WWE was an odd beast in 2011 being at times so repetitive and cringeworthy that it made you embarrassed to be a fan and on other occasions so thrilling that you couldn’t imagine living without it. Like a relationship with a schizophrenic, the company delighted with one of its best ever years for sustained PPV quality yet one of its worse for overall direction and booking, showed signs of promoting new talent yet made a mockery of the stars it had tried to push the year before and gripped crowds with fantastic inciting incidents for feuds only to transform them into meaningless rivalries through needlessly rushing the strands of the story.
Throughout all the ups and downs of the year the superstars continued to work tirelessly to entertain the masses in arguably the most relentlessly taxing entertainment profession in the world and all deserve respect for their boundless energy and dedication to an industry where there is no off season and injury is rife. As in all establishments however, some stars shine brighter than others, and this following countdown is a reflection of the twenty men (and women) who have done most to impress this humble narrator based on a combination of ring work, mic skills, engaging feuds and interaction with and reaction from the fans. I hope you enjoy.
One of the greatest heel performers of the past decade hung up his boots after wrestlemania under the advice from doctors that his body could no longer handle the general wear and tear that comes from life between the ropes. Up to that point Edge had been on course for another stellar year in the wwe, finally convincing as a babyface performer in his superb match with Dolph Ziggler at the Royal Rumble and in his awesome contribution to the defence of his world heavyweight championship within the Smackdown Elimination Chamber. Edge then defeated Alberto Del Rio in a surprise title defence at Wrestlemania in a lively match that would have been far better had they been allowed more time. The fact that their bout for a major championship was only half the length of the epic but long winded tussle between Triple H and The Undertaker was inexplicable.
Post wrestlemania Edge returned on occasion to help progress current feuds and excelled in his role, helping to drive further interest in the Orton/Henry match at Vengeance through conducting an utterly gripping ‘cutting edge’ interview and emphatically displaying his dissapointment at the paranoid mess his former friend Christian had become since his heel turn. It was obvious from his retirement speech that Adam Copeland had no real desire to leave the profession he had lived and breathed for the past fifteen years but nonetheless he leaves behind a legacy of a man who kept the product interesting and dramatically urgent in an era where it had begun to often feel lifeless and stagnant.
Must see Match: vs Dolph Ziggler for the world heavyweight championship (Royal Rumble PPV)
19.) Beth Phoenix
The Glamazon feuded forever with faces Kelly Kelly and Eve carrying the former to exciting PPV outings and engaging in surprisingly high quality offerings with the latter. Beth’s mid rope glam slam on Eve at Survivor Series was quite the spectacle and their workrate was astounding in their three star match at Vengeance. Beth’s selling is not the most authentic but her clean, powerful offence effectively conveys her monster aura and she has performed well all year round.
Must see Match: vs Eve for the Divas Title (Vengeance PPV)
18.) Evan Bourne
Jobber to the stars continued to wow crowds with his visually arresting aerial offence and emphatic displays of pain. After trading victories in a fun but aimless rivarly with Jack Swagger Bourne found his niche as a tag team partner with Kofi Kingston playing the perfect face in peril to assist Kingston’s frenzied hot tag. At 5 ft 9 and lacking charisma, Bourne is unlikely to go far as a singles competitor in the wwe but has the potential to help mend the tag division.
Must see Match: Raw Money in the Bank Ladder Match (Money in the Bank PPV)
Superb female worker has the assured, no-nonsense swagger and all round aura of meanness that makes her a more convincing heel than fellow pin up strong member and Divas Champion Beth Phoenix. Unfortunately the impressive ruthlessness she displays in her authentic beat-downs are usually wasted on the screaming, phoney outbursts of her barbie doll opponents and as hard as she might try it is impossible to buy her pain when on the receiving end of a comeback from the likes of Kelly Kelly. Still however in 2011 the Diva has had a string of really fun matches with a variety of different opponents and generally brings a ton of character to her craft even if the current formula of her dominating matches only to lose via sneaky pinfalls has long outstayed its welcome.
Must see Match: vs AJ (Smackdown)
Talented mic worker transitioned from smiley babyface to nutjob heel following an attack on former friend John Morrison in May after which he turned his back on the fans and labelled the kids “little jimmies.” Truth defeated Rey Mysterio in a good match at the Over the Limit PPVto gain some momentum heading into wwe title rivalry with John Cena. After excelling in some impressively vicious mic work concerning Cena’s rapport with the young fans, Truth proceeded to send out a message on Raw by harassing a child in the audience and throwing some soda into his father’s face after having defeated Cena via count out.
