Monday, 3 August 2015

Another Level

I think we can all agree that Kazucika Okada is a pretty talented dude. You don't make it to the top of a company like New Japan if you're not, especially when they're on the sort of hot streak they've been on for the last few years. He is easily amongst the best wrestlers in the world today, being capable of putting of good matches with lesser performers and having classics with great ones, possesses that all important star look, and (from what I can make out from his confidence and body language) he's a pretty solid promo.

As good as he is I've been wondering recently how far he'd make it outside of the confines of NJPW. In other words I've wondered how much of his success is down to him being booked well and how much is down to his own innate ability and work ethic. Not in a disparaging way, more idly thinking about whether he could succeed elsewhere without his formidable 'Rainmaker' gimmick.

Much of his success since returning to New Japan from TNA can be attributed to the way he's been presented. This goes beyond the way his matches are booked and how he's presented. No wrestler, no matter how good they are, is going to make it to the top if they're not given the time to compete in good matches or showcase a compelling character. I'm thinking more specifically about the character redesign Okada got when he returned.

He wasn't booked like this in TNA.
It's all about that 'Rainmaker' gimmick I described as formidable two paragraphs ago. It's one of the best in wrestling today. A great look was put together for it, one that makes the most of Okada's statuesque physique and good looks, but it's the basic premise that really sets it apart. The idea that Okada is so great, so valuable and talented, that he adds lustre to New Japan just by being on the roster is a perfect fit for wrestling. It's something incredibly simple that does loads for the man it's attached to and plays into the fact that he's a young lad who has really good matches on a regular basis.

But without this gimmick what would Okada have? For argument's sake let's say he signed for WWE. He wouldn't have the 'Rainmaker' name. That belongs to NJPW. He could do a version of the gimmick but part of the reason it works is the name. He wouldn't necessarily receive the focused booking and various protection methods he's been afforded in New Japan. He definitely wouldn't have Gedo with him, and that counts for a lot as by all accounts Gedo is not only his on-screen manager but his off-screen mentor. Their relationship seems to be pretty similar to the one Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman share. It seems fair to assume that Gedo has helped Okada progress as a performer. He's definitely been the one booking him strongly for the past several years.

A move to WWE would leave Okada reliant on his own showmanship abilities and, well, they don't seem to be all that strong. His most prominent work outside of NJPW was in TNA. Okay, nobody truly succeeds in TNA and Okada was booked as a low card afterthought while he was there but he showed no aptitude for making himself stand out. His run there ended with him playing Samoa Joe's Green Hornet-inspired sidekick, and that was awful, but he had time before being lumbered with that gimmick to change up his look. That he didn't indicates that presentation is an aspect of the wrestling business lost on him. That would be a massive hindrance in WWE, who want guys who know how to get themselves over before being given any sort of significant push. That and guys who look like Roman Reigns.

All of which is fair enough. Nobody's good at everything. Okada doesn't have much flamboyance to him. That doesn't matter right now. He has a gimmick that allows his lack of emotion to be interpreted as him thinking himself above everyone else because of how talented and inherantly valuable he is. He has a manager who can help with this too. And a flashy entrance outfit. He has everything he needs for the spot he's in. And really that's all that matters.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

NJPW Dominion 2015 review


With the G1 tournament currently in full swing this seems like the perfect (or most illogical, whichever you prefer) time to review the promotion's last major show, Dominion. I'd been looking forward to this show a great deal due to the fact that it featured a far greater number of singles and championship matches than the average New Japan show. It felt like it was a big deal because of this and, pleasingly, all of the bigger matches were worth watching. This was a show that didn't disappoint.

This said it actually seems like this was a relatively minor New Japan show, designed more as something to get people in position before the G1 tournament. Which does a fair amount to illustrate just how good NJPW is: even its B shows are excellent. It's impossible to imagine the likes of Payback or Battleground being this good. But then New Japan and WWE (and Gedo and Vince McMahon, for that matter) have different approaches and goals with the companies they head.

