Wrestling fans are embarking on one of the most intriguing builds to Wrestlemania in years, but for all the wrong reasons. We are seemingly heading towards one of the most redundant and unwanted main events since sports entertainment’s equivalent to the Super Bowl began in 1985, which is a considerable achievement in light of the less than illustrious company that the Batista/Orton confrontation will have from the event’s turbulent 30 year history. Even as Batista tweaks his character to take advantage of the fans’ overwhelming rejection of his return and even if the WWE were to move the match down the card or insert CM Punk into the title fight, Wrestlemania 30 as a whole just feels unnecessary and its build devoid of any progression or star power. Wrestlemania 30 is just going to ‘happen’ and although it will be the most lucrative of its past incarnations it has done so despite itself.
Heading towards New Orleans you can’t help but wonder how did we get here? How did the WWE get to its biggest event of the year without any major matches that fans are actually excited to see?
Bringing in Batista to headline Wrestlemania isn’t the problem, the problem is WWE’s unhealthy lack of foresight and its reliance on outside stars for the previous three years. The biggest news to come out of February’s Elimination Chamber pay-per-view was not only that the fans were still rejecting Batista as a good guy but that the WWE was persisting with marketing him as a conquering babyface. Even with Alberto Del Rio pulling out every dastardly trick from the villain playbook the crowd still cheered for him and heckled Batista with an intensity that the WWE had not foreseen. In WWE’s race to lock in a main event for Wrestlemania, it may have terminally damaged wrestling’s biggest night as the closing match looks like fans will take twisted pleasure in universally condemning the match and ensuring it goes down in wrestling infamy as the moment when the crowd destroyed Wrestlemania. Nevertheless, there is still time to save the sinking ship by injecting someone else into the storyline. But with Bryan headed for HHH at Mania, the only real possibility is for Punk to make a dramatic return which would have fantasy bookers delirious with joy but seems unlikely at this stage.
The real problem though isn’t simply with the return of Batista and bad booking. The issue is the WWE’s lack of credible main eventers and foresight for their product. Batista left on a high note, he had perfected his character and was doing some of the best work of his career when he left but the wrestling world has evolved in the years since. Bringing Batista back to headline Wrestlemania as a straight-laced babyface in a climate where the fans are rejecting John Cena and Randy Orton, Batista’s era cohorts, reflects a horrible understanding on the part of WWE and its creative directors for the direction of their product and the tastes of the audience. The fans that are relentlessly booing Batista don’t necessarily hate him, they hate the fact that he was brought in and inserted straight into the main event of Wrestlemania with no consideration of what they, as the paying customers, actually want from the WWE.
The WWE has boxed itself into a corner after three years of short-term booking and continual reliance on outside people to get a casual audience invested. Bringing in Batista with no build continues an unhealthy trend of looking outside the company come Mania time. The logic is sound- it’s the company’s biggest event of the year and they need to get as many eyes on the product as possible. CM Punk, while great, won’t bring any new fans to the table but someone in a hot Hollywood movie might. The problem with this approach is that in doing so the WWE have not managed to build any new homegrown stars that could main event Wrestlemania and looking forward to Wrestlemania 31 the situation seems even more desperate. This year’s confirmed Mania card just doesn’t have any feeling of consequence or significance; the wrestlers and the storylines seem to just be window dressing for an app and a network and no feud seems to make any kind of sense.
John Cena officially entering into a Mania program with The Wyatt Family is perhaps the strangest development heading into March. Cena is undoubtedly the face of not only the WWE (at least to the company itself) but of professional wrestling outside of Mexico and Japan. He is sports entertainment’s most marketable star and continues to be head and shoulders above the rest of the WWE roster in merchandise sales. Although The Wyatt Family are hot at the moment, Bray Wyatt against John Cena just doesn’t feel right at this year’s Wrestlemania. It’s hard to imagine where it might fit on the card let alone how they will get Cena cheered against such a hot, likeable bad guy in Wyatt. In any case this is a notable step into the background for the superstar that has headlined the previous three Wrestlemanias and perhaps an overdue acceptance by the WWE of fan exhaustion with Cena and his position as perennial alpha dog.
