Doctor's Orders: February 21-23, 2017 - Braun Strowman's Giant Leap, Smackdown Continues Creative Peak, Kevin Owens Deserves To Be Champ At Mania 33
By The Doc
Feb 23, 2017 - 12:15:59 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.
Braun Strowman Appreciation
Another Engaging Smackdown On The Road To WM
Kevin Owens Should Be Universal Champion At Mania
QUESTION OF THE DAY: Logically, what do you think that Braun Strowman should do at WrestleMania 33?
The quality of the last two weeks for Kevin Owens had me feeling the need to scratch a journalistic itch on Tuesday while there was still time for WWE to make adjustments to their Universal Title plans for WrestleMania, but I did not want the week to go by without discussing, at some length, the couple of weeks (and, really, the last several months) that Braun Strowman has had.
Braun Strowman turned an important corner in his career on Monday Night Raw against The Big Show, that much needs to be boldly and explicitly stated.
I really enjoy watching the product evolve, but I think you and I both can agree that we in the IWC tend to get so enamored with the special things that smaller athletes can do and the potential for the critically-acclaimed classic stories that they can tell that, simultaneously, we tend to forget how easy it is for that little kid inside our minds who grew up watching wrestling to get pumped up about seeing nothing more than two gigantic dudes fight each other. We will never see wrestling, especially as long as WWE is around, evolve beyond a point where someone like Show or Strowman is prominently featured and the simple reason is that there's just too much natural inclination toward larger-than-life super heavyweights; we need no training, no mental attunement to the intricacies of the in-ring performance to gravitate toward that, even if it's just a small part of us.
It would be safe to say that I've been very hesitant about big men in WWE for quite some time, so I've been slow to give Strowman a chance, despite my desire to see a guy from North Carolina succeed. I have, though, slowly been coming around, especially since Survivor Series. I thought he had a stand-out role in that excellent Elimination Match. He has slowly been erasing my memories of Heidenreich, Snitsky, Big Daddy V, The Great Khali (worst wrestler of all-time), Luther Reigns, and Vladimir Kozlov – I mean, for the love of God, read those names again and tell me how you'd ever find fault in someone being skeptical of the next big man push; it's been twenty years since we saw a decent super-heavyweight wrestler!
Strowman's advertised match with Show, because of the above, was honest-to-goodness met on Monday with “I'm exhausted from a long weekend, I'm going to bed early and I'll catch the match tomorrow” from me. As someone who loves seeing big moments live, I'm a little disappointed in myself for not sticking it out for Strowman vs. Show; that match was one of the most pleasant surprises since Mark Henry vs. Show at Vengeance 2011, a title bout for which I could not have had any lower expectations and for which I walked away with my mouth turning from agape up to a bright smile. In my opinion, it was a match that turned Strowman from intriguing long-term prospect into a legitimate force in the here and now not just because of his booking but because of his actual readiness to step into the limelight and succeed immediately. Expectations for him moving forward from this point on are exponentially higher than they were before the main-event on Raw began, including expectations for his match next weekend against Roman Reigns at Fast Lane.
Covering a few things about Strowman vs. Show that I found interesting, the crowd in LA on Monday night proved my above point about the primal intrigue to see two mammoths engage in battle, chanting “This is Awesome” in the early moments. When Strowman did a float over and then a kip-up, my eyes grew wide and I started paying closer attention. Bear in mind, the only thing I'd read about the match before watching it on Tuesday night was a tweet from a long-time reader named Dave who mentioned, “That Main-Event!” I had no idea that I'd missed out on what might prove to be Strowman's acceptance by the majority of even the most jaded wrestling fans into the clubhouse of wrestlers who we're collectively OK with being ready to be at the top.
