WWE

WWE Raw and SmackDown recap: A heel turn #OuttaNowhere?

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After last week’s thunderous start to the brand extension, Raw and SmackDown settled down a bit this week, which is perfectly acceptable. It’s not every week that you can have four excellent matches, including a title change and a shocking upset on Monday night…we just won’t talk about last week’s show on Tuesday night.

I don’t want to waste your time with a pointless intro because there’s 1,700 words about professional wrestling underneath this paragraph, so I’ll give you a pointless gif instead:

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Heelbrose

When Dolph Ziggler won the six-pack challenge last week to become the number one contender for the WWE world title, I wondered how creative was going to build the babyface vs. babyface program. This moment seemed like an ideal time to give Ziggler’s character a makeover and begin a slow burn heel turn because Ambrose is the number three babyface on SmackDown (behind Mr. Cena and Mr. RKO).

So when the show opened with a promo segment between the blue brand’s main event at SummerSlam, it was time to see if one of the two would begin to slide into a heel role and IMO that’s exactly what happened, but it wasn’t Ziggler who came off like a bad guy.

In those few minutes, Ambrose showed why he could become the best heel in the entire company.  He was smug, he was confident, but not comically confident like AJ Styles. He was a dick because he told Ziggler the truth and made the Show Off look like a fool for all of the mistakes he’s made throughout his career. Ambrose also dropped the ultimate heel line: “I don’t give a damn what people think.”

Ziggler countered with the classic babyface line “I went to my first WWE live event when I was ____” but then followed up with a fiery face promo about how he was going to finally rise up and take the title from Ambrose, but then Heelbrose shut him down with his final line.

Then ish got confusing. Later on in the night when Ziggler faced Bray Wyatt in the main event for Ziggler’s spot against Ambrose at SummerSlam, the champ sat at the commentary desk and put over Ziggler. Ambrose avoided being critical of Ziggler’s decision to put his spot in the title match on the line and tried to make it seem like there wasn’t any beef between them, even though he verbally crushed Dolph earlier in the night. Maybe someone in the back told him that he needed to come off like more of a respectful face towards Ziggler? Whatever the case, Ambrose’s tone in the final segment was very different than what it was in the opening segment.

Ambrose is never going to be the top babyface on the show as long as Cena and Orton are around, so in order to differentiate himself from those two, it makes sense for him to show some heelish tendencies, especially with Orton playing a goofball face as opposed to his normal anti-hero tweener character.

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The Highway to Viperville

When Brock Lesnar vs. Randy Orton was announced for SummerSlam, Orton felt like nothing more than just another throw toy for the mayor of Suplex City, but then Lesnar’s bubble of invincibility was popped when he failed two drug tests for taking clomiphene, an anti-estrogen blocker, before his fight at UFC 200.

Due to Lesnar’s failure, the WWE could no longer promote The Beast’s victory over Mark Hunt, so when Lesnar made his return from one of his patented hiatuses, it was fair to wonder if he or Paul Heyman would address the controversy.

Well that didn’t happen. In fact, the only mention of the UFC was Heyman’s reference to the “Brocktagon.” Instead Heyman did his usual shtick while Lesnar bounced around in the ring, which has to be one of the easiest paydays in the history of the business. Heyman’s promo focused on the fact that Orton isn’t man enough to hit an RKO on his “client,” so you could probably guess what happened next.

Some people are going to be annoyed by the fact it only took two weeks for a SmackDown guy to show up on Raw, but this surprise attack was done beautifully. Foley and Stephanie rushing out from the back without entrance music or a spotlight made the moment feel genuine. The “security” guards rushing out from the back also added some depth to the segment. The little things get skipped over way too often, but on when they’re executed correctly, a good segment becomes an excellent segment.

The biggest takeaway from the closing angle on Raw for me was this: It finally feels like Orton is being booked correctly as a babyface. Even though he’s been very cheesy, bordering on a smiley babyface at times, Orton is as over as he’s ever been. When Lesnar showed up at SmackDown and hit the F5 on The Viper, you could hear a scattering of boos.

