WWE Year in Review: In Memorial

BY BRETT MURDOCK AND MATT VINSKO, Couchsideshow.com bloggers 

Professional wrestling has an inherent entertainment value absent from many other sports due to its predictability and knack for combining soap opera-quality storylines with physical violence. That’s not to say it can’t be enjoyed by your average sports fan, however.

This past year, pro wrestling entered mainstream media in a way it hadn’t in years with the returns of superstars including The Rock, Chris Jericho and Brock Lesnar. Regular mainstays such as CM Punk reigned an entire calendar year as WWE Champion, whereas John Cena has entered what has to be considered a slump due to his numerous losses in big match situations.

Just like every sport, there are winners and losers in the world of professional wrestling, and to commemorate the end of the year, we are going to take a look back at WWE throughout 2012. Whereas the WWE has its Slammy Awards, Couch Side has its own celebration of the year that was, and what fans can expect come 2013.

Rising Star

Brett: Antonio Cesaro — Cesaro, real name Claudio Castagnoli, debuted on WWE television soon after WrestleMania 28 and in the nine or so months since appearing has carved out a nice reputation so far. He’s the current United States Champion, a title he has held since August’s SummerSlam pay-per-view, and has been every bit as dominant as he was in other promotions before the WWE got their hands on him. He has all the tools in the ring to be a success and can work it on the microphone when necessary. I mean come on…the dude speaks five languages. He is a star in the making and rarely, if ever, disappoints when put in a big-time scenario. It is only a matter of time before the name Antonio Cesaro is not only a prominent name in pro wrestling, but also in the mainstream.

Matt: Ryback — When 2012 started, Ryan Reeves was on the active WWE roster, but had next to no ring appearances. 12 months, and a mouthful of jobbers later, the man now known as Ryback has taken the WWE by storm in an attempt to quench his massive appetite. Predicting the rise of a guy who wasn’t anywhere near the main event until Hell in a Cell in October would have been foolish months ago. Even back in October, many were worried Ryback’s push was too much, too soon. But now, the WWE has arguably its next big star in the form of a guy who has transcended any similarities with Goldberg and developed his own character. Sure, Ryback won’t be winning the big one any time soon, but to have cemented himself as a main event talent after facing competition that includes Curt Hawkins earlier in the year, it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

Biggest Fall From Grace

Brett: Randy Orton — September 18, 2011. That was the last time the World Heavyweight Championship was around Randy Orton’s waist. That night, he lost to an unstoppable Mark Henry and has yet to even sniff opportunity since. In the over a year since, he has been embroiled in multiple mid-card feuds, has been relegated to helping new guys get over and has been suspended for a drug violation, his second one of his career. And for those keeping score at home, that’s one away from a required firing from the company — not exactly a good thing for both Orton or the business. For a guy who was once the future of the company and looked like the next superstar to carry the WWE forward, especially during his rise in 2009, hard times have beseeched the veteran and only time will tell what’s in store.

Matt: Jack Swagger — Though many write him off for his inherent lisp and lack of charisma, Jack Swagger was a former World Heavyweight Champion. But despite this and other accolades, 2012 was not kind to Mr. Swagger. After signing under the managerial services of Vickie Guerrero, Swagger won the United States Championship before he began competing with Dolph Ziggler for Guerrero’s attention, which he ultimately lost. Since then, he has competed against the likes of Brodus Clay and other low card wrestlers, yet he has fell short time and time again. I’ve never been the biggest Jack Swagger fan, but to see the guy consistently lose to competitors such as Santino Marella is depressing considering he was once considered a potential bright spot in the company.

