Around the Loop: Wrestling Premiere Week Recap

Hey there Loopers, have you all watched enough wrestling yet?

Last week was premiere week for those of us that prefer our combat sports predetermined and, holy smokes did the wrestling gods feel fit to spoil us with a bounty of sports entertainment to consume.

We had the “season premieres” of both Monday Night RAW and Friday Night SmackDown, the launch of AEW Dynamite, the first full episode of NXT on USA and, to cap off the week, Hell in a Cell on the WWE Network.

Not wanting to be left out of all this stuff I strapped into my couch and held on for dear life as I took part in this, the biggest week of pro wrestling buzz in the past 20 years.

There was good, bad and bowling shoe ugly on display last week, so let’s take a quick walk through the yard to see what’s growing with my thoughts on each of the big shows.

Monday Night RAW: Cucks and Pyro

Having quit RAW after the train wreck that was the anniversary show a few months back, I was intrigued to see how a fresh presentation and the guidance of Paul Heyman had affected the WWE’s flagship series. Kicking off the week as it did, RAW began with a bang as we soaked up the pure juvenile pleasure that is fireworks.

Spoiler: they were great.

Also great was the skateboard ramp inspired new RAW set and all the accompanying video screens, lights, digital ring skirts and the rest. Nobody does this stuff like the WWE. With this latest incarnation, the design team once again have shown their creativity and skill. The thing is nuts and I really wish it was a level on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.

RAW featured a new announce team of the excellent Vic Joseph, the not-so-sure-why-he’s-there Dio Madden and the trying-really-hard-not-to-say-something-that-isn’t-2019-appropriate, Jerry Lawler. The team was fine. Joseph is great, but Lawler is hard to get into with his out of date corny jokes. Madden seems to just be there despite having little to no connection to the world of wrestling.

The show was what it was, nothing that was great or really terrible. The ending with Bobby Lashley making out with Lana was cringeworthy but was saved by an appearance from The Fiend.

I haven’t missed RAW and I’m not going to get back into it, but this week was inoffensive at worst and I am a mark for pyro, so I’m not mad that I tuned in.

AEW Dynamite: New kid with an old school feel

I have a full review of the pilot outing from AEW elsewhere on the site, but the gist is this: The show was a solid pro-wrestling program. The crowd was hotter than hell, the arena had a big-time feel, the wrestling was good and the angles all made sense.

This is very much the first date phase with AEW, so there will come a time when perhaps it reveals its weaknesses, but for now, it’s really damn exciting to have a new kid on the block.

Watching AEW reminded me in some ways of a good episode of Monday Nitro from the WCW days. I can’t exactly say if it was the characters, the look or just the sound of Tony Schiavone’s voice, but it hit me in a place that felt familiar and good.

AEW did a fine rating on their first night out and, as we will discuss later in this column, will benefit from some dreadful WWE booking to build on that number this week.

The best part of AEW was that they left me curious and excited for next week, not scratching my head and diverting my eyes from bad acting and awkward, sexless kissing.

NXT on USA: The wrestling show with all the wrestling

As has been well documented within this very column, I am an NXT guy. As a Canadian, I don’t have a live viewing option for my favourite show anymore, so I waited a full day without social media to catch it on the network Thursday night.

Of course, I loved it.

The opening match, an NXT world championship bout between Adam Cole (BAY! BAY!) and Matt Riddle was one of the best matches I have seen this year. It was fast-paced, hard-hitting and innovative. Despite being pretty sure that the Original Bro was not walking out with the gold, the match still delivered a sense of drama and urgency not found in any other match anywhere across this week.

The rest of the show handed us returns in the form of Finn Balor and Tomasso Ciampa, quality matches in both the men’s and women’s divisions and the beginnings of some angles that will develop in the coming weeks.

NXT features the best commentary team in the business of Mauro Ranallo, Nigel McGuinness and Beth Phoenix. Mauro is on an entirely different level than anyone else in the business and although some find his level of excitement to be too much over a two-hour broadcast, I could listen to him call a fight between two pigeons over a stale hot dog and still be sucked in.

While the black and yellow brand did suffer a ratings defeat at the hands of AEW, it wasn’t a slaughter by any means. In fact, when both shows ratings are combined, the number is actually higher than the rating for RAW which speaks to a healthy interest in the business.

The crew at NXT is not messing around when it comes to in-ring work and you know that Monday Night War veterans Triple H, Shawn Michaels and The Road Dogg are ready for a battle behind the scenes.

I love NXT and I can’t wait for next week.

SmackDown on FOX: Big money on display

To say that the new RAW set was spectacular means that an entirely new word has to be invented to describe what the WWE has put together for SmackDown.T he thing is out of this world.

The money that FOX has invested in a long term partnership with WWE was on full display with a set that would make some WrestleManias jealous. There were columns and lights and pyro and video screens and just so much going on it was staggering.

The two-man booth of Michael Cole and Corey Graves was a nice break from three-man booths and I think benefited greatly from the subtraction of Renee Young.

I can’t say that I loved the show or the angles it created as two of the largest ones featured Cain Velasquez and Tyson Fury, guys I wouldn’t recognize if they walked down the street. I am sure there is a portion of the audience that was surprised, happy, or excited to see these two combat athletes, but for me as someone that only follows wrestling, they were just two more guys bumping all my favorite workers down the card.

