As we approach the halfway mark to next year's Wrestlemania, now is a good time to look at WWE and assess the current product and major storylines.
While everything last year led to the heavily hyped Rock-John Cena rematch, some new players are likely to move into starring roles for next year's mega-show, scheduled April 6 at the Superdome in New Orleans.
Perhaps the most significant development since Wrestlemania 29 nearly six months ago has been the emergence of Daniel Bryan as one of the biggest stars in the company.
While Bryan's considerable in-ring talent has been appreciated by those in the wrestling world for a number of years, it has only been in the past several months that his potential as a major attraction and personality has been recognized in WWE.
From somewhat of a mid-card comedy act (albeit WWE tag-team champs) with Kane as Team Hell No, Bryan has parlayed his ability to connect with fans into a top spot in the company and a legitimate pay-per-view draw.
The major development on the heels side of the ledger has been the re-emergence of Randy Orton as WWE's top bad guy.
Coming off a costly divorce earlier this year along with other personal issues, Orton has regained the edge that made him one the best heels in the business a few years ago.
The response to Orton's babyface character has always been lukewarm at best. The 33-year-old third-generation star is a natural heel who, in the past, has earned that distinction honestly — whether it be through harassing WWE divas, trashing motel rooms or violating the drug policy.
The fact of the matter is that there's always been a tremendous upside to Orton, but that upside is in the antagonist role where Orton's talents shine the brightest.
The McMahons, this version consisting of Triple H (Paul Levesque) and wife Stephanie McMahon, have produced most of the conflict in recent months while presiding over the company in on-screen authority roles.
Instead of maintaining the order, however, Triple H and Stephanie have shaken up the ranks by backing Orton as world champ, employing The Shield as henchmen, and using the emotionally conflicted Big Show to carry out their dirty work.
All, they contend, under the guise of doing “what's best for business” while flexing their political muscles.
The Bryan-Orton feud will continue to heat up, with the two meeting for the vacated WWE title at the Battleground pay-per-view on Oct. 6.
The likely money match, though, will be Bryan seeking revenge against Triple H for engineering his recent beatdowns. WWE desperately needs to put the belt on Bryan, else risk the real possibility of fans growing tired of seeing the rug pulled from under the sympathetic underdog.
Until last week's revolt, the WWE locker room had been portrayed as a weak, disjointed unit more concerned about job security than presenting themselves as “superstars.”
Perhaps the WWE star coming off the worst has been Big Show, who has been forced to acquiesce to the demands of the power-hungry Triple H and the smarmy and condescending Stephanie on a weekly basis, turning his character from a 500-pound monster to a sentimental softie whose ability to turn on the waterworks should get him a future gig on the Hallmark Channel.
The last thing you want to do is have “the world's largest athlete” come off as weak and whiny, but unfortunately that's exactly what WWE has accomplished.
It will be difficult to turn Show babyface when they inevitably have him side with Bryan. Fans may have short memories, but the vivid images of the once-feared giant laying out members of the Rhodes family, among others, won't be easily forgotten.
While strengthening the heel personas of Triple H and Stephanie, the storyline has done nothing to enhance the sappy Show's reputation.
One possible way out of that conundrum would be to expose Big Show as having been a willing participant in the McMahon power play all along. That way, Daniel has another transitional feud on his way to getting his ultimate shot at the boss, and Big Show gets to put over his undersized but undeterred opponent.
Perhaps no one has told a better story than C.M. Punk and Paul Heyman. It's the age-old wrestling angle of the mentor turning on his best friend, with the result being some of the best mic work in WWE this past year.
Like Bryan, Punk is another example of an underutilized performer who shined on the independent circuit, was deemed not suitable for WWE greatness, but defied the odds and broke through the glass ceiling.
Ryback, who burst upon the scene a year ago and drew comparisons to Bill Goldberg, has seen his star fade after a hot start that was derailed by a series of non-wins at pay-per-views and other high-profile events.
WWE has attempted to reboot his character with a gimmick of bullying WWE performers. Even enlisting Heyman as his mouthpiece, though, is unlikely to restore his lost credibility.
