The work is responsible for creating the magic of pro wrestling, that which makes the artificial appear genuine, the staged feel spontaneous, the scripted sound sincere. The work is responsible for the involuntary suspension of disbelief that allows us to become emotionally invested in the trials and tribulations of our favorite characters inside the squared circle. The work is what fuels the business. The work is what makes believers of us all.
Every so often a moment comes along that dictates the rules of the fictional cosmos be temporarily suspended. The shoot is based solely on reality; the laws of science and nature rule the day. The shoot is real. The shoot removes the curtain and exposes the fact that there is no wizard, only a man pulling strings. The shoot can enhance the fiction it hides behind or it can deteriorate the fragile imaginary world inhabited by pro wrestling promotions.
Retirement ceremonies have historically been prime examples of the magic a shoot can produce. Whether planned, like Ric Flair in 2008 or Shawn Michaels in 2010, or unexpected, like Edge in 2011, the result is the same. The veil between performer and audience is lifted; a fictional relationship replaced with an authentic mutual admiration. It’s really a beautiful thing and one of the more unique experiences only pro wrestling can provide.
The majority of Daniel Bryan’s ardent fans and supporters viewed his abrupt retirement announcement on last night’s episode of Raw as exactly that. Watching members of the live Seattle audience breakdown in tears as their hero was forced to say goodbye by the permeant threat of injury was both heart-breaking and incredibly moving at the same time. Watching Bryan himself appear to finally be at peace with the reality of his situation was also a beautiful and inspiring moment.
Still, as Raw went off the air last night I was not overcome with emotion, I wanted to be but I wasn’t. Something about the situation didn’t feel right, something was prohibiting the reality from penetrating through my television screen and into my stream of consciousness. Then it hit me.
The last 25 minutes of Raw was a work produced to feel like a shoot.
For his part, Bryan was undoubtedly sincere, it most definitely was not a work to him. But every other aspect of the segment, and the promotion leading up to it, was as counterfeit as the punches thrown or the kicks landed inside the ring every night.
Last night Vince McMahon presented the final chapter of the most compelling story his promotion has produced since CM Punk’s pipe bomb angle five years ago, the Yes Movement; a poignant conclusion to an inspiring tale of overcoming the odds and achieving the most celebrated WrestleMania moment of all time.
But the Yes Movement was not a story; a creation of the magical fiction produced by WWE, it never was. It was an impromptu concession begrudgingly manufactured at the eleventh hour by a man that never recognized or acknowledged the tremendous talent he had at his disposal…that is, until that talent was leaving once and for all.
If you watched Raw from start to finish you got to see the progression of Bryan’s career in brief promotional packages designed to promote the final segment. All the magical moments that will become immortalized forever in the minds of the audience.
Losing to Chris Jericho in his debut…how motivating.
A U.S. Title win over the Miz…how epic.
The comedic exploits of Team Hell No…how inspiring.
Cashing in Money in the Bank on a prone Mark Henry…how, well how heelish.
Beating John Cena for the title…how, incomplete. I seem to remember that night ending rather poorly for Bryan and his fans, even if the real ending was cut out of the material last night.
Then cut to WrestleMania XXX glory and we all live happily ever after!
The truth of the matter is that there is no dramatic progression, no highlight reel of Bryan’s greatest WWE moments. They don’t exist. They don’t exist because McMahon spent the overwhelming majority of Bryan’s career trying to convince us not to like Bryan at all.
From day one Bryan was cast as harmless runt, a character with no depth and even less value. He was written as a one dimensional corny mighty mouse-type character – only he had a long beard so we’ll call him a goat instead.
Bryan’s entire WWE career consisted of two substantive storylines: his midcard angle involving Bray Wyatt and his run to WrestleMania XXX. Two compelling stories over six years, one of which was desperately avoided until no other viable option could be produced.
Bryan is without question one of the most gifted performers of his generation; of any generation. No matter the storyline, or lack thereof, his ability made watching him perform an absolute joy. He was a master craftsman practicing his craft most brilliantly. Still, his significant time in the most resourceful pro wrestling company on the planet amounted to very little, the most egregious display of storytelling malpractice I have ever witnessed in over 25 years as a pro wrestling fan.
15 minutes prior to Raw going on the air McMahon tweeted that an accomplished career would be celebrated. Ironic when you consider McMahon went out of his way not to endorse or celebrate a single thing about Bryan or the Yes Movement, Bryan and his audience were responsible for that. To have that intimate and organic bond high-jacked and used as a cheap ratings pop on an otherwise atrocious program is sickening. Likewise, watching McMahon stand on the entrance ramp, smiling and enthusiastically doing the Yes! chant was utterly disgusting. The glaring revision of history made me physically sick to my stomach.
Only in pro wrestling.
As always, it was McMahon who got the last laugh. For him the idea of Bryan was always more valuable than the actual man. That was evident from day one. He was used to kick start the original NXT concept. Used to advance stories involving ‘more important’ talent like John Cena, Randy Orton or Bautista. After his brief return in 2015 he was used to get Roman Reigns over…yea, say that out loud and it makes even less sense. Used to try and get a meaningless Intercontinental title over. Used to get Ryback over.
Actually putting Bryan over was never a priority, quite the opposite in fact.
Now that the threat of Bryan wrestling in a ring owned by McMahon is dead and gone, the idea of Bryan is the only thing left with a pulse. Exclusive DVDs, a Hall of Fame induction, perhaps another book deal, endless merchandise opportunities. The idea of Bryan is about to make McMahon an enormous amount of money.
The smartest fans really are the easiest to manipulate.
Last night was a grim epilogue to a depressing tragedy mascarading as an inspirational final chapter to a tale about glory. It was a work. Bryan’s true contributions will forever be manipulated by a master puppeteer, his legacy forgotten as quickly as it was embellished. No lasting change, no road paved for others. McMahon continues to dismiss gifted yet pedestrian-looking talent in the exact manner he dismissed his goat named Daniel.
Neville and his Dumbo ears.
Kalisto the mosquito.
The scrappy little bulldog named AJ Styles.
Nothing has changed because the man required to institute the change does not feel change required. The illusion of change is what he’s interested in and that, above all else, is the greatest work of all.