Monday, 2 March 2015

The Darewolf

Justin Gabriel's out. 'Darewolf' PJ Black is in.

It's not exactly breaking news that the artist formerly known as Justin Gabriel has been released by WWE. Apparently frustrated with his lack of direction and the nonchalant way his TV appearances were being handled Gabriel left the January 19 RAW and informed the company he wanted to be released from his contract. His status as a free agent was confirmed on January 25 when WWE announced he'd been released.

Pointing to the sky shows you mean business.
It's hardly surprising the man born Paul Lloyd Jr wanted out of WWE. He rarely got to appear on the promotion's more important broadcasts. When he did it was usually in a short match which he lost. His appearances on NXT were more promising. He didn't win much but he did get to wrestle lengthier matches in a less restrictive environment. A regular slot on that show would have been a good fit for him, allowing him creative freedom while providing the show with a reliable performer who could guarantee a good outing while putting over the hot prospects. Unfortunately for him Tyson Kidd got the main roster veteran in residence spot. NXT only needs one.

It's hard to imagine many people being happy to work hard to get to WWE's main roster only to be content with an enhancement role. His request was and is understandable. The last time he verged on relevance was when he was a tag team champion with Heath Slater in 2011. That Slater has to be mentioned there should tell you all you need to know about how well Gabriel was truly doing.

I think WWE could have done more with 'The Werewolf of Cape Town'. From what we were shown he could have turned in some belters opposite the likes of Cesaro, Daniel Bryan and Dolph Ziggler. His on-off team with Tyson Kidd had potential too, but the writers never seemed overly interested in it. An injury to Kidd didn't help matters either, to be fair. Given time to develop, and used as part of a proper, actual tag team division Gabriel and Kidd could have been great. Matches with the Usos, the Wyatt Family, and even The Shield could have been excellent.

Gabriel wasn't necessarily a natural headliner or even an upper mid-carder, but he was capable of more than we saw. Which is what I think we'll see from him in his matches for the WWN over WrestleMania weekend. Gabe Sapolsky was quick to sign him for the group's shows, which speaks of the faith an experienced booker and promoter has in him. As does Black's announced matches against EVOLVE champion Drew Galloway and former Open the Freedom Gate champion Ricochet. They're not just some of the best wrestlers Sapolsky has available to him, they're some of the top names of the WWN. Black wouldn't be wrestling them on such major shows if there was any doubt in his ability.

If only he'd only a better nickname than 'Darewolf' I could get really into his new found freedom.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Rey Mysterio's Long Awaited Release

After months of negotiation Rey Mysterio is finally a free man. On February 26  his contract with WWE expired and his profile was moved to the alumni section of the company website. Breaking from the norm no announcement was made by WWE regarding the news, though they did confirm the departure when contacted, by  variety of websites, for comment.

Say goodbye to those merch sales, mate.
The release is something Mysterio has wanted for a long time. He's spent much of the last four years sidelined with major, minor and nagging injuries. Two hour reign as WWE champion on July 25 2011 aside Mysterio has mostly been used as a bit part player when he has been available. Not that the promotion can be faulted for this: Mysterio had become so unreliable that they couldn't afford to risk starting a hefty push with him for fear that he'd be struck with another injury, necessitating his disappearance from TV again.

You can also see why it would have been frustrating for Rey Rey too. Being given the company's top title for two hours just to further a storyline about someone kayfabe quitting can't be particularly rewarding. Neither can teaming with botch monkey Sin Cara Uno, feuding endlessly with Alberto Del Rio, or being slung into Royal Rumbles to little fanfare despite being an established headline player. These things and more are what Mysterio was given by the creative department over the last four years.

As frustrating as it must have been I still think Mysterio would have been best served by returning to WWE for one final run culminating in an official retirement match. His work in the 90's and during his first few years with WWE was top notch. Even after the injuries started racking up in the mid-00's Mysterio was still a reliable performer who remained over with fans.

In 2015 Mysterio's body has taken a battering and is held together more through medical science than anything else. He cannot perform at the level he is most fondly remembered for and as he wasn't savvy enough to introduce ground-based, easier-to-perform moves while he could still blend them in with his more flashy repertoire he's now in a position where he's going to disappoint people more than please them by getting back into the ring, simply because he's not able to do the high-flying he once did. His existing work is strong enough to ensure his legacy survives no matter how bad things get for him but there's no sense putting on shoddy performances if it can be avoided. And this case it can most certainly can be avoided: after over a decade as WWE's top Hispanic star Mysterio doesn't need to worry about money.

