If you’re looking for reasons why many fans are frustrated with the current product put forth by World Wrestling Entertainment, you need look no further than Sunday’s Money In the Bank to discover why. Put simply, just about any time the WWE steps out of sync with their normal routine, they quickly reverse and double down to continue their long-standing trend. While pro wrestling lends itself to spontaneity and changes of plan, there must be an overall logic behind what’s being done so that the fanbase buys into the story you’re selling. The goal doesn’t always have to be in sight, of course, but it has to be present. While injuries and other out-of-the-ring factors can through a wrench into the works, many of WWE’s struggles are of their own making. That they are stubbornly moving forward with these decisions while competition steadily increases is a misfire, in my view.
Nowhere is this more blatantly obvious than in the handling of their own champion, Seth Rollins. Choosing Rollins to represent The Authority was a bold move when it happened many moons ago, and it was punctuated brilliantly by having him turn on his two very popular counterparts, Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns. This provided instant nuclear heat both as a result of breaking up the stellar trio that had dominated WWE’s ranks up to that point, and served notice that the company was going to let some different folks get the catbird seats for a spell. Rollins has spent his tenure as champion behaving as an old-school, throwback heel, using anyone and everyone to cover up his inadequacies while he continues to sport the strap. The rub, naturally, is that Rollins can actually go. You can witness further evidence of that on Sunday’s pay-per-view, when he and the aforementioned Ambrose tore the house down in a well-plotted ladder match for the championship. Part of what makes a main event successful is that you buy into both ends of it. You have to figure Rollins is walking out the champion, but somewhere in the back of your mind feel like Ambrose could thwart destiny. When these two met a couple weeks back at Elimination Chamber, the match was very good and featured a temporary Ambrose victory before the swerve ending that allowed Rollins to retain. Rollins’ reaction to Ambrose leaving the building with the belt was classic, and the following decisions to have Ambrose stay out of lockstep with the rest of the roster and use social media to display the belt with the fans was also smart business. All of it led to the two men solving the issue Sunday. So far, so good.
But, as usual, WWE tries to have its cake and eat it too. Last night’s brilliantly executed ladder match, which featured some of the best facial reactions from both men, as well as a laundry list of intensely physical moves, ended in ostensibly a tie. Both men fell to the mat with the championship belt, but because it came out of the hands of Ambrose, Rollins retained. I could care less about the actual decision to have Rollins hang onto the belt; Ambrose has provided a steady source of animus for him with their lengthy history and filled in admirably while their Plan A took shape. What I am very much against was the way it was done. The big story of this match was Rollins proving to The Authority that he didn’t need anyone’s assistance to beat Ambrose, and while that did in fact occur, it was accomplished on a technicality that Michael Cole spent the closing minutes of the broadcast explaining. His comparison was to catch rules in the NFL, but of course the difference is we already know those rules exist when we watch a football game. Wrestling is always welcome to make stuff up as they go (in fact, it’s expected), but this was just silly. In my mind, it was again an opportunity missed in establishing Rollins as an effective champion. Is there a reason Rollins couldn’t just reach up and retain? Ambrose has been booked very solidly these last few weeks. He would have lost nothing. Instead it’s just another asterisk next to Seth’s name in the championship annals.
Ditto last night’s Raw show, when Rollins came out and was complete money in his opening promo. Rollins was full bombastic heel, declaring himself Hall of Fame worthy and running down everything from his fellow Authority members to the sports heroes of the night’s host, Cleveland. A personal favorite of mine was when he took the opportunity to thank everyone, producing a list and reading only his name from it. While I’m not always a fan of a long promo to open the show, I at least felt this gave Rollins a chance to be in his element. Every other week has been running behind twelve people but somehow maintaining the gold. Ambrose naturally came out at that point, which led to Rollins fleeing the scene and seeking refuge with Triple H and Stephanie. The latent hostility between those two factions is reportedly clearing the path for Rollins to take on Triple H, perhaps at SummerSlam. Boy, I hope not. The WWE has invested way too much time and money presenting Rollins as the ultimate heel to lose all that momentum with another silly, fluffy battle for Authority control.
