When you’re a fan of a real sport, you aren’t afforded the luxury of being able to change an eventual outcome by simply voicing your opinion. You can chant for the Buffalo Bills as loud as you want, but that’s not going to make NFL commissioner Roger Goodell put them in the Super Bowl. When it comes to WWE, however, the right amount of fan outcry can make a difference. At least, that used to/should be the case.
In the days following this past Sunday’s Royal Rumble match, wrestling fans are feeling a strong sense of deja vu. Last year at this time, the wrestling world was fuming, united by the notion that Daniel Bryan deserved to win the Royal Rumble—a match the WWE brass decided not to even put him in. For the next month, the WWE was met with hostile crowds chanting for Daniel Bryan throughout the shows and relentlessly booing the Rumble’s winner, Batista, whom they were ‘supposed to’ cheer. Eventually, Vince McMahon and company smartened up and decided to insert Bryan into Wrestlemania’s main event, saving the show’s finale from drowning in the boos of over 70,000 fans in attendance.
This time around, Daniel Bryan was in the Royal Rumble—but he didn’t win.
Just recently returning from a career-threatening injury, Bryan was one of the favorites to win the 2015 Royal Rumble. The fans were still fervently behind him upon his return, and with the possibility that he could win the match and go on to Wrestlemania to recapture the title he had to surrender, WWE had the chance to strike gold again with a captivating story that writes itself. They chose to ignore the groundswell of Bryan’s fans this time, though, and go with the guy they want as their new golden goose, Roman Reigns.
That decision alone speaks volumes about both the current state of WWE fandom and the company’s sentiments about it. Today, unlike never before, there are two distinct types of wrestling fan. There are the diehards who read all the insider websites and attend the shows with their own agenda of who they want to cheer and boo. These “internet fans”, as they’re often referred to, tend to support those who work hardest in the ring to put on a good match (Daniel Bryan being a shining example of this). Meanwhile, WWE is clearly more comfortable when they cater to the other part of the audience, those who gladly accept the company’s creative decisions. That portion of the audience cheers and boos who they’re supposed to and buys all the good guy merchandise, all while being seemingly oblivious to the vocal, volatile internet fans around them.
At last Sunday’s Royal Rumble, the WWE higher-ups decided to make themselves very comfortable and reward the “obedient” side of their audience. In fact, they probably should have just put a picture of Vince McMahon smugly giving the finger up on the Titantron for the whole match. Not only was Daniel Bryan eliminated mid-match in a completely anti-climactic fashion, but the booking team decided to give the other Internet fan-favorites even more pathetic showings. Dolph Ziggler and Dean Ambrose—who would have been warmly received consolation prizes since Daniel Bryan wasn’t winning—were ganged up on by aging villains Big Show and Kane and then simply dropped out of the ring like roadkill into a ditch.
The execution of those eliminations just reeked of mockery so badly that the furious Philadelphia crowd could barely even smell what The Rock was cooking that night. That’s right—not even a surprise run-in appearance by legitimate mainstream megastar THE ROCK was enough to cure the crowd’s anger towards this atrociously-booked match. Just like the year before, a hailstorm of boos fell onto intended hero Roman Reigns, even despite The Rock—his real-life cousin—raising his hand in victory. The WWE was going forward with their incredibly polarizing Wrestlemania main event, and didn’t care what the “Internet geeks” thought of it.
Unlike last year, however, word is that Vince McMahon has absolutely zero intention of revising the ‘Mania plan. Maybe he feels like the protesters got their way last year, so he doesn’t owe them this time. They’re going to keep watching and spending their money anyway, right? So what’s the harm? That, unfortunately, is exactly the case.
Being a WWE fan is like being with a periodically cheating lover you’re hopelessly unable to leave. When they betray you (favor the big, good-looking Reigns over the small, bushy-bearded Bryan), you’re left going to bed angry, hurt. But when it comes down to having the nerve to break up with them (cancel the WWE Network), you can’t do it. You just can’t leave behind all the great memories, and deep down, you don’t want to lose hope that everything will still somehow turn out great. Then, to distract you from that betrayal, they do something redeeming (the incredible behind-the-scenes documentary about Wrestlemania 30 that aired the night after the terrible Royal Rumble). You’re stuck together, and you both couldn’t be happier about it.
So, WWE fans both angry and pleased will continue on the Road to Wrestlemania. The company will be able to steer around the unhappy fans thanks to the support of the more easily-pleased casual viewers, but that undoubtedly won’t stop the outspoken ones from voicing their opinions. And why should it? It made a huge difference in the past, which means despite the WWE’s current stubbornness, it could work again. Besides, there’s an old saying—anything can happen in the WWE.