May is in the books. June is here. How are things looking as we entrench ourselves firmly in the late-spring lull?
STATE OF THE CHAMPIONS:
WWE WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION: SETH ROLLINS
Seth Rollins’ reign continues, though things may change before this month is out. Money in the Bank is right around the corner, which means Vince will have an ace in the hole just in case. Having said that, there’s only one contract and if it was to be cashed in so soon, we’d have a long time to go before we saw another “briefcase holder.” I have a hunch we won’t see a cash-in until the new year, possibly in the window between the Royal Rumble and WrestleMania; we’ll see. As it is, Seth has made the best of what he’s been given. His smarmy jerk character is still great and is played to perfection by Rollins, but the surrounding cast is dragging things down. Kane is way too involved in the story, his challengers have been lacking (either being paper tigers like Orton, or potentially strong opponents with neutered characters, like Ambrose).
The biggest problem is that the champ is booked like a chump. Now, it is common for heel WWE Champions to cheat and connive and bend the circumstances to their favor in order to win, but typically they reach the point where they have to go alone, and they prove themselves, even just once. Rollins has been bailed out time and time again, and on the rare occasion when he’s all alone, he usually loses. That’s fine to an extent, but at some point he needs to remind people why he’s dangerous. Triple H in 1999-2000 certainly relied on outside help to win, but when left alone he proved he could go alone. That’s the missing component Rollins needs. Last month I said the outlook for the title was great, but after another month of seeing Rollins look less and less threatening, I’m ready to either see a title change or an overhaul of the way he’s presented as champion. I still believe in him and his reign, but not in WWE’s ability to successfully book it.
WWE UNITED STATES CHAMPION: JOHN CENA
Mercifully, the Rusev feud is over and Cena has moved on. Like manna from Heaven, Vince has given us Kevin Owens. And even more, Kevin is 1-0 over the US Champ. I remind myself that Rusev was, at one point, 1-0 over Cena as well. And I’m fine with Cena winning the whole feud, whenever it officially ends, but I don’t want it to come by way of overkill. Cena lost to Rusev in February, continuing the Bulgarian brute’s undefeated streak. Since then he’s gone 0-3 on PPV and looks entirely “stoppable” (nevermind the injury). I don’t think that’s going to happen to Kevin Owens, but with Cena you never know. There is such an insecurity about the way he is booked. I suppose that’s because he’s the top face of the post-Attitude Era, and everyone recognizes that he’s simply not on the level of Austin or Rock. I guess everyone is careful to book him extra strong to make up for it. That’s an idiotic mindset if true, because it only creates more problems than it solves, but here we are.
For what it’s worth, Cena’s US Title run has been the best he’s been used in ages, and this feud with Owens is great in part because it’s not the main event feud. It’s something to look forward to on the other tops of the hour. That was the point behind giving he and Bryan the mid-card belts at WrestleMania. The fullness of the plan got derailed thanks to Bryan’s injury, but it’s still nice to know that two of the three Raw hours have storyline happenings revolving around titles. It’s telling that Cena’s upcoming rematch with Owens is, once again, non-title, but right now it’s okay because he’s still elevating what used to be a dud belt into something very valuable indeed. As long as Cena is around the title, the title will be fine. I still worry about the “Cena feud effect” (the double whammy of losing to Cena with nowhere to go but down after that), but right now things look even better than a month ago, largely because of the excitement of his current feud.
WWE INTERCONTINENTAL CHAMPION: RYBACK
May was not a kind month to the Intercontinental Championship. It’s title holder stopped defending it because of an injury, vacated it, and effectively retired until further notice. Then the belt was contested over in an elimination chamber match that was so full of botches, missed spots and general confusion, that the whole thing ended with Ryback as champ!
wait…Oh the Ryback part was supposed to happen? Holy crap.
June is not going to be a good month for the Intercontinental Championship. And it looks like Ryback’s first feud will be against Big Show. Let me restate that in a different way: Ryback’s first feud will not be against the aimless and wasted Bray Wyatt, who was last seen beating Ryback on PPV, despite having a built in story and the fact that such a title feud would help both men. Nope. Big Show. Last month, with Bryan’s injury still clouding everything, I said the outlook was uncertain. Now things are very certain.
PROGNOSIS: Big Show.
WWE TAG TEAM CHAMPIONS: NEW DAY
The champs continue to improve, both in their connection to the crowds and in their backstage segments. I don’t know why, but the sight of them drinking milk from champagne glasses is just hilarious to me. The entire tag division is doing well, although the booking has been a little spastic. The big elimination chamber match that ended May showcased six teams in the chamber for the first time ever, and even though the match wasn’t quite up to snuff, it showed off the depth of the division. It’s been a long time since “depth” and “tag division” have been used together without “lolwhat” being used as a modifier. Notable by their absence from the chamber match was Harper and Rowen, who would have added a lot more to the affair than the Matadores, but you have to figure the Matadores were only there so that El Torito could be showcased. It’s too bad Harper and Rowen don’t have an associate character that is basically a one-note joke.
