In theory, WWE has a good thing going with their two top title-holders. Between Sheamus, the affable, larger-than-life brawler who holds the World Heavyweight Championship, and CM Punk, the slick, self-aggrandizing, oppportunistic WWE champion, they should have all their bases covered for any kind of story they want to tell. But there’s a problem.
From a storytelling standpoint, their characters just don’t work. Or at least, they don’t work in the way WWE wants them to.
Sheamus in particular is broken almost beyond repair, and a lot of it comes down to the WWE being a victim of its own success. When wrestling hit the peak of the Attitude Era in the late ’90s — a time when ratings were at an all-time high and people were actually willing to rock Austin 3:16 and nWo shirts in public — the success was largely on the shoulders of guys like Stone Cold Steve Austin and the Rock. These were characters whose appeal went beyond the traditional roles of hero and villain to something with a little more edge to it, and their popularity was rooted in a reaction to the idea of over-the-top characters that had been the dominant creative force in WWF for years as it was in their personal charisma.
It certainly wasn’t a new idea then. People loved Ric Flair for years because of the personality that he brought to his character, but even he was ostensibly presented as a bad guy. Austin and the Rock weren’t. Even when the Rock would run down the audience, he did it with a style that people loved. Austin’s struggle to the top of the card and the frustration that fueled his badass, don’t-trust-anybody persona made him relatable to the viewer, even when he was attacking a man who’d been laid up in a hospital and clocking him in the head with a bedpan. Of course, it didn’t hurt up that the clockee was Vince McMahon, or that the resulting sound effect was the funniest thing this side of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, and in fact, those were a pretty big part of it. He was always given opponents that were somehow bigger and more powerful than he was, which is what made Vince McMahon, his actual boss, the perfect foil. No matter what Austin did, McMahon always had the power.
Those characters worked. They worked so well, in fact, that WWE is still doing a brisk business in selling Austin 3:16 shirts even though he hasn’t been on the roster for years. So it makes sense that they’d try to catch lightning in a bottle again with Sheamus. But for all their trying, they just can’t do it. Instead, they’ve been shooting for lovable, renegade hooligan and ended up at complete fucking asshole.
Don’t get me wrong: For a guy whose character I can’t stand, I actually like Sheamus a lot. I met him a few months ago and he couldn’t have been nicer, and while it might not be a popular opinion, I think he’s enjoyable to watch in the ring. Even if he’s not always (or ever) all that great at selling, he’s got a great look and he goes like a freight train. Even his increasing arsenal of unnecessary finishing moves — the latest of which is a Texas Cloverleaf, because, you know, clovers and Ireland and all that — is at least a sign that he’s learning and expanding what he does in the ring. He’s evolving instead of staying stale, and that’s one of the most important things a wrestler can do. Those are all reasons why I want to like Sheamus.
But those aren’t the reasons WWE’s giving me. Instead, they want me to like him because he’s fighting Alberto Del Rio, who in turn I’m told is a villain simply because he’s a “Mexican Aristocrat,” a pretty amazing example of the kind of race- and class-baiting that I honestly would’ve thought WWE would move past once we got a full decade into the 21st Century.
For his part, Del Rio is doing a great job as the classic arrogant heel, calling the fans “peasants” and driving to the ring in the ostentatious luxury cars of a true One Percenter. Beyond that, though, his transgressions against Sheamus have been pretty much confined to actual wrestling. As near as I can tell, Del Rio hasn’t run him over, or blown up his car, or dug up a relative’s corpse and dragged it around a cemetery on a chain while shouting insults about his parentage — all truly amazing heel tactics of the past — he’s just put him in a submission hold and held it after the bell.
And the longer their feud goes on, the more disproportionate Sheamus’s responses get. He constantly takes things beyond wrestling, gleefully destroying Del Rio’s car or giving Ricardo Rodriguez, Del Rio’s personal ring announcer/lackey/manservant (and, as far as WWE viewers are concerned, helpless non-wrestler), his “devastating” Brogue Kick right in the head. Which, it’s worth noting, happened when Rodriguez made the pretty unambiguously heroic act of throwing himself in front of Del Rio to take the kick for him, instead.
Even the matches themselves don’t play out in a way that supports Sheamus as the hero. Rather than the tough-as-nails scrapper that they keep telling us he is, Sheamus wins through opportunism and cheating. The SummerSlam match was a perfect example. Sheamus finds himself with the opportunity to clock Del Rio upside the head with a boot and takes it, then knocks Del Rio’s feet off the ropes for good measure to secure his win, all while the fans are told that he’s a stand-up fella.
Then comes their next match, which was set up with the Brogue Kick being banned after Sheamus happily booted Rodriguez into a neck brace. Rather than giving Sheamus an obstacle to overcome, something, anything to make him seem like an underdog, or that would give him a reason to be adding all those other finishing holds to his repertoire on Smackdown, the ban is simply overturned at the last minute.
