~~I always tune into the WWE's latest version of the Extreme Rules PPV with equal parts eagerness and melancholy. As a wrestling fan steeped in the tradition and mythology of "extreme" competition, the industry leader's sanitized version manages to simultaneously entertain while leaving a bad taste in my mouth. I truly appreciate World Wrestling Entertainment's desire to shake things up and present something different (even marginally) from the PG-rated trappings of the modern era, but it seems a bit exaggerated to refer to the goings-on as truly extreme; at least in our overall sense of the term in professional wrestling. Did last night's event deliver the goods or stunt its own growth? Let's discuss.
EXTREME: The Triple Threat Elimination Match
I enjoy the concept of a triple threat match far more than the execution generally, but the three entrants in this (former tag partners Cesaro and Jack Swagger, as well as the returned Rob Van Dam) gave me high hopes. WWE's decision to turn it into an elimination-style match was smart, and helped the contest overall in my view, as it prevented the middling portion we've all come to know and loathe where someone is incapacitated and out of the action to allow for rhythm to be established. The only issue is that it wasn't really presented well, so fans in the arena were clearly confused when Swags was eventually set packing to allow for the conclusion to be set. In-ring action was solid from all involved (and respective managers), as you'd expect.
What really made this a good choice to open the show was the build. Midcard build has suffered greatly of late, but this had all the elements: former partners with a wedge driven between both them and their cornermen over a change of allegiance, half-true, half-trumped up backstory involving Paul Heyman and RVD, and the story of Cesaro developing from up-and-comer to WrestleMania winner and Heyman Guy. The ECW honcho was in all his glory here, from his excellent ring introduction playing off a hot crowd (very similar to his brilliant CM Punk "shoot" after his departure) all the way through the action, where he was screeching ring instructions and admonishments to his charge. It's just the right amount of interference from a manager, and something Heyman has grown to excel at.
Cesaro winning was naturally the right decision, and bonus points to the creative team for having him immediately face RVD last night on Monday Night Raw and get disqualified for a brutal beatdown. It managed to protect Van Dam from his defeat while also establishing Cesaro as more of a true heel, something sorely needed due to his growing popularity. Attaching Cesaro to a heat magnet like Paul E. and giving him a bit more of a vengeful side is important to counter the giant swing cheers. One of the better openers of late.
EHHH: Alexander Rusev
I feel bad listing the "Bulgarian Brute" on a night when he dominated and looked pretty good, but I can't support the decision to include a squash match on a PPV. I hope it's not a harbinger of things to come on the Network. This match was questionable even as a squash, as Xavier Woods was knocked out of the action early on the outside. That left R-Truth to land a couple of decent moves before the predictable ending where he was left asking "What's Up?" to the rafters. The squash handicap match wasn't even really a handicap match. I don't know that it would have mattered.
As to the Twitter barrage over the mention of Vladimir Putin, I don't get what all the fuss is about. I don't think a mention of him trivializes current events any more than a late-night comedian cracking wise. I don't know that it had the cheap heat the WWE was seeking, but it didn't make any waves for me as a viewer. Lana did her job well, bringing out Rusev's bestial side while managing to look both appealing and intriguing, qualities that very often do not go together. Rusev's background makes for an interesting presentation, but he'll have to overcome the rather slow pacing of his matches in front of a hot crowd. If the intent was to make a statement, they could have just fed him Kofi Kingston as they did the next night.
EXTREME: Evolution vs. The Shield
As much as I abhor Triple H's reluctance (read: refusal) to step out of the spotlight for a solid year or two at least as an active competitor, I'm good with it so long as it manages to further the roster of the future. I'm sure it's exciting for the stars of tomorrow to mix things up with a huge name, and given his history on and off-stage, it makes sense to have him serve as the occasional adversary to get the point across. The decision to pair him up with Randy Orton and Batista to reform Evolution, particularly with all the buildup to that event being those three gentlemen at each other's throats, was again not something I personally was clamoring for but I get it. If Sunday's match with The Shield was the result, I'm even better with it.