I wasn’t stressed to see Kofi do a 10-second job to Brock Lesnar. With a match that short, his night of work was relatively easy and he didn’t have to take any Germans to get his payday. It is sad that his reign is over and the focus will be put back on Brock. But anyone that follows the product knew this was what was going to happen, so at least they ripped the Band-Aid off and got it over with.

SmackDown also featured a visit from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who did his thing and reminded me what it was like when WWE talents were really over and not just there. His connection and ability to get the fans on board with anything, including having them chant “S.T.D.” at King Corbin, is unmatched and a joy to behold. He looks great and was kind enough to share the spotlight with Becky Lynch giving her more of a rub than anything she has done since WrestleMania. However, I know he’s not back, I know it was just a visit, so it’s not a reason to tune in next week…. which is sort of the driving purpose of episodic television.

I wasn’t bored or disappointed with SmackDown, but I see no reason to tune in next week other than to see that set again.

Hell in a Cell: How to lose fans and alienate people

What is there to say about this show that Twitter hasn’t said already?

In the biggest week the genre has had to offer in two decades, WWE had the unique opportunity of seeing everything else run its course before offering up dessert. Hell in a Cell could have been the biggest, most talked-about show of the week, and it sort of was… just for all the wrong reasons.

I watched this event on the Network, mostly on double speed, because I wanted to see one thing. The same thing, I dare to suggest, that everyone else wanted to see as well: The Fiend kills Seth Rollins in the main event and becomes Universal Champion. This could have taken ten minutes and it could have taken two, but the point was that we in the WWE Universe were going to be rewarded for believing in The Fiend by seeing him get the ball and run with it.

Only we weren’t and he didn’t.

Instead, WWE went ahead and WWE’d the holy shit out of their main event by overthinking, overbooking and over gimmicking the thing to the point that choruses of “boos” and chants of “AEW” echoed through the arena before the show ended and long after the house lights came on.

This was bad on a level WWE hasn’t hit in years.

Look, I know that sometimes you get the finish you want and sometimes you don’t. I get that leaving the audience wanting more is a trope of the genre and how you sell tickets for future events. I get all that stuff, but I also know a layup when I see one and the WWE had a layup here. Put the belt on The Fiend. Give fans that moment. Send them home with a final image of Bray Wyatt, in full fiendish garb, holding that strap in his twisted hands over the broken body of Seth Rollins. Do it in that ridiculous red wash if you have to, but just do it.

If  WWE had made that call, every fan in that arena would have left satisfied. They would have gone on Twitter and told people how great the show was. Analysts and podcasters would have lumped praise on the show. The final shot of The Fiend would have been everywhere.

Instead, it’s videos of fans booing and jeering. Its a dishevelled looking Seth Rollins getting into it with fans post-show. It’s Sean “X-Pac” Waltman in a Watch-Along breaking the company line and questioning the finish of the match. And, most damaging, it is the entirety of the wrestling media and fan base talking about how awful the end of Hell in the Cell was.

This is a really bad look for the company right now, especially with another controversial Crown Jewel event on the horizon and the industry abuzz with the launch of AEW. It’s pretty easy to be into your new girlfriend if the old one is acting crazy and setting your old sweaters on fire in a dumpster in front of your house, which is basically what WWE did to fan expectations and trust with their booking of Hell in a Cell.

What makes it more frustrating is that the show was otherwise pretty good. Not great, as many of the matches had no build whatsoever, but at least the work was solid and things made sense. But, on a one-match show like this one, everything else lives and dies with the main event, so Hell in a Cell 2019 died a colder and crueler death than any other WWE show this year.

I won’t go into any “cancel the network” hyperbole, because I need my weekly dose of NXT and NXT UK, but I can honestly say that this show validated all my reasons for giving up on the main roster. There is no reason to trust that WWE Creative will ever satisfy me as a fan. None. Whether it is the treatment of favourite performers like Aleister Black and Ricochet, brutally offensive angles like Mike and Maria Kanellis, or the hot-shotting of stories built around non-WWE performers being presented as more important than wrestlers fighting for championships, it all stinks.

I know that I will continue to follow WWE and I know that most of the people that today are saying they won’t will too. But damage was done at Hell in a Cell that will be really, really difficult to undo.

All the FOX and Saudi Arabia money in the world is not going to put fans in the seats for large WWE events when people feel like attending is going to be a rip-off. Tickets to big shows are not cheap, times are hard, entertainment dollars have to be considered and stretched for most of us. How can I, as a consumer of the product, feel good about dropping my hard-earned dollars on a live WWE event knowing that I may walk out feeling like those fans did at Hell in a Cell?

There is a certain crowd-based euphoria that comes from the shared experience of a great live performance. Whether it be a concert, a play, a sports event or a wrestling show, that feeling of seeing something special with fellow humans is a great thing. Flip that feeling around into something negative and its a toxic soup of bad vibes that WWE will now have to return to the kitchen and start over from scratch.

Where I stand as a fan

The line of the day for all of us that love this business is that there has never been a better time to be a fan. Now, I don’t know if that is true, but in relative terms, it’s hard to argue that we are in a really special moment.

What I came away with from this week was three things:

  1. The WWE main roster is not worth my time and energy.
  2. AEW has a chance to be something really enjoyable.
  3. NXT is exactly what I want from my wrestling.

It’s that simple for me and it can be that simple for all of us. Find what we like, watch it, and hope for success on the other side of the fence because rising tides lift all ships.

There is no reason not to be optimistic about the future of the wrestling business right now and that is something we can all get behind.

So, until Keith Lee downgrades to “somewhat limited” from limitless, I’ll see you marks around the loop.

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