This weekend was a final tribute to Dusty Rhodes in some ways as NXT took over Brooklyn and the WWE roster invoked a few "Dusty finishes." And as I sit back, freshly showered from a midnight gym run before my first day as a senior in college, I remembered Paul Heyman saying something when he was on the Stone Cold Podcast.
Dusty always taught me to think, "Where’s the money?" Heyman said. Or something like that.
This weekend, we learned where the money was at; and that was with the clear, simple storytelling that came from NXT.
When telling a story, there’s really three things you need to establish: who are the characters, what do they want, and what is going to try to stop them. Without one or more of these, a storyteller is going to have a really difficult time making an audience emotionally invested. For SummerSlam, some of these feuds delivered. Others did not. But with NXT, you can check the box next to each of these.
Let’s take a look back, shall we? I am going to use two mid card matches to prove my point. And as you read, ask yourself three questions: who are they, what do they want, and what is going to stop them?
Tyler Breeze vs. Jushin "Thunder" Liger:
Tyler Breeze is a man looking in from the outside, this TakeOver season. With no dance partner, Breeze pestered Miiiiister Reeeegal until the General Manager found an opponent worthy of Prince Pretty. Jushin Liger is a wrestling legend, who graciously accepted William Regal’s pleas just to get Breeze off his back. Liger is a man who has wrestled against some of the best of all time – Breeze found his "worthy" partner.
Breeze wants to prove to the world and to Regal that he deserves better than getting passed by the Balor’s, Itami’s, and Owens’ that are arriving at NXT at a rapid pace. To do that, he needs to defeat Liger. Liger, on the other hand, is making his debut in a WWE ring – one of the only places in the world he has never wrestled. He has a reputation to uphold, of course, and needs a win if only to say he has been there and done that.
Simple, effective storytelling. Breeze’s and Liger’s motivations conflict and their match will directly solve this conflict. Breeze needs to prove himself; Liger, however, needs a win to uphold his reputation and make the most of his time in WWE.
This was crisp and easy to follow, if a little basic. But it gave us a chance to enjoy the match for what it was. Well done.
Dolph Ziggler vs. Rusev:
Dolph Ziggler is…Lana’s new boyfriend. Let me backtrack a bit – Lana is a character that was originally paired with Rusev. She was the boss of him, actually. She would demand for Rusev to crush people and he would happily follow her commands. They went on a tear through WWE until suddenly that whole bit turned upside down and Rusev became the dominant, borderline abusive one. And then Lana became "independent" and latched herself to Dolph Ziggler. And then somehow Summer Rae jumped into things –
Wait. I’ve lost you, haven’t I?
You see, the true feud here is between Lana and Rusev. And yet they cannot fight each other, naturally, so Ziggler jumps in to represent Lana. But Lana is somehow not the one in control, now, despite her former character. So she takes a backseat to Ziggler and suddenly the feud loses all steam. We cannot properly define the characters, here – well we could, but it would take forever and make your head hurt.
I don’t want to hurt you, Cagesiders.
That is not the only problem. We cannot really define Ziggler’s motivations for jumping into this feud other than to have an attractive female like him. And that makes him a bit of a slimeball, don’t you think? Also, the "conflict" is so abstract and construed that it could not possibly be finished in one night. As a result, the match suffered, the performers suffered, and we all walked away with a bitter taste in our mouths.
WWE hit on some of their feuds tonight. The tag match delivered, story-wise. Lesnar vs. Taker, despite my personal apathy for the feud, was at least a well told story until the finish. But NXT was clear, cogent, and crisp in every match on their card. Each character had motivation. Sasha Banks needed to prove she was right about Bayley. Bayley needed a moment to prove herself lest she fade away from the Four Horsewomen for good. Owens needed a win to right his emotional state. Balor needed to shut Owens up once and for all for downplaying his victory in Japan. What’s more, all of these feuds had a conflict that was resolved at Takeover. Some even led into a new conflict with new motivations. Brilliant storytelling.
So in closing, keep it simple, WWE.
We like that.