SPOTLIGHTED PODCAST ALERT (YOUR ARTICLE BEGINS A FEW INCHES DOWN)...
(1) Goldberg vs Lesnar Is Being Set Up Perfectly
I know people are getting mad about the Goldberg vs. Kevin Owens match being a 20 second squash match, but that was exactly what it should have been. The biggest priority for WWE’s booking right now is getting the absolute maximum out of the WrestleMania main event and, whether you like it or not, that is Brock Lesnar vs. Goldberg for the Universal Championship.
I’ll get this out of the way first. No, the booking of the main event was not ideal. Ideally, you don’t want your champion to look as bad as that. Ideally, you don’t want one of your top guys to be beaten like that. Ideally, you don’t want someone you’ve invested a lot of good work into becoming an established threat to be undermined that. But luckily for WWE, Kevin Owens wasn’t any of those things. Sure, he carries the belt, but they’ve made it perfectly clear at every turn that he’s not worthy of being the actual champion. He was simply given the title by Triple H in the first place, never presented as a legitimate or a worthy or a credible champion and only kept it this long because of Chris Jericho. So if anyone isn’t buying Kevin Owens in the way that Kevin Steen fans want him to be presented as, it’s not because Goldberg squashed him, it’s because of all the other damaging things they’ve done with the character week after week for the past six months.
And for those people who did like Kevin Owens beforehand, they all still like him! So what’s been lost? Goldberg is the priority for WrestleMania. Moan all you will about it, but that’s how it is. Goldberg is main eventing WrestleMania in the biggest match WWE has put together since Rock vs. Cena. Kevin Owens, meanwhile, is having a mid-card match at WrestleMania. Moan about that all you will too, but once you’re given that hand to work with, the only suitable ending to Goldberg vs. Kevin Owens was the ending we got.
Many people reading this love to bring up how Vince is trapped inside his own bubble, but the reality is, he isn’t the only one. We become so wrapped up in what we want and who we like that we forget that people have different takes on the content that WWE produces. Goldberg isn’t someone who is struggling to get over and is getting a push he hasn’t earned. He’s a star. He’s over. People tune in just to see Goldberg. People LIKE Goldberg. Transfer the way Goldberg has been booked since his return to one of your favorites. Say Kevin Owens himself. Kevin Owens runs through Brock Lesnar and then runs through the champion to capture the belt going into the rematch with Brock in the main event of WrestleMania. Everyone would be HYPED for that right? The problem isn’t the booking, the problem is someone you like has been booked to put over someone higher up the card that you don’t like as much. And if Kevin Owens was more popular than Goldberg, then this would be an issue. But he’s not.
All over the Internet now people are proclaiming that Goldberg is a joke of a champion because he can’t work a match that goes longer than a couple of minutes. Everyone saying that is getting worked to perfection by WWE. That’s exactly what they want you to think! And they also know that none of them people are going to stop watching between now and WrestleMania. In fact, a lot of them people will be sat there in the crowd at WrestleMania expecting a two minute main event. Another one that I’ve seen a lot is people proclaiming that the match will go “Goldberg spear, Brock blocks and catches him in the F5 and beats him to receipt the loss at Survivor Series.” You do all realise that that’s exactly how the match will start and, when Goldberg kicks out of that sequence, it will get the biggest pop of the entire show. And a pop I may add for a sequence that wouldn’t be possible if Goldberg had to work a 5-10 minute match with Kevin Owens the month prior.
WWE doesn’t get a lot of things right these days but Goldberg-Lesnar is a rare exception. You can dislike the notion of the match and what it represents, but don’t pretend like the reality isn’t that Goldberg-Lesnar is a bigger WrestleMania main event than something like A.J. Styles vs. Shinsuke Nakamura would be. The number one aim of booking WrestleMania should be to create something that will get the most eyes on WrestleMania. Goldberg vs Lesnar is great for guys like Kevin Owens and A.J. Styles because it means more people will be watching each of them in showcase matches against wrestlers every wrestling fan will recognize, and that means more opportunity for them to get over with new fans.
(2) The Kevin Owens Rehab Project Starts Now
Damage has definitely been done to Kevin Owens, but that happened well before Fastlane. Just about the only positive you can take from his title reign was that it was entertaining. Which is good. Entertaining characters are a commodity for sure. You want to have wrestlers who can do really good comedy on your roster. There’s a glass ceiling for that act, though. It’s not an act that should be at the top of your show and the ceiling for that act is much lower than what the ceiling for the Kevin Owens character should be.
