WrestleMania 34 Rhetorical Recap: Golden Spotlights, Crimson Masks, and the (Unconscious) Race Politics of Smarks

Audience Studies, Scholarly Wrestling Reviews, Works-In-Process
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Image credit: https://www.f4wonline.com/sites/www.f4wonline.com/files/maniatoday.jpg

Throughout the year, the Professional Wrestling Studies Association has offered a range of event coverage for WWE Pay Per Views as well as a host of vintage and indie shows and performers. Our goal is to cultivate an exclusive space for creative and scholarly writing, from close readings and fan perspectives. WrestleMania 34 offers the first WrestleMania since the official launch of PWSA, and with that, the goal for this Rhetorical Recap is to explore the final convergence of many years’ long narratives. Having covered each of WWE’s “Big Four” Pay Per Views starting with last year’s Summer Slam, the focus of this coverage will be to explore how long-form wrestling narratives come to a head—in success and failure—with some culminating stories years in the making and others impromptu due to unforeseen circumstances like injury, industry, or opportunity. Thus, with the cumulative event, this WrestleMania 34 rhetorical recap will emphasize arc over in-ring minutia, and aesthetic spectacle over a chronological review.

EDITOR’S NOTE: All unidentified images come from the WWE’s online gallery collection.

Preshow Highlights: The WrestleMania 34 preshow has evolved in recent years, stretching from a nominal hour to an hour and a half, only to extend well into a two-hour infomercial sprinkled with a couple of minor memorable moments. The majority of the preshow runs with Renee Young hosting a rotating roundtable of commentators, mostly to hype the main card events and provide bumpers to the video packages that have already aired on RAW, SmackDown, NXT: Takeover, and will air again prior to each key event. For this reason, it is highly recommendable that viewers skip or strategically skim the pre-show after it airs so as to fast-forward past the 75-80% of integrated marketing filler.

The two noteworthy moments of this year’s preshow included fan-favorite “Woken” Matt Hardy winning the “Fourth Annual Andre the Giant Memorial Rumble” with an assist from (Woken?) Bray Wyatt, as well as a predictable yet interesting showdown between Sasha Banks and Bailey in the first ever Women’s Battle Royale. The two best frenemies worked together on the final eliminations before Bailey pulled a fast one by chucking out Sasha from behind. However, this proved to be short-term glory, as Naomi happened to re-emerge still an eligible member. These curious conclusions marked the beginning of an interesting trend that continued in WrestleMania 34: dangling plot threads rather than the typical bowtie story-arc endings.

Show Open: The main card show kicks off a traditional combination of video package and national anthem. The national anthem is performed by a younger duo in arguably a quieter rendition than, say, the Super Bowls that cap with jets screeching overhead. But over the heads of the female duet rests a pagan tower of an entrance stage. The entrance stage and ramp over the last four years fit the definition of hyperreal. They are behemoths as if Greek and Roman titans will soon descend from behind the black curtain of smoke and pyrotechnics. The New Orleans Mardi gras color palette plays a central role, but the high definition LED lighting seemingly elevates these colors to the 4K-resolution era.

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First Match: The opening card aims to kick the show off in style with the Intercontinental Championship Triple Threat Match between “The Kingslayer” Seth Rollins, current IC champion The Miz, and the first WrestleMania appearance for Voodoo-esque Finn Balor (sans Voodoo-esque Demon persona). Rollins enters with what seems like a Game of Thrones combination of King of the North meets The Night King theme, complete with ice-tinged contact lenses. The Miz entered with a garish steampunk court jester wardrobe but soon shed his Miztourage atop the entrance ramp. With a newborn child part of his transmedia narrative that stretches across WWE kayfabe, E! Network’s Total Divas, and a new USA Network reality show, the breadcrumbs represent either continuous false finish babyface teases or an authentic turn (to coincide with the press run for the reality series) or the likely signal that his reign will end tonight. Finn Balor enters with yet another set of new tiny trunks; this time sporting an LGBTQ-friendly rainbow pattern for his Balor Club insignia. And in case anyone was to simply assume WWE is reappropriating the colors as part of its Mardi gras theme, Coach and Michael Cole point out that the stage full of Balor Club fans (in matching T-shirts) has branded his club “inclusive” as well as a celebration of “diversity”. Given how much praise Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi quickly received NJPW/ROH’s ambiguous Golden Lovers, this has all the shades of a James Dean-y feel.

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Oh, and there was a match too.

This bout actually progresses somewhere between 90 and 100 miles an hour. These three superstars obviously each have proverbial chips on their shoulder and clearly want to “steal the show” (it’s both already clear but also the announcers cannot help but use the same repeated phrasing to drive the point home). For each, the year has been one of rebound spikes and also roster regression. Miz became the reason to watch SmackDown week in and out, but then was quickly “traded” to RAW where he fell back down the deepest show roster hole in the company.

Meanwhile, Balor had to reestablish his WWE career after a 9-month shoulder surgery and injury that resulted in him relinquishing the Universal Championship and missing WrestleMania 33. WWE teased Balor in a number of high-profile RAW matches but “the Club” carries none of the Bullet Club buzz just as his lingering supernatural feud with Bray Wyatt felt like a placeholder gamble. Rollins also tumbled down the card due to RAW’s super heavyweight division featuring Brock Lesnar, Roman Reigns, Samoa Joe, and the 2017 rise of Braun Strowman. Then Rollins slipped into quasi-interim glory with a cut short The Shield reunion and Tag-Team Championship run with Dean Ambrose. A real-life virus to Reigns and then elbow injury to Ambrose left Rollins hovering in No Man’s Land with WrestleMania looming.

Collectively, all three are deserving of a spotlight match and yet none had anything of worth until mere weeks before WM34. Thus, their match goes off like a canon and sustains a comparable fireworks show from start to finish. A key downside might be that variations of this match have taken place on RAW for at least the last month. Thus, the only unknown was which man would walk away from the champion. After foreshadowing suggested Balor may finally get another belt on his shoulder, Rollins showed why the brass in the back has so much favor in him. WINNER: Seth Rollins.

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Charlotte’s Golden Entrance, courtesy of Daily Charlotte Flair@FlairDynasty. Original video imagery credit: WWE.

The Hedonic Titan theme continues in match #2.

Second Match: Charlotte Flair enters from a literal golden throne, accompanied by three men in full Spartan soldier armor. The gold lit intro is brought to life with Ric Flair’s vintage “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (aka, 2001: A Space Odyssey theme) before Charlotte’s techno-variation accompanies a blue-tinted set change. But audiences ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Suddenly a 3D projection of Geisha masks fills the stadium (and I’m still trying to figure this out) as Asuka enters with a sparkling mask replacing her traditional white mask with colored tears. These two competitors have been destined to clash since they each entered WWE. Bookers were smart to keep them apart this long, moving Charlotte to SmackDown just as Asuka came up to RAW from NXT. Charlotte has dominated both women’s rosters with multiple title runs, while Asuka has only held the NXT belt but still remains undefeated.

While much discussion has gone on about what match should go last, and which men’s bout will “steal the show,” my WrestleMania prediction (especially following this year’s Royal Rumble) is that this match is the dark horse of the entire card. I think it’s got the most in-match potential once the bell rings. And by just the mid-point of the match, this “pre-mon-EEE-tion” feels accurate. These two are lightning in a bottle, and for never having met previously, their chemistry is fluid and sensational.

The camera cuts to John Cena sitting nearby in a grey T-shirt, beer in hand, recur so frequently that the foreshadowing seems almost clumsy (WWE does know sober adults watch, right?). But hey, kids watch too and Cena is now the Billy Crystal of the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards.