As the match wore on, Byron Saxton made a very good point, stating that every time we have seen Strowman get a little more competition, we have seen him get better and better. I thought that he was the MVP of the Royal Rumble Match, even though it was not a historically great version of the gimmick, and that his character had improved immensely through interactions with marquee stars leading up to the January Classic. That said, I was not of the opinion that Strowman was yet capable of something quite like what he accomplished with Show. I want it to be clear that it was not just that Strowman and Show had something of an Epic Match, as Samuel 'Plan and I have dubbed it, full of finisher kick outs that made the performance so impressive to me; that certainly helped change the perception of the Raw main-event from an interesting situation that might see Strowman take a step forward to a fascinating moment in recent wrestling lore in which a huge human-being who had shown clear signs of potential took a giant leap forward. No, that was not the only reason for such immense praise. From his body language to his move set to his facial expressions to his stamina to the sheer dominance of his booking (also including the post-match domination of Roman Reigns), Strowman came out of Monday Night Raw this week looking like a huge star. For those reasons in combination, I'm hopping on board the Strowman bandwagon.
I now find myself genuinely curious to see how Strowman is booked at Fast Lane. I would have been fine a week ago had he been Reigns fodder, having not really seen enough to make me believe that he really could be the first big man since Show himself debuted in WWE to develop into something that didn't totally suck and to provide the WWE main-event scene with a legitimate change of pace as a “Monster Among Men. Today, I'd be pretty peeved if Strowman was Reigns fodder. I would also be a little disappointed if they did not capitalize in some way on Strowman's momentum with an important role at WrestleMania. My self-professed tendency to be a little hyperbolic is forcing me to curtail the top end of my enthusiasm here, but seriously my hat is off to both Strowman and Show and I'm very much looking forward to the Strowman-Reigns match at Fast Lane.
WWE is putting its creative foot forward during this year's Road to WrestleMania thus far. Since the Royal Rumble, Raw has been noticeably better, particularly during its spotlight moments, and Smackdown has picked up over the past two weeks since getting through its rapidly-built brand-only pay-per-view. It has been more than a minute since we last had a WrestleMania that combined a great card on the night of with a strong television run leading up to it and most of the time the culprit has not been “The Show of Shows” itself.
There are a lot of disappointed fans in this community. It has almost become a yearly tradition for WrestleMania Season to threaten diehard fandoms as much as it used to enhance them. WWE, quite frankly, needs to create a more dynamic product during this time of the year than they have recently because not to is to further antagonize a part of the fanbase that wants WrestleMania and the Road to it to be as great as much if not more so than anybody else. To their credit, they have in many ways done so this year. Smackdown Live last night was just the latest example of a company that seems to be cognizant of the fact that a lot of the matches that they want to sell to not just the casual audience but to us as well cannot be rolled out on a silver platter and expected to be ravenously consumed. An elite overall build is in order and an elite overall build we may well prove to get.
Last night's opening segment featuring an emotional situation involving Naomi and Daniel Bryan, during which the champ was forced to relinquish her title due to injury – an all too familiar scene for the General Manager – was poignantly on-point. The heat from the crowd when Alexa Bliss showed up was evidence of the effectiveness of the teary-eyed promos from Naomi and Bryan in striking an emotional chord. Bliss gave the latest reminder of her value with a great heel response to the whole thing, demanding the title she lost at Elimination Chamber be returned to her. The ensuing title match between her and Becky Lynch was yet another rock solid (though decidedly unspectacular) performance to add to their list of them dating back to last November.
Bottom line: What Bayley et al struggled to do on Monday, Naomi and Co. did much better on Tuesday.
Time will tell if the surprise hit that has been the Smackdown Women's division finds its championship defended on the main card at WrestleMania. In last week's episode of “The Doc Says,” myself and Dave Fenichel discussed the possibilities for the blue team's females on the grandest stage and, though it seems far more likely that they wind up on the pre-show ala the Royal Rumble, it would be a shame. They have been one of the brightest spots on a thoroughly enjoyable television program these past seven months and it would not be a fitting reward if at least the title weren't defended.