Most Surprising Turn

Brett: CM Punk — There’s no doubt that Punk, the current WWE Champion, can play any character given to him. But, when it came time to change up his persona after being a good guy for so long, I did not see it coming. On the 1000th Episode of Monday Night Raw in July, after his championship match with John Cena was already over thanks to Big Show’s interference, Punk quietly slumped out of the ring while The Rock sped down to the squared-circle to help his once (and current…?) foe Cena, who was being pummeled by Show. After laying waste to Show, Rock went into his familiar routine to drop his famous People’s Elbow. But, upon realizing what was happening, Punk jumped back into the ring just as Rock was bouncing off the ropes and decked him with a trademark clothesline, sending shockwaves through the building and the wrestling world. Punk then taunted Rock before delivering his signature finisher, the Go To Sleep (GTS) on The Great One. Those singular moments have spawned numerous internet and real life debates as to how the situation would play out, but that’s not the point. The point is that Punk’s sudden shift in character shocked everybody because he had been a face for so long and was even working that character earlier in the night. But, Punk wanted to make sure nobody forgot what happened that evening and did it in the best way he saw possible — by being himself. And he hasn’t looked back.

Matt: The Miz – Many characters have personas catered to a specific audience. Not many fans can imagine Alberto Del Rio’s arrogant aristocrat as a good guy, whereas few can imagine John Cena ever turning his back on his fans. With his cocky demeanor and snarky ability to put down fans and foes alike, The Miz never seemed like a guy that would embrace the love and adoration of the WWE Universe, but that all changed when he joined Team Foley at this year’s Survivor Series. Many expected a double cross of some kind, or even some reversion to his heelish tendencies, but in the end, The Miz has managed to turn, and stay, a fan favorite after years of bashing his target audience. And surprisingly, it’s been working. Give the guy a microphone, and he can break anyone down, good or bad, which is something sorely missing in the PG-era of professional wrestling. Is it as edgy as it could have been ten years ago? Not exactly, but it’s definitely a fresh idea, and one of the few things the WWE has done correctly recently.

Underappreciated Talent

Brett: Cody Rhodes — Son of the legendary Dusty Rhodes, Cody Rhodes has been an impact player since his time in the stable Legacy from 2008 to 2010 and more recently with his work to bring the Intercontinental Championship back to prominence in 2011/2012 and his current teaming up with another rising star, Damien Sandow. This is a guy that is destined for stardom, but injuries and creative differences have held back his opportunities. Even though he is in a very good situation right now with Sandow, his potential is off the charts and he can easily be a main event-caliber performer if given the chance. He has the looks, charisma and willingness to work hard and succeed in a harsh environment. He’s paid his dues — its time the WWE spent that money on Rhodes, despite the porno-stache he is now sporting.

Matt: Heath Slater – To celebrate the 1000th episode of Monday Night RAW, the WWE had many legends of the ring return for one last hoorah. While many expected this to be one of the highlights leading up to the commemorative episode, few expected Heath Slater to manage to take a small bit of the spotlight away for himself. Matching up with the likes of Doink the Clown, the APA, DDP, Sid, and even Lita, Slater held his own and grew from a bathroom break talent to a man you rooted for (to lose). Though he remains marred in the lower card, his new faction, the 3MB (3-Man Band), has proven that he’s right on the cusp of entering mid-card territory. Plus, you have to respect a guy for going up against Flo Rida at WrestleMania and pointing out the absurdity of such a stage name.

Best Tag Team/Group/Faction

Brett: Team Hell No (Daniel Bryan and Kane) — On paper and on TV, these two look like The Odd Couple. One (Bryan) is a 5’8” vegan whose technical skills in the ring are off-the-charts while the other (Kane) is a seven-foot, 320 pound behemoth who has made a history of destroying competitors in the ring and beyond with brute force and a terrifying personality. But, their alliance these past few months has been one of, if not the best thing that the WWE has going for them. They have fantastic chemistry both inside and outside of the ring, as evidenced by their backstage segments and promos. What once started as a love triangle angle has blossomed into something entertaining, great and a must-see moment every week on RAW.

Matt: Team Hell No – During the early part of the year, Kane and Daniel Bryan were embroiled in a feud with CM Punk for the WWE Championship, and for the affections of resident crazy chick AJ Lee. Months later, and the two have joined forces after attending group therapy and conquering their anger management issues. Though the tag team division within the WWE has improved lately, what with the likes of the Prime Time Players, the Usos, Primo and Epico, and the Rhodes Scholars, no one can deny the chemistry Bryan and Kane share. They turned a ridiculous storyline into some of the week’s most entertaining segments, and have managed to turn a dormant tag team division into a growing hub of activity. Despite their recent success, I will admit I miss their in-ring clashes prior to their current uneasy alliance. Group hugs are awesome.

