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Observer Newsletter: Latest on CM Punk, SummerSlam direction, booking changes

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  • Observer Newsletter: Latest on CM Punk, SummerSlam direction, booking changes

    WWE did a reset, with four world title changes in eight days, HHH put in charge as the new authority figure, and a week filled with changes in booking that resulted in six different scripts being written for the 7/25 Raw, all featuring new changes in the main booking direction.

    When the dust cleared, SummerSlam on 8/14 in Los Angeles is set for John Cena vs. C.M. Punk to unify the WWE title after a television show that went through several weeks, if not months, worth of booking. Christian vs. Randy Orton in a last man standing match is the Smackdown title bout. This was a change from a triple headliner of Punk vs. HHH, Alberto Del Rio vs. Cena for the WWE title and Christian vs. Orton as was the original plan for the show. With only two weeks of television left before one of the companyís three biggest events of the year, no other matches are definite, and even Cena vs. Punk wonít be officially announced until next week. There will be a womenís Battle Royal on the 8/1 Raw in Indianapolis to determine who faces Kelly Kelly for the title. There appears to be a babyface Sheamus vs. Mark Henry program starting and probably R-Truth vs. John Morrison based on angles shot this week. But itís as unfocused a complete card three weeks out as for a major show in years.

    The Raw show on 7/25 in Hampton, VA, opened with Rey Mysterio pinning The Miz in the finals of the WWE title tournament. After a big celebration, featuring champagne and a staredown, HHH in his television role as the Chief Operating Officer of WWE, announced Mysterio would be defending against Cena in the television main event. Cena won a great match, and when it was over, Punk, whose long talked about vacation ended up being three days, came out from the stage area to his old ROH theme music, ďA Cult of Personality.Ē

    He and Cena faced off in the ring with each holding their version of the belt high. Whether this was the best direction for the angle is debatable. One aspect of the angle, the idea Punk was on the outside, holding the belt hostage, and complaining about and leaving the company is done, remarkably fast. Instead, Punk was used to get over HHH as being able to make the deals and bring back who the fans want. While much of this angleís genesis came from Punk to Vince McMahon, in the end, the angle was going to be shaped for the purposes of getting the family over primarily, and Punk secondarily. In the end, Punk is a bigger star for it. His elevation wasnít shut down as it would have been in the original booking concept, where he was to return at the end of the show, get beaten up by HHH, left laying with a pedigree and Alberto Del Rio would come down, cash in his briefcase, beat him to win the title, and Del Rio would go to SummerSlam and defend against Cena.

    The loser of the week ended up Del Rio, who is not only out the championship for at least the fourth time it was planned for him, but also seems in limbo at SummerSlam instead of being the champion defending in the main event. The company originally felt they wanted Del Rio as champion for a show in the Los Angeles market, to try and draw from the Latin community, and in particular had a long-term plan of Del Rio as champion when they return to Mexico in October with the idea itís the first time a Mexican would hold a WWE title while they were in Mexico, and when TV is being taped for the first time ever in Mexico. It was seen as a chance to really broaden the fan base in what is currently the companyís strongest market. The attack by HHH was designed by make him a strong heel for a match with Punk, and thus, by extension give Punk a strong heel to work with to help him get over as a face.

    Del Rio is still supposed to get the title at some point very soon. Those close to the situation indicate Cena vs. Del Rio is sort of planned for September, but given how frequently things change, the idea they even have a decision on the winner of the SummerSlam main that wonít change several times between now and then is laughable.

    Del Rio was first planned to win the world title on Smackdown at the Royal Rumble, and then at WrestleMania, with the idea of bringing the title to Raw and wrestling Cena at SummerSlam with it. Later, that was changed probably because of the idea WrestleMania was too predictable. He was supposed to win the title then at Money in the Bank, but the decision was made to protect the Punk angle and allow him to leave as champion, since he wasnít actually leaving anyway. The flat return of Ricardo Rodriguez where he just showed up and was back ring announcing after the beating was because the original plan was for Rodriguezís return to result in a distraction that allowed Del Rio to win the title at the end of the Money in the Bank PPV.

    Two title changes, both in excellent matches, plus the return of Jim Ross as an announcer made the Raw show an eventful reset. Historically, the first show of resets are almost inherently newsworthy because the whole idea of a reset is to monumentally change things up. They are usually entertaining and highly praised, and this also had the advantage of two excellent matches with Mysterio. Also, historically, more often than not, resets donít lead to business increases for a variety of reasons, and actually result in declines in more than half the cases because they are usually overreactions as a result of panic booking.

