Marketplace of Champions

Audience Studies, Scholarly Wrestling Reviews
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Photo credit: http://shop.wwe.com/john-cena-cenation-respect-baseball-hat/07554.html?dwvar_07554_color=No%20Color#curr=USD&start=6

The people sitting near me in cheap(ish) seats in Boston’s TD Garden Sunday night for the 2017 Clash of Champions represented a cross-section of northeast WWE fans.

I am a middle-aged academic who has been a wrestling fan on and off since childhood. I’ve been coming to the Garden to see wrestling since long before it was named after a bank. I popped for Bob Backlund and Hulk Hogan as a kid in the Garden (which was really a different building in the same location as the current Garden). I was the true wrestling geek in the micro-community that formed in the environs of our seats. My date was my partner, just a bit younger than me and a woman, not an enthusiastic wrestling fan but game for a strange night out.

To our left sat two young men who told me they had driven down to Boston from New Hampshire, maybe an hour and a half. Over the course of the show, one of them held out his phone to me so I could see a photo he’d taken with AJ Styles during a fan event earlier in the day. He and his buddy sang Bobby Roode’s song, celebrated Rusev Day heartily, joined with my partner in chanting for Zayn against my chants for Nakamura, and generally showed themselves to be enthusiastic and unironic fans.

To our right was a family group: two adult men whose relation was not clear to me and two boys of about ten years of age. Both boys were fully decked out in John Cena merchandise, from their “U Can’t C Me” hats to their orange wristbands and rally towels. They must have been wearing $400 in John Cena merch between them. Directly in front of us was a straight hipster couple, about the same age as the guys on our left, who joked together throughout the show. They made an intimate little audience of their own. Directly behind us were some particularly loud (and not altogether unfunny) members of that ineradicable species, the facetious wrestling fan.

A note: all these people (including us) were white, but the crowd was relatively diverse. We took the subway to the show from our home in an ethnically diverse section of the city (Boston is deeply segregated) and on the train with us were several African-American and Latinx kids holding toy belts, plus one African-American man with an impressive replica of the Universal Championship belt.

The only crowd reaction in which this cohort unanimously and enthusiastically participated was Bryan’s “Yes!” chant. Otherwise, our reactions were remarkably fragmented. I don’t like Roode’s schtick or the Rusev Day stuff that appealed to our neighbors on the left, and the only reaction I shared with the kids on the right was an enthusiasm for The New Day (who were otherwise less over in that building than Rusev, incredibly). The lovers in front may have shared some attitudes with the facetious guys, but they were quiet about it.

Reflecting on this diversity of enthusiasms with an eye toward writing this post, I experienced a feeling as unwelcome as it was unusual, a spasm of sympathy for Vince McMahon. Booking wrestling for a crowd like this is a different thing from the booking Vince Sr. was doing when I was just becoming a fan. Young boys and smart alecks are permanent, of course, but the dense web of interests on display in our group, with its subtle crosscurrents and nodes of attraction and repulsion, was the product of a long period of diversification. McMahon is the most important architect of this process, but it must frighten him now. He maintains a delicate econo-demographic balance, giving each of us in our little section just enough to keep us sitting in the cheap seats, covering ourselves in John Cena-branded stuff, and subscribing to the WWE Network. If any one of us walks away, we will be accompanied by our thousands of counterparts in similar arenas across the country and beyond. And if that happens enough times over the next twelve months, what will happen to rights fees, or the stock price, or network subs?

And in the main event, sure enough, there was something for Vince McMahon to be afraid of. This time it wasn’t anybody walking away, but an even worse nightmare under conditions of capitalist market struggle: people not showing up to begin with. Jinder Mahal may have been taking his title back from AJ Styles on this show if a few more hipsters, Cena-enveloped kids, and facetious fans in New Dehli had been willing to lay down their money for the chance to add their own unique hopes, tastes, and desires to this complex mélange. Yet they demurred, so us Boston fans watched Styles drag a mediocre and irrelevant match out of a Mahal who is probably headed back down the card in the coming weeks. But the crowds will be great for Smackdown’s next visit to Gainesville.

A League of One’s Own: South East Women Wrestlers

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews, Works-In-Process

South East Women Wrestlers (hereafter SEWW) are an artist collective in Athens, GA consisting of female and female-identified performers who seek to subvert patriarchy and the male gaze through spectacle and role play.

Started in Summer 2017, SEWW has produced performance events — such as SumHERslam, Fall BRAwl, and HalloKWEENhavoc — as well an exhibit at the University of Georgia’s Lamar Dodd School of Art and Ring Boi tryouts. Inspired by League of Lady Wrestlers, SEWW produces events that appeal to wrestling and non-wrestling fans alike. Tentatively planned for next year are events such as WrestleKWEENdom and WrestleWomynia.

As you may be able to tell from these event names, if you had to choose a theoretical framework for SEWW, it would include intersectional feminism and a large dose of postmodern play. According to SEWW founder Kaleena Stasiak, “Aside from an entertaining event of throw-downs, elaborate costumes and scripted role-play, SEWW promises a body-positive space, free from the male gaze where fantasy alter egos can be constructed, cultivated and performed. The humor and absurdity of these performances comes with the serious promise of a moment of optimism and possibility in the face of oppressive cultural values in order to promote empowerment, gender equity and community.”

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Image Credit: https://art.uga.edu/news-and-events/school-art-mfas-wrestle-gender-through-performance

This summer, when I first heard about SEWW, my reactions ranged from horrified (“that sounds so dangerous”), to delighted (“that sounds awesome”), back to horrified (“they are going to build their own ring??”*) and finally to nervously excited. This idea of wrestling free from the male gaze drew me in. I knew the planning, scripting, and executing of events would be primarily done by women, but I was worried about the crowd because audience participation is crucial to pro-wrestling.

About 90% of my wrestle-friends and wrestle-demia colleagues are male, and wrestling audiences are primarily male. Even the good ones sometimes slip into oppressive cultural norms at times, and I’ve seen female wrestlers stoop to using misogynist language to get over with male-dominated crowds. Additionally, I have been witness to some absolutely shameful instances of toxic masculinity at wrestling shows. We at SEWW have a code of conduct, but haven’t needed to enforce it. I’m not entirely sure how this has worked out, or if it will continue, but apparently SEWW’s environment leaves no room for this type of behavior. I suppose it’s partially, if not fully, because SEWW is so obviously not for those male fans, but I wish there was a specific thing I could point to and say “do this, promotions, and you, too, will be free from toxic masculinity.”

The character I developed is named Joan of Snark. I’ve loved Joan of Arc since I saw Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure as a child, and a friend gave me the excellent pun. As a medieval studies PhD student, I now like her even more. My initial characters had nothing to do with my discipline specifically, but after reading The Public Medievalist‘s series on “Race, Racism, and the Middles Ages” which interrogates the historical inaccuracy of white supremacists’ co-opting of the Middle Ages, –particularly Paul B. Sturtevant’s “Leaving ‘Medieval’ Charleston” — I decided to be a female knight.