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Courtesy of WWE.com: https://www.wwe.com/shows/wrestlemania/wrestlemania-34/gallery/john-cenas-wrestlemania-reactions-photos#fid-40214527

Back to the action: it’s phenomenal. It might be moving even faster than the IC Triple Threat, and already I feel like I’m having a hallucinatory CrossFit dream. By the end of this thing, Charlotte is bloodied and crying, while Asuka seems to be setting up her ultimate victory. But in the quick of things, somehow the momentum shifts just a bit back, and Charlotte inexplicably races a figure four into her patented figure eight, and even more ludicrously, Asuka, universally impervious to pain, taps. Everyone is stunned. Charlotte seems stunned. I’m stunned. Asuka followed red carpet all the way from NXT up but earned it strong-style. Then, she made history by being the Soul Survivor and first Women’s Royal Rumble winner. So naturally, on “the grandest stage of them all”…lose?

This feels like a last-minute booking swerve. The politically safe decision “for the brand.” But to be clear, both are deserving before the match, during the match, and in the months and perhaps years to come. And yet the match was definitely even, and Charlotte has earned her stripes. It was not the ideal finish to Asuka’s 2-plus year winning streak. Todd Phillips notes how Asuka’s streak sits at 914 days, which shows staggering patience by WWE. But then again, WWE messed up Charlotte’s PPV win streak over a year ago as well. WINNER: Charlotte Flair.

Third Match: In the United States Championship Fatal Fourway were Randy Orton vs. Bobby Roode vs. Jinder Mahal vs. Rusev. Smartly, WWE looks to push another triple threat out of the way early — er, excuse me, fatal four-way (Sheesh!) — for US Title (aka, the “Meh” second-tier belt on SmackDown). Matches like these showcase how too many belts deflate the prominence behind such storylines. This match is the SmackDown equivalent of RAW’s IC Triple Threat: three talented superstars with stutter-stop storytelling throughout 2017 and the Road to WrestleMania. Technically, Jinder Mahal had the best year of the three, becoming a first-time WWE Champion for the duration of summer 2017. He even feuded with Orton for a couple of initial PPVs.

The silver lining? Rusev, Jinder, and Roode each getting a decent mid-card match at WrestleMania 34. The downside is that this year’s card happens to be so magnificent that the hype might just overshadow matches that are simply “pretty good.” The other silver lining? The match is appropriately short (don’t let the audience get too tired). After a finishing move spot fest, Rusev gets a moment to bask in the “Rusev Day!” glory with the audience. The moment is his, just not the belt. Jinder ducks in last-minute and catches Rusev off guard, pinning him in the process. In hindsight, this was an interesting bout that demonstrated WWE’s talent-heavy issue in 2018. Namely, how to fit so many superstars into a PPV that, with pre-show, will have lasted an absolutely exhausting 7 hours and 10 minutes. Indeed, the brand split is looking smarter and smarter with each passing talent acquisition. WINNER: Jinder Mahal.

The Mid-Point (and Creative Peak) Main Event

In a bit of a surprise, for the fourth match, WrestleMania 34 pivots to one of WWE’s marquee mainstream attractions: the mixed tag match between Triple H and Stephanie McMahon against RAW GM Kurt Angle and Rowdy Ronda Rousey. The entrances were relatively vanilla. Triple H is known for his outlandish wish fulfillment entrances, including riffs on King Conan, the Terminator, even Sons of Anarchy. With out-of-control self-one-upmanship, the retread this year is a less impactful sister sequel to WrestlemMania 33’s oversized choppers revving down the entrance ramp. Meanwhile, Angle and Rousey’s reveals appear quite pedestrian.

And yet…unlike some weeks, the audience seems primed to play nice and root for Ronda. This match had all of the pomp and circumstance theatrics of a hokie celebrity tie-in. But the longer the match went on, the more the crowd got behind Ronda and Kurt (but Ronda especially).

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For all of the gimmick match pieces in place—a McMahon family member, the outsider non-wrestler participation, semi-retired GM and legacy member back-in-action—there was a lot to suggest this match could easily fall into parody. The early uses of Ronda showed potential as well as a woman’s wrestler work-in-progress. Even the strategic placement across ESPN’s programming was hit-and-miss. With so much at stake, this foursome went all in on a gambit match every bit full of stakes, symbolism, danger, and all of the high drama that makes pro wrestling an addictive bit of cathartic theatrical athleticism.

The net results? The mixed tag program turned out to make a case for match of the night. While Angle and Trips were always in play to protect Ronda’s inexperience and Stephanie’s non-competitor corporate role, both women turned in superior performances. Ronda stepped up to the mat while Stephanie arguably played the best version of herself that she’s ever put on. The peak moment occurs when Rousey becomes stirred into attacking Hunter with such ferocious quick strikes that he oversells cowardice falling back into the corner. He is comically emasculated but also putting WWE’s new star over in front of a raucous crowd. The four performers span the emotional spectrum of sports entertainment without the pressure of going last. WINNERS: Ronda Rousey and Kurt Angle.

Match Five: The New Day then comes out in a State Fair-themed lowbrow performance complete with dancing little people dressed as pancakes. I can’t even with this kind of sideshow attraction appeal. In the 2.5 sitting’s that it took me to take down the five hours of programming, I fast-forwarded through this “happy” bit both times (it’s probably my aversion to pancakes, but whatever). Truth be told, the New Day bit, which some scholars have compared to a contemporary minstrel show, was the “get excited!” start to the SmackDown Tag-Team Championship triple…*YAAAAWN!* threat match. For what it’s worth, The Usos are pretty slick performers. But this was always projected to be a transitional squash match finally awarding the Bludgeon Brothers (Rowan and Harper of Wyatt family fame) a tag title reward. WINNERS: The Bludgeon Brothers

Tensions between Stockholder Expectations and Fan Service with “Dream Match” Booking

I don’t know if I would feel this way if I didn’t sample SiriusXM’s Busted Open Radio, but the yearlong hype, discussion, and speculation concerning the Undertaker’s (alleged) retirement pushed this inevitable match into predictive overhype. The fans circle virtually shaped the WrestleMania 34 narrative as one that would welcome back the mid-career “American Badass” persona. And all of the ingredients supported this direction: Undertaker retiring his hat and gloves last year, Roman’s need to keep the claim that he “retired the Dead Man,” the induction of Taker’s biker anthem singer Kid Rock into the WWE Hall of Fame, and even the symmetry of the American Badass persona as the first backstager (and champion) to greet Cena after his inaugural WWE TV match. It made perfect sense. At least on paper and out loud and in my head it did.

Greatest Hits, Part I: Liminal Icons (Match Six). But for whatever reason, none of these events unfolded in the way that the teasers suggested. And this is WWE trolling its own “smart” fans for overthinking the simplicity of their narrative structure in the current era.

Cena buried Elias once more, in at least the third such squash since the Royal Rumble. The encounter appeared to be a ruse that took Cena out of the audience and into wrestling gear. The audience was meant to feel duped by Elias, and as Cena solemnly and effortlessly walked back up the elongated ramp mixed with celebration and disappointment, the lights cut to black. The Undertaker returns, traditional Dead Man wardrobe, his patented slow walk as slow as ever.

And yet…wow. The match was less a “greatest hits” between the two mega-stars and more of a complete Cena squash. At most the match went 3:30 minutes in-ring. It was a shocker, and for my money, not in a good way. Not after everything that came before, and arguably everything that would come after. The only gift the match offers fans is another year or more to speculate as to just why this happened in the first place.

