As we thankfully put the divisive Backlash 2018 behind us and move towards WWE’s next pay-per-view, Money in the Bank 2018, the company’s television was taken up a notch this week thanks to several strong matches across every brand, many of which had direct consequence. Usually these relatively generic outings can feel rather mundane, but what has surprised me these last seven days is the focus on character in almost every bout worth watching. Not only did Monday Night Raw (MNR) and Smackdown Live (SDL) actively progress storylines with these contests (though admittedly not in every instance), they made sure to develop character at the same time, simply because they could.
It is a trait I wish we saw more of in this day and age.
My name is Samuel ‘Plan and this is the Performance Art View of the week that was.
Mojo Rawley emerged from the curtain with granite faced determination on MNR this last week in response to an Intercontinental Championship Open Challenge laid out by the currently red hot Seth Rollins 24 hours after what many are referring to as the clear front runner for WWE Match of the Year thus far.
In their first ever on-screen interaction, it quickly became clear that Rawley was there with extremely high ambition, to try and hijack Seth Rollins and his legacy and usher in Monday Night Rawly by seizing the Kingslayer’s Intercontinental Championship before going on to win the Money in the Bank briefcase as Rollins once did in years past. For a man still relatively new to the singles scene in WWE, it was clear Rawley’s appetite was ravenous considering the tall order he had set for himself and, regardless of the unlikelihood that he would succeed in his mission, and regardless of the reason why Rawley is receiving the boos he is, it means that this Intercontinental Open immediately took on a classic make-up: a fighting, heroic and popular champion against a cocky, unconvincing and villainous challenger.
The match is by no means a classic and not one you are likely to remember in even a few months, but it nonetheless achieved something vitally important: it taught us something about the challenger.
Rawley’s response to an early onslaught from Rollins’ own attacks is to combat skill with visceral brutality, barrelling into the champion with raw brute strength twice in quick succession – the second charge catapulting the champion with high velocity spine first into the barricade. That same rough-housing power informs the rest of Rawley’s admittedly impressive effort against one of if not the best performer in the world right now, at times tossing the champion around like a rag-doll in a manner vastly complemented by Rollins’ athleticism and hang-time – the visuals that result feel deeply uncomfortable to witness for as big a fan of the Architect as this particular writer is.
It’s an impressive achievement, to see the clear gulf in talent and experience between the two be instantly closed up and used as a foundation upon which to build a mildly engaging story, all through on-point tonal presentation of a developing character (that being Rawley). It results in a match that uses the old tactic employed by the very best storytellers, like the Hitman himself Bret Hart: take whatever your opponent has, even if it’s slim pickings, and use that as the bedrock of your creation. In the case of Rawley, what he has is raw brutalising power, and it is raw brutalising power that is the bedrock of his challenge.
It might be because of the difference in status between the two, and the timing of their encounter, that the Intercontinental Championship never truly feels in jeopardy, but what does unfold is Mojo Rawley’s best match in WWE to date. Damning the match by faint praise as that claim might, the match nonetheless offers the best view of Rawley’s character we’ve seen yet, and it is one that has something to contribute to the roster because of its energy and the manner in which his rough edges actively seem to enhance the graceless anger that proves itself in this instance to be Rawley’s best trait.
Considering this, it seems this is a perfect niche for the Kingslayer to be occupying right now (not that we didn’t already know that). While these Open Challenges are, to me, no substitute for a well-developed storyline that drives character forward, especially when it comes to the Intercontinental Championship, they will position Seth Rollins the same way the first positioned him this week, as exactly what he is and deserves to be seen as: a star; a major star, recapturing his x-factor.
The women’s divisions on both main roster brands of WWE have been far from the best thing on WWE television since WrestleMania passed us by, despite having previously led the charge during a disappointing season for the annual Showcase of Immortals.
While SDL continues to seemingly become increasingly linear as its primary focus narrows further and further in on Charlotte, MNR seems instead to at least be flirting with expanding its creative focus out somewhat by introducing elements of shared universe to the goings on in the division MNR Women’s Champion Nia Jax currently dominates. It is only a flirtation, it should be said, and a slow process in developing. Sadly, that process is being built on the back of an ongoing Sasha Banks / Bayley storyline few fans seem to be getting much satisfaction from but, nonetheless, shared universe is when WWE’s product as it at its best. Excitingly, if this week’s women’s Money in the Bank Triple Threat Qualifying Match is anything to go by then we might be headed in that direction, at least for Team Red’s female contingent.
It is a basic and safe genre effort from Sasha Banks, Ember Moon and Ruby Riott that does little to flip the script. It is also far from the best match from television this week. Riott’s advantages in particular seem to grind the action down to an eye-wateringly slow pace at times, and the rotation of one on one set pieces are what leave it with its obvious feeling of box-ticking safety. Luckily, then, what it might lack in innovation or exhilaration it more than makes up for with a subtle but compelling demonstration of clearly defined character for all three of its competitors.