Six-man matches are tough, but the extreme rules definitely helped to allow for all six competitors to get adequate face time. I thought it was a perfect choice for The Shield, as they mix brawling and aerial very well as a trio and it was all on display. The start of the match was the usual routine, but when chaos broke out and heavy move after heavy move started landing things really picked up. I thought the fight through the arena was well done, and certainly Seth Rollins demonstrated his underrated value with the move of the night off the railing. The ending sequence with Batista and Reigns squaring off was intelligently done, not only for the obvious win of the fans in the arena wanting Big Dave to get the bad end of the deal but also with Reigns getting a chance to showcase his clear main event push with a convincing pin over an established name. I was glad to see Evolution taking the "L" here, to be sure, but appreciated the way the match was planned and executed. It lived up to the hype.
EHHH: Divas Match
Stop me if you've heard this one before, but the WWE just can't seem to get this formula right on a PPV. New champion Paige is intriguing (and very deserving, for any of those that have watched her work before her promotion), and with AJ Lee on the sidelines, competition for her belt is not exactly busting down the walls. Lee's cohort Tamina makes sense from a storyline perspective, naturally, but AJ's own disappearing act has left it somewhat unfinished. Snuka's ring time has been limited since taking on that "valet" role, so this one was going to be challenging from the start.
The match itself was about what you would expect from a champion finding her stride and place on the roster and a challenger who has ample strength but is otherwise limited. Is there some sort of rule that a Divas match has to have a sloppy finish? It certainly seems that way. If you had a shot every time you heard the referee said "Watch the hair!" you'd have been unconscious by the three-minute mark. You may have preferred it. Paige provides a really solid alternative to what the women's division has going on right now. It would be highly unfortunate if this was as good as it gets. Book a feud with Summer Rae, stat.
EXTREME: The Main Event
I have already admitted in this space that I was less than enthused for Kane being selected as the first opponent for Daniel Bryan's newly-won belts, as it's evident he's a stopgap and the story seems rather played out to me at this point. I did appreciate the inclusion of Bryan's new wife Brie Bella into the storyline, as it should have been done long ago and adds another layer of "realism" that a tale involving a demon from hell might otherwise lack. As a match, the Bryan/Kane pairing delivered well enough, with foreign objects assisting the affair. I particularly enjoyed Bryan wailing on the Big Red Machine with a little blue snow shovel. Some things are too good for words.
Bryan bringing Kane back out to the ring utilizing a forklift was different enough, given the type of match, and you had to appreciate the fact that the "Yes" master found a way to perform a move from it. The ending to the match was a series of high spots, with Bryan being put through a table (which already had found plenty of action earlier) and then Kane lighting a table on fire before ending up going through it courtesy of D-Bry. The obvious fire extinguishers at ringside kind of indicated such a thing might occur, and forced a bit of a delay as personnel attempted to prevent Kane from becoming actually charred, but it was a decent effort to make an extreme moment in an otherwise by-the-numbers match. Wouldn't a guy that controls fire shooting from the turnbuckles have mastery of a lighter? In any case, entertaining enough but unfortunately not the end of this feud.
EHHH: The Cage Match
I know what you're thinking: How can I criticize the decision to have Bray Wyatt defeat John Cena? The short answer is that I can't, as I was glad to see it, but my issue was with the execution of the match. What could have been a great opportunity to have the WWE's next uber-heel land a solid bodyblow to the aura of CeNation was hampered by too many efforts to protect his image and still "let" Wyatt win. Parlor tricks aside, Bray is a solid wrestler with a good grasp of ring psychology and an abundance of unusual moves. That should be enough to get the job done without having to continue the reliance on the creepy kid who stole the Shockmaster's gimmick.
The story throughout the match was that while a cage was designed to keep the rest of the Wyatts out, it backfired as Rowan and Harper came out with multiple ways of preventing Cena from exiting the cage. Even when Cena was pushing both men out of the way via the cage door using his superhuman strength, Bray was able to recover and prevent his exit. The timing of cage matches is always hard, as there are so many options available to win. Since Harper ended up in the cage anyway (supposedly a strategic choice by John to prevent him from continuing to bar his escape, which makes about as much sense typing it out as it did Sunday), one would propose that the Wyatts simply opened the door from the start and headed on in to make things official from the get-go.
