On June 9, former self-styled WWE icon CM Punk — whose departure many of his admirers have yet to reconcile — got teed up, keyed up, and even tickled by welterweight MMA fighter Mike Jackson en route to a second successive UFC defeat. That lopsided loss marked the likely end of Punk’s (nee Phil Brooks, unless you’re Joe Rogan, in which case it’s definitely Punk) several-year expedition into combat-sport parts unknown, and in the process all but sabotaged any shot of his ever returning to the choreographed comfort of Vince McMahon’s squared circle. Even in wrestling, where fans are accustomed to suspending disbelief, it’s hard to sell yourself as the “Best in the World” when everyone with an internet connection knows you can’t really fight.
But as Punk’s legend has dimmed, another midsize underdog who dominated WWE over the past decade has endeavored on the unlikeliest and seemingly most uncontrived of comebacks. Daniel Bryan, the overachieving athlete and genuine mainstream cult phenomenon who never betrayed pretensions beyond entertaining wrestling audiences, was cleared for action after being forced to retire more than two years prior because of neck injuries. Since he laced up his boots at the outset of spring, he’s looked absolutely no worse for wear, and moreover he’s been almost conspicuous in his consistent if unremarkable presence, feuding against up-and-comer Big Cass and even taking clean losses (cooperatively, no doubt) against old indie running mates like Samoa Joe. Bryan has demurred when asked whether he’d rather have been plugged right into the main-event picture, and as he suggests, that will — like all things in his career — be sweeter for the wait.
But what’s loud and clear in his comments and actions is his devotion to wrestling, a clear contrast to Punk’s airy agnosticism and an example to light the path for performers today and perhaps the standard that fans should have for their heroes.
Much of what WWE has put on TV and staged in arenas from San Antonio to Saudi Arabia in 2018 has been, frankly, far from great. (The women on both Raw and SmackDown have arguably been the saving grace, stealing the shows at Royal Rumble and Elimination Chamber and seemingly stepping up to share in some of that Ronda Rousey spotlight.) That said, perhaps it was impossible for the on-air product to get out of its own way until the ghosts of Punk and Bryan were excised, the former through his own stubborn self-ruin (he’s a millionaire, he’ll be fine) and Bryan by resurrecting himself and reminding the rest of us why we watch.
Other Musings From 2018 So Far …
As alluded to, this was the winter and spring of Ronda Rousey, from the anticipation of her arrival to her awkward onscreen debut at Royal Rumble, on through a series of live growing-pains exercises carrying promos that have largely been forgiven on the strength of her worth-every-WWE-dollar WrestleMania mauling of Stephanie McMahon. Based on the positive reaction, her new bosses wasted no time putting her in line for Nia Jax’s title shot. Sure, they preemptively yanked away the trophy this past Sunday (via Money in the Bank cash-in by Alexa Bliss, who had won the briefcase earlier that night). Rousey looked at home in the title picture, though, and that was the point. She got the reps and the story line contrivance to stay there. It’ll be fun and no doubt vexing to see whether she’ll finish out the year as one humble member of an ensemble or stay protected as a precious asset.
