For a real masterpiece of championship match booking, I strongly suggest you stop reading this column and watch the NXT UK tag team title match from the TakeOver: Blackpool special this past weekend. Not only was it a well booked, solidly worked match in front of a hot, enthusiastic crowd, but it also showed exactly how a championship can be given value through good booking.
For those that don’t follow the brand, and holy smokes you should, here is the story so far:
Moustache Mountain, the team of first ever UK champion Tyler Bate and his friend/mentor Trent Seven spent much of 2018 gaining a US following by appearing on NXT TV and feuding with the Undisputed Era. They briefly won the NXT tag titles during the second UK special and opened the first episode of the weekly TV show by challenging the rest of the roster to find partners and challenge them for the belts.
It’s worth adding here that both guys are over like Grover and get about a big a pop from the crowd as you are ever likely to hear, especially on their home turf in the UK.
With the announcement of the belts out there, various teams formed and competed to impress the general manager, UK legend Johnny Saint, in order to be selected for a final four set of matches with the winners going on to fight for the belts at TakeOver.
Teams were formed and matches were had, all with one purpose in mind: to be the first ever NXT UK tag team champions.
Along the way, one team that started racking up the wins was the combination of “Liverpool’s number one” Zack Gibson and James Drake. Where Bate and Seven are beloved babyfaces, Gibson is an absolutely hated heel. His appearance is met with a chorus of boos and a sing-song of “If you hate Gibson, stand up!” that transforms into “if you hate Gibson, shoes off!” that has every single person in the place up, with a shoe off. Its not nuclear heat, but its hot.
The tournament played out and it came down to Moustache Mountain vs Gibson and Drake in the final. Bate and Seven wore gear to homage the British Bulldogs, the heels did their thing, and the crowd ate it all up.
But the babyfaces lost. Which is the best way the thing could possibly have been booked.
You see, with a team as hot as Moustache Mountain winning the belts off the bat the reaction from the crowd would have been enormous. It would have been another feather in Bate’s cap and it would have made them a trio of champions with fellow British Strong Style member Pete Dunne.
However, if the babyfaces beat the top heel team the first time they fight, what’s the reason for them to fight again? Now, with the belts on Gibson and Drake, they have bragging rights, the fans have more to boo and the babyfaces have a journey to get the belts from them that, when it pays off, will be bigger then them winning the first time.
It’s presenting pro wrestling as it should be: a dramatic, athletic contest with a predetermined outcome. Really, pro wrestling is theater and the Brits certainly know a thing or two about that.
The reason I bring this match up is because one of the main criticism of the WWE main roster is that wins, losses, and championships don’t mean anything. A critique that was not so subtly driven home at the All Elite Wrestling press conference by owner Tony Khan and Cody don’t-call-him Rhodes as they defined their product by the fact that in AEW: wins were going to mean something. Which, as simple as it sounds, is something that wrestling fans that only watch RAW or SmackDown Live haven’t had on our plates for a while.
Sure, there are plenty of “if you win this match..” stipulations on a given Monday night, but none of them seem to add up to anything. Guys win and lose at rate of 50% and never seem to really care about what happened the week before when they turn up on TV. Or, in the case of Brock Lesnar, if they turn up on TV.
The heat is in the belt. If you don’t see it, you can’t get excited about it. If guys aren’t actively calling out the champion unless it is their designated turn, how do you know anyone wants it? If the champion himself never speaks a word about why he wants to be champion, why should I care? Which could be the secret sauce in the success of Finn Balor, if they give him the chance to cook.
Balor was the first Universal Champion and is a guy that fans really, really like. He’s undersized, jumps around, has a great look, and every now and then covers himself in body paint – a big plus in the wrasslin’ community. Moreover, he is someone that shows up week after week and doesn’t split the audience in the way that Roman Reigns did. He is a well liked, underdog babyface champion with a legitimate drive to reclaim what he only held for one night. He is a guy that the WWE Universe (TM) can get behind. This is a pivotal moment for the character of Finn Balor. This could be the start of a really huge run for him. But only if he wins.
If Balor does the honours for Brock, then what was the point of his story? And where does he go next? Does he just keep smiling and go work another hundred matches with Lashley and Elias?
I’d say odds are about the same as the average win/loss record on Monday Night RAW: 50/50.
I know, you know, we all know that pro wrestling is predetermined. People that don’t get it are never shy about reminding us, either. But that doesn’t make our reactions to what goes on in the ring any less real. A good match should elicit any of a handful of different emotion: happiness, disappointment, elation, relief, sadness. Watching a belt change hands needs to mean something. And that was the genius of the UK tag team title match: the win meant something for Drake and Gibson. They are the first champions and they beat the babyfaces, shutting up a hot crowd that hated them. The loss meant something for Moustache Mountain; they came seconds from achieving a goal only to live with the heartbreak of defeat. They have a reason to chase and the heels have a reason to run.
It can be the same with Finn Balor. The fans want, no, they need to feel like the belt means something to someone again because it means something to them. They show up every week and invest in the show, so why isn’t the champion, their champion, doing the same thing?
The story for Balor is so clear, so powerful that it will be a real shame if WWE chooses not to tell it. I’m telling you, the guy will take off like a rocket if he gets that belt around his waist.
After all, what better way to set the world on fire?
We all know the heat is in the belt.