This week on The Right Side of the Pond, Maverick and I go historical as we sit down to discuss some of our favourite matches to have come our way on December pay-per-view cards through the years. Maverick leads us in discussion about Triple H vs. Vince McMahon at Armageddon 1999 and Chris Benoit vs. Eddie Guerrero at Armageddon 2002, while in turn I lead us in discussion about John Morrison vs. Sheamus at TLC 2010 and Seth Rollins vs. John Cena at TLC 2014. You can catch all that on our show airing in just a couple of hours right here on Lords of Pain.
It was in the course of our discussion that I became very conscious of how important quick but, more importantly, prominent follow-up to a strong December pay-per-view showing can help a character in the company break through to the next level.
Triple H’s victory over McMahon and his subsequent union with Stephanie McMahon helped open the gate for The Game to enter his career year as its top villain, undoubted, resulting in an iconic Street Fight, an iconic Hell in a Cell and a calendar year in the ring that many believable, quite understandably, remains largely unrivalled.
A victory in a notably physical encounter with Guerrero to end a months-long run of show-stealing pay-per-view performances helped position Benoit to wrestle WWE Champion Kurt Angle to an all-time classic one month later – he would go on to become so central a pillar to Smackdown that his WrestleMania main event felt inevitable by the spring of 2004.
The situation surrounding Seth Rollins, transitioning from 2014 to 2015, watches as a mixture of both the aforementioned. Despite losing in his genre-defining effort against Cena in their Tables Match, it was the last star-making effort in a cascade of back-to-back examples that would propel the Architect into an all-time great Triple Threat at the Rumble and, eventually, pulling off the ‘Heist of the Century’ to leave WrestleMania as World Champion and the company’s top villain.
In each instance, the rising stars were afforded the opportunity to attain a notable victory or put on a notable performance on the back of a hot autumn season that would in turn get followed-up with a deserving big stage moment for them to take their most formative step in reaching the pinnacle of WWE’s fictional universe.
Only John Morrison and his win over Sheamus in their Ladder Match stands as the exception among the matches Mav and I discuss tonight – sure, Morrison earned a WWE Championship opportunity in the course of his victory, but it was one on television, the Rumble spot remaining reserved for a distinctly ordinary title rematch for the outgoing champion of the time, Randy Orton.
Without that platform, Morrison soon found himself treading water and was gone from the company within the year, while his incredible Ladder Match with Sheamus lies forgotten in the wastelands of wrestling memory. The contrast is quite remarkable. When you consider how things might have played out differently had Morrison been given that Rumble title challenge instead – had he been given that larger platform and time to put together a star-making performance opposite his long-time partner and sometimes nemesis The Miz, then followed by a prominent role at WrestleMania – then you start realising how big an opportunity WWE missed.
That’s not because Morrison could have been an industry-altering performer or anything, but because he instead became just another lost face on the roll call of a lost generation.
He is one of many examples, and all of them could have been easily avoided.
We all know that there is no busier, no bigger time of year in the pro wrestling calendar than January to April – the so-called ‘WrestleMania Season.’ For the purpose of granting characters a chance to solidify any in-roads they’ve made towards the company’s highest echelon, there is no better a time to take the reasonable risk of granting those rising characters a close-knit series of major follow-ups to quieter but no less impressive achievements like wrestling an excellent series of matches through the backend of any given year and, most especially, on a December pay-per-view, for example.
In 2013, Daniel Bryan came off of the hottest autumnal season any pro wrestler has seen in the past two decades. His stock was on such a rise that a Rumble victory felt inevitable. WWE ignored the signs and denied Bryan his formative step towards solidifying his position as a top company star in such an obviously apocryphal manner it caused an understandable outrage. Of course, Bryan went on to have that follow-up all the same, but not everyone is so lucky.
Ambrose was denied his formative moment in the 2016 Rumble, again opposite Triple H for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at Roadblock and then a third time against Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 32. Imagine if those opportunities, those follow-ups to a unsuspectingly excellent 2015 hadn’t been denied him.
As you continue to ponder the history of WWE’s transitions between calendar years a pattern begins to undeniably emerge: with a new year comes a regular chance to push the company’s hottest rising character to a new height by affording them a moment in the sun as wrestling interest hits annual fever pitch.
December pay-per-views can be a telling time. Seen as a quieter period than most, December is low-hanging fruit for any WWE talent trying to blaze a trail. It’s just sometimes, especially in recent times, WWE seem oblivious to those who do and, denied substantive follow-up and a formative moment or victory on the major stage offered not just by Royal Rumble but by ‘WrestleMania Season’ as a whole, those blazing trails lead to nowhere other than eventual burn out.
The way, it seems to me, to avoid that happening is rather quite simple: stop thinking of Royal Rumble as being the night the Road to WrestleMania begins and, instead, bring the starting point forward to the annual December pay-per-view.
It’s curious how many times through history that the prominent stories of a ‘Mania season find their beginnings in the December pay-per-view. Reigns’ journey to WrestleMania 32 started at TLC 2015 with his beat down of Triple H – H’s return in the 2016 Rumble Match was a sequel more than it was a genesis point. Steve Austin’s trek to WrestleMania XV started in his Buried Alive Match opposite The Undertaker at Rock Bottom: In Your House – a match that determined whether or not Austin would even be in the Rumble. Whether it’s something as forward-thinking as that lattermost example or something as simple as a title shot being earned at the Rumble eventuating in a match with ‘WrestleMania implications’ as they say – in real terms as well as in fictional terms – the truth is that, while not every time, most times the Road to WrestleMania starts much sooner than we realise.
I can’t help but wonder whether or not, if we did realise that, stars like John Morrison in 2010 might not have been short-changed when seeking that moment in the sun to prove their hot streak through the preceding autumnal months wasn’t just a fluke but a crusade to become a top dog.
We might never know. I’m under no impression WWE will start referring to their December pay-per-view as the beginning of the Road to WrestleMania any time soon. Like those who put their Christmas Tree up in November, I might be reviled for even suggesting it could start so soon. But, as always, my interest is in narratives and character arcs and, often, the arcs we see play a pivotal role in ‘WrestleMania Season’ trace their beginnings to the time of year we assume nothing important is happening.
With the likes of Charlotte, Asuka and Becky Lynch in a Triple Threat for the Smackdown Live (SDL) Women’s Championship this year, with two of the three explicitly having their eyes set on Ronda Rousey, and with Dean Ambrose facing Seth Rollins in a story all about redemption and emotional turmoil set to a backdrop of the Intercontinental Championship too, I think my argument stands truer than perhaps ever in 2018.
So why not just accept it, guys? Why not just embrace it, WWE? Let’s stop being so disjointed in how we think about the Road to WrestleMania and accept that ‘WrestleMania Season’ doesn’t start next month at the Royal Rumble – it starts now. Maybe that way the trail blazers won’t be left helplessly burning themselves out anymore.
But you can hear a little bit more about my ideas on this front in tonight’s episode of The Right Side of the Pond, starring myself and Maverick and airing exclusively here at Lords of Pain and Lords of Pain Radio!
Until then, if you have any thoughts on great December matches, pay-per-views or even when the Road to WrestleMania should be seen as beginning, let them be known in the comments below, over on social media or even by signing up to our own LOPForums, where TRSOTP and every other LOP Radio show has its very own discussion thread for you to throw some responses our way without the limitations of Twitter or Facebook; just click here to sign up!
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