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Posted in: Doctor's Orders
Doctor's Orders: July 31-August 2, 2017 - Nakamura's New Era-Defining Win, Reigns Basically “Turned Heel” Already, WWE Month-in-Review (July 2017)
By The Doc
Aug 2, 2017 - 9:47:15 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.

Shinsuke Nakamura Beat John Cena...Thank God

Roman Reigns Basically “Turned Heel” Already

WWE Month-in-Review for July 2017

Nakamura Over Cena Was A New Era-Defining Decision

QUESTION OF THE DAY: Are you more invested in Nakamura vs. Jinder than you would have been Cena vs. Jinder? Do you think that Shinsuke wins the title at Summerslam?

Smackdown's side of the Summerslam card took shape on an eventful episode on Tuesday night and, for the first time in awhile, it seems like there is hope to be found in the blue brand's immediate future; the main-event result also immeasurably boosts the profile of the upcoming August Classic.

Shinsuke Nakamura defeating John Cena to earn the right to square off against the WWE Champion in Brooklyn was an important decision. There had been an aura developing around Summerslam that was threatening its viability as the second biggest show on the wrestling calendar. As alluded to a couple of weeks ago in a column suggesting that Nakamura be pushed to the top immediately and without hesitation, The King of Strong Style has momentum unique to the incomparable qualities that he brings to the table; if they can push someone like Jinder Mahal to the top in spite of The Modern Day Maharaja possessing no such qualities, then to keep Nakamura on the back-burner and allow his momentum to potentially cool would have made little sense and would have aggravated a very passionate sect of the fanbase still feeling bamboozled by Smackdown choices dating back to the WWE Title being taken off the 2016 MVP, AJ Styles, before WrestleMania. Nakamura wrestling for the WWE Title at Summerslam, therefore, sort of has a redemptive aura.

Do not take this as a condemnation of John Cena but, if he had gotten a WWE Title shot for the August Classic, the message that it would have sent perhaps would have been the most troubling, groan-inducing thing about Summerslam. Cena is a representation of two things that many diehard fans are ever hopeful that WWE will distance itself from in order to charge forward and create a more consistently engaging product both for now and in the future: the old-guard and the dependance on part-timers.

The Golden Boy, The Beast, and The Viper have all had their day in the sun at the biggest PPVs of the year; they have had a longer run as a collective class of talents than any comparable trio in the WrestleMania Era and there are legitimate criticisms that come with that longevity from a brand-fluidity standpoint. After all, WWE only has about eight stories that it allows itself to tell, so the avoidance of becoming stale is dependent upon the freshness of the wrestlers involved in those stories; a full embrace on WWE's part of “The New Era” is a really important step in need of being taken, especially at the most important shows of the year like WrestleMania and Summerslam.

Also, no matter how he may spin it, Cena is not a regular roster member anymore. His combined active time over the past two years since losing the US Title at Hell in a Cell '15, due to injury and outside commitments, is just nine months. As was written about throughout WrestleMania Season earlier this year, the abundance of part-timers – Shane 'O, Taker, Trips, Lesnar, Goldberg, and Cena – at the 2017 “Showcase of Immortals” undervalued the overall talent of the current, week-in and week-out roster, even though it did not necessarily prevent Mania from at least coming close to maxing out its potential.

So, for Cena to have wrestled Jinder Mahal, a WWE Champion whose biggest compliment paid on TV for the entirety of his run at the top has appropriately been “you worked hard in the gym and got in great shape,” would have been both another re-run of a WWE Big 3 episode we have already seen and the latest example of a part-timer coming in and taking over one of the biggest spots on the card that it seems justifiable to say was outright earned by a regular roster member.

Where would Cena himself have been if WWE thought in 2005 like they so often think today, that someone who made it big a decade prior was a better bet to sell the preeminent special events? Potentially not among the greatest of all-time. Furthermore, what sustains the WWE Network subscriber count? The pay-per-views. And who participates in all of the pay-per-views? The workhorses that around for all 52 weeks. Thank the good Lord that Shinsuke Nakamura, a representative of the new-guard and the regular roster, is getting the WWE Championship Match at Summerslam. A lame-duck titleholder (whose presence at the top sends its own set of lousy messages) against a tired, boring challenger who represents the past and one of the most controversial parts of the present – on top of what would have been a tired, boring story arc (America vs. foreign entity) – would have quite honestly made this year's Summerslam feel like WWE was yet again rewinding instead of pressing play on the here and now.

