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

WrestleMania 34: A Travelogue

Fan Reviews, Travelogue

In recent years, WrestleMania weekend has become an opportunity for numerous domestic and international wrestling promotions to converge on the host city in order to capitalize on the presence of tens of thousands of wrestling fans from around the world. I have attended three previous WrestleManias (XXV in Houston, 2009, XXVII in Atlanta, 2011, and XXX in New Orleans, 2014), but limited myself, with the exception of a Ring of Honor (ROH) television taping in 2014, to WWE events, particularly the Hall of Fame ceremony and WrestleMania itself. This year, however, I resolved to take full advantage of the presence of numerous independent promotions in New Orleans, resulting in one of the most tiring and enjoyable experiences in my long history of attending wrestling events. In total, I attended ten events in four days, from April 5-8, culminating with WrestleMania 34. With so many events, a match-by-match evaluation would be infeasible, so instead, I will offer an event-by-event travelogue, with my (admittedly subjective) summaries and observations.

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Image credit: https://latestmovietrailerz.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/matt-riddle-s-bloodsport-1004.jpg

Event 1: Matt Riddle’s Bloodsport (Pontchartrain Center, 3pm CT, 4/5/18)

I drove to New Orleans Thursday morning, in time to attend my first event, Matt Riddle’s Bloodsport. Matt Riddle (“King of the Bros”) is a former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighter who wrestles primarily for the New Jersey-based EVOLVE promotion, and this event was based around a rare, if not unique, premise in modern pro wrestling: realistic, Mixed Martial Art (MMA)-style matches that could only end in knockouts or submissions. As an MMA fan since the early days of the sport, I was curious not only to see how these matches would be worked, but also how fans would react to a very different presentation of pro wrestling. For the event, the ropes had been removed from the ring, evidently to emphasize that, as in MMA, there would be no rope breaks to escape submissions. As one might expect, these matches featured extensive mat-based grappling sequences and mostly-believable stiff strikes, and, to my surprise, fans did not appear at any time to be bored with this style, reacting to and cheering even the most minor transitions from one hold or position to another. To be fair, it’s safe to assume that most of the fans present were of the “smart” variety, and therefore more likely to appreciate mat-based technical wrestling than mainstream fans accustomed to near-constant action. With the exception of hardcore wrestler Nick Gage, who attempted to use a table against his opponent in their bout, practically every match featured entirely plausible, realistic action, akin to what one might have seen in early twentieth-century matches featuring Frank Gotch or Ed “Strangler” Lewis. Upon arrival, I was especially thrilled to learn that Riddle’s original main event opponent, indie legend Low Ki, had been replaced by Minoru Suzuki, the current IWGP Intercontinental Champion in New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) and a legit MMA pioneer from the Japanese Pancrase promotion. As in Japan, fans belted out the climactic “Kaze ni Nare” from Suzuki’s entrance theme, and he received the biggest pop of the show. After the show, Riddle announced that he planned to organize another Bloodsport event for next year’s WrestleMania weekend, and I would certainly not hesitate to attend another one. This style is not for everyone, but the fans in attendance largely enjoyed this unique and unusual presentation of pro wrestling.

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Image credit: https://i0.wp.com/backbodydrop.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/evolve-newlogo.jpg?fit=700%2C395

Event 2: EVOLVE 102 (Pontchartrain Center, 8pm CT, 4/5/18)

Although held in the same venue, the crowd for this event was smaller than for the earlier Bloodsport show. I’m fairly certain that this show’s attendance was greatly affected by the WrestleCon Supershow, held at 9:30pm at the Sugar Mill in downtown New Orleans, featuring the “Golden Lovers” tag team of Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushii. This was a solid show overall, and featured an excellent EVOLVE championship match between recent New Japan Cup winner Zack Sabre Jr., champion for over 400 days, and Matt Riddle. The two had a fantastic, largely mat-based match that saw Riddle wrest the title from Sabre, who recently signed a new contract with NJPW. This show featured plenty of solid action, but the diminished crowd meant that there wasn’t quite as much heat as in many of the other events I attended.

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Event 3: The Crash (Sugar Mill, 12pm CT, 4/6/18)

The following day, I headed downtown for a couple of events at the Sugar Mill, which is directly across from the convention center where WWE’s WrestleMania Axxess events were being held, beginning with The Crash, a Tijuana-based lucha libre promotion, at noon. This show featured many recognizable indie and lucha stars, including Joey Ryan, known largely for performing spots involving using his penis to flip opponents, as well as a fun main event featuring Austin Aries versus Penta El Zero M. LA Park (formerly La Parka), Psicosis, and Damián 666 received a huge nostalgia pop when they entered to Eddie Guerrero’s old World Championship Wrestling (WCW) theme, clad in LWO (Latino World Order, from a brief WCW angle) shirts. Throughout the show, the mostly Anglo-American fans chanted “uno mas” (one more) when encouraging various luchadors to repeat a strike or move, Penta’s catchphrase “cero miedo” (zero fear), and counted turnbuckle punches in Spanish. This minor, though not insignificant, embrace of Spanish, if only in the context of a Mexican lucha event, was a welcome reminder of the increasingly global character of pro wrestling. As we move further and further from the days of oversimplified national stereotypes in wrestling, American fans seem more willing than ever to embrace international stars, from Shinsuke Nakamura and Rusev in WWE to LA Park and Penta 0M at The Crash. Attendance for this show was decent, though a bit underwhelming.