The idea that Bray Wyatt would use Cena's own fans against him to win is an intriguing prospect, to be sure, but rendered a bit moot when you consider that it sounded as if the entire arena was booing JC from the opening bell. Ironically enough, it's mostly those kids who aren't on board with a Cena loss, no matter what the cause. Even with Wyatt getting the nod, I felt the ending with him slipping out of the cage after nailing the distracted Cena with Sister Abigail was an opportunity lost. Landing a pin would have made a larger statement to the audience, both actually and psychologically. Way too much interference in a match whose sole purpose was to prevent it.
Overall, I found it a solid effort that was engaging enough to be effective but left some serious opportunities on the table. The dropoff between the better matches and the rest of the card was substantial. And, yes, the pre-show extreme midget match was NOT the worst on the card. I'm not quite sure that that's a vote of confidence.
*Count me in for Adam Rose. I've always been a sucker for odd angles, particularly those that walk the fine line of being really bad ones, and this has all the potential. I've been fortunate to largely avoid Russell Brand to this point in my life, so if Rose is as close as I get, that works for me. I think the partygoers angle is fun and different, and certainly works in our YouTube-happy culture. I also appreciated that his appearance on Raw was short and sweet, as it's not necessary to be in a major role immediately upon debut. Rose has been a highly prized prospect for the WWE since 2010, and I'm looking forward to seeing what he brings to the main roster. Extra points for having Jack Swagger being chased by The Easter Bunny and the Zeb Colter/Rose standoff, which managed to involve both mustache pulling and a red lollipop and only be semi-disturbing. Well played.
*Having both the Intercontinental and United States titles change hands on consecutive nights makes sense to me, mainly due to the fact that neither belt was doing its holder any favors on its face. Dean Ambrose's lengthy reign has been interesting, particularly when you consider that compatriot Reigns has been labeled the one to watch by so many, but now that The Shield are over with just about everyone there's truly no need to keep it that way. The choice to put that belt on Sheamus was intriguing, but given the heel turn rumors and his close relationship with Triple H perhaps not a surprise. As for Big E, I feel bad for him in a way. He's got plenty of juice in the ring and he's hilarious on Twitter, but he's thus far been unable to translate those talents into success as a champion. He's been stuck as just another muscleman on a roster that's always been top-heavy with them. Bad News Barrett's on the rise and a logical choice for another run with a title he's held multiple times with multiple gimmicks, though always versions of the same one really. Let's see how Big E rebounds.
*I was excited to see that Clash of the Champions has been added to the roster of events you can watch on the Network. Clash was essentially WCW's version of Saturday Night's Main Event, and both were great shows that delivered plenty of main event punch despite not having the cachet of a PPV event. If you've never seen them before and are looking for a place to start, Clash I (still an NWA event at that point) aired directly opposite WrestleMania I and was one hell of a card in its own right. Plenty of legends on this card and the main event is frankly one of the best matches I've ever seen, with World Champion Ric Flair taking on Sting. Quite possibly the match that made Sting famous, this was a clinic from Flair. Required watching for any wrestling fan. Flair is all over the Clashes, incidentally, so if you're curious as to why so many people consider him the best ever, give it a watch. His feuds with Ricky Steamboat and Terry Funk are some of the best in the bunch. Excellent stuff.
*No idea on if the reports are true that the WWE might be linking up Evan Bourne and Tyson Kidd as a new tag team, but I certainly hope so. Bourne has had issues with injuries but has already been successful on the tag scene, and Kidd is back in the scene with his appearances on Total Divas, so the time would be right for this pairing. With the Rhodes Brothers clearly headed towards their inevitable breakup, a high-flying duo would be sorely appreciated, and these two guys are two talented to not be seen on TV every week. Let's get this done before the next round of releases please.