HANDICAP MATCH FOR THE WWE WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE:
AJ Styles(c) vs. Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn - 6.75/10
If Owens & Zayn win they will be allowed to be "co-champions." You might as well just put a big sign on the screen that says "THIS IS NOT REAL" in big letters. They did a good job with the story, but they were limited by the fact that no one really thought Owens & Zayn had a chance. That's all there really was to this.
OWENS, ZAYN, & SHANE BACKSTAGE - Bad. Owens & Zayn claim they got screwed by a referee's mistake. Shane does not refute this, and then acts like a dick. So basically this angle will keep going with nothing having been solved.
2 OUT OF 3 FALLS MATCH FOR THE WWE SMACKDOWN TAG TEAM TITLES:
The Usos(c) vs. Shelton Benjamin & Chad Gable - 7/10
Well... that was certainly unexpected. I liked how the first fall subverted expectations by taking so long, and thus taking nearfalls that would seem like sure things in WWE's usual pattern of booking 2 out of 3 Falls matches into exciting nearfalls again because you kept expecting the fall to come but it never did. What I didn't like was the finish. I just don't get the point of Gable & Benjamin losing here. In my dreams we maybe get Benjamin vs. Gable at Mania but I know that won't happen and the SD tag division can't afford to lose any teams so breaking these guys up is not an option, so why did they lose here? Putting the belts on them would have made the division feel fresh again, but instead it's turning into a New Japan situation where things always default back to the same one or two teams.
MEN'S ROYAL RUMBLE - 8/10
Balor and Rusev started us off. More guys came in. Corbin got eliminated by Balor and got angry so he dragged a few different people under the ropes and beat them up for a bit. He nailed Slater with a clothesline on the ramp as Heath made his entrance which was the start of a funny bit where guys would keep attacking Heath on their way down to the ring and eh finally got a big pop when he was able to make it into the ring. He then got a bit surprise elimination on Sheamus in a spot that was designed to look like Heath himself was about to be that guy who gets eliminated right away... and then Heath got eliminated soon after that. I thought all of that was very well-done.
On the subject of Sheamus (and Cesaro, and Rollins- we'll get to Sami Zayn in a moment), I really don't like guys in the Rumble also being in another match because it begs the question why, say Jason Jordan or Bobby Roode or Mojo Rawley or The Usos or anyone else who wrestled in a different match wasn't also in. Why, from a kayfabe point of view, would WWE book some guys twice but not others, and why would they stick a random dude like The Hurricane in the Royal Rumble instead the United States Champion?
As for Zayn... I absolutely hate the "if I beat a guy up I get to take his number" thing because it makes no sense, and here it was even worse because you'd think Shane McMahon would come out and put a stop to it or something considering his feud ongoing feud with Owens and Zayn but he just let it happen. Also, I will be very disappointed if we don't get Tye Dillinger vs. Shinsuke Nakamura in an Over The Top Rope Challenge on this Tuesday's Smackdown so that Dillinger receives the opportunity he is rightfully due.
The other thing I really didn't like was Kofi's spot, which I didn't like for two reasons. First of all, having your friends help you like that is heelish. There's not much difference between what New Day did and what the Miz-tourage tried to do. I also thought that the plate of pancakes counting as not touching the floor was stupid. Something that thin shouldn't count. If you're going to count that then you might as well count the wrestlers' boots as meaning that their actual feet aren't touching the floor. That big jump was cool, though.
This year's surprises were Andrade "Cien" Almas, who was in there for a long time but didn't feel like he did anything important, Hurricane, who did a fun spot with Cena, ADAM COLE BAY-BAY!, who got a huge pop but his presence makes no sense because he lost last night so if anyone form NXT deserves this spot it's Aleister Black... and a mega-pop for Rey Mysterio Jr. at lucky #27. Rey looked GREAT and I'd be interested in seeing him at least return for Mania season if not one or two more matches throughout the year. Hell...use Rey to make a new Cruiserweight star!
