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.

SummerSlam Part One: Preparations

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

This SummerSlam article got away from me. It’s about eight times longer than I intended, so I’m releasing it in two parts.

Part One is about my pre-SummerSlam preparations, including my reengagement with WWE after many years away. Part Two has my actual SummerSlam review, including my grades for each match, which, when tallied, will yield SummerSlam’s cumulative G.P.A.

Before I get going, I need to confess that, prior to writing it, I didn’t know what kind of review this (now) two-part article was going be. I didn’t know what tone I was shooting for, nor what voice I was writing in – in other words, what side of the “acafan” continuum I’d be leaning toward. Now that it’s all written, let me warn you that it leans sharply toward the fan side than it does the aca side. Or more precisely, it leans sharply toward the 1980s-era-smark-fan side.

Part One: Preparations (Or: I’m Writing a SummerSlam Review? Remind me: What’s SummerSlam again?)

summerslam2017

Just kidding! I know what SummerSlam is…it’s just that I don’t watch WWE all that much anymore. In fact, I haven’t seriously watched WWE since before SummerSlam even existed!

Now, if I’m channel surfing on a Monday night, and I happen to land on the USA Network, I’ll pause to see what’s going on, hoping to take in some good in-ring action – something that will remind me why WWE is the flagship company, why every wrestler in the universe hopes to make it there.

Here’s how my experience checking in with WWE inevitably goes (or, at least, this is what it feels like):

  • 5 minutes in – Lots of talking, no wrestling.
  • 10 minutes in – More talking, no wrestling.
  • 15 minutes in – Yay! Wrestling! FINALLY!
  • 15 minutes and 30 seconds in – They’re cutting to commercial in the middle of the match? WTF???

Back to channel surfing.

I used to be a fan of the WWE. Actually, let me be more precise: I used to be a fan of the WWF. I mean, a huge fan. I collected WWF trading cards and action figures; I watched Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling on Saturday mornings; I could sing the lyrics to every song on The Wrestling Album, which I owned on vinyl; I watched the first WrestleMania, via closed-circuit TV at the Toronto International Centre; and I even remember somehow scoring tickets to the Toronto premiere of that gawd-awful Hulk Hogan movie No Holds Barred, which played in the teeniest, tiniest of the Eaton Centre’s mind-blowingly huge (at the time) 18 screens.

Hulk_Hogan's_Rock_'n'_Wrestling

And I watched a ton of wrestling. It came on TV three or four times per week, as far as I remember. We’d get Stu Hart’s Calgary Stampede Wrestling and Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association. From time to time we’d also get Jim Crockett Jr.’s Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling. But above all else, we’d get a healthy dosage of Maple Leaf Wrestling. Back in the day, MLW was my home territory with weekly TV tapings shot in the old Maple Leaf Gardens, which wrestling buffs will remember for having that giant ramp that led from the backstage area up to the ring apron.

Iron-SheikVince McMahon took over MLW in the mid-1980s, so I watched the WWF Golden Age superstars during my pre-teen years – Hulk Hogan, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Junkyard Dog, Captain Lou Albano, Andre the Giant, “The Macho Man” Randy Savage, The Hart Foundation, and so forth. My favorites were always the wrestlers with the goofiest gimmicks: George “The Animal” Steele, The Missing Link, The Moondogs, and especially, The Iron Sheik, who, even though he “borrowed” his gimmick from the original Sheik, he played it with such over the top virtuosity that he remains my favorite wrestler of all time.

IronMikeMLW also featured a local jobber I really, really liked: “Iron” Mike Sharpe, who was always introduced as “Canada’s greatest athlete.” He never won a match, but he was a jobber with an actual gimmick: an old forearm injury that forced him to wear a protective leather sleeve…which was rumored to be loaded with a metal plate, thus making his forearm smash lethal.

Yes, Iron Mike Sharpe had a lethal forearm smash. No wonder he was Canada’s greatest athlete.

Long story short: as the WWF’s Golden Age morphed into the Monday Night Wars and the Attitude Era, I grew a little bit older and little bit less interested – not overnight, but gradually, over time. Stone Cold and The Rock were interesting enough, and the Hardy Boyz did some crazy stuff in the ring – and I really did get a kick out of Goldust – but the new WWE didn’t have a place for the “Iron” Mike Sharpes and George “The Animal” Steeles of my childhood. And I definitely couldn’t stand the new backstage “unscripted” stuff, which I found to be forced and annoying – and falling well short of the Shakespearian heights of Piper’s Pit and The Brother Love Show.