New Day has done such a good job getting over and staying over, and there seems to be a lot more water in that well; there’s no reason to take the titles off them anytime soon. Prime Time Players look like the next challengers, but they don’t have the depth or uniqueness of New Day. Lucha Dragons are probably next up to bat, and they might be the babyfaces to win the belts, but even then New Day should stay around the top of the division. That’s a few months away, however. In the meantime the titles and the division as a whole look very fine indeed. Last month I said things look good, and despite the loss of Tyson Kidd (and therefore, the loss of the Kidd/Cesaro team), things still look good. Better booking is needed though, for the teams that are not in the title chase.
WWE DIVAS CHAMPION: NIKKI BELLA
So last month I said this:
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.
Well good news, she’s a heel again! Did you miss it? How did it happen, you ask? I’ll tell you: Nikki cut a prematch promo as a babyface then turned heel in her match by switching out with her “twin” to retain her title against Paige. Makes perfect sense.
Oh and speaking of Paige: She returned from filming “Santos L. Halper: The Movie” to resume her place as the girl who screams a lot and takes off her jacket aggressively. Poor Paige is doing great work as the MVP of the women’s division. Nikki’s doing good too, but her “good” is entirely based on comparing her to who is usually wrestling on Raw. Paige carried the triple threat match at Elimination Chamber, calling spot after spot, and took some nasty stiff-looking shots for her trouble. She needs better talent around her, but the only way that’s happening is if a few NXT ladies get called up. And I’m willing to pay an additional $9.99 a month if it will keep that from happening. Last month the outlook was bad, based on the lack of talent, direction and care put into the division. What’s changed?
NXT CHAMPION: KEVIN OWENS
I want to try and limit these comments to the actual NXT Championship and the work Kevin Owens is doing with it. I don’t want to write 3,000 words about the importance of Owens beating Cena. Clean. On PPV. In an “important” match (judging by the hype and the promo work leading up to it). Do you, dear reader, know how many clean losses Cena has on PPV since becoming THE guy? He lost clean to Triple H in 2008, but Triple H was a babyface. He lost to the Rock in 2012, but Rock was a babyface. He lost to Daniel Bryan, but Daniel Bryan was a babyface. He lost to Brock Lesnar.
There it is. The only heel to cleanly and decisively beat John Cena on PPV is Brock Lesnar…and now, Kevin Owens. And that does wonders, not only for Kevin Owens, but also the NXT title, the NXT brand, and the NXT home: WWE Network. Owens has been positioned as the number 2 heel in the company, the top non-Authority villain on the show, and the most legit threat in the ring other than the part-time Brock Lesnar. He’s a made man (provided Cena doesn’t come back and win three in a row on him).
On NXT, he continues to dominate. His feud with Sami Zayn was essentially ended thanks to Zayn’s injury and multi-month-long hiatus. Their match at Takeover:Unstoppable was brilliant and much more enjoyable than the one-sided beatdown at Takeover:Rival (and that was the plan all along, I understand). He moves on to a feud with Finn Balor, whom he has already beaten but not as The Demon. The match will be held on July 4th from Tokyo.
Words can’t fully express how great the outlook of the NXT title is. There will not be a better time for Balor to win the title than in Japan. I think the plan was for Hideo to win the #1 contendership and lose to Owens in Japan, but then two things happened: Owens got called up earlier than planned (and that was due to Zayn’s injury apparently) and Hideo got hurt, giving Balor the #1 spot.
Now, it makes even more sense for Balor to win because Owens is working the full WWE main show schedule, and it would be too much of a logistical nightmare to coordinate his weekly Raw/SD appearances around working the taped NXT schedule. He could make the shows, but the storylines would be too hard to synch up with Raw. July 4th might be Owen’s NXT swan song, barring a final appearance at the July 9th taping at Full Sail. Finn Balor winning in Japan is more than perfect. The Japanese crowd might actually make some noise for that one. After that he has plenty of competition to keep him busy, and until I learn otherwise I am totally convinced Balor jumped Itami and when Hideo comes back he’ll come back to feud with a heel-turned Balor for the title.
So yeah. Things are looking good for the NXT Championship.
And I didn’t even mention Samoa Joe.
NXT WOMENS 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 got 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.”
At Takeover:Unstoppable they went one-on-one and stole the show, the brand, and the whole company. There was passion, drama, excitement, heartbreak and triumph. Banks the heel won in a heelish way without resorting to cheap tricks. She didn’t bump the ref and blindside her opponent. She didn’t pull the tights or hold the ropes. She faced an opponent known for her armbar finisher and made her strategy to attack her arm. The contest became a chess match and didn’t let up until Bank found an opening and slapped on her finisher, finishing Lynch off with the Banks Statement submission.