It was speculated earlier this year that the WWE was planning on giving Cena a more relaxed schedule to try and lengthen his career. It’s always difficult to separate fact and fiction with any wrestling news stories that are circulated but this would appear to be a step into not only minimising his workload but also giving others more of an opportunity to grow into bonafide stars. On the other hand Cena has always had the knack of knowing what the fans want and then associating himself with it. Regardless, his beating at the hands of the Wyatts for the second PPV in a row culminated at a really weird time in Cena’s career. For someone who has been involved in the main event storyline for four months he still feels like he has been treading water with no direction, which is symbolic of the entire WWE in 2014 as they perpetually run through the motions, unsure of where they’re headed or who they’re going to hitch their wagon to.
CM Punk became so worn out by this lack of direction he walked out on the company the day after the Royal Rumble PPV. He was candidly gobsmacked by the indecision of the Wrestlemania card and the inability of the WWE to develop any kind of plan for their characters. Something that sounds all too appropriate when talking about the vague air surrounding the direction of the WWE’s current and future main event stars. In Punk’s mind, the uncertainty was because the WWE literally had no idea where it was going and always needed to keep its options open. His absence from the Elimination Chamber and Raw has been notable but not excessive, while the crowd has chanted for his return Daniel Bryan has been shoehorned perfectly into his anti-establishment spot and match with HHH at Mania.
Even so, Vince McMahon must still be very anxious about the number 2 merchandise seller’s absence from his product, evident by his amiable handling of the situation. Where in the past he threw Stone Cold under the bus for walking out, this time around McMahon has been cautious about protecting one of the major characters in his company. Because without a doubt Punk, although disenfranchised, is still one of only four viable top tier full time performers the WWE has right now. Those four being Cena, Orton, Punk and Bryan. Some might argue Sheamus and Batista should be there too but they both don’t fit in the category at this stage (It’s doubtful either will ever reach the level of the mentioned four). A grim reality which has seemingly hit the WWE like a ton of bricks as it scrambles to create new top level talent and fast track new stars.
So at Elimination Chamber fans were confronted with another intriguing mini storyline in the real life WWE machine. As The Wyatt Family battled The Shield or more specifically Bray Wyatt battled Roman Reigns- two fresh characters that WWE have gone a long way to protect and make strong and with good reason. Wyatt has a distinct look and character that has the fans invested and eating out of his hand while Reigns has the look and presence of a star. The Shield are all potential future World Title holders but there isn’t any doubt Reigns is the one with a rocket strapped to him shooting him straight up the WWE pecking order. The Shield and Wyatt match at Elimination Chamber was red hot, perhaps the hottest the crowd has been for anyone not named Daniel Bryan. The Shield, even after more than a year of making their entrance through the crowd, interrupting matches and having six man tags is still as popular as ever with the audience. As a viewer and fan there is no reason to break up The Shield at this point or end their rivalry with The Wyatt family so abruptly but the company is looking to the bigger picture.
The WWE needs new stars quickly, and not just new superstars, they need new top level guys for the company. The handling of Reigns has been quite heavy handed to say the least, especially for someone unproven as a singles competitor. Although he already looks like a main event character and his presence in the ring oozes stardom, the fans have only had to rally behind him in short bursts and that’s after his two stable mates have built the tension leading to his entrance into a match or situation. It harkens back to Punk’s frustration at the WWE’s inability to have foresight and their failure to create new faces because even though Reign’s rise as a competitor has been perfect, the rush to get he and Wyatt further up the card feels like a quick fix solution, not unlike Ryback before them. However, it is no wonder they are looking for quick fixes, their audience is exhausted of Cena and Orton at the top and with Punk gone that leaves only Daniel Bryan as the face of the WWE.
And what about Bryan? The WWE have been continuously hesitant to pull the trigger with him. Storyline wise it’s because The Authority doesn’t have faith in his ability as the face of the WWE and you can’t help but feel there is truth to that belief from the actual WWE powers that be. It’s hard to imagine the thought process the WWE must be having about Bryan right now, it’s easy to see them purposefully using him at specific stages throughout the 3-hour Raw to not only build interest in the program but also limit the live crowds obsession with him. He might not be Vince McMahon’s idea of a face of the WWE but he certainly is the face for the die-hard fans. And with Punk gone the fans are clinging on to Bryan even harder as their anti establishment hero. He personifies what the fans want and that’s change, something that the WWE has struggled with throughout its entire history. After this week’s RAW it has become even more likely that the Bryan/HHH match may indeed headline Wrestlemania after all, which is funny on a few different levels. But it’s not the match fans wanted to end Bryan’s year long search for the WWE Championship and it has come completely out of desperate necessity for the WWE.
