Elimination Chamber is usually one of WWE's best pay-per-views, and this year's was no exception. Although I have fond memories of last year's Chamber, held here at what was then the New Orleans Arena, I think Elimination Chamber 2014 was more exciting. Broadcast live from Minneapolis Sunday night, it was WWE's last big chance to change the table settings for Wrestlemania 30, here in New Orleans April 6.
But based on the outcome of the Chamber match and last night's Monday Night RAW, it seems that despite the crowd revolt that began at the Royal Rumble, despite audiences across the country unequivocally rejecting Batista vs. Orton as Wrestlemania's main event, WWE hasn't yet found the courage to change course or the wisdom to give the fans what they're demanding: Daniel Bryan in contention for the WWE World Heavyweight Title.
Let's run through some of the Chamber pay-per-view's matches. If you've got a match on a pay-per-view, you've got an opportunity to steal the show, and that's what Big E and Jack Swagger did in an opening contest for Big E's Intercontinental Title. Swagger is so perfectly proportioned that he just looks like a buff farmhand until you see him standing a full head taller than even the Buick-wide Big E. Both men put their bodies on the line, and the snarky Minneapolis crowd that began the match chanting for cult-favorite Dolph Ziggler was by the match's end chanting "Holy shit!" Big E's still the Champ, but these two blue-chippers tore it up. The future is in good hands.
The Shield vs. the Wyatt Family three-on-three was so heavily hyped and anticipated it seemed unlikely the match could live up to expectations. Instead, it exceeded expectations, providing an example of the absolute best professional wrestling has to offer. When the three smoldering, tac-gear-wearing mercenaries of the Shield went nose-to-nose with the wild-eyed, wild-haired swamp cult headed by Bray Wyatt, the crowd chanted "This is awesome" before the match even began.
Conventional wisdom is that pro wrestling works best when there are clear good guys and bad guys, but the otherworldly weirdness of the Wyatt wildmen vs. the hard-edged paramilitary brotherhood of The Shield proved a perfect peanut-butter-and-chocolate combination. Fans cheered deliriously for both. I was gratified to see the underappreciated Seth Rollins get several great spots in which the XXXL-sized Wyatt boys would attempt to spin, fling or slam him only for the nimble Rollins to land ninja-like on his feet and segue immediately into offense. This barn-burner of a match, which the Wyatts eventually won, also provided color commentator Jerry Lawler one of the funniest lines of the night. When the viking behemoth Erick Rowan plowed through the Shield's scruffy Rollins, Lawler said, "Looks like the larger beard has the right-of-way."
How did the audience react to the first singles match in years for controversial Royal Rumble winner and Wrestlemania 30 main-eventer Batista? #BOOtista trended worldwide on Twitter. Batista is apparently so powerfully unpopular that he can even make a crowd cheer for Alberto Del Rio, the generically villainous jerk who was his opponent. Batista, booed out of the building yet again, deserves better than this. Crowds are still punishing him for who he's not (Daniel Bryan, C.M. Punk) rather than reacting to who he is. Batista's too valuable to be wasted in this thankless and doomed role as a "hero" nobody wants, and his stiff performance vs. Del Rio didn't look like a Wrestlemania main-eventer's. I hope WWE can quickly find a direction for him that better connects with fans.
On Monday Night RAW, Batista had another lackluster match against Del Rio, got heavily booed again, and cut an ambiguous promo in which he asserted how much he loves "this business" and that he respects the fans' right to their opinions. While WWE acknowledging the near-universal scorn Batista's facing is a baby-step towards sanity, the Wrestlemania main event appears in serious trouble.
Sunday night's final match was the Elimination Chamber itself. WWE Heavyweight Champion Randy Orton was forced to defend his belt against five other big-timers— Cesaro, Sheamus, John Cena, Christian and Daniel Bryan— via a conceptually complex contest within the pay-per-view's titular match's titular structure. Two men, Sheamus and Cesaro, began in a ring surrounded by a web of chains and four "unbreakable" Lexan pods, from which the match's other participants were randomly released at intervals.
The Chamber match's star and the entire pay-per-view's MVP was Cesaro. After an exchange that included the sneaky Christian scampering up the chains of the Chamber like a monkey, Cesaro powerbombed him into a pod's Lexan wall and then flowed seamlessly into an uppercut, catching Christian on the way down with an impact that sounded like freightcars coupling. Much later in the match, four remaining wrestlers faced off, one in each corner of the ring. Cesaro, who'd by that time dished out and taken brutal violence for 26 minutes, looked ready to go another 26 hours. He proved it by suplexing John Cena while Cena had Bryan up on his shoulders, effortlessly hip-tossing the two men's combined weight. Cena tapped Cesaro out shortly after with the STF, but this was a case, as with Mark Henry's breakout showing last year, where you didn't have to be the victor to come out of the Chamber a clear winner.
With only three participants left, what had been an all-time great Elimination Chamber match jumped off track when the Wyatt family "magically" appeared inside the locked and sealed Chamber. You could love it, hate it, or just accept it as a means to eliminate Cena, which it was. The prospect of a Cena/Wyatt feud is intriguing. Cena, though controversial, is undisputably one of WWE's all-time greats, and I love the idea of less-established new blood like Bray Wyatt facing him at 'Mania. I only hope Bray Wyatt can rise to this extraordinary occasion.
The attack on Cena and his subseqent elimination from the Chamber brought the pay-per-view down to the big question: Who would go on to main event 'Mania in New Orleans, Randy Orton or the hugely popular underdog crowd favorite, Daniel Bryan?
As soon as Bryan's recent antagonist Kane appeared, using the post-Wyatt confusion to sneak into the Chamber, there was no longer any question. Kane interfered, Bryan was screwed out of the title for the thousandth time, and Orton left the Chamber still champion. The post-match crowd shots told the story: people weren't even booing. They just looked disgusted and dissatisfied.
On Monday night, we got a clip of Bryan in a parking lot angrily accosting Triple H, the smirking business-suited executive who's supposedly been holding Bryan back. Later, taking the mic after defeating Kane in the ring, Bryan told us he was outraged, fed up, and wasn't going to rest until he'd gotten what he and all his supporters have been demanding: a Wrestlemania match against Triple H. This was classic WWE bait-and-switch. Bryan's fans want him in the title match at 'Mania, not stuck fighting a 44-year-old boardroom bully.
The most exciting developments Monday Night were two returns bookending RAW. The show opened with Hulk Hogan, who seemed vigorous and full of playful enthusiasm.
Resplendent in a fresh feather boa and some Fifi Mahony's-style sunglasses, Hogan formally announced his hosting of Wrestlemania 30 in New Orleans and the launch of the digitally-streaming WWE Network. I'm not a Hulkamaniac, but it was great to see him back and his characteristic hype was contagious. He's the Hulkster for a reason, brother.
At RAW's close, the immortal Undertaker re-emerged, challenging ex-UFC champ Brock Lesnar to a Wrestlemania match. This pairing had been long rumored, and I hadn't liked the sound of it, but seeing the nose-to-nose chemistry between these two freaks, I'll admit I was wrong. It's awesome. Undertaker, offered the formal contract for the match, responded by stabbing the pen through Lesnar's hand and then chokeslamming Lesnar through the desk on which the contract lay. Hell yeah! Bring on Wrestlemania!
Elimination Chamber, which could have been a shocking and crowd-pleasing swerve on the road to Wrestlemania, now recedes in the rear-view mirror. There are no more pay-per-views between here and April 6, when Wrestlemania 30 hits New Orleans.
Though anything could change in the next 40 days, the major matches seem to be set, and there's a hell of a lot to look forward to.