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Event 4: Revolution Pro Wrestling (Sugar Mill, 4pm CT, 4/6/18)

It was fortunate that I was already present for The Crash, as this Revolution Pro show was absolutely packed, undoubtedly due to the presence of various NJPW stars on the show. As soon as the doors opened, I wisely planted my proverbial flag at a good vantage point in the general admission bleachers; by the time the show began, there was absolutely no space to be had. Once again, the fans eagerly belted out “Kaze ni Nare” for Suzuki’s entrance, and cheered wildly for Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kota Ibushii, Tomohiro Ishii, and Zack Sabre Jr. Of the four shows I’d attended so far, this one’s fans were the most energetic and animated. The main event saw Sabre lose the RevPro championship to Ishii, making him 0-for-2 in title defenses at this weekend’s events.

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Event 5: WWN “Mercury Rising 2018” Supershow (Pontchartrain Center, 8pm CT, 4/6/18)

This show was much better attended than the previous evening’s EVOLVE 102 at the same venue. This show featured Daisuke Sekimoto and Munenori Sawa, a pair of stars from Big Japan Pro Wrestling, a promotion that used to feature mostly hardcore matches with crazy weapons such as fluorescent light tubes and scorpion-filled tanks. Sekimoto had an excellent, hard-hitting match with Keith Lee, while Sawa faced Zack Sabre Jr. This show’s main event, between Matt Riddle and IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Champion Will Ospreay, featured the scariest bump I have ever seen live. With Riddle on his back in a rear-naked choke position, Ospreay did a backflip off the top rope, landing both of them on the back of their necks. Ospreay appeared legitimately injured, as several referees and officials rushed to the ring to attend to him. A hushed silence came over the crowd, as we collectively realized the potential gravity of the situation. After a couple of minutes, the match resumed, and at the time I assumed this was merely an elaborate attempt to work fans into believing Ospreay had been severely hurt. At the next day’s PROGRESS event, Ospreay told fans that he had indeed been injured, and had proceeded directly to the hospital for x-rays following the match. He then proceeded to wrestle in a mixed-tag match that saw him take only a handful of safe bumps. Many fans around me were making comments about how they wished Ospreay, known for his high-flying and extremely dangerous style (taking neck bumps on the ring apron, for example), would wrestle more safely, lest he end up like “Dynamite Kid” Tom Billington, whose reckless (albeit entertaining) style eventually made him wheelchair-bound, and I couldn’t agree more. There is an inherent risk of injury in pro wrestling, but taking numerous bumps to one’s neck in every match is a recipe for disaster. I’m certain that most fans would prefer Ospreay and others perform fewer dangerous moves in the interest of their long-term health.

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Event 6: Joey Janela’s Spring Break 2 (Pontchartrain Center, 11:55pm CT, 4/6/18)

This event was both unusual and extremely fun. I have very eclectic tastes in pro wrestling; on the one hand, I love extremely realistic, hard-hitting “old school” matches, and on the other end of the spectrum, I enjoy wacky absurdity as featured in Japan’s Hustle and DDT promotions. Joey Janela’s Spring Break most definitely fell into the second category. The crowd for this was massive (for the venue), with roughly 1,500 fans in attendance. There was a party/club/rave atmosphere, with lots of drinking and chanting throughout the show, even as we passed the 3:00 am mark. Having already bought tickets for three other shows on this day, I was primarily drawn to this show because I wanted to see The Great Sasuke in the main event against Joey Janela. Sasuke, a masked wrestler who helped, along with Ultimo Dragon, popularize the so-called “lucharesu” blend of Mexican and Japanese styles in Japan, was also the founder and top star of the Michinoku Pro promotion from 1993 to 2003. The crowd was hot for their match, which began around 3:00 am, and saw the 48-year-old Sasuke take several crazy bumps onto tables, ladders, and chairs. The card also featured a random, mostly-incoherent promo from Virgil, former bodyguard to Ted DiBiase and a staple at seemingly all wrestling and comic conventions, a Clusterfuck Battle Royal won by an invisible man, a great match between 50-year-old Pierre Carl Oulette (who wrestled for the WWF and WCW in the mid-to-late ’90s) and Austrian giant WALTER, and a squash match in which Matt Riddle quickly defeated former WWE talent James Ellsworth. More than anything I attended during this trip, this event reminded me of the old Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) arena crowd, with their constant (and occasionally obscene) chants and energy. Some of the matches on this card were not what I would call “good” in a technical sense, but the fans’ constant engagement with the wrestlers created a wild and enjoyable atmosphere for those willing, like myself, to sacrifice sleep for the show.

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Event 7: PROGRESS Wrestling (Pontchartrain Center, 12pm CT, 4/7/18)

PROGRESS is, arguably, the hottest wrestling promotion in Britain at the moment, and this show did not disappoint. Several fans around me said that this show’s crowd was smaller than the previous day’s show (also held at noon), due at least in part to hangovers and fatigue from the previous night/morning’s Spring Break event. This show featured solid wrestling up and down the card, including the aforementioned mixed-tag match featuring Will Ospreay and Kay Lee Ray (a Mae Young Classic participant) versus Austin Theory and Jinny. The match was originally a singles bout between Ospreay and Theory, but was changed due to the former’s injury against Matt Riddle at the WWN Supershow.

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Event 8: SHIMMER 100 (Pontchartrain Center, 4pm CT, 4/7/18)

SHIMMER is a women’s wrestling promotion whose alums include numerous current WWE women’s stars, including Becky Lynch, Bayley, and Paige. The crowd was smaller than for PROGRESS, but enthusiastic. The match that stole the show for me, and for many others, saw 6’1″ Madison Eagles win a back-and-forth grappling contest with Deonna Purrazzo. As with Bloodsport, I was a bit surprised that a match featuring mostly mat wrestling had engaged fans so thoroughly. All things being equal, I would expect to see Eagles in an NXT ring in the near future, given her imposing stature and solid technical skills, provided she is interested and willing to sign with WWE.

