Posted on Sunday, November 20, 2011
by Paul in Wrestling
Survivor Series holds a curious position in the WWE pay-per-view calendar. In theory, it’s one of the “big four” shows that have been around since the early days of wrestling PPV – the others being Wrestlemania, the Royal Rumble, and Summerslam. In practice, it’s been allowed to drift down in importance, and its gimmick of ten-man elimination matches has been steadily de-emphasised. It continues to be presented as a slightly more significant show than others, but in an increasingly half-hearted way.
So there was some surprise when it was announced that this show had been chosen for the Rock’s return match. While he’s certainly not going to return to any sort of regular wrestling schedule, he is going to wrestle John Cena in the main event at Wrestlemania 2012, and something had to be done to start the build-up for that. Hence his appearance on tonight’s show. Presumably, the theory is that Rock’s name will add more buys to Survivor Series than it would to January’s Royal Rumble. Or maybe he’s just not free in January.
However it ended up happening, Survivor Series 2011 is very much a one-match show – or even a half match show, since Rock’s opponents aren’t going to be shifting many tickets in their own right.
1. The Rock & John Cena v. The Miz & R-Truth. How many tickets can you sell purely on the name value of the Rock’s first match since 2004? We’re about to find out, because god knows the company has done little else right when it comes to building up this match.
The basic idea makes some sense. Rock and Cena are already scheduled to wrestle at next year’s Wrestlemania, following a challenge which was accepted back in the spring. Obviously you don’t want them fighting before then. And putting Rock in a ten-man elimination match would just dilute his return. Besides which, they’re both meant to be babyfaces (though in reality Cena continues to get violently divided audience reactions). So the solution is a match where they team up as semi-reluctant partners to take on a top heel team.
The central problem is that the WWE doesn’t have any top heel teams – certainly none with the star power to be taken seriously against Rock and Cena. Miz and R-Truth are as close as it gets – a former champion and an upper midcarder both loosely aligned with John Laurinitis, currently serving the role of the evil corporate type. But they simply aren’t booked strongly enough to be seen as a serious threat to a team like Rock and Cena; Cena hardly ever loses, and a big part of the WWE’s problem is that they’re so paranoid about making their top stars seem weak, that they rarely allow new characters to be portrayed as competitive with them. Miz and R-Truth have always suffered from that, and it’s simply too late now to make them look like a threat.
(Things were not ever thus. In his day, the Rock lost quite frequently, and was happy to do so, because he understood the bigger picture, and had confidence in his ability to keep the crowd with him. Even the ultimately invincible Hulk Hogan built his career on a stock storyline where he was beaten down in the build-up to a match, only to make his heroic comeback at the end. In fairness, the insane overprotection of John Cena is probably more attributable to the current writing mentality than to Cena himself, given his evident willingness to try and sell whatever godawful material is written for him.)
In fact, the storyline has seen Cena repeatedly beating up the heels on his own, which begs the question of why he’s even bothering to team with the Rock at all. This is a point with which the WWE has not greatly troubled itself; the net result is that we have a match with no real storyline at all behind it. One suspects that the match is just a means to an end, and there will be some sort of clash between Rock and Cena to build up their match in the spring. Logic says this should result in the heels winning, but, yeah, good luck there.
Actually, the strongest storyline would be for Cena to turn on the Rock, but I’d be surprised to see that. Cena violently divides audiences – the adult male fans hate him – but he’s very popular with the kids and he sells a shedload of merchandise, which the WWE is understandably keen not to give up. I think Cena would be a very good heel, but there are legitimate commercial reasons why the company doesn’t want to go there. As for Rock, there’s no point even trying to turn him heel, because the crowd will cheer him anyway. Realistically, the best we’re going to get is a face/face match where fans are encouraged to pick sides. And that’ll work; some of Cena’s best matches have been built on his divided audience response.
The heels should win the match – they desperately need the credibility and they’re more valuable to the company in the long term anyway – but they won’t, or if they do, it’ll be by a technicality. The actual match quality should be decent, because Rock’s bound to make sure this has been put together properly. Let’s hope, anyway.
2. WWE Title: Alberto Del Rio v CM Punk. The Rock’s return overshadows everything else on the card, but let’s run through it anyway. Raw’s version of the world title is currently held by Del Rio, who’s another of the heels loosely aligned with Laurinitis. He won the title from Punk a while back by using the Money in the Bank title shot, and since Punk never actually had a one-on-one rematch (and the three-way match he did get ended in a convoluted screwjob), he’s got a somewhat plausible claim to a title match… despite a string of recent losses which reflect the company’s usual dubious lack of forward planning.
Punk’s “voice of the hardcore fans” schtick is a nice complement to Cena’s more corporate babyface, and between them they’re actually a decent duo. The problem is that while Punk is a good vehicle for acknowledging and confronting the problems with the product, deep down the company doesn’t really want to do that, which makes his character infuriatingly inconsistent. Still, in theory it makes sense to book him against a very broadly drawn, old-school heel like Del Rio, as the characters are polar opposites in oh so many ways.
There’s been some attempt to remind everyone that Punk has a submission hold – the Anaconda Vise, which he used in his very early days in the company but seemed to have been largely forgotten about. It’s wise to bring it back, because aside from allowing for more finishes, Punk’s primary finisher requires him to lift his opponent onto his shoulders and then throw them over his head – and he just can’t do it with some of his larger opponents. The Anaconda Vise has the tremendous advantage that it can be performed on anyone with an arm.
I would assume, therefore, that this is going to be a relatively straight match built around their two competing submission holds. Which might be good. I don’t expect Punk to win here – it seems to early – but as champion, he would make a decent foil for Laurinitis, so I could easily see us heading there in the not too distant future.
