Welcome to Wrestling Wrecap, a column focused on discussing and dissecting the week in pro wrestling.
The heel turn is one of the finest pieces of storytelling that wrestling has. At its basest level, the heel turn is the moment that a, normally good, wrestler finally gives in to their darkest instincts. This usually means cheating or screwing over a friend, but the point remains, the heel turn symbolizes a march towards the dark side. When done right, a heel turn can rekindle the fire a wrestler was losing as a face (Hogan joining the NWO), or can catapult a wrestler to new heights (The Rock), it’s easy to see why it’s used so often.
The heel turn is a good storytelling tool, but also an incredibly easy one to write. It will, almost always, illicit a reaction, even if it isn’t the one they actually want. The primary purpose of a heel turn, in terms of crowd reaction, is to get the audience to dislike someone they formerly liked. This has become increasingly hard, partly because fans just want to cheer for who they like regardless of their alignment, but also because the writing has made it so that most heel turns have good justifications behind them.
This past Tuesday’s Smackdown featured two separate versions of what I call the “Heel Defense.” Usually, this segment involves the recently turned wrestler entering the ring and explaining their actions, blaming the fans and, in the truly desperate cases, mocking the city they are in. This is all done to signify to the audience that this person is no longer worth cheering. That they have turned their back on you, the paying customer, and should be met with scorn. While we got some of that with Daniel Bryan, both of these segments mostly ignored the general rules of the “Defense.”
Charlotte came out and boasted about the beating she put on Ronda Rousey while evoking The Man herself, Becky Lynch. As a storytelling bit, this is potentially very fun. Charlotte realizing that she can’t beat Becky and instead becoming like her is a nice beat to add into this story. As far as a heel turn, it isn’t much of one. She went on to brutally destroy the IIconics, a heel duo, while promising to meet Rousey again. Neither of these are gonna make anyone boo her. No matter how great the “Boo the Woo” t-shirt would be.
Daniel Bryan, meanwhile, did blame the fans, but used it as part of his tale of the “New Daniel Bryan.” The promo itself was exceptional, recalling the early days of Mick Foley as Cactus Jack in its delivery. Bryan laid out his path to recovery, using the image of a hyperbaric chamber, and the isolation that entails, to paint the picture of his fight to return. He later explained that. while his return was a pinnacle moment, the cheers and “Yes” chants began to quiet and he knew his star was fading. So, he destroyed AJ Styles’ tender region and took the WWE Championship from him. Unlike Charlotte, this feels more like a classic heel turn. The crowd reacted was a mix of boos and cheers and Bryan declared the “Yes Movement” dead, can’t really get more heel than that.
Still, it feels like WWE is going overboard on the heel turns. They’ve been good at giving the more recent turns a basis in story, but it was just earlier this year that we had Nia Jax turn face only to turn back into a heel with little reasoning. We had Shinsuke Nakamura’s, now infamous, ball destruction of AJ Styles that led to him failing to win the WWE Championship, and now, regularly struggling to be on TV each week, despite being the United States champion. We had Braun Strowman turn heel and turn back to a face quicker than Big Show (who also did that this year.) If WWE is going to continue its torrid love affair with the heel turn, I only hope that they give us a reason to care.
The Problems with Brand Supremacy
Survivor Series was this past Sunday. The only time in the year when superstars of Raw and Smackdown collide as we were told ad nauseam in the lead-up. While the event had plenty of that, outside of a spectacular Cruiserweight title match and Drake Maverick pissing himself, I was left to wonder the same thing I wondered last year. Is brand supremacy really that good of an idea?
Obviously, I’m not positing anything that other fans haven’t already suggested over the years. For as long as Raw and Smackdown have existed as different brands, there has always been some sort of contest between the two. An artificial attempt at remaking the magic of the Monday Night Wars, but with none of the actual drama. The last two years have seen the tradition reborn at Survivor Series, where champions battle champions and Shane McMahon goes through a table.