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Event 9: Ring of Honor Supercard of Honor XII (UNO Lakefront Arena, 7:30pm CT, 4/7/18)

This was probably my most-anticipated show of the trip. This event was attended by nearly 6,000 fans, making it the largest crowd in ROH history, due largely to the featured main event of Cody (Rhodes) vs. Kenny Omega. By the time I arrived, the parking lots were already filling up, and I missed the first “pre-show” match, a Women of Honor Championship semifinal between Kelly Klein and Mayu Iwutani. The crowd was hot for most of the show, and the ladder match for the six-man tag titles between the Young Bucks, SoCal Uncensored, and The Kingdom was an epic spotfest from start to finish. Kenny Omega received the biggest pop I’d heard on the entire trip for his entrance, and the crowd was extremely engaged in his match with Cody, which saw the latter prevail after he ducked a pair of Young Bucks superkicks that hit Omega instead. Unfortunately, this show suffered from a glaring pacing issue, as would WrestleMania the following day. The Cody-Omega match had featured prominently in the promotion for this event, including on the main jumbotron graphic for the show, and therefore should have gone on last. The emotional peak of the Cody-Omega contest was instead followed by the ROH world title match between Dalton Castle and “The Villain” Marty Scurll, a match that was technically sound, but couldn’t manage to elicit much interest from the exhausted crowd, who had already sat through nearly five hours of wrestling. I was baffled about this choice of match order, as were many around me, and some people began leaving right after the Cody-Omega match. Like WrestleMania, this show would have benefited from being shorter, as its length and match placement led to a championship match that felt flat despite featuring solid in-ring performances from Castle and Scurll. The match that drew the fans should always go on last, building fans’ anticipation and excitement to a crescendo. As it happened, there was simply no way that Castle and Scurll could have engaged the fans after the emotionally-draining experience of the previous match.

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Event 10: WrestleMania 34 (Mercedes-Benz Superdome, 4:30pm CT, 4/8/18)

As this was my fourth time attending WrestleMania, including XXX at the Superdome, I knew I was in for a long and exhausting show. The card was, on paper at least, potentially one of the best WrestleMania events of all time, but in the event, it fell short of expectations. The early matches featured solid action that mostly held fans’ interest, but the surprise of the night was Ronda Rousey’s debut, tagging with Kurt Angle against Triple H and Stephanie McMahon. This match could not have been more perfectly booked to protect Rousey in her debut and to minimize the performers’ limitations (Angle’s due to a career’s worth of injuries, Stephanie’s as a non-wrestler). The match, built largely around Rousey’s attempts to ensnare Stephanie, and the latter’s infuriating escapes, held the fans’ attention and excitement from start to finish. Rousey played her part well, including a fun sequence in which she pummeled Triple H when the two were left alone together in the ring. When she finally forced Stephanie to tap to an armbar, fans erupted in what was arguably the biggest pop of the night. In retrospect, the match probably should have gone on last, because it represented an emotional peak for fans that later matches would fail to reach.

As for other matches, I loved Charlotte Flair’s entrance, which reversed her father Ric’s habit of entering arenas accompanied by a seeming “harem” of women when she entered surrounded by scantily-clad men in gladiator costumes. Perhaps more significantly, it also served as a nice inversion of Triple H’s “King of Kings” entrance from four years earlier at WrestleMania XXX, which featured a pre-stardom Charlotte as one of three scantily-clad fantasy slave women (the other two being Alexa Bliss and Sasha Banks). Her match with Asuka was fantastic, possibly the best of the entire show from a technical perspective, but I was baffled by the booking decision to have Asuka lose the match, as the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble winner. When Nakamura, the men’s winner, lost to AJ Styles, I was even more perplexed. After watching the Rumble in January, I came away impressed that two Japanese wrestlers not only won the Rumbles, but would potentially win major titles at WrestleMania. I can understand one or the other losing, but it was quite disappointing that both lost their matches.

Daniel Bryan’s return garnered a massive pop, though the booking was, yet again, confusing. He was attacked before the match, and spent the first ten minutes or so laying outside the ring, an element that completely drained the match of its heat until he managed to “revive” in time to save partner Shane McMahon from Kevin Owens’ and Sami Zayn’s assault. I suppose the idea was to play upon the possibility of him being re-injured immediately, but the crowd was completely dead for the first part of this match as a result.

The Braun Strowman match, which saw him choose a seemingly random child from the audience as his tag partner, was fun for what it was, and at least it was kept short. The main event, however, was another story. For the fourth year in a row, Roman Reigns was featured in WrestleMania’s main event, in Vince McMahon’s seemingly unwavering resolve to make him the company’s next top star. As in the previous three years, Reigns was heavily booed during his entrance, as fans continue to refuse to accept him as a top babyface. Reigns’ opponent Brock Lesnar received modest cheers, but a fair share of boos as well. The pervasive feeling that this was little more than a long-planned coronation for Reigns meant that, from the opening bell, fans were determined to defy McMahon’s intended narrative and sabotage the match. Throughout the contest, fans ignored the match in favor of various chants, including “CM Punk,” “this is awful,” “we want Nicholas (the kid from the Strowman match),” “you both suck,” and the classic standby, “boring.” Numerous beach balls were passed around, with fans booing security guards as they confiscated them. Absurdly, Reigns kicked out of five F5s from Lesnar, after the move had been built over the past year as the definitive end for any wrestler. Rather than cheering Reigns for his perseverance, fans booed every time he kicked out, and numerous people began heading for the exits during the match. Not even a nasty blade job by Reigns could elicit sympathy from the unforgiving (and mostly disinterested) crowd, though there was a decent pop when Lesnar surprisingly won the match.