There is a time and place for John Cena to tell his record-breaking 17th World Title tale, but that time is NOT now; not in a year when a 50 year old Goldberg won the championship from one of the current era's top stars so that he could drop it to the stand-there-twelve-times-per-year-on-TV, wrestle-four-matches-per-year ULTIMATE part-timer, Brock Lesnar; not in a year when AJ Styles had his excellent WWE Title reign ended so that, at WrestleMania, Shane McMahon could have a fun, new opponent and Randy Orton could stop the momentum of a current generation star in desperate need of sustained momentum; and not in the same year when the quintessential definition of an average pro wrestler won the WWE Title not because he got better and got over, but because he spent a lot of time in the gym getting shredded and because he has heritage from a country into which WWE wants to further expand.

Personally, I am not even that big a fan of Shinsuke Nakamura, but 2017 has been a year in which WWE has basically pushed all of my wrestling fan buttons. I came to view Cena vs. Mahal as a microcosm of everything wrong with WWE this year. Instead, Nakamura will step into the spotlight in front of a crowd in Brooklyn that promises to sing his theme song louder than any crowd will sing it all year, that will root him on with the sort of fervor that makes pro wrestling special. The match may suck or be as average as its incumbent titleholder, but the narrative of their story will be a guy who has captured the imagination of the audience in the best possible way trying to take the championship from a guy who is extremely easy to dislike for about a dozen reasons, most of them having nothing to do with him individually; Nakamura vs. Mahal is us vs. them again and that has proven to be the modern traditional version of the babyface vs. heel dynamic at its finest. Quite simply, it is a dichotomy that just works.

Had WWE gone with what certainly was set up to look like the original plan of Cena (Mr. America) against Mahal (Mr. Anti-American), the World Championship match would have been something to trudge through in the same vein as the insufferably tedious Orton vs. Mahal matches that had most analysts referring to the United States Title picture as the “real main-event scene.” With Nakamura as #1 contender, Summerslam feels like the host of the battle to determine the fate of Smackdown Live. Will the Modern Day Mediocrity continue to lower the ceiling of the top prize in industry history to mid-card status or can The King of Strong Style save the blue brand? Emotional stakes have been returned to the WWE Title match at Summerslam and, after a six month absence of truly caring who was WWE Champion, I for one could not feel more refreshed by it.

Roman Reigns Basically “Turned Heel” Already

It has been no secret that Roman Reigns, as a character, has been wildly inconsistent over the course of his three-year main-event-level career. LOP’s Samuel ‘Plan highlighted his journey extremely well in the latest installment of his fantastic search for the 102nd “WWE Match To See Before You Die.” To briefly summarize the ballad of The Big Dog, he quickly became a largely unrelatable traditional hero after The Shield’s destruction, meandered his way through most of the year that followed vacillating between a hard-charging badass and a relatively happy-go-lucky clone of 2012’s unshakable Sheamus, spent 2016 making slight tweaks to his act depending upon the character-persuasion of his opponents, and went into 2017 “without a character,” as was best described by LOP Radio’s “Perfect Ten Podcast” host, The Implications.

Something shifted, however, during Roman’s quest to firmly establish the WWE ring as his “yard” at the expense of the legendary Undertaker. Though it was not the kind of blatant development used by WWE, for example, for his former Shield running mate, Seth Rollins, wielding a steel chair when turning on The Hounds of Justice, the Reigns we see today is the same Reigns we have been seeing for the past five months…and, ladies and gentlemen, the Roman Reigns of the present and recent past is basically a bad guy.

While much of the diehard fanbase has continued to champion a hard personic shift for Reigns and has suggested things like “a double turn took place between Roman and Strowman at Great Balls of Fire,” “They need to stop presenting him as the underdog,” and “WWE would be best served to close Summerslam with a Roman Reigns heel turn,” it seems apparent to me that WWE quietly made the decision in March to allow The Big Dog to go back to being a version of himself reminiscent of the one he portrayed when he was in The Shield. Since engaging The Deadman, he has had very little to say and, when he has spoken, he has smugly pointed out who he is and what he has accomplished; he has avoided the silly joke-telling that plagued his attempts at following in the footsteps of his WWE alpha male predecessor; he has been arrogantly dismissive of both his opponents and his detractors; and he has been self-righteous about his actions, even when said actions were clearly not those of a PG Era role model. Roman Reigns is all attitude and no remorse.