Slightly more inauspicious was the brief but bountiful career of preadolescent Nicholas, whom Braun Strowman plucked from the Mania crowd “at random” to face Sheamus and Cesaro. They abdicated their tag titles one day later, which — in fairness — wasn’t that much shorter of a reign than that of Booker T and Test. And no offense to the young lad, but his primary role was to solidify his hulking partner’s preteen fan base. (Unsurprisingly, Strowman won the men’s MITB match on Sunday, officially marking his near-term spot atop the roster.) Speaking of the semi-distant future, it’s hard to overstate how closely the entire wrestling world will be watching what happens when SmackDown debuts on Fox next year, pending that deal’s confirmation, but credit to WWE for always being willing to try and fail. … This year will not be complete until Roman Reigns feuds in earnest with at least two-thirds of the artists formerly known as 3MB. … Finn Bálor still has not held a title since August 2016. One suspects that might change before year’s end, even if it means finally channeling his inner demon. … Despite taking the L in his and AJ Styles’s climactic battle of low blows at MITB, Shinsuke Nakamura has already forever changed the presentation of Japanese wrestlers in WWE, making him one of the company’s — and the sport’s — most important signings in its history. … The Usos are Hall of Famers, which is exciting because they’ve got years left to keep impressing. … After years of imperceptible reboots, Bray Wyatt has, perhaps unwittingly, turned traditional notions of character retooling on their heads. … On the heels of last year’s (bloody) first-ever women’s Hell in a Cell clash and January’s inaugural Women’s Royal Rumble melee, gender parity in WWE crossed another milestone with February’s six-participant, all-female Elimination Chamber gantlet. You had Bayley dropping flying elbows onto the platform, Sasha Banks slamming Mandy Rose into the reinforced steel (welcome to the big time, Mandy); Mickie James firing everyone up midway with a flurry of precision moves; and victorious then-defending Raw Women’s Champion Alexa Bliss Twisted Blissing herself onto Banks from Jimmy Snuka–worthy heights. Alexa caught her breath to pull out a spoiled win, but we were all gasping for air. … Speaking of the women, kudos to ex-Raw Women’s Champion Nia Jax. The Samoan model-athlete held her head high despite a story line pegging her as an emotional punching bag and being asked to haltingly pivot back to proverbial oversized intimidator opposite Ronda Rousey. It turned out she was a lame duck at MITB, as frequent nemesis Alexa Bliss cashed in, but her career is on solid footing. … Looking forward to see how far Andrade “Cien” Almas can go. … Weightier rivalries than Bobby Lashley and Sami Zayn’s have been preempted when things aren’t clicking. … Does the now-former Intercontinental Champion — but clearly Universal Championship–contention-bound — Seth Rollins really feel like He-Man again, or are we all just sticking to the script? … Curt Hawkins may have more than 200 consecutive losses, but unlike the man who cost him no. 200, at least he’s not a Constable. … Give Mike Kanellis a chance (and maybe his own last name back?). … It’s starting to look like John Cena and Ric Flair will maybe just share co-honors as 16-time champions indefinitely. Though I’m curious how close Randy Orton can get. … Rusev is crushing it despite Lana, whose identity crisis is confusing even given the conceit of her real-life bicontinental upbringing. … Bring on the War Raiders (or the Authors of Pain — remember them?). … But whatever you do, don’t dare insinuate that we haven’t seen enough of Brock Lesnar.
For the Record
WWE Male Superstar of the Year So Far: Shinsuke Nakamura
Runners-up: AJ Styles, Braun Strowman, Rusev, Daniel Bryan
WWE Female Superstar of the Year So Far: Nia Jax
Runners-up: Ronda Rousey, Alexa Bliss, Mickie James (really)
WWE Tag Team of the Year So Far: The Usos
Runners-up: Bray Wyatt and Matt Hardy, Bludgeon Brothers, Braun Strowman and Nicholas
Splashiest Debut of the Year So Far: Ronda Rousey
Runners-up: No one’s even close
Comeback Story of the Year So Far: Drew McIntyre (apologies to Daniel Bryan)
Runner-up: Not Bobby Lashley
PPV Match of the Year So Far: Women’s Elimination Chamber Match, February 25
Runners-up: Ronda Rousey and Kurt Angle vs. Stephanie McMahon and Triple H (WrestleMania 34); Women’s Royal Rumble Match (Royal Rumble); Seth Rollins vs. The Miz vs. Finn Bálor (Mania); Charlotte Flair vs. Asuka (Mania); AJ Styles vs. John Cena vs. Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn vs. Dolph Ziggler vs. Baron Corbin (Fastlane)
Underappreciated Male Superstar of the Year: Roman Reigns
Underappreciated Female Superstar of the Year: Naomi
Most Deservedly Pushed of the Year: Seth Rollins
Most Deservedly Placated With a Breezango-Like Push of the Year: The B-Team (Curtis Axel and Bo Dallas)
Best Story Line: AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura
Most Promising NXT Call-up: Ember Moon
Most Poised to Break Through in ’18’s Second Half: Andrade “Cien” Almas