For the most part, The General and I have a lot of overlap in our reactions to this episode, so I’m going to be focusing most of my attention on some more big picture stuff this week.
I really can’t say enough good things about what they’re doing with the main event angle, and it seems to be really working well for the audience. All the characters involved actually feel developed and like you can understand them and their motivations and there’s an actual story here that isn’t from the ‘Evil Authority Figure Holds Down Babyface’ handbook.
Reigns is a bit of a jerk, but also a lot of what he did tonight came out of his passion for his family which is certainly a noble goal and consistent with the protector character he always was in The Shield even as a heel. Anderson and Gallows are AJ’s old buddies trying to lead him back to the life of villainy they led in New Japan. And the man at the center of the main event angle in World Wrestling Entertainment in the year 2016 (sorry, I feel like I need to write it out every time because it’s still so unbelievable to me that this is happening), AJ Styles, is a man struggling with the push and pull of doing the right thing or doing what’s going to get him to the top fastest. And the fates are conspiring to make staying on the side of the angels an even harder choice given how often his nobility has been punished, which means that if he does, it makes him even more of a hero that should be beloved for his nobility and honor. This is a time when villainy would be really easy. His friends want to help him. Everyone expects him to turn anyway, so why fight it? And the answer, if he does, is because he’s a true babyface.
They’ve set up two completely plausible ways for Extreme Rules to go. On the one hand, he succumbs to the devils on his shoulder, and WWE has a lot to fear from a full strength We-Can’t-Call-It-Bullet-Club-For-Legal-Reasons running roughshod as they’re doing their familial infighting. On the other hand, Anderson and Gallows could get sick of AJ’s reluctance to wreak havoc and call upon another of their old friends who is willing to do what they feel needs to be done. Awesome storytelling, and I’d be thrilled with either ending… until Summerslam comes around and these guys are all tumbling down the card because the part timers are back. But let’s cross that bridge when we get to it.
As for the match itself, it feels like they punt the main event slot a lot lately, but tonight they gave us a really fun six man tag that told a story with AJ continuing to struggle with his pals and their love of breaking the rules and ended with a really hot closing stretch. Styles and Reigns continue to work great together. I am beyond excited for the ER match coming up. It should be incredible.
Talk Owens Talk
As much as I agree with Geno on Shane and Stephanie booking the show not being good television, I do like that this episode has continued to reaffirm Kevin Owens’ importance after he felt adrift for a while. He got a clean win at Payback over Sami Zayn, and now continues to be the man chosen to be the primary thorn in the side of Shane McMahon. Plus, I thought he really nailed the interaction with Stephanie. Once again, it shows his character to be smart (and smarmy). He knows she loves being flattered, especially at a time like this where she’s feeling at her lowest point, and that’s exactly what he did.
I also appreciated that the authority figures weren’t interjecting their presence in the main event angle for once, and instead in an angle where they fit with people with legitimate gripes and someone needing to take control of the situation. Right now, the IC title scene is chaos, so Shane and Stephanie getting involved there seems reasonable.
Another fine effort with Owens and Cesaro as well. It continues to be wonderful to have Cesaro back. Makes Raw much easier to get through when he’s out there delivering in the ring.
Mustache Twirling Villainy
I’ve got to say, I absolutely loved that they actually let Simon Gotch "take credit" for causing Enzo’s injury. This is the kind of thing that heels need to be able to do if they intend for them to get actual heat. Sometimes it can go too far depending on the severity of the injury (or worse, in the case of Paige last year), but this feels akin to Greg "The Hammer" Valentine’s infamous "I Broke Wahoo’s Leg" shirt and feels like the right level of pushing the edge of the envelope. Plus, The Realest Guy in the Emergency Room is just a good line.
The Late Shift
Two wrestlers fighting over a talk show timeslot, what a time to be alive. I don’t have a ton to say about Jericho and Ambrose, I was just so happy to be able to use The Late Shift as a headline for a section discussing a wrestling episode. The angle continues to really not work for me, but at least the potted plant bit really got over with the crowd, so credit to them.
That said, I really didn’t like the way Stephanie already basically turned evil again. I know she tried to keep herself on the right side later with Charlotte and Naitch, but I still feel like she needed to go at least one episode without reverting to her evil self at all. AJ and Steph should really hang out and commiserate about how hard it is to try to be a good person.
The eight man tag featuring the three preeminent tag teams and Cass sans his brother in arms was effective in terms of what it was attempting to accomplish, but they devoted way too much television time to it that was not necessary. Cass getting the big hot tag and winning was all that the match really was built for. It didn’t need all that time to accomplish that goal.
I also really didn’t like some of the psychology on Big Cass’s end in the first part of the match. Given that Simon Gotch was in the ring, Cass’s character should have never under any circumstances willingly tagged out of the match. He put his partner on the shelf and then bragged about it. That’s the kind of thing where you get tunnel vision and just want to get justice, not willingly tag out for a unicorn stampede.
The Struggle with Meaning
This is really one of the two main topics I wanted to cover this week. One of the biggest criticisms of modern WWE could be found in so many different forms in the United States Championship Battle Royal. That is that they have an intense difficulty with making important things actually feel important. Let’s look at the multiple ways it manifested itself in this battle royal.
