April is in the books. May is here. How are things looking with WrestleMania firmly in the rear-view mirror and SummerSlam still months away?
STATE OF THE CHAMPIONS
WWE WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION: SETH ROLLINS
Seth’s first full month as champion could not have gone any better. He was never going to be presented as a strong dominant heel champion, but that’s fine. Brock Lesnar played that role in the back half of 2014, and even though it’s a decade later, Triple H really ran that concept into the ground during his Evolution days. But thankfully, Rollins isn’t playing the typical “heel champion is a chump who sucks at everything” role either. They’ve found a nice middle ground in presenting Rollins as a champion that cheats to win but still projects a credibility to himself that you believe he could win on his own if necessary.
I could have done without the Kane interference at Extreme Rules; that kind of neutered him a bit too much, but week-to-week he’s one of the highlights of Raw, and his smarmy laugh and smug grin continue to make him so hateable. There’s no reason to take the title off of him anytime soon. He has more business with Orton and Reigns. And now Dean Ambrose, who is one committed push away from again being the mega star he was in mid-2014, is in the title picture too. There’s plenty to keep Rollins occupied as champ, not to mention Lesnar looming on the August horizon.
WWE UNITED STATES CHAMPION: JOHN CENA
Last month I stated my concern that Cena’s title win would not change the fact that he’s the biggest full-time star in the company. Even with a great month of title defenses, that concern is still there. He took on Ambrose on the night-after WrestleMania, and then spent April fighting Stardust, Kane and Wade Barrett. Up until the last Monday of April, he had wrestled with his title on the line in the middle of each Raw episode (the final week saw Heath Slater answer the challenge, only to be taken out pre-match by Rusev). He had a subpar chain match with Rusev on the Extreme Rules PPV; a contest that was hindered more due to the PG environment than the effort of the performers. Just in terms of title defenses and putting on good matches, Cena’s April with the US title was very good. But the issue still lingers: Was Dean Ambrose elevated as a result of his Cena loss last month? Has Stardust found a direction for his character? Wade Barrett won King of the Ring, but there was no through-line between his strong showing in Europe and his KOTR sweep.
The US title matches are largely inconsequential, mostly because fans are sure of the outcome. He’s got a re-re-rematch with Rusev scheduled for Payback later this month; why would anyone think he would lose the title in the meantime? So while the open challenge is good, it needs an endgame: Someone has to beat Cena for the title on Raw. And creative needs a plan for that someone, because when it finally happens they will get the biggest rub any US title winner has ever seen in WWE history. The concern I have is still there (losing to Cena means there’s nowhere to go on the card but down), but at least we’re getting some good matches out of it.
WWE INTERCONTINENTAL CHAMPION: DANIEL BRYAN
Bryan won the title at WrestleMania, competed on the Raw-after show in a thrilling match with Dolph Ziggler, got his head busted open on Smackdown by Sheamus and after that was reduced to tag matches where he barely competed and backstage segments where he barely interacted with anyone. I’m not saying it’s all Sheamus’ fault or anything, but it’s totally Sheamus’ fault. He hasn’t been on TV in a few weeks, missed the Extreme Rules PPV and other than one brief (and of course, awkward) interview with Brie, has not even been mentioned on TV.
As of the first Raw of May there is still no indication of what the plans are for Daniel Bryan and the IC title. One would think that he would be vacate the belt and allow for others to compete for it. If he heals, he would have a ready-made feud upon his return. There’s certainly enough talent to carry the division for the foreseeable future: Sheamus, Barrett, Neville, Ziggler, Harper, Stardust. Right now everything is in limbo, likely because Creative is unsure of Bryan’s status. Hopefully something will be announced soon, and for Bryan’s sake I hope he makes a recovery. Whether or not he ever recovers enough to wrestle full-time again is another story. It’s pure selfishness on my part that hopes he does. So I’ll just leave my thoughts as “get well soon.”
WWE TAG TEAM CHAMPIONS: NEW DAY
As much as I loved the team of Cesaro and Tyson Kidd, there was really little they were being allowed to do with the tag titles. On NXT Tyson Kidd really developed his personality, but on Raw it’s never explored. We learn who he is through pantomime. He cuts no promos, the commentators give us no insight. He’s just there. Cesaro is far too talented to be losing nothing-matches to Randy Orton (as he did a few weeks ago), especially since he pinned then-champion Randy Orton clean in February of last year in a great non-title match on Smackdown. His career looked set to take off but instead has stalled. I had hoped that this tag run with Kidd would be a star-making vehicle for him the way Team Hell No had been for Daniel Bryan. Instead it looked more like a “give him something to do” vehicle. Now he and Kidd have lost the titles; how much longer will they continue to team up?
