"Raw" and "Smackdown Live" have flirted with shooting this month, blurring the line between what's real and what's "real."

roman reigns photo
Roman Reigns

Pro wrestling has always asked you to believe what you think you see, and the WWE has raised that to an art form. When it launched Total Divas on E!, the reality show quickly meshed with WWE in-ring “reality” as storylines crossed for a mindfucking reality-squared effect. That cat-and-mouse game with reality has become WWE writers’ favorite tool recently, used most effectively in the John Cena/Roman Reigns program. Three weeks ago, the two seemed to be shooting, telling the truth on each other. On his Twitter feed, Raw GM Kurt Angle said he thought it was, but was he speaking in character?. (He’s not really the GM) They certainly raised in public the charges that have been leveled against each other backstage—that Reigns is protected by the WWE brass who want to see him over, and that Cena buries talent he doesn’t believe in. The moment gave that night the one thing you really go to wrestling for—the “Did that really happen?” moment, and that kind of promo could be the thing that gives this period in the WWE an identity the way that the outrageousness of DX, Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock defined what has come to be known as “The Attitude Era.”. People who read wrestling blogs knew the charges and couldn’t believe Cena and Reigns brought them up, and those who didn’t felt like they were getting backstage dirt. 

Reigns and Cena weren’t shooting then, and as the feud and the weekly in-ring cutting contests go on, it’s more and more obvious that the wrestlers are running lines that were written for them. They’re saying things they were told to say, creating the illusion that they’re revealing backstage truths. This week’s promo battle between Cena and Reigns was the weakest of the three as the charges they leveled at each other didn’t ring true. Cena is still a draw despite what Reigns said, and there’s just no way anyone—Reigns included—could says he’d had more great matches in the last two years than Cena’s had in his career. The sequence only approached the buzz worthiness of the first installation when Cena said Reigns couldn’t get by him any more than he could a drug test—a reference to Reigns testing positive in 2016 for a banned substance rumored to be Adderall. That line even had people in the industry wondering if it was a low blow, but it gave the moment life.

Teasing the reality of the in-ring stories is the natural next step for “sports entertainment” and a time when few wrestlers go by cartoonish names that try to sum up the character. The premise now is that these are people whose job it is to wrestle, so it’s only natural that backstage stuff gets into the ring. When Enzo Amore interrupted The Miz’s announcement that he and Maryse are having a baby, The Miz ripped into him, talking about how none of the other wrestlers like him—another charge that sounds like backstage moving on stage. Enzo has earned heat for his antics backstage and on while traveling, and when he responded by talking about how unpopular backstage The Miz used to be, that was true too. Oddly, it played as more real than Maryse’s pregnancy, which hasn’t been confirmed anywhere. At a time when the WWE is still pushing the (untrue) storyline that Jason Jordan is Kurt Angle’s illegitimate son, the question has to be asked.

The Jordan storyline brings up one limitation of such reality games. They work better if there’s a story that people reading wrestling blogs know to build from. Conversations about bad behavior on the part of Angle during his wrestling career centered on substance abuse, particularly alcohol and pain killers, at one point doing 65 Vicodin a day. He may have been Sleeparound Guy, but those aren’t part of the semi-public story, so the Jordan/Angle premise has never rung true. Perhaps because it’s obvious we’re being sold an unreal reality, fans who are all over Cena and Reigns are dead to Jason Jordan, even when he wrestled Cena and Reigns in the last two weeks.

Dolph Ziggler is stuck in a shoot-like gimmick with no payoff in sight. He has been grousing backstage for weeks that fans are suckers, eating up other performers’ flamboyant entrances, even though the wrestlers aren’t as good as he is in the ring. The gimmick could have life because the complaint rings true. Ziggler’s a good in-ring worker who hasn’t been in a meaningful storyline this year, and it’s easy to imagine him bitter. Last week, he did three wrestlers’ ring intros in costume before going back to the locker room, pissed off, and this week he mocked Bayley and The Ultimate Warrior’s trips to the ring (right on time on the latter). Still, the shoot element is the only thing going for the angle because he doesn’t have an opponent to somehow make all of his silliness matter. With Reigns and Cena, the top guy and the guy being groomed to be the top are sparring. Enzo can be seen as following in Miz’s footsteps as a guy who thought too much of himself too soon, but Ziggler’s simply having a month-long tantrum, so it’s not going anywhere. I wonder if it’s supposed to be funny, but he’s so angry throughout that it’s hard to laugh.

The Kevin Owens/McMahon family feud on Smackdown Live is light years from the reality/“reality” games being played on Raw, but this week when Owens headbutted Mr. McMahon—WWE owner Vince McMahon’s in-ring persona—he drew blood. Generally, wrestlers cut themselves to get blood, but before McMahon could get his hands to his forehead, he started to bleed. Since the WWE now fines wrestlers for drawing blood, it’s hard to imagine that McMahon’s staged the cut, but it’s equally hard to imagine that a performer as experienced as Owens would be so careless that he drew blood like that. The WWE hasn’t addressed McMahon’s injuries at the hands of Owens’ attack except to say, “WWE.com has learned that, following the attack, Mr. McMahon did not give comment and refused to be looked at by medical staff.” That update, of course, spoke only of the Mr. McMahon character. We don’t know what really happened.

