Monday, 22 September 2014

Night of Champions 2014 review

In my Night of Champions preview I wrote that it looked like a show that had the potential to be good but was relying heavily on its main event. Now, with the show having taken place, I stand by those remarks. The show as enjoyable enough and featured a handful of title changes, but it was the main event that made it what it was. With the Cena versus Lesnar SummerSlam rematch the 2014 Night of Champions would be a far more forgettable affair.

This is not the sort of thing that should be said of any of WWE’s not so special events right now. A big part of the marketing strategy for the WWE Network is getting to watch these shows as part of the subscription. If they’re not any good then how worthwhile is their inclusion in the Network package? If WWE expects people to stay signed up to the Network they need to make these shows feel significant. One match in the main event spot cannot do that.

Don’t get me wrong here. While WWE is struggling with crafting an undercard of matches we want to tune in and watch he quality of the matches was mostly pretty high. They’re getting some things right, just not enough.

The show kicked off, as all WWE special events do, with a video package. This one featured footage of Hulk Hogan, Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin and Ric Flair during their respective world title reigns, with audio excerpts from promos playing over them. It was well done and nice to see acknowledgment of the legacy of world titles in wrestling. It helped with the theme of the pay-per-view.

Another nice touch was showing former champions before each title match (with the exception of the main event, oddly). Opening the show, the tag title match was preceded by shots of The Legion of Doom (not the Road Warriors, because this is WWE, yo), Tony Atlas and Rocky Johnson, and Edge and Christian. It sounded lie the latter got a pop but I may have been wrong.

Bad guys. Don't forget it!
Goldust and Stardust got a good reaction when they walked to the ring. The crowd must not have gotten the memo about them being heels now. Goldust had gone heavy on the black makeup while Stardust was doing everything in his power to come across as a weirdo.

The dusts controlled the match. They isolated Jey at first, then we he managed to tag out they isolated Jimmy. It was a good match wrestled at a fast pace. Everyone did what was expected of them with Goldust deserving special credit for trying to work in a more aggressive role.

Eventually Jey was tagged back in for the finish. He gave Stardust a top rope body block and a Samoan drop before Stardust came back with an inverted DDT (which has been one of Goldust’s many finishers) for a believable two count. After a dive sequence on the outside they returned to the ring, where Jey went for a splash and got hit with Stardust’s knees. The winded champ was rolled up by Stardust for the win and the straps.

Backstage Byron Saxton spoke to Dolph Ziggler and his stunt double, hired to combat Miz’s stunt double, R-Ziggler (it was R-Truth). Ziggles said Miz pretends to be a Hollywood star but he's the IC champ and that's better. Even with Dolph involved this was a nothing segment.

Despite the fact that we’d just seen the Intercontinental champion it was the United States championship match that came next. Champions shown beforehand were Harley Race, Sting (chosen for the obvious reasons, I’m sure), Ricky Steamboat, Eddie Guerrero and Booker T. Cesaro entered first wearing a red robe and a black towel over his head, like a cross between Rick Rude and ECW era Taz.

The pair started out with some technical exchanges but it didn't last long. Cesaro gave Sheamus a slap after breaking on the ropes and that got started fighting. They brawled around for a while before Sheamus did his skinning the cat to the top rope spot (to boos) and got lamped with an uppercut (to cheers). Cesaro took control with a sleeper. Shaymo absorbed a pair of clotheslines and a pair of uppercuts before firing back with a pair of Irish Curse back breakers. Cesaro countered the ten punch on the apron spot (which did get cheers) and booted Sheamus in the face. Not to be outdone, Sheamus yanked Cesaro off the top rope and attempted a Brogue kick.

Cesaro ducked it and hit Swiss death. Sheamus blocked a double underhook bomb and went for another Brogue kick. Cesaro dodged and connected with the double underhook bomb, which ‘The Celtic Warrior’ kicked out of. Cesaro landed on his feet after being back dropped out of a Neutralizer attempt and avoided another Brogue kick, muscling Sheamus up into a modified burning hammer. That yielded a fantastic two count.

Cesaro slapped Sheamus, then gave him an uppercut into the corner. Sheamus shoved him off and called for more. Cesaro obliged before getting dragged off by the referee before, finally, eating a Brogue kick. More matches like that and people might care about Sheamus and his championship.

We were shown Mark Henry getting ready for his match in a locker room. Big Show joined him and asked if he was ready, focused and aware of what was on the line. Henners said that he knew and he said he wouldn’t let people down. Show told him he had 18,000 tag partners with him (which seemed a bit unfair). Show then gave Henry a new outfit and told Henry to tear Rusev's head off. Henry said he would because that's what he does. He walked off leaving Show to stare after him like a proud dad. It was a standard pandering, pro-America bit to remind everyone why they should cheer for Henry.

Florida Georgia Line, the hottest band in the world according to 'Big Daddy Hip' Michael Cole, were introduced as guest commentators before the Intercontinental title match, which was preceded by shots of Pat Patterson, Pedro Morales, The Honky Tonk Man, Mr Perfect and Razor Ramon. I’d hoped for a shot of Jeff Jarrett but it wasn’t to be.

I’ll say here and now that Florida Georgia Line were an irritating addition to the show. The first half of the match was broken up by constant shots of them sitting at commentary and none of the three people paid to talk about what happens in the ring did anything to put over Dolph Ziggler, The Miz or the Intercontinental championship for the majority of the match.