The strength of the division on Smackdown has been its depth; and it continued to shine a little bit later on in the broadcast last night with what felt one of the biggest women's matches on the show since the division's inception last July. Nattie and Nikki had a good match at the last PPV, but their Falls Count Anywhere bout this week was even better. It was a creative effort that opened up the playbook as it went deeper and deeper into a lengthier run-time than either of them have regularly been afforded in marquee match-ups. The decision to constantly go for covers on top of furniture like the announce table or the random backstage crate was a nice touch and on numerous occasions the flow and pace of the match logically built to false finishes that at least yours truly bought into while watching at home. When Maryse interfered at the end, adding the next layer of set-up for the rumored mixed tag between her and Miz against Nikki and John Cena, you might have been tempted to groan, but Smackdown has probably earned the benefit of the doubt in being able to make that work somehow. Let's invoke the “innocent until proven guilty”-type clause in assuming that the blue team will figure it out until they don't, shall we?
Sandwiched in between two strong women's segments/matches was a sign of life from the Tag Team division that some had presumed dead. American Alpha vs. The Usos is the feud most of us wanted back in August, but it was postponed due to the unexpected rise of Heath Slater and Rhyno. The Usos seemed to re-establish the grudge between themselves and the champions ten days ago on PPV and then unleashed a furious promo on Smackdown this week that left me wondering where in the world that level of charisma has been all these years. It's probably more likely to snow in Orlando on WrestleMania weekend than it is for the Usos vs. Alpah match to take place on the main card on April 2nd. Nevertheless, when those two teams do face each other for the Tag Team Titles, they'll have an invested viewership.
In the main-event, of course, there was the #1 Contender's Battle Royal involving Cena, Miz, Kalisto, Baron Corbin, Mojo Rawley, Dolph Ziggler, Apollo Crews, Luke Harper, AJ Styles, and Dean Ambrose. Everyone got a chance to shine, new feuds were started, old rivalries were continued, the Intercontinental Title Match at Mania seems pretty well there for the taking (unless they use the belt as a prop again to hang above the rang in another Ladder Match), and the stakes felt huge by the time they cut back from the first of two dreaded-yet-expected mid-match commercial breaks. The sequence to kick-start the climax involving Ambrose, Styles, and Harper on the apron was exhilarating, as was the closing series of sequences between The Phenomenal One and the former Wyatt Family member. A lot of people went into the night thinking that Harper would assuredly emerge victorious, but I personally maintained an attitude of “I'll believe Luke Harper in a WWE Title Match at WrestleMania when I see it officially set-up.” That attitude will continue into next week as well given the stimulus-to-tune-in-next-week non-finish, though the announcing heavily hinted at Harper working his way into what promises to be a triple threat scenario at Mania. If you would have told me a year ago that Luke Harper would have even been in a featured match at Fast Lane, I'd have probably called you a liar, Mean Gene; to see him on the brink of Mania glory is utterly fascinating.
Smackdown gave us another strong episode on the Road to WrestleMania. 39 days out from “The Showcase of the Immortals,” the build has been as strong as any in recent memory. Regardless of how some of us may feel about the forthcoming card or the philosophy used to create it, the week-to-week TV product has been engaging lately and as soon-to-be Hall of Famer, Diamond Dallas Page, would say, "That's not a bad thing, that's a GOOD thing!"
Vince McMahon has been confirmed through a variety of credible sources over the years to be a one-man booking dynamo. Indeed, he does have a team but, as will be discussed on this week's episode of "The Doc Says," he rules over it like a creative dictator.
Most of the time, fan concern over McMahon's manic television script-changing habits is over-blown, but there are instances when it becomes a very relevant topic of discussion. Take Kevin Owens, for example. Owens debuted as a force on WWE Raw in the spring of 2015, bringing with him both the NXT Championship and traits of his character from WWE's developmental brand. He was every bit the "Prizefighter" that he claimed himself to be, a money match player and a persona that portrayed a sense of being a danger to your favorite wrestlers. Somewhere along the line, though, he regressed into more of a loud, obnoxious, traditional heel. In NXT, he was more like Triple H; the "bad ass" heel who talked a big game and backed it up with a combination of intensity and skill that made it believable for him to be a legitimate threat to not just beat his opponents, but potentially injure them in the process too. By the time his year anniversary arrived, he had become more like Chris Jericho, which was ironic given that Jeri-KO would come to dominate the Raw main-event scene just a few months later.
