|Todd Williamson/Associated Press|
The four best matches last night were the three main-card title bouts and Rollins vs. Orton. I've already reviewed the show at length, but if you buy into star ratings with any kind of gusto, I went ***3/4 for the ladder match, a possibly-exaggerated **** for Orton/Rollins, *** for Cena/Rusev, and a whopping ****3/4 for the finale. Of course, star ratings may mean nothing to you, and even if they do, you may wildly disagree with what I assigned in the name of subjective viewing.
The point is, if an event has four ratings like those above, that indicates the reviewer found the show to be pretty damn special. However, the snowflakes generally only reflect the work. In three of those good-to-great matches, I can pick nits, nits that don't do much damage accept throw light onto a missed opportunity.
The ladder match, Rollins/Orton, and Cena/Rusev are all things we have seen a million times in recent WWE. There were really no new wrinkles in the ladder match; even a wrestler being dropped through a ladder bridged across the railing and apron has been done (not to diminish Dean Ambrose's daring fall any). That's the hazard of Money in the Bank and TLC PPVs; you run through the ideas much quicker. Cena vs. Rusev was essentially every Cena match you've ever seen, abbreviated to midcard length. That's not even a knock on Cena; he's a fine performer in spite of the hatred against him. At this stage, most of that hate I presume is just burn-out. He's the same John Cena he was in 2005 or 2008 or 2012, and we know the chorus by heart. Yes, he can deliver good matches, even pantheon-level performances with the right opponent, but still, we've seen it all. The match was good, but it's a repeat.
Orton/Rollins was awesome on the merit of Rollins refusing to let anybody outperform him; he's more Shawn Michaels than Edge, I'd say, but I'd settle for a composite of the two. Still, Orton's a routine guy that, like Cena, can have pantheon-level matches with the right opponent. So Orton vs. Rollins was essentially the same Randy Orton magic act with one of the most skilled assistants he's ever worked with. Rollins added lots of new wrinkles, and the ending was fucking killer. Had it been Kane or Big Show in there, Orton still would have landed the double-DDT on the Stooges, and done his descent into unhinged madness, but it's the same thing he always does, only with Rollins' skillset elevating it to new heights. Again, not a knock on Orton, just an observation from somebody that's watched Orton wrestle non-stop barring injuries for over 12 years.
That leaves Lesnar vs. Reigns, the match of the night. The reason why it's match of the night has a lot to do with Lesnar's reduced schedule, which makes his matches all the more special. You could argue that Cena and Orton working every goddamn Raw for the last decade, give or take, is what exposes their routine to the extent of max transparency today, which is why I like Lesnar as a part-time attraction. Christmas every week would suck. Lesnar every few months is a joy.
The best Lesnar matches have been the ones where he dishes out inhumane punishment and looks like he's trying to stifle sexual arousal in the process. He has the sadism of Jason Voorhees, the musculature of Bane, and the shit-talking capabilities of Michael Jordan. All three make for wrestling's greatest and most engrossing character. And if he were on Raw every week, it would get old, too. His best matches since returning have been the two singles bouts with Cena, the SummerSlam match with Punk, and the triple threat from this year's Rumble. The first three listed have been Lesnar as that Jason/Bane/MJ hybrid, having too much fun dismantling his main event-level opponent.
The realism and the novelty are a perfect storm, and if an opponent can work within those confines and even *add* onto a hot, fresh act, then that opponent is someone worth investing in.
That brings us to the Roman Reigns problem.
In giving that ****3/4 rating to last night's match, I'm commending Reigns' performance. Lesnar beat the shit out of him with knees, elbows, and a suplex array that leaves Taz slack-jawed. Taking a beating is one thing, every wrestler has to to an extent, But Reigns was the first opponent to really dish it back in equally-realistic fashion. Busting Lesnar open against the post, throwing spears and leaping punches while quivering from the aches of the acquired damage. As Reigns went into the two-spear sequence, I was buying into him. He'd taken a beating, and finally, FINALLY, looked like the superhuman that Vince McMahon wishes he could be seen as. Lesnar lumped and bumped him to get over the resilience aspect of the challenger, and Reigns responded with a superhero comeback that trumps Hogan's finger-wagging and Cena's dinky shoulderblocks.
