School is back in session, good wrestling fans! Well, for me, at least. After taking a must-needed break from WWE over the last several weeks, I am back to my old tricks — giving you the good, bad, and thorny from Sunday’s SummerSlam pay-per-view.
For the most part, I’ve not sat and watched weekly WWE TV during my summer break. I’ve kept up with storyline developments and other backstage news through wrestling news media. So, my analysis of specific segments and matches leading up to SummerSlam will be limited. Still, though, I’ll pepper in my thoughts about the build to the three women’s matches we saw on Sunday, as this will lead us into the sunset of the weeks following the Biggest Party of the Summer.
Open your textbooks, and let’s start this week’s discussion!
Women’s Tag Team Title Match: The IIconics vs. Alexa Bliss & Nikki Cross (c)
Image credit: wrestlinginc.com
To be frank, I didn’t watch this match because I didn’t realize it was even happening on the pre-show. I was going into the show blind (as I discussed above), and I never typically watch the pre-show to any pay-per-view besides WrestleMania. But, that doesn’t mean I won’t share my thoughts on the direction of the women’s tag titles, as that’s more significant than anything that could have happened in this match.
Firstly, I feel terrible for the IIconics. So much potential to make those belts mean something — if not for the tag team wrestling, the tag team unity instead. Billie Kay and Peyton Royce have a natural charisma that can’t be taught, and their real-life friendship makes anything they do between the ropes believable. But alas, they simply were not given the opportunity to shine.
As I’ve discussed in previous Nylons entries, it was clear from the outset that WWE didn’t really care about the women’s tag titles. And this was recently (allegedly) confirmed by insiders as well. This explains the absence of the titles (and titleholders) on TV for weeks on end. It seemed at certain points that the Kabuki Warriors could be next in line to challenge Billie and Peyton, but as we’ve come to expect from WWE when it comes to Asuka, they could never pull the trigger.
Enter Alexa Bliss…and Nikki Cross, by association. I guess WWE figured out that even if they don’t care about the titles that much, they could use them as a way to strap another one of their white, blonde faves. So, they put the titles on Alexa and Nikki. Now look, ultimately if this will get the titles on TV finally, it is a net positive. It’s just sort of eyeroll-inducing that they’ve found yet another title to give to Little Miss Bliss.
Hopefully they can build the tag division up moving forward, as one Boss n’ Hug Connection hoped to way back when…
Now, for the rest of the matches, we’re ironically going to go in order. The Good, Bad, and Thorny sections progressed throughout the night as the matches did. I will preface the below reviews with the statement that each match had good, if not great bits within it. But, as we’ll see, sometimes good isn’t good enough.
The Good RAW Women’s Title Match: Becky Lynch (c) vs. Natalya
Image credit: pinkvilla.com
This match was very well done, as would be expected from two skilled wrestlers like Becky and Nattie. The two understood the assignment as a submission match, and they telegraphed their spots to fit this theme. The adversaries spent much of this match entangled with one another, desperately trying to one-up the other with technical submissions.
The two coolest spots of the match were Natalya’s sharpshooter on the top rope with Becky entangled in the ropes beneath, and the other was the superplex from the top rope. The former was a creative twist on a fairly straightforward submission; the latter just looked like it hurt. What’s more, I was particularly surprised that the two were allowed to do that superplex spot. It seems WWE tends to tease top rope slams often, but rarely allow wrestlers to fall from such heights — especially if the performers are women. I was glad to see both of them go for it!
As an aside, I think it’s about time we collectively put some respect on Natalya’s name. The woman is consistently good, a proud ambassador for WWE, and has more than paid her dues in her career. She pulled her weight in this match and so many others. It’s a shame that she’ll likely never get the meaningful title reign she probably deserves. But I think we should still give her her flowers while she’s still around to smell them.
The Bad Smackdown Women’s Title Match: Bayley (c) vs. Ember Moon
Image credit: WWE.com
Ah yes, the match that had all the potential in the world to be great and just fell short.
The build to this match was lazy. Fans didn’t have a reason to care about either woman’s motivations going into it because neither were really given the opportunity to build a story together. Instead they acted as fodder for Nikki and Alexa’s storyline many weeks.
As a result of this, the match itself just felt off. You could tell there was little energy for either woman to feed into to keep the action interesting. The few memorable moments of the match came with Ember’s Codebreaker-type sequence to Bayley, and Bayley’s insane Bayley to Belly off the top rope that Ember sold like a champ. (I was honestly amazed at how limp Ember allowed her body to be as she fell from the air — a rag doll personified!)
But these moments were not enough to save the match in my view. Ultimately this match was sloppy in large bits, and I found myself wanting the transitions and reversals to look more crisp. Sloppiness can either be forgiven or corrected by good chemistry between two performers, and that’s what this match lacked. As a viewer I was taken out of the match at various points because I could see Ember and Bayley transitioning between parts of the match and anticipating pinning combinations.
On the whole, I think their wrestling styles clashed in an unfavorable way, and that sucks for both of them. But, I don’t think either of them should be ashamed for trying. The match wasn’t terrible, but I’ve come to expect more from each of them, which is the root of my disappointment.
The Thorny Trish Stratus vs. Charlotte Flair
Image credit: theringreport.com
This match was arguably the most enjoyable of all the women’s bouts on the SummerSlam card. Trish absolutely has not lost a step, as she did a rendition of pretty much all of her greatest hits. There were such beautiful touches in this match including Trish’s patented chops, complete with a hand-lick before the final one, which doubled as a signature for Trish and a middle finger to Charlotte as a Flair. (The two would later go on to have a chop-off, which was equally as fun to watch.)
Perhaps the biggest pop of the match came when Trish somehow finagled her way into an inverted sunset flip of sorts to cinch in the Figure Four leg lock, that she even successfully transitioned into a Figure Eight bridge. I guess all that yoga has paid off, Miss Stratus!
Overall this was a fun, entertaining, and nostalgic journey of a match, due in large part as well to Trish’s capable opponent, Charlotte, who as usual put on a stellar heel performance.
So why, then, has this match landed in this section? Your eyes are not deceiving you. This match was largely great. However, my problem with this match is that it had to exist in the first place.
In the words of Tom Phillips: “It’s the biggest event of the summer, and what would it be without the Queen?”
There it is.
Charlotte, having spent the last three years in the title picture of both brands, found herself out of the women’s title picture and, thusly, without a match at SummerSlam. This match was transparently given to Charlotte as a way to get her on the card. And of course, if she couldn’t have a title match, they had to give her the next best thing: a match with a beloved legend as her foil.
I am going to smugly point out that the match that many fans had been clamoring for as a “one more match” dream match with Trish was against Sasha Banks. Both Sasha and Trish have expressed interest in this match over the last year or so, but of course Sasha’s absence from WWE at the moment made this match impossible. (And to be a little less biased, Trish had also expressed some interest in facing Charlotte.)
However, that isn’t the whole of what chaps my hide about this match. Upon hearing its announcement, my immediate first thought was: Who is this for? Who does this match benefit? You have Trish who doesn’t really benefit, because she could wrestle or not wrestle for the rest of time and still be loved by the WWE Universe. You have Charlotte who has already beaten Trish’s championship record, main evented WrestleMania, and has a host of other “firsts” to her name. Not only that, but she’s a Flair. She didn’t need the rub that this match could have given to literally any other woman on the roster besides Becky Lynch. She already has it all. Why do we need to give her more?
This match was for Vince McMahon. This was his wet dream of a match having his favorite blonde white women of the last 20 years in the ring fighting against each other. And that, at the root of it all, is one of WWE’s main problems. The writers, the decision-makers, only have one person in mind, and that is Vinny Mac. Whoever he likes, whatever he thinks is funny, whatever he thinks will sell. Even if he is woefully inaccurate with his estimations, it is his way or the highway.
And the result of this is that WWE continues to give the most “marketable” women the majority of opportunities. They give the prototypical stars (white, thin, blonde, etc.) all of the shine, while everyone else withers in the dark. The fact that a match was created to get someone on the card who is almost never absent from it is criminal in my view. Yes, it matters that Charlotte is good. I will never take that away from her; the woman is well on her way to GOAT status.
But I despise that there are so many other women that are just as goodas Charlotte in the ring — that have the potential to get to her level of reverence in the wrestling world — but we don’t know who they are. In the most rudimentary way, we don’t know who they are. Because they’re not allowed to show themselves.
And hell, I don’t even mind that Charlotte won. I see the result of this match as poetic justice for Trish, who possibly righted a wrong from her original retirement match in 2006 wherein she went out as the victor. As a true wrestling elder, you are supposed to go out on your back, and that was fitting to see.
I just wonder what the landscape of women’s wrestling in WWE could look like today if they took the time to develop the Litas and Victorias and Molly Hollys and Jacquelines that helped to make Trish into the woman we saw on Sunday. For all of her success, Trish has never, ever missed an opportunity to sing the praises of the women who fought alongside her. I hope that one day Charlotte is able to do the same.