At the very least, the transition seemed like a classic McMahon call, did it not? Triple H looks like a bad ass, so he has for the last twenty years been portrayed as one. Kevin Owens is a short and fat guy, so he cannot possibly be perceived by the fans as a bad ass and therefore must be treated like a chicken-you-know-what heel who has to cheat and get a ton of assistance to win. Though it may well benefit KO in the long-term to have taken a step back from being a "Prizefighter" in order to showcase his comedic timing - a measure of versatility that McMahon surely loves and will find highly valuable in assessing Owens moving forward - there is almost no question that the money to be made in Kevin Owens is not as a Jericho-type heel, but as a Triple H-caliber super-villain. Unfortunately, the second and longest reigning Universal Champion in WWE history has been way too Jericho-Undisputed-Champ-‘01/’02 and not enough Triple H-2000; unfortunate not because Owens has done a poor job, but unfortunate because his greatest strength as a character has largely been stripped from him.
So much talk has been happening in the last month about the current roster members not being big enough draws to sell WrestleMania, hence the projected record number of part-timers and returning legends involved in the marquee matches for the upcoming Orlando-based spectacular. That conversation is multi-faceted, suffice to say that it would be easier for current roster members to become draws if WWE played to their strengths. Kevin Owens, in the past two episodes of Raw, has been given the opportunity to be the heel that many think he should have been throughout the duration of his six months as the flagship brand’s top titleholder. Hopefully, McMahon recognizes that this version of Owens is the one that can be a bankable star for him. If KO is to become a top-drawing antagonist, it will likely be as the mean-spirited bully who will not hesitate to beat people up if it benefits his cause; in that incarnation of his character, it does not matter that Owens is a short and fat guy because nowhere in the Book of Heel does it state that a bully that people would pay to see get his comeuppance has to be 6’4” and 260lbs of solid muscle.
In violently and remorsefully turning on Y2J last week and in showing no fear of Goldberg during an excellent promo this week, Kevin Owens is in the best position that he has ever been to be a bankable commodity. WWE will now have to be very careful where they go from here. If I am Vince McMahon, I am fluid enough in my thought process to recognize that Owens remaining Universal Champion and being positioned to continue his recent personic developments as the top guy on Raw is best for business in the long run; that, by keeping KO headed down his current path with the big red belt on his shoulder, WWE stands to gain momentum that can last beyond the first weekend in April. If Goldberg mows through Owens to win the Universal Title as rumored, then fans tuning into see that match will see the sentiment reinforced that today’s stars do not matter in the same way as yesterday’s stars mattered, while those disenfranchised by the recent Mania Season formula will see the mindset driven home that the grandest one is not the stage for rewarding fresh talents who have scratched and clawed their way to the top so much as it is, as described a couple of weeks ago, the new glass ceiling.
Without the Universal Championship, Owens will still head into WrestleMania 33 involved in a hot angle that puts him in a much better situation to succeed than he was a year ago; it will, of course, benefit his career to have the presumed match with Y2J. With the Universal Championship on the line when he meets Jericho in six weeks, however, Owens will have the chance to more rapidly change whatever detrimental perception that WWE may feel that he has among casual viewers by being presented as the “Prizefighter” that many believe that he is truly capable of becoming. If McMahon believes that it would be risky to keep the title on Owens going into Mania, then fair enough, but this is after all a WrestleMania that features the largest influx of legendary names from the past in special event lore; this is a “risk” worth taking creatively that could reap quite the present and future reward.
Kevin Owens, the likes of which we have seen these past two weeks, can draw money in a big way. It would be foolish to derail the momentum he is building just so Goldberg vs. Lesnar can add the championship to their story. One of the most intriguing plotlines for WWE Fast Lane will therefore be whether or not a stubborn genius with a tendency toward on-the-fly decisions and creative tunnel vision changes his mind and keeps the title on KO.