Eventually, probably in the late 1990s, I pretty much dropped out of wrestling fandom. I mean, I was vaguely aware of who the big stars were at any given moment, but I didn’t really watch the WWF/E on TV. And though I would gleefully reminisce with anyone about the old WWF – especially about “Iron” Mike Sharpe, if anyone could remember him – my wrestling days felt like they were behind me.

But then, in 2007, I moved to Charlotte NC and discovered the glorious world of southern indie wrestling, and that old wrestling spark reignited! If you’re interested, you can read about some of my forays into indie wrestling here. Suffice it to say, I’m now plugged into the indie scene in the Piedmont region of the Carolinas in a more personal, intimate way than I ever was with the Golden Age of the WWF.

Let me put this a different way to give you get a sense for where my wrestling fandom is now located. Here is a list, as best I can reconstruct it, of all of the local indie promotions whose shows I’ve attended since I last watched a WWF/E show in its entirety:

I’ve also seen Big Time Wrestling shows that have come to the region, as well as a couple of TNA (now Global Force Wrestling) shows – and I think one Ring of Honor show (though I can’t remember if I actually went to their Charlotte show a few years back, or if I tried to go but couldn’t for some reason).

What do I like about the indies so much? I like the gritty, old school feel. I like the small, intimate settings that allow for a much more immediate back and forth between fans and wrestlers. It’s pro wrestling stripped of all the WWE’s glitz and glamour – kind of like DIY kayfabe: nothing flashy, but totally authentic. Southern indie wrestling, in other words, is a throwback to the late Territory Era, right when a handful southern promoters – Bill Watts, Jerry Jarrett, Jim Crockett Jr., Vince McMahon – began thinking about taking their territories national. So, maybe like late 1970s to early 1980s professional wrestling, which, probably not coincidentally, corresponds to my earliest wrestling memories.

APWI admit it: southern indie wrestling tugs my nostalgia heartstrings.

All of this now brings me now to SummerSlam – or at least to my decision to write a review of SummerSlam for PWSA, even though I’m much more up to speed on Premiere Wrestling Xperience’s “Man Scout” Jake Manning (suspended!) than I am with WWE’s current champion, Jindar Mahal – whom I know more from the New York Times feature on him than I do from actually watching him in the ring.

(Aside: praise wrestling Jeebus that the phrase “Indian wrestler” no longer conjures memories of the most cringe-worthy wrestler of all time, The Great Khali!)

SummerSlam will be my first intentional reengagement with the WWE for a long, long time. I will admit that I’m quite looking forward to it! 

Getting Ready for SummerSlam

WWEnetworkStep 1: Sign up for a free month-long trial of the WWE Network.

Step 2: Set a calendar reminder for 30 days hence to cancel the WWE Network.

Step 3: Download the WWE Network on all my devices and login to see if it works.

It does.

But what’s this? A video is automatically loading? Whatever could this be?

“The Top Ten WWE Comebacks.”

Huh. I wonder what the top ten comebacks could possibly be? Maybe I’ll watch for a couple of minutes before I get back to work on that academic article that’s been kicking my butt this summer.

Okay, they’re counting down from number 10…

#10 Bret “The Hitman” Hart

Bret_Hart“How’d you know I’d be watching this?”, I ask the WWE auto-loading video? Not only does it start with a WWF Golden Age icon, it starts with a WWF Golden Age icon who is also bona fide Canadian wrestling royalty! I remember watching Bret Hart on Calgary Stampede Wrestling before he was “The Hitman,” before the Hart Foundation, before he rocked the coolest sunglasses in the history of professional wrestling.

The Hitman’s exit from the WWF, following the infamous Montreal Screwjob, is the stuff of legend: legit backstage heat between Hart and Shawn Michaels; the two squaring off at Survivor Series in Montreal for Hart’s heavyweight championship; Michaels putting Hart in Hart’s own sharpshooter; referee Earl Hebner surprising Hart with a really quick bell; a stunned Hart hocking a giant loogie at McMahon (and, given the distance, impressively hitting him in the ear); Hart decking McMahon in the locker room afterwards; Hart gone from the WWE, his hatred of Michaels, McMahon, and the entire company simmering for over a decade…until his shocking return in 2005, burying the hatchet with Michaels, and getting inducted, rightfully, into the Hall of Fame.

There are nine better comebacks than this? How is this possible?

I must keep watching.