This bizarre match is, unfortunately, part of a recurring trend at WWE’s biggest show of the year. Fans largely were disinterested in Reigns’ other main events, from WrestleManias 31-33, which should have been a clear signs for Vince McMahon and the creative team to go in a different direction, and yet, for the fourth year in a row, a Reigns who has largely failed to connect with fans was shoehorned into the main event. When there is a pervasive feeling among fans that they are being “told” who to like, there often is a tendency to do the exact opposite, or, worse yet, simply to stop caring. As I filed out of the Superdome alongside thousands of other departing fans, I heard several variations of “that was awful.” I would compare the mood among fans leaving the Superdome with the depressed emotional atmosphere after a home team’s (such as the New Orleans Saints) loss in team sports. As with the ROH show, fans’ engagement peaked with an earlier match (the Rousey tag), and later bouts failed to reach those emotional heights.

Conclusion

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this trip, though I would not want to do it (at least not to this extent) every year. Probably the most fun show for me was Joey Janela’s Spring Break, as the insanely hot crowd kept the energy and excitement going until 3:30 am, and I saw one of my all-time Japanese favorites, The Great Sasuke, live for the first time. In general, it was great to see several Mexican, European, Japanese, and other international wrestlers in person, especially since many of them make few, if any, other appearances in the United States. I strongly suspect that some of them, including WALTER, Madison Eagles, and Zack Sabre Jr., will likely end up in WWE at some point or another. Ring of Honor wasn’t quite as good as I had hoped, but that was mostly due to their decision to have the world title match go on after Cody and Omega. Until the final match, the crowd was consistently lively, but simply couldn’t maintain their enthusiasm after the emotional heights of the show’s “true” main event. As usual, WrestleMania had its positives and negatives, the latter of which could probably have been mitigated by a different match order.

Review – NXT TakeOver: New Orleans

Fan Reviews

This past weekend, New Orleans, Louisiana played host to several different professional wrestling promotions, all of which offered an abundance of pro graps to wrestling fans of all persuasions. For instance, AAW, Fight Club: Pro, and The Wrestling Revolver co-sponsored the Pancakes and Piledrivers show, which took place at WrestleCon and caused some controversy when AAW tag team champions The Besties in the World (Davey Vega and Mat Fitchett) hit tandem piledrivers on their opponents The Rascalz (Dezmond Xavier and Zachary Wentz) in violation of the Louisiana Boxing and Wrestling Commission’s rules. WrestleCon also played host to the Impact vs. Lucha Underground crossover event, featuring a high-profile rematch between Eddie Edwards and the controversial Jeremiah Crane (aka Sami Callihan). Meanwhile, Ring of Honor unleashed their 12th annual Supercard of Honor, this time featuring a hotly-anticipated contest between current Bullet Club leader (and former WWE Superstar) Cody Rhodes and previous leader Kenny Omega, now one half of the Golden Lovers tag team with Kota Ibushi. And, of course, WWE dominated the weekend with another installment of the granddaddy of all wrestling shows, WrestleMania, which this year boasted the in-ring debut of former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) star Ronda Rousey, along with several other marquee matches.

Yet, for many fans (myself included), NXT TakeOver: New Orleans represented the pinnacle of a week filled with all manner of pro wrestling. Since 2014, NXT’s periodic TakeOver shows have become the gold standard of big-time wrestling events (which is appropriate, given the brand’s predominantly yellow color scheme), often overshadowing the shows produced by WWE’s main roster. Starting with the original NXT TakeOver, which aired exclusively on the WWE Network on May 29, 2014, and continuing through the most recent show broadcast live from NOLA on April 7, 2018, each TakeOver event has offered discerning wrestling fans a fresh alternative to the often stale and sanitized programs featured on shows like Monday Night Raw and Smackdown Live!. NXT’s live events routinely feature exciting, hard-hitting action, memorable entrances, hip guests, and emotionally-gripping storytelling. These things and more have helped transform NXT from a mere developmental program to a widely-beloved brand and one of the most popular sports entertainment promotions around.

NXT TakeOver: New Orleans is no exception, largely because it features the final chapter (at least for now) to one of the most riveting pro wrestling story lines currently going. The show starts with a wild six-man ladder match that saw Lars Sullivan, Killian Dain, Velveteen Dream, Adam Cole (BAY BAY!), and the debuting Ricochet and ECIII all vying for the new NXT North American Championship. The match was chaotic and fun, and it allowed every single competitor a chance to shine. Ricochet — a staple of the indie wrestling circuit for years as well as the man behind the Prince Puma mask on El Rey Network’s cult phenomenon Lucha Underground — immediately emerged as the star of the match, taking every opportunity to show off his high-flying offense and impressive strength. Meanwhile, Sullivan and Dain looked appropriately monstrous (the spot in which they tossed Ricochet back and forth was quite fun), and their interactions served as a nice preview for their eventual one-on-one confrontation (HOSS FIGHT). ECIII was instantly over with the crowd and seems primed to fill the entitled heel/tweener spot recently vacated by Bobby Roode (who now wrestles as part of the Smackdown Live! roster). Velveteen Dream proved once again why he deserves to be considered one of the biggest stars in the world; his charisma and athleticism were on full display throughout, and his elbow drop off the top of the ladder was a thing of beauty. The match ended with Cole winning the title, which is the right decision and hopefully gives his character some much-needed direction (he has felt somewhat aimless since debuting at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn III on August 19, 2017).

