Winner: CM Punk & Daniel Bryan
A decade ago, they were paying their dues in numerous independent promotions. At the time, few expected them to become major players in the WWE. In 2012, no one disputed their rise to the main event.
The day after CM Punk regained the WWE Championship at the 25th Survivor Series last year, he claimed that the game of championship “hot potato” was over. No more transitional champions for the foreseeable future. More than a year later, he has kept his promise.
As his ongoing feud with John Lauranaitis continued into 2012, The Straight Edge Superstar survived numerous challenges to his second WWE title run. He bested Dolph Ziggler at the Royal Rumble, five other combatants in a superb Elimination Chamber contest and even Mark Henry in a terrific no disqualification match on Raw.
Then came Chris Jericho. After initially fighting over who really is “the best in the world”, the angle became needlessly and questionably personal, not to mention predictable and monotonous. Jericho tried to get under Punk’s skin by bringing up his family’s history of addiction. He even attempted, by coercion. to get him to become an alcoholic like his father. (I’m not sure smashing a vodka bottle over his head was the right approach, though.)
Punk was never ever going to suddenly start drinking (was there really any doubt about that?) and the constant taunting by his opponent grew more and more tedious and pointless. Nevertheless, despite these storytelling flaws, both men had the best match at WrestleMania 28. Even Jericho’s early digs (“Hey Punk! How’s your father?” “Hey Punk! How’s your sister?”) were far funnier and effective than anything he said leading up to their encounter. In the end, Punk got Jericho to tap out to the Anaconda Vice. He also won their rematch at Extreme Rules.
Meanwhile, Daniel Bryan was starting off the year flush with success of his own. After The Big Show defeated Mark Henry for the World Heavyweight Championship at last year’s TLC, the former champion made sure the new champion didn’t have much of a post-match celebration. After a succession of chair shots, Bryan ran to the ring, cashed in his Money In The Bank briefcase (which he won in a stellar MITB ladder match five months earlier) and pinned a helpless Big Show less than a minute after his own triumph.
Bryan, who had been a well-respected babyface up to this point, was starting to show signs of villainy as the new year arrived. He started an obnoxiously repetitive “Yes!” chant (actually it was pretty amusing), stolen from MMA fighter Diego Sanchez, and he re-named his finisher, the LeBell Lock, the Yes Lock. At the otherwise underwhelming Royal Rumble pay-per-view in January, Bryan squeaked out a lucky victory against Big Show and Mark Henry in a well-booked triple-threat cage match. (He fell from the top of the cage after Show lost his grip on him.) In an even better Elimination Chamber match, despite the thrilling efforts of last-minute substitute and remaining challenger Santino Marella (who replaced an injured Randy Orton) who thrived in the role of the popular underdog, Bryan got a submission victory and retained his title.
Then came the opening match of WrestleMania 28. After kissing his on-screen girlfriend AJ Lee (who he didn’t exactly treat very well in the preceding months), he got blindsided by Sheamus’ brogue kick and saw his three-month World title run end in less than 20 seconds. (Bryan later dumped his gal blaming her for the loss, saying he wasn’t ready.) Normally, when you drop the title like that you lose a considerable amount of momentum and go back to the mid-card. But amazingly, Bryan’s stock rose even higher.
As the Miami crowd voiced their displeasure by continuously imitating his Yes! chants throughout the night, their response was clear. They felt Bryan deserved another go with Sheamus. Although he didn’t regain the title in their best two out of three falls rematch at Extreme Rules, the 20-minute battle received very positive notices. And the Yes! chants continued unabated.
Which brings us back to CM Punk. After ending his program with Chris Jericho, next up was old rival Bryan who Punk dismissed as “Goat Face” because of his horrendous-looking beard. At Over The Limit, both men put together a very good match for the WWE title. Punk got the duke, though.
