The Timberwolves' season is over, and their coaching search has begun. First, let's all take a moment to revel in shockingly unexpected maneuver the Wolves have made into the realm of competent basketball things. They've hired a professional search firm. They're targeting well-respected, successful coaches. It's a level of proficiency that the Wolves have not displayed in this history of this here blog site, and it's quite frankly left us old-timers in particular dumbfounded.
We'll have more on the coaching/POBO search as it continues. But today, I want to wield my (very imaginary) privilege and write about something different: WWE wrestling.
Now, I am not a long-longtime WWE fan. I came in at the end of the Attitude Era of the 90s, so I missed a lot of the historical milestones in the industry: The Montreal Screwjob, the Monday Night War, the infamous Foley/Undertaker Hell in a Cell match...I began watching in early 2000, just as Brock Lesnar began tearing through the ranks. So my perspective on guys like Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels and The Rock are different from a lot of fans' - I wasn't there when they first became big deals.
And for reference, the WWE is currently 'split' into two divisions: a main roster which does the RAW and Smackdown TV shows and pay-per-views, and NXT, which is their version of the AAA Minors/DLeague. NXT runs out of Full Sail Univeristy by WWE's Performance Center, and is made up of new wrestlers looking to break into the business and veterans from other brands like TNA and RoH.
So. April 2nd was Wrestlemania weekend, the biggest pay-per-view show in the WWE and the industry as a whole. And it was.....not that good.
If you're not that familiar with WWE programming, then you probably know only one name: John Cena. What you might not know is John Cena is pretty much hated by the wresting fans that form the heart and soul of WWE's audience. And I mean hated. These days, he enters every arena with fans singing JOHN CENA SUCKS to his music.
A small group of women love him because of his muscles and Ned Stark-ish nobility. And kids love him because he's presented to them as WWE's superhero character. Which actually makes the jeers from everyone else even worse, really, since Vince's decision to go back to PG programming stripped the WWE of the violence and blood and bikinis and sexual innuendo that made the Attitude Era so overwhelmingly popular. If you were old enough to have memories in the 90s...even if you weren't a wrestling fan....you no doubt knew (or at least heard) about Stone Cold and the New World Order and the Monday Night Wars. John Cena is representative of why none of that exists anymore.
And the thing is, the John Cena hatred doesn't really have much to do with John Cena the person or the wrestler. It's actually much more of a reaction to Vince McMahon and his booking staff for the ridiculous character they've turned Cena into. The fans rage at Cena simply because he's the guy from that whole contraption that actually comes down the ramp. If the fans could spit on WWE's Executive Producer and all-around terrible decision-maker Kevin Dunn on a weekly basis, they gladly would. For that matter, they'd probably light him on fire first. And then not spit on him.
Long story short, the WWE took John Cena's original character - a white trash punk who cut his promos using insulting rap lyrics and brought a steel chain to the ring with him - and turned him into the very model of upstanding citizenryshipness...a rainbow-colored, kid-hugging, US flag and army and BBQ loving hero. He's obnoxiously optimistic, wins all the time even when it's not an appropriate story or good business decision, and is disingenuous enough to not get why people don't like him (believe me, Cena the human being definitely gets why the fans hate him). It's the formula McMahon first built his empire on back in the 80s with Hulk Hogan (and hasn't he just turned out to be a peach)
The problem is, Steve Austin happened between Hogan and Cena. The audience no longer gravitates towards that type of character, and have let their boos be heard loud and long ever since they figured out that's what Vince was doing. Keep this in mind. It's a core piece here that affects pretty much everything I'm about to say.
However, for the first time in forever, the WWE was forced to put on it's signature weekend production without John Cena. He's hurt. Legitimately. Which is unheard of with John Cena. It's like Kevin Garnett being injured during those years before Boston - it just doesn't happen. Cena is WWE's iron man, rarely missing time for injures and with a notorious reputation for coming back early when he does. Made all the more amazing when considering WWE's grueling schedule - as their #1 guy, Cena would work not only two TV shows a week, but two or three house shows (non-TV, non-canon shows) as well, plus a big PPV almost every month. Cena was probably working close to 300 days a year in the late 2000s, with most of the 'off days' actually being travel days to reach the next arena.
Cena's injury here doubly hurt WWE because Vince wanted a Cena/Undertaker match to carry the show. Ladies and gentleman, Exhibit A of how Vince is screwing himself without realizing it.
Mark Calaway is last of the Mohicans in WWE. He debuted the Undertaker character 25 years (!!!!!) ago - four years before Kevin Garnett was drafted - starting before and then outlasting a ridiculous list of legendary talents since, including Steve Austin, HHH, my personal favorite, Edge, and (if we want to consider him 'retired') The Rock. All in as physically punishing an industry as there is in sports. Say what you want about the winners being scripted - those guys are still getting thrown off turnbuckles and tables and ladders and 20-foot cages.
