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Posted in: Just Business
Just Business presents #102: Chapter 4.2 ~ Extending Brands, Building Product
By Samuel 'Plan
Jul 6, 2017 - 8:24:32 PM

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Just Business presents #102: Chapter 4.2 ~ Extending Brands, Building Product

I ended my last column musing on how the Second Brand Extension has, thanks to pursuing a hard Extension and reinstituting brand exclusive pay-per-view, continued to allow room for WWE to go on re-developing their ability to tell story driven mid card feuds; a trait not shared by the First Extension in years past. While their success in this pursuit can be debated, we can be certain that it is happening, thanks to a number of recent mid card matches that have shined a spotlight on IWC favourites.

Luke Harper vs. Randy Orton from Elimination Chamber 2017 thereby enters my consideration for must see when it comes to assessing the impact the Second Extension has had on the product since Summerslam 2014.

I think it is little stretch to claim that a single roster system would likely not have afforded as golden an opportunity to Luke Harper as Smackdown Live (SDL) afforded him with their fourth exclusive special, for this was undoubtedly a Harper platform. It might plod along at a steady pace and in parts feel somewhat disjointed, but it was a match that relished every minute of its run time. Harper is undeniably its protagonist, and it’s more roundly developed character. His performance elevates himself, as he proves to be of World Championship potential, at times dangerously out of control, and relentlessly standing toe to toe with one of the most prolific, accomplished performers in WWE’s most recent history. Harper performs brutally from an aesthetic point of view, and excellently from an athletic one. Most importantly, though, his gutsy, gritty, determined performance so full of heart and fire stems not from championship aspirations, but from characterful motivation alone. Such turns in the First Extension were rare come by, and are promising – if inconsistent - to see at this early stage in the Second.

Yet, Harper’s attempted breakout performance at Elimination Chamber is still to translate into any meaningful long term success for him, and until – or should that be unless? – it does, I cannot truthfully claim his bout opposite the Viper to be representative of the major positive coming out of the Second Extension’s early life: the continuation of a feature mid card scene, with story driven undercard matches following at pay-per-views. This does not mean, however, there is no such representative example.

I turn now to Braun Strowman vs. Big Show from Monday Night Raw (MNR) 20/02/17. Indeed, Strowman is perhaps the foremost proof of the claim I have just made: that it is really in the continued presence of story in undercards that marks the Second Extension’s earliest great success. Strowman’s ascent to main event status, and his acceptance at that level in spite of still relatively recent cynicism harboured about his talent, evidences the in-built benefits of giving characters room to expand and develop lower down featured cards. From his encounters with Sami Zayn, to his stunning performance in the Royal Rumble Match right through to his work opposite Roman Reigns, Strowman has benefitted greatly from being afforded such room.

Why choose this match with Big Show specifically? That much is simple: because out of all of his other work since his singles push began in earnest, this was perhaps the first time a head-turning Strowman performance was all about Strowman. Being paired with a veteran, much as Harper was in the aforementioned example, transformed this television main event into a consciously identifiable platform piece for the new star. It is a story all about Strowman’s dominance, built on the back of the athletic subversion he has now become infamous for and which was previewed a number of years ago by Big Show himself, then opposite Mark Henry. Nip ups, DDTs and counters evidencing inhuman degrees of agility, strength and instinct coalesce into a star-making turn for the Monster Among Men. One that, unlike in the case with Harper, truly has led to longer term traction for a man now seen as one of the promotion’s brightest prospects. None of that would have been possible had WWE not returned to a brand exclusive system of pay-per-view; had they not learnt that lesson from the First Extension, at least.

Though perhaps not quite so drastically necessary as a mobile mid card capable of elevating talent, the main event scene has also benefitted from the Second Extension, and that much cannot be argued. Since the time of the split, on the SDL front, Dean Ambrose, AJ Styles and Bray Wyatt have all seen their first taste of the gold, with Ziggler and Corbin notable examples of refreshing presences in the higher echelon. MNR has been sure to keep step too, with Finn Bálor and Kevin Owens getting an inaugural Universal Championship reign under their belts. While I will always be a proponent of one World title over two, I cannot argue against the main event headlining exposure the split has afforded a myriad of widely supported talent, most of whom are contemporaries of the current generation.