I was skeptical of Lynch holding her own. I was skeptical of Banks working with what I thought would be an opponent the crowd wouldn’t buy in to. I was skeptical that this one-on-one women’s match would not be strong enough to continue the hotstreak the ladies had been on. All my worries were dashed. How silly of me to doubt NXT. I won’t again until they prove me wrong. Lynch in particular was a great revelation. She came out of the match looking better than she did going in, even though she lost (take notes WWE), and the crowd actually singing her theme song was a surreal and memorable moment. I could write another 3,000 words on why the NXT women’s division is the best thing in all of wrestling, but I’ll stop here and just state the obvious:
NXT TAG TEAM CHAMPIONS: BLAKE & MURPHY
So last month I said this:
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.
Well good news! Head fake! In fact it was Alexa Bliss that traded in her blue sparkles for red hot pants. Overnight her character improved 100%, Blake and Murphy continued their upward mobility as a team and NXT’s often overlooked division continues its very underrated title feud. Years from now we will look back on this feud the way we think of Rock vs Foley or Michaels vs Hart. Okay maybe not, but it’s great how contrasting the styles are: Enzo and Cass are loud and brash and cartoony and hilarious. Blake and Murphy are bland, awkward, normal and very “usual.” Adding Bliss gives them a little bit more of an edge, but it’s more that they are making her like them than the other way around. They’re the perfect foils for the most popular “act” in NXT. Shame on me for wanting to see Carmella turn just as she was starting to come around. I should have had more faith that NXT could turn that water into wine, and they did.
Meanwhile the Vaudvillains are hanging around, Jason Jordan is on a quest for a new tag partner, and there’s a whole new roster of NXT superstars ready to start work; presumably some of them will team up and give this thin division some depth. Until then, it has a depth problem that isn’t going away anytime soon. That alone knocks things down a notch, even though what we have is plenty entertaining.
THREE YAYS FROM MAY:
1. NXT IS UNSTOPPABLE
‘scuse me for being a fanboy, but I am an unabashed fanboy of NXT. More than anything I love that I love it. For too long I have hate-watched WWE. Most people have. That’s where the whole “WWE usually sucks, but when it’s great it’s AMAZING” meme came from. We have to tell ourselves “it will get good soon” over and over and over because we know it usually sucks and we need a reason to keep watching. We complain before the show about how we will complain during the show, and then we complain during the show about how much complaining we’re going to be doing after the show, then we complain after the show because of all the reason they gave us to complain.
NXT, for me, is what I want wrestling to be. It is smart where it should be smart, stupid when it should be stupid, exciting and thrilling and dramatic and passionate in just the right ways. And finally the Raw universe (the other 2 million people who don’t have the network) are getting a taste of it. First Sami Zayn answered John Cena’s challenge, then Kevin Owens laid the US Champ out. Then Kevin Owens–proud NXT champ–wrestled Cena in a title vs title match, and will do so again, this time on official PPV (giving a few dozen thousand more fans the chance to see it). Not only that but the brand keeps improving, the Takeover specials continue to blow away expectations, and the weekly Wednesday show is rarely a disappointment, and when it is, it’s only in comparison to other NXT shows. NXT had a great May, and I expect June to continue the trend.
2. IN SHOCKING MOVE, WWE DISCOVERS NETWORK CAN BE ADVERTISED BEYOND JUST TELLING PEOPLE THE PRICE.
Let’s all congratulate them for arriving at step TWO in marketing. Step one is telling people the price. This usually takes 10 seconds, not a year and a half. Step two is telling people what the product has to offer. May on the Network brought us King of the Ring to open the month and Elimination Chamber to close the month, and though there were problems with both, it was better than nothing. In between WWE successfully hyped the Takeover special, new shows and of course gave the month away (to new subscribers). Now it’s up to WWE to continue the momentum.
Next month they will have the 4th of July special, but as of right now that’s limited to showing the NXT Title match between Owens and Balor. It would do well for them to restructure the entire event to one that is more like the Elimination Chamber special; a real supercard that airs live on the network (even though it will be in the morning here in the US; it will be on demand instantly thereafter, so that really doesn’t matter). A show with Lesnar seems insane not to broadcast. Right now all June has to offer is Money in the Bank (and the month-opening Stone Cold Podcast), and even though that’s the biggest non-Big Three PPV in their arsenal, I would expect some other surprise to occur this month. Either way, the days of endless promos shilling “$9.99” seem to be behind us.
