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Posted in: Doctor's Orders
Doctor's Orders: June 26-30, 2017 - WWE Month-in-Review (June 2017), Developmental Smackdown, & Raw Is Controversially The Better Brand
By The Doc
Jun 30, 2017 - 4:59:38 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 worldwide 5-star rating on Amazon, where it peaked at #3 on the wrestling charts.

WWE Month-in-Review (June 2017)

Smackdown Needs Development Across The Board

Impressive Raw a Monday Night Microcosm

WWE Month-in-Review (June 2017) - Match & Wrestler of the Month, plus July Predictions

QUESTION OF THE DAY: What did you feel was the Match of the Month in June for WWE? And, if you for some reason thought anyone but Samoa Joe was Wrestler of the Month, who was your pick?

The following is a case study of WWE’s product for the month of June 2017.

WWE Extreme Rules 2017 Review (Audio)

Match of the Month: Dean Ambrose vs. The Miz at Extreme Rules

There were a lot of good matches in the month of June. The multi-men and multi-women affairs struggled to stand out for me, rendering both pay-per-view main-events with a label of “fun but forgettable.” I tend to gravitate more toward singles matches anyway, as there tends to be far more engrossing storytelling when attention does not have to be split among so many wrestlers; more balling and less spot calling, if you will. So, with the candidates whittled down from 5-ways and 6-ways, two matches stood out above the rest: Miz vs. Ambrose at the start of the month and Asuka vs. Nikki Cross at the end of the month.

I thought Cross and Asuka had an outstanding Last Woman Standing Match on NXT this week. The manner in which Cross taunted the NXT Women’s Champion was as eerie a display as it was a fascinating bit of character commitment; she comes across as legitimately psychotic instead of really good at playing a psychopath…and I love it. However, after thinking about it consistently over the past two days, I did not think it superior to the older school story told in the Ambrose vs. Miz Intercontinental Title bout. Call this a nod to the subtleties of pro wrestling, but there was something simplistically brilliant about the Extreme Rules opener. It was a better version of the types of matches that Jeff Jarrett and Razor Ramon had twenty-two years ago; and I actually think Double J is a good historical comparison for Miz since his work ascended to its current level last fall.

Previous winners: Styles vs. Cena at Royal Rumble (Jan), Strowman vs. Big Show on Raw (Feb), Reigns vs. Strowman at Fast Lane (Mar), Rollins vs. Triple H at WrestleMania (Apr), and Tyler Bate vs. Pete Dunne at Takeover: Chicago (May)

WWE Money in the Bank 2017 Review (Audio)

Wrestler of the Month: Samoa Joe

After a month of May that yielded a top wrestler with an asterisk due to the overall creative monotony on display, June rebounded with much more engaging Monday nights and progress on Tuesday nights. Samoa Joe was the only option, however, for June’s #1 star. He seized the spotlight after earning a shot at the Universal Title and has done the best character work of his two year NXT/WWE tenure opposite Paul Heyman and Brock Lesnar. This award tends to favor those who are given the biggest spotlight but, as proven by Jinder Mahal’s ho-hum performance, a greater opportunity does not necessarily translate to better work; maximizing minutes is applicable across the card, including the main-event. Just as Braun Strowman’s presence and passion validated the strength of his on-screen presentation earlier in the year during his WOTM runs, Samoa Joe’s natural-born, totally believable bad ass qualities have made this feud with Lesnar in June so enthralling; it is not just that he is being booked to take it to The Beast, but the manner in which he is taking it to The Beast that warrants the praise.

Previous winners: John Cena (Jan), Braun Strowman (Feb), Roman Reigns (Mar), (Tie) Neville & Braun Strowman (Apr), and Kevin Owens* (May)

July Predictions

Every division on Monday Night Raw presented something interesting throughout the month of June. Cesaro and Sheamus have cooled off a bit, but there is still a little bit of life left in their feud with the Hardys; Neville has found an intriguing challenge in the form of Tozawa, whose involvement with the Titus Brand has been entertaining; Alexa Bliss and her interactions with Nia Jax and Sasha Banks has helped the women’s division begin to move on from the failed Bayley experiment; The Miz has been sufficiently antagonized by Ambrose; and, of course, there has been Joe vs. Lesnar. Raw will transition to Summerslam build in about ten days, so how many of these aforementioned stories continue toward the second biggest PPV of the year is a pertinent discussion topic.