But a Cena/Undertaker match could have only ended in disaster for WWE. Undertaker has defied the script and the odds, remaining a face (good guy) character pretty much his entire 25 year run. Only once did WWE try to do a full-on heel (bad guy) turn with the Undertaker, and he ended up still getting a face reaction for most of it - the story involved Vince and his daughter Stephanie, who were hated heels themselves thanks to the Austin/Mr. McMahon feud that dominated the mid-90s.
So, Cena/Undertaker. One of them would have had to win. But the WWE would have been blasted no matter what the outcome. If Cena wins, what little part of the fan base that still cheers for him would turn, as the Undertaker has only lost once in twenty-four Wrestlemania matches (the one loss coming to Lesnar, a legitimate fighter) and may be wrestling's most popular and iconic figure ever. Cena winning would not feel right to anyone. It would only serve to further the ranting of John winning matches he doesn't deserve to win because he sells lots of t-shirts for Vince.
And if Undertaker wins, then the Cena t-shirt machine takes a major hit. As reviled as he is within the fan base, he's still the WWE's most visible, vocal and likable personality to non-wrestling fans (besides Dwayne Johnson, who's a very part-timer now, and who Vince turns into a suck-up for to keep him associated with the WWE brand) Cena's the WWE talent who shows up on things like ESPN and Conan and whatnot. He's their ambassador. They don't want the national media running gigantic JOHN CENA LOSES headlines.
Anyways, the Wrestlemania card was a few great moments surrounded by a TON of generic blah and more than a fair share of awfulness.
Start with the US title match, which wasn't even on the proper show, but rather became the 'dark match' before the official TV coverage. A reflection of the US title's total irrelevancy. Kalisto could be a great champion, and he certainly can pull off some ridiculous stunts in the ring.
But the WWE refuses to de-couple him from Sin Cara and the silly Lucha Dragon tag team thing. Just last Monday, the two were in the tag team tournament competing for a shot at the tag team titles, with Kalisto wearing the US title to the ring but never mentioning it. Kalisto won the title in large part so WWE could push his character and lucha style into the enormous gap left by Rey Mysterio's departure. But they won't let his character stand on its own, so fans have had no opportunity to take to him.
Meanwhile, his opponent was Ryback, who is the epitome of boring on the WWE roster. A hulking brute with a mind-numbingly stereotypical personality and painfully limited wrestling skills. Suplex, suplex, clothesline, Shell Shock, pin. Over and over and over. He's slow, his raw strength has little shock value - Cena is smaller and can lift more, and Brock Lesnar is...well, Brock Lesnar - and he has no ability to connect with fans on a microphone to make up for it.
This is all the more tragic considering that legitimizing the US Championship was one of the few truly awesome things Cena has done lately. He had a great story and match to win it from Rusev, another great match defending it in the re-match, and then a ton of great matches with his US Open Challenge schtik. He stole RAW almost every week with an absurd string of main event-level work that helped promote some of WWE's best (and often underutilized) talent, including Dean Ambrose, Zack Ryder, Dolph Ziggler and Cesaro. The match he ultimately lost the title in (to a returning Alberto Del Rio) was probably the worst one of them all, and that match was still very good.
And not only that, Cena also brought in and was largely responsible for the fast start of two NXT guys who will likely carry the company for the forseeable future during this run. Sami Zayn made his RAW debut in Montreal, bringing the house down competing with Cena while working through a very serious shoulder injury he sustained during the match (one that would actually keep him out nearly 7 months).
And Kevin Owens has absolutely steamrolled his way towards the top after debuting against Cena shortly after Zayn under the story of being upset that fans thought Zayn was injured by Cena and not Kevin Owens.
(For those unfamiliar, Owens and Zayn are real life best friends - Zayn was best man at Owens' wedding - who have run an incredible ongoing story of being worst enemies after Owens attacked Zayn the night Sami won the NXT title, then put him on the injured list to take the title from him)
Owens got the best of Cena's US title run, with three incredible PPV matches that included Owens beating Cena (non-title match) clean in the first one. He should have won the title itself in the third one, but even so, Cena holding the title did tremendous things for it, which WWE has completely wiped out basically overnight now.
Exhibit B of Vince McMahon not getting it.
What Owens has done is legitimize the Intercontinental Championship, and that match was one of the few highlights of Wrestlemania. WWE made the match a ladder match (where the title is hung above the ring and the first man to climb a ladder and grab it wins) and stockpiled it with some of their best talents. The opening of the match where Owens and Zayn grabbed the same ladder without realizing it, then realizing it, then forgetting about the title entirely to just brawl was perfect story execution. And Zack Ryder winning in the end was a fantastic spot, even if we all knew he wouldn't hold it for long. Ryder has gone to hell and back, working his ass off for WWE with no reward. Him getting a Wrestlemania Moment like that was awesome to see.