Looking rather Rey Mysterio-like, it's Fenix!
But for whatever reason Mysterio had his heart set on a WWE release and a move to AAA and Lucha Underground. Perhaps I'll be proved wrong and Mysterio will display his old magic touch in these promotions. Whether that's the case or not it will at least be interesting to see him opposite his old pals Johnny Mundo and Alberto El Patron in a new environment. The prospect of seeing him face off with Fenix and Prince Puma is pretty enticing too. Though the less said about the prospect of another addition to the Mysterio versus Chavo Guerrero series the better.

A Mysterio run in Ring of Honor could be entertaining too, again under the proviso that he doesn't prove to be completely washed up. Considering Alberto El Patron's dual deal with Lucha Underground and ROH this isn't too farfetched a thought either. Matches opposite Jay Briscoe, Adam Cole, Cedric Alexander, AJ Styles, Michael Elgin and Roderick Strong would all have potential to be great, while Mysterio v ACH could be a modern company classic if Mysterio were on form.

His departure from WWE was not the ideal thing for Mysterio, whether he knows it yet or not. But it's done now. While I don't have the highest of hopes for his in-ring career away from the known and safe surroundings of WWE there is potential in it. Hopefully we'll see that potential realised, rather than witnessing Mysterio become an addition to the list of guys who didn't know when to call it quits. Because ultimately I like Rey Mysterio and I don't want to see him Ric Flair himself.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

NXTweet 25.02.15

Rhyno last week. 'The' Brian Kendrick this week. If Triple H is serious about wanting NXT to be its own deal he's certainly going about it the right way. Having Alex Riley get jobbed out doesn't hurt either.

Intro

Tweet 1: Oh hi, everyone! I'm watching NXT. Why not join me?
Tweet 2: I remember when updating show intros were a big deal. WWE's so on the ball they can splice up something new pretty much every week.
Tweet 3: In a way it's good. But I miss the sense of it being a treat.

Bull Dempsey v Hideo Itami

Tweet 4: The announce team telling us how many weeks removed we are from the latest special. Is that to help them stay on top of what show they're taping?
Tweet 5: The BD logo on Bull Dempsey's singlet reminds me of the PWG logo. Deliberate?
Tweet 6: Probably not. I doubt anyone else sees it.
Tweet 7: "I don't know if Bull Dempsey's own mother likes him but he's definitely impressive to watch" - Tom Philips on Bull Dempsey's mother
Tweet 8: Mama Dempsey. There's potential in that character. Could be the new Mama Benjamin. Dare I say it, the new Judy Bagwell!
Tweet 9: Itami is one of Triple H's golden boys? Kliq stable of Itami, Zayn, Bálor, Owens and Neville. Book it.

Camera lag. Still making funny pictures in 2015.

Tweet 10: Yeah Itami kicks hard but he's no match for a selfie stick.
Tweet 11: The selfie stick is OVER, bro. Let's book a selfie stick on a pole match!

The return of Brian Kendrick is announced

Tweet 12: Main event is Bálor v Spanky? Saywhaaaaaat?!
Tweet 13: They're shilling for 'The' Brian Kendrick hard.
Tweet 14: Video package for him. Does this mean he's full time in NXT? I'd take that.
Tweet 15: I bet Triple H likes him. He's brought him back and he let him have that interim, definitely doesn't count reign as WWE champ that one time.

The Lucha Dragons v Jason Jordan and Tye Dillinger

Tweet 16: Big fan of Dillinger and Murphy's generic tag team.
Tweet 17: I'm liking Solomon Crowe hacking the show but the singlet and leather jacket jars with the gimmick. Stick him back in that suit from 2013.
Tweet 18: Enjoying Dillinger doing stereotypical Japanese taunts to a Mexican wrestler.
Tweet 19: Dissension in the heel team. I'm gutted. Dillinger and Jordan were so good together.
Tweet 20: Recap of Jordan walking out. Why? It literally just happened. And nobody really cares.

Greg the Interviewer talks to Finn Bálor

Tweet 21: Greg the Interviewer alert!
Tweet 22: Bálor's concerned with his main event match against Kendrick. He doesn't have time for your games, Greg!

Tye Dillinger says he'll face whoever's scheduled to wrestle next

Tweet 23: Barry Corbin wearing a prototype Roman Reigns jacket there.
Tweet 24: Barry should start doing the End of Days and then applying a crossface. He always catches himself on the other guy's arm. Use that.

Devin Taylor talks to Charlotte

Tweet 25: Heavy on the blush there, Charlotte? Wooooooooo!
Tweet 26: Sami Zayn's on next week is he? I bet he's not in the ring. Because he was in Abu Dhabi.

