Doctor's Orders: March 20-24, 2017 - The Next Step For The WWE Women's (R)EVOLUTION, WWE Raw & Smackdown Pros and Cons
By The Doc
Mar 24, 2017 - 12:53:51 PM
”The Doc” Chad Matthews has been a featured writer for LOP since 2004. Initially offering detailed recaps and reviews for WWE's top programs, he transitioned to writing columns in 2010. In addition to his discussion-provoking current event pieces, he has written many acclaimed series about WrestleMania, as well as a popular short story chronicle. The Doc has also penned a book, The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment, published in 2013. It has been called “the best wrestling book I have ever read” and holds a 5-star rating on Amazon, where it peaked at #3 on the wrestling charts.
The Next Step For The WWE Women's (R)EVOLUTION
Pros and Cons From Smackdown Live
Pros and Cons From Monday Night Raw
QUESTION OF THE DAY: What is your opinion of women's wrestling in WWE right now, both in terms of your interest and in terms of how well positioned you think it is moving forward?
During my thirty years as a wrestling fan, I have developed a mindset of “I’ll believe it when I see it,” so much like I could only believe that wrestlers like CM Punk or Daniel Bryan – so-called “indy darlings” – would be allowed by WWE to become two of their top stars or that The Rock would wrestle again after I saw them happen, I never really thought that women’s wrestling would reach the heights that it has since 2015 until it reached them. The Women’s Revolution has been one of the most fascinating topics of the past few years.
We have reached a point in the timeline of the Revolution, however, when the evolution needs to continue in specific, major ways. The novelty of seeing females in prominent positions on super-cards has worn off after a nearly two year sample size of consistently seeing the likes of Charlotte, Sasha Banks, Nikki Bella, Becky Lynch, Alexa Bliss, Bayley, and others featured in the kinds of matches that earn nifty video hype packages and have bell-to-bell times of 12-15 minutes. There may still be a novelty-effect for women main-eventing Raw and being involved in gimmick matches previously reserved for their male counterparts and there will remain a novelty in seeing women headline pay-per-views, but now the focus is shifting to the most important tenets of pro wrestling success: character development and roster positioning.
On Monday Night Raw, the character department has been a source of problems from the moment Stephanie McMahon boldly claimed that the present and future of women’s wrestling would be revolutionary. Charlotte has basically led the charge, but her persona’s dynamics have been all over the place these past 20 months. She debuted as a babyface despite being a natural heel, struggled to find her footing in that role, and was turned to the dark side in the early part of her record-setting title reign; she later had what proved to be a brief on-screen pairing with her father, then Dana Brooke was in and out of her corner seemingly on a whim; she had a streak of undefeated matches on pay-per-view with the title on the line that lasted a year-and-a-half, but that angle was inexplicably dropped on a dime four weeks prior to WrestleMania 33. The manner in which her character was deployed was as erratic as her often spotty track record with lengthy monologues; sometimes the presentation worked very well and other times it felt unintentionally chaotic.
That sort of inconsistency of character in any entertainment platform is fundamentally detrimental to fan investment. It may also prevent certain bull-headed promoters from allowing the next evolutionary step to be taken. The denigration of women’s wrestling happened on Vince McMahon’s watch. Though he is unquestionably a promotional genius – an iconic legend really – he is also notoriously married to his own ideas and, as detailed in a recent “Doc Says” podcast, has critics that go well beyond just the WWE fanbase. The Women’s Revolution is Triple H’s baby; Hunter is the one who has gone on-record as thinking that a female could be the next “face of the brand” in the classic sense. While obviously the women in WWE would not have risen to their current place in the hierarchy if McMahon had not signed off on it, one cannot help but view the lack of female character consistency on Raw each Monday and immediately see the Vincent Kennedy fingerprint all over it.