And the place the Intercontinental Title is in now speaks volumes to Kevin Owens' talent. The original plan two years ago was to elevate both the US title and IC title by putting them on the WWE's two biggest names: John Cena and Daniel Bryan. Unfortunately, Bryan had a long history of prior injuries that caught up to him again shortly after he won the title, forcing him to vacate it (and ultimately retire completely). So while the US title was with Cena, the IC title was in limbo.
Owens is Exhibit C of how the WWE really doesn't get it. Shortly after his main roster debut - despite having a wildly successful NXT Championship run and carrying the NXT brand in Zayn's absence - word got around the internetz that Vince and Kevin Dunn had decided Owens was a b-level player because he was too fat. Seriously. Dunn in particular has this absurd notion that appearance matters more than skill, and regularly tries to over-promote guys who "look the part" despite fan criticism and media criticism and simple logic.
(This will be discussed a LOT later in regards to Roman Reigns and Eva Marie)
Owens is kind of like the WWE version or Karl-Anthony Towns - he's a heavyweight who can do a ridiculous number of lightweight things. Heavyweights aren't supposed to do high-angle sentons or moonsaults or have the flexibility for super kicks. Owens does all these things and so much more.
Owens also gets the promotional side of the business. He yaps on the mic with the best of them, hurling perfect insults with perfect timing, and tells great stories with his in-ring matches. So the idea he's too fat to be good is absolute nonsense.
Much like how Daniel Bryan was pushed to the top by the fans despite being considered too small and combly-looking by WWE management, Owens is riding fan popularity against the tides. He plays one of the best heels in the business, but regularly draws cheers (especially from the hardcore crowds like Wrestlemania) because fans deeply respect his talent. If/when the WWE ever abandons the kiddie pool, Owens is the guy for them.
As expected, Ryder didn't hold the IC title long. Less than 24 hours, in fact, as he lost it to The Miz on RAW the next night. Which is fine. Miz is one of WWE's most critically underappreciated and underutilized talents - a true heel in every way with a character built on a lot of his real-life personality.
And the #1 contender is now Cesaro, who's far past due a title reign, and another example of arbitrary hatred among WWE executives. Vince McMahon thinks he's boring. Ok then. He's only a freak athlete who's pound-for-pound the strongest guy on the roster and who knows a 1,004 moves (1,004 Hoopus Points to whoever gets that reference). I mean, the dude can stand on the second rope and deadlift suplex another dude from the apron back into the ring.
If anything, the WWE is missing a golden opportunity to finally change Cena's character by putting Cesaro in that happy-go-lucky babyface role. Which will actually work with him, because he's actually a happy-go-lucky guy. He's a video game/superhero nerd who's always smiling. He comes down the ramp in a tear-away suit and tie with the James Bond tunnel effect on the titantron, then does silly antics with the crowd during matches. His signature move is the Giant effing Swing - a technique with no practical use whatsoever in a fight, but shows his strength and always, always gets the crowd cheering.
How does Vince think this is boring, but loves Ryback, the 5-move-special 2006 Cena clone. Wait, I just answered my own question. Dammit.
The only other match at Wrestlemania I thoroughly enjoyed was the Women's Championship match. Which is finally, thankfully and mercifully called the Women's Championship.
As much as Cena has been symbolic of WWE's failure to understand the world around it, so was that damn Divas Division. What a backwards, hateful thing that was. Simply calling the division Divas itself was insulting. Captained, no less, by women who themselves symbolized the failure of the division they championed.
Look, I'm sure Nikki Bella is a lovely woman. But she has no place in a wrestling ring. And that's actually pretty literal - both Nikki and her twin sister Brie were models. They were brought into WWE (probably by Kevin Dunn, who fetishizes pretty women in wrestling gear) under an old policy from the Attitude Era. The WWE's most popular and well-known female competitor ever is Trish Stratus, who started out as a fitness model. Ever since, WWE has tried to recreate that magic of turning models into wrestlers without accounting for one very important fact: Trish was naturally good at wrestling, even before she became a wrestler and realized it. It's something you're born with every bit as much as other athletes just 'get' basketball or 'get' football.
So what the WWE ended up with in the PG era has been a women's division largely populated by gorgeous girls with limited athleticism and even more limited skill. Every woman was booked with the exact same mean bitch character, and every story was something petty. Total turnoff.
The Bella's worked their asses off to get better...and they have, by a lot....but they're still pale shades compared to the actual female wrestlers who they got promoted over (Natalya Neidhart, Beth Phoenix, AJ Lee, etc) and total jokes compared to the talents coming up from NXT - Paige, Charlotte, Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks. They're marketing machines, like Cena, that the WWE uses to sell merchandise and promote their stupid Total Divas 'reality' show.
It's also an insult to women like Becky Lynch, who's worked since she was 15 years old to be an actual, legitimate wrestler (she started out at the academy current NXT champion Finn Balor opened in Ireland), but didn't get a shot with WWE until she was 25 because they were too busy promoting magazine models instead.
