Grantland.com is featuring a new column by The Masked Man looking at the “underdogs” of WWE in WWE Champion CM Punk, WWE World Heavyweight Champion Daniel Bryan and WWE United States Champion Zack Ryder.

“All three champions are Internet darlings. Bryan5 is probably most like a modern Benoit or Guerrero. He has wrestled all over the world, he achieved great success in the American indie scene, and he was widely regarded as the best wrestler in the world before he got the call-up from WWE — this despite being 5-foot-8 and under 200 pounds. When he was signed, smart fans were quick to praise WWE for seeing potential in so unlikely a specimen; they also bitterly predicted that Bryan would be misused by WWE for years to come. When Bryan was pitched as a legitimate mid-tier competitor (even though announcer Michael Cole endlessly derides him as a “nerd”), fans who assumed he would lose every match still couldn’t rest easy. When he won the Money in the Bank briefcase and said he’d cash it in at WrestleMania, many fans interpreted it as a tease before the huge letdown to come. It felt like the more WWE projected Bryan as a legitimate wrestler, the more “smart” fans disbelieved it. They know the script, and Bryan isn’t part of it.

Ryder, as much as he’s lumped in with Bryan and Punk, is an entirely different animal. Ryder has been in WWE since 2006, first in a tag team with Curt Hawkins, then as the flamboyant, Jersey Shore-inspired Long Islander we know today. He made himself a home in the secondary realms of Smackdown, ECW (the WWE version), and Raw, before he was shunted aside into the netherworld of WWE Superstars.6 But Ryder took matters into his own hands, launching a wildly popular YouTube series and proclaiming himself the WWE’s Internet Champion. The fans he earned eventually helped force him into television prominence. Once on TV, he was endorsed by John Cena, and, after Ryder began feuding with Ziggler, a mid-card match could rarely run to completion without the crowd chanting “We want Ryder!” Of course, that chant is semi-ironic; it’s a critique of the WWE power structure as much as an endorsement of Ryder.

Punk, of course, is an outsider thrust into the unlikely role of messiah. He cemented his own ascendance in the past six months by demanding a spot at the top of the card and, once given it, proving that the implausible hero can succeed in a WWE that has always overvalued big muscles and outsize gimmickry. His feud with John Cena underscored the disparity between the former prototype7 and the new model that Punk represents. In a few short weeks, Punk made dissent to WWE’s business as usual into a popular trend. The crowd went wild for Punk; “Cena sucks!” chants, which had been infiltrating WWE crowds for some time, suddenly became the norm — a measure of approval for Punk’s new movement. Like the “We want Ryder!” chants, “Cena sucks!” isn’t particularly literal so much as it is a rejection of the status quo.”