3. World Heavyweight Title: Mark Henry v Big Show. A rematch from the last show, when the match ended in a no contest after the ring collapsed. (A planned spot, of course, but certainly a different way to end a match – especially as they then went on to have John Cena and Alberto Del Rio work the main event in the damaged ring.) Mark Henry has proved an unexpected success as Smackdown champion, partly because that show is written more sanely than Raw, and has been taking the sensible path of just presenting him as a staggeringly powerful monster heel. The match last month was also widely agreed to exceed expectations.
I never thought I’d say this, but I really do hope that this feud ends with Henry retaining the title and moving on to a fresh opponent. He may not be the best wrestler from a technical standpoint, but after all these years, they’ve finally cracked the formula that makes him work.
4. US Title: Dolph Ziggler v John Morrison. Raw’s secondary title. This is odd booking on a number of levels. Ziggler, the defending heel champion, has actually been feuding with underdog babyface Zack Ryder of late, the idea being that while Ryder’s clearly outpowered, he keeps managing to pin Ziggler in non-title matches, even if he has to take a hell of a beating along the way. Ryder was also lobbying for a title shot on Raw, but for some reason Ziggler is instead defending against John Morrison, an upper midcard babyface who’s been on a losing streak for so long that he must be in the doghouse for some reason. There are various rumours about why that might be, one theme being that his contract is about to expire and he’s planning to leave the company. For whatever reason, the WWE has suddenly decided that it likes Morrison after all – perhaps belatedly realising that they’re desperately short of top stars and that he’s one of the few people on the roster who might with a fair wind be elevated to that position.
On the other hand, much the same could be said about Ziggler; he had a main event feud with Edge on Smackdown last year, and there’s a school of thought that says he’s overdue for promotion on Raw. You might think that the US Title would help him be taken seriously in the world title picture, but that’s not how the WWE sees it – in their eyes, the secondary titles are so secondary that they mark somebody out as a midcarder – and so their usual practice is for midcard champions to drop the belt before being elevated. Ziggler’s also had the title for a while and has probably derived about as much benefit from it as he’s ever going to.
That said… he really should be dropping the belt to Ryder, who has some potential to be elevated, rather than Morrison, who’s been in a holding pattern for years and would gain nothing from holding another secondary title. On that logic, Ziggler should retain. It looks on paper like a decent match.
5. Divas Title, Lumberjack match: Beth Phoenix v Eve. Presumably a case of feeding Beth Phoenix another opponent to kill time before the cycle back round to Kelly Kelly again, since I can’t see an obvious benefit in having Eve win. A Lumberjack match simply means that the ring is surrounded by other wrestlers to stop people running away. It’s an ancient gimmick that originated as a way of paying off a storyline where the bad guy kept getting counted out to avoid a beating, but which has degenerated over time into just a way to get some more wrestlers onto the card. This means that they get extra money and employee (sorry, independent contractor) relations remain harmonious. Female lumberjack matches on PPV rarely serve any other point. (The male equivalent is the random battle royal featuring everyone on the roster, which seems now to be a staple of the Wrestlemania pre-game show for essentially the same reasons.)
6. Elimination match: Randy Orton, Sheamus, Mason Ryan, Kofi Kingston & Sin Cara v. Wade Barrett, Cody Rhodes, Jack Swagger, Hunico & Dolph Ziggler. This year’s obligatory elimination match, which is once again being used as a plate-spinning exercise to keep some other feuds going. Ziggler, working double duty on this show, was added to the heel team as a replacement for Christian, who suffered a genuine ankle injury while on the recent European tour. Had he been in the match, Christian would have paired off with Sheamus from the babyface team, continuing their recent feud.
Cody Rhodes is the Intercontinental Champion, and has recently come off a feud with Randy Orton – but, interestingly, it’s Wade Barrett who’s being billed as the team leader of the heels, even though he’s been stuck in the midcard for months. The WWE has suddenly remembered that he exists, and that they’re short of main eventers, and so it seems he’s getting pushed once again.
Other notable features of this line-up: Kofi Kingston is one of the tag team champions, but his partner Evan Bourne is currently serving a suspension after failing a drug test (apparently for marijuana). Bourne’s suspension has simply been ignored on TV, and Kingston is just carrying his belt around without defending it.
Hunico is the guy who used to be the Evil Sin Cara, now reverting to his own character. He is, of course, still feuding with Sin Cara, who’s on the babyface team.
And Mason Ryan… oh god. A tail-end member of the Nexus, Ryan is an enormous bloke who you might just about remember from Sky 1′s revival of Gladiators, where he was Goliath. He has the sort of build that has generally disappeared from the WWE undercard following the introduction of drug testing. He brings little else to the table, though that might be a reflection of his inexperience as much as anything. Guys like Ryan really shouldn’t be on the main roster at all – they should be learning their trade down in the Florida developmental programme – but if they’re going to be on the show at all, they need to be in very short matches or matches where their flaws are concealed. Look for him to run wild, eliminate two people, and then get disqualified in order to remove him from the match without a pinfall defeat.
The winning team doesn’t greatly matter, since individual wrestlers can be made to look strong by fighting heroically against the odds or taking out multiple opponents. But if they’re trying to rebuild Barrett as a main eventer and as an opponent for Randy Orton, which would seem to be the agenda, then his team should win here. The match could be good as long as it’s built around everyone’s strengths.
Worth getting? Depends how much you like the Rock in a squash match, really, but that is going to be a draw for a lot of people. And while there’s no doubt that he’s the big selling point, the rest of the card is reasonably strong. In terms of the in-ring performances, it should be a good show; in terms of the writing, let’s just hope they keep it simple.