SPOTLIGHTED PODCAST ALERT (YOUR ARTICLE BEGINS A FEW INCHES DOWN)...
Art is the creation of something from nothing that elicits a reaction. Pro wrestling embodies that definition. In wrestling, men and women step inside the squared circle and create with their actions, expressions, words, and bodies to garner a specific and distinct reaction from their audience. In turn, the audience responds to, engages with, and affects the work. No other art form in the world carries that uniqueness. In this column, we explore that art form inside real and relevant examples. Enjoy.
It wouldn’t be going out on a limb to say that Money In The Bank has taken over the fourth spot in WWE’s “big four” annual events, right? With Survivor Series guaranteed to get a laugh each year due to the brand supremacy storylines, Money In The Bank easily slots into that final four position along with WrestleMania, Summerslam, and Royal Rumble. The event features one of WWE’s most exciting matches in the ladder match and has stakes involved that rival the Rumble itself. This year, the Money In The Bank event is even more significant in nature as the WWE has built a weekend around it with NXT taking over Chicago along with the main roster. Plus, it’s the second co-branded PPV event on the WWE Network. Anybody with a half a brain would tell you that the company’s first, Backlash, was a massive disappointment so all hands are certainly on deck inside WWE to make Sunday’s event as memorable as possible. With the eyes of the wrestling world on the WWE this weekend and with so much on the line, how’d WWE do in building a card that can succeed at that high level? Let’s find out …
Kevin Owens vs. Braun Strowman vs. Finn Balor vs. Bobby Roode vs. One New Day member vs. Samoa Joe vs. Rusev vs. The Miz – Men’s Money In The Bank Ladder Match
Overall Grade – C+
I’ll start with what I liked about the build. Each participant was portrayed as a viable winner. Sure, there are guys like Braun Strowman and Samoa Joe who the audience is clearly supposed to lean toward, but nobody in this match should be dismissed outright. Not all matches need or should have parity, but when they do and when it’s built correctly, it can be a formula for success. In addition, I’ve enjoyed the stories between individual participants. What this build is lacking from an artistic storyline perspective is the “why?” In six weeks of build, only Braun Strowman has clearly defined that he wants to win the Money In The Bank match so he can go on and cash-in on Brock Lesnar to become Universal Champion. To this point, it appears that people want to win, but nobody else has clearly shown a reason for wanting that. Finn Balor needed to have mic time where he could tell his story and tell the world that becoming Universal Champion would fully complete his return from injury. That wasn’t there and it wasn’t there for any of the wrestlers involved. This was a key ingredient that was glossed over and forgotten about. Also, the contrast in how announcers talk about the match and how the match is presented is off kilter and therefore off base artistically. For six weeks, Michael Cole and his team have driven home the fact that this ladder match is the most dangerous of them all, but then the go-home Raw kicks off with each participant sitting pretty high atop a ladder and free from any threat or danger. For one thing, the shot itself was hokey and juvenile, but it also contradicted how dangerous the match is supposed to be. Same thing with New Day piling pancakes into the briefcase for The Miz – it nullified any element of seriousness that the match had left.
Sasha Banks vs. Natalya vs. Alexa Bliss vs. Ember Moon vs. Lana vs. Charlotte vs. Becky Lynch vs. Naomi – Women’s Money In The Bank Ladder Match
Overall Grade – B-
I won’t, but I could copy the analysis from the men’s match and paste it here as it’s been incredibly similar. Outside of Lana, every woman in this match has a realistic chance at winning. That’s a plus because like the men’s match, it gives the bout parity. Without an alpha-like winner lined up and ready to go, parity is the formula for success here. Natalya has been the star of this build. Not only has she gotten victories and been a part of memorable storyline’s on Raw (good and bad), she’s clicking on a different level in terms of her performance. She’s ditched the quirky cat gimmick and has presented herself as a confident star that is a near equal to the likes of a Ronda Rousey or Nia Jax. Nattie has conveyed that confidence within her concise but focused promos and her dominance in the ring. In addition, she appears to be more invested in the motion’s she’s going through which leads me to believe she may be in the cue to win. On a negative note and also like the men’s match, this bout just hasn’t told a good enough story in terms of the why. The audience has been told that these women each want to win the match, but they haven’t defined the why in that. All in, the artistic grade for this build should fall in line with its men’s counterpart. That said, the success Natalya has had within it gives it the small leg up.