Becky Lynch v Bayley

Tweet 27: A really over woman who's nailed her character versus a not over at all woman who doesn't have a character. It's Bayley v Becky Lynch.
Tweet 28: Flick your hair about all you want, luv. It won't make people care.
Tweet 29: I'll say this for Becky: her complete lack of character makes her easy to dislike and boo. Good for a heel.
Tweet 30: Maybe she's really smart and she's being so generic deliberately.
Tweet 31: Hair whip and a leg drop. Can't touch D'Lo's head wiggle leg drop.
Tweet 32: "WHO SUCKS NOW?!" Still Becky.

Submission. Specialist?

Tweet 33: Becky applies an armbar. Gets called a submission specialist. Lolwut?
Tweet 34: Not just extension. Hyper-extension.

Devin Taylor talks to Rhyno

Tweet 35: RHYYYYYYYNOOOOOO!!
Tweet 36: Why is Rhyno in NXT? Because he tuned in and thought it looked like a laugh.
Tweet 37: Also: intensity.
Tweet 38: Terry's still got it.

Jason Jordan dismisses a faceless, nameless interviewer (possibly Greg)

Tweet 39: JJ will explain his actions when he's ready. Or, in other words, when he's told what they are by the writers.
Tweet 40: And not a MOMENT before!

Finn Bálor v 'The' Brian Kendrick

Tweet 41: Leonardo Spanky v Prince Devitt with about ten minutes of match time. Should be good.

The jacket's seen better days but it still looks good.

Tweet 42: Owens is on commentary. It's making me hope they resurrect the gimmick where he does his own commentary on the microphone firing matches.
Tweet 43: Alex Riley's questioning is pathetic.
Tweet 44: I'm a big fan of detailed designs on wrestling gear. Kendrick's are very good.
Tweet 45: Why hasn't Riley been released? Actually why?
Tweet 46: "I'm a man" - Alex Riley
Tweet 47: Stop going all main roster and cutting away from the match to show us the commentary team. You're better than this, NXT.

80's high spot!

Tweet 48: Kendrick just hit a tornado DDT. I thought it was going to be a Blockbuster. Not gonna lie, I'm a tiny bit disappointed.
Tweet 49: The double stomp is a good finish for Bálor, yeah. But why not use Bloody Sunday? Because, y'know, it's better innit?
Tweet 50: "The only way to describe that is spectacular" - Alex Riley on a double stomp
Tweet 51: Ahahaha! Owens lobbed Alex Riley over the announce desk onto concrete. Good!
Tweet 52: Good episode. A-Ry getting clobbered was the best part.

Friday, 27 February 2015

The Fall of Man

The Ascension haven’t had an easy time of it since their promotion to the main roster on the December 29 RAW. It’s a bit of a surprise when you consider how well the clearly limited pair were handled in NXT and Triple H’s promise that people would only be moved from NXT to WWE when a spot was open for them. It’s disappointing because used correctly The Ascension could have been useful for the main roster.

The current Ascension team came together in June 2013 with Viktor (at that point still Rick Victor) replacing the artist now known as Bram1 and then known as Kenneth Cameron, who’d been released in 2012. Konnor (at that point still trading under the name Conor O’Brian) had been working as a singles performer in the months since Cameron’s release. The partnership with Viktor signalled his return to the doubles ranks.

And yeah, that return was pretty successful. They won their first two matches against non-entity teams before losing an eight man tag match to a team that included Xavier Woods and CJ Parker, but they didn’t take the pinfall in that. In fact the only loss they suffered in their first year together was on an NXT live event to then-tag champions Adrian Neville and Corey Graves.

They were protected with short matches that allowed them to appear ferocious and explosive, and they beat everybody. From unimpressive jobber pairings like Mac Miles and Steve Cutler to more formidable units like Sami Zayn and Tyson Kidd, The Vaudevillains, Too Cool and The Legionnaires2, everyone who stepped into the ring with The Ascension wound up putting them over, usually via their Fall of Man double team finisher.

It was a simple, effective approach that got the pair over because it was designed to make them look good by playing to their strengths. Even when they eventually lost the tag team titles to the Lucha Dragons they were protected, the match being presented as the Dragons getting lucky with their timing as much as anything else.

The face paint didn't help...
The Ascension’s first month on the main roster undid all of that hard work. They were ridiculed by JBL, booked to compare themselves to tag teams from the 80s and 90s, easily dispatched by the nWo, the New Age Outlaws and the APA, and had a competitive match in their pay-per-view debut. Nothing about the approach seemed designed to make fans think of these newcomers as anything special.

Had it ended with JBL having some digs at them things would have been fine. That could have been ignored or a segment could have been booked in which the APA reunited to get trounced by the younger guys, putting them over in the process. What we actually got seemed designed to let us know that The Ascension aren’t as good as the Road Warriors, Demolition, or the APA, and they can only just about take care of the Outlaws.

