(OK, look, we know: Some of you don't like the WWE stuff. Fair enough; we don't pretend that everyone has the same tastes. Still, it's the offseason, it's our blog, and there's nothing pressing to discuss. If you don't like WWE, go read something else. Thanks.)
Last night, after seven years away making movies about pharaohs and muscular nannies, The Rock has returned to the WWE as guest host of Wrestlemania 27 on April 3 in Atlanta. The last time we saw The Rock in a WWE ring in any significant way was in the run-up to Wrestlemania 20, where he lost a three-on-two match with longtime partner Mick "Mankind" Foley against Ric Flair, Randy Orton, and Batista. While we're skeptical of The Rock's promise to never leave again, the fact is that The People's Champion has returned for the next six weeks.
Still, a lot has changed in the last seven years (and, if you're like us, you gave it up a year or two before The Rock officially left). For those of you preparing to return to the WWE -- at least for this run-up to Wrestlemania -- we thought we'd give you a brief overview of the modern-day WWE.
The General Dynamic
Long gone are the WWE Attitude days, where Stone Cold Steve Austin would throw up his middle fingers and Triple H would gesture at his crotch. In fact, modern-day WWE will probably remind you more of the WWF you grew up with: Clear-cut heels and noble babyfaces who rarely change their positioning (though, aside from Cryme Tyme (who we won't discuss again) and Alberto del Rio (who we most certainly will), they shy away from the blatant racial and jingoistic stereotyping of characters like Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff). This was done for three reasons: USA Networks got nervous about showing Raw when ratings went south in the mid-2000's, Linda McMahon ran for Senate, and Vince McMahon is actively trying to save his soul. As a result, both of WWE's main television shows, Monday Night Raw and Friday Night Smackdown, are now TV-PG rated, meaning most of the antics you remember from the Attitude Era will simply no longer fly. For instance, there was a brief section of The Rock's comeback promo last night that was muted, probably because he used the word "ass". It's not to say there aren't characters who are geared to that generation of fan, just that they aren't all like that.
The other thing to keep in mind is that WWE is essentially like Major League Baseball: There are two leagues under one umbrella, and those leagues occasionally but infrequently play interleague games. The two leagues exist on the two shows: Monday Night Raw has its own set of wrestlers and championships (the WWE Championship and United States Championship), as does Friday Night Smackdown (the World Heavyweight Championship and Intercontinental Championship). The Tag Team titles can be held by a pairing from either show, as can the "Divas" title. This will end our discussion of the Tag Team and Divas Championships, as they are wholly irrelevant. There are times when wrestlers from Smackdown will appear on Raw, but that's only because nobody watches Smackdown and they need to keep everyone apprised of whether Edge or Underweartaker are currently World Heavyweight Champion. And, aside from when they give the title to Rey Mysterio Jr. because he's small and kids like him, either Edge or Underweartaker is always World Heavyweight Champion.
The Relevant Wrestlers and Feuds
Just because its shows are PG rated doesn't mean WWE can't generate a good feud. Entering this week's pay-per-view (Elimination Chamber, which we'll discuss later), here are the best:
RAW: WWE Champion The Miz (with Alex Riley and Michael Cole) vs. John Cena and Jerry Lawler
OK, this is going to take a while. First off, you read that correctly: The current WWE Champion is former Real World cast member The Miz. After leaving MTV, Miz entered WWE as a jobber and quickly became a tag team champ with John Morrison (known on #RawIsTwitter as "Slo-Morrison" for reasons obvious after watching his TV intro); this feud keeps showing up, even though it's been nearly two years since they wrestled together and nobody cares about tag team wrestling anymore. In any case, Miz went solo, feuded unsuccessfully with John Cena, switched from baggy clothes to ring tights, and won the United States Championship. While he held that title, he won the tag titles with Big Show (yes, he's still around) against Degeneration X (which, yes, was still around, though temporary and neutered). He held those titles with Big Show and, when the Big Slow went down injured, brought in Chris Jericho as his partner.
Last year, Miz won "Money in the Bank" (a six-man ladder match, the winner of which gets a contract for a WWE Championship match that can be cashed in at any time). In November, he cashed it in against Randy Orton and won the title. He's held it since, despite nearly losing every match he's been in. His title reign has been so long due to outside assistance from a number of sources, usually designated pummelling-taker Alex Riley (with whom he signed a "personal services" contract soon after winning the championship) and play-by-play commenter Michael Cole (who has evolved from sniveling boob to the sort of genius heel commentator we haven't seen since Bobby Heenan; he's also the voice of the anonymous Raw General Manager, who communicates via email, complete with an obnoxious notification bell which Cole amplifies by shouting "Can I have your attention please?" to the crowd after it is heard). The thing that makes The Miz a favorite of the BHGPers: He's the best mic guy since Chris Jericho and, quite possibly, since The Rock himself. The Miz is an unbelievably great heel, with the smarm and snark and condescending tone perfect for his current situation. There's a reason why he's risen to the top so quickly: He generates a reaction from everyone.