South East Women Wrestlers

Image Credit: https://art.uga.edu/news-and-events/school-art-mfas-wrestle-gender-through-performance

Sturtevant reminds people involved in any kind of medieval role-playing that “you have a responsibility to ensure that the Middle Ages the white supremacists cling to is not the one you revel in.” My role-playing activities do not involve me working with white supremacists, since we don’t have any in SEWW and I don’t wrestle elsewhere currently, but I wanted there to be more medieval characters out there that are emphatically not in line with white nationalists’ racist project. Though Joan judges all other SEWW performers harshly and doesn’t like any of them except Catherine Crusader (her tag partner), she high fives everyone she can reach in the audience in an attempt to create an inclusive atmosphere aligned with SEWW’s mission.

If you have ever seen any of my conference presentations on wrestling, or read any of my writing in zines (under various names) and on the web, you likely know a few things about me: 1) the stuff above shouldn’t be surprising, 2) I study gender roles in wrestling, and 3) I love the absurd spectacle that is the Japanese promotion DDT. Typically, I am intensely disappointed in the very limited types of female characters present in women’s wrestling, i.e. I don’t think dating a man or being related to a man counts as a character.

If you, like me, are frustrated with such things, I have good news: there’s none of that in SEWW. Since wrestling is performance, and gender is performance, we present wrestling as gender performance. We have performers that include everything from party girls to cougars, business women to post apocalyptic warriors, Catholic school girls to Catholic saints, and mad scientists to dominatrices.

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Image Credit: https://art.uga.edu/news-and-events/school-art-mfas-wrestle-gender-through-performance

In a world full of dragon wrestlers like Super Dragon, Último Dragón, Drago, and Dragon Dragon, have you ever wondered what issues a female dragon wrestler would have to face? SEWW has an answer for you in Dragon Yer Ass’s fight with Amazona Prime (hint: it has to do with female bodily autonomy and reproduction).

Are you wondering who would cheat more in a fight between religion and science? We may be able to answer that for you shortly.

Love matches with ridiculous props or matches with stipulations so complicated we should really make a PowerPoint? We have those, too.

Without worrying about the constraints of what wrestling has been and instead thinking about how fun it could be, SEWW undermines the hetero-patriarchal hegemony of normative professional wrestling.

Obviously I am biased, but as a wrestling fan, scholar, and now performer, I think promotions like SEWW offer a radical new perspective on the creative potential of professional wrestling. We are not alone in doing this, and there are performers who have been doing this for as long as wrestling has existed, but the more the better! I also think there should be more female-run wrestling promotions, and enjoy our place as the little sister to League of Lady Wrestlers and Pro Wrestling: Eve.

-JH Roberts is a PhD student studying medieval literature, gender studies, and popular culture. Her work on wrestling has appeared in The Atomic Elbow, Pro Wrestling Feelings, Girl Wrestling Fan Will You Marry Me?, Uproxx, Critical Studies in Men’s Fashion (“‘Don’t Call Me White’: Fashioning Sami Zayn’s Arabic and Transnational Identities”), and forthcoming in Popular Culture Studies Journal (“The Well-Wrought Broken Championship Belt: Object-Oriented Professional Wrestling Criticism”). She trains at Landmark Arena. You can follow her on Twitter at @jh_roberts.

*We didn’t build our own ring, don’t worry.

What the Audience Wants and What the Audience Gets: Clash of Champions and WWE’s Hindered 2017

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

There is a popular meme within circles of the Internet Wrestling Community showing a still of Vince McMahon during the Stone Cold Podcast that aired on December 1st, 2014. Unlike most memes, this one’s humor is not placed in the image’s matching with a silly, unattributable quote, but in its attribution of a direct quote from McMahon in that very podcast episode in which the chairman and CEO told host Stone Cold Steve Austin: “It’s not about what I want. Ever. It’s all about what the audience wants. I’m a pretty good listener.”

The humor here stems from the fact that many fans of professional wrestling, and fans of the WWE brand (affectionately corporatized as the “WWE Universe”) specifically, believe McMahon’s claim to be a bald-faced lie. This belief has appeared to see some substantiation in the three years since the airing of that interview, as fan support for many performers has seemed to fall on deaf ears in favor of more corporately groomed and demographically aimed superstars and narratives. This past year of WWE programming may be the most damning evidence yet in legitimizing this criticism.

This past Sunday night’s Clash of Champions pay-per-view did little to dissuade this perception of the current WWE product. While the show may have presented relatively big wins for favorites of the wrestling community like Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens and AJ Styles, as well as having built momentum in victory for Mojo Rawley, the booking of the event tended to overshadow or undermine what could otherwise be understood as shining moments given other narrative contexts.

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Image Credit: http://tjrwrestling.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/wwe-clash-of-champions-preview-smackdown-2017.jpg

Rawley’s win was delegated to a short pre-show match, a spot that has showcased some great work in the past, but remains nonetheless shrouded in the stigma of not actually being on the pay-per-view.

Zayn and Owens’s victory would traditionally carry more weight given its (seeming) position as the climax to a long-burning storyline with Shane McMahon, but the match and performers played more as set pieces for yet another authority figure drama between the two special guest referees, McMahon and Daniel Bryan.

The women were mostly an afterthought, despite the infusion of the Riott Squad to the division.

Lastly, AJ Styles’s retaining of the WWE championship was soured before the match even began thanks to its booking as yet another nobody-asked-for-this style of showcase for Jinder Mahal. This all may matter little to the casual fan of WWE programming, but these issues are indicative of the problems that have been apparent with the WWE product in 2017, and they highlight a lack of audience awareness.

Perhaps the largest issue the WWE has had in recent years is the negative fan reactions to those performers they have chosen to showcase, or push. This is no more apparent than with Roman Reigns, who, despite being positioned as the company’s top babyface, receives consistent, almost unanimous, negative reactions from live crowds. Reigns has consistently, almost defiantly, been positioned as the company’s poster boy, being presented as the center of their weekly programming and promotional materials for years, including performing in the main event of Wrestlemania for the past three years (and possibly a fourth year with the forthcoming Wrestlamania 34). Even so, fans have vehemently voiced their dislike of Reigns’s positioning within the WWE landscape, booing and jeering the wrestler with the mere mention of his name.

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Image Credit: http://www.fullredneck.com/best-roman-reigns-memes/

This would seem to give credence to the perception of Vince McMahon’s podcast statement as a falsehood, but the fan reactions to Reigns fail to correlate with the economics of merchandise sales. According to an April 2017 edition if the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Roman Reigns is the top-selling “full-time” superstar in WWE’s wide range of branded merchandise – John Cena is still the over-all top seller, but he has transitioned to being a part-time talent (“This Week in WWE Biz”).