The other "surprise" was the Ziggler return, which was really bad. He walks out of the company, then comes back six weeks later with the best spot in the Rumble? Why would they even let him in after he walked out? And when he got to the ring he was the same old Dolph Ziggler again and he did some stuff and got to his cursory elimination on undercard geek Oldust (not a typo), then got dumped by a real star in Finn Balor, all in less than one hundred seconds... and five minutes later I had already forgotten it happened. What was even the point of this?
Our final six were Rey, Cena, Orton, Roman, Balor, and Nakamura, which is definitely a sextet of HUGE names. This was narrowed down to Cena, Roman, Balor, and Nakamura for the final four portion, which felt like it went on FOREVER. It felt like they were trying to have a great four-way match in the middle of this Royal Rumble except that it's a Royal Rumble so they couldn't leave the ring and there were no pinfalls or submissions to build to and for us to get excited about. The crowd made their feelings known in a less... disruptive way than usual, which was to cheer for Balor and Nakamura and boo whenever Roman or Cena attacked one of them, but rather than dead-heat chants they mostly just stayed quiet when Cena and Roman were facing off against each other. WWE made good use of the crowd's predictable reactions by structuring the remaining eliminations so that Cena eliminated Balor, bringing us to the one babyface Nakamura vs. the two "heels," then having Nakamura eliminate the "heel" Cena to bring us down to one "heel" vs. one babyface who happened to be the two guys everyone thought were the only real possibilities going in, with Nakamura emerging victorious because 1) this way the crowd wouldn't sh*t on everything from here on out, 2)he needs the win more than Roman 3) Roman needs to slow down with this Royal Rumble sh*t anyway because at this point at age 32 and after a mere five Royal Rumbles he has already eliminated twenty-seven guys, won once, and his other four finishes are one third-place finish and three second place finishes. Much like with Sasha and Charlotte on the women's side, they need to slow down with the rate they're giving this guy sh*t or else he'll wind up with records that are astronomical and will be impossible for anyone to ever break.
AUTHORITY FIGURES BACKSTAGE - The same obnoxiously-scripted, petty, needlessly confrontational crap we always get when they're together. Even worse, it was Bryan and particularly Shane being the jerks here, while Steph and Kurt were gracious losers. Please remember that this is the same sort of thing that Shane claims upset him so much that he and his wrestlers launched an unprovoked gang-assault on the other show. So it looks like Shane is willing to give it but can't take it, which just makes him look like an even bigger asshole.
WWE RAW TAG TEAM TITLE MATCH:
Jason Jordan & Seth Rollins(c) vs. Sheamus & Cesaro - 4.75/10
Jason Jordan gets takne out on the outside so we're in yet another handicap situation. Rollins got beaten down for a long time but had no one to tag. Finally Jordan got back up on the turnbuckle and Rollins tagged him in... and Jordan blinked a few times, looked confused, and then tagged himself out again and went to talk to the doctors, resulting in Rollins getting pinned. So the angle is that Jordan had a concussion (though of course they never said the word) and thus couldn't wrestle so he tagged back out... and am I supposed to be mad at him for this?
WWE UNIVERSAL TITLE MATCH:
Brock Lesnar(c) (w/Paul Heyman) vs. Kane vs. Braun Strowman - 8.75/10
I motion this match forever be referred to in the annals of history as "The Monster Mash." This was three large men causing brutal and vicious carnage in an attempt to kill each other and win a title. After the match, Braun shouted at Brock that he didn't beat him, which in most companies would lead to another match between these guys, but with the way WWE does things I'm honestly not sure if this was intended to lead to another match or it was just a clumsy way to try to protect Braun as much as possible by explicitly pointing out that he didn't get pinned right after the match ended.
WOMEN'S HISTORY VIDEO - This would have been fine if they hadn't started it off with that insufferable Steph speech. Great. Now we've got Maria Menunous repeating all of their crap. She was here to be the guest ring announcer. Steph got zero cheers and a couple of boos. Meanwhile, Cole told us that she was "a trailblazer in the Women's Division." HOW? Bliss and Charlotte are out here just to sit there. Way to treat your champions as big stars, WWE.