First there’s Baron Corbin. At Wrestlemania, the show was very much about exulting the past against the present and future. There are only two people that won anything that could be considered the future defeating the past, Roman Reigns and Baron Corbin. Baron Corbin came out of nowhere to become the third annual winner of the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal. They have now proceeded for three straight years to do absolutely nothing with the winner of that match.
And because of that, they have made the match itself completely lose meaning as an accomplishment. If the winner of the Andre got a big push off it every year, that could make the match feel meaningful. It could be presented as though it’s a major launching pad for its winner, but instead, it’s yet another worthless accolade that does very little to get its winner over with the audience.
And the discussion of Baron Corbin brings me to my next point regarding the struggle with meaning that exists in WWE.
A sentiment I saw presented by a few of my fellow Cagesiders after new NXT call-ups Apollo Crews and Baron Corbin were eliminated by Sheamus and Dolph Ziggler respectively was basically along the lines of "why have these jamokes eliminate these fresh new call-ups." The problem is that those two people doing the eliminating are former multiple time world champions, not jamokes. But I can’t be mad at the folks that feel that way, because WWE does a terrible job making its World Championship actually mean something. (And to side-track to my least favorite gimmick in WWE, how did those two both win their last World Championships? Money in the Bank. MITB is one of the many ways they undercut the importance of the world championship by having title changes in nothing matches.)
If you win the World Championship, that should be a meaningful achievement that means you’re made for life as a credible opponent. And look, you can at least argue that Dolph Ziggler’s version of the World Championship was a lesser title, but Sheamus won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, within the last year. That is a title that has only been held by Randy Orton, Daniel Bryan, John Cena, Brock Lesnar, Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns… and Sheamus. If you take out Sheamus, that list is a who’s who of the most elite guys in WWE in terms of presentation. Either don’t give Sheamus that belt (the correct choice) or present him on that level so the championship and its former champions have meaning and importance.
With the way WWE does it, those eliminations for Crews and Corbin continue to make them feel less important, when it should be no slight to be eliminated in a battle royal by former world champions. This continues to dissipate the heat for everyone over time because of their approach to booking, and why you could make an argument that there are no singles acts on the show that are legitimately over. AJ is the closest, and even he is nowhere near as over as when he started. Obviously it’s unlikely he’d be Royal Rumble 2015 level over in every arena if he’d been handled better, but losing at Wrestlemania for his second loss in their feud to a guy that lost to Fandango (another example of WWE’s struggle for meaning right there. Maybe see if the next Fandango is going to stay over first next time?) is just not the best way to maximize their resources given that he’s now main eventing back to back special events.
Oh, and one final comment about the Battle Royal. Not every character needs to talk. One of those characters is Kalisto. Woof. That was not a good performance on commentary.
A Poke to the Eye
This match was a very good example of how to devalue the roster. It really crystallizes beautifully the issues with their booking. Last week, Natalya, who has been enhancement talent for most of the last decade (and thus she’d have to win a LOT of matches to get heated up… which is why putting people established as enhancement talent for years in title matches for no reason isn’t usually a great idea), defeated Emma in two minutes and forty seconds. And shock of all shocks, Emma came into this match totally heatless.
Becky managed to get chants in the back half of the match for her comeback but the crowd had no interest in Emma working on top, because the crowd has been given absolutely no reason to care about Emma, and in her disastrous run the first time she was called up was given active reasons to not care about her, and then that was compounded with the quick jobber loss last week to Natalya. So they run this match cold with not even a single promo on Raw by Emma setting it up to try and cultivate any heat whatsoever, and it gets a muted reaction.
And then even worse, they had Emma win the match!
None of this helped anyone that won more than it hurt the losers (including Charlotte beating Nattie, because Nattie wasn’t heated up enough that the win was meaningful, and Charlotte has already beaten former champions Nikki and Paige multiple times each at this point to somewhat insulate her heat), which is the opposite of how booking should work. The goal should be that the winner of a match at least marginally gains more heat than the loser of the match loses (or it’s an even gain and loss with a literal jobber, but the jobber doesn’t need the heat, for they are a jobber).
That’s how you build heat, rather than dissipate it. Was the gain Natalya saw by defeating Emma greater than if she defeated someone they’re doing nothing with? I’d say no. Either way, it’s perceived as just beating a jobber because she won in under 3 minutes (and not in a dominant fashion like a Goldberg or something where that could add value) against someone that hadn’t been heated up. Similarly, does Emma gain a substantial amount of heat by beating Becky? Not really, because she lost to Natalya in under 3 minutes last week. And now Becky lost to someone who lost to Natalya in under 3 minutes which costs her a bunch of heat.
For an example of booking perfection, you have The Streak. Obviously you can’t reach this under regular circumstances, but it’s the archetypal best way to manufacture heat. The heat lost by every person that lost to Undertaker added together does not nearly equal the heat that Brock Lesnar gained by ending The Streak because once the streak got to 12-0 or 13-0, losing to Taker becomes no insult and can actually even be a positive, because you managed to hang with The Undertaker at Wrestlemania. With everyone else, WWE basically does the opposite, so most of the roster is cold.
Overall, I thought this was a very strong episode in terms of the main event angle, which is always the most important, but also a microcosm of many of the endemic problems WWE suffers from in terms of getting folks over.