Overlong and laden down with fat easily trimmed by a proactive promotion, Fastlane 2019, WWE’s latest pay-per-view offering, was nothing if not indicative of the strange state the company’s product has been in since overtures to change were made a couple of months ago. The show proved to be another near four hour-long pay-per-view in spite of the majority of its matches lasting around the ten minute mark, demonstrating just how much of what we saw Sunday night was unnecessary filler; unnecessary filler that, frustratingly, denied the seed of an excellent pay-per-view undoubtedly hiding at the heart of the event from ever blossoming in full.
Firstly, it is worth saying that the run-time was disappointing, and more so because it was so obviously an indulgence. Fastlane 2019 evoked concerning memories of latter day WCW pay-per-views, the card in a near constant state of flux from the opening minutes of the Kick Off Show. Matches were added, others baited and switched and others still curtailed with shenanigans. Promos filled air time that wasn’t needed and at least one segment unfolded making absolutely no logical sense whatsoever – why would Randy Orton attack Elias, and how did AJ Styles know Orton would do it?
The lesson taught by the lean, effective and comparatively rapier-like Elimination Chamber 2019 event, it seems, was lost. Perhaps the three hour pay-per-view really is a dead tradition.
Still, in a turn demonstrating that underneath the layers of negativity remain signs of positivity, while the lesson of run-time went unheeded at Fastlane 2019 the lesson of a woeful undercard did not. Unlike February’s own pay-per-view offering, Fastlane 2019 provided a series of entertaining undercard bouts, some of which were laced with subtle character inflections that made them all the more entertaining.
The Kick Off Show started things off in strong fashion with the kind of tag team bout WWE seems to have largely forgotten how to stage, in spite of it once being a staple of pay-per-view designs in more fondly remembered Eras. New Day’s Big E and Xavier Woods wrestled Rusev and Shinsuke Nakamura in a bout established through the lightest of narratives (if any at all) and that started in unconvincing fashion, drowned out by the usual disrespectful combination of distracting advertisements and distracted commentary. Nonetheless, in typical fashion for New Day, it built effectively to a more frenetic second half, concluding in exciting and feel good fashion to carve out what would have been well suited as a curtain jerker in a more sensibly minded pro wrestling promotion.
It was equal parts refreshing and encouraging to see the Monday Night Raw (MNR) Tag Team Championships make the main card in a Triple Threat Tag Team Match that pitted the defending champions, The Revival, against the Shock and Awe of Aleister Black and Ricochet as well as Bobby Roode and Chad Gable. The action was fast paced, remarkably fluid and punctuated with exhilarating set-pieces, carefully constructed and expertly executed. If WWE need a signal to point out the untapped potential of MNR’s tag division, The Revival’s successful title defence this week provided one, and then some. It has never been clearer that the division strains at its leash for an opportunity to run with.
The Fatal Four Way for the United States Championship that saw Samoa Joe defend against the collected likes of Rey Mysterio, Andrade and former champion R-Truth was similarly briskly paced, focussed on putting together breathtaking sequences involving more than one of the competitors. That the champion, Joe, revealed he had actively asked for the match on the Kick Off Show was a clever touch that played well into his established character, and the match design was effective in following up on that, presenting Joe as the formidable monster of the piece in a manner clearly inspired by his production in last month’s superlative WWE Championship Elimination Chamber Match. So too did it have one eye on utility, laying further groundwork for the rumoured John Cena confrontation awaiting the champ at WrestleMania.
Not everything on the undercard was a success, of course. Smackdown Live (SDL) dominated the first laborious hour with an SDL Tag Team Championship bout that, while undoubtedly overachieving, saw the storyline shared by Shane McMahon and The Miz continue to evolve in a drearily obvious and utterly incongruous manner, as well as an SDL Women’s Championship match that was, at best, misguided in its production and, at worst, an afterthought.
Indeed, for every mild success on Fastlane 2019’s undercard there seemed to be something woeful waiting in the wings. Kofi Kingston, in a demonstration of WWE’s inability to comprehend there is more than just one kind of an underdog story and that Kingston has not become as popular as he is by being the political rebel, was forced to endure a bizarrely oblivious Handicap Match against The Bar that served little purpose, while Sasha Banks and Bayley defended their Women’s Tag Team Championships against Nia Jax and Tamina in a lukewarm effort plagued with mistakes bred by an all-too-familiar overabundance of ambition and capped off with the tease of a match that, honestly, feels like it must have been conceived of in The Twilight Zone.