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The second match featured NXT Women’s Champion Ember Moon defending her title for the second time against former mixed martial arts sensation (and inaugural Mae Young Classic finalist) Shayna Baszler. At NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia on January 27, 2018, Moon defeated Baszler but suffered an injured shoulder in the process (the same shoulder that Asuka injured on the May 3, 2017 installment of NXT’s weekly show). A few weeks later, on February 14, 2017, Baszler and Moon faced off in a rematch that ended in a disqualification when Kairi Sane attacked Baszler. This led to yet another intense match between the Moon and Baszler at TakeOver: New Orleans, which built expertly on their previous matches. The two women had clearly learned from their prior encounters, as they managed to counter one another’s moves and tell a powerful story in the process. At one point, Moon stomped on Baszler’s left arm (as retribution for what Baszler did to Dakota Kai a few weeks earlier), separating Baszler’s shoulder and leaving her vulnerable. Nonetheless, Baszler managed to pop her shoulder back into place (a la Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon) by slamming it repeatedly against the steel ring post, which provided for a great visual and an excellent demonstration of her toughness. Soon after, Moon hit Baszler with an Eclipse (her finishing maneuver, a diving corkscrew stunner) off the top rope to the arena floor, showing off her own resiliency and reckless abandon. The match ended with Moon going for another Eclipse inside the ring, only to get caught in the Kirifuda Clutch and choked out by Baszler, who left the arena as the new NXT Women’s Champion. Meanwhile, Moon showed up on Raw the following night to tag with new Raw Women’s Champion Nia Jax against Mickie James and former champ Alexa Bliss.

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Next up was a triple threat match for the NXT Tag Team Championships that featured the Authors of Pain (Akam and Rezar), The Undisputed Era (Kyle O’Reilly and Adam Cole, subbing in for the injured Bobby Fish), and the hastily-assembled team of Roderick Strong and NXT UK Champion Pete Dunne. The match was originally meant as a reward for the winner of the 2018 Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, with the winners of the tournament receiving both the Dusty Cup and a title shot against The Undisputed Era (TUE). However, Fish’s knee injury necessitated a last-minute booking change. Thus, on the April 4, 2018 episode of NXT, TUE interfered in the finals, prompting the referee to throw out the match. As a result, the two teams that made it to the finals, Authors of Pain (AoP) and Strong/Dunne, both got an opportunity to face O’Reilly/Cole for the belts. The match itself was sloppy but fun, culminating with Strong’s heel turn, which allowed TUE to win both the belts and the Dusty Cup. This outcome gives the faction some much-needed credibility and (as mentioned above) direction, because they can now brag about being the most successful stable in NXT history while running roughshod over the entire promotion (much like the nWo in WCW or D-Generation X in the WWE). Furthermore, adding Strong to the group sets up some compelling storytelling possibilities down the road, most notably Cole and Strong potentially feuding over leadership of TUE. It could also lead to a faction-versus-faction feud between TUE and cult heroes Sanity (Eric Young, Alexander Wolfe, Killian Dane, and Nikki Cross). In any event, the match outcome should give Cole and his running buddies something to do going forward.

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In the penultimate match, Aleister Black challenged Andrade “Cien” Almas for the NXT Championship. While the match itself was good, it failed to generate the same level of drama or excitement as Almas’ incredible match against Johnny Gargano at NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia. The Almas/Black match felt somewhat thrown together, and therefore lacked the sense of urgency and excitement that marked Almas/Gargano. During the buildup, Black and Dain challenged Almas for the title, leading to a number one contender’s match between the two. Black came out on top and spent the next few weeks verbally sparring with Almas’ valet/manager, Zelina Vega. The promos were good, but never felt personal in any way. In that regard they were the exact opposite of the promos leading up to the Gargano/Almas match, as Vega made that match incredibly personal by constantly reminding Gargano of the betrayal of his former best friend, Tommaso Ciampa (more on that below). Furthermore, while Almas nailed the role of entitled heel champ during his run, his mic skills proved less than stellar and hurt his credibility somewhat. Crowds never quite connected to him as a face, and failed to respond strongly to him as a heel. Meanwhile, much like Cole, Black’s character often felt directionless, and that aimlessness remained in his feud with Almas. Therefore, the title match lacked an emotional core, though both performers delivered an entertaining contest. Black and Almas are undoubtedly two of the best wrestlers in the world, and they showed off their skills in the match, which was unfortunately hurt by the lack of a compelling story. Still, Black emerging as the winner is a good thing; he’s got the look and the talent to carry the company, especially if the NXT creative team gives him some solid storylines. Almas, meanwhile, is likely headed up to the main roster, and if WWE keeps Vega as his mouthpiece, he should prove an extremely valuable addition to either Raw or Smackdown.

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Finally, in the main event, Gargano battled Ciampa in one of the most powerful and heart-wrenching matches in the history of NXT. The two spent years as singles wrestlers on the indie circuit before getting called up to NXT as a tag team on September 9, 2015. They competed in the first Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, making it to the second round, only to lose to the team of Baron Corbin and Rhyno. Ciampa and Gargano then competed in the first-ever WWE Cruiserweight Classic (CWC), with Gargano eliminating Ciampa in the first round. Afterward, they reunited as a tag team under the name DIY (Do It Yourself) and had a series of classic matches with then-NXT Tag Team Champions, The Revival (Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder). On November 19, 2016, DIY defeated The Revival to win the NXT Tag Team Titles, but lost them to AoP two months later at NXT TakeOver: San Antonio. DIY faced AoP once more in a brutal ladder match for the Tag Team Titles at NXT TakeOver: Chicago on May 20, 2017, but came up short in the end. After the match, an injured Ciampa turned on Gargano, setting up a bitter rivalry between the two. Over the next few months, Gargano emerged as one of the top babyfaces in NXT, while Ciampa disappeared from the weekly show during his long recovery from knee surgery. He eventually returned to become one of the most hated heels in NXT, interfering in a match that not only cost Gargano the NXT Championship, but drove him out of NXT. This then set up a much-anticipated unsanctioned match between the two former best friends at TakeOver: New Orleans.