Since any serious business would sooner listen to consumers’ wallets than consumers’ arena chants, Reigns’ position atop the WWE megastructure, despite consistent boos, is easily understood. Moreover, the negative reactions to Reigns have far more to do with the forced booking of the performer and the perception of him as a hand-picked, underserving corporate representative than they do with his actual performance, as crowds tend to react positively to the man between bells.

The forced booking and promotion that has characterized Reigns’ career thus far has been put into overdrive this year with the ascension of two other talents. The first is the Raw brand’s Braun Strowman, who fans began the year viewing as yet another corporate pet project but have since thrown their full support behind thanks to more careful booking and storytelling as well as the man’s observable attempts to improve as an all-around performer, putting on exciting and diverse matches with all of his opponents and creating a character with an aura to which fans are attracted. The same positives cannot be said about the other major project in WWE this year – that of the rise of Jinder Mahal not just to the top of the card, but to a six-month reign with what many perceive as the most important title in the history of professional wrestling, the WWE championship.

Sunday’s Clash of Champions marked Mahal’s sixth time being featured in a marquee match on pay-per-view and his third time in the main event proper at one of these events. All of these matches have been contested for the WWE championship. These statistics are in many ways shocking considering Mahal’s position in the company before Wrestlemania 33, held on April 2nd, 2017. Before that event, Mahal was no more than a jobber, a performer whose primary duty is to lose to established and rising talents. At Wrestlemania 33 he was inexplicably featured in one of the final two spots of the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, despite barely having a presence on WWE television since his return to the company in July of the previous year.

Mahal lost the battle royal to Mojo Rawley, and many assumed he was just used as fodder to put over Rawley and play up a gimmick which saw Mahal goad and ultimately be attacked by New England Patriots’ tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is the real-life friend of Rawley’s and was sitting ringside during the match. On the following night’s edition of Raw, it seemed as though Mahal would be back in his role as jobber, losing in very short order to Finn Balor.

However, over the two weeks that followed Wrestlemania 33, Mahal was drafted to the Smackdown Live brand and became the victor of a six-pack challenge to name the number one contender to the WWE championship, which he would go on to win from Randy Orton at the Backlash pay-per-view on May 21.

Mahal’s victory and title reign were largely unprecedented within the history of WWE, drawing comparisons to Stan Stasiak’s nine-day transitional reign in 1973. Again, the WWE seemed to lack an ear for what fans wanted, because, to put it frankly, no one was asking for more Jinder Mahal, much less Jinder Mahal, WWE champion. While some fans and analysts were supportive of the decision to make Mahal champion, spurred on by a desire for fresh faces and causing the hashtag #DontHinderJinder to trend on Twitter, others were skeptical or outright angry about Mahal’s almost instantaneous movement from jobber for lower-card talents to holder of the most prestigious title in the business. Often thought of as a reward for the industry’s top performers, Mahal’s positioning was perceived far less as a culmination of years of hard work or possession of world-class talent than as an abrupt anomaly that occurred for purely capitalist reasons.

Reports began to be published stating that Mahal’s title win and repositioning as a featured part of WWE television was an attempt to grow the company’s audience in India, a market they have had in sight for years. An investor presentation dated December 2015 calls India an international revenue stream that “represents significant opportunity” (Investor Presentation 27), and an earnings press release for the first quarter of 2017 quotes Vince McMahon from a shareholders’ meeting, saying “As we leverage continuing innovation to extend our reach in India, China and around the world, we are confident that the enduring and increasing global power of our brands will provide a solid foundation for long-term growth” (WWE Reports First Quarter 2017 Results 2). While fans of the product can speculate on the reasoning behind the company’s continued support of Roman Reigns and Braun Strowman as corporate mascots (often citing the company and McMahon’s affinity for physical aesthetics in its top performers), documents like these fiscal reports offer something substantial for critics to explain the teleporter-like rise of Jinder Mahal.

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Image Credit: http://www.memesbot.com/memes/jinder-mahal-memes-d385b8.html

Where Mahal differs the most from his Raw counterparts is in the perception of his actual performance, both in his delivery of promos and the quality of his matches. As I noted above, negative reactions to Reigns tend not to reflect in fans’ opinions of his in-ring work, which often results in high-quality matches, and the quick turnaround in opinion of Strowman stems from the observable growth of his talents in very short order, going from a sloppy, incredibly green (inexperienced) rookie to an intriguing and exciting character capable of high-quality matches in the span of just two years. Also unlike Reigns, Mahal’s continued position at the top of the card and repeated wins against more established, more over, and more talented performers like Sami Zayn, Shinsuke Nakamura, AJ Styles, and Randy Orton cannot be explained by merchandise sales – as of this writing, WWEShop.com features a total of five items for Mahal, three of which are men’s, women’s, and youth’s versions of the same t-shirt design.

Despite what seems to be the company line, that Mahal is a hard worker who deserves his spot, the jobber-who-would-be-champion’s in-ring work has not seemed to have met the standards of the current WWE main event scene according to its viewers. This is reflected in the inconsistent ratings for Smackdown Live this year, which saw its lowest viewership of the year just two weeks after Mahal’s title win (“WWE SmackDown Must End the Pushes of Jinder Mahal and Shane McMahon”), and has struggled to remain consistent in its viewership ever since.

My own take on Mahal’s in-ring work, which has been echoed by fans and critics alike, is that he seems to work only one match, which seems to be a small variation on the first match that most developing professional wrestlers learn: lock-up, babyface shines, heel takes over, babyface gets a hope spot, repeat hope spots until it’s time to take it home, finish with either the heel cheating to win or he “slips on a banana peel” and loses.

This is the structure used predominately by new performers and for short matches, but Mahal seems to apply it no matter the narrative context, match length, or position on the card, indicating either a refusal or inability to adapt his in-ring work for different levels and situations of storytelling. His limited and basic offense only furthers the issue. This is a matter not helped by the booking of his championship reign, where every match ended the same way – with his opponent getting distracted by his Singh Brothers lackeys and then literally stumbling into Mahal’s finishing maneuver, the Khallas, which Mahal seems to only be able to hit without botching about half the time. While Mahal’s move set, offense, and character may have been passable in another era of the WWE product, it becomes a glaring issue in a time where even casual viewers, thanks to a plethora of avenues across the internet, are far more informed about the product and the art of professional wrestling than the fanbase has ever been before; Mahal’s work just does not hold up to the fluidity and creativeness reflected in the work of his peers, and it is that fluidity and creativeness that fans have come to expect.

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Image Credit: http://wrestlingposts.com/ahead-of-india-tour-jinder-mahal-can-remain-wwe-champion/

What further hinders Jinder Mahal is the rote and tired booking of his character. A rehash of gimmicks played by earlier wrestlers of Indian descent, like Tiger Jeet Singh and his son Tiger Ali Singh, Mahal’s current gimmick is not only derivative, but, like his offense, the character is outdated. The crux of the character’s motivation relies on the dated notions of national pride and racial prejudice. In what quickly became the only note on the character’s scale, Mahal repeatedly cut promos claiming that the audience was against him due to his race and ethnicity, using points of racism and nationalism as the reasoning for the fans’ negative reactions despite no indication from WWE viewers of xenophobia toward Indians or otherwise.

