With Fastlane in the books and WrestleMania Weekend drawing ever closer, these last seven days have seen WWE begin the process of making cards official for the biggest week in the pro wrestling calendar. Typically for the WWE of the moment, the results have proven to be a mixed bag.
It was only last week that I wrote down, in as matter of fact a fashion as I could manage, the convoluted events of the Monday Night Raw (MNR) Women’s Championship scene. Since that time, things have escalated again, with the champion, Ronda Rousey, now finding herself on the wrong side of a storyline ‘fine’ because of her recent conduct; awesome, because as a story it definitely needed more stuff happening, didn’t it?
It is an overly busy, horribly overproduced storyline that I have come to disdain most of all because it only casts into starker contrast the veritable drought of competition found among the Smackdown Live (SDL) women’s division. With Charlotte unnecessarily entwined in the title scene of the brand we believe she (still) isn’t on, what has proven telling is the catastrophic lack of viable opponents ready to face the reigning SDL Women’s Champion, Asuka, come the big night.
Rumours were initially abound that Asuka would be pitted against Lacey Evans. If that’s true, it was a terrible idea considering the unpolished performance of Evans in the Women’s Royal Rumble Match some months ago, as well as WWE’s resurgent inability to write a new character in an interesting fashion. Mercifully, however, these rumours have been displaced this week by fresh talk claiming that, instead, Asuka will find herself defending the title in another Triple Threat Match against the dissenting friends of Mandy Rose and Sonya Deville.
It’s not the worst idea in the world, conceptually speaking. In the absence of a single viable challenger, substituting the resultant lack of convincing menace with unfavourable odds is, to my mind, a sensible response that excuses the presence of another multi-performer match on a card I expect will feature many. Of the SDL women’s division, Rose and Deville remain two of the more promising acts for the future, and uniquely two of the more experienced on the main roster. Their friendship adds narrative intrigue too.
Despite these upsides, however, if this rumoured match were to come to fruition it still feels very much like a ‘make do’ situation, rather than a story aching to be told and fitting for a character of Asuka’s prominence and legacy – unlike the Charlotte rematch that could have easily been offered up instead. The rough-hewn execution of the story’s production thus far has left a lot to be desired too, demeaning of Asuka’s abilities and doing no favours in showing the strengths of her two rivals. Frankly, the entire situation seems to be tailor made to do nothing but promote WWE’s crippling inability to invest long-term and compelling characterisation in any female performer who can’t claim to be a ‘Horsewoman.’ As a huge fan of the Empress of Tomorrow, it is a situation that, especially in combination with the convoluted, we might say mollycoddled MNR equivalent, fills me with an unwelcome sense of bitterness.
SDL isn’t the only brand dealt a WrestleMania Weekend-shaped blow this year either. Over the last couple of weeks we have come to find out that reigning NXT Champion Tommaso Ciampa has suffered a neck injury on the brink of what seemed like the final, feud resolving encounter between him and long-running nemesis Johnny Gargano in the main event of the incoming NXT Takeover: New York. News broke that Triple H will address the situation this next week on the Black and Gold brand, but it’s difficult to imagine, with the track record it can boast, that NXT will struggle to come up with a compelling solution.
Until then, however, I have been pondering the circumstance Tommy Sports Entertainment now finds himself in and, specifically, wondering whether this is a severe stroke of misfortune derailing what had undoubtedly been a hell of a run, or rather a fatalistic turn of well-disguised luck saving him from the current panic-stricken product WWE is putting out. It very well may be that this injury has prevented Ciampa from having to navigate his way through a directionless main roster promotion, and in so doing might have also, overly-dramatic as it might sound, safeguarded the immediate qualitative future of his time in WWE.
That’s not a knock on him. On the contrary, though NXT, in both its predominant ring style and feud design, rests too heavily on a populist ‘More is More’ philosophy for me to ever fall in love with much of anything it puts out, I have nonetheless come to admire Ciampa’s storytelling – one of the more composed examples circulating through Full Sail. His character has proven just as compelling too, less reliant on the single arc of his relationship with Gargano than I feel Gargano’s own character is in turn. Ultimately, there’s a reason I included Ciampa on my theoretical roster in fellow LOP writer Maverick’s latest instalment of Requesting Flyby this last Thursday, which you can read here.