With the momentum that Orton has right now and the negativity that’s surrounding Lesnar in the real world, it might be best for business if The Viper hits an RKO #OuttaNowhere and becomes the first man to pin Lesnar since he beat The Undertaker at WrestleMania 30.

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John Cena gets the shovel

In the build to the first match between AJ Styles and John Cena, Styles said that he brought The Club along with him so he “wouldn’t get buried by Cena.” Well without The Club on SmackDown, that’s sort of what happened to Styles on Tuesday night.

Styles went on a heel rant that ended with a great line about being a winner:

But then Cena came back with one of his better promos in recent memory and made Styles look like a fool for all of the things he just said. Cena hit Styles in the gut with the proverbial shovel when he told him that Styles was in the WWE to “be a really good wrestler,” while putting over all of the extracurricular activities that he’s been participating in lately.

Even though it felt like Cena created a gap on the card between himself and Styles with his verbiage, Styles held his own here and came off like a slimy bad guy who knows how to always get his way. The crowd responded very positively towards Cena, which is easy to do when you make a four-year old kid in the front row part of your promo.

Sometimes wins and losses actually matter in professional wrestling and at SummerSlam, Styles could really use a clean win over John Cena. Cena won’t be hurt by the loss and if anything, it’ll help these positive reactions continue because if Tuesday night proved anything it’s that SuperCena gets booed and John Cena gets cheered.

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Roman Reigns: The True American Hero

When Finn Balor pinned Roman Reigns clean in the middle of the ring last week, Roman’s SummerSlam plans became a bit murky, but on Monday night they became crystal clear.

After Rusev beat Mark Henry clean (for the 13051 time), Rusev began to cut a promo on the Olympics and Reigns just couldn’t take it anymore (lol), so he confronted Rusev and put him down with a Superman Punch.

This is a PERFECT program for Reigns. Even though Rusev gets positive reactions when the WWE goes to smarky towns, the person who has played the American foil to Rusev’s foreign character has almost always gotten a very positive reaction. When Roman’s music hit on Monday, he wasn’t booed out of the building, so we’re making progress.

Listen, he’s still going to get lit up by the Brooklyn crowd, but this is a massive step in the right direction. Vince and Co. are stuck on the idea of keeping Reigns as a babyface and a nice run with the U.S. title might just do the trick especially if creative follows the John Cena formula and has Reigns do a series of open challenges with the title (which should culminate with Braun Strowman answering the challenge).

Which show was better this week:

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SmackDown was paced nicely this week, while Raw felt like a slow three hour show, which is never a good thing.

Time to “Go Home”

– I was a bit surprised with the small amount of time Balor got to speak before Rollins interrupted him. The promo between the two was above average and crowd responded positively to Balor’s fire on the mic, but it would have been nice for him to get a minute or two by himself in the ring.

– Ziggler’s Spirit Squad throwback gives me an excuse to put this in:

– In kayfabe, Ziggler is the biggest idiot in the locker room. Keep your title match bro.

– Even though the opening promo on Monday between Sasha Banks, Charlotte, Enzo Amore and Chris Jericho went for 21 minutes, I really enjoyed some of the one-liners that were dropped. Charlotte’s line about Enzo’s love life was a legit LMAO moment that almost caused me to choke on the nachos I just made.

– Another LMAO moment from Monday: Stephanie yelling at the security guards to get Orton out of the building: “He’s taking his shirt off, get him outta here!”

– American Alpha felt like an afterthought when SmackDown ended. The crowd seemed to get into their offense, but why didn’t they have an interview segment backstage before or after their match? Baffling.

– I can’t believe Chad Gable’s actual height (5’8”) was listed in his bio graphic.

– The new entrance graphics on SmackDown are fire af.

– I have no idea where they’re going with this Eva Marie “injury” angle, but color me intrigued.

– Glad to see that JeriKO might be coming together for an actual run as tag team partners. Kevin Owens is quickly becoming the most underutilized guy on the entire roster and a tag run with Jericho (who has been doing some of his best work in years) would be great for him.

