One of the main topics discussed among pro wrestling fans in 2010 was the eroding roster of main event talent in the WWE. With a large portion of big name stars leaving the company (Chris Jericho, Shawn Michaels, Batista, and later Edge) and other A-Listers nearing in-ring retirement (Undertaker, HHH), the future of the main event scene in the WWE seemed threatened. The reigning question: who will take the place of these departing luminary personalities? With the invasion of the Nexus, and the championship reign of The Miz, it seemed like the whole title picture was being shaken up and redefined, with mid-carders and fresh faces alike being elevated very quickly to compete at the top tier. But what stuck? Despite his long reign, The Miz was never a dominating champion, and the Nexus dissolved relatively quickly. It seemed like as soon as Sheamus cemented his role as a viable up-and-comer in the main event scene, he was shot down with a long lasting losing streak. If 2010 was a year defined by it's confused main events, then 2011 was a year defined by a sense of returning stability to the championships, with thanks to the talent that stepped up to try and fill those open top spots.
Some of the guys to reinvent themselves have been around for a long time, as in the case of Christian and Mark Henry. Some have been in the WWE for a fewer number of years, but a while all the same, as in R Truth, Cody Rhodes, Dolph Ziggler, and CM Punk. With less than three years logged in the WWE are Sheamus, Wade Barrett, and Daniel Bryan. Some of these guys have been excellent in lesser roles for as long as they've been around, and others have only just this year found their best character to date. All of them have substantially improved to the extent that the main event scene in the WWE doesn't seem too bleak any more.
Of course, the standout here is CM Punk, whose summer program with John Cena/ Vince McMahon was the hottest, most talked about series of events in pro wrestling in years, through which he became one of the most polarizing figures within the past decade. But beyond the mark-out value of CM Punk's success is the hope that his undeniable claim to be on the top of the industry could change the WWE's view on what should constitute a WWE champion. Now, this wasn't the first world championship Punk has won with the company, it was his fourth. It's also notable that his first reign as World Heavyweight champ was on the Raw brand. He isn't even the first WWE champ with deep indie roots, which is a distinction belonging to Rob Van Dam (2006). So what makes this time different? In my estimation, two things: context and money. Context because it was a recurring topic of his famous promos that the WWE almost exclusively pushes guys who've come up through their system, and have a bodybuilder's figure. His winning the title directly after pointing out these facts seemed to represent a consensual breaking of said habits. Reason two is money, which is what everything really comes down to in the end, and it's important in this scenario because CM Punk proved that he could move merch with the best of em. Sometimes it's hard to tell a genuine buzz from passing hype, but the staying power of Punk's popularity at the merchandise table sends an unmistakable message to the accounting department. Message reads: Paul Heyman was right.
Even though Punk rocked the wrestling world, and owns the top three mark-out moments of 2011, I think what may actually be this years most significant, lasting effects on pro wrestling originated from a much humbler and unlikelier source. With his popular weekly youtube show, Zack Ryder has changed the game forever. The saturation of Twitter in WWE programming, as well as two weekly streaming shows and WWE.com exclusive interviews were all going to happen anyway, so it's not so much that Ryder found success online as much as that he found success by himself. The opportunities youtube and Twitter afford to self-promoters are unprecedented, and Ryder has proved how effective they can be for generating both interest and revenue in pro wrestling. This goes back to the point I made earlier about genuine buzz versus passing hype, and the difference being defined by the bottom line. Zack Ryder is the first of a kind, and may one day be remembered as the grandfather of self-promoting Superstars.
These are the three things I feel define the past year for the WWE. The number of guys stepping up their game, the recognition of CM Punk's value (and the appropriate platform), and Zack Ryder reinventing the wheel of how to get over. Each of these elements have scads of further potential for the year to come, and beyond. If Kane's masked arrival this week is any portent, I'd say things are looking good that WWE programming may indeed soon be roundly appreciated by it's oft disgruntled fans as being "fun again."