The show kicked off with a trio of tag matches. The first saw Yuji Nagata, Ryusuke Taguchi, Sho Tanaka, Mascara Dorada and Manabu Nakanishi defeat Jushin Liger, Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Satoshi Kojima, Yohei Komatsu, and Tiger Mask when Dorada pinned Komatsu. The second was the traditionally high spot filled junior tag title match, the Young Bucks successfully retaining against reDRagon and Roppongi Vice in a three-way. The latter seems to have drawn criticism from some for being "too American" but with six westerners in there what else could you expect. As far as these sorts of matches go it was very enjoyable.

The third saw Tetsuay Naito and Tomoaki Honma pair up to defeat Bullet Club lads Yujiro Takahashi and Bad Luck Fale. Naturally it was Takahashi who took the pin because New Japan go out of their way to protect Fale, presumably because he's the closest thing they have to a big, bad monster. Less naturally it was Honma who got the pin for his team, playing into a match-long story of Naito seemingly being unmotivated and not trying especially hard to help his partner out. This story (which has progressed considerably with the G1) was the highlight of the match, although the work between eternal underdog Honma and 'The Underboss' was fun too.

The first singles match of the show pitted Kazushi Sakuraba against Katusyori Shibata. This match was only a little over ten minutes but it felt longer. These are two of the least compeling guys on the New Japan roster for me and as such I found this difficult to engage with. It was technically proficint but it was the least engaging portion of the show for me. Shibata went over with a punt kick to Sakuraba's face after having weakened him with a lengthy sleeper.

Things improved considerably after that with Kushida's return to the top of the junior division with a junior heavyweight championship win over Kenny Omega. Kushida had earned the match by winning the Best of the Super Junior tournament in June, playing into the simple (but slightly unpleasantly racially charged storyline) story of Kenny Omega, a Canadian, having defeated challengers of Japanese, Mexican, and American origin and gloating about how none of them had beaten him. Obviously he was going to get his comeuppance at the hands of a Japanese guy, and it was Kushida, a man who's popularity has been growing considerably over the last eighteen months and who had been perfectly positioned for a singles run away from his Time Splitters partner Alex Shelley, who had to be the one to beat him.

This was the first standout match of the show (and there were several standout matches, as you'll read below). There was early use of a rubbish bin (trash can, for y'all across The Pond) from Omega, designed to play into his weird 'Cleaner' moniker, and then a prolonged sequence of Kushida's leg being worked over against tables and barriers outside the ring. That set him up as even more of an underdog against the despicable westerner and got him doing some very sympathetic selling, drawing the crowd in and prepping him for a piping hot comeback later on in the match.

It came just shy of the fifteen minute mark when Kushida reversed a suplex. From there he hit the champion with a roundhouse kick on the apron, a handspring elbow, and a cross body block from the turnbuckle to the floor (handily wiping out the Bucks too). Omega managed to briefly hold back the tide with, of all things, an Oklahoma Stampede, a decidedly more junior dragon suplex, and a top rope Aoi Shoudou, but it wasn't enough to get him the victory. Kushida would fire back with a number of kicks and applications of the kimura lock. It took a few tries but it was eventually that hold which got Kushida the win, trapping Omega's arm as he hoisted the challenger up for the One-Winged Angel and then locking the hold in place in the centre of the ring.

Following Kushida's lengthy celebration Tomorhiro Ishii strode down to the ring to challenge Togi Makabe for the NEVER championship. Makabe had defeated Ishii at Wrestle Kingdom 9 but was stripped of the title the following month after suffering form influenza and being unable to compete. Ishii would go on to beat Honma for the vacated gold at New Beginning, only to lose it back Makabe at Wrestling Hi no Kuni.

We had the same sort of enjoyably rough and tumble match here as we'd had in their previous meetings. They pummelled one another non-stop for getting on for twenty minutes, throwing elbows like they were going out of style. Big lad matches don't get much finer than what they gave us here, and they built to a great crescendo with Makabe German suplexing Ishii off the top rope before dropping on a knee on his head to once again beat him to retain the championship. This, for the record, was the second standout match of the evening. 