And to make matters worse, the ban was set up in what was quite possibly the worst possible way. In what felt like a clear effort to recapture the surprising fun of the “Kane and Daniel Bryan at Anger Management Class” vignettes, we’re shown video of a “legal deposition” in which Sheamus sits around casually sticking it to the man by dropping jokes about being Jewish and mocking Ricardo’s accent in a bit that that may not have been actually racist, but definitely felt racist-adjacent. Just a thought, but when you give a guy a nickname as loaded as “The Great White,” an explicit reference to his skin color that recalls the backlash against black boxers a hell of a lot more than it conjures up images of sharks, and then have him enter the arena underneath a screen flashing shots of a glowing white cross, maybe racial humor isn’t the way to go. It ended up being the most uncomfortable thing WWE’s done on purpose in years.
And it’s especially frustrating because Sheamus stars in WWE’s anti-bullying campaign PSAs. I realize that he’s a guy playing a character, but the whiplash-inducing switch between his sincerity at being picked on as a kid and the gigantic heavyweight going for cheers by literally attacking smaller, weaker people is just maddening. The end result is that a guy I actively want to like has been made into my least favorite part of the show every week without fail.
With CM Punk, it’s the opposite problem: He works too well.
This, of course, is a far less frustrating problem than the one Sheamus has, but it’s still interesting to watch WWE doing everything they can to try to portray Punk as a villain while the crowd remains firmly in his corner. It really comes down to the fact that Punk is very much the heir to Austin’s legacy.
Even though he’s been working for WWE since 2006 (and longer if you count his time in development at OVW), Punk still thrives on that image of being a guy who came up from the indies. He has the image of an outsider, and it’s one that he’s able to play up, with character motivations that are based on a core of truth. His current feud with John Cena, for instance, is based around the idea that even when he’s WWE Champion, Punk still can’t wrench the spotlight away from Cena, the man that he originally beat for the title, where WWE has firmly planted it.
And the thing is, we as the audience know this is true, because we see it happening every week. We see WrestleMania where the WWE Championship is a prelude to Cena’s match against the star of GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra (and where the World Heavyweight Championship is settled in an 18-second comedy match at the top of the show). We’ve seen that even when he wrestles Cena — with another wrestler thrown in for good measure — he still get pushed up the card so that the main event can be Vince McMahon’s son-in-law against a guy who quit wrestling ten years ago to play football and from what I can tell wound up as a spokesman for a sandwich restaurant.
Because we see that stuff happening every week on the show, he doesn’t seem like a raging egomaniac. He seems like a guy who’s frustrated that he’s worked his ass off to get to the top of his field and consistently has his accomplishments ignored in favor of someone who stays in the top slot regardless of how he performs. And because that frustration comes out in the form of Punk aggressively referring to himself as a wrestler, rather than the official company line of a Sports Entertainment Variety Show Superstar, it’s impossible for a wrestling fan who wants to watch a wrestling show to not get behind him.
He only got more likable when his stated motivation became a demand for the people around him to admit that he was the best in the world, because by the simple logic that WWE has set up for the past 60 years, he is. He’s the WWE Champion and has been for almost a year, and by definition, that makes him the best. By the WWE’s own rules, the core foundation that their entire company and its ongoing story is based around, that is literally what that belt means. The refusal of other people to admit that — particularly Cena, whose character is built on loyalty to the company and respect for what it stands for — doesn’t make them seem like they’re standing up to Punk’s bullying. It makes them seem like they’re going out of their way to be dicks to him.
They’re constantly belittling his accomplishment, so it’s no wonder that he’d finally resort to fighting them about it. He’s the one guy in the company who actually acts like he actually gives a damn about the title.
Because Punk’s motivations make so much sense, and because they’re backed up by great in-ring work loaded with tributes to beloved wrestlers like Randy Savage and clean victories over his opponents in eleven months as a fighting champion, it’s almost impossible to turn the crowd against him. It’s been genuinely hilarious to see the lengths they’ve been going to in order to get even the slightest reaction against him, and every time Punk’s actions make perfect sense.
Yes, he walked out instead of wrestling a match in front of is hometown crowd of Chicago. It was a match against Sheamus arranged by AJ, a vindictive would-be lover who Punk rejected out of concern for her own mental state, in which there was nothing for Punk to gain. I wouldn’t have bothered with it either. They even went so far as to have him insult Bret Hart in Montreal while John Cena was cutting a promo in French, and even that didn’t work. Hell, they had him wrestle in New York Yankees pinstripes at a show in Boston. The crowd is still behind that guy. And it makes sense that they would be — WWE themselves are pretty firmly behind them at this point, with a DVD set, a video game, and a line of t-shirts they can’t keep in stock all based on how much we like him.
So that’s where they’re at: One guy that’s impossible to love, and one that’s impossible to hate, no matter how hard they try to make us do the opposite.
[photos via WWE.com]