June was a hell of a month for professional wrestling, and perhaps the most tumultuous yet for WWE specifically, even in view of their already very tumultuous 2019. Starting off with the celebration of a major NXT milestone and ending in volcanic fashion on social media, WWE has been at the heart of a whole lot of buzz these last few weeks – and I cannot help but conclude that we might finally be seeing something from the world’s foremost pro wrestling promotion that I’ve been waiting for, as a lifelong WWE fan, since All Elite Wrestling (AEW) produced their highly successful Double or Nothing (DON) pay-per-view.
I refer specifically to WWE’s belated response to the external challenges of AEW and New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW). Not all measures taken are promising. Another Saudi Arabia show, more unwelcome appearances from talents who are now provably unable to compete at the required level and the continuation of falling numbers for live attendances are all difficult to look past without cynicism. Still, Stomping Grounds was a remarkable success in light of WWE’s wider issues, positive social media posts by the locker room have emerged aplenty coming out of WWE’s current international tour and the riotous successes of NXT and NXT UK both continue on, not only unimpeded but seemingly only ever getting more and more popular.
It is because of these more positive turns of events that June felt like the month WWE were finally beginning to take heed of the situation and actively beginning work to combat their emergent competition. That competition was really lit aflame by the man whose actions on social media caused controversy and week-long feverish debate among fans. Seth Rollins spoke out in defence of WWE on Twitter just one week ago, naming it home to the best professional wrestling on the planet, entering a spat with NJOW’s Will Ospreay and even leaning into his opinion when it caused a stir, calling out those, like myself, relentlessly hyper-critical of WWE’s product.
It was difficult to agree with everything said by Rollins, just as it was difficult to disagree with everything he said too. The best matches of WWE’s June, for instance, collectively prove that it might just be home to the best pro wrestling on the planet as far as my tastes go, provided you can wade through the mountain of nonsense they put out to get to it. Similarly, to pretend that it is head and shoulders above other products simply because of its heightened prolificness seems like a poor argument; my money isn’t suddenly of less value to me because of the number of live events a company runs collectively, for instance.
Still, what was refreshing was the combative honesty of Rollins’ statements, and the demonstration of a top guy in the company speaking out for the company he is the top guy of, perhaps as a rallying cry to other talents to bring their best game and make the product better however they may be able to. For the best part of two decades fans have clamoured for fresh competition. It seems that it’s now arrived, and if the combative nature of it is disconcerting to you then it may be worth remembering such can be the nature of competition when livelihoods are perceived to be at stake.
The latest sign of WWE’s apparent mobilisation for the coming autumn’s competition came when the month closed out with news that Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff were being welcomed back into the WWE fold to be to Monday Night Raw (MNR) and Smackdown Live (SDL) respectively what Triple H has been to NXT. It is a turn of events easy to feel cynical about, but the reunification of the unholy trinity that ruled western professional wrestling during its boom period in the 1990s is at least evidence that WWE is now turning to pro wrestling minds for help, rather than simply hiring more Hollywood writers – and that, alone, is a step in the right direction. I suggest letting this one play out before casting judgement either way though. It could be a massive help or it could be a death knell, but whatever the outcome, it’s the action of a company readying to compete.
There was surprisingly little competition involved in naming my Wrestler of June in WWE, however.
First, let’s mention Seth Rollins. I’d be remiss not to. No matter how you reacted to, no matter what you might have thought of Rollins’ Twitter run this last week, there’s no denying that it’s the action – to put the issue of tone aside for a second, if that is an issue for you – of a top guy at the head of a locker room. Combined with his usual brand of relentlessly reliable quality between the ropes, these last few weeks against borderline lamentable competition, June was another month proving Rollins’ ability to get the best out of every situation, and by implication why he is, indeed, the top guy in the company.
Ricochet had, if anything, a more impressive month. Making his mark in the mid card of MNR, Ricochet’s performances have proven him to be beyond doubt the most cerebral wrestler of his acrobatic, almost exclusively high-flying kind to have come down WWE’s pipeline for quite some time. A sterling performance on MNR earned him an opportunity to challenge for Samoa Joe’s United States Championship at Stomping Grounds, and Ricochet went from good to great in the resultant pay-per-view encounter. A traditional story playing on a size vs. savagery dynamic saw Ricochet pick up his first main roster singles title and look like a true star of the future doing it. The new US Champion even found time to wrap his month up in a neat bow with an outstanding televised match with AJ Styles on the month’s final MNR!