Now the rehab of the Kevin Owens character should begin. The template over the last two weeks leading into Fastlane was a good template to continue with and build on. Fastlane shouldn’t have been and rightfully wasn’t factored into the repair work. If Kevin Owens is going to transition into a more serious character, then being the doofus you laugh at one last time won’t hurt. Like I said before, if people don’t take the Kevin Owens character seriously at that level on the card, then it’s not because Goldberg beat him in 20 seconds, and if you do like Kevin Owens, Goldberg beating him in 20 seconds doesn’t stop that. The only thing having him work a competitive match with Goldberg accomplishes is taking some of the shine off of Goldberg.
The program with Chris Jericho should represent a clean slate, if you will, for Kevin Owens. The rebirth of the Kevin Owens we saw in NXT. The Kevin Owens who can be put back into that role as the champion at the top of the card and who can be taken seriously in that role. The Kevin Owens who it means something to get a victory over. And everyone who has watched Kevin Owens either in NXT or when he was going by Kevin Steen know that he can fit into that role if given the opportunity.
And the Jericho program offers the perfect environment for the Owens character to begin to transition into that role. It’s a feud based on hate and distain for his opponent rather than a feud where Owens needs to be funny in order to get the program over. And with Jericho, he can provide the big pop lines that plagued Owens’ effectiveness as a heel during their run together so that Owens doesn’t have to. One of the biggest issues Owens has in being an effective heel is that he’s too likeable. In order for him to be effective in the more serious role that all his fans demand he be in, he also needs to adapt to excel in that role and the key to that is him massively cutting down on the smart one-liners that make people laugh.
Owens’ run with the belt did a lot of damage to his character, but the good thing about wrestling is that nearly everything washes away with time and a new direction. John Cena got annihilated by Brock Lesnar and he recovered just fine. Dolph Ziggler was a male cheerleader and they got fans to invest in him in a more serious role. Brock got the same treatment at the hands of Goldberg as Owens and he’s recovered just fine by turning up the aggression and not being defined by that loss. A good run as a more serious character will undo the damage done in no time but it has to be a consistent effort by both WWE and Owens himself to sacrifice many of the traits that make him so well liked.
(3) The Commentary Can Be Really Good
Case in point, the Neville vs. Jack Gallagher match. The commentary really added an extra layer to the match! What you want from your commentary is for them to be telling the stories of the match which the wrestlers are performing. Because the wrestlers can only do so much of the work themselves. They can’t stand there and explain why they’re doing something at that point in the match; that’s what the most important job of the commentary is, far more important than just shouting out the names of moves.
WWE’s commentary is basically terrible at that aspect of the job. I’ve lost count of the amount of times that wrestlers in a match have done something cool and the commentary completely misses the story that was told in that moment. Take the last Cruiserweight Title match on PPV as an example. Rich Swann and Neville had a match a few weeks earlier on 205 Live which Neville won with the top rope suplex; they do the same spot in the match at the Rumble only Swann kicks out this time, and the commentators don’t even mention it.
For once though, they really excelled during the Neville vs. Jack Gallagher match. Michael Cole in particular was really great at getting over the subtle but important stories in the match. The spot where Neville rolls to the outside and he puts over how Gallagher isn’t known for his high flying so Neville considers the ringside area a safe haven while he’s on the backfoot was something that I’m sure most people would never have picked up on their own just through the actions of the wrestlers. That’s the very definition of adding value to the match. And then it paid off magnificently when Neville went to the same spot and Gallagher performed a rare dive to the outside.
The other instance was the finish where Cole did a great job of putting over how Gallagher had pushed Neville further than anyone else has so far by pointing out that Neville had to go all the way to the Red Arrow in order to put Gallagher away, a move that he hadn’t had to be going to during his title reign so far.
What made it frustrating, however, was how big of a blip it was, even in the context of this one show. It was only earlier in the show that we had to sit through Cole feeding us utter bullshit lines about how the only blemish on Nia Jax’s record being the loss to Bayley on Raw, completely obnoxiously ignoring the fact that we all saw her tap out at Survivor Series. Or his line about how Bayley was unaware that Sasha had come out to interfere when she’s within touching distance of her. Or how he failed to put over the fact that Sasha was using the same guillotine choke that Bayley used to put away Nia Jax in NXT. The cruiserweight match proved he can be really good if you don’t produce him to come across as a fib-telling-idiot and instead produce him to tell interesting stories that add extra layers to matches.
