Man, we were all pretty worried about the WWE in 2011 going into the summer, weren't we? A lackluster Wrestlemania and the retirement of Edge made it feel like this was just going to be another Cenathon where nothing new happened, the status quo would be strictly enforced, and the most exciting thing we'd get was the once in a blue moon live appearance of the Rock. However, that was not meant to be.
On 6/27/2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada, CM Punk took his seat at the top of the entrance ramp and went into a promo that would make everything that had already happened in 2011 obsolete. For a couple blissful weeks, every wrestling fan on the planet asked the questions “What did all of that mean? What's going to happen next?” Sure those questions were eventually answered and the feud between Punk and Cena came and went, but I think those two questions need to be asked once again. This is an interesting time to be a WWE fan and 2012 holds a lot of possibilities.
With 2011 coming to a close, I figured it was a good time to take a look at the major themes that dominated the latter half of the year and how they'll lead into 2012. I figure we should probably start with why I'm writing this in the first place.
THE RISE OF CM PUNK
"I hate this idea that you're the best, because you're not. I'm the best. I'm the best in the world.”
-CM Punk during his worked shoot on 6/27/2011
There's no way the WWE could have foreseen what allowing CM Punk to rant on a microphone for just under six minutes would do. I'm still not sure how that promo actually happened when McMohan is infamous for approving everything down to the last letter and would NEVER allow something this critical to go on-air, but that's what made it all so interesting. It was something new and unexpected from a company who had spent the last couple of years stagnating under a sea of SuperCena comebacks and nostalgic callbacks and guest appearances. Everyone was suddenly paying attention to CM Punk, and he made damn sure nobody looked away. The excellent feud with John Cena catapulted CM Punk through the glass ceiling and into the main event picture. Even now this former ROH star continues to cut the best promos around and continually delivering high quality matches, most recently playing his role in the fantastic TLC WWE Championship match with Miz and Alberto Del Rio.
What it means for 2012: While the “Age of Punk” continues with him going into 2012 as the WWE champion, he's clearly settling into his role as one of the top faces of the company. He doesn't seem to be slowing down anytime soon and I expect some of his best work to still be ahead, especially when the opportunity to steal Wrestlemania away from Cena vs The Rock will fuel Punk's creative juices and probably end up with him working his butt off to build whatever heat he can going into the show. The road to Wrestlemania in 2012 has everything it needs to be a memorable one, but the lingering effects of Punk's rise could lead to one of the most sought after turns in recent memory.
Oh yes people, it's time to talk about Heel Cena again. This is a discussion wrestling forums have been talking about for years, but now it seems more plausible than ever. The rise of CM Punk and, more importantly, his newfound drawing potential allows the WWE to start toying around with the idea of turning their top face heel. A lot of people are saying that the TLC PPV buyrates will prove to the WWE if Punk can sell a PPV. The new “Anti-Cena” shirts are also testing the marketability of a hated heel Cena. If the results of these two experiments are positive, we could very well be looking at the long awaited turn of John Cena, leading into Punk vs Cena II.
THE PG ERA IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE INTERNET ERA
"The reason I started [my show] was either to get noticed or get fired, and because of all you people, I got noticed.”
-Zack Ryder After a WWE RAW Dark Match
The PG Era wasn't just about the little box that comes up on the corner of the screen saying “TV PG(V).” The PG Era was about wrestling appealing to the lowest common denominator. RAW and Smackdown were becoming so formulaic that it was possible to predict feuds before they even really started. I remember predicting entire PPV cards with 85% accuracy, my score thrown off mostly due to the pointless diva matches and the occasional “shocking win” designed to continue the feud until the right guy won. The glass ceiling was as strong as ever. One obscure superstar realized he'd never get on RAW in the current system and that he was probably a month away from being future endeavored. With nothing really to lose, he decided to post various promos and sketches on Youtube in the hopes of getting over.