I’ll be back in a couple of weeks to run down how RAW and Smackdown are doing heading into the next pay-per-view. Ciao for now!
Two weeks have passed, good wrestling fans, and I am still bored. I feel that every week I watch the WWE product, I sink deeper into an abyss of grey. I don’t feel any investment in the women’s storylines, but this is mostly because, as always, WWE is failing to create women’s stories outside of the main event title scenes.
While I suppose it is refreshing to see the likes of Ember Moon, Nikki Cross, and Sonya Deville get some airtime, all of their storylines miss the mark in some way.
Although I typically discuss the most recent pay-per-view separately from the weekly TV shows, I am not going to do that this week. Stomping Grounds was fine but mostly uneventful in terms of the women. But the events of the night for the women’s title storylines were continuations of some problematic patterns I’ve seen developing in the last couple of weeks. Let’s get started once again with The Bad.
Nikki Cross as an accessory. You may recall that when WWE first went with the pairing of Nikki Cross and Alexa Bliss, I was intrigued. This was when I believed that their relationship could either evolve into a crazed tag team pairing, or an intense rivalry to get Nikki Cross over. After several weeks of this story playing out, it appears that WWE is hesitant to pull the trigger on either idea. I do not like the way that WWE is using Nikki Cross as a stand-in for Alexa Bliss. It isn’t hard to figure out what’s going on here: Alexa has a history of concussions, and WWE has been extra cautious with her for the last year. They want to use her sparingly, but still involve her in main event storylines.
So what do they need in that situation? A representative, a lackey. Someone to get across Alexa’s heelish, manipulative persona, but also someone who has a gimmick that can be portrayed as gullible enough to do Alexa’s bidding. Enter Nikki Cross.
This storyline hits a wall for me because every segment with Alexa and Nikki feels like it only exists to further their storyline. The women that Nikki and Alexa have been in competition with in the last couple of weeks — Natalya, Naomi, even SmackDown women’s champion Bayley — don’t really have storylines of their own. They are merely plot devices in the pair’s larger story. All of these women have lost to Alexa and/or Nikki, so I am unsure how they benefit from this story as it is unfolding.
But even talking about the dynamic between Nikki and Alexa itself — I’m not sure if their pairing benefits Nikki, either. I do not like how Nikki is characterized as almost a child: a hyperactive being that listens to whomever talks nicely to her and trusts easily. A woman who has reached mental maturity would realize what Alexa is doing, and I feel that the writing of Nikki is making her look naive and unintelligent. Rather than infantile, we could have gone in another direction with Nikki. She could still be unhinged, but also cunning, or intuitive. She could have been more of a loner who doesn’t trust people.
But, the storyline has been going on for so long that I feel that WWE may simply continue it out of convenience, and then drop it when they get bored. But for now, it just feels that Nikki, as well as any woman that comes into contact with her and Alexa, are simply pawns in Alexa’s game.
Ember loses again. Taking a step back from that all-consuming storyline is the story between Ember Moon and Sonya Deville, with Mandy Rose as backup. As I predicted, Ember lost her first contest against Sonya. The bullied rarely benefit from feuds like this, and similar to the women I discussed above, it seems that Ember is just being used to further get Sonya and Mandy over. It made zero sense for Ember to lose their first matchup, and it only makes Ember look like a chump.
I don’t understand WWE’s weird tendency to make their female babyfaces look weak. It’s almost as if they can only see women as damsels in distress, and the only way the audience will know that they’re good is if we pity them.
And as a woman, I would just like to say: we don’t need your pity. We need your respect.
Becky loves Seth…but at what cost? As the universe is well-aware by now, Seth Rollins and Becky Lynch are dating. I, for one, was gushing over this news once it first came out. From a fan perspective, the two of them are uber cute together, and the fact that they are both top champions of their divisions makes them almost a fantasy power couple. They almost seem too good to be true.
So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to myself and WWE fans when the company started to milk their relationship week after week. It began with just a few mentions here and there, then to a Becky run-in at the end of Stomping Grounds to save her man, and then into a full blown mixed tag match involving the both of them at the next pay-per-view. It’s only been about a month since they announced their relationship publicly, but collectively we are already growing tired of the obsessive association of the two, especially when there is really no need for there to be.
We talk about women here in Nylons, so I want to take some time to consider the effect that this is having on Becky. Let’s nuance her situation, both in the ring and out.
As a person, we should obviously be indifferent if not happy for Becky with her decision to be public with her relationship. I would like to believe that her Twitter “announcement” (if you could call it that) was a conscious and autonomous decision of hers. Women should be able to be as free or as private as they wish. And when we consider how many women in WWE, past and present, have acknowledged their partnerships on social media and onscreen, we have annals of evidence that the acknowledgment of the relationship can work, if not benefit both partners. An example that jumps to mind is Matt Hardy and Lita. They dated for several years in an era before social media, but we all figured out after some time that they were actually dating. Their onscreen chemistry was something to marvel, but it almost never ventured into something cartoonish or forced. They intervened in each other’s storylines when it made sense, but otherwise their careers remained for the most part separate from one another after Team Xtreme was no more. (Although you could argue things got dicey with the whole Matt-Lita-Kane storyline…I digress.)
It is entirely possible for a woman to have both a successful singles career and casual acknowledgment that her partner exists. But, of course, WWE is skipping the nuance and going for the heavy-handed “Look! It’s Seth! Becky’s boyfriend!”
For Becky’s gimmick, “The Man,” it feels awkward and uncharacteristic of her to give an “aw shucks” grin when Seth compliments her onscreen. She’s a leather-wearing badass who tries whenever possible to be tough and leave her “weak” emotions at the door. It undermines her gimmick to have her swoon over Seth in any degree, even if that may be Rebecca Quin’s genuine reaction to his presence. WWE is expecting Becky to play both herself and her character, but trying to do this only ruins the mystique that she’s taken so long to perfect. And that’s very unfortunate, especially when you consider tweets like the below:
A worrisome comment, this casts doubt on how much say Becky has in the portrayal of herself and her relationship in storyline. In a perfect world, a woman would be able to have both her man and her success. It seems, though, that at their first opportunity, WWE chose to reduce their top female star to somebody’s boyfriend in a cheap ploy for ratings. While, yes, women in the past have had the best of both worlds, arguably none have reached the heights that Becky Lynch has. And WWE doesn’t know how to give Becky both worlds in a sensible, non-suffocating way.
Not to mention, why put Seth and Becky’s relationship under such strain! What if they break up? If things continue this way, I would not be surprised if they did.
Queer baiting. On last week’s SmackDown, after Sonya Deville disposed of Ember Moon in embarrassingly quick fashion, she shared a longing stare with her companion Mandy Rose. Sonya caressed some strands of Mandy’s hair while Mandy looked lovingly at her friend. The camera oddly lingered on this wordless exchange between the two, and I, as well as many others, picked up on it.
Fans and wrestling media alike began to speculate if this was a hint toward a potential romance storyline between Mandy and Sonya. I have little faith in WWE to carry a storyline to logical completion, but this is a frightful direction if they choose to go for it.
Sonya Deville is WWE’s first openly gay female wrestler, That’s amazing, and no one can take that away from her. However, with WWE’s track record of homophobic characterizations and storylines dripping with straight panic, this can only end badly. From Billy and Chuck, to Goldust, to Mickie and Trish, to even Sasha and Bayley, WWE doesn’t know what to do with gayness.
But the fact that this segment took place on the last SmackDown of Pride month does not feel coincidental at all. In fact, it felt opportunistic, and a little like queer baiting. Queer baitingis the act of suggesting two characters of the same gender may have romantic feelings for one another to hook queer viewers in, only to never have the two characters actually become a queer pairing. It is essentially a giant tease, a deception to keep gay folks tuning in if only for the mere possibility that something may happen between those characters. This is done, of course, to make money.
More often than not, the queer baiting tactic becomes apparent when, despite queer characterization, writers will put one or both characters in a heterosexual pairing. Sometimes, it will end with one character’s death. But the writers could also simply drop the characterizations altogether and pretend they never happened.
Given the most recent example of Sasha and Bayley, I feel that WWE may go the route of the third option. But in any case — they are absolutely wrong for making a last-minute attempt at banking in on Pride month. I hope this little glance between Mandy and Sonya becomes a figment of my imagination in a couple of weeks. We should accept nothing less than real and explicit gay representation. Anything short of that is a flop.
Now that both RAW and SmackDown are under new management, perhaps the women’s storylines will be refreshed. But, to me, it just looks like WWE has simply different straight white men power.
Different flavors of the same product. I crave a new recipe.
We are just about out of gas on the road to WrestleMania, folks, and how did we do on mileage? Well….well……
We’re rolling on two flats, friends.
While things certainly looked promising after Elimination Chamber, proceedings have gotten more than messy since then. So much so that, although I intended to write a shiny new post for you all last week, believing innocently that nothing important would develop in the last two weeks before WrestleMania — I was sorely mistaken.
I will be suspending the typical format to examine the two women’s matches on the WrestleMania card this year, as well as a certain Goddess hosting the show. Let’s begin!
