REQUESTING FLYBY: Reflections On A Decade In Wrestling; My Final Column For Lords of Pain

REQUESTING FLYBY: Reflections On A Decade In Wrestling; My Final Column For Lords of Pain

Greetings, dear readers. Yes, you read the title correctly, and it’s not just shameful clickbait I’m afraid. After five and a half years writing columns for you here on the front page of Lords of Pain, (and two and a half years writing in the LOP Columns Forum before that) I am stepping down as a columnist at the end of this article. To be honest, I haven’t really planned out what I was going to write in any kind of coherent manner, so this could end up being both long and rather free form, but I have appreciated all of your feedback too much over the years not to say goodbye properly, not to mention the fact that, after months of not really knowing what to write about the current parlous state of professional wrestling, I now feel the need to nail down my thoughts on the matter.

To give you all a peek behind the curtain, I actually almost stepped down on this very day last year, but at the last minute I decided to stay and see if I could rediscover the passion that once made me one of our more prolific columnists. If you have a look in my archive, you’ll see that I wrote a column every Thursday from the first week of January right up to Wrestlemania, and in a peak season that WWE absolutely nailed, there seemed to be plenty of optimism in the air that the company had finally turned it around. Sadly, everything that happened in the month or so following Wrestlemania comprehensively quashed that idea, from more deeply ill-advised Saudi shows to weekly television products which reverted to being deeply unwatchable. A kind of horrendous, laughable hubris descended on the leadership of WWE where barely coherent storylines, a roster with no kind of rhyme or reason to it, and an inability to even consider what fans wanted to see from a wrestling product. None of these are new problems per se, but never before were they quite as pronounced as this. Vince finds himself cast as the Emperor Nero, fiddling while Rome burns around him. As CM Punk said at the beginning of the last decade, he’ll continue to make money despite himself, but haemmorhaging lifelong fans to the degree that they are can’t be a healthy way to do business.

With the way that the product was going, I almost wholly checked out, moving to a strict pay-per-view only approach from May onwards, but even there, at the time of writing, I have not yet watched the most recent Takeover, Survivor Series or TLC, which explains the lack of writing from me of late, and why my podcast, The Right Side Of The Pond, moved to discussing historic pay-per-views rather than the current product. I dare say I will catch up on the shows I’ve missed when I get the time, but another reason why I’m retiring is that since a very significant promotion at work in 2016, my schedule has been more and more squeezed, and frankly, you deserve main page columnists who are invested in what’s going on and are writing regularly for you. When I was down in the Columns Forum awaiting my call up to LOP proper, it drove me mad how much some of the main pagers phoned it in when I was tearing it up and posting column after column. Well, I don’t want to become a glass ceiling for anyone, so that’s another reason why it’s time to go.

You know, I don’t feel that wrestling has left me, or anything as dramatic as that. I truly believe that, just as in previous fallow periods, WWE will recover their form eventually. But this has been, I think, a uniquely awful eight months or so for the industry, and it may be tougher for them to coax people back this time. I’ll certainly continue to watch casually, but we all know that wrestling is the most fun when we are fully invested in it and anticipating events with excitement week after week. Three of the most passionate wrestling fans I’ve ever known in Doc, ‘Plan and Mazza have already been driven away from writing regularly, and ‘Plan is so burned out he feels done with wrestling for good. It’s staggering and tragic to me that WWE have managed to do that to such a loyalist figure.

With all of that said, and despite the awful way the decade ended, the 2010s, the decade in which I wrote about wrestling with depth and passion, had an awful lot of interesting themes, storylines, events and matches within its span, and so I’ll spend the rest of this farewell piece exploring some of those I found most interesting.

The Hubris of Wrestlemania and The Curse of the Part Timers

Looking back now, Wrestlemania as we knew it (or at least, as people my age knew it) effectively died some time between Wrestlemania XXVI and Wrestlemania XXVIII. You can already see at XXVI, with the ludicrous Bret Hart vs Vince McMahon grudge match, and the second grandiloquent Undertaker vs Shawn Michaels match, that this is a product moving towards the sugar rush of nostalgia and “star power” over growing and elevating talent to superstar level, and by XXVIII and XXIX, with The Rock and Chris Jericho both playing significant comeback roles at both shows, Wrestlemania was well and truly “gone” for me, and it became a show that I actually enjoyed less than the others through the year. The obsession with chasing the elusive “casual buys”, the ever larger stadiums, the ever longer run times, the lack of opportunity for the top and middle tier full time talents…Wrestlemania in this decade became a grotesque parody of itself, an empty brand full of meaningless semantics like the “Wrestlemania Moment”. Most of the full time talents have never had one, because the booking hasn’t enabled them to. There are exceptions, of course – no-one will ever forget the Miracle on Bourbon Street, Seth Rollins’ Heist of the Century, or indeed Kofi Kingston’s valedictory win last April – but by and large, Wrestlemania bears a cursed energy in the modern day. Even with a show like XXXV which was by and large quite well received, Triple H wrestled Batista and Shane McMahon, of all people, was in his third marquee match in four years. I was an early critic of the methodology behind the modern Mania, and it has been somewhat gratifying to see so many people fall into line with my point of view over recent years.