Truth was unable to defeat Cena for the gold at Capitol Punishment but it appeared that there was some still some life in his character when himself and Miz joined forces and cut an astounding promo together about being underutilized under the incompetence of new general manager Triple H. Miz and Truth proceeded to feud with main event talent such as CM Punk, John Cena and The Rock but were only sparingly booked as a legitimate threat and more often promoted as a horrific comedy act. On occasions where they were allowed to run wild however such as their chaotic riot at the hell in a cell PPV, the pair exhibited lots of character and flair.
With Miz taking Truth out of action following a beat down in late November the future seems uncertain for the solid all rounder. He clearly isn’t regarded as having main event potential and has exhausted his stint as a singles star in the mid card so maybe as one half of a tag team act with an impressionable young talent would be a good way to utilize Truth going forward.
Must see Match: vs John Morrison, Falls Count Anywhere (Raw)
15.) Kofi Kingston
The Jamacian superstar remains a fan favourite for his superb flexibility and athleticism coupled with the lively energy that he brings to his matches. At the start of the year Kingston was used to help maintain Del Rio’s momentum following the Mexican’s Royal Rumble win and did a fine job putting over his opponents dangerous array of moves.
After partaking in an enjoyable mini feud with Dolph Ziggler over the United States Title, Kofi was then paired up with Evan Bourne to form Air Boom, the tag partnership which currently hold the gold within their division. The high flyers are a natural team together and when given the chance have defended the title in a string of exciting PPV matches against the duo of Miz and R-Truth and more recently their well worked battle against the team of Epico and Primo. As a solid babyface in peril and a superb short burst performer, Kofi is ideally suited to tag team wrestling and one hopes that the division will widen in its landscape in the coming year so that he can continue to showcase these attributes in a less barren tag team scene.
Must see Match: vs Dolph Ziggler, 2 out of 3 falls for the United States Championship (Smackdown)
14.) Cody Rhodes
A solid in ring year for Rhodes even if he still hasn’t managed to convince as a potential main event talent. As a jack of all trades, Rhodes can pretty much do anything well but has no discerning qualities to make him stand out from the pack. The attempt on the wwe’s behalf to make him appear more unique by handing him an elaborate disfigured gimmick didn’t do the guy any favours as he was forced to monotonously recite horrible corny material that even the most comfortable of mic workers would have struggled with. Larger than life characters only usually work when you can feel the emotion behind the mask so to speak but Rhodes visibly and understandably uncomfortable delivery brought far more attention to the nature of the gimmick than the delivery of the gimmick itself.
Cody has however made further improvements to his already impressive wrestling ability, flourishing in the fun series of matches that accompanied his feuds with the likes of Rey Mysterio, Daniel Bryan and Randy Orton which have shown that while wrestlers like Rhodes might not sell tickets to the arenas they still play an instrumental role in keeping people engaged once they’re in the building.
Must see Match: vs Randy Orton in a street fight (Smackdown)
The Irishman made the seamless adjustment from heel to face in the past year and appears to suit the latter more with his naturally likeable facial expressions and comic timing. Despite being handed small scrapes in terms of meaningful rivalries over the past twelve months Sheamus was still particularly effective in his rousing attempts to take down Mark Henry in a feud that immediately helped him to establish a rapport with the fans and in his cartoonish rivalry with Christian which nonetheless displayed his improved presence inside the ring.
After being thrust into a world champion spot far too quickly in 2010, Sheamus is now undergoing a rebuilding phase and luckily for him has an enviable size, unique, musclebound look and friends in the right places as valuable assets which should prevent him from being forgotten about in the cutthroat world surrounding him.
Must see Match: vs Christian (Hell in a cell PPV)
12.) John Morrison
After a frustrating year of being trapped in a middling midcard role with an out of touch gimmick, Morrison called it quits with the wwe after his contract expired in mid November. In his absence Vince has perhaps lost his most exciting performer and a true show stealing talent who once again delighted fans with his gravity defying stunts inside such structures as the elimination chamber and in his celebrated piece of royal rumble choreography in which he thwarted an attempt to have him thrown him over the top rope by making the jump to the barricade next to the crowd and then expertly navigating his way back to the ring again.