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The match delivered on every level, cementing both performers as two of the best wrestlers in the entire world. Ciampa and Gargano held nothing back, taking sick bumps throughout and nailing one another with stiff strikes that no doubt left more than a few battle scars. More importantly, they told an incredibly emotional story in the ring, with Ciampa unleashing his anger at being abandoned by the NXT Universe, and Gagano fighting for his career. At one point, following nearly 30 minutes of grueling competition, Gargano was set to bash a battered and bruised Ciampa with a crutch (retribution for Ciampa doing the same to Gargano several times throughout the feud), but stopped when he realized his former-friend-turned-enemy was defenseless. In that one moment, Gargano solidified his place as the purest white-meat babyface in all of WWE (while simultaneously revealing the inconsistent characters of most of the main roster faces). The match featured several other shocking and heartrending moments, including Gargano powerbombing Ciampa onto exposed concrete, an exhausted Gargano crawling over to a disgusted Ciampa (who, by that point, sported a nasty-looking swollen black eye), and Gargano using Ciampa’s own knee brace to lock Ciampa into a submission and forcing him to submit (pictured above). Gargano eventually picked up the win, thus reclaiming his spot on the NXT roster and hopefully starting down the path toward a run with the NXT Championship. Ciampa, meanwhile, remains one of NXT’s most loathed characters, and his activity on social media gives fans the sense that this feud is far from over.

Overall, while it never quite reaches the heights of NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn (in which Bayley fought Sasha Banks in one of the greatest title matches ever televised) or NXT TakeOver: Chicago (which featured an all-time classic between Dunne and Tyler Bate for the UK Championship), NXT TakeOver: New Orleans continues NXT’s impressive streak of excellent live events. The show offered a variety of matches and spotlighted some of the best wrestlers around, culminating in an exciting and emotional match that served as a capper to one of the best feuds of the last few decades. Fans of NXT should come away happy, and those who have never watched the product may not get the same sort of impact from the main event as those who have followed along week after week, but the in-ring action should nonetheless satisfy even the most jaded smark. NXT TakeOver: New Orleans is a triumph, and promises a bright future for WWE’s most over brand.

 

 

Special Edition for PCSJ on Pro Wrestling

Journal Publication

The editors for the Professional Wrestling Studies Association are happy to celebrate this year’s Wrestlemania week with the new special edition of the Popular Culture Studies Journal on professional wrestling.

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This special edition can be accessed for free here. The essays contain work from a variety of scholars on numerous topics related to professional wrestling studies. All academic discussions were written to be accessible for the widest possible audience.

Along with the scholarly work, the collection contains an essay from a fan on New Japan Pro Wrestling, reviews for various pro-wrestling media (from a documentary to a podcast), and interviews with pro-wrestling indie stars on how they view social media in their profession.

You can see the full list of articles and contributors below.

TOC

PWSA would like to thank editors Garret Castleberry, CarrieLynn D. Reinhard, and Christopher J. Olson for overseeing this special edition, as well as reviewers David Beard, Matt Foy, Charles L. Hughes, Jack Karlis, Dan Mathewson, and Catherine Salmon.

Over the summer of 2018, we at PWSA will be working to organize our own open access, free journal to coincide with each year’s Wrestlemania. If you are interested in this journal, then please contact us at prowrestlingstudies@gmail.com.

CFP: Professional Wrestling: Politics and Populism

Calls, Works-In-Process

Professional Wrestling: Politics and Populism

Call for book chapter proposals

Deadline for abstracts (250 words): 15 March 2018
Contact: Sharon Mazer (smazer@aut.ac.nz)

Provoked by the disruptive performances of Donald Trump as candidate and president, and mindful of his longstanding ties to the WWE, this edited book will look at the infusion of professional wrestling’s worldview into the twinned discourses of politics and populism. In so doing, contributors will consider the ways that professional wrestling as an embodied, cultural practice might be seen to perform, represent, model, interrogate, and even resist diverse manifestations of populism across the political and national(ist) spectrum in the USA, Mexico and Latin America, Britain and Europe, Japan, the Middle East, Australia and New Zealand.

This book project began as a cross-disciplinary conversation – theatre, performance studies, anthropology – presented first in a panel (‘Rasslin’ in the Trumpocene: Politics and Pro-Wrestling in the 2016 Campaign and Beyond’) at the American Anthropological Association’s 2017 conference. The editors wish now to expand the field to allow a wider range of perspectives and voices to weigh in on the question of how professional wrestling might be implicated in the current resurgence of populist politics, whether Trump-inflected, right wing and reactionary, or indeed leftist and socialist. Publication in the ‘Enactments’ series, edited by Richard Schechner (Seagull Books), is scheduled for 2019.