Imagine how different things would have been if Konnor and Viktor had spent their first weeks beating jobber teams inside two minutes before being confronted by Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Sean Waltman, the Outlaws and the APA (the youngest of that gaggle being Waltman at 42), and they'd taken out all of them. They would have looked unstoppable. They could have been pitted against the scant few teams WWE has over the course of two months before being booked to dethrone the Usos in a competitive match on the WrestleMania 31 pre-show. After months of easy victories seeing them in a competitive match would have made it clear the Usos are an above average team, keeping them strong in defeat.

Instead The Ascension were used to appease the egos of a bunch of guys who mean little to WWE’s current mass audience. What a waste.

***

1 TNA were presumably influenced by Bram Stoker when selecting this name. Maybe the original intention was for Bram to be a vampire? That would be very TNA.

2 Describing some of these teams as formidable may tickle some people but I think it’s an accurate statement. They had been presented as such in other matches on NXT. That’s what counts.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

That RAW Recap 23.02.15

In addition to filler like Emma and Paige versus the Bella twins, The Ascension versus the Prime Time Players, and Ryback versus Curtis Axel the January 23 episode of RAW gave us a development that once again proved WWE is incapable of providing sensible, coherent long-term storylines. I'm talking, of course, about the return of Randy Orton.

Technically he'd come back the previous evening at Fast Lane but it was at RAW where Orton got to remind everyone of what had happened to him and reveal what he intended to do about it. For anyone who's forgotten 'The Viper' lost a match to Seth Rollins on the November 3 RAW and attacked him in fristrattion after the match. This didn't work out well for him as The Authority outnumbered him and he ended up getting Curb Stomped onto some steel steps.

What a likeable man.
After three and a half months Orton was understandably angry at Rollins and wanting some sweet, sweet revenge. In the opening segment of RAW he revealed that his attempted assault of Rollins the previous evening had been just the start. His intention was to continue attacking 'The Future' at every possible opportunity.

Which made it slightly puzzling when he agreed to rejoin The Authority and team with Rollins against Roman Reigns and Daniel Bryan in the main event. The way these things usually play out is that the babyface is just stringing the heels along and using the tag match as an opportunity to get his enemy in a place where he can strike. Not so here. Orton and Rollins teamed without incident until the closing moments of the match where Rollins tagged himself in and immediately fell to Bryan's running knee.

After the match Orton lost his cool, because of S-Roll's glory-seeking behaviour, and went to Punt kick his teammate. Jamie Noble grabbed him before he could and got an RKO for his trouble. That then left Orty free to hit the Punt but instead he simply helped Rollins up and gave him a pat on the back. And not a metaphorical pat on the back, a literal pat on the back.

Everything about this booking was confusing. I've said before that moving away from clear cut heels and faces is a good move but there still needs to be character consistency. Orton was betrayed and injured by Rollins and The Authority. It makes no sense for him to rejoin. It also feels like WWE have missed an opportunity to turn Orton into a genuinely popular performer again. Yeah, people will cheer him busting out RKOs and endorse his inevitable turn on Trips and the gang but ultimately he's still shown himself to be untrustworthy and-or gullible. He was given a choice between seeking revenge on a guy he hates or rejoining a group of people who've proved they can't be trusted. He went with the option that a viewing audience is not going to empathise with.

With a better writing team this could still work. Being a poor judge of character could make someone a sympathetic figure. But even if there are writers in the company good enough to tell that sort of story (and it's not that complex so I'm sure there are) that's not the way the writing style works. We know Orton is simply going to realise he made a mistake and turn on Rollins again in time to set up a WrestleMania match between the two.

A handshake is bound to make Reigns popular.
The only other noteworthy thing about Monday's RAW was the interaction between Daniel Bryan and Roman Reigns mid-way through. D-Bry interrupted Reigns aimlessly discussing his accomplishments of the previous month to run him down for being nothing more than a muscle guy with no heart who fans don't like and won't cheer for. Then he swerved us by acknowledging that Reigns beat him fair and square in a tough fight and not only proved that he had heart but that he deserved to headline 'Mania.

Both men did a good job with what was asked of them. That didn't make the segment any less transparent in its intentions though. Bryan was there to convince people that Reigns isn't all bad. I'm sure it convinced some people in the arena and watching at home to stop booing Reigns and start cheering him. But unfortunately for WWE they're not people likely to shell out a four figure sum to sit in the first few rows at WrestleMania. If they want to combat the negative reaction they know Reigns is going to get on that show they're going to have to do a lot more than a Bryan endorsement.

