With Triple H and Daniel Bryan recreating the Vince vs. Stone Cold angle from years ago, the secondary angle featuring Paul Heyman, Brock Lesnar, and Curtix Axel vs. CM Punk is the one that has captivated all the hardcore fans. And rightfully so, given that it’s a sure bet to trust Paul Heyman to deliver the goods. Nobody understands today’s pop culture and wrestling’s history like Heyman. He has an uncanny ability to fuse the two flavors into a mix that draws everyone’s attention.
My question is whether or not what Heyman’s selling has mass appeal to WWE’s current audience.
A lot of WWE’s audience is young. They’re into vapid pop culture like Total Divas. And there’s an element of hardcore fans, albeit they tend to be frustrated. It’s why the AJ Lee promo was snarky and brilliant in channeling the frustrations many have with the Bella Twins. Those two went from complete boringness to being out of WWE to being back in the saddle with the company’s two hottest faces, John Cena and Daniel Bryan. The Bellas represent pretty much everything hardcore wrestling fans don’t care about. And yet many of the current fans that support WWE are into what the Bellas are selling.
Heyman’s ongoing feud with Punk is the kind of old-school multi-month program you used to see in the territories. Not only does longevity matter, so does storytelling and violence. There’s a touch of Bill Watts in what Heyman is up to with Punk, especially with the violent kendo stick beating we saw on RAW that left bruises & scratches on Punk’s back while he was handicapped. It reminded me of some of the beatdowns I used to see with Ted DiBiase laying out Jim Duggan before they had a Coal Miner’s Glove match or Masao Ito slapping around American jobbers or what the late Tojo Yamamoto did when he destroyed Jeff Jarrett in a famous TV studio angle where he punished Jarrett brutally after getting yellow paint dumped on him.
What’s made Heyman’s efforts against Punk unique is that he’s taking the old school violent angle but also trying to add new-school Stephanie-style soap opera elements to it. Heyman had the waterworks going in a backstage promo after he beat up Punk, screaming blathering nonsense about beating up his Prodigal Son. It’s Heyman at his finest because it’s the kind of over-the-top thing he has trademarked over the last generation. Heyman likes angles that involve nuance and deeper meaning.
But does it appeal to a large segment of WWE’s fan base?
I appreciate Heyman for what he is and what he represents. Nothing more, nothing less. I don’t worship the man. I don’t approve of a lot of the things he’s pulled on others in the business. However, he’s not for everyone. He can be an acquired taste. A lot of WWE’s current fan base is into the vapid, mind-numbing reality television show crap because WWE (especially Stephanie) is into it themselves and wants the kind of viewers that watch the Kardashians to watch them. The angles Heyman ran in ECW and he’s influencing today are the antithesis of scripted reality TV show material. Heyman would dispute that claim by stating that his angles are the ultimate tribute to reality TV. I reckon that Heyman’s current angles tend to be more realistic than the scripted BS on cable television today.
What I do wonder is if the fans who watch WWE today are appreciating what they are witnessing from Heyman and Punk or if it’s just another blip on the radar. The best angles in wrestling age gracefully over time and are worth watching years after they take place. What we’re seeing now with Heyman and Punk falls into that category, at least in my eyes. It’s unfortunate that the angle has a weak link in Curtis Axel, a man who has all of his father’s athletic ability but none of his charisma. Axel can’t seem to help from stumbling over words. He’s much more suited for Japan than he is for WWE.
I’m not sure the masses are as heavily invested in an angle that violently delves into the kind of darkness & depravity that Heyman is pushing, even with the modern soap opera-style twist. There’s hardcore violence like the angle Heyman is selling and then there’s goofy violence like what Bray Wyatt is trying to sell. It’s an interesting experiment to watch both types of dark angles get rolled out at the same time.