It was followed by a decidedly non-standout match: The Kingdom versus Bullet Club for the IWGP tag team championship. These aren't teams that do great things together. They've wrestled three times on major New Japan shows this year (Invasion Attack, where Bennett and Taven defeated Gallows and Anderson for the tag belts, and Wrestling Dontaku, in a six person match also involving Maria and Amber) and met in a number of matches on house shows in both New Japan and ROH. Despite this they've not managed to develop any sort of noticeable chemistry or interesting spots that can be called back to.

On the one hand that's fair enough. Not every feud is going to see guys find a rhythm that leads to a string of classic matches. It's not their fault that they've been put together so much, that they're all foreign heels (leading to audience disinterest and lack of focus) or that all they've been given to work with in terms of basis for a rivalry is Karl Anderson being infatuated by Maria. But it is their fault that they've not managed to drag any of these matches up to an acceptable level.

Bullet Club regained the titles here when they hit Taven with a 3D and Magic Killer. Hopefully they can move onto something with more talented teams that the audience actually like. Tanahashi wouldn't be a bad idea: he's super over and being in tags would help limit his ring time, preserving his utterly knackered body. It could also give a rub to whoever he was partnered with.

Speaking of Tanahashi, he wrestled in the match after this. It was a feud-ending collision with Toru Yano. Why he'd been pitted against Yano in a series is beyond me. Tanahashi, the man NJPW promotes as 'The Ace of the Universe' is one of the most over men in the company, quite possibly the most over. Yano is a comedy heel. Nobody stood to gain anything from this pairing: Yano wasn't going to be brought up to Tanahashi's level, Tanahashi was only going to be dragged down. It gave Tanahashi a rest, that's true, but there were other ways of achieving that without putting him with Yano.

The match was at least enjoyable. Because Tanahashi, despite being injured and overrated, is still very good, and Yano's shtick works. The obvious result came to pass when Tanahashi gave Yano the sling blade and the High Fly Flow.

The semi-main event was a Shinsuke Nakamura versus Hirooki Goto in a rematch for the Intercontinental championship. Goto had defeated Nak at Wrestling Dontaku in early May after Nak had underestimated and belittled him. The story here was that 'The King of Strong Style' wanted to prove the result had been a fluke and that he had been right to disregard Goto.

They started off with a lengthy feeling out process, Nak toying with the champ by jabbing at him with taunting kicks. Goto would get the best of the first lockup exchange, however, and would also be the first to go on a prolonged offensive streak, grounding Nakamura and wearing him down with chin locks. Nakamura would miss a running knee to the corner before knocking Goto out of the ring and smacking him into some guard rails.

The referee started a count. Goto made it back into the ring at eighteen but was too beaten up to do anything but lay there. Nakamura took advantage of this with some kicks. When he switched to elbows Goto's fighting spirit kicked in and he started fighting back. Nakamura survived a crazy lariat attempt, a spinning heel kick, and a bulldog before buying himself some time with a drop kick. A running knee in the corner missed but he managed to hoist the champion to the top rope and strike him with one there. That earned him a two count.

Goto tried to fire up again but Nak cut him off with another drop kick and a fall forward suplex. A Bome Ye attempt was reversed into a Samoan drop attempt, Nak wriggling off the shoulders and trapping Goto in a Gogoplata. Goto made it to the ropes but not quickly, and he was clearly even more worn down after being released from the hold. So Nakamura slapped on a rear naked choke to keep the pressure on.

Goto fought to his feet only for Nakamura to release the hold and drop him with a couple of suplexes. He again went for the Boma Ye and again found it countered, this time with a lariat. Goto hit an Angle Slam for two. He followed up with a neckbreaker out of the corner and Shouten Kai attempt. Nakamura kneed him in the head to escape that, only to be clotheslined in the corner seconds later. Goto tried to hit something from the top rope but Nak slipped away and power bombed him down to the mat then walloped him with a Boma Ye as he staggered back up.