Monday, 23 February 2015

WWE Fast Lane 2015 review

Thanks to the booking of its titular match Royal Rumble was not a good pay-per-view. TLC before it was worse. Outside of its main event Survivor Series had nothing to offer. You have to go back to October's Hell in a Cell to find a WWE pay-per-view with more than one match to offer. You have go all the way back to SummerSlam to find a WWE main roster show that was definitely above average. Fast Lane was the company's latest opportunity to change that.

They didn't. With Fast Lane WWE constructed a particularly drab show. Outside of the top two matches and a confrontation between part-timers there was little on offer. Writing was rushed so that matches had an excuse to happen and popular performers were thrust into slots on the show just to have them there. Outside of those top three attractions very little thought was put into Fast Lane, and it showed.

A below average video package started the show. Shots of speedometers and cars going fast were interspersed with shots of John Cena, Rusev, Bryan, Reigns, Triple H and Sting as a woman gave dictionary definitions of various journey-related words. It felt like the graphics from an Over the Limit show had been recycled with some relevant match footage. It was unusual, considering WWE's record with this sort of thing.

Dolph Ziggler's music and entrance got a huge pop from the crowd. That made me think they'd be a rowdy bunch who'd get into the show. I would be proved wrong again and again and again throughout the night. It wasn't the lack of reaction for Erick Rowan that tipped me off though. That was to be expected. Ryback did slightly better but he's not as over as he once was. He did get a "Feed me more!" chant going in the ring though.

Ziggler and Seth Rollins started the match with a good sequence. Things got worse once Dolph tagged out to Rowan. They got worse still when Rollins tagged out to Kane. Rowan was isolated and the match chugged along until Ryback tagged in for the first time. He had a surprisingly popular exchange with Rollins which ended with Rollins taking a Shellshock only for 'The Big Guy' to be immediately splashed by Show, stopping him from going for a cover.

Ziggler tagged back in to loud cheers and was almost immediately made to look like a complete loser as he was outsmarted by the big lads. Kane held him for a Big Show KO punch. That was enough to put Ziggler down for three. The move itself isn't the problem: it's a move that's been built up nicely. But it was still depressing that it was Ziggler, rather than the disposable Rowan, who was booked to take the loss for his team. For that matter it was depressing that outside of their opening tussle Rollins and Ziggler didn't really interact. They could have saved this match and turned it into a hot opener had they been allowed.  

He hit RKOs... outta nowhere!
After the match the heels ganged up on the faces as the audience chanted for Randy Orton (which again made me think they'd be reliable for the entire show). They weren't disappointed. 'The Viper's' music hit the speakers and he ran (yes, Orton actually ran) to the ring. In his trunks, natch. J&J and Kane all took RKOs. Rollins tried to sneak into the ring and lamp Orton with his Money in the Bank briefcase but got caught with a kick. Orton signalled for the draping DDT but Show yanked Rollins to safety. 'The Future' then ran off through the crowd as Orty posed in the ring. 

After a video recapping the truncated breakdown of the Goldust and Stardust team Goldust was shown backstage with Dusty Rhodes. Goldy said he wasn't facing Cody, he was facing Stardust and that he needed to beat him so badly that the thought of putting on face paint and a costume again would sicken him. They did a good job making the match mean something but it was a little misleading.

The exchange made it seem that we'd be getting a wild fight between the brothers. They had a perfectly good match but it didn't really feel like the brawl the promo, or the nature of their feud, had told us it would be. It was more about counter wrestling than fighting. The crowd's lack of interest didn't help matters. Goldust won off a roll-up after reversing out of the Director's Cut. Goldy offered a handshake after the match. Stardust just walked off.

After a lengthy recap of the "feud" between Seth Rollins and Jon Stewart, which was designed to "prove" that WWE is relevant to mainstream personalities just as much as it was to play into anything that may happen between the two we were treated to a Rhodes family meeting backstage. Goldust apologised to Dusty, even though all he'd done was wrestle Stardust, before Stardust showed up to attack him. Then he shouted that about being the breakout star of the dynasty lumbered with an albatross of a brother and informed Dusty that he was responsible for the death of Cody. It could go somewhere really interesting but knowing WWE it probably won't.

The Usos versus the Brass Ring Club came next. They would provide the show with its second best match. Jimmy was worked over for the first third of the match with Cesaro and Kidd targeting his leg. This included an impressive one legged big swing from Cesaro. He would tag out after managing to send Kidd to the outside of the ring, kicking off a pacey sequence between all four.