Finn Balor & Becky Lynch Promo by MrCena456
Charlotte, Lynch and Banks have been the faces of some of the best women's wrestling in the industry's history while they were in NXT, starting with the match where Banks won the NXT Women's title from Charlotte. She then largely make the Becky Lynch we know today defending the title against her. She then put on arguably the best women's match ever with Bayley last August at NXT Takeover Brooklyn (more on that later). So there was little chance this match was going to disappoint. Even the ending of the match, where Charlotte retained via interference from her legendary father, Ric Flair, was fine. I know some fans think it was too obvious and a cop out, but really, the time isn't right for Banks or Lynch to hold that title. There needs to be more story investment there.
Unfortunately, the best story they could have told is off the table now, thanks to the horrid way WWE handled their "Divas Revolution". The idea itself was everything fans wanted - Charlotte, Lynch and Banks would come up from NXT together and vanquish the terrible, boring reign of Nikki Bella atop the division.
But WWE shot itself in the foot in a number of ways here. First, Vince wanted to screw over the previous division mainstay and fan favorite AJ Lee (who's now retired) by having Nikki break Lee's record of consecutive days holding the title. So the new girls, who everyone loved and knew were exponentially better than the Bellas, showed up and lost. Ish. Despite knowing the winners are scripted...or perhaps even because of that....fans hate when an obviously less talented wrestler beats an obviously better one. Nikki defeating Charlotte, even though she used some dirty tactics to do it, was completely unconvincing. It'd be like one of us beating Zach LaVine in a dunk contest.
And by the time Charlotte finally did win the title, Lee's record had been broken (pissing off a good number of fans) and then fan favorite Paige immediately went into a heel turn. The story was jealousy, which made a fair amount of sense, but the idea and execution were awful. First, Paige makes a bad heel - she's too spirited, and she can't do the mean bitch promo well - while Charlotte makes a perfect heel with her ice queen persona and Flair name. Second, splitting up Paige and Becky and trying to promote Becky and Charlotte as BFFs never felt right. Paige and Becky...the Brit and the Irish lass - have much more compatible personalities and real life friendship to work off of. Charlotte should have been the one to turn heel after her title win, and Paige should have wrestled those matches as a face. It would have felt far more natural.
The rest of Wrestlemania ranged from merely decent to sickeningly bad.
I was honestly uninspired by the Undertaker/Shane McMahon Hell in a Cell match. Partly because it was too obvious the Undertaker would win, and partly because the actual Cell was used only once. Granted, that one use was pretty incredible...
...but still. Most of the match was built on the nostalgia of Shane Doing Things Shane Used To Do 15 Years Ago. He's 46 now. The Undertaker is over 50. They're both limited by age, and it showed. Their match wasn't dazzlingly clever like Taker/Punk, wasn't supremely skilled like Taker/HHH, wasn't brutally violent like Taker/Lesnar, and didn't tell a great story like Taker/Shawn Michaels. It just kind of....was.
Equally uninspiring was the Dean Ambrose/Brock Lesnar No-Holds Barred streetfight. I'm not the type of fan who looks forward to seeing blood and obscene levels of violence, but if you're going to book a match type that explicitly caters to that, then you better do that. What Ambrose and Lesnar did was a big letdown, particularly since both talents have shown they can do so much more. Lesnar had a much more violent match with Undertaker at Hell in a Cell, where he tore off the ring padding and dropped Taker head-first onto the boards underneath it.
And Ambrose's whole character is built on taking ridiculous falls, the same way as Mick Foley and Jeff Hardy. Dean had a string of exponentially more violent matches with Seth Rollins right after The Shield broke up. He climbed Hell in a Cell and jumped off it. He put Rollins through a ladder. He piled steel chairs in the ring then had Rollins powerbomb him on top of them.
But Ambrose/Lesnar? This fight here wasn't even pushing a Teen rating.
Chris Jericho and AJ Styles put on a great exhibit of technical wrestling, but it was brought down a good bit by the fact they were only fighting for personal pride. Styles hadn't really worked with anyone but Jericho since debuting at the Royal Rumble, and their story was very start-and-stop because WWE didn't know if Jericho would go on another hiatus after Wrestlemania. The one awesome thing they did together - forming the Y2AJ tag team - lasted all of a week.
The New Day/League of Nations match wasn't all that special, and wasn't even a title match. But it did it's job of setting up New Day to turn face, and get a cheap pop by trotting out Stone Cold, Shawn Michaels and Mick Foley for a segment that made no story sense whatsoever. But eh. Dallas got to see their hometown heroes.
I'm just happy to see New Day thriving. They were set up for failure by WWE when they got saddled with the stereotypical (read: racist) gimmick of Black-Guys-Who-Sing-And-Dance. But they made it work by embracing the fan hatred with a heel turn, then making the song-and-dance routine their own. Big E and Xavier Woods have such nerdy/campy personalities. Infusing that silliness into the gimmick really made it unique, and they've amazingly come full circle now through sheer force of personality. They have an intro bit and a "New Day Rocks" chant that are super fan-friendly, and their antics are reminiscent of the Michaels/HHH DX stuff.
