Having been able to finally shake-off the last vestiges of their post-Superstar Shake-up hangover, WWE have been able to refocus their two main roster brands and give their product some semblance of a clear direction again these last couple of weeks. The impact of the Shake-up and the messy cards that followed it might have been brief, but they are more than welcome to now find themselves relegated to the recent past.
Unfortunately, it seems that in refocussing, and in combination with the now cumulative effects of WWE’s continuing bizarre, near inexplicable decision making process of the last couple of years, their main roster product finds itself adrift, floating through yet another period of apparently minimal creative effort and mediocre output.
Luckily for us, then, there are at least two or three current exceptions to that rule.
As ever, my name is Samuel ‘Plan and this is the Performance Art View of the week.
Only when sitting down to consider this column did I realise just how stunning it is that WWE’s two main roster brands seem to have presented next to no storylines at all over the last fortnight. Matches have been booked for Money in the Bank, of course, but the majority effort right now seems to be on building the show’s titular match type while ignoring just about everything else. In WWE’s defence, this has probably happened almost entirely by accident in the midst of a transition between narrative cycles as we move into the next set of arcs, but if that is the case it is difficult not to call it an accident of ineptitude.
Putting aside the WWE Championship Match and its long-running feud, consider what else remains of WWE’s main roster product on Monday Night Raw (MNR) and Smackdown Live (SDL). The male contingent of singles champions on the roster are either typically entirely absent or not currently engaged in any directly active feud, and the female contingent have been suddenly thrust into apparently random title defences with only the most forced logic for context. Articles have emerged this week claiming WWE have lost all interest in their tag divisions, and the televised product seems to reflect this. Those lucky enough to have been involved in the Money in the Bank Match itself have been the beneficiaries of generic material designed only to bide time until the pay-per-view arrives. The remaining undercard feuds have either already reached a dead end because of WWE’s creative team’s struggle to grasp basic storytelling techniques universal across mediums of entertainment – such as Big Cass vs. Daniel Bryan – or simply aren’t that interesting in the first place, because of a combination of an eye-wateringly basic premise and use of poorly developed characters – such as Roman Reigns vs. Jinder Mahal.
This is likely to be an over-zealous criticism on my part, I admit. As mentioned, they are, after all, moving out of one storyline cycle and into another, and there are still a number of weeks before Money in the Bank arrives. Nonetheless, the transition has felt jarring, taken two weeks without gathering real steam thus far and needs to be rectified this coming week for the sake of the sanity of the fan base. For as fun as I’m finding the AJ Styles vs. Shinsuke Nakamura storyline, one fully active and clearly defined feud across two main roster brands in two weeks just isn’t enough, and demonstrative of what I can only consider to be a staggering level of inability to craft an engaging fictional universe.
In honesty, though, I don’t enjoy being the kind of columnist who only wants to rail on the world’s leading pro wrestling promotion for their efforts, so let’s move swiftly onto two of the of the silver linings in an otherwise heavily overcast creative climate.
NXT has done its usual reliable job of maintaining a steady sense of storyline progression and character development even across narrative cycles, in stark contrast to the juddering main roster, and one of the most engaging has been the fallout from Roderick Strong‘s decision to join the Undisputed Era, as well as the stable’s continued progression toward the forefront of the brand that literally bears their colours.
We know the destination of the Undisputed Era’s issues with their primary victim Pete Dunne is the Royal Albert Hall and a big six man tag against the combined forces of British Strong Style, but this week saw at least a little taste of revenge for the Bruiserweight as he teamed with other Undisputed Era victims Danny Burch and Oney Lorcan in a tremendous six man tag of their own.