At the same time, the layout is entirely understandable. The Undertaker is in indecisive retirement stasis and Cena’s Hollywood schedule is starting to stack up as heavily as The Rock’s. Perhaps neither could fully commit to the appearances, the booking, the rehearsal, and so on. And no one can say they haven’t earned that right, because dollars and cents and longevity on the roster vindicates how things played out. In an information economy, perhaps WWE sees the digital discourse as more valuable than the final product. And given Cena and Taker’s diverse schedule, it is pretty clear this is all they could arrange with limited coordination. There you have it, a clear picture of what impromptu execution looks like.

For the record, as there are competing narratives online: at 2:29:14 the bell rings. Then, the pinfall occurs at 3:32:00. That’s right, the actual match comes in under 2 minutes, 45 seconds.

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Here is the match in a snapshot, courtesy of WWE.com https://www.wwe.com/shows/wrestlemania/wrestlemania-34/gallery/daniel-bryan-shane-mcmahon-kevin-owens-sami-zayn-photos#fid-40214263

Greatest Hits, Part II: Vendetta Tag Match (Match Seven). One match that carries all the hype but perhaps came off just a little bit flat was the Kevin Owens/Sami Zayn tag match against the SmackDown brass of Shane McMahon and the headline-grabbing return of Daniel Bryan. Bryan’s situation, not unlike Undertaker’s, suffers from a bit of hype fatigue in that anything short of a 1-hour 5-Star match would underwhelm obsessive fan audiences. WWE actually executed smart booking by having Shane take a pummeling for the majority of the bout. This narrative approach gave the match a meta-reflection of the 2-3 year Bryan gap, played out over the course of the match. This projects the real-life Brian Danielson (who would likely have some ring rust) and then allows him to play his “greatest hits” move set for a quick pin once he enters. It’s a doppelganger to Undertaker, a fan service match with all the ingredients (Uber-babyface Shane-O-Mac, indie-love for Owens, NXT nostalgia for Zayn). WINNERS: Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon

How To Book a Narrative Payoff (Match Eight).

The WWE RAW Women’s Championship match reached an appropriate cathartic conclusion that feels like it has been building longer than it really has. Throughout most of the last year, Alexa Bliss manipulated Nia Jax into a kind of one-way friendship as a method of diversion. This kept Nia from fully committing to challenge for the RAW Women’s Championship while occasionally protecting Bliss and providing a partner in tag matches. This made sense with both characters embodying distinct shades of heel (the hard-talking coward and the monster, respectively).

This succeeds as a long-form narrative arc because it allows characters to develop patterns while still leaving WWE booking options. Asuka was a player in the fold and could have easily overcome Bliss for her belt. And yet after winning the Women’s Royal Rumble, Asuka chose the noblest option possible by going after the strongest competition in Charlotte. Meanwhile, the insertion of Ronda Rousey into the Women’s Division equation created immediate possibilities in all directions, with the most logical decision to gain favor by taking out the boss (Stephanie). Thus, the Alexa/Nia angle came into focus at just the right time.

Mickey James transitioned from opponent to frenemy to mean girls accomplice, which put Alexa in position to accidentally and carelessly expose her low opinion of Nia. In a storyline that featured bullying, body shaming, smack talking, and gaslighting, these two performers tapped into some of the most authentic reflections of toxic masculinity/femininity in digital culture today. Their match is excellent and encapsulates the year’s worth of ups and downs with appealing choreography. Real-world incidents, unfortunately, end far too often in tragedy, but this match concluded with the appropriate level of triumphant, cathartic pathos. WINNER: Nia Jax.

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Nia vs. Bliss, courtesy of WWE.com http://www.wwe.com/shows/wrestlemania/wrestlemania-34#full-detail-40040893

Match Nine: WrestleMania 34 was insane in just how few times there was room for filler or letdown matches. Arguably, the sheer volume of content is what led some matches to appear more valley than peak (U.S. Championship) and the adrenaline crash of week-long festivities will always give way to audience impatience in the final acts. The WWE Championship is a different verse to the same song that haunted parts of the WrestleMania 34 macro narrative.

To clarify, the A.J. Styles versus Nakamura is a story that doesn’t need a heavy narrative setup (good thing too, because SmackDown mostly ignored it), but these strong styles (double pun?) do need temporal room to breathe. And yet a double bind emerges within this win-win setting. The performers will always already be compared to their previous, less restrictive New Japan Pro Wrestling main event at the Tokyo Dome. And while a large portion of WWE’s audience has never and will never see this match, the Nakamura character got further lost in translation moving from NXT to the main roster.

This sounds like a bit of armchair bellyaching and fan wallowing. Truth be told, this is another terrific match that had the relief of a Style victory (deserved) and the refreshing surprise of a Nakamura heel turn (which should fix some of his weekly character issues). Instead of the over-labeling of a “Dream Match” payoff, the post-match low blow to A.J. perhaps signals a new beginning (no end in sight!) that suggests this rivalry is just hitting its appropriate stride. WINNER: A.J. Styles

All TV Finales Suffer If You Binge-Watch the Entire Show in one Long Sitting

There is a danger in over-thinking pro wrestling, but one wonders if the proverbial transitional gimmick match between championship main events doesn’t serve as a “pallet cleanser” so much as a potential scapegoat for any time the final match doesn’t execute perfectly for either the performers or the fans.

That said, while the match was perfectly entertaining and serviceable, the fan reaction shifted into neutral during the A.J./Nakamura match and may have only popped hard one other time when Braun Strowman tagged in a young teenage kid that he “randomly selected from the crowd” to serve as RAW Championship tag-team partner. Other than that, the RAW Tag-Team bit was excruciating to watch primarily because WrestleMania 34 was at this point past the four-hour threshold. And six hours if one counts the pre-show. And nine and a quarter hours if one counts NXT: Takeover New Orleans. And fourteen plus hours if one considers how mind-numbering excess of a five-hour Hall of Fame ceremony Friday evening (I can never watch another Hillbilly Jim match ever).

The density of all this WWE content highlights their industry attempt to suffocate the competition, which is the typical corporate consumers buy into with Disney, Wal-Mart, the NFL, Netflix, etc. In reality, market saturation has led independent organizations to fight even harder. Every legit indie product now shadows WWE at the annual host site for WrestleMania. The entire week becomes a pro-wrestling mecca, and anyone who’s anyone makes appearances at multiple venues. The WWE may harness an unstoppable corporate hegemony, but the pro-wrestling community thrives as always from the success of warehouse outlets and passion-fueled communal productions.

To return to the final main events, it makes logical human sense that fans would face exhaustion de la spectacle after a full week of festivities (and thousands of dollars). If the adrenaline crashes for performers that “blow up” if not properly fit and fueled, imagine the average fan that is expected to sustain emotional investment from the antsy pre-gate moments in route to the stadium, up through the 7-hour card. The elongation of WrestleMania thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for impossible odds at show’s close. The bigger question is, why wouldn’t audiences be flat?

Match Ten: The interim tag-team championship was, apparently, entertaining. Braun went ultra babyface by picking a virtual child partner from the audience, in the process maintaining his strength cred by then beating Cesaro and Shamus (no slouches) to single-handedly gain the RAW tag titles. This much was telegraphed weeks in advance. WINNER: Braun Strowman (and Nicholas)

Match Eleven: Speaking of telegraphing, Brock Lesner versus Roman Reigns for the WWE Universal Championship. Industry insiders were talking about this match regularly as far back as spring. There were times throughout 2017 where I thought this made no sense. So many fresh foes emerged from Samoa Joe to Braun Strowman. The four mentioned superstars even shared a fatal four-way main event at Summer Slam 2017, so the idea of reteaming only two of them felt soft and repetitive. But there I was overthinking WWE’s booking again.