The Brass Ring Club would perform a nice double team with Cesaro deadlifting Jey from the apron for a second rope suplex and Kidd following up with a springboard elbow. There was a frenetic exchange on the apron of the hard camera side of the ring which culminated with Jimmy blocking a Kidd kick and pulling him down, catching him on his shoulders and Samoan dropping him into the barricade.

"Hey, look how shiny my belt is, Tyson!"
Back in the ring Jimmy splashed Kidd but was immediately rolled up for a two count. He kicked out but found himself trapped in a Sharpshooter moments later. Jey broke that up and then got huled out of the ring by Cesaro. Jimmy super kicked 'The Swiss Superman' off the apron and then turned around into a fisherman's neck breaker from Kidd. That was enough to get the win and titles for the Brass Ring Club. The crowd were particularly annoying here. The four guys deserved a lot bbetter for the performance they put on.

Before the Sting and Triple H face-to-face confrontation that followed Michael Cole said it had been the "fantasy" of every "sports entertainment fan" to see Sting in a WWE ring. This is not true. I know many people who agree with me that  'The Stinger' holds little to no appeal, especially fourteen years after WCW went out of business. In fairness they can't really acknowledge any disinterest even if they'd be willing to admit it's there. And there are people who, for some reason, do want to see Sting wrestle for WWE.

King of Kings hit and Triple H walked out. Because he was doing wrestler business, as opposed to Authority-running-the-show business, 'The Game' was dressed in jeans and a leather jacket. The only thing missing was his Attitude Era backwards leather paddy cap. After apologising for pushing down Ric Flair on RAW and referring to himself as 'The Heartbeat of WWE' (that'll be on a T-shirt soon) he called out Sting.

When he answered 'The Game's' call Sting got cheers but not as many as you'd expect. Yes, even the mighty Sting could not make the audience emote. Although one guy tried his hardest to get a(n awkward) "WCW!" chant going. Trips talked about how his legacy was ending Sting's legacy and suggested that Sting's motivation at Survivor Series had been to take the McMahons out of WWE because he knew that would put an end to the company. That second point was especially nice. It was true to the a Triple H character's ego but was also a plausible reason for 'The Vigilante's' actions.

Tripper tried to seduce Sting with action figures and DVDs and a Hall of Fame induction. When Sting didn't react Trips said they could fight and Sting would be erased from history. That should be a gimmick in WWE: someone who beats people so hard they are erased from history.

When it became clear Sting wasn't going to be bought off Triple H tried to cheap shot him. Sting fought him off until 'The Cerebral Assassin' smacked him with a microphone then lugged his sledgehammer from beneath the ring. When he returned to cave in Sting's head it was revealed Sting had brought his trusty baseball bat. He backed Trips into a corner, forced him to drop the hammer, and then pointed at the WrestleMania sign a few times. When he went to leave H3 tried to attack him again. He was hit with the bat and given a Scorpion Death Drop. As he left the commentary team marked out for Sting like it was 1997.

Obligatory Nikki Bella pic.
Following a recap of Heyman saying Lesnar would beat whoever's put against him at WrestleMania we got Paige challenging Nikki Bella for the Divas championship. By WWE Divas standards it was a very good effort. Nikki put on a crisp performance and Paige was as good as she usually is. Nikki would retain with a roll-up and a Handful of Tights™. The champ's facial expressions weren't all they could have been but they weren't awful. If WWE invested more time into other female characters Nikki could make a good lead heel for the division.

Then... breaking news! Triple H had accepted Sting's challenge for a match at WrestleMania! The commentary gang again marked out. Lawler went so far as to say he never thought he'd see the match happen. That conjured up a nice image of Lawler sitting at home pining for a Triple H and Sting match, shaking his head wistfully and telling himself it would never happen.

Dean Ambrose and Bad News Barrett's Intercontinental championship match was next. Despite the large number of signature moves between the two the crowd once again failed to get excited for the majority of the match. It was another case of Ambrose and Bad News deserving more. They put on a solid match although they were lumbered with a poor finish. Ambrose was disqualified as he  stomped Barrett in the corner. Then he gave him Dirty Deeds and left with the title belt. It was saddening that this was put out on pay-per-view. It was a TV ending, and a shoddy one at that.

The number of glances at the WrestleMania sign on this show was ridiculous.
The audience did show interest when a flock of druids walked out, accompanied by some blue lighting, a gong, and The Undertaker's music. When a casket was wheeled down to the ring it was obvious we were supposed to believe 'Taker would be inside. He was not. It was Bray Wyatt. He told us he'd once feared Undertaker but that he doesn't anymore because 'The Dead Man' has become mortal. Then he challenged him to a match at WrestleMania. It was an effective use of Wyatt and a nice bit of variety for the show. Seeing Wyatt steal more Undertaker tropes in the build towards WrestleMania would be great. It would be something different and allow WWE to make use of the character's twenty-five year history.

