Money In the Bank: The Ladders Only Lead Down follow@bigvinvader
I was excited for Money in the Bank this year, I really was. In theory, it sounded like the most promising line-up in years for the titular ladder match. AJ Styles, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, and Shinsuke Nakamura are obviously some of the best workers in the world, let alone WWE, regardless of brand. On top of that, Dolph Ziggler may be lost in the current product’s shuffle, but is still a hell of a wrestler when motivated, and Baron Corbin may not be much beyond a brutal monster heel, but he plays that part very well. Beyond that, the fact that SmackDown Live would be hosting the first-ever women’s MITB ladder match was a huge deal. The SD women’s division has been outshining RAW’s own ever since the initial brand split, and the addition of Charlotte and Tamina after the shake-up only added to the incredible promise of the match itself. The historic aspect alone should have made this something to remember, and given the talent of the women involved (Charlotte, Natalya, Becky Lynch, Tamina, and Carmella), the match itself should have easily delivered on that initial promise. On top of that, the show was only scheduled for five matches—all of the non-ladder matches being for titles—theoretically leaving all of the filler by the wayside, and possibly even allowing things to wrap up early. Boy, did they fuck things up.
Let’s take a quick look at each match’s finish, and maybe the problems will make themselves plain:
-James Ellsworth won the women’s ladder match by retrieving the briefcase for Carmella
-The Usos retained the SD Tag Titles by getting themselves counted out
-Naomi forced Lana to submit after Carmella entered and teased cashing in her MITB briefcase
-Jinder Mahal pinned Randy Orton after Orton spent an eternity fighting off the Singh Bros. on the floor (yet not getting counted out)
-Breezango pinned the Ascension in an unannounced, sub-four-minute match
-Baron Corbin snuck into the ring to take out Nakamura and Styles before claiming the briefcase
Now I can’t be the only one to think that’s way too many bullshit endings on a relatively sparse card. The women’s MITB ladder match is my biggest point of contention, so let’s just jump right in.
The participants made their way to the ring and only then did WWE decide to show a video on the history of women’s wrestling within their own promotion. It was a good video, although susceptible as always to their selectively-remembered, revisionist history (Wendi Richter was there, but no mention of the Original Screwjob). Also, very strange to do this with the women waiting in the ring to begin their match. But as we all know, WWE never misses an opportunity to trumpet their progressive attitudes and champion the strides they’ve made in presenting women as serious athletes and wrestlers. And the ladder match should have been the perfect opportunity to demonstrate those steps forward. Just think: this is a dangerous, hard-hitting, fast-paced match with huge stakes, the sorts of things that WWE and the rest of the (American) wrestling world confined to the male portion of the roster. But they couldn’t just let the talented wrestlers spread that message on their own. Of course not.
Just deciding to kick the show off with this match spoke volumes, and it led me to believe that it was going to be the exact sort of hot opener that the show needed, as well as the perfect spot on the card to give the women the exposure they deserve. Tamina set a fast pace by dominating every other participant, but before long the match filled up with way too much dead space. And that led directly into one of my biggest problems with the whole thing: just because there had never been a women’s MITB ladder match prior to this, most of the wrestlers were booked to look like they had no idea what to do. Some of the best female wrestlers in the world were made to look like clueless undercard workers. I don’t know how many times somebody was alone in the ring, or the last person left standing, only to look around confusedly or simply stare at the hanging briefcase as though they didn’t have any idea how to get it. This was especially true of Natalya, who was made to kneel while gazing upward several times throughout the match. More than that, when she did get ready to climb, she had to adjust the ladder’s placement slowly a number of times in order to make sure it was right. I understand that this could have been legit in order to ensure her safety during such a high-risk bout, but the lethargic pace at which she moved makes me think that somebody laying out the match wanted her to look like an inexperienced kid rather than the excellent wrestler she is. Charlotte and Tamina showed the surest footing throughout, dominating the others, and actually looking like they knew how to climb a ladder. Sure, it makes sense to give an edge to certain performers, but it was disheartening to see so many great athletes made to look like fools. None of the men showed any of that sort of hesitation in their match, not even those new to MITB matches.