Regardless, I thought Reigns was aces in his weekly mic promos. The “suspension” storyline also made sense, and the UFC tease of Brock “skipping” this year’s Elimination Chamber to dine with Dana White brought back classic levels of kayfabe in mainstream media. As much as we all love to suspend disbelief, sometimes President Trump is accurate with this alternative definition regarding “fake news”. But I’m talking about Kardashian levels of gossip rag publications and websites, not scientific journals.

Days after WrestleMania 34, I am still perplexed by the main event. It was terrific and also a supersized rerun sequel. It closed with two shocking surprises, but only one of them felt (looked) organic. These two absolutely pummeled one another, but jaded fans that paid probably thousands of dollars on their ticket seemed disinterested. And for fans that still chant “C-M-Punk!” after all these years, I don’t feel like it’s a false equivalency to compare this act to constituents voting against their own interests. There is a certain Idiocracy Effect to paying thousands to go wait around an entire day just to sneak in and blow up a beach ball.

Is “safe booking” always fun? No. But neither is going to a murder mystery dinner theater and then refusing to eat or engage others or put your phone away when the theme is set to Victorian England. Dear smart mark fans: get over yourselves instead of trying to get yourself over.

Fans aside, the showdown between Reigns and Lesner was crazy weird. Braun and Samoa Joe each fell to a single F-5, but Reigns needed to take six. The false finishes piled up so high that each shoulder burst moved the match into Frank Miller Dark Knight Strikes Again/All-Star Batman & Robin territory. The surprising non-comeback and eventual win by Lesner recall the early seasons of Game of Thrones, where everything tells you the story is heading toward a noble mythological victory only for the hero to die. And how about that crimson mask on Roman? Along with Ronda emasculating Hunter and Charlotte’s golden-tinted entrance, this trio of images cultivates my visual memory of WrestleMania 34. LOSER: Roman Reigns

With Reigns losing, there was a sadness to letting the air out of his longstanding chase for the title. WWE and others constantly remind audiences that Roman is now in “Hulk Hogan” territory with four WrestleMania closing matches. But the angry mob wins in not letting him enjoy a legitimate title run, despite all of the clear work he puts in.

I have several working thoughts and critiques as to why fans fawn over Daniel Bryan but reject Roman Reigns, and cheer for Brock Lesnar despite a handful of yearly appearances. There is something toxic to this type of fandom. When it’s aimed at the company, at the corporation, there is a working class catharsis to such frustration. But when the angst seems to be aimed at a superstar that does everything fans “respect” from names like John and Mark and Daniel and Terry…I have to rhetorically question what that missing ingredient might be.

WrestleMania 34 Honors

Wrestling Match of the Night: Charlotte Flair vs. Asuka

Wrestling Story of the Night: Ronda Rousey and Kurt Angle vs. Stephanie McMahon and Triple H

Wrestling Story Arc of the Year (fulfilled): Nia Jax defeating Alexa Bliss for the RAW Women’s Title

Best Entrance of the Night: Charlotte Flair

Best Heel Turn: Nakamura

Fan Service Award: Daniel Bryan comeback victory

Scarlett Letter Award: The Roman Reigns Crimson Mask

Rhetorical Recap: WWE’s Royal Rumble and the Statistical Significance of Spectacle

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

In a world where statistical information dominates news, politics, sports, and economics, Vince McMahon and the WWE master the art of annual traditions and spectacular “firsts.” Whether it is tweaking the traditional formula of “surprise entrants,” statistical odds of repeat winners, or live telecast prognostications about whether early entrants can go the distance—first to enter, last to leave—the Royal Rumble demonstrates a recipe for possible excitement, although historically this lumbering mega-wrestler-free-for-all doesn’t always sparkle from start to finish.

2018’s 31st annual Royal Rumble has several advantages going for it. The most significant actually occurs outside of the men’s rumble. The WWE is (finally) betting big on the introduction of a Women’s Rumble; a long in the works product that signifies the company’s increasing investment in women’s wrestling (excuse me, sports entertainment). The Women’s Wrestling movement is less in the demographic-skewing vein of Diva filler or blatant female objectification from decades past (think Jello kiddie pools, lingerie strut-offs, poorly-rehearsed squash matches). Here is WWE’s chance to right the ship, or at least, continue a turn toward recognizing the in-ring performative value women wrestlers offer the genre.

Women’s Gender Double Bind

Two significant downsides face the women’s rumble, and their names are Alexa Bliss and Charlotte Flair. Bliss and Flair are two of the three most electrifying and over women’s talent currently on the roster. While Charlotte represents the “complete package” with in-ring technical skill, increasing fluidity on her mic work, and a knack for brand extension with previous appearances on ESPN as well as a national book tour with her father, Nature Boy Ric Flair, in 2017. Bliss is one of the smaller talents on the roster, but her oratory skills in front of a mic—whether pre-taped or live in front of an audience—is arguably second-to-none company-wide. Bliss’s technical skills grow smoother with each title defense, and her strengths as a cowardice heel make her an audience darling among smart mark fans. But the key strength both Bliss and Charlotte possess lies in their kayfabe charisma. Such magnetic charm is unmatched in WWE and a large reason that the first ever women’s rumble is a bit more deflated than when it was first speculated about.

And not to pile on negativity going on, but WWE has virtually ignored one of its most talented on-air personalities, actual trained journalist Renee Young. Young was the natural shoo-in to announce the Women’s Rumble, and arguably should have been elevated to a stint as co-lead commentator with the RAW or SmackDown announce team. Young is so articulate and able to toggle between thoughtful expressions and kayfabe reactions, the WWE should look back in judgment years from now and regret that they did not give her the chance sooner. And while Talking Smack and RAW Talk were steps in the right direction, there is a bit of tokenism given how quickly the WWE Network pulled the plug on such low-cost programming. To add insult to injury, the company issued an eleventh hour statement that none other than Stephanie McMahon (cue audience groan) will commentate the women’s rumble itself. Unless she’s part of a 3-person team that includes Young and former Women’s Champion Lita, the inaugural women’s rumble could have gone down as yet another opportunity lost in an otherwise “historical” event. Seeing as Ric Flair’s win at the 92’ Rumble is regarded by many as one of if not the best Rumble win, it is a shame the firtst Women’s bout could not creatively include Charlotte. But then again, that might ruin anyone else’s chances of winning.

Previewing the Men’s Rumble Stakes

Recent Rumbles’ emitted a ton of action and several memorable moments. This time around a palpable tension grows in anticipation of a winner, with recent years including strong surges from Chris Jericho, the WWE debut of AJ Styles, and the infamous tease of Daniel Bryan. And yet the 2016 Bryan tease ended with a Philly crowd nearly mobbing the Roman Reigns win. The next year, fans felt chaffed again by the “winner becomes Champion” results: part-timer (part-owner) Triple H took the win and the gold but as an elaborate setup to eventually lose to Reigns (again thrust in the spotlight). 2017’s Rumble held a lot of potential, including the final excellent match between John Cena and AJ Styles, but the Rumble (and crowd) fell absolutely flat with the win by the dozen times over former champion and previous Rumble-winner, Randy Orton. Storyline wise, the decision was so “safe booking” that it felt entirely out of place; as if Orton handed in a “Rumble Winner Golden Ticket” that was part of a restructured contract after his head-bludgeoned loss to Brock Lesnar at the previous SummerSlam main event.