This narrative device reached its breaking point in Mahal’s feud with Shinsuke Nakamura. Not only were the claims that the WWE’s audience was racist undermined by the fans’ rabid support of Nakamura, a Japanese performer, but the character’s, and subsequently the WWE’s, attempts to make this point resulted in a series of racially charged promos by Mahal in which the scripted segment saw the WWE champion mock Nakamura through the use of racial stereotypes, including making fun of Nakamura’s physical appearance and accent, prompting the live audience to chant “That’s too far!” The claim of the company was that these promos were meant to show the hypocritical nature of the Mahal character, but the character’s disturbing revelry in his delivery and the reactionary response to this misguided attempt at character development proved far more detrimental to the product, resulting in some negative press from major new organizations, including The Washington Post.

The point of all of this is to highlight what seems to be a tone deafness that has been apparent in the WWE for some time. Not only did the elevation and focus on Mahal have a negative response in domestic viewership through live audience reactions, a drop in live attendance sales, and loss in television ratings, but the WWE’s market in India has failed to expand as a result of the crowning of the first WWE champion of Indian descent. The Wrestling Observer Newsletter reported in August that the number of WWE Network subscribers had dropped since Mahal’s coronation (“WWE SmackDown Must End the Pushes of Jinder Mahal and Shane McMahon”), and a two-show live event tour in India scheduled for December was reduced to a single event. While neither of these occurrences can definitively be attributed to the WWE’s booking of Mahal, it is, along with the domestic response, damning evidence against the Mahal experiment.

It also shows a lack of audience awareness by the WWE, with some outlets reporting slow ticket sales for the India tour in part because of a pricing structure significantly higher than the average cost of live sporting events in the country, and a suggestion that WWE’s 750 million social media followers in India do not necessarily translate to network subscriptions and ticket sales. It is possible that the issue with WWE in India could highlight a larger issue with the company’s heavy investment in social media as its major marketing statistics tool.

The fact that the WWE chose to highlight Mahal’s ethnicity and then attach it to notions of racism and (to a lesser extent) nationalism shows a disconnect with the cultural zeitgeist in which the company exists and operates. The leaning on racial differences has come across as an easy out in the booking of Mahal, a simple motivation for the character that avoids the work that would have otherwise been necessary to build a character from jobber to champion status; the urgency and suddenness with which Mahal was made champion perhaps caused an oversimplification in the narrative construction of the character and the reasoning for his newfound answers for success.

This style of booking overlooks the fact that WWE’s audience is far different from the heyday of the late 80s and early 90s where American patriots ran roughshod over evil foreigners, and, despite what some disgruntled and lapsed fans insist, the current WWE audience does not want the rampant violence, misogyny, and bigotry that defined the boom known as the “Attitude Era.” The current viewer of WWE’s product, most of whom fall within the “millennial” categorization that McMahon derides as under-ambitious and underachieving in that same Stone Cold Podcast, are far more inclusive, accepting, and desiring of diversity and equality in the media they consume. They are also more aware of quality and artistry in both performance and product than any audience before, and the failure of the Mahal experiment is a reflection of that awareness.

That the WWE does not seem to see, or at least refuses to acknowledge, this trend in its viewership and in the culture at large is fairly shocking. It’s insistence that Mahal’s heel motivations hinge upon his racial and ethnic identities is especially surprising given the WWE’s own global expansion, which should instead see a drop in isolated patriotism and racially charged narratives. This is especially true given the turbulent cultural and political climates that have come to define 2017, especially in the United States, where concerns over the increased visibility and influence of white nationalism are at the forefront of most news days. Mahal’s presentation as a boy-who-cried-wolf racist does nothing to allay or shed light on these concerns, perhaps instead lending them credence.

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Image Credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hN5BnBlzxgg

With the results of the Clash of Champions pay-per-view, perhaps there is reason to believe that the WWE has taken notice to the fallout of the Mahal experiment, beginning with his loss of the WWE championship to AJ Styles and subsequent replacement in the champion vs. champion match against Brock Lesnar just before last month’s Survivor Series event. Backlash occurred with the initial announcement that Mahal would face Lesnar, with fans being relatively vociferous in their disdain at the mere idea of a match they considered to be a dud weeks before the opening bell even rang. After having Mahal sit out the Survivor Series event altogether, he was thrust back into the main event for his title rematch this past Sunday.

There was a noticeable change in the way Mahal was presented on television leading up to Clash of Champions. The race fueled rhetoric that characterized the past eight months of the character’s motivations was absent, now replaced with Mahal touting more traditional heel rhetoric, insisting that he had lost the title due to the effects of international travel and general unpreparedness and claiming that he had become WWE champion without anyone else’s help, despite the alignment in narrative with the Singh Brothers. This is a marked step away from the one note narrative that had been attached to the character since his push began, and it is one more in tune with the current climate of the WWE audience with its focus on competition and accomplishment, and on the WWE championship. Mahal’s claims still allow for the character to be presented as hypocritical without implications of either the audience or himself (and by extension, the company) as being racially motivated or prejudice.

My personal estimation of Mahal is that the performer’s in-ring skill still leave so very much to be desired, but the character work shows promise if allowed to develop outside of the tired, outdated, and inept race-centered narrative. Ending the Mahal experiment with Styles’ decisive win on Sunday and moving the character away from the main event and the WWE title should give it room to breathe and develop in ways that the forced rise and stubborn title reign would not.

If that is the case, then Mahal’s Clash of Champions loss could possibly be understood as the official closing of a year in which WWE programming was decidedly not “about what the fans want” as McMahon claims. Clash of Champions, for all of its problems, could go down as marking the start of a more aware WWE, in both audience and cultural awareness.

Hopefully that means we’re gifted more Tye Dillinger, but more than likely we’ll be force fed Lesner vs. Reigns 2: The Re-Re-Re-Re-Coronation. Fingers crossed, though…

 

Works Cited

WWE Clash of Champions 2017. Performances by AJ Styles, Jinder Mahal, Shane McMahon, Daniel Bryan, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, etc. WWE Network, World Wrestling    Entertainment, 17 Dec. 2017. http://network.wwe.com/video/v1870048783?contextType=wwe-show&contextId=clash_of_champions&contentId=263555042&watchlistAltButtonConte xt=series

Investor Presentation: December 2015. World Wrestling Entertainment, December 2015,    http://corporate.wwe.com/~/media/Files/W/WWE/documents/events/1500078394.PDF

Oestriecher, Blake. “This Week in WWE Biz: Roman Reigns Sales, Brock Lesnar vs. Goldberg   Plans, Seth Rollins Feud, More.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 1 Apr. 2017,             www.forbes.com/sites/blakeoestriecher/2017/04/01/this-week-in-wwe-biz-roman-reigns-sales-brock-lesnar-vs-goldberg-plans-seth-rollins-feud-more/.

