This week I’m going to shake things up and do something a little different. In honor of so many NXT stars getting called up to the main roster (and, as always, with an eye toward wrestling’s long and amazingly entertaining history) I will be starting a column I call The Five Count. Before you ask, it’s definite gimmick infringement and creative plagiarism of the highest degree, as King Kong Bundy routinely asked for the referee to count five when squashing some jobber. I do this with absolutely no twinges of remorse, as just about everything in professional wrestling has been cobbled together from pieces of the past, so why not this column as well? In addition to being able to give KKB a shout out (who can forget his acting turn as a relative of the Bundys from Married With Children?) five is coincidentally just about the highest I can count when under the influence of the dangerous elixir known as sweet tea vodka. In terms of what to expect, I’ll mainly be discussing the current headlines, but I’ll try to keep the mix interesting. Let’s get started, shall we?
- April Showers Bring May Releases
If you’ve followed World Wrestling Entertainment for any length of time, you’re no doubt aware of a frightening little phenomenon known as spring cleaning. For the benefit of those that are just tuning in, let’s recap. The WWE possesses a ridiculous amount of talent within its various rosters and incarnations, and within said amount lies a major problem that will never go away. That issue of course is television time. With so many guys and gals jockeying for position and presence, some folks are unfortunately going to fall through the cracks. Whether that’s the fault of the talent, the creative agents dispensed with making them more interesting, or the fanbase for failing to adequately get behind them is a debate for the ages. Many times it’s frankly a combination of the three. Of the eight individuals handed their walking papers last week, the least surprising of the bunch was likely King Barrett. Readers of my little corner here at TJR will likely remember a recent column of mine decrying the rumor that Barrett had finished his time with WWE, and none too soon. Wade’s tale is a cautionary one, and should be required reading for all prospective Titan Tower hires. Even when you do everything you’re asked to do, you may still fall victim to the hatchet man. Major angles and championship reigns are important, but WWE reserves the right to decide it’s done with you. And so it went.
Barrett’s waning hours in WWE are the stuff of nightmares. You may be hard pressed to recall when everything was fresh and new with Wade flipping his Bad News Barrett persona over to weekly programming from the cyber world, but I assure you it did in fact occur. You may be outright shocked when I appeal to you to discover that Wade’s angle of rising over the stage at a podium to deliver tired clichés and lambastes was one of the better things that happened each week. That’s a fair reaction, but my aim is true. To go from that to being tossed into a group of Batman enemies called the League of Nations is a sad state of affairs indeed. We never really learned why Barrett got together with Sheamus, Rusev and Del Rio, and in truth it came off as a silly collection of the absurdist caricatures from Mike Tyson’s Punch Out, but it didn’t matter because they didn’t matter. Knowing that Barrett was rumored to go sayonara might have helped explain him not appearing very frequently with the rest of the LOD, or it could just have been another in the long series of ongoing examples of Connecticut’s wacky booking bonanza.
Barrett, though, at least was receiving semi-regular instructions from above. The same can’t be said for most of the rest of the list, which when read together sounds like a backstage vignette where Ron Simmons interrupts to crowd acclaim. Santino was used for spot appearances after retiring for all intents and purposes, El Torito hadn’t been seen since Los Matadores scrapped their lame Tito Santana-meets-Eyes Wide Shut gimmick in favor of becoming a Fodor’s travel guide, Hornswoggle was ostensibly still under the ring checking ancestry.com for updates on his chances of running Raw as a McMahon Family heir, and Zeb Colter found himself out of an on-camera job when Alberto Del Rio bolted for the aforementioned League. Zeb will have no problem getting another job, as he’s actually got a ton of experience booking and wrestling, but he might be a bit dismayed to learn that a lot of his Jack Swagger platform is actually in use during the REAL election season. Creative is best when it takes its cues from reality, but when reality is taking its cues from wrestling creative, well…
Two more talents bid adieu to their future endeavors were Cameron, who unfortunately didn’t survive to see the birth of the Womens division. While she was a focal point of the early Total Divas episodes (nothing should spell job security like a good crossover with a network), injuries and other issues pushed her to the sidelines and she was unable to get back. Ditto Alex Riley, who had some good things going in NXT following being dropped from the main roster after feuding with his former mentor The Miz. Riley always struck me as the guy who just missed his chance to be in the Spirit Squad or an Archie comics reboot, but he’s got talent and he’ll land on his feet. That leaves the Five Count’s favorite son, Damien Sandow. To say that canning Sandow was a mistake is the understatement to end all understatements. Sandow got a crowd reaction every time he appeared, no matter how brief it was. And he got that reaction no matter what lunatic angle the company he worked for booked him in, from coming to the ring in a bevy of Halloween costumes to teaming with another castoff in Curtis Axel. That reaction increased in size and scope to the point where WWE commentators actually had to mention it, usually in a tone of scornful derision, and perhaps that’s what irritated Vince and friends the most. The irony that it organically happened when their forced attempts failed likely escapes them. You can choose to be upset about this, and rightfully so, but I prefer to remain an optimist in this situation. Sandow at least doesn’t have to sit behind the curtain wondering why his boss can’t figure out how to use a wrestler of his talent. Start placing your bets as to the victims of the next WWE closet cleaning. And don’t be too popular…unless they want you to be.