Jesus Christ, Reigns looked like Lesnar's physical equal as the match drew to its close, which was the intent all along. We'd seen glimpses from the Raw where Reigns threw himself over the top rope at the Authority, and speared a diving Rollins to the point of near spinal-dislodging. He's a wrecking machine, and we all can buy into that, regardless of recent bitterness toward him for not being the bearded guy from Aberdeen that most of us love unconditionally.
We would all buy into Reigns just as unconditionally, I believe, had Vince not botched the sale.
When Reigns went out with his incarcerated hernia in September, Vince found it imperative to keep him on TV as much as possible. You knew then there had to be Mania plans in place for WWE to give him several via-satellite promos, but this is where the trouble started: his dialogue was so wooden and stilted that a 29-year-old tatted-up bad ass came off as hokey. Which begs the question: why would a 69-year-old millionaire that lives in the insulated bubble of wealth and whatever his sycophants tell him (the same Vince that had never heard of Pirates of the Caribbean) be writing dialogue for a 29-year-old that could rip the heads off of anyone who gives him a cross glare?
SNL suffered in the mid-90s when Lorne Michaels loaded his writing staff with barely-out-of-college geeks, clearing out a number of his seasoned writers with lots of life experience, and the result was a lot of sophomoric fart-and-anal-sex humor for Chris Farley and Adam Sandler to run through. How would a 24-year-old know how to write realistic dialogue for a husband and wife in a sketch? In that vein, why in the hell is Vince McMahon fine-tuning Roman Reigns' dialogue? "Make it rain up in this bitch"? "Sufferin' succotash"?
There's a serious disconnect here. McMahon wants Reigns to be his undisputed number one face. Fine, he's since shown he has the physicality and presence to fill that end of the role, and his understated speak has proven to be somewhat effective. McMahon also wants to write Reigns' dialogue and micromanage him because he's so tuned into making him his guy that he doesn't see his own (McMahon's) lost touch, and didn't realize how bad he was hurting him with his 'efforts'. At this point, if Vince were an EMT, he'd run up to a car accident victim, not allow anyone else to help him, and give him 7000 straight chest compressions until his sternum shattered, and be clueless as to why the guy died.
Vince had to know it was bad when he flew Rock into Philly to endorse Reigns at the end of the Rumble, which was throwing a bottle of Evian onto a towering inferno at that point. He had Bryan and Heyman endorse Reigns in their own personalized ways, more 12-ounce Evians.
It never should have been that bad.
Granted, these are all points about Reigns' stunted build that have been made by countless internet writers and message board-ragers, but placed next to last night's match, it only makes the build look that much worse. It'd be like if Apple were releasing an iPhone that could cure cancer, and the ad campaign entailed dumping nuclear waste on everyone's lawn. You'd hate the phone, the avatar of the campaign, because you hate nuclear waste, I assume.
McMahon tried too hard to leave his mark on Reigns' ascent, completely clueless at the damage he was doing. The Reigns we saw last night is capable of being WWE Champion, and a credible one. He could be the modern Goldberg with his offense, but we also know that Vince ruined Goldberg as well. For all of the talk about how WCW screwed things up, should WWE ever be laid to waste, we're gonna get the most epic cautionary DVD ever. Ever. And that's because the actual Roman Empire doesn't have any footage.
So WWE hedged their bets and went with the Rollins cash-in to help Reigns save face (he was broken down from Brock's beating) and keep Lesnar from jobbing. It was really the best finish they could do under the circumstances. Reigns can be rebuilt from the rubble caused by corporate overkill and ignorance. He probably will be eventually, and if the fans can forget the awfulness of Reigns' prior booking, he may turn out just fine.
Reigns will be a great main eventer with the help of the right opponents that get the green off of him, and sell for his credibly-powerful act. He doesn't need Vince's help.
It's a shame that the freshest match at a good WrestleMania could enthrall the most jaded fan, moreso than anything else on the card, and yet, it also serves as a monument to McMahon's most colossal fuck-up in recent years. That's the shame of it all.
I now see what McMahon sees in Reigns. But I'm not qualified to write Reigns' dialogue either.