I know I can’t be the only person longing for some relative normality to return to WWE’s product, emphasis on the relative. The madness of WrestleMania Season followed by the upheaval of a week’s worth of the 2019 Superstar Shake-Up has left me feeling like WWE has been operating in a singular sphere of hysteria for a gluttonous amount of time, and I’d do pretty much anything for the predominant theme of WrestleMania Weekend itself – namely, restraint – to spread throughout the rest of the product.
It is a feeling greatly augmented by my ever-more impatient desire to see who emerges as Seth Rollins’ first challenger for the Universal Championship. For obvious reasons, and reasons well documented by my various outlets here at Lords of Pain, I am extremely excited by the prospect of my favourite wrestler taking his, to my mind, rightful place as the centre of creative gravity on WWE’s flagship television programme. What’s more, I cannot help but believe his nature as one of, if not the most fully developed character currently occupying WWE’s fictional universe courtesy of the odyssey he has been on these last three to four years primes many of the characters surrounding him on the new look Monday Night Raw (MNR) for a potential run at the brand’s top title too – more so than any prospective alternative in the same spot, for now.
The hook of knowing we’ll soon see the face of ‘Monday Night Rollins’ take shape as we hurtle towards WWE’s next pay-per-view, Money in the Bank, has been more than enough to see me through the tumult wrought by the most inexplicable Superstar Shake-Up we’ve seen and the crushing departure of Dean Ambrose from the promotion. What I couldn’t have known up front was that the prospect of Sami Zayn – a wrestler I have never and likely will never have much in the way of any affection for – being Rollins’ first challenger would win my full support. Zayn’s narrative of a bitterly forgotten hero railing against the people who forgot him feels like a perfect foil for the champion whose own arc has been in part defined by his winning over of those same people to emerge as a hero we never knew we wanted, perhaps never knew we needed. Rollins’ rise being pitted philosophically against Zayn’s fall would make for some compelling story.
It is also worth mentioning that, while I was always of the belief it was Rollins vs. Roman Reigns that was the ultimate WrestleMania dream for next year, with the move of AJ Styles to MNR I find my mind changing. Hulk Hogan vs. Ultimate Warrior, Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin vs. The Rock: these were all WrestleMania headliners that presented the ultimate version of the predominant ring fashion of the time. In this age of hyper-athleticism, Rollins vs. Styles feels like a natural successor, so as I hope for Zayn to emerge as one of, if not the first challenger for Rollins’ Universal Championship, so too do I begin to hope WWE will resist temptation and make the man who built the house of Smackdown Live (SDL) a prospective ‘Mania destination for the man who burned down the kingdom of MNR.
Both of these, I confess, feel like remote possibilities. Drew McIntyre appears to be the natural fit to be first in line for the Big Red Belt and there’s no guarantee Rollins will even enter next year’s Showcase of Immortals carrying the title; and, if he does, it may be his brother Reigns who is fated to be his big defence that night. Still, neither of these options are anything to sniff at either, hinting at what I feel strongly is very much the post-‘Mania case for both brands, actually: the formation of some much needed contemporary roster positioning providing a healthy starting point for the year to come.
Both MNR and SDL will have some way to go, however, before they can think of challenging for the crown of WWE’s best brand, a boast that I believe can currently be made not by NXT US, but its younger NXT UK cousin.
The weekly sixty minute showcase of British (and European) talent has quietly been putting its shifts in to create one of the most robust, confident and clearly defined products being offered by the world’s foremost pro wrestling promotion. While the main roster continues tripping and falling over the relentless conveyor of Vince McMahon’s moody whims, and while NXT US has a tendency to let its own excess get the better of its discipline, NXT UK has felt unflinchingly focussed. The result has been a well defined roster of characters providing a steady output of high quality matches bred by simple but sharp-eyed narratives.
The unlikely winning ways of Amir Jordan and Kenny Williams is perhaps the latest example, with the two plucky underdogs picking up unexpected victories over the pre-eminent teams of NXT UK’s tag division to line themselves up for what will surely prove an emotive title opportunity against the revelatory champions, The Grizzled Young Veterans – the team Just Business has recognised more than any of their contemporaries for match quality throughout 2019.
