As was to be expected, March in WWE this year was all about the Road to WrestleMania, and it’s been quite the bumpy one. March’s primary theme was one of bad habits persisting. Roster size inflated still further, with recent NXT call-ups remaining on main roster television and injured stars – specifically Kevin Owens and Mustafa Ali – making their returns, and all of this, still, without any sense of long-term direction for the characters concerned. The part-timer problem resurged, with Batista appearing a total of two times throughout the course of the month, somehow managing to bag a WrestleMania main event opposite Triple H in the process. Writing remain convoluted, with the Monday Night Raw (MNR) Women’s Championship rivalry in particular deciding to see how many times it could jump the shark in the weeks it had left until the big showdown. The creative powers continue to remain tone deaf in relation to fan interests too, most recently demonstrated with the underwhelming decision to stage Kurt Angle’s final match against Baron Corbin of all people.
Thankfully, however, it wasn’t all bad; indeed, more frustrating than the product outright stinking is the fact that it repeatedly shows signs of positive change.
WrestleMania feels welcomingly old school, thanks to having accrued a series of matches featuring genuinely sympathetic and / or cool heroes. Becky Lynch and Seth Rollins have felt like refreshingly relevant selections in their respective spots, and now Kofi Kingston only amplifies that sensation; and each one is pitted against foes compelling in their own right, for different reasons. The phenomenon bleeds through the entire card, boasting a line-up of heroes from Roman Reigns to The Miz, Finn Bálor to AJ Styles; there isn’t a single ‘babyface’ this year who doesn’t, at the very least, have the respect of the crowd, and many of them, in fact, have more than that. And while the line up of villainy feels a little more in need of some post-‘Mania rehabilitation – Shane McMahon, Bobby Lashley and Baron Corbin hardly make for interesting ‘heels’ – what it lacks is made up for by this year’s unusually, unexpectedly, uncharacteristically strong cadre of natural good guys.
The issue of bloat remains, though, in spite of being offset by this turn in the product that’s managed to fly under the radar, and never is it more apparent nowadays than on the day of WrestleMania. Rumours bounced around early on in the month that we could be faced with the longest pay-per-view in WWE history, and with fourteen matches booked as of this column (and presumably at least two more, in the form of Tag Team Championship defences, on the way) it does appear WWE have lived up to that hype. Hopefully, with so many naturally supportable heroes scattered throughout, a trilogy of main events fans care about and a strong undercard to boot, we might get the first good supersized ‘Mania this year, but the issue of roster bloat desperately needs redressing all the same – or the format of the Show of Shows fundamentally altering in adaptation to the new status quo.
It almost feels like a betrayal, to intimate a need in WWE to acknowledge the size of their roster and admit how unnecessary it is, because for them to do so would inevitably mean talent cuts and, as the task of selecting a Wrestler of March proved, WWE’s excessive roster is loaded with motivated performers fully capable of exceeding already high expectations at every turn.
The New Day, as a unit, deserve credit on that front. Where February emerged very much as the story of Kofi Kingston, what WWE managed so brilliantly in March was angling that into a storyline that benefited the entire group. New Day were able to share the ring in important segments and in match time, as Kingston was crowbarred, through the group’s united efforts, into a WrestleMania match that the powers-that-be didn’t want him to be in. Capped off with a remarkably effective pair of Gauntlet Matches at month’s end, New Day enter WrestleMania on the back of a remarkable several weeks that saw them prove their value repeatedly on the microphone and between the ropes to equal, superlative degree.
Ricochet and Aleister Black almost took home the honours this month too, thanks to a series of electrifying performances on MNR, proving to be a key and, frankly, the most memorable component of an unexpectedly over-achieving tag title bout at Fastlane and, at the same time, continuing to headline over in NXT en route to winning this year’s Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic! Whether the two have settled with luck into a role the company didn’t think through, or whether the plan all along was for these two utterly singular in-ring personalities to make waves as a pairing, the end result, it feels like, was always going to be undeniable: giddy magic.