- Trick or Treat
One of the big benefits to having the WWE Network is that you have the ability to watch anything you want from their extensive library, and that can’t be overlooked. Sometimes combing through the archives yields extremely satisfactory results, and often times it makes you more than a little wistful given the current state of affairs. I’ve had the privilege of watching some of the best wrestlers in the world live, many of them wrestling in ECW for little more than love of the game. It’s an experience that I can never truly explain, but I’ve spent the better part of my wrestling writing career trying to match their enthusiasm by half. Two of those talents that will always have my admiration and respect are Rey Mysterio and the late Eddie Guerrero. Their fates have been entwined almost since the start, it seems, and some of their best work (and there’s plenty of that, natch) was against each other. I was reminded of that all over again when I took a spin through the Network archives and settled on WCW’s Halloween Havoc 1997. The MGM Grand was the setting for one of the best matches I’ve ever seen, namely Guerrero putting his Cruiserweight Championship on the line against Mysterio’s mask.
The match had a bit of everything, and featured both men at the absolute top of their game. Eddie’s heel persona was hugely over here, and would serve as the building blocks for the character he made famous when he went north. Much like you’re seeing now, a major miscalculation of wrestling promoters is that cruiserweights can’t draw. Let this match dispel that myth forever. Both guys showed why they were the stuff world champions are made of. The match itself highlighted just how well the two combatants knew each other, as their timing was spot on throughout while delivering some serious technical wrestling. The “spot” of the match is definitely Mysterio performing a senton over the rope into a huracanrana on Eddie outside, but believe me when I tell you it’s far from the only highlight. How many guys have you seen deliver a backflip into a DDT off the top? You’ll see it here. When Rey overcomes the odds to claim the gold, Eddie’s post-match assault is perfect. On top of all that, let’s give a mention to the commentary and background provided by Mike Tenay during the match. You can critique WCW for plenty, but having his input was a great decision and something WWE could learn from as they present their next generation.
While that match is an absolute must-see and a great reminder about just how excellent wrestling can be, a gentle word of caution that the same does not apply to the rest of the show. I didn’t remember much about the card besides that encounter, and I quickly learned why. I’ll say precious little about Disco Inferno taking on recent Hall of Famer Jacqueline, which is about as much of a compliment as I can pay it, except that respectfully Jackie was no Chyna despite WCW’s attempts to the contrary and somehow the match took ten minutes, about six of which is Disco on the floor. Curt Hennig and Ric Flair had a decent match, as you’d expect, and Randy Savage and DDP followed suit. Then the main event happened. Hollywood Hogan took on Rowdy Roddy Piper in the world’s worst looking cage, with the stipulation being that the loser wouldn’t be able to answer the referee’s ten count. On top of all that, Sting was not allowed to be in the building courtesy of Eric Bischoff’s earlier shenanigans. Needless to say, ten or so Stings showed up during the course of the match, which saw tons of resting and not very much action. By the time things finish up with what looks to be a faux fan scaling the cage to take some shots from Hogan and Savage, you’ll be thoroughly ready to move on from the past. Don’t let the end dissuade you from looking up one of the best matches in wrestling history. It simply doesn’t get better.