Last year, Raw won, to the surprise of no one, in a close contest. This year, Raw ran through Smackdown at a pace that would give Brock Lesnar pause. Raw defeated Smackdown 6-0 at the end of the night. Ignoring the 10-on-10 tag team match, which is a more fitting summation of the current state of that division than I could ever write. But what was the point of it all?
Naturally, this would lead to some story about Shane and his management style. Instead, none of that was addressed on Smackdown. Shane was in a single segment with the Miz and only briefly touched on the disappointing results. Again, what was the point outside of another reminder that Raw is the more important show?
And there lies the ultimate problem with brand supremacy angles. Smackdown might look good every now and again, but when the chips are down Raw always comes out on top. That takes away a lot of the drama from the conflict, but also causes a problem for the company, especially going forward.
In less than a year, Smackdown is moving to Fox, in a prime time slot no less. For all the talk of it being the lesser of the two shows. It will suddenly have the potential to attract far more viewers than Raw. If WWE continues to paint Smackdown as the B show though, will that really attract anyone to the show? It’s an interesting story to watch, one far more interesting because the element of surprise is actually there. Survivor Series might be the only time we see the stars of Raw and Smackdown fight, but the actual battle of the brands will be happening on a corporate level and, for once, WWE won’t decide who wins.
War (Games) What is It Good For?
Another wrestling tradition continued this past Saturday as NXT held a stellar Takeover event that left the main roster’s show feeling lacking in return. You would think after almost two years of NXT showing up WWE proper they would try to change the way events, like Survivor Series, are presented, but change is something WWE must be forced into.
Anyway, NXT Takeover: War Games 2 was a worthy sequel giving us a great debut for indie wrestling darling and living embodiment of the film, Dude, Where’s My Car, Matt Riddle. We also got another great installment in the feud between Shayna Baszler and Kairi Sayne, an incredible match between Johnny Gargano and Aleister Black (more on that in a second), and a great NXT Championship bout between evil bastard, Tommaso Ciampa, and fashion icon, Velveteen Dream.
As for the main event, the second helping of NXT’s version of War Games was another fun match, if a bit longer than necessary. This year, instead of 3 trios we got a more standard 4-on-4 match and while it cut down on the chaos of the match it didn’t cut down on the spectacle. As you might expect, Ricochet jumped and moved around in ways that human beings simply should not be able to as The Undisputed Era used every dirty heel tactic they could to get ahead. Pete Dunne bodied fools and did his usual sadistic joint manipulation. While the War Raiders destroyed people and tables alike. Even if the storytelling was a bit lacking, this was just good fun. A dessert after the filling meal that we had gotten from the previous matches.
That’s ultimately the reason why NXT routinely outperforms the main roster in these back-to-back shows. They understand how to pace an event. Even the best WWE shows from the last few years have suffered from pacing, a pointless squash match or backstage segment, these kill the mood quicker than an impromptu Kid Rock concert. Everything you see on a Takeover show has a point, that’s more than can be said for WWE sometimes.
I Absolve You of All Your Sins
Ever since Aleister Black suffered a groin injury and had to pull out of his scheduled triple threat with Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa, NXT has been asking, “who attacked Aleister Black?” It was a fun mystery angle with Nikki Cross showing up and insinuating different people could have done it, but never being clear because she’s like a better version of Bray Wyatt and, also, it would ruin the intrigue. A few weeks ago, however, Black returned and wanted to know exactly who it was. He didn’t have to wait long for Johnny Heelturn to show up and lay him out.
It was shocking, mainly because everyone, myself included, expected Johnny’s path to be the simple redemption story of a man losing a few times to his old teammate (no good bastard, Tommaso Ciampa,) before finally finding a way to beat him and put his demons behind him. What NXT gave us instead is something different and, if the match between Gargano and Black was any indication, much better.
Leading up to the match, Gargano explained that Black had gotten in the way of his redemption against Ciampa. He, not Aleister, was going to be the hero of the story. He, not Aleister, would be the one to finish Ciampa. Aleister, meanwhile, was already pissed at Johnny for costing him the NXT title and those feelings only intensified once he was revealed as his attacker.