WOMEN'S ROYAL RUMBLE - 7.5/10
While I was able to turn my stream of consciousness thoughts into actual paragrpahs for the men's Royal Rumble (two years in a row now!), I wasn't able to do so for the women, so what I'm going to do is post those thoughts (lightly edited to make them easier to read), then follow up with some paragraphs of overall thoughts, plus some thoughts on the announcing for both this match and the men's Royal Rumble.
If there is anything I don't cover in these, it's likely something I've got some in-depth comments on in the paragraphs below.
- No Sara Del Rey, either at #1 so she can soak up the well-deserved thanks form the crowd, or at any point in the Rumble. That made me quite sad. #1 is Sasha Banks. I was hoping they'd let her start out with some cool epic showdown with a big name from the past like Trish or Lita or Beth Phoenix, but instead we got Sasha against her fellow Horsewoman (albeit the Marina Shafir of the NXT Horsewomen) Becky Lynch.
- Lita got a big pop at #5. She almost broke her neck and killed herself when she did that Litasault... and the crowd chanted "YOU'VE STILL GOT IT!" at her like a bunch of morons.
- Kairi Sane got a much smaller one than I expected her to get when she came out at #6. Michael Cole actually referenced STARDOM!
- Dana Brooke got no reaction on her entrance, so she did a flip. I laughed. She hit Kairi with some absolutely ATROCIOUS shoulder thrusts in the corner. These looked SOOO bad. Then DANA BROOKE ELIMINATED KAIRI SANE!
- Torrie Wilson is out next. Where did her boobs go? I also question how you can try to tout this as a celebration of how women are now being treated like athletes in the WWE and then bring back someone like Torrie Wilson for it. Lita was hot and a great wrestler. Trish got hired to be eye candy but she became a great wrestler. Nattie was probably hired mostly because she's hot and is a Hart, but she happened to already be a great wrestler. Jacqueline had some big f*cking inflatable balloon titties, but she always came off as being, as they were so fond of saying "tough as nails." You could have made her a member of the APA and no one would have even blinked at it. But all Torrie Wilson ever had going for her, from her first moment in the business until the day she retired, was that she was smokin' hot. That was it. It seems to me that she's the type of woman that they specifically should have avoided bringing in for this.
- I popped huge for Molly Holly. Everyone in the building popped huge for the Molly-Go-Round.
- Lana got "RUSEV DAY!" chants. Next out is Michelle McCool... and here come the Taker chants. After Ruby Riot, out comes Vickie Guerrero (to an inexplicably loud pop) and she's getting "EDDIE!" chants. Hooray for the Women's/Divas' R/Evolution. How dumb are they that they didn't see this coming?
- Vickie screamed "EXCUSE ME" for a long time and demanded that everyone listen to her, but instead the other women just beat her up, tossed her out, and kept fighting. Weird. I've seen almost this exact same thing in a dream multiple times over the past month except it was Steph in Vickie's place.
- Kelly Kelly got a shockingly big pop. *Copy and paste comments about Torrie Wilson here.*
- Jacqueline is #21. I'm sorry, but I just can't get excited for her. Between years of Mike Tenay telling me that her various returns to TNA are the biggest thing ever only for her to last several weeks of middling storylines and bad matches before leaving again followed by WWE inducting her into their Hall of Fame despite a career that wouldn't make it into the proverbial "Hall of Very Good" simply because their policy is to induct one woman every year regardless of whether or not they have a deserving candidate have made it completely impossible for me to care about this woman. It's not her fault, but that's just the way it is.
- Ember Moon at 23- Her arm heavily taped so that's good. More thoughts coming on her later (*SPOILER ALERT*: I HATED this).
- Naomi did the Kofi spot... but it's a less impressive combination of two Kofi spots we've already seen. Then she got dumped right away.
- Beth Phoenix at 24. She got a good pop and had a great slug-fest with Nia that got "THIS IS AWESOME!" chants. Nattie helped her knock Nia down and I honestly wasn't sure if Nia was supposed to be eliminated by them but f*cked up and went over the second rope and not the top one or not.
- Nattie hugs Beth, then turns on her and dumps her. That made me sad.
- Everyone keeps spending a bunch of time hanging out on the outside so I have no idea who is legal. That's really annoying.
- Asuka at 25. I was expecting a bigger pop.