For a company that always spouts out how innovative it is away from the screen, it has always been its stars that force the company to change the on screen product. WWE continue to rely on things that have worked for them in the past and repeatedly go back to the well the instant something doesn’t look to be working. Then when spots need to be filled, Creative rush characters to the top that aren’t ready causing them to be rejected by the crowd; a cycle that has been on repeat for the last few years. It’s a cycle that has existed well and truly since the Hogan era and continues to leave bad tastes in mouths of fans that have been passionate for the product their entire lives. As Triple H and Stephanie McMahon berate Randy Orton for his missteps as their chosen face of the WWE, it’s hard not to imagine the real WWE authority panicking behind the scenes about their top level talent in this current climate. With fans bored of Cena and Orton, Punk seemingly gone and Bryan being incredibly successful as the underdog who is ‘buried’ by The Authority, the WWE has to consider who will market their product for the next year let alone main event their PPVs.
As Wrestlemania 30 fast approaches in a confusing air of last minute match making and an apparent lack of intrigue and card shuffling, the WWE has somehow bumbled into making it the most engaging PPV it has had for the last few years. Outside the matches themselves, the biggest event of the year is proving to be a cauldron of critical debate about the direction of the business and what wrestlers will lead it into the next generation. Regardless of what headlines Mania, the build up has been nothing short of embarrassing for the company outside the ring and the lack of main event wrestlers, never more glaring. By the time Wrestlemania 30 comes and goes, whether we see the spectacle of 80,000 people reject Batista and Orton or scream ‘yes’ alongside Daniel Bryan it’s what happens after the event that is truly the most intriguing.
Will the WWE machine continue to move forward with the lack of foresight that has led them to this near disaster? Will they continue to disregard their audience’s desires and dictate the story rather than let it evolve? And most importantly who in the hell is going to headline Wrestlemania 31?
The Sad Demise of Bolton Wanderers Football Club
It is hard to believe the dismal state Bolton Wanderers find themselves in
If you watched the English Premier League during the early 2000s, you would have been familiar with the plight of Bolton Wanderers. The long running club is now in absolute dire straits, bereft of resources, searching desperately for new owners as it staves away its seemingly inevitable end. It is truly a sad turn of events for a club that has been around for almost 150 years, once known as the plucky, never-die team of English football’s top flight.
The Greater Manchester club, gleefully nicknamed ‘The Trotters’, were always a group of ragtag underachievers who constantly overachieved. The club, under the tutelage of Big Sam Allardyce, spent several Premier League seasons languishing at the bottom end of the table staving off relegation before progressing to mid-table safety. It wasn’t that they were good, because, for the most part, they weren’t, but it was because they always found a gutsy way of surviving by sheer determination, miraculous last game results, and for finding the last remaining ounce of juice left in washed-up players looking for one last round of glory.
It’s the latter point perhaps, that endeared Bolton to fans who didn’t spend their weekends at the Reebok Stadium. Bolton was the home to many talents that found new life under Allardyce. Players that managed to thrill a mostly dull part of the footballing world with European flair and Nigerian spice. I have fond memories of the indomitable Jay-Jay Okocha and Youri Djorkaeff reminding fans of their class. Then there were the bruising, hard-hitting playing styles of Ivan Campo and Fernando Hierro- adding much-needed steel to that Bolton lineup. They complimented the steadfast if not boring quality that came with the ever-present Jussi Jääskeläinen and Kevin Davies. Atop them all sat Big Sam- who long before he became a joke in English football, was the no-frills, old-school English manager who took Bolton up from the old Division One to the Premier League. And during his run, he became known for being able to get Bolton out of trouble at the last minute, no matter how ugly the season had been. They made an FA Cup Semi Final and the Round of 16 of the UEFA Cup, somehow beating Atletico Madrid along the way.