Miz is feuding with John Cena, which I guess means it's time to talk about John Cena. Jorts is the current Hulk Hogan: Perpetual babyface, preaches the virtues of "Hustle, Loyalty, and Respect," wears vibrant-colored clothes (The Rock called him a bowl of Fruity Pebbles last night), exhibits superhuman strength in virtually every match, etc. He's the living embodiment of a superhero, made for the fans who need that. But times have changed, and not all wrestling fans are under the age of 12, and the belt can't stay on the same guy for 4 years anymore, so the WWE has to let Cena lose from time to time. It's not that Cena loses of his own accord, of course; he's famously never tapped out, and I can't remember the last time he was pinned without an opponent receiving some sort of illegal outside assistance. The myth remains intact, even as the title goes elsewhere. Cena's a shitty wrestler, just as Hulk Hogan was a shitty wrestler. The difference is that Cena kinda knows it, which I guess is saying something for the guy.
Cena is currently working with Jerry Lawler, who once got into a fistfight with Andy Kaufman and used to be a heel commentator but is now little more than an obnoxious Ed Hardy-wearing shill for every babyface on the roster. And as sad as the King's face turn has been, it pales in comparison to the fact that he's parlayed that into a title match this Sunday against The Miz. He'll either win or lose under auspicious circumstances (the money's on the latter, but only because Sunday will set the card for Wrestlemania, and you can't have the company's premiere title on a geriatric for your biggest event; if this were three weeks ago, we'd put the mortgage on Lawler to win). This is bound to end in Michael Cole helping Miz retain the title, setting up some pathetic Cole-Lawler match for Wrestlemania (part of the storyline is that Lawler has never wrestled at the big show, so they need to get him on the card somehow).
SMACKDOWN: World Heavyweight Champion Edge vs. Dolph Ziggler and Smackdown GM Vickie Guerrero vs. Alberto del Rio
This one is much more straightforward, at least by WWE standards. After Austin and The Rock had left for greener pastures, Edge graduated from Intercontinental Title holder to WWE Championship/World Heavyweight Championship contender. Edge won the WWE Title twice, then moved to Smackdown to feud with Underweartaker and Dave Batista. As part of his plan to consolidate power on Smackdown, Edge started a "relationship" with Smackdown GM Vickie Guerrero (who makes Cole's ability to rile up a crowd look sad by comparison), eventually "marrying" her. In return, Guerrero did everything possible within her considerable powers to benefit Edge, constantly stacking the deck in his favor in championship matches. It didn't always work though, and after a loss to Jeff Hardy at the 2009 Extreme Rules pay-per-view, he "divorced" Vickie and publicly humiliated her. Soon after that, he tore his Achilles tendon and missed almost six months, making a surprise return to win last year's Royal Rumble (which gets the winner a championship match at Wrestlemania) and competing for the title yet again.
Edge lost his Wrestlemania 26 match to Chris Jericho and briefly was "drafted" back to Raw, but with Underweartaker on injury leave and Smackdown in desperate need of some star power, he returned to Friday nights to feud with titleholder Jack Swagger. He finally won the title back in December and immediately began feuding with Dolph Ziggler, an accomplished in-ring wrestler with all the charisma of a llama who had previously wrestled collegiately for Kent State. Ziggler is getting a shot of microphone heat from none other than Vickie Guerrero, who returned to Smackdown for the expressed purpose of destroying Edge, and has attached herself to Ziggler's arm as his new girlfriend. Edge and Ziggler will compete in a six-man elimination chamber match Sunday, with the winner set to face Royal Rumble winner Alberto del Rio at Wrestlemania.
So let's talk Alberto del Rio, because you'll want to watch him. If you remember JBL, imagine him, only Mexican: del Rio drives a Bentley to the ring, wears a scarf with his gold trunks, and has his own Spanish-speaking ring announcer and servant who handles his introductions and regularly gets involved in his matches. Alberto can wrestle, and Alberto can talk -- oh, can he ever talk -- and so he has received a heavy push from the writers in the last few months. He won the Royal Rumble, despite being arguably the least-renowned of the last five men in the ring. He's already stated he'll wrestle for the World Heavyweight Championship at Wrestlemania; we're just waiting to find out who will face him.
RAW/SMACKDOWN: Nexus vs. Randy Orton vs. The Corre
Back in spring of 2010, WWE finally folded ECW, which held a Wednesday night slot on the SciFi Network and generally acted as a feeder league for Raw and Smackdown. In its place, McMahon created WWE NXT, which was a "reality show" where a bunch of up-and-coming wrestlers would compete for a chance to join the WWE roster. The inaugural season was won by Wade Barrett. I have no idea how many seasons there have been since; because there is no "off-season" in WWE, NXT finishes and restarts constantly, like the Davis Cup.
A couple of weeks after Barrett won NXT season one, he and the eight other finalists surprised everyone by showing up on Raw, attacking everyone in sight, and destroying the set. They declared themselves The Nexus and embarked on a reign of sorta-terror over the next few months, mostly by beating the crap out of John Cena. It was essentially the nWo, only with a bunch of guys nobody knows. This continued until November, when former World Heavyweight Champion CM Punk began feuding with Cena while injured and providing commentary on Raw. Punk responded to Cena's threats by joining Nexus and declaring himself its leader.