Women’s Tag Title Match: Sasha Banks and Bayley vs. Nia Jax and Tamina vs. Natalya and Beth Phoenix vs. the Iiconics
Image credit: WWE.com
The unproblematic fave of the women’s matches on Sunday, this match is shaping up to be more interesting than I thought it would be. I am first of all happy that Nia Jax and Tamina won’t be singularly challenging for the titles. They are too bland and clumsy in the ring to carry a WrestleMania caliber match with the likes of Bayley and Sasha. That sounds harsh, but it’s true, it’s damn true. Anyways.
As I suspected after Fastlane, Beth Phoenix has thrown her name into the contendership hat with Natalya by her side. And that’s exciting for her! I am all the way here for women stepping back into the ring post-childbirth and motherhood. In the history of WWE, it is such an uncommon thing up until the last two or so years to have a woman leave WWE to start a family and return to the company to wrestle. I want to take this quick second to give props to all the mamas who have done this recently: Trish Stratus, Michelle McCool, Maryse, Maria Kanellis (Bennett), Brie Bella, and now Beth Phoenix. All inspiring women who continue to break the taboos of working motherhood.
So I will be delighted to see Beth wrestle again, especially since she somehow looks more stunning and fit than she did when she did when she was a full-time performer.
Next, we now have to contend with the IIconics, who have made their intent clear: they, too, will be coming for the belts. With home-brand advantage, Billie Kay and Payton Royce defeated the champions, which apparently earned them a place in the inevitable four-way at Mania. And I think it just about sums up the top contenders for the women’s tag titles.
I believe this match will have a balance between skilled technicians and greener competitors, leading to an average to great match at WrestleMania. I do hope these women take the time to choreograph and build chemistry away from the cameras, however, as I think that may be the only thing holding this match back. There are too many women in this match that have never even been in the same ring with each other.
I’d also like to take a brief moment to express one gripe I have about the women’s tag division: it doesn’t really feel like a tag division. It feels more like an assemblage of mid-card women that were stuck together in pairs. The only team that actually shares an entrance theme is the IIconics, which in my mind is an argument for them to win the titles sooner rather than later. They are a team, and this is apparent in nearly everything that they do. Sasha and Bayley still come out to their own entrance themes, and still have their individual gimmicks. While I can see the obvious effort the two put in with their ring gear as well as on social media to portray themselves as a team, they still feel like they should be feuding rather than fighting together. Their individualism shines too brightly. The tag division is the place where you don’t want that to be the case.
To compare the division to the men’s (although I hate doing that), look at the men’s tag teams. Their unification is shown by their team names: The Usos, The Bar, The Revival, War Raiders, Heavy Machinery, The Undisputed Era. Even though there are still quite a few thrown-together men’s tag teams without unified names, there is a stronger case to be made that the men’s teams at least feel like pairings that are codependent. As it stands right now, any of the women’s tag teams could break up tomorrow and we could all say we saw it coming — with the exception of the IIconics.
Hopefully in the future we will see more women entering WWE as pairs to put the “team” in tag team division.
RAW & Smackdown Women’s Title Match: Ronda Rousey vs. Becky Lynch vs. Charlotte Flair – Winner Takes All
Image credit: WhatCulture.com
I’ve written about this feud at length thus far in 2019, so much that I don’t have very much to critique at this point. But, as a result of all of that nitpicking, I have now arrived at a general opinion about how this story unfolded from the Royal Rumble until now.
While some praise could be given for the unpredictable writing every week, in the end I feel that this feud was overbooked. The story after the Rumble could have nearly written itself, with all three parties having heat with each other in the confines of storyline. Becky was never an official entrant in the Rumble, either, and that could have been played up in the build.
But WWE took several detours to get us here — Vince McMahon’s involvement, the injury to Becky’s knee, that still baffling Twitter beef between Becky and Ronda. It became all very confusing and convoluted, more than it could have been.
I think in the end this feud peaked prematurely. I would be lying if I said that I was as amped for this match as I was as the Rumble went off the air. My waning enthusiasm is due to the saturation of promo segments that strung together the weekly episodes. Looking back, it is a little astonishing how little the three of these women wrestled leading up to WrestleMania. I understand wanting to sell the animosity between the women, but if nothing else, WWE could have utilized the rest of their women’s roster to face the three of them in the meantime. Shockingly, I think the person that wrestled most was Ronda. There are only so many different ways you can say “I deserve to be in this match and I’m going to kick your ass at WrestleMania.” Two months of that got boring.
That said, I also think we could have gone some weeks without seeing Ronda, Becky, or Charlotte. Again, while I hate comparisons to the men’s roster, take the Universal Title feud for example. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but not having Brock Lesnar appear on RAW every week kept Brock feeling fresh and the feud going until Mania. Not having Brock on TV means that we see Seth in more concise segments, and although you could argue this works against the feud, I think it helps fans build anticipation because we’re left wanting more. If Seth was going to cut a promo on Brock, or Brock was showing up to RAW, you knew it meant something; it wasn’t just done for the heck of it. That’s where I feel the Ronda/Becky/Charlotte story went wrong.
But all of my gripes are ultimately minuscule compared to the larger picture of this match. As we all are well aware by now, this match is the main event of the show. When we look back on the great WrestleMania main events, triple threat matches, and women’s matches in WWE history, people don’t recount the meticulous build it took to get to the matches. You remember the matches themselves. There are obviously exceptions to this, particularly if the build to a certain match was great. But shaky build can be forgiven if the match exceeds expectations. And despite how this match has shaped up in the end (and what was sacrificed to make it as big as it is), I do know that this will be a good match. I don’t have any doubt about that.
Yet, outside of the questionable stipulation that was added to the match in the wake of Charlotte’s championship win, something else makes this “victory” for the women’s division bittersweet.
In short, it is upsetting to know that it took an outsider, a mainstream star, to get the division to this point. Not only that, but the flagbearer of this chapter of the Women’s Evolution is a woman who has shown herself to be socially ignorant at best and downright problematic at worst. Someone who thinks that “The Man” is a literal statement relating to genitalia rather than a metaphorical finger to gender politics in WWE. A woman that slut-shamed Nikki Bella for being in a long-term relationship with John Cena. Basically, a woman that, in the one year she’s been with the company, has proven in many ways to be the antithesis of the very revolution she claims to be progressing merely with her presence.
I suppose this was the point of bringing a star like Ronda in, for this to be the payoff. And it is frustrating that credit must be given to her for leading the women’s division to this position on the card. But this credit is only valid if after WrestleMania, Ronda steps to the side and allows the rest of the women to shine. It is undeniable that there has been a hierarchy of importance within the women’s division since Ronda joined the company. If she does not relinquish her place at the top and reach her hand down to pull WWE’s homegrown female talent up, then what she did was not progress the division, but merely carve out her own space on the Mount Rushmore of women’s history in WWE.
It is not lost on me, either, that this women’s main event is also made possible by whiteness. There is no way that WWE would have allowed a competitor of color in the main event of their biggest show of the year. Can you recall the last WrestleMania where that was the case? (Note: I am excluding Roman Reigns from this statement, as his half-Italian ancestry allows him more proximity to whiteness, in addition to being “white passing” in appearance.)
So while I will probably still find myself choking up as this main event starts, one part of my identity will be questioning when women of color will be given this same opportunity. Until we see an Ember Moon or an Asuka or a Zelina Vega in Ronda or Becky’s position, I will not pat WWE on the back too hard. Female liberation is not achieved when white women reach the same level of prominence, success, and wealth as white men. It is attained when that success is feasible for all women. We’ve gotten this far. Let’s not wait another 20 years to make it happen for black and brown women, too.
Alexa Bliss, Our WrestleMania Host
Image credit: wrestletalk.com
I actually was delighted to see that WWE created a role for Alexa Bliss, who has been in uncertain health for the last several months. Similar to The New Day before her, Alexa has the charisma to carry a very long show. She’s funny and bratty and cunning, and the combination of these traits could make for some entertaining segments, or moments of brevity throughout the pay-per-view. And boy howdy, we’ll need them as long as this card is…
Anyways, Alexa will be a great WrestleMania host if she doesn’t hijack the show. Like a good General Manager, a good WrestleMania host should interject themselves into the show at logical points to energize the crowd (and audience watching at home). But, they should still ultimately allow the matches and the show to speak for itself.
I do wonder what’s next for her after WrestleMania, though. Will she return to the ring? Will she continue to plateau as a talk show host? I am not really sure, but perhaps it will become clear during WrestleMania itself.
It just doesn’t feel like WrestleMania season. The week before the show is almost exhausting as a fan, as there’s so much anticipation and fantasy booking and predictions and rumors flying all over the internet. I am nervous for some of the outcomes of the matches (men’s included — please let Kofi win), but I’m more ready to see where things go.
I’ll be saving up all of my rage tweets for Sunday! Get your snacks and drinks ready friends — we’re in for a slobberknocker!
I’m still on a high, friends. If you are expecting this to be an overly critical, borderline cynical blog post as is the usual with Nylons, you may want to read elsewhere this week.