The moral ambiguity of pro wrestlers since Steve Austin’s anti-hero blurred the lines strongly drawn in the 1980s and prior has left the industry in search of stable ground throughout this century, so perhaps the lack of clarity regarding Roman’s character for much of the past three years has been a reflection of the struggle’s next phase. Remember, Stone Cold was a heel by any previous standard; WWE simply decided it was OK to build their product around a good guy who was quite honestly a bad guy (seriously, most of Austin’s actions were criminal), causing a foundational divide between how pro wrestling had always worked and how it could conceivably work. John Cena changed the business even further by never embracing the dark side, controversially remaining true to his code when such a vocal part of the audience outright rejected him. He became the first superstar in the WrestleMania Era to be creatively embraced as one thing to one part of the fanbase and another thing to another part of the fanbase; WWE, from 2006 to present day, decided to sit Cena on the fence and say, “This is who he is, cheer or boo as you please.”

WWE has tried to recreate the Cena formula with Roman Reigns for what I feel are reasons too often ignored by a fanbase quick to go into doom and gloom mode based on an outdated economic mindset. The bottom line is that the Cena formula was highly successful. WWE made a lot of money during the Cena Era and, sure, it was at times creatively confusing having the same guy simultaneously playing the top heel and top babyface and domestic TV ratings went down significantly, but international business skyrocketed, WrestleMania became everything that Vince McMahon ever dreamed it could be, and WWE in many ways continued to thrive. Cena was an ideal face of the brand and WWE sees Reigns as the logical choice to supplant him. WWE wants Reigns to be the public face of their company, the leading guy on the marquee at WrestleMania, and the attraction that lures in new fans; and that makes sense. For much of the past three years, they simply dropped the ball creatively with his character, caught between the role he most naturally portrayed on TV and the role they wanted him to portray overall.

The presentation of Reigns since March suggests that WWE has recognized that it can tweak the Cena formula to fit The Big Dog instead of tweaking The Big Dog to fit the Cena formula. Cena was a top babyface (generally to kids and women) whose reactions from many (generally teenagers and men) dictated that he also be regarded as a top heel; Reigns, conversely, is playing a top heel (to generally teenagers and men) whose reactions from many (generally kids and women) dictate that he also be regarded as a top babyface.

So, Reigns may not have walked out to the ring in a suit, shaking hands with Triple H or one of the McMahons, but he has put some distance between his character and the inconsistency that has largely defined it since mid-2014, returning to the dark, brooding soldier for a specific cause (in this case his own) that ironically during The Shield days led to the initial surge in his popularity and began this whole conundrum in the first place.

These types of progressions for pro wrestling characters, when not overtly explained, are most easily seen through the lens of an on-going feud with continual peaks and valleys on TV but, in four PPV matches since WrestleMania 33 (including the upcoming Summerslam), Reigns will have been involved in two singles PPV matches with Braun Strowman and a pair of 4-5 man matches. I believe that the “heel turn”/ changes will become more obvious when he moves on to a different rival. Eventually, should WWE stick to this formula for Reigns, he will finally find his groove as a character and the audience can settle in with him; it even has the potential to allow Reigns to develop and grow far more than Cena ever did (a topic for another day). In the meantime, let’s abandon this idea that Roman is a one-man heroic empire.

WWE Month-in-Review (July 2017) - Match of the Month, Wrestler of the Month, and August Predictions

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

WWE Great Balls of Fire Review

Match of the Month: Cedric Alexander vs. Noam Dar in an “I Quit” Match on the July 11th edition of 205 Live

Say what you will about 205 Live – there have been many criticisms – but what sets it apart is its simplicity. It is the one main roster program that does not seem obsessed with anything more than providing a platform for character development and strong wrestling matches with purpose. 205 Live is very similar to NXT in that regard.

Noam Dar and Cedric Alexander had been feuding for several months in a storyline revolving around Alicia Fox; it was never a conflict that set the world on fire, but it gave both talents an avenue to be something more than just bit players of a Monday Night Raw episode. Dar is 205 Live’s tertiary heel behind Neville and Brian Kendrick; Alexander has been, when healthy, consistently in the mix as a secondary babyface on the periphery of Cruiserweight Title contention. WWE built the July 11th show around their payoff match and gave them a gimmick normally reserved for alphas of a top brand; the rest is history. They knocked it out of the park, displaying the creativity that 205 Live is sometimes criticized for shackling. It was exactly the kind of “I Quit” Match that you would expect of smaller, faster, and more innovative wrestlers, a compliment given in the highest possible regard.