Preshow Filler

Kalisto, Gran Metalik, and Lince Dorado defeat TJB, Jack Gallagher, and Drew Gulak — What can I say, I had to look up a couple of the names on the Internet to make sure I could remember these 205 Live’ers accurately (thank you, Cyberwebs). Similar to Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens during the kickoff show backstage check-ins, I was busy on my computer typing to offer full attention. There was a single excellent spot where the three trained Luchadors performed simultaneous moonsaults off the top turnbuckle onto the floor…from the same turnbuckle. It’s a shame the arena was about ten percent full and even the preshow team didn’t seem to notice a match had taken place afterward. This gets at an increasing issue with WWE mega-events like WrestleMania and SummerSlam: same-day oversaturation.

The Revival defeat Gallows and Anderson – True statement, when this match started, I thought they were replaying a clip from RAW that I’d missed, even though I watched RAW25 from start to finish (on digital delay, of course). Given that recent retrospect and hullabaloo from the Attitude Era, it is amazing WWE was able to juggle such a juggernaut roster of storylines back then, only to retreat into pusillanimous storylines despite the stable of touted Hollywood writers on staff (maybe they hire reality TV writers instead?). I recall like a faint dream a time when The Revival demanded respect through fierce strong style competition in NXT. And again their emergence within the main roster has been trivial at best. But they do pull out a win just after getting embarrassed by the Club/DX RAW25 alliance.

US Championship – Bobby Roode defeats Mojo Rawley

Did anyone think this would go any other way? …Did anyone care?

The Main Card Event:

WWE Championship Handicapped Match – Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens vs. A.J. Styles

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Pic courtesy of WWE.com

The main show opens with the entrance of Sami Zayn. The hot Philly crowd gives Zayn and Kevin Owens robust support. And what smart booking to put this title match at the beginning, feeding the crowd positive vibes could play into WWE’s hands with a historically antagonistic city. (Would Philly be kinder to Roman due to the Eagles making Superbowl LII? Um, probably not.) I’ve personally found Zayn’s snarky heel turn a breath of fresh air and a huge relief for where his character was at on the main roster. The chemistry between he and Owens is palpable as buddies or foes just like the Owens-Jericho pairing in 2016-2017.

AJ Styles gets a raucous welcome as well. The handicap bout starts with a bit of patty-cake tag-ins between Owens and Zayn. In a rare treat, the crowd gives Zayn his due respect with a toggle chant of “A-J-Styles/Za-mi-Zayn!” And unless I’ve missed it somewhere previously, AJ appears to be sporting slick new powder blue and jet black trunks with matching gloves and elbow pads (the baton de los Cena has truly passed down along the merchandizing front). As the match finally gets going, I was reminded just how versatile Owens’ move set is, which is one reason some felt disappointed in the execution of the Style-Owens U.S. Championship feud last summer.

After a series of high-contact moves from both Owens and Zayn, Styles sells winded and blown up with more heroism that Shawn Michaels ever could have. The move sets transition so fast that the commentators sound like rookie broadcasters missing plays and failing to articulate the rules of the game. Styles gives a double elbow consecutively to each man, before Owens quickly flips Styles. AJ then redresses his landing mid-air and catches Sami with a hurricanrana. AJ soon gets Owens into a ruthless calf crusher that has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. But his should be victory is the beginning of a barrage of comebacks that are habitually interrupted by villainous saves from each odd man out. All of these disruptions scream “cheat victory” setting up a co-WWE Champion run. But suddenly an awkward did they/didn’t they tag-in distracts the pair from their mission and Styles gets an exciting roll-up pin, retaining the WWE Championship legacy belt with the New Orleans-esque fleur de leaf-tinted WrestleMania insignia displaying overhead.

Backstage Stinger – After the exit music, a camera cuts immediately to Zayn-Owens screaming at SmackDown General Manager Shane McMahon. They inquire if Shane saw the ref possibly make a mistake on their tag in. His only response: “Yep.” The encounter suggests this feud remains an ongoing storyline in one form or another.

SmackDown Tag Team Championship – Chad Gable and Shelton Benjamin vs. The Usos

The tag-teamer gives the crowd a bit of a transitional cool down while allowing the SmackDown announce team to warm up calling consecutive matches. The Usos, mics in hand, offer one of their smoothest heel taunts as they strut down the entrance ramp. The vocal effort actually adds interest to what might normally be a match relegated to the preshow. There is an interesting parallel occurring between Gable and former American Alpha teammate Jason Jordan. Jordan jumped to RAW for a quasi-main event storyline where he was revealed to be Kurt Angle’s long lost son. Gaining the ire of most audiences, WWE smartly allowed his crowd heat to morph into a slowly developing arrogant prince heel run. But back to the parallel—following Dean Ambrose’s unplanned long-term injury, WWE gambled by giving Ambrose’s Tag champ partner Seth Rollins a run with Jordan, just as Gable rises to the A-plot in the SmackDown tag scene.

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Pic courtesy of WWE.com,

The superkicks fly fast and furious by mid-match, and the Usos once again apply clever misdirection on their tag-ins. Eventually this momentum gets the best of Gable and the Usos take the first of the (*sigh*) “Best of 3” bout. On the ring exterior, Benjamin hoists Jimmy Uso up while Gable slams his backside (and head!) onto the ground floor mat. But just as it looks like Gable and Benjamin set up an obvious tying pinfall, Jay Uso sneaks in a fast rollup for the three count. For the second consecutive match, quick rollups deceive the audiences’ temporal conditioning.

And now a word from our spons…selves.

Transitional Docutainment – An interim ad teases the latest WWE 24 documentary series, “Wrestlemania Orlando.” The clip includes a laid-back Roman Reigns (trying to inoculate audiences into submissive mode) while another clip suggests a rare, canny, and out of character Undertaker. WWE also replays a video package that challenges the overused social theory, “numbers don’t lie.” In the performance art of sports entertainment, this package lays on thick several strategic numerical instances in Royal Rumble history (most wins, most eliminations, longest entrant, most time spent in the ring, and so on). Technically, the numbers don’t lie. These things, for all intents and purposes, have happened. But in a world of fake news, alternative facts, and confirmation bias, the WWE shows once again why other professional sports like the NFL, or say, American politics, emulate sports entertainment spectacle.

Forward-Thinking Surprise of the Night: Men’s Rumble Placement

In an astonishing booking decision, WWE announces the Men’s Rumble as the third main card contest of the evening. This is an incredible decision that truly puts WWE’s money where its mouth is by positioning the Women’s Rumble later on the card. Time will tell if Vince actually allows it to supersede part-timer golden boy Brock Lesnar on the card.

The first entrant, Rusev, is announced in operatic fashion by Aiden English, and Philly eats it up. But the moment almost vanishes as Finn Balor comes in at #2. Noticeably, Balor sports a new wardrobe (not including “The Demon” makeup) for the first time ever; a burgundy leather jacket and matching tiny trunks and knee-high boots. The more I assess the burnt red shade, another Philly-friendly performer of similarly tinted trunks comes to mind: Daniel Bryan. Rhyno comes in third to provide some “big man” filler that will keep both fan-favorites eligible for now. The crowd thanks Rhyno with an intense “E-C-W!” chant. Rhyno shows his massive body still has gas in the tank. Baron Corbin runs in as entrant #4, and I am feeling my own brotherly love with Philly fans, as they boo his (uninspiring) presence. Predictably, WWE lets Corbin immediately eliminate Rhyno but then in a bit of fan service, Balor takes out the “Lone Wolf.”
However, this starts a coy bit of WWE booking against the Philly crowd as Corbin possibly injures Balor’s shoulder (a work) and then puts his finisher on Rusev outside the ring. As #5 Heath Slater comes out, Corbin exacts a ruthless clothesline that puts him on the ground cold. All of this sets up a convenient open ring for the (brilliant!) timing of entrant #6, Elias. Guitar in hand, Elias hilariously kicks Slater on his way down and proceeds to play an anti-hometown tune until #7, Cien Almas, enters. As current NXT Champion, Cien gets a healthy pop from the audience, and he and Elias get a bit of interaction before Bray Wyatt comes down at #8. The response is lukewarm (likewise), and fortunately, no sooner than Wyatt tries to get involved, Balor returns to action. Now things start feeling like a muddled multi-man match, with Big-E adding to the pomp and circumstance at #9. He feeds Heath Slater—who’s finally made it down to the ring but still has yet to enter—the latest ludicrous New Day breakfast item, a pancake short stack.