#9: Chris Jericho

Y2J’s comeback was better than Hart’s? Impossible. I mean, Jericho was a great worker…but how is this comeback remotely comparable to the Montreal Screwjob and a 13-year hate-filled exile and Prodigal Son-esque return?

Well, at least Jericho is also Canadian. I’ll give you a pass this once, WWE auto-loading video. But you better come through with #8, or I’m logging off and getting back to that academic article you’re distracting me from.

#8: Hulk Hogan

Touché, WWE auto-loading video. You have identified the comeback that just might be as great as Hart’s, even though the Hulkster wasn’t a quarter of the in-ring worker as Hart, and even though Hogan owned what is unquestionably the lamest finishing move in the history of the WWF/E. None of that matters because during the Golden Age, Hulk Hogan was the WWF.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yt6Sh0k2TaA

Everyone knows the story of Hogan’s exit and return: Monday Night Wars; mass defections to WCW; Hollywood Hulk and nWo; WWF on life support. And then, out of nowhere, Vince miraculously acquires WCW and Mr. Golden Age returns (but with a weird painted-on black beard).

Now that’s a comeback!

RockHoganOh wow, auto-loading video just reminded me that Hogan battled The Rock in WrestleMania 18. We’ll call that the matchup between the lamest finishing move in the history of professional wrestling (double leg drop) against the second lamest finishing move in the history of professional wrestling (the people’s elbow).

There are 7 better comebacks than Hogan’s? How is this possible? I’ll watch one more…then back to work.

#7: Sting

Huh? Sting?

Is there a glitch in the WWE app? Did the video switch to “top-ten face paint”?

Sting1Sting2I’m not even sure Sting ever actually left WCW. Now, granted I was beginning to lose interest in wrestling by the mid-1990s, so my memory is a little hazy here…and I never knew the WCW like I did the WWF anyway…but didn’t Sting merely change his makeup and wrestling outfit? He went from colorful and happy to dark and brooding?

AdonisHow does a character flip count as a comeback? You are drunk, WWE auto-loading video. By this standard Adrian Adonis should be #1.

I’ll give you one more chance to prove yourself – and then I’m going back to work.

#6: Shawn Michaels

Okay, this was a good comeback. I’ll admit it.

But on behalf of Bret “The Hitman” Hart (circa. 1997-2005) and all Canadian wrestling fans everywhere, I hereby announce my objection to Michaels’ comeback listed ahead of Hart’s.

And Hogan’s for that matter.

But Michaels definitely deserves to be above Sting. But not Jericho (because of the whole Canadian thing).

#5: Edge

EdgeEdge? Edge???

Raise your hand if give a sh!t about Edge.

Even if you just raised your hand, how was his comeback better than that of Canadian wrestling royalty? Or that of the most recognizable professional wrestler in the history of professional wrestling?

Reeeeeeeeedunculous.

Oh wait. Edge is Canadian too, right? (Wikipedia confirms.) Okay, I’ll give him a pass…even though he’s not Canadian wrestling loyalty.

He also came back from a ruptured Achilles in 8 months. I ruptured mine right around the same time as he ruptured his (must be a structural flaw in the Canadian anatomy) and it took me a solid year to come back. Props to him. He can stay on the list.

#4: Brock Lesnar

Dumb. Whoever voted on this stuff has no historical perspective.

Oh wait. Lesnar is semi-Canadian. I guess I’m forced to give this a semi-pass.

Before I go on: What’s the deal with Canadian comebacks? Is this some kind of standard wrestling angle I wasn’t aware of? The American hero who fights off the foreign threat. Best friends competing for the love of the same woman. The evil boss who jerks around the fan favorite. The Canadian who’s gone for a while then comes back?

I don’t know: that last one just doesn’t seem to have the same je ne sais quoi. (Thought I’d write that last phrase in Canadian.)

#3: Undertaker

Wait…what’s this, WWE auto-loading video? Undertaker isn’t actually #3? This is just a gratuitous addition to the list of ten for the simple reason that Undertaker keeps “dying” and then coming back?

But that’s his whole gimmick! He’s the dead man. He dies and he comes back! Isn’t this supposed to be a shoot list, not a work list?

I am going to make an executive decision here and declare all worked comebacks ineligible for this list. Undertaker, your special category is hereby vacated. Sting, you are also disqualified.

In the slot vacated by Sting, I am officially inserting Jake “The Snake” Roberts. He left a maleficent keeper of gigantic snakes with names like Damian and Lucifer; he came back a Bible quoting, born-again Christian — with a gigantic snake named Revelations.

Now that’s a comeback!

