The First Time They Didn’t Listen

robvandammain

So all the hoopla (yeah I said it) lately seems to be about the WWE not listening to the fans as relates to Daniel Bryan. Now while the idea of the former WWF ignoring its audience may seem novel and new to some, those of us who grew up on Hogan, Savage and Iron Mike Sharpe have unfortunately had to endure this practice time and time again. And while Vince and company had their collective grubby fingers on the pulse of their fans for many, many years, I can clearly remember the first time that I noticed that the WWF was obviously ignoring their audience. I wish I could say that they missed the boat with this guy and learned from it, but unfortunately it became the template for most of their “wrestlerstars” for the next decade. So let’s hop on Max Moon’s back (he was a time traveler right? Or was it a spaceman?) Fuck it, let’s hop on Konnan’s hairy back and travel back to 2001.

Rob Van Dam should have been a bigger deal. Keep in mind I’m saying this about a guy who got to go over John Cena for the WWE title. Here’s a guy who came in for the InVasion angle, and amidst a sea of total shit managed to get over and become the most popular guy in the company. I live in Montreal and I like to think of us as a pretty good wrestling town, especially with all the awesome things that have happened here. I mean what crowd wouldn’t keep coming back to see screwjobs, heart attacks and La Resistance title wins? And I’d like to think we have OUR sticky little fingers on the wrestling pulse. So as I strolled into the Bell (née Molson) Centre in October 2001, I was thrilled to hear everyone in the tunnels chanting “RVD! RVD!” The chants continued throughout the night, getting progressively louder and stronger with each segment, each appearance and each frog splash. By the time the SmackDown taping ended it was clear who the next WWF Superstar was going to be.

Van Dam arrived in mid 2001 and looked like a star. He was ready. How do I know he was ready? Was I backstage watching him train or shower? Nope. All I had to do was listen to the fans. Now I don’t claim to be any sort of wrestling booking genius (though I enjoy a good Frisbee) but it seems like booking wrestling comes down to some pretty simple concepts: Make people care about the matches, don’t have wrestlers fuck dead bodies and most importantly of all, find out who is most popular and PUSH THAT GUY. Now RVD was pushed, he was given a pretty big spot in the Alliance and put in positions where he was sure to succeed, but by the time October rolled around, his popularity was making his push look pathetic by comparison. He goes into No Mercy and gets pinned in a triple threat for the WWF title with Steve Austin and Kurt Angle. I don’t see why you pin the hottest guy in the match, but many a superstar (and high school sweetheart) have been screwed in October only to return with a vengeance also. What they did next with RVD made zero sense though.

After his title shot he was still featured in the Alliance but not nearly as heavily. He then went on to job to the Undertaker, which makes sense if you’re going to move him away from the hardcore division (also Undertaker rides a motorcycle and is really cool…) and then spends the better part of the next year in and out of intercontinental title picture, having great matches but at the same time being solidified in the fans mind as a mid card wrestler.

All this contributed to the self-fulfilling prophecy that if you treat someone average they become average. RVD was not average. He was getting pops rivaling the biggest starts in the WWF at the time and they needed to jump on that. What do you do with a guy who is that over in October? You do the same thing you did with Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin, Batista and even Rey Mysterio (playing the part of Eddie Guerrero). You have him win the Royal Rumble and go on to win the WWF title at Wrestlemania. “But wait,” you say. “What do we do with Triple H and his big return?” My answer: “Who gives a shit?” The goal here is to make new stars, and did Hunter really need that title that he would lose a month later? Absolutely not. Triple H could have easily been slotted into the feud with the incoming NWO or done ANYTHING else. Wrestlemania X-8 should have been RVD’s moment. He was white-hot and building a new megastar should always trump well…everything. He should have been made that night. And a cool side effect with Triple H out of the title match is that Rock/Hogan probably goes on last.

Now am I sure that RVD could have been a performer that catches on and transcends the industry? Nope. BUT YOU HAVE TO TRY. When someone is as hot as RVD was in 2001 you have to pull the trigger. And you have to pull that trigger while the iron is hot. When the fans put faith in someone WWE needs to understand that it’s just that: faith. We cheer from the heart for someone who we want to see do well, and like it or not we don’t like being disappointed so we tend to gravitate towards winners. Don’t give the fans what they want and they will wane, it’s just normal (though to be fair Daniel Bryan seems to be the exception to that rule). When did they pull the trigger on the RVD WWE tile push? 2006. FIVE YEARS LATER! It took them five years and an ECW featuring a fucking Zombie to get RVD to be a main event star again. But it wasn’t the same was it? The visceral connection with the audience was gone and while I was happy that RVD was finally there, and happy that the Manhattan Center wasn’t torn to pieces, it felt like a hollow win.

Imagine if Stone Cold Steve Austin had won his first world title in 2002? Or if Hogan had first won the title in 1988? That’s how long we had to wait for RVD. Now before you go all Sid Justice 1992 press conference on me I’m not saying RVD would have risen to their popularity. The truth of it is we’ll never know how big he could have been. And that’s the problem. Unfortunately since 2002 we haven’t had a star on the level of and Austin and a Hogan (Cena doesn’t count for me, being a huge star during a time of decline). I don’t like to look at the WWE as how successful they are, I like to look at them as how successful they COULD BE. Imagine where the industry would be if they had caught the lighting in a bottle of an Austin with a new guy? Who knows what the landscape would look like now.

It could have created a precedent of taking risks on younger guys and perpetually moving forward as a company. Instead it set the exact opposite precedent  of guys getting hot, the company waiting too long, guys cooling off and then the company saying “See??? They’re not over enough.”

Now why was he de-pushed? I’m no insider but I’ve heard all the same reasons you have. Sloppy ring work, bad attitude, him having the audacity to be more over than Triple H, didn’t pay his taxes, etc. But all of those things are behind the scenes events that actually have no bearing on us the audience. There’s an old story from the HBO show OZ, a wonderful prison drama, that there was a joke on set that if you showed up late to your shoot your character would get raped on the next episode. A JOKE. But if you don’t shake the Undertaker’s hand…I have to watch you get buried on TV. Successful shows make their fans happy. Successful shows don’t act like petulant children because they’re being pushed in another direction. I’m sure the writers of Family Matters had no problem switching the focus to Steve Urkel when he made the show explode. I’m sure they were all just happy to be making more money. They put their egos aside, and did WHAT WAS BEST FOR BUSINESS. And everyone was better for it.

All this to say one thing: would WWE be a bigger company if they had put all their cards behind RVD? I don’t know. But I do know they didn’t try, and it’s a damn shame. And it’s a mistake they have made time and time again since then. And now with Daniel Bryan the fans are more invested than at almost any other point since the days of good old Stone Cold. Will they finally just listen to the audience? Or will they repeat the cycle and add Bryan to the ever-growing pile of the many, many discarded would-be main eventers?

Author: Aaron George

Aaron is a classically trained Shakespearean actor by day who fulfils his culture quotient by watching wrestling by night. He has two sons a great wife and once explored the sewers in his hometown.