WWE Could Have a Golden Age, If It Can Figure Itself Out
In Battleground, WWE nailed the introduction of NXT hero Bayley and delivered a solid triple threat between The Shield's stars. But they're still not quite there yet.
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There was a reasonable expectation that the main event of this past Sunday's Battleground would clarify WWE's world title scene. The match was a triple threat featuring all three former members of the Shield, that now semi-legendary stable of black-clad tweeners from a few years ago: current champ Dean Ambrose, the so-good-you-cheer-him-even-though-he's-a-heel Seth Rollins, and Roman Reigns, recently returned from a drug suspension and still booed mercilessly. The bout was solid, Ambrose won, and everything seems clear enough.
Except it isn't. Oddly enough—given that we're talking about pro wrestling, an implied "oddly enough" belongs at the start of every sentence—Ambrose's win only left things more muddled at the end of Battleground. This is because of the brand split, which has left Raw and Smackdown with two distinct rosters of WWE wrestlers. Ambrose is on Smackdown, leaving Raw without a main-event-quality title going into its big re-debut on Monday. WWE storytelling tends to cluster around the top title and leave many midcards listless; the absence of a title on one of the shows functionally means the absence of a big chunk of story.
By any standard, a match between the ex-Shield members, all three finally feuding for the strap, is a big deal. When it was announced for Battleground, a second-tier pay-per-view, people were surprised; SummerSlam or even Wrestlemania had long been rumored as landing spots. Certainly, the match's quality—a good but not great match featuring some good spots and the ace natural chemistry between the three men—wasn't diminished by being on Battleground, but it was an odd choice of stage all the same.
The title confusion was mitigated on Monday, with the announcement of the Universal title, which is exclusive to Raw and (presumably) more prestigious because the universe is bigger than just some dumb wrestling organization or the stupid world or whatever. Raw carried over the momentum from Battleground's top to bottom quality, delivering a remarkably well-paced three hours, but the title announcement felt jagged and sudden. There were Stephanie McMahon and Mick Foley at the start, facing all the wrestlers onstage. An announcement of the title's name, two fatal fourways, the winners face each other at the end—the debuting Finn Balor, called up from NXT, won that over Roman Reigns, in a sure sign that Reigns isn't out of the doghouse yet—and then the winner of that faces Rollins at SummerSlam for the title. Problem solved.
Except it isn't solved. By inventing a new title out of whole cloth rather than leaning on a split of the existing title or a disputed finish at Battleground, WWE has bypassed the only truly tangible thing in pro wrestling: its own history. The Universal title will have no lineage to rely on, no thread to transport you to the past, no weight to it, and that's true no matter how much gold it's made of. Further, it pulls the curtain back slightly too far; suddenly, the artifice is laid bare, and these are simply notations on a script. It's hard to suspend the disbelief when prestige can be conjured at the whims of corporate.
That just plays into the strangely ramshackle way the split was handled, and it made Battleground tough to enjoy in spots. Announcers hyped a concocted rivalry between the shows with surprisingly little verve; John Layfield, in particular, seemed to be going through the motions whenever Raw vs. Smackdown became a topic. The McMahon siblings and their chosen GMs sat at ringside for the main event, cheering and such, but that just made the whole thing seem even more forced. The sheen of what was in fact quite a good show was dulled by the injection of the split.
But maybe this is quibbling too much, because it really was a good show. Perhaps the best moment of the night was the debut of Bayley, the NXT women's division stalwart, as Sasha Banks' surprise partner against the team of Charlotte and Dana Brooke.
Bayley works a feel-good babyface gimmick of neon and slap bracelets. She likes to hug people. Inflatable windsock puppets burst out of the stage when she enters. Little girls adore her. She's a female version of John Cena, except she doesn't cut promos at odds with WWE's anti-bullying initiative. It's an interesting time to be a woman in wrestling, and Bayley is one of the most interesting performers in the sport; there's something strangely freeing in the work she's allowed to do relative to her male peers. Even as they're constrained by the expectations WWE and wrestling fans place upon their gender, women wrestlers aren't funneled to screaming about their opponents' balls or questioning their opposites' manhoods as all male WWE faces seem to be. Bayley is the best of the optimistic babyfaces, practically undiluted by bullshit, the child of John Cena and Lisa Frank.
Bayley and Banks got their win, with Banks forcing Charlotte to tap out cleanly. Banks would go on to beat Charlotte for the women's title the following Monday. Charlotte has been practically unstoppable since her debut, holding the title for a solid year and winning through equal parts brute force and willingness to cheat. It's good heel work, but more important, the loss to Banks after so long made for good storytelling.
The super-heel push only works if there's a payoff at the end, with a mortal defeating an evil demigod. With Charlotte's unstoppable rise coinciding with both Cena's career and Roman Reigns' invincibility, it was hard not to worry that Charlotte would fall into the same stultifying sameness. Instead, Banks looked like a million bucks—and looked even better when she won the next night—and Bayley looked like a debuting star by proximity.
Charlotte's father, Ric Flair, was a master of this in his prime. He worked the Southern style, in which the heel held onto the belt for long stretches, eking out victories by narrow margins. Flair made Ronnie Garvin, a perennial midcarder and transitional champion, a beloved babyface for three months in 1987 because of this vibe. Charlotte—who was still a bit raw when called up from NXT but has since grown into her role—has a natural mastery of this particular type of story in her DNA, and it showed on Sunday.
Bayley will probably return to NXT for now; she wasn't drafted by either brand and the draft call-ups have left slim pickings for the division in NXT. But her debut was played just right, and that's vital because she and Banks are real superstars if handled correctly.
Which brings us back to the WWE world title, and the strange truth that despite all the flaws, malfeasance, negligence, and weirdness of WWE, the promotion is so close to a third golden age. They have been far more good than bad since that awful Wrestlemania in March, but there's something so unwieldy and clunky backstage that it keeps these little things from always going right. They nailed one thing, in Bayley's debut. The other—the top title scene—seems just slightly off. As the clock ticks down to another Wrestlemania season, we can only hope it comes together.
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