Best Comeback

Brett: Chris Jericho — In the weeks leading up to January 2012, the WWE began airing some truly disturbing and creepy vignettes, promoting the return of a performer who wanted to reclaim something he felt was stolen from him. That performer turned out to be none other than Chris Jericho, the future Hall of Famer and no doubt one of the best all-around performers this industry has ever seen. When the lights dimmed on January 2, 2012 and he came out in a light-up jacket with his trademark theme blaring over the loudspeakers, it was a for sure mark-out moment. Jericho was back to reclaim his glory as champ and as the best in the world at what he does. He eventually had terrific and memorable feuds with CM Punk for the WWE Title, Sheamus/Alberto del Rio/Randy Orton for the World Title and Dolph Ziggler and made each of them look like a million bucks despite never winning. But, he was never there to win in his eyes — he was only there to give the current guys a rub, even though I personally never agreed with that direction. Nevertheless, his short-lived return still lives on in my eyes and on YouTube, and will hopefully make its presence known again in the coming months.

Matt: The Rock – Though he may not have wrestled as much as Chris Jericho, no one can deny the appeal of a returning Brahma Bull to the squared circle. And although he only wrestled in one match this year, it was easily the most hyped matchup in wrestling history, and provided a solid feud between two of the best workers in the industry. With a combination of solid, intense promos, physical altercations, and a WrestleMania main event, it’s hard not to credit The Rock, his natural athleticism, and his inherent charisma for creating one of the most talked-about feuds of the year, which I might add he came out on top of. His presence alone got people, including myself, back into wrestling, and with his upcoming return in the start of 2013, it’s hard not to imagine us talking about The Rock again come the end of next year.

Diva of the Year

Brett: Eve Torres — Current WWE Divas Champion, one sexy woman and a rapidly improving talent, Eve Torres has it all. Despite starting 2012 embroiled in one weird-ass storyline with Kane, Zack Ryder, John Cena and herself, Eve used her sudden spotlight to her advantage to rise to the top of the Divas division. She has orchestrated many devious tactics to make things the way she wants to, including claiming the Divas Title and keeping it as well as manipulating anybody that tries to stand in her way. She has executed the role of the villain Diva to perfection and it’s not hard to see why she has a lot of people talking about the women in the WWE and I look for that to carry on.

Matt: AJ Lee – Winning is an integral part of sports, but sometimes, it’s creating hype and getting people invested that reigns supreme. Take AJ Lee this year, and you’ll see very few big matches (if any), no championships, and a mostly abusive managerial role she served under Daniel Bryan. But it’s what AJ managed to do after this early year rut that has people talking, including her flings with CM Punk, Kane, and Daniel Bryan, her brief stint as Monday Night RAW General Manager, and her current feud with Vickie Guerrero. As Punk stated earlier in the year, “I kind of have a thing for crazy chicks,” and the WWE Universe seems to agree. Never before has a Diva combined looks, brains, and a genuine psychopathic nature like AJ has. It’s no wonder the 95-pound Diva is making waves in her own right.

OMG Moment of the Year

Brett: Brock Lesnar’s Return — When Brock Lesnar suddenly retired from the UFC late in 2011 after a loss, many wrestling fans jumped on the speculation that the beast could find his way back to the WWE, where he spent a short, but decorated, career from 2002 to 2004. Then, on the night before WrestleMania 28, wrestling dirt sheets and reports picked up on information that the WWE was indeed negotiating with Lesnar to work a limited schedule while also paying him an obscene amount of money for that schedule, which is less than 40 appearances a year. The night after ‘Mania, a hot crowd in Miami got what they wanted when his familiar entrance music hit and the building exploded with the pop of a lifetime, creating an unforgettable moment that fans will remember for years. The ovation never stopped as he made his way to the ring, F-5ed John Cena and closed the show towering over the WWE’s leading man, changing the landscape of the company as we know it.