A month later at the revived No Way Out, they squared off again with Kane thrown in the mix in a triple threat match that had the added attraction of the mysterious AJ who appeared to have mixed feelings about everybody. (When she wasn’t kissing lips she was slapping faces or causing general havoc by skipping around the ring like a schoolgirl.) Her involvement not only helped sell the angle considerably, it assured Punk’s title reign would continue.
On the 1000th episode of Raw, Punk and Bryan would see their on-screen characters enjoy new wrinkles as they entered the second half of the year. On the 999th edition, the former World Heavyweight Champion had managed to reconcile with AJ and even propose marriage which she accepted. (This only happened after Punk turned down her proposal. He made the mistake of saying he liked crazy chicks. (AJ has a mean streak that comes out of nowhere.)) Unfortunately, the following week, she dumped him in the middle of the ceremony (which was being officiated by Slick!) and became the new general manager of the show. Soon, Bryan, feeling that the crowd had been mocking him with those Yes! chants since WrestleMania, would counter them with a No! chant of his own, a brilliantly simple way to keep his heat. Inevitably, the Yes Lock became the No Lock.
Meanwhile, Punk was showing signs of turning heel. After a verbal confrontation with The Rock early on, he clotheslined and GTS’d the People’s Champ at the show’s exciting conclusion, setting up their likely title match at the 2013 Royal Rumble. (Rock appeared on this particular edition of Raw to specifically announce his intentions to challenge the WWE Champion for the belt at that very show, whoever that may be.)
After being humiliated by his vengeful ex, Bryan started developing an anger problem not at all helped by the Yes! chants. After beating Kane (who later flipped out on backstage interviewer Josh Matthews numerous times) at SummerSlam, AJ ordered them both to go to therapy which transformed the duo into an unlikely comedy team. The bit was so popular with fans the WWE kept it going for weeks until they became an equally unlikely tag team. After replacing The Prime Time Players as the number one contenders to the World tag team titles, they defeated R-Truth and Kofi Kingston at Hell In A Cell to win the belts. They’re likely to stay champions through to the new year. As an added bonus, their dysfunctional union helped revive a once torment tag team division.
At the same time, Punk renewed his great rivalry with John Cena at Money In The Bank while starting a new one with colour commentator Jerry Lawler who claimed that his attack on The Rock was a sign he was turning against the fans which greatly irritated the WWE Champion. Like the previous MITB event in 2011, Punk got the push over Cena. After numerous verbal and physical confrontations with The King (including a non-title cage match on Raw where a bloodied Punk cleverly referenced Andy Kaufman to get under his skin and beat the crap out of him when he wouldn’t declare him the best in the world), Lawler suffered a real-life massive heart attack at the announce booth on live TV (which put the feud on hold) but thankfully, due to the professional diligence of nearby medical personnel, he made a complete recovery.
At SummerSlam, Punk etched out another win against Cena and The Big Show, who had also renewed an old rivalry with the leader of the Cenation, in yet another triple threat encounter. At Night Of Champions, a Cena/Punk double pin after a long but well received battle ended in a draw but there would be no one-on-one blow-off match due to Cena legitimately hurting his ankle and needing immediate surgery on his right arm.
Enter Ryback. As Punk started aligning himself with the evil chipmunk Paul Heyman and talking trash with former greats like Bret Hart and Mick Foley while also renewing his feud with the returning Lawler by hilariously albeit controversially mocking his recent health scare (Heyman feigned his own heart attack, much to my amusement), Big Hungry was eager to take Cena’s place at Hell In A Cell, especially after the champion attacked the former Mankind backstage. When Punk couldn’t decide who he would rather face at the event, Vince McMahon chose for him. But as Ryback was closing in on a victory, rogue referee Brad Maddox gave him a shot to the groin and fast-counted Punk to a shady victory.
When Cena and Ryback both challenged Punk in yet another triple threat title match at the Survivor Series (Ryback and Punk were originally scheduled to be on opposing teams of five in a traditional tag team elimination match before the changed booking), the Straight Edge Superstar caught a huge break when three NXT talents (Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose and current NXT Champion Seth Rollins) took out Ryback on a gimmick announce booth as Punk pinned a downed Cena in the ring.