The Pipebomb and Everything After

From about 2008 onwards, CM Punk was absolutely my favourite professional wrestler, and during the period spanning his two Money In The Bank ladder match victories, I was utterly desperate for him to stick the landing as a main event talent, and I had that childlike thrill when he won, and that equally childlike feeling of sadness and petulance when he didn’t. When the rumours began to circulate that he was leaving in the summer of 2011, I honestly didn’t know what to do with myself, and his abortive feud with John Cena on the Road To Wrestlemania and losses to Randy Orton at Wrestlemania XXVII and Extreme Rules all seemed to point towards a couple of months of faithful and professional jobbing before finally bowing out to re-explore his options on the indy circuit he’d left a legend five years previously. Instead, WWE used fan knowledge of this scenario to pivot into a thrilling storyline where no-one quite knew if he was leaving or not, a story that made Punk the hottest act in the entire industry, and one which resulted in him becoming a main eventer for the rest of his run with the company. The Pipebomb birthed the Reality Era, and Punk was John the Baptist to Daniel Bryan’s Jesus, someone who allowed us to believe that wrestling could and should be better. Seeing your favourite wrestler ascend into the stratosphere is a uniquely satisfying phenomenon – I felt it with Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels in the 90s, with Kurt Angle in 2000, and CM Punk was my third time experiencing it. Like all agents of change, Punk ultimately burned himself out, and his departure in 2014 allowed room for The Shield and Bray Wyatt to grow into new stars for a new generation. But we should never forget Punk’s role in rehabilitating wrestling in 2011 and setting the stage for four golden years for WWE, because let’s not mince our words, 2011-2015 really was one of the company’s best years for quality and he was at the forefront of the revolution. Professional wrestling has been much the poorer without him.

The Lost Generation

Something I’ve returned to again and again in my writing is the way WWE failed a generation of talented midcarders who debuted between 2006 and 2010: John Morrison, The Miz, Dolph Ziggler, MVP, Sheamus, Drew McIntyre, Cesaro and Kofi Kingston chief among them, and with CM Punk and Daniel Bryan both being members too before they subsequently broke out and became the hottest guys in the business. These men were faced with the glass ceiling of the formidable OVW Class of 2002, and the leftover Attitude Era main event guys like Triple H and Edge, and even leftover New Gen guys in The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels! At every stage, WWE found themselves unable or unwilling to commit to their future, and these talents withered away, now and again given a spotlight, but always finding the rug being pulled from under them. Morrison and MVP drifted away to other promotions, McIntyre was released, Miz and Ziggler were both world champions but relegated to perma midcarders afterwards, Sheamus was hamstrung by a face character run I once famously described on the Pond as “distressing”, and Cesaro was publicly described by Vince McMahon as a guy who “couldn’t grab the brass ring” on his own Network. Worst of all, Kofi Kingston reinvented himself as a charismatic tag team wrestler, before organically catching fire and being given a well deserved “thank you” run as WWE Champion, only to be booked to lose to Brock Lesnar in 6 seconds flat. I think that fairly much sums up the experience of this talented but ultimately misused generation of wrestlers. The irony is that the way things are currently going, the likes of Bray Wyatt, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Andrade, Finn Balor and Mustafa Ali may find themselves going the exact same way.

The Yes Movement

When Mazza, ‘Plan, Shinobi and myself started our LOP Radio podcast, The Right Side Of The Pond, the explosion of Daniel Bryan’s mainstream popularity had been ongoing for six to nine months and he felt like the most organic top guy in waiting since Stone Cold Steve Austin. By the time we came around to previewing Summerslam 2013, we talked ourselves into a scenario where Daniel Bryan defeated John Cena clean in the middle of the ring, and that was exactly what he did, before Orton’s dramatic heel turn and Triple H morphing into the head of The Authority cemented the beginnings of what has to be regarded as an all time great storyline, one which we followed each and every week with breathless excitement on the podcast and indeed in our columns. While many cried out for Bryan to beat Orton and go on a long title run, those of us who knew his popularity would only grow with each obstacle placed in front of him thought WWE knew what they were doing. Then came the Royal Rumble, and the Batista curveball. We questioned all that we thought we knew. But WWE did something they so rarely have done in modern times. They listened to the fans. A scenario was constructed where Bryan would run the gauntlet and take on Triple H, followed by a triple threat with Orton and Batista. And not only did he take it on, he won it all, the confetti came down, and an iconic moment that no-one can ever take away took place. It was quite honestly the greatest honour to cover the storyline as it was happening for this website. I wonder if we’ll ever see the like again.