Throughout the year Morrison has provided spectacular entertainment with his clashes against the likes of R-Truth, The Miz and Dolph Ziggler but he has also demonstrated superb selling abilities exemplified most brilliantly in his matches with Mark Henry where he was thrown around like a rag doll and acted out his pain as if he was on the verge of his last breath. Morrison is pretty much guaranteed to join rival company TNA in 2012 and when he does a fresh take on his character and a brand new series of opponents for him to face should do him the world of good.
Must see Match: Raw Elimination Chamber for the WWE title (Elimination Chamber PPV)
11.) John Cena
Though his Wrestlemania title match with The Miz was very poor, Cena has had yet another solid year of performances on PPV proving that in a big match environment he is more than capable of providing a fantastic spectacle with whoever he happens to be in the ring with. His fun series of world title clashes with Punk and Del Rio both showed that his emotional intensity and superb crowd interaction make up for some of his very transparent failings as a worker and there is something to be said for a man who is able to have good matches with the majority of the roster despite being such a sub-par technician and athlete.
On the downside, the Cena character has become even more unbearable over the past twelve months. He has treated world championship rivalries as stand up comedy segments, refused to sell for or effectively put over nine tenths of his opponents, and most embarrassingly of all has repeatedly buried himself in his feud with The Rock thus doing his very best to try and dampen the excitement for their highly anticipated Wrestlemania match next year.
Quite simply, Cena in his current megaface role, is ruining the art of wrestling which is built on crowds rooting for a face as he overcomes the odds of a respectively tough heel. When said heel is never allowed to get any reasonable heat because Cena merely laughs off their challenge it makes it impossible to root for him and even harder to care about the outcome of his matches . From a creative standpoint, Cena gradually turning on the booing fans and undergoing some critical character development in 2012 would help to freshen up the entire wwe product.
Must see Match: vs CM Punk for the wwe title (Money in the Bank PPV)
10.) The Miz
As the victim of bad booking throughout almost the entire year, it is testament to The Miz that he is so smooth on the mic and so good at interacting with the audience, that he still garners one of the best reactions from the crowd regardless of how inadequate his character is made to look. Miz began the year as wwe champion and his reign got a major boost when he successfully defended the title against John Morrison in a thrilling falls count anywhere match on Raw. This momentum was then heavily diluted however as Miz required assistance to keep the belt from the hands of a sixty one year old Jerry Lawler and developed as the awkward third party member in the emerging Rock/Cena feud, a harsh reality which made his win against Cena on the biggest show of the year a mere afterthought.
After losing the title, Miz was paired up with Truth with the two disillusioned characters relieving their frustrations on the management of the company by taking the law into their own hands and enacting a series of eye catching and unpredictable beatdowns on various members of the roster. It was a fine idea on paper but in execution Miz and Truth were never treated as a serious threat by the elite stars they were trying to rile up and so subsequently were never treated seriously by audiences either. That and the fart jokes of course. When booked in a non-comic capacity Miz and Truth formed a highly entertaining partnership best exmplified by their mocking parody rap of Truth’s old theme song and the intermingling of their catchphrases.
From an in ring perspective Miz is only really engaging in hardcore environments or multiman affairs but he more than makes up for this by being one of the wwe’s most natural talkers.
Must see Match: vs CM Punk and Alberto Del Rio in a triple threat TLC match for the wwe title (TLC PPV)
9.) Daniel Bryan
After the great ovation his money in the bank win earnt him from the Chicago fans, it was hoped that Bryan would build up a steady steam of victories as part of a slow but steady route to winning the gold in something of a rags to riches fashion and that a series of video packages would be used to hype up his deadly submission style to make up for his admittedly limited mic skills. Instead however the WWE thought it better to do the exact opposite of all this by feeding Bryan to midcard superstars, scripting Michael Cole to insult him at every opportunity and making him come out to some of the lamest theme music the company has ever produced.
Despite having no momentum behind him, Bryan then cashed in his briefcase to defeat The Big Show at TLC in another classic example of the wwe hoping that the gold will get the superstar over instead of logically pushing that superstar in a suitable position to win the gold. Bryan will now have a battle on his hands to make his reign worthwhile and one just has to hope that the wwe will handle his role as champion far better than they handled his chase.