Charlotte, of course, is not the only personality on Raw that has suffered from, at times, creative indecisiveness and, at other points, completely illogical booking. Bayley is in the spotlight right now, as much for how poorly her character has been written as she has been for being the Women’s Champion. What made her so great in NXT was her story; the quest of the little girl who wanted to be a wrestler getting a chance and making the most of her opportunity by working hard, letting the fans in, and becoming one of the best wrestlers they had, male or female. It is reasonable to think that WWE looked at her call-up to the main roster as a continuation of her NXT story, as they clearly have had little desire to properly and logically re-tell it to a broader audience, but the fallacy in that approach is that she is a natural underdog and yet she beat the Women’s Champion within weeks of her Raw debut, was wrestling for the title at her second PPV, and fulfilled her dream of holding the championship within six months.
And that’s just painting the recent historical picture with broad strokes. Bayley has also been asked to be very over the top, inorganically pandering to the audience. She won the title by cheating and, when they blatantly called her out on it, she showed little to no consternation about it. Consequently, the audience has begun to turn on her in the most vocal markets. Semantically, it may matter that the fans could very well be jeering WWE for how they have handled her instead of booing Bayley herself, but it ultimately does not matter much if they are booing her by proxy, the jeers are raining down in greater volumes by the week. The trickledown effect is that Bayley looks uncomfortable in the ring at times. Her title-winning moment in the Raw main-event in February was her best performance by a long shot after mostly mediocre matches, many of which saw her become botchy.
Sasha Banks has largely been immune to the flaws in her character’s dynamic. Her entire persona screams “bad girl,” yet much of her time on the main roster has been as the foil to Charlotte, though that has never really hurt her standing with the audience. The roles that she and Charlotte played opposite one another clearly worked, as evidenced by the highly lucrative rivalry between The Queen and The Boss, but it has often been surprising that the catty, unnatural dialogue that Banks has been asked to recite on Raw has not bitten her in the rear, that the crowd has not turned on her already.
The bottom line is that, while many superstars are immune to whimsical, incoherent booking in the eyes of the higher-ups, the vast majority of them are not; WWE knows that these segments on recent Raw broadcasts are not any good, yet if the expose on their business by Vice Sports late last year was any sort of confirmation of long-held rumors, Vince McMahon would more than likely blame the talents for not making the segments work rather than take a hard look in the mirror at his own disjointed system. That is where the issue of roster positioning comes into play.
One has to wonder if WrestleMania 33’s Raw Women’s Championship match is an unfortunate by-product of creative whimsy. Three is generally a crowd, four is a pair too many in wrestling matches, and nothing says to me, “This doesn’t matter very much” than multi-wrestler matches. I am of the opinion that an unwritten rule in wrestling states clearly, “The more participants are involved in a match, the less important that match feels,” because fan attention has to spread across so many different characters. As in Hollywood, the best case scenario sees a primary hero and a primary villain; obviously, gimmick matches that demand greater numbers do not apply, just as there are exceptional scenarios where ensemble casts are warranted, but that is the general rule. Less is most definitely more. When you look across wrestling lore, you will see that there are hundreds of classic one-on-one matches, but merely a handful of classic triple threats or four-ways; evidence, I would say, to the unwritten rule.
Despite the issues that I have with its modern formula, I still believe WrestleMania to be the best gauge of Vince McMahon’s, and thus WWE’s priorities. For WWE not to have chosen a single pairing to compete for the title on the biggest show of the year feels like de-evolution.
Even for the Smackdown division, which has thrived on its unexpected depth thanks in large part to smart booking and creative consistency, each of the two “Big Four” events to date this year will have featured the blue team’s females being left off the main card at The Royal Rumble, possibly being relegated to pre-show duty again at ‘Mania, and without question at ‘Mania being mired in a cluster-match. Does it make some sense that all of Smackdown’s available women are together for a title match given that they have, together, built a division from scratch? Yes, it does, but the other side of that coin is that it also means they have yet to build big enough stars to earn a more specifically-directed spotlight and that their attempts to take a more intelligent approach to reaching that point in their division’s history are not being rewarded with better super-card line-up positioning.
WWE often comes across as a company with the attention span of a four-year old. My daughter was obsessed with Disney princesses at Christmas time and got several dolls in their likenesses; a month later, she became obsessed with Paw Patrol and only sparingly plays with the princesses. Until a wrestler earns his place at the roundtable, which is arguably harder to do now as it ever has been before, it is difficult to expect that Vince and Co. will consistently stay in-tune with advancing a character’s narrative. Look at Dolph Ziggler. Look at The Wyatt Family. Look at Rusev. Look at the WWE women’s division after the two years that Trish Stratus peaked and then retired. Figuring out why certain wrestlers fall out of favor with the Chairman is a complicated discussion for another day, but roster positioning is often a sign of his headspace and character inconsistency is often a precursor to downgraded roster positioning.
