FIVE COUNT: Five lessons to be learned from WWE’s Mae Young Classic including binge watch format, backstories lacking, early match formats flawed

By Matt Seabridge, PWTorch Specialist


I was kind of disappointed with the Mae Young Classic after all was said and done. If you go into with low expectations then you might have enjoyed it more. The quality of the wrestling, though, just couldn’t match up to the standards set by women’s wrestling in NXT over the last few years. And when you consider that this was supposed to be a defining moment for the “Women’s Revolution,” that really isn’t good enough.

I don’t want this piece to just be repeating everyone else’s points in a more expansive manner so I’ll get some of my quick thoughts on that stuff out of the way. The undisputable MVP of the tournament was Kairi Sane. For me she was the only wrestler that you could take from the tournament and put straight into the main roster mix with the likes of Sasha, Charlotte, Becky, Bayley, and now Asuka and look like they belonged in that upper tier from in ring quality standpoint.

Toni Storm and Rhea Ripley definitely had a wow factor from the moment that you see them. Toni’s ring work still has a way to go, but she’s young and that will happen. What she does have, however, is an infectious personality that will get her way more over than her ring work ever will. Ripley is very much a developmental project, but she has that “it factor” and showed with Dakota Kai that she’s already capable of producing a good match. I was also very impressed by Tessa Blanchard and Bianca Belair. Both have careers in WWE that are theirs to lose rather than gain thanks to their genetics, but they both showed that they aren’t relying on that in this tournament. WWE may very well get sucked into making Bianca a babyface because, in the eyes of Vince and even Hunter, how can anyone not love someone like that. But god, she has such a natural heel demeanor that could very easily be cashed in on.

I thought Shayna Baszler kinda sucked. She has the aura of legitimacy going for her and she makes her submissions look nice and tight but everything else was really pretty bad. Her movement and her timing sucked, she had no facial expressions, and she constantly looked lost in between spots. Plus, despite being a big Ronda Rousey fan, the whole Four Horsewoman thing on both sides is just so cringey and makes me hate everyone involved in it on both sides. Ronda basically has to come in as a heel if she’s with the rest of them because she was so unlikeable cheering on Shayna in this.

The whole “large wrestler moves like a small wrestler so they’re good” thing does nothing for me, so I didn’t care for Piper Niven. Serena Deeb’s comeback story fell really flat. Lacey Evans has something, but she seems to have no idea how her character should be presented. I thought it came off better when it had a more heelish edge to it, but that gets in the way of WWE wanting her to be the face of the modern independent woman. Candice working more basic shorter matches didn’t overly impress me. I also now think nothing of Johnny Gargano as a husband after he just stood there while his wife got choked out by Shayna Baszler. Make the save for your wife, Johnny! Sarah Logan looked really good as one of the few very polished ring technicians and, while Dakota Kai didn’t fully connect with me, there’s a lot there for WWE to work with.

As for the commentary, it wasn’t good but I also didn’t think it was bad. Lita was better than people are giving her credit for and JR was worse than people are giving him credit for. What didn’t help them was a lack of great wrestling for them to hit the high notes on. Although that said, when they did try to turn it up, it wasn’t any better. They also had a severe lack of chemistry that really hurt.

For all the rightful critiques of the Full Sail crowd, they really helped to put the tournament over with how hot they were for everything. It was very strange seeing Full Sail produce a crowd so hot for so much average wrestling when you see them so dead for much better wrestling in NXT. You had a crowd who wanted this to succeed, though, and I think that’s one of the key takeaways from this tournament – a lot of people want women’s wrestling in WWE to succeed and it’s going to take a very impressive effort to make it completely fail.

So without further rambling, let’s get into the “Five Lessons that WWE Can Learn From The Mae Young Classic.”

(1) Standards Need To Meet Expectations

2017 hasn’t been a good year for women’s wrestling in WWE. With the exception of Asuka and the Bayley vs. Charlotte match on Raw where Bayley won the title, it’s been a year of poor booking and matches peaking at “just fine.” Sadly, the Mae Young Classic fell more in line with the underwhelming nature of women’s wrestling on the main roster than the hefty standards produced within NXT. Yes, there were plenty of good matches and maybe a handful of very good matches. That would have been a great success back in 2014, but it’s 2017 and expectations for women’s wrestling have substantially increased since then.

Before long the quality produced by the Sasha vs. Charlotte matches and the women’s matches in NXT are going to be seen as outliers and not the standards to be expected from a women’s match on the main roster. The likes of Sasha, Charlotte, Becky, Bayley, and Asuka have done such great work helping to redefine what a women’s wrestling match in WWE is, but their work has to be continued. Otherwise, before long, people will start to lose faith and if that happens then all the good work slowly starts to unwind.