The Boss, Sasha Banks, shows her opportunistic nature early as she rolls Ember Moon up from behind immediately after a double-team on the primary antagonist Ruby Riott, before slapping Ember Moon hard for Moon’s temerity in outclassing The Boss in a demonstration of athleticism – that this is the real first clash between these cross-generational NXT alumni makes their small interactions particularly tantalising.
Sasha’s opportunism and duplicity is combated by Ruby Riott’s simple and smash-mouth assaults on both of her opponents, which play beautifully into her own surname. It is Riott who proves the true difference maker, and not just because of her cronies Liv Morgan and Sarah Logan – their own roles are limited to a cameo, but an effectively deployed one. Riott is an impact player in her own right, dominating her opponents for the majority of the match and often in visually numbing fashion.
But Ember Moon – who emerges the victor – feels like the breakout star of the match. It is clear the War Goddess relishes the battlefield as she demonstrates her martial prowess and illuminates an otherwise gritty, grounded affair with flashes of incredible aerialist risks. Her fighting spirit fuels her effort that leaves her feeling like the best competitor of the three involved. Moon puts the memorable exclamation mark on that emerging truth with a spectacular finish, nailing an Eclipse on Riott as Banks has the Riott Squad leader prone for the Banks Statement, resulting in both of Moon’s opponents getting their jaws jacked in unison.
With that impressive move, Moon solidified her position in the women’s Money in the Bank Ladders Match, and while her qualifier might not be a TV classic, like Rollins and Rawley elsewhere on the same card it was sure to strengthen its own cause with some inspired character design. That’s a trade off I can happily live with.
Money in the Bank qualifiers were the theme on WWE’s main roster this week, and the most notable of the lot, for various reasons, proved to be SDL’s main event between Daniel Bryan and Rusev.
Fascinatingly, the early split crowd chant takes on a personality not unlike a John Cena match at the height of the man’s career, with the younger fans and older fans taking different sides and it shouldn’t be lost on the viewer that the older fans side with Rusev. Whether that is just an example of typical contrarianism or a turn of events speaking to a truth I have repeatedly mentioned – that, whether we like it or not, WWE ultimately moved on when Bryan was out – I’m not certain, but it most certainly catalyses an atmosphere that remains lively from that point on.
The entire story told between the two of them plays heavily on the size difference without making much in the way of a point of it. There’s no prolonged beat down for Daniel Bryan that slows the pace down unduly, and instead the action remains explosive, popping lively from one big moment to the next with delightful energy. The hero Bryan is a literal slippery customer for Rusev, who repeatedly struggles to get the Yes Man firmly in his grasp only to be met with frustration. It’s not unlike a lion pawing at a mouse and failing to kill it. Even a clear opportunity for the Accolade is frustrated thanks to a degree of tactical foresight from Bryan, who had earlier sought to damage Rusev’s hand.
That Rusev attains a shocking and notably clean victory over Daniel Bryan – to whom, by the match’s conclusion, the live crowd is as invested in and connected to as they once were several years ago – drives home the simple theme: after minutes and minutes of trying, when Rusev does finally nail a big blow, it proves decisive; not least of all, one would imagine, because of it being a powerhouse blast to the historically damaged head of the Leader of the Yes Movement.
It is following that dramatic turn of events that the camera lingers on a dejected looking Bryan, while Corey Graves on commentary claims the proverbial glass slipper has just been shattered. In that moment, we witness a possible glimpse of the Yes Man’s future, a sign of things to come, because his first ascent to the WWE World Heavyweight Championship had nothing fairytale about it; quite the opposite, in fact. Instead of glass slippers and easy wishes there was gritty determination and hard won victories. It was a miracle, yes, but a miracle made out of one man’s blood, effort and sinew, and one that could yet be repeated.
Bryan’s loss this last week is likely to be more fuel than futility, being both the return of something old and the beginning of something new. I have a sneaking suspicion it will only serve to spur Bryan on to begin a new journey back toward the mountaintop that Fate so cruelly pushed him off of. He relishes that struggle; so should we.
Sometimes, WWE is at its best when it isn’t trying too hard. I emphasise the word sometimes. This week seemed to be one of those times. That might simply be because it is hard to imagine any scenario coming off as worse than the conclusion to Backlash 2018, but the effect is the same nonetheless. Money in the Bank and a clean break from the after-effects of the Superstar Shakeup have started the process of creative revitalisation, and we can only hope this coming week brings yet more of the same. We know there’ll be more Money in the Bank qualifiers, and we know already that Seth Rollins will defend his Intercontinental Championship against long-time enemy Kevin Owens, so already we have reason to be optimistic.
Basically, ‘E, more matches with more character please!
With that in mind, if you have any thoughts on the Money in the Bank qualifiers I’ve discussed here, about the Intercontinental Open seemingly getting a soft restart, or about any of the week’s happenings that I’ve both explored and excluded from this week’s Performance Art View, let them be known in the comments below, over on social media or even by signing up to our own LOPForums; just click here to sign up!