As for rumors of The Undertaker putting his streak on the line against Ryback at next year's Mania, the latter would have to undergo a massive transformation for that to occur.
And with The Undertaker taking great pride in his annual big-show performance, it would be difficult to imagine a Taker-Ryback match coming close to equaling his most recent classics with C.M. Punk, Triple H, Shawn Michaels and Edge. Better choices for a WM opponent would be John Cena or Brock Lesnar. Given Lesnar's stiff, rugged style, WWE would be taking a chance matching him up with the 48-year-old “Dead Man,” who has been plagued with various injuries in recent years.
If Taker doesn't pan out for Lesnar, there's always the chance that The Rock will make his fourth straight Wrestlemania appearance, setting up Rock vs. Brock.
Last year's Wrestlemania was the highest-grossing pay-per-view event in company history, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a major reason.
For now, though, the 41-year-old “Great One” isn't showing his hand on a possible return.
“I'd like to leave it open. But if I'd never wrestle again, I'd be very content with that,” he said in an interview earlier this year. “We'll see.”
The conspicuous absence of former WWE champs Cena and Sheamus due to injuries has left a void in the top tier of the roster, but it's also allowed other stars to shine and grab some of the spotlight.
The Shield has been a pleasant surprise, with the young trio promising to be a part of the main-event picture for a long time. Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins have been highly effective in the ring and on the mic, while Roman Reigns (former first-team All-ACC defensive end Joe Anoa'i from Georgia Tech) has been a breakout star in his enforcer role.
Another hot act of late has been The Wyatt Family led by the former Husky Harris. Bray Wyatt (Windham Rotunda), son of former star Mike Rotunda and grandson of Blackjack Mulligan (Bob Windham), has emerged as one of the top talkers in the company.
Rey Mysterio is scheduled to return next month following an eight-month layoff due to a bad knee.
One of the top high flyers in the history of the sport, Mysterio has been plagued by knee problems in recent years, and this could be his last major run in WWE.
What WWE fans can look forward to is the imminent return of WWE chairman Vince McMahon who, hopefully, will restore some order.
WWE hoped to make a big splash by luring Steve Austin back for one more match at Wrestlemania 30 — this time representing longtime arch-nemesis McMahon in a battle with Triple H, the new evil ultimate boss, for control of the company. Austin, though, turned down a big-money offer, obviously content with staying put on his Texas ranch.
Between then and now, speculation will run rampant, rumors will fly. That's what makes Wrestlemania the biggest event of the year in professional wrestling.
Bryan, Bella engaged
Daniel Bryan (Bryan Danielson) and Brie Bella (Brianna Garcia-Colace) are now engaged, according to the E! network, which airs the “Total Divas” reality show.
E! News reported that Daniel popped the question on Sept. 25 while they were on a hike in Big Sur, Calif. The two have been together for nearly three years.
“I have never in my life seen him so nervous. I've been by him when he's gone out for Wrestlemania and some really big things,” Brie told E! “He got really, really nervous and he started talking about how long we've been together. He got down on one knee and compared our love. He said he'll love me forever like the ocean goes on.”
The cameras, of course, were rolling when Bryan got down on that knee, and viewers can watch the entire proposal when season one of the show returns on Nov. 17.
Punk makes SI list
Sports Illustrated named C.M. Punk as one of the 100 Twitter accounts to follow for “finding news, information and entertainment.”
SI noted that the seven-time WWE champion (and noted Blackhawks and Cubs fan) is a master of the Twitter mic, whether mocking spelling and grammar mistakes from Twitter trolls or tweeting photos of himself to battling singer Chris Brown (“I would like @chrisbrown fight somebody that can defend themselves. Me curb stomping that (expletive) would be a #wrestlemania moment.”)
Pin Me, Pay Me
Bobby Smedley, better known as former Smoky Mountain champion Bobby Blaze, has penned a candid memoir titled “Pin Me, Pay Me! Have Boots Will Travel.” The 219-page autobiography offers an insightful and entertaining behind-the scenes look at the Ashland, Ky., native's career in the ring — the good, the bad and the ugly.
The book is available at amazon.com.
Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517 or email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.