”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.
QUESTION OF THE DAY #1: What do you think John Cena will do at WrestleMania 34 and do you care?
QUESTION OF THE DAY #2: How did you feel about Ronda Rousey debuting in WWE right after Asuka won the first-ever Women’s Royal Rumble Match?
QUESTION OF THE DAY #3: True or False – NXT as a brand has not yet peaked
You know, it’s funny to me; if I had no idea that Roman Reigns had been penciled in for a match with Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 34 since the day after WrestleMania 33, then I would totally assume right now that Braun Strowman is about to take the Universal Title from The Beast in a couple of months. Reigns has lost consecutive matches to The Miz with the Intercontinental Title at stake and, though he will probably get a spot in the Elimination Chamber next week, go onto win, and main-event his fourth straight WrestleMania, he feels like a main-event afterthought right now while The Monster Among Men appears on the brink of throwing a semi-truck through the glass ceiling. Minor props to WWE for muting the past tendency to so overtly telegraph Roman’s path; if we are indeed heading for another coronation ceremony for his dictatorship of the top spot in the current star hierarchy, then at least WWE is handling it better this year. The Miz is sure looking good right now thanks to the chosen approach.
Women’s wrestling, meanwhile, is in great shape; it got a huge shot in the arm at the Royal Rumble, but now it is important for WWE to immediately capitalize on it because, lest we forget, 2017 was not exactly a revolutionary year for the Evolution, what with the dramatic reduction in bell-to-bell production as compared to 2016. The last time a women’s wrestling match beyond the Mae Young Classic was noteworthy enough for a lengthy discussion was back at Survivor Series with Charlotte vs. Alexa, and before that three months prior with Asuka-Moon II. Consistency is key, so I believe WWE needs to regularly feature matches like Asuka vs. Sasha Banks, which was wrestled on Raw like a title match at a major PPV. Both women and the division at large needed a match of that caliber to reinforce the sentiment behind the Evolution – that women can do between the ropes what the men can do. I would not call Banks vs. Asuka “great,” but I would happily label it the best singles match from either women’s division since at least last November.
The next spotlight for women’s wrestling is just around the corner, as six of Raw’s top talents will compete in the first all-female Elimination Chamber. Again, going back to consistency, the next logical step after the February PPV will be spotlight singles matches for each Women’s Championship at WrestleMania and the end of the unfortunate trend of grouping all of the women together for these history making moments. WWE might have started to disagree with this principle in recent years with their top male star by committee approach, but I remain of the opinion that women’s wrestling’s growth in particular will be dependent upon the superstars that WWE is able to build in the coming months and years. Stronger characters, stronger booking, and of course the perception-altering top quality in-ring performances are all equally important to making women’s wrestling a sustainable commodity for the mothership; for the first time in over since the Banks vs. Charlotte rivalry ended, I feel like WWE has a good plan in place.
If WWE has a plan in place to do something interesting with John Cena, then forgive me if I just sit over here and hold my breath. Every year, it looks like maybe Cena will tweak his character and go in a new direction and, every year, it proves to be a fleeting moment of I’m not sure what creatively before he goes back to doing his same old, ridiculously played out shtick. Cena’s match with Finn Balor this week was rock solid, but the whole story was built around him playing to the crowd’s taunts and being visibly shaken by them, as Coach pointed out repeatedly (which was less annoying than Michael Cole bludgeoning us over the head with his opinion of Cena being the “greatest of all-time”). Does anyone dare fall for this again? If it does not lead to something more substantial than another “hero John” tale, then will anyone reading this even give a hoot? I struggle with Cena, personally, because I really do think he is one of the Top 5 WWE stars ever, but I need an extended break from his act; unless he changes up his routine, I have seen every single thing he is capable of these past fifteen years and I am still in Cena burn-out mode. With him, I feel like I’m best served to skip the build to whatever he does at Mania 34 and just watch the match, as I lack faith that they will ever try anything new with him, even when WWE has reached its Network-induced financial status largely without him these past two years and the list of excuses to experiment with him creatively has dwindled.
I don’t know about you, ladies and gentlemen, but I am exhausted from this past weekend of WWE events, in a very good way I might add. When WWE does it right, I have a hard time sleeping because my enthusiasm is so high, and I had a hard time turning my excitement off when my head hit the pillow last night just as was the case the night before.
From top to bottom, I thought that the Royal Rumble was the best and, just as importantly, the most satisfying iteration of the January Classic this decade, or such is my kneejerk reaction. I have seen some pretty harsh ratings trickling through the pipeline for some of the non-battle royal bouts, but I am of the opinion that every match hit the 3-star level and, in case you either forgot my take or are just hearing my stance on such a matter for the first time, I think a show full of good matches is well worth our time. It was just a really good event, simply put, a night of rock solid or better storytelling, if you will, that put the Royal Rumble matches in the spotlight virtually by themselves and asked the titular gimmick to seize the day, which it did.
The men’s Rumble was fantastic, a [**** ¼] effort that flowed nicely across its hour-plus bell-to-bell time, sprinkling in a few spotlight eliminations and surprises along the way to avoid the pattern in recent Rumbles of there being a noticeable lull where nothing seems to happen. It was also an example of WWE being acutely aware of the problem that we perceive, even if it may not agree with us, regarding their “Then is Now…Forever” philosophy to modern booking; separating the final six into distinct groups of past vs. present was a brilliant touch, as was then splitting the final four into “controversial top stars” vs. diehard fan-chosen main-event hopefuls, as was then pitting Reigns against Nakamura to close it out. The King of Strong Style winning the Rumble and the immediate confirmation that we are heading for Nakamura vs. The Phenomenal One at WrestleMania 34 for the WWE Championship was the sort of feel-good moment that it seems like a million years since we have received at this time of year, and it doubles as the kind of WrestleMania anticipation-building exercise that it almost felt like WWE forgot was the original point of intimately connecting the January PPV to Mania in the first place.