In spite of all this counterproductive booking however Bryan has continued to adapt well to the wwe style and whilst he is yet to have that truly remarkable match inside a wwe ring, his ability to get an entertaining match out of anyone on the roster will at least if nothing else make his title defenses supremely entertaining during his reign on top.
Must see Match: Raw Money in the Bank Ladder Match (Money in the Bank PPV)
8.) Alberto Del Rio
Talented Mexican worker has had great matches for fun all year round with the likes of Christian, CM Punk, John Cena and Daniel Bryan. Del Rio’s Greco-Roman background assists his technical prowess inside the ring but as a terrific athlete he is also equally adept at executing high flying manoveuvres in a convincing and dramatic fashion and skilled at the traditional heel tactics such as taunting and elaborate cowardice . His promos in 2011 were repetitive but delivered with a panache befitting of his rich aristocat character and when boasting about his accomplishments he was great fun to watch. His one on one verbal confrontations with CM Punk have proved however that Del Rio needs to bring more intensity when helping to hard sell a world championship match at PPV.
The huge concern for Del Rio going forward is that despite carrying himself as a star in 2011 and being assisted by his glorious villainous sidekick Ricardo Rodriguez, he has still struggled to connect with the fans in his heel role and received midcard reactions for a main event position perhaps because his push to the top has been too immediate for crowds to truly care. In 2012 the wwe will have to rethink the Del Rio persona if they want him to be taken seriously as a headline act.
Must see Match: vs CM Punk and the Miz in a Triple TLC Match for the wwe title (TLC PPV)
7.) Rey Mysterio
For proof that there is still magic inside this veteran wrestler’s legs, then one needs to look no further than the wwe title tournament in mid-July during which over the course of two editions of Raw, Mysterio had four different but equally gripping encounters against Dolph Ziggler, R-Truth, The Miz and John Cena in a manner reminiscent of Bret Hart’s famous workhorse king of the ring victory in 1993.
Within these four matches, Rey showed why he is still one of the best in the business, exemplifying superb babyface resilience against Ziggler, amazing ring awareness against Truth, emphatic selling for Miz and pitch perfect timing against Cena. These are all the attributes that separate a truly great worker like Rey from your standard high flying small man and whilst his movement is not as crisp as it used to be, his mind for the art of wrestling continues to improve with his implicit understanding of knowing how to sell his pain to audiences and make them genuinely care for his heroic comebacks.
Must see Match: Smackdown Elimination Chamber world heavyweight championship match (Elimination Chamber PPV)
6.) Dolph Ziggler
2011 saw Dolph Ziggler finally do the Mr Perfect comparisons justice by adding an eye catching cockiness to his accomplished in ring repetoire. In January Ziggler and Edge set the bar for 2011 match quality at the Royal Rumble with an exhilarating world title bout packed with exciting near falls and fluid counters.
In March Dolph was drafted to Raw and two months later won his first United States Title by defeating Kofi Kingston. Ziggler held the title for six months and though he rarely defended it he did make strides in his all round attitude as a heel by promoting his athleticism and technical ability in a relentlessly egotistical style which then culminated in his current ‘show off’ gimmick. Ziggler performing double duty at Hell in a Cell and Survivor Series helped solidify his new position of arrogance and his promos over the past few months have become far more biting and lively.
Ziggler has also mastered the art of taunting in his matches as exemplified by such glorious trademarks as his triumphant headstand and ab exercises in between delivering beatdowns. This self assurance coupled with his wonderfully theatric bump taking abilities make him a treat to watch in the ring as he makes it easy for the crowds to root for his opponents and then subsequently helps the crowd to pop for his opponents comeback with his superb selling. If he’s allowed more of a spotlight to show off in the near future then 2012 could end up being a massive year for Ziggler.