Ronda Rousey vs. Nia Jax – Raw Women’s Championship
Overall Grade – C
Ahh, the bi-polar feud of the card. This program has had some high highs and some low lows which is why it clocks in right where it doesn’t want to be. Average. Jax looked great at times and looked awful at others. Same with Rousey. One week she was successful in portraying her character and the next she looked like a nonsensical bully in high school. For Jax, this build has had its moments from an artistic point of view with her making emphatic star quality statements and showing a confident attitude which she mirrored with perfect facial expressions and even better move execution. The artistic side from Rousey is still lagging behind her athletic prowess. She still has not progressed in terms of controlling her emotions and using them to her advantage. The result has been a confusing character that the audience isn’t entirely sure how to react to. Rousey is still green and still has time to grow as a performer and this first singles match for her will be an important step in that growth. That said, WWE didn’t sign Rousey for average and that’s exactly what this build has been.
AJ Styles vs. Shinsuke Nakamura – WWE Championship – Last Man Standing Match
Overall Grade – B+
The post-WrestleMania version of Styles/Nakamura has lived up to altered expectations fans had for this program since they both were brought into the WWE. Styles has consistently proved he could maintain a high in-ring product at his age, but Nakamura has been unable to say the same thing. Because of that, fans were let down after their WrestleMania dream match, but by tapping into the art of their character’s, both Styles and Nakamura have generated a renewed and revitalized interest in their story. Throughout the build, AJ Styles has regularly looked the part of SmackDown Live’s “A” star. His charisma and aura are at a new level of over and audiences truly see him as the lead man for the brand. For Nakamura, the heel turn took a load off his shoulders that he was unable to carry. As a babyface, crowds wanted to see his old self and his great matches that he simply wasn’t able to execute anymore. As a heel, his performances are now rooted in the art of his character. He’s utilized his quirkiness and morphed it into creepiness. The mannerisms and gyrations on the way to the ring aren’t cool anymore, but are annoying. Plus, he’s changed his in-ring style to display and convey the creepiness that now defines his character. With both AJ and Nakamura fully bound to their characters, both characters play off of and help the other. Against Nakamura’s creepy calm nature, the every-man nature of AJ is magnified. In turn, because Styles identifies perfectly in his role, Nakamura is elevated as well. In the end, both men complement each other nicely and the outcome has been a feud reborn from its original ashes which is now the premiere program on the card.
Roman Reigns vs. Jinder Mahal
Overall Grade – B
Any artistic grades for Roman Reigns automatically need to be downgraded due to the reaction he receives on a regular basis. It’s 180 degrees off from what he’s going for and can’t be rewarded because of that. So, this build receiving a B is a giant win. Even though Reigns continues to say boneheaded things that make him look like a jerk, I want to see him have this fight with Mahal. From a storyline perspective, they’ve build this via an old school mentality. Mahal cost Reigns an opportunity and Reigns now wants revenge. Simple, but effective. Reigns has showcased an increased intensity with his mic work, while Mahal has artistically played off that intensity to showcase his cowardly character. Because it’s Reigns, Jinder, and Chicago, the match is likely not going to be received well. For that, Reigns’s push is to blame, not the intricacy of the build to this match itself.
