I have had frustrations for some time now about the apparent lack of any kind of progress with WWE’s current storylines across its two main brands. A couple of weeks ago, in fact, even the searingly hot Intercontinental Championship scene found itself enveloped by the mediocrity of the Roman Reigns / Jinder Mahal feud, leaving this fan in particular with nothing to look forward to.
Mild improvement came to us this week, though, thanks largely to WWE embracing its most encouraging creative trait: the shared universe storytelling I write of frequently. Worlds collided over the last seven days, with characters on both Monday Night Raw (MNR) and Smackdown Live (SDL) getting in one another’s business, and each of the most prominent happenings that resulted brought with them an extra reason to feel relatively optimistic for elements of WWE’s immediate future, being the Money in the Bank (MITB) pay-per-view.
As ever, my name is Samuel ‘Plan and this is the Performance Art View of the week.
Although technically the Intercontinental Open has, by reigning champion Seth Rollins’ own tweet, ‘now closed’, this week’s defence against the Modern Day Maharaja Jinder Mahal nevertheless felt like an extension of the same basic concept, that being Rollins as a fighting champion. Rollins vs. Mahal was the sixth title defence since WrestleMania, and the nice thing about number six – other than its over-achieving, frenetic and explosive action – was the little injection of story behind its reason for happening.
I have expressed a minor frustration since Rollins took up his mantle as the most prolific champion on WWE TV today, and that was the notion that, though a challenger a week was awesome, an episodic ‘challenger of the month’ title run – consisting of a series of outstanding title defences on pay-per-view against a myriad of opponents, each telling its own brief, self-contained story over the course of multiple weeks – would have been even better; or, at least, more satisfying.
To my delight, it seems this last week WWE decided to combine the two to create an excellent new approach to the presentation of a fighting champion. Last Monday’s title defence against Mahal stemmed from Rollins’ interaction with his brother Reigns a couple of weeks ago. It’s not much in the way of a story, but it’s story enough to make the title bout itself feel infinitely more satisfying an occurrence than a simple Open Challenge routine. Even better, this has in turn already led to Rollins’ incoming seventh defence at MITB: the match with Mahal led the Showslayer to cut Elias’s performance off, the Drifter retaliating by ambushing Rollins from behind post-match.
These nifty little backstories are incredibly simplistic, and that’s what has worked best for them thus far. Combining lightweight motivation with regular over-achieving championship defences allows WWE to keep Rollins’ title reign moving along at the brisk pace of an Open Challenge, invokes a little of the spirit of the company’s predilection for long babyface championship runs in a more compact time-frame and, at the same time, ensures nothing ever begins to feel stale, or overwrought, or any of the other familiar criticisms that can get levied at the promotion when it falls into one of its unimaginative routines.
The best part of it for this Seth Rollins fan is that it maximises the Showslayer’s title reign by packing in the variety of opponents, which enables Rollins to demonstrate his powerhouse in-ring creativity as much as he possibly can.
The nature of Shinsuke Nakamura’s wholesale domination of Tye Dillinger was intriguing to watch this last week on SDL. Specifically, the means by which Nakamura was able to floor Dillinger for increasingly prolonged periods of time indicated the possible form his pending Last Man Standing Match with AJ Styles could yet come to take – and it might not look like anything we’ve seen in the genre before.
We know the Last Man Standing Match well. They’re hardcore affairs, using weaponry and the ringside environment frequently as the competitors escalate the action further and further in their aim to keep their opponent down for a full count of ten. Historically, they have played heavily in the favour of the monster or the brawler, and when the playing field is more even they have frequently concluded in a tie.
Nakamura and Styles have proven themselves a match for one another. While Styles has come out better in purely competitive encounters, Nakamura’s mastery of needling psychological punishment has seen him hold the upper hand now for some time in spite of his shortcomings in gaining the championship. Their own Last Man Standing is one of those aforementioned equally matched playing fields then – but we need not fear a tie here.
That is because, unlike any other men to have ever competed in a Last Man Standing Match, Styles and Nakamura have offensive arsenals deep enough and punishing enough to potentially negate any need for weaponry in the first place. Nakamura’s domination of Dillinger this last week proved as much on his part, and it may just be that his own limbs are all the armament he needs to keep Styles down for a count of ten. That, or a low blow.
So come MITB, could be we looking at a genre-redefining Last Man Standing Match that foregoes the need for foreign objects altogether and instead simply demonstrates the full extent of what each man is capable of between the ropes? It is quite possible; though, I confess, at this stage Styles may use a chair or two not because he needs to, but rather because he wants to.
Finn Bálor has been showing an ever-growing cocky edge to his character for months now, and that laid back self-belief landed the Ordinary Man Capable of Extraordinary Things in hot water when it prompted him to slap Braun Strowman in the face following a patronising comment on how his size defined his fighting performance against the Monster Among Men last week. The result? Another match between the two.
Their latest run-in played out much like their first, with Strowman dominating Bálor and countering the smaller man’s best efforts with frighteningly comfortable strength, albeit with a single key difference: a guest commentating Kevin Owens, motivated purely by self-interest, repeatedly grabbing a microphone to further exacerbate the clash of personalities between the two. His plan works like a charm. His aggravation of Strowman leads to Bálor being catapulted clean over the barrier into the sea of fans on the other side courtesy of a single shoulder barge! And in return, his aggravation of Bálor fuels the Ordinary Man into achieving a truly Extraordinary Thing – circumnavigating Strowman’s repeated counters to edge to an unbelievable near victory!
Unfortunately for the Prizefighter, his ambitions to put himself at a physical and psychological advantage over his fellow MNR entrants become a little too wild and his attempted ambush with a ladder on Strowman evidences just how dangerous the Monster Among Men is going to be in that destructive MITB environment.
It all begs the question, why would anyone want to aggravate Braun Strowman on the eve of a Ladders Match?
I have no idea, but I am thankful that Finn Bálor and Kevin Owens both sought to do just that last Monday night. Ladies and gentleman, it appears that the old Braun is back. No more pre-teen tag team partners or piano playing beat downs. The Monster Among Men on Monday was the Monster Among Men that we came to know as a destroyer of men and near-slayer of beasts throughout 2017, and his resurgence has immediately peaked my interest regarding what role he will come to play in the pending MITB match itself; especially because a briefcase carrying Strowman is in a prime position to take the Universal Championship from the Beast Incarnate.
Strowman has always been at his best when doing his own thing. For the most part, he has. He never truly had a consciously realised ‘face turn’ but rather saw his path crossing those of villains more than heroes by the end of 2017. Remember the Elimination Chamber Match? He was hardly a gurning good guy then. By WrestleMania, however, and that embarrassment of a tag team angle, I feared for what they might turn Strowman into. Comedy can work – just ask Kurt Angle – but I’d rather see Strowman eviscerating competitors far more frequently than playing cellos like guitars. More importantly, I want to see him eviscerating all competitors, and not playing favourites.
His two increasingly hostile matches with Bálor coupled now with his pursuit of vengeance on Owens has proven WWE haven’t forgotten any of this, and is an encouraging sign that Strowman’s immediate future is back on an upward trajectory once again. Splice into that his decision to leave a cheerleading Bobby Roode lying after Roode’s loss to the Prizefighter later that night, and you have a seven foot ronin ready to raze MITB to the ground.
And let’s face it, with the creative on MNR generally being in the toilet right now, the old Braun Strowman is something the flagship show will stand to greatly benefit from having back again.
With that in mind, if you have any thoughts about Strowman returning to his old self again, or about any of the week’s happenings I’ve explored in 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!