Still, the action was pretty good when things were going, and the crowd was incredibly supportive and into everything as it happened. Of course, that came back to bite everyone in the ass, as I’ll discuss in a minute. At one point, Becky Lynch seemed bound to win, quickly climbing the ladder after putting Carmella away. That would have been a fantastic moment, since Becky is still one of SmackDown’s most popular wrestlers, despite being given very few major opportunities since dropping the Women’s Title to Alexa Bliss last year. Instead of that crowd-pleasing finish, however, we got James Ellsworth running in and tipping Becky off the ladder. Then, after realizing that Carmella was still knocked out, he climbed the ladder himself and grabbed the briefcase for her. So the best finish, somebody decided, to the first-ever women’s MITB match (and remember just how many times they touted that historic fact) was to have one of the participants’ (storyline) boyfriend interfere and win it when she and all of the others proved unable to do so. That was not only the stupidest possible finish to the match, but also the most offensive decision WWE has made in quite some time. Then again, I can’t even lay all of my frustration on the company itself, since there was an enormous positive reaction from the crowd encouraging Ellsworth to climb the ladder. What the fuck, guys?
I understand that Carmella is a heel and is meant to attract heat, but I don’t buy that for an instant in this particular case. The SmackDown women’s division is loaded with incredible athletes, any of whom deserved the briefcase on their own merits, but instead the best way to get the job done is to have a man win the match. Yeah, they like controversy and everything, and this sure as hell got people talking, but that stands in opposition to everything the “Women’s Revolution” stands for. Even as a one-off joke or storyline initiator, that move was seen by millions of people, and basically told them that a man is still the best choice and has the best odds at winning a major ladder match, even if he’s not a participant. That type of hypocrisy reeks of just as much bullshit as WWE aligning themselves with Be a Star while allowing JBL to taunt Mauro Ranallo and trigger a depressive incident, leading to the former’s resignation.
But all of that aside, what this really stands as is the company making a mockery of its own women’s division and all of the great athletes within it. The latest news is that Daniel Bryan stripped Carmella of the briefcase and scheduled a rematch. That bodes well for the long-term, but it fails to change the fact that it was still booked as the original finish. Or that James Ellsworth is a comedy character who should have nothing to do with major storylines (see: Dean Ambrose vs. AJ Styles). And not to discredit her, but Carmella is the least-experienced and (theoretically) least-deserving wrestler in the match. The whole thing just left a bad impression, and the rumors that the women on both RAW and SmackDown are legitimately pissed off only furthers the impact of this stupid decision. The bottom line is that it becomes increasingly harder to take these sorts of moments as seriously as the company throws such offensive nonsense into supposedly-important matches like they did here. The Ellsworth finish still goes down on the books as the original ending, and the change of plans is either a reaction to backlash, or was the plan from the start. That sort of back-and-forth booking and outright manipulation is still pretty hard to take.
In between the ladder matches came all three title matches, and they delivered about as much as you’d expect B-level midcard matches to do. Then again, this was MITB, so the marquee matches are, by definition, not the title bouts. The New day and the Usos put on a decent match for the SD tag titles. It really does seem like the New Day work their hardest when they don’t have the complacency a title provides them with, and this was one of their best outings in recent memory. Then the Usos rolled out of the ring to get themselves counted out and ended a good match far too short. Well, that feud will continue.
Naomi vs. Lana for the Women’s Title was passable, especially given Lana’s lack of experience wrestling. Carmella distracted them both by teasing a cash-in, but thankfully that didn’t happen and Naomi retained. Just think how amazing a Charlotte/Becky/Natalya vs. Naomi title match could have been. Apparently, we’ll have to wait to see that.