Things changed when Damien Sandow (currently trading under the name Damien Mizdow as Miz’s stunt double) shouted at FGL one too many times and they shoved him onto his backside. Proving that they could handle a wrestler they sat back down and left R-Truth to chase Sandow to the back. Yeah, Sandow was booked to run away form a pair of weedy-looking singers. I think we can all agree his career isn’t getting back on track anytime soon.

Like twins.
With the seconds gone Ziggler got a near fall off a super kick before ‘The Awesome One’ placed him in the figure four. After a rope break he dropped Miz with a Fameasser for two. The champ prepped for the Zig Zag as Sandow returned, taking a super kick from ‘The Show Off’ but providing enough of a distraction for Miz to get a roll up and a handful of trunks for the win. Florida Georgia Line just sat there and let Miz win the title by nefarious means. Sickening.

That was followed by a video of roman Reigns discussing his bladder region. I think that’s all I need to say here.

Seth 'Hawkeye' Rollins walked out. He did a lot of smiling and posed on a turnbuckle. The announcers talked more about him walking to the ring than they did about Miz v Ziggler.

Rollins cut a promo and had Charles Robinson count Roman Reigns out of the match and declare him the winner. Michael Cole bleated about "Mr Reigns" being unable to make it to the building. Rollins went back to the mic and ran down Reigns some more before issuing an open challenge. His reason? He knew people wanted to see him compete.

In the back a taxi cab was shown arriving. Out got Dean Ambrose to one of the biggest reactions of the night. ‘The Lunatic Fringe’ stormed to the ring, immediately taking down Rollins and brawling into the crowd with him. The Authority brought out security and a bunch of agents to stop the fight. Ambrose leapt off part of the entrance structure, wiped them all out and carried on the fight.

They returned to the ring where Ambrose grabbed a chair. Before he could use it he was once again taken down (by Joey Mercury and Jamie Noble, fact fans!) and swarms by security. With plastic cuffs applied to his wrists Ambrose was carried out of the arena. Rollins was left to pitch a fit at ringside with H3 and The Stepher. It was a hot angle. If WWE don't push Ambrose hard in Reigns's absence something will have gone wrong. He’s the most over man in the company.

Over at the expert panel set Renee Young mentioned the title changes. A-Ry rambled on about nothing. Show said if Henry can stay focused he'll send Rusev home. Booker said "it" was "all about America!" The message was clear: America is the bestest thing ever.

Henry wandered out in his patriotic singlet... and a scarf for some reason. Lilian Garcia sang the US national anthem because AMERICA!! Henry cried. The crowd ate it up and burst into a USA chant afterwards. Rusev, hero of the Russian federation, came out to a surprising lack of heat. I’ll put that down to the crowd. He usually gets far better (or worse, depending on your point of view) treatment than that.

Henry sent Rusev rolling from the ring twice at the start of the match then knocked him off the apron as he tried to dash back in. After chucking him out for a third time Hnery followed him. That turned out not to be the brightest move: Henry was rammed into steel steps and then splashed in the corner back in the ring. Despite the rousing patriotism, Henry’s early offence, and Rusev’s shady method of gaining the upper hand the crowd were dead at this point.

Henry came back from a sleeper with some basic moves. He didn't get long before Rusev floored him with a spinning heel kick and tried for the Accolade. Henry powered out, took a kick and then hit the World’s Strongest Slam. Rusev rolled out of the ring to avoid being pinned (which the crowd did react to). Henry stupidly stuck his head out between the ropes and took a super kick. Rusev returned to the ring and connected with a second, then applied the Accolade for the tap out victory.

Rusev and Lana: Mr and Mrs Russia.
After the match audience members were shown looking disappointed. JBL declared that he was disappointed in Henry. That was a poor call, in my view. Considering the heavy patriotism of what we’d seen it felt as though Layfield was admonishing Henry for not being a good enough American. It would have made more sense for him to say that if Mark Henry, ‘The World’s Strongest Man’ and a former World Heavyweight champion, can’t beat Rusev he doesn’t know who can. But no, Layfield had to act the super patriot. Because AMERICA!!

A recap of Michael Cole’s interview with Brock Lesnar followed that. ‘The Pain’ said both he and Cena were fired up for the rematch but that Cena will get another ass beating. The crowd understandably cheered that.

They also cheered Chris Jericho's entrance. Which is far less understandable.

Jericho and Randy Orton put on a better match than I thought they would. They made good use of their plethora of signature spots and finishers to craft interesting sequences and believable near falls. Highlights included an Orton to Jericho superplex; a wild over the turnbuckle bump to the floor from Jericho; a Punt being reversed into a schoolboy; Jericho countering an RKO into the Codebreaker; and the match-winning cross body block turned into an RKO (which was predictable and sloppily performed but still good to see). Meanwhile, on commentary, commentary JBL said Orton reminds him of a young Barry Windham and Cole said that’s high praise. I’d be amazed if he’s ever watched a Windham match for pleasure.

That said, the match was still slow in places and I don’t think it’s too much to say that we could have expected more form the pair considering the time they had, their standing in the company, and the number of times they’ve worked together. Nothing I saw made me change my mind about ‘Y2J’s’ presence in WWE in 2014.