In this post we’re going to celebrate the triumph that was the WWE Evolution pay-per-view. Let’s get right into it because I want to gush.
First, I’ll address the elephant in the room and say that undoubtedly, this pay-per-view was thrown together at the last minute. WWE Creative procrastinated on the build for this show like a high schooler on a midterm exam that woke up the day of the test and remembered that they needed to study. The battle royal and six-woman tag match contained SO much talent that deserved more, and even a few that could have feasibly had storylines developed with what little they were doing every week — if WWE actually tried.
But alas, that did not happen, and we had the likes of Naomi, Ember Moon, Asuka, Sasha Banks, and Bayley — any combination of which could have easily tore the house down — stuck into throwaway matches. It was very disheartening to see as fans of each of these ladies.
And yet, despite the lack of build, despite people not being hyped for the show going into it, despite all of the odds stacked against these ladies — they still managed to put on one hell of a show for us. Evolution reminded me why I love women so much. Women throughout history have had to make the best of what they were given and find a way to survive and thrive. We are resourceful creatures that consistently overcome adversity with both grace and anger. And when we do, it is almost always for the betterment of society. If men had to put up with the curveballs and criticism that women do just to navigate the world today, well, frankly I don’t think many of them would be woman enough to handle it.
But I digress. On to the show!
I wanted to dedicate a small section of this to some of the small details that made the viewing experience for home audiences wonderful. First, whatever the reason may have been for the smaller stage setup and blacked-out audience, I actually dug it. It made the show feel more intimate, like I was watching a private wrestling event, as silly as that sounds. I felt closer to all of the women in the ring and focused on what they were doing, rather than the sea of faces in the arena.
The production was also excellent. One example of this that really stuck out was when Zelina Vega was in the ring celebrating her battle royal “victory,” the way the camera so closely focused on her. This made the inevitable pan over to Nia breathing over her shoulder all the more hilarious when she was finally revealed. The camera angles were on point for most of the night, following the often frantic pace of the competitors in the ring.
All in all, visually this pay-per-view stands apart from every other show, which will likely make it more memorable in the future.
The only negative thing I have to say about Evolution itself was the perpetual mention of all of the “men who have supported” the evolution of women’s wrestling in WWE. We were cautioned to not forget about the men who “helped” get us here. And to that I say: bullshit. Excuse my swearing. But on this night, of all nights, women didn’t need to be patronized.
Yes, we know the backstage politics of it all. We know that ultimately, men (namely Triple H) had to be the ones to pull the trigger on pushing the women’s division as a whole. But, it is really disingenuous of WWE to forcefully suggest that there were men supporting this “all along.” There’s no way that could be true, because if it was, it wouldn’t have taken this long to get to this point, when there are entire wrestling promotions across the world devoted to women’s wrestling.
Even if there were men who supported pushing the division, for too long, not enough of them did. Too few men in the course of WWE history were willing to speak up or put their necks out there for the women. Not enough men cared enough to say something.
So that was a minor low in what was otherwise a brilliant night of wrestling.
And now, on to the wrestling!
Trish Stratus & Lita vs. Mickie James & Alicia Fox (with Alexa Bliss)
Image credit: hardiacarrest.tumblr.com
Hearing Lillian Garcia’s voice to open the show and then the infamous giggle of Trish’s entrance music transported me back to my childhood. This was a perfect start to the show, getting an already hot crowd ready for what was to come. Much ado has been made online about Alicia Fox replacing Alexa Bliss due to injury. And I won’t lie, they’re valid, especially given Alicia’s glaring pinfall breakup botch.
But, as many fans know and the announcers mentioned, Alicia is the longest-tenured woman on the roster, and regardless of her in-ring ability (which is still on the whole leaps and bounds better than 5 years ago), that feat in itself demands respect. She deserved a spotlight on this pay-per-view. Everything happens for a reason, and perhaps Alexa’s injury came at the right time to give Alicia her shine. And it doesn’t hurt that it also put a woman of color in a marquee match, something that the show definitely lacked.
It was wonderful to see Trish and Lita in the ring again to hit all of their signature moves. It was fabulous to see Trish and Mickie stand eye-to-eye. Although Lita was less fluid than Trish in the ring, both ladies hit their spots and provided the crowd with a nice, feel-good start to the show.
The Battle Royal
I loved that each woman was given her entrance in this match! Battle royals have truly evolved from the days of the women just strolling down the ramp to generic pop or rock music. In doing this, every woman felt special and worthy of our attention. And the pop for each woman was insane. It was shocking and heartwarming all at once and just showed that people truly love each of these women as the individuals they are. I know I was at home singing along with every theme!
Image credit: WWE.com
As I spoke in the beginning about how women have to make the best of often the worst situations, the battle royal was the biggest evidence of this resolve on the show. By now, the women have battle royals down to an exact science. Even if I wanted more for so many of them, they collectively found a way to make the match inventive and give us at least one memorable spot in each. That quadruple vertical suplex spot was incredible!
The women of the past gave way to the present Superstars and I felt that was fitting, considering the name of the pay-per-view. Ivory in particular was so fun to watch, especially during her “dance break” with Carmella.
I enjoyed that the final four women were women of color, because as I mentioned earlier, significant WOC representation was lacking on this show (consider that pretty much all the women of color on the main roster were crammed into this match or the six-woman tag). Like many fans online, I was pulling for Ember, because WWE has absolutely wasted her since calling her up from NXT. She needed this victory the most, perhaps even more than Asuka. But, in the end I am okay with the result if it means that a competitor I like more is spared from being fed to Ronda. In my opinion, I think Ember deserves a first feud better than just Ronda.
Surprisingly good match overall.
Mae Young Classic Finals: Toni Storm vs. Io Shirai
Full disclosure, I did not watch any of the MYC. But, from fanfare about these two wrestlers online, I was fully expecting a technical masterpiece. And it delivered. A lot of people were disappointed with the length of this match, but I honestly did not consider this in my critique in the match until I heard others discuss it online. To me, it isn’t so much the time you’re given as much as what you do with it. This match felt longer than 10 minutes in my mind because I was so gripped by the action.
The bumps and dives these women took deserve applause. I am amazed that they managed to fit in so much offense in 10 minutes. I have no bias toward either performer, but I do hope that Io gets the same opportunities as Toni in the future, even if she isn’t the young, smiley, blonde white woman that WWE historically gives the world to.
Sasha Banks, Bayley, and Natalya vs. The Riott Squad
While it was the match that probably hurt me the most personally as a Sasha Banks fan, this match was still better than expected. I’d really like to give a shout to the Riott Squad in this match. If you need a match to convince you that the Riott Squad is a legitimate faction that can seamlessly communicate and methodically take down opponents, watch this display. Their teamwork is hardly matched across the product, and I enjoyed watching them work their opponents in their corner.
The faces as well were sharp, selling beautifully for the heels and providing exciting comeback sequences. Sasha looked very sharp, but Bayley and Natalya weren’t far behind. Natalya’s double sharpshooter?! Only a Hart would dream up such a thing!
Despite my ultimate approval of the result, at this point I wonder how much longer the Riott Squad can lose and be taken seriously. Even I feel sorry for them at this point. Just let them win something already!
NXT Women’s Championship: Kairi Sane vs. Shayna Baszler
Image credit: wrestlingnews.co
Yikes, guys. This match made me cringe. I’ve not seen a female heel like Shayna Baszler in a long time. A comparison that comes to mind is Jazz (“The bitch is back, and the bitch is black!”). She differs from someone like Becky Lynch in that while Becky is hotheaded and simply wants the spotlight to prove she’s the best, Shayna plays up more of a sadistic heel persona. She seems to simply enjoy punishing her opponents. No fame. No glory. Just…mean. And that is exactly what she was to Kairi in this match.
No credit should be taken from Kairi, though, as she was still brilliant and had some great spots, like that crossbody from the top turnbuckle to the outside. Even if her gimmick does not reflect it, Kairi is a serious competitor when pushed to her mental limits.
But for me, the actual star of this match was Shayna. The way she relentlessly wore down Kairi’s arm throughout the match was hard to watch at points. The image stuck in my mind is when Shayna dangled Kairi by one arm for seconds only to drop her effortlessly was just savage. I am okay with Shayna holding the NXT belt and solidifying her reign down in NXT, while I hope Kairi is called up to the main roster.
Smackdown Women’s Championship: Becky Lynch vs. Charlotte Flair
Intense. Powerful. Spectacular. Never been done before. Just some of the words and phrases I can use to describe the excellence of this match. This is a Match of the Year candidate, without question. It had everything that makes for a classic wrestling bout: storytelling, emotion, build, climax, and an ending that made sense.
Image credit: sportskeeda.com
Outside of the minor hiccups throughout the match, such as a missed moonsault-through-a-table spot and the referee kicking Becky a chair, the magic of it was that fans truly had no idea who would win. Toward the end, I genuinely thought that they would let Charlotte walk away with this win, Flair princess as she is. But she didn’t win. She lost fair and square to Becky, because Becky outsmarted the Queen. She used Charlotte’s own desperation against her to turn a potential moonsault into a powerbomb through a table. And we all cheered Becky’s win, because finally someone was allowed to be better than Charlotte in the end. Finally, Becky was able to prove that she is that damn good.