- Oh my G-d that bump Ember took looked cartoonish and ridiculous. Asuka came off like a total dick laughing at Ember's injury.
- Nikki Bella at 27. She gets some polite cheering, then "John Cena sucks!" chants. Then Brie Bella at 28... and she immediately gets "YES!" chants. Again... so much for women's empowerment when the fans are reacting to a chunk of these women only in relation to their husbands.
- Bayley is in at 29 to barely any reaction. That's really, really sad. She did nothing and her only elimination was the gang-elimination of Nia Jax.
- The fans are chanting for Ronda at 30 but it turns out it's Trish Stratus instead so she managed not to get booed for being Not Ronda.
- FINALLY we get a f*cking ROAR spot tonight!
- Trish and Mickie facing off again was cool. So was Trish and Nattie facing off.
- Sasha betrays Bayley and eliminates her!
- Now it's Sasha vs. Trish! And Sasha eliminates Trish! BOO!
- The final four are Sasha, Asuka... and the Bella Twins.
- Trish and Asuka came off as stars on a much bigger level than everyone else.
- Sasha betrays Asuka to make it three-on-one.
- Brie's reactions to everything Sasha did/had done to her were hilarious. Both Bellas were GREAT in the spot where Sasha got eliminated, but I don't feel bad Sasha at all. I feel like she got exactly what she deserved.
- The Bellas and Asuka are left so they double-team her. Nikki betrays Brie to eliminate her.
- Asuka eliminates Nikki to win. Cool elimination, too. I don't think we've ever seen that before.
Both the strengths and weaknesses of this match stem from the fact such a large portion of the participants weren't regular members of the roster. Of the thirty women in this match, only eighteen of them were regular members of the Raw or Smackdown rosters, and included in that count is Lana, who rarely ever wrestles. Even if we give them some credit because they assumed they would have both Alicia Fox and Paige before losing them both to injury, that's a full third of the field that would not be, in essence, one-off appearances.
Despite adding the star-power of Trish, Lita, and Beth as well as other fun "blast from the past" names like Molly Holly and the return Nikki Bella to the usual field of Horsewomen, Asuka, and Nattie, the result of this was that it really felt like it was a match full of undercard dorks. This is mostly due to the piss-poor booking of the women's divisions (and especially the undercards), of course, but it wasn't just the current roster that suffered from this. Yes, Torrie Wilson was a staple of Smackdown from 2001-2005 to the point where nearly everything that happened involving women on that show revolved around her, and as we established earlier, she's got a rockin' bod... but as a wrestler, she was completely unimportant. During her entire seven year tenure in WWE, she not only never won the title (the only other women in the modern era I can think of who was in the company as active competitors for that long without ever winning the belt was Rosa Mendes, who had major substance abuse problems and was also terrible), but over that entire span of time Torrie only ever had a grand total ONE title shot. Even Jacqueline, who they put into their Hall of Fame, felt like an afterthought for a good chunk of her tenure. Compared to the men's match, this felt like it was mostly a jobber battle royale with almost no real names in it.
One of the ways they tried to add some star-power to this was, of course, the two women from NXT. Kairi looked great as always, but her time in the ring was mostly forgettable and she was eliminated by Dana "I'm so low on the totem pole I'm basically a manager now" Brooke and didn't even last five minutes, so how did this help her at all?
Then there is Ember Moon. She came out with her arm taped up from the night before and they stuck her in there with Nia Jax and she did some stuff with her and looked very brave... but we already knew she was brave! How about having her sell her f*cking injuries by NOT wrestling the next day to make Shayna Baszler look like more of a killer? And then to have her get eliminated by ASUKA? It just hammered home the idea that Ember isn't really worthy and never would have become champion if Asuka hadn't gone up to the main roster because there is no way Ember could have ever beaten her. Ember Moon came out of this Rumble much worse off than she looked going in, and her presence did not benefit anyone because we already knew Asuka could beat her. This was a HUGE mistake.
