What a pay-per-view! Normally Extreme Rules is the place for exciting spectacles, but not really where you expect to find compelling wrestling storytelling and drama. This year that couldn’t have been further from the truth, however, as the show featured easily some of the best wrestling television of the year thus far. I was absolutely nuts for the Sheamus/Daniel Bryan match, as well as the CM Punk/Chris Jericho contest, but what most impressed me, both from a wrestling as well as a story-standpoint, was the much-anticipated showdown between Cena and Lesnar, which had me and other fans asking that all-important question: “How much of this is real?”
While WWE took their sweet time building Cena’s last feud with the Rock, his current rivalry with the former UFC Heavyweight Champion has been powered by rocketfuel, especially considering that it began less than a month ago. In that short amount of time, the two have gone from “dudes with mysterious, unexplained rivalry” to “heated, irreconcilable enemies,” and that in and of itself is impressive even before you take into account the jaw-dropping nature of their match at Extreme Rules (check out my full recap over at GuySpeed.com).
Smarky fans know that WWE has a policy against blood in their matches, and the promotion has been known to stop contests and drain them of every ounce of momentum just to make sure that there’s nothing untoward on television. That said, both instances of Cena getting bloodied seemed to play perfectly into the story being told of what a monster Lesnar is, and his mounting frustration with the WWE’s referees. In addition, while WWE stopped the match twice in its opening moments to deal with Cena’s blood, no one did anything when Cena busted Lesnar open with a chain just prior to the match’s finish, which could easily point to the fact that the color we had seen was planned all along.
Similarly, the submissions that Lesnar locked in on Cena looked flat-out nasty – far more painful, debilitating and realistic than even what we had seen earlier in the night from noted submission specialist Daniel Bryan. Was Lesnar taking liberties with Cena or not recognizing his own strength, or were we as fans simply imposing our knowledge of Lesnar’s MMA experience onto the proceedings while getting suckered into Cena’s pitch-perfect sell? While Cena’s ability to still hit the Attitude Adjustment on a guy the size of Lesnar would seemingly point to his arm being AOK, his finisher relies mostly on his right arm, and it was the left one that he was selling after the match.
Even Cena’s post-match promo is of questionable veracity, as his off-handed, naturalistic allusions to his going away for a while would seem to indicate a legit injury of some sort. But when you take them alongside the knowledge that WWE just recently enlisted Beth Phoenix to work the fans over a leg injury, and that the company has been scrambling around for a guy to star in their next Marine movie (a franchise that originated with a performance from Cena), it’s just as possible that the whole thing was a big plan to remove Cena from the squared circle for a period.
A couple hours after the show has ended, I’m thinking that everything I mentioned above was likely a work of some sort, with WWE playing off what fans know about their blood policy as well as Lesnar’s legit MMA background. In the moment, however, I was totally caught up the show’s potent blend of fact and fiction, unable to separate what was real from what WWE wanted me to believe was real, and that’s absolutely fantastic.
When fans are confused about how much of a match or storyline is real is when wrestling is at its best, but in the age of dirt sheets and rampant media coverage of pretty much everything, that’s become an increasingly difficult state to attain. Thankfully, in the wake of Punk’s “Pipebomb” promo last year and the ambiguity surrounding Cena’s feud with the Rock, WWE has started finding new ways to work even the most jaded fans, by using their inside-baseball knowledge against them, and I couldn’t be more pleased by it.