Go and watch this match if you haven’t. I honestly believe that it will be remembered with the fondness of some WrestleMania matches from decades gone by. And certainly a landmark in the history of women’s wrestling in WWE.
RAW Women’s Championship: Ronda Rousey vs. Nikki Bella
To be honest, I don’t have a ton to say about this match. I understand the need to have the first all-women’s pay-per-view end with a face on top, but we all know what the true main event was.
My feelings about the Bellas and Ronda have been well-documented in Nylons, so I’ll spare you the dissertation and try to focus on the match. It was pretty by-the-numbers, with Ronda selling for much of the match to Nikki only to make a triumphant face comeback to win the match. I’ve seen complaints online about Ronda playing defense too much in this match, but I did not mind this. In fact, I welcomed it.
Image credit: SportzMode.com
Ronda can’t run through her opponents in squash matches forever. That will get old, and fans will turn on her at some point. She has to show vulnerability, especially to a veteran like Nikki who, like it or not, carried much of this match. I thought Nikki looked great here and was a perfect opponent for Ronda at her current skill level (I don’t think she would have looked as good if she faced someone like Asuka, for example). I think fans should be equally concerned about Ronda making more experienced performers look weak as they are about killing whatever “magic” Ronda has with her UFC background by allowing her to sell.
I will say this though: Ronda needs to continue to train. WWE is not UFC. The moves are different. The intent of every strike is different. Ronda can’t continue to snap opponents over her shoulder with such carelessness, even if it looks cool. She needs to learn more than just a few power moves from UFC if she’s going to “earn the respect” of the fans like she claimed she wanted when she originally joined WWE. And most importantly, she needs to do it so she won’t seriously injure any of her opponents in the future.
To wrap things up, I think this match was as good as it could be, given the story and competitors involved. It served it’s purpose, and now we can move on to other feuds.
So where do we go now? Will Evolution continue to be an annual show that grows every year? Will WWE learn from their mistakes this year and start the build for the pay-per-view earlier next year?
After the sun set on Evolution, one thing has become clear: WWE have an incredibly talented roster of women on their hands. They deserve every ounce of energy the writers can give them every week. The stakes are higher than ever now. WWE needs to prove that the women matter 365 days a year, not just on a single night when they deem them worthy. As Alundra Blayze said, “Evolution is a moving word.” So let us keep moving.
Hello good wrestling fans. I come to you with devastating news this week. After attempting to watch Extreme Rules yesterday — as I am wont to do using my brother-in-law’s account — I was given an error message upon trying to stream the pay-per-view, telling me that I needed a subscription to continue.
The heartbreak was real, friends, for me and my wallet. WWE figured out the madness behind people sharing streaming accounts. I was forced to subscribe to the network using my own email and payment information. I am recovering, but my innocence has truly been lost. Thanks, WWE. I hope you’re proud of what you’ve done.
In all seriousness, while it is annoying I now have to pay for a subscription, I can’t deny that it will pay for itself in time, or that I won’t use it. Plus, I have a feeling that sometime in the future, WWE will move away from PPV altogether, and the future will lie with the network and streaming.
Anyways, let’s crack on with the nylons and the midriffs. As usual, I’ll divide things between TV programs and the pay-per-view.
Photo cred: WWE.com
RAW and SD Live: Sadly I don’t have much for this section this week, but I will take time to comment on the matches between Ember Moon and Liv Morgan. Despite the fact that this pairing was likely thrown together willy nilly, the two put on solid matches on two separate RAW shows. I like that these two were given exposure on pretty dense shows, and both women looked good. Even if Liv lost both matches, to me, she looked strong in defeat, and Ember got to keep her momentum still being fresh to the main roster. For Liv in particular, it was good that she was given the spotlight to show off her wrestling skills, as backup members of any faction can easily be forgotten as legitimate threats between the ropes as well as outside of them. Nicely done.
Extreme Rules: None. Absolutely none.
The Bad RAW and SD Live: Here’s the thing: the weeks leading up to Extreme Rules were just plain bad for the women’s division. The buildup to both women’s title matches sucked, and other women’s segments were either pointless or nonexistent. And so much of what we did see was confusing with a lot of plot holes.
On the RAW side, we have the ongoing saga of Alexa Bliss and Nia Jax, with Natalya and Ronda Rousey as odd third and fourth wheels. I have so many questions:
As mentioned in previous posts, why is Nia a face now when she was acting very heelish only a month or so ago? Is it because they’re both on Total Divas?
Why are Nia and Natalya friends? Is it just because RAW is short stacked for face women to put in tag matches?
Why is Nia being positioned simply as a placeholder for Ronda?
The mystery of Ronda is intriguing, but it becomes apparent every week in her absence that WWE just cannot write logical women’s segments or storylines. And that’s sad because 95% of their women’s roster is, you know, not Ronda Rousey.
And don’t even get me started on the Smackdown women’s division. James Ellsworth and Carmella are almost unwatchable to me at this point with how badly they are written and how sloppily both performers execute the material they are given. And poor Asuka…
Extreme Rules: …who deserves so much more than what she gets week in and week out. She continually is made to look like an imbecile by people who are cartoonish heels at this point. That match with Carmella was awful and you will not convince me otherwise. The booking, the pace, the execution, all of it. It’s matches like that that caused fans three years ago to cry out #GiveDivasAChance. How soon WWE forgets.
Image credit: 411mania.com
I don’t really have anything to say about the RAW women’s title match. I was indifferent to it, but I will say that it was predictable as all get out, especially since we’ve seen the face/heel dynamic between Alexa and Nia so much already at this point. The Ronda interference was fun, but I think it was poorly placed. She should have come out after Alexa’s win to assert herself as her new challenger. Interfering during the match itself felt trigger happy. It would have been more satisfactory if Alexa ate the punishment at the end rather than Mickie in the middle of the match.
The Thorny RAW and SD Live: And we’re back to the Tale of the Never-Ending Feud between Sasha Banks and Bayley. I can’t believe I, along with other fansm really thought WWE had gotten it together a few weeks ago with that Bayley “heel turn.” There’s first the issue that Bayley was told by General Manager Kurt Angle that she needed to go to counseling to keep her job, on the very same RAW that Braun Strowman turned over Kevin Owens’ car and laughed about it. Not only was this the wrong move to make storyline-wise — because segments like these typically only work if they are comedy acts — but it also was very gendered.
Image credit: WWE’s YouTube
We do not threaten men’s jobs because they can’t get along with their cohorts. The fact that these women are being asked to essentially perform emotional labor to resolve their issues screams sexism. Men aren’t put in these kinds of segments, and if they are (a la, Team Hell No), we are supposed to laugh at it. And to top it all off, nothing even came of it!
This feud exposes a glaring problem in WWE’s women’s division. It once again proves that WWE is incapable of creating worthwhile storylines between women that don’t involve the title. Here we have two insanely talented Superstars that, lest we not forget, had Match of the Year in NXT and Pro Wrestling Illustrated in 2015 because of their NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn title match, the first time for either that a women’s match had achieved that feat. If any two women could carry a feud without a title, it would be these two.
GIF credit: diva-dirt.com
But WWE is wasting them, because to focus on more than two feuds at one time in the women’s division is too difficult. We are able to create slow-burning non-title feuds with the men. Four matches at Extreme Rules were men’s non-title matches. Why, why can’t we do this for the women?
Extreme Rules: I don’t have anything yet, but only time will tell if the results will have long-standing implications.
That’s it, folks. Now we build to SummerSlam, and I’m hoping some marquee matches start to show themselves soon, because the division sorely needs it.
It began as anyone may have expected it would, with two solid workers from WWE’s women’s division, Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch, getting the crowd hot for the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble. Both competitors are two of the most memorable women to ever step foot in a ring, with Banks as the biracial, purple-haired cousin of a rap star and Lynch the roughhousing siren with a thick Irish accent. This was as fitting a start as the current women’s roster deserved, especially considering the plurality of women who would follow in succession to the ring after the first bell rang.
On paper, the list of entrants reads like a checklist of diversity. There were women of color as well as women over 30, 40, and 50. There were mothers, old and new, women who are married, women that remain single. There were plus-size and fat women, visibly tattooed women, and even one gay woman. In many ways, the women’s Royal Rumble was more inclusive than the men’s roster ever has been. WWE even allowed an Asian woman — a vastly underrepresented, if not stereotyped, group — to win the Rumble. It seems the brand is becoming less and less afraid to roll with the tides of changing times.
The beauty of the women’s Rumble is one that male fans can only appreciate in the most basic sense. Because it was the first installment, it was a celebration and homage to where the women’s division has been over the last 20 years, where it is, and where it could be going. This was evidenced by the large number of nostalgia entrants, ranging from forever faves like Trish and Lita to beloved athletes like Molly Holly and Beth Phoenix.
