Just Business: The WWE Retrospective – May 2019


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Just Business: The WWE Retrospective – May 2019

There’s little point in beating about the bush: May has been a rough month for WWE fans. So much so, I am unsure how much I can now viably consider myself a part of that group. Despite a strong WrestleMania at the beginning of April, the product has sunk to new lows in rapid fashion, and those lows seem only to continue to sink further.

I try to be as positive a columnist as I can be and make a conscious effort to avoid overwhelmingly negative pieces. There’s plenty enough of those out here on the internet already. Sometimes, though, a spade must be called a spade, and for the last month WWE’s product has been more appalling than it has been anything else.

Perhaps the centrepiece of May’s woeful creative output has been the the introduction of the 24/7 Championship and an ‘edgier’ final hour of Monday Night Raw (MNR). Both of these developments have emerged as dismal efforts to try and solve the crucial problem of plummeting ratings, and neither address the real issue at the heart of everything: the ongoing stranglehold Vince McMahon’s inexplicable whims continue to have over this unsustainably micromanaged product.

We are led to believe the 24/7 Championship (if you win it, what exactly are you the champion of by the way? The days?!) was the idea of the USA Network, and so perhaps we ought to give the ‘E a pass on it, but the notion of turning the final hour of MNR into something edgier by switching off some lights and having a Q&A session in prop chair that looks like a local school’s amateur theatre group’s cast-off does nothing to inspire belief in a WWE fan that the wholesale change we need is going to happen any time soon.

These misguided production choices are what made May’s big talking point – the success of All Elite Wrestling’s (AEW) Double or Nothing pay-per-view and the excitable chatter following the self-styled liberation of Jon Moxley – feel inevitable, resulting in WWE being very publicly challenged for the first time in a generation. Yet rather than respond on their first episode of MNR following AEW’s inauguration with a show of revitalised strength and contemporary focus, WWE stumbled out of the gates and fell flat on their face, drunk on their usual bad habits – more Brock Lesnar combined with more plot holes combined with uncharacteristic production issues to fashion an episode of television that only made the promotion look somehow even worse than it had before.

Compounding it all, of course, is that, since Money in the Bank, most of WWE’s TV in May has been building towards another controversial Saudi Arabia show, one that Goldberg vs. The Undertaker has been inexplicably booked to headline, once again features no female performers and hasn’t even been given an original name, the ‘E instead opting to recycle the Super Show-Down moniker they used a few months ago when broadcasting out of Australia.

Luckily, then, even amidst all the mediocrity, controversy and disappointment in WWE this last month there have still been some upsides, coming largely from the same reliable men and women we know we can lean on in times of crisis.

That said, my pick for Wrestler of May in WWE is a bit of a cheat this month in honesty, but for an important reason. One thing that doesn’t get mentioned enough by those of us who choose to cover WWE’s product from an analytical standpoint is that, thanks to WWE’s method of ’50/50 booking,’ for lack of a better expression, every talent gets exposed to McMahon’s frustratingly poor creative to equal degree. Few, even among the best, then, are able to escape untainted by it.

In this vein, Sami Zayn was the first performer subjected to the bizarre ‘Electric Chair Q&A’ segment on this week’s MNR. To his credit, he seemed able to overcome the unnecessarily hammy backdrop and once again railed effectively against the fans he’s been railing successfully against since his return from injury. A month of similar such rants, coupled with one or two strong showings on television, have allowed Zayn to stand out every week as a moment of fresh air on what feels like an otherwise sterile show. I’ve never been a massive fan of the man, and I doubt I ever will, but that Zayn is making this new character work I think is beyond debate.

Kofi Kingston had another impressive month this month, as well. Kingston has been prominent on both MNR and Smackdown Live (SDL) throughout the last few weeks, thanks to WWE’s self-defeating Wild Card Rule, mixing it up with recent WWE Championship rival Kevin Owens – with more than one good match to their rivalry’s name in May – as well as Brock Lesnar and, by extension, Seth Rollins too. What’s more, Kingston rounded out his month with a notably emotive return to his home nation of Ghana in Africa, a journey covered extensively by the social media accounts of both Kingston himself and WWE too, and one that ensures the promise of his championship victory is lived up to in real time.