The Divas championship match was preceded  a video of Paige talking about AJ being her frenemy and putting down Nikki Bella as unworthy of a title shot. Lots of shots of Paige applying the PTO were included. It did a lot to make Paige look like a serious competitor with a personality. And a nasty submission hold.

Backstage Byron Saxton asked Brie Bella what she thought of the Divas championship match. Brie said everyone he was the first person to ask her that. Everyone else, apparently, is more concerned with asking when Nikki will “get hers”. So, not when her husband’s coming back then? Brie said Nikki shouldn't be the champion because she's self-centred and obnoxious already. Basically she delivered poor banter poorly.

Divas champs shown before the match: The Fabulous Moolah, Wendi Richter, Lita and Trish Startus, none of whom ever held the Divas championship. I wouldn't have mentioned that but Cole got snippy with JBL for saying the APA had been WWE tag champions, correcting him and saying he was a world tag champion. You can’t have it both ways, WWE.

AJ got cheers when she entered. Nikki and Paige got apathy. Paige deserved better considering the video they’d played and the fact that she’s mimicking the popular AJ.

The AJ Lee dead sell. It's a classic.
It was a standard WWE triple threat: the three combatants took it in turns to catch their breath at ringside while a string of singles matches took place in the ring. That finish saw Nikki tossed off the apron by AJ and then a Black Widow applied to Paige for the submission. New, three time, Divas champion crowned in a nothing match. Something fresh needs to be done if the rivalry is to continue into Hell in a Cell (the show, not the gimmick match).

Over at the expert panel set Alex Riley agreed with Paul Heyman’s sentiment that Cena has to become a beast in order to defeat Lesnar. Big Show said he should stick to his usual approach and remain true to himself. Booker T, with the only insightful comment from the trio all evening (I know right, Booker T!) said he noticed Cena trying for takedowns in their RAW scuffle and that he should do that in the rematch.

The pre-match video package was predictably excellent. Cena was positioned as a man with a fresh game plan who wants a fight as much as the championship. Lesnar was positioned as someone who's not just unstoppable but someone who has Cena's number.

There was a mostly positive reaction for Cena's entrance. Lesnar's got a roar of approval. The in-ring intro got cheers for Cena and a mixed reaction for the world champion. There were duelling chants at the bell.

Lesnar took Cena down at the bell. Cena escaped a German suplex attempt, dropped Lesnar with a clothesline, and hit an AA. It didn’t even earn him a two count. A visibly angered Lesnar applied the kimura arm lock. Cena grabbed the ropes for a break. Lesnar mauled him with knees and connected with a German suplex.

Cena popped up and fought back. Lesnar halted him with knees and snapped on the kimura again. Cena got a rope break and hit some punches before German suplex number two and the Three Amigos (a spot I love Lesnar doing because it references one his more entertaining feuds from over a decade ago). More strikes went Cena's way before Lesnar ran through him with a lariat. Cena tried a takedown but Lesnar hammered his back and applied a standing kimura, Cena once again having to rely on the ropes for escape.

‘The Beast’ threw Cena with a belly-to-belly suplex. Cena came back with some more right hands but Lesnar easily spun him round for some shoulder barges in the corner. The challenger hammered back with a barrage of rights on Lesnar. But it did nothing. Lesnar shrugged them off and nailed a third German suplex then smashed his foe with more shoulder charges.

One of the match's many kimura locks.
A surprise AA put Lesnar down for a two count. He hauled Cena up for the F5 but Cena escaped and applied the STF. Lesnar slipped out of that and clamped on the kimura again, positioning himself between the ropes and Cena's free arm to keep Cena trapped in the hold. Cena got to his feet (because he’s Cena) and rammed Lesnar into the turnbuckle for the break. He hit the third AA of the match, opting to apply the STF again instead of trying for a cover. Lesnar kept crawling to the ropes, forcing Cena to break and dragging him back to the centre of the ring to reapply it (like a player spamming a hold in a wrestling video game). On the third application it felt like Lesnar was close to tapping.

But he didn’t get the chance to: Seth Rollins slid into the ring and hit Cena with the money in the bank briefcase for the disqualification finish. He walloped Cena again, sending him out of the ring and then gave Lesnar, who was staggering to his feet, a Curb Stomp. Rollins left the ring for the ceremonial handover of the briefcase that signals a Money in the Bank cash-in then made to get back into the ring to pin the champ.

Cena stopped him, pulling him from the apron and sending him scurrying to the back. Cole was exceptionally quick to point out that the cash-in match bell hadn’t rung so Rollins’s title shot was still safe. It was almost as if he were being promoted.

Cena slumped against the ropes looking dejected. When he got up he was immediately slapped with an F5. The official announcement came in: Cena had won the match by DQ but Lesnar had retained the gold. It was a clever way of keeping Cena and Lesnar’s rivalry alive for a final outing at Hell in a Cell. I’d much rather see Rollins and Ambrose clash inside WWE’s premiere gimmick but I won’t deny putting Cena and Lesnar in there makes sense.

Results summary:
Goldust and Stardust defeated the Usos for the tag team championship
Sheamus defeated Cesaro
The Miz defeated Dolph Ziggler for the Intercontinental championship
Seth Rollins defeated Roman Reigns via count out
Rusev defeated Mark Henry
Randy Orton defeated Chris Jericho
AJ Lee defeated Paige and Nikki Bella for the Divas championship
John Cena defeated Brock Lesnar via disqualification

Sunday, 21 September 2014

NXTweet 18.09.14

This week’s post-Takeover II episode of NXT didn’t just feature the in-ring debut of Hideo Itami. Oh no! It also featured a surprise appearance from Titus O’Neil. If that doesn’t sell you on the show you should probably just stop being a wrestling fan.