Back on their feet the two lads traded blows, Nakamura getting the best of the exchange and felling the champ with an axe kick. Goto blearily tried getting back up but got struck with a Shining Wizard. Despite the crowd being convinced it was a match-ender Nakamura's pin attempt only got him a two count. Goto ran the ropes, avoiding two further  Boma Ye strikes before getting punched straight in the face. That caused him to drop to his knees. Nakamura again tried a Boma Ye but Goto caught hold of his knee, allowing him to hit a Goto Shiki and a dangerous-looking bck drop into an inverted power bomb for a beautiful false finish.

Nak got back to his feet and punched Goto again. Goto no-sold and gave Nak some head butts. Nak fell to the mat where he was pulled back to his feet to be hit with the match-winning Shouten Kai, bringing a cracking match to a close. Being a big fan of Nakamura I was disappointed he didn't get to regain the title he, more than anyone else has helped to build up but it would have been pointless for Goto to lose it back in his first defence. It's nice for someone else to have it for a bit to create some variety and allow Nakamura to do other things.

The main event saw AJ Styles defend the IWGP heavyweight championship against Kazuchika Okada. It was preceded by a really quite excellent hype video that did a great job of setting the mood for the match. Footage was used from some of the ROH co-promoted show, establishing how popular Okada is outside of Japan. He was also shown staring wistfully at Madison Square Garden, a building he's unlikely to ever wrestle in unless he makes his way to WWE at some point. It seemed to be presenting him as a humble man driven by ambitions and goals. Meanwhile Styles was presented as brash, arrogant and condescending. It did a great job of setting the scene for the story to come.

That story saw an Okada who refused to be intimidated by Styles dominate the early going. Okada was clearly confident and determined to overcome the entirety of Bullet Club being at ringside and become the heavyweight champion for a third time. The opening minutes saw 'The Rainmaker' outwrestle Styles multiple times, demonstrating that he had the champion's number and would win a fair match. Then, to illustrate that it wasn't a fair match, the interference began. Amber tripped Okada, allowing Styles to take control of the match. Moments later the challenger was tossed out of the ring to receive a kicking from the Biz Cliz.

Okada tried to fight back in the ring ut he got nailed with a drop kick and thrown out of the ring for a second kicking. This time the referee realised what was happening and ordered all Bullet Club members back to the locker room (maybe they should have secured themselves managers licenses and avoided this issue entirely). Okada rocked Styles with elbows, reversed a whip into a DDT, and hit a kip Up. Because athleticism.

Okada got a two count with a flapjack then headed to the top rope. Styles charged in but Okada leapt over him and struck him with an elbow. The champ no-sold that and hit his Asai DDT. He tried to follow up with a springboard but Okada kicked the ropes, toppling him back down onto the ring apron where he took an Okada drop kick.

After a brief brawl around ringside the two returned to the ring and Styles hit Okada with a facebuster for two. Styles tried a springboard again. Okada countered again, this time drop kicking the champion as he sailed into the ring. He followed up with a Macho Elbow to Styles then signalled for the Rainmaker. Styles escaped and suplexed Okada into a turnbuckle board. Then, finally, he hit his springboard forearm.

Okada turned a Styles Clash into Heavy Rain. He tried to follow up with a Tombstone but Styles fought his way out of it. They traded punches, uppercuts and elbows, Styles getting the better of the exchange when he elbowed Okada to the ground and stomped him. Back on his feet Okada hit that perfect drop kick of his and went for the Tombstone again. Styles reversed his way out of it and hit the move himself, following up with the springboard 450 for a two count.

Styles headed to the top rope. Okada followed and hit a dangerous, almost botched-looking, Death Valley Driver from the second rope to the apron. After a pause Styles crawled back into the ring, only to be hit with a drop kick from the top rope. A dazed Styles staggered to his feet and straight into a Tombstone piledriver from Okada. He signalled and went for the Rainmaker again but Styles ducked and struck with a Pele kick, flooring the challenger and buying himself some time to recover.