Although another Ryback/Punk title match was booked for the upcoming TLC, it was ultimately cancelled due to a previously undisclosed real-life knee injury that had befallen the WWE Champion well before he was annihilated by Big Hungry on a recent Raw. (The on-screen thrashing will allow the real-life Phil Brooks to take a much-needed breather in the ring til the new year.)
As a replacement match, Daniel Bryan and Kane will team with Ryback to take on new rivals Reigns, Ambrose and Rollins, who are now known as The Shield, in a Tables, Ladders & Chairs match where, for the first time, a pinfall or submission will end the bout. Normally, you have to climb a ladder to retrieve a prize like a championship belt in these kind of matches. However, Team Hell No’s tag titles are not up for grabs in this situation.
Besides remaining WWE Champion for more than a year, Punk was also given the honour of being on the cover of the video game WWE ’13 which was well reviewed, he made numerous media appearances (a number of which were about his entertaining short-lived Twitter feud with Chris Brown), he was the subject of a popular, critically praised DVD about his life and career in wrestling, and he’s dating Lita. Despite his occasional dickishness on Twitter and in real-life (there was the unfortunate slugging of an innocent fan he wrongly thought was harassing him during the end of an episode of Raw which he later apologized for), he’s finally achieved the real-life professional respect he’s long sought and deserved.
For his part, Bryan was one of several WWE talents to appear on a funny wrestling-themed edition of The Soup and even though his own DVD was just a 90-minute single-disc cheapo compilation, in spite of its limitations and lack of a behind-the-scenes documentary, it nicely demonstrates just how quickly the former vegan has evolved in just two years on the main stage.
As Punk recovers from his successful surgery ending the year with the sixth longest WWE title reign in history and Bryan continues to declare, “I’m the tag team champions!” to an unconvinced Kane who feels he’s the only one worthy of that catchphrase, both men can take pride in the fact they proved all their doubters completely wrong. They’re not the biggest nor the strongest men to ever step into that ring but they didn’t have to be. Their mic skills (particularly their wit), their technical brilliance, their consistently good storytelling abilities are the reasons they can both lay claim, at least in 2012, to being The Best In The World.
Loser: Clint Eastwood
It was a last-minute decision and for the millions who witnessed it, probably not a wise one at that. When Clint Eastwood walked out on stage during the Republican National Convention in August and proceeded to have an improvised, rambling one-sided conversation with an empty chair that was meant to represent President Obama, it didn’t exactly go so well.
The stunt led to many parodies and much derision, especially on Twitter. Everyone from Jon Stewart to even the WWE had a field day with it. Film critic Roger Ebert, on the other hand, found it incredibly sad.
Eastwood’s spontaneous presentation not only didn’t help Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s prospects for the American Presidency (he still lost despite Eastwood’s March 2012 endorsement (he originally didn’t support the former Governor) and his participation in a follow-up campaign ad), it also failed to get many people excited about his latest film, Trouble With The Curve, a baseball drama that divided critics and had a modest commercial run.
Speaking of movies, Eastwood’s J. Edgar, his late 2011 biopic about the notorious FBI director, was completely snubbed by the Academy Awards this year. (Critics didn’t like it, either.) And there wasn’t much positive press nor great ratings (just a million an episode) for Mrs. Eastwood & Company, the E! reality show that mostly focused on his blended family. (The four-time Oscar winner only made a small number of cameos.)
Although the gravelly-voiced octogenerian actor/director received plenty of praise (except from paranoid conservatives) for his work in the widely seen two-minute It’s Halftime In America commercial about the revival of the Michigan auto industry which aired during The Super Bowl, it turns out he didn’t actually support the federal government’s bailout of said industry, tarnishing his credibility.
Normally, with old age comes great wisdom. In the case of 82-year-old Clint Eastwood, however, that’s just not the case.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, December 10, 2012