Now onto the positives. This match was f*cking weird. I know that doesn't sound like a positive, but stick with me here. The entrants here felt so hodgepodge that you had no idea what you might see next. This was like doing a Royal Rumble in Smackdown versus Raw with all of the legends unlocked and the entrants set to random. William Regal is making his way down to the ring while on one side of the ring Hulk Hogan is facing off against John Cena while on the other side you've got Spike Dudley and DDP teaming up to try to eliminate your poorly-made Kobashi CAW. This match was so random it was FUN!
All of the returning women looked and acted enough like their old selves that this felt like some sort of Avengers Forever of post-2000 women's wrestling in WWE. We got the stars of the future like Kairi, Ember, and Ruby, and badass undefeated Asuka at the height of her powers, and Nia Jax having a slug-fest with Beth Phoenix. We got fully-heel Bella Twins and Kelly Kelly did her thing and Michelle McCool was randomly dominating the match. Molly did her Molly-Go-Round, Lita did her Litasault, and Torrie Wilson was there, and Trish Stratus was blonde again and she was TRISH F*CKING STRATUS again and she was, the best babyface this division has ever had. We got to see Trish Stratus face off against Mickie James again and face off for the first time against Nattie and do a double Stratusfaction to the Bella Twins and then get eliminated by Sasha Banks! And right after SASHA TURNED ON BAYLEY!
Can we talk about Sasha Banks for a moment here? She's got to go heel after this, right? She turned on Bayley, then she eliminated Trish, then she betrayed Asuka to instead beat her down three-on-one with the totally heel Bellas. If she doesn't it will just play into the "plucked from various points in time" feel of this match, but I really think she needs to. With Asuka and/or Ronda there is nothing for her on the babyface side, but they need an effective #2 heel, and making Sasha that heel would allow Bayley and Mickie to get more time as babyfaces. Hell, a feud with Sasha resulting from Sasha turning on her could even help revitalize Bayley.
Now on to the announcing. When Steph told us that Sasha was "making history" by being the first entrant into the match I was prepared for the worst. I grabbed a pad and a pen to keep track of the amount of times they mentioned either "making history" or the "Women's Evolution" (in hindsight I wish I had kept track of the use of the word "trailblazer," too), and over the course of the nearly hour-long match the grand total was... eleven. Combined ("Making history" 7 and "Women's Evolution" 4). And that's for all three announcers. Steph was most of them, but she wasn't the only one. It could have been a lot worse.
While the branding talk was kept to a thankfully low level (although certain moments like Becky being described as "a trailblazer for the Women's Evolution" did make me scream), the thing that did annoy the f*ck out of me was the way their need to use it as a framework to put everyone over became predictably self-contradictory. After all, if Alundra Blayze was a "trailblazer" back in 1994 and we were always told that Jacqueline was "tough as nails" and Molly was "one of the forerunners of the Women's Evolution, fighting stereotypes of female Superstars" back in the early 2000s and Trish and Lita main evented Raw in 2004 and Beth Phoenix was competing against men in the 2010 Royal Rumble and "If there's anyone who has ever helped blaze this path it's Natalya" and she's been on the main roster for almost a decade now then what, exactly, makes this Divas'/Women's R/Evolution that they spent so much time pushing any different from what came before it?
Now, we all know the answer to that, of course. It's the fact that the women aren't being referred to by the demeaning "Divas" moniker and they are being given time to have good matches and are being given serious storylines and their athleticism is being emphasized over their sex appeal... but WWE will never say that on the air because to do exposes the flaw in this whole branding strategy. They're trying to portray themselves as a good progressive company fighting against the evil sexist patriarchy, but even a cursory examination of the situation reveals that the evil sexist oppressors in this case were WWE themselves. That's why this whole thing started not slowly and organically like other fan-driven directional changes to a wrestling product, but rather it started when Stephanie McMahon showed up to Raw one night and declared that there would be a Divas Revolution and snapped her fingers and magically there was one in full force right away.