Back on his feet 'The Phenomenal One' attempted a Styles Clash. Okada pulled out of it and tried the Rainmaker again. Styles ducked it and gave Okada a back slide, rolling him through into the Styles Clash. Okada fought out, only to be set up for Bloody Sunday. He escaped that too and grabbed Styles for the Rainmaker. Styles fired off elbows so Okada dragged him into a back slide and hit him with the Rainmaker. Just to make sure he had him Okada pulled Styles up for another but Styles ducked. It didn't help him though. Okada nailed a pair of German suplexes and another Rainmaker to put AJ down for a three count and win his third IWGP heavyweight championship.

The match was excellent, one of the best I've seen Styles have since joining New Japan. It was easily the best on the card and was of a quality befitting the beginning of 'The Rainmaker's' third title reign. The pair wrestled like the title meant something and did a great job of weaving their finishers and signature moves into the closing third of the match, each man's arsenal being portrayed as absolutely devastating. The match can't be praised enough. It was one of the finest NJPW efforts of the year, and that puts it up against some stiff competition.

The show as a whole was, as I intimated earlier, great. Every match did exactly what it needed to. Makabe v Ishii was great and the junior heavyweight, IC, and heavyweight title matches were all match of the year contenders. This show just edged out Wrestle Kingdom 9 for New Japan's show of the year spot. With this being such a great show and there being two new champions crowned I'm interested to see what New Japan does next.

***

Results summary:
Yuji Nagata, Ryusuke Taguchi, Sho Tanaka, Mascara Dorada and Manabu Nakanishi defeated Jushin Liger, Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Satoshi Kojima, Yohei Komatsu, and Tiger Mask
The Young Bucks defeated Roppongi Vice and reDRagon to retain the IWGP junior heavyweight tag team championship
Tomoaki Honma and Tetsuya Naito defeated Yujiro Takahashi and Bad Luck Fale
Katsuyori Shibata defeated Kazushi Sakuraba
Kushida defeated Kenny Omega to win the IWGP junior heavyweight championship
Togi Makabe defeated Tomohiro Ishii to retain the NEVER openweight championship
Bullet Club defeated The Kingdom to win the IWGP tag team championship
Hiroshi Tanahashi defeated Toru Yano
Hirooki Goto defeated Shinsuke Nakamura to retain the IWGP Intercontinental championship
Kazuchika Okada defeated AJ Styles to win the IWGP heavyweight championship

Saturday, 1 August 2015

NXTweet 29.07.15

A tag team title match headlined this week's NXT. That it had a shenanigan finish makes it clear that there's a rematch coming at Takeover. Also, The Not-Mechanics get an "upset" win, Charlotte and Dana Brooke fight about a sports T-shirt deal, and Kevin Owens becomes the king of British indies.

Intro

Tweet 1: It's go NXT time yeah, brother!
Tweet 2: I think we're all looking forward to an NXT focusing on Barry Corbin, Solomon Crowe, the Dubstep Cowboys and Alex Riley.

Enzo Amore and Big Cass v Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder

Tweet 3: Kinda miss Carmella getting booed for being a hairdresser or whatever tbh.
Tweet 4: Also missing Scott and Dash being called The Mechanics because Christ that's a lol name for a tag team.
Tweet 5: This absurd mullet on Enzo though.
Tweet 6: The Not-Mechanics grew up together in the Carolinas. Looking forward to the commentary gang talking up them being influenced by OMEGA.
Tweet 7: If this were a computer game Dawson and Wilder would both have Arn Anderson move sets.
Tweet 8: I bet Kevin Nash is disgusted by the amount of running about Big Cass does.

Shatter Machine, bah gawd!!

Tweet 9: Dawson + Wilder + SHATTER MACHINE = No Chance in Hell
Tweet 10: Reminder that Charlotte and Dana Brooke are feuding over an advert there. Very WrestleMania X8...

Chad Gable and Jason Jordan talk backstage

Tweet 11: Chad Gable talking about other tag teams and how he and Jason Jordan are better them there.
Tweet 12: I like this team but I don't really know why.

