2019 rolls on and with it came another tumultuous month in WWE. February seemed to signal a disheartening refusal from WWE to let go of the horrible habits most WWE fans want to see consigned to the distant past while, at the same time, offering up small responses to the dramatic developments we witnessed in January.
There have been quite a number of positive changes, with a focus on contemporary full-time talent edging its way through WWE’s entire product these last four weeks. Alongside two top WrestleMania matches that are seeing genuinely popular heroes pursue championships opposite genuinely provocative champions, acts previously frustrated on the sidelines throughout the mid card and denied the opportunity to contribute have been given opportunities long overdue, such as the new Monday Night Raw (MNR) Tag Team Champions, The Revival, and of course the great Cinderella story of Smackdown Live (SDL), Kofi Kingston.
Flux is the word for February though, as in typical fashion WWE have shown their tendency to take two steps back for every step forwards as well. Worrying signals of a return to previous normalcy have repeatedly disrupted any positive momentum the promotion has been able to build, culminating this last week with the groan-inducing return of Batista. While the segment itself proved well produced and effectively executed, the fact that MNR closed with a 50 year old actor acting a septuagenarian retiree to garner the attention of a 49 year old business executive should not be shrugged away.
More troubling than this, though, has been the lack of general focus that has emerged. The Women’s Tag Team Championships were introduced brilliantly at Elimination Chamber, but the decision for them to float across brands, while positive on a practical level, is problematic on a conceptual one. The return of Kevin Owens and his immediate placement opposite Daniel Bryan in a WWE Championship bout at Fastlane is exciting on two self-evident fronts, but the unexplained shift from MNR to SDL is a creative liberty that only further dilutes an already increasingly irrelevant, even detrimental Brand Extension. Most pressingly of all, the jarringly sudden introduction of NXT’s top male talents in the final two weeks of the month, when there is clearly no long term creative plan for any one of them, betrays a promoter in panic mode, hitting every button he can in the hopes one of them sees his fledgling product take flight. This near-hyperactive dealing in both the positive and negative in equal degree paints a picture of a WWE in which, though change looms, it feels unnecessarily begrudging. Let’s hope March and the final stretch before WrestleMania bring with them some much needed clarity and poise from the world’s foremost pro wrestling promotion.
Focussing on the positive however, it is a noteworthy fact that naming a Wrestler of February in WWE is no easy task. Even though he only returned in the final week of the month, Kevin Owens cannot be easily glossed over. Feeling utterly refreshed, his return to SDL was dramatic, effective and hinted at the famed Stunner becoming his new finisher – considering the Pop-Up Powerbomb failed several times over as early as his first main roster match, that’s a move this fan very much welcomes (no pun intended); and, in fact, feels reminiscent of Seth Rollins’ reclamation of the Curb Stomp injecting his own act with notable fresh energy in January of last year.
The lessons of the ‘Rollins Resurgence’ seemed to loom large this month then, as many will claim that February belonged utterly to Kofi Kingston, who put together a one-hour Gauntlet Match performance evocative of Rollins’ own last year to spark a wave of ‘KofiMania’ that has swept the fan base like a summer storm. While arguably not quite as immediately memorable a performance as Rollins the year before (don’t @ me!), a one hour showing is a one hour showing regardless of any desire to compare, a pin fall win over the WWE Champion is a pin fall win over the WWE Champion too, and Kingston capitalised on it all with a compelling character-driven performance inside the Elimination Chamber followed by a fresh singles opportunity at the title for Fastlane. That said opportunity was snatched from him at the last moment now only further increases Kingston’s chances of his career renaissance hitting even higher heights come April…
However, as infectious as the Kingston story was and as fresh as Owens’ return felt, in truth February belonged to one man: Daniel Bryan. Prompting my esteemed colleague SirSam to write on the matter here, Bryan’s various showings throughout this last month saw the man on rare form, even by his own standard. The New Daniel Bryan is a character that has been receiving rave reviews since it emerged late last year, but it was in February that he really came into his own. Bryan was the stand-out performer in the best Elimination Chamber Match in at least a decade, possibly a decade and a half, when said match was built on the back of no fewer than four outstanding character performances. Add to this a series of sterling ring efforts on weekly episodes of SDL, a sense of character on the microphone providing ever more compelling promo time and a confidence of self that somehow saw Bryan provide the most magnetic screen presence during all the contract signing shenanigans of the last SDL of the month, in spite of him spending the majority of his time sat perfectly still. The result? The absolute best performer in WWE this last month, and quite possibly the best professional wrestler in the entire world right now. Again.