The Mae Young Classic should have been a massive showcase for the standard of wrestling for people to expect in WWE in the coming years and the reality is, it didn’t match up with the quality of wrestling that NXT produces. There wasn’t a really great match that generated a buzz and there wasn’t a general standard produced that made it a tournament that showcased great women’s wrestling. It showcased some very good women’s wrestling, but also showcased far too much bad wrestling from women who looked worse wrestlers than some of the divas from the bikini models era. This tournament should have been a defining moment for the “Women’s Revolution” and, really, what it told viewers was that there’s some really good female wrestlers out there but they’re still few and far between.

It’s not just the last few years of women’s wrestling that produced expectations for the tournament that ultimately the standards didn’t match up to. It’s also the Cruiserweight Classic. Fair or not, the Mae Young Classic is looked at by a lot of people as a sequel to the Cruiserweight Classic. Season 2 of WWE’s Annual Summer Tournament Show if you will. And Season 2 was a noticeable come down from Season 1. Sure, you can say that if you view this tournament in isolation or if it came before the Cruiserweight Classic that it would come off better, but that’s not the reality of the situation. The reality is that it did follow the Cruiserweight Classic and that, in comparison, it just wasn’t on the same level. The ring work wasn’t as good, the star power wasn’t as strong, the commentary didn’t make the show feel as exciting and the momentum and buzz for the show just couldn’t match up.

Standards and expectations are massively important in how satisfied we as viewers are with something. A three-and-a-half star Jinder Mahal vs Mojo Rawley match is going to be looked at much differently than a three-and-a-half star A.J. Styles vs Shinsuke Nakamura match. Same rating, so theoretically the same standard of wrestling, but the expectations that we have for each match greatly affect how satisfied we are with what we get given. That’s the downside of the great matches that Sasha and Charlotte had together. They set expectations for a standard of women’s wrestling that everyone else weren’t able to match yet. The Mae Young Classic along with the women’s matches on the main roster this year have been evidence of that.

(2) WWE Sucks At Showcase Matches

Much of the first round of the tournament featured a lot of the acts that WWE wanted to get over as the key players for the following rounds going over some very green talent that were obviously being looked at as possible Performance Centre recruits. And that’s a perfectly fine plan. Not every first round match has to be, nor should it be, a competitive back and forth match. You can showcase a featured act in a competitive match where they get to show off the full range of their skillset in an exciting match that people rave about after, a la Kairi Sane’s first round match. Or you can showcase a featured act in a shorter less competitive match, a la what WWE tried to in a lot of the first round matches. The problem was, they absolutely sucked as far as being actual showcases for the women advancing.

This isn’t a problem exclusive to the Mae Young Classic. WWE utilise the same horrible structure on the main roster and NXT are even worse culprits of it. The whole point of a showcase match is to actually showcase the winner, not the loser! Instead of the winner spending 90 percent of the match running through their range of offense and getting their personality over while working on top, the geek of a loser who they have no plans for ends up working on top for 90 percent of the match while the featured act has to spend nearly the entire match selling.

In the Mae Young Classic, Mercedes Martinez, Toni Storm, Dakota Kai, Bianca Belair, and Nicole Savoy all got supposed showcase matches that actually did a really terrible job of showcasing them because all they got to showcase was how well they can sell and two or three signature spots. I do understand that WWE probably didn’t want to send girls like Xia Li and Kavita Devi out there and get totally squashed (even though that’s what happened to Zeda with Shayna Baszler). It’s a bit of a bummer to get brought in for this tournament and not get a real opportunity to showcase what you can do. I get that.

But in the cases of Xia Li and Kavita Devi, that doesn’t matter as they’re going into the Performance Center system. This isn’t their time. They have plenty of time to showcase what they can do at the Performance Center and their time will come at a much later date to showcase themselves in front of an audience. Now wasn’t the time for Xia Li to show us what she can do in the ring at the expense of Mercedes Martinez having to sell for her for and, in doing so, losing a chunk of her dominant aura.

The other alternative is to just use better workers so that at least the matches are good. Sure, it’s nice for WWE to show that their culturally diverse with their choice of competitors, but the opportunity cost of it is a poor standard of match and this wasn’t a platform that could really afford to be showcasing bad wrestling. There was absolutely no need to have bad wrestlers such as Sage Beckett, Ayesha Raymond, and Marti Belle stinking up the place for the sake of having a diverse range of women of all shapes and sizes from all over the world. Even if you sub in a good worker for Ayesha Raymond to do the job to Toni Storm and you get to showcase that Toni Storm is good at selling, working from the bottom, and can produce a good match, you still have the problem that the objective of a showcase match is to showcase the featured act in the best light, and that’s kicking ass, not getting their ass kicked.