Rather, it is to say that, since January, noticeably especially since the announcement of All Elite Wrestling, discipline in WWE’s creative output has increasingly made way for frantic experimentation, the company seemingly throwing out every idea they have in the hopes they stumble upon a direction. Such an environment could be toxic for most, but with his latest injury Ciampa has seemingly been spared.
Perhaps more importantly than that, though, is the fact that this unfortunate injury only exacerbates in scale the already epic backdrop for the necessary, hopefully inevitable final confrontation of former DIY running mates, should Ciampa return to find Gargano holding the NXT Championship he never lost. I haven’t been a fan of their rivalry thus far, often finding it overwrought and a little too hysterical in the ring to have much of an appeal to my unfashionable tastes. Nonetheless, especially considering the tremendous quality of their Dusty Rhodes Classic Semi-Final on NXT this last week which seemingly now stands as the opening line of the prelude to the final chapter of this saga, even I find the notion of their eventual endgame stimulating.
I couldn’t say the same at first about the prospect of Roman Reigns wrestling Drew McIntyre at WrestleMania. My lack of appreciation for the so-called Scottish Psychopath has been no secret around LOP since his first stint with the company, and though there was a brief period of time whereby he threatened to convert me into a believer, that stretched from when he betrayed Dolph Ziggler and destroyed Kurt Angle at the tail end of 2018 through to his presence in the 2019 Men’s Royal Rumble Match, I have otherwise remained largely unconvinced. When word began to spread that WWE were looking to pit The Shield’s Big Dog against either him or Baron Corbin at the Showcase of Immortals, then, my heart began to sink.
That was until this last week. After an emotional whirlwind of a main event at Fastlane, McIntyre found himself still pitted against the Hounds of Justice on MNR, but mercifully not while chained to the dismally hopeless Bobby Lashley and horribly ill-produced Corbin. Whether it was because of the absence of those two caricatures or not, strong writing and emotive turns from the protagonists dressed in black all helped take my previous apathy and ignite it into a passionately felt emotional investment for what undoubtedly feels like a pending ‘Mania clash.
Often in fiction, having compelling heroes and compelling villains proves itself a symbiotic relationship – having one is at least in part dependant on having the other. The manner in which this particular story took shape last Monday has offered up a promise of MNR featuring both in the weeks to come, at WrestleMania and throughout the months beyond. It was one thing to have McIntyre brutalise Dean Ambrose less than twenty-four hours removed from Ambrose’s redemptive and emotional reunion with his brothers on the battlefield, all because the redeemed Lunatic couldn’t help but try to stand up for his brother. It was another thing to pile that on top of a vicious beat down of Reigns that consciously played up the lingering after-effects of Reigns’ inspiring fight with cancer. But to do both while serving the unspoken but no less compelling character arc of McIntyre himself bordered on the accidental genius WWE are so often on the verge of tumbling into.
Since returning to the company, and more specifically, the main roster, McIntyre has made a promise to ‘put the locker room on notice,’ in part seemingly fuelled by a lingering bitterness over the manner in which his first stint with the company, that saw him christened ‘The Chosen One’ no less, stagnated and perished. It only stands to reason, then, that he be the man, unhinged by his own embittered resentment, to target The Shield, three figures who shattered the glass ceiling he never could. I love that subtext, that turns seemingly personal animosity into a generational conflict framed by the tides of history and transforms this year’s ‘Mania’s mid card into McIntyre’s to lose.
And you know what’s best of all? Seth Rollins is now set to face him this week on MNR in response to the events of this last week, at the same time Brock Lesnar is due to show up in response to words uttered on the same preceding show – we’ve got ourselves some shared universe storytelling, folks!
Who do YOU think is a worthy opponent for Asuka at WrestleMania, given Charlotte seems to be off the table? Do YOU think Ciampa’s injury could yet turn out for the best? And what are YOUR thoughts on this unfolding character arc for McIntyre? Sound off in the comments below, over on social media or by joining LOPForums today!