New Day, on the other hand, was a Vince McMahon project. Though it started out terribly offensive, the layers have been peeled and a great heel team has emerged. Giving them the titles makes sense in a “strike while the iron is hot” sort of way, and there are more than enough teams to keep them occupied over the next couple months, while they work on expanding their characters. There’s no question that the trio became infinitely more compelling the moment they embraced the hate, but there’s still a small roster of teams to feud against that have any real legitimacy to them. Presumably there’s Cesaro and Kidd, but again, who knows how long that will last. The Usos should be back from injury hiatus soon. In the meantime the Lucha Dragons are suddenly the top babyface team on the roster, but they can’t feud with New Day for three months in a row can they? How silly of me, of course they can. Things aren’t as bleak for the tag division as they were in the late-2000’s, but we’re still a long ways away from when the division was last must-see (late 90’s-early 00’s).
WWE DIVAS CHAMPION: NIKKI BELLA
Second of all, good for Naomi to finally have a character and a purpose beyond “ex-funkadactyl.” Her turn may have been necessary, due to AJ’s sudden retirement and Paige’s need to take a few weeks off to film a movie, but wrestling history is filled with sudden opportunities. She’s certainly good enough in the ring to deserve one. At Extreme Rules she had a pedestrian match with Nikki Bella, made worse by Brie Bella’s incessant “c’mon Nikki!” cheer (which has to go down as the most annoying sound since that one scene in Dumb and Dumber) and the fact that Nikki suddenly began working as a babyface without any turn or motivation for a change in character. In fact, there really hasn’t been any change in character, other than the assumption that we are supposed to cheer her now that she is feuding with a “heel.”
WWE Creative cares so little for their Divas division that they will take the most hated Diva on the roster and suddenly start treating her like a babyface for no reason other than logistics. It’s embarrassing. What’s sad is that Nikki is actually the better Bella in the ring, so her holding the title is good because it has kept Brie mostly out of action and allowed her to show how improved she has gotten over the past year. But she’s getting zero help from the bookers. As always, the division needs a complete overhaul, with a new approach to how it is booked, and mostly new stars to carry it. It needs a makeover akin to WWF’s change from the New Generation days to the Attitude Era. It won’t get one anytime soon, though, if only because of severe apathy by the people in charge.
NXT CHAMPION: KEVIN OWENS
Bless this man. He not only pulled Alex Riley out of the commentary chair, he brought him into the ring, squashed him like a bug and then did it again just for kicks! The unlikeable loser, Riley, who at times has been racist and sexist on commentary and a buffoon on twitter could not have been handled better by the nonchalant monster Owens. I suppose we were supposed to sympathize with Riley, as he was being “bullied” by the NXT Champion, but A-Ry the “Rage” man made it next to impossible. Owens is just too charismatic and real (even as a heel) and Riley too fake. When faced with a true babyface challenger, such as Finn Balor, Owens has been able to play the bad guy to perfection.
Owens hasn’t worked a lot of matches, but he’s got such a huge presence about him, that any time he’s not on an NXT episode, the show feels hollow. His feud with Sami Zayn has finally reignited and fans have already seen the magical chemistry they have with each other. There is an announced triple threat between the rest of the “NXT Five” (the core wrestlers who carry the show: Tyler Breeze, Hideo Itami, Finn Balor, Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens) to determine the next NXT Championship challenger, and any of the winners are more than ready to have a big multi-month title feud. No matter how the next month shakes out, the NXT Championship looks to be in good shape for the foreseeable future.
NXT WOMEN’S CHAMPION: SASHA BANKS
Still awesome: Sasha Banks. She’s just a great as she was last month. Killer look, great character, better in the ring every time she performs. The trouble with NXT, when looking at the product on a month-to-month basis, is things move a little more slowly. On WWE programming, things revolve around a monthly-PPV schedule, so there’s a pretty well established format they follow. The night after a PPV sets up the next PPV. The next two shows allow the hero and villain to trade the upper hand, and the final show gives us a big tease to entice your PPV viewership. NXT doesn’t follow that format; challengers come and go a little more fluidly. It looked to me, coming out of WrestleMania week, that Bayley was going to be the next challenger to the Women’s title. Instead Becky Lynch gets the gig.