Thoughtful recognition of these female legends took form in the fact that more than a third of the eliminations in the match came from women not currently active on WWE’s main or NXT rosters. While usually a tactic that is bemoaned when done on the men’s side, in the women’s Rumble it worked because we can be pretty assured that none of the women who appeared from the past are slated for full-time returns anytime soon. It was all in good, lighthearted fun, and a metaphorical way to say, We see the road you paved for us; you get a piece of this pie, too. As a woman who grew up watching each of these Superstars in their own ways make the best of what they were given, the place of nostalgia in this match was more than heartwarming.
Regardless of the era that each woman represented, one of the better, lesser discussed aspects of the match was the ways in which the women let each other shine. While the match did lag in parts (with the women doing the equivalent of twiddling their thumbs trying to find opponents to pummel), these slower moments allowed almost every woman in the match to get some visibility. We were able to see most of the entrants’ finishers or face-offs with old rivals plain as day, and it felt that this was a calculated move by all of the women.
In addition, because of the magnitude of the match, it was one of the first times we were given the opportunity to see how truly unique the characters these women have crafted are from one another. From Kairi Sane to Ember Moon to Carmella to Bayley, there are few women on the roster with identical gimmicks. With increased visibility, standout personas, and a spectrum of female identities, this match was easily the most feminist WWE has ever been with its product, and it wasn’t because Stephanie McMahon was on commentary shoving “history” down our throats. When it comes down to it, feminism is more about doing than saying.
Taking this further, the women’s Royal Rumble had all of the same things that the men’s did. Storytelling, fan-service face-offs, comedy, surprise returns, suspense, and feel good moments. Yet, the women’s Rumble still had a different feel to it, instead of a copy-paste vibe that women’s segments often have. The match felt fresh, and as long as WWE is interested in telling different stories with the women, it has the potential to grow into something out of the men’s division’s shadow.
Feminism, in the nuanced sense, is about acknowledging the foremothers who have laid the groundwork for the present, and uplifting other women to create a better future for all women inclusive of race, gender identity, sexuality, and religion. This often takes the form of women trying to achieve the same social and political freedoms as men by subverting structures that have created power imbalances. This is where Ronda Rousey complicates the Rumble’s progressiveness.
With Rousey interrupting Asuka’s moment at the end of the pay-per-view, we were are snapped back to reality. WWE is a product to be sold, and the company needs to make a profit. Rousey is a gold credit card to the McMahons and Rousey knows that she is viewed as such, and therefore expects to be compensated accordingly. Just as the men have a (white) UFC fighter who occasionally wrestles to collect a giant paycheck and “legitimize” the product, so now do the women. Only in this case, the added stinger is that Rousey isn’t even a homegrown WWE talent. Is this the “equality” the women were striving for?
As one Twitter user put it, Rousey’s appearance at the end of the Rumble (arguably dulling the shine of a woman of color’s moment) in many ways felt like a white feminist statement unto itself. Even though she has signed a full-time contract and swears up and down that she’s not in it for the money, fans can assume that eventually her ego will grow with her paychecks.
Capitalism is the name of the game, and WWE’s biggest stars know this all too well. Feminism cannot thrive if money is the motivation for the people who have the most power, even if those people happen to be women, too. True solidarity comes from advocating for your sisters to get to your spot rather than ascending to comparable power as your male counterparts.
Some have made the argument that Rousey’s star power will bring greater exposure to the women’s division to casual fans, thus elevating it. There is room for that argument, and it may prove to be true. But, it still can’t be denied that if it weren’t for the women who put in the work for decades, Rousey would have never been in a position to “elevate” any division. It is even more metaphoric that only after 30 women fought in a ring for almost an hour did Rousey made her entrance. The work was already done; she was only there to steal the glory.
However, my hope for the division lies in the fact that despite all of the rumors and buzz that Rousey would be in the Rumble — she wasn’t. For once, WWE trusted the women on their roster and the legends that came before them to put on a good show with enough time to do so. The women were able to pull it off without a big mainstream athlete. They did that. If WWE doesn’t fall victim to the same fallacies of the men’s division with the women and actually allow their fantastic roster to shine, they can revolutionize not only women’s wrestling, but wrestling in general, for the better.
From far and wide
And light years away
The one force of nature they call by name
Fallen idols, scream yesterday
Cast from the shadows
Now light my way[…]
I came from tomorrow to take back today
I am the future.
Allyssa Capri is a Chicago-based writer and pop culture critic. You can read more of her pop culture critiques and analyses on her blog. Or, you can follow her on Twitter for cultural hot takes and random thoughts at @allyssacapri.
Featured Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/royalrumble/2018/article/5-best-moments-2018-womens-royal-rumble-match
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you missed Part One of this SummerSlam two-parter, you’re welcome to go back and review it. In it, I discuss my pre-SummerSlam preparations, including my reengagement with WWE after many years away. Part Two, which you’re reading right now, is my actual SummerSlam review.
Let me preface Part Two by saying that for someone who hasn’t really watched the WWF/E since the late 1990s, four hours of SummerSlam was a long haul. It didn’t feel like four hours – more like two and a half. But still. That was a lot. I was exhausted by the end…and all I was doing was watching TV, taking notes, and drinking bourbon!
Part Two: SummerSlam Review
The college professor in me wants this review to be more like an evaluation of a course assignment – something I can dissect, appraise, and assign a grade. To grade effectively, however, I need a well-conceived grading rubric – and I mean that sincerely. I used to think grading rubrics were administrative busy work: useless for actual teaching, but appeasing to menacing accrediting agencies nonetheless. I’ve come a full 180 on grading rubrics, however. I now think they are indispensable pedagogical tools; I can’t bring myself to grade a course assignment without one.
My problem is this: As much as I want to create a grading rubric for professional wrestling matches in order to give my evaluation of SummerSlam some teeth, it takes me forever to put a good rubric together – and I want to get this published ASAP. It’s already at least a couple days too late.
So what I’m going to do here is something I’d never do in an actual college course: I’m going to assign grades to each match without a rubric. I will, however, provide detailed comments to support the grade. If you read Part One of this two-parter, you’ll remember the distinct evaluative lens I’ll be applying (in descending order of importance: Golden Age nostalgia, Canadian content, and indie feel). Also, if you read Part One, you know that I’m not really up to speed on any of the current storylines in Raw or SmackDown. All I know is what the short SummerSlam video introductions showed me before each match.
The night of my indie wrestling debut, Eric “The Answer” Anton, veteran of the South Carolina’s indie circuit, told me that the first match on the card is the most important one. (I was in the third match, so no pressure on me.) Why? It sets the pace for everything that follows. If the first match is flat, the crowd is flat, and the show is primed to be awful. If the first match gets a big pop, the crowd is amped, and chances are the show will be great.
By Anton’s standard, SummerSlam is going to be meh. If that proves to be the case, holy crap am I going to need a lot of bourbon to get me through the entire four hours!
SummerSlam didn’t start completely terribly, though. As the camera panned over the crowd before the wrestlers were announced, I saw one fan holding up a Swedish flag. “Is he celebrating Henrik Stenson’s just completed victory at the Wyndam Championship?”, I ask myself. Who knew there was PGA-WWE crossover appeal?
Or maybe the Swedish flag fan is a WWE plant – a subtle nod to the internationalism that would become so explicit later in the show.
But then John Cena is announced and SummerSlam takes a turn for the worse. There he is, rocking the trucker cap and jorts. I mentioned in Part One that I’m with the “Cena sucks” crowd. (But give him his due: his entrance music is pretty cool.)
His opponent is Baron Corbin; he looks like The Undertaker’s kid brother, and he grunts his way around the ring à la “Iron” Mike Sharpe. I’m firmly on team Corbin here, but this match is slow. I mean, the opening sequence is a super long headlock! Old school, for sure; but back in the day, the long headlock sequence was for the wrestlers to get a blow after an action-packed sequence. This match started with a long headlock! Ugh.
Beyond the opening headlock, and Corbin ducking around the ring post several times, I honestly can’t remember anything about this match. Here’s what it says in my notes: “18 finishing moves.” I guess there were a series of finishing moves, all of which, save the last, failed to actually finish the opponent – something that drives the old timers who work the southern indie circuit crazy.
What was good about this match? The Swedish flag (I’ll count it as part of this match, just to boost the grade), Cena’s entrance music, and Corbin’s Undertaker-esque look and “Iron” Mike-esque grunting.
Match #2: Natalya vs. Naomi for the SmackDown Women’s Championship
Natalya: Daughter of Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart and Ellie Hart, who, herself, is the daughter of Stu Hart, which makes Natalya…are you with me?…the niece of Canadian legend, Bret “The Hitman” Hart, and therefore, 100% bona fide Canadian wrestling royalty. When she comes to the ring, she’s rocking her dad’s and uncle’s black and pink colours (yes coloUrs — we’re talking about Canada here), and there’s a huge maple leaf projected on both the ramp and the video board! I just wish she’d wear those old-school Hitman shades.
This is a strong beginning; I’ve already forgotten about Cena.