And then there's the Main Event. HHH, Roman Reigns, and the culmination of years of failure by the WWE. Nothing about this match worked, starting right off the bat with Stephanie's weird goth queen outfit and generic Orwellian screaming about obeying authority, and the finish has invited chaos and disaster through the front door.
Roman Reigns represents everything wrong with the way WWE thinks about itself. When CM Punk first broke the fourth wall all those years ago, one of the things he ranted about more than anything else was WWE's ludicrous practice of hand-picking certain wrestlers to represent the company based on nothing more than appearance, with no regard to talent, charisma, popularity, other wrestlers' opinions, or common sense. Reigns is exactly this. Does he look like the man? Yes. He looks exactly like the guy you'd want people associating professional wrestling with. Far more than, say, Kevin Owens.
Of course, Kevin Owens is a supremely talented and skilled wrestler, and Roman Reigns is not. Owens can tell an engaging story on the microphone; Reigns cannot. Owens has earned fan respect by working his way up the ladder for 15 years; Reigns has only been in the business 5 years. Yet Reigns now holds the WWE World Heavyweight Championship and Owens does not, because Owens is "too fat", while Reigns looks like Greek god.
HHH, Chief Operating Officer, son-in-law, and loyal soldier that he is, tried his damnest to get Reigns over. Overtly, at least. He cast aside his pride to become the full heel he'd been reluctant to commit to, and then took the dive of losing the title at the biggest show of the year with the world watching. Subtly, HHH actually did a fair amount of damage to Reigns - some of it inadvertent, some not. Many of HHH's promos during the feud hit on the real complaints about Roman's push, and HHH finished it up by putting on a fantastic match with Dean Ambrose at a Network Special show. Opinion is split, but I firmly believe HHH went into that match knowing full well that Ambrose's skill level is far above Reigns', and thus crafted a match with Ambrose he knew would be far better than the one he'd have with Reigns at Wrestlemania.
Fan opinion on Reigns, however, is definitely not split. He was booed when he won the Rumble two years ago. He was booed when he beat Daniel Bryan at Fastlane. He was booed when fans thought he was winning the title at last year's Wrestlemania. He was booed when fans thought he was winning Money in the Bank. He was booed every step of the way to getting the #1 contender spot, except for when Kevin Owens went way out of the way to get cheers for him. It's not like this reaction was unforseeable.
When Vince decided to take Cena's Thug Bonez & Harmony schtik and turn it into Super-Frooty Loopsman, fans bought in at first because he was coming from heel territory and no one realized just how stubbornly and incessantly Vince was going to cling to Cena until it was too late. Not this time. We know the pattern now, so we see it coming. Cena has worked his way into being legitimately one of the best wrestlers ever, but he was effing amateur hour when it all started. He did not belong on the same ladder rung as Brock Lesnar or Randy Orton. He did not belong in the same ring as HHH or Shawn Michaels. He shouldn't have been allowed in the same building as Kurt Angle or the Undertaker. Yet there he was.
And the thing is, Reigns is still down at amateur hour. He's actually even worse off than Cena, because not only does he lack wrestling skills, he also lacks personality. Cena hasn't always been a great wrestler, but he has always been charismatic, whether it was as the white trash wannabe rapper, or the white knight he is now.
Reigns, at best, is a blazed pizza man. He even sounds like one when he talks. Just another broski in a Jetta. He shows no charisma in front of a live audience (except for when he forgets who he's supposed to be and mouths off at them for not liking him), and has no identity on TV. The announce team's favorite nicknames for him are "powerhouse" and "hothead". Well, he's not more of a powerhouse than Lesnar or Cena. And he's not more of a hothead than his buddy Dean Ambrose. He's not cerebral like HHH or Orton. He's not a smarmy opportunist like Seth Rollins. He's not fun like Cesaro, athletic like Ziggler or Zayn or Neville, or unique like Owens. And he doesn't have an engaging gimmick like the Undertaker or Bray Wyatt. He's just kind of....there. His new thing is saying he's not a good guy or a bad guy, but the guy. Well, it's more like he's just a guy.
Nevertheless, WWE stuck to it's guns and put the title on Reigns, who was promptly booed into oblivion to close Wrestlemania. So much so that WWE not only muted the crowd noise on the TV feed, but piped in generic cheering over it to try and hide it. Which they then realized wouldn't work on RAW the next night, so they opened the show by having the announcers say the night-after crowd is always 'unique', and they "cheer for who they'd normally boo and boo who they'd normally cheer." All a transparent attempt to jump the shark of their own terrible booking and explain why their new champion was about to get booed out of the building. Which he most certainly was.