But Drew McIntyre refused to be ignored this month, and March very much belonged to him – so much so, in fact, history may come to remember it as the month in which he finally shattered the glass ceiling he succumbed to at the turn of the decade. McIntyre was central to the emotive farewell of The Shield at Fastlane, finding himself positioned opposite the group representing the successes he was previously denied in the company, the forerunners of the generation he now rages against ceaselessly. His performance at Fastlane was the only one of his team’s worthy of the Hounds, and his MNR appearances thereafter have seen him not just become a one-man-army against the collective might of The Shield, but a wildly successful one.
On top of his convincing character work, McIntyre this month boasts two television main event victories over Dean Ambrose in what might have been Ambrose’s final two matches in the company; a win over the current number one contender for the Universal Championship, Seth Rollins, positioning him as a future main event challenger on the other side of next Sunday; and he now has a pending WrestleMania undercard bout against the contemporary generation’s de facto top name, Roman Reigns, that is destined to be a match highlight of 2019’s biggest wrestling pay-per-view. Can there really be any denying that this month was the month that the ‘Chosen One’ of the Lost Generation returned with a vengeance?
No surprise that McIntyre, in fact, features in what was always going to be my Main Event Match of March from the moment it came to a close – The Shield vs. Baron Corbin, Drew McIntyre and Bobby Lashley (Fastlane). True enough, it was limited to a rendition of the famous faction’s greatest hits, but those hits are so great that, even in a retrospective celebratory encounter as this one seemed designed to be, they remain exhilarating. With reliable, precedent-led quality on show, the undertones of the bout’s emotional significance for the group that changed the game in WWE turned a typical, relatively swiftly built Shield outing into something evocatively memorable.
The Undercard Match of March may be controversial for my choice of categorisation, but as Fastlane seemed to trade off of the reunion of The Shield primarily and Becky Lynch’s ongoing quest secondarily, that freed up Daniel Bryan vs. Kevin Owens vs. Mustafa Ali for the WWE Championship (Fastlane) to be my pick here. With Bryan continuing his career-best form over from Elimination Chamber in February, Owens wrestling revitalised and with renewed vigour and Ali sacrificially bumping as seems to be his wont, the three men put together an intelligent and dramatic, if conceptually conservative take on the Triple Threat genre that, nonetheless, proved more than good enough to win over a distracted crowd aching to rebel.
Naming the Tag Team Match of March provided the most in the way of stiff competition. But, despite the MNR titles being defended on Fastlane in a raucously fun four-way, and the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic playing out on NXT, in the month’s final episode of the Blue Brand, the Tag Team Gauntlet Match (Smackdown Live (SDL), 26/03/19) overtook the lot. While no one component part of the wider match proved particularly memorable – barring the ingenious forfeit of The Usos – the cumulative effect of the story told was deeply, genuinely moving on the rawest emotional level. It’s rare that tag wrestling is afforded such a spotlight or opportunity in WWE.
Likewise, the TV Match of March was a late-comer this month, occurring on the same episode of Smackdown Live as the aforementioned tag team epic. Asuka vs. Charlotte for the SDL Women’s Championship (SDL, 26/03/19) was a match that should have been booked on the WrestleMania card and no mistake, and though Charlotte’s victory simply further complicates an already overly complicated MNR Women’s Championship scene, her rematch with Asuka proved a sequel worthy of their first. Its tone was as intensely hostile, its aesthetic was, if anything, scrappier, and the title change simply added to the memorability of the drama – a case, just when WWE could have done without one, for why this match should be happening a week tonight instead.
The Network Match of March was as hotly contested as the category always is, the Network proving to be a bastion of consistent quality in an age of inconsistency. Any number of matches would have been a worthy winner, but Jordan Devlin vs. Travis Banks in a Falls Count Anywhere Match (NXT UK 26/03/19) was my favourite of the bunch, capping off, as it did, a tremendously written rivalry between two of the brand’s most transfixing characters with a suitably violent, organically woven tale of visceral physicality, repeatedly inflected with witty nods back to the frenetic days of the Attitude Era – the age in which such stipulations reached an early zenith.
What are YOUR thoughts on the WWE product in March? What wrestler did YOU think had the best month? And what matches do YOU feel were March’s finest in the realm of WWE? Sound off in the comments below, over on social media or by joining LOPForums today!
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