I was left stunned this last week when I read Vince McMahon’s comments that recent all-time ratings lows with WWE’s television product were, in large part, down to the fact that John Cena was off making movies and Roman Reigns was ill. Competition knocks on the door, talent are closing the door behind them on their way out – in some cases, I imagine quite happily – and even on the television programme itself there is an open recognition of a need for change. In such a fluctuating environment, McMahon’s comments are as disheartening to read as they are infuriating.
More disheartening still are the warning signs that the slight winks towards change we have received on WWE programming throughout January are already beginning to dissolve. This last week’s episode of Monday Night Raw (MNR) was poor, to assess it kindly. The return of Stephanie McMahon to enact that one trick her character does, the decision to have Kurt Angle and Jeff Jarrett both wrestle matches, the latest jarringly awkward Moment of Bliss segment and the mind-boggling decision to have Baron Corbin back in the main event again – now barely a ghostly vestige of the ill-advised GM-Elect character that derailed the show in December – all made for an episode of MNR that felt horrifyingly regressive.
Then fresh news emerged of rumours that WWE want ‘three months to prove they mean it,’ as they promise pushes to unhappy talents backstage. A noble sentiment; one, though, that may be misguided. To boil the issue down to ‘pushing unhappy talent’ seems to as flagrantly ignore the cultural issues plaguing WWE as does claiming low ratings are the result of absentee rot. More, it’s the mentality that leads to – whisper it – Jinder Mahal as WWE Champion. More horrifying than the return of the entire McMahon clan to me is the signs of a Mojo Rawley push as inspired by WCW’s take on Hulk Hogan vs. Ultimate Warrior.
I’ll let you do the shuddering on that one.
At the same time, though, we now see reports of The Revival wrestling MNR Tag Team Champions Bobby Roode and Chad Gable in forty minute bouts on the house show circuit. Our very own LOP report of a recent house show just a couple of days ago pointed out a twenty-five minute reprise of that match too. Also, ultimately, let’s not forget the fact that Seth Rollins and Becky Lynch did win this year’s Royal Rumble Matches after all, an increasing amount of promo time on television has felt decidedly less scripted and WWE appear to genuinely be seeing through the ‘no more automatic rematches’ clause (mostly).
So right now it’s difficult to know what to think. Yes, there are positive signs hinting towards the change we’ve needed for some time now, and it’s important to remember that these are more certifiable than the rumours we find doing the rounds on the internet. It is impossible to ignore those rumours when we have been burned as often as we have been by WWE over the decades though, and even with the requisite pinch of salt some of the reports we’re reading as a fan base should give serious cause for concern that this really is just another in a long line of empty promises wrought by what is increasingly one man’s desperately outmoded philosophy.
In the interest of a fair assessment, what was clear about this week’s episode of MNR specifically was that it suffered tremendously for simply not featuring current number one contender for the Universal Championship Seth Rollins, whose journey to WrestleMania has started off less than auspiciously. I have no issues with the beating Rollins received from Brock Lesnar two weeks ago. Narratively, it felt perfectly judged to me, not only explaining the threat Lesnar poses to Rollins as we begin on this journey but, in Rollins’ response, demonstrating that, to defeat Rollins come ‘Mania, it will take Lesnar even more than it took him to defeat Roman Reigns last year. For chapter one, I thought it concise, tantalising and on point.
It also filled me with dread. I fear we take it for granted that, come WrestleMania, Seth Rollins will win the Universal Championship. This is not a forgone conclusion. Nightmarish memories of the ending to WrestleMania 34 flash through my mind as I ponder what awaits the Architect in New Jersey. That Rollins is so obviously the character who should win the match considering the angle of the story being told is exactly why I suffer such anxiety about WWE choosing not to do it – it would be uniquely ‘them’ to ignore all the forces of nature pulling inexorably in an obvious direction.