Like Cena, none of this is really Reigns' fault. He's the victim of WWE's wretched decision-making as much as we are. More so, actually, because he's the undeserving target of our wrath. When the fans boo, they're really booing McMahon and Dunn. But they aren't the ones who come down the ramp; Reigns is. And like Cena, the few cheers Reigns does get are mainly from women and kids, which again, makes the overall situation worse.
The point is, pushing a guy who's not ready and not deserving all the way to the very top is insulting to our intelligence. WWE is scripted, but it's power lies in making those scripts believable. They can't get away with plot holes any more than any other TV show or movie because it takes the audience out of the world they've created by not making sense. You don't get title shots in any other sport without earning it. Michael Jordan doesn't win a title without beating Detroit first.
WWE has named the wildly popular AJ Styles as the #1 contender now, which logically will necessitate a Reigns heel turn. He's going to get booed by almost everyone anyway. If anything, WWE has a phenomenal opportunity on it's hands (no pun intended). WCW took over the world with the New World Order in large part because fans had gotten sick of Hulk Hogan's gimmick and wanted a storyline reason to hate him. The NWO gave them just that. Heel turns in response to negative fan reaction are the best ones because they feel real. Just look at New Day.
And down in the basement is the Divas match. And I mean the basement. Like down at the level of watching Wes Johnson try to dribble.
One of the weirdest things about Wrestlemania is the way WWE jams in ways for everyone to be in it, even if it's a gimmick match with no reason for existing and no fan interest. The men now have the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal (which the announcers insist on saying the entire freaking title of every single time) where the 30 or 50 or however many men it is without a booked match just brawl over a meaningless prize. And now the women get....whatever the hell this was.
First off, it's tragic that Paige and Natalya were put in this match. They're worlds more talented than this. Natalya may still be the best pure female wrestler on the roster, even with the NXT girls coming up, and Paige is one of those NXT girls.
Second, this match was billed as a Divas match, which was then immediately invalidated when Lita came out at the end and announced the Divas division was scrapped and replaced by the Women's division. So good job girls, WWE now says everything you just did doesn't matter.
Third, Eva Marie. How the hell did WWE ever think she was going to get a good reaction here? Absolutely stupifying.
If there's an equivalent to Roman Reigns on the women's side, it's Eve Marie. She's all looks. Yes, she has a bangin' body....
...and she also can't wrestle. At all. In fact, she's an active danger in the ring. Like, at Adreian Payne levels. She took two years off from wrestling on TV doing things other than learning how to wrestle, then came back in NXT and proceeded to legitimately injure several of the other women by botching matches. She bruised up Bayley. She nearly dislocated Emma's shoulder. She gave Carmella a concussion by straight up kicking the back of her head. Wrestling isn't UFC. You're not supposed to actually injure your opponent, just make it look like you are. Eva doesn't just lack skill, she doesn't even work safe matches, which is the single worst thing you can do in wrestling.
She's supposed to be a copy of the scantily-clad Attitude Era women like Sunny and Sable, who men loved (or at least loved to look at) and women hated. Nope. Everyone hates Eva. Literally everyone. Men hate her because she's every annoying diva on every bad reality show their girlfriends watch (all the more ironic since Eva is on an actual reality show). And she can't wrestle. Women hate her because she's every annoying bitch on Instagram who gets ahead in life by winning the genetic lottery and buying big fake boobs. And she can't wrestle. Parents hate her because her thing is being the gratuitous sex symbol. And she can't wrestle. Kids hate her because she's not Bayley. Which is really probably the most valid reason of them all. Besides the fact she can't wrestle.
Just as Reigns is symbolic of every problem the WWE has with it's booking, Eva is symbolic of every problem WWE has with its portrayal of women. A pretty face who's there to do other things besides wrestle, and who has no personality except when she's bitching at one of the other pretty faces. It's actually worse than Reigns, because not only is her push undeserved and insulting to fan intelligence, it's also pretty blatantly sexist. Thank the maker the NXT women have saved us, even if they had to fight off a horde of nonsense to get there.
In fact, thank the maker for NXT in general.
WWE holds a PPV nearly every month, but their two big ones are Summerslam in August, and Wrestlemania in late March/early April. Last year (well, 'year' as in WWE year, as in March-to-March) both of those signature shows were thoroughly upstaged by the NXT Takeover shows that opened the weekend festivities on their respective Fridays.
I won't recap all of both shows, but suffice it to say they both stole the spotlight from the main roster shows.
NXT Brooklyn, which was the Friday before Summerslam, was headlined by a ladder match for the NXT title between Kevin Owens and Finn Balor. But the show was dominated by the Women's title match between Sasha Banks and Bayley, which is now universally hailed as the best women's match in the history of wrestling and one of the best overall matches ever.