Even the two main events of the night demonstrated this unevenness, although the less said about how WWE have managed to take one of the most naturally told stories in recent memory and convolute it as much as is humanly possibly – namely Becky Lynch’s chase for the MNR Women’s Championship – the better; though, if you do want more of my thoughts on that front, be sure to check out my recap in this last week’s Sunday Column, available to read here: Just Business: The Sunday Column, on the Raw Women’s Title, DIY and NXT UK.
The remaining two matches on last night’s card certainly delivered though.
The WWE Championship Match, turned at the last moment into a Triple Threat Match in a manner that, in tandem with the aforementioned Kofi Kingston Handicap Match, only further demonstrated WWE’s curious consistency in misjudging creative improvisations, proved good enough to overcome the temptation of the live crowd to ‘hijack’ the bout because of Kingston’s worked absence. It seemed to be the sheer focussed tenacity of the three performances that slowly reminded the live audience that Kingston’s absence was not a controversy but, rather, a storyline, and while spurts of rebellious chants continued for the duration they noticeably dissolved by the time the match snowballed through its conclusion.
What a conclusion it was. Mustafa Ali, a man who literally worked his way into the spot he boasted at Fastlane 2019 by consistently winning over disinterested crowds on 205 Live every week for a year, once again demonstrated his skills as a storyteller and his dedication to the art, weaving some nastily eye-popping visuals into a nonintrusive but typically enrapturing underdog story. Kevin Owens, meanwhile, performed with a refreshed energy presumably stemming from his prolonged absence through the end of last year and, admirably, pulled an old Bret Hart trick by towing the line between hero and villain constantly throughout. As for the defending champion Daniel Bryan, it should suffice to say his career-best form continued with the usual effortlessness, his victory inevitable and reasonably so.
The Shield reunion headlined the card, and its effectiveness will depend largely on how invested you are in their story / stories as a fan. This is because it was no ordinary Shield match, nor an ordinary Shield reunion. Their bout against the uninspiring trio of Baron Corbin, Drew McIntyre and Bobby Lashley seemed to be consciously produced as a Greatest Hits album, the result never really in question and the focus being less on breaking new ground and more on the emotional heft of the combined individual narratives of each Hound: Seth Rollins’ pending ascent to the WrestleMania main event, Roman Reigns’ cathartic defeat of leukaemia and Dean Ambrose’s heartbreaking looming exit. Consciously presented as the final ride for one of the most influential and history-shaping factions in the history of WWE – and, by extension, of the industry – it is worth keeping in mind that everything about Fastlane 2019’s main event was meant to be deliberately singular. Michael Cole’s unusually excellent call as The Shield celebrated defined it as such, framing what we witnessed as the end of one era and the beginning of another.
Some might decry the unconvincing opposition presented to the Hounds of Justice or the predictable result, and fans less emotionally attached to the group and / or its component parts may even find the familiarity of the routine dreary. But for those who are invested in their story, in fiction or fact or both, The Shield’s last hunt should have proven a deeply moving experience – because, of course, the thing about playing the greatest hits is that they’re all great hits.
Certainly, this wrestling fan found it exactly that: deeply moving. The simplicity of the match and its story sat on top of a near-decade of complex and evocative storytelling, on top of three dimensional relationships in a fiction that reflects the true fact of what The Shield were able to achieve in a company riddled with sterility and outmoded dogma: shattering a glass ceiling that crushed an entire generation that came before them. What’s more, perhaps because of the match being a simple tour through the group’s greatest hits and their own familiarity with the routines they were deploying, never have the three Hounds looked better than they did at Fastlane 2019 – effortlessly smooth, impossibly synchronised and clearly, demonstrably more impassioned than perhaps they’ve ever been.
The reckless abandon of their living in the raw intensity of the bout’s closing moments was testament to the meaning of last night’s last hunt, their hug after the victory a tear-jerking and vicarious conclusion to an outstanding curtain call for an outstanding group, one whose brotherhood has impacted the lives of a lot of fans on a profound level.
It was LOP’s own SirSam who recently wrote about how The Shield deserved a happy ending. True to form, at Fastlane 2019 they made sure they got one.
And of course they did. Anything else would have been an injustice.
But for more on my thoughts about Fastlane 2019, be sure to check out my more in-depth and analytical Performance Art Review on my podcast, Sports Entertainment is Dead, dropping exclusively on Lords of Pain Radio this Wednesday at 12.30 EST / 16.30 GMT!
What are YOUR first reactions to Fastlane 2019? Sound off in the comments below, on social media or over on LOPForums!