Rarely has absence been as prevalent a theme in professional wrestling as it has been in the last few weeks. At the Royal Rumble, the most notable storyline was the absence of Daniel Bryan from the Rumble match and the negative fan reaction that it created. The next night, CM Punk reportedly walked out on Monday Night Raw over frustration with the booking and his role with the company. In the two episodes of Raw that followed, Punk’s absence became an unspoken storyline of its own. While Michael Cole and the commentary team did not mention Punk, the Omaha fans made sure that his name was the most heard one on the episode with chants throughout the night. Bryan’s absence from the Rumble and Punk’s absence from all WWE programming has created a groundswell of discontent because it has left fans with the feeling that they will never get the payoff they desire in the subtle new school vs. old school meta-program of the wrestling business. While fans need to exercise patience in general, good booking practices dictate that WWE needs to pay off this feud at some point, even if that requires some non-traditional methods.
It has been over a week since news broke that Punk left WWE. My initial feeling was confusion and frustration because he is my favorite contemporary wrestler and reliably puts on a great show in any circumstances. I also assumed that more details would trickle out over the following days. I wanted to learn what caused him to allegedly leave the company over his position on the card only two days after he talked up Daniel Bryan and Batista and a comic convention in Portland. Perhaps it has been due to WWE’s tight-lipped behavior or Punk’s supposed non-responsiveness on the issue, but almost no new details have emerged in the last week. Punk has been removed from the opening montage of Raw and unfollowed by WWE on Twitter, yet he remains prominently displayed on the WWE website. Dirt sheets have reported that Vince McMahon wants to bring Punk back to the company while HHH and Stephanie McMahon are happy to let him stay home. Details are scant and anyone who purports to understand the finer points of the situation is speculating beyond fact. For all we know, Punk took a month off to rehabilitate his beat up body and will make a surprise return at Elimination Chamber or Raw in Chicago on March 3rd. Daniel Bryan’s inclusion in the storyline with Kane and The Authority seems to undermine that assumption, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility.
One thing we know for certain is that Punk has not been on Raw for the last two weeks and seems unlikely to appear on Raw in the near future. That gap has created opportunities for other wrestlers to fill in with more time in the ring and on the mic. In the first couple of weeks without Punk, The Shield has capitalized particularly well on the added opportunities and displayed more face tendencies. Part of the transition has been the juxtaposition with the Wyatt Family and part of it has been Roman Reigns’s steady progression toward a face turn. Regardless of the background reasoning, it is clear that each member of The Shield is destined for even bigger things as the group moves forward. Now that Dolph Ziggler is healthy again, I am also anxious to see if the opening for a high-level face on the card presents him with an opportunity to regain some of the momentum he had about a year ago when he cashed in Money in the Bank (and flashed in a viral promo that aired on WWE.com). If he remains healthy, Ziggler has every tool to be a main event face. He has only lacked the proper angle to permanently establish himself at that level, and Punk’s absence could help increase the urgency of that story.
Regardless of which wrestlers are involved in the main event storylines going forward, the success or failure of WWE will still revolve around building compelling stories over time and then paying off those stories in the end. I suspect that the primary source of fan discontent- in the Omaha arena, on Twitter, and elsewhere- is the feeling that WWE has built up the emotional investment in Punk and Bryan without an appropriate payoff. More and more, WWE has embraced the meta-narrative of success in wrestling as success in the business as well as in the ring. Punk and Bryan have had notable triumphs in the ring- Punk’s beating Paul Heyman atop a cell and Bryan’s destruction of Bray Wyatt in the cage-, but never got the meta-payoff to the storyline that started with Punk’s pipebomb speech in 2011. Since the storyline was only tangentially about Punk’s or Bryan’s success in wrestling matches, a win in a traditional wrestling match can only go so far toward satisfying the emotional payoff.
One could argue that it is unfair to expect WWE executives and writers to shape storylines and invent ways to payoff non-traditional emotional investment, but the McMahons and HHH were fully willing to involve themselves in Punk’s pipebomb storyline. Once the fans chose the side Punk and Bryan against “the machine,” even the most traditional booking philosophy would stipulate that Punk and Bryan had to have some sort of meaningful triumph over that machine at some point to maintain fan investment. Punk’s incremental insinuation in the permanent main event over the last year was a step in the right direction, but his departure signaled a massive step back that undermined whatever progress was made. Punk’s pipebomb speech not only failed to change the way WWE booked wrestlers in general, it failed to even change the way it viewed Punk- or at least that is a reasonable way to read the events of the last two weeks.
It is no surprise, then, that fans became disillusioned not only with Punk’s situation, but with Bryan’s narrative and any other character or storyline that upset the traditional balance of power. Big nights for traditional archetypes like the New Age Outlaws, Randy Orton, Batista, and Sheamus coincided with these meta-losses for non-traditional standard bearers to create a perfect storm of disillusionment. Whether or not it’s true, many fans seem to have the impression that the only way to be successful in WWE (or wrestling in general, given the company’s position of power) is to be a cartoonishly muscled bro who is personal friends with HHH and the McMahon family. Even if that perception is inaccurate, once a critical mass of fans shares that impression, it becomes its own form of reality in the crossover between wrestling storyline and real life. If the WWE did not want fan input on backstage politics and the company’s business interests, then it was a mistake to infuse what is “best for business” in the televised meta-narrative.
Since the frustration runs as deep as it does, there is no quick fix for WWE. Even so, there are ways to eventually reduce the impact of the fans who have “hijacked” live shows of late. At the most basic level, WWE has to create entertaining storylines that give the fans some payoff for their emotional investment. That means that Bryan has to stand tall over HHH and Randy Orton at an important point, likely with the title, to symbolize that he beat the machine and fans were rewarded for their support. The championship reign does not need to last more than a couple of months as long as Bryan eventually loses in a way that does not make it seem like the business of WWE stacked the deck against him. The Shield and the Wyatt Family are already on the right track, and it is notable that fans are engaged in their story and have not “hijacked” the segments. As these six wrestlers continue to evolve, they will earn their spots on the top of the card. Finally, fans openly clamor for more of wrestlers like Dolph Ziggler, Big E Langston, Antonio Cesaro, Cody Rhodes, and Damien Sandow. These wrestlers do not need to be in main event matches and they do not need to win every week on TV, but they deserve to be booked steadily. If they simply had ongoing rivalries that kept them on TV semi-regularly, it would interest fans much more than the dead-end segments like Sheams-Curtis Axel or Batista-Alberto Del Rio (not coincidentally, the portions of the shows with the most CM Punk chants).
In the big picture, WWE has embraced the meta-narrative of the business behind wrestling. It should come as no surprise to the company that fans have become invested in that part of the storyline, nor should it be a surprise that fans are dismayed when the business machinations short-circuit the on-air storytelling. As much as I would like to see CM Punk return to WWE as soon as possible, his return is not the most important way for WWE to address its booking issues. Fans have to feel like their emotional investment in Daniel Bryan as the “Face of WWE” is not entirely in vain or they will lose interest in the product. The same goes for grassroots support of other wrestlers on the way up. That does not mean that every show has to end with unadulterated fan service, but the stories have to build steadily to an eventual payoff. The absence of Punk reminds us that he never got the payoff he sought, and makes it feel like Bryan is destined for the same ignominious fate.