Video package hyping Charlotte v Dana Brooke

Tweet 13: Video package explaining Dana Brooke and Charlotte's rivalry about being in a Tap Out advert. Yeah. This is actually happening.
Tweet 14: I get why they're doing it and I like the realism twist and all but it's very clearly being done to advertise Tap Out more.

Baron Corbin v Jesse Sorensen

Tweet 15: 'Wolf Shaman' Barry Corbin coming out with his wet T-shirt and wolf powers. Amazing.
Tweet 16: Oh look, it's that lad TNA made resort to food stamps.
Tweet 17: Barry's going to the pay window, daddy!

Tyler Breeze storms into William Regal's office and reiterates that he wants a special opponent at Takeover

Tweet 18: I really want that to be Billy Regal's shoot office.

Jason Jordan and Chad Gable v Elias Samson Levis Valenzuela Jr

Tweet 19: Anyone on commentary going to acknowledge that Chad Gable's outfit matches Dawkins and Fulton's? No? Okay.

Valenzuela Jr putting his hands out exposes the business.

Tweet 20: "You don't have to be best friends to be great tag team partners" - Corey Graves
Tweet 21: That's true. Matt and Jeff HATED each other back in the day.
Tweet 22: Crying shame that nobody talks about popping hips on suplexes anymore.

Dana Brooke talks to Devin Taylor

Tweet 23: Pick a camera and stick with it, Dana.
Tweet 24: Still slow burning this Devin Taylor v Dana Brooke feud. Going to be wrestling's hottest feud when they pull the trigger.

Bull-Fit video

Tweet 25: Just a video package reminding us that Bull Dempsey's a slob. No big.
Tweet 26: I hope this Bull Dempsey thing is leading to the return of Simon Dean.
Tweet 27: They really are sending you a message, Bull mate.

Charlotte v Dana Brooke

Tweet 28: I wish Dana had shown up on RAW and attacked Reigns for being chosen for the Tap Out ads.
Tweet 29: Dana's been put in Chucks to wrestle as a rib on AJ Lee.

This wasn't bad but it could have been better.

Tweet 30: "I don't suck" - Dana Brooke in response to the audience telling her she sucks
Tweet 31: Dana should bring back D'Lo's "Who sucks now?" bit.
Tweet 32: The NXT crowd are defs smart enough to do the "You do!" reply.
Tweet 33: That was not the feature match I expected. Had the result I expected though.

Samoa Joe talks about his match next week

Tweet 34: Earlier today Samoa Joe was hanging around in a corridor talking about people asking what he's doing in NXT. Great stuff. Compelling TV.

Kevin Owens apologises for hitting William Regal last week

Tweet 35: Surprising sound issues on this Regal-Owens bit. Very unlike WWE.
Tweet 36: Imagine if Owens got the title back at Takeover though.

Eva Marie announces her goals

Tweet 37: If they put they women's title on Eva Marie they could do some pretty interesting stuff. Have her Xavier it. Go full-on undeserving champ.

Kevin Owens v Martin Stone

Tweet 38: Danny Burch is back then.
Tweet 39: I remember when Martin Stone was getting hyped as the future of the British indies.

Notice that Stone always wears the same gear...?

Tweet 40: Owens wins and is now the king of British wrestling.
Tweet 41: Saddened Stone didn't take that pop-up power bomb on his elbows tbh.

Rhyno hype video

Tweet 42: "Let's take a look at Samoa Joe's opponent next week: Rhyno!" *cut to a shot of an actual rhino*
Tweet 43: Rhyno's great. One of the few mid-card acts he's been so consistently good he's forced WWE to protect him.