– How much money would it take for you to get beat in a squash match by Brawn Strowman?

– What about Nia Jax?

– Styles saying “you don’t get desert before dinner” doesn’t help his soccer mom gimmick.

– I agree with all of the people on r/SquaredCircle (shout out!) about the diminishing impact of the suicide dive/spear through the ropes spot. It’s a very dangerous spot. Enzo, Big E and Sasha have flirted with disaster way too many times. It’s time to bench the move and only bust it out once or maybe twice a year. If you take the spot away from the crowd, they’ll respond better when it actually happens.

– The kid who held a fist up to support Cena deserves an Emmy.

– I may have to start watching Talking Smack (which btw is smart programming for the network):

– Too bad Bryan didn’t talk about the new member of the SmackDown roster: Apollo Creed.

Twitter: @ScottDargis

Adam Cole: I want to have the biggest personality in the room and not just on the microphone

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Before Adam Cole heads to the Smoothie King Center for NXT TakeOver: New Orleans, this Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on WWE Network, I chatted with him about how much he’s learned during his time in NXT, what makes the NXT crowds special and what it was like to meet Shawn Michaels. 

About a year ago you said that if you made the jump to WWE that you would want to start off in NXT as opposed to going right to the main roster, flash forward to now and you’re an established star in NXT. Is this part of your journey everything you thought it would be?

“Yeah for sure. When I come into a situation, especially like this one in NXT, my goal is to get to perform in front of these fans, to get to wrestle with these guys, who are in my opinion, some of the best wrestlers in the entire world. I felt like I could fit really well in this environment and I think I have. To get the chance to do what I’ve done here so far has been a total blast and so much fun.

But at the same time it’s exceeded my expectations in many ways. I’ve gotten to do things in NXT, and even WWE, that I didn’t imagine I would get the chance to do. Very happy with the journey so far.”

In what ways have you grown as a performer since coming to WWE?

“There’s just such a better understanding of who I am actually as a performer. You fall kind of into … I don’t want to say a routine because you’re always trying to improve and get better, but when you wrestle for certain organizations time-and-time again, you kind of fall into this routine of performing a certain way and having matches a certain way. Also, after a while you’ve wrestled everyone over-and-over again.

Getting to come here and getting to wrestle a bunch of new talent, some guys I’ve met before and some guys that I’ve never met before. It puts you in a situation where you learn to adapt and change, whether it be character wise, things that you do in the ring. It just gives you new challenges.

I’m teaming a lot more with Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly, so that throws me into a different situation as far as learning to wrestle as part of a team as opposed to working solo most of the time.

Also the fans, I’ve noticed in each and every promotion, even though there are a lot of similarities in many different ways, NXT is a totally different animal.

Overall, adapting has been the biggest growing point for me.”

Interesting, in what ways are the NXT crowds different from the other promotions you’ve worked for.

“The NXT fans to me are in love and so infatuated with the characters. So to me when you see a guy like Velveteen Dream or No Way Jose and the way that they’re so invested in them as performers, not even necessarily with what they’re doing between the ropes, but in their entrances.

I feel the connection with the audience is just so much greater than anything I’ve felt before. It’s pretty incredible, especially when you’re at TakeOver events.”

When I watch the backstage segments with you, Kyle, and Bobby, they come off like old school nWo style promos. Obviously the music playing in the background, which sounds like a new age nWo theme, and the camera angles help, but it’s the natural chemistry you guys have on camera because it seems like you’re just having fun and being yourselves on camera. I would imagine it has to be awesome to just bounce off of each other while filming those.

“Oh man yeah, it’s so much fun. I think that’s exactly why it comes off that way. Me, Bobby, and Kyle are as close as it gets. That’s not just a performance. I’ve known Kyle O’Reilly since 2009 and I was in his wedding. I’ve known Bobby Fish for years and years, we used to travel together all of the time. We talk every single day.