Real #3: Triple H

Better than Hart? Better than Hogan? Better than Michaels?

Nope.

I’m suspicious of you, WWE auto-loading video. How did you put this list together?

What’s that, you say? Fans voted?

Ah, this is starting to make sense. Edge, Undertaker, Jericho, both halves of D-Generation X: 80% of the votes were cast by fans who were 10 years old during the Attitude Era. Who’s next on the list? The Rock?

#2: The Rock

Thanks, millennials. You ruin everything. Retirement funds, napkins, golf, dinner dates, department stores, churchgoing, home-owning, Applebee’s, and now WWE Network auto-loading top-10 lists.

But I will give you this: The Rock had mic skills! The footage in the auto-loading video of him trash talking John Cena, mocking his bland wrestling outfit and his face-wavey thing, is pure wrestling gold!

#1: John Cena

Of course millennials vote Cena #1. They have no respect (please speak this in your head with your best Iron Sheik accent).

John Cena: the Wonder Bread face of the WWE. Suffice it to say, in the battle between “Let’s go Cena” and “Cena sucks,” I’m firmly with the latter.

But I do think his entrance music is kind of great. The jorts…not so much.

 

Finally, the WWE auto-loading video is over, and I’ve just lost a good hour of work on that article I’m supposed to be writing. But before I get back to it, I absolutely must take a quick peek at the WWE Network’s much ballyhooed vault. How best to test its capacity?

IronMikeI know: I’ll run a search for my favorite Canadian jobber, “Iron” Mike Sharpe.

You gotta be kidding me! 19 pages of results! 190 “Iron” Mike Sharpe matches to watch!

I bow to you, WWE vault.

For nostalgia’s sake, I need to watch one. The first page has an “Iron” Mike vs. S.D. “Special Delivery” Jones match in a rare jobber vs. jobber match.

Oh yeah, I’m definitely watching this. Maybe I can dig up “Iron” Mike vs. Barry Horowitz or “Iron” Mike vs. Barry O match after.

The match loads and plays, and there he is: the “Iron” Mike of my childhood, grunting his way around the ring, protective shield around his “injured” right forearm…when out of nowhere, he crushes S.D. Jones with a lethal forearm smash…S.D. goes down, “Iron” Mike goes for the pin…one…two…three!

WHAAAATTT??? “Iron” Mike actually won a match during his career?

(I just checked Wikipedia: “Iron” Mike got a brief push during his WWF career. I have no memory of this.)

Now, you may be asking yourself: Dan, why do you bash Hulk Hogan’s and The Rock’s ridiculous finishing moves, but not “Iron” Mike’s? Why are a double leg drop and an elbow smash lame finishers, but a forearm smash a fantastic one?

Isn’t the difference obvious? “Iron” Mike wore a leather sleeve over his forearm to protect an old “injury,” and said protective sleeve was long rumored to conceal some sort of unauthorized metal plate. When the forearm-sleeve-plate connects with the side of an opponent’s head – especially when that the blow is delivered by “Canada’s Greatest Athlete”– well, that obviously knocks his opponent out. One, two, three, “Iron” Mike for the win.

MissingLinkOkay, I really must turn off the WWE Network. If I let myself, I’d be watching it for the next three days straight – chasing down old Missing Link matches, and such.

Let me end this section by saying this: the WWE Network is really cool. Supremely disruptive of my summer research plans…but cool nonetheless.

Next up: Part Two.

 

Rhetorical Recap: SummerSlam & WWE’s Synergistic Spectacle at Barclay’s

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

summerslam2017Summer Slam 2017.

Barclay’s Center, Brooklyn, NY.

Welcome to the inaugural event recap for the Professional Wrestling Studies Association. In an effort to kick off our annual event coverage of prestige wrestling shows, our aim will be covering both “mainstream” and independent bookings, and one of the best ways we can welcome a broad audience of readers and enthusiasts is with one of the most recognized wrestling events of the year, WWE’s SummerSlam.

Numerous alternative websites offer fan coverage of pro-wrestling events. Some provide detailed articulations of matchups and move sets—I recall this practice years ago populated by the message board elite. And when I say “years ago,” we’re talking pre-Reddit digital spectatorship. I’ll tip my hat to some of the most consistent pro-wrestling coverage produced by fan and sports-related websites like Den of Geek, Bleacher Report, and even more elevated criticism sites like The A.V. Club. In recent years, the lines blur even more with regular coverage coming from Rolling Stone, SI.com, and the gone-too-soon Grantland.

