Wrestlemania 34 takes place in New Orleans next April, and the WWE kicked off the long road to it with stops in Louisiana this week.
Tuesday night at the Smoothie King Center, The Soul Rebels escorted the tag team The New Day to the ring to kick off the WWE’s Smackdown! Live. The WWE spent the start of the week in Louisiana as Raw came from Lafayette Monday night, and the shows effectively kicked off the run to Wrestlemania 34, which will return to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome April 8, 2018. Over the course of the next year, we’ll track the Long Road to Wrestlemania the My Spilt Milk way. Since wrestling calls itself “sports entertainment,” I’m interested in who and what is entertaining.
Raw is the WWE’s flagship show, but it’s in a lull right now with a lot of ill-fitting parts. Brock Lesnar is its Universal Champion, and the former MMA fighter looks the role of badass, but he’s rarely around, so storylines are about who gets to fight him and not about him. Thankfully, he is represented by manager Paul Heyman, who’s one of wrestling’s best talkers now or ever. His over the top delivery is always engaging, and this week he had Lesnar with him as he recalled last week when Lesnar’s opponent at the next pay-per-view, Samoa Joe, choked him out with Joe’s Coquina Clutch. That leads to trash-talking of Joe, then Joe entering the ring, he and Lesnar starting to fight, and the locker room emptied to break them up.
All of that might have meant more if we had a rooting interest in the fight, but for some reason, the WWE have a heel vs. heel match in Lesnar vs. Samoa Joe. On paper, it seems like Lesnar’s being framed as an anti-hero based on his resumé and the audience’s pop for him, but Heyman’s attitude is pure heel, and nothing in Lesnar’s matches or actions suggests a face turn.
Keeping heels and babyfaces straight is a WWE issue right now. Roman Reigns is one of Raw’s signature stars as he’s big, athletic, and charismatic, but fans in the arenas boo him anyway. He now has a tweener rap—“I’m not a good guy. I’m not a bad guy. I’m the guy.”—and is booked as a face, but a good chunk of the crowd isn’t buying. A video package on Reigns Monday night felt designed to sell him.
The heel the WWE is selling is Bray Wyatt, who was convincing as southern cult leader whose followers, masked or unmasked, looked like horror movie bad guys. But dark side characters always end up confusing and less convincing as their motivations become muddled. Without his acolytes, he this week described himself as a god in what was largely a video package with his next opponent, Seth Rollins, in the ring. For me, Rollins is far more worthy of boos than Reigns as he has become a banal face. He had the match his character was built for when he fought Triple H at Wrestlemania 33. Now he’s adrift. That’s a booking issue too, but without a clear big picture battle, his charisma is shrinking.
The highlights came early in the show when Elias Samson sat on a folding chair in the middle of the ring to sing a folk song off-key about how embarrassing Louisiana is and how Cajuns should be locked up. There’s no more old school way to get heat than insult the audience, and to do it as a shirtless, ripped folk singer—priceless. Reality check though: A quick survey of homeless guys stemming by the I-10 exit ramps reveal startlingly few dudes with pecs like home plate. Now if he can just wrestle meaner, we’ll get somewhere. Dropping on the back of Dean Ambrose two knees first is a step in the right direction.
This week and every week, I’ll shill for The Miz, who is one of the few true heels in the WWE. He always looks petulant, always appears to be more arrogant than he deserves, and always looks like a guy in search of a shortcut. Because of that, he never gets anti-hero love, even if his character is essentially Wile E. Coyote in tights. It looks like we’re starting a storyline where he and his wife Maryse are heading for hard times, which is a shame because she’s easily as consistently unlikeable as he is.
At the moment, Smackdown! Live is more rewarding. It too has some heel vs. heel issues, like the entire storyline with Charlotte, the daughter of the great Ric Flair and a true heel in style, attitude and wrestling demeanor. When she moved from the Raw roster to be on Smackdown! Live, she found herself in a Mean Girls feud with all the other women in the locker room. Charlotte had two of the WWE’s best television matches this year during her feud with Sasha Banks, and she seems as perplexed by this unmotivated storyline as fans are. Tuesday night’s match with Natalya was good enough, but with two heels, it was hard to know where to emotionally engage with the match.
On Smackdown! Live, the main event really was the main event and dominated the night as it should. The six-man tag match pitted Kevin Owens, Dolph Ziggler and Baron Corbin against AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura and Sami Zayn, and it had two good backstage segments before the match—one with Sami Zayn playing a version of his true self as he excitedly overanalyzed match strategy with Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura. I’m disappointed by Styles’ face turn because I think he’s more interesting as a heel, but since I haven’t seen him in a dull match, I’m with Styles no matter what. Nakamura is still limited by his command of English, so the segment was great as Zayn effectively mocked himself and, after doing so, letting Nakamura respond with a shrug and a confused smile. Since Nakamura is all about body language, he got to be effective and get a laugh without showing his weakness.
A similar strategy segment with Owens, Ziggler and Corbin worked equally well, advancing the idea that Owens isn’t a grubby joke. I still don’t get Ziggler’s character, who’s angry because … what?, but he let his severe jawline do the work and was appropriately pissy. Corbin appeared to have another emotion beyond rage in the segment and was more fun because of it.
The match itself paid off for everybody as well as it could. Six wrestlers in the ring translates to a lot of traffic and a lot of high impact spots without much set up, so the story of the match is nothing special but the excitement level was high. The ending had something for everybody. Zayn—another wrestler who, like Natalya, tends to fight well then lose—kicked Corbin in the jaw, took him down and pinned him for the win. Then once the match was over, Corbin, Owens and Ziggler cleared the ring, beating down Styles, Nakamura and Zayn. Then Corbin turned on his partners and took them out with a ladder, after which Nakamura got back in the ring and took out Corbin.
- What is the WWE doing with Jinder Mahal? He is currently the WWE Champion on Smackdown! Live, but a week ago he fought a jobber, Mojo Rawley, and this week he did an in-ring spot talking trash about Randy Orton, who he’ll face at the next WWE pay-per-view. During it, Orton snuck into the ring behind him and hit Mahal with his finisher, the RKO. Is any of that the way you build a champion? Is any of that the way you create a sense that the heel Mahal is unbeatable?
And on a related note, if you’re reading this and of Indian descent, do you have issues with Mahal’s character? The WWE used to have more characters that embodied national or ethnic stereotypes, and they could get dubiously broad. Mahal seems to be in that lineage. Is he? Is that a problem?
- In the Gotta Sell Department, nothing breaks the illusion like a wrestler who doesn’t sell. In the eight-man tag team match that started Smackdown! Live, one of The Colons took a prolonged beat-down from The New Day and Breezango, and while it went on, he seemed properly battered. Then, when he got a moment, he went to tag his partner as if he was stepping out of the shower. Gotta sell, dude.