Sierra. Hotel. India. Echo. Lima. Delta.

One could easily make the argument that this was The Shield’s decade even more so than Daniel Bryan and CM Punk. Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose began the 2010s wrestling each other in a series of barnburners in FCW, with Rollins then going onto be the inaugural NXT Champion. Meanwhile, Roman Reigns, first known as Leakee, was a powerhouse with a family pedigree learning his trade. The business changed forever when the three men crashed Survivor Series 2012 dressed as security guards, memorably putting Ryback through a table with what would become their signature triple powerbomb. I loved The Shield from the moment I saw them; they debuted as piratical mercenaries who said they were fighting for justice, but much like characters from a Cormac McCarthy novel, it was their justice and they didn’t feel the need to explain to you what that might entail. Their 90s NYPD Blue style shaky cam backstage promos in the depths of arenas nationwide swiftly became iconic, and they sealed the deal by wrestling three instant classics at TLC 12, Elimination Chamber 13 and the Raw after that same Elimination Chamber. Unlike the Nexus, the Hounds saw off the various superhero coalitions sent against them, and built their profile as the arrivistes who refused to stand down for the established stars. Working security for The Authority gave them a new lease of life, but their story was only just beginning. A break up storyline in the winter of 2014 was swiftly pivoted into an all time classic feud with the Wyatt Family, followed by a surprising face turn and dominant run as a face team who vanquished a returning Evolution two matches to nil. But there was always a plan B! Rollins’ betrayal of his brothers lent a Shakespearean edge to the narrative of the Hounds, and this began a whole new arc between himself and a Dean Ambrose obsessed with retribution, a kind of high octane chase narrative which encompassed the Money In The Bank ladder match, a match cancelled at Battleground due to Ambrose’s rabid assaults backstage, a lumberjack match where they waded through the bodies they broke on the way up through the company, and finally a Hell in a Cell match which paid tribute to the great ones which had done before.

Escaping from Ambrose’s wrath by the skin of his teeth, Rollins would pull off the heist of the century at Wrestlemania XXXI at his other brother Reigns’ expense, defending the belt against both Reigns and Ambrose over the months that followed, before blowing out his knee and putting in motion a redemption storyline we’re still seeing the shockwaves from to this day. While Seth was out injured, Dean and Roman were involved in the title picture through Wrestlemania XXXII, before Seth’s dramatic return led to the Shield triple threat, before their separation through the brand split. Even then, a tear jerking Survivor Series elimination match in 2016 played on their never ending brotherhood, a theme enhanced even further in 2017 with Ambrose and Rollins’ touching reunion and tag team run. A brief Shield reunion (interrupted by Reigns’ cancer battle) followed before the controversial Ambrose heel turn led to one more feud between he and Rollins, and following that, one last Shield ride before Ambrose left the company. What an epic story, what a wonderful six years they gave us, and what absolute titans of the business all three are. Believe that. Over their time with the company, together or apart, they were my three favourite wrestlers in the world. All we can do is say thank you. Truly, you don’t know what you got til it’s gone.

The Botched Coronation of Roman Reigns, A Tragedy

At the risk of making myself unpopular, I have always believed that Reigns was badly let down by WWE. At the point when Seth Rollins’ chair connected with his spine, Reigns was hugely, hugely over. But immediately, he was let down – first by being made to look completely unconcerned by Rollins’ betrayal (contrast Dean’s righteous fury) and secondly by being unconvincingly retconned into a championship match with long standing main eventers at a moment’s notice. Immediately, the obviousness of WWE’s intentions to hotshot Reigns to glory turned fans off him, and then Randy Orton did a horrible job of his first marquee singles match at Summerslam. An ill-timed injury lay off and a super push to Royal Rumble victory later, Reigns was getting levels of unwelcome heat unseen since John Cena in 2006 or so. I felt nothing but sorry for him, to be honest – a talented man consistently misused, miscast and let down. Having flown in the face of fan opinion by pushing him, they would then pull out at the final moment, making him look even more foolish. His experience at Wrestlemania XXXIV is surely one of the most bizarre in wrestling history, a title rematch from a previous Wrestlemania where he was booked to lose just as it looked like Lesnar’s contract was up, only for them to then give him the win at Summerslam a few months later. That about sums it up. Since his return from his courageous cancer battle, he has been no better used, trapped in some endless loop of nonsense with the likes of Baron Corbin. Honestly, I have nothing but sympathy with the guy, and much like Diesel, I think history will judge him far more kindly than he currently is.