In a strange way, however, this fear works to my benefit. It may be strangely masochistic, but not knowing for a certainty whether Rollins will slay the Beast in April serves only to further immerse me in a story I am already more emotionally invested in than any other I’ve seen play out in real time in my many, many years as a wrestling fan. Pro wrestling is at its best when it operates by playing on raw, visceral emotion and, whether it’s for the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ reasons, the uncertainty around whether Lesnar walks out of ‘Mania with or without his championship, the dread of what MNR might watch like if Rollins does not fulfil what feels to this fan like his destiny, offers up a big ol’ slice of exactly that kind of raw, visceral emotion. Honestly, I don’t think I’d trade that in.
Of course, equal to the fear of a post-WrestleMania MNR landscape where Brock Lesnar remains Universal Championship is the excitement of a post-WrestleMania MNR landscape where Seth Rollins begins rewriting the Universal Championship’s legacy from scratch. The drop in quality in lieu of the absence of Rollins on MNR this last week, if anything, only underscores the value he adds to WWE’s flagship brand; with the Universal Championship in hand, that value would only continue to shoot up. Perhaps, then, McMahon should concern himself less with how MNR manages to somehow survive without John Cena and more with how it seems to get instantly derailed when one Hound is fighting illness, another rests to ward off greater injury and the third is denied any chance to contribute the full breadth of his talents in the absence of the other two.
There are many sticking to the idea that Dean Ambrose’s announced exit this coming April is a work, though his demeanour on television and the continued use of him in a role unbecoming of a name of his stature on MNR this last week seems to me to indicate it is quite the opposite. If it is fact, then we would expect the losses to start piling up for the outgoing talent, but both WWE history and precedent set by other organisations indicate that there would be nothing to fear in providing Ambrose a losing role in a prominent storyline this ‘Mania more befitting of his accomplishments and role these last seven years. Perhaps in WWE’s eyes the trust engendered to make a success of their first foray into inter-gender wrestling in nine years is just that; to me, though, Ambrose deserves more on his way out.
The loss of Hideo Itami is an equally sore one for me too, and though Itami self-evidently does not possess the same stopping power in WWE that a name like Dean Ambrose does he has, nonetheless, made some tremendous contributions to the company during his tenure.
I first fell in love with KENTA’s work when I discovered his matches opposite Naomichi Marufuji in Pro NOAH and was elated when the man signed with NXT in the summer of 2014 – one of the first acquisitions to come in WWE’s tidal shift towards lifting talent reared in alternative organisations. While injuries plagued Itami’s time in WWE, arguably proving the source of his stunted career growth while there, he still found the time to compile a wealth of outstanding ring work demonstrating how well he adapted to operating within WWE’s preferred ‘style’ – more so than countryman Shinsuke Nakamura ever has, for my money.
Among his work in WWE, it is what I would refer to as his ‘Takeover Trilogy’ that I most cherish. His curtain jerking mid card clinic opposite Tyler Breeze at Takeover: Rival, his NXT Championship marquee match with Bobby Roode at Takeover: Chicago and his character driven hipster gem against Aleister Black at Takeover: Brooklyn III were all instant hits with me. A trilogy of, if anything, superior quality on 205 Live against Mustafa Ali throughout 2018 reminded the world of what Itami could offer, as did his two Big Four pre-show silent hits: his showing in WrestleMania 31’s André the Giant Memorial Battle Royal helped make it the best iteration of that particular concept and his recent turn as the primary threat in Royal Rumble 2019’s Cruiserweight Championship Fatal 4 Way is as bitter as it is sweet – sweet to watch, bitter to think about what it proved could have been.
As one door closes, though, another opens. Another puro-raised favourite of mine is Kushida, and as Itami leaves the internet would have me believe that Kushida will soon arrive, most likely on 205 Live – a show that suddenly finds itself in desperate need of the shot of adrenaline a talent like Kushida could lend it. That being said, considering the hot form NXT has been on over the last couple of years particularly, I really wouldn’t complain if the Time Splitter paid a visit to Full Sail first. Better still, a Kushida operating on an MNR that features Rollins as Universal Champion…?!
Hopefully, with Itami now already off television, we won’t have to wait too long to find out!
What are YOUR thoughts on last week’s episode of Monday Night Raw? How do YOU feel about the future of the Universal Championship? And what do YOU think of Itami’s time in WWE? Sound off in the comments below, over on social media or by joining LOPForums today!