Tye Dillinger’s music hits at #10 (“10! 10!”), but a non-entrance cuts abruptly to Zayn and Owens jumping Dillenger backstage. Sami tells Kevin, “I got this” before running to the ring. And I’ve got to be honest here, I have no problem whatsoever with this.

Reverse Expectations Bracketology

Starting the next bracket of 10 is the “birthday boy” Celtic Warrior Shamus. At #11, Shamus slings Slater into the ring, but Slater immediately whips across the ropes and clotheslines Shamus in less than :1 second “on his birthday!” (Get it?? #VinceBooking) Xavier Woods comes in at #12. The lull continues with Apollo Crews at #13 and Michael Cole even remarks, “only 4 winners have ever come from the teens.” Yeah, settle in for the mediocre portion of the Rumble. And yet Cole’s words could also be interpreted as clear misdirection. Stay tuned. Shinsuke Nakamura enters at #14, and quickly gets the chance to land big moves on nearly every heel while the crowd sings his entrance music a cappella. Cisaro enters at #15. The third member of New Day enters at #16 just before Cesaro (bless you) eliminates Crews. Jinder Mahal enters at 17 (YAY!) and, like AJ, sports some keen-looking curry-flavored trunks. Jinder is quickly becoming one of my favorites but the casual fan doesn’t seem to buy in. He gains even more of my favor by knocking out both Big E and Xavier Woods. Enter Seth Rollins at #18 much to Cisaro’s dismay.

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Pic courtesy of WWE.com, https://www.wwe.com/shows/royalrumble/2018/gallery/men-over-the-top-royal-rumble-match-photos#fid-40199546

After Cisaro’s exit, Jinder seemingly tosses New Day’s third member, Kofi Kingston. But in the history of the Rumble, Kingston’s noteworthy gimmick features creative escapes that grant him an extra chance. In this case, one foot lands on Xavier Woods. With New Day advocating his eligible return, Big-E places a tray of pancakes under Kofi’s foot long enough for the two outside members to springboard him back in, soaring over Jinder’s head in the process. Unfortunately, the return seals Jinder’s fate, but no quicker that Kofi gets the best of Jinder does Cien toss Kofi out the other side. Fair enough, turn about is fair play for the mid-crowd.

Woken Matt Hardy enters next at #19 to medium-level “Delete!” chants. I think it’s safe to say we’re all disappointed by how tame this variation on Hardy’s original Broken character turned out. After a team-up and then a standoff, Hardy and Wyatt eliminate one another just before John Cena enters at #20. The crows actually pops decently for Cena, but once he slides into the ring, all competitors remaining gang up and group stomp him to the laughter of the audience. In a bit of frustration (that also signals their ongoing skirmish) Cena easily hoists and hurls Elias from the match. Surprise entrant “The Hurricane” comes in at #21, but Cena has him out before #22 is even announced. Aiden English comes in at #22, but with Rusev eliminated, his odds are nonexistent.

Adam Cole (“Bay-Bay!”) arrives over from NXD to raucous adulation. He goes way over with the smarks and teases a decent future on the main roster if Creative can stop screwing up talent momentum (*cough* The Club, Nakamura, Tye Dillenger, etc.). Randy Orton (ugh) enters at #24 and eliminates Cien just in time for Titus O’Neil to come in at #25. At this point, the recap is a numbers game (WWE tried to tell us) and recapping becomes more of a statistical report than a repartee of engaging action. #26 brings the heat with the Intercontinental Champ The Miz. I’m actually excited here and immediately nervous Miz won’t get enough love. But he puts in a parody of “Yes!” kicks onto Cena and Rollins before the tide turns against this momentum.

With the countdown to #27, Rey Mysterio Jr. makes an incredible surprise return. Mysterio looks as fast as ever, and part of his surprise momentum grants him safe passage for ousting Cole to the floor. Next enters Roman at #28 and the crowd showers him in “Boos!” throughout his whole slow walk down. Reigns slaps the garbage out of a few others before setting sights on The Miz. The Miztourage attempt interference, but Roman decks them both before Rollins curb-stomps Miz in the ring. He and Roman then perform a makeshift Shield elimination of Miz but Roman then straightup tosses Rollins right out of the ring. The look on both their faces is incredulous. In an absolute waste of space and momentum, Goldust enters at #29, “tying Shawn Michaels and Kane” for second most entrances, as Cole reminds the audience. Okay.

#30 and the final entrance goes to Vegas’s fourth greatest odds-maker for winning the Rumble, Dolph Ziggler. Ziggler gets in a few early superkicks, but once Balor topples him from behind, a slow pause in action showcases an “old guard versus new guard” framework with Mysterio, Cena, and Orton catching their breath on one side, while Balor, Nakamura, and Reigns rise up on the other. At this point, if WWE booked another old vet winner I would be sick to my stomach. But the energy in the room suggests we’ll finally be back to a fresh winner. And because Reigns won three years ago in the same Philly venue, the tension is high as to whether WWE will terrify spectators once more. This leaves possible fan booking nirvana of either a Balor or Nakamura Championship matchup with (we assume) AJ Styles at WrestleMania. Oh, the humanity.

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Pic courtesy of WWE.com, https://www.wwe.com/shows/royalrumble/2018/gallery

 

After a few quick moves, Orton is eliminated first, with Rey coming shortly thereafter. This creates a final four showdown with fascinating possibilities. The crowd offers a soft “Fin!” chant before shifting to a louder “Na-ka-mu-ra!” Reigns and Cena share a face-to-face in the ring but the crowd silences them with “You both suck!” complete with some double deuces in clear vision of the camera. Balor and Nakamura share quick one-on-one action, another dream match scenario. You can definitely see WWE’s confidence growing in a Finn Balor future (conservative projections put him on SmackDown most likely, a la AJ Styles). After 57:30 minutes as participant, Cena eliminates Balor and the crowd goes nuts into “BS” chants. Not cool, WWE. Not. Cool. The crowd grows more furious with a Cena and Reign double-team against Nakamura (who still hasn’t used his finisher, mind you.) And so he uses it, on Cena, dropping him from the match. Cue a terrific slow rise stare down between Shinsuke and Roman. A quality exchange ensues with each fighter quickly working through endgame maneuvers. The attending crowd is wigging out with this ultimate tease: fan-favorite Nakamura or fan-foil Roman Reigns? But fate showed favor on a cold Philly night, and “history” was made to cap off WWE’s yearlong serious swing toward a talent pool that accurately reflects international future interests. Nakamura wins and instantly reveals to a mic-ready Renee his intent to square off against A.J. Styles at WrestleMania.