Seth Rollins vs. Elias – WWE Intercontinental Championship
Overall Grade – B+
It’s amazing the kind of leeway given when a babyface is as over as Seth Rollins is today. Nothing in this program thus far has been astronomically amazing or out of this world creative. It’s been an A to B feud that’s rooted in Rollins wanting revenge against Elias for attacking him from behind and Elias wanting the Intercontinental Championship. That said, even in its simplistic nature, it’s been effective and fun due to the fact that both men are cast well, particularly Rollins. Because Rollins is as over as he is, he masks the trolling of Elias and is able to turn that trolling into relevant heel heat. A weaker babyface wouldn’t be able to accomplish that. In addition, because of being cast successfully, the artistic dynamic between both men has allowed them to be more effective in their roles. Elias’s aggressive beat down of Rollins showcased a darker side to the Elias character that he should stick with more if he wants to continue ascending up the card. To nobody’s surprise, Rollins has countered that aggression well and has portrayed himself as a very confident champion going into the match. All in, this build would be exhibit A in pro wrestling 101 class. Pro wrestling doesn’t have to be complicated to be successful and this feud is indicative of that fact.
Daniel Bryan vs. Big Cass
Overall Grade – B-
Alright, let’s call a spade a spade. People want to see Daniel Bryan doing more than toiling with the likes of Big Cass. After nearly two years in retirement, his return to the ring was met with fanfare and excitement, but those emotions haven’t equaled quality feuds. Now, with all that said and to be fair, the specific week to week build for his match with Cass has been effective. Cass has stayed consistent with his bully-like persona and has been able to display that persona well to the crowd while on the microphone. As for Bryan, he plays the role of getting bullied so well that it’s hard to give this a bad grade. Bryan’s WWE.com exclusive promo was beautiful in that it perfectly articulated Bryan’s mindset ahead of the match. Again, we know this feud is under serving Bryan and is many notches below where he should be. That is its biggest problem. Looking at the feud itself frame by frame though, it’s been logical which is the best to be expected.
Carmella vs. Asuka – SmackDown Women’s Championship
Overall Grade – B+
Say hello to Carmella, folks. The build to Money In The Bank has been a coming out party for her. Like Coach always says on commentary, the process is slowing down for her and she’s using that realization to its fullest potential. She’s got an aura of confidence and a look that directly aligns with the character she’s trying to be. She’s shown an ability to sell her match on the mic and has progressed to the point where she’s interacting with the audience and altering tidbits of her promo in real time based on their reaction. Her cadence is on point, she uses the right inflections, and is able to live and convey who she is as good as anyone else on the roster. She now needs to prove she can have a match and Asuka is the perfect opponent to get that out of her. In watching this build, it’s not hard to realize that its focus is Carmella. Maybe it was supposed to be like that, maybe it wasn’t, but she’s taken the ball and is running with it downfield.
Bobby Lashley vs. Sami Zayn
Overall Grade – F
If within the build, a star that is a part of that very build, tells us how bad it is, a failing grade it receives. Lashley vs. Zayn has been an artistic nightmare. The crowd hasn’t reacted, Lashley’s smiles make him come off as a robot programmed to smile rather than an actual person deciding to do so, and the awkwardness of Lashley attempting to remember his rebuttal lines is laughable. Nobody has come out on the other end of this looking better than they did going in. The last hope they have is a good match that peaks audience interest. Outside of that, this build has been a flop and painted both guys in a very negative light.
The Bludgeon Brothers vs. Gallows & Anderson
Overall Grade – D+
Nobody has seen enough of this to call the build an artistic success. Gallows & Anderson were plucked out of obscurity to become challengers and have not leveraged any artistic elements that would allow for an emotional connection with the crowd. On the flip side, even though they’re pushed as champions, the Bludgeon Brothers are presented as childish cartoons that don’t allow for pro wrestling art in its truest form. Think bad guys on 90s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle programs. They’re jokes. Maybe this match will be the best on the card, maybe it will be the worst, but the week to week build simply hasn’t featured enough from either side to make it worth the while.
NOW CHECK OUT LAST WEEK’S COLUMN: ARTISTRY OF WRESTLING: The top 3 artistic moments from Okada vs. Omega at Dominion 2018