NXT tag team championship: The Vaudevillains v Blake and Murphy (c)

Tweet 44: Talkies stars versus 90's kids TV presenters. Highlight of the wrestling year right here.
Tweet 45: Loving Blake's Triple H circa 1994 haircut.
Tweet 46: Corey Graves casually making jokes about Byron 'Petulant Child' Saxton being a cuckold. #PGera
Tweet 47: Blake's hair is a political power play.
Tweet 48: I've a feeling Triple H wants Blake and Murphy to be a tag team version of Ric Flair. Really great wrestlers who take shortcuts.
Tweet 49: Trouble is they're not actually great wrestlers.
Tweet 50: I'm mainly basing this on Blake's hair, the fact that they've been champions for a while now, and the way they're booked as a bit cowardly.
Tweet 51: So Gotch and English are getting the tag straps at Takeover: Brooklyn, yeah?

This is the best shot of this match form the WWE website. It's poor.

Tweet 52: Nice ending there. The Vaudevillains had Alexa cornered but held the ropes for her to leave because chivalry. She slapped them.
Tweet 53: Imagine how that would have gone down in the Attitude Era. Bliss would have been piledriven and put through a table.
Tweet 54: Nice to be reminded that progress has been made in wrestling. Not much but a bit.
Tweet 55: Anyway, good show, everyone. Good hustle.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Revolutionising the Divas Division

The July 13 RAW saw the main roster debuts of Sasha Banks, Charlotte and Becky Lynch. Hardly breaking news at this point I know, it's taken me a while to get a post together on the call-ups. Not doing a post simply wasn't an option: the significance of the three women being promoted from developmental simultaneously cannot be understated.

Paige and her NXT allies, the unofficially dubbed Powerbuff Girls.
Moving a number of women from NXT's women's division is a sign that WWE management recognise change is needed in the way women are presented by the company. Having them be three of the four best wrestlers (the fourth, to clarify, is Bayley) is a sign that this isn't just a case restocking a depleted division but a drive to improve quality. Had the former been what the company desired they simply could have gone with utilising existing bit part players Alicia Fox, Cameron, Summer Rae and Rosa Mendes. That wrestlers who have been receiving critical praise were chosen to join the division tells us that creating a competitive, layered and compelling division is the goal.

As does, of course, the manner in which the three were promoted. They were introduced by Stephanie McMahon. Having a McMahon hype you up before your first appearance is a big deal, because they're the owners of the company and if they're going out of their way to talk you up it sends the message that you're worth attention1. Te same goes for interacting with a champion in your first segment. Basically everything about the way the women were introduced was designed to let anyone unfamiliar with them know they're a big deal and reassure people who've enjoyed their work in NXT that they'll get the same kind of opportunities on RAW and SmackDown.

Naomi versus Banks could be great. Just saying...
Since the call-up the company has stuck to its guns on the revamped Divas scene. Charlotte, Banks and Brie Bella wrestled an eleven and a half minute three-way at Battleground. The following evening's RAW saw Charlotte defeat Brie in a nine minute match and Naomi and Banks topple Lynch and Paige in a little under fifteen minutes. The July 23 SmackDown saw a thirteen minute tag match, and the Monday 27 RAW a fourteen minute singles match between Paige and Banks. The newcomers haven't been booked to steamroll their more established counterparts but they have been made to look competitive, an intelligent approach that considers the long-term future of the division.

I'm not claiming the matches have all been classics. They haven't. The only one that can accurately be said to be n above average affair was the Banks versus Paige match, and that was at least partly due to Banks being the reigning NXT women's champion and 'The Anti-Diva's' history in the developmental league (and with that title) making for an interesting background to the meeting. But they have been longer than the average Divas match of the last few years, and they've been wrestled like the people involved have something to prove, presumably because they do.

The decision to form three factions is what I like most about the restructuring of the division. It keeps things simple and gives each Divas match a reason for happening. Going by the numbers there are now twenty-seven singles matches, eighteen tag combos, three six women tags, and the obviously climactic three-way trios collision that can be cycled through. That's easily enough to keep the division feeling fresh and exciting for months. If things are paced properly and the story is told right WWE could do something special with Nikki Bella edging closer and closer to becoming the longest reigning Divas champion ever2.