Rusev v Cena took the semi-main event spot. Rusev's entrance got a fair bit of heat. Cena brought the crowd to their feet with his, and even though he would be facing one of the most heelish characters in WWE (for daring to be from somewhere that isn't America) there were still audible cries of "John Cena sucks!" during his sprint to the ring and the usual duelling chants at the beginning of the match. From this point on the audience would be noticeably louder.

Cena smacked Rusev with a right hand seconds into the match and slapped on a headlock. 'The Bulgarian Brute' fought out of that quickly and controlled the pace for the next several minutes. Cena tried fighting back multiple times but was continually shut down. Eventually he managed to give Rusev a suplex and a clothesline. Rusev kicked out on two, slipped out of an AA attempt and DDTed Cena. Then he went back to wearing his foe down.

Cena fired up again a minute or two later, cracking off some shoulder tackles and the Five Knuckle Shuffle. He tried the AAagain. Rusev escaped again. Seconds later he would escape the STF, only to be floored with a fallaway slam. Rusev attempted a standing sidewalk slam only to find it countered into a crossface (which Cole referred to as an STF). Rusev sold for a few moments before breaking the hold, leaping to his feet, and hitting Cena with an Alabama slam. If he could hit the move that well consistently it should become a regular part of his repertoire.

Cena would kick out but he was too worn down to return to his feet. 'The Super Athlete' dropped some elbows on Cena's back before going for the Accolade. Cena grabbed Rusev's foot and pulled him down to the mat and into the STF. Rusev would escape the hold, this time by grabbing the ropes as opposed to his Russian Power.

The rematch will be for Rusev's gold star.
Back on their feet Rusev escaped the AA for a third time and gave Cena a couple of kicks. Cena would finally grab him and connect with the AA seconds later, Rusev kicking out just after the two count. Cena decided his best course of action was to jump off the top rope. That was a mistake (obviously). Rusev caught him in a power bomb and trapped him in the Accolade. After two failed attempts at breaking the hold Cena muscled his way to his feet with Rusev on his back. Lana distracted the referee as Rusev gave Cena a low blow. Cena was kicked in the face and put in the Accolade as Lana left the ring. The match would be ruled in Rusev's favour due to Cena being unconscious. It was announced as a submission win for some reason.

It was a better match than I'd expected. It had a better ending too. Rusev's win could have been far more tainted. Most important was the result. Cena lost just as he needed to. He may win a rematch, but it will be easier to stomach with Rusev having gained the first victory.

That left only the number one contender match between Daniel Bryan and Royal Rumble winner Roman Reigns. The first half of the match was dedicated to the story of Reigns' strength against Bryan's speed, experience and strikes. There were several moments designed to make it clear that Reigns was keeping up with his more experienced foe though, most of them seeing him escape from submission holds and cutting off signature moves. They traded the advantage back and forth throughout the match, keeping viewers guessing as to the result by not having one man gain a clear advantage. It was a good call, and it ensured neither man looked weak too.

The final five minutes were where the bout really came together. Bryan turned a Reigns spear into small package. Reigns kicked out and got hit with Bryan's running knee, which he kicked out of. Michael Cole was incredibly quick to point out that Reigns was the first wrestler to ever kick out of that move.

Reigns is big on "shocked eyes" selling.
D-Bry leathered Reigns with kicks. Reigns grabbed hold of his leg and got to his feet. Bryan slapped him and then pulled him down to the mat in the Yes Lock. Reigns broke out of the hold and pummelled Bryan with big fists to the sound of boos. When he made the mistake of pausing Bryan slapped on the Gogoplata. Reigns broke that by lifting him up and power bombing him.

After a quick breather they both sat up and exchanged strikes on as they lay on the mat, Bryan kicking and Reigns punching. 'The People's Elixir' would get the better of that and smash a dazed Reigns with a roundhouse kick. He went for the running knee again but Reigns surprised him with a spear as he charged in. That proved to be enough to put D-Bry down for three. A Superman punch would have looked far more impressive but WWE seem intent on having the pear be Reigns' thing.

After the match Bryan told Reigns he'd better kick Lesnar's ass before offering a handshake. Reigns nodded and accepted the shake. The show went off the air with the commentary team talking up the confirmed WrestleMania main event of Roman Reigns versus Brock Lesnar, the Sting v Triple H match, and Bray Wyatt's challenge to The Undertaker.