The Folly of the Brand Extension

The story of my disengagement with WWE really begins with the second brand split in 2016. As soon as it was announced, all I could see was trouble ahead. The highly successful Reality Era product had been built on a strong single roster, with highly defined roster positioning. However, the bloat of incoming NXT call ups and a lack of the traditional spring cleaning over years and years led to the return of a system that hadn’t worked the first time, and indeed, all the same problems recurred. The likes of Jinder Mahal as champion, single brand PPVs which were exceedingly weak, a lack of difference between the two shows, expecting the audience to be able to follow two shows over the course of FIVE HOURS of television a week, endless new titles, GM drama we’ve seen a thousand times before, reheated storylines…all of these things drastically impacted the quality of WWE’s output, to the point that both shows have been a chore to watch for an awfully long time now, and although I can go PPV only, as I have, the pro wrestling experience is very much less than the sum of its parts without the television to go with it. The big relaunch of Smackdown on Fox has done nothing whatsoever, and Raw remains an eye watering three hours long, long after everyone realised how bad three hour Raws are. The brand extension has done as much as anything to kill the product.

The WWE Network

The WWE Network was a remarkable achievement at the time, and remains so. The entire library of pay-per-views for multiple companies and brands, most episodes of the TVs, unique content, in house podcasts…all for 9.99. You honestly can’t fault it, though a recent user interface redesign went down like a lead balloon. For all my detachment from the company, I am and will remain a subscriber because I’ve always watched a lot of back catalogue and always will, because those memories are precious. I suppose the major surprise is that the Network hasn’t had more of an impact on the weekly product and how that is produced, though as long as Fox and USA are dumb enough to pay Vince a truckload of money for Raw and Smackdown, I dare say nothing will change. There’s still an awful lot more they could do with the service in terms of innovation, so it will certainly be interesting to see how it continues to develop.

NXT, or, The Double Edged Sword

NXT’s journey, from gameshow-sideshow reality-kayfabe joke, to developmental territory, to bona fide third brand, is a remarkable one, but also one which has caused as many structural problems within the company as it has spawned great matches and angles. The adoption of a deliberately indy aesthetic, the fiercely loyal Full Sail crowd, and the signing of a succession of indy darlings and TNA guys finally making their way to the ‘E created an environment in which fans were constantly comparing NXT to the main roster, and wishing one were more like the other. As NXT grew, as the Takeovers went from modest 2 hour specials to full on pay-per-views, a more is more attitude took hold, and greater and greater excesses were demanded and granted, to the point where modern day NXT can feel more ludicrous than the wildest indy fed at times. The stockpiling of endless amounts of the top talent in the world has meant that the main roster became a graveyard for the call ups, because there’s just too many great wrestlers up there already not doing much, so the only logical ending was NXT as a bona fide brand, but that itself has its own issues. With all of that said, the tag team scene of American Alpha, The Revival, DIY and Authors of Pain was one of my favourite things in all of wrestling over the past decade, and the way Emma, Paige, Charlotte, Bayley, Sasha and Becky made the world sit up and take notice of women’s wrestling was deeply important, historically. Obviously the system has its pros and cons, but I think the main thing people don’t always take into account is the fact that WWE never planned for any of this to happen, and that’s when issues like excess and roster bloat become most pronounced.

The Women’s Revolution

At the start of the decade, women were wrestling over something called the Divas Championship, shaped like a butterfly, in six minute matches where the deadliest move was a roll up. At the end of the decade, three women closed out Wrestlemania with special entrances. No matter what bumps there were along the way, no matter how much WWE have employed their propagandists at the Ministry of Truth to try and make their audience forget how institutionally sexist it used to be, that is incredible progress. AJ Lee and Kaitlyn offered an early indication of green shoots up top, but it was in NXT that the revolution really gathered pace, and whatever you think of some of the storylines and some of the booking, the work that Charlotte, Becky, Asuka, Alexa, Sasha and Bayley in particular have put in is really quite remarkable, not to mention Shayna Bazler’s incredible run in NXT and Toni Storm’s work on NXT UK. We even got to be a female MyPlayer in the MyCareer mode of WWE 2K19! Things are by no means perfect, of course. Liv Morgan being booked in a shock reveal gay affair storyline for titillation purposes in 2019 is deeply jarring, and earlier in the year they had Mandy Rose walking around in a towel as if it were 1999, but overall we do have to recognise that (slow) progress has been made, and I hope it continues to be.

