Every Tuesday, features editor Dominick Suzanne-Mayer talks about the latest developments in and around WWE.
Let’s start here: I’m going to get long-winded this week. Hopefully you’ll be kind enough to indulge me.
I’ll fully admit that the ending of SummerSlam 2013 briefly caused me to assume the fetal position on the floor of my girlfriend’s living room. That stung. Let me remind you of how good everything felt for a second, in .GIF form:
And then, shortly thereafter, everything became the worst.
Now, I can’t stand HHH as an on-camera personality. Unlike a lot of the internet, however, I don’t hate him because of insider knowledge or because of the fact that he took King Booker and irreparably ruined him. (Seriously. I loved the shit out of King Booker and miss him a lot.) I can’t stand HHH because for such a long time now, he’s been THE GUY. Because HHH is such a student of old wrestling, admirably so, he’s probably more than intelligent enough to know that a lot of guys that have become big today will not be considered in the same way that Harley Race or Bruno Sammartino or Ric Flair (arguably his own personal measuring stick) are. Wrestling’s just changed. The amount of disclosure that exists will ensure, largely for the worst, that things like “burials” and backstage melodrama will factor into the discourses surrounding Cena or HHH or anybody else who came up in the time of the IWC.
Circling back to the point, HHH has spent so much time as the major component of stories designed to ensure that he’s remembered as kingshit of fuck mountain that it’s hard to remember a story he’s not been in. And some of those feuds were great, don’t get me wrong. His IC Title ladder match with The Rock at SummerSlam 1998 is still one of the best pro wrestling matches I’ve ever seen, and he gave Mick Foley a fantastic first sendoff in 2000. But there was also Katie Vick, or Little People’s Court, or the aforementioned Booker deal, or the Summer of Punk being ground to a massive halt due to the appearance of Kevin “Father Time” Nash. HHH has been involved in SO MANY stories that a lot of bad ones have piled up, and more carefully planned programs would’ve allowed for the legacy that he’s been chasing all this time. Nobody remembers when Flair’s son stole his girlfriend in WCW, they remember him and Dusty Rhodes beating the ever-loving piss out of each other in a cage. HHH won’t have that same delineation of memory, and that’s going to be the biggest hazard to his legend in the long run.
And that, dear readers, is why this Daniel Bryan thing is so, so important. Because if HHH falls at the feet of the best pure wrestler in WWE right now, it’s going to create a superstar. And either way, it’s going to be one of the last things people remember about HHH.
A lot of people (at first, myself included) were stressing quite a bit about that SummerSlam ending, but it was a great bit of sleight-of-hand. Bryan got to beat Cena clean in the middle of the ring with a Kenta Kobashi knee, and got the Eddie Guerrero confetti celebration. And then HHH ruined everything and handed Randy Orton his 10th world title. It was heartbreaking to watch, but that’s the point. Here’s where the importance of that HHH legacy comes in: Nobody can trust this story at face value. What should happen is that Bryan becomes the Mick Foley to Orton’s corporate Rock. Bryan was told that higher management believed in him, only to be screwed when they realized that the aesthetically pleasing guy sells the product to more sponsors. So now, he has to fight against a machine that refuses to believe in him, while it continually cuts him down at every turn. But because of the history of HHH never being the smaller man, it’s hard to cut out the thoughts of this not ending in several weeks of ritual humiliation, followed by Cena coming back from surgery on his terrifying elbow to save the WWE from the bad guys.
Let me be clear: This feud can involve a lot of other people, and in fact it needs to, but Bryan has to be at the center. Last night’s Raw was a great first step, because Dolph Ziggler and Big Show were both punished for speaking out against the regime. The Shield as mercenaries are a wonderful touch, but it needs to continue. To make this what it needs to be, all of the side heroes should be involved, but the main quest has to be Bryan proving that he is stronger than anybody else. When Cena comes back, if they want Cena to finally be loved by the crowds, he becomes Bryan’s protector and ally, not the other way around. This would not only denote a massive sea change in what’s considered a main-event star, but would ensure that the door is open for people who aren’t John Cena to be considered elite. To change the HHH legacy, Bryan has to win, and win without tomfoolery.
There’s one even larger benefit to this as well. I remember clear as day the episode of Monday Night Raw in which Mankind won the WWF Title for the first time. There was a bench-clearing brawl between The Corporation and DX that ended in one of WWE’s all-time great feel-good moments. And as a kid who was never particularly adept at athletics and was piled on at school, I adored that moment. I’ll always point to that as the moment that wrestling became a lifelong fixation, the moment when the total underdog, the guy who ran in counter to everything that defined conventional corporate image, was at the top of the mountain. And if WWE is truly committed to this whole “for the kids” thing, give another generation that. HHH can be the villain who created a new hero, Bryan can be somebody to be admired by generations, and WWE can have its hottest angle since a Texas redneck stood for the people.
Or, a bunch of people can be covered in fake feces and put in crates. That’ll always be on the table until the moment it isn’t.