Those days are sadly long gone as the club find itself languishing in the third tier of English football, once again ending the previous season relegated. Mired in financial disarray, the club has been in control of administrators since May, with its long-awaited takeover by new owners (whoever they may end up being) dragging on and on. The sad state of affairs has been punctuated by the club unable to pay its players and staff, canceled pre-season friendlies, and quite possibly the saddest team sheet in all the time I’ve been a fan of English football. As of this time, their official team page has but 7 players listed (no defenders), not even enough to field a full first team. If by the time you read this they’re able to pull their socks up and field a full team, it’ll be a miracle.
Their financial downward spiral hit breaking point in 2015 when the club found itself £172.9 million in debt. It only seemed to get worse from there. Unpaid taxes, transfer embargoes, manager changes, poor results, and most depressingly, non-playing staff having to use food bank donations to feed themselves (including donations from rival club Preston North End).
It really is hard to believe the dismal state Bolton find themselves in. I can’t imagine what it must be like for a true Wanderers fan to face the reality of their club in 2019. It’s not that the club has ever been successful (their last significant trophy was the 1958 FA Cup), but from the outside, their grit, their pluck, and their ability to seemingly escape the direst of circumstances made them endearing. They were the underdog team of has-beens, never-rans, forgotten souls, and Big Sam.
Now it seems their darkest days are closing in. Football fans surely would love for new owners to come in, reset the club, and start that long, arduous journey back into stability. But their new season hopes don’t even start on any positive note, with their financial failings they’ve already been docked 12 points before the start of the new season. Even with new owners, it will take a significant time to turn things around. The best they can hope for is to pull a Rangers and find themselves back on the up after 5 or so years… but the English Premier League is a far different beast to that of the Scottish Premier League, just ask Leeds United.
The long road back is never going to be easy. And for Bolton Wanderers, once a club that found its soul with players looking for one last spot of luck, may have run out of its own.
The Long Goodbye: A Spurs fan’s final salute to Kawhi Leonard
Am I a product of my generation? Yes, just like Kawhi and many of today’s younger generation of fans are a product of theirs.
The saga of Kawhi Leonard is over and while his signing to the Clippers means that two fanbases are left incredibly disappointed, there’s one group that is making their overdue final goodbyes. For Spurs fans like myself, it is clear that while the Board Man is a special player, he is a product of the current generation of players- loyal to themselves. It’s OK, I’ve resigned myself to moving on because I was happy that he won in Toronto, happy for everyone involved (except for Drake) because I knew that as soon as he signed for the Clippers, his legacy would no longer be built on unbreakable bonds but rather on personal pursuit alone. And that was never the trait of the silver and black. At times during this saga, I’ve felt like Elliott Gould in Robert Altman’s 1973 movie The Long Goodbye, blinded by what I initially thought was loyalty. But after living through Kawhi sitting out, his demands for leaving, and ultimately, his winning a ring for the North, I’ve realized that in today’s NBA, allegiance, integrity, and trust are the exception, not the norm.
One of my earliest memories of being a Spurs fan was the ragtag group of players assembled for the 1992 season. It was early in my Spurs fandom and only two years into the storied career of David Robinson. The Admiral would become my favorite Spur, and ultimately, my favorite NBA player of all-time, but it was clear early on that he needed help. While Sean Elliott, Willie Anderson, and Avery Johnson were nice pieces, it was memories of wayward Rod Strickland passes that would ultimately encapsulate that time as an NBA fan. But the truth is, it was an important learning phase for any true NBA fan- that success comes with smart moves and dedicated, loyal, and hard working players who forever would put team above the name on the back of the jersey.
The years that followed was a mix of frustration and hope. The team gelled, especially for the 1994-1995 season where the team finished 1st in the Midwest (62-20) and David Robinson would end up capturing the league MVP after a dominant season (27 ppg, 10 reb, 3 blks). It was all awash come playoff time where vivid memories of Hakeem Olajuwon “dream shaking” The Admiral out of his shoes still haunt me to this day.