- Meeting in the Middle
If you’re not a fan of the current storyline involving Shane and Stephanie McMahon co-running Monday Night Raw, you’re not alone. I am right there with you. There are so many bad things about this, but we could start right at the top. A fundamental selling point of Payback was Vince deciding which of his spawn would get to run the show, and as always it’s never that straightforward. After what felt like a half hour of debating that made no real sense whatsoever, Papa McMahon decided to let both of his kids do it. This was after the equally insulting angle at WrestleMania, wherein Shane lost his match but got to run Raw anyway. Let’s just agree not to put stipulations out there just to ignore them, shall we? On top of that, though, it continues the insanely irritating trend of trying to be jack of all trades and ending up master of none. Keeping both Shane and Stephanie out there week after week allows for less wrestling in favor of more behind the scenes family melodrama, something the disappearance of the Authority helped to dispel. Not exactly the way I’d choose to kick off the new era the announcing team keeps beating us over the head with.
Bear in mind this is not a critique of the siblings themselves. Shane has brought a lot of energy back into his re-emergence on WWE programming, and is clearly very over with the crowd. Having him spearhead this collection of new talent is smart and allows for some story developments. As for Stephanie, she’s long been one of the company’s best heels and has learned quite a few of her father’s tricks along the way. We just don’t need both of them at the same time. Give one the chance to make the brand their own and see where that leads you. Stop trying to have all your irons in the fire before you’ve even lit the match. If you’re insistent on having both involved on a weekly basis, it would of course be the perfect opportunity to have one lead Raw and the other Smackdown. Despite their aversion to continuity, you’re covered there too: Shane running Smackdown would dovetail with him not getting the chance to run Raw out of WM. For those that favor the rumored brand split, this would be one easy way to get there. Stephanie’s roster could cater to the established stars, while Shane’s would contain more of the new faces looking to make a name for themselves out of NXT and elsewhere.
At the end of the day, however, the brand split does nothing for me. It certainly doesn’t underscore the emphasis that needs to be placed on the weekly stories, and it would likely unfortunately mean a return to the days of way too many title belts when the company is having trouble showing the value of the few it already has. If the company is intending to go down this road again, I would suggest making it NXT against the main roster. Too many of the wonderful talents making the trip from the feeder system to the big leagues have started off strong out of the gate only to be abandoned or forgotten. There also isn’t enough being done to introduce the NXT talents to those fans who haven’t been watching them grow. This shouldn’t be an all or nothing proposition. Giving NXT a chance to main event against their bigger, more well-known brothers allows for copious amounts of storyboarding to be programmed in and lets both groups flourish. Anything you do to promote NXT as a breeding ground for the next big names is a benefit not just to the WWE but to wrestling as a whole. It makes NXT must-see programming while keeping its solid plan of collecting great talent from the indies. There is plenty of room to maneuver within the WWE’s giant roster, but taking the safe path down the middle is such an obvious route. It’s well trodden for a reason after all. They can’t be this afraid to take a chance, can they? Just once I’d like to see the WWE’s powers that be stop trying to appease everyone and make a gutsy call. It’s not like you can’t revisit history when you’re the one writing it.
- The Raw & The Cooked
Yesterday’s episode of Monday Night Raw started off strongly, with Chris Jericho’s Highlight Reel segment being interrupted by Big Cass of all folks setting up a match between the two later in the evening. It’s actually one of the better opens of the last few weeks, and showed surprisingly strong decision making by WWE allowing Jericho to lend some of his shine to a star of the future while his tag partner Enzo Amore continued to recover from the damage inflicted at Payback. Unfortunately, all that advance planning was just your traditional WWE ruse. Cass did get his couple of moments in the sun with a backstage flirtation with Renee Young and some damage inflicted to Jericho, but it was all a blink-and-you-missed-it side note to the real angle in which Dean Ambrose made his “surprise” appearance in order to shame Y2J and destroy his “$15,000” Lite Brite jacket, likely made by the same LED company that manufactures Naomi’s footwear. Continuing the Ambrose/Jericho program is fine, though really unnecessary, but not at the expense of torpedoing the excitement generated by having Cass in the main event of the evening. Once again a journey started but not completed. One of these days perhaps.