A few months ago I would have been disappointed to see Becky Lynch challenging for the title. But, much like women do in NXT, she has continued to improve in the ring and on the mic, and has tweaked her character from “cartoony dancing Irish lady” to “Becky Lynch: Devil horns and street fighting.” Ultimately the journey of Sasha Banks’ title run will end with Bayley standing tall, the way 2014’s NXT Championship story ended with Sami Zayn finally capturing the gold. In the meantime, NXT has a deep, deep roster of women who are more than capable of delaying that inevitable moment of satisfaction.
NXT TAG TEAM CHAMPIONS: BLAKE & MURPHY
Conventional wisdom says that Carmella will turn on Enzo and Cass at this month’s Takeover show, side with Blake and Murphy and help them retain the tag titles. That will escalate the feud in a very natural way, setting up the rematch and eventual title win for the hottest act in NXT (and pound-for-pound the most popular “act” in all of WWE). There are so many signs pointing to a Carmella turn that the feud might as well be happening in downtown Las Vegas. Does that mean we should expect a swerve? Not necessarily. It might be predictable, but it’s also good storytelling. NXT isn’t about doing the unpredictable for the sake of it; there’s enough of that on the other shows. There very well might be a Carmella turn, or it may not happen at all and the whole thing could have been a head fake.
The big difference between NXT and WWE is that the latter is a live show and tends to change direction at the drop of a hat, in order to keep up with the seemingly ever-changing tastes of viewers. NXT is a taped show, with three or four episodes in the can before one of them airs on Wednesday nights. It’s impossible to make a sudden change in direction, so the writers are forced to think ahead and plan their stories out. They’re not going to swerve for the sake of it, or rewrite the story at the 11th hour, the way WWE operates. Instead they will tell the story they want to tell, and then asses how the audience reacted to it after it was written. That means they may go with a clean finish at Takeover or they may not; it’s entirely up to them. As a fan, that excites me because the NXT track-record is so strong I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Having said that, eventually we’re going to get that Enzo & Cass title win. What happens after that? I wrote the same thing last month:
…the division is still very weak. With the Lucha Dragons getting called up, and with Tye Dillinger and Jason Jordon split and feuding, there are really only three name-brand teams left: The champs, the challengers, and the Vaudvillians. What happens when Enzo and Cass win the titles and finish their feud with Wesley and Blake? They will feud with the Vaudvillains. Then what? There’s no one left. With a roster as small as NXT’s, the tag division will always be short-changed.
Nothing has changed since last month. There’s a lot of excitement in the division right now because of the popularity of the challengers, but the future is uncertain. Thankfully, the slow-pace of NXT storylines means we can have Enzo and Cass either chasing or defending the titles for the next 6-8 months before things even start to get stale.
THREE YAYS FROM APRIL
1. JOHN CENA’S US OPEN
I may worry about the endgame, but in the meantime, the open challenge has been a real treat. There are lots of potentially great matches to be had, and already Cena has carved out a segment of the show that is one of the highlights every week. That hasn’t been the case in a long, long time. Sami Zayn blew the roof off in Montreal. Heath Slater still needs that match. Cesaro and he have great chemistry. A surprise return from someone like Vader doing a one-off would be a real treat. There’s lots more to be done with this and that’s why I hope Cena remains champ for several more months (that hasn’t been the case in a long time either).
2. KING OF THE RING!
It could have been better (see below), but it was a very pleasant surprise to have King of the Ring return. Here’s hoping Wade Barrett can stay injury free and actually be given the chance to live up to his great potential. The KOTR winner has always been better suited to a heel so my hopes are high that Barrett is given mic time and a meaningful feud to last him for the next few months. King of the Ring on the WWE Network needs to become an annual tradition.
3. BLAKE AND MURPHY MAKING BOWL AFTER BOWL OF CHICKEN SALAD
I’ve mentioned many times how much I adore the team of Enzo and Cass, but credit needs to be given to the guys carrying the belts. These two, just a few months ago, were nobody jobbers. It’s almost as if NXT’s braintrust dared themselves, in the era of the former Kevin Steen, El Generico and potentially Samoa Joe, to take nobodies and make them somebodies. That used to be what NXT was about, before it was infused with a wonderful dose of Ring of Honor. Blake and Murphy have excelled as the creepy bromantic couple, desperate to win the affections of Carmella and, in a recent development, Alexa Bliss. They are cocky, obnoxious, and Enzo can never remember Wesley Blake’s name. They’re not setting the world on fire in the ring, but they are competent, coordinated and improve every time they are shown. Good for them.