When it came time for the actual match these two put on an incredible display, as expected by Gargano, who is easily the best performer in all of WWE this year. There was an intensity here as both men needed to prove something. Black needed to prove that he could still be the athlete he was before and that he was the next worthy challenger for Ciampa. Gargano needed to prove that his turn to the dark side was worth it. That dabbling in evil was all part of his noble quest to defeat the greater evil of Ciampa.
After 18 hard-hitting minutes, Johnny got caught with Black Mass, Aleister’s lightening fast, spin kick. But one of them wasn’t enough to get the message across. Johnny needed to pay for what he had cost Black. Lifting the, barely conscious, Gargano up with his foot, Black told him that his sins were now absolved and delivered another Black Mass to finish the match. Aleister had done what he came to do, kick Johnny’s ass for what he cost him. Those words were more for Johnny than anyone else. That none of this was personal, just the cost of messing with him for his own deluded reasons.
Gargano failed again, his dark actions led him nowhere closer to Ciampa or the NXT title. In fact, they led him farther away from the fans, the ones who christened him “Johnny Wrestling” and originally supported him after Ciampa’s attack. Perhaps some of them were right when they called him “Johnny Failure.” Failure is hard, you can either revel in it and let it drive you to dark places or rise above it and forge ahead. It’s hard to say which path Gargano takes going forward, but his journey is far from over.
What is That Smell?
Remember up top when I discussed the “Heel Defense?” Yeah, everything that happened this Monday with Dean Ambrose is a textbook example of it. Ambrose spent the majority of this week’s interminable Raw ducking Rollins. The erstwhile Architect, Rollins, went on a Scooby-Doo-esque hunt for his former friend. All the while, Ambrose was just a step ahead.
Eventually, at the end of the show, Ambrose stepped out to the ring, told the fans they smelled, that their city stunk and called Rollins out. They battled, he got the upper hand and that was that. While Dean’s promo was pretty bad it was actually much worse earlier in the night.
Dean first popped up on the Titantron to interrupt Seth and give some, very vague, explanations for his actions. Then, he mentioned the Shield always being bad and that they were now getting what they deserved. “Roman has to answer to the man upstairs,” Dean said, to mostly crickets from a live audience who, thankfully, saw right through this transparent attempt at heat.
Perhaps it was naive of me to think that WWE would have the common decency to not try to use Roman Reign’s real-life illness, an illness that does not guarantee his recovery, for cheap heat. But it is somehow worse than that for two big reasons.
One, the feud between Rollins and Ambrose has so much history behind it that having to bring up Reigns feels unnecessary. If you really feel the need to have that be a part of the story, save it for when Reigns and Ambrose, hopefully, feud in the future. Rollins and Ambrose have their own past and Roman is a big part of that, but he doesn’t need to become a prop for their battle.
Second, WWE Chronicle recently did an episode focused on Dean and his recovery process up to and after his turn on Rollins. It’s a splendid mix of real world and kayfabe that blurs the lines between the two while also giving a good look inside the mind of Ambrose and why he turned on his friend. It also definitively shows that Ambrose is great when left on his own. When he isn’t told to go out there with a handkerchief and call the fans smelly, he can really do good work.
I had a lot of hope for Dean’s turn, it felt like a perfect jumpstart to this wild flux state WWE was entering without Reigns. Instead, they’ve decided to fall back on the crutch of poor and easy storytelling decisions. Why did Ambrose turn on his teammates? We still don’t actually know and at this point, who even cares?
If you made it all the way down here, thanks for reading! This is my first attempt at a weekly column of any sort so, hopefully it wasn’t too long-winded for you. It turns out I really enjoy writing about pro wrestling. I’m hoping to make this column a regular feature, although maybe not as long as this debut entry. In the meantime, tell me what you thought about this week’s events in wrestling in the comments and, as always, any feedback is appreciated.