So, CM Punk. He's a former superstar of the indie wrestling scene who came to WWE and attempted to catch on as a babyface. There's only one problem: Punk is a natural heel. He won Money in the Bank and took the World Heavyweight Championship from Jeff Hardy immediately after Hardy had won it from Edge in a nasty ladder match. He then realized that his gimmick -- he declared himself the "Straight Edge Superstar" because he's never used alcohol, nicotine, or drugs -- could actually be used to feign superiority over the fans, and he was off and running. He soon grew out his hair, adopted a pair of chrome-domed "disciples," and began trying to "save" people. It was probably completely offensive to some, but it was so over-the-top that we couldn't help but laugh (especially when he cleared the ring early in the 2010 Royal Rumble and grabbed a microphone). In any case, they backed off the angle for obvious reasons after Punk was defeated by Rey Mysterio and was forced to shave his head. His grand return came three months ago, when he put his finishing move on a crippled Cena and joined Nexus. He dispatched of their other self-appointed leader, Barrett, and adopted the group members as his new disciples in preparation for the Royal Rumble.
Barrett defected to Smackdown with some other members of Nexus and formed the Corre, which may or may not be the same thing as that Saved by the Bell with the obstacle course in the hallway. He likewise marshaled his troops for the Rumble, though it never really seemed like the Corre had the same firepower of Nexus, which fielded Punk and the humongous Mason Ryan. Punk and his followers got into the Rumble early and cleared the ring. They dominated a large portion of the match, right up until John Cena got his number called and did what John Cena does, destroying the members of Nexus and breaking up Punk's master plan. Barrett, likewise, was unsuccessful, which sets the stage for a post-Wrestlemania feud between the factions (remember nWo Hollywood and nWo Wolfpac? It's happening again.)
As for now, though, Punk and his boys are fighting with Randy Orton, who you might remember as "Legend Killer" Randy Orton or the young punk in Evolution, and who lost a WWE Title match to Miz at Royal Rumble due to outside interference by Punk. Orton is all grown up now, and basically plays a psychopath that inexplicably remains a face despite doing nothing facelike. He's always in contention for the title and could well challenge again at Wrestlemania. But for now, he's kicking dudes in the head and acting like a crazy person.
Daniel Bryan, United States Champion: It took me a few minutes to remember who held the US Championship. Surprisingly, it's Daniel Bryan, who was on NXT and was in Nexus for exactly one day before being fired for choking a guy with a necktie (a big no-no for the PG rating). He was quickly reinstated and, to his benefit, didn't slide back into Nexus. Instead, he became the babyface of all babyfaces. He's a saint in the indie scene and an excellent in-ring performer, but his mic skills are grossly lacking, so WWE has placed Bryan in a weird love tri...er, square with three female wrestlers, including twin sisters. They do the talking, he breaks up the occasional catfight, everyone is happy.
Kofi Kingston, Intercontinental Champion: Kofi Kingston is your typical dread-locked Jamaican who loves high flying and bright yellow trunks, execpt for one thing: Kofi Kingston isn't Jamaican, and can't even adopt a serviceable Jamaican accent. So while he's a favorite of the kids, he is literally incapable of cutting a promo without breaking character. Needless to say, it's limited his rise to the top of the WWE quite considerably. There's a reason he's gone from a post-Wrestlemania feud with Randy Orton to holding the inferior title on Smackdown in the course of a year.
Big Show: Still around, kind of. But his size (7'4", a legitimate 450 lbs.) and age (just turned 39) limits what he can do. he shows up to clear a ring now and then, but that's basically the extent of it.
Triple H: Has been on vacation for damn near a year now, with constantly delayed plans to return. He's said he will be done wrestling within five years. Methinks it's closer to 5 months.
Underweartaker: There have been promos playing during commercial breaks on Raw with a guy in a trench coat in the rain and Johnny Cash in the background, only giving away the date "2/21/11." The assumption is that Underweartaker will return from sabbatical on that date. He's got to come back soon; the man is 17-0 at Wrestlemania and will absolutely have a match in Atlanta.
So About The Rock...
As a returning legend, The Rock can basically pick his feud, and there's one giant meatball hanging out there: John Cena. When The Rock left for Hollywood, WWE fans felt jilted by a wrestler they had loved unconditionally (WWE played this up to full effect in Rock's Wrestlemania 19 match against Stone Cold, which took place as The Scorpion King was being released). When The Rock left for Hollywood permanently, he was a short-term pariah. John Cena, who has always been begging for acceptance from fans over the age of 9, said what every fan wanted to hear: That The Rock had left them in the dust to pursue fame and fortune, that they weren't good enough for the guy they adored, that The Rock had lied to them all when he said he loved wrestling.
And The Rock didn't take it well.
The Rock could feud with The Miz, which could be great. The Rock could feud with Orton, which could at least be interesting (though their personalities don't exactly clash perfectly). The Rock could reignite old feuds with Underweartaker or Triple H or Bret Hart. But The Rock didn't come back for that. He came back to go one on one with the guy who claims to be the Great One. It'll be Rock-Cena. Count on it.