THREE NAYS FROM APRIL
1. DANIEL BRYAN’S NECK IS IN DESPERATE NEED OF SOME VIBRANIUM.
Remember when Lisa the vegetarian hijacked Homer’s whole hog, sending it rolling down Springfield? Bryan’s the pig and we are all Homer.
2. KING OF THE RING…FOR BASICALLY ONE NIGHT ONLY.
Baby steps, I know, but could it have killed them to stretch the tournament out over at least a couple weeks? It could have easily been a slow build to Payback, with two or three matches a week on Tuesdays. I’ll never understand why WWE fails to understand the power they have to make anything be a big deal. They control the message. They could make King of the Ring a huge event if they wanted, and in turn could have only helped the WWE Network. Instead they settled for the short term gain so they wouldn’t have to worry about a long term plan. It was a one shot deal that crowned Barrett the king of a tournament with a fraction of the importance it should have had.
3. BRAY WYATT SPENDS A MONTH CONVINCING US HE’S GOING TO FEUD WITH SOMEONE IMPORTANT, FEUDS WITH RYBACK INSTEAD.
Remember what I said about feuding with Cena? There’s nowhere to go but down. Either you win the feud and move into the WWE Title picture, or–since nobody ever wins a feud with John Cena–you lose the feud and get knocked down a peg on the card. The best you can hope for is to get knocked down, regroup, feud with everyone else and win those matches, and hope enough time passes that people see you as a threat again. What you don’t want is to lose a feud to Cena, spend the rest of the year marginalized, and then come roaring back for a second chance at a big money feud…and then lose that one too. If that happens, all that’s left is a feud with Ryback. The optimist in me says this is a chance for Wyatt to start a more permanent rebuilding. The cynic in me says this is Ryback’s big chance #3263827 to live up to the promotion WWE puts behind him.
GOLDEN HOGAN OF THE MONTH: THE BEST SEGMENT/MATCH OF APRIL
ROMAN REIGNS vs BIG SHOW (LAST MAN STANDING)
Incredibly, the once-reviled Roman Reigns has managed to put on the best match of the night on three consecutive Pay-Per-Views. Sure he had Bryan and Lesnar helping with the first two, but for round three there was only Big Show. Their match was big and thrilling, with memorable spots, a crowd-pleasing finish and even though it wasn’t the total squash that I wanted, Roman still came out looking very good. The crowd wasn’t going bananas for him, but the reaction from Chicago’s finest was much more supportive than what he received during WrestleMania week. He’s slowly turning the corner; now it’s up to WWE not to rush things with him again.
GOBBELDY GOOKER OF THE MONTH: THE WORST SEGMENT/MATCH OF APRIL
MONDAY NIGHT KANE.
There’s not one segment in particular I’m thinking of, but a whole host of them, any one of which qualifies. Since WrestleMania, Raw has featured less and less of Steph and Triple H, and while that’s good (a lot of fans have been hoping for a reduced presence from them, to make their appearances more special), they’ve had their screen time essentially replaced with more and more focus on Kane. The champ, Seth Rollins, has been in a bit of a cold war with Korporate Kane, and that has led to the former-monster to be the focus of key segments, matches and angles on Raw, every week. There was one Raw a few weeks ago where Kane was seemingly in half of the segments. If there has to be an authority figure, one segment per week is more than enough. Too much Kane is too much.
Looking ahead to May, the company has a PPV three weeks removed from the previous show, and many the pieces for it have already been put in place. For the most part, it looks to be loaded with rematches, though Ambrose’s inclusion in the title match might, maybe, hopefully, be a tease for a stronger push. There’s still a very big hole on the show with Lesnar gone and now Bryan out with injury. Neither Finn Balor nor Charlotte seem to be getting a call up anytime soon, so what we have will have to do. There’s a lot of uncertainty with the IC title, an unnecessary repeat in the upcoming US title match, too much Kane in the main event scene, and the Divas division is a mess. WWE gave us a strong Raw to open the month of May, and hopefully they can continue it, but this is springtime, and things usually slump a bit until the run up to SummerSlam.
Prognosis for WWE in May: Good.
NXT on the other hand seems ready to have a very memorable month of May. The next Takeover will be later this month, with the much-anticipated Zayn vs Owens rematch set to headline the event. Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks look set to continue the dominance of the women’s division and the tag title match is sure to have a surprising outcome, one way or another. All of that, plus what promises to be an epic #1 Contenders match ensures May will be a must-see month for the yellow brand.
Prognosis for NXT in May: Great.
I hope you’re watching in May. This is usually the month when fans burn out from the WrestleMania season and usually don’t check back in until August. Stick around: Things may get interesting.
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