Monday’s Raw ended with John Cena versus Seth Rollins, a rematch of the previous night’s TLC pay-per-view. To underscore the significance of the rivalry, this time they fought in a steel cage. It was a very good match, better than Sunday’s, although neither captured the enormousness that WWE was gunning for. At TLC, Cena and Rollins fought in a Tables match that was, if nothing else, neatly metaphorical. During an event filled with car-crash violence, the Tables match is the underfed runt of the litter. In a Chairs match, wrestlers batter each other with steel chairs. In a Ladders match, they use the ladders as weapons and as launching pads and then finally to climb up and grab the title belt. In a Stairs match, they use the heavy ringside steps as gigantic bludgeons. And in the TLC match, they get to use all three of the event’s namesakes — tables, ladders, and chairs — to wreak ungodly amounts of damage. But in the Tables match, the object is to avoid the tables at all costs: You lose when your opponent slams you through a table, so a table is broken only once, and only at the end.
WWE has spent the last couple of months trying to convince us that Rollins is a main-event villain and that Rollins and Cena are embroiled in a blood feud over the fate of the company. On the first count, it’s doing a pretty good job. On the second, it’s got a long way to go. At TLC, WWE thought it served up a legendary match, but instead we got two guys running around avoiding pratfalls, building tension for a big ending that never really came. It wasn’t either wrestler’s fault — the problem with a Tables match is the WWE’s problem in a nutshell. Too often they avoid the big moments in favor of playing up some ambiguous future, all the while insisting the present is earthshaking. To hear the announcers treat the Cena-Rollins rivalry in such earnest tones was an insult to fans.
I’m usually loath to attack the announcing team. They’re easy to ignore and they’re not really the ones making mistakes. Jerry “The King” Lawler and JBL are mostly working comedy shtick, while play-by-play announcer Michael Cole’s lines are often fed to him via headset by Vince McMahon. But the broadcast routine seems to have reached a dire apogee in recent weeks: The less fans seem to care about Cena, the harder the announcers have sold his feud with Rollins. They’ve been willing to tear down everything else good on the show to hype the main event. On Monday there was a tag-team match between the Rhodes brothers and two members of the New Day (Big E and Xavier Woods), with the third New Dayer, Kofi Kingston, joining the broadcast team ringside. This should have been a chance to help the New Day connect with the audience, but instead the announcers used it to make fun of Big E for sweating and laugh at Woods’s Afro. It’s little wonder that fans roll their eyes when members of the New Day come to the ring and Cole blathers about how “They’re happy! They’re positive! The fans love ’em!”1 And when they’re not rolling their eyes, they’re chanting for everything else they’d rather be seeing. On Monday night, those things happened to be “CM Punk” and, somewhat surprisingly, “NXT!”
During three weeks of tedium between Survivor Series and TLC, when wrestling seemed at its least fun and least interesting, WWE played its wild card with the ridiculously named NXT Takeover: R Evolution. This was the fourth supercard staged by WWE’s developmental outfit since WWE Network launched 10 months ago. It was snugly situated between two of WWE’s tentpole shows, and it was better than both by a long shot.
All of the NXT “events” have been exceptional. The in-ring work is always great, but their greatest success comes from how the matches are presented. Each bout gets plenty of time, the (wonderful) announcers tell the stories behind the feuds with little digression, and the matches tell their own tales from start to finish. It seems impossible not to get emotionally sucked into the proceedings. It’s the way pro wrestling should be.
In Thursday’s main event, perpetual underdog Sami Zayn — who had been among the highlights of all three previous NXT supercards — put his career on the line against NXT champion Adrian Neville. Neville tried some underhanded tactics to hold on to his title, but in the end, he failed. (Career versus title matches tend to end only one way, unless the challenger is retiring or leaving the company in real life.) Zayn isn’t going anywhere, and so his win was a given, but that didn’t make the journey any less fulfilling.
WWE fans complain that Cena always wins, but his certain victory2 in Sunday’s TLC match wasn’t why it failed to excite viewers. It was that — unlike the similarly predictable Neville-Zayn bout — the narrative was poorly told. The Cena-Rollins fight had no arc, and the backstory was that the Anonymous Raw GM — a sentient laptop computer — had randomly made the match. Wrestling has its fair share of inanities, but this was beyond even deus ex machina (or Vince ex machina). It was machina ex machina — the WWE machine was driven by a machine on a podium.