Proposals are invited for chapters (approximately 6000 words). Topics potentially include:

  • The introjection of professional wrestling’s power dynamics and its constructions both of the ‘Other’ and of anti-establishment stances into the political arena;
  • The ways the Trump administration has leveraged various forms of social consent, negotiated power, and recast or silenced oppositionalities to create a new normal in politics, in the USA and beyond;
  • The staging of masculinity and violence, power and ‘truth’ in populist politics as in professional wrestling;
  • Feminist readings of the relationship between professional wrestling, populism and politics, including professional wrestling’s simultaneous complicity and questioning of masculinist power;
  • The connection between the popular and the populist, between the mediated and the live, and between the quotidian and the exceptional in professional wrestling as in contemporary politics;
  • The (dangerous) practices of representing race, immigrants and other Others in professional wrestling as in populism and politics now and in the past;
  • The ways key concepts, such as kayfabe and heat, can be seen as invocations of the various commercial and fictional worlds and universes that inform and create our politics today;
  • The reflection of the ‘rigged game’ in the fixed fight of professional wrestling.

Timeline
March 15, 2018 – abstracts (250 words) due
August 15, 2018 – draft chapters due
December 1, 2018 – final chapters due
January 31, 2019 – book to press

Editors
Heather Levi is an assistant professor of anthropology at Temple University, Philadelphia, PA. She is the author of The World of Lucha Libre: Secrets, Revelations and Mexican National Identity.

Nell Haynes is a visiting assistant professor in anthropology at Northwestern University. She is currently completing her monograph, Chola in a Choke Hold: Remaking Indigeneity through Bolivian Lucha Libre.

Eero Laine is an assistant professor of theatre at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. He is one of the co-editors of Performance and Professional Wrestling and is in the process of completing his monograph, Professional Wrestling and the Commercial Stage.

Sharon Mazer (Auckland University of Technology) is author of Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle. Her article ‘Donald Trump Shoots the Match’ was recently published by TDR.

The link to call for papers: https://call-for-papers.sas.upenn.edu/cfp/2018/02/12/professional-wrestling-politics-and-populism-edited-volume

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.

Taking Back Today: Reconciling Subversiveness with Status Quo in Women’s Royal Rumble

Fan Reviews, Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

Image credit: Vickie Benson (Guerrero) Facebook profile

It began as anyone may have expected it would, with two solid workers from WWE’s women’s division, Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch, getting the crowd hot for the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble. Both competitors are two of the most memorable women to ever step foot in a ring, with Banks as the biracial, purple-haired cousin of a rap star and Lynch the roughhousing siren with a thick Irish accent. This was as fitting a start as the current women’s roster deserved, especially considering the plurality of women who would follow in succession to the ring after the first bell rang.

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/royalrumble/2018/gallery/women-over-the-top-royal-rumble-match-photos#fid-40199616

On paper, the list of entrants reads like a checklist of diversity. There were women of color as well as women over 30, 40, and 50. There were mothers, old and new, women who are married, women that remain single. There were plus-size and fat women, visibly tattooed women, and even one gay woman. In many ways, the women’s Royal Rumble was more inclusive than the men’s roster ever has been. WWE even allowed an Asian woman — a vastly underrepresented, if not stereotyped, group — to win the Rumble. It seems the brand is becoming less and less afraid to roll with the tides of changing times.

The beauty of the women’s Rumble is one that male fans can only appreciate in the most basic sense. Because it was the first installment, it was a celebration and homage to where the women’s division has been over the last 20 years, where it is, and where it could be going. This was evidenced by the large number of nostalgia entrants, ranging from forever faves like Trish and Lita to beloved athletes like Molly Holly and Beth Phoenix.

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/royalrumble/2018/article/5-best-moments-2018-womens-royal-rumble-match

Thoughtful recognition of these female legends took form in the fact that more than a third of the eliminations in the match came from women not currently active on WWE’s main or NXT rosters. While usually a tactic that is bemoaned when done on the men’s side, in the women’s Rumble it worked because we can be pretty assured that none of the women who appeared from the past are slated for full-time returns anytime soon. It was all in good, lighthearted fun, and a metaphorical way to say, We see the road you paved for us; you get a piece of this pie, too. As a woman who grew up watching each of these Superstars in their own ways make the best of what they were given, the place of nostalgia in this match was more than heartwarming.

Regardless of the era that each woman represented, one of the better, lesser discussed aspects of the match was the ways in which the women let each other shine. While the match did lag in parts (with the women doing the equivalent of twiddling their thumbs trying to find opponents to pummel), these slower moments allowed almost every woman in the match to get some visibility. We were able to see most of the entrants’ finishers or face-offs with old rivals plain as day, and it felt that this was a calculated move by all of the women.

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

In addition, because of the magnitude of the match, it was one of the first times we were given the opportunity to see how truly unique the characters these women have crafted are from one another. From Kairi Sane to Ember Moon to Carmella to Bayley, there are few women on the roster with identical gimmicks. With increased visibility, standout personas, and a spectrum of female identities, this match was easily the most feminist WWE has ever been with its product, and it wasn’t because Stephanie McMahon was on commentary shoving “history” down our throats. When it comes down to it, feminism is more about doing than saying.

Taking this further, the women’s Royal Rumble had all of the same things that the men’s did. Storytelling, fan-service face-offs, comedy, surprise returns, suspense, and feel good moments. Yet, the women’s Rumble still had a different feel to it, instead of a copy-paste vibe that women’s segments often have. The match felt fresh, and as long as WWE is interested in telling different stories with the women, it has the potential to grow into something out of the men’s division’s shadow.