Now it’s Naomi’s entrance…and it’s an awesome explosion of glow-in-the-dark technicolor. She’s killing it as she rocks her way to the ring.
The action begins. One minute in, and the match is already way better than the opener.
Things I love about it:
Great sequences and pace.
Natalya repeatedly barking at the ref, “Do your job!!!” (very old-school).
Small package, abdominal stretch, and not one, but two sharpshooters: old-school moves they work seamlessly into the action.
A fantastic counter to the first sharpshooter.
Naomi losing the match and weeping real tears.
Let me just say that women’s wrestling has come a lo-o-o-ng way since the days of Wendy Richter! By Eric “The Answer” Anton’s standard, this should have been match #1. SummerSlam, you just might redeem yourself from that John Cena debacle.
Match #3: Big Cass vs. Big Show…
…with Enzo Amore suspended in a shark cage above the ring.
Wait…what? Why the hell would he be suspended in a shark cage above the ring? The video intro tells me that Enzo and Big Show are sticking up for each other, but what does a shark cage have to do with that? This is failing the storytelling sniff test.
I do admit it, though: I’m a little intrigued by this shark cage. A completely nonsensical prop must have a purpose later in the match. I’m ready for shenanigans.
Enzo makes his entrance, and now he’s in the ring, and he’s talking and talking…and talking.
This is reminding me of the endless talking whenever I periodically check in with Raw or SmackDown. Match #3, you are losing some serious points here.
Now about the actual match: why in the world does anyone need to see another giant vs. giant battle? I watched that too many times back the 1980s with the rivalry between André the Giant and Big John Studd. In my memory, every match is the same thing: two gigantic men lumbering around the ring. That’s it. Someone would get a pin, but I don’t remember how. Because all they’d do is lumber around the ring.
And now here’s Big Show lumbering around the ring, unable to throw that “lethal” right hand due to injury. This match is awful.
Here’s the one positive: Booker T is seriously trying to sell the match. If I closed my eyes and only listened to him, I’d be seeing an epic battle.
The problem is, I’m listening with my eyes open, as one does when one pays to watch SummerSlam (or, in my case, signs up for the free WWE Network trial).
This is seriously boring.
Remember the shark cage, a little voice in the back of my head reminds me. Something seriously awesome is going to happen with that cage. The only reason they put Enzo up there in a cage is because they know everyone would be lulled to sleep by a giant versus giant matchup. The shark cage will save this match!
You’re right, voice in my head, the cage will turn this snooze fest into something glorious.
Oh, look there! Enzo is lubing himself up and squeezing through a gap in the bars. I’m digging the lube shtick. Shark cage mayhem: commence!
Wait…why is Enzo merely lowering himself gingerly into the ring? Where’s the crazy 15-foot high superfly splash? Why’s he not prying a bar off the cage and bashing Cass with it?
You mean he’s just going to drop into the ring and get booted in the head? That’s the whole shtick?
And then Cass finishes Big Show with his atomic elbow, the second worst finisher in the history of professional wrestling history (as declared in Part One).
This, truly, is a match worthy of another lumbering giant, The Great Khali.
Match #4: Randy Orton vs. Rusev
You’re digging yourself a serious hole here, SummerSlam. You better give me something good or I may turn you off and fire up that “Top Ten Comebacks” video again (see Part One).
SummerSlam must have heard me because out walks Randy Orton — son of Cowboy Bob, nephew of Barry O, grandson of Bob Orton Sr — and I feel of rush of Golden Age nostalgia. His opponent is Nikolai Volkoff…I mean Boris Zhukov…I mean Nikita Koloff…I mean Rusev.
This is already a better match than the giant vs. giant + shark cage abomination, and Rusev hasn’t yet made his entrance.
And he’s not going to! Rusev attacks Orton from behind before the latter has even finished his entrance – a fantastic heel move! Bravo, good sir! You honor well your Russian wrestling predecessors (even the ones who are Canadian).
The match officially begins…and it’s over in like 15 seconds! Orton catches Rusev in the RKO, and RKO equals one, two, three!
But I can’t give the match an ‘A’ for two reasons:
A 15-second squash match is delightful, but this is SummerSlam. How about taking it really old-school and giving me a double clothesline, double count-out, (double) squash?
A truly old-school match involving a Russian menace absolutely requires a real American hero to oppose him. I mean, a Corporal-Kirchner-Seargeant-Slaughter-Hacksaw-Jim-Duggan-Hulk-Hogan American hero. Randy Orton just doesn’t cut it here: there’s no American flag, there’s no patriotic outfit, there are no chants of “U.S.A! U.S.A!”
Where’s the jingoism, SummerSlam? Maybe you’re saving it for Jinder Mahal. But Rusev is a Russian wrestler in the age of Russian election meddling, Crimea annexing, American diplomat expelling, and Trump campaign colluding!
Oh wait. That’s the reason right there: Linda McMahon gave $6 million to a pro-Trump super-PAC and Trump picked her to lead the Small Business Administration. Vince has to mute the anti-Russia sentiment.
Despite these minor shortcomings, this match seriously appealed to my Golden Age wrestling sensibility.
Match #5: Sasha Banks vs. Alexa Bliss for the Raw Women’s Championship
SummerSlam’s been pretty up and down thus far, but the earlier Natalya-Naomi gem gives me high hopes for the second women’s bout.
As I watch both women come to the ring, here are my initial impressions:
On the positive side, Banks and Bliss are all-in with the Naomi-esque explosion of technicolor.
On the negative side, that’s where the flair ends; neither has an entrance as visually compelling or energetic as Naomi’s.
On the plus side, Bliss is physically small – and this totally reminds me of small town indie wrestling in the South, where some 5’3 guy weighing a buck fifteen will bill himself as “The Destroyer” or “The Crusher.”
On the negative side, Banks and Bliss both suffer from a lack of Canadian wrestling lineage – but I’ll try not to hold that against them.
The match itself is respectable, with good pace and good selling on both sides. Let me say again how far the woman’s side has come since the days of Wendy Richter. But the match is lacking something, and I’m not sure what that something is. Maybe a big spot or outside interference from a resentful Bayley — or even Enzo to giving it another go with the shark cage gag (but this time doing it properly, with shenanigans). The match needs something to make it sing. The longer it goes, the more one-note it feels. And the crowd is really quiet. As they cut to the ringside camera, I see a fan in the front row give a full-body yawn.
That’s sort of what I’m feeling too.
Match #6: Bray Wyatt vs. Finn Balor
Even though I’ve only been half paying attention to the WWE for many years, I’ve been a Bray Wyatt fan since his Wyatt Family Raw debut, semi-following him from a distance. Why? Well, as someone who both teaches an upper-level seminar on new religious movements (aka “cults”) and researches southern culture and southern religion, Bray Wyatt’s deranged, southern backwater cult-leader gimmick appeals to me on multiple levels. Moreover, he currently has the sweetest, most well-conceived entrance: he’s just a creepy dude walking slowly through the nightime southern bog, his kerosene lantern lighting his way, with a laid-back, liquid groove accompanying his saunter.
Wyatt, no doubt, is breathing fresh life into the southern gimmick; we’ve had the hillbilly families, the country music loudmouths, and the inbred simpletons. Now we have a creepy, charismatic bayou cult leader.
Even better, this bayou cult leader has a serious Golden Age lineage: his grandad is Blackjack Mulligan, his dad is Mike Rotunda, and his uncle is Barry Wyndham.
To recap: Bray Wyatt appeals to my teaching interests, my research interests, and my Golden Age nostalgia.
On the other hand, prior to his entrance, I honestly have no idea what or who a Finn Balor is – is he some kind of half man, half bluefin tuna? Sort of like an Arachnaman, but updated for the 21st century?
Evidently not. Finn Balor’s entrance music begins…and…what’s this? He’s swiping Bray Wyatt’s old entrance music – that menacing version of the classic spiritual, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”! But who does the “He” refer to in this scenario? Can’t be Jesus because Bray Wyatt is a creepy cult leader. But it can’t be Wyatt either because Finn Balor has stolen the song. “He” must be Finn Balor…whatever a Finn Balor is.
OMG! Finn Balor isn’t Arachnaman…he’s The KISS Demon! And he’s got a sweet, super-creepy entrance too! Lots of devilish smoke, lots of demonic poses, lots of hellish red floodlight. I mean, Finn Balor is like the entire Dungeon of Doom rolled into one, but with kick ass special effects…and proper grammar!
Finn Balor, you may not be Bray Wyatt good, but you’ve got a hell of a gimmick!
I love this classic creepy vs. creepy contest, and though I’ve only seen the entrances, I’m giving it an ‘A.’
Since I already know the grade, I’m not going to say much about the actual ring action. Suffice it to say, I loved it. The commentators are on point (“Behold, the demon king!” “Bray believes he’s a god,” etc.). The storytelling works (demon gets into the cult leader’s head). The finish is Golden Age goofy (Bray’s foiled upside-down spider crawl).