Randy Orton fell to Jinder Mahal in his hometown, continuing that curse, as well as the Jinder experiment. The match was fine, and as displeased as everyone else is, you really can’t say that they’re putting on the worst match each time they wrestle. The appearance of STL wrestling legends was a nice touch, but ultimately meaningless when they were dragged into the match yet made no impact on the inevitable loss for Orton.
The men’s MITB ladder match was the star of the show, but even that one was kind of a disappointment as far as my initial expectations. The reason why is pretty easy to pick out, as Shinsuke Nakamura got jumped by Baron Corbin during his entrance, which kept him out of the match for all but the last ten minutes. It’s hard to argue that Shinsuke, along with AJ Styles, is the most exciting, dynamic wrestler in the company, and the thought of him squaring off in a no-DQ environment against the likes of Kevin Owens, Styles, and Sami Zayn was a big part of the match’s appeal. Granted, he’s still somewhat protected in only succumbing to a sneak attack, and didn’t have to worry about selling or looking weak to the other wrestlers’ offenses in the match itself. That still doesn’t change the fact that he ought to have won the whole thing over Corbin after a hard-fought battle.
What I can say, though, is that the time he did spend in the ring was fantastic. Making a not-so-surprise, long-overdue return for the final third of the action, Shinsuke cleaned house, delivering a Kinshasa (sometimes several) to every other participant in the match. And then he and AJ went at it one-on-one. And it was the best part of the entire PPV, despite only lasting less than five minutes. In fact, the brevity of their exchange was a big contributor to its success. The two set aside the ladder, wanting to settle matters between them rather than rush to win the briefcase. That’s setting up a future match for sure, and given the quality of matches they’ve had in Japan, there’s a great chance that their next could be the best WWE match of the last few years. But the company is being smart, and letting things play their course out naturally. For once they aren’t rushing to deliver a big match, and it looks like that patience will pay off very well. Styles still looks to be feuding with Kevin Owens over the US Championship, and Shinsuke seems locked in to take on Baron Corbin after the pre-match beatdown. Hopefully Corbin, who got the win after dumping Shinsuke and AJ off the ladder, won’t be rushed to cashing in his title shot, and that storyline will be given some time to grow as well.
Beyond all of that, the action in the match itself was pretty good, and there were the expected number of high-risk spots provided by the ladder. Sami Zayn’s sunset-flip powerbomb on Dolph Ziggler from the top is probably the most notable of all, and Zayn himself was the quiet MVP of the entire match in my opinion. So hopefully he gets put into a decent program soon, because he deserves it, and the crowd is still totally behind him.
On a whole, the show was pretty close to abysmal, and I’m still pretty pissed off about the conclusion to the women’s match, but at least there were a few positives to take away. I’ve turned my opinion around a little bit since Sunday night, when I was nearly willing to write the entire show off as a failure. Still, considering that MITB is one of WWE’s bigger B-level shows, and especially when reminded that it came on the tails of the absolutely incredible New Japan Dominion show, you would think that they would at least put more of an effort out. It was disappointing, that’s for sure, but not bad enough to give up on the product entirely.
Up next we have the hideously misnamed Great Balls of Fire RAW PPV, which sounds somewhat promising at this point. The main attraction is of course the Universal Title match between Brock Lesnar and Samoa Joe. That match-up is incredible, and should at least deliver some hard-hitting action and hopefully make Brock look like he has to work for his position at the top. Unfortunately, given rumors of a planned Reigns-Lesnar match for the belt at WrestleMania next year, it’s almost certain that Joe will be losing the contest. That said, there’s still hope for an impressive match, given the fact that Joe is one of the few men at Brock’s exact height and weight. More than that, he incorporates hard MMA-style offense into his repertoire, and has legitimate combat experience. So even with him going under, Joe has the credibility and experience to at least be booked as a threat to Brock. Plus, the entire build-up to the match has been very well-executed and engaging, so there’s definite evidence that WWE won’t just drop the ball with this one, predictable outcome or not.