Let’s take a trip back to May 23, 2017. Two days after the Backlash Pay-Per-View in Chicago, SmackDown Live general manager Shane McMahon was in the ring, as it was time to promote and set the stage for the June Money in the Bank show. Rather than require each participant to qualify for the all-important match, Shane brought to the ring the individuals he deemed deserving of participating in the bout.
After four of the five men completed their entrances, United States Champion Kevin Owens’ music hit and he stalked down the ramp, miffed at the situation unfolding in front of him. He would be interrupted by Shinsuke Nakamura, who elaborately sauntered, danced, and taunted his way to ringside, but that’s immaterial to this story.
Owens’ argument was simple. He had defeated AJ Styles the night before in a competitive bout, and he was irritated that AJ was included in the Money in the Bank field, while he was not. To make his point, Kevin Owens spoke to all six men in the ring, and laid out each’s qualifications. He did it quickly, but what he said was that three of them deserved to be standing there at that moment in time. Shinsuke Nakamura had defeated Dolph Ziggler the night before, Sami Zayn had beaten Baron Corbin, and yes, he himself had beaten a former WWE Champion and successfully defended his US Title.
Wait, did you catch that? Kevin Owens defended the right of his arch enemy, Sami Zayn, to be involved in the Money in the Bank match, based solely on the fact that he won his match the night before! What a novel concept that wins and losses matter, and also that even as much as KO might despise Zayn, in order to make a salient case for himself, he had to include examples that might not have pleased him personally. He was consistent in his plea, and it all made sense.
Why am I writing about something that happened five weeks ago?
The story remains relevant because it isn’t an isolated scenario in WWE, as a similar type of situation has now occurred in back-to-back weeks on this very same SmackDown Live program. This time, it was about the first ever Women’s Money in the Bank ladder match. But, just as with Owens, not one word Carmella said in her vigorous defense of the strategy that led to her becoming the first Miss Money in the Bank was wrong.
Sure, her tactics were sketchy and underhanded, but they were also 100 percent acceptable. We’ve seen interference in Money in the Bank contract matches in the past. It’s happened on numerous occasions, even including people not directly or indirectly associated with the bouts themselves. Her most compelling example was Bray Wyatt costing Roman Reigns a victory two years ago, in effect handing the briefcase to Sheamus.
But, even past the idea that interference isn’t exactly new in Money in the Bank matches, the most important part of her statement is that there are no rules in a no disqualification match. She screamed “no rules” at Daniel Bryan last night in San Diego, and she also quoted from the WWE rule book and the fine print. The first participant “to possess the briefcase wins the match.” With every second that passed, I became a bigger fan of Carmella, but also of Carmella’s cause.
She became the only woman I was rooting for in last night’s rematch, because I felt she had been screwed over by Daniel Bryan, and also by Shane McMahon. They might have found it unseemly, but their own rules dictated her behavior. She was exactly what she said she was. She was more intelligent than everybody else, and she had an ally willing to assist her and place the contract directly in her hand. She’s a heel. Heels cheat, but here, she didn’t break a single rule, because there were “NO RULES!”
What an indefensible reality this is for WWE. Further, how bad did this make all the rest of these women look? Carmella was smarter than they were and she had her victory stripped and her briefcase taken away “just because” or for the sole reason that “it didn’t feel right.” What the hell is that? Is this pro wrestling or a peyote-driven drum circle in the Painted Desert?
Carmella won the match for a second time, with James Ellsworth playing a role again, so the wrong was righted. It wasn’t Carmella’s wrong though. It was WWE’s wrong. The larger issue is what it means. Both the Miss Money in the Bank controversy and the Kevin Owens promo highlight a problem Vince McMahon seriously needs to get a handle on if he ever wants to get a babyface over again.
This company must stop portraying its supposed heroes as idiots, especially when the villains use their brains so often. There was a time in professional wrestling where the heels had to cheat to win against most top babyface competition, because the fan favorites would outsmart them and repeatedly pants them if they didn’t. Bryan Alvarez of the Wrestling Observer has adeptly argued in the past that a major reason Steve Austin was such a transcendent superstar was because Vince McMahon, Gerald Brisco, and Patterson always looked like fools.
They allowed themselves to be the butt of every joke, the victims of every Stunner, every beer bath, every middle finger. This means of storytelling actually permitted someone the fans loved to get the better of the suits. That’s why it worked. Today, Stephanie McMahon is always on top, Triple H is rarely ever embarrassed, and when they’re not on television, the babyfaces are routinely presented as hapless losers with no credibility
Why, other than the magic of Dwayne Johnson, was The Rock such a beast? When he talked, you laughed, but you also stopped and thought. He wasn’t lying to you. He was eccentric and he was boisterous, but his insults were funny, and he always had presence. He, too, was never humiliated when he was a babyface; only when he was a heel. When he was the antagonist, that’s when Austin tossed the Intercontinental Championship into the water, that’s when “3:16” popped up on his pager, and that’s when he was the punch line.
Heels break rules and cheat because that’s how they keep their heat. But, they should also always be the ones that get the slime dumped on them. It’s this balance of each side having its strengths and weaknesses that drives the good vs. evil narrative. WWE now operates in the opposite fashion, which puts the entire roster alongside Will Byers in the Upside Down of Vince McMahon’s Stranger Things.
Back to 2017, how about Bayley in the hideous Kendo Stick on a Pole match back at Extreme Rules last month? She looked like the single dumbest superstar in WWE history as she crawled PAST the stick to block Alexa from getting to said weapon. Worse, when Bliss cut promos on her in the weeks leading up to the match, stop me if you’ve heard this before, but she made SENSE. She was an arrogant asshole, but she wasn’t wrong. So you might not respect her, but you can’t poke many holes in her statements.
While Sami Zayn is Mr. Annoying, Seth Rollins is the world’s least sympathetic hero, and Dean Ambrose wears a bear costume, Braun Strowman kicks everybody’s ass, Kevin Owens lays out a winning argument about Money in the Bank, and Carmella does the same a few weeks later. Perhaps the lone exception to this trend is Becky Lynch over the past two weeks, who has made good points and shown integrity, but has also been ridiculously intense in her segments. Her performance has certainly improved her stock amongst anyone with functional and firing grey matter.
If this were PWG, ROH, or any number of other companies, the disparity in character execution would be virtually meaningless. But WWE, more so than any other pro wrestling company in history, is about its personalities and its mythology. Thus, when all the heroes are stumbling over their own feet, being emasculated weekly, and acting and maneuvering like ninnies, while all the villains are brilliant, savvy, successful, and clever, it’s no surprise the fan favorites...
...are no longer the fan favorites.