Sunday, January 22, 2012

#336. 2011 Wrestling Review


Last year was an interesting one for professional wrestling, almost like a starting point across the board, in terms of North American promotions.  WWE's biggest move was announcing this year's main event at WrestleMania, upon Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's first real appearances with the company since 2004, but it was blessed with the unexpected ascendance of CM Punk as well, even though everyone expected Alberto Del Rio to occupy John Cena's time until the biggest match of his career.  TNA spent a great deal of time trying to figure out the best way to repackage itself, finally anointing a pair of homegrown stars as its future.  ROH gained national TV exposure.  Maybe this was not exactly the start of another wrestling boom, but all of it combined for a healthy boost in the right direction.

All in all, I think it was a pretty good year.  The Miz was WWE champion when 2011 dawned, and continued his effective work as a transitional heel presence, doing everything necessary even though anyone could easily tell by that point that he had no legitimate claim to being the company's top dog.  He made it to the main event of WrestleMania, but the machine for the next one had already begun, and The Miz was clearly not a factor in that equation.  Del Rio won the Royal Rumble, just so everyone knew just how important he would become in WWE's game plan for the year, though he was quickly buried in favor of Edge's final moments of in-ring glory.  To everyone's surprise, Christian was finally tapped as an important figure in the company, serving as one of Smackdown's main attractions and feuding over the world title with Randy Orton, who continued his uninspired performances, at least as a character, which has been a problem for a few years now.  (It's disappointing when one of WWE's featured talents so often coasts.  You can't just hide behind a lack of personality and say you're playing the face.)

Things became interesting on a day-to-day basis once Cena lost the title (which he quickly captured from Miz after one of those patented the-good-guy-was-screwed! WrestleMania finishes) to Punk in the best PPV match of the year at Money in the Bank.  Everyone took notice of Punk for the first time, after he finally took the time to look beyond himself in his promos (by ironically declaring that he had no intention of doing anything but wait for his contract to expire, and be champion when it happened).  I secretly hoped that this would somehow turn him into the next Steve Austin, but as it turns out, John Laurinaitis ("executive vice president of talent relations and interim general manager of Raw") is not Vince McMahon.  He's just the straight man.  Punk ended up solidifying his place in the top tier, but not as an audience magnet.

When Punk momentarily stepped away, Cena became champion again, and then Rey Mysterio did, too.  For reasons that fate did not allow to play out better, Mysterio couldn't stick around, and so Cena and Punk clashed again, and then Del Rio entered back into the scene, and that was the title picture for the rest of the year, until Cena just plain stopped being relevant to any PPV story that involved him in an actual match.  (He instead became distracted by a series of returning stars, including Mick Foley and Kane.)

Meanwhile on Smackdown, Mark Henry was finally given exactly the kind of push he could have been given, and was almost given, many times and many years ago.  For some reason, some fans actually got behind him for the first time.  I was interested in this in 2003, 2006, but surprisingly, not in 2011, at least not when he was battling Randy Orton or the Big Show.  It wasn't compelling.  Daniel Bryan, yes, but not what he actually did as champion, at PPVs.  (His best match was against Bryan, at the live Smackdown, in a steel cage.)

Mistico debuted as Sin Cara and nobody cared.  Okay, I did.  But everyone else didn't care.  Hey, I'm also a fan of John Morrison.

The tag team scene meant nothing but developing and/or using talent the company didn't otherwise particularly care about, but not in compelling ways or compelling combinations.  Cody Rhodes and Dolph Ziggler redeemed the concept of the midcard, and were probably the unsung heroes of the company throughout the year.  Wade Barrett and Sheamus and Jack Swagger all languished at levels that were beneath them (which makes it all the more baffling that Mark Henry apparently didn't have opponents that would actually make him interesting).  Zack Ryder inexplicably received a giant push with the same tired material that got him nowhere two years earlier, with the same limited potential and no signs of growth, except the ability to modestly perform in high pressure scenarios.  R-Truth continued to overachieve with the same basic qualities he's consistently displayed throughout his career.  "Overachieve" because he's consistently deserved better than the relatively modest programs he receives, even when billed as NWA champion.  Morrison, meanwhile, got raw deal after raw deal (on Raw!), sometimes from the suits behind the cameras, sometimes from his own body.

I may be missing an important note here or there.

In TNA, the company started the year with Jeff Hardy in the Miz position, with an incredible amount of faith to carry a program that ultimately proved to be self-destructive.  Hardy was given one too many pushes as champion, for reasons that proved irresponsible and reckless on any number of levels.  He wisely entered a program with Mr. Anderson, who finally became a world champion, but somehow ended up the winner of that feud, which pushed him into a program with Sting, who for practical reasons came out on top, and the hot potato went back to Anderson, and then back to Sting (I think) and then eventually to Kurt Angle.  Angle hadn't been champion since 2009, mind you.  Anyway, the company held this massive tournament to determine the number one contender at Bound for Glory (TNA's WrestleMania, without the hype), and for some reason Bully Ray spent most of the tournament looking like he would win, but it actually came down to Beer Money teammates James Storm and Bobby Roode, with Roode prevailing and challenging Angle at BfG.  For some reason, everyone was extremely angry when Angle won that match (Roode had never in his career been presented as a wrestler anywhere near the caliber of Kurt Angle, mind you, and had spent barely any time as a singles wrestler, at least in TNA).  Anyway, Storm actually did beat Angle, on Impact, and then Roode beat Storm, and suddenly the company actually has both these guys as viable main event players, completely altering the paradigm (they had also been members of Fortune along with other TNA talent, AJ Styles and Kazarian), actually putting things back to where they'd been in 2010, with champions known for their reliability (well, at least Styles and RVD), but with real programs waiting for them.

Oh, and Hardy actually made a comeback after an apparently devastating setback mere months earlier, got his life under control, and agreed to lose his very next championship opportunity.  That's a whole company growing up right there, folks.

ROH actually had probably one of its weaker years, all considered, talent that maybe wrestles the traditional ways but not to a level people particularly cared about.  But with national exposure alumni like Nigel McGuinness might actually help turn that around.  Who knows?  Hell, Daniel Bryan actually closed out the year as a WWE world champion!  Anything can happen!

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