We hope to offer enough of an alternative spin that does not work to simply repeat the wheel. Our aim is to offer quality commentary and writing that can provide a sense of social, cultural, and even political history and context. Our writers seek to provide rich insights that play with text and context; examining (and enjoying) both the overt and the covert aspects that pro wrestling grapples with. With that said, we hope you’ll bookmark our page, share an article or essay you find interesting, and feel free to provide feedback to our writers or Twitter feed in general.

Hence we arrive at SummerSlam. The WWE’s Pay-Per-View SummerSlam is now booked second to only Wrestlemania. In the WWE’s consumer hierarchy, this event is kind of like Thanksgiving to Christmas Day, only in reverse order. Each year, the event seems to loosen the belt around its metaphorical waist just a little bit more. Only a couple of years ago it seemed impossible that the PPV event ran a planned four hours (plus one-hour preshow). This year the event is budgeted at 5 hours and 15-minutes, a paralyzing method to force the consumer into butt-coma submission.

Feed. Me. More. (oh wait…)

On one hand, the “more is better” mantra is in full swing, and seemingly rewards all those willing to invest in the stream-era friendly $9.99 a month. On the other hand, a cynical reading of WWE’s corporate strategy points toward industry exhaustion. By industry exhaustion, it would seem clear that WWE intends to offer so much content that audiences and fans in particular feel pressured to fully invest in the WWE experience. Not only would this include participatory consumption of both the RAW and Smackdown “brands,” but also the “indie”-esque WWE Network exclusive brand, NXT. These are but the top of a WWE pyramid of programming (think about that metaphor in business terms) that asks viewers to sit back, relax, and simply fall down the proverbial rabbit hole of endless (mindless?) programming.

According to this corporate strategy, the consumer then lacks time or money to invest in alternative wrestling products like New Japan Pro Wrestling, Ring of Honor, Lucha Underground, House of Hardcore, Global Force/Impact Wrestling, and so on. Thus, we come to the capitalist threshold of whether there is such a thing as “too much” of anything. That assessment, one objectively suggests, is in the eye of the beholder.

So, with that said, let’s go ahead and dive into the action and see if this five-hour gargantuan lives up to the hype.

High-Profile Filler

That said, the first two matches of the feature show represent SmackDown. Industry veteran with universal appeal John Cena opens the formal show with a match against former NFL’er Baron Corbin. If readers have made it this far in the write-up, then it’s safe to assume Cena needs no introduction. Literally the most profitable “sports entertainer” to follow Hulk Hogan and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Cena has finally broken the streak of failed attempts by pro wrestlers to crossover into mainstream Hollywood iconicity after Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Unfortunately, Cena’s best days now seem to be completely tethered to Hollywood blockbusters (this is not a prediction that the Transformers spinoff Bumblebee will in any way save Michael Bay’s cynical cash cow franchise).

Whatever momentum SmackDown did (or did not) provide in the lead up, the opener turns out to be nothing more than a glorified squash match. While Corbin would no doubt have benefited from a “Cena bump” with the win, allegations of backstage heat seems to have produced WWE’s preferred form of corporal punishment: public humiliation. Indeed, more emphasis seemed to be on which ringside celebrities Cena high-fived on his way out than any storytelling outcome for either participant.

In a bit of a surprise, Natalya Hart defeated Naomi clean for the SmackDown Women’s Championship in match #2. Their pairing featured a couple of nice spots, but the act feels closer to a time-marking warm-up act. The same might be said for the storyline heavy follow-up in match #3, a “shark cage” match between Big Cass and Big Show. Dangling above the ring in the shark cage is Cass’s former tag team partner, Enzo Amore. Enzo himself has been linked to a number of hearsay accounts of backstage shenanigans, and the breakup with his long-running partner seems to be yet another case of blurred lines between factual workplace behavior and fictional comeuppance.

Big Show is a preeminent workhorse for the WWE. However, his character has suffered from so many face-heel turns over the years that audiences have become ambivalent to his role in any program. In this case, his purpose works to prop up Enzo’s physical inadequacy up against Cass while also putting over Cass’s as the next “big” thing (although that may now be in question given what happened on the post-Slam RAW). It’s an honorable role, and one of the only things that provide this match with momentum. If the shark cage weren’t gimmick enough—surely Enzo could have been provided a mic to taunt everyone throughout—the under-sized Italiano does provide a late laugh when he strips down and reaches within to locate travel-size bottle of body oil in an effort to intervene from above. The schtick rightfully fails and Cass gives big boots to everyone. He hands Big Show a clean loss, but one that can be disputed simply by Big Show’s “injured hand,” an ongoing prop Cass targets again and again throughout their bout.