While Fast Lane accomplished everything it set out to with its top two matches and the Sting-Trips segment it failed too often elsewhere. All the matches had stories going into them and reasons for happening but the only one that didn't feel rushed was the one for the tag title match. The Rhodes brothers had only separated six days before the show. The stories for the Divas and IC matches were both basic. For a show to be worthwhile it not only need to make its main attractions worthwhile, it needs to have a solid undercard that plays out logically and has a reason to exist. Fast Lane had the reason but it was missing the logic. Let's hope this happened because WWE were fixated on their bigger, more important annual show next month, and not because the writing has dipped even further in quality.

***

Results summary:
Seth Rollins, Big Show and Kane defeated Dolph Ziggler, Erick Rowan and Ryback
Goldust defeated Stardust
The Brass Ring Club defeated the Usos to win the tag team championship
Nikki Bella defeated Paige to retain the Divas championship
Bad News Barrett defeated Dean Ambrose via disqualification to retain the Intercontinental championship
Rusev defeated John Cena to retain the United States championship
Roman Reigns defeated Daniel Bryan to retain his WrestleMania title shot

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Samoa Joe's Career Crossroads

Last week Samoa Joe announced that, after nine and a half years, he'd left TNA. He experienced both good and bad there. The good: the greatest match in company, a year and a half winning streak, and a significant amount of time spent as the company's hottest prospect. The bad: a lacklustre TNA world title reign, years of meaningless mid-card action, and stupid gimmick changes (like the time he became the Green Hornet or the time he painted his face and threatened people with a knife). He's leaving it all behind to work elsewhere. Considering most of the bad points have come after the good points, and that his relevance has been low for years, it's an understandable decision.

We're almost spoilt for choice when thinking about where Joe may go next. He could fashion himself a busy worldwide schedule cruising the variety of prominent indies that exist. He may have spoken to a Japanese promotion while negotiating with TNA. New Japan would be the most likely but NOAH and All Japan are just about plausible too. He could return to his old stomping ground of Ring of Honor. Or, of course, he could sign with WWE.

Seeing Joe in WWE has always seemed unlikely to me. He doesn't have than athletic body type and he's got a shining reputation outside of the company. These are things that have historically counted against prospective WWE signings. But the last few years have proven that's not necessarily the case anymore. Both CM Punk and Daniel Bryan were given multiple WWE championship reigns and joined the elite main event club. Perhaps even more noteworthy is that the men's division in NXT currently revolves around guys who joined WWE after being very successful elsewhere.  This includes Kevin Owens, another man who doesn't have the usual WWE look.

Something else in Joe's favour is that Mick Foley and Steve Austin have spoken up in favour of hiring him. Those are some significant endorsements. If we're to believe a story Foley relayed on his blog last week then Triple H is a fan of 'The Samoan Submission Machine' too. As the man in charge of hiring and firing he's the right name to impress. So, in short, I don't think Joe moving to WWE is that unlikely.

Although it would be more accurate to say I could see Joe in NXT. Vince McMahon remains in charge of WWE proper and Joe does not seem the sort of guy who'd impress him. But with Triple H having stated he wants to make NXT its own brand, even going so far as to say they'll be close to that vision come the end of the year, we could see him sign Joe without having any intention of ever seeing him progress to the main roster.

This would be beneficial to both parties. Joe would get to be one of the star attractions of NXT and have a long-term goal of proving his detractors wrong by earning a promotion to the main roster. WWE would have a guy who can draw fans on the scale NXT currently operates on (and will likely continue to operate on even if expansion occurs) and who can help less experienced performers learn. Viewers would benefit from seeing a bunch of fresh matches featuring everyone from Adrian Neville to Tyler Breeze. Joe would be a big deal for the NXT roster.

Future NXT champion?
For this to happen WWE would have to offer Joe enough cash to match what he could make travelling the world as a true independent contractor. Obviously they could afford to do this, but would they want to? As a highly regarded name Joe can demand and receive a fair chunk of change per appearance. By working for WWN, PWG, ROH, and various British and North American promotions Joe could easily bring in more than he was getting in TNA (which is likely why he left). It's tough to imagine WWE would be willing to pay a six figure sum to someone unlikely to progress beyond what is still technically their developmental division.

Personally I'll be happy watching Joe anywhere that's not TNA. He'd been stagnating there for years. He'd won everything and wrestled everyone. He was going nowhere as one of MVP's many lackeys. Wherever he ends up will be fresh surroundings with fresh challenges and fresh opponents. He could help ROH to solidify their grasp on the number two spot. He could become the latest guy to join up with WWN, adding to their momentum. Or he could go to WWE for a guaranteed top spot on NXT and the glimmer of a hint of a hope of a chance that one day, if Vince McMahon feels like it (or steps down as the man at the helm), he'll get promoted.