3. NEW DAY
Good for all three for taking an insulting and idiotic premise and managing to turn it into a successful gimmick. They are quirky and odd and over the top in all the right ways. The took a chant that should have killed them and turned it into a catchphrase. I don’t recall any “Die Rocky Die” shirts, so that’s one up on the Great One. Just a couple months ago I was hoping for a long reign for Kidd and Cesaro but New Day have totally won me over. Now I’m hoping for a long reign for them. Which means next month will have a “yay” devoted to the Prime Time Players. Hopefully when the team ultimately disbands, it will all have culminated in a long singles career for Big E, a rejuvenated singles career for Kofi Kingston, and…uh…employment for Xavier Woods.
THREE NAYS FROM MAY:
1. THE FURTHER IRRELEVANCE OF BRAY WYATT
Wanted: Relevancy for scary voodoo cult guy. Last seen over one year ago. If found please return to creepy Rotunda guy. The other creepy Rotunda guy.
Bray Wyatt really needs to form a tag team with King Barrett. He’s a guy with nothing to do who wins all his PPV matches. Barrett’s a guy with nothing to do who loses all his TV matches. Barrett is treated like a joke but keeps winning titles and crowns and such. Wyatt is treated like a joke but hasn’t sniffed a title since arriving in WWE. They need each other. Fuse them together and they could be a wrestler good enough to challenge for a mid-card title. Maybe even beat Ryba….wait..
2. KING OF THE WICKER PEOPLE
Speaking of Barrett. I will just repeat my summary of him: He’s the guy with the biggest discrepancy between title-holdings and actual win % in WWE history. He’s the jock who can’t get a girl. He’s the sports car that has no wheels. He’s probably the only guy who gets disappointed when he hears he’s in line to win something, a tournament, a title, control over his own stable. Whatever. If it’s something prestigious, WWE gives it to him and then gives him none of the accolades that come with them. They gave him a new gimmick a couple years ago, called Bad News Barrett, that got him insanely over, then they took away everything that made him delightful, piece by piece, in a systematic dismantling of a talent. It was the “unmaking” of Wade Barrett. After, mercifully, losing the cursed IC title at Mania, he went on a hot streak, winning matches left and right and ultimately securing the renewed King of the Ring mantle. Now look at him. He’s the Level-1 boss Roman Reigns fights at the beginning of Raw on his three-match quest to compete in Money in the Bank. All along the Commentators talk about his many accomplishments…while he lies on his back and eats another loss.
3. SO LONG DANIEL; GET WELL SOON
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GOLDEN HOGAN (best moment of the month)
Kevin Owens interrupts John Cena, talks trash to John Cena, cheap-shots John Cena, promises to beat John Cena in a PPV match, proceeds to beat John Cena in a PPV match. Results are pending but, after all of that, I may be carrying Kevin Owens’ baby. Nine months from now will be…oh gosh, it will be WrestleMania season. WHAT WILL HAPPEN!
Remember the “Wrestling usually sucks…” thing? Yeah this was one of those “…but when it’s good, it’s AMAZING!”
GOBBELDY GOOKER AWARD (worst moment of the month)
Paige calls Tamina a man.
If you didn’t see it, it was on Smackdown…which means you probably didn’t see it, did you? Newly returned Paige resumed her feud with Naomi (the storyline reason for her hiatus). While she was away Naomi teamed up with Tamina Snuka, pictured below
and…well, nothing really. They didn’t exactly wreak havoc on anyone. The title didn’t change hands. Really it was a whole lot of angry faces and sassy hands and that’s all. Anyway, Paige returned and commented that Tamina was wrestling in the wrong division.
Look I was a fan in the days of Rock berating Kevin Kelly and calling him a hermaphrodite, but those days are past. I don’t know who wrote the joke but it was beyond stupid. It made me not like Paige for a moment. I don’t ever want it to happen again.
Me not liking Paige I mean.
PROGNOSIS FOR WWE IN JUNE: GOOD
Money in the Bank is enough to keep this from slipping to the “okay” column. The build up to, and fall out from, that big event will easily carry the show into July. Raw is still an hour too long, the divas division is not even a joke anymore, it’s just sad, the champ has no stones and the man in charge is still the same out of touch geriatric that he was last month. It’s usually bad but when it’s not, it’s great. That balances out to a “good” rating.
PROGNOSIS FOR NXT IN JUNE: GREAT
Owens vs Balor becomes the feud of the month, while Owens splits his time dealing with John Cena. Not to mention Samoa Joe has a beef with the champ too. As does Sami Zayn and even Alex Riley. Basically everyone hates Kevin Owens and it’s the best thing ever. The other titles are holding strong with good storylines, the non-title stuff is keeping the show moving in between the important stuff. I can’t remember the last time I ended an NXT episode and thought “well that was no fun.” Until that changes, things will remain “great.”