Five years ago, WWE appeared to be headed for a "new era" long before it became a talking point on the promotion's programming.
TLC 2011 looked to signal a fresh start and the rise of new stars in WWE. Looking back five years later, the only thing that seems true about the promotion is how rapidly things change and evolve.
That night, CM Punk retained the WWE World Title. Daniel Bryan cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase to become World Heavyweight Champion. Zack Ryder scored a seemingly breakthrough victory over Dolph Ziggler to become U.S. Champion. Their wins, combined with successful defenses by Cody Rhodes, Beth Phoenix and the tag team of Kofi Kingston and Evan Bourne left the WWE roll call of champions looking like this:
You probably remember this picture. It certainly got shared and retweeted enough through social media at the time. And, among diehard wrestling fans, there was much rejoicing. The picture also led CM Punk to make the following proclamation on Twitter:
Looking back now, many of these champions have, in fact, been "left behind" by the company. In fact, of all the talent in the picture, only two are still active wrestlers in WWE.
The two world title holders pictured, Punk and Bryan, no longer wrestle. Punk would leave the company the night after the 2014 Royal Rumble, transitioning to mixed martial arts and making an ignominious debut in the UFC back in September, when he lost by first-round submission in a fight that was totally dominated by Mickey Gall. As for Bryan, he retired from wrestling in WWE back in February, though he still is a constant presence on WWE programming as the general manager of Smackdown -- and that doesn't count his participation in "reality" shows like Total Divas.
Phoenix, the Divas Champion at the time, also has retired from wrestling. A four-time champion in WWE, that run with the Divas title would mark the final championship reign for Phoenix, who left WWE in the fall of 2012 and subsequently retired. She is now married to Adam "Edge" Copeland, and they have two children together.
Bourne and Rhodes also have seen their WWE tenures end since this seemingly iconic picture was taken.
Less than a month after TLC 2011, Bourne was suspended 60 days following a second violation of the company wellness policy. He and Kofi Kingston lost the tag titles right before the suspension was announced, and Bourne never returned to a position of prominence in the company. He suffered a ghastly foot injury in the spring of 2012 in an automobile accident and spent more than two years basically on the sidelines and off TV for WWE until he was released in June of 2014. Returning to the independent circuit under the name of Matt Sydal, he compiled an extensive resume as a freelancer, appearing for ROH, PWG, and New Japan Pro Wrestling. That all changed in September when Sydal was arrested on his way to Japan after entering the country in possession of liquid cannabis. Sydal was removed from the NJPW roster and may be facing a ban from entering that country, but he reportedly is slated to be released from prison in Japan on Dec. 6.
Rhodes had a very public split with WWE this past spring, when he requested his release. That request was ultimately granted, and since his no-compete clause expired, Rhodes has stayed very active as a freelancer, appearing for TNA, EVOLVE, PWG, and a host of other promotions. He also is slated to make his ROH debut at Final Battle against Jay Lethal.
For Ryder, the title victory at TLC 2011 appeared to be the culmination of a push to prominence that seemingly had been organic and pushed by Ryder through social media and his own YouTube web series, Z! True Long Island Story. The success did not last long. Jack Swagger dethroned Ryder less than a month later and after Ryder spent the early part of 2012 involved in a storyline with John Cena, Eve Torres, and Kane, he quickly dropped back down the card. He would not win another title in WWE until this year's WrestleMania, when he captured the Intercontinental Title in a ladder match... but he dropped the championship to The Miz the very next night on Raw. Ryder remains a low mid-carder for WWE, currently teaming with Mojo Rawley as the Hype Bros on Smackdown.
Of all the wrestlers in the above picture, the only one who has raised his stock and is still in WWE is Kingston. After Sydal's suspension, Kingston began teaming with R-Truth, winning tag gold. Reigns with the Intercontinental and U.S. Title followed in subsequent years, but Kingston still struggled to truly connect with the audience. All that changed last year, when The New Day -- a seemingly thrown-together faction that included Kingston, Big E Langston, and Xavier Woods -- started to resonate with the fan base after turning heel. Although that trio has shown apparent signs of another turn to the proverbial dark side in recent weeks, The New Day remains a prominent part of WWE's Raw brand and is on the cusp of surpassing Demolition for the longest reign of any WWE tag champions in company history.
WWE's current self-proclaimed "new era" has seen the rise of several wrestlers who plied their craft for years on the independent circuit and now are in positions of prominence: names like Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens, Dean Ambrose, and AJ Styles. Time will tell if these competitors will remain high on the ladder in WWE, five years from now. The reality is that long-term success in WWE is hard to come by. Even Steve Austin had a fairly brief run at the top of WWE when compared to the prolonged prominence of names like John Cena and Randy Orton, and even they appear to slowly be phasing out as top-tier performers for the company.
The only thing that seems certain in WWE, especially given an increasingly grueling travel schedule and a physical in-ring style, is constant change.