And, speaking as someone with a teeny, tiny amount of in-ring cred, Bray Wyatt takes a pretty, pretty bump (and how could he not, with that Golden Age lineage?).
Match #7: Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins vs. Sheamus and Cesaro for the Raw Tag Team belts
I got too excited about the previous match. I’m not sure I have anything left.
The entrances are so-so: Cesaro and Sheamus are trying too hard with that self-pointy pose, while Rollins and Ambrose…I don’t even remember what they did. All my notes say is “at least they got to the ring fast.”
There was a lot in this match I enjoyed:
Super believable European upper cuts (since they were delivered by a bona fide European).
Cesaro jumping into the crowd to snatch away the distracting beach ball – total old-school heel move.
Really nicely paced, exciting tag team action – we’ll call it U.S.-Express-worthy (since Bray Wyatt is still on my mind).
Rollins with one of the best hurricanranas I’ve ever seen.
And a perfectly constructed finishing sequence that exploded in cathartic release.
Match #8: AJ Styles vs. Kevin Owens for the United States Championship
In the days leading up to SummerSlam, I was looking forward this match because it featured two wrestlers I enjoyed very much during their Ring of Honor days, before they both made it big in the WWE. I also happened to catch some of the Shane McMahon backstory on SmackDown earlier in the week, so I was primed for some referee shenanigans. (And I love me some shenanigans!)
And lastly, Kevin Owens/Steen is Canadian, so the match has that going for it too.
Shane O Mac, however, steals the entrance thunder with his endearingly awkward white-boy shuffle. It’s good to know that Shane inherited his dad’s strutting “skills.”
The match starts slow, and I’m getting worried. Maybe my memory of Styles and Steen in their Ring of Honor days is skewed; maybe I’ve built them up to be more than they actually are.
Wrong. They’re just building the match slowly, constructing a story that picks up pace as it moves along, until it reaches a fevered pitch at the end. Everything about the match makes sense. As it progresses, the bumps go from small to big; the sequences go from simple to intricate; the special ref goes from barely noticeable to center stage. And everybody is selling hard, most especially Shane, who’s doing a fantastic old-school bumbling ref routine (though I don’t remember any of those refs having Shane’s muscles).
The Kevin Owens resentment angle comes sharply into focus as the match nears the climax. There’s a furious back and forth exchange, a couple huge bumps, and a delightful faux three count with AJ’s foot on the bottom rope. Owens gets in Shane’s face; AJ takes advantage. One, two, three.
This is a master performance in ring psychology; the old timers of the southern indies would approve.
And so do I.
Match #9: Jinder Mahal vs. Shinsuke Nakamura for the WWE Championship
The only match I was looking forward to more than Styles-Owens was this one. Why? I’m seriously intrigued by the international vs. international implications. More than any other match, this one has the potential to tap into both the current populist political moment of Trump-inspired anti-internationalism, nativism, and flat out racism, and the vocal anti-Trump countermovement that has risen in response. I’m also very interested to see how the WWE, with its McMahon-Trump connections, balances the administration’s America-first protectionism with company’s very obvious globalist aspirations. After all, as the commentators repeatedly remind us, this is all about India’s 1.2 billion potential paying customers.
Since, earlier in the show, we’ve already heard from each of the SummerSlam non-English-language broadcast teams – Russian, Spanish, French, Japanese, Mandarin, Russian, and Hindi – it appears that the globalism argument is winning.
But then Jinder Mahal makes his entrance, and a faint nativist stink begins to waft through the crowd, as it evidently has in some of his previous matches. Were this the 1980s, however, Mahal and the Singh brothers would have come to the ring in over-the-top Orientalist garb, flubbing their way through a Bollywood dance parody. They’d be goofy heels unaware of their goofiness, which, of course, would make me love them, but would make the crowd erupt in jingoistic refrain: U-S-A! U-S-A!
But this is not the 1980s when Vince’s goal was to appeal to the white American middle class; this is the 2010s, and Vince has his sights on India. Mahal, therefore, can’t be an offensive cartoon foreigner – an Indian Kamala, if you will – without alienating his target crowd. But nor can Mahal be a straightforward face because in America’s current cultural climate, any brown-skinned person is a possible Muslim terrorist. Especially one who wears a turban on his head.
So Mahal has to be a heel, but not a parody. Give him a turban, but dress the Singhs in business attire. Let him snarl his way to the ring without the faux-Bollywood goofiness.
Everyone boos but the mood doesn’t descend into rank nativism. One thing — or rather, one person — prevents this from happening: Shinsuke Nakamura, who has already made his astounding entrance before Mahal made his. Nakamura is just as foreign as Mahal is, and his gimmick is arguably less red-blooded-American than Mahal’s – but the crowd loves him (and so do I). His entrance is classical violin and modern dance. It is performance art and it is stunning.
So, instead of a 1980s-style jingoism, we get a straightforward match between a baby and a heel, both of whom happen to be international. One gets a pop; the other gets heat. Old-school-style.
There are two more things I like about this match, even before it gets underway. First, as the SmackDown commentators mention, Jinder Mahal was featured in The New York Times Arts section a couple days earlier – and the Times is my jam. Second, Jinder Mahal is Canadian, not Indian (don’t tell Vince’s 1.2 billion Indians).
Now, about the actual match: It was pretty awful, though I did enjoy the old-school interference from the Singh brothers.
There’s so much potential in this Mahal-Nakamura feud; I hope, in the future, they get it together in the ring. My fear is that Mahal isn’t the champion-caliber worker that Vince needs him to be for the sake of his 1.2 billion potential customers.
To me, this match is a like student’s final paper that has a kernel of brilliance in it, but just doesn’t come together. It has the potential to be excellent, but it needs three or four more drafts to get there.
In this case, however, the grade gets a bump of a half grade due to the sneaky Canadian content.
Match #10: Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns vs. Braun Strowman vs. Samoa Joe in a Fatal 4-Way for the Universal Championship
It’s a big guy vs. big guy vs. big guy vs. big guy contest — and these four big guys, unlike the earlier giants, really have some pace. They are surprisingly quick and agile…and fantastically destructive!
The carnage outside the ring is what I love: Lesnar speared through the barricade; three broadcast tables destroyed; metal stairs wielded like steel chairs in the hands of lesser wrestlers.
And then there’s the stretcher, and the 15 gratuitous referees and 15 gratuitous EMTs and 15 gratuitous guys in suits overseeing the removal of the fallen Conqueror. I love it!
The crowd erupts in chants of “This is awesome” [clap-clap-clapclapclap] — and I completely agree.
Braun Strowman is an absolute star. I loved him in The Wyatt Family, with his creepy black sheep mask; I love him even more now that he’s on his own, tossing Brock Lesnar around like a ragdoll.
When the action moves back inside the ring, however, the match loses some momentum. All the competitors become a little one-note: Roman Reigns has his superman punch on repeat; Samoa Joe has his modified sleeper on repeat; Brock Lesnar already had his German suplex on repeat (before the outside-the-ring carnage); even Braun Strowman seems to have his powerslam stuck on repeat.
And now, a couple days and lots of typing later, I can’t even remember the finish.
Ten minutes in, this was the best match of SummerSlam. 20 minutes later, it’s still good but no one’s chanting “This is awesome” anymore.
Then again, Brock Lesnar is half Canadian, so this match gets a small grade bump.
Ten matches and ten grades: SummerSlam’s cumulative grade point average is 2.87.
Good enough to graduate, but not to go to grad school.
A couple loose ends from Part One need to be tied up before I sign off. First, after my long absence from the WWF/E, was SummerSlam enough to get me back in the fold, or do I head back to the small-time world of the southern indie circuit, SummerSlam but a tiny reflection in my rearview mirror? Second, regardless of the answer to the first, do I cancel the WWE Network before my free trial ends as I initially planned, or do I keep it and enjoy its wealth of “Top Ten” videos and old Golden Age matches?
The first one’s pretty easy to answer. I’m definitely heading back to the indies, but SummerSlam did enough to make me want to check back in with the WWE periodically (Wrestlemania, for sure, probably also Survivor Series and Royal Rumble).
As for the WWE Network, impressive as the catalogue of “Iron” Mike Sharpe matches is, I’m just not sure the vault — or the collection of “Top Ten” videos — is worth my $9.99 per month.
Then again, a have a few weeks left on my free trial. I have a feeling it won’t take much to change my mind. After all, I haven’t yet searched for George “The Animal” Steele matches!
Bonus Ranking of SummerSlam Entrances
I love a good entrance, so, in honor of Bill Simmonds, author of my favorite article on entrances, and his colleague, “The Masked Man” David Shoemaker, and their once glorious but now defunct website, Grantland.com, here is my official ranking of SummerSlam entrances:
Natalya (the Canadian content is just too high for her to rank any lower)
Shane O Mac
Jinder Mahal (the Singh brothers elevate it)
Rusev (since he didn’t waste my time with a crappy entrance)
Everyone else…except for:
John Cena, who, even though he has great entrance music, is still John Cena.
August 24 update: The video below just popped up in my Facebook feed. I think I’ve just become a John Cena mark.