On Sunday WWE held the twenty-ninth annual Survivor Series event at the Phillips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia, and focused on two major promotional tools – the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Undertaker’s debut and the tournament to crown a new WWE World Heavyweight Champion. These tools seemed to be enough to draw intrigue and excitement into the show, but, unfortunately, WWE failed to deliver an overly interesting product.
The Undertaker is one of the most legendary characters in the history of professional wrestling and probably the most successful idea for a gimmick Vince McMahon and WWE has ever produced. Twenty-five years ago, at the 1990 Survivor Series event, Mark Calaway made his debut with WWE as the living deadman with supernatural abilities. In the early nineties, WWE had really goofy characters (i.e. ‘Doink the Clown’) and – on paper – the Undertaker seemed to fit that dynamic.
However, WWE and Calaway’s commitment to the character helped it endure and evolve into a spectacle that has been a major component of the WWE machine ever since.
Today’s WWE landscape is very different from that of the early nineties, given that most characters are grounded in reality and the goofier gimmicks don’t seem to ever work. However, the Undertaker and his kayfabe (wrestling lingo for storyline/in-character) brother – Kane – have managed to endure despite their supernatural characters. At Survivor Series, the ‘Brothers of Destruction’ faced off against WWE’s borderline-supernatural cult – the Wyatt Family – in a match that was totally in the undead brothers’ favor. It was disappointing in the sense that WWE seemingly devoted a lot of creative time and effort to this feud only to have the match end so uneventfully. Kane and the Undertaker won in dominant fashion, and it’s likely we won’t see the Undertaker again until closer to Wrestlemania in April.
After a serious knee injury forced former WWE World Heavyweight Champion Seth Rollins to vacate the championship, WWE scrambled to put together a tournament to crown the vacated championship to a new star. The tournament started a couple of weeks ago on Monday Night Raw and produced excellent, compelling matches that made the tournament feel special. However, Internet speculation and rumors got the best of fans going into Survivor Series and WWE failed to deliver an interesting result.
Best friends Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose predictably won their semi-final matchups to compete against each other for the championship in the show’s main event, and the expectation was that one of these men would turn on their friend in the name of winning WWE’s most coveted prize. However, Reigns won the match clean and Ambrose showed respect for his friend’s accomplishment. Then, Triple H (leader of the villainous ‘Authority’) came out to congratulate the new champion – much to Reign’s chagrin. Reigns then hit Triple H with a ‘spear’, opening up an opportunity for Sheamus to cash in his ‘Money in the Bank’ briefcase and end Roman’s championship reign after a mere seven minutes.
Sheamus won the ‘Money in the Bank’ briefcase back at the event of the same name in June, a puzzling moment at the time. ‘Money in the Bank’ is a concept WWE created to give the winner of the briefcase a contract to compete for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at any time they wish. It has been used as an opportunity to create new champions out of burgeoning superstars (i.e. Edge, CM Punk, and Seth Rollins) or to give established superstars (Randy Orton) the championship at a moment’s notice. Most of all, WWE uses the ‘Money in the Bank’ briefcase as a crutch to create an exciting moment in a difficult booking situation.
For example, at Wrestlemania 31 this past March, WWE called for Seth Rollins to cash in his championship contract to create intrigue for a match that fans had turned on months earlier when Roman Reigns won the opportunity to compete against Brock Lesnar for the championship. It was common knowledge amongst wrestling fans and the ‘dirt sheets’ reporting the information that WWE wanted Reigns to dethrone Lesnar as champion and officially become the new face of the company. However, due to fans believing that Reigns wasn’t ready to take on that role, plans changed and Rollins was introduced into the match (ultimately winning the championship).
On Sunday, WWE booked themselves into a predictable corner with Reigns and Ambrose facing each other for the championship and called upon the ‘Money in the Bank’ winner to make things interesting. However, the latest briefcase holder – Sheamus – hasn’t exactly been the most compelling part of WWE programming in the last six months (far from it, actually). It was always WWE’s intention to present Sheamus as a monster heel and they have been stubborn with it, as evidenced by giving him the championship contract. However, the reimagining of his character hasn’t been given anything remotely interesting to do and has been mostly met with chants of ‘you look stupid’, rather than fan-invested, passionate cheers or boos.
WWE’s stubbornness to stick with Sheamus’ reimagined gimmick booked WWE into corner that didn’t have many compelling or fresh options for Survivor Series. Either Sheamus cashed in and won the championship or Roman Reigns/Dean Ambrose walked out as the new WWE World Heavyweight Champion after turning on their comrade, and both scenarios would have displeased WWE’s fan base no matter how they would have been presented.
Ideally, WWE could have realized that the Survivor Series WWE World Heavyweight Championship tournament was too predictable or that Sheamus had failed to resonate with audiences and maybe should not have ever won the ‘Money in the Bank’ championship opportunity. However, professional wrestling is interesting in the sense that it is an ongoing story that has no offseason, leaving it susceptible to numerous creative mistakes (subjective to the WWE fan). WWE may never be able to please all of its fans with a single story, but it can be frustrating for fans when the company squanders potential opportunity to tell interesting stories with relevant characters.
Survivor Series had the potential to be so much more interesting, but, alas, failed to deliver. The beauty of WWE is that it can make things interesting every week and isn’t permanently affected by a subpar show, so long as they have a plan to capitalize on their more compelling stories and performers.
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