By Tony Cline, Staff Writer
This weekend the WWE put on their best event of the year, and it did not disappoint. It had a Match of the Year candidate, a card that exceeded expectations, and a main event between two of the best talents in the business today. I am speaking, of course, of NXT Takeover Orlando. How does the WWE manage to consistently create awesome shows with NXT and yet fail to deliver in the big shows for the WWE brand? Well, for starters, we know that Vince McMahon has no involvement in NXT, so that’s probably most of the answer. However, let’s examine some of the differences between the two shows.
First, and this is very important, NXT selected their best talent and made a show out of them. The main roster selected ALL of their available talent and made a show out of them. Why does WWE do this every year at WrestleMania? Well, it’s mostly because Vince keeps treating them like they are independent contractors (they are not, and if any of them would sue, it would end that illusion in a hurry) and he only pays them their show money if they appear on the show. It really is time to start treating these athletes like the employees they are, pay them all guaranteed salaries, and quit damaging your biggest show every year because you need to shoehorn 100 talents into a seven hour show.
Second, Takeover was about two and a half hours. WrestleMania was seven hours long!! Seven hours!! Yes, of course that included the two hour preshow, but since they had three matches on that preshow, including one of the best matches of the night in the Cruiserweight title contest, missing it was not really an option. In two and a half hours, Takeover put on one of the best wrestling events of the past year, perhaps second only to Wrestle Kingdom 11. Seven hours at Mania was just too much. They realized it, it seemed, around the five hour mark and started rushing matches. The SmackDown women’s title match, a six-woman affair, lasted less than six minutes. Now, I hate such large matches to begin with, unless they are elimination matches which can be pretty cool, but if you are putting six women in the ring in the penultimate match of the night, give them a little longer to work. The extreme length, and then the rushed matches at the end, really hurt the show and probably had many fans tuning out before the big moment of the night.
Third, the booking for this show left something to be desired. We will go match-by-match and discuss the successes and failures of booking. The Aries-Neville match was well-booked (strange how that seems to happen in the parts of the show Vince likes to stay away from) in the months leading into WrestleMania. They had a believable feud, the heel had heat, the babyface had huge fan support, and then their match last night was a good match with a finish that leaves the story somewhere to go moving forward. The Andre the Giant Battle Royal – also known as an excuse to pack 40 more talents into a show than should be there – had a fairly decent build. A lot of mid-carders were clamoring for a place, and then the Big Show and Braun Strowman, who have had a simmering feud for weeks, were also entered. Proper booking would have seen Show and Strowman clean house and then face off with Show having a chance to pass the torch to the younger talent. Instead, the WWE wanted to get some rub from involving a huge celebrity, and since the Shaq deal fell through, they sacrificed what could have been in this match to get Rob Gronkowski involved and allow Mojo Rawley to go over. Don’t get me wrong, I like Mojo a lot, but he has not been used in a storyline in close to a year, and that isn’t about to change, so they just wasted this match and the push it could have given to a talent they are actually going to make use of in the future. The next match up was Dean Ambrose defending his Intercontinental title against Baron Corbin. The booking on this match, and of the IC belt in general, has been one of the biggest disappointments on SmackDown. Once this belt was put on Dean, it has seemed to disappear as anything of importance. Even Corbin never talked about how he wanted to win the belt other than as a means to punish Dean. The buildup to this match was a series of mostly locker room brawls involving various weapons, including a forklift. With that type of lead-in feud, it made perfect sense that this was a no-DQ or Falls Count Anywhere match. Unfortunately, that apparently made a little too much sense because the WWE booked this as a normal match. The work in the match was good, the storytelling was good, and the ending would be fine except that WWE has seemed to be pushing Corbin of late, and I am not sure where this ending really takes his character. Perhaps the intention is for Dean to return to a more prominent role in the show; if so, the booking on this match made sense, if not, it was just another wasted finish. I guess we shall see.
The main card kicked off with AJ Styles vs. Shane McMahon. I’m a huge fan of Shane’s, but you have to question the booking decision that saw him climb in the ring at Wrestlemania with one of the top five wrestlers in the world today. Why wasn’t AJ given a better match to showcase his talents on the grandest stage? I spent weeks asking this question, and then I got surprise with what was one of the best matches of the night. Shane told a good story, he chain wrestled, he really made the match look believable, and AJ did what AJ does which is turn in another great performance. Thankfully, AJ went over, so the booking on this match was not terrible, but you still have to question how we got here in the first place. This was followed up by the only bit of good booking I have seen from Raw in a while, the Jericho-Owens matchup. The story on this feud has been a slow burning masterpiece with a turn that, even though we all saw it coming, shocked and emotionally moved almost everyone. The match was not as high-quality as I expected, and the finish seemed a little commonplace for such a great buildup, but with Jericho needing to tour again with Fozzy putting the US belt on KO will allow that belt to rise in prestige again while keeping Owens busy so that Samoa Joe and Finn Balor can involve themselves in the world title picture.
