WWE: The Illusion of a Plan by Matt Corton

There’s a chance this article may be shorter than my usual as there doesn’t seem to be very much to say about WWE’s planning. It’s hard to write about something there’s so very little evidence of.

At least that’s how it seems at first glance. Look a little deeper and you see there’s sleight of hand at work. The guy in the suit, Triple H, is the master of this ceremony and the Cerebral Assassin isn’t the sort of MC who goes on stage without a plan or a few tricks.

There was always going to be something up WWE’s sleeve to deal with Seth Rollins’ injury. They’ve been doing this long enough that all this (maybe not the tournament itself, but all that’s surrounding it) is barely a deviation from the plan at all, because Reigns was reportedly going to win the title from Rollins at Survivor Series anyway. It’s not a big deal, sure Rollins won’t get the rematch at TLC that was probably planned, but really, it doesn’t change very much in the long-term plans of the WWE title if you assume Reigns was going to win anyway.

So that’s what I’m going to do – assume. Reigns was winning anyway, they just had to get to Survivor Series, and so they slung together a predictable tournament to get Roman there.

If you assume that, you have to assume that WWE aren’t great showmen. You have to assume that WWE aren’t going to use all the tricks in the book on us.

The current Triple H product is the suit version of the wrestler who’ll wear you down mentally until you can’t take any more. On Monday night, the boss was putting himself about all over the place. He was proffering himself to Kevin Owens, Alberto Del Rio and Cesaro, after having been turned down by Roman Reigns the week before.

Except was he proffering himself to Kevin Owens? We don’t know, we couldn’t hear. Was it recruitment drive, or was another matter being discussed? Lose your next match and you get a title shot anyway, perhaps?

I wrote about who the Authority could be paired with last week, but I’m going to mention it again because frankly, it’s more of an interesting question than if (when) Reigns wins the title.

We have a guess, a free choice – and all good illusionists make sure to make their audience think something is a free choice – of who is going to pair with the Authority.

It’s interesting to note who he didn’t speak to. Dean Ambrose. As smokescreens go, this would be a fairly basic one, but basic doesn’t mean ineffective. If Ambrose’s heel turn is going to come off, the WWE has to be seen to be trying to make sure that the majority of people won’t see it coming. If they make us look at Triple H trying to recruit Alberto Del Rio, Cesaro and Kevin Owens, then maybe we won’t think about the possibility he’s not asking Dean Ambrose because Ambrose is already in his pocket.

So was Ambrose in the bag even before Triple H started proffering himself around? Was the choice offered to Roman Reigns a free choice? Or was it nothing more than mental force manipulation? Knowing Roman would say no, did Triple H offer anyway so he could make things harder for him without looking like the bad guy?

It’s what I would do if I were a cerebral assassin. We’re looking at Roman turning down Triple H and cheering, but we’re not paying attention to the fact that this is what Triple H wanted all along – a chance to make life hard for Reigns. Classic misdirection.

When the great showmen are on the stage, you get that tingling excitement. You know something is going to happen that’s out of the ordinary. Illusionists are at heart nothing more than showmen and when they pull a sleight of hand you might know what they’re doing, but you’re damned if you can figure out how. The great illusionist showmen are then able to turn that damned feeling into one of awe when what you think is going to happen is only a step on the way to the real trick.

They show us anything can happen.

We’re supposed to think that anything can happen in the WWE, too, so by extension we’re supposed to think that anything can happen in this tournament. Look! Look, Kalisto can win against not only Ryback but all expectations, look anything can happen! See! See the weird, wonderful world of WWE!

Except all that momentum and optimism is crushed by Alberto Del Rio’s dominant win and the final four are exactly who we all predicted them to be at the start of the tournament. So anything can happen, but only in the early rounds where it won’t matter much.

As a quick attention-diverting aside, this is where they went wrong with Elimination Chamber matches – putting people in there to produce a good match rather than being believable as winners. Carlito, Santino and many, many other Chamber participants were never, ever going to win and that hurts a championship or no.1 contenders match. It hurts this tournament too, because we’ve all been left with the same situation as if we’d not bothered with the matches in the brackets anyway.

One of my favourite wrestlers ever is Chris Jericho. I don’t remember very many Jericho matches at all that weren’t entertaining. One of the simplest things he did to make sure I was invested in the match, was show he cared. Jericho wouldn’t have shrugged off the loss of a title shot as so many of these ‘hungry’ WWE Superstars have in this tournament, he’d have thrown things around, attacked someone, shown his displeasure.

Steve Austin would have given a stunner to everyone in the building had he lost in a tournament like this.

You get the impression from the losers in this tournament that it doesn’t really matter, and that makes me feel like the tournament doesn’t matter. I want people on the floor tearing their clothes, crying they’ve lost their title shot. The title should be everything their careers are about. Titus O’Neil will probably never get another title shot. This was his one chance. And he didn’t seem that bothered.

Which leads me back to Triple H. My favourite memory of Triple H’s career is from a Raw in September 2002. Bubba Ray Dudley was challenging for the title. Bubba had a backstage segment to make sure everyone knew he was serious – this was the title shot he’d been waiting his whole career for. He came out serious. He fought a serious match and it mattered to him that he lost. But he had me utterly invested, right from the backstage segment showing how much he cared about that title shot to the exclusion of everything else.

Nobody in this tournament seems to give two tosses of a donkey’s tail that they’re not in the tournament any more and that their shot at the title is gone.

Only Reigns and Ambrose have shown they care – really care – about winning this. They’ve shown they’re driven. They’ve taken on board that this is supposed to matter so they’re making it matter. Credit to them for that – when Reigns wins on Sunday at least someone who cares will win.

They’re in the final, folks. I’m predicting that here as a lock-in. You want more convincing? The heels left, Kevin Owens and Alberto Del Rio, have titles already. They’re not going to be getting a match at the big one as well as having a secondary title. They’re not Cena and Rollins.

Or is this all misdirection? Are they distracting us with the mental forcing of the idea that Roman Reigns is going to win – can only win – making it so obvious that we’re supposed to forget Sheamus is waiting in the wings and he’s going to come rolling in to take the title off a victorious Reigns or Ambrose with Triple H’s help? That would be a bit a la Daniel Bryan and Randy Orton, but the WWE is not above repeating itself and Triple H could easily promo the heck out of being able to do the same thing twice to different fan favourites because he’s that one step ahead.

Or are we being even more misdirected than that? Are we being convinced to accept Roman Reigns’ reign by being made to think Triple H has it all in hand, only for Reigns to conquer everything thrown at him? Rather like Daniel Bryan again…but then if Reigns doesn’t win and the (reported) plans change because of Rollins’ injury, that will be the second time Reigns’ proposed reign has been proposed since…Daniel Bryan.

Or, and finally, is the whole thing a misdirection to make us think they had a plan all along, and that this wasn’t thrown together by a group of writers spluttering their coffee out in shock as the news of Rollins’ injury broke, breaking out in a cold sweat and going back to the well?

I know what I think. But then the great showmen let you think you know how it’s done right up until you realise that’s not the trick you’ve been shown at all.

PS Turns out my article wasn’t shorter…