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/royalrumble/2018/gallery/women-over-the-top-royal-rumble-match-photos#fid-40199639

Feminism, in the nuanced sense, is about acknowledging the foremothers who have laid the groundwork for the present, and uplifting other women to create a better future for all women inclusive of race, gender identity, sexuality, and religion. This often takes the form of women trying to achieve the same social and political freedoms as men by subverting structures that have created power imbalances. This is where Ronda Rousey complicates the Rumble’s progressiveness.

With Rousey interrupting Asuka’s moment at the end of the pay-per-view, we were are snapped back to reality. WWE is a product to be sold, and the company needs to make a profit. Rousey is a gold credit card to the McMahons and Rousey knows that she is viewed as such, and therefore expects to be compensated accordingly. Just as the men have a (white) UFC fighter who occasionally wrestles to collect a giant paycheck and “legitimize” the product, so now do the women. Only in this case, the added stinger is that Rousey isn’t even a homegrown WWE talent. Is this the “equality” the women were striving for?

As one Twitter user put it, Rousey’s appearance at the end of the Rumble (arguably dulling the shine of a woman of color’s moment) in many ways felt like a white feminist statement unto itself. Even though she has signed a full-time contract and swears up and down that she’s not in it for the money, fans can assume that eventually her ego will grow with her paychecks.

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Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/royalrumble/2018/gallery/ronda-rousey-crashes-royal-rumble-2018-photos#fid-40199693

Capitalism is the name of the game, and WWE’s biggest stars know this all too well. Feminism cannot thrive if money is the motivation for the people who have the most power, even if those people happen to be women, too. True solidarity comes from advocating for your sisters to get to your spot rather than ascending to comparable power as your male counterparts.

Some have made the argument that Rousey’s star power will bring greater exposure to the women’s division to casual fans, thus elevating it. There is room for that argument, and it may prove to be true. But, it still can’t be denied that if it weren’t for the women who put in the work for decades, Rousey would have never been in a position to “elevate” any division. It is even more metaphoric that only after 30 women fought in a ring for almost an hour did Rousey made her entrance. The work was already done; she was only there to steal the glory.

However, my hope for the division lies in the fact that despite all of the rumors and buzz that Rousey would be in the Rumble — she wasn’t. For once, WWE trusted the women on their roster and the legends that came before them to put on a good show with enough time to do so. The women were able to pull it off without a big mainstream athlete. They did that. If WWE doesn’t fall victim to the same fallacies of the men’s division with the women and actually allow their fantastic roster to shine, they can revolutionize not only women’s wrestling, but wrestling in general, for the better.

From far and wide
And light years away
The one force of nature they call by name
Fallen idols, scream yesterday
Cast from the shadows
Now light my way[…]
I came from tomorrow to take back today
I am the future.

 

Allyssa Capri is a Chicago-based writer and pop culture critic. You can read more of her pop culture critiques and analyses on her blog. Or, you can follow her on Twitter for cultural hot takes and random thoughts at @allyssacapri.

Featured Image Credit: http://www.wwe.com/shows/royalrumble/2018/article/5-best-moments-2018-womens-royal-rumble-match

A Softer, Wiser XFL?

Fan Reviews

Vincent Kennedy McMahon has always aspired to take good ol’ “rasslin” and diffuse it into popular culture. Thinks of all the guest stars he has brought into the fold. He has always desired his product to be more than just a regional wrestling promotion and he always wanted to be bigger than just a wrestling promoter.

He’s by and large done that, as World Wrestling Entertainment is now a global media entity and brand. He succeeded largely from his aggressive and larger-than-life or win-at-all costs personality. Yet, when the company became publicly traded and accountable to its shareholders, even the Chairman of the Board had to tone down his sizeable personality.

Since then, the company has conquered its domestic competition, ventured into the movie business, partnered with philanthropic interests, and has cleaned up its image for the most part as it is now responsible to answering to its shareholders.

Yet, despite all of its successes, McMahon has never lived down what some consider his greatest failure, the XFL.

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Image Credit: https://www.musclesportmag.com/2016/10/01/the-blueprint-matt-morgan-joins-musclesport-magazine/

Yes, that XFL. The same upstart football league that was fresh when N’Sync still had Justin Timberlake. A cauldron of gimmicks, sex, incompetency and a cemented place in sports infamy, the 2000s version of the XFL was daring and spit in the face of tradition, just like McMahon and his competitive and entrepreneurial spirit.

It flamed out so spectacularly that ESPN even did a documentary on it. The former XFL has sat in the pit of McMahon’s stomach like a piece of hard chewing gum through the years, undigested and uncomfortable.

Now, with the recent announcement that McMahon will resurrect the XFL in time for the 2020 season, eyebrows around the sporting world are raised either with a “This is interesting” look or “No, not again” mindset. This world has changed drastically since McMahon’s neophyte football league was launched, and thus, the 2020 version will have the following changes:

  • Players with criminal records are not be eligible
  • Players are required to stand for the national anthem
  • There will be eight teams operating under the single banner of the XFL or Alpha Entertainment

It’s an obvious attempt by McMahon to:

  • Distance himself from the previous incarnation
  • Appeal to a more conservative fanbase in light of the NFL’s protests for social justice

Many still fear the fledgling league will use a lot of the gimmicks associated with the WWE. McMahon made his mark and eliminated nearly all his competition at the turn of the century by using the “Attitude Era,” a period of programming when gratuitous violence and sex encased an edgy series of plotlines. With declining ratings from the NFL, an older, more gentle McMahon is attempting a less edgier approach to a once failed attempt that ended in ridicule and failure.

Let’s hope McMahon has learned from his mistakes and makes this not about him, but what the fans want.

Header Image Credit: http://www.businessinsider.com/vince-mcmahon-role-new-xfl-2018-1

 

Marketplace of Champions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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