Calling Extreme Rules 2018 one of the most bizarre pay-per-views of the last few years would be something of an understatement, in part because of the weird way storylines played out on the night but largely because of the drama surrounding the show’s main event. The 30 Minute Iron Man Match for the Intercontinental Championship headlined Sunday’s special event, sparking controversy and fan division in the process.
The behaviour of the crowd coupled with the fact that the main event of the show wasn’t even mentioned in the opening package created what should have been a historic moment in a manner that instead suggested little more than mundane normalcy.
That the hours that preceded the Intercontinental title bout were less than stellar certainly didn’t help, but amidst all of the controversy and division, all the underwhelming action and sterile storylines, there were some gems to be found.
My name is Samuel ‘Plan and this is the Performance Art Review of Extreme Rules 2018.
For too long a time, WWE has scrambled around trying to figure out who the priorities on its now bloated roster should be. Focus has been non-existent and fad pushes have overtaken any sense of an overall direction and vision for what the company should be. We live in an Era that, two years in, should be on the verge of maturing but one that, instead, seems to still be figuring out what its identity is.
Shinsuke Nakamura has been a clear victim of what I am loathe to refer to as ‘this trend’ – trend seems to imply a sense of organisation I am not confident is there. His consecutive WWE Championship losses to Jinder Mahal and AJ Styles over a near cumulative 6 month period have done the King of Strong Style no favours on the main roster in front of a fan base perhaps less tuned in to his non-WWE exploits as the hardcore NXT faithful will have been.
His villainous turn against Styles at WrestleMania has proven to be a stroke of genius though, and now seems to have been the first stage in rehabilitating the character. Stage two unfurled on Sunday. Many fans might be disappointed that Nakamura now stands as United States Champion instead of WWE Champion, but it strikes me as the perfect position for the so-called Artist: as a villainous mirror image to the top tier’s Styles.
Clear roster positioning that demonstrates a self-evident vision for the company matters, and now with a returning Randy Orton seemingly joining Nakamura in the ranks of the duplicitous malicious Smackdown Live (SDL) seems busy re-establishing such positioning. Do Orton and now former US Champion Jeff Hardy have much to offer over and above contemporary talent of the day? I’m not sure; but, at the very least, their own positioning can now be forgiven as the championship focus shifts onto the fresher Nakamura.
Fresh would certainly be the word to describe Nakamura’s manner of victory too. His now signature low blow preceded contemptuous amusement at Hardy’s physical discomfort before being punctuated with an urgent Kinshasa that practically decapitated the Charismatic Enigma. Short, to the point and creative, it was a character-driven turn of events that perfectly encapsulated the new Nakamura, being equal parts cocky, hateful and urgently greedy.
Rusev is, like Nakamura, another man who has fallen foul because of WWE’s non-committal treatment of its entire roster. Until this last weekend, you could be forgiven for adding him to the long list of talents whose career barely recovered after having had the misfortune of feuding with John Cena. After all, at the beginning of 2015, Rusev was one of the hottest rising prospects in the company.
Is he now nothing if not a catchphrase?
I had feared heading into Extreme Rules 2018 that character would be lacking in the WWE Championship Match between Rusev and reigning champion AJ Styles. To a degree, I think that was vindicated, but, as usual, come the night, come the pre-match hype package, WWE was able to dispel any such consternation on my part.
“I get down to business!” was the lyric that hollered as Styles’ visage appeared for the first time in that hype package, making it clear that the Phenomenal One was no longer a man interested in shenanigans, in jokes that have grown out of proportion or in singing sidekicks. When SDL’s homeowner enters the house he built, it’s all business. That’s how he’s become the longest reigning WWE Champion in five years.
What then became the story in the match between Styles and Rusev was one of a slighted competitor, languishing in imposed exile away from the championship scene he had long since earned a right to enter, forcefully and painfully reminding AJ Styles and the world at large that he was more than just recent perception, that Rusev Day was as much a statement of intention – a red line promise – as it was a catchphrase.
Throughout their encounter, common ground was found in the martial prowess of both men, Rusev sending shockwaves of memory through the screen as he was once again offered a platform to demonstrate the awe-inspiring breadth of his physical capabilities. As such, Styles’ greatest weapon, being his deep offensive pockets, was somewhat nullified. Size, then, became the defining aspect of their clash, and as such it was a classical narrative they crafted – Styles targeted Rusev’s powerful legs, arguably saving his championship in the fourth quarter when Rusev proved unable to apply his patented Accolade submission hold.
‘Down to business’ is very much the overwhelming tone of that aforementioned classical narrative. Remaining largely a purely athletic contest, their match proved physical and deeply cerebral, aided by their sensibly restrained runtime that accepted this wasn’t meant to be the biggest match of the year. It will prove immeasurably re-watchable for that, and deserve appropriate props.