Matt: The Shield’s debut – In the days of social media and dirt sheets, it’s hard to genuinely be surprised when it comes to the world of television. But when Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, and Roman Reigns debuted at this year’s Survivor Series, it provided a fresh blend of talent that surprised everybody at just the right time. After reading numerous articles highlighting the three men who comprise The Shield, it seemed like only a matter of time before they would debut. But to appear in the fashion they did in the main event with stars CM Punk, John Cena, and Ryback, and then to three-man-powerbomb the once invincible Ryback through an announce table, was clearly a sign of things to come. The Shield is for real, and though their future remains to be seen, they appear ready to take the WWE by storm after their shocking emergence on one of the year’s biggest pay-per-views.

Funniest Moment

Brett: Team Foley at Survivor Series — Six completely different personalities were thrown together as part of a traditional Survivor Series team when WWE legend Mick Foley (who did not compete, but was acting as a captain) assembled the likes of Team Hell No, Kofi Kingston, The Miz and Randy Orton to battle Team Ziggler. During the pay-per-view, the team was shown backstage prepping for the match with Foley trying to get these guys, who have histories with each other, on the same page. Somehow, it seemed to work, with Bryan appearing to be the most willing after an awkward team cheer ending in Foley’s trademark “Bang, Bang” phrase. However, the best part came when Orton, who actually did not participate in the cheer, approached Foley and simply muttered the words “I hate you”, a nod to the two’s infamous history early in Orton’s WWE career in which the duo competed in brutal matches while Orton established his “Legend Killer” character. It was a nice touch and a funny moment for both fans and wrestling historians to reflect on.

Matt: Kane’s life story — “Years ago, I had a girlfriend named Katie, but let’s just say that didn’t turn out so well.” “I have an unhealthy obsession with torturing Pete Rose.” These are just a few of the snippets of one of the anger management lessons Kane was forced to attend by former RAW General Manager AJ Lee. Reflecting on past storylines in a humorous way provided Kane the opportunity to make light of serious matters that included setting people on fire and shocking Shane McMahon’s testicles. It was a solid start to the Team Hell No storyline, and offered a funny look into one of the WWE’s trademark monsters. I wish these segments had continued on longer than they had, but for now, this touching moment with the Big Red Machine will always hold a special place in my heart.

Best Feud

Brett: CM Punk/Daniel Bryan — A program that wrestling fans were dying to see finally got the green light from the WWE brass at May’s Over the Limit pay-per-view, when Punk and Bryan engaged in one of the most technical and skilled matches one will ever see. It was not quite the WWE-style that many are used to I.e. hard-hitting, fast-paced, high-impact action but it was a throwback to their days in independent promotions where they honed their craft. From there, these two not only parlayed their skills in the ring to this feud, but also had some very clever battles on the microphone and in promos to turn a good feud into a great feud, which included a triple threat match with Kane at No Way Out and a No Disqualification match with AJ, who was pawning for each of their affections, as the special referee at Money In The Bank, a match I believe to be the best of the year. Their in-ring prowess combined with the storyline combined with their pasts made for truly entertaining programming and the best television in the WWE this year.

Matt: Brock Lesnar/Triple H – When Brock Lesnar unexpectedly left the WWE in 2004, he left many people with a sour taste in their mouths, including the Cerebral Assassin. Behind the scenes, Triple H reportedly had a big problem with the way Lesnar handled his departure, which made his return in 2012 all the more surprising. Still, the two managed to bury the hatchet behind closed doors and feud in front of the cameras, which provided one of the most personal, hate-filled storylines in recent history. Their main event matchup at Summerslam lived up to the hype, allowing both competitors to show their trademark styles in a match that went from wrestling to war in the blink of an eye. Though Lesnar came up with the victory last time, expect this feud to be revisited come WrestleMania season, and expect even more hype in Triple H’s return match after his supposed retirement. It wasn’t technical wrestling; it was a smash mouth, in your face battle between two men who legitimately dislike one another, which created compelling television for all who watched.