Nuances are plentiful as arcs are progressed in part and deployed in full within the bell to bell ring time, including Strong’s taunting of Dunne and O’Reilly’s inviting Burch to his world of the ring canvas, all of which combine with the well-developed sense of character on both sides to create the story of a trio of smarmy, arrogant and, at times, incompetent villains clashing with grizzled, working class heroes. The sense of satisfaction that results in seeing the Era get their comeuppance in its various forms as a result – most notably a stereo finger snap! – is delightfully old school, delightfully effective. Utilising that as a base to then launch into a rocket-fuelled final act off of a hot tag sequence when the dynamite firecracker Oney Lorcan explodes into life creates the impression of a minor NXT televised classic.
I must confess, I did originally have consternation about Dunne gaining his victorious revenge ahead of his scheduled first match at the Royal Albert Hall in June (appreciating he didn’t score the fall here), but the performance art approach facilitates finding a way to make things work for you and, thanks to a great line from Maura Ranallo, I got just that – “betrayal breeds retaliation.” This week Dunne got his revenge, with a little help from some friends. In June, he gets to retaliate in much the same way.
And for those of us who remember the first UK Championship Tournament, we know exactly what an angry Bruiserweight armed with an impetus for the fight and standing on home turf is capable of!
This last week on MNR, we saw the second chapter in Seth Rollins’ unfolding Intercontinental Championship Open Challenge. This time, being fed a considerably more talented opponent in the form of old rival and former Universal Champion Kevin Owens meant that Rollins was able to write a second chapter that watched as considerably superior to last week’s Chapter I: Monday Night Rawley; and, what’s more, continued on the heels of his efforts at WrestleMania and Backlash both to prove the hot opener is becoming something of a show-stealing speciality for WWE’s ‘Showslayer.’
Considering Owens is a man who lives to undermine or supersede the brands of everyone else on WWE’s roster – because doing so positions him as the most profitable and must see star of the company, enabling him to better provide for his family- it seemed inevitable that he would, in short order, target the volcanically hot Seth Rollins. Indeed, Owens’ early assaults on Rollins are no-nonsense, impatient and seethingly angry. There’s no chain wrestling and no dancing around their issue – it’s a fistfight from the off as WWE’s foremost bounty hunter looks to smash Rollins’ developing reputation to smithereens so as to maximise his own standing and, by extension, profits.
It is in spite of glimmers of the Showslayer’s typically dizzying offensive capabilities that Owens manages to craft an early, dominant advantage by smothering the champion, and against any other opponent that relentless pressure might have proven a successful tactic. In a demonstration of his capability, however, the champion swiftly adapts by shuddering Owens’ spine with a Falcon Arrow on the edge of the ring canvas.
Tired, reeling from Owens’ perhaps surprising early barrages, it proves, in isolation, too little to lend Rollins his needed advantage. Not for the first time in one of these matches, then, we see Rollins’ characteristic indomitable will power come into play during the deadlocked fist fight that follows and slowly, surely, with increasing verve and excitable chants from yet another enamoured live crowd, Rollins is able to call upon his more explosive salvos to craft that aforementioned advantage and gain his much needed upper hand.
That, even in the wake of this building wave of momentum and crowd support, Rollins still has the fight brought to him by a game Owens is a testament to the sometimes deceptively capable KO. Owens’ tactics usually fall into one of two categories: prevent his opponent from playing their best game, or outdo them at it (remember: undermine or supersede). With early efforts to prevent Rollins playing his best game found wanting, what unfolds as the two sprint relentlessly to their story’s conclusion is an Owens attempting to out-fight the fighting champion in a staggering display of endless counters and reversals to big moves, and each bigger than the last, all the while both competitors diving deep into their offensive retinues to pull out that little bit of something extra special.
In the end, it is the multi-faceted nature of Rollins – in the past, his undoing for so many years – that allows him to gain the victory. With Owens’ focus strictly on outperforming the fighting champion side of Rollins, the opportunistic side of Rollins is able to find an opening and nail a decisive Curb Stomp, providing the jolting realisation to us all, and especially to WWE’s bounty hunter, that to challenge the Showslayer is to challenge a tactical and offensive Rubix Cube.
With that in mind, if you have any thoughts on the latest chapter of the Intercontinental Championship Open Challenge, 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!