By the end of the night, the worst-kept secret in the WWE was out and Brock Lesnar had made his return. As is his wont, Lesnar had nothing to say as he came down to the ring and eyed up Rollins. Rollins, for his part, looked deathly afraid of the prospect of facing Lesnar again and made off with his gold. Lesnar, “suspended” by the Authority for taking out the announce team and a cameraman, is apparently back in the Authority’s good graces and being dangled as the guy that can make Seth a star. Let’s nevermind that Lesnar was already owed a rematch from when he lost the title in the first place, and also that the outburst was in reaction to Rollins not wishing to defend the belt against him on the next night’s Raw. What’s the end game here? If the goal is for people to cheer for Lesnar, it’s already happening. Even pairing him with the love-him-or-revile-him Paul Heyman isn’t enough to cool the Lesnar ardor. Part of that is WWE’s own Frankenstein creation, as Lesnar was supported heavily by a large segment of its audience when going up against appointed wonder boy Roman Reigns. If the goal is for us to think their handpicked champion can lose, well, they’ve already done a pretty great job of that on their own accord.
WWE had another ladder match at MITB, and it was for the eponymous briefcase. I’ll give the company credit that they have managed to turn this idea into a pretty big storyline component, and many of the previous winners have gotten lengthy advantages out of the win. Since it’s out there, it allows the company to always have a solid second plan, but it’s not in your face enough that you have to address it right away. This makes predicting what will happen with it a bit harder than much of the other stuff that goes on in wrestling. The ladder match for the briefcase and title shot that opened the show featured seven men, but only a couple that had any shot of actually winning, even on paper. Kane was obvious filler, as was Kofi Kingston, brought in purely for the performance aspect, which wasn’t entirely a bad decision. Need sick ladder bumps? Kofi’s got you covered. Dolph Ziggler and Randy Orton are always solid picks for a match like this, but currently floundering in direction and already previous winners. That left Roman Reigns, Sheamus, and Neville as the viable contenders. Smart money appeared to be on Reigns, as WWE could hand him a layup following his abrupt halt from the meteoric rise, but they got out of that by having Bray Wyatt interfere to set up an angle between them. (For the record: Wyatt should have just been in the bloody match from the start.) If you were booking a championship shot anytime this year and had Sheamus or Neville to go to, what would you pick? The guy who has once again been turned heel and has had numerous runs with multiple titles, or the former NXT champ who has sizzling moves and nowhere to go but up?
If you picked the former, you could write for WWE. Sheamus won the briefcase, and we all now have a year of nothing to look forward to. It’s no offense to Sheamus, who’s not a bad worker in any respect, but one of the whole ideas of this match is to make somebody a star. It certainly doesn’t have to be a fan favorite that wins it, but a guy that the crowd is learning about anyway is a very smart choice. Gives us another reason to tune in. Will anyone care if Sheamus cashes in? We’ve been down this road enough times that we could get there blindfolded. This, though, is the standard modus operandi for the company today: give you a whiff of the possibilities, before cooking the same damn pot roast we’ve been eating for twenty years. Diversification is something they might want to look into. I’ve heard it’s nice.
Then, of course, there is the Divas title. As I’ve recently reiterated here at TJR, this belt is booked horribly and it has a negative impact on the wrestlers in this division. Paige has lost to the Bellas so many times now that it’s absurd, so presenting her as the one to change things up is a miss from the start. The incongruousness of Brie being a sympathetic figure in her husband’s decision to step down as Intercontinental Champion in one minute, then cheat to win in the next, gives you some idea of the time not being spent on developing or fleshing out any of these characters. MITB had Paige temporarily win the belt, before some odd ending where the match didn’t restart after the referee couldn’t figure out which twin was pinned. Let’s hope WWE officials don’t have to describe suspects to a sketch artist anytime soon. I did appreciate that Brie stuffed her bra in order to fool the official, because that’s the way we all tell them apart anyway. Empowerment people! Paige lost again on Raw and this title again has no traction whatsoever due to WWE’s own machinations. It surely can’t be that challenging to bring up a notable challenger from a program in NXT that’s never had more women ready to go, can it?