It was almost inconceivable that Cena would lose to Rollins and drop his no. 1 contender status to WWE champion Brock Lesnar.
To be fair: In terms of storytelling, NXT has many advantages over WWE. It’s free of the churning monthly PPV schedule; free (for the most part) of scheduling around (or through) commercial breaks; free from the meddling of USA Network, big-money sponsors, and overcautious WWE marketing executives; and free of the programming conflicts caused by a large roster of wrestlers and an often unimaginative creative team. The pro wrestling business is built to exist in the dusty shadows of mainstream entertainment, and repositioning it as an equal part of that world — as McMahon has always been eager to do — introduces a sea of factors that hinder the core product of wrestling.
But the success of NXT isn’t solely due to being free of the larger WWE machine. NXT has the built-in storytelling benefit of the never-ending climb. New wrestlers debut, serve as jobbers to the stars, and then can work their way up the roster to the top — which, in NXT, is never more than a few feuds away. Once there, they take a victory lap and then get called up to WWE. Graduating to Raw isn’t just validation for an emerging performer — it’s an escape hatch for the creative team. When CM Punk lost the title, fans despaired about WWE losing faith in him. When Cena lost the title, fans snarked about how WWE would return it to him. When developmental guys like Seth Rollins, Bo Dallas, and Big E have lost the NXT title, even their supporters rejoiced because it meant they were being elevated to the big show.
Other reasons represent an ethos that WWE would do well to learn from: NXT can allow a newcomer like Kevin Owens three minutes to defeat his opponent without the fear that fans won’t recognize anything longer than 30 seconds as a squash match. They can allow a match to continue after Owens has his nose exploded by a palm strike from CJ Parker (and Parker’s hand is impaled to the bone). They can give Divas matches time without fear that fans will change the channel. They can put incoming talent like Finn Bálor and Hideo Itami into a tag team to maximize their positives while the two acclimate to the WWE style without diluting either wrestler’s brand. They can have — gasp — two women’s matches or tag-team matches on a card without worrying about perplexing the crowd. They can let guys like Enzo Amore be interesting and funny without positioning them as the bland stars of some WWE Studios vehicle. They can hire mentors like Sara Del Rey and Adam Pearce to coach up the talent and not have to be concerned about how they’ll affect the machine.
NXT’s ability to play to its performers’ strengths instead of crafting everyone into a Cena-in-waiting, its announcers doing justice to the product, and the crowd interaction afforded by its small venue all combine to create a product that shares little with the current WWE ethos. The irony is that NXT was in theory supposed to be a way for non-WWE talents to get used to “WWE style” — the size of the ring, the camera positions, the in-ring tropes. In reality, instead of preparing them for Raw, NXT teaches its talents how to work a regional NWA broadcast from 1983. I mean that as a compliment.
After Zayn won the title on Thursday, he was joined in the ring by the entire NXT roster, who celebrated his long-awaited victory. The most poignant moment was when he was hugged by Owens, Zayn’s longtime friend and frequent pre-WWE tag-team partner. The announcers mentioned their relationship, even though Owens had debuted that night and both wrestlers are performing under different names than they did earlier in their careers. Before, Owens was Kevin Steen and Zayn was El Generico. I’m loath to mention this, since Zayn insists that Generico returned to Mexico to work with orphans and that he’s a different person who trained under Generico and adopted his ring style. Zayn’s commitment to kayfabe is endearing, but for me to write a column without acknowledging that he was Generico would be harder to pull off than a through-the-ropes diving tornado DDT.
But the announcers’ acknowledgment of Zayn and Owens’s friendship wasn’t just a nod to Reality Era continuity — it was foreshadowing. After the crowd dispersed and Zayn finally left the ring, he was rejoined by Owens. The chyron that signals the end of the show flashed on the screen, but the show didn’t end. Owens clotheslined Zayn and laid him out with a series of brutal moves that harked back to their indie days. The two have a long backstory. Both started in Canada’s International Wrestling Syndicate, and that shared history meant they would often team up at the beginning of their U.S. wrestling careers. Also, the juxtaposition of Owens (then Steen) as a chubby, babyfaced brawler along with Zayn (then El Generico) as an ironic luchador had a certain comedic correspondence. As they matured into two of the best performers on the indie scene, that improbability became their calling card. Over time, though, competition soured the fictional relationship. The partners became archrivals, determined to break each other’s necks. Steen was the sadistic innovator and Generico the most beloved babyface in indie wrestling history. Both were minor wrestling gods, but hardly anybody expected them to get a sniff from WWE scouts.