So when we’re there and we’re talking in front of the camera, that’s just us having a good time and I think that’s a big reason why the group works so well. It’s very natural because it’s very real. So I think in turn how we project ourselves comes off as fun because we are genuinely having a great time together.”

Speaking of coming off natural, you come off so natural on the microphone. I talked with Ronda [Rousey] this week about where she’s at in terms of speed while talking in front of the live audience and then I asked Roman [Reigns] about it and he talked about how he was able to process the idea of taking his time to make sure he stopped rushing through his material.

Is the speaking part of the business something that you were able to gravitate towards and get comfortable with quickly?

“I think so. There is a constant growth process. I think that’s why I love this job so much. There’s no such thing as completely perfecting every area of it, you’re always trying to get better at it.

For me, I picked up the promo aspect of pro wrestling much faster than the actual wrestling part of it. I was always fairly athletic and I could do things even from the beginning of my career, when I was 18 and 19 years old. I was always the guy who could always string words together and found what I was saying to be actually believable however I was trying to come across, whether that be somewhat likeable or somewhat of a jerk.

I don’t know why that is, but I remember as a kid just being so fascinated by guys who were good talkers. Even in movies. I used to love the way James Bond villains would act and how cool they came across and how awful they seemed, but what they were saying was so believable.

I’ve always been fascinated by guys, especially bad guys, who were able to talk a certain way, tell stories with their words and just paint this beautiful picture for that you just completely rode along with. I’ve focused a fair amount of time on making sure that promos were something I really focused on.”

Your in-ring style is very interesting to me. You’re a smaller guy, but you work a style that is similar to a lot of bigger guys and it’s because of this slower pace that the spots actually mean something, especially when you build up to the climax of a match. Is that a pace that you’ve always had, or was there a certain point where you were like, OK I need to slow down now and figure out what works for me?

“That was something I developed over time. When I first started, I was definitely a guy that was doing every move under the sun and I was going a million miles an hour and just trying to wow the fans as much as I could. I thought that was the way to get them invested in me. Don’t get me wrong, that style is very impressive, but I on purpose work a certain style. It’s very important for me to do that.

It’s obvious that I’m not the biggest guy in the world, but I want to have the biggest personality in the room and part of that personality isn’t just on the microphone. That’s the way I have to project myself in the ring as well.

All of my favorites in this business really took their time. They made everything they did mean something. Every movement they made had a purpose and that’s the type of performer I’m most comfortable being and that’s the type of performer I want to be too.”

There are so many performers doing unbelievable things we’ve never seen before on what feels like a weekly basis now, but after 20, 30 minutes go by and the match ends, I’ve seen so many big spots that it just feels like a blur, where as your matches build up to a few big spots that are easy to remember.

For instance, I watched your match with AJ [Styles] in Ring of Honor recently and you guys worked such a slower pace, but it built up to a huge finishing spot that is going to stick with the viewer. When I come across a match like that one it just feels so different in comparison to a lot of the matches we’re seeing nowadays.

“Sure, sure. You bring up AJ and he’s the king of that. AJ is a guy that can do anything under the sun. He’s one of the most athletically gifted guys there is, but AJ is able to place his stuff and put it in situations where he has the fans completely in the palm of his hand.

He knows he can do anything, but he knows that the biggest reaction he’s going to get from the audience is working a certain style and taking them on this ride by building a story within the match.

Doing a million things is very impressive, but if you forget 90 percent of it, it’s kind of a shame.”

How many times has someone come up to you at the Performance Center and said you look like Shawn Michaels?

“(Laughs) More times than I can count. Whether that be at the Performance Center, whether that be fans. I think I get at least five or six tweets a week about how I look like Shawn Michaels. To me it’s just a giant compliment.”

Has he said that to you?

“Yeah! When we first met he said, ‘A lot of people tell me that you and I look alike and now that I met ya I see what they mean.”

Who is somebody in NXT that you haven’t had the opportunity to work with yet that you’re looking forward to getting in the ring with?