And now a moment for John Laurinaitis…

Brett: When name-dropped by CM Punk in his historic promo in the Summer of 2011, many fans began to question who Laurinaitis was or better yet, who gives a ****? In reality, he was the Executive Vice-President of Talent Relations. But, the WWE tried to capitalize on his sudden uptick in popularity by making him an authoritative on-screen character who feuded with top face talent like CM Punk and John Cena and other figures, such as Triple H. They tried too hard too fast, including making him the General Manager of both Raw and Smackdown after WrestleMania before being unceremoniously fired at the No Way Out pay-per-view. Truthfully, it was never meant to be. Try as they might, the WWE could never turn a guy who speaks like the poor man’s Batman, constantly botched his lines and never appealed to the fans in the proper way into what they wanted. RIP, the on-screen career of Mr. John Laurinaitis.

Matt: Oh, Johnny Ace. Earlier this year, I was looking forward to your reign as RAW General Manager. I expected a heel GM in lines with Eric Bischoff, but instead got a blubbering idiot who couldn’t distinguish his two job titles from one another. Granted, you did beat John Cena in the main event of Over the Limit in one stinker of a match, but even that wasn’t enough to solidify your role within the organization. After Cena defeated the Big Show at No Way Out, you were fired, never to be seen from again. All I can say is good riddance, and read the script more than once before show time; since it’s live, you only get one take.

Best Pay-Per-View

Brett: Extreme Rules — Coming off a great (but not historic after the hype of it) WrestleMania 28, the WWE proceeded with their PPV schedule by airing Extreme Rules on April 28, 2012 in Chicago. There were three marquee matches on the card, including rematches between Sheamus and Daniel Bryan in a “2 out of 3 Falls Match as well as Chris Jericho and Chi-town’s own, CM Punk, in a Street Fight. The main event was the showdown between John Cena and Brock Lesnar in an Extreme Rules match, which was Lesnar‘s first match since his epic return. Despite not receiving the hype that ‘Mania did, Extreme Rules far exceeded expectations and put on a show for the ages. All of the main events were extremely entertaining — the above-average technicality of Sheamus/Bryan, the storytelling and spots from Punk/Jericho and the bloodbath that was Cena/Lesnar. Hell, even the mid-card matches were above-average and had some spice, mainly the bout between Randy Orton and Kane in a Falls Count Anywhere match. It was a true spectacle and will live on the history of the WWE.

Matt: Elimination Chamber – Though the pay-per-view itself only sported five matches from top to bottom, it’s hard not to have enjoyed the Elimination Chamber when it first aired back in February. Not only did both chamber matches defy expectations, but it made a legitimate star out of Daniel Bryan and paved the way for CM Punk and Chris Jericho to meet at WrestleMania. It also had arguably the best Divas match of the year between Tamina Snuka and Beth Phoenix, and a satisfying conclusion to the John Cena/Kane feud via an ambulance match. I will admit it served as a stepping stone towards WrestleMania more than anything, but the fact it kept me on my toes (Santino as World Heavyweight Champion?!) is more than I can say about any other event I watched this year. It might not have been pretty, but it got the job done.

Best Match

Brett: CM Punk vs. Daniel Bryan, No DQ Match for the WWE Championship, Money in the Bank — This was briefly touched on earlier, but now you get the full scoop. These two obviously had a history and throwing AJ in as the Special Referee added a great wrinkle to an already dynamite feud. The program culminated at Money In The Bank in Phoenix (Woot!) in a fantastic No Disqualification match that had it all — technical skills, use of weapons, high spots, an intense crowd, great storytelling, AJ in her referee outfit, and solid booking throughout. It was the perfect ending to the best feud of the calendar year and should have closed the show that night. But, that’s another debate for another day but it would not have been a debate had Punk and Bryan not put on the show that they did that night.