    Whether this will be the exception at this point will be hard to determine at this point, but the SummerSlam buy rate will be a good indicator if Punk can be the elusive missing ingredient that can move business, or if the television direction is a positive. Ratings indicate no movement. In fact, every week since the Punk angle that got so much buzz, the Raw rating was a disappointment. The first two weeks were the lowest two ratings of the year, although 7/4 was going to be no matter what they did, but it dropped more than television as a whole did. Home Run Derby did hurt 7/11. But coming off two title changes on PPV and lesser male demo competition, the increase on 7/18 was less than expected and 7/25, even after the summer Vince angle that always results in an increase, the number was microscopically down. Even with them shooting a Vince angle, giving the idea that a new regime is started, and whatever buzz the Punk angle has, the result was ratings this past week were 9% lower for Raw than the same week last year. Whether it is engaging existing viewers to become more active fans appears empirically to be the case, but it hasnít moved anything thus far to prove itís the case past one night. Whether it is getting new people watching the show, that in fact, is not the case, and if anything, itís very slightly the opposite.

    Money in the Bank was a one-time magical moment that likely did well, but it was more reminiscent of the first One Night Stand PPV, which had a ton of Internet buzz, felt like a game changer as it was going on, did well on PPV, and in the long run meant nothing.

    Preliminary indications have Money in the Bank doing in the range of double what Capitol Punishment did in the United States although it wonít be until the end of August when WWE releases a number. SummerSlam will give a lot better indication as to the legs of the Punk angle and the other changes. Punk will be starting on the road in house shows, with the idea of him working with Cena this weekend, so perhaps there may be an indication with above average walk up business at the shows.

    Among those inside, the most notable thing about Punkís return is that he got Vince McMahon to do what heís had a policy in most cases against doing, which is paying royalty rights to use popular songs instead of WWE self-created music. And whether SummerSlam beats last year or it doesnít, Punk through this angle has moved himself up on the companyís depth charts. Instead of Cena and Randy Orton as the big two, there is now a big three. Whether Punk becomes a difference maker is a different story.

    Whether, because he doesnít have the size and physical look that they like from their top guys, heís not shot down from this level by next year is a question. Under normal circumstances Iíd say itís likely, but the company is well aware of its depth issue and I donít see them overtly sabotaging anything. Then again, one of the original plans for this past week would have sabotaged the angle completely. But the belief was likely they were screwing him to make him a babyface, make HHH a heel and turn it into a headline program. But will they come close to maximizing the potential? Odds are probably not, just because thatís been the track record of the booking in recent years. Plus, when you constantly change directions, no long-term direction is ever going to hit anywhere near its maximum potential.

    Exactly what the Punk story really is or was is still fuzzy. Based on booking, it would appear he was going to leave during the period he was being buried. Once he started being pushed again, there had to at least be an understanding. Once he cut that promo, the deal had to be already done and it was much like the 2005 ROH angle where Punk and ROH continually gave the impression every show was his last show. On the show that was supposed to be his farewell, because everyone knew he was headed to WWE, he won the ROH title when everyone knew heíd lose. Then, for a couple of months, they hinted every show was his last, but heíd keep retaining the title. That concept got a lot of talk, and a lot of heat. There was no indication it meant anything good or bad for box office, but they did surprise people at the finishes of many of the shows.

    Many feel he shouldnít have come out the entrance as part of the show so quickly, but WWE doesnít do outsider angles well so itís just as well. As far as taking more time off, sure, you can make the argument he should have been kept off until Royal Rumble (bringing him back at Survivor Series would have been a bad idea, because Rock is going to be the main focus of the promotion and of that show, and Punkís return should not be diluted into being No. 2 on a show). But once the decision was made for SummerSlam, you want the match at least announced by 8/1 and promoted from there, which meant his showing up at the end of the show in a cliffhanger had to be by 7/25. That was just the hand that was dealt with timing of the show. Not having the main event announced on television until 8/8 would have been foolish.

    While to a lot of people, Punk was the big story, internally, it was very clear that it is still all about the family, and Punkís return on TV was all about getting HHH over. So while you can come up with a lot of better options than what they did, if youíre a Punk fan, it was as good as it was going to get because Punk was not going to be made into a bigger deal than HHHís new role. Whether HHH eventually goes heel and feuds with Punk, which was also on the drawing board at one point, well, that more depends on whether they want HHH to go heel and when. Right now, he is showing no indication of it. The Raw mystery General Manager podium was set up, but they never had any e-mails from him nor was he ever mentioned. That angle is another that had long since ran its course.

