THE GENRE MASTERED
RONDA: BORN READY
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
WWE decided ahead of time this year to extend the length of the annual Money in the Bank (MITB) pay-per-view, ostensibly crowning it something of the unofficial ‘Big Fifth.’ While Money in the Bank has undeniably achieved this status through the merit of a consistently solid, sometimes outstanding showing over the course of its tenure, the idea of another pay-per-view clocking in at or over four hours long was enough to fill any fan with dread.
Luckily, in spite of recent and prevalent creative woes, last Sunday WWE reached down deep and pulled out an event that over-achieved in the wake of low expectations, delivering two tremendous iterations of its titular match type and a final three bouts of such quality that you’d struggle to find many other 90 minute pay-per-view spans over the last three years to rival it.
As ever, my name is Samuel ‘Plan, and this is the Performance Art Review of Money in the Bank 2018.
Undercard matches over-achieved in their own individual rights last Sunday night.
Appreciating many at this stage have zero interest in even humouring a Roman Reigns match at this stage – certainly Chicago were merciless in their contemptuously irreverent treatment of Sunday’s Roman Reigns / Jinder Mahal encounter – it’s also only fair to appreciate that both men were able to create a perfectly solid mid card tale that played on traditional pro wrestling tricks to weave its narrative several days ago.
Big Cass – no longer an employee in WWE, as we know – was for the second time carried to an at least watchable affair against perennial fan favourite Daniel Bryan. Though riddled with clichés and often demonstrative of Cass’s apparent lack of innate talent, it was nevertheless much more watchable than expectations would have claimed it had any right to be.
Carmella and Asuka, arguably problematic in its pursuit of democratic opportunity at the expense of convincing character positioning through the guise of a somewhat unbelievably competitive encounter, was, again, perfectly watchable, and even the lamentable inclusion of Bobby Lashley vs. Sami Zayn had one major positive: its stay in the ring was appropriately brief.
The question hanging over the historical reputation of last Sunday, then, will be whether or not, had its watchable but less than stellar elements been curtailed, what turned out to be four good hours could have become three incredible ones.
My belief is that the answer is yes, with MITB 2018’s strongest quarters fighting an uphill battle against the weight of the card’s less inspiring inclusions. It has to be said, though, that this is more a problem of excess than it is an issue regarding this specific show’s card design.
Certainly, had the card been kept to a Takeover-like 5 matches (the two MITB bouts alongside the Intercontinental, Monday Night Raw (MNR) Women’s and WWE Championship matches) it would have made for an outstanding show, and maybe there’s a lesson to be learned there. At the same time, WWE could have had its cake and eaten it: all of the aforementioned undercard matches could, perhaps should have had five to eight minutes shaved off their run times and achieved the same quality while keeping the overall event closer to a leaner, more watchable three hour total run-time.
The same could be said for the length of the event’s bigger matches too. The genre-bending Last Man Standing Match for the WWE Championship was a remarkable artistic achievement. It offered dense subtext, made use of storyline continuity (AJ Styles’ retributive low blow was nauseatingly effective) and was brave enough to eschew use of weapons for the majority of its slow-burn narrative. Could it have been as good, if not better, were it a little shorter? I think so. This also applies to the Intercontinental Championship Match, which shared many similar traits – subtext, continuity and creativity – and also clocked in close to twenty minutes.
It’s a pedantic criticism, for certain, perhaps even a ‘little know-it-all.’ Ultimately, to have had an enjoyable four hours that, at their worst, were still watchable is no bad thing. There is, however, a truth lying at the heart of last Sunday’s big event: WWE’s growing penchant for extravagance is a heavy weight chained to the ankles of the company’s world-class, potentially all-time great roster of talent.
One advantage of approaching professional wrestling as performance art is the means by which it allows us to better understand why matches of specific types receive the reaction they do by re-casting match types, of both a concrete and conceptual nature, into terms of genre.
If the Ladder/s Match is a genre, then Money in the Bank is a specific sub-genre shooting off from it, and certain traits can be expected from the match type. Operating with multiplicity, hysteria and a disregard for basic pro wrestling fundamentals, Money in the Bank is the ultimate version of what LOP staple Chad ‘The Doc’ Matthews refers to as the ‘stunt brawl’ style, and that could be more simply referred to as a Ladders Match – emphasis on the plurality.
For fans of a strictly traditionalist mind-set, the Money in the Bank sub-genre can sometimes prove a hard sell then, pursuing hyperactive excess oftentimes at the expense of logic and good sense. Last Sunday, that presented both an eight-person Men’s and Women’s Money in the Bank Ladders Match, proved to be an exception to the rule, both in their own way demonstrating a mastering of the sub-genre and proving that its trademark multiplicity need not necessarily come at the expense of the usual key elements of a good pro wrestling match.