But he gets pipped to the post by Drew Gulak, a man whose June was as characteristic a month of his WWE tenure as he’s ever likely to have. Gulak has long been a prolific performer among WWE’s peripheral brands like NXT and 205 Live, and June was no different – that is, apart from being the month in which Gulak went from being a prolific peripheral performer to a pre-eminent one. As if an outstanding Submission Match against Kushida on NXT at the start of the month that wrapped up their all-too-brief feud wasn’t enough, Gulak went on to finally capture the Cruiserweight Championship on the Stomping Grounds pre-show in an action packed and exhilarating Triple Threat Match, ascending to a spot many have wanted him to be in for a long, long time: the head of 205 Live. June was a legacy-solidifying month for Gulak, the unsung hero of WWE’s product for quite possibly the last 24 months, but undoubtedly for the last four weeks.
Accepting WWE’s style of professional wrestling isn’t for everyone, many of the best matches in the company from the last four weeks may prove to be divisive, and at the top of that heap is my Main Event Match of June, being
Kofi Kingston vs. Dolph Ziggler for the WWE Championship (Stomping Grounds 2019). As a piece of genre wrestling, fans expect to see certain tropes deployed. In the case of the Cage, that might be breathtaking high spots from atop the structure, or in a bygone age a tsunami of visceral gore. Neither occurred in Kingston’s latest title defence, which instead substituted the familiar for a brave vision of grounded and cerebral grappling punctuated with a shockingly sudden conclusion. Most would see such a subversive approach disappointing. I found it genuinely enthralling!
I would use that same word to describe my pick for Undercard Match of June in WWE as well, which was a tight contest between the aforementioned US title bout wrestled between Samoa Joe and Ricochet and my eventual pick, Roman Reigns vs. Drew McIntyre w/ Shane McMahon (Stomping Grounds 2019). Quite unexpectedly, Reigns vs. McIntyre emerged as an Attitude-influenced heavy-hitting affair that wore its creative mobility on its sleeve, overcame its McMahon-shaped albatross with great wit and indulged in a jaw-juddering aesthetic. Enthralling indeed; and, if not that, undoubtedly immensely satisfying. That’s my kind of pro wrestling.
My pick for WWE’s Tag Team Match of June has shocked me as much as it might shock those who follow my work and social media closely, as I’ve just had to opt for The Street Profits vs. Undisputed Era vs. The Forgotten Sons vs. Brit-Am Brawlers in a Ladders Match (NXT Takeover: XXV). It’s true that Ladders Matches, in all their illogical horror, are not usually my kind of thing. I find them inescapably infuriating by virtue of the inherent demands of their genre. Yet, Takeover: XXV’s curtain jerker was witty, humorous, originally minded and anchored around a genuinely transcendent performance by Undisputed Era’s Kyle O’Reilly. I usually loathe this sort of thing. I have to be honest though. This time, I absolutely loved it.
WWE’s efforts on TV throughout June have hardly improved in spite of all the excitement going on everywhere but MNR and SDL have shared a number of sterling outings as they always do, and for me the TV Match of June came late, in the form of this last week’s AJ Styles vs. Ricochet (MNR, 24/06/19). You’ll have seen this type of match a hundred times before, especially if you’re a fan of either man. You’ll have also likely enjoyed the hell out of it every single one of those times, and MNR’s main event last week should prove no different, blending its predictable eye-popping athleticism with a number of grittier moments, all informed by the bout’s encompassing thinking-man’s flair. It had a lot to like about it, and lays the stage for an exciting and inevitable, perhaps more dramatic rematch on a bigger stage.
Network Match of June was, like it is every month, a tough choice to make. In the end, I simply couldn’t look past the best match wrestled by WWE’s best wrestler this month: Drew Gulak vs. Kushida in a Submission Match (NXT, 12/06/19) was as good as anyone familiar with the work of either man might expect it to be, but being hosted by WWE, and being on one of its peripheral products, it has gone largely forgotten by the wider fan base already. Its choreographic styling was never distracting, its aesthetic was suitably physical and its tone was intensely broiling. If professional wrestling is about hard-hitting competition in its most literal sense, this was pure professional wrestling.
What are YOUR thoughts on the WWE product in June? Which WWE wrestler did YOU think had the best month? And what matches do YOU feel were June’s finest in the realm of WWE? Sound off in the comments below, over on social media or by joining LOPForums today!
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