Tweet 1: Tweets about NXT are incoming.
Tweet 2: Why bother watching NXT specials when you get everything of significance recapped incredibly thoroughly a week later, eh?

Promo segment featuring Titus O’Neil, Sami Zayn, Tyson Kidd and Adrian Neville

Tweet 3: I assume Titus O'Neil needs to learn how to work.
Tweet 4: Guy in a WCW T-shirt there. Maybe Triple H is selling them from a car boot outside the building.
Tweet 5: Titus's promo was not good. They may be going too far with this spirit of WCW thing...

The lads.

Tweet 6: I was hoping The Charisma Vacuum Kidd would be disappearing after Takeover. Guess not.
Tweet 7: Nice blend of placing the importance on the title and integrating Big Titus here.
Tweet 8: #bestforbusiness
Tweet 9: Billy Regal with a Teddy Long special there. "Tag team match, playas! Holla holla holla!"
Tweet 10: I'm expecting wonderfully botchy things from Rich Brennan.

Charlotte v Emma

Tweet 11: This is the first time I can remember seeing Emma since... The Incident.
Tweet 12: Crime doesn't pay. Which means Emma's going to lose this.
Tweet 13: Renee Young putting Emma over as someone on RAW and SmackDown. When, Renee? When is Emma on those shows?

If DC ever do a Power Girl film they could do worse than cast Emma.

Tweet 14: I'm really beginning to like Charlotte. I like the little bubble burst taunt she did with the figure four headlock there.
Tweet 15: Charlotte needs to learn how to do a Flair flop.
Tweet 16: I like Emma and I like Charlotte but that match was a rough watch too often.

Justin Gabriel v Hideo Itami

Tweet 17: The instantly recognisable entrance music of Justin Gabriel.
Tweet 18: “Japanese style.”
Tweet 19: Brennan is describing suplexes instead of naming them. Michael Cole school of commentary graduate I reckon.

Gabriel bracing like a trooper.

Tweet 20: Gabriel lost? I am stunned.
Tweet 21: I can confidently say that that was the best Hideo Itami match EVER.
Tweet 22: The Legion of Ascension there, reminding everyone that they don't like Itami.
Tweet 23: A-Ry mentions "dizzying highs and lows." No idea what he's referring to.

CJ Parker v Baron Corbin

Tweet 24: Beating CJ Parker earned Baron Corbin a televised entrance.
Tweet 25: "Let's not lose focus of the fact that CJ Parker, he's a player here in NXT" - Renee Young
Tweet 26: Corbin beat him again. So now he's a megaplayer.

Big Cass films Enzo Amore work out before the pair are accosted by their hairdresser pal Carmella

Tweet 27: Enzo's hairdresser is coming in as a wrestler. I'm sure hilarity will ensue.
Tweet 28: Enzo and Cass are great but I'm not feeling this iPhone filming stuff. They work better, as most wrestlers do, with a crowd to play off.

Tyson Kidd and Titus O’Neil v Sami Zayn and Adrian Neville

Tweet 29: Hey look, it's Tyson Kidd being a cocky heel who isn't cocky because he has no personality!
Tweet 30: Titus and Tyson should team up with Tyler Breeze and Tye Dillinger for a faction based on first name alliteration.
Tweet 31: Neville tags himself in before Zayn can do anything. U mad bro?
Tweet 32: "Better than Neville!" chant there. Turn him. The crowd will love it.

Tyson Kidd with a scintillating headlock there.

Tweet 33: Zayn blocking Neville from doing a dive as a call back to Takeover is the sort of storytelling WWE should do more of.
Tweet 34: "You can't teach that!" - Alex Riley reminding us that strength can't be taught
Tweet 35: Titus should start hanging people in a tree of woe and calling it the tree of Titus.
Tweet 36: Was Titus meant to be doing shoulder blocks, head-butts or clotheslines there?
Tweet 37: A-Ry says Titus has a million dollar body...
Tweet 38: Alex, if you're trying to drop a millions of dollars reference you need to really go for it. Otherwise you sound like an idiot.
Tweet 39: Oh noes! Zayn inadvertently distracted the ref and the heels stole a victory!!1!
Tweet 40: If Triple H wants to make NXT more like WCW then Zayn and Nev should win the tag titles before their feud goes further.

Return of 'The Lunatic'

Fans of WWE Studios movies (and I’m sure there are loads of them) will know that Dean Ambrose has been away for the last five weeks filming Lockdown. Those of us more interested in WWE’s wrestling output will know this too, of course, because Ambrose has been absent from RAW and SmackDown, being written out of plots after supposedly having his head caved in by Seth Rollins. It was an absence that hurt WWE because he was arguably their most popular wrestler before he was written off TV.

Ambrose’s five week stint on a movie set may have halted his momentum but it’s also likely that his time away will have made people keen to see him again. As my old pal Jim Cornette would say, nobody can be missed if they don’t leave. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that.

Ambrose is listed amongst the superstars confirmed for tomorrow’s episode of Monday Night RAW. That means we can expect to see him on that show but it doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be returning there. He could just as easily show up at this evening’s Night of Champions to gain some unadvertised retribution on Seth Rollins.