A backstage exchange between GMs Kurt Angle and Daniel Bryan functions as a preview of main events at the expense of taking either persona serious. Perhaps built to provide commentators and set designers time to transition materials, match #4 features yet another SmackDown exchange between Randy Orton and Rusev. Not having kept up with all of the SD storylines since Wrestlemania, it’s hard to say whether the match works. That said, Rusev seems to have trimmed his weight down considerably without losing his bulk or muscle. However, like Corbin, Rusev gets a strong pre-match jab in before literally losing on a single RKO after the opening bell. At this point I have to ask, do the bookers even believe in this festivity?

Brooklyn Brawlers

As the first hour (really the second, plus some) closes, SummerSlam picks up steam with “The Boss” Sasha Banks strutting to the ring in what can be described as a peacock onesie. This is certainly a low-key self-presentation when compared to the monetary investment poured into Wrestlemania entrances, but the adjustment suggests something sneaky might be in store. The peacock onesie is contrasted against the verbal product placement during RAW Women’s Champion Alexa Bliss’s entrance. Michael Cole waxes synergistic gobbledygoop about how Bliss received a Yankees jersey earlier in the week (during one of WWE’s endless displays of stockholder-impressing cross-brand PR). The matchup is the strongest so far, with both women wrestlers matched well according to size, speed, and agility.

This is the first match of the night in which both competitors appear to be moving at full speed. Each show a willingness and intent to sell for the other, and the match inadvertently works like a burlesque show where the two slowly tease toward a dangerous (looking) finish. As her makeup smears slowly down her face midway through, it’s astonishing to consider the undersized Bliss was losing lower card bouts at NXT house shows a little over a year ago. It goes to show her crackling persona on the mic helped elevate her status at a time where larger and more muscular female performers were leading this “Women’s Revolution.” In the second title change as many Womens matches, Banks convinces Bliss to tap out after a number of Banks Statement repositions.

The following match failed to generate much pre-PPV hype, but quickly draws audience appeal. Bray Wyatt has come to be known as somewhat of a career-staller for any opponent he faces. His supernatural voodoo persona never seemed quite able to win over any major title (other than the transitional weeks between Elimination Chamber and Wrestlemania XXXIII), and he always appeared to lose programs against major superstar opponents. Conversely, Finn Balor came onto the main roster white hot, winning the first matchup for the Universal Title at last year’s SummerSlam, only to relinquish it due to severe injury. After Balor’s eight-month absence, he’s experienced a bit of a peek-a-boo with prime-time positions mixed with some lower card losses. Thus, there’s a bit of reluctance to this matchup in that fans might be setting themselves up for disappointment in wanting to see him at main event status so quickly.

It’s unfair to say Bray/Balor is a matchup predicated on enigmatic intros but, fortunately, they consistently deliver a physical and psychological encounter. Finn makes his “Demon King” entrance, the first since the previous SummerSlam, and the audience rightly goes bonkers in playing along. The performance art of his animalistic crawl toward the ring displays professional wrestling at its most aesthetically unapologetic. Fortunately, Balor is no gimmick. His in-ring work, even when selling, elevates his status. The Demon gets a quicker-than-predicted win, thus showcasing how he, like Bliss, bucks the trend toward enormous physicality as prerequisite.

Clash of the Titans

As the upper card comes into focus, bout #7 offers the third consecutive Raw matchup. In the first tag-team exchange after the pre-show, Raw Tag Champs Sheamus and Cesaro take on the quasi-reunited Shield members Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins. All four competitors consistently work like main eventers, and only backstage politics or injuries have kept them just beneath the upper tier. Ambrose is a former indie darling and WWE Universe fan favorite, while Rollins earned audience favor during an injury hiatus but drifted back into middle pack territory after bad writing stalled his heel-to-face redemption arc. Similarly, Sheamus has all the elite goods but faced a circumstance of bad timing (and bad hair) that kept him out of fans’ good grace. Cesaro underwent a reverse situation where he only needed to satisfy an audience of one—Vince McMahon—but failed to adequately “grab the brash ring” at the apropos time. Timing is everything.