There has to be at least a drop of reality in every WWE storyline to get fans to invest. When Jinder Mahal made unfunny jokes about pictures of Shinsuke Nakamura this week before saying that everybody in the stadium has already made jokes like that about him, he was probably right. There have to be people who think Nakamura looks and acts weird and dislike him because he’s not foreign, but in every other way, Mahal’s sequence was the kind of corn that these “shoot” angles are clearly trying to avoid. Mahal’s jokes weren’t funny, and the sequence would have had more bite if they had been. Their meanness would have been the point of the promo. Instead, the Singh Brothers stole the moment from him with their hilariously over the top responses to Mahal’s bad jokes. As they threw themselves to the ground in paroxysms of laughter and mocked Nakamura’s spastic “strong style,” they were infinitely more interesting than poor Jinder Mahal, but the unreality of their responses to Mahal’s obviously bad jokes stepped on the kernel of truth that fueled the spot.

On Raw this week:

- After a classic Paul Heyman promo building the Brock Lesnar/Braun Strowman match at the upcoming “No Mercy” pay-per-view, Strowman came to the ring and manhandled Lesnar, leaving him on his back in the ring and bleeding from the mouth. Later in the night, he wrestled John Cena and crushed him too. Officially, Cena won after Strowman was DQ’ed for body slamming Cena on to the steel stairs that Strowman threw into the ring. 

The WWE has done a great job of building Strowman as an unstoppable force, but what does that look like a year from now? Once this run of Strowman working his way through Reigns, Lesnar, Cena, Samoa Joe and The Big Show ends, how does he wrestle anybody else? Does he become somehow weaker? Weak enough to have matches with the mortals he’s going to have to eventually face to maintain a career? Strowman is physically and athletically impressive enough to carry this kind of build-up, does it have a second act after Wrestlemania?

- In a backstage sequence, Alexa Bliss tried to continue the charade that Nia Jax is her friend, but Jax wasn’t having it. She announced that she talked to Kurt Angle and Angle has arranged for the two to meet in the ring next week. For six or so months, the WWE has slowly built an Alexa Bliss/Nia Jax match, and now they’re going to simply get it done on Raw instead of a pay-per-view? They’re not going to take a month to build drama as Bliss realizes that she’s not the manipulator that she thinks she is? A month for Jax to come into clearer focus as a face? I don’t get it. It’s not like Raw has a better women’s storyline right now.

- A “Broken” Matt Hardy update: He did his faux British/“Broken” accent briefly in a promo leading to the why-is-this-happening eight-man tag team match pitting Cesaro, Sheamus, Gallows and Anderson against Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins and The Hardy Boyz. A match like that is just about everybody getting their high spots, but meh.

On Smackdown Live:

- If this doesn’t become the Shoot Era, maybe it could become the Swap The Straps Era as the WWE can’t seem to decide on who should wear its championship belts. Sasha Banks has won the Raw Women’s Championship a number of times, only to lose it at the next pay-per-view if not sooner. The New Day and The Usos have spent the last year trading the Smackdown Tag Team belts, and this week it was New Day’s turn to win. The only consolation is that New Day and The Usos have yet to have a bad match, so this title change was great to watch. It was a “Sin City Street Fight,” which meant that everything was legal. At one point, the Usos found a kendo stick under the ring (Who keeps leaving all those kendo sticks under wrestling rings?), so it was used by both sides until it splintered, and folding chairs figured prominently in the mayhem. Jey Uso took a great bump when Kofi Kingston pushed him sideways off the top rope, causing him to fall through a folding table set up at ringside. 

- A.J. Styles gave Ty Dillinger a U.S. Championship match and beat him, after which they shook hands. Baron Corbin came to the ring to beat on Dillinger and Styles. Does this mean we’re working toward a three-way at “Hell in a Cell” with Styles, Dillinger, and Corbin? If so, we’re going to have to see more from Dillinger.

- The dud of the night was Natalya defending her title against Naomi with Carmella, her Money in the Bank briefcase, and James Ellsworth at ringside. The match was fine until it came to a nothing ending. Naomi dove out of the ring to flatten Carmella and Ellsworth, and Natalya followed her out, threw her face first into a ring post, then pushed Naomi into the ring and beat her with a Sharpshooter. There was no drama regarding Carmella cashing in her briefcase because when it happens, it’s going to be more of a surprise, not something that follows 10 minutes of her at ringside. 

- The return of Mr. McMahon was well worth it. His promo on Kevin Owens hit some very Trumpy notes, particularly when he said that nobody who sues him wins because he keeps them in court until they can’t afford to be there anymore. McMahon’s wife Linda leads Trump’s Small Business Administration, so the association didn’t feel arbitrary, though I’m sure McMahon really has let his money be his muscle in the courtroom a time or two. 

He excels at playing a venal, predatory businessman on camera, and he made condescending rage tangible when he told Owens that he was upset at his son Shane not for putting his hands on Owens but because he didn’t finish the job. It’s to Owens’ credit that in the face of that much malignant, entitled hostility, he remained the heel. People talk about A.J. Styles being the best in-ring performer in the WWE right now, and in the ring alone, they might be right, but for me, Owens is the best overall performer in the company right now. Even a throwaway segment like asking Aiden English to sing the new theme to the Kevin Owens Show had detail and built the story.