A showcase match should be such a simple formula that even an idiot would struggle to mess up. You put the featured act in there with an act who you consider collateral damage in order to get over the act that you want to showcase. You then have the featured act run through all of their signature moves looking completely and utterly dominant before finishing it with their finisher in no time at all. And the weirdest thing is, if the featured act is a heel, that’s exactly what they do!

That’s exactly how acts like Ryback and more recently Braun Strowman have both got really over. Even in the tournament itself, with Shayna Baszler, they got the formula spot on. But once the featured act is a babyface, WWE’s natural instinct is to switch to them being plucky underdogs who withstand an ass kicking in order to narrowly find a way to win and live to fight another day. Working from the bottom to gain a valiant victory is a formula that can get a babyface over but only if their opponent is someone credible. Otherwise, they just look like a geek getting their asses kicked by a nobody loser.

A showcase for Mercedes Martinez should have been her running through all her power-based offense showing off her dominant attitude. A showcase for Toni Storm should have been her running through all her signature spots showing off her swagger. A showcase for Bianca Belair should have been her getting over her power, her athleticism, and her hair whip spot. A showcase for Dakota Kai should have been a dominant match where she showcases her kicks and her bubbly personality. A showcase for Nicole Savoy should have been her showing off her suplexes and submissions. None of them happened and thus none of those acts were given the best platform to get themselves over.

(3) Kairi Sane vs. Asuka Can Be Huge

Without doubt the star of the Mae Young Classic was Kairi Sane. She was the act that got over the most and was really the key to the tournament not falling totally flat from a match quality perspective. Her match was the highlight of each round and it was really only her matches that came close to meeting the standards set by the women in NXT. Kairi has an extremely bright future in WWE. Her infectious charisma and organic loveable aura will make up for any language difficulties and her in-ring ability will allow her to be part of matches that can more than match the best male matches on a card.

Modern WWE is a weird beast in so many ways. One of them being the contrasting cultures of NXT and Raw & Smackdown. Kairi Sane has a whole world of new opponents to be paired up with to produce exciting matches but maybe none more intriguing than against Asuka. Sadly, with Asuka vacating the NXT Womens Championship and moving to Raw, the prospect of that match shall have to go on hold until Kairi goes through her NXT run and hopefully ends up on the same brand as Asuka. Which leaves many viewers with the weird feeling of wishing that a match that they really want to see could have happened on a smaller scale in NXT rather than on the biggest platform that the world of wrestling offers.

And I’m totally in that camp, too. If there was a passing-of-the-torch style match to end Asuka’s run in NXT and put the belt on Kairi, there’s no doubt that it would be great and that NXT wouldn’t dilute it. Doing it on the main roster gives them a bigger platform and the opportunity for the match to get over and reap returns to a much higher degree, but it comes at the all too real worry that creative on the main roster won’t get the most out of it and will significantly dampen how much we’ll enjoy it. WWE’s confidence rating for doing great pairings justice on the main roster is so low that it probably won’t be as good or as effective when it does happen on the main roster, but there’s so many great dynamics in play that if done right it could be a real legacy moment for women’s wrestling in WWE.

What makes Asuka and Kairi Sane such an intriguing pairing is that there are so many similarities between them yet they’re also such contrasting acts. They’re both amazing female wrestlers from Japan who also have that invaluable believability when they wrestle. If they motion that they’re about to hurt you then you buy into that woman facing impending doom. Yet despite that, their personalities in the ring are also worlds apart. In Asuka, you’ve got a darker more sinister personality who just enjoys beating people up and looks like she’s having a little too much fun doing so. Contrastingly with Kairi, you have this warm adorable personality who comes to the ring with a smile on her face and comes across as someone who wants to have as much fun as a wrestling match can be. Until it stops being fun and she finds herself in a battle that is. Then all the differences step aside and what you get is two badasses just kicking ass and looking unstoppable doing it. And just like that two women who seem like they only share a race in common suddenly appear awfully similar.