–. “WWE SmackDown Must End the Pushes of Jinder Mahal and Shane McMahon.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 30 Aug. 2017,       https://www.forbes.com/sites/blakeoestriecher/2017/08/30/wwe-smackdown-must-end-the-pushes-of-jinder-mahal-and-shane-mcmahon/#4e3baeab4500

Mr. McMahon.” Stone Cold Podcast. Performances by Stone Cold Steve Austin and Vince McMahon, WWE Network, World Wrestling Entertainment, 1 Dec. 2014. http://network.wwe.com/video/v135281883?contextType=wwe-show&contextId=stone_cold_podcast&contentId=127330862&watchlistAltButtonContext=series Note: The image above is taken from this show. The meme’s creator is unknown.

WWE Reports First Quarter 2017 Results. World Wrestling Entertainment, May 2017, http://corporate.wwe.com/~/media/Files/W/WWE/press-releases/2017/Q1-2017-Earnings-Release-FINAL.pdf

 

 

 

Clash of Champions 2017: Jinder All the Way?

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

Clash of Champions 2017 Review
December 17, 2017
TD Gardens, Boston, MA
Announcers Tom Phillips, Corey Graves, Byron Saxton

US championship 3-way: Bobby Roode vs. Dolph Ziggler vs. Baron Corbin (c)

The build: This match was set up two weeks ago on SmackDown when Ziggler interfered in a match between Corbin and Roode. Roode returned the favor last week on SmackDown, interfering in a Corbin/Ziggler match. The announcers question whether Ziggler deserves to be in the match, foreshadowing a potential back-door win for Ziggler.

Roode and Ziggler have ignoble history here, as they had a bad match at Hell in the Cell in October in Roode’s PPV debut in which Ziggler got entirely too much offense. Ziggler also had a bad match in which he got entirely too much offense in the debut of another former NXT champion, Shinsuke Nakamura. Nakamura had a remarkably bad match against Corbin at Battleground, meaning that two out of three combatants here have tremendous talent for snuffing out ascendant talent. Not a good omen for Roode or the show to follow.

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The match: Roode is the clear face here, relishing in a full-crowd rendition of “Glorious Domination.” Though it was odd to import Roode onto SmackDown as a face, he’s making it work by trading in his heelish arrogance for a more or less straightforward plucky babyface persona. Ziggler’s doing his record-scratch anti-entrance again. Corbin gets a smattering of applause as he enters, menacing an adorable blond moppet on his way.

As they stare each other down, we get our first inanity from the booth as Saxton reminds us: “For a long time that United States championship was seen as a beacon of hope here in WWE.… But the minute Corbin won that championship, it all came to an end.” I think he was alluding to John Cena’s open challenge as a beacon of joy, but good grief. Incidentally, New Years Day will mark the 43rd anniversary of Harley Race’s inaugural U.S. championship victory in Mid-Atlantic.

Ziggler and Roode gang up on Corbin and dispose of the champ outside. They return to the ring and tease finishers. The announcers argue again whether Ziggler deserves to be in the match, leading to Corey Graves asserting: “Dolph may be the greatest in-ring performer of all time.”

Roode turns the tables on Corbin and hits a blockbuster; Roode and Ziggler take over. Roode’s middle-rope attempt at something is aborted, and Ziggler hits the fameasser. All three are finally in the ring in a rare occurrence. Roode takes out Ziggler with a uranage but walks into deep six. The crowd remains hot for Roode.

We get our first high spot of the match when they do the three-person powerbomb/superplex, with Roode eating the superplex and Corbin powerbombing Ziggler. Corbin gets near falls on both, though it would take a sports scientist to know how much additional damage the person delivering the superplex would suffer with the addition of the powerbomb. Ziggler escapes a chokeslam from Corbin, who charges into the post and takes himself out. Ziggler tunes up the band, but Roode dodges sweet hip music and gets the spinebuster. Roode goes for the glorious DDT, but Ziggler slips out and hits his own leaping DDT. Corbin returns, unsuccessfully tosses Ziggler, then charges out of the ring on a low bridge again.

Roode dodges the superkick, catapults Ziggler into the post, and hits the glorious DDT. Corbin returns, charges Roode, and gets disposed of once again (Dick Hallorann tips his hat to Corbin’s ability to intervene and immediately fail), but manages to save from outside and chokeslam Roode onto his knee, though the floor was right there. The finish comes when Corbin sets up Roode for end of days but Ziggler hits the zig zag, scoring the pin at 12:05.

What does it mean? Ziggler wins his second US championship and gets a surprising pop from the crowd. Roode would seem like the most likely contender for the belt, perhaps setting up something for Royal Rumble. Later on, Corbin vows to recapture his title and throws a tantrum backstage as the interviewer grills him about his tendency for squandering things since the failed cash-in.

Rating: *3/4. The finish was quite good and the stuff between Roode and Ziggler was fine, but once I noticed that the recurring theme of Corbin being taken out of the match, only to return and impotently be disposed of again, it became silly.

Backstage, Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon foreshadow a potential conflict that’s bound to factor into their dual-refereed match later. I find the dynamics of the whole thing interesting: the video packages are framing Shane as the virtuous babyface and Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn as the dastardly villains, but Shane’s overt vendetta against them is veering into heelish territory. Bryan, on the other hand, is teasing an alliance with Owens and Zayn, and his motives are reasonable — he claims to be protecting SmackDown’s interests by preventing Owens and Zayn from being fired by Shane in retaliation — and there’s no foreseeable way audiences are going to boo Bryan should the whole thing culminate in the rumored Shane vs. Bryan feud.

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SmackDown tag team championship four-way: Aiden English & Rusev v. Shelton Benjamin & Chad Gable vs. The New Day (Big E & Kofi Kingston) vs. The Usos (c)

The build: There’s not much to this one. The Usos have been doing impressive work as champs, and here are three teams to challenge them. The match rules — four men in the ring at all times, partners can only tag partners — suggests that we’re headed to planet spotfest and the Usos are unlikely to give up their titles in such an environment where chaos is prevalent but little is meaningful. We’ll see.

The match: We start by trading rollups, and everybody tags everybody, leading to some spots to the outside. Kofi falls onto Gable and Rusev; Jey planchas onto English and Big E. Jimmy goes up to follow, but Benjamin leaps up and collar suplexes him off into a near fall. New Day takes over with the unicorn stampede. Big E slings Kofi into Benjamin and Jey before Kofi eats a big kick from Rusev, who cleans house to a big “Rusev Day” chant.