A similar trap occurred with that Intercontinental Title. Due to Daniel Bryan’s untimely injury, the company had to go in a different direction at Elimination Chamber. While I’ll not totally fault them for picking Ryback to win the belt (the story behind the win with him promising a fan and even his post-match comments to Bryan were very well done), he won’t be the one to elevate the belt, which was supposed to be the point when Bryan won it in the first place. Instead, we have Ryback vs. The Big Show vs. The Miz to look forward to. I’ll save you the obviousness that no one was clamoring for this match and just say that you could have had this match four years ago. The goal should be elevating NEW stars and bringing prestige to titles that might as well have been in mothballs for the impact they have. That’s how you craft a card that gets people buzzing. At some point, you’re going to run out of Stings and special attractions and be forced to get it done on merit alone. Is that going to happen with Ryback vs. The Big Show? Has it ever? Has Ryback been relevant since being a Nexus member? Has anyone cared about the Big Show’s affiliation since he became a member of the New World Order? Wrestling needs a little bit of everything, but attractions don’t make good champs. Limited shelf life, indeed.
The crux of all of this is that the most exciting thing to come out of WrestleMania, Stephanie McMahon’s staredown with Ronda Rousey, has had and will continue to have zero development for the foreseeable future. The most exciting thing to come out of the last few months happened on Steve Austin’s podcast following Raw a week ago, where he was baited by guest Paul Heyman to cut a promo against Heyman’s client Lesnar in anticipation of a potential WrestleMania match. That match, which would be money on every level, got the fans buzzing to such a degree that Vince McMahon himself reportedly told Austin to back down on his remarks, which he did. McMahon rightly feared making promises that couldn’t be cashed in. The issue is his company is constantly making them, making overtures to shake things up before settling down with the same stale concepts. Why stop now?
We’ve gotten this far without even discussing the decision to have Kevin Owens get pinned by John Cena on Sunday, thus evening their series and setting the stage for a potential third match with the United States Title on the line. The actual win/loss part doesn’t bother me, as there’s frankly no way WWE is going to have their meal ticket get pinned clean twice in a row, but the logic is again astounding. Owens has shown no regard for the rules, so a disqualification would be the obvious call, and up until this point hasn’t been interested in the US Title anyway. He feels his belt is more important, so his desire to be US champion is silly enough to be fraudulent. While WWE got the finish wrong, they ended on a strong note, with Owens accepting the offer of a post-match handshake only to lay Cena out. I’m not quite as sold on the decision last night to lay out musical guest Machine Gun Kelly. That should have happened during the performance, which would have done us all a favor. Owens being a brawling badass that respects nobody? I’m all for it. But powerbombing MGK doesn’t have the same cachet as continuing to demonstrate his superiority over Cena.
WWE gets a few yards before walking it back, in some cases ending up regressed further back than they began. A world where the best we have to look forward to is a dream match that won’t happen and Sheamus cashing in his contract sounds more like an apocalyptic nightmare. The worst part is that these are all ramifications of moves the promotion itself has concocted and executed. They didn’t have the guts to follow through with Daniel Bryan. They didn’t have the guts to follow through with Dolph Ziggler. They didn’t even have the guts to follow through with Roman Reigns. Now they’ve painted their own new breed champion into a corner and restored the natural order of things by backpedaling up and down the card. Intestinal fortitude, as the late Gorilla Monsoon would say, is in very short supply. When the WWE brass scan their roster and current product and wonder who the enemy is, I’d recommend they consult a mirror. Their biggest enemies are within. Let’s hope they can overcome them.