The foursome put on a decent enough match, but questions surround the bout more than the action itself. What will the melodrama between Rollins and Ambrose lead to next? Is this a temporary alliance (ahem, convenient enough to keep them in the mid-card rather than the pre-show for SummerSlam) or will the part ways soon after the PPV? How long will Sheamus and Cesaro remain dominant? Is their feud with the Hardys over, and if so, is the mission for them to help revive tag team wrestling? I was so busy exploring the possibilities, briefly oblivious to the ring action, that I looked up to acknowledge Cesaro seemingly breaking character (sort of) to jump the fence, retrieve a red-white-blue beach ball, and tear it to shreds. Despite the heelish “anti-America/anti-audience” gesture, the arena popped tremendously at his assertion.

As the tension ratchets up, and exchanges pick up pace, I ask myself the one question I always default to in an Ambrose bout: How can anyone wrestle that long in blue jeans? I mean, I need to know what kind of materials that really is? How do they not rip apart every. Single. Night? Undertaker’s purple lightning? Meh. Bray Wyatt’s bayou cult? Forget about it. Kayfabe or no kayfabe, I need intel on Dean Ambrose’s magical blue jeans.

In a shocker that I somehow didn’t see coming, a tremendously choreographed closing found Rollins springboarding in to double superkick both opponents, which led to Dean’s dirty deeds on Sheamus. The two seemed too jazzed to pick up the belts. It was interesting trying to gauge an authentic interpretation. Ambrose lost the WWE Championship after last year’s SummerSlam, then found his way down to the Intercontinental title that barely made the pre-show at Wrestlemania. He’s got to feel like there’s a bit of a refresher to at least sporting a strap for the time being, especially one that seems to sit well with fans.

AJ Styles and Kevin Owens continue their SmackDown feud in match #8. As co-host Dave LaGreca acknowledged on Sirius XM’s Busted Open SummerSlam prediction show, the AJ/Owens feud should have been red hot but has instead felt coldly flat since its inception. I agree. Special guest referee Shane McMahon is meant to add some heat, but it’s almost like a Wrestlemania echo in that AJ is so friggin’ talented but can’t seem to catch a break with the perfect opponent or storyline since losing the WWE title at the Royal Rumble. The two do their best to win back an emotionally spent crowd, especially fans no doubt sitting on their hands waiting for both Nakamura’s entrance and the Universal title fatal four-way. After a plethora of near finishes and quasi-interferences with ref Shane (who is sweating like a stuffed pig selling a lower back injury), AJ retains his US Championship before yet another in-PPV commercial break.

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It might be the perfect place to pause and suggest the ecstasy of allowing just enough of a time delay prior to starting any LIVE contemporary marathon programming like a Sunday Night Football, the Olympics, or a WWE mega-event like Wrestlemania. Such is the beautiful digital age we live in, a post-VCR high definition experience cemented by the convenience of streaming services and the advent of DVR. The down side, however, is that the later one starts, the longer it drags on. And if, say, you’re a person writing about the content as you work through it, fast-forwarding even the smaller breaks is a hit/miss opportunity.

Main Event, or as they say, Multicultural Synergistic Convergence

I don’t want to begrudge main event #1 in the least bit. As critical as I can be, and as deliberately global-focused as it can seem, I definitely applaud the mixed culture focus for the WWE Championship. I would like to suggest that this is the first International-versus-International bout for the elite belt in WWE’s history. In more product placement, the SmackDown commentators take their own bait and mention the supposed “front page” of the arts section of the New York Times, featuring coverage of SummerSlam in some capacity, and perhaps a commentary on “the artist” persona loosely attached to Nakamura.

On the other hand, Jinder Mahal is coded as Indian-Other, in case it isn’t clear from the Taj Mahal backdrop, Indian pop-theme music, and Singh Brothers’ entourage in tow. Either way, Jinder (albeit of Canadian heritage) is at least fresh on the eyes and completely jacked. Perhaps he and Rusev–-former pals on RAW that each took a noted hiatus—have exchanged training regimens.

There’s a real crackle in the air for this championship. The audience seems to feel it, which goes against WWE’s normal preference of a White savior figure always in the title picture. Nakamura clearly earns the audience’s favor, with “Na-ka-mu-ra!” chants flowing in and out of earshot. This matchup is a rarity where I had to force myself to put the computer down and simply enjoy the performance onscreen. The encounter is by far Nakamua’s best match since coming up to the main roster from NXT. Just in time. Likewise, Jinder’s rise to the top from being on the low end of squash matches was meteoric. But he seems comfortable here in this role. In what has become a fan-favorite moment at PPVs, Shinsuke lays waste to the Singh Brothers, but in a downright shocker, this leaves Nakamura open to “the modern day Maharaja’s” finisher. One-two-three and Mahal retains his title, handing Nakamura his first “official” WWE singles loss. Wow.