Three of the five will likely be over and done by Great Balls of Fire’s conclusion or shortly thereafter. If Reigns vs. Lesnar is indeed the Summerslam main-event plan, I would like to see Joe vs. Strowman in what might amount to a #1 contender’s match. Secondary top-level rivalries such as Rollins vs. Wyatt seem destined to continue for a bit, so putting June’s dominantly pushed wrestler against 2017’s overall most dominantly pushed wrestler reeks of an awesome monster showdown. If they audible out of the Reigns-Lesnar match for August, then who knows what they might book after GBOF? Nothing stands out as a distinct possibility at or near the top of the card beyond Lesnar vs. Strowman, though there are rumors that Angle’s storyline with Corey Graves is leading to a match with Triple H that I don’t mind sharing isn’t tripping my trigger.

Raw certainly has plenty of pieces to fit into engaging feuds. Big Cass vs. Enzo would make for a great Summerslam opener if they do not burn out the saga before July is over; considering there are no babyface teams in the tag division beyond the Hardys, maybe Jeff and Matt need to win back the straps and move onto someone like The Revival (for NXT fans, that’s a dream match); Jax will probably get into the Women’s Title mix for a triple threat; I would rather enjoy seeing Finn Balor go after The Miz’s IC Title.

Over on Smackdown, we know that the first half of July will likely be dominated by the trio of Orton-Mahal (yawn), maybe Styles vs. Owens (not much heat there), and Nakamura vs. Corbin (work-in-progress), but where does John Cena fit? Does he fit on SD at all since he will return next week as a free agent? You can see from a mile away WWE wanting to run Mahal against Mr. America (Cena), but that is about as interesting on paper as another Cena vs. Orton match.

The blue team is simply struggling to figure out how to create engaging rivalries right now. As long-time LOP reader, Caleb Baldwin, said to me this week, “[Smackdown’s] biggest problem is resource allocation. Their booking is the equivalent to going outside in the bright sun with your hat turned backwards and your sunglasses hanging on your shirt collar, but meanwhile using your hand to shield your eyes from the sun.” In other words, the talent is there but the deployment is wonky. All we can hope is that July brings change post-Battleground because, while they have the right dynamic in place with their Tag Team Title rivalry and an interesting plot to follow surrounding Ms. Money in the Bank, the rest of the show is still kind of a mess.

Smackdown Needs Consistent And Swift Development - See Carmella, Ms. MITB

Smackdown Live has reached an interesting point in its brand split 2.0 timeline. After one of the most enjoyable stretches of TV quality that WWE had produced in years from July '16 to WrestleMania 33, the blue brand faltered in the aftermath of the roster shuffle. It now faces many challenges in regaining anything more than a loyalist insistence that it is better than Raw. To recapture the magic that it previously conjured with a different roster, “development” is the operative word; Jinder Mahal must develop further as the WWE Champion; New Day and The Usos must re-develop the tag team scene that the prior era was unable to sustain; AJ Styles, Kevin Owens, and Shinsuke Nakamura must find a way to develop rivalries in their current positions in the hierarchy that are so good that they make detractors forget their desire to see all three of them main-eventing instead; the women's division must develop a better semblance of roster positioning. The list goes on and on.

You would be forgiven for feeling impatient while the development takes place with yet another PPV main-event featuring Mahal defending against Randy Orton on deck. It would be safe to say that Mahal has been receiving mixed reviews; he has an undeniable support group among the fanbase, while other voices have been loud and vitriolic in their stance that, among the most logical reasons, it was quite unnecessary to have a developmental project World Champion when the WWE roster is as currently stacked as it has been in 15 years. One has to wonder, though, if the critics would be fewer if Mahal had a more interesting personality than Orton as his May-to-July rival. The final peak in The Viper's storied career might have been the main-event at Summerslam last year; and his decisive loss in a lousy match with an even lousier climax seemed to kill the remaining enthusiasm the most ardent fans held for his character. Momentary flashes throughout the Wyatt feud and a resurgently confident push from management through Mania Season have not been enough to hide the fact that Orton is just plane stale; Punjabi Prison cannot change that, nor can it shorten Mahal's developmental curve.

Even on a night in which Orton was a tad more engaging (kudos to the '09 reference from Shane of his conflict with RKO) and Mahal improved his tone of conviction, at the end of the day, it is still Orton vs. Mahal...and, for the main-event, that is still pretty tedious to sit through.