(4) Nia Jax Has The Best Story That Nobody Is Telling
I’ve been telling myself this is the story of Nia Jax all through her NXT run and now it’s continuing onto the main roster. It happens literally every single time that she loses. The fact that nobody in WWE is telling this story strongly suggests that it’s a total coincidence, but it’s 100 percent there so tell the story.
Nia Jax only ever loses when she gets over-confident in a match and doesn’t finish it when she has her opponent down and out. Instead, she chooses to prolong the match and allows her opponent the opportunity to make her comeback. She’ll start going to something outside her comfort zone and create an opening for her opponent. She’ll continuously get caught in submissions that wear her down and make her vulnerable. Go back and watch all her losses. It’s there every single time. Against Bayley at NXT Takeover London she goes outside her comfort zone to the top rope and gives Bayley the opening to lock her in a guillotine choke. Against Asuka at NXT Takeover: The End she goes for a lackadaisical cover and again gets caught in a submission that ultimately leads to her demise. And now again at Fastlane vs. Sasha Banks she gets overconfident toying around with Sasha Banks in the torture rack and winds up opening herself up to submissions and ultimately eating the pin.
And it’s a pretty great story that WWE could be telling, along with providing them a reason for why, despite being an absolute monster who dominates all her opponents, Nia isn’t established at the level of Sasha and Charlotte yet. She’s a monster, but she’s raw and inexperienced as a wrestler and that keeps getting the better of her. Have Michael Cole on commentary put over how dangerous she’ll be once she becomes more experienced and stops making rookie mistakes, or what will happen when Nia focuses more on winning and less on just inflicting punishment, or when she wisens up to the traps that she keeps falling into like leaving herself open to submissions. Once you notice it, it’s a pretty awesome pattern that would make for a really great story to be telling with the Nia Jax character. They’re the type of stories (like in the cruiserweights match) that add extra layers to a match and enhance the viewer’s experience and what they should be telling more of.
(5) Uncertainty Is Good
All of the final three matches on the show had a good amount of uncertainty as to how they’d play out. Reigns vs Strowman could have gone any and all ways. You could buy either guy winning by any means or it even ending without a winner through something like a double countout. Plus you also had the uncertainty of whether Undertaker would appear or not. The finish to Bayley vs Charlotte didn’t particularly matter to anyone because we all knew they were just coming back again at WrestleMania and who held the belt going into that show was largely irrelevant. But there were a good handful of scenarios for the finish that we all could have very easily brought into. It could have been a clean win either way, could also have been a copout nobody wins finish, or it could also have ended up with either winning as a result of interference from Sasha Banks or Dana Brooke. How much people actually cared about the ending is a different matter, but there was intrigue because we could talk ourselves into a wide range of possibilities happening. Goldberg vs. Owens was a little more cut and dry, but there was still the unpredictability of how Goldberg would win. Would Brock show up. Would Jericho show up? Will Goldberg squash Owens like he did Lesnar or will this Goldberg match be a longer and more competitive one. In hindsight, it’s easy for us to say, “Well, of course that was always going to be the finish” (and it was), but there were enough seeds of doubt planted that we could get lost in buying into.
Even when the what is predictable, making the how unpredictable is a big positive. Sometimes predictability is a good thing. How Daniel Bryan’s story at WrestleMania 30 played out was predictable. Predictability in wrestling is a good thing assuming that the key factors involved such as the story, the outcome, and the personalities are over. The trouble that WWE has is that so little of what they present is actually over, that predictability becomes a negative. The only thing worse than having to sit through a match you have no interest in is having to sit through a match you have no interest in when you know exactly how it’s ending. At least uncertainty brings a sense of intrigue and discussion and the opportunity for you to let your imagination run wild.
And that’s something that WWE needs more of. Planting seeds of doubt and letting your viewers believe that a wide range of outcomes they could image happening are believable is a positive trait for WWE shows to have. It’s not a regular occurrence but it was definitely a key part in making me personally want to watch this show, and anything that can get people to want to watch your show is good, especially when your usual platforms of drawing interest are struggling to be effective.
NOW CHECK OUT LAST WEEK’S ARTICLE: FIVE COUNT: Five lessons pro wrestling promoters and fans can learn from UFC from the value in losing to the power of stars
(“Five Count” is a Specialist column by PWTorch Specialist Matt Seabridge who presents a list of five lessons to be learned from various categories, theme, shows, eras, or events in pro wrestling.)