Both matches shared common traits with one another, traits responsible for the two affairs feeling so refreshing. Foremost among those traits was their relative minimalism. The disbelief-shattering creativity that can mar some iterations of Money in the Bank – moments that see participants try to find new ways to use a ladder as a weapon, and in doing so throw any sense of believable logic, or even timely progression of the action, out of the window in their struggle to set the next stunt up – was largely absent, replaced instead with beautiful, convincing and, ironically, grounded simplicity. Moments like Charlotte tackling her opposition onto a ladder propped up in the corner, Ember Moon hitting a crossbody that propelled Sasha Banks spine-first onto a ladder or Braun Strowman simply bulldozing his way through one of the metal constructs as Finn Bálor and Bobby Roode attempted to use it as a battering ram all looked as devastating a move as John Morrison woefully attempting to hit a moonsault while hugging a ladder at WrestleMania XXIV, for example. So too did all such moments on Sunday feel organic and natural, hardly forced in the slightest.
Both matches shared a powerfully compelling sense of character too. Every participant in either match acted and performed in exactly the manner you believe their characters would. Whether that was Alexa Bliss’s cerebral opportunism or Becky Lynch’s gritty resourcefulness, or whether it was Miz’s attempted shortcuts or Kevin Owens’ self-immolating outrage, every moment in both of Sunday’s Money in the Bank matches felt informed by an understanding of the characters involved rarely so wholly demonstrated by the often haphazard WWE.
Alongside these commonalities, both efforts were sure to differentiate themselves with their own key aspect. For the women, it was their pace; their own take on the match blazed along at an intensely high octane pace from the opening bell, with the traditional ‘everyone on the ladders’ spot feeling particularly urgent. For the men, it was their movement; every sequence was set up with logic behind the movement of the participants, behind why they are where they are when what happens, happens; and it’s so subtle that it’s easily missed if you’re not specifically looking for it, ensuring that every twist and turn becomes more immersive than the last as the narrative unfolds literally seamlessly.
Re-watching both of last Sunday’s titular matches will prove a rewarding experience for any viewer, with them together standing as a pinnacle of genre achievement, definitively disproving the myth that Money in the Bank works best as, or simply has to be, brainless popcorn.
“I’m Ronda Rousey! And I was born ready!”
It was the rebellious proclamation of Sunday’s challenger for Nia Jax’s MNR Women’s Championship that was deployed as the match’s tag line, and it turned out that, apparently, never has a truer word been spoken.
Among all of last Sunday’s unexpected successes, it would be fair to say that Nia Jax vs. Ronda Rousey stands as first among equals. Many headed into the weekend fearing that WWE’s blockbuster acquisition, Rousey, had been put in a position where failure to some degree was inevitable. Belief that her title opportunity had come too early coupled with the strange manner in which the match was booked to generate an uninspired atmosphere among the fan base that seemed only to escalate as the weeks of awkward television work between the two began to pile up.
What a turn up for the books their match turned out to be!
Apparently inspired by the aforementioned tag line, the story told between the two most dangerous entities in the MNR women’s division became that of Rousey’s learning curve – that she was unfamiliar with the more chaotic environment found in WWE that so frequently expanded beyond the strictly enforced rules of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). From feeling a head butt or a powerbomb for the first time to coming to learn about the nature of the wider beast via Alexa Bliss’s cash-in at the tail-end of the action, there have been very few debut singles matches in the promotion’s history that have been weaponised into a compelling narrative quite so effectively. Masterfully, it served to transform Rousey from ‘legitimate bad ass’ to striving underdog – a relief for those fearing a reprise of Brock Lesnar’s unbalanced production by the company.
Credit is due for whoever made the decision to pair Ronda Rousey and Nia Jax together. With both women capable of generating an aura of genuine threat, they took turns to become the dominant force and plucky underdog throughout their physical and, frankly, perfectly paced match. It was a tale of Jax’s size and raw power against Rousey’s instincts and honed martial skills, and in being so it became as much of a platform, head-turning performance for the champion as it was for her challenger. If a pro wrestling match were to have its success judged by how mutually beneficial it was for its competitors, last Sunday’s MNR Women’s Championship Match should be deservedly considered a run-away.
The match’s achievements were densely layered. In presenting Rousey as an underdog and Jax as a dominant force, it elevated the creative stock of both characters as they move forward towards alternative opposition. In presenting them the other way around, the match justified Rousey’s signing and Jax’s push to equal degree. Its core narrative – of Rousey being in virginal, immensely challenging territory – contextualised the very pursuit of pro wrestling as being a step-up in difficulty compared to the UFC (quite regardless of whether or not you agree). In truth, it proved a masterful achievement by its conclusion, a far-cry from the disaster many – including this writer – had feared heading in.
The story of Rousey’s inaugural singles match, of Jax’s increasingly ferocious competitiveness and of a contest between two alpha females waged over a vaunted championship was excellently produced, quite apart from every other factor. Timing, aesthetics, psychology, crowd investment, the ‘little touches’ – all the criteria a more mathematical line of thinking might discuss in evaluating the quality of any given match all rated highly in their own right.
Her name is Ronda Rousey, and considering all of this can be said of what was her very first televised singles match in WWE means that she might very well have, indeed, been born ready.
I’ll be back on Friday with my typical column ahead of mine and Mazza’s appearance on The Right Side of the Pond that night on Lords of Pain Radio, but in the meantime if you have any thoughts about last Sunday’s Money in the Bank event, its matches or on any of what I’ve discussed 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!