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Pic courtesy of WWE.com, https://www.wwe.com/shows/royalrumble/2018/gallery

Final Intermission

There is a brief interlude featuring RAW and SmackDown GM’s and, oh whatever, Stephanie, Shane, Daniel Bryan, and Kurt Angle. Bryan gloated the win while it appears Stephanie perhaps overplays a suggestion that something is up her sleeve for the Women’s Rumble (#Rhonda?) “Yep!”

Despite starting the Rumble on a timeshift in order to skip the transitional packages, it appears WWE has tweaked their streaming service operating rules to force viewers to watch repetitious interludes and truly shameless commercial plugs like the KFC-sponsored Col. Sanders Rumble sketch. If I didn’t hate KFC already, I have to wonder what casual run of-the-mill audiences think about bits like this (or KFC in general). Come to think of it, isn’t KFC a Top 2 American fast food franchise overseas? “Yep!”

RAW Tagteam Championship – Seth Rollins and Jason Jordan vs. The Bar

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Pic courtesy of WWE.com, https://www.wwe.com/shows/royalrumble/2018/gallery/seth-rollins-jason-jordan-sheamus-cesaro-photos#fid-40199520

I neither fully watched this match nor could I fast-forward through it (see comments above for technical difficulties). My prediction is that Shamus gets the tag title back (“on his birthday!”) while the loss fuels breakup tensions between Rollins and Jordan that takes them into a WrestleMania feud in the event that Angle has not been cleared to wrestle Jordan (the previous idea we’ve seen teased).

Oh great temporal gods of the televisual airwaves, are you kidding me? Did WWE really book both tag-team championships for the PPV and at least three post-Men’s Rumble matches? The Vegas odds of me staying awake to finish the Rumble tonight just shifted dramatically. And as predicted, a “head injury” to Jordan causes the young talent to take himself out of his own match, leaving a spent Rollins to take a pummeling from The Bar. The result: new four-time tag team champions for the smartly paired Shamus and Cesaro. “Yep!”

How long has it been since a Brock title match could honestly qualify as “filler”?

WWE Universal Championship Triple Threat Match – Brock Lesnar vs. Braun Strowman vs. Kane

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Pic courtesy of WWE.com: https://www.wwe.com/shows/royalrumble/2018/gallery/brock-lesnar-kane-braun-strowman-photos#fid-40199601

Wow. WWE finally made a gender positive statement and puts the Women’s Rumble over by moving up this lesser inspired Universal title bout. Brock and Braun are fantastic foes, and I like the PPV output from both, but this bout is the least appealing Lesnar match dating all the way back to 2016. This would be Braun’s third time to share a ring with Lesnar since SummerSlam, but only one was a single’s match (that ended foolishly after a single F-5.). The commentators are overselling this bout big-time, a sign that reinforces flat booking. Three monsters are always cool, but Kane is semi-retired and the audience can’t even muster boos for him. His persona is so out of place at this point in the year. It is really confusing. Perhaps he was brought back in on short notice due to Samoa Joe’s injury. While pure speculation, Joe’s absence makes more sense than any of Kane’s presence.

Braun hits Lesnar with a hard knee, and I’m pretty sure Brock yells at him, “You broke my f’—ing nose!” So Brock nabs a chair and is slapping the crap out both of them. But Braun essentially takes it away. A slow-mode replay shows Brock punch Braun right in the side of the head, with the reverb along his forearm and bicep shake across his entire right side. (The GIF of this shot goes viral on Twitter by early Monday morning.) Very early on it becomes clear this is will be a big man spot match. German suplexes, F-5’s, chokeslams, chair shots, steel steps, it’s all here. Strowman makes an empathic monster babyface. WWE’s crowd seems to will him out of concussion protocol. There’s a point where you authentically think Strowman will finally obtain the elusive Universal title, but then the late-match booking comes into clear focus. Kane disrupts Braun’s momentum, he ends up outside the ring, and Lesnar F-5’s Kane onto a steel chair for a quick three count. Retention equals maximum global branding…for now. Who or what is next for Lesnar? Punk’s all-time title reign day count?

THE Royal Rumble Main Event

The First Ever 30-Woman Women’s Rumble Match

WWE has officially avoided mainstream backlash. In an age of bottom lines, stakeholder interests, global market competitiveness, spreadable media strategies, Internet social media and sports infotainment coverage, and political correctness, and of course, strategically placed press releases and media events in between the NFL’s championship and Super Bowl weekends, how could the company not book the Women’s Rumble last? The main event starts with entrances from co-announcer Stephanie McMahon (all complaints aside, why not?), followed by RAW and SmackDown champions Alexa Bliss and Charlotte Flair respectively. Adding their ringside presence is an appropriate measure for such a momentous occasion. They have earned the right to sit ringside since they are both unable to compete.

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Pict courtesy of WWE.com,

Sasha Banks does an amazing job entering first with a not-so-subtle Wonder Woman color scheme. Nice move there, with almost a Batwoman-type update from entrant #2 Becky Lynch (I’m probably over-reading that one quite a bit). Both ladies’ wardrobe upgrades are, to say the least, fierce. Sarah Logan enters at #3. One stipulation made clear in the rules is that entrants arrive every :90 seconds (as opposed to 2-minute intervals), which gives the Women’s Rumble competitive advantage in terms of pacing. Mandy Rose enters at #4, much to the delight of Corey Graves. But the real pops begin at #5 with Lita. Lita’s crowd momentum never really dies down although she herself finds little in-ring momentum. But May Young Classic winner Kairi Sane enters #6 and seriously clears the ring with finishers and high spots—a star is born. Tamina enters at #7, also sporting a unique all-white retro stonewash wardrobe. Whatever WWE gave up on in fireworks they’ve reinvested in new uniforms. Lita gets a second elimination on Tamina, but Becky gets the best of her afterward. Dana Brooke comes in at #8, and is back to more of a post-apocalyptic biker chick look that departs from her recent gig as the bookkeeper for Titus Worldwide. Brooke shockingly takes out Kairi Sane, which like Lita before her clearly disappoints the audience. #9 sees the return of Attitude Era eye candy Torrie Wilson. And if there is an issue with my wording there, go back on the WWE Network and revisit how they booked Wilson throughout the Attitude Era. Wilson does get a few good licks in (not the literal kind. #Sable) and even takes out Dana Brookes.

Sonya Deville comes in at #10 and looks far better in the ring than she has during all her RAW segments combined. Sonya turns the crowd away, though, when she swift kicks Torrie. Liv Morgan follows at #11, and I am once again confused between the Riot Squad and Absolution faction members. When each premiered simultaneously, with mirrored numbers and doppelganger personas, I always figured they were in cahoots. Molly Holly brings a veteran surprise at #12, and the crowd gives her a dose of respect. Indeed, even the typically hypermasculine Philly haters are game for this main even and willing to buy in. Lana arrives at #13 and maybe got her loudest pop ever, albeit to the tune of “Ru-Sev-Day!”

So. Many. Numbers.

At #14, Michelle McCool sprints down the ramp. Like Lana, McCool is serenaded by “Un-der-ta-ker!” She even eliminates Sonya Deville, Liv Morgan, Molly Holly, and then Lana in short order. #15 finds Ruby Riot joining the fray. Becky, Sasha, and Michelle each clothesline Ruby but she survives to the edge each time. Vicky Guerrero screeches into the match at #16. The “Excuse me!” shrills are so profane, I had to turn my TV down to cope with the cameo. With so many “open” spots unannounced, it was easy to see this one coming. Carmella follows at #17 and she sports an awesome late-80s/early-90s leotard with a color palette that reminds me of the opening credits to Saved by the Bell.