I do not question WWE’s commitment to women’s wrestling. They have made fundamental changes that will continue to afford female wrestlers the opportunity to shine, but if you are not moving forward in life then you may as well be moving backwards. If 2016’s Big Four were examples of stepping forward with women’s wrestling in WWE, then 2017 has thus been a step backwards.
The Road to WrestleMania continued through the Mohegan Sun Casino last night and, overall, I thought that it was a fairly skippable episode of Smackdown Live. It was a show based primarily on an angle that went through the motions this week and its featured matches, while good to great, suffered from a lack of special treatment and/or pre-match hype, typically blue brand strong suits. Here are the Pros and Cons:
Con: AJ Styles Gloats and Prepares Another Sneak-Attack
The Phenomenal One's promo to open the show was solid in its execution, but having Styles admit that most of the night was going to be a re-run of last Tuesday night took the wind of the sails of the program straight away. The week-to-week storytelling from the blue brand having generally been quite good, an expectation has set in that, consistently, progression will be smooth and engaging from one phase of a rivalry into the next, so the presentation with Styles gloating and then waiting around backstage for the rest of the show was classic creative coasting. What wound up happening at the end of the broadcast, in hindsight, probably could have happened in the opening segment right after Styles started his trash-talk routine. Up until the final minutes, it just fell flat.
Pro: The Smackdown Tag Team Title Division Comes To Life
Had the entire AJ-Shane verbal exchange and physical skirmish all happened at the start of the show, then perhaps American Alpha vs. The Usos could have been slotted in the main-event and been given the full spotlight to make up for both their slight in last Tuesday's main-event presentation and their likely pre-show status at Mania. The Tag Team Championship bout was the highlight of the night. Smackdown has not produced a better tag team match since its division's inception. When both teams were announced as Smackdown roster members last year, immediately one could not help but think that Jimmy and Jey would combine with Gable and Jordan much the same way that The Revival had in NXT and that some of the best main roster tag team matches in a few years would subsequently result. It took WWE a long time to run with it, but they finally delivered us the match and gave it a reasonable opportunity to shine...and shine it did. They should run that match back from now through the end of the year.
Pro: The Miz and Maryse Make Easy Use Of Their Acting Skills
For my money, there has not been a more surprising “hit” during WrestleMania Season than the promo segments of the Miz/Maryse vs. Cena/Nikki saga. It appeals to a side of me that feels capable of literally watching any kind of television, including the reality variety. It is, in my opinion, mind-numbingly entertaining, an apt description for the kind of arc-advancement seen from Miz and Maryse when they mocked the Nikki and John relationship in a series of faux-Total Bella spots. I always enjoyed Maryse back in the day; I'm not sure that I expected her to be such a scene-stealer, though. Just as she did with a live microphone two weeks ago to set-up the Mania match, Maryse made full use of the chance to showcase her talents on Smackdown this week. There is a childhood favorite bout from WrestleMania VI that this situation is reminding me of – Dusty Rhodes and “That Sweet SAPPH-IRE” vs. Macho Man and Sensational Sherri – and I'm rather excited about it oddly enough.
Pro: There Will Be An Intercontinental Title Match at WrestleMania!
Baron Corbin vs. Randy Orton was a pretty good match that offered very little reason for emotional investment, but the announcement that Dean Ambrose will defend his IC Championship against The Lone Wolf at WrestleMania – the first one-on-one defense of the title on the grandest stage in five years and only the third since 2002 – was a breath of fresh air. The Ladder Matches these past two years were lazily booked no matter how well they wound up complimenting the cards on which they took place; you would always rather a well-written angle culminate in a singles match for the title over a cluster-you-know-what Ladder Match thrown out there just to get a bunch of extra talents on the show (that's what the Andre is for).