July was disappointing for in-ring action on pay-per-view, the best match across the two special events being the opener of Battleground between The Usos and The New Day that did earn a lot of thought for this month’s award. The TV product stepped up and produced several great matches that, in a stronger PPV cycle, would not have stood out quite to the same extent. The superlative performance of the lot was hidden on Tuesday nights after Smackdown, all likelihood weakening its otherwise sure-fire TV Match of the Year candidacy, but at least it will get some recognition here.

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), Tyler Bate vs. Pete Dunne at Takeover: Chicago (May), and Ambrose vs. Miz at Extreme Rules (Jun)

WWE Battleground 2017 Review

Wrestlers of the Month: The New Day

Though they were unable to secure the Match of the Month, the fact of the matter is that The New Day’s Tag Title-winning victory over The Usos at Battleground was the best main roster tag team match since New Day vs. Y2AJ in early March of 2016; none of the major singles stars on either brand had an equal in-ring achievement in July, despite more significant opportunities. It could also be argued that no singles act was featured in as engaging a TV promo as the July 4th Smackdown’s battle rap pitting The New Day against Jimmy and Jey with Wale as the moderator. So, it was the rare period in which Woods, Kofi, and Big E offered memorable character work and stellar in-ring performances that each rated favorably against their peers higher up the card.

Overall, it felt like July 2017 was a bit of a coming out party for Xavier Woods as a wrestler to be taken more seriously. Long the hype man of the longest reigning Tag Team Champions ever, Woods was one of the biggest talking points in WWE all month long, starting with his part in the rap battle – the most (key word) entertaining segment of the month – later picking up steam with the introduction of his Coast-to-Coast-esque finisher in a singles match on Smackdown, and peaking with what some are calling his potential “next-step, break-out” performance in the PPV bout on July 23rd. The New Day’s in-ring presentation very much benefited from subbing out Big E for Woods, giving their fairly stale act a needed shot in the arm.

Part of it is the quality of the feud they have going with The Usos and part of it is the novelty of Ph-Dub in his newfound role, but New Day feels fresher right now than they have in over a year.

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

August Predictions

This will be such a heavy topic over the next few weeks in columns leading up to Summerslam that I will keep it pretty brief this month on predictions. One thing I will say is that it would be really nice to see a WrestleMania or Summerslam or Royal Rumble send the crowd home genuinely excited after the main-event. When was the last time that a Big 3 PPV ended on a high note? Taker’s bad match with Reigns, Orton winning the Rumble, the confusion of the Orton-Lesnar ending, Reigns beating Triple H, The Game winning the title, the confusion of the Taker-Lesnar ending…it’s been since WrestleMania 31 that people left the building pumped up about the direction of the company after one of the biggest special events of the year. That needs to end at Summerslam this year. It seems likely that Lesnar will lose the title, so Reigns simply cannot win and either Strowman or Joe must emerge victorious to avoid yet another downtrodden feeling coming out of a major PPV. I think it’s time to pull the trigger on Strowman.

On the Raw side, I foresee the Rollins-Ambrose angle going on for a couple of months, culminating in a Tag Team Title win that keeps them out of the main-event spotlight until at least Survivor Series; Bayley winning the title from Alexa Bliss to continue the list of head-scratching creative decisions for her as she inches ever closer to fulfilling her apparent destiny as the female John Cena, unaffected by anything troubling and increasingly unrelatable; and The Demon emerging at Summerslam to defeat Bray Wyatt.

Meanwhile, on the obvious as ever B-show, I predict Cena becoming the latest victim of the Modern Day Mediocrity and his merry men as Smackdown plods onward toward the September India live event tour; The New Day and The Usos combining with Raw’s duos to further the bipolar state (this current one manic) of tag team wrestling on the main roster with a series of matches at Summerslam that leave the fanbase really excited about the genre after the break-up of several teams left the same fanbase depressed about the genre just two months prior; AJ Styles and Nakamura facing someone besides each other, because why should we expect the blue brand to make a good creative decision that could benefit our experience as WWE fans ; - )

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