On the long Road to Wrestlemania in New Orleans, the first women's Money in the Back match was won in part by a man this week.
[Last week, we started our weekly coverage of WWE Wrestling leading up to the Wrestlemania at the Mercedes Benz Superdome April 8, 2018.]
For at least a decade, women in the WWE have been “divas,” and their matches were lad mag videos come to life. The wrestling was weak and the wardrobes cut so that the breast implants could breathe. Recently, the WWE retired the word “diva” and its women’s division has been one of the strengths of the last year. Some of 2017’s best matches came from Charlotte and Sasha Banks, and the two headlined Raw earlier this year, something that had never happened before.
On Sunday, the women of Smackdown! Live participated in another first: A Money in the Bank ladder match at the “Money in the Bank” pay-per-view. The first woman to climb a ladder and unhook the briefcase hanging over the ring would have an open contract to contend for a championship match whenever she chose. In the past, men who possessed the Money in the Bank briefcase cashed it in to challenge champions already softened up by hard matches. Women had never been a part of a Money in the Bank match, much less a five-way ladder match between Charlotte, Becky Lynch, Natalya, Tamina, and Carmella. The historic (by wrestling standards) event came to a controversial ending when Carmella’s companion, the astonishingly chinless James Ellsworth, climbed the ladder, grabbed the briefcase, and tossed it to Carmella for the win. Since ladder matches are by definition no disqualification match, it was a fair but universally hated ending.
It was also brilliant. At a time when none of the women on the Smackdown roster have strong heel heat, Carmella and James jumped to the head of the pack. It also meant that Tuesday night on Smackdown! Live, general manager Daniel Bryan could capitalize on the success of the match and answer the critics by making the women stage a second Money in the Bank ladder match next week.
Smackdown! Live continues its eccentric use of the WWE Champion Jinder Mahal. On Sunday pay-per-views, he’s a champ and on Tuesday television, a chump. This week, he fought and beat Luke Harper solely to get to the end of the match when Randy Orton, who Mahal beat Sunday night at “Money in the Bank,” entered the ring to dispense with the Singh Brothers—Mahal’s posse. On Sunday, they distracted Orton when they attacked his father, who conveniently sat at ringside. Mahal’s performances were both fine if unremarkable, but I don’t know how beating Luke Harper builds him as a heel.
Also on Smackdown! Live: Good, high impact matches between Shinsuke Nakamura and Dolph Ziggler and between Kevin Owens and Chad Gable. Nakamura and Owens won, for what it’s worth.
The newsy parts of Raw this week weren’t the best parts. I was most entertained by the ongoing Miz/Dean Ambrose feud, which could easily continue for another six months if not all the way to Wrestlemania. Structurally, the feud makes sense as it pits the self-proclaimed “A-lister” against the working class hero, and it can go through a number of permutations. This week, Ambrose helped the gap between Miz and Maryse widen when he interrupted Miz’s efforts to make up to her and Miz instinctively pulled Maryse between him and Ambrose. In true WWE style, that wasn’t what made her mad. No, when Miz grabbed her, he caused her to spill champagne on her dress, and that upset her. Then, the dancing bears in the ring that held apologetic signs revealed themselves to be Miz’s new entourage and wailed on Ambrose.
Still, some of that seemed forced or obvious. When Finn Balor beat the rarely seen Bo Dallas in a squash match early, it was obvious Dallas had to return later in the show, and he did as part of Miz’s entourage. When Balor came to the ring to start the match before Elias Samson could start the song he planned to sing, it was equally clear that Samson had to show up again to attack Balor. Samson remains a favorite because his gimmick is so old school. This week in Dayton, he came out to sing a song which prompted boos, then asked the crowd to be quiet, which earned more boos, then he stopped to patiently tune his guitar, which garnered even more. Wrestlers just don’t stall like that anymore, but it not only builds heat but develops him as a character who is too self-absorbed to realize he’s a buzzkill.
The show’s headline was Roman Reigns’ announcement he considered himself the number one contender at SummerSlam, which prompted Samoa Joe to come out and confront him. When the Samoan Reigns would only refer to him as “Joe,” Samoa Joe attacked. That led to a Reigns/Samoa Joe match later in the show that you knew wouldn’t end with a clean pin because the WWE is building both right now. Sure enough, after they beat on each other for a while, Reigns’ nemesis Braun Strowman pulled an ambulance into the arena and emerged from the back doors. Strowman’s ridiculous size and small, beady eyes make him a great bad guy because his persona is body. That unity is admirable, but it also makes him a little one-note for me. His entrance distracts Reigns so that Samoa Joe can choke him out with the Coquina Clutch, then Strowman stomps to the ring and further beats on Reigns, setting up an ambulance match at the next WWE pay-per-view.
The main event slot went to Enzo and Big Cass, drastically overestimating how emotionally invested WWE fans—or maybe just me—are in their story. The two came into the WWE with great mic work including Big Cass spelling out that their opponents were “S-A-W-F-T.” But they couldn’t find a meaningful storyline. They never found a good rival in the tag team division, and Big Cass quickly started to work occasional solo matches—ones he’d never win because he had a tag team partner, but ones where he could show his power.
Recently, someone attacked the smaller Enzo, who has been the mouth to Cass’ muscle. The next week, someone attacked Cass, forcing Enzo to tag with The Big Show for a night. Who’d been attacking them? Was it another tag team? Who attacked Cass? The jealous Big Show? These were questions that never troubled my sleep, but they were nonetheless answered when security footage showed that Cass staged his own assault. That prompted him to announce that yes, he’d attacked Enzo, he hated Enzo, and Enzo was holding him back. Since WWE owner Vince McMahon has always loved big men, it’s no surprise that Big Cass got peeled away from Enzo, and he has the more immediate upside since he could potentially work with super heavyweights like Strowman and Big Show (I assume his upcoming feud), but he’s not so bulky that it would seem like a mismatch if he faced more conventionally sized wrestlers. If I was Enzo though, I’d be worried. The history of second acts for WWE comic relief characters is a short one without many success stories.
Finally, 10 minutes of my life that I’ll never get back were taken up with WWE tag team champs The Hardy Boyz against Gallows and Anderson. Gallows and Anderson are both big, bald and interchangeable in their dullness. They started as good sidekicks for A.J. Styles and need a star that they can be muscle more. On their own, they deliver reliable matches but are too charisma-impaired to do something amazing. The WWE brought back the Hardys on the strength of the “Broken Matt” gimmick, but so far they have been unable to use it because Impact Wrestling claims to own it since it was developed while the Hardys were there. While lawyers work on that, the WWE has two wrestlers from the ’90s engaged in unconvincing feuds and average matches leading to high spots we first saw 20 years ago. When/if we get the return of Broken Matt, I’m in. Until then, meh.
Finally, the best moment of the week came from Sami Zayn and Dolph Ziggler during Sunday's Money in the Bank ladder match. Zayn giving Ziggler a somersault power bomb from the top of the ladder was truly sick. Wrestling hasn't claimed to be real for maybe a decade, but there's no way that didn't hurt. It's the sort of extreme craziness that keeps me coming back to wrestling.