This would require a lot of forward planning that nobody should have any faith in WWE to pull off, but if both acts went along this path then it could create a legitimately era defining match capable of main eventing a marquee WWE PPV based on merit rather than gender. Have Kairi do her obligatory year in NXT and repeat exactly what you did with Asuka but with the twist of it being Kairi’s personality in the undefeatable force spot. She comes in and wins the title straight away at Takeover Houston and goes unbeaten until she comes to the end of her run, vacates the belt, and declares that she’s heading to whatever brand Asuka is on to take her undefeated streak from her.

Meanwhile, Asuka debuts on the main roster running through everyone and holding onto the title until Kairi comes up. You give her Kairi 3-6 months of building her record and her personality up on the roster noting from day one that her aim is to end Asuka’s undefeated streak. Give the audience something to look forward to and add more stakes to each of their matches before they get to facing each other. Then you have two super long undefeated streaks on the line and you get to reap the rewards.

Asuka’s undefeated streak has been built up to such a level now that there are very few people who would have the legitimacy and the credibility to actually work as the conqueror of the streak. It has to be someone who can go as hard as Asuka at her hardest and it needs to be a match that is built up far in advance. Kairi Sane offers the perfect mix of contrasting yet similar character traits to Asuka to make for a really intriguing pairing along with having the legitimacy in her fighting style to not only take on but to beat someone as protected as Asuka has been.

(4) Everything Felt Rushed

Only WWE will really know the true extent to the difference which the block distribution of the episodes made compared to the weekly distribution of the Cruiserweight Classic. For me personally, however, the distribution made the tournament feel rushed and somewhat of a chore to watch.

Not everyone has the fortune of being able to watch around three hours of extra WWE footage in the span of a few days. And for those who don’t, the Mae Young Classic may very well have felt like an uphill struggle to be able to watch in time while avoiding spoilers from people who had already watched them. That’s absolutely what it felt like for me. It didn’t feel like leisurely viewing, it felt almost like a chore making sure that I found time to watch them all before the next injection of episodes.

I felt like I was personally rushing through the tournament in order to keep up, but it also felt like WWE themselves were rushing through the distribution of the tournament. In the span of 16 days the whole thing was over and done with. Weekly viewing and binge watching each have their pros and cons, but one of the key advantages that weekly releases have that the Mae Young Classic really missed out on is the ability to create a growing buzz and build momentum from one show to the next.

That momentum really helped to get over the Cruiserweight Classic and by the time the final episode arrived, it felt much bigger in stature than the first episode and felt more momentous to you as a viewer because you’d been on a long journey yourself throughout the tournament. Each week a new episode would drop, get rave reviews, and the show would garner more attention from viewers who weren’t going to watch but ended up watching purely from the word of mouth promotion that the show was receiving over an extended period of time. And prolonged word of mouth promotion becomes a much stronger force than word of mouth that lasts a couple of weeks and then dies once the fad is over. A similar thing happened with the UK Championship Tournament back in January, too. Because it was all over and done with in the span of one weekend, it was hard to build up any momentum for the concept of the tournament. The buzz around it only lasted about a week. That’s not a lot of time for something to attract that extra influx of viewers generated from word of mouth or to create a lasting legacy.

It wasn’t just the way the episodes were released that made the tournament feel rushed, it was also the episode themselves that felt rushed. Restricting yourself to four matches within a 45-50 minute episode doesn’t offer the platform for many matches to develop into something that leaves a lasting impression. Not every first round match needed to be or should have been a 10+ minute match, but by restricting so many matches to the 5 minute mark, it gave off the impression that the matches were being rushed through and that they didn’t trust the women to work longer matches to the degree that they trusted the men in the Cruiserweight Classic.

Even as you got into the later rounds, the matches still felt short on time relative to what you’d expect the men to receive in the same context. For acts like Shayna Baszler, it actually helps their matches and for someone like Kairi Sane it doesn’t stop their matches from being good. What I’m referring to is more in terms of perceptions. You established a template with the Cruiserweight Classic and what you essentially said with the Mae Young Classic was that because it’s with the women rather than the men this time we’ll run through everything a bit quicker. Fewer taping dates, fewer episodes, less ring time, a quicker release schedule. The whole tournament just felt rushed and, as a result, failed to get the most returns out of it.

(5) More Promo Time Is Needed

The Cruiserweight Classic had this same problem, but it managed to get away with it due to the in ring work being so excellent as well as the ability of the wrestlers to get their characters and personalities over in the ring. The Mae Young Classic wasn’t a showcase of a wide group of brilliant wrestlers who could rely solely on their ring work to get themselves over like acts such as Gran Metalik and Kota Ibushi were able to do. But what the Mae Young Classic did feature was a great mix of really interesting and compelling characters. The problem was, we never really got the chance to get to know these personalities in much depth outside of their in ring work.

