but it is possible that Rollins-Triple H and the Road to Mania in general will benefit from being more selective about the time to take Hunter-Seth rivalry off the backburner; the post-Rumble Raw certainly benefited from that decision.
A lot of column inches, so to speak, have been dedicated to WWE’s heavy part-timer usage since 2011, but when The Game cuts a promo that good, it is hard to deny his continued value. The same could be said for Paul Heyman’s expertly conducted dialogue when he and Brock Lesnar made an unexpected appearance in the 10pm ET hour to challenge Goldberg to a match at WrestleMania (again, the dual focus exemplified). WWE has had a tendency to undercut their characters from organically developing by too heavily scripting them and stunting their performers’ growth in the process but, taking that out of the equation, even the biggest critic of part-timers has to admit that very few if any members of the modern generation of stars are capable of cutting the caliber of promos to sell big matches that are Triple H or Paul Heyman or John Cena.
The Road to WrestleMania is a long one and there are still two pay-per-views and eight weeks plus a Smackdown worth of television before we exit off of I-4 for Orlando. Yes, Reigns is still an unrelatable babyface; yes, Orton vs. Cena is possible; yes, they might put the belt on Goldberg; yes, AJ Styles is not the champ…YEAH, BUT…this week’s Monday Night Raw proved that there are a lot of potentially compelling moments ahead in the next two months. Let’s collectively choose to sit back and watch first, then judge the finished product. Are you with me?