Con: Bray Wyatt Reverts To The Same Old, Same Old
In a recent collaborative podcast with the gents from The Right Side of the Pond on LOP Radio, I referred to Undertaker in his first several years as a “shadow.” For much of the 1990s, I cared very little about the character as it loomed in the background of the product threatening to take the spotlight from who I deemed more interesting, relatable wrestlers; I understood its appeal even then, yet it was not my cup of tea. Mostly, I appreciate the elements that the Bray Wyatt persona similarly brings to the table in modern times, but it does not appeal to me unless it evolves and it yet again feels as though we are stuck in a holding pattern with The Eater of Worlds. He is like a safety pin, a closed loop; he continually cycles around to a point that might break him away from his 2014 peak, only the loop never opens and he keeps on going around and around. They scripted a very intriguing plot twist when Orton burned down the Wyatt Compound. That seems like far longer than two weeks ago at this point. Oh, and does anyone remember that Bray is WWE Champion? There has not been a more inconsistent storyline during the build to WM than Orton-Wyatt.
Pro: Shane McMahon Does The One Thing That He Can Do Well...
...Throw a worked punch! Just kidding.
A less than inspiring night for the blue team ended on a marginally high note with Shane doing his turnbuckle elbow through the announce table thing (Yayyyy). It was a very marginal Pro. Buying Shane as someone who can out-brawl or out-wrestle the best in the world seems silly to me, as does having Styles act intimidated by him. The tone of that segment, much like the tone of the last year's Shane segments with Undertaker, was just ridiculous if you step back and think about it, and I struggle to suspend my disbelief for it; the line between Shane being a tough dude and an intimidating fighter is very thin and to cross over toward the latter side is mind-boggling. Let him be the human punching bag who has a chance against anyone because of his willingness to endure anything – like a Mick Foley with no skills (so, basically, Mikey Whipwreck from ECW) – but don't try to sell him as the bigger star here or the man so likely to gain the upper-hand against someone so much better than he is. That said, it was effective in the same kind of monotonous manner that Roman Spearing Undertaker was effective and the crowd was into it.
A few weeks ago on "The Doc Says," I suggested a different way of watching and judging Monday Night Raw. Rather than look at it as a three hour show, instead think of it as a 90-minute show (roughly the length of Smackdown Live minus the commercials). I stated that if Raw could offer 3-5 strong segments that enhanced the primary and secondary storylines and could manage at least one match that felt like something you needed to see, perhaps then we could call the flagship program that week a success in this new world of sports entertainment in which we live. Since adopting that philosophy, I find that I enjoy Raw a lot more. The following were the Pros and Cons from this week's "penultimate" edition of Raw as we prepare to take the exit to Orlando's WrestleMania.
Pro: Mick Foley Got Fired, Sami Zayn Got The Spotlight
WWE has had a lousy tendency over the years to use returning legends in ways that really don't benefit anyone. Mick Foley's story with Stephanie McMahon seemed like it was following a similar path until these past two weeks, each of which strongly aided the babyface causes of Seth Rollins and Sami Zayn, respectively. In a WWE that rarely produces moments for its heroes that feel authentic to those of us with a keener eye, Zayn's response to Foley's ouster as GM seemed genuine and, as someone who thinks that Zayn's upper limit potential is Daniel Bryan-esque, putting him at odds with Stephanie could do wonders for his career. Few play the underdog better than Sami and the best way to capitalize on that is to keep him firmly entrenched in a war against an evil authority.
Con: Stephanie McMahon Too Heel For Anyone’s Good
It really irritates me how Stephanie McMahon dresses down everyone she interacts with, yet has not received any comeuppance for it in almost three years. The last time I can recall the fans getting any sort of catharsis at her expense was when she was arrested during the Brie Bella feud. Every other heel figure has gotten their just-desserts numerous times over the same span, including her husband, Triple H. It was one thing when she, along with The Authority, was regularly served humble pie, but no Authority faction exists anymore to receive such helpings of pie by proxy.