Natalia enters at #18, and I just wonder if her Total Divas persona expanded or limited her character development on the roster. Kelly Kelly is featured at #19, but her leaner framework and awkward rope cling brings back memories of stilted in-ring performances. The retro returns remind viewers why there needed to be a “Women’s Revolution.” Naomi brings respectability back in spot #20 with the roster’s original entrants still hanging on…but not for long. Ruby eliminates Becky Lynch just before #21. Jackeline returns to action. Nia Jax enters at #22 and brings back instant credibility and much-needed dominance by tossing out four players in about a minute (Jackeline, Kelly Kelly, Natalia, and Ruby Riot).

NXT Champ Ember Moon arrives in the #23 spot. She and Nia battle in a brief showcase spotlight. Naomi echoes Kofi Kingston by tightrope walking around the parameter corridor, but Nia catches her off the top rope to eliminate Naomi for good just as Beth Phoenix enters at #24. Meanwhile, Stephanie McMahon performed smoothly at an agreeable tone from the three-person announce team table. Her pitch was appropriate in not drawing attention to her liminal heel/face persona. No doubt she has performed a lion’s share behind the scenes to help accelerate the Women’s program, and sitting ringside nearby the two female champions makes for a subtle plant at show’s end.

#25 Asuka arrives to cheers from the crowd that will hopefully elevate her to eventual victory. She’s in some ways the most dynamic workers right now and with Charlotte and Alexa Bliss not participating, highly deserved of the winner slot. Mickey James skips in at #26 but makes little impact before the crowd pops at #27, Nikki Bella. By this point, Corey Graves has predicted about half a dozen people to win (largely based on beauty) just as the crowd, and Carmela, mock Nikki’s engagement to John Cena. Nikki retorts with head butt that sends Carmella out for good. Brie Bella exits retirement at #28 to the sound of “Yes!” chants from nearly everyone in the arena. The number of WWE couplings in recent years is astounding.

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/royalrumble/2018/gallery/women-over-the-top-royal-rumble-match-photos#fid-40199634

#29 brings another fan-favorite, Bayley—although the crowd goes cold perhaps due to happy-go-lucky overexposure (“brotherly love” does not warm up to hugs, apparently). The final entrant at #30 is none other than all-time Diva/WWE women’s wrestler, Trish Stratus. Like some of the previous former Divas, Trish appears slightly undersized by comparison. But this is not to suggest she’s out of ring shape. Quite the opposite. Indeed, Trish even survives the surprise elimination of Nia Jax (group effort), Natalia (via Trish), and Bayley (bless you, Sasha). This puts hopeful odds on heavy-favorite (and rightfully so) Asuka.

Sasha Banks appears to go full-heel once again after bumping into Asuka. (By Monday, WWE is already strategically placing her at odds amongst the women roster. Good timing for some series female kayfabing with WrestleMania on the horizon.) She even encourages the Bella twins to join in an Asuka three-on-one beating before they get the drop (literally) on Sasha. This leaves a two-on-one matchup featuring the Bellas versus Asuka. Seriously WWE, give the fans the respectable win we all deserve. But in a shocker reminiscent of the E! True Hollywood Story, Nikki decks Brie Bella as she dangles from the outside ropes. Vicious.

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Pic courtesy of WWE.com

And then there were two.

An Asuka-Nakamura win-win would strongly suggest a changing of the guard in the right direction. Not in a cynical way, but rather as a public recognition, an understanding of how the quality of craft and performance art of professional wrestling continues to evolve with consumer taste and interest in diversity. To the victor goes the spoils: Asuka ultimately wins (despite a terribly timed sell on the outskirt from Nikki Bella). The finish started strong (Nikki’s neck!) but ends in a quick whimper. But that’s okay, because we still get the in-ring showdown between champions. Renee Young enters again, as does Charlotte and Alexa. The stairdowns, the nonverbals, the sports entertainment psychology.

The Post-Rumble PR Stinger

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Pic courtesy of WWE.com, https://www.wwe.com/shows/royalrumble/2018/gallery

The music hits, the Asuka’s moment is interrupted, and the Rowdy Roddy, er, re-appropriated debut of MMA sensation Rowdy Ronda Rousey. Stephanie downplays knowing anything about the Rousey appearance, but she already coyly alluded to it backstage. Ronda is barely able to keep a serious face. The “moment” makes perfect booking sense, and while it might be easy for smarks to get up in arms over Asuka’s downplayed victory, such an audacious interruption sets up innumerable down-the-road feuds for Rousey. Now she just needs to prove she’s capable of exceeding the hype that started the moment she announced MMA retirement. She also ends the moment with a handshake/stare down with Stephanie. This notably either bookends their WrestleMania moment three years ago or perhaps provides the transitional bridge before a possible future encounter.

Thus the table is set. The increasing synergy of a publically traded company that just sold $100 million in shares to create the liquidity to jumpstart the (creatively flaccid and tonally bankrupt) XFL. The WWE succeeded in landing on every Monday morning sports website and talk radio show to kick off the start of Super Bowl week. They didn’t even have to pay for the Super Bowl ad rate. They did it their way, as they always do. Time to see where this goes. Whether a success or failure, it will surely be a spectacle to behold.

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

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

SummerSlam Part Two: Review

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

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

summerslam2017The 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.

VALUE rubricNow, my problem would be solved if the Association of American Colleges and Universities had a professional wrestling match VALUE rubric I could adopt and tweak. But it doesn’t. Maybe I’ll make it my PWSA assignment over the next couple weeks to create one.

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.

(Check out Garret Castleberry’s SummerSlam review if you’d prefer the perspective of someone up on today’s WWE.)

Match #1: John Cena vs. Baron Corbin

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?

Stenson

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.

Either way, I’m a fan wrestling’s global diversity – especially if it’s Canadian diversity. Swedish diversity is cool too, though.

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.

Grade: C-

Match #2: Natalya vs. Naomi for the SmackDown Women’s Championship

HartFoundationNatalya: 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.

RichterLet 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.

Grade: A

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.

Please make…him…stop!

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.

AndreStuddNow 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!

EnzoCage

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!

EnzoCage2Wait…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.

Grade: F

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).

CowboyBobSummerSlam 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.

Nikolai_VolkoffThis 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!

This is a match almost to the standard of King Kong Bundy vs. S.D. “Special Delivery” Jones in the original WrestleMania: totally old-school; totally awesome.

But I can’t give the match an ‘A’ for two reasons:

  1. 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?
  2. JimDugganA 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.

Grade: B+

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.

Banks

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.

Grade: C+

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.

WyndamRotundaEven 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.

ArachnamanOn 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.

KISSdemonOMG! 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?).

Grade: A

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.”

CesaroSheamus

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.

Grade: A-

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!)

SteenAnd 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.

Grade: A-

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.

MahalBut 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!

KamalaBut 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.

Grade: B-

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!

LesnarEMT

The crowd erupts in chants of “This is awesome” [clap-clap-clapclapclap] — and I completely agree.

StrowmanBraun 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.

Grade: B+

SummerSlam G.P.A.

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).

GeorgeTheAnimalAs 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:

  1. Natalya (the Canadian content is just too high for her to rank any lower)
  2. Bray Wyatt
  3. Shinsuke Nakamura
  4. Naomi
  5. Finn Balor
  6. Shane O Mac
  7. Jinder Mahal (the Singh brothers elevate it)
  8. Rusev (since he didn’t waste my time with a crappy entrance)
  9. Everyone else…except for:
  1. 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.

https://www.facebook.com/cricketnation/videos/1401735906548405/?hc_ref=ART527Idkd7JsCyMlRCnryUuxrusrjU3Ll5SIGGjKzvNV_5ZgOe-sC5I-LDmQ1KCUw4&pnref=story