Zack Ryder posted the first episode of Z! True Long Island Story on February 17th. Ryder was just another story of a midcarder who had his one lackluster push and then promptly pushed down to Superstars, waiting for his inevitable release from the company. Bonus points for being apart of a tag team that was broken up. With nothing but a crappy clubber gimmick to his name, Ryder created a persona that was the definition of a plucky and lovable underdog, complete with friends and family showing their support for Ryder in the Youtube vids. Fans connected with the self proclaimed “Internet Champion” in a big way, flooding arenas with Zack Ryder signs, constantly selling out Ryder's only shirt, and chanting for Ryder when he wasn't even on the night's card. With the fanbase growing and Cena reportedly leading the charge in the back, Zack Ryder finally started appearing on RAW and in short order created a feud with Dolph Ziggler that would prove to create heat for the US Title that creative couldn't even hope to match.
What it means for 2012: A social media push to end all social media pushes. WWE flipped a complete 180 on their social media policy from banning wrestlers from social media outlets (Yeah, Vince was paranoid about storylines getting leaked on the net and threatened to fire anyone posting from a non-kayfabe account) to having it be the only thing announcers talked about, all thanks to Zack Ryder's success with the medium. We've seen only a small taste of it in 2011. That's right dear reader, it only gets worse from here. We're only a couple of months away from the the Gobbledy Gooker coming out as the Twitter bird to promote Twitter use during Wrestlemania weekend.
This push, however, has changed the paradigm. The focus has shifted off of the children that had to beg their parents to buy them one shirt to the internet fanboys willing to buy every piece of merchandise a superstar had at the drop of a hat. The internet smarks that Vince used to hate are now holding his ear. It's a brave new world where two former ROH stars are your world champions and promising midcarders are getting more shots at breaking through the glass ceiling than ever, as long as they're being talked about on Twitter, of course.
Hell, maybe the Internet will finally convince the WWE to drop all the deadweight girls and bring in talented workers to legitimize the Diva division! Hey, a guy can dream, right?
AND LO, THE INDIE SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH
"...It’s fun watching us pretend to be superstars when [Me and CM Punk] are really just a couple of Indy schmucks.”
-Daniel Bryan the day after winning the World Heavyweight Championship
I mentioned previously that your current WWE world champions are former ROH world champions as well. Before this year, it was incredibly rare for a popular indy talent to even be in the main event picture, usually dominated by FCW grown talent trained in the “WWE template” of wrestling. We saw the old standbys of John Cena, Randy Orton, and Edge dominate the main event stage while talented indy wrestlers like Evan Bourne (Matt Sydal) and Kaval (Low-Ki) were driven to the bottom of the card with seemingly no hope in sight, so much so that Kaval basically quit the company before the company could do it for him. During this year, however, a funny thing happened.
Edge had to suddenly retire due to an old injury. Undertaker was barely able to even appear at Wrestlemania anymore, let alone Smackdown. Rey Mysterio was injured halfway into the year. HHH only wrestled PPVs when he did wrestle. The age of the vets were finally catching up with them and the WWE needed new blood in the main event picture. Yes we saw plenty of Cena and Orton title reigns, but we also saw perennial midcarders Christian and Mark Henry win the World Heavyweight Title along with international stars like Alberto Del Rio claiming the WWE Title.
What it means for 2012: With the need to create new stars greater than ever for the WWE, many wrestlers are getting chances that they would have never received even a year ago. If there was ever a better time for talented international wrestlers to try and make it in the WWE, this is it. With TNA Wrestling releasing popular X-Division stars in favor of older wrestlers with better perceived drawing power and a flood of lawsuits over treatment of talent (including things like not paying medical bills and forcing workers to work hurt), the image of two former indie stars holding the top titles in the company could be an awfully powerful motivator for wrestlers to head over to Vince's brand instead.
2011 has been a wild ride for people who love the WWE, especially if they also love the indie scene. Well known indie stars CM Punk and Daniel Bryan are your world champions, Zack Ryder went from Superstars obscurity to the US Championship based solely on the support of the fans, and the path to super stardom is available to anyone who's willing to put in the work instead of who fits the WWE template. We're entering 2012 with a level of excitement not seen in years and a feeling that change is in the air. Will the potential of WWE's new direction reach full bloom in 2012 or will the youth movement be buried in favor of the status quo? Only time will tell.
Personally, I can't wait.