    The company went to great lengths to keep the arrival of both Punk and Ross a secret before they aired. Both were kept away from almost everyone in the company. They were sent to different hotels from everyone else for fear someone would see them. Neither came into the building until they were given the signal it was their time, both being hidden somewhere on the premises. The returns of both Punk and Ross were actually not even on the sixth and final script for the show and aside from those who had to directly interact with them on television, the talent wasnít even aware of either of them being in town. Ironically, the arena itself was advertising Punk as being there on the day of the show.

    The Ross return came because they wanted to show that itís a new era, and HHH would talk about bringing back someone, people would think it was Punk, then it wouldnít be Punk, and they didnít want people groaning at it being a letdown. About the only people who could have fit the bill were people under contract to TNA, people who they donít have interest in being back, or stars of the caliber of Ross, Shawn Michaels, Batista, Chris Jericho or Mick Foley. Michaels no doubt wouldnít come back as a weekly character. Batista and Jericho both donít appear to have returning to wrestling as part of either manís immediate plans. Foley was supposed to be in Philadelphia the next day, although we havenít heard of him being backstage and he never appeared on television. But there is dialogue on that front and most expect some form of a deal to eventually be made.

    As far as Ross went, the way it was presented, was that he was back full-time as the lead host of Raw, but that it would be a three-man booth with Jerry Lawler and Michael Cole. The problem is that as good as the Cole character is at playing his role, the Cole heel announcer thing ran its course months ago. It really was never good for the broadcast, but at least until a few months ago you had the argument it was building an out of the box program with Lawler that was at least hot until WrestleMania.

    Since then itís become annoying, and made worse since Cole is on both shows. When Ross came out, Cole tore into him, notably making fun of his restaurant closing, his weight, and all the inside comments, which sure sounded like a Vince McMahon ambush. Where Ross was allowed to shine in the main event is because they had Cole wrestle, and thus took him out of announcing for the rest of the show. But it was made clear Cole would be back as a three-man team, with the storyline that HHH wanted to fire Cole, but he found out his severance package would be so expensive it wasnít cost-effective firing him.

    Money in the Bank showed that horrible announcing canít ruin a show with great wrestling and great crowd heat.

    However, Ross announcing the Cena vs. Mysterio match, that would have been a great presentation either way, did help the match get over because the match was treated as if it was important and a contest as opposed to the match being a backdrop to the announcers bickering being at times the primary product. A straight man call made the match feel a lot more important than the earlier Mysterio vs. Miz match felt, even though the crowd was very much into both. Still, with Cole as the voice of Vince, and the weird McMahon/Ross dynamic, Coleís role in the broadcast of Vince trying to get at Ross live every week can get old in a hurry. On Smackdown with Booker, even though itís not as mean spirited, itís beyond played out.

    The return of Ross, 59, marks another cycle in the pattern of the company deciding to get rid of him, based on his age and look, only to bring him back. While he had been fired twice in 1994, he previously as an announcer by McMahon, once after an attack of Bellís Palsy and once due to an interview he did during the period he was fired being published after he was re-hired and it rubbed McMahon the wrong way. The third time he was out was in 1998, due to his second attack of Bellís Palsy. He was not fired from the company, but was removed and replaced by Michael Cole. In 1999, he was brought back, and since fans did not react well to Cole in his position, they decided to do a television feud where Ross would be portrayed as delusional and nuts, with Cole as the babyface voice of reason. The feud was dropped because even how it was portrayed, the crowd cheered Ross over Cole. He dropped the character and ended up back when Steve Austin and The Rock both went to Vince McMahon and asked that he announce their main event at WrestleMania.

    His next departure was scheduled to be September 2005, where he was to be replaced by Mike Goldberg, as UFC and WWE were going head-to-head and Goldberg debuting would have left UFC without an announcer. Raw was moving from Spike to USA and McMahon decided it would be best to have a new look, and that new look meant a younger voice of the promotion. However, Goldberg had second thoughts (in trivia, McMahon was going to force Goldberg to change his name because at the time McMahon hated Bill Goldberg) and backed out of the deal. Ross only lasted a few weeks longer before being replaced. The first replacement was Jonathan Coachman, and then Joey Styles. Nine months later, with McMahon unhappy about the replacements, brought Ross back.