Banks and Bayley were able to tell a perfect short story, built on a long history together and a couple "real" events that had happened just prior. Bayley, Banks, Charlotte, and Becky Lynch were nicknamed the Four Horsewomen during their time in NXT, as four women who were head and shoulders better than everyone else in the ring and best friends outside of it. Banks had just been called up to the main roster with Lynch and Charlotte, but Bayley had not been. This led to a series of spectacular promos to build the match up where Banks insulted Bayley's talent and look, calling her the "weak link" (true in the sense that of the four, she was the least proven) and saying "no one wants to see a little girl as their champion".
Thus, the match between them was incredibly intense, felt very personal, and told a great story.
Banks is the go-to woman on the roster. She upstaged Charlotte and the Flair name when she won the NXT Women's title from her, then very literally made Lynch and Bayley in her title defense matches. Wrestling moves are a tandem effort that require a lot of work from the guy taking the move to help the guy making the move execute it right, and sell it landing. It's like a dance, and Sasha is the best dance partner out there.
Becky debuted her Steampunk look in her match, giving herself a unique identity, and performed so well the crowd gave her a standing ovation at the end even though she lost. And Bayley proved every doubter wrong at NXT Brooklyn, including myself. It wasn't that any of us thought she was bad. We just didn't think she was good enough to hang with Banks. But when she reversed the Banks Statement, then ended the match with a reverse hurricanrana from the top turnbuckle, we all knew we had just seen come into her own. And because of that, and the insults Banks hurled at her for weeks, her victory was a cathartic experience. Sasha is deeply respected by the fans despite being a heel, in the same way and for the same reasons as Owens, but there was not a single person in Brooklyn who didn't want Bayley to win that match.
The match was so spectacular that it even overshadowed Owens and Balor, who's ladder match would have brought the house down on any other night.
Also, because Banks was headed to the main roster, that match and the 30-minute Ironwoman rematch served as a a touching sendoff for her from the NXT fans, and a show of respect by Banks, as she did the right thing and used her last matches on NXT to put over the heir apparent to her crown.
And at NXT Takover: Dallas, the Friday before Wrestlemania, the entire weekend was stolen from the main roster by the debut match of Japanese phenom Shinsuke Nakamura against Sami Zayn.
YeahOh!!! The #KingOfStrongStyle @ShinsukeN has ARRIVED to @WWENXT! #NXTTakeOver https://t.co/n723rci5t4https://t.co/zuYkn6ICjY— WWE Music Group (@WWEMusic) April 2, 2016
First of all, that is some phenomenal theme music. For many, many years, WWE employed Jim Johnston as their in-house composer, and he created some of the most iconic themes in the industry, including Jericho's Walls, Stone Cold's Broken Glass, and, of course, the Undertaker's Death March.
But damn, WWE's new guys (they go by the moniker CFO$) are absolutely killing it. The music they've put together for the NXT guys is tremendous - powerful, catchy, instantly recognizable to the fans and fitting to the personas of the wrestlers. Rollins, Zayn, Owens, Balor, Banks....so, so good.
Nakamura is one of the most popular and decorated wrestlers outside of the WWE. He's a legend in Japan, where he's known as the King of Strong Style. In technical terms, strong style is a form of mixed martial arts wrestling that incorporates a lot of stiff strikes and Judo-like holds. In layman's terms, it's kicking your opponent in the head, hard and often.
The match Nakamura put on with Zayn will go down as one of the all-time classics. Perfect, from beginning to end. It was made all the more amazing because both Nakamura and Zayn worked as faces, which is an incredibly difficult rope to walk in wrestling where the episodic story side of the business fairly demands a good guy and bad guy. Zayn is wildly popular in his own right - he was known as the heart and soul of NXT during his time there. NXT did a great job of setting up the match in a way that fans could simply enjoy it, and feel satisfied regardless of the outcome.
Like Banks at NXT Brooklyn, this match at Dallas served as a send-off for Sami Zayn, who had largely carried NXT as its star rose, and embodied its spirit more than anyone else. And like Banks, Zayn used his last hurrah to put over NXT's next big thing. Finn Balor's still the champion, but there's no question Shinsuke will be its biggest attraction very soon. Zayn and Nakamura tore down Dallas with this match, and Shinsuke instantly became WWE's brightest rising star.
And the contrast between these matches and WWE's PPVs couldn't be starker. These two matches - and their respective shows, and NXT in general - are completely free of everything that's wrong about their big brother. There's great story before and during the matches, the matches themselves are well-crafted and well-executed, and the talents are all in places appropriate to their standing. No arbitrary pushes or matches, no strange team ups or match stipulations, no stupid stories or lack thereof. No nonsense.
Bayley/Banks was better than anything at Summerslam, with the only main card match coming close being the Cena/Seth Rollins title-for-title match. And Nakamura/Zayn obliterated everything at Wrestlemania. It made a mockery, quite frankly, of the main roster talent. The only reason WWE avoided total embarrassment is because NXT's developmental status keeps it out of the consciousness of the casual fan and casual media hawk. If USA Today cared about Takeover the same way it does about Wrestlemania, not only would WWE have to deal with headlines about how their biggest show of the year closed with 100,000 people booing their hand-picked champion, they'd also have to deal with everyone talking about how Wrestlemania wasn't even the best show of the weekend.