In fact, a Night of Champions appearance seems likelier than a return on RAW after the news that Roman Reigns has been pulled from the pay-per-view due to injury and will be out of action for somewhere in the region of two months. It’s easy to imagine Rollins hitting the ring to have himself announced the winner of his match with Reigns via forfeit only for ‘The Lunatic Fringe’ to charge out and give him an impromptu battering. The crowd would eat that up, it would get the Rollins v Ambrose programme back on track, and keep Rollins on the pay-per-view. Three wins.

But is that the best course of action for WWE? Personally I’d like to see them take another route. Have a backstage segment in which The Authority gloat about Reigns being injured and tell Rollins that he’ll still be in action, but wrestling for the Intercontinental championship. Or have Rollins crash Christian’s pre-show Peep Show to make the announcement himself. At the start of the scheduled Miz versus Ziggler match Rollins could go to the ring only to sit at commentary, explaining that he’ll face the winner of the IC title match. ‘The Show Off’ could retain and then lose the title to Rollins immediately afterwards.

Then Ambrose could show up to give the new champ a kicking.

Give them the Intercontinental title. Both guys and the belt would benefit.
This would achieve a few things. It would keep up Rollins’ status as the spoilt chosen one of The Authority: he’d have been handed a championship match (which the commentary team could put over as unjust) and beaten a popular guy in unfair circumstances (unjust again, obvs) to win the gold. It would get the IC belt involved in the company’s hottest and longest running feud, potentially restoring some of its lustre. It would also set Ambrose up for a title win at some point in the future, further painting him as a man destined for the top and again giving the title’s status a boost.

Whether they involve the Intercontinental championship Ambrose v Rollins is the perfect match to get the Hell in a Cell treatment in October. The problem with attaching the gimmick to a pay-per-view is that it doesn’t always sync up with rivalries that are worthy of it. Hell in a Cell, as WWE’s (in theory) premiere feud-ender, is something that should be built up to over time and only used for the most serious of grudges. If there’s been any feud in WWE over the last year that deserves the Cell treatment it’s Ambrose versus Rollins.

I’m going to hope WWE see sense and book Ambrose and Rollins to close the Cell PPV inside the cage. Closing a major show would give both men a credibility boost (and the Intercontinental strap, were that involved), and Cena could always be slipped into the penultimate spot to combat concerns of there being a lack of established headliners at the top of the card. If WWE wants to get new stars over they need to break from their long-established patterns. Ambrose and Rollins closing Hell in a Cell would do that.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Expanding NXT

On Friday the official WWE Twitter account sent out a message saying that people had waited long enough and that ‘The Next Generation’ should be prepared for. That was followed by the (Americanised) abbreviated date for Monday. While this could be a deliberately misleading way of saying that there’s a video game announcement coming (something they’ve done before with a Sting video) it seems more likely that it will have something to do with NXT stars appearing on RAW again. Adrian Neville and Sami Zayn versus Tyson Kidd and Tyler Breeze took place on the September 1 RAW and The Ascension debuted in the main event of… erm… Main Event , while Triple H has announced a desire to grow the NXT brand into something akin to WCW. Assuming Neville and the gang have a presence on Monday’s RAW it looks like NXT’s expansion is something WWE are serious about.

What seems likeliest to me is that Neville, Breeze, Zayn and Kidd, or a combination from that group, will be put out in front of the RAW crowd in the usually uneventful second hour. That’s generally where the lengthier, more enjoyable matches with no particular storyline motive for happening get put. The audience have been sitting around for a while by that point and need to be perked up to stop them from dying a death before the final, action-packed hour of John Cena, Authority and-or Paul Heyman plus hatever the main event is.

Is this guy coming to a RAW near you?
Any combo from amongst that four can have a great match and would fit snugly into the hour two approach. The Ascension could have a good showing too, either against a pairing of Neville and Zayn or an established jobber tandem from the big boy roster. The NXT guys actually have storylines to develop, carried over from NXT, which gives them an edge on the likes of Kofi Kingston, Fandango and Slater Gator. Given a backstage interview segment and-or a brief in-ring promo and they could actually make people care about their match and encourage interest in their brand.

The decision to give a batch of guys a call-up, instead of bringing them up individually over a course of months, is a nice change of pace from WWE. Four of the six guys come in with a readymade feud while The Ascension have an easy to understand gimmick and a rough ‘n’ ready style that isn’t especially common in WWE and will help them stand out. The influx of new talent will highlight to people unaware of NXT that it’s worth watching for quality wrestling and engaging, uncomplicated plots. That in turn may convince a few people to sign up to the Network to check the show out, which I’m sure is one of WWE’s reasons for taking this approach.

But the talk of making NXT the next WCW feels a step too far. It implies a level of expansion that could remove what makes NXT so enjoyable: specifically touring and an extended running time. Right now NXT runs live events in small venues around the state of Florida and returns to Full Sail University to tape television every four weeks or so, with a pattern of two hour live supershows every three months having emerged since the launch of the WWE Network. It’s a pace that works very well for the smaller, more wrestling-focused league and one WWE should be wary of tampering with too much.

An expanded touring schedule would be nice to see (especially an overseas one taking in small venues in southern England – just saying) but tapings outside of Full Sail would run the risk of robbing the televised product of a crowd familiar with and passionate about the entire roster. That’s a problem that could be overcome by finding another town that consistently attracts a similarly enthusiastic and positive crowd. But that shouldn’t be rushed into, especially with the regular NXT audience being so good.