The Brock Lesnar Problem

The Anomaly was, of course, WWE’s great “what if”. From his debut in 2002, they invested EVERYTHING in making him their top guy for the post-Attitude generation. When he chafed about the road schedule and decided to try out for football instead of staying with the company in 2004, it forced them to redirect their resources towards Cena, Orton and Batista, but clearly Lesnar was the guy they had seen the money in initially. He’d also left before anyone could get bored with him, and had left behind a great library of matches for someone so young in the business. Therefore, when he dramatically appeared on the Raw after Wrestlemania XXVIII and F5d Cena, he had the whole wrestling world behind him. He had a limited amount of dates in his contract – rumoured to be six pay-per-view matches over two years with a couple of TVs per cycle he was involved in – so there seemed little chance we’d get bored, and also little chance that he’d stay any longer than the two years. That he is still here with us, and still carrying one of the belts as an ultra part timer is absolutely crazy to me. Other than the odd match – Punk, the triple threat with Cena and Rollins, the triple threat with Reigns and Ambrose, Balor, Styles – the Lesnar formula of suplexes and domination before a brief opponent comeback became stale so long ago it beggars belief, and his involvement in the title picture is a joke. Some of the booking decisions – particularly not putting Ambrose over him at Wrestlemania XXXII and having him squash Kofi Kingston in six seconds – have been absolutely dreadful, and their obsession with protecting Lesnar’s “aura” has been harmful to many, but especially Reigns and Strowman. Every time you think he’s off to his farm, he somehow signs a new, even bigger contract. I get that the guy is box office to some, but man oh man I cannot stand the sight of him now.

My Matches of the Decade

10 – CM Punk vs The Undertaker, Wrestlemania XXIX – a masterclass in psychology and storytelling; Taker’s last great match
9 – The Wyatt Family vs The Shield, Elimination Chamber 14 – incredible pacing, intensity, passion and character, a faction war like no other
8 – Dolph Ziggler vs Alberto Del Rio, Payback 13 – a poster match for what the Reality approach could achieve. Sucked you into the double turn without you even realising.
7 – CM Punk vs Daniel Bryan, Over The Limit 12 – as far as pure wrestling goes, this was the decade’s finest for me.
6 – The Revival vs American Alpha, Takeover: Dallas – the first flowering of a tag revolution; gloriously simple but gloriously innovative too.
5 – Christian vs Randy Orton, Over The Limit 11 – a hipster pick perhaps, but this face vs face encounter that followed Christian’s loss of the title on Smackdown is absolutely liquid, with some of the most convincing near falls I’ve ever seen.
4 – CM Punk vs Brock Lesnar, Summerslam 13 – everything a marquee match up should be, and by far Lesnar’s best second career contribution
3 – The Revival vs DIY, Takeover: Toronto – the most emotive, tear jerking match this decade bar none. Incredible.
2 – CM Punk vs John Cena, Money In The Bank 11 – the match that birthed an era, unforgettable in a way that only the very best matches are
1 – Seth Rollins vs Dean Ambrose, Money In The Bank 15 – of all their great matches together, this is the one which most completely sums up the depth of their relationship with each other. Wrestling from the gods.

Thank You…

To everyone who has read and commented on these columns over the past five and a half years. It’s mad to me that I got to put my opinions about wrestling out into the world and people wanted to read them.
To Doc for being an early champion of my work and for being one of the most genuine guys on the entire internet
To Super Chrisss, who called me up to the main page in the first place!
To the Ponders, ‘Plan, Maz and Shinobi – boys, I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to record podcasts with you every week for the past six years. We’ve built friendships that will genuinely last a lifetime, and I have so many cherished memories of all the shows we did together.
To the Columns Forum Class of 2012, Danno, Oliver, Skul, and Sidgwick – we pushed each other to be great, and I have great memories of those CF days when we all competed for columnist of the month, month after month!
To the New Generation, Sir Sam and Imp – it’s been a pleasure to sit here as a veteran and watch you grow into main eventers. Now go grab that brass ring (ha)!

This won’t be the last column about wrestling I’ll write, that’s for damn sure; I fully intend to go back to the Columns Forum in time and write some more niche stuff, and some historical stuff, so do go down there and check that out if you have the inclination. And you never say never, so if my schedule calms down and if the product improves, I may be back up here one day!

But until that day, for one final time on the main page…

This is Maverick, requesting flyby!

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