And NXT's superiority extended into the day-after RAW as well, which has become the time WWE calls up the next round of NXT talents to the main roster. This year delivered, and then some.
Sami Zayn technically didn't join the main roster until this RAW, but made his main roster debut before Wrrestlemania, so he wasn't a surprise to anyone. However, the other call ups came as big surprises.
Baron Corbin debuted in Wrestlemania itself, winning the Battle Royal. It's a shame he didn't get to do his entrance, as it's a great production, but he should carve out a good place nonetheless. He's still pretty limited as a wrestler, but has a definite persona that really works for him, that actively hides his inexperience.
Also debuting was Apollo Crews, who joined NXT after a much-heralded stint with Dragon Gate. Crews has charisma and skill, and is absurdly athletic. He's got one of the prettiest drop kicks you'll ever see, and his signature move is a gorilla press into a standing back moonsault.
I followed Crews in Dragon Gate, where he was known by his real name Uhaa. He has all the makings of a superstar.
I'm concerned by the manner he was called up in. He's a very recent NXT signing, and other than an upset battle royal win leading to a great title match with Balor right after he joined, Crews was never put into a place of importance in NXT. It begs the question of why he was there at all.
Not only that, but his music, entrance, and promos are all very cookie cutter stuff. Generic beats, standard lighting, blah blah blah. The music/entrance combo is monumentally important in wrestling, because it's the ethos that tells the audience "hey, this guy is a big effing deal." NXT has really brought back the showmanship of it with Owens and Zayn and Nakamura. Finn Balor's entrance is legitimately on par with Edge and the Undertaker.
Apollo Crews gets none of that. He gets the John Cena default bit, which makes me really worry he's going to be mismanaged into destitution. I think one of the biggest reasons WWE called him up so quickly is to address the (very valid) complaints or racism in their booking. Mark Henry very briefly held the WHC in 2011, when he was well past his prime. Other than that, WWE hasn't had a serious black heavyweight contender since Bobby Lashley left in 2008, and serious black heavyweight champ since Booker T in 2006.
It would be very Vince McMahon-ish to react to that by micromanaging Crews' push, which is usually how the Roman Reigns/Eva Marie thing happens. Granted, Crews is incredibly talented and genuinely charismatic, but success in wrestling is as much a function of timing and creativity as it is hard work. The wrong push at the wrong time - or missing the right time - will doom Crews every bit as much as it has Reigns.
The third call up I'm excited about is Enzo and Cass. Who should have been called up a lot sooner, given the sorry state the main roster tag division is in. I actually was hoping they'd be called up when New Day was still heel. They have an incredibly fan-friendly entrance bit, and the all-around promo skills to stand toe-to-toe with New Day's antics.
But I understand WWE not wanting to risk the popular new guys against the popular mainstays. Someone would have been knocked down a peg, and they desperately need New Day in particular to remain beloved.
WWE's main roster and programming are basically being dominated by NXT talents now. Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns went through NXT and came up to the main roster together. Paige set the new standard for the women big time, and now the division has NXT girls all alone at the top of the card. WWE's most compelling (and sensible) storyline remains the ongoing feud between Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, who also are stealing every show they're on in their individual matches. Big E and Xavier Woods are NXT talents who own the tag team division. Cesaro is in the IC title picture. Kalisto holds the US title. Everything good happening on RAW and Smackdown has to do with men and women coming up from NXT and bringing pieces of its awesomeness with them.
And still yet to join the main roster are Finn Balor, Bayley, and Samoa Joe, who, like Crews, shouldn't have been in NXT at all. He's held over a dozen championships in the biggest non-WWE promotions - TNA, RoH, and IWGP (New Japan). He made his name against one of WWE's biggest past stars, Kurt Angle. He should have gone straight to the main roster, the way AJ Styles has.
But maybe the most satisfying part is that despite all the call ups, NXT still has superior talent wrestling superior matches. Shinsuke Nakamura is a worthy prince to Finn Balor's throne. Bayley has already dropped the Women's title to Asuka. NXT still has the best tag team in the company in Jason Jordan and Chad Gable. Gable in particular is stupidly good - a former Greco-Roman Olympian (and Minnesotan!) who puts on clinics in wrestling technique, bracketed by moments of unbelievable brilliance.
I've never understood why McMahon and Dunn despise NXT so much. Popularity? Jealousy? I don't know. Vince handed NXT to HHH and Hunter's turned it into a vastly superior promotion that Vince now hates acknowledging, despite it giving his main roster its best talent and stories. If Vince were really as smart as he claims to be, he'd learn from NXT, not try to suppress it, because it's outdoing his main roster in every way right now.