Putting the women’s Rumble on last was appropriate, as WWE may claim to make history quite frequently, but only does actually make history but every so often; and the women’s Rumble was historical without question. I will not even comment on the negatives, as they were obvious to anyone with a trained eye; I will simply label it a [*** ½] performance that I thought was booked superbly. So many women were given a chance to shine and, ultimately, the right woman emerged victorious. Two Japanese Rumble winners…who’d have thought that? Because Asuka won after a thoroughly enjoyable viewing experience, I had no problem with Ronda Rousey showing up post-match; she is still a huge star and her presence to end the second most important show of the year only advances the cause for women in professional wrestling that much further. I find it refreshing that so much excitement now centers on what the combination of Asuka, Ronda, Charlotte, and Alexa will be doing at WrestleMania. So many options exist that could make women’s wrestling one of the most anticipated aspects of the Show of Shows.
As for the rest of the card, here’s a quick analysis: the WWE Title bout was a case of making the proverbial chicken salad out of you know what, a [*** ½] bout that featured a lot of well-performed action in spite of its logistical shortcomings; the Smackdown Tag Title match was very nicely done, negating my usual knock on 2/3 Falls confined to shorter timeframes by making the first fall a [*** ¼] match by itself (and the story-driven, surprising finish did nothing to change my mind); the Raw Tag Title bout reminded me a lot of the WWE Title match, with Rollins working his butt off to make one versus two entertaining, and I was sufficiently entertained [***]; I cared so little about the triple threat going in, but I felt they did a good job in what was essentially a garbage brawl hoss match [***].
Check out “The Doc Says” this week for more in-depth thoughts from a less tired version of me.
First things first, the opening video introduction to the show featuring Paul Heyman was tremendous and, though the opening contest was not what I would call tremendous, AOP vs. Undisputed Era was very good quality work. I am still getting used to the style that O’Reilly and Fish bring to the NXT division because it is different than anything that we have seen in WWE, so heavy as their use of striking tends to be in set-up to their submission-based wrestling; I really like it, but my eyes just are not accustomed to their brand of action. Authors of Pain provided an intriguing pair for the T-U-E style to clash with; Akam and Rezar’s power is just so impressive, so to see the champs try to chop them down to size was engaging to me. A rock solid *** ½ match in my opinion.
“Unpolished” would be a good way to describe the second match, with the bottom line being that Kassius Ohno may move around like a cruiserweight but he’s just too fat to pull off cruiserweight moves in combination with someone like The Velveteen Dream. Patrick Clark is just an awesome showman and a two-star match full of miscues will not change his upward trajectory; the memory I’ll take away from his second Takeover performance is of Dream’s ring gear, entrance, and mannerisms.
The Women’s Championship showdown between Ember Moon and Shayna Bazsler was a nice story-driven change of pace in the middle of the card. During the Mae Young Classic, Trips and Co. did a great job of presenting The Queen of Spades as a threatening presence, almost like a female Brock Lesnar but a bit more vulnerable. Her stint in NXT has been similar, last night’s match a microcosm of what we can likely expect for the foreseeable future from her. Moon sold her tail off and, though the critic in me thought that the extended period she spent in the arm-bar went a little too long, I was certainly engrossed by it and was confident in the moment that she was tapping; therefore, I felt the pinning sequence was legitimately surprising and exciting. Color me enthused to see what kinds of stories that they can tell together moving forward and mark down a *** rating for part one’s overall presentation.
Going into the Extreme Rules Match between Adam Cole and Alestair Black, I was feeling like it needed to be a 4-star caliber performance in compliment to what would surely be a great main-event to bring this particular Takeover up to the level of the event’s sterling reputation. That would mean that the former ROH star would have to finally impress me; I had not seen anything in five months that made me see him as a star worthy of the adoration he receives, Bay-Bay. Philly might have changed my tune. I may not have been blown away by the fight like some were, but I did think it was a 4-star match that served both competitors well. Black heads into the Mania stretch as the prime candidate to unseat Cien Almas in New Orleans, would you agree? For three Takeovers in a row, now, Black has offered NXT special events something equal parts visually distinct and of superlative quality. Cole, meanwhile, made the most of the 20-minute singles showcase he had lacked in such a prominent spot previously and made clear what he is capable of as a smarmy heel; Black will get most of the credit here, if you ask me, but Cole’s attitude and character work were a big reason why the dynamic between them worked so well.
This show was taken to another level by the perhaps 5-star main-event for the NXT Championship. A reviewer would come to a 5-star conclusion for that match based on several factors, including but not limited to their innovation in sequencing. Andrade Almas and Johnny Gargano have chemistry together that most wrestlers could only dream of developing. In their mid-card matches last year, they frequently ran a string of counter-based sequences together in rapid succession that you would have to watch intently not to miss. Given another fifteen-plus minutes to work with, they extended the volume of those sequences and ramped them up to include grander variations of their signature spots deep into the run-time. Their case for 5-stars was strengthened by their selling, psychology, and execution; Gargano sold the moment and he sold the concussion-like symptoms, while Almas sold us over-confidence and disbelief at times – and both were magnificent. The result was in constant doubt, from my point of view, with the threat of Ciampa showing up looming over the entire match but with the principle players, Vega and ultimately Johnny Wrestling’s wife included, doing a great job of distracting us from that expectation. I will talk about it more on “The Doc Says” next week after having a chance to re-watch it, but what an unbelievable piece of modern professional wrestling.