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On The Apron: How To (Not) Build A Star

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On The Apron, every Tuesday, is Dominick Mayer’s look at the latest in the odd world of WWE.

I’m almost reluctant to approach today’s topic, because I know if I’m ever in need of material after a given episode of Raw, WWE will happily give me five or six instances of my biggest pet peeve with pro wrestling each year. But we’re here, so let’s proceed.

Last night, Ryback and John Cena continued their program leading to what’s now going to be a Last Man Standing match at Extreme Rules and will optimally involve 100% less duct tape than the last LMS that WWE offered. (To be fair, one of my favorite Cena moments involved him literally tearing apart the ring to strangle Umaga with a turnbuckle in an LMS, so this has potential.) However, Cena’s anti-Ryback promo dredged up many a terrible memory, as Cena engaged in what has to be the most inexplicable bit of writing encouragement that WWE offers: completely dressing down his opponent.

If I may, a list of reasons doing this makes zero sense:

1) You’re asking people to pay money to see the guy you just established as a scrub in the main event of your next pay-per-view.
2) As Mick Foley once noted in one of his books, it’s both poor form to browbeat your opponent in front of a crowd, and defies logic inasmuch as it makes both parties look bad. The guy getting embarrassed in the ring looks like a scrub, and the guy doling out the embarrassment gets no more out of the feud than beating up on a scrub.
3) A scrub is a guy that can’t get no love from neither me nor the audience.
4) Ryback’s already been a victim of circumstance often enough, continually losing payoff matches because the other guy needed the win even more. Now here’s an instance in which there’s no way Cena’s losing his redemption belt a month and a half after regaining it, so the least you could do is at least try and make Ryback credible before the inevitable happens in 12 days.

Ryback’s doing some of his best work right now, but if current WWE has taught me as a 24-year-old man anything, it’s that logic and reason < bad impressions and granny panties jokes. Which is what we got last night. Cena’s not the worst offender as far as this “defining down” process goes; until he actually covers five up-and-coming wrestlers in feces like DX did to the Spirit Squad, he won’t unlock that particular achievement. (Remember that one of the Spirit Squad guys is now the World Heavyweight Champion. The human spirit can truly endure.) Regardless, Cena’s bit is hoary enough without resorting to making sure that not a single person believes that Ryback has a chance in hell of coming out of Extreme Rules looking good. Hell, they wouldn’t even give the returning Brock Lesnar that bump a year ago.

This speaks to a bigger problem within WWE, which is their love of the Superman mentality. Again, this isn’t just Cena-bashing. Look how Rock gets treated when he comes back, or HHH when he un-retires. Think about how many people Hogan would get to beat if he was in any condition to make another serious in-ring run, whether in WWE or TNA. Wrestling gets too attached to the idea of an unstoppable champion, but that’s only half the story. It’s fine if your champ is unstoppable as long as eventually a challenger comes along who actually stops them, even if it’s only for a brief time. This is the basis of good drama. The trouble with Superman as a comic book hero is that he only has one weakness: Kryptonite. And most of the existing literature involving him concerns his continual ability to circumvent that one weakness in order to continue forth. There’s no drama there, just the witness of an immovable force.

So likewise, when nobody believes that any of John Cena’s opponents can beat him, how do you generate intrigue? The Summer of Punk buildup worked because CM Punk was presented in such a way that people believed he was going to beat Cena. And then he did. But for every CM Punk, there’s a lot more Rybacks and Batistas and JBLs and Jerichos and Edges and the nameless rabble of other victims who had their heel characters set back, sometimes irreparably, by WWE’s unwillingness to put them over a face, lest the crowd go home unhappy. It’s a bummer to think that the Superpowers could never explode today, because the idea of Savage beating Hogan would be unfathomable. Nobody would buy it. But despite WWE’s current line of logic, an unstoppable face doesn’t sell shirts and wristbands. A face who overcomes the odds, and actually overcomes the odds instead of talking about odds that don’t exist, will sell all the shirts.