WWE

WWE: The three positives in a post-WrestleMania world

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It’s been a few weeks since I’ve had the ability to share my thoughts on WWE’s weekly television product. Despite a 13-hour time difference for two weeks, I watched Raw and SmackDown. I even squeezed in an episode of NXT, thanks jet lag!

Let’s just say, it wasn’t exactly easy to get through the last three episodes of both shows. There were bright spots here and there, but the amount of forgettable segments dwarfed the segments that kept me sports entertained.

It feels like we’re in an elongated holding pattern until the build for SummerSlam begins, which is strange considering we had a “Superstar-Skakeup.” Why did this need to happen so suddenly?

Wouldn’t a mix-up of the rosters work better after the Payback-Backlash PPV cycle?

It’s ridiculous to ask that question because as a viewer of the WWE, I shouldn’t be asking that question. I should be able to trust the people backstage to put on an entertaining product, but if you pay attention to the inner-workings of WWE, you know that big booking decisions get made on the day of the show far too often.

Not only did this Superstar-Shakeup come at a time when it didn’t need to due to an influx of talent that was called up from NXT (less so on Raw because of Dash Wilder’s broken jaw), it happened in the middle of the build for the first brand specific PPVs after WrestleMania. We had two crossover matchups on Payback, which brought Smackdown guys onto a Raw show…

No, B.J. Novak, it doesn’t matter.

You’re just supposed to enjoy your favorite characters’ entrances every week. You’re not supposed to care about what they actually say or do. Wins and losses don’t matter. Almost every promo or backstage segment is rooted in comedy (bookmark: Which can sometimes produce entertaining segment like “The Fashion Files”). Nothing is serious. Nothing matters.

Sorry! I didn’t want to make you cry. Look, there are still plenty of reasons to enjoy the WWE product right now. Here are the three things that I’ve enjoyed post-WrestleMania.

Elevation of Mid-Card titles: Now that Brock Lesnar has joined the list of celebrity departures from The Leftovers and Randy Orton is off working a mid-card feud with Jinder Mahal for the WWE championship, the Intercontinental and United States titles are actually being elevated.

Part of this is due to the sudden emphasis on the titles. Both number one contender matches main evented an episode of Raw and SmackDown and featured full-time main event talent in a pair of triple threat matches.

The other part of this is the Kevin Owens’ Face of America character. The whole “Prizefighter” gimmick never got off the ground on the main roster because outside of his opening feud with Cena. Owens rarely felt like the guy who quickly rose to prominence in NXT as an ass kicker.

Before winning the United States title from Jericho at WrestleMania, Owens has held the Intercontinental championship and the Universal title and in both instances, he wasn’t booked strongly enough to make the titles seem important.

That sounds like a slight on K.O. and it’s not. That’s just a product of the amount of comedy segments he was featured in. In NXT, he was “the guy” and booked appropriately. In kayfabe, Owens was a dangerous, unpredictable dude. For a while on the main roster he’s a full-time guy who is cracking jokes. (Bookmark: For the record, the jokes with Jericho were funny, but that’s not the point here.)

Now it feels like he’s capitalizing on the heel momentum his character gained during the build for his Mania match against Jericho. His beat down of Y2J on this past week’s episode of SmackDown came off really good. It reminded me of moments like this:

This “Face of America” gimmick is going to be perfect for Owens. It’s a different spin on the evil foreigner storyline, which means easy heat, especially when Owens starts speaking fluent French.

K.O. is being positioned as a focal point of SmackDown Live (Bookmark: Out of all of the superstars who changed shows, the #FOA will benefit from the change the most), but the triple threat match to determine the number one contender for featured three prominent names: Baron Corbin, Sami Zayn, and Styles.

The three tore the house down in what was my favorite WWE TV Match of the Year so far. Styles pinned Zayn to become the number one contender for the U.S. title, which in the moment seemed a bit strange considering that Styles, in kayfabe, should be going after Orton’s title, but now that some time has passed, it makes sense.

I can’t imagine Orton vs. Mahal for the title is going to main event Backlash. If it doesn’t, you would have to imagine that Styles vs. Owens for the U.S. title will close the show in Chicago. Deputy Dango and Breezy sure ain’t getting that spot.

Which means the mid-card title will main event a PPV with two of the company’s best workers wrestling for it. Sign me up. I’m curious to see what style of a match they put on. Will it feel more like ROH? Or will it still be a traditional style WWE match?

#FantasyBookingIdea: Owens holds the title for a few months and then John Cena answers K.O.’s open challenge.

Over on Raw, the Intercontinental champion is Dean Ambrose, which you wouldn’t know if you watched Payback this past Sunday. Dude just wasn’t on the show, but he was back on Monday to “call” Kurt Angle in the ring and book a triple threat (sound familiar?) match between Seth Rollins, The Miz, and Finn Balor.

Those three put on the best Raw main event in ages. Now even though the IC title is underneath the U.S. title on the WWE totem pole right now, it’s the most visible title on Raw as long as Lesnar holds the Universal title.