Perseverance paid off. Both for the Spurs and to fans like myself. Then general manager Gregg Popovich took on the additional responsibility of running the ship from the sideline, David Robinson was never traded, he rarely complained, and the miracle of the 1997 NBA Draft changed the fortunes of the franchise forever.
The years that followed were graced by the very best kind of basketball for basketball purists. While the league continued to flourish under the star power and glamour of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, the Spurs quietly put together championship pedigree devoid of front page drama, superstar whinging and a sense of loyalty to the city and team that has all but become extinct in today’s NBA. My generation of Spurs fans are lucky to have lived through 5 championships, but also lucky that we were able to stay true to a team that had loyalty in their DNA. We were blessed that Tim Duncan got to take the court with players Tony Parker and Manu. Both absolutely crucial to the titles and the teams, both exhibited the kind of character seemingly rare today.
Kawhi was supposed to be the next titan of the team. We saw what was possible with his captaincy and Finals MVP run for the 2014 ring. He was supposed to continue the Spurs legacy. What we got instead was an endless whinge-fest, culminating in his sitting out all but 9 games of the 2017-2018 season. The mysterious ailment that plagued him, his battle with Spurs management, his desire to “go home” to California, and his distance from other Spurs players led to so much unnecessary frustration. In March of 2018, Manu was quoted as saying; “For me, he’s not coming back because it’s not helping [to think Leonard is returning]. We fell for it a week ago again. I guess you guys made us fall for it. But we have to think that he’s not coming back, that we are who we are, and that we got to fight without him.”
It’s the kind of distraction that my 7th-grade basketball coach would have found embarrassing. Kawhi did the Spurs dirty, and while fans often project the burden of legacy on to players even when they never set out to be, it is the unfortunate fall out of being a great player- especially one that at the time, seem to fit the mold. Kawhi has now done the Raptors dirty, and if he wins a title in Clipper-land, he will most likely do them dirty too. It’s his MO, it’s his way, and really, in today’s 2K video game NBA, it’s OK because that’s just the way it goes.
Team basketball is dead, superteam basketball is now the play. Raptors fans are playing it cool, saying that the one title was more than they could have ever asked for. But really, if I was a Raptors fan I would be disappointed because Toronto seemed like such a great place for him to be. A good coach, a good front office, an adoring nation, everything he said he was unhappy with in San Antonio. If I was a Raptors fan, I would be disappointed not because the team didn’t do what the Clippers did and mortgage their future for a chance for more, but because Kawhi proved that there’s no such thing as loyalty- and that it’s OK today as long as there’s some transient success. Perhaps I have been spoiled by Spurs basketball. Spoiled by Popp’s team-first mentality where the glory of championship parades is not the end, but the next beginning. If I was a Clippers fan I would be wary. Not just because Kawhi isn’t as superhuman as we’ve all made him to be. But because the Clippers DID have to mortgage an entire future for Kawhi and Paul George to battle it out against LeBron, against AD, against an entire city that will always hold the Lakers above the Clippers. If I was a Clippers fan, I would be wary of Kawhi’s new 3-year, $103 million dollar deal (with the option to opt-out in two). Not because it means he’s positioned himself for that supermax pay off, but because potentially, he could weasel his way out of the Clippers in two years too.
Am I old and a little bitter? Maybe. I’m grateful of Kawhi’s contributions to that 2014 title- his performance during those finals, especially after the bitter disappointment of the previous year, proved that he was more than capable of being the next Spurs great. He came alive in Game 3, proved his MVP status in Games 4 and 5, and cemented what seemed like the future for the franchise. But in the end, what stands out more for me is the letdown that Kawhi just wasn’t up to par with the Spurs giants that he was supposed to follow. Am I a product of my generation? Yes, just like Kawhi and many of today’s younger generation of fans are a product of theirs.
He could have been placed next to The Iceman, The Admiral, and The Big Fundamental, instead, Kawhi becomes another in the long line of a new generation of NBA superstars beholden to no one but themselves, playing their former teams and fanbases for fools. I feel like Phillip Marlowe, manipulated, trust broken, hearing Kawhi telling me that “maybe I’ll never learn, maybe I’m a born loser”. Maybe he’s right, maybe I’m just waiting for my harmonica moment. It’s the way things go today.