Then Generico got signed, and a year later Steen did too. WWE abandoned the Generico character3 in favor of Zayn, and Steen became Owens, a less interesting but copyrightable new name with marketable initials.4 For indie wrestling fans, just seeing Zayn and Owens in the WWE system was joy enough. It barely occurred to fans that WWE, with its closed universe, might actually reference Zayn and Owens’s history.
Though I hope the company will eventually return to it on the main roster, like a Mick Foley/Mankind gimmick or a Dusty Rhodes/Midnight Rider story line.
Sorry, Kassius Ohno.
Mining story lines from lesser territories has long been a favored WWE tactic (and of pro wrestling in general). Just a couple of years ago, it recycled the “Summer of Punk” story line from CM Punk’s indie career. But transposing a 10-year independent relationship into WWE mythology was a twist many would have expected to be phased out along with bloody matches and un-copyrighted stage names. And yet we got the ending to Thursday’s show. It was a heartrending moment in a night with plenty of them. And it proved that it’s possible to bring story lines to satisfying ends and reset the overall narrative at the same time — even if WWE struggles to do so with its flagship product.
WWE often falls short in its attempts to keep the narrative at a persistent fever pitch. When WWE had Rollins disrupt the Cena-Lesnar match at Night of Champions and when it made Bray Wyatt materialize into the Hell in a Cell as Dean Ambrose was about to dispatch with Rollins, the company was more concerned with teasing upcoming pay-per-view matches than with allowing fans to feel the satisfaction of a finished narrative. WWE doesn’t need to run that way. As NXT — and decades of pro wrestling before it — has proved, it’s possible to give us satisfaction and anticipation together. More than that, it’s necessary.
WWE Network has a series called WWE Rivalries that looks back on the best feuds in the company’s catalogue. In every episode, the show goes into the backstory of each beef — how Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper were vying for the top spot in real life, how Steve Austin was actively raging against the wrestling institution — and how that context intertwined with the onscreen product. It’s fun to have nerdy conversations about the real-life stuff, but it’s just as crucial that the real details be reflected in feuds that have onscreen tension and palpable stakes. Many people — myself included — have compared the Rollins-Ambrose rivalry to that of Triple H and The Rock. It’s a competition that will likely reignite again and again as the two grow in skill and profile. But that’s more wishful thinking than planning. What made Rock-HHH so great wasn’t the matches so much as the meta story line — two guys pushing each other up the ladder, making one another into superstars, and helping save the company at the same time.
Who knows if Ambrose-Rollins will ever achieve that status. Same goes for Zayn-Owens. But even though Thursday night was an auspicious beginning, it’s hard to imagine the Zayn-Owens feud playing out well on Raw with the current creative environment. WWE will keep telling us it’s meaningful, but it’ll just be so many words. On Monday, largely in response to the acclaim that the NXT show has received, the WWE roster reportedly held a talent-only meeting before Raw. The complaints of the locker room boiled down to a simple demand: Let us be more like NXT. Whether they’ll be able to force any changes remains to be seen. For all the energy that WWE dedicates to replenishing the fan base and appealing to a new generation of kids, it feels as if the company is missing the point. If WWE spent half the time building long-term story lines as it does hyping upcoming PPVs, it might have feuds — and relationships — that its existing fans actually cared about. NXT acknowledging its wrestlers’ pasts is a meaningful indication that NXT recognizes the wrestling world outside of WWE’s walls. It shows acceptance that pro wrestling is a continuum, not a stage show. Sadly, it’s hard to imagine McMahon signing off on that kind of storytelling for the flagship product.
WWE’s sickness is its insipid earnestness, its bottomless thirst for mainstream acceptance, as voiced every week by the announcers. That empty goal makes fun, silly story lines feel hollow5 and it makes serious combat appear unseemly. Heaven forbid Zayn and Owens get caught up in the mess that Raw has become. They’re hilarious and violent all at once, and they can beat the hell out of each other more compellingly than almost any other two guys on the roster. They have the backstory to make fans care and an in-ring chemistry built on their common past. And what would happen when WWE lets them loose on the big stage, in this day and age?
See how WWE has handled NXT standouts like Adam Rose.
We might just boo them too.