The prospect of NXT gaining more TV time is more of a concern. A large part of why it’s as enjoyable as it is is its one hour running time, perfected over the last two years to the point where the writing team understand how to best use the minutes they have to expose the key members of their roster on a mostly weekly basis while integrating lesser acts at suitable intervals. Going to two hours would require an alternate approach, immediately ruining part of the existing appeal and risking the show feeling bloated. With the NXT TV show less is certainly more.

This said it is positive that Triple H is so passionate about the developmental show. And the talk of it becoming its own brand is nice to hear. It’s just the idea of expanding it beyond its means that concerns me. Had he stopped at drawing a parallel with ECW I’d feel far more confident, because ECW operated on a scale more in line with NXT than did WCW. Also, ECW primarily went out of business because of one man’s inability to manage finances whilst WCW went out of business because it became a toxic brand nobody with money wanted to associate with.

Back to NXT. Breeze, Neville, and Zayn (and maybe The Ascension) getting regular exposure on RAW while still being officially assigned to NXT is interesting and something I think will work well. Viewers can get used to the new guys gradually, rather than being expected to take them as they’re thrust into a feud with a longstanding mid-card no-hoper nobody has any reason to care about. But expanding NXT as a whole is something WWE shouldn’t rush into. And the WCW comparisons should definitely be avoided in future.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Narrative is a Draw Too

Is it enough these day for wrestling companies to put on excellent wrestling and expect people to watch their show or buy their DVDs? I don’t think so. While high quality wrestling is obviously desirable I don’t think it’s enough to sustain TV ratings, live stream buys, tickets sales, DVD purchases and so on in 2014. Or any other year come to that. There needs to be an ongoing narrative to hook you and keep you coming back to watch the great wrestlers doing their great wrestling.

A large part of pro wrestling’s appeal comes from its narrative. Its predetermined nature and associated theatrics mean that stories can be told in matches and, more importantly for the purposes of the point I’m making, across a number of shows to keep people entertained and tuning in. Y’know, like a soap, those things which millions of people become hugely invested in.

This isn’t to say that everything has to be in the Vince Russo-slash-Days of Our Lives mould. That approach has a very limited appeal and has been done very successfully before. There are dozens of alternatives. New Japan, for example, focuses on the journey up the card of a wrestler with wins and losses having a heightened meaning. WWE, generally speaking, tells stories about their mighty heroes overcoming long odds. Meanwhile TNA struggles with telling interesting stories and is floundering as a result.

The result of storytelling.
A continuing narrative is as intrinsic to pro wrestling as the wrestling itself. Without a compelling storyline people have no reason to invest in characters and keep watching. Wanting to see a babyface win a championship or a heel receive their comeuppance is something that can only be properly and effectively achieved if there are bookers or writers in place to structure plots over a period of weeks, months, or, in exceptional cases, years.

A roster filled with talented wrestlers is great. It’s ideal, in fact. But it’s not the be all and end all of a great wrestling promotion. If someone just wants to watch great wrestling these days they’re spoilt for choice. YouTube and similar sites provide countless great matches for free. Every promotion from New Japan to EVOLVE puts on its fair share of quality wrestling. Great wrestlers and great wrestling are not hard things to find.

My point (yeah, I’ve got one) is that wrestling companies need to offer people more than excellent wrestling. That’s good to have but it won’t necessarily keep people coming back. Give us reasons to support these great wrestlers and want to see them win. Narrative is a draw too.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Night of Champions 2014 preview

In case you’re not keeping track Night of Champions will be the first WWE pay-per-special event to fall after the expiry date of the initial batch of Network subscriptions. Because of that many people, including myself, expected everything possible would be done could to make it a can’t miss (or, if you prefer, must see) showing. Not only have they not done that but they’ve opted to present a card which is decidedly uninspiring.

Take Randy Orton and Roman Reigns for example. They had been at loggerheads since the night after WrestleMania, albeit indirectly. They’d faced off in six man tag matches at Extreme Rules and Payback, been in the same ladder match at Money in the Bank, and the same championship match at Battleground. It took until SummerSlam for them to have a full length, competitive match that didn’t dissolve into nonsense.

You’d think that after waiting so long to pit the two against one another in a singles bout WWE would want to have them face off in a rematch on the following pay-per-spesh. That’s their usual approach and the pairing’s still fresh, so it would have made sense. Instead they brought the rematch forward to the “season premiere” edition of RAW and then had ‘The Viper’ randomly attack Chris Jericho later in the night, for no reason other than to set up a new match for Night of Champs. That’s the same Chris Jericho who’s deciding third encounter with Bray Wyatt had opened that episode of RAW instead of taking place at NOC.

Those rematches, in and of themselves, were good ideas. Reigns failed to get the second clean victory he probably needed but Orton didn’t beat him. Meanwhile Bray Wyatt did get the victory he deserved in his cage match against Chris Jericho. He won the feud. Unfortunately these results have left us with Reigns being shunted into a match against Seth Rollins, Jericho and Orton facing off because someone in WWE feels they have to be used on the show, and Wyatt being left off the announced card altogether.