Retro 80s Dream Match Reaches Nirvana

Is it too early to call this SummerSlam’s best main event ever? It’s hard to recall a final match where every participant qualifies at “monster” status. In a true throwback to the anabolic era in WWE history, this main event received the strongest build up between both brands. And rightly so. Up-and-coming fan favorite Braun Strowman enters first to a mediocre pop compared to the gushing applause he gets every Monday night. Joe enters second to a bit more fanfare. It’s hard to say which of the two main event newcomers are most popular as underdogs here. Legacy wrestler Roman Reigns, the only face technically, enters to a full-bodied serenade of boos throughout the arena. Reigns walks down unfazed before Brock Lesnar completes the pre-bout entrances to a moderate mixed reception. The crowd seems a touch quiet (muted in post-production perhaps) and, while it’s completely understandable, it’s also a bit of a letdown. They should be absolutely psyched.

Corey Graves assures us, “We are not on Skull Island,” just as Michael Cole remarks the combined weight of the entrants exceeds “1,000 pounds.” Bring it. Once within the ring, all parties stand corner to corner squaring each other up while a second full-roster introduction is decreed. This time the crowd starts to amp up considerably, and before long, the audience in attendance becomes fully immersed in this strong man spectacular.

The initial bell leads to a brief burly man brawl. The combatants lay into one another, beefy fisticuffs into hardened flesh. The match later diverges into the outskirts around the ring apron, but not before the crowd is treated to several epic square-offs interchanging focal opponents. This is a goosebumps match that goes well over Brock’s notoriously short average. Lesnar and Reigns briefly replay their underrated Wrestlemania XXXI encounter to the crowd’s delight. The tension escalates between interruptions and then dissipates after an outside spear sends them both through the guard wall. It is fantastic watching this many big men move so fast in rhythm with one another.

Quickly the crowd gets behind and continues to root for monster heel Strowman. The response to the greenest of competitors here is entirely noteworthy. While a member of the Wyatt Family, Strowman became a bit of a gag with his silly facial expressions, but in the last year he’s worked as hard as anyone in the company to improve at his craft and develop a memorable persona. In a skirmish outside the ring, perhaps the highpoint of the match, Strownman picks up Brock Lesnar for a running powerslam that transitions into a flip onto (and through) the first of three announce tables. The crowd goes nuts and Strowman rides his adrenaline through a second even more devastating table squash. With “the Beast” Lesnar reeling on his back, Strowman actually hooks his second running powerslam, which lands awkwardly into what I might describe as a kind of summersault spear. Both competitors look spent, each gushing sweat at this point early on. However, the crowd chants “One more time! One more time!” and while it would be fair enough for Reigns or Joe to intervene, Braun lifts the third announce table up and onto Brock, and arguably elevates his own career at this moment.

To suggest Braun went over on his three equals is an understatement. He proved himself in spades and worked in the most offense on his opponents. Strowman kept the energy of the match high for the audience, which is key, and seemed to triple if not quadruple Brock’s average ring time in the process. This is saying something. While Strowman was already gaining popularity and growing momentum in the months before—what with beating Reigns like a ragdoll for much of the summer—he seemed to come into his own on the SummerSlam stage, his first major PPV main event.

As a critical takeaway, one questions whether WWE did the right strategic thing by having Brock ultimately (but barely) retain, or if they have yet again hesitated to pull the trigger at the right time. Stalling momentum killed Reigns in the lead up to Wrestlemania XXX. By not winning that year’s Royal Rumble, the company lost its opportunity for a true super baby face to emerge. By the time they course corrected the following year, fans were over such overt face-fawning product placement. Arguably, this was the night to take a gamble.

In my opinion, there was no scenario (Shield reunion or otherwise) in which Reigns winning would work. Joe could have been a slick way to go for the fall, but his performance here was flat and at times absent altogether. Brock was the safe keeper, although also a gamble if rumors of his return to MMA and UFC are authentic. Strowman, having recently recovered from major surgery in record time, was the big bet. The crowd was ready and his Monday night presence has been consistently strong and welcomed by audiences.

But this is a business, after all, and SummerSlam is now an international commodity. Brock Lesnar looked like the New England Patriots of late, squeaking out one final championship when it finally seemed impossible. The two deserve close comparison indeed. I wonder if the WWE has recruited any of the NFL’s staff writers?