Top of Bryan’s list of performances this last month was the match I must name my Main Event Match of February – the WWE Championship Elimination Chamber Match (Elimination Chamber 2019). February’s WWE pay-per-view kicked off with a main event match in its own right, and one that would prove hard to topple thanks to the emotive punch of crowning the inaugural Women’s Tag Team Champions. Amazingly, the male main event performers of SDL did just that though, with a character-driven tapestry of a masterpiece featuring four of its six-man field on arguably career-best form. Not only did Bryan demonstrate supreme mastery of his own character, but so did Kingston as the underdog, Samoa Joe as the monster and Randy Orton as the opportunist. A pair of competent supporting performances from AJ Styles and Jeff Hardy topped off the action to help fashion what may yet prove to be a main event of unbeatable quality as early as two months into the year.
It was a good job that Elimination Chamber’s main events delivered of course, because the rest of its card was woeful – that means naming the Undercard Match of February is a task that leaves me little choice other than to declare no winner. A sorry state of affairs, to be sure, and one that only reinforces just how much work WWE need to put into rehabilitating their product (and, more importantly, their creative habits) outside of a few key characters and storylines.
That it felt like slim pickings for the Tag Team Match of February reinforces that reality further still. This is not to say February was entirely bereft of quality on the tag front – quite the opposite, in fact, thanks to the likes the Revival’s title victory, the somewhat experimental return of Halftime Heat and the manner in which NXT’s top talents debuted on the main roster. The Grizzled Young Veterans vs. The Brit-Am Brawlers for the NXT UK Tag Team Championships (NXT UK, 27/02/19) gets the nod from me, though – a match possessed of as much grizzly substance as the champions themselves, but spiced with the same unlikely charisma as the Brit-Am Brawlers’ title bout opposite Undisputed Era last summer.
Naming the TV Match of February is by no means a tough contest. While most televised action has been as reliably solid as it often is in WWE, only one match really stood out among the combined efforts of MNR and SDL these last few weeks: Daniel Bryan vs. Kofi Kingston vs. Jeff Hardy vs. Samoa Joe vs. AJ Styles vs. Randy Orton in a Gauntlet Match (SDL, 12/02/19). The self-plagiarism of MNR’s own Gauntlet Match from 2018 was, on a conceptual level at least, unwelcome, but it undoubtedly spawned what could yet prove to be the most feel-good story of the year. Further, what the bout accomplished in its own confines proved enrapturing for the majority WWE audience in an Era where such moments are all too rare.
It is perhaps the proof we need to demonstrate the reason for that rarity is the supposedly obsessive micromanagement of Vince McMahon that, while TV and pay-per-view offered few matches of genuinely outstanding quality, Network-exclusive programming proved to be an embarrassment of riches throughout February. From the impressive Worlds Collide tournament to the reliable trio of NXT, NXT UK and 205 Live, it was next to impossible to settle on a single Network Match of February – but, eventually, I did just that. Tony Nese vs. Noam Dar in a No Disqualification Match (205 Live, 12/02/19) was a remarkable piece of work on every level. It was cerebrally character-driven, unbeholden to the common tropes of its genre and primarily interested in presenting something singular and original. It clocked in a feature-length run time and, had it appeared on pay-per-view, would already be getting heralded as an instant classic; because, frankly, it was. Not only was it the best match on Network-exclusive programming this last month, it might have been the month’s best match, full stop.
What are YOUR thoughts on the WWE product in February? What wrestler did YOU think had the best month? And what matches do YOU feel were February’s finest? Sound off in the comments below, over on social media or by joining LOPForums today!