From here, we settle into Benjamin and Gable working over Kofi in one half of the ring while Rusev and English control Jimmy in the other. This leads to a terminally stupid spot in which English gets Benjamin’s attention, then covers Jimmy, forcing Benjamin to kick English to break up the pin. Why in creation would one wrestler announce to another that he’s going into a prone position? Then, of course, Gable straps on the exact same invisible kick me sign and receives a stomp from Rusev because he deserves it.

Nothing of note happens until Gable heats things up with a rolling kick on Kofi, which is followed by Kofi spiking English with his sweet standing double stomp. Jey returns to the apron after conspicuously disappearing, and he and Big E tag in and clean house. The Usos start throwing superkicks.

*Moment of reviewer subjectivity* My stance: superkicks melt snowflakes because a superkick is a kick right in the face and should never not end a match. All jokes about thigh-slapping aside, a superkick is not only the finishing move of GOAT Shawn Michaels, but it looks (and, thanks to thigh slapping, sounds) like the most impactful thing you’ll see in a standard wrestling match. If we’re suspending our disbelief and viewing the match as simulacra of athletic combat, can someone explain to me how the Usos superkick the entire tag team division multiple times on a weekly basis with little impact, but Randy Orton can make people disappear from months with one kick to the head? I do not look forward to the ensuing superkick party of hostile messages from Young Bucks fans.

Anyway, the Uso superkick party ends when Gable and Benjamin cut them off, leading to some meaningful drama as Gable locks Jey in the Texas cloverleaf as Benjamin stands guard. That doesn’t last as English drops Gable with a fireman’s carry-into-two-handed chokeslam. Rusev locks in the accolade, but Big E saves and preps the midnight hour, but English saves. Rusev drops Big E with the machka kick and sinks in the accolade deep.

In comes Gable with the best sequence of the match, lifting Rusev dead weight out of a seated position and German suplexing him onto his head. Gable then gets rolling Germans on English and Big E before going after Jey. But as he bounces Jey into the Uso corner, Jimmy tags in, saves and superkicks Gable. Another superkick puts Gable down, and a big splash finishes at 12:54.

What does it mean? Despite eating the pin, Gable proved that he deserves more spotlight once again with an inspired rush to bring the match to its endgame. The Usos retain, but there wasn’t much here in terms of character, rivalry, or storyline development.

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Rating: ** All four teams looked fine, and the crowd was hot for Rusev, but nobody comes out of the match better or worse in any way that will translate to anything meaningful. Those viewers who value workrate over story will like it more, but I doubt anyone will remember this match a month from now.

SmackDown women’s championship lumberjack match: Natalya vs. Charlotte Flair (c)

The build: Charlotte defeated then-champion Nattie at Hell in the Cell by DQ, then tapped out Nattie with the figure 8 for the belt on the Nov. 14 episode of SmackDown in her hometown of Charlotte. That victory made Charlotte a triple-crown winner (Raw, Smackdown, NXT) and culminated in an emotional embrace with her father Ric Flair in a rare appearance since his very public brush with death. I like Nattie and am a fan of her old-school heel shtick, but I can’t imagine she has a chance here.

Running concurrent to their feud is the introduction of the Riott Squad — Ruby Riott, Liv Morgan, and Sarah Logan — which has been doing a hostile invasion angle parallel to that of Absolution on Raw. The Riott Squad has been beating up everyone, injuring Naomi and Becky Lynch, but Nattie has been wooing the rest of the roster over to curry favor and improve her odds.

The match: The lumberjacks are Naomi (back from kayfabe injury), Carmella (Money in the Bank briefcase in tow), Tamina and Lana, and the Riott Squad. Natalya and Charlotte lock up and trade elbows before Nattie is deposited outside the ring before being stomped by Naomi, as it becomes evident that the theme of the match will be the lumberjacks rather than the competitors. The announcers initiate an ongoing existential debate about the role of lumberjacks as the heels swarm Charlotte.

Nattie works over Charlotte, taunting her opponent and the audience with little reaction from a flatlining crowd. Each time Charlotte begins to get the upper hand, Natalya cuts her off and feeds her to the heels lumberjacks (i.e., everybody but Naomi — yes, there are only two virtuous women currently on SmackDown). Graves does some solid heeling from the booth, defending the heels’ aggression with Charlotte and praising their professionalism for sparing Nattie.

Shenanigans with lumberjacks continue to dominate the story of the match as in the midst of further interference Carmella teases cashing in before Riott and the other lumberjacks spill into the ring and out the other side. Charlotte moonsaults onto the pile, neutralizing the lumberjacks before Natalya sneak attacks and rolls her back into the ring. Natalya goes for the sharpshooter before Charlotte powers out and taps her out quickly to the figure 8 at 10:34.

What does it mean? Charlotte ends the feud in decisive fashion as it was clear throughout that the lumberjacks were the only thing keeping her from dominating Natalya. Nattie attempts to recoup some of her heat in a post-match interview, accusing Charlotte of using her family’s name to cut corners (hypocrisy: that’s good heeling!) and lashing out at the fans for turning their backs on her and claiming to have carried the division for ten years. She teases a Batista 2010 quitting tantrum but stops short, claiming she will “turn [her] back” on the fans and sobbing on the way out of the ring. What does it look like when an openly antagonistic heel turns her back on the audience? It’s hard to see where she goes from here, though, with no faces but Naomi left.

Rating: ** I’ll admit to being a mark for Natalya’s vintage heel machinations, and I thought the match told a good story in the ring: manipulative but inferior heel bends the rules to torment champion before virtue wins out. The ending was a foregone conclusion, though, and the action was totally sublimated to the ongoing lumberjack miasma.

Backstage, the Singh brothers stress that Jinder Mahal is “so so so confident” that he will win. We get yet another insinuation that the Singhs will not interfere, of which I’m less than optimistic. They are good in their roles, though, and one presume they’ll be meeting a terrible fate by the end of the night.

Breezango vs. The Bludgeon Brothers (c)

The build: And what a build it was. This is the long-delayed blow-off match after months of Fashion Files comedy skits that got Breezango over to a fair degree, as well as The Ascension, as comedy figures. The culprits of the Who-Trashed-the-Fashion-Police-office investigation turned out to the re-debuting Luke Harper and Erick Rowan. Breezango challenged Harper and Rowan on the go-home SmackDown, but the announcers aren’t giving the Fashion Police much of a chance, and one assumes this will be a quick dispatching.

The match: Harper smacks Breeze down as Rowan stalks Fandango. Breezango attempts to double-team Rowan to an advantage, but Harper intervenes, and he and Rowan brutalize their opponents, including a brutal double-team face smash to Breeze on the apron and a double sit-out power bomb and double crucifix slam to finish Fandango at 1:58.

What does it mean? RIP Fashion Files. Harper and Rowan promise more bludgeoning to come: “The end of the beginning”; “the beginning of the end.” The Bludgeon Brothers would appear to be ascendant in the SmackDown tag team ranks, but beyond rare cameos, it’s been over three years since Harper and Rowan were allowed anywhere near the top of the card with any consistency.