As with the mid card case study, there are two examples to which we might turn in order to exhibit this trend. Neither involves AJ Styles who, as inherent and successful as he has been, is nonetheless a member of the outgoing generation rather than a contemporary. It is thus in the vein of contemporaries I turn to a pair of MNR matches instead, the first being Finn Bálor vs. Roman Reigns.

Bálor’s first night on MNR was as much a platform for the new star as the two preceding matches I’ve explored were for theirs. His initial encounter with the Big Dog has a certain “welcome to the big fight” feel to it, placing emphasis on the very concept of a new name ascending to the elite ranks. The manner in which it is wrestled follows suit too, as Reigns tosses the smaller Bálor about with ease, dominating the Demon King like an experienced WrestleMania main event player bloodying the nose of an aspiring cut-throat. Rather than denigrate Bálor’s status, though, it is of benefit. Bálor wrestles cerebrally in response, picking his spots, seeking out the leg and weathering the storm. He proves himself capable, hard-nosed and intelligent between the ropes, shining like a main event player in his very first night with Team Red. The ethic is impressive, the aesthetic more so, and the footing Finn is afforded on his road to challenging Seth Rollins at Summerslam is as firm and effective as one could have hoped.

Is it a suitable representative for the onset of main event mobility incepted since the Second Extension took form? Not quite, and for the same reason I shied away from Harper and Orton’s bout as a champion of mid card story: because of an unfortunate injury sustained at Summerslam, Bálor’s platform performances are yet to translate into solidified, long term success up top. This may be a case of (much) delayed gratification – though I hasten to add, that Bálor became the first ever Universal Champion only further solidifies my current point.

Kevin Owens vs. Seth Rollins for the Universal Championship at Clash of Champions, however, is, I think, a fine representation. Like with the Bálor affair, it is a match, this time on a bigger stage, which seeks primarily to push the new star carrying the red strap, albeit in a much different fashion. It was no proving ground for Owens. Instead, he arrives as an already established marquee player: he had played a large part in re-establishing the prominence of the Intercontinental Championship; had been crowned by Triple H himself, in a move directly ousting the man who had been intrinsic to the product throughout all of 2015, Seth Rollins; had named the very show he now headlined after himself; and quickly became the longest reigning Universal Champion of all time – a line uttered for laughs, but one that still played to his readily established star. This pay-per-view main event, however, was the first time Kevin Owens was the crown jewel; an opportunity he’d been unable to attain in the single roster system.

The storyline inflections do not stand alone either. The presentation continues to feed into legitimising the established brand of Kevin Owens. He wrestles as smartly as the Architect, and as brutally as Triple H, and all the while Seth Rollins’ legitimacy to go it alone is called into question, subtly reframing Owens as a man dispelling a myth through his own elite capabilities. Reference is even made to the shared lineage of both: the cadre of NXT Champions that at this point had translated into a holy trinity at the heart of the Universal Championship’s inaugural months.

That latter point is really the key too. This was the first brand exclusive pay-per-view main event to exclusively feature contemporaries of the current generation, vying over a World Championship level title and woven undeniably into the fundamental fabric of their brand’s creative. It might not stand alone in that status, but its outstanding quality combines to ensure, in my mind, it shines as the prime example of the better part of the Second Extension’s dual main event scene, and would therefore be my pick as a must see representative of this week’s issue.

Although, none of this is not to say the main event was static prior to the Second Extension, of course. Indeed, my biggest gripe with the reintroduction of this system is that its gains, relative to how the product was prior to the split occurring, are minimal. Though I have been pleasantly surprised by the Second Extension’s better elements, a degree of my cynicism still remains when I think back on missed opportunities abound since last summer – many of which stem from WWE’s ongoing inability to exploit the full potential of the freedom lent by the WWE Network.

The increasing prevalence of the Network is, in fact, the next issue we’ll be looking at it. It has fundamentally changed the way in which WWE operates, and I believe WWE are still only just scraping the surface with it. It might have been introduced ahead of WrestleMania XXX, but the pace of change it has incurred since Summerslam 2014 has been considerable, and undeniably requires deeper inspection.

Until then, comments, thoughts and feedback are all welcome down below or over on social media!

This mini-series is a spin-off of my first book, 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die, spawned from the acclaimed LOP column series of the same name. So for more of the same, click below to pick up your paperback or e-book copy today!

Click here to pick up your copy of 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die from Amazon.com

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