Must See Match: vs CM Punk (Raw)
5.) Zack Ryder
Zack Ryder ended the year as the United States Champion and one of the most popular stars on the roster. At the start of the year he didn’t even occupy a spot on Raw. What happened in between to forge this dramatic change was a you tube show he started in February entitled Z! True Long Island Story. These fun episodic uploads delighted viewers with their amusing, creative construction and showcased Ryder as a comedic talent with bags of personality. Ryder singing to the radio in his car, being disgruntled by his dad’s love for John Morrison, making in jokes about the wwe under utilizing him and oft repeating his catchphrases “Are you serious bro?” and “woo, woo, woo, you know it” made Ryder appear fun and refreshing on occasions where the brand he couldn’t even catch a break on appeared stale and repetitive. As a result his popularity began to rise with Ryder shirts selling through the roof, Punk and Cena both putting over his show as essential viewing on their twitter accounts and crowds beginning what would become the familiar chant throughout 2011 of “we want Ryder!”.
Still for months however it seemed as if Ryder’s hard worn efforts were to prove futile as he remained a mainstay on the wwe’s c show superstars where he wrestled fun matches against the likes of Primo but was only handed occasional bouts and brief backstage segments on Raw. Then in late July Ryder finally caught a break when he became the assistant general manager to Theodore Long on Smackdown. Here he continued to be as equally entertaining in this role as he was on his you tube show, booking matches behind Long’s back, annoying the GM with his ever present enthusiasm and accidentally riling up the other stars on the roster.
In the latter stages of 2011 Ryder began his quest for the United States Title by embarking upon a feud with champion Dolph Ziggler. On the September 19th Raw Ryder defeated Ziggler in a non title match thanks to interference from Hugh Jackman and the chemistry between Ryder and the experienced actor in backstage segments once again showed that he was more than prepared for an upcoming push. After losing to Ziggler at consecutive PPV’S, Ryder finally grabbed the gold after dethroning Dolph in an excellent scrap at TLC after which he joined Daniel Bryan and CM Punk for a fist pump celebration the next night on Raw. Ryder has done more to get himself over in 2011 than anyone else in recent memory and it’s now up to the wwe to capitalise on the following that he has established.
Must see Match: vs Dolph Ziggler for the United States Championship (TLC PPV)
4.) Mark Henry
Contrary to Miz, Mark Henry was a heel who was treated to some masterful booking in 2011 as he embarked on a ruthless, dominant passage towards his first world heavyweight championship and erased fifteen years of waste in the process. I was as sceptical as anyone when Henry’s sustained monster push began to develop at the expense of younger, underutilized talent but Henry to his great credit excelled in his new role, oozing raw power with his angry, no nonsense promos and providing an intense presence in the ring with his intimidating expressions and sudden bursts of aggression.
Sheamus was the face used to help Henry cement his status as a main event candidate and the pair succeeded in providing a gripping feud in which Henry first showed glimpses of the eye opening meanness that had never before seemed to be truly within him. Henry is after all touted as a rather nice chap backstage and so one must credit some fine thespian work for his authentic portrayal of pent up, monstrous aggression.
Although all the obvious signs pointed to Henry dethroning Orton at Vengeance, there was still an aura of shock around the arena following Henry’s decisive pinfall victory, not just because Orton had lost clean for the first time in months but also because many people still felt that Henry was undeserving of occupying a headline position. Henry continued to blossom however in a feud with Big Show that exceeded all expectations in regards to both the passionate promos and spirited matches that it yielded.
During his six month title reign Henry helped to present a demeanour of brute strength and intense menace that made fans desperate to see him defeated and his push is proof that the wwe still know how to brilliantly handle characters when they want to though it’s a shame they aren’t so accommodating to wrestlers who the fans actually respond too on their own accord.
Must see Match: vs Big Show for the world heavyweight championship (Vengeance)
Another stellar year for Captain Charisma as he won his first world heavyweight championship following a superb ladder match with Alberto Del Rio at Extreme Rules and then played his part in the excellent series of matches over the title with Randy Orton. Christian’s heel turn in his programme with the viper was horribly rushed but the Canadian still did his very best to get onboard with his character transition by transforming his easy going, likeable persona into a whiney brat who indulged in incessant moaning.
Particular highlights of this fantastic rivalry included Christian’s great heel performance where he intentionally got Orton disqualified in their match at Money in the Bank, his impeccable selling in their Summerslam street fight show stealer and his desperate attempts to escape the cage in his super smackdown title match with the viper in late August. Christian was the knieving, manipulative heel to Orton’s balls out, instinct minded babyface and the clash of these methods provided truly first rate in ring chemistry throughout the five months that they fought.