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Rating: * This was a pure squash match intended to get the Bludgeon Brothers over with little regard for Breezango. I’m not sure if anyone else is enthusiastic about another Harper and Rowan push, but I’m willing to ride along. Harper is pretty great in the ring, and they’ve got a good entrance even if the giant hammers are a cartoony throwback to the Berzerker (huss!) and his ax. The journey of Braun Strowman began with squashes, too.

Backstage, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn imply that Daniel Bryan is on their side. Owens is supposed to be a smarmy heel, and he is, but he also raises several valid points that give him moral ground over Shane. Owens and Zayn remain excellent in their condescending smartass roles.

Shinsuke Nakamura & Randy Orton vs. Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn (c) w/ guest referees Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan

The build: Count me as being fairly intrigued by this one, as Owens and Zayn have been the best thing about SmackDown for months (apologies to AJ Styles). Nakamura remains excellent in the role he’s allowed, and WWE continues to string us along on the silent possibility that this could lead to a Bryan match at WrestleMania (a poor, deluded, mark, this one).

Shane and Owens have been feuding for months (Shane’s refereeing cost Owens his US championship to Styles; Owens retaliated by assaulting Vince McMahon), and their blood feud only crested at their Hell in the Cell match which Zayn turned delightfully heelish and rescued KO from Shane’s death plunge off the top of the cell. Owens and Zayn interfered in the Team Raw vs. Team SmackDown main event at Survivor Series, though the hype package strategically edits out the fact that Super Shane easily fended them off before falling to Triple H. Shane was about to fire Owens and Zayn before Bryan intervened, proposing a match between Zayn and Orton. Shane continues to wear his grudge like a crown in making this match, making the stipulation that if Owens and Zayn lose, they’ll be fired from WWE.

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The match: There’s a lot of star power in this match, and all six participants get decent, if underwhelming, receptions from the audience. The singalong to Nakamura’s entrance seems to perk up after the music ends. Zayn and Orton begin as Zayn heels it up by running his mouth to Orton and Shane. With the first few nearfalls it becomes clear that the referees will be the story of the match. After some awkward covers, Shane and Bryan eventually settle for cutting the ring in half, which presents an intriguing storytelling possibility: that Owens and Zayn might cut the ring in half with the goal of staying on Bryan’s side.

Finally able to proceed with the match, Zayn and Owens take over on Orton. Owens jaws at both referees, and Zayn does some trash talking but gets uppercut in the mouth for his trouble. Owens and Zayn control with quick tags and restholds before Orton gets free with a belly-to-back suplex and tags in Nakamura. Nakamura brings it with a barrage of kicks and knees on Owens. Immediately, though, the announcers siphon Nakamura’s heat by drawing attention back to the referees. Owens attempts a powerbomb out of the corner but falls prey to a triangle choke. Nakamura releases and gets distracted by the quarreling referees, walking into an Owens superkick. Zayn tags in goes for the helluva kick, charging into Nakamura’s boot but regaining control with a blue thunder bomb.

Owens sentons into Nakamura’s knees, allowing Zayn and Orton to tag in. Orton takes out Zayn with a picture-perfect top-rope superplex, but Owens pulls him out and all the action spills onto the floor where Owens drives Nakamura throw a table with a frog splash. Zayn holding Nakamura on the table by the hair was a nice touch. Back inside, Orton takes control with a snap powerslam and draping DDT on Zayn, then dropping Zayn with an RKO as Shane cheerleads. KO saves his partner by pushing Bryan onto Shane, interrupting the count. Shane berates Bryan as Orton stalks the latter in predator stance before dropping Owens with an RKO.

Zayn and Orton trade rollups before Shane refuses to count three. Shane and Bryan get into a shouting match that ends when Zayn rolls up Orton out of an RKO attempt and Bryan fast counts the pin at 21:33. Shane dives at Bryan to attempt to stop the count but is unsuccessful.

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What does it mean? The feud must continue and the shades of gray get grayer. Owens and Zayn keep their jobs and gain more ammunition for their legitimate conflict with Shane as Zayn scored a clear visual pinfall that Shane blatantly refused to count. Meanwhile, the conflict between Shane and Bryan should intensify as they were at each other’s throats throughout the match. Where this goes remains to be seen, of course: will it culminate in Bryan’s return to the ring, or will we get Shane vs. Bryan’s avatar or avatar vs. avatar?

It will be interesting to see what direction they go, as something is clearly amiss in the characterizations. Shane is presumably playing face, and the packages back that up, but Shane’s behaviors are heelish in that he’s actively rooting for the demise of two employees who have clear grievances against management, whose jobs are being threatened gleefully. This all begs the question: is this another instance of WWE overestimating our capacity to identify with the McMahons (Exhibit A: WrestleMania’s Shane vs. Styles match), or is this part of a greater swerve that will turn Shane heel? What would that mean for Bryan? I get cold sweats at the possibility of another season in hell of McMahons as heel authority figures, and I’m not sure I’d live that again even if it guaranteed a return to the ring for Bryan.

As for Orton and Nakamura, this did very little. They were nothing more than avatars for Shane McMahon, and they didn’t look particularly good here.

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Rating: *3/4. This was all angle, and though the match would appear to move the storyline forward in its escalation of the conflict between Shane and Bryan, the match itself didn’t help any of the wrestlers and all the in-ring storytelling was hamstrung by the inevitable refereeing shenanigans that would bring on the finish. Outside of one flourish from Nakamura, everything that happened before the finish was meaningless and heatless. The split-ring refereeing premise was potentially intriguing but didn’t factor into the finish.

WWE championship: Jinder Mahal w/ the Singh Brothers vs. AJ Styles (c)

The build: OK, we’ve got to talk about this Jinder Mahal thing. In many ways, the Jinder experiment is the story of the year in WWE, as his instant elevation was at once bold — we’ve been begging WWE for new stars, which they’ve struggled to do since the days of Batista and Cena — and an utter slog on the program. Jinder’s 170-day foreign heel revival reign was part nostalgia, part retrograde. It raised questions about whether the days of bulging muscles over in-ring talent were back, whether globalization and international-market capitalism mattered over in-ring storytelling — and just where in the heck this was all leading?

It seemed assured that Jinder’s reign would lead through the fabled India tour (which ended up being a single show), but Jinder dropped the championship to Styles on Nov. 7 in Manchester in an ultra-rare overseas title switch. In a rare last-minute change of direction, the title switch canceled the advertised Mahal vs. Brock Lesnar champion-versus-champion match at Survivor Series, resulting in (one would imagine) a much, much better Lesnar vs. Styles match that ended up being the best world championship match in WWE of the year. Mahal jobbed to Triple H in India, sending up signals that the Jinder experiment could end with a loss in his rematch with Styles. But the specter of Mahal reclaiming the title from Styles at Clash and holding it until a rumored match with John Cena at WrestleMania persisted.