On a positive note, RAW did feature plenty of surprises when it came to the booking. It was a rough night for the champions all around, as tag belt holders The New Day dropped a surprise to The Dudleys courtesy of well-timed interference by The Vaudevillains (alas, no Aiden English singing) and the returning Paige scored a pinfall over Womens champion Charlotte after her father came down to the ring despite being banned earlier. Seriously, WWE, these bans are proving just as ineffective as when WCW employed them during Halloween Havoc ’97. Sami Zayn finally got a win at the expense of current I-C champion The Miz and was added to the Fatal Four Way, again with distraction proving the problem. While some of these results are fantastic, it seems to be an all or nothing philosophy with WWE creative lately. They fall in love with a finish and just go nuts with it. With as long as pro wrestling has been around, you’d think there would be plenty of different ways to get to the same result. And you’d be right. But they have to try.
As a continuance of their upcoming rematch at Extreme Rules, World champ Roman Reigns teamed with blood relations The Usos to go up against what’s now known, oddly, as The Club, AJ Styles and running buddies Anderson and Gallows. It’s a bit like ordering that world-famous sandwich without the mustard. The match itself was entertaining but predictable, with the two big guys left to finish up the single elimination affair before the inevitable AJ disqualification as a way to keep booking both guys strongly. The oddest part of the evening continues to be the gusto with which large portions of the fanbase continue to boo the absolute hell out of RR as face champion. It actually was pretty split in Omaha, certainly compared to some of the Northeastern hot spots, but it would make for a tough time explaining to a new fan of wrestling what the hell is going on. Reigns lacks the chops to pull off this tweener with an edge character he’s being asked to do, but he’s making an effort. It should really just be about focusing on what he’s good at, which is looking intimidating and delivering some significant impact. The Club still feels like an extra (I assume until Mr. Balor makes his appearance), but it was all carried out decently enough. I’d term this episode Medium. Not exactly well done, but far better than rare. Unless you like rare steak, in which case you can go the opposite way. Free country.
- Equal Opportunities
Something lost in all the hubbub just discussed was the fact that Sasha Banks appeared on Raw in a silly backstage skit to push Pizza Hut and gaming websites. Keep in mind she didn’t actually say anything during said segment. This is not a first, and is unfortunate since Banks is by far the most over of any of the new female talent to debut of late. Last week saw Emma being re-introduced to us all as a heel (which she was already doing in NXT since being, ahem, shoplifted off the main roster) and this week Emma employed her frequent partner in crime Dana Brooke to aid her in her feud with former contender Becky Lynch, though not in an actual match. With Paige wrestling Charlotte (and Natalya doing an excellent job at ringside being a better commentator than the three gentleman that did it all night long), there apparently wasn’t room enough on this card to include additional women’s wrestling. Then again, it would have meant less Fandango, and less awkward McMahon vignettes with framed family photos. And you can’t teach that.
Paige being back is fantastic, clearly, but if you want viewers to take this “Divas” repackaging seriously it would be wise to give them time to tell their stories in the ring. I’ll never complain about the influx of talent, but if you’re not using what you already have, it seems a bit desperate and silly. It also once again assumed we knew the story behind their team without watching NXT weekly (not that I’d ever recommend that when you have the work of my colleague Kurt Zamora to read, mind you!) and they need to work on these issues in terms of their presentation.
To me, the larger issue is that while I wouldn’t expect this division to get as much time as their male counterparts, they need more than they’ve been getting lately. There is a desire to see great wrestling, and there are many individuals on the Womens side who can provide that if given the opportunity. Maybe there’s just a bad taste left in my mouth after that ridiculously booked Chicago Screwjob angle, but I was underwhelmed by how quickly this angle of upgrading the championship and pretending it’s a big deal has lasted. This is short-term memory of a critical nature even for WWE. It won’t feel important unless they make it important. Give your best talent something to do week after week. It’s not that complicated. Let’s get serious and drop the hashtag talking points.
Final Thought: Thanks for embarking on this maiden voyage with me. If you have thoughts on anything discussed, please share them below. I’d also ask that if you haven’t checked out the Main Event Madness podcast, what are you waiting for? I had a great time joining the guys on last week’s episode (available for listening this very second) and if I’m not enough of a selling point for you, there was also an interview with some guy you might have heard of named Eric Young. This week’s Wednesday episode will feature big news and bigger entertainment. Highly, highly recommend.