“I’ll tell you what, I would love the chance to have any sort of a program with Velveteen Dream. I think that guy has so much potential. He’s so good now. His understanding of the industry for his age is unbelievable. His natural talent is the same. I watch him, I’m captivated by what he does, so to get the chance to be in there with him in some capacity would be great.”

Twitter: @ScottDargis 

Ronda Rousey Now Has the Chance to be Herself

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Even though there are certain aspects of the professional wrestling business that feel natural to her, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering she’s a former Olympian and was one of, if not the most dominant female fighter in the history of mixed martial arts, Ronda Rousey knows she still has a lot to learn about the second act of her professional career.

The “Rowdy” one grew up as a huge wrestling fan, but then learned at a later age that the action was choreographed. It was a discovery that drove her away from paying attention to the business.

Fast forward to her time on top of the UFC and there she was sitting on the couch, with her friends, watching Monday Night Raw as a fan again. Thanks to Shayna Baszler’s insistence, wrestling once more became a part of Rousey’s life, but this time it acted as an escape from the rigorous world of MMA. It was a window into another world that gave her the ability to just kick back and relax.

Fast forward again to today and now pro wrestling is no longer a way for Rousey to relax, it’s the main focus of her life.

You can watch WrestleMania live around the world April 8 on the WWE Network at a special start time of 7 p.m ET. 

She’s all in, which means she now must adjust to a world that isn’t exactly the easiest to become comfortable in considering her entire athletic career has been focused around the idea of finishing her opponent to find success. Now she must work with an opponent to make the music that will gain a response from the crowd.

It’s that major change that Rousey called her “biggest adjustment” when I chatted with her last week. “I’ve learned a lot about teamwork. That’s basically the main thing. Being in a team environment and working with everyone to make it great. It’s actually been a real joy to learn and to feel less lonely in my endeavors.”

But playing nice with others isn’t as easy as it looks. There are major alterations that had to be made in order for Ronda’s physical work to be fit for television.

“I mean things that I’ve already done in the past a million times feel natural, but how and where we’re applying them is still unnatural. Like the timing things are a little weird and have been been hard for me to pick up. I’m used to being as compact as possible. I’m used to trying to hide my face,” Rousey said.

“There are just a bunch of little things like being aware of where the cameras are and stuff like that. Stuff that I’ve never thought of once in my life are things that I now have to keep in mind. I think the pace and timing are the biggest adjustment. The actual techniques are there, but they also have to be adjusted as well. Every throw I’ve done has been with the intention to inflict as much harm as possible and not to look good, so I need to change things to make everything look more grand and be more safe. To work with somebody else and to learn to take cues when my whole life I’ve kept things very secret and sudden has been a huge adjustment.”

During her training for fights, Rousey would focus on figuring out ways to submit her opponent while she rolled or performed judo with her training partner. Her coaches would watch her technique to figure out what she could potentially apply in her next fight.

She’s still rolling and doing judo techniques with a training partner now, mostly Shayna, but instead of figuring out ways to put her opponent away, she and the trainers down at WWE’s Performance Center are figuring out which techniques can be applied to a live match.

“It’s not really like I need to get more reps with judo. I’ve done enough judo stuff for several lifetimes. There’s so much that both of us do that we really don’t think about and so I like to have someone like Sara Amato watch Shayna and I or anyone else, roll around and see if she could spot something that might be applicable in the ring,” Rousey said.

“I can’t be like, ‘Hey this is what I did’ because there are so many times when I’m in a grappling exchange or sparring and I’ll just do something that I know is brilliant and the other person doesn’t even know how they ended up getting caught, but I know it was great and then I end up moving on and forgetting about it.”

Ronda continued, “It’s not like I’m walking in there and I’m going to do some grappling that looks cool, but doesn’t work for wrestling. It’s like, ‘Hey, we’re going to go work over here, tell us if anything is useful.’ Sara will step in from time to time and ask us to do something again or change it around so we do it like this. It’s been a big help.”