Pro: Chris Jericho’s Highlight Reel of the Real Kevin Owens
The KO-Y2J angle needed one last thing to make it arguably the best thing going on the Road to WrestleMania and that was a very good babyface promo. Remember those? The types that featured a good guy saying something good guy-ish that resonated with the fanbase? They’re a lost art, but thanks to Chris Jericho for the reminder of what a babyface promo looks/sounds like (the one in Chicago was a fraction as good). Y2J came across as a likeable, funny, self-aware veteran capable of flipping the switch to become dead-serious; he was babyface Jericho at his best and the storyline will benefit for it come “The Show of Shows.”
Pro: Triple H’s Sets The Stage for WrestleMania
As unpopular as it may be to heap historical praise on Triple H, the guy deserves credit as one of the greatest heel interviews in the WrestleMania Era; not everyone loves the trend of lengthy monologues, but The Cerebral Assassin has mastered the art of it. His words cut like a knife and, if directed at a protagonist in whom the crowd has an investment, they can fabulously set him up to take an invigorating beating. The Game was on his game last night. I cannot wait to see Rollins get his hands on him for an extended period and no other match come April 2nd will see me further invested in the result.
Con: The End of Triple H’s Promo Would’ve Been a Perfect Seth Rollins Promo
The downside to the Triple H interview segment was that the closing statement that set-up next week’s contract signing would have been the ideal retort by The Architect to all of the various happenings that have occurred throughout the last 8 weeks of the on-going Rollins-Helmsley saga, almost verbatim, just with Rollins sayings the words. The segment still worked very well, but we could have had two genuine, resonating babyface promos in one night (gasp!). I think the promo Rollins cuts next week is the single most important verbal dialogue that he will have given since the week after he turned on The Shield.
Con: The Women’s Division Continues To Flounder
If there is a strong argument to be made for the Vince McMahon and Kevin Dunn camp needing to cede control of Raw creative to Triple H and his NXT team, it’s the women’s division on Monday nights. Charlotte, a natural heel, debuts as a babyface, forgoing that which worked beautifully in developmental; also the naturally most dominant female athlete in wrestling history, she gets booked as the underdog. It doesn’t work, so they do what should’ve been obvious from the start and turn her heel. Bayley, the consummate underdog, debuts a year later and immediately gets pushed to the brink of the championship and within six months wins the title, going against that which made her a star in NXT: her struggle to reach the top. She has become a strange cross between Rey Mysterio and John Cena, totally relatable in her matches as the woman fighting the odds but increasingly unrelatable as a character based on her booking.
I typically despise crowds that go into business for themselves, but Nia Jax and Dana Brooke both stink and Raw’s booking for the women’s division is generally terrible lately, so how could you blame the Brooklyn audience for turning on such presentation?
Pro: The Undertaker Eats a Spear To Conclude Enjoyable Main-Event
Admittedly, the main reason why I stayed up to watch the Strowman vs. Reigns rematch was because of the inevitable Undertaker interference, but I wound up thoroughly entertained by what, ahead of bell time, mostly felt like a vehicle to further another feud rather than advance Roman-Strowman. Feuding with Braun has actually helped the reactions for The Big Dog, by my estimation; not with us, granted, but with his target audience. I’m hearing a lot more “Let’s Go Roman” chants now than I was two months ago, that’s nearly certain. WWE may have stumbled upon a bankable pairing for years to come.
As to the Taker-Reigns feud, there’s really not much of one. Such has become par for the course with Deadman matches over the years; he is completely dependent in the build-up on his opponent to do or say something interesting and, in this case, Roman isn’t interesting enough to carry the load. However, what is always interesting to me is Reigns with an edge and being on the marquee with Taker has given Roman an edge again.
Con: Why Is Strowman Undertaker’s B*@!&?
Still a little miffed as to why Strowman never explained backing down to Taker two weeks ago, I find myself more than a little confused as to why Braun took a chokeslam from The Phenom last night without bouncing right back up to annihilate him. Can we get some consistency here? Strowman, two weeks ago on PPV, could have run through a brick wall, got right back up, and nobody would have been surprised. Yet, here is this giant of the modern day left lying via one measly little chokeslam? Strowman could destroy that bag of bones, right? If you need an answer to the question, “Is it possible to kill a star’s momentum built over seven months in two weeks,” the answer is unfortunately, “Yes.” The next question is, “Can Strowman respond strongly enough to avoid being an example of that unfortunate trend?”