Which is all to say that the possibility of another Jinder title reign was a seriously agonizing thought to me as I prepared to watch this show. I’ll declare here two subjective viewpoints: (1) I thought Jinder was showing progress as a character from the start of the experiment, and (2) Styles should have never dropped the championship in the first place. Everything with the WWE championship since Styles dropped the belt to Cena at Royal Rumble — Cena’s useless one-month reign before dropping it to Bray Wyatt in a multi-man match that easily could have been accomplished with Styles as champ, Wyatt’s embarrassing feud with Orton that gave us the House of Horrors match, Orton’s repetitive feud with Mahal (Punjabi prison match!), and Mahal’s demoralizing feud with Nakamura — has been negative for SmackDown and a degradation of the promotion’s most prestigious championship.

Those who read Wrestlecrap handed the Gooker — Wrestlecrap’s award for worst thing of the year — to House of Horrors, but to me the worst thing in wrestling this year was Jinder’s overtly racist promos against Nakamura (https://deadspin.com/fans-chant-that-s-too-far-during-racist-wwe-promo-1818579727). Check that: the promos weren’t the worst thing; the worst thing was Jinder being proven right in his racism by beating Nakamura clean.

For the record, I think racism can work in wrestling because, to me, wrestling storylines are most potent when they capture real-life concerns and anxieties. Throughout wrestling history, we’ve had racist characters — e.g., Colonel DeBeers, Ted DiBiase in his Mid-South feud with Junkyard Dog, the Fabulous Freebirds — and wrestling fans booed them and cheered the characters of color, which crafts the message that racism is bad. But there are times when racist characters win: Triple H’s notorious win over Booker T at WrestleMania 19; JBL’s championship with over Eddie Guerrero, and when the character goes over the other, it justifies that character’s motivations.

Thus, WWE could have told a powerful story by establishing Jinder’s heel credentials by resorting to the racism he previously decried, then having Nakamura kinshasa his head off (ideally with an exaggerated bow) in the name of justice. Instead, WWE not only put Mahal over, utterly kneecapping Nakamura, but put him over clean by having the alleged “artist” slip on a proverbial banana peel, stumbling like a klutz into a khallas. And that was the moment I was off the Jinder train forever. The storyline wasn’t his fault, but the bad, repetitive matches are anti-justification for such putrid storytelling.

All that said, the pre-match hype package, featuring sit-down interviews with Styles and Mahal cut together, did a great job setting the stage for a big-fight feel.

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The match: The crowd is into Styles, but Jinder has a significant contingent of vocal supporters out there, too. Mahal establishes his size advantage early, but Styles takes him down and begins working the left leg in preparation for the calf crusher. Jinder cuts him off and begins to work on Styles’ ribs, dropping him across the top rope; slamming him into, then over, the barricade; and dropping him onto a table. Working the body is classic in-ring psychology, and I like two things about this part of the match: (1) Jinder’s offense isn’t exciting, but everything he does looks like it hurts; (2) Jinder frequently sells the left leg even on offense. Styles bumps like a pinball and sells like a champ for Mahal. Ten minutes in and Jinder is in control and heeling it up.

Mahal goes to the middle rope and eats a dropkick to give Styles breathing room, but the Singh brothers are jawing and Styles goes for the phenomenal forearm too early, allowing Mahal to go back to the ribs with a fireman’s carry into a gutbuster. Mahal’s hubris gets the best of him again, as Styles slips out of a superplex and drops him in the electric chair. They go back and forth with Styles selling his ribs but persevering, unable to deadlift Mahal for the Ushigoroshi neckbreaker but succeeding with the help of Mahal’s momentum off the ropes.

Mahal fights out of the Styles clash by forcing him into the corner and then dropping him straight down on the ribs. Styles gets a northern lights suplex for a nearfall, but Mahal takes control again with a Samoan drop. “You can’t not be impressed by Jinder Mahal tonight,” Graves says earnestly, and I’m inclined to agree. Heels don’t have to be exciting on offense when they’re putting the faces in peril. Mahal sets up Styles for the khallas but eats the Pele kick; Styles goes against for the clash but ends up eating a big boot in the exchange. Mahal sets up a khallas off the middle rope, but Styles counters with the Pele and dumps Mahal to set up the Superman 450 splash; he hits but the Singhs pull Mahal out for their first direct interference 20 minutes in. In the grand tradition of destroying the Singh brothers with impunity, Styles disposes of them with the forearm to Sanil and a Styles clash on the floor to Samir.

We move to our endgame as Styles overshoots the forearm and takes a knee to the back of the head, which Mahal follows with the khallas. But before the sun extinguishes and our dark night of the soul returns, Styles kicks out at the last moment. That wakes the crowd up, and Jinder’s out of ideas. Mahal then teases a Styles clash of his own, but AJ rolls him into the calf crusher. Mahal struggles to the ropes, but Styles rolls him back to the middle, and Mahal taps at 22:57 to send the fans home happy and end our long national nightmare.

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What does it mean? This presumably ends the Jinder Mahal experiment at the top of the card, and though he’ll remain in the upper midcard for the foreseeable future, it’s hard to know what to expect from him. Guys who had similar trolling reigns — Honkey Tonk Man, JBL — stuck around for years. One avenue might be the US title: perhaps Ziggler drops to Roode at the Rumble to set up Roode/Mahal at WrestleMania? The US title is logically where Mahal should have begun anyway.

As for Styles, everything seems fresh and new again, as this is Styles’ first world title reign as a face. They could go Owens, perhaps backed by Bryan with Shane in Styles’ corner — though we really don’t need any incarnation of WrestleMania 2000. They could go with the Rumble winner from either brand. Or, if Vince really checks out to focus on bringing back the XFL (there’s a sentence for our times), we can fantasize about the Styles/Nakamura clash they teased at Money in the Bank. They could re-import Chris Jericho after Wrestle Kingdom 12 to try out his vicious heel act that’s been tearing it up with Kenny Omega: we just saw it two years ago at WrestleMania, but why not as a challenger along the way given the exemplary heel work Jericho’s doing in Japan? A sleeper short-term option could be Corbin: the announcers framed Corbin’s taking the US title from AJ Styles as redemption for his failed Money in the Bank cash-in, so they could try to recreate that magic.

Rating: ***1/4. This was the best Mahal match I’ve seen thanks to good psychology from both wrestlers. AJ remains the best in-ring performer in the company. The right man went over cleanly, and it finally feels safe to breathe easy about the main event of SmackDown pay per views.

Final grade: C-. Traditionally December pay per views are among the worst on the calendar, and this one lived down to that overall with only one above-average match and yet another episode of McMahon inanity eclipsing the in-ring talent. I think the Jinder dragon is finally slain after months of bad matches, repetitive tropes, and occasionally racism, and I would have gladly sat through Heroes of Wrestling 2017 if that’s the pot of gold at the end.

EDITOR’S NOTE: All images are courtesy of http://www.wwe.com/shows/wweclashofchampions/2017/gallery.