The concept of maximizing “spots,” which is wrestling lingo for a big move or moment in a match or segment, is something that Rousey has studied feverishly over the past few months. It’s easy for someone new to the business to feel like they have to get all of their stuff in during a short amount of time, but this can actually be a detriment because it means none of the moments that are supposed to leave a lasting impact will be felt by the audience.

In order to help her understand just how important small movements are to building up to a big spot, WWE wrestler and well-respected trainer Brian Kendrick gave Rousey a key homework assignment that helped her unlock the concept of how to put together a match.

“He had me watch Hulk Hogan vs. The Undertaker [from Survivor Series 1991] just to teach me how much it really is all about the story and how little physically I really need to do. I don’t need to be a spotty person,” Rousey explained. “The Undertaker going down on one knee is all that needed to happen in order to get a reaction from the crowd. They really didn’t do that much physically to each other. That was a really good learning session for me. I can have this tendency where I go, ‘I know so, I know so, I know so,’ and I’ll do all of these things, but that match really taught me where to apply things intelligently instead of just throwing them out there.”

But it can be hard to avoid throwing everything you have when you get nervous and start moving fast, which is something that Rousey is self-aware of, especially when the microphone is in her hand.

“My sentences are chopped up into little pieces, so what seems to me like three seconds is probably more like one second. That’s one thing I’m learning. Once I think it’s been too long, to wait even more. I need to triple how patient I am,” she said.

It was evident to see just how different the speed was for someone who is still clearly getting adjusted to the nuances of the business and someone like Paige, who has grown up in the wrestling business and very clearly understands who her character is and more importantly, how her character should sound.

Rousey knows she has a long way to go in order to gain the confidence she needs to cut a badass promo, but she’s determined to find her voice and to not sound like anyone else who has come before her.

“It wouldn’t make sense for me to walk out there and cut a promo like Paige because she has been in this business since she was a little kid. She doesn’t talk like I do and if I walked out there and started talking like that, nobody would buy it because I know that I don’t talk like that,” Rousey said.

“It’s a fine line to walk,” she continued, “I have to be myself, but mold myself to fit into that environment because there is a risk of trying to do too much that will make people roll their eyes at me. I don’t want people to look at me and go, ‘Oh look at Ronda trying to be a pro wrestler.’ I want to go out there and speak as myself. That’s it. That’s what I’m good at. I can speak to large crowds of people and I’ve done that for years and now I need to find my own way instead of copying other people’s way.”

But having someone like Paige backstage is only going to assist her in her goal to become the best she possibly can be in this business and it’s something that she’s very conscious of.

“Having all of the examples around me really help like Paige, who is conquered a style and really made it work for her. She’s molded it through years of practice. I’m just surrounded by amazing examples.”

One of those amazing examples is Goldust, who is the eldest son of the legendary “American Dream” Dusty Rhodes. Goldust is a true veteran of the industry and is someone that Rousey was absolutely thrilled to meet.

“Goldust took me aside the other day and gave me some advice and I was like, ‘Oh my God it’s Goldust and he’s giving me advice.’ I was geeking out so hard while still trying to receive information (laughs).”

In the previous act of her life, Rousey was forced to talk in a reactionary style interview. A microphone would be put in her face after a fight and she would have to respond to questions about how she forced her opponent to submit and then call out someone for her next fight.

In this act, Rousey must use her microphone time to drive along a story line with specific pieces of dialogue. It’s a totally different style, but one that she finds liberating.

“I think it’s more of a release than anything. I was always on the defensive, on guard. They were asking me questions with a certain answer in mind, they were trying to get a reaction out of me.” Rousey said of her MMA interviews.

“I think this is like a cool discovery process,” she continued. “People say, ‘Well who is your character?’ But I’m really thinking like, who am I because I’m me out there. I have to be much more introspective than I would in a reactionary environment.”

As Rousey continues to figure out how to apply her voice and her physical gifts to achieve greatness in this stage of her career, she is also going through a journey on a personal level to find herself, to find happiness outside of a world that made her name famous across the globe.

“I’ve never been allowed to just be myself,” she said.

Well now is her chance.

Twitter: @ScottDargis