What the women's division has going is a different story. A Money in the Bank Ladder Match being booked for them was the biggest milestone in women's wrestling in a 2017 that has been short on inspiring moments, especially compared to what they collectively accomplished in 2016. Of course, their core problem is a lot easier to fix than Mahal's or Orton's; Charlotte is a living legend who has been right there for the main roster Revolution's pinnacle achievements and she is flanked by arguably the best in-ring performer of the whole women's roster (NXT included) in Becky Lynch, the competent technician in Natalya, the veteran sparkplug (and current champion) Naomi, and two intriguing prospects in Lana and Carmella. WMITB 2 last night provided a platform for the next step in the roster positioning issue to be worked through.

I was feeling at the show's start, featuring Carmella's biggest promo spotlight yet (well done to her and Ellsworth by the way), that the second ever Women's Money in the Bank Ladder Match should be used to reinforce the result of the first one from nine days prior. The Princess of Staten Island's growth has not been as rapid as that of Alexa Bliss since they debuted as surprise call-ups from NXT last summer, which perhaps muted Carmella's own, steadier climb to her current position. As far back as the attitude and potential that she showcased in her lengthy first feud with Nikki Bella, she was proving her place in a surprising hit of a women's division. Miss Money in the Bank seemed like a natural next step for her character's progression, with the best case scenario being for her get to equal footing as Nattie within the next few months and then to overtake her toward the end of the year; her upside is higher than anyone's on the current SD women's roster sans for the pair of Horsewomen. On The Doc Says podcast after MITB, I suggested having her defend the briefcase for the next month against the four other Ladder Match participants, solidifying her newly minted spot in the hierarchy, so my thought was that Carmella would come away from a modified retention of the contract last night looking like solid gold. How are you feeling about Carmella winning both times?

WMITB 2 was certainly not perfect, but it was reasonably effective at what it was trying to be. What it was never going to be was the stunt brawl we have come to expect from the men's version. As what we saw over the past two weeks was likely the start of a Ladder Match legacy for the women's division, I think that their first foray into the very dangerous genre was smart to focus more on storytelling and less on intricate spots. For the inaugural versions, the quality was less important than the achievement of the matches even taking place at all. It was a big week for the women of WWE overall, with Raw's Gauntlet Match in the main-event Monday a direct counter to the Smackdown card's well-hyped, very female-dominant night on Tuesday; it marked the first time in history that both WWE brands were main-evented by women's matches in the same week.

The rest of the show was fine, but Smackdown as a whole is still very much a work-in-progress.

Like it or not, the standard was set awfully high by the July to early-April #SDLive crew and the combination of holdovers and fresh faces will be asked to live up to it. Weekly discussion of sport and entertainment thrives on comparisons and it will be difficult not to continue analyzing Smackdown, as is, against what it was a few months ago. The draft last summer immediately drew criticism because the one comparison to be made for brand split 2.0 was 1.0 and 1.0 had not been historically well-received, largely due to the way it treated the blue team. Smackdown 2016-2017 was able to remind us that 2.0 can work if WWE commits to establishing something unique about the non-flagship program and puts together the right roster for it. In order for this latest seasonal cycle, if you will, to continue what the last one started and to avoid rendering '16/'17 a memorable blip on the radar like 2002-2003 and 2009-2010 were regarded during 1.0, development has to be consistent and swift.

Monday Night a Microcosm of WWE Raw’s Controversial Reputation

During my time away from writing on current events, post-Mania 33, I have been championing on my podcast that Raw has become the superior brand, eclipsing Smackdown in part because the blue brand tinkered too much with both its roster chemistry and its roster positioning, and also in part because Raw simply has too much talent on deck to fail. WWE found during WrestleMania Season this year that, by including so many legendary part-time stars, it was almost as if Raw was immune to the downside of the brand split. Monday nights from late January through “The Showcase” found a nice groove by comparison to its post-draft to New Year predecessor, providing one of the most enjoyable Roads to WrestleMania in recent years. By two weeks post-“Shake Up,” it had become evident that Raw was just as incredibly loaded with talent as it had been before the part-timers checked out and, as a result, the red team got through the post-Mania lull fairly quickly and has been producing quality television and really strong pay-per-views.

The elephant in the room for Raw will continue to be its 3-hour format and, though that elephant apparently weighs too much for a lot of fans and pundits to handle, the fact of the matter is that, for several months running, Raw has been putting together a rather consistent 75-90 minutes of engaging TV per week. Yes, there is still a great deal of monotonous fluff there too and at least one horrifyingly bad segment per month, but the good thing about having so much talent on one show is that, for every 10-minutes of LaVar Ball that you would rather forget, there are at least 30-minutes of Enzo and Cass-caliber storyline additions that you might remember for years. Thanks to the power of the remote control and DVR, you can treat Raw as if it only lasts for an hour to an hour-and-a-half; period.