But the lack of thought doesn’t end there. Instead of saving the first televised encounter between Rollins and Reigns for a pay-per-view WWE decided to give it away for free on the September 15 RAW. After they’d announced it for Night of Champions. The logic of that, if there is any, completely escapes me.

Rollins versus Reigns is a match that could and probably should have been kept in reserve for a later date when both men are more established. The issues they’re fighting over are terribly generic. Rollins has cost Reigns a match with Orton and smacked him with the Money in the Bank briefcase. Very little has been made of their shared past in The Shield, save for Rollins stating over and over again that he “created” Reigns.

The rivalry could almost have written itself. The first televised meeting between the two former Shield members deserved more. Both men are also at a point where they really need steady victories. Frankly it would have made more sense for WWE to keep them apart until after next year’s WrestleMania and have Rollins cash in on newly crowned champion Reigns (that assumes a lot, but they seem safe assumptions right now).

But that’s not what we’ve got. With this scenario the best thing WWE could do is have Reigns go down to a screwy finish. That would keep heat on Rollins and protect Reigns from looking too heavily pushed, something which will lead to crowds turning on him if WWE aren’t careful.

That Jericho v Orton match is going to be as forgettable as all of their other matches. With ‘The Highlight of the Night’ set to disappear again soon he’ll probably lose this match. Orton will probably get to do the angle that writes him off TV, either on this show or RAW the next night, but it would be nice if the accolade was given to Rollins via his new cement block skull-annihilation finisher.

Speaking of accolades, Rusev will face proud American Mark Henry (how seamless was that?). I don’t think this one needs much discussion. ‘The World’s Strongest Man’ is a physically intimidating big lad who can be sacrificed to make Rusev look good. It’s all about building Rusev up. Expect Henners to put up a spirited fight before being trapped in The Accolade.

Because of the show’s name the rest of the matches on the show will be for championships. Outside of the WWE championship match only one of those defences interests me: the Intercontinental title match between challenger The Miz and champion Dolph Ziggler. Their rivalry hasn’t blown anyone away over the last month but enough has been done to make it clear why they’re facing each other here and to make it more than just another dispute. Miz has done some solid work with his new Hollywood gimmick while ‘The Show Off’ is just about the best choice for IC champ on the current roster. If WWE wants to make that title mean something again this is the sort of approach they need to stick with: an athletic, popular babyface being spotlighted and sensible booking that creates a logical reason for matches to happen. Ziggler to win.

The lesser of the two mid-card straps, the US championship, will be defended by Sheamus against Cesaro. I love Cesaro. I’m not keen on Sheamus but if I’ve got to watch him wrestle ‘The King of Swing’ is the sort of opponent I’d like to see him against. I still think the best use for the US title is to add heat to Rusev but this will at least be an enjoyable hossy showdown. Either man could leave with the gold but I’ll pick Cesaro just because that’s what I’d prefer to see.

Tag champs, brothers, and sons of Rikishi, Jimmy and Jey Uso will face former tag champs, brothers, and sons of Dusty Rhodes, Goldust and Stardust at Night of Champions. The story of this match is that the dusts have turned heel and become poor sports. No reason has been given for this change of behaviour. We’ve been left to assume it’s happened because they know how convenient it would be for the writing team or, if we’re feeling generous, because Cody Rhodes taking on a Goldust-inspired character has tipped him over the edge and driven him insane, with Goldy going along with his craziness for the ride.

This will hopefully be a fun, entertaining match that gets twelve minutes to draw people in and to churn out near falls. A title change would be interesting and it’s not impossible, especially with Jey Uso’s storyline leg injury, but I think the champions will retain. WWE have gone out of their way to protect the Usos in title matches since they won the belts in March. I’ve thought that approach would stop before and I’ve been wrong so I’ll stick with them this time.

The Paige and AJ Lee feud will rumble on for another month. This time it’s Paige making the defence after AJ lost the belt at SummerSlam. The thing that will set this match apart is Nikki Bella’s involvement. She was awarded a title match after turning on her sister at SummerSlam, being dubbed the ideal face of the Divas division by Stephie Mac.

After the last few AJ versus Paige matches I’ve given up on saying they could do something special. That feeling was based on their ability and passion for wrestling. They’ve shown no hint of having particularly good chemistry with one another. It’s unlikely Nikki Bella is going to improve things there. That’s not to say she won’t win: her alignment with The Authority (or Steph at least) could see her win via shenanigans. I’ll predict a Nikki victory (a Niktory) because it would provide a change of scenery for the women’s division. Just not a terribly promising one.

Finally there’s the Cena v Lesnar rematch. Their SummerSlam match was many things: the second big fight match to headline SummerSlam in a row; a masterful bit of storytelling; a promising sign of WWE building for the future; and a joy for anyone who feels Cena doesn’t job enough, amongst others. It is unlikely to be these things again.

Part of the reason SummerSlam worked as well as it did was that it was unexpected. People thought Lesnar would win the championship but I don’t think anyone thought it would come about in a glorified squash match. The impact would be lost a second time around because it would be expected and because it’s been shown Lesnar is capable of dominating Cena in such a fashion. There’s also the issue of Cena’s status effecting things: WWE were willing to sacrifice him in that fashion once but it’s tough to see them doing it again so soon, even though Cena’s character is so established that it could withstand a second such loss with ease.