It was perhaps the irony of its finish that proved most satisfying – in spite of wrestling a no-nonsense match with a gritty, focussed performance, in the end it was the singing sidekick that represented the false image of Rusev in need of shaking that saw the challenger come unstuck. How that plays out only time will tell, but for now we will have to accept that Rusev Day is not yet upon us – though, thanks to a tremendous effort on Sunday, we might have finally reached the long overdue Rusev Eve.
For the first time since Summerslam 1992, the Intercontinental Championship headlined a WWE pay-per-view, and this time there was no hometown crowd to excuse it. It got to that spot by earning it, thanks in the main to the outstanding work of Seth Rollins carrying the white gold strap. Some have called that a mistake when the same card featured a WWE Championship Match. Regardless, it was quite a historic moment, even if it felt far from such a thing.
Amidst the controversy surrounding the fan response on the night, debates have been conflated, with the maverick audience behaviour being commandeered by those left unimpressed in order to ‘prove’ the match was poor. It is an opinion – perhaps inevitably, some will say – I disagree with.
This is not to contend that the match was perfect. Indeed, far from it; I found myself mildly disappointed with how relatively safe the match turned out to be, especially in consideration of Rollins’ long-established history of subverting established genre tropes.
That is the very same reason why I disagree with the notion that last Sunday’s main event was poor. As an entry in the Iron Man genre, it was perfectly sensible. Nothing happened inside the confines of its thirty minutes and change that we haven’t seen before in older Iron Man Matches, even if the pace was somewhat ramped up when the falls flurried in. Criticisms I have seen range from the ‘predictable’ decision to run to sudden death overtime – a regular feature of the genre that isn’t necessarily meant to surprise as it is to build drama – to the ‘stupid’ interference of Drew McIntyre – a take on a similar drama trope that borrowed its reasoning from the Kurt Angle / Brock Lesnar version from 2003.
The match in general owed a great deal to that aforementioned Angle vs. Lesnar bout in fact, which in almost identical fashion crafted the story of a heroic babyface chasing a dastardly heel for the majority of the match’s runtime to scratch out a tie and hope for a sudden death situation.
As such, to call this a poor Iron Man Match would be, to me, off-key; rather, it was a perfectly safe Iron Man Match and, by extension, not to the tastes of many fans who, by rights, should hold the same reservations about other very comparable Iron Man Matches from years past.
Were seven falls inside of ten minutes a little much? I had no issue with it, because the inherent fictional psychology of an Iron Man Match is different to that of a regular match due to the mandated minimum time limit. Pin falls will be attempted more liberally in order to establish as long of a lead ahead of your opponent as early you can, for example; or, perhaps, applied tighter for the same reason. Similarly, each pin fall of the match resulted from a circumstance you would normally see result in a fall – or at the very least a close false finish – and when that wasn’t the case, the two performers were sure to create a combination to adequately separate it from the norm. Sure, Bucklebombs don’t normally result in a three count, but couple it with an immediate magistral cradle and it’s easy to believe that one could.
I have seen it said it’s only the final few minutes that ever matter in an Iron Man Match – such a criticism represents little more than a wilful resilience to engage with the very fictional fabric of a wrestling match, but isn’t a correct observation either. Every single minute matters, because every single minute is an opportunity to create your lead, extend your lead or reduce your deficit of falls.
However the clincher in all of this that proves the live reaction was in no way reflective of match quality is the undeniable empirical fact that, except for ten seconds at the end of a minute, the live crowd remained fully engaged with the story being told until close of play, barring the single stretch of time when WWE foolishly decided to turn an admittedly irritating bit of fun into a dog-fight with the fans by taking the clock off the screen. At that point there’s no denying the fans disengaged, but nor is there any denying the immediate re-engagement once the clock returned.
Ultimately, last Sunday’s main event’s legacy should rightfully be remembered as a matter of genre – that criticisms levied at the match are rooted in the inherent nature of the genre, indicating that it may very well be that the Iron Man Match is a concept too opposed to the overwhelming longing for instant gratification found in some constituent parts of the modern wrestling audience. But so too should it also be remembered that the ‘hijacking’ at the end of Extreme Rules 2018 was not brought on by poor performance but was wrought by WWE’s decision to remove the clock from the titantron – it was the moment of no return that hamstrung Rollins and Dolph Ziggler from that point on.
In conclusion, bluntly, it was a safe match mitigated by circumstances outside of the control of the performers that does not deserve to be trashed by fans seeking to conflate two unrelated conversations in order to fabricate a false form of confirmation bias that simply does not exist, all because the inherent tropes of an Iron Man Match aren’t to their tastes.
With that in mind, if you have any thoughts on Extreme Rules 2018 or about anything I’ve explored in this Performance Art Review, 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!