The next match was for the Raw Women’s Title in a four-way elimination match. The booking coming into this match was decent, though with only four viable women in the title picture, it is easy to maintain that natural feud. With the story line leading into Mania, it seemed the logical storyline would be to eliminate Nia and Charlotte and have Sasha Banks execute a heel turn to beat Bayley for the belt. Instead, the ending saw Bayley retain over Charlotte, which makes me scratch my head as to how we proceed on the Banks-Bayley feud that it seemed Raw was building toward. The one bright spot was that Bayley ended the match with an elbow from the top. Hopefully, this will be her new finisher and we can let go of that ridiculous Bayley-to-belly suplex nonsense. The Raw Tag Team Titles were on the line next in a ladder match. Anyone who knows anything about wrestling could see how this was going to play out from a mile away. The match became a ladder match in the last week on the flimsiest of reasoning, and the Hardy Boys lost their ROH titles earlier in the weekend and said goodbye to the ROH fans. It did not take a genius to see the Hardys being surprise additions to this match and them being handed the titles with no work or story line. The booking going into this match was not bad, the booking of the match was atrocious. I understand the fans are Hardy marks, but you have three tag teams in the ring that have worked their asses off for this company and the company just screws them for a cheap pop.
The next match was the Cena/Bella-Miz/Maryse mixed tag match. The lead in to this match was the usual great promo job by Miz and lackluster work by Cena…until last Tuesday when John Cena cut the best promo of his life. They finally got me interested in this match a little, but the match was designed simply as a vehicle to showcase the Totally Bellas couple and as a lead-in for John to publicly propose to Nikki, which he did after the match with a ring that was nearly the size of the dome in the WrestleMania set. With the light from that rock reflecting into her eyes, Nikki really won’t be able to see John. The proposal was a cool moment, but burying one of the best heels in the business right now to have it was a booking mistake on SmackDown’s part. Plus, Cena is leaving the company for a while, and the guy leaving should always go under. This match was followed up by a very solid HHH vs. Rollins match. Both guys did a great job in the ring, they told the story well, the build up was great, the spot where Steph goes through a table was a good pop for the crowd, and the finish was exactly what it should have been. I would say Raw did another good job here, but I think we all know that HHH was likely the one actually booking this feud, so he will get the praise. Next up was the WWE Title match pitting the Eater of Worlds against the Viper. The build up to this match was awesome work, some of the best WWE has done in ages. The in-ring work was a little lackluster for these two athletes, but the storytelling was great with Bray showing off his powers by turning the ring into a pile of maggots and other nasty invertebrates at different points in the match. However, the finish, a clean pin in the middle for Orton, leaves me confused. Bray, who had hundreds of followers with him the last few weeks came to the ring alone and, despite his powers, lost cleanly to Orton, a mere mortal. I thought SmackDown’s writers were finally understanding how to use Wyatt, but now I have my doubts again.
The Universal Title match was awful: awful booking, awful performances, awful performers, just awful. In a match that lasted 4:44, the combatants used four moves. Total. They used them repeatedly, but only four. Goldberg used a spear and a jackhammer while Brock used a German suplex and an F5. That’s it. Not even a headlock or an arm drag to mar this perfectly horrible monstrosity of a match that managed to devalue the Universal title almost as much as it ruined this show. Whoever conceived of and booked this feud and this match, and especially involving the title in it, should be fired forever from WWE (yep, I’m looking at you Vince). Then, they have the gall to follow this disaster up with a six-woman title match that was given all of 5:31 for six women to perform. Could you tell us any louder that your “Women’s Revolution” is just a tag line you don’t believe yourselves? The match was horribly booked with no discernible build or story line. And, while it is nice to see Naomi get that belt back in front of her hometown crowd, the decision to have Bliss tap while protecting all the talent you’re never going to use makes zero sense. This was SmackDown’s greatest failure on an otherwise decent night for them.