Last night was microcosm of the modern day episode of Raw; what was good was really good, what was bad was really bad, and the filler in between was as fast-forward-prompting as usual. Nobody despises celebrity-driven segments more than yours truly – I consider 2009’s “guest host era” to be the worst period in Raw history. The Balls on MizTV was the kind of terrible that makes you embarrassed to be a wrestling fan sometimes; it also quite clearly (and characteristically of such occasions) sucked most of the writing team’s attention into a black hole that resulted in a pair of six-man tag team bouts which basically added nothing to three angles expected to culminate in PPV matches in two weeks. Fortunately, sandwiching the mundane and the awful was the continued reignition of the monster Braun Strowman push and another fabulous episode of the evolving Enzo and Cass soap opera.

Strowman vs. Roman is WWE’s Incredible Hulk vs. Thor, as close to a comic book coming to life as you will see in pro wrestling. The latest wrinkle in their saga was overall quite standard fare for their rivalry to date, but we should not allow ourselves to become overly conditioned to (and thus immune to the impact of) watching a 250 pound main-eventer of three straight WrestleManias be launched hard and fast into concrete and steel as if he were a ragdoll. Braun is a big-time player and it has been a welcome sight having him back in the fold heading toward Summerslam; a leading candidate for 2017 Wrestler of the Year by my estimation, his presence adds a unique dynamic to Raw.

Enzo and Big Cass have been tremendous thus far in their break-up saga. There has been a lot of talk on LOP Radio since last week about their dissension hurting the already thin tag team division. However, when two guys on the periphery of their most relevant period on the main roster to date are given a chance to shine in a larger spotlight and they excel to the extent that Enzo and Cass have over the past two weeks, it is hard not to forgive any damage done to the tag ranks and celebrate what their budding feud could do for the Raw mid-card scene. Experience as a thirty year wrestling enthusiast told me not to accept that Enzo and Cass had genuinely reunited after their heartfelt promos last night, but I would be lying if I said that there was not a part of me that was buying it.

Along with the revitalization of the old school Goldust character and the simple-yet-effective way that he has furthered his on-going beef with R-Truth, the Enzo and Cass situation has sparked for Monday nights the modern day rarity of the show having a litany of interesting stories to offer beyond just the top four-to-six wrestlers on PPVs like July’s Great Balls of Fire instead of just matches (of admittedly an often high quality) that seem to suggest, “creative afterthoughts.”

Of course, the main-event scene still lays the foundation for each show and it too, as evidenced by Mahal-Orton on Smackdown, has a tendency to fall into the trap of creative tedium. Raw has been doing a really good to great job, though, with its headlining matches since February. Greatest of all might well prove to be Samoa Joe vs. Brock Lesnar, whose conflict over the Universal Championship escalated rather impressively once again last night. Often hidden behind the part-timer narrative a few months ago was that Goldberg humanized The Beast, bringing him back down to a more relatable level. Joe has picked up where Da Man left off, peaking with his choke-out of Lesnar and taking one step closer to exiting the upcoming PPV a made-man, regardless of the outcome of their headlining match. Everything done last night (Joe’s interruption of Heyman’s promo and his intimidating presence, the fight that never happened thanks to Joe’s sneak attack on Lesnar and application of the Coquina Clutch, and Heyman’s verbal retort later on), just as with everything done in the previous three Raws, was flawlessly executed. Joe-Lesnar may not end up being Match of the Year-caliber, but the manner in which it has been built will provide everything that they will need to tell an engrossing story come Great Balls of Fire.

The women’s division has a long way to go before they will be able to consistently produce at a rate on-par with something like Lesnar-Joe or even Cass-Enzo (at least on the main roster). That having been stated, kudos to the division for embracing the opportunity presented it last night. Whether or not the females of WWE can maintain the benefits of the Women’s Revolution has been a popular discussion topic on my podcast lately; occupying over thirty quality minutes of air-time to close Monday Night Raw and landing on a title match for the PPV that probably is the most intriguing of all the presently possible combinations gives a knee-jerk hope moving forward that has not been there since Bayley ascended too fast and then fell slowly and painfully from grace. Nia Jax had a potential star-making performance, with her work as a dominant personality throughout the Gauntlet Match hopefully indicative of what she can be in the near future; and Sasha Banks getting back into the title picture as the protagonist opposite Alexa Bliss is the right move. It was the best night for the Raw women’s division in five months if you ask me.

Raw is in a good place right now. As a diehard enthusiast, you take the good with the bad, but the good right now far outweighs even the very worst that WWE creative can muster.

To order The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment (Third Edition), click here

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