Another story is needed for Cena and Lesnar’s second 2014 encounter. I think e’ve been given a clue to it in Paul Heyman’s promos over the last five weeks. He has told Cena on several occasions that to beat ‘The Beast’ he must become a beast. WWE tried doing this story at WrestleMania XXX in Cena’s first match with Bray Wyatt (something which Heyman has referenced) but they didn’t quite pull it off. There were a few reasons for that, the main one being that the crowd hadn’t been primed to expect it, so they didn’t react accordingly to the spots of Cena almost snapping and lobbing chairs at Wyatt (something Cena had no problem with at Extreme Rules the next month). Without the narrative exposition of Michael Cole it just looked like Cena was either indecisive or forgetting the plan for the match.

This won’t be a problem at Night of Champions. Heyman taunting that Cena will have to break his hustle, loyalty, respect code of ethics has been a significant part of the build-up to this match and people will understand moments in the match based around Cena struggling to not go too far. Hopefully this match will make use of the excellent promo work (and I should point out Cena’s been had his moments opposite Heyman) to tell that different story and keep people interested in a different kind of way to the SummerSlam mauling.

I’m picking Lesnar to win, because of my belief in the long term plan for Reigns toppling him at WrestleMania 31. Cena could win and lose the title back to ‘The Pain’ before ‘Mania but what would be the point of that? It would make a Reigns win far less of an achievement.

The main event is clearly what’s propping Night of Champions up. The undercard isn’t bad but there’s nothing there that will make anyone renew their Network subscriptions. If they’d wanted to WWE could have made this show far bigger than it looks right now. Triple H could have had a match. ‘The Game’ would have been a far more interesting opponent for Reigns at this point than Rollins. They could have advertised Ambrose for a return too. He’s advertised for the following night’s RAW and is expected to be free for NOC. I understand why a PPV appearance from him wouldn’t be advertised (surprise return to get a big pop as he seeks retribution on villainous ol’ Seth Rollins an’ all that) but if they’re trying to give people reasons to stay with the Network, or sign up for the first time, they need to be using their bigger names effectively.

Night of Champions looks like a show that could be good. The undercard has potential and the main event is big. But that’s not enough for a company struggling to encourage people to buy into their ne long term business plan.

Predictions summary:
Brock Lesnar to defeat John Cena 
Seth Rollins to defeat Roman Reigns
Rusev to defeat Mark Henry
Dolph Ziggler to defeat The Miz
The Usos to defeat Goldust and Stardust
Cesaro to defeat Sheamus for the United States championship
Nikki Bella to defeat Paige and AJ Lee for the Divas championship
Randy Orton to defeat Chris Jericho

Monday, 15 September 2014

Jericho, the Countdown Tolls for Thee

We’re told Chris Jericho is the best in the world at what he does. Unless he means he’s the best in the world at making short returns to wrestling in between album recordings to produce boring matches and even more boring promos I think he’s wrong. And he probably doesn’t mean that. Because the thing with Chris Jericho, the thing that shines through in any interview he gives or any comment he makes on his podcast, is that he really believes he’s something special.

Back in the Attitude Era, yes, ‘Y2J’ was a man worth watching. The same can be said of the ultra-serious Jericho of the mid- to late-naughties. With the right opponent he’d put on a great match. With the right topic he’d give a cracking promo. He had a positive contribution to make and he was keen to make it.

Nowadays things are different. Jericho still seems eager to contribute, an attitude which is to be applauded, but he’s only willing to do so on his terms, which isn’t. By allowing ol’ ‘Lionheart’ to saunter back in whenever he fancies and pick who he works with (because he only agrees to return if what’s being offered is of interest) WWE ensures they have someone on TV who can’t build up any real momentum and who can’t fully draw people into a feud because it’s known that he won’t be sticking around for long. This can, and does, lead to people being shuffled into a rivalry with Jericho when his schedule permits, as opposed to when it feels natural.

You're 43, mate.
Jericho’s most recent return has seen him mostly working with Bray Wyatt. I don’t think anything about the programme enhanced Wyatt’s standing (or Jericho’s for that matter, not that that was the purpose of the exercise). He lost a poor match at Battleground, won a better but still not great return at SummerSlam, and then walked out of an enjoyable cage match victorious on the September 8 RAW. The feud also saw some forgettable matches pitting Jericho against Erick Rowan and Luke Harper and some weak verbal outings between the rivals.

The disappointing promos are the fault of both men. While they were never horrendous I think it was fair to expect more considering the reputation of both. Ultimately their feud was revealed to be about Wyatt taking exception to Jericho having called himself a saviour over the last fifteen years. It’s not the worst reason for two guys to wrestle but it’s also not the best, and they rambled around the topic a lot.

The match quality is also the fault of both men although Jericho, as the senior party who insists on coming back to work with the younger guys, should shoulder a little more of the responsibility. They improved over time but they never really clicked. It was also frustrating that WWE ended up giving away what turned out to be their best encounter on free TV instead pay-per-view.
And now Jericho's been slipped into a meaningless spat with Randy Orton. Because why not?

At this point I really wouldn’t mind if Jericho moved away from wrestling permanently. I’d like to see him return for a final, well planned run culminating in a retirement angle, ideally at a WrestleMania, because he’s earned that, both with his career in general and contributions to WWE specifically. But it’s been years since his work has been of the quality we should be able to expect of his experience and position on the card. It’s great that he’s willing to lose to younger guys clean and make them look strong, but how much does that mean when he’s not fully capable of doing it?