Yes, it would involve more time needing to be added to the episodes, and possibly even an extra episode or two being added to the schedule. But that really shouldn’t be an issue for WWE production-wise. All of the talent is already there and, with the episodes airing on their own network, there’s no restrictions relating to run time and how many episodes the tournament needs to be aired within. It’s no effort to send an interviewer down to the ring after each match to conduct a short 1-2 minute interview with the winner. Doing that provides them a platform to get their personalities over and give us as viewers another reason to care about wanting to see them either win or lose their next match. They actually even did that with some backstage interviews conducted by Alundra Blayze that were only released online rather than being made part of the show.

What we get with the 1-2 minute introduction videos serve as good but basic introductions to each character, but they don’t provide a platform to tell complex stories and give any depth to any of the characters. Take someone like Serena Deeb, for instance, who had a very complex backstory. All of that got condensed down to “I abused alcohol and paid the consequences.” Which is fine as a describe-your-story-in-one-sentence soundbite, but for a story that I’m sure the vast majority of the watching audience wouldn’t have been aware of, it’s just nowhere near sufficient. String the number of episodes out some more so that instead of boom boom boom one match after the other, give the show time to breathe and have a change of pace with a sit-down interview with one of the wrestlers you want to feature in the tournament. Give someone like Serene Deeb the platform to actually tell her story and give viewers the best opportunity to invest in her journey in the tournament and possibly afterwards.

Likewise, give the winners the platform of post-match interviews to further get their characters over in ways that their in-ring work can’t. Give Shayna Baszler the platform to gloat about her dominance and get her ego over to make viewers want to see her get beat even more. Give acts like Rhea Ripley and Toni Storm the platform to get the infectious personalities over even more. And give the losers the opportunity too, especially once you get into the second round. Let someone like Sarah Logan get over the disappointment of blowing such a huge opportunity in the first round to make fans sympathise with her. Let fans feel sorry for Serena Deeb’s redemption story coming up short and show how much the loss means to her. Let someone like Piper Niven further get over the show of respect in defeat. And let the winners such as Toni Storm and Kairi Sane pump the crowd up to make viewers even more excited for their next match. We’re talking like 1-2 minutes after each match which would still bring the episodes in under the 60 minute mark.

Promos are a huge part of professional wrestling, especially WWE wrestling. Neglecting them to the extent that they do in these tournaments is a real missed opportunity to help get both their matches and the wrestlers even more over with viewers.

NOW CHECK OUT THE PREVIOUS COLUMN: FIVE COUNT: Five lessons to be learned from the Houston wrestling library including talent sharing, how great Duggan was pre-WWF, more

2 Comments on FIVE COUNT: Five lessons to be learned from WWE’s Mae Young Classic including binge watch format, backstories lacking, early match formats flawed

  1. So, as with the rest of the fat-shaming staff [other than Wade] at PWT you hate Piper and the other bigger girls. You also don’t like the UFC girls. And you don’t like the wrestling. Umm, did you like Lillian’s guest appearance or was the whole tournament a 0-fer for you? It was a fun made for TV tournament of mostly amateur wrestlers. If you expected NXT Buffalo then you set yourself up for disappointment. I enjoyed everything as I have said before EXCEPT the fact that Vince and HHH disrespected most of the wrestlers by making this basically a promo for Rousey at Wrestlemania.

  2. “The quality of the wrestling, though, just couldn’t match up to the standards set by women’s wrestling in NXT over the last few years. And when you consider that this was supposed to be a defining moment for the “Women’s Revolution,” that really isn’t good enough.”

    “The Mae Young Classic should have been a massive showcase for the standard of wrestling for people to expect in WWE in the coming years”

    No, wrong, the Mae Young Classic was neither intended nor advertised as being to set the standard for women’s wrestling in the WWE. You’re criticising something it wasn’t and didn’t aspire to be.

    It was a showcase for up and coming women who either weren’t yet signed or hadn’t yet made it to NXT TV let alone the main roster, a chance for them to get in front of the WWE’s audience and show their stuff.

    If it was to set the standard for women’s wrestling then it would feature polished performers like Charlotte Flair, Bayley etc and would probably take place on Raw or Smackdown.

    Then your segment on “showcases” you seem to think that what we all wanted to see was a bunch of squashes where the better participants got all the offence and destroyed someone who signed onto the tournament apparently not to help make her own name but to do nothing but sell for Kairi or Toni or whatever. Gods no. Terrible for most of the performers, terrible for viewers.

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