The fight to be the “Face of the WWE” has, since the ascent of Daniel Bryan began in the summer of 2013, been a nominal title treated with nearly as much importance as the chase for the WWE championship itself.
While it took Triple H until recent weeks to outright co-opt the so-called “Reality Era” that CM Punk coined in a 2011 interview with Bill Simmons, the idea that professional wrestlers are outwardly angling to be known as the top guy inasmuch as they’re taking aim at the actual championship belt shows how much that notion has already been in play. It’s a relatively new idea in a business built almost entirely on reused, well-worn tropes.
Of all people, John Cena threw an interesting name in the discussion of just who that specific person might be.
“Sometimes you can’t fight the biggest superstar in the WWE,” Cena said in an interview for Daniel Bryan’s Journey to Wrestlemania documentary that aired on WWE Network this week.
“And that’s the ‘WWE Universe.’ ”
On the surface, putting over the WWE fans as the company’s “biggest superstar” is eyeroll-inducing, especially coming from Cena. He not only has actually been the top star for over the balance of the last decade- and is no doubt well aware that Daniel Bryan has indisputably taken that throne- but has made a career out of serving us this kind of schmaltzy pandering.
But there’s something to this idea.
Professional wrestling has always been one of the most interactive forms of entertainment, which itself isn’t an idea that needs to be expanded upon so much as it’s plainly obvious. The nature of the business requires this call-and-response with its fans as much it engenders it. While they won’t necessarily give us what we ask for immediately- as witnessed by our angst-filled lead to Wrestlemania XXX as it looked like neither Bryan nor Punk would be elevated to the main event, and that they really would present Batista as the conquering hero returning to foil Randy Orton and the Authority- they have to issue a weekly response to our…well, response.
The rise of Daniel Bryan and the “Yes! Movement” is the metastasization of this very basic professional wrestling concept. To take nothing away from the most popular and, more importantly, populist character to hit the ring in years, Bryan is unquestionably a pantheon-level talent that has universally won over every sect of wrestling fandom. (And as a diehard University of Illinois fan, this author is jealous that the Michigan State crowd propelled the “Yes! Movement” into the mainstream. C’mon, Orange Krush. You’re better than this.) But there’s no question that a large part of his rise to Wrestlemania lore was fueled in large part by empowering the fans with the most simple, interactive chant in wrestling history.
He’s certainly not the most popular star ever- though judged purely by fan responses and no other metric, he’s on a very, very short list- but it’s hard to imagine any star ever who brought the fans along for the ride the way Bryan did. To say he’s taken interactivity with the audience to another level would be woefully understating it: he literally made the fans a part of the show with the Occupy Raw segment on March 10, flooding the ring with planted fans to goad Triple H into giving into his Wrestlemania demands.
In kayfabe terms at the very least, the fans had never before been allowed to affect the outcome of a show in such a way. And “at the very least” is the operative phrase here, because the segment was plainly a metaphor for a very real fan revolt to the booking in the months leading to that moment. Lest we give Paul Levesque, Stephanie, Vince and whoever else has a say too much credit, let’s not forget that until the Royal Rumble, Bryan was slotted for a midcard match with Sheamus at Mania. A Bray Wyatt rematch- obviously ruled out at the Rumble itself by the start to his storyline with Cena- or Team Hell No exploding in a match with Kane seemed like the only other logical opponents to that point.
Let’s briefly backtrack a few months: his popularity, already at a near-fever pitch in the buildup to last year’s SummerSlam main event with Cena, increased almost exponentially upon Triple H’s screwing him out of the WWE title and insistence that Bryan was “B+ player” and that it wasn’t “best for business” for Bryan to be the face of the company. It was an outright, meta-trolling of us, the fans, a direct hit job on our own insecurities about the WWE caring more about a certain aesthetic out of their top guys than skill level or even connection with the audience.
Bryan may best represent this era in which the fans are as much a part of the show as anything else, but the erstwhile Punk kicked it into overdrive in 2011 by declaring himself the “voice of the voiceless,” putting into storyline form many of the very real grievances WWE fans had aired for years. But whoever gets credit for this movement is largely irrelevant, because there’s so much more evidence of the fans putting us at the center of the show.
As a quick sidenote, the acknowledgment and out-rightly giddy anticipation expressed by JBL, Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler about the now-traditional bizarro post-Mania Raw crowd might be the tipping point piece of evidence in arguing for the actual stardom of the “WWE Universe” itself; the actual audience and what they’ll come up with this year is one of the biggest draws of the Wrestlemania weekend. For at least one show a year, the talent eagerly awaits the show the fans put on.
John Cena himself might be the biggest piece of evidence there is arguing in favor of calling the Universe the WWE’s biggest star, aside from the mere fact that, in simply calling us the “WWE Universe,” they’ve given us an actual, official gimmick name. Yes, the same John Cena who has been booed for eight years without a heel turn. By not turning him and outwardly acknowledging the boos – not that there’s any choice – and having Cena himself regularly respond to them, they have acknowledged that the fans can decide for themselves what he is. Though they undoubtedly portray him as a pure babyface, they allow their biggest post-Attitude Era star to be decided upon by the fans as to how they feel about his character. There’s no reason to turn him heel, because he already is one to those who want him to be. And he is the heroic role model to those that want him to be that.
Maybe this means we’re the heels? Bret Hart suggested as much as far back as 1997 in expressing frustration over the fans choosing the foul-mouthed, villainous Stone Cold Steve Austin over the virtuous Hitman, so while the idea of fans as heels- or characters taking an active part in the show in general- is picking up steam again in 2014, at least one all-time great had this thought long ago.
John Cena may have merely been offering more of the same pandering, warmed-over lip service he’s offered the fans for most of the last decade, but he may be onto something. Wrestling fans have always had a say in shaping the future. But more than ever before, and more than any other form of entertainment, we’re playing an active part in the show’s present, in real time.