The NXT UK roster owned this last month though, it has to be said. Yes, it’s a cheat; I’m technically picking a brand, not a wrestler, I get it. But NXT UK has quietly gotten on with putting together an outstanding show every week, laced with relentless character progression, high stakes title bouts, emotional storytelling and a highly talented roster being showcased in equal degree, without the toxicity of that infamous ’50/50′ strategy found on the main roster. The formation of Walter’s Imperium faction saw a dramatic conclusion to a highly dramatic month for WWE’s UK brand, their June beginning shortly thereafter with the announcement of the next NXT UK Takeover, to go down in Cardiff on the same day as AEW’s All Out pay-per-view; and let it be said, there are few rosters of talent as capable as NXT UK’s, few products as robust as NXT UK’s, that could set as high a bar for AEW to have to meet.

NXT UK was not, however, the only brand to offer up great matches in May. Thanks to the company’s incredibly talented roster, us WWE fans can rest assured we’ll at least get some fantastic bouts every month, and the last few weeks have been no exception.

My Main Event Match of May in WWE was inevitably Seth Rollins vs. AJ Styles for the Universal Championship (Money in the Bank 2019). Was it ever going to be anything else? Though its preceding narrative could be reasonably condemned as relatively weak, certainly untapped, their eventual match did not disappoint, following a classically straightforward structure that built to an exhilarating crescendo (including a sublime Curb Stomp counter!), providing a conclusion that, while definitive, left plenty of room for a future rematch too. It was exactly the kind of professional wrestling I love the most. Amidst a stronger product, we might already have been calling it a classic.

My Undercard Match of May was a little trickier to select, mainly because I found Money in the Bank to be a largely underwhelming show. In the end, I gave Becky Lynch vs. Charlotte Flair for the SDL Women’s Championship (Money in the Bank 2019) the nod, though. Impressively, despite having wrestled each other so much at this stage, they found another new slant with which to approach this latest chapter, courtesy of Becky’s double-duty that night. The resultant urgency in Charlotte’s performance especially was, I thought, suitably engaging, while the shared universe that both informed the bout’s conclusion and fuelled the exciting events after the bell is exactly the sort of storytelling I wish we saw more of in WWE.

It would be just as easy to sleep on my Tag Team Match of May as it would my aforementioned Undercard Match, but The Grizzled Young Veterans vs. Kenny Williams and Noam Dar for the NXT UK Tag Team Championships (NXT UK, 08/05/19) was a demonstration of why a great match supported by a great story will always trump a simply great match. Though the substitution of Amir Jordan for Noam Dar to chase a home town pop was the kind of stunt that will always bother me as a fan, there’s no griping about the match that followed – typically frenetic with a typically unpredictable narrative despite its obvious conclusion. Plucky underdog stories are always immersive when done properly, and this one very much was, thanks in no small part to the men who may just be the best tag team in WWE today. Move over Usos, move over Revival, the Grizzled Young Vets are outshining you both in 2019.

Naming the TV Match of May was difficult. When the TV product is as generally sterile as it is now, it’s all the more difficult for talents to rise above and compile something truly memorable on week-to-week programming. Most of the action on MNR and SDL this month I found to be dry, with one or two standouts. Among those standouts, it was this last week’s Seth Rollins vs. Sami Zayn (MNR, 27/05/19) encounter that impressed me the most. It was a simple but gruelling story of pay-per-view quality, that moved excruciatingly towards an aesthetically striking ending punctuated by Rollins’ defiant cry, “This is my life!”

Picking a Network Match of May was much easier, something of a no-brainer in fact. In another sign of NXT UK’s current domination of quality throughout WWE and its orbiting peripheral products, Walter vs. Pete Dunne for the NXT UK Championship(NXT UK, 22/05/19) had to be my only choice. Though more subdued than their Takeover encounter in April, it was the unique visuals, the menacing deliberation with which both men wrestled and the frustrating, dramatic cliffhanger conclusion that, to me, made it all feel much more poised and accomplished than their first chapter a couple of months ago.

NOW, TELL ME…

What are YOUR thoughts on the WWE product in May? Which WWE wrestler did YOU think had the best month? And what matches do YOU feel were May’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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