    In early 2007, the decision once again was made to replace Ross. He was supposed to go into the Hall of Fame that year, call WrestleMania, and then be replaced. However, it was the Chicago audience going so rabid when he was announced for the Hall of Fame, that McMahon and Kevin Dunn realized replacing him at that point, when he had so much momentum, would have been a bad business move, so the plan was to wait a few more months.

    In January, 2008, Mike Adamle was hired with his eventual role being to replace Ross, although they wanted him to get acclimated to the job and the fans first. But Adamle didnít adapt well to wrestling and that idea was dropped. Instead, in the 2008 draft a few months later, they shifted Cole and Ross, with Ross becoming the lead voice of Smackdown.

    Eventually Todd Grisham was brought in to be the lead on Smackdown and Ross was again being phased out. He suffered another Bellís Palsy attack in late 2009, and was taken off the air. This attack wasnít nearly as serious as the previous ones. However, for a while, McMahon was adamant about not bringing him back. At the 2010 WrestleMania, there were rumors he was going to do the show, and at one point he was scheduled, but McMahon changed his mind. Shawn Michaels, in his last match, asked McMahon to let Ross call it, and McMahon turned him down. That seemed to make it clear McMahon was not interested in going back to Ross.

    He was brought back to TV to do one match on November 15, 2010, as part of a themed ďOld School Raw,Ē which, if anything, was the strongest positioning of him as being from the past as he was part of a group of talent from the previous generation. But with Cole as a heel, Ross made several appearances on Raw and even wrestled Cole, plus announced some when angles were done to take Cole off the broadcast. While complaints about the announcing had gotten more and more (although Smackdown was worse than Raw), in recent weeks, surprisingly this time, Ross was brought back again and announced as permanently back.

    Another change was Zack Ryderís role on television. Ryder was brought out to a very unique to face Michael Cole. While Ryder has gotten some big reactions in New York, Boston and on the Australian tour due to his cult following from his web site show, in Virginia it appeared that the vast majority of the audience either saw him as a job guy or someone they didnít even know. There was a vocal small percentage that were going crazy for him. It was overall a lukewarm reaction in a position set up for an easy pop opposing Cole. But there was a chant that got started for him but you could tell those who did it were into it, but not many were into it. Ryder was originally going to be involved with David Otunga & Michael McGillicutty a few weeks ago, but after debuting on Raw, he was moved to Smackdown to become the assistant General Manager to Teddy Long. He booked Ezekiel Jackson in a handicap match against Ted DiBiase & Cody Rhodes, giving the indication heíll be a heel who becomes the counterpart of Teddy Long like Vickie Guerrero used to be.

    David Lagana, a longtime former WWE writer, wrote about Punkís trials and tribulations in the company, noting the December to Dismember PPV in 2006. At the time, Big Show, who was physically hurting, was planning on retiring and taking an offer to go into pro boxing. In an Elimination Chamber match, booker Paul Heyman booked Show to be eliminated first, tapping out to Punkís Anaconda vise, feeling doing so would make Punkís career. Heyman talked about going with a Rob Van Dam vs. Punk program. At the time he was looking at making Punk one of the top guys in ECW, behind Bobby Lashley, who McMahon at the time had wanted to make No. 1 after his original choice for the spot, Bob Sapp, didnít sign.

    Show, who was personal friends with Heyman, had no qualms about doing it, but Vince McMahon was dead set against it, saying it wasnít believable to someone who looked like Punk to submit someone the size of Show. Instead, McMahon ordered Punk to be eliminated first. While not the only reason or even the primary reason, the PPV was a disaster and Heyman and McMahon went at it after, leading to Heyman quitting/being fired from the writing team and eventually quitting the company.

    Lagana noted that the agents constantly mocked Punk, belittling his finishing move (later dropped for the GTS), the Wanderlei Silva wrist roll and announcers were told not to mention terms like Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as his background.

    ďC.M. Punk, a lot like ECW, Goldberg, the NWO and especially WCW were not WWE creations,Ē wrote Lagana. ďThe track record has shown that Kevin Dunn and Vince McMahon do not support ideas that were not generated inside their bubble. Punk got the tag line King of the Indies and those agents who didnít like him before Heyman was gone, they were out for blood now.Ē

    By early 2007, Lagana said there were agents pushing to get Punk fired. At a meeting, when agents were bashing Punk, Shawn Michaels said, ďUm, if you donít like something the kid is doing, why donít you work with him to fix it, instead of killing him.Ē Michaels said that he and Undertaker werenít going to be around forever and guys like Punk would be the future of the company, and Lagana said that basically saved Punk in the company.

    Source: Observer Newsletter

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