Finally, we arrive at the main event, Roman vs. the Undertaker. It was clear coming in that this would be Taker’s last match. The build to get here was a little contrived as WWE can’t seem to bring themselves to make Roman a heel and he was never going to be the face in this match. In case the nature of this match for Taker needed to be made more obvious, the WWE announced that Jim Ross would be allowed to do play-by-play for the main event. This match was billed as a no holds barred match, but the referee repeatedly forced breaks for grabbing the ropes, and the introduction of a single steel chair was really the only “no holds barred” aspect of the match. I won’t go too hard on this match because I am certain Taker was allowed to have anything he asked for, as he should have been. He has been a staple of this organization for more than two decades and has been involved in more iconic moments than probably any other wrestler in the company’s history. At several times in this match, it was clear Taker could not make his body do what he wanted it to do. The pace of the match was very slow as Reigns often walked to a corner and gave Mark time to catch his breath and get back to the action. The storytelling in the match was good, and Roman did his best to keep Taker from looking like the aged, arthritic man he has become. Critics of Reigns will tell you that he stuck too closely to his two main moves in this match, but the reason was clearly because Taker could no longer really do much else. I thought Roman did the best he could considering what he had to work with. Despite the limitations in this match with Taker’s abilities, they still put on a match that lasted five times as long as the title match. Then, at the end when the Phenom called for the end, you could see the heel in Roman break and the sadness in his eyes for what he had to do. The sight that followed, of the Undertaker alone in the ring, removing his gloves, coat and hat and leaving them in the center as he walked away for the final time, seeing him receive the emotional send off someone of his caliber truly deserves, was one of the more emotional moments I have experienced as a wrestling fan.
That was a long examination of Wrestlemania, but it was a long event. Compare that to the booking on NXT: five matches, almost all good or great matches, almost all with great booking around them, in a two and a half hour show so all the talent had ample time to put on a good show. NXT led off with an 8-person mixed tag match that pitted Sanity against Tye Dillinger, Roderick Strong, Ruby Riot, and Kassius Ohno, a late replacement for No Way Jose who was injured in an attack earlier in the day. The booking leading into this match was long and strong as this feud has been brewing for almost six months. The match was good, and the finish pushed the Sanity stable as an unstoppable force which opens up a lot of avenues going forward. The second match was Aleister Black vs. Andrade “Cien” Almas. There was no build to this match whatsoever as it was Black’s debut with the promotion, but the win over an established star pushed Black going forward and establishes credibility in his character. The booking of the finish made sense as you look at the long-term prospects of this character. The next match was a Triple Threat match for the tag team titles. I have mentioned before how I dislike such matches, but this one was the exception. These three teams worked their asses off (DIY and the Revival may be the two best tag teams in the business today) and turned in a Match of the Year candidate. This was on top of great booking leading into this match and a finish that, while unpopular, reinforces the monster credentials of the Authors of Pain and allows the other two teams to move on to the main roster in the near future. The women’s title match has been building since Ember Moon showed up in NXT last year, and this felt like a clash of the titans match. The finish saw Asuka maintain her inbeaten streak and retain the belt, and it leaves a lot of options for both competitors going forward because it protected Moon’s finish by never allowing her to apply it and have Asuka kick out of it. The finale of the show was the NXT title match between Shinsuke Nakamura, one of the top five wrestlers in the world, and Bobby Roode, one of the best heels in the game. This was also a battle of entrances as these two have the two best entrances in WWE today. This feud has also been built up for many months, and this was a rematch for a belt that Roode took from Shinsuke originally. Roode ended up retaining, hopefully signaling Nakamura’s move to the main roster. Again, the booking on this feud was wonderful and the booking of the match set up the future of both competitors. It amazes me that NXT can better build feuds with an hour a week of television than the main roster can with five hours a week.
I know this has been a long column, but WrestleMania was a ridiculously long event, and I felt it needed to be adequately reviewed to make my point that NXT is showing it up. The main roster has more and bigger talent, it has more television time to tell its stories, and yet it seems to always fall short of the standard set by its little brother promotion. NXT put on a great wrestling event, and WWE put on a spectacle that was more cringe-inducing than great. What is the biggest difference between the two? Vince McMahon doesn’t touch NXT. The future of WWE is bright under the talented management of Paul Levasque, but I certainly wish Vince would step aside soon and allow the clearly superior wrestling mind take over so we don’t have to suffer through many more years of mediocrity on the main show. Trips has shown in NXT what the company will be like under him, and it is glorious.