In the final third of the year Christian was also great fun to watch in pleading for his “one more match” for the world title only to be constantly denied this wish and finding himself involved in a feud with Sheamus instead. Despite being injured for the past six weeks, Christian remains head and shoulders the most impressive worker of the year, bringing his A game for main event PPV matches and performing the usual miracles with limited opponents on Smackdown. At thirty eight he is better than he has even been and remains a highly valuable asset to the company.
Must see Match: vs Randy Orton for the world heavyweight championship (Over the Limit)
2.) Randy Orton
One of the company’s most popular wrestlers improved heaps and bounds as a worker throughout the year, introducing a pulsating element to his silky smooth execution and compelling psychology. After stealing the show at Wrestlemania in a vastly underrated match with CM Punk, Orton moved on from his rivalry with the straight edge superstar and was transferred to Smackdown where he embarked upon a lengthy world championship feud with Christian; a long winded but fruitful series that produced the best in ring performances of either mans careers. Though lacking the big match feel of the Cena/Punk clashes from the Raw brand, Orton and Christian far exceeded the latter in terms of providing impeccably timed, clean and superbly orchestrated bouts that each intelligently played on the installments that had come before it. Whether it be in a standard one fall contest, a steel cage, a street fight or as participants in a Smackdown main event tag match, the two men delivered in abundance each and every time they made physical contact between the ropes.
When the dust finally settled on the Christian feud, Orton then played an instrumental part in slotting in place the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle for Mark Henry’s claim to the Smackdown throne. Orton’s clean defeats to Henry on successive PPV’S in which he lost and then failed to regain the world championship saw both competitors deliver perfectly in their brave face and arrogant monster roles. In particular their first title match told a fine story of Orton wearing himself out in trying to topple a giant only to physically collapse at Henry’s feet and succumb to a world’s strongest slam. Orton’s sense of exasperation as he tried to use Henry’s frame to get back to his feet was beautifully conveyed and evidence of the almost unmatched intensity he displays when in his stride.
Since then Orton had continued to impress inside the ring during both his feud with Cody Rhodes and current rivalry with British talent Wade Barrett. If he can make similar improvements to his bland mic work in 2012 then Orton might yet emerge as the complete package that many predicted he would become when he first arrived on the scene.
Must see Match: vs Christian for the world heavyweight championship (Over the Limit PPV)
1.) CM Punk
Through the course of one amazing insider promo on the June 27th edition of Raw, Punk transformed himself from neglected heel to compelling babyface and has since witnessed his stardom rise to such an extent that by this time next year there is a chance that we could be calling the outspoken superstar the face of the company that he thought many times about leaving.
The key to Punk’s success in 2011 has been the bond that he has created with the fans and although Phil Brooks would no doubt chuckle at the comparison, his character nonetheless has many similarities with the Jeff Hardy that began to rival Cena’s popularity back in 2009. Like Hardy, Punk does not have the bodybuilder look we have come to expect from world wrestling champions but he is perhaps the only voice in the wwe who manages to make his words seem as if they are being spoken directly to the individuals within the audience. His pipe bombs may have been lost on ninety percent of the crowd but what did garner a strong reaction were Punk’s authentic promises to make the main event scene fun and refreshing again and the inspirational stories he told about the boy who always wanted to grow into the shoes he’s wearing today. Punk is edgy and real in comparison to Cena’s phony straight man and it feels as if a wave of change is starting to transpire just like the edgy Stone Cold Steve Austin character that gradually began to steal the fans hearts away from their straightlaced hero Bret Hart back in 1997.
Another key to Punk’s increasing popularity has been the adjustments he has made to his working style as a face. Punk was so phenomenal in his psychology as a heel worker that it was perhaps no surprise that the first few months in his established face role saw him struggling to shake the type of smarmy expressions that made him such a convincing villain. Since then though Punk has developed a more intimate crowd winning presence between the ropes that has made his recent performances such a joy to watch and his matches full of the thrills and excitement that befit a top babyface. I feel that Punk deserves the number one spot because this past year he has proven to be the company’s most interesting mic worker ( in the absence of Chris Jericho) and has delivered inside the ring on multiple occasions both as a standout villain and a standout megaface. He loves his craft, talks and works to a high standard and as a fan you can’t really ask for much more.
Must see Match: vs Dolph Ziggler (Raw)
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