Can Nikki Bella become the longest reigning Divas champion ever?
A strong maybe from me.
Whether Nikki achieves this feat or not, and personally I think she will because she seems liked within the company and the people that run the company are vindictive enough to want to take the chance to take an accolade away from AJ, she'll lose the title at some point. When she does it will be to a member of a rival faction, because these are the women who will form the focal point of the division for the foreseeable future. When that happens it opens up longer term stories of rivalries between people who are currently allies. Charlotte winning the title could set up a friendly series with Paige, for example, while Banks and Naomi seem destined to clash over "leadership" of their BAD stable.

It's taken WWE far too long to get back around to presenting its women wrestlers as athletes who have the same athleticism and competitive drive as their male counterparts but at least they got to it eventually. It was at least worth the wait as the situation they've created by going with three promotions at once has given us the most promising Diva line-up in years and dozens of potential storylines, matches and feuds. If they can meet half of the potential they'll be doing okay.

***

1 we will at this point overlook the fact that Steph, while great on the mic, is nowhere near the level of her dad, the one and only Vinnie Mac.

2 As things stand right now she will surpass AJ Lee's current 295 day record on September 15. That's the Tuesday before Night of Champions. It seems reasonably safe to assume that if Nikki leaves August's SummerSlam with the butterfly belt she'll make it NOC as champ, breaking Lee's record.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Undertaker: The Final Months?

Undertaker and Brock Lesnar will headline SummerSlam in a rematch from last year's WrestleMania. You know, that match in which 'The Pain' ended The Undertaker's 'Mania winning streak. I've seen the match described elsewhere (specifically Cageside Seats) as God versus Death. I like that description, even though I think it'd be more accurate to cast Lesnar as the Devil, what with him being frequently referred to as 'The Beast' and all.

Catfight!
The match will probably be good. Lesnar has had nothing but excellent matches since he defeated Undi' last year and both men will likely want to erase the memories of that subpar outing (which suffered in quality because 'Taker got a concussion in the first few minutes) with a slobberknocker here. They already seem to be benefiting from a superior build: Undertaker's return at Battleground and the brawl the two had the following evening on RAW knocked spots off the clichéd and dull sequence of segments, culminating with a contract signing, the two slumped through before WrestleMania XXX.

There are arguments to be made for both men winning. 'The Dead Man' "needs" his win back and to be rebuilt as a strong force ahead of his presumed retirement match at WrestleMania Play Button. Lesnar needs to remain the most dominant force in the company because that's what people like about him. Obviously only one of them will win. It doesn't really matter who it is. The more interesting topic is what Undertaker is going to do after 'The Hottest Event of the Summer'.

Broadly speaking there are two things he could do. One is disappear again and only return when WrestleMania 32 is the company's focus (which would be any time from January). The other is to stick around and appear regularly until retiring at 'Mania.

I'd prefer the latter. If Undertaker is going to retire next year (and the smart bet is that he will) then he deserves to have one final semi-full time run. We don't need to see him wrestling on TV. In fact we don't even need to see him every week. But appearances on the monthly pay-per-views (or special events as they're styled now) would give 'The Phenom' the chance to work with guys he's never faced before he leaves. Guys like Sheamus, Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, and Kevin Owens would all benefit from a 'Taker match on their CV. UT would benefit from wrestling these guys as he'd be getting fresh opponents eager to put in the extra work to make the bout memorable, lessening the pressure on him. The PPVs themselves would benefit from 'Taker wrestling as the matches could be pushed, subtly or not, as amongst the last of 'Taker's career.

Is this schedule, or a similar one, likely? We can't and won't know until SummerSlam's bee and gone. We can say that Undertaker looks healthy and put in a spirited performance on the July 20 RAW. But we can also note that he struggled ever so slightly when hoisting Lesnar up for the Tombstone at Battleground. If I had to guess I'd say that we won't be seeing Undertaker wrestling on that many shows between SummerSlam and WrestleMania, a shame because there are plenty of storyline opportunities for him outside of his current programme with 'The Conqueror'.

I'd love to be wrong, and I hope he gets to do something at Survivor Series, if only to allow him to celebrate his twenty-fifth anniversary under the gimmick. That would be fitting if he's on the cusp of retirement.