They aren’t alone. Arguably, Pete Dunne and WALTER stole the show at NXT Takeover: New York, the drama of WALTER’s championship ascension driven by the roster positioning that had seen Dunne presented as the central attraction of the brand, his Austrian challenger an insurgent but infamous threat from foreign shores whose reputation preceded. With the similarly previously established Joe Coffey and his Gallus brethren verbally waiting in the wings, and now the apparent formation of WALTER’s stable, The Imperium (a name I LOVE, by the way!), alongside the supporting feature act of Moustache Mountain, what we’re now witnessing is the primary benefit of patient and strict roster positioning: shared universe product unavoidably generating high drama through the establishment of extra semantic meaning in a fluid main event scene.
Jordan Devlin is perhaps the character who has benefited the most from this remarkably constructive environment, going on a tear so far this year with notable wins in over-achieving bouts, guile-filled losses in note-worthy matches and an astonishing rate of improvement that positions him nicely for a UK Championship shot in the near future, one that would insert him like an invasive, disruptive ronin into the already stacked main event picture.
You may not be watching NXT UK, and if you’re not then you should: more than even its American counterpart, it is a testament to what the old and most simple disciplines at the heart of professional wrestling can still achieve to this day.
Hopefully we can see some of that discipline filter back into the main roster product. I know, I’m not expecting it either, but I remain hopeful. Positive steps have already been taken. The decision to place the championships of the company where they now sit is foremost among those steps, as is splitting apart Rollins and Reigns to create two marquee names for two marquee brands.
Of course, these choices are not limited to the male divisions.
Having Becky Lynch walk out of WrestleMania holding both Women’s Championships struck me as a brave decision, and a major statement of faith in The Man’s talents and popularity. Having already gotten the better of her nemesis Charlotte at the end of their famous 2018 rivalry, now boasting the only pin fall victory over Ronda Rousey in the company and now carrying both championships and appearing on both brands has not only solidified Lynch as the top women’s performer in the company, it may have solidified her as the top character in the company too. I must admit, it feels considerably more elating to see Lynch occupy that spot than Ronda Rousey.
Rousey won her fair share of fans during her year in WWE thus far, just as she created her fair share of detractors. I sat somewhere in the middle. I was a big fan of her first title challenge against Nia Jax, a big fan of her scrap with Charlotte Flair at Survivor Series, but so too was I a big fan of the comments made recently by Tazz on his podcast: it certainly did feel like Rousey was very carefully presented to WWE’s audience throughout her stint, fast-tracked uncomfortably, if understandably, to the top spot of the MNR women’s division and, ultimately, inserted into the WrestleMania main event because of the stopping power of her name. Reports of her having the greatest rookie year in WWE history are greatly exaggerated, – nobody is convincing me Rousey wasn’t a lock for the ‘Mania 35 closer the moment she debuted at Royal Rumble 2017, sp accusations of Charlotte intruding in ‘Mania’s headlining match were, I felt, better saved for the retired UFC fighter reaping the reward of the hard work of more deserving women, frankly.
But where Rousey has come and gone and left me with an overwhelming impression of anomalous favour, her UFC kin Shayna Baszler feels, to me, like the perfect fit to emerge soon and dethrone Becky Lynch from the lofty but universally beneficial plinth WWE have placed The Man upon. Baszler has demonstrated the relentless dedication more in keeping with the spirit of the industry, a greater and more natural understanding of the nuances of the art form as I recognise them empirically as a fan than Rousey ever did, and a much more irresistibly magnetic personality than her more famous friend too. It is Baszler vs. Lynch I most anticipate, not the Rousey vs. Lynch encounter ‘Mania seemed to deliberately end on an anti-climax in order to seed. In fact, so natural is an epic showdown between the most dominant champion in NXT history and The Man that it baffles me why a ‘Viking Experience’ just getting started were promoted over a red hot Queen of Spades this last week.
Wonders never cease, I suppose; or should that be bad habits?
Regardless, with emergent clarity of roster positioning across the company and championships (mostly) on all the right shoulders, and with the madness of WrestleMania Season now firmly behind us, the near future for WWE looks more positive than it has in a long while.
Who do YOU most want to see challenge Rollins for the Universal Championship?
What’s YOUR estimation of NXT UK?
Which do YOU most look forward to – Lynch vs. Rousey, or Baszler?
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