If they had just done this quietly and organically like how Triple H did it in NXT (which is the real nexus of this change, but they'll never acknowledge that because it doesn't give Steph the credit and doesn't play into their branding game) and had Vince or Hunter say on one of their conference calls that "yeah, we screwed up in the past and we've been short-changing these very talented women but as you can see we've made efforts to stop that and we're going to do right by them from now on" it would have been fine, but because of WWE's inability to take public responsibility for their own screw-ups that was never an option, and when you combine that with their need to constantly blow things out of proportion in order to fit the whatever their narrative of the moment happens to be, we get an hour of announcers telling me about how this Women's Evolution is this great new thing they're doing, and yet somehow almost all of the women who have wrestled for them from the beginning of the promotion all the way to the moment this thing was declared have also somehow all been blazing the trail for it.
Overall Steph wasn't particularly bad, but she wasn't good, either. She felt less like a guest commentator in the "someone doing commentary to get over their angle" sense and more like a guest commentator in the "random celebrity is doing commentary and doesn't embarrass everyone" sense. The stuff she said (mostly) wasn't dumb, but it also wasn't usually particularly insightful, either.
The one who really got to me tonight was Michael Cole. Every time someone would come out, Cole would say "Hey guys, here is an interesting fact about *insert name of wrestler here*," using the word "interesting" pretty much every single time. Needless to say, the information Cole provided was never interesting. I think the worst of them was Sarah Logan, whose "interesting background" Cole touted. That background turned out to be that "she's from Kentucky and considers herself a backwoods girl," which isn't so much "interesting" as it is literally the only thing we know about her character at all, and she's been on the main roster for two months now.
The single worst line of the night was Cole's comment upon Kairi Sane's entrance when, after telling us that she has a great elbow drop (which Steph spuriously claimed was "unique,"), Cole explained to us that "She loves boating; hence her yacht persona." I've spoken in the past about my great dislike for Kevin Kelly and Mike Tenay because they don't feel like announcers on the wrestling show I'm watching but instead feel like someone the promotion has assigned to sit on the couch with me and try to convince me that everything the promotion does is intriguing. Michael Cole tonight was similar, except that rather than trying to convince me that things were interesting, he was trying to ensure beyond a shadow of a doubt that I understood every single thing... and while that might sound good in theory, the problem is that, like Kevin Kelly and Mike Tenay, he sounded like he was doing that from the couch in my living room rather than through playing his role of the announcer of this sporting event.
The other jarring thing about the announcing tonight was Cole constantly throwing statistics at us. The fact that these statistics were often Cole's formulaically-presented "interesting" facts certainly made them feel grating, but the real issue with them is that... well... this is WWE. They don't give a sh*t about the most basic of statistics like wins and losses! And yet tonight they've got Cole throwing statistics and probabilities at me all night? It was very off-putting.
Oh. Right. There's still the...
POST-MATCH SEGMENT - As Asuka starts to celebrate, Bliss and Charlotte finally get to do something, which is... get in the ring to stand next to her. Not jump her to try to warn her off of challenging them and not even try to congratulate her. They just stand there in a line all facing the hard-cam in a totally unnatural manner.
Then Ronda Rousey came out. People went understandably nuts, because not having her in the Rumble did, in fact, make people think she wasn't here. She mostly ignored the two champions and offered Asuka a handshake, which Asuka slapped a way because Asuka, the babyface, is a tremendous dick. Ronda points at the WrestleMania sign, and she's Ronda f*cking Rousey so we all know that she's going to main event WrestleMania, too. In other words, this thing that they've built the past month and a half of TV around and which Asuka just worked so hard for is being handed to Ronda merely for walking in the door, completely devaluing it, and pooping on Asuka's moment. There was no reason not to wait a month for her debut.
Overall this was a very fun show from WWE, despite some bizarre booking. This also seemed to mark something of a change in the relationship between WWE and the Royal Rumble crowds with the crowds not going out of their way to sh*t on things and WWE basically accepting that they can't get the crowd to react the way they want them to for certain people and booking the wrestlers in positions to fit the crowd's reactions to them rather than rubbing in the fans' faces that Roman Reign is going to be the top babyface no matter what- if only for one night. The women's Royal Rumble was definitely a success, but the formula that propelled it to success this year is not one that I think will be able to continue working in the future. Fortunately for WWE, I have some thoughts on how to improve their Royal Rumbles in the coming years, which I will post in an article (hopefully) later this week.