Seriously, if you’re a casual fan who started watching WWE again after WrestleMania, you would have no idea that the Universal title exists, or that Lesnar is the current champion. He’s never mentioned during the bajillion hits the announcers have to do on a weekly basis. It’s absurd.

Due to Lesnar’s absence, Ambrose finds himself in a position to move himself up the card and improve the Intercontinental championship, but we’ve seen Ambrose vs. Miz plenty of times last year and none of their encounters were memorable, but that’s not what’s important here.

Two main event level guys and an upper-mid card guy were positioned in a number one contender’s match for the title. This does appear to be a shift in philosophy around the role of the mid-card titles, which is a WELCOMED change.

Alexa Bliss: Even though last Sunday in Bayley’s hometown of San Jose wasn’t the right time to take the title off of Ms. Hug Life and give it to Bliss, Alexa hasn’t dropped the ball since it was given to her back in the fall.

Out of all of the women on the main roster, I would put her mic skills just slightly behind Charlotte’s. It’s one thing to be a cool heel in 2017 like Bliss is, it’s another to play a heel who actually gets booed, which is exactly what Charlotte achieved before her inexplicable face turn last week.

Bliss overshadowed Bayley in the talking segments they had together leading up to their match at Payback. The crowd just isn’t feeling Bayley right now on a week-to-week basis. Her dialogue has been pretty weak since her call-up (we get it, she’s a lifelong fan) to the main roster, but her delivery has been extremely awkward.

She’s not queuing up the crowd correctly and just seems to not understand the proper beat for her character to speak. I get that she’s supposed to play a fan that has the opportunity to live her dream, but I shouldn’t be cringing during her promos and when she’s in the ring by herself, the cringe meter starts going up in my apartment.

You could really see the difference level between the promos when Alexa and Bayley shared the ring leading up to the PPV. Bliss was able to successfully counter the crowd’s “what” chants that have swallowed up thousands of promos. There’s a reason why a pocket of the live crowd in San Jose cheered for her when she pinned Bayley, who was again, the hometown babyface.

Bliss speaks in a tone that no other woman on the main roster speaks in. Her character knows that she’s better than everyone else and she’s going to tell you about it in a smart way that the hardcore fan appreciates. It’s hard to think of anyone who has had a rise on the main roster quicker than Alexa has. Baron Corbin comes to mind because he never got to the main event level in NXT (Vince and Co. has big plans for him on the main roster) but he’s still in a holding pattern.

There’s nothing holding Alexa Bliss back.

Braun Strowman: The post-Mania episodes of Raw might as well be referred to as the Braun Strowman saga. His feud with Roman Reigns has been the focus of the show for weeks. There was an incredible beatdown angle that featured Strowman “throwing” Reigns off of a loading dock while Roman was tied down on a stretcher, but Braun wasn’t done there. He then “tipped” over the ambulance that Reigns was supposedly in.

He then bullied around the jobbers backstage, which included putting Kalisto in a dumpster, before the Big Show knocked him down and challenged him to a match. In the main event, Strowman suplexed Show and “broke the ring” (it’s the third time WWE has pulled off this stunt and once again the crowd went bananas).

The next week Kalisto “challenged” Strowman to a dumpster match. Even though Strowman “lost” (beyond dumb, but it’s WWE in 2017, wins and losses don’t matter) he pushed a dumpster off of the stage with Kalisto inside. The drop was about three feet, but still it’s been awhile since someone got pushed off of the stage while they were in a dumpster.

Vince knows how to push a big guy and Strowman is the equivalent of a wet dream for McMahon.

He’s a gigantic dude who can move around the ring like he’s 6 feet 1 inch tall. Strowman has greatly improved in the ring to a point where it’s totally conceivable to picture him as a world champion, but will he actually get pushed to that level?

We know how stingy Vince can be about giving someone too much too soon, especially with how successful The Rock, Brock Lesnar, Batista and now John Cena are doing with projects outside of WWE. Strowman isn’t going to fight in the UFC and who knows if he has any sort of acting chops.

Strowman is a professional wrestler and becoming a damn good one with every day that passes. Raw would have been significantly worse after WrestleMania if he wasn’t on the show. He’s earning a title run with every solid match and over-the-top backstage segment that he performs in.

The reason why we should all be worried about Strowman is; there have been instances where a person was given the title well after they earned it (RVD and Jeff Hardy come to mind). I’m not saying Strowman should be given a title reign tomorrow because he’s still a bit green, but with Lesnar vs. Reigns penciled in as the WrestleMania 34 main event according to Dave Meltzer, you begin to wonder what Strowman’s ceiling is.

When Lesnar vs. Strowman does happen, the crowd is going to explode and Vince will know how to clean it up.

Twitter: @ScottDargis

(Bookmark: If you’re wondering where the Hardy’s section is, don’t worry. It’s coming. Let’s see how this rumored legal situation with Anthem works out.)

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