Matt: Undertaker vs. Triple H w/ Shawn Michaels as the special guest referee, WrestleMania 28 – When you tout something as heavily-hyped as an “End of an Era” match, fans would probably be bracing themselves for disappointment. But when you have two future Hall of Famers (and one current one if you count the referee) in the mix, it’s easy to defy expectations, which is exactly what happened during the Triple H and Undertaker Hell in a Cell match at WrestleMania. Combining brutal physicality with unbelievable play-by-play calling via the return of Jim Ross, it was easy to get caught up in the half hour struggle despite it preceding the much more hyped Rock/Cena match. Whenever Undertaker’s streak is on the line, it creates captivating television, especially when you throw in the Heartbreak Kid two years removed from his last WrestleMania moment. In the end, the streak lived on, and mutual respect was shown between all three parties, which served as more than just a match, but rather a wink to the fans who have been there since the beginning of their respective careers.

Superstar of the Year

Brett: CM Punk — There should truly be no other option. He has put the WWE back on the map in terms of mainstream media and has made it interesting again. Punk has held the WWE Championship for the entire calendar year (actually won in November 2011) and will enter 2013 still holding the belt. It is the longest reign of the modern era and doesn’t look like its slowing down any time soon, no matter what The Rock says. As far as his performances go, he puts on top-quality performances every time he is on camera and can make anybody look good through his actions, words or moves. He has been the hardest working guy in the business the past year and has done everything that was asked of him. After years of getting shafted and being stuck on the sidelines, Punk has seized the moment of being champ and it has led him to the summit of the WWE and let me tell you, the view has never been greater for the BEST IN THE WORLD!

Matt: Daniel Bryan – His win/loss record might not be the cleanest, but if Daniel Bryan wasn’t the wrestler of the year, I’d shout “No! No! No!” at the top of my lungs. Bryan started the year as World Heavyweight Champion and defended it at both the Royal Rumble and the Elimination Chamber before losing it in record time at WrestleMania. But instead of falling into mediocrity, Bryan’s “Yes!” and subsequent “No!” chants have become a thing of legend, propelling him back into the main event spotlight as a WWE Title contender and eventual WWE Tag Team Champion. His storylines with AJ were one of the highlights of a rather lackluster year of WWE programming, and his wrestling abilities continued to improve as he earned more screen time. Though his resume may lack the same volume of accomplishments as CM Punk’s, 2012 was the year Daniel Bryan emerged as a superstar.

What Lies Ahead…

Brett: The WWE is a business and with any business, it is all about making money. That is why superstars like The Rock and Brock Lesnar were signed to deals and current full-timers like John Cena and CM Punk continue to shine in the spotlight. But, sooner or later, that will change and a lot of the young guys on the roster will be forced to step up or shuffled back to the end of the line in favor of what has proven that works. But, that is possibly a long way down the road and the focus should be on the immediate future. There’s a lot of intrigue with the likes of The Shield, Dolph Ziggler, Ryback, Rock’s WWE Title shot at January’s Royal Rumble, speculation involving Brock Lesnar, the tag team division, etc. as well as what will happen with other top talent like Cena, Punk, Randy Orton, Sheamus, Daniel Bryan, etc. The creative staff behind the scenes is notorious for screwing up high-profile angles that don’t pay off the way they should and that is the main concern. But, as long as they pull their heads out of their asses, I see no reason why the WWE can’t move forward into the future just as they have been under the watch of Vincent Kennedy McMahon.

Matt: Looking at 2013, it’s easy to get excited if you’re a wrestling fan. Dolph Ziggler is expected to cash in sooner than later and have what I hope is a lengthy reign as World Heavyweight Champion. The Rock is scheduled to return and compete for the WWE Championship. Ryback has emerged as a legitimate championship threat, and will surely hold the belt sooner than later. If I had to make a bold prediction about what to expect in 2013, it would be a major drop off for the current WWE Champion, CM Punk. I expect The Rock and Cena to reignite their feud at WrestleMania 29, but this time, for the WWE Championship. But where does that leave Punk? Now I don’t expect a return to lower/mid card status, but I do expect a championship draught after holding the WWE